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Even in the Dark. Especially in the Dark

Chapter Text

Apparently, in certain paranormalist circles, people had started calling him ‘Clint Barton, Vampire Slayer.’ There was a hashtag.

“It’s inaccurate,” Clint complained. After all, he killed werewolves too. And ghosts. And sometimes he found a diplomatic solution. In fairness, he recognized that “Ghost Slayer” or “dude who convinced a bunch of werewolves to stop eating the local deer” didn’t sound as good. “They could call me ‘Werewolf and Vampire Slayer,’” he complained as he stepped over a gnarled tree root. Though, come to think of it, he’d never heard trees roots described any other way. Just gnarled or maybe large. Anyway.  “Or they could just call me ‘Slayer.’ Something that indicates that I have a lot of talents.”

“Wouldn’t want anyone to think you’re a one trick pony,” Natasha agreed, glancing out over the darkened forest. By now it had to be long past midnight, and the moon wasn’t too bright tonight. Both of them were at a disadvantage. “Or that the whole ‘bow and arrow’ thing is a gimmick.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No one who’s seen me shoot thinks that it’s a gimmick. It’s very useful against vampires,” Clint said.

“Well, focus on this vampire, cause your last shot –”

“Listen, that tree really blended in with the rest of the forest.”

Natasha whirled and shot. Something in the distant shrieked, and Clint grimaced. He had never been able to put his finger on it, but the shrieks alone made his skin want to crawl. “There he is,” she said, calmly. “He’s fast.”

“They’re always fast,” he said. “Didya hit it?”

“Please.” Natasha snorted. “You were wrong about it being a half vamp, by the way. It’s moving too fast to be anything but a full vampire.”

Clint was glad; he always felt…uncomfortable killing half-turned vampires. They didn’t run into them very often. Stopping the process of a human transitioning into a vampire was extremely difficult, so half-vampires were rare.  They were tougher than humans, but still much easier to kill. Enough easier, in fact, that it felt a little like cheating.

“I’m gonna do this one the same way we did Concord,” Natasha said. She stared into the dark of the forest, calculating. Clint managed not to say ‘you almost got eaten in Concord,’ because he was a supportive boyfriend. Silently, he started to circle left, relying on years of experience in wooded forests to remain quiet. There was a copse of trees that would work just fine; Natasha would head there. He could just barely see her, shifting between trees, as silent and deliberate as he was with her movements. Clint reached his position first and started to pull an arrow out of his quiver.

Abruptly, Natasha stumbled forward into a patch of moonlight, hands clutching her ankle. She swore loudly, her voice the loudest thing in the forest. Before Clint could move, the vampire charged.

It was a man, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt riddled with holes from their weapons. His skin was pale – sickly pale, not the attractive paleness that Hollywood seemed to think all vampires had. There was an almost translucent quality to it, as though Clint would be able to see every vein and organ inside if he just squinted a bit harder. The vampire towered over the fallen Natasha, snarling, canine teeth jutting from his mouth. Something in Clint’s brain gasped vampire vampire danger DANGER, some survival instinct he’d never quite managed to repress. He exhaled, let the stress and fear dissipate, and released an arrow. The thud it made when it struck the vampire’s heart was immensely satisfying.

Natasha yanked a stake out of her boot, but she didn’t get the chance to use it. The vampire crashed to the ground, back arcing, clawing at the arrow in its heart. They watched it die. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but Natasha insisted. They’d killed the thing; they could deal with the consequences of their actions, watch it die, and then make sure that it was really dead.

Once the vampire stopped moving, Natasha stuck checked that the vampire was dead, then stuck the stake back into her booting. Then she whipped out her phone and snapped a picture.

“Are you gonna send that to Steve or Wanda?” Clint asked as he walked over to the corpse. The mayor could send a group to bury it if she wanted, but Clint had no interest in giving a proper burial to someone who had killed sucked sixteen people dry and dumped their bodies in the middle of the nearby town. This vampire hadn’t needed the blood, not really; he’d just enjoyed the terror and fear. Vampires who attacked because they needed the blood to live were at least understandable, even if their actions injured or killed people. This one had just liked to watch people grow more and more terrified as he inflicted a kind of psychological torture.

It had taken the better part of the day to track him down, and then they’d followed the vampire through the forest for most of the night. Clint had fired very few of his arrows; Natasha, on the other hand, had pumped the vamp full of metal. Bullets wouldn’t kill a vampire, but they would hurt like hell, injure it and, most importantly, really annoy it. Clint and Natasha annoyed things more than most paranormalists ever bothered to. He felt that it gave them an edge. For example, annoyed vampires tended to rush a woman without thinking that she might be faking an injury or might have a friend lurking nearby with an arrow at the ready.

Natasha was picking leaves out of her hair as she stepped close to him. “You’re up as bait next time,” she said with a grin. Adrenaline thrummed through his veins from the fight. He and Natasha were close enough that he could feel her heart pounding against his chest. Clint recognized that they were standing next to a corpse, having nearly died a few minutes earlier, but they were both buzzed on excitement and near-death, unable to stop grinning. So he kissed Natasha, triumphantly, with the corpse of a dead vampire beside them, and felt her smile against his lips.

“You’re the best partner I’ve ever had,” he said.

“Yes,” she agreed, leaning up to look him in the eye. “The town probably thinks we’re dead, you know. I’m sure they heard that last scream.”

“Maybe they’ll pay us more in relief when they see us alive,” he said, then reached up to push a few strands of her hair back. “I’m incredibly lucky.”

“Yes,” she agreed again, and wrapped her arm around his neck to kiss him a second time. “But we should head back.”

Clint glanced once more at the vampire corpse and said “agreed.” They retraced their path through the forest, trying to find their previous path through the undergrowth. He’d learned very early in his career as a paranormalist to pay attention to where he was going while tracking something down, though he’d had to get a lost a few times before learning the lesson. It had not been fun.

Even knowing where they were going, it was a long walk to the car, and then a decent drive back to the town. “We tell them we killed the thing, and then we crash,” Clint said with a yawn. They both generally kept late hours, but not this late.

Natasha’s eyes were barely open as she fiddled with the radio. “Sure,” she said with a yawn. “Hey, remember how you were driving a minivan when we first met? A minivan with a cassette player an no spot for DCs?”

“I needed something big enough to transport a small armory,” Clint said defensively. “And it was cheap.”

“Yes, it was definitely cheap,” she agreed, turning up the radio to drown out Clint’s retort.

As Clint drove, the sun crept upwards and lit the forest. Dark, gnarled shapes became fiercly red and yellow trees. Birds began to sing as the sky turned yellow and pink with sunrise. It was rather idyllic, he thought to himself. Definitely didn’t seem like the kind of place where a bunch of people had been sucked dry by a vampire.

Natasha checked her phone when they were about ten minutes out. “Steve responded to the picture of the vampire. Says we did a good job, but he didn’t say anything about wanting to join us.”

Clint shook his head. “It’s been a year since Bucky died taking out that vampire nest. Steve needs to go back to his life.” Steve was living a life, technically. As someone with years of paranormal experience, he was currently working as a consultant for several movies and tv shows. As far as Clint could tell, it mostly involved Steve saying “vampires don’t work that way” ten times a day. It was a life, but it wasn’t his life.

“The mayor texted. He wants us to meet him at waffle house.” Natasha frowned. “Ugh. I can’t believe that’s the nicest place in town in this Podunk Pennyslvania town. Oh, Wanda texted too. She’s got a read on some sort of mystical activity that she wants us to check out.”

“She still rehabilitating that werewolf?” Clint asked, turning down the volume.

“Yeah. Looks like that Banner guy has finally accepted that he can have a semi-normal life despite being a werewolf.”

Not every vampire or werewolf was a dangerous murder, although most were. Turning did seem to increase violent tendencies, but occasionally people managed to resist that. They were uncommon, but Wanda, besides being a psychic, took those people in and tried to help them. Her apartment in Manhattan had a front room for tarot readings and a back room that usually had a newly turned vampire or werewolf sleeping on the couch.

They’d met several decent werewolves over the past seven years of their partnership, and a few vampires whose evilest acts involved stealing blood from the Red Cross. No good ghosts though. Ghosts, without exception, were a pain in the ass.

They headed for the crappy Wafflehouse once they reached the town. Natasha grumbled a bit as they entered, but spoke politely to the waitress and then called the mayor to tell her it was done. Within ten minutes, half the town had gathered, though that didn’t really amount to an impressive number of people. Clint waved at them. Some of the teenagers snapped pictures. Apparently his fame, such as it was, was spreading outside of paranomalist circles.

“Hashtag Clint the vampire slayer,” Natasha laughed, unconcerned by her own lack of fame. Natasha had very good reasons for anonymity.

The mayor finally arrived and settled down on the other side of the booth. She was an older woman, in her mid-sixties, dressed professionally in a way that seemed out of place in a Wafflehouse. “You finally killed him?” she asked, breathless.

Yes,” Natasha said, every inch the professional. Clint knew her well enough to guess what she was actually thinking: I literally just texted you to say that we did. “It took most of the night,” she continued as she slid the phone across the table to the mayor. “Here’s the proof.”

The mayor examined the picture for an instant before she jerked backwards. “I didn’t realize the results were so…dramatic,” she said, trying and failing to hide her disgust. Most people expected vampires to look like they did in movies and tv shows; few ever realized that people who hadn’t seen the sun in two centuries looked sickly and inhuman rather than tragically beautiful. All vampire had once been human, and the body remembered the need for the sun no matter what was done to it.

Of course, all the black they wore didn’t help either; Clint thought they should maybe wear a few pastels or even a jewel tone.

The mayor shoved the phone back to Natasha. “You’ve saved this town, you two,” she said. To Clint’s horror, she looked ready to tear up. For one tense moment he and Natasha averted their eyes to let her have as much privacy as a person could find in a Wafflehouse with now looked to be three-quarters of the town outside. Luckily, the mayor pushed a manila envelope across the table to them before she could actually start crying. “There’s the amount we agreed upon. I’ll take care of whatever you spend on breakfast as well.”

The mayor went outside to talk to the gathered crowd, still sniffling. He forgot sometimes, how much normal people were terrified of anything supernatural. He wasn’t, because he could kill them, but he could distantly remember a time when he’d been young and afraid. The cheering was audible from inside the restaurant, but they both ignored it to shovel food as quickly as they could. The adrenaline had long since worn off and they’d both picked up a small collection of cuts and bruises that came from running through a forest in the dark. Tired as they were, they both took advantage of their free meal to order what would probably be lunch and dinner. No one went into this business to make money. As much as he wished they could work for free, that wasn’t really an option. They had to pay for weapons, ammo, food, gas…and occasionally it was nice to sleep in an actual bed. Their clothes often ended up ripped and torn and needed to be replaced. Even with the money they made from jobs, they still slept in their car most nights, wrapped with blankets and a pistol or knife in reach. It was rewarding work, but there wasn’t a lot of money in it.

So when the brunette cornered them outside the hotel and demanded to join them, it came as a bit of a surprise.

Natasha stared at the girl with barely concealed shock. “No,” she said after a moment. “No, you can’t come with us. What are you, fifteen?”

 

“I’m eighteen,” the girl said. She wore a pair of ripped jeans, sunglasses, and a leather jacket. Definitely trying to look cool, Clint thought. To be fair, it was mildly successful. But she still looked incredibly, terrifyingly young.

“Have you ever touched a gun?” he asked.

“Yes!”

“She’s lying,” Natasha said, already turning away. Clint sighed and turned to follow her.

“Fine,” the girl said. “I don’t know how to use a gun! But I’m incredible with a bow.”

Clint stopped.

“Clint, no,” Natasha said upon seeing the look on his face.

“Exactly how good are you?” He asked the girl, who started to grin.

***

The girl, Kate Bishop, turned out to be pretty good. Not as good as him, Clint thought. But better with a bow than most other people. Better than pretty much anyone Clint had ever met.

“We can’t bring her,” Natasha whispered as the girl drew another arrow. “She’s a kid. She could go to college. Become a teacher or a dental hygienist or something.” When Clint didn’t answer, her voice grew frantic. “Clint, she’s too young.”

“She’s choosing this,” Clint said. “It’s not like what happened to you.” Natasha still looked uncomfortable. “Nat, she can always quit. We’ll start her out easy, give her a basic haunting. Wanda has some places that we can look into. If she’s uncomfortable, or wants to quit, we’ll let her out. It’ll be the gentlest introduction to this business that anyone gets.” Gentler than yours, he meant, because that’s what this was really about.

“What if she doesn’t quit?” Natasha asked.

Clint shrugged. “This is a good life, all things considered. What we do matters. I mean, we’re poor, and that kinda sucks, but still.”

Kate had walked back over to them, a grin on her face. “Pretty good, huh? Definitely good enough to take out a vampire or two. Or a werewolf.”

“You need something made completely out of silver to kill a werewolf,” Natasha said without looking away from Clint. “Silver tipped arrows won’t do it. Guns are the best bet, though you can do it with jewelry if you’re really determined and the werewolf is really dumb.”

Kate made a dismissive gesture. “Whatever. Guns can’t be that hard.”

Natasha looked personally offended. “Okay, rule number one: don’t talk crap about guns.”

“Or pumpkin spice lattés,” Clint added. “She gets very defensive of seasonal drinks.” He paused. “Wait, you’re letting her come?”

“She has to sit on your side of the car,” Natasha grumbled.

“My side is a mess! Put her on your side. There’s more room.”

“Nope. Hey, you can sit on the right side,” Natasha called to Kate, then stepped up into the SUV. “Don’t make me regret this, Barton.”

“I won’t,” he said as he climbed into the passenger side.

Kate was already in the car, perched on the edge of her seat. “So where are we headed?” She twitched slightly, as though she wanted to bounce up and down with excitement but kept stopping herself form doing it.

“We need to take her to Stark, get her outfitted with weapons,” Clint said.

“No need.” Kate dumped her backpack out on the other seat. Several stakes, a silvery necklace, a few vials of holy water, and what Clint assumed was grave dirt tumbled out.

He nodded. “Pretty good. Did you pack any food?”

“Uh,” the girl said.

“Rule Two,” Natasha yelled as the car started. “Always pack food.”

Chapter Text

Seven years ago

Clint heard her before he saw her.

The rustle of branches, a birdsong gone quiet. That was how he first met Natasha Romanoff.

The second way he met Natasha Romanoff was by being pinned down, his head shoved so hard into the ground that he tasted dirt.

“I was going to let you slowly stalk me and the lead you into a trap,” the woman said, “but I’m not that patient. And this is getting old.”

Clint tried speak but just ended up getting more dirt in his mouth.

“I’ve killed the last four Fury sent after me. Pity, but I suppose –”

He slammed his fist into her face. The punch lacked force since he was on his stomach and therefore swinging backwards, but it surprised her enough that he could leverage himself upwards and drive another blow into her face.

She grinned at him, nose bleeding. Clint had been smiled at by plenty of menacing things in his life – werewolves and vampires, their teeth smeared with blood, ghosts who’d just spotted him, his father the moment before the punch landed. This was nothing new. He reached for his bow.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “That’s – that’s gimmicky.”

“You don’t see me insulting how you go about your business,” Clint said. His Midwestern accent was thick on his tongue. “Pretty clichéd for a vampire attack people in a forest while wearing all black, you know.”

“Not a vampire,” she said, still smiling. Now that he got a good look at her, she was right; her teeth weren’t sharp enough, and she didn’t have a vampire’s skin, either. His employer, a man named Nick Fury, told him that Romanoff was an assassin and a half-vampire, but Clint hadn’t been able to get much information than that. The first page of Google had been pretty vague on how to kill half-vampires; most of it was arguing over whether or not they existed. Advice had varied from “the same way you kill vampires” to “force them to drink the blood of a virgin under a full moon” to “shoot them a lot.” Clint was willing to trying everything but the virgin one. That seemed weird.

“Well, I’m looking for a vampire, more or less.” Maybe he should have done more research.

“Less, I’d imagine.” Her grin sharpened. Clint still didn’t flinch.

“That’s no way to talk about yourself,” he said.  His hand was on his bow, fingers brushing it, but the woman looked ready to tackle him at the slightest movement. It was a scene from an old western, two people facing each other with their fingers ready to jump for their guns. Held breaths, tension in the air, the whole forest waiting to see who would move first.

It was Clint.

He grabbed his bow and the woman leapt for him. She must have expected him to grab an arrow, giving her enough time to reach him, but instead he swung his bow into her face with a crack. It wasn’t ideal, using his bow like this, but neither was dying. Also, no one ever expected him to bash them with his bow.

The woman careened to the side, hand on her face. By the time she was back on her feet, he’d notched an arrow and pointed it at her heart.

Neither moved. Clint’s muscles strained from holding the bow draw, but he wanted to make certain of everything, to…fully grasp the situation. The woman didn’t look at him, just the arrow, all focus and no fear. The arrow would kill her, right? He really didn’t want to go track down a virgin willing to donate some blood.

Finally, the woman spoke. “Well? You have done this before, haven’t you? You’re not going to make me wait while you get up the nerves to kill something for the first time?”

She used the word ‘something,’ Clint noticed. Not someone.

“Do you want to die?” he asked. This wasn’t relevant. If she had a death wish it only made his job easier. He knew that she’d killed people, a lot of people, so it really shouldn’t matter. But…he wouldn’t shoot until he understood the situation.

“Sure,” she said. “Suicide by paranomalist. Get on with it.”

He genuinely couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.

Her grin dropped, and now his terror spiked. “Just do it,” she said, her voice flat and toneless. He recognized that particular face, had looked like that once and lived in fear of looking like that again. He’d be in her place, just with a gun in his mouth or a step off a bridge instead of a paranormalist with a bow.

 “Why?” he asked, desperate for an answer.

“Because I don’t want to live,” she said, her voice still flat. It was as if she didn’t have the energy to put any animation into her words, so they dropped from her mouth like dead things, corpses rolling off her tongue. “And you’re about to kill me. I know for a fact that I’m an expensive kill, so just get it over with.”

“No,” he said. His hands were shaking.

Now, finally, she frowned, her expression shifting away from that awful flatness. “What?”

“No,” he repeated. “You’re not doing this.”

“I clearly am.”

“I’m not helping you kill yourself,” he snapped. “That’s – I’m not doing it.”

She cocked her head to the side and he recognized this expression too. A vampire had worn it while taunting him on one of his earliest jobs, back in Iowa. “Haven’t you heard?” she asked, like it was the set-up for a joke. “I’m a monster.”

Her expression, one of slyness, all raised eyebrows paired with a sweet voice, just pissed him off. “You’re not fooling me. I’m still not helping you kill yourself.”

“Your employer will be furious,” she said, her voice dead again. She could only hold expressions for so long before they collapsed back into that pale, dead look. “You were ready to kill me until I asked for it. Now I’m suddenly not a killer just because I feel sad?”

“That’s not it,” he said. Clint wasn’t couldn’t explain it, but her reasoning felt wrong. It just – his employer had described a killer, a murder, and well, she was. But she was something else too.

Romanoff continued on as if he hadn’t spoken. “You’re not going to last long in this business. Trust me, plenty of us feel sad. Some vampire will tell you a sob story and suck you dry.”

“Probably,” he said, and lowered his bow. “But you won’t.”

“Yeah,” she said, and sighed. “I won’t.”

They watched each other for another moment. Clint thought that the silence was getting awkward – no, not awkward. English didn’t have a word for the silence that followed two people announcing that they weren’t going to kill the other. The word that came closest was expectant.

He owed that silence something. “Do you wanna go to Dennys?”

English didn’t have a word for the look that Romanoff gave him either. “Do I want to what?”

“Go to Dennys.” She still had that look. “It’s like a diner, but it’s open all night and they serve breakfast all day. It’s honestly not that good, but it is pretty cheap.”

“I know what Dennys is.”

“Well,” Clint said. “You looked – I don’t know, confused. Sorta. So, do you wanna go?”

“Are you serious?” She asked.

“Well, we’ve agreed that we’re not going to kill each other. It feels wrong to just take off,” Clint said. “We should do something. And since you were expecting to die here, you can’t say that you had other plans.”

“I wasn’t expecting to die, I just wasn’t fighting once you – look I could have other things do,” Romanoff said.

“Do you?”

She did not.

“Well then, let’s go.”

“I cannot believe – fine,” she said. “Fine. I’ll go to Dennys with you.”

Then there was another silence. It felt equally expectant. “My car is that way,” Clint said, feeling awkward. With a sudden, horrible sharpness, he remembered that he drove a minivan.

“Well, lead on, I guess,” said Romanoff with something that might, perhaps, have been the beat-up cousin of a smile.  


 

Now

Natasha discovered that adjusting to Kate was difficult in unexpected ways. She’d expected Kate to grow tired of living in a car, especially their particular car. Clint was proud of the specific aroma of cheap coffee and gunpowder and fast food they’d achieved; he’d actually worked at it.

“Natasha, it smells like cheeseburger. We need more gunpowder smell to balance it out.”

“What do you want me to do Clint, fire a gun in the car?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“I thought it was a werewolf.”

“It was a deer!”

But, to her credit, Kate took the dingier parts of their life in stride. She didn’t complain about the smell, or the lack of leg space, or the smell. She did complain about Natasha’s music choices, but then again, so did Clint, Steve, and Wanda. So had Bucky and Pietro, when they’d been alive. What had thrown Natasha was the first time that she’d a funny bumper sticker and pointed it out to Clint, reaching out with one hand and resting the other on his shoulder. Easy. Familiar. Pure instinct.

“You guys are cute,” Kate had said from behind them.

“Thanks,” Clint said.

Natasha made some affirmative noise. She wanted to jump out of the moving car.

“What’s wrong?” Clint asked her a few minutes later when they stopped to buy gas. Kate had gone inside to use the bathroom. It was good to know that she wasn’t too prissy to use gas station bathrooms.

“I just – it just felt…” Natasha leaned back against the car. It had felt liked she’d stripped naked in front of a crowd and let them all stare at her. Actually, that might have felt less invasive.

The gas nozzle clicked as the tank finished filling. Clint pumped it a few times to top it off. “She’s not going to use it against you.”

“I know,” Natasha said. “I just forgot, for a moment.” She hadn’t been able to breathe, for a moment.

“Hey.” Kate’s voice, coming from around the car. “I got you guys stuff.” She handed Clint a king sized candy-bar. “Here. A giant butterfinger.”

Clint immediately started eating it, making appreciative noises that Kate seemed to correctly identify as a thank you.

“And you,” Kate said, squinting at Natasha. “You seem…healthy. I got you trail mix.”

“Oh,” Natasha said. Different reactions occurred to her, so rapidly she couldn’t hold onto one. ‘Thanks’ or ‘You didn’t have to’ or ‘I’m not any healthier than Clint, my metabolism is just faster because I’m almost a vampire.’ For a moment, she wasn’t sure who to be, still reeling from that moment into the car.

The instant before the pause became too long, Natasha grabbed at one of the phrases whirling by. “Good guess. I hope you got the ones with m&ms though.”

Kate grinned. “Of course,” she said as she opened the car door.

Clint grinned at her. “You’re gonna get along fine.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “That was never the issue. It’s not her fault that I have so many things wrong with me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Clint said, which was ridiculous. She had a long list of things wrong with her. Once, when she’d been very drunk, she’d actually written the list out. Her handwriting had been utterly illegible.

“Hmpf,” she said, and climbed into the car.

That was the hardest moment for Natasha. The hardest moment for Kate was probably the first case, when they stood in an overgrown backyard in Vermont, and Clint nodded. “Yeah, this place isn’t haunted. False alarm. Let’s get back in the car.”

Kate had looked like he’d just personally insulted her entire family. “There’s nothing here?”

“Just an old man, worried about his house creaking,” Natasha said.

Kate frowned. “So what do you do if there’s no ghost?”

“Tell them,” Clint said. “People don’t always believe us though.”

“We put on a show if they don’t,” Natasha said. “We had this young couple up in Rhode Island who was certain that their house was haunted. It wasn’t, but we couldn’t convince them of that. We finally made a big deal of surrounding the house with grave dirt and reading all of this Latin to scare the ghost away. The couple told us that we’d saved their lives. They still send us e-cards every Christmas.” Of course, purification rituals didn’t work on ghosts, but the couple hadn’t believed that either thanks to something they’d seen on Pinterest.

“Really?” Kate asked.

Clint rolled his eyes. “Yeah, it’s pretty annoying. The last one sang.” 

Natasha had texted Steve as they pulled out of the driveway.

So, I think Clint and I picked up an intern. 

Steve had texted back immediately.

You’re kidding.

She smiled. Their group was back in the car, Kate and Clint arguing cheerfully about how to get to the interstate, and Natasha just felt like squirming a little rather than changing her name, dying her hair, and moving to another country.

Nope. We checked out that lead you sent us, the one in Connecticut. Nothing. I feel like we’re letting her down.

Steve responded.

I’m sure you’ll find a ghost soon.

Natasha paused. They’d all been circling around Steve, trying to push without actually being pushy. Wanda had done the majority of the heavy lifting in the early days after Bucky’s death, forcing him to stay at her place in Manhattan and reminding him to eat and occasionally go outside. Natasha and Clint had called, and texted, and sent ugly postcards from every podunk town they’d visited (Clint’s idea, not hers) and dealt with their own grief by tracking down a nest of vampires that had taken over a small town. Wanda had probably been the most responsible adult in that situation, Natasha admitted.

Steve was healthier now, back at his own place in upstate New York, but he still hadn’t taken any jobs, passing them all to her and Clint. She wanted to tell him to start again, but you couldn’t drag Steve into anything. You had to gesture vaguely and hope that he decided to do it himself.

We’re heading to Pennsylvania, probably driving past your neck of the woods. 

She paused for a moment, her hands poised over the keys. The words, not yet typed, rose in her head. You have to start going on hunts again, Steve. You can’t really move on until you do.

I can’t say that, she thought, and debated a little longer before texting Wanda instead. 

Hey Wanda, got any leads? Kate is going crazy. Me too, a little. 

Well, I’ve got something in Pennsylvania.

“We’ve got something,” Natasha said. Kate perked up immediately. 


 

They rolled into Pennsylvania on a clear morning. The client’s house was out in the country surrounding Harrisburg, and Natasha heard Kate laugh a little wildly when they reached it. The house was an older, Victorian style building, with blue siding and gray and red trim. Vines were starting to crawl up the side of the house, straining across peeling paint and shuttered windows. The yard was overgrown, once ordered flower beds now a battleground for weeds. It was, Natasha thought, exactly the sort of place that she would expect to be haunted. She wondered if the backyard would have a creepy swing set, or perhaps even a well that someone had drowned in.

Clint always handled the clients, because it was better if less people knew Natasha’s face. So she waited with Kate in the car while Clint went to talk to the old woman who’d hired them, an elderly woman named Agatha Gill.

Kate peered at the woman through the car window. “So if there’s a ghost, can we use anything besides grave dirt on it?”

Telling Kate this wouldn’t be a problem, Natasha told herself. Logically, she knew that saying “this is what grave dirt does” wasn’t going to damage Kate. But Clint had been doing most of the teaching since his education in the supernatural had been less…harsh than Natasha’s. She wasn’t entirely familiar with how to teach about monsters in a normal way.

“Grave dirt is about the only thing that works,” Natasha said, refusing to let herself fidget. If only Clint would come back. “You get enough grave dirt onto a ghost, it’ll dissipate. The energy can’t stay focused.” Didn’t they teach kids this in school? It seemed like there should be a basic course on supernatural safety.

Clint poked his head into the car. “Sounds legit, though we’ll have to look into it a bit more.”

“Great,” Kate said, and squinted up at the house. “You know, I cannot imagine anywhere I’d rather hang out if I was a ghost.”

Clint shook his head. “Doesn’t matter how bad the outside looks. Worst haunting we ever saw was in this classy new condo in the suburbs of Boston where this up and coming lawyer was living. Ghost had done your normal poltergeist routine; it threw stuff around, broke dishes, knocked over her plants –”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Kate said.

“Almost choked her to death,” Clint continued.

“There we go,” Natasha said. Ghosts were her least favorite jobs. She’d been killing vampires and werewolves since she was a pre-teen. But she had far less experience with ghosts, and those she had dealt with tended to incredibly emotional. It was to be expected, since it took a violent death to produce a ghost, but Natasha still didn’t feel particularly empathetic towards them.

As they stepped inside the house, Kate’s eyebrows rose. “Did she design her house based on a horror movie?”

Natasha couldn’t help but agree. The entire house was built with old, dark wood, dust trapped in the whorls and crevices. Old fashioned loveseats and chairs sat in the living room, choked with dust and cat hair. There was an old hutch in the corner stacked with odd figurines of artificially posed milkmaids and boys playing the pan flute. As they walked forward, they found walls with old, peeling wallpaper, so that Natasha had the impression that the walls themselves were reaching with dusty, patterned hands. A behemoth of a table sat in the dining room, dark and imposing and crushing a worn read carpet. In the hallway a portrait of some old woman leered down at them. A grandfather clock sang out the hour somewhere in the house, gong crashing, and Kate jumped, then casually leaned against a wall to cover for it.

“Let’s get started,” Clint said. “Kate, you can go with me. Nat can take upstairs.”

It was a good choice. Kate and Clint got along well; they’d bonded right away over their mutual love of archery and coffee. Kate refused to be awed by Clint’s reputation, and Clint tempered some of Kate’s intensity with actual, real-world knowledge. They were good for each other, Natasha thought as she walked up the stairs.

Of course, Kate might still come face to face with an actual ghost and decide this wasn’t the life she wanted. The girl was an amazing archer, but she came from money; Natasha knew designer jeans when she saw them, and those sunglasses looked expensive as well. That didn’t mean she was unsuited for this line of work, but it did mean that she had other options. Natasha didn’t – at this point in her life she could either kill monsters or kill humans – but Kate? This fiery young woman, who spoke a little too loud and had the nerve to demand two experts take her under their wing, could absolutely do something else.

Natasha wasn’t interested in taking away the girl’s choice. But she didn’t have to like it.

Upstairs was just as creepy and obviously haunted as the rest of the house. Natasha kept expecting to find a room full of dolls or hear the laughter of absent children echoing from a nursery. Instead she found more of the same mildly creepy décor: massive bookshelves and dressers, king sized beds that begged for a corpse to sprawl across them. In one of the guest rooms Natasha had a sneezing fit over the dust, and she could just faintly make out the sour scent of cat piss in the bathroom. Wonderful.

She methodically searched each room in a grid pattern, looking for any cold or warm spots. Ghosts, as masses of energy, could manifest in any number of different ways. Temperature fluctuations and telekinesis were the main ghostly powers, though a few of the more powerful ones could possess animals. One job they’d worked had involved an apartment complex whose faucets spewed either chunks of ice or boiling water. That ghost had ended up possessing someone’s cockatoo and attacking them while they were having breakfast.

None of them were in effect here though. Natasha had combed through all of the rooms and hadn’t seen or felt anything unusual. She was just starting to wonder if they’d need to call Wanda for assistance when a door slammed downstairs. “Natasha!” Kate screamed.

Well, Kate had probably found the ghost.

She tore down the stairs. “What is it?”

“Thethingisdownstairsandit –”

“Calm. Down.” Natasha said. “Tell me, but breathe.” Kate looked panicked, but not grieved, so Clint probably wasn’t dead.

Kate sucked in a breath. “The ghost is downstairs and it’s holding Clint at knife point.”

“Here’s a tip” Natasha said as she ran down the stairs to the basement. “Charge more for ghost jobs because they’re always, always awful.”

A ghost slammed into being in front of her and she stopped dead on the stairs. Kate crashed into her and swore impressively. Clint was yelling from the basement. “Nat! Natasha watch out, there’s a ghost, I don’t know where it went!”

“Thanks Clint, found the ghost,” she yelled back.

“Is Kate okay?”

“Yes!” Kate yelled.

The ghost frowned. This one was a young man, perhaps 25 at his death, with brown hair and a dark red slash across his neck. Ghosts always looked faded, like a pair of old jeans that had been washed until the color lost its intensity. He glared at them both, hovering an inch or so above the ground.

Please don’t ask us to avenge you because you were murdered she thought. All ghosts were awful, but murdered ghosts tended to be both deadly and self-righteous.

“Your friend is downstairs,” the ghost said, “with a knife at his neck.”

“Nice flair for the dramatic,” Kate snapped. Natasha tried to kick her without losing her balance. It occurred to Natasha that Clint, the lovable reckless idiot, had probably not taught Kate the finer points of self-preservation at any point in the last two days.

The ghost glowered. “Your redheaded friend won’t need both of her eyes for what I need you to do, and I have plenty of knives downstairs.  I waited for you to show up. I can wait for the next group like you to come.”

“But me having both eyes would probably speed the process up,” Natasha said. “Let’s just talk this out.” He was waiting for paranormalists? Why?

The ghost cocked his head to the side, his eyes going unfocused. “Or maybe I should just kill you. I can see all the blood on your hands, you know. Do you think that you’ll find redemption through murder?” He drew closer to her, close enough that Natasha would have been able to feel his breath if he’d had any. “I suppose you’ll be able to kill my killer, if I let you live that long.”

Natasha jerked backwards. Shit. Not just a ghost, but the ghost of a murdered psychic. Who’d been dumb enough to off a psychic? Psychic ghosts were more powerful and didn’t have to stay in the place of their murder like other ghosts did. She was surprised that the killer wasn’t already dead; the thing looked ready to commit murder right there, and Natasha was a convenient target. She had to talk her way out this somehow, convince this thing not to kill her on the stairs. Her life was always going to end on a hunt, but she didn’t want to die in this dusty basement that smelled of mothballs and dust and choking fear, watched by a horrified Kate and the ghost of a man who knew all of the things she had done.

“That’s an awfully high horse for you to ride when you’re threatening the lives of two people,” Kate said. “Can’t call Natasha a murderer when you’re about to become one.”

It was nice of Kate to defend Natasha though. Even if she wasn’t right.

The ghost considered. “Well, this child seems to trust you.” Natasha heard Kate huff at being called a child. “I suppose that beggars can’t be choosers.”

Well, it wasn’t surprising that someone had killed him. “What will it take to free our friend?” Natasha asked, her voice level. Behind her back, her hands shook. She hoped Kate didn’t notice.

“Find the woman who killed me,” the ghost said. He paused, probably for effect. “And then kill her.”

“Great,” Natasha said, mentally kicking Clint. This was supposed to be an easy job, just to let Kate get her feet wet. “Any direction on who killed you?”

“Yes,” the ghost said. “She stalked me for weeks before hand, sending cryptic threats and watching me grow more and more afraid.”

“Did you go to the police?” asked Kate.

“I did,” the ghost said. “I told them and they said they would look into it, and then finally died on my kitchen floor because they didn’t care enough to stop my stalker. I spent weeks trying to convince them, and they ignored it.” He looked right at her then, and the temperature started to drop. His phrasing and showmanship was too much, too dramatic, and it irritated rather than awed her. His story made no sense; why threaten someone, make no demands of them, tell them your name and then kill them? Why hadn’t the police gotten involved?

She thought of the vampire in the last town, the one who’d been killing people and leaving their bodies. Maybe the ghost was lying, but maybe they were dealing with a serial killer. Of course, the ghost should be able to deal with anyone short of another psychic himself.

Oh no.

The ghost seemed to grow slightly larger in the dim of the basement.“Find the woman who killed me. Find Wanda Maximoff.”

Even though she was on the stairs, she could hear Clint quite clearly. “Oh, shit.”

Chapter Text

The memory of leaving home was still painful, like a splinter that she couldn't pull out. Kate wished the decision had been a dramatic moment when light had shined through a window and she’d suddenly realized her life calling in a blaze of certainty. But instead it had just been staying up late and having long conversations with her friends about how unhappy she was. College hung in the future, vague and uncertain, which was fine until it was suddenly solid and looming and wrong.

“Are you just not gonna go?” her friend Cassie had asked one night. She and her high school friends had all been sprawled out on blankets in Kate’s backyard. Teddy and Billy had been cuddling, occasionally remembering that everyone else existed and joining the conversation again. America and Cassie were on either side of her, while Eli was in a fierce debate with Tommy about the Star Wars movies to her left.

“I don’t know,” Kate said. She meant yes, I’ll just refuse to go, wrap my arms around the garden gate and hang on tight, but that sounded petty and childish. “I just can’t – I don’t know.”

Everyone had some point in their life when they wanted to be a paranormalist, in much the same way most people briefly wanted to be an actor or a popstar. You didn’t actually pursue it, just told adults that you wanted to do it for a few months while you were seven before moving on to some other unlikely profession. The staggering mortality rate put most people off. “Also no health insurance,” Kate’s older sister had pointed out once. “And that’s a job where you really need health insurance.”

Kate laid awake one night in the summer, watching her ceiling fan spin, and thought I can deal with not having health insurance. Probably.

She’d faced her father and told him what she was doing, hoping for, well, overwhelming love and acceptance and knowing that she wouldn’t get it. But she had faced him anyway, tried to explain and thought I’m suffocating and I have to do something else. I don’t want this life. Please understand.

“You’ll die,” he’d said flatly. “You think the entire world is essentially good, or that you’re capable enough to deal with this. They’re not, and you’re not.”

“I’m leaving,” she’d said. Damn it do not cry. “This is what I want to do.”

He’d turned away. “We’ll enroll you in a good college when you come home. Or we’ll pay for a good funeral.”

Kate had yelled and slammed doors and there had been something almost cinematic about the experience. She could picture the storyline: eighteen-year-old leaves home, proves her doubting father wrong by slaying a dangerous vampire, returns triumphant with beautiful instrumental music in the back ground only to learn that she never needed her father’s approval in the first place. She’d pictured it the entire time she’d made her way down to Pennsylvania, taking trains and thinking of things she could have said – “I’m better than you realize” or “you’ve honestly been useless since mom died” or maybe just slammed more doors on her way out.

There had been exactly three texts from her older sister.

What are you thinking?

I mean I love you, but what are you thinking?

Be safe, Katie. Dad is refusing to pay your phone bill, by the way, so I’m going to do it. Please call me and tell me that you’re okay. A lot.

Kate had called her, very briefly, on a bus somewhere in southern New York. She had not cried, to her everlasting pride.

But now she was here, leaning against and SUV, sucking in breaths like a drowning woman and thinking he was right he was right.

Natasha stood on the other side of the SUV, talking on the phone. Kate wasn’t sure if the woman was giving her a few shreds of privacy or just didn’t care she was nearly hyperventilating. She hadn’t seemed pleased with Kate showing up, but since then had treated her with a sort of blandness. It was, Kate supposed, better than open dislike. 

“Well Mrs. Gill, the good news is that we’ve definitely found the ghost. It’s a tough one, but nothing that we can’t handle. Will your son mind if you stay for a few extra days?” There was a pause, and Natasha gave a laugh that would have sounded genuine if Kate hadn’t heard her genuinely laugh at too many of Clint’s corny jokes. Natasha’s real laugh was much softer. “Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy spoiling your grandkids. Clint said to tell you that he loved the décor.” Another fake laugh. “I’ll keep you updated Mrs. Gill. There’s nothing to worry about. Goodbye.”

Kate peeked over the hood of the car. For a brief moment, Natasha’s posture slumped. Then she was relaxed again, a swagger in her step as she walked around the car. “How are you doing?”

“I’ve been better,” Kate said. “Did Clint really say anything about the décor?”

Natasha shook her head. “Nope. But he has the tackiest taste,” she said, her voice fond. “And I couldn’t tell her that Clint was a prisoner in her basement.”

“Good call.” Kate breathed out again. “So, uh, what now? Do we call someone?”

Natasha shook her head. “For help? No. The police will have a paranormal specialist or two, but they won’t have the experience that I do.” There was no arrogance in her voice, just fact. “Outside of big cities, like LA or New York, the paranormal government workers tend to be pretty awful. They don’t have the resources. Hiring a paranormalist like us is a much better idea.”

Kate noted that Natasha had included her under the umbrella of specialist. That was something. “I knew they weren’t as good, but I didn’t think they were inept.”

“Some countries have surprisingly good systems in place. Sweden’s is pretty good.” Natasha ticked countries off her fingers. “Japan, South Africa, and Israel are all impressive. Canada’s is alright. But in the US, everyone has been hiring private specialists for so long that I doubt the government ever thought it needed to develop a federal system. So middle and upper class people are alright, but lower class people get screwed.” She shrugged. “And we’d work for free but, well, we have to eat too. Silver bullets don’t come cheap either.”

Kate frowned. “I never thought about that.” There had been a werewolf stalking her neighborhood once, though it hadn’t done worse than kill a few deer on the golf course. When she’d panicked and cried, her parents had assured her that it would be gone within a couple of days. They’d probably realized their wealthy neighbors could afford an army of people to deal with it. Sure enough, the werewolf had been gone a few days later.

There was time to think about that later. “So we can’t call anyone for help, and we’ve got a rude ghost threatening to kill Clint. I don’t know where he got off calling you a murderer. ” Kate wasn’t entirely sure if she liked Natasha or not, but she certainly thought calling her a murderer was unfair. She’d only killed things that killed other people, after all. That was more like aggressive self-defense.

Natasha made an odd face that Kate couldn’t read. “Rude is certainly accurate. It’s the ghost of a psychic, so that doesn’t help either. It clearly has empath abilities, and some ability to see into the past. Telekinesis too, I’d guess. Hopefully it wasn’t strong enough to see into the future; that will make killing it difficult.”

Kate frowned. “Then why isn’t this Wanda Maximoff dead? No one kills psychics because their ghosts are so dangerous, but why hasn’t this one gone after her.”

Natasha scratched her head, looking slightly uncomfortable. “Well, Wanda is a psychic too.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate said. “Are you on a first name basis with the woman who murdered the dude on the brink of killing Clint?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, he’s not ‘on the brink,’ I’d say we’ve got several days before –”

“FIRST NAME BASIS?”

Natasha folded her arms, eyes flinty. “If you’re finished yelling, I don’t think she killed him.”

“You don’t think she killed him, or you’re sure she didn’t?”

Natasha sighed. Kate groaned.

***

Their first stop, to Kate’s surprise, was city hall. As they drove, Natasha explained that many city archivists kept records of suspicious events or deaths. Technically the government paranormalists were supposed to do it, but, well, no one really trusted them to actually be good at their jobs. Kate wanted to point out that she had trusted government paranormalists to be good at their jobs, but she also didn’t want to look like an idiot.

The city hall was small but poorly planned, with little apparent logic to the layout. Natasha led them through the labyrinth as though she’d been there before, though Kate knew that she hadn’t. Maybe after you went to enough city halls, they all just looked the same, like airports or holiday inns. The entire building seemed oddly quiet. Their echoing steps felt like an intrusion, and the people in the hallways seemed to know that she didn’t belong.

The office that they finally stepped into was decorated with over-bright carpet from the 70s, and older furniture with dents and scrapes that Kate thought might be older than she was. It was mostly empty, with a middle aged woman frowning at her from the desk. Kate smiled at her as she walked towards the desk. Authority figures loved her. “Hi, I need to see some old newspapers? It’s for a school project.”

The archivist frowned at her. Natasha stepped forward. “We’re looking for information on dead psychics whose deaths might have been violent enough to produce a ghost.”

The woman’s frown lessened. “I’ve been keeping a file.”

“There’s an entire file?” Kate asked. The archivist just rolled her eyes and gestured for them to follow her through another maze of hallways.

“You blink a lot when you lie,” Natasha whispered Even she was affected by the oppressive quiet of city hall. “Also, you didn’t have to lie to her.”

“They always lie in movies.” 

“Yes, and in movies vampires wear capes and have Eastern European accents.” Natasha frowned. “Relying on movies is a good way to get killed.” 

Kate glared at Natasha’s back as the woman turned to talk to talk to the archivist. She was doing pretty well for her first time on a job, all things considered. Though maybe Natasha blamed her for getting Clint trapped in a basement. And well, maybe she shouldn’t have let Clint go first, or maybe she should have tried to fight the ghost, but - no. No one would expect her to be able to deal with a knife-wielding psychic ghost lurking in a basement. 

The archivist led them back into a small office. She was still frowning, but Kate was starting to think that was just a part of her face. “Here’s the file. Let me know if you have questions. And these are the only copies I have, so don’t ruin anything.” With one last look at Kate – what did she think Kate was gonna do, rip up all the documents? – she left the room. 

Kate stuck her tongue out at the closing door. It was petty. She didn’t care. 

Natasha was already spreading the file out. As Kate had feared, it was huge. She started piecing through newspaper articles. “Three, four…okay, that’s four dead psychics in the state of Ohio within the past two and a half years.” With her phone, she took pictures of the articles. The pissy archivist certainly wouldn’t let them have the files. 

“Here’s a fifth,” Natasha said, sliding another picture over. “I think it’s our guy in the basement. Alexander Perry. Says he was an average level psychic, killed in a home invasion. Police didn’t find the guy.” She snorted. “You don’t usually cut someone’s neck open in a burglary. And Perry had apparently told the police that he thought someone was stalking him.” 

That many dead psychics should have set off red flags, Kate thought as she flipped through the file. “Okay, but these others were accidents. Car crash, overdose, accidentally ate a peanut, another heart attack…okay, yeah, when I say all of these out loud they start to sound like someone is murdering them.” 

Natasha nodded. “I think someone’s been killing psychics. They were all in different counties, and all but one were ruled accidents, so the police didn’t notice. And archivists collect everything that could potentially be useful, so it’d be hard to find a pattern if you didn’t know what to look for.” She slid several newspaper clippings into a pile. “Look, there’s ten different newspaper clippings about dog attacks, probably included in case they ended up being werewolves. Since they all happened during the day, they almost definitely aren’t. This woman collected everything.” 

Kate frowned. “Are you gonna call your friend and ask her what’s going on with all this?”

“I would have been shocked to learn Wanda killed one person. She certain didn’t kill five people. One of them was only a teenager.” 

Kate wasn’t letting this go. “Maybe this Perry guy was the only murder, and the other really were accidents.” Maybe Wanda Maximoff had killed him and the other were just unconnected accidents. 

Natasha frowned. “That’s not what you thought a moment ago.” 

This was ridiculous. “Do you have a problem with me?” Kate asked. 

Natasha looked taken aback. “Excuse me?” 

“Do you have some sort of issue with me?” Kate asked. “I’m pointing out that a man has literally told us that Wanda Maximoff killed him, something you didn’t immediately dispute, and now you’re ignoring my perfectly reasonable concerns!” 

Natasha’s eyes narrowed and Kate braced herself to start a yelling match. But instead of a yell, Natasha’s voice came out with low intensity. “Everyone,” Natasha said, “is a killer if you push them in the right way. Everyone. Me, Clint, that archivist, the old lady who owns that house. Even you. Under the right circumstances, with the right pressure, everyone will kill. I don’t think Wanda killed anyone. But it would have been irresponsible to discount the possibility that someone pushed her in the right way.” 

Kate was stilling frowning; it wasn’t good enough. Natasha assumed a look of exaggerated patience. “If I had a problem with you, you would know. I am not a warm person. I am not a friendly person. Do not mistake my personality for dislike. I don’t know you well enough to like you. But so far, you’ve handled yourself well for a beginner. You didn’t get yourself killed in that basement. Plenty of people would have. So no, Kate Bishop, I don’t dislike you. I think that you’re doing fairly well.” 

Kate squared her shoulders and met Natasha’s eyes. There was still something off. “Do you blame me for getting Clint caught in the basement then?” 

“Of course not,” Natasha snapped. “Things like that happen. Clint and I have landed in worse situations. I am not being hard on you because I blame you. I’m being hard on you because I don’t want you to get yourself killed acting like this is a movie, or mouthing off to something that currently holds the upper hand like you did in the basement. If I had an issue with you, you wouldn’t be here, no matter how much Clint likes you.” 

Kate believed her. There was still something that she thought Natasha wasn’t saying, but she could live with this. She didn’t think that Natasha would have lied to spare her feelings. “Okay then.” 

“Okay,” Natasha repeated. To Kate’s surprise, she suddenly looked slightly uncomfortable, only noticeable because Kate had never seen the expression on her face before. “I supposed I could be warmer to someone who sleeps in the same car as me.” 

Her voice wasn’t hesitant. This was, Kate recognized, not an apology. It was a compromise, not an admittance of wrongdoing. A treaty. Kate didn’t have anything to offer in return, and she hadn’t done anything wrong to begin with. But the silence in the room was about .75 seconds away from getting awkward. “Okay, uh, that would be great. Uh…” there was a coffee maker in the corner of the room. “I’m gonna steal some of that woman’s undoubtedly terrible coffee.” Was her voice loud, or was it just her? “Do you want some?” 

Natasha nodded. “Please.” The silence became slightly less awkward. 

They drank coffee – “better than I expected, but still inferior” Kate declared – and sorted through the documents. They couldn’t find any other ties between the dead other than their psychic abilities.

Kate thought the obvious next step was to call Wanda Maximoff and ask her if she’d killed anyone lately, but she didn’t want to break their awkward truce by suggesting it. “Okay, what should we do next?”

“I’ll call Wanda.” Natasha said, and Kate tried to hide her relief. “First, let’s get out of this place before that woman realizes that you stole her coffee.”

“You drank it too,” Kate said as she shoved the papers back into the file.

The parking lot only had a few cars, mostly older models. Natasha stood outside to make the call as Kate slid into Clint’s usual spot in the front. His empty cup of coffee from that morning was still in the cup holder.

Abruptly, she felt pressure against her eyes. She’d once seen a Dateline episode where a ghost had trapped a group of teenagers in an abandoned hospital and tortured them for a week. By the time the teens were free, most of them were missing fingers. One was blind. One had his ears cut off. Could people still hear without their ears? Probably, because the real ear was inside, and the outer ear just funneled sound or something. Still, Clint would look ridiculous without his ears. He’d have to wear hats all the time, or just go around earless, and Kate was beginning to feel that she’d lost the point of her thoughts but they definitely had to do something.

Natasha opened her door. “Kate, are you okay?”

She was not going to cry. “He can’t lose his ears!” Kate said. “Do you have tissues in this car somewhere?”

“Yeah, there’s napkins in the glove compartment, if you need them.” Very slowly, Natasha reached out and patted her on the back. “Kate. Hey, look at me.”

Natasha’s eyes were calm, her face composed. “Kate. We can fix this. It’s gonna be okay. Wanda is going to figure out who the killer is, and we’re going to rescue Clint.”

Kate sniffed. This was a mistake, I should have never done this.  I’m awful at this. The words bubbled up in her, but she pushed them down. Clint was waiting for them to rescue him. And besides, giving up now would make her father happy, which she had a personal goal to never do again. “Okay.” she said, raising her head up. “Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

Fourteen months ago

The funeral went about as well as a funeral could go.

It was closed casket - Jewish funerals often were, they learned, as Wanda scrambled in the days after her brother’s death. It would have been anyway; the werewolves hadn’t left much of Pietro’s body behind to bury.


They drifted around Wanda’s apartment, taking turns crying in the bathroom and finding each other crying in the bathroom. Wanda made phone call after phone call, visited funeral parlors and didn’t cry until she looked at the dishes piled high in the sink and realized that she had to keep living after the funeral. 

Steve made the phone calls that Wanda didn’t have time to – the paranormalist community was tight-knit, and would make up half of the funeral attendees – and did the dishes after Wanda finished crying. Bucky stood up in the middle of the first night, said “we have to eat” and disappeared for an hour. When he came back, he had six bags of food from McDonalds. “Is this enough?” he asked, the question oddly loud in the space of the tiny apartment. Everyone, Bucky included, thought it was a stupid question. Natasha nodded, and made everyone eat the McDonalds. Clint cleaned the apartment – not Wanda’s room, but the bathrooms, the kitchen, the carpeted squared that passed for a living room in a New York City apartment. Everyone whispered as though they were in a church, Wanda’s cramped apartment purified by grief.

They all cried at the funeral, turned their heads into each other’s shoulders or, in Natasha’s case, curled in on themselves as if grief had to be hidden. Then Wanda returned to her apartment to sit Shiva and they went with her, covered mirrors and accepted food from other members of Wanda’s synagogue and tried to cry more quietly in the bathroom.

“I do not know what to say,” Wanda told Clint on the second night of Shiva. They were sitting in her room, their backs to her bed. “Everything I can think of is a – what is the word? A thing everyone says. I feel like I am drowning. I do not know how to go on. The entire world keeps spinning even though it should have stopped and I hate it.”

“Cliché,” Clint muttered. “That’s the word you’re looking for

“Cliché,” Wanda said angrily, as though the word owed her something and wouldn’t pay up. “Everything I think has been said before. English, Serbian…people have already said all the words.”

“When my brother died I felt the same,” Clint said. “Like words didn’t matter. I bought a stack of dishes from some crappy thrift store and broke them all instead.”

“Did it help?”

“No,” Clint said. Wanda nodded and dragged a tissue box over as she started to cry again.

Across the house, Bucky and Natasha stood in the kitchen, trying to fit another casserole in Wanda’s fridge. “Do you know,” Bucky asked as they stared at the full fridge, “I use Tetris in my adult life more than I ever use algebra.”

“Me too,” Natasha said. “Of course, I never learned algebra in the first place.” It was a detail she wouldn’t have given to anyone besides Clint before, but they’d all seen her cry. Some walls had gone down when Pietro’s coffin was lowered.

“You didn’t miss anything,” Bucky said. He paused and Natasha could seem him gearing up for some emotional confession, and she considered escaping to the bathroom. But no, Steve was there.

“Do you feel like we’re intruding?” Bucky asked. “I mean, he was our friend but Wanda lost a brother. He was her only family, you know? And we’re all moping and crying but –”

“We don’t have the same right to grieve,” Natasha said. She meant ‘I don’t have the right to grieve.’ There wasn’t even a count of the number of people she’d killed; being under the control of a vampire left her memory fuzzy. How many funerals had happened specifically because of her? How many cremations and burials had she left in her wake? “Yes, I feel that way too.”

After Wanda finished sitting Shiva they left her, promising to come back in a few weeks. They found the group of werewolves who’d killed Pietro running in Ohio, picking off homeless people on the outskirts of cities, bragging about the three groups of paranormalists they’d killed.

The next time Wanda saw them, the four of them stood outside. “We missed one,” Steve said.

Wanda almost said “I didn’t ask you to kill them” or “How dare you risk making me plan all of your funerals” or even “did you do it so they’d stop hurting people, or did you do it because you were angry?”

Instead she said “it’s okay,” and let them come in.

***

Now

“Hello?”

Natasha did not allow herself the luxury of small talk. There wasn’t a good way to tell someone that someone else wanted them dead, but dragging it out was definitely a bad way. “Hi, Wanda. I need to ask you some questions about a ghost?”

“Nat, I am so sorry, can I call you back?” Wanda normally tried to suppress her Sokovian accent; she said that people didn’t take her seriously and assumed she was just for show instead of a genuine psychic when they heard an Eastern European accent. But Natasha could hear it now, a sure sign of Wanda’s stress. “There is a half vampire sleeping in my living room, and I want to make sure that he –”

“Clint is trapped in a basement.” Natasha burst out.

“Nevermind.” Wanda said. “What is going on out there?”

Natasha let the dam burst. She took Wanda through the job, meeting the ghost, the ghost’s accusation of Wanda, and what they’d found in the library. She even mentioned Kate’s frustration with her.

That had been an uncomfortable conversation. Natasha could fake warmth and friendship; she was trying not to. Whatever the relationship between her and Kate, Natasha wanted it to be genuine, organic, not a product of her own manipulations. Clint had been encouraging her to let relationships grow naturally and so she’d tried that, not hiding here discomfort as well as she usually did, not trying to put up a false self that Kate would like. Natasha wasn’t thrilled that her genuine self came off as abrasive and unlikable, but she wasn’t surprised either.

Wanda listened to the entire story without interrupting. Finally, as Natasha finished, she spoke. “Well, I definitely haven’t murdered anyone. Especially not this Alexander Perry. Did he say why he thought I killed him?”

“No. And when I tried to ask questions, he threatened to cut off my nose.”

“And you said four other psychics had been killed in surrounding counties.” Natasha could picture Wanda; eyes squeezed shut as she thought, fingers twitched as she mentally sorted through information and theories. “That seems unlikely. I don’t know why he thinks I did it.”

“He reported that someone was stalking him.” Natasha paused. “Maybe he thought it was you?”

“I do not deserve this,” Wanda muttered. “You think I am being framed?”

“Well, you didn’t kill him,” Natasha said. It hadn’t even occurred to Wanda that Natasha might think she’d killed someone. The realization made Natasha feel a little dirty. But Natasha certainly believed that she hadn’t. Kate might not think that Wanda’s word was good enough, and Natasha didn’t blame her. In Kate’s shoes, she wouldn’t have accepted it. But she could number the people that she trusted on one hand, and Wanda was one of them. And if Wanda had killed someone, Natasha would be the person to tell, since she wasn’t exactly in a position to judge. “Yes, I think you’re being framed.”

Wanda said something in Serbian that Natasha didn’t understand. “Well, that is wonderful. I can think of plenty of people who do not like me. Ross, Walters, Klaw…Natasha, if you want a list, I will have to call you back.”

Wanda’s accent grew thicker with every word. Natasha desperately needed her to be calm so that she herself could be too. “Hey, we’re all gonna be okay.” She glanced at Kate in the car and saw that the girl was nearly in tears. Did everyone in her life have to have a breakdown at the same time? Couldn’t they space them out a bit, take them in shifts? “Wanda. Wanda, we are going to fix this.” How to convince her? “We’ve been in worse situations than some jumped-up dead psychic not even smart enough to know who killed him.”

“I do not want to lose any more of you,” Wanda whispered.

Pietro and Bucky, both dead within the past year. They hadn’t even had a body to bury at Bucky’s funeral, which Natasha thought was a small mercy. Bodies drained of blood looked horrific, and that wasn’t even taking into account that Bucky’s corpse probably would have been covered with bite marks.

Natasha used to feel a vague sense that she couldn’t die; she’d flouted death so much in her childhood that it seemed like something that happened to other people. Not her, not Pietro, not Bucky. The funerals had shattered that. Now, it felt like they were all staring down Death, waiting to see who he would take next.

Ghosts were messy, violent things. Clint would need a closed casket funeral too.

It was a weakness, this love, one that she’d convinced herself she had a right to. She didn’t regret that choice, but she could not afford weakness right now. “We’re not going to lose Clint. You know what I’m capable of.” It came out more threatening than Natasha had intended, but Wanda would recognize that the anger wasn’t for her.

The line was horribly silent for a moment. “Okay,” Wanda said finally. “I apologize.”

“No need,” Natasha said. “So, someone might be setting you up, and they’ve probably bought off the police in the Pennsylvania area.”

“Yes. I can probably talk to some people that I know, get a read on the situation.” Natasha could hear Wanda starting to rally and allowed herself a hard smile. Wanda was incredibly talented. If there was knowledge to be had, Wanda would have it. And then Natasha, with all her buried rage, would find the person who’d done this and skin them.

“When you find them, let me know,” Natasha said, trying not to let her iron rage into her voice. “In the meantime, I’m going to take care of this ghost.”

“You might be able to stall for time,” Wanda said. “Tell it that you have tricked me into coming down, and that I will be there in –”

“I’m going to suffocate it in grave dirt,” Natasha said. She wasn’t hiding the iron very well.

“That will also work.” Wanda sounded wry. She had grown accustomed to the violence of her friends’ lives, but Natasha didn’t think she’d ever be fully comfortable with it. So she compensated by treating their destructive actions as odd personality quirks, like a slightly bemused mother watching her child play an especially violent game of hockey. “I’ll try a few card readings, though it’s not as though Tarot Cards can give me the name of who wants me dead.”

“Call me if we you anything. I’ll let you know when we know more about the situation,” Natasha promised before hanging up. Neither of them mentioned the strangeness of it; convincing psychics that Wanda Maximoff was trying to kill them, killing the psychics violently enough to produce a ghost, then hoping the ghosts would kill Wanda? There were much, much easier ways to kill someone. It was a problem for a time when Clint wasn’t trapped in a basement.

Natasha glanced in the car to see Kate was sitting terrifyingly still, eyes barely blinking. Natasha forced herself into gentleness, something genuine and real instead of the empty kindness she’d only ever used to gain people’s trust. The girl would not be comforted by the version of herself that Wanda had seen, just more alienated by Natasha’s anger. She tried to conjure the softness that she normally only offered to Clint. It wasn’t who she truly was, but it was a version of the truth. Still counted as progress.

“Kate, are you okay?” Not a real question, just something to start the conversation. She was obviously not okay.

“He can’t lose his ears!” Kate yelled.

Natasha wasn’t sure how to address that. Yes, Clint certainly looked better with ears? “Do you have tissues in this car?” Kate asked, rubbing her eyes.

“Yeah, there’s napkins in the glove compartment if you start crying.” Natasha reached out and patted Kate on the back, half expecting her to flinch away from the touch. Instead Kate leaned into, just a little, surprising Natasha. “Kate. Hey, look at me.”

Maybe she’d been wrong. Natasha let a little of the iron into her face, just enough that her determination showed. “Kate. We can fix this. It’s gonna be okay. Wanda is going to figure out who the killer is, and we’re going to rescue Clint.”

“Okay,” Kate said. “Okay,” she said again, louder, like she was psyching herself up. “Let’s do this.”

“Good,” Natasha said. “I have a plan. And you’ll finally get to use those arrows.”

It wasn’t Clint’s grin, the expression on Kate’s face. It was sharper and quicker instead of the slow spread of Clint’s smile. But Natasha was confident that it promised to raise the same amount of hell.

***

It wasn’t that Clint had thought being the hostage of a ghost would be enjoyable. But it was awful in ways he hadn’t expected. Like how there was nothing to eat.

He managed to find some of the weird pastel mints that all old people seemed to have, but they didn’t exactly fill him up. Then he found and ate a box of very stale crackers, and then some candy with Christmas trees on the wrapping. He hoped, very much, that this was candy the old woman had just bought four months early rather than candy she’d forgotten about since last Christmas.

All the while the ghost glowered at him, as though eating stale crackers and old (it was definitely old) candy was some sort of personal insult. Dead people were so touchy. Was he upset that Clint wasn’t sharing?

It was worse when he actually spoke. “You know what she did, that woman. You don’t care.”

Not just a ghost, not just a psychic ghost, but a nosy psychic ghost who wanted to play Dr Phil. “I care,” Clint said. “I just don’t think she’s a monster for doing it.” He didn’t think she was a monster at all, but the ghost would definitely pick a fight over that.

The ghost tilted his head to the side. It had always annoyed Clint, how very human ghosts seemed. Of all the supernatural things in the world, ghosts could make the least claim on humanity. “You care about her. That girl is important to you, but you’re in love with the woman. You don’t care about what she did, just how it affects her.”

What did the ghost want from him? He wasn’t going to tell the thing threatening to kill him about the nights Natasha didn’t sleep. When he awoke and saw her, strung tighter than his bow, the car turned into a confessional booth.

“There was this twelve year old girl.”

“Natasha, you have to stop doing this to yourself.”

“I could smell her. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mostly, and something floral. The detergent her clothes were washed in, I think.

“It wasn’t you. You weren’t in control.”

“Doesn’t matter. She’s still dead.”

No, he wasn’t going to tell this ghost about those late night conversations when Natasha got lost in her own past and he could only wait for her to come back to him, where he could help her believe that she wasn’t a monster, that it hadn’t truly been her fault. Even if he was willing to offer that information up, he didn’t think the ghost in front of him would understand or care. “Yes,” he said. “I care more about how it affects her.”

The ghost had kept talking after that, waxing poetic about justice and vengeance and briefly the dichotomy of good and evil. Clint occasionally nodded. It was bizarrely like having a phone conversation with an older relative; they were happy at length about boring stuff as long as you occasionally said “uh-huh” as though you cared. His relatives hadn’t usually dragged so much biblical imagery into their conversations though. Murdered ghosts were always so holier-than-thou.

The day faded into evening. He watched the sky darken through a square window set near the top of the room, growing more and more nervous. He trusted that Nat and Kate would come, but the ghosts seemed to have expanded his vendetta against Wanda to Natasha from the way he talked about her. And Kate was good – brilliant – with that bow, but she probably hadn’t used it to fight ghosts before.

Clint was just about to consider sleeping on the dusty recliner in the corner when he heard a door slam open. Feet pounded across the floor above him, kicked open the basement door, and thundered down the stairs. By the time Kate skidded into view at the foot of the stairs, the ghost had a knife hovering at his throat.

Kate didn’t even look at him. “You were right,” she said in between gasps for breath. “You were right. She’s a killer.”

Clint felt sick. The ghost looked triumphant. “Yes, she is. But you are not.”

“I didn’t know,” Kate said, eyes wide. “I thought that, I mean I didn’t realize it was –”

“Where is she?” The ghost hissed. Clint could feel the temperature in the room plummet as goose bumps erupted on his arms. Ice crawled across the window, and his breath came out in a fog. Kate looked as alarmed as he felt.

“Kate –” he started to say. What could he say? Yes, Natasha fit the dictionary definition for a monster, yes, she’d done terrible things but there was more to it, extenuating circumstances. Natasha had been used, and she still wore regret and grief for those long ago actions like a second skin. Somehow, he would find the words, but as he started to speak again the ghost cut him off.

“Where is she?” The ghost demanded. “Not as good as the Maximoff woman, but I’ll still take it.”

“She’s outside,” Kate gasped. “She’s got some kind of dirt and she’s sprinkling it around the house.”

The temperature blazed, ratcheting up so high that Clint felt sweat break out on his back. The ghost flared out of existence, leaving behind Kate and a horrified Clint. “Kate, no, you don’t understand. It’s not like that. She didn’t –”

It was as though he’d flipped a switch. Kate’s expression went from fearful to absolute glee. “I know. Killing vampires doesn’t make you a murder. Natasha said I should distract him, and nothing distracts people like someone else saying that they’re right.”

“Oh.” Clint said. Natasha had done a little more than kill vampires, but he was definitely going to put that conversation off.

Kate nodded. “There’s already a ring of dirt around the house. Natasha is distracting it while I get you out. C’mon, let’s break out of that window. I bet Natasha twenty bucks that I could have us out in under three minutes.” She swung herself onto the bookshelf beneath the window and pulled at the latch. “Great, it’s painted shut.”

“Let me at it,” he said, climbing up and wrapping his hand around the latch. He shifted to the right, leveraged his weight, and pulled with muscles developed over years of archery. The latch finally gave and ripped through the paint. Grinning, he turned to Kate.

“Yes,” she said with an eye roll, “your muscles are very impressive. Now, grab your bow and shimmy out that window. I’m losing money.”

They both looked undignified crawling out the window. He had to grab at handfuls of grass to pull himself out, and Kate ended up with a large streak of dirt on her face. “Three minutes and a half minutes,” she said, glancing at her phone. “Not bad.” Then she bent down, grabbing a quiver and bow stowed behind some bushes. “Now, let’s get this ghost.” Kate paused. “Pretend I didn’t say that, it sounded awful.”

“Your quips need work,” he agreed as they jogged around the house. “You know, as the experienced ghost hunter, I think I should take the shot.” He really wanted to kill – well, re-kill – this thing.

“Nope,” Kate said. “He’s all mine.”

“We’ll see.”

It was growing steadily colder as they rounded the house. In the dim light he could see Natasha, red hair swelling the in wind as she faced down the ghost. There was something a little otherworldly about her. Not inhuman but something….additional. She just looked right, standing across from a ghost with only a line of dirt between them, a figure in a painting where neither he nor Kate would quiet fit.

As he watched, a flower pot hurled itself off the porch towards Natasha, who had to dive out of the way. Even if the ghost’s power didn’t extend beyond the circle of grave dirt, the objects built up enough momentum first to do so impressive damage.

Kate drew an arrow from the quiver. He could see that it was coated in a thick layer of mud. “We hit up a grave yard before coming,” she explained as she drew the bowstring back. It was a smart move, and one he’d used before. Arrows wouldn’t work on a ghost, of course, but ghosts couldn’t cross or be touched by graveyard dirt – or mud, in this case. Enough of it would force the ghost’s energies to permanently dissipate.

The ghost was roaring to be heard over the wind, something about murderers in league with murderers and how her regret would never be enough. It was the same thing she told herself at night, and Clint wanted to strangle the thing for screaming her own whispered horrors back at her. Kate was still lining up the shot against the wind, and so he grit his teeth and didn’t make any noise. Kate knew what she was doing.

When she finally shot the thing, it was worth the wait.

The arrow tore into the ghost, warping its faded, insubstantial body as it passed through. The ghost screeched, a sound like metal on metal. He saw Kate move to cover her ears, then grimace instead and draw another arrow. Clint reached for an arrow before remembering that he only had his bow, then tried to cover his ears instead. He still couldn’t block out the eardrum ripping screech.

Natasha drew a mud covered knife from her boot and sank it into the ghost’s shoulder with a snarl. Her knife passed through, but the mud clung to the ghost, looking oddly like dried blood. There too, the image warped, pulsing like a heartbeat around the mud.

Kate fired again, but the wind sent the arrow wide; it flew harmlessly into a tree. Kate actually growled and reach for another arrow, but then the ghost turned towards them. Clint actually took a step backwards; in its rage the ghost looked nothing like a human, mouth enormous, eyes shot with silvery webs of dead blood. It lumbered towards them, hands stretching impossibly far, and Clint wanted to retch a little at the sight. It looked like a corpse, liquefying as it strained to hold its form. Only rage was holding it together, but that rage could still kill them.

Without asking, he ripped an arrow out of Kate’s quiver and strung it. The wind roared but he waited, and the ghost was so close but not close enough, the wind would still affect the trajectory too much – now.

He shot and the ghost died. Its form fell apart, energy flung out as though it was caught in a hurricane. The last thing he heard was the ghost’s scream, rising to such a high pitch that it quickly passed out of his hearing range.

Then the wind started to lessen, and the temperature rose. The world felt normal again, and not like they’d just stepped onto the set of a made for tv horror film. He hated when jobs hit this many clichés.

Before he could fully comprehend everything that had just happened, Natasha tackled him. Her arms wrapped around his neck as he slid his around her waist. “I’m fine,” he whispered into her hair. “You’re fine too.”

She only tightened her arms. “I hate ghosts,” she said in a voice terrifyingly close to a whimper.

“We’ll go after a vampire next time,” he said. “Or a nice werewolf pack.”

“Okay,” she whispered, then she leaned up to kiss him.

“Should I let you guys get a room?”

He drew back from Natasha to see Kate, arms folded with a bemused look on her face. “Not bad for your first time, kiddo,” he said.

“One,” Kate said holding up a finger. “Do not call me kiddo. Two, I was amazing. Completely saved you. You were like the damsel in distress in a crappy screamo movie and I totally rescued you.”

Natasha was nodding. “It’s true Barton. You really gotta start pulling your weight around here.”

It occurred to him that Natasha had showed, for her, an incredible amount of vulnerability in front of Kate. The younger girl might not have been able to hear what Nat was saying, but there was no hiding Natasha’s affection and worry. Kate probably didn’t recognize how much Nat must have trusted her to do that.

He grinned at them both. “I’ll pull my weight by buying dinner somewhere nice. How’s that?”

Kate arched a single eyebrow. “Do you mean nice like a steak house?”

“Kate,” Clint said, “please lower your standards for me as a human being.”

Natasha gave a quiet laugh, a hand still on his shoulders. Kate laugh and punched him affectionately on the shoulder.

They got into the car, exchanging jibes like gifts, a little tipsy on their own success. Natasha kept throwing Clint tiny grins, like she wanted to remain serene and untouched but was too happy to do so. Kate was loud and unrestrained, her joy a current they were happy to get swept away in. Clint took a moment, as he rolled to a stop at a stop sign, to appreciate the moment. They were alive, and happy, and he wanted to carry this moment with him.

They went to Applebee’s, to Kate’s horror. Near the end of the night, as Kate was flirting with the waiter, Natasha looked at him. “I think we need to get Steve.”

Clint frowned. “Why?”

“There’s something bigger going on here. Why would someone set her up in such an inefficient way?”

“He might not want to help,” Clint said, but he knew he was wrong as he said it. For Wanda, Steve would help.

Natasha didn’t even bother to answer. “I want Steve’s help, and I want a place to figure this out that isn’t the backseat or a car. He never minds when we crash at his place.”

“I miss sleeping in a bed,” Clint agreed. As the waiter left, he turned to Kate. “Hey, good news. We’re all gonna get to use the shower somewhere besides at a truck stop.”

***

Somewhere, in a hotel room in a small New York town, a man waited.

By the time Yelena called him, she was ten minutes late. “They kill Perry,” she said without preamble. “Of all the paranormalists that old woman could have hired, she picked them.”

He sighed. “Unfortunate, but something we can work with.”

“How?” Yelena demanded. “How can this possibly be a positive? Now they know part of it. They’ll see us coming.”

He thought that Yelena was dramatically overestimating their abilities, specifically Romanoff’s, but they all had their emotional hang ups. “Even if they see us coming, they won’t see this.”

Chapter Text

Steve was one of the few paranormalists Clint knew who actually had a place beyond a car or a friend’s couch. It had been a working farm once, but now it was a house and a few acres scattered with farming tools that Steve had no idea what to do with. It seemed a shame to have all this land and not at least grow a couple tomato plants or something. Everyone could use tomatoes.

The farmhouse looked – felt – homey in the twilight, with lights shining out most of the windows and a golden retriever chasing the car up the gravel drive. Clint knew that when he opened the door he’d be greeted by chirping crickets and soft grass at his feet. He wasn’t naïve about homes – his own childhood had been a disaster – but there was something nice about living somewhere that didn’t have speedometer.

A house wasn’t the same as a home, and he didn’t regret his life choices. Living in a car, nearly dying twice a month, being with Natasha – those things were all worth it. He just…it would have been nice to have those things and not have to share toilets with every trucker who’d used the rest area before him.

Steve was waiting for them when they reached the house, petting the dog that was barking with excitement. Kate took one look at him and said “Well.”

“His best friend died a year ago, so I don’t know if I’d put the moves on him,” Clint said.

“No one says ‘put the moves on’ anymore.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Only old people trying to be cool.”

“People still say that, and I’m not that old.” Clint folded his arms. “Nat, back me up on this.”

Natasha just grinned.

“Wait no. I’m not that old, and I am culturally relevant.” When no one spoke, he pointed at Natasha. “She’s old too. Mock her!”

“He really hates it when we team up,” Natasha said to Kate.

Clint lifted his head in a way he was certain was lofty. “I’m two years older than Natasha. I’m barely 30!”

“It’s a state of mind,” Kate said and stepped out of the car. He assumed that she’d wanted to guarantee that she had the last word to avoid his devastating comeback.

“I hope that Steve doesn’t mind us crashing at his place,” Natasha said, which Clint thought was a ridiculous worry. There was a large section of the paranormalist community who only knew Steve as ‘that guy who lets people sleep in his house.’ He’d be happy to let his actual friends stay for a bit.

“So, we’re gonna try to lowkey encourage Steve to start doing some investigating again, right?” Clint asked. Steve was far better now than six months ago, certainly, but he still wouldn’t do anything related to hunting. It had been his life, just like it was Natasha’s and Clint’s. Like it had been Bucky’s. It was understandable, but probably not healthy.

Natasha squinted at him. “Did you only say that so you could use the word ‘lowkey’ and prove that you’re hip?”

“People definitely do not say ‘hip’ anymore. And I was discussing a genuine concern –”

“Let’s go say hi to Steve,” Natasha said, and stepped out of the car.

He was ready to continue the discussion as he stepped out of the car, but then Steve yelled “Clint!” and wrapped him a hug that might have crushed the lungs of a weaker being.

“Hey man,” Clint said, returning the hug. The dog barked once and Clint reached over to pat his head.

Steve smiled. “Good to see you. I’ve got food inside.”

“I’ll name a child after you for this kindness,” Clint promised in gratitude as they all walked towards the door. Clint had a high tolerance for eating fast food every day, higher than Natasha, but even he was ready for something that took longer than three minutes to make.

The house was an old farmhouse; Steve had told him it was from 1904 or some ridiculously early year, and had once belonged to his grandfather. The insides were a mix of decades; a rug that Clint would have guessed was from the early 2000s, falling to pieces by a back door, a piano that looked like it hadn’t been touched since the 70s, a stack of black and white photos from the 40s in a box in the living room.

The furniture didn’t have any sort of unifying theme either. The family room had a plaid loveseat, a brown couch, and shag carpet older than Clint.  The kitchen had a stainless steel fridge and a wooden table that Steve’s grandfather had built in the 50s. It certainly didn’t look coordinated, but the décor was consistent in being wildly inconsistent, so Clint supposed that it worked.

Despite the schizophrenia of decades in the house, it was one of Clint’s favorite places. There were good memories here, mostly involving all of his friends alive and happy. There were also a truly impressive number of weapons scattered throughout the house. Every paranormalist had weapons, but Steve was creative about it. There was an old wooden cross hanging on the door that Steve had once slammed into a vampire’s face. A knife with a silver blade sat on the fire place mantel, and Clint knew that the fridge had at least four cloves of garlic in the vegetable drawer. Taped behind a bookcase was a .22 gifted to him by Pietro for Steve’s birthday. No one had ever been sure if it was a gag gift or not.

Steve led them into the kitchen as Clint’s stomach growled. There were about ten different dishes that Steve could make, which was seven more than Clint. Tonight he’d made tacos, which mostly involved them all dumping slightly over-seasoned chicken and store-bought salsa into taco shells, and then also immediately dumping everything in their tacos onto their plates by accident. Clint loved it.

“So, how’d you all meet?” Kate asked. She’d given up on her taco and had mixed everything up with a fork. Clint was still stubbornly trying to eat his taco with his hands. Natasha had spilled a little on her shirt and was trying to clean it off without anyone noticing.

Steve smiled. “There was this job up in Vermont, and me and – and a friend were up there investigating.”

Clint saw Natasha wince, just barely. No wonder Steve wasn’t taking any jobs. Everything made him think of his dead best friend.

“Anyway,” Steve continued. His voice was just a little too loud and fast, but Kate probably wouldn’t notice. “We were up there, and we’re investigating a ghost sighting in an abandoned mental institution.”

Kate gave him a flat stare. “Listen, this whole profession is a lot more like made for tv movies than I expected it to be.”

“Just wait,” Natasha said.

“So,” Steve continued. “We’re walking around this place –”

“Creepy as hell,” Clint muttered. He’d hated that building.

“Creepy and dark and about what you’d expected from an abandoned mental hospital,” Steve continued. “Our employer said that they were thinking about tearing the place down and building a shopping center there instead, but you really don’t want to build a shopping center somewhere that a ghosts haunts. So we’re investigating a sound, flashlights out, and next thing we know some redhead throws a bucket of grave dirt at us.”

Natasha shrugged. “It’s hard to do without the ghost realizing it and getting pissed. But if you can hit a ghost with a bucket of grave dirt, that thing is gone.”

“Except we weren’t ghosts,” Steve said. “Turns out that there were several different groups wanting to buy the property, and all of them wanted to make sure that it wasn’t haunted first.”

Good call. Clint had heard stories of a haunted mall back in the 70s. The idiot developers had pushed the project because it was prime real estate, and 17 people had died on opening day. Ghosts were the worst.

“So after a lot of yelling and insults, we agreed to team up.” Steve smiled, just a little. “And it turns out there was not a ghost, just a bunch of college kids doing some sort of hazing ritual every month. They’d send newbies in, make ‘em think the place was haunted and take videos of them screaming in terror.” He frowned. “We found the newbies, actually. They also threw grave dirt as us.”

“They were surprising well-prepared,” Natasha said in approval.

Clint nodded. “One of ‘em punched me. She had a pretty respectable right hook.”

Kate took stabbed her taco meat with a fork, then dabbed lightly at her face with a napkin. She was an odd mix of brashness and high-society manners, deliberate casualness and etiquette that Clint didn’t even know. Sometimes he caught the hint of a New England accent in Kate’s voice, one that he couldn’t quite narrow down but always said ‘money.’ “How often does that happen, that there’s not actually a ghost or a vampire or whatever?” she asked.

“If someone says that there’s a vampire, there’s usually a vampire,” Steve said. Clint braced himself, but Steve kept going without the pause that indicated overwhelming grief. “Werewolves are about fifty-fifty. Sometimes it’s just a big dog. You don’t always see ghosts, so people think that they’re around more often than they usually are. There was couple up in Rhode Island…”

They continued on, swapping stories. Most of Kate’s stories involved friend of a friend stories about ghost hauntings, but she listened to their stories about actual supernatural creatures with a hungry expression. Natasha told them about a ghost she’d run into before meeting Clint who’d been haunting a local swimming pool. Clint whipped out his best paranormalist story, one about a ghost who’d possessed a bunny rabbit and then tried to nibble him to death. It always a story that always killed at parties. Well, it killed at paranormalist parties. It had not gone over well at the engagement party for one of his high school friends.

The conversation shifted to different places they’d all visited, then settled firmly on New York City. Kate and Steve were talking about places they both knew there, since Steve had been born there and only moved to the farmhouse after his grandparents died. It was late enough that Clint was starting to feel not sleepy but…calmed. The stresses of the day were winding down, and Steve would be able to help them figure out who was after Wanda, and they had eaten real food and would sleep in a real bed. He was so looking forward to the bed.

“Hey,” Natasha whispered. She let her hand rest on his shoulder, a sign of affection that he was surprised to see her show. Her eyes just barely flicked towards Kate before settling on him. “Wanna go for a walk?”

“Sure.” Steve and Kate were getting along fairly well; they were arguing over the merits of different restaurants in Manhattan. Clint waved idly at them as he and Natasha walked out.

The night was crisp with a bit of a bite in the air. This far out in the country the sky was full of stars, white specks of light scattered above. He didn’t feel particularly strongly about stars, but Natasha loved them, and he liked the way her face settled into calm when she looked up. As they walked he watched her glance up occasionally as if to reassure herself that they were still there, brilliant against the deep blue of the sky.

“You thinking about something?” He asked after a few minutes.

“I’m concerned about Wanda, obviously.” Natasha frowned. “And…I don’t know, it just doesn’t make much sense. Were they really killing psychics in the hope that one of them would manage to off Wanda? There’s something that we’re missing here.”

It was, Clint could see, a fairly terrible plan. “Maybe they were killing psychics for some sort of ritual and trying to cover their tracks?” He paused. “No, that doesn’t make sense.”

“And Wanda has pretty strong wards against ghosts up. Even a psychic ghost wouldn’t be able to get to her. It just seems so…inefficient.” Natasha settled on the ground, face still turned skyward. “We just walked into a situation that we don’t fully understand.”

Clint settled beside her. “You’re right. We’re missing something. And we’ll still be missing something tomorrow when we call Wanda and all have a big group discussion about how to fix this.” He didn’t want to tell her that she was wrong, since she wasn’t. But this was something that they could deal with tomorrow, and she would ruin her own night worrying about it. “Nat, we’re gonna solve this. After we sleep in a real bed.”

“I do miss a decent bed,” she said. “The SUV is getting crowded.”

“We could buy one of those big fifteen seater vans that churches use,” he said.

“Sounds expensive.” Natasha curled up beside him, one arm draped over his chest as they leaned back together. Her hair fanned across his shoulder, bright red against his shirt.

“No, it’ll pay for itself,” he said. “See, we’ll cover it in grave dirt and then no more fighting ghosts. We can just crash the car into them.”

“Oh, sure,” Natasha said. “That makes sense. We’ve still got vampires and werewolves to deal with though.”

“We can get a silver grille,” Clint said. Natasha laughed. “No, I can make this work! Uh, line the side of the car with stakes. Just duct tape ‘em on there at chest height.”

“People have different chest heights though,” Natasha said.

“We’ll stagger them,” he said. “Obviously.”

“Oh, obviously.” Natasha laughed. “So we’ll just crash our car into stuff over and over again until it dies?”

“Our 15 passenger van, Natasha.” Clint carefully enunciated each syllable. “There’s no point if it’s just the SUV.”

“Hey!” yelled Kate as the front door slammed. Clint twisted his head towards the porch. Kate was waving, keys in hand. Natasha stiffened, just barely, beside him. Then she deliberately relaxed back, leaving her head on his shoulder. “What about the SUV?” Kate asked.

“Clint wants to buy a new car,” Natasha yelled back. “And make it murderous and tacky.”

“Okay, well, in the meantime, I’m taking this one to go buy coffee,” Kate called back.

Clint sat up, ignoring the annoyed noise that Natasha made when he moved away from her. “Wait, does Steve not have coffee?” When Kate shook her head Clint yelled louder. “Steve, what is the point of you?”

Steve didn’t answer, unsurprisingly. Clint grumbled as Kate started the car and began to back down the long driveway. Once she was gone, Natasha grabbed his shirt and pulled him back down beside her. “We were having a moment, Clint.”

“Oh, were we? I thought that I was talking about a tacky car –”

Natasha curled closer to him and pressed a kiss to his jawbone.

Clint turned his head and kissed Natasha on the mouth, letting one of his arms twist around her waist. “Alright,” he whispered. “If you say so, then I guess that we were having a moment.”

Natasha grinned at him, her face only inches away. “I do say so,” she said, and kissed him again.

***

Later, Natasha and Clint went back into the house. Kate was still gone, Natasha noticed, on her personal quest for coffee, but Steve was doing dishes. Natasha immediately stepped up to help, and Clint went to find a dishcloth to dry with. For a few minutes they cleaned in companionable silence, the only noise the running of water and the clank of dishes.

“Kate seems like a good kid,” Steve said, stacking cleaned bowls inside of each other. “I can’t quite figure out what she’s doing in this line of work.”

Natasha wasn’t sure what to do with that, what it implied about each of them, Steve included. No way to know if it was an insult to Kate or an insult to each other them for ending up in this profession. At least Steve hadn’t said “your line of work.” He was still willing to own the job, however vaguely.

“It’s not a terrible line of work,” Clint said. She blessed him for moving the conversation where she wanted it to go, though she could tell he was uncomfortable from the way his shoulders curled just slightly in.

“It’s not,” Steve agreed, but he turned his face towards a glass he was washing so that he didn’t have to meet their eyes.

Natasha spoke as gently as she could. “Steve.”

“Natasha, don’t.” Steve’s voice was curt.

“Sorry Steve, you don’t get to tell us not to worry about you,” Clint said. “You’re not dealing with his death.”

“And you think, what, that I should go kill things until I feel better?” He asked. Natasha, frustrated and worried as she was, was grateful he didn’t follow it up with a venomous ‘we already tried that.’

“Yeah,” Clint said. “I do think that. Or do something besides sit in this house and beat yourself up.”

Natasha almost said ‘Bucky wouldn’t have wanted this,’ but she thought it would blow up in her face. Steve would recognize that sort of obvious manipulation, even if it was a fair point. Barnes certainly wouldn’t have wanted to him to live like a self-flagellating monk, alone in his house.

Instead, she said “Why aren’t you out there, Steve?”

“Bucky is dead, Pietro is dead, and maybe I’m just tired of us all dying.” He threw the towel he’d been using to dry dishes down.

“No.” Clint stared at him, head tilted in thought. “No, that’s not it. What it is?”

Natasha almost didn’t hear the noise. It was just at the edge of her enhanced hearing; regular human like Clint and Steve probably couldn’t hear it at all. But she could, just barely. It was the sound of a stick breaking out in the yard. She glanced around the room and spotted Steve’s dog, in the corner, glancing out the window as well.

None of the humans had noticed. Just her and the other animal in the house.

“There’s someone outside,” she said.

Every head in the room jerked towards the window. “Maybe it’s Kate,” Clint whispered, but none of them believed it. There were downsides to having a house. It made you very, very easy to find.

Clint looked down the hall to the bedroom where his bow and arrows were and started to edge towards it. Steve slid his silverware drawer open and pulled a .357 out, checked it, and then handed it to Natasha. Wordlessly, she checked the clip and found it fully loaded. She raised an eyebrow at Steve. He clearly wasn’t that out of the game if he was keeping loaded guns in his house.

Steve pulled a .44 out from under his sink, then pointedly ignored her gestures that they should trade guns. How irritating. She’d shot that .44 before. She loved that .44.

It could be a werewolf, she supposed, though she’d expect a werewolf to wait a few weeks for the full moon. They could turn into wolves any night of the month, but their strength increased as the moon grew fuller. On a full moon they were forced to change, so there was no better time to go kill some paranormalists that you were pissed at. A weakened werewolf could still tear through them all.

On the bright side, it probably wasn’t a ghost.

She and Steve moved towards the back door door, joined a moment later by a bow-wielding Clint. Leaving the house would be risky, since no vampire could attack them while they remained inside. Of course a werewolf could just come tearing into the room and rip them all to shreds. Steve and Bucky had always been geared towards hunting vampires, so Steve was less experienced with werewolves.

Steve handed her a stake from off his bookshelf, which she tucked into her back pocket. With one hand, she brushed the silver arrow necklace at her throat, the gesture a soothing habit. It was a last line of defense against werewolves, something that she could rip off and shove into their eyes or mouths if they got too close. Clint’s birthday gifts always managed to walk the line between romantic and practical. She appreciated that.

She glanced at Clint, briefly. He looked ready. She turned towards Steve, hyperaware of the abnormal silence of his house. Whoever was out there would know that they had been noticed since the conversation had stopped so suddenly, so they might be walking into a fight. She settled her stance, ready to bring her gun up and shoot. Steve nodded at them both, then reached to open the door.

“Well? Are you going to let me in?”

The voice was male, heavy and sneering, loud enough to come through the door. Despite that fact that he’d been sneaking around them, Natasha suddenly felt that she’d been caught while trying to hide.

Steve paused for a moment, then ripped the door open and brought his handgun up in one smooth movement. Natasha stayed behind the door; Clint and Steve were visible, but whoever was out there wouldn’t be able to see Natasha. The downside was that she couldn’t actually see anything. Clint didn’t look towards her, but she saw him flick two fingers down in a V. Vampire.

“I’m here to deliver a message,” the vampire called. “You need to keep your phone on you. You’ll be receiving a call.”

Steve stood tall in the doorway. He didn’t look like a man who’d been out of the game for a year. He didn’t flinch, didn’t blink, just kept the gun pointed at the vampire’s head. A headshot would slow a vampire down, since suddenly their skull was in pieces. It would give her a chance to stake it. “Why are you here?”

“To deliver a message,” the vampire snapped. “I literally just said that. We don’t want you to miss it.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Clint asked. “You and some friends doing prank calls at a sleepover?”

“No,” the vampire said as though they were stupid. “The ransom call, obviously.”

Natasha saw Clint’s mouth start to form words – what ransom call? – when he realized that there were really only two possible candidates. His bow didn’t twitch, but she saw Clint nearly stagger to the side, his torso and shoulders flexing to hold the weight of his shock.

“We wrecked your car,” the vampire continued. “Sorry about that. The girl is still alive though.”

Shit. They had Kate.

Where?” Steve demanded. Natasha had somehow forgotten what it was like to see Steve wearing righteous anger, to point him towards and something wrong and watch him surge forward to battle it. “Where is she?”

There was a pause. Natasha recognized the strategic value of her position, but she had to try to figure out what the vampire was doing entirely from Clint and Steve’s facial expressions. They both looked like they were just waiting to gather enough information to kill someone.

“You know, you didn’t manage to kill all the vampires who killed your friend,” the vampire said.  Natasha saw Steve go ramrod straight. “One got out of the house before you burned it down. He said they took turns drinking, passing your friend – Bucky? – around like a joint at a party.”

“Steve!” Natasha screamed, because Steve had barreled out the door, out of the protection of the house that the vampire couldn’t enter, and tackled him. She swung herself out the door – the vampire probably knew she was already there – and went after him. Clint yelled, less a verbalization and more strangled worry and frustration, and stayed back to cover them in case there were more vampires lurking.

Steve had tackled the vampire down, and his fist was up in the air, ready to drive it into the vampire’s face. Natasha had seen how hard Steve could hit, hard enough to shatter noses and break bones. She wanted to help him, but she couldn’t because –

“If you kill me, they’ll kill her,” the vampire said and grinned. Steve’s fist froze. Natasha could see the contradiction in him; his fist shook with anger, but his shoulders slumped in defeat. He already knew what was coming next.

“Of course, you can beat me to death. But my people can take that friend of yours and take her down a pint or two.”

“We get it,” Clint snarled from the house.

The vampire smiled and shoved Steve off of him. “I’m glad we understand each other,” he said and Natasha felt her hands twitch towards the trigger. The crack of a gunshot would be incredibly satisfying.

She didn’t shoot.

The vampire looked at her, at her twitching fingers, and nodded at her. “Wait for the call.”

They all had to watch him leave, Steve on the ground, Clint from the house, Natasha halfway between them. No one moved. Natasha wanted action, wanted to throw herself at something and shred it with her fingers if need be. But that wasn’t what she had been told.

It was not something she was proud of but Natasha Romanoff had, in another life, been very good at doing what she was told.

“Let’s go wait for the call,” she said, and ignored the bile rising in her throat as she said the words.

They walked inside. Natasha felt suddenly hyperaware of her senses – the brightness of Steve’s kitchen lights, the tightness of her old jeans, the smoothness of the gun that she couldn’t seem to peel her fingers away from. Any detail, any sensation, to avoid seeing what was right in front of her. Natasha let herself take refuge in that for a few moments, let her mind flinch away from what was actually happening. The she dragged herself forward to confront it.

“Clint,” she said. Her voice was too even, the intonation strange. It felt like a stranger’s voice coming from her own mouth. “Take Steve and go see if you can find the car. Try to figure out what happened. I’ll wait for the call.”

Steve rested his hand on her shoulder. She wouldn’t have accepted it from anyone but him or Clint. “Natasha, you shouldn’t have to take that call on your own.”

“And Kate shouldn’t be held hostage by vampires,” she said. And Bucky shouldn’t be dead, and Wanda shouldn’t have had to bury her brother. “I’ll be fine.”

Steve knew her well to guess at what she really meant, and Clint knew her well enough to be certain. I don’t want you to hear my side of this conversation.

“You gonna be okay here alone?” Clint asked. What he meant was ‘Will you be okay, will you blame yourself for this, will you collapse and wish that I was here, collapsing alongside you so that at least we could do it together?’ But that wasn’t the question that Natasha answered.

“I hope one of them comes back,” she said with that same unfamiliar intonation. “I hope they come here.” She still couldn’t peel her fingers off of the gun. And because she wanted them gone, wanted to hide her rage, she said what she knew would make them leave. “They might be lying. Go make sure that Kate isn’t dead.”

They left.

Natasha dropped her phone on Steve’s kitchen table and waited for it to ring.

Chapter Text

Clint and Steve drove without speaking. There was nothing to say. Or, more accurately, there was so much to say that the words all clogged Clint’s throat and nothing could come out. So he just turned the radio up while Steve drove.

We should call Wanda’ he tried to say, but that had to war with ‘what could anyone want from us?’ and ‘she has to know we’ll come for her, right? Do you think she knows that?’ for space in his throat. Nothing won.

He told himself that Kate wasn’t dead, but it was weak comfort. She was being held by vampires, and why hadn’t he and Natasha taught her more about vampires? She would know the basics of killing them, of course, because everyone knew that. But what was she gonna do, burn the house down? Stake however many vampires were holding her? They hadn’t even made her carry stakes on her, or some sort of religious symbol.

At least they knew she was probably safe – well, alive, not safe. You weren’t ever really safe when hanging out with beings that considered you a meal.

Neither one of them spoke until they saw the car sitting by the side of the road. It had been t-boned, metal bent inward as punched by an enormous fist. The driver’s side door hung open, and his chest hitched at the sight of it.

Steve slammed on the breaks and threw the car into park. Clint scrambled out before the car had stopped moving and ran to his own car, heedless of the spilled glass spread across the street. He could just barely see the skid marks marring the street in the beams of Steve’s headlights. Kate must have seen another car coming and tried to break before the car crashed into her. The air-bag had deployed, and the seat belt hung limply across the seat. Someone had cut her out of it. Would Kate have been unconscious, or had she known what was happening as people dragged her out of the car? Clint couldn’t see any blood, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t broken an arm or leg or –

“Steve,” he said finally. One of his arms stretched towards the car, poised to reach or grab, but he had no idea what to do with the limb.

“Clint, let’s go through the car and see what they left behind,” Steve said. It was a task. He could do a task.

Clint started to climb into the front seat and noticed that Kate’s cellphone was on the ground. He picked it up and slipped it into his pocket, hands shaking. There were a few hamburger wrappers, throw from his side to Natasha’s side by the force of the crash. The backseat was impossible to move in, with the car bent inward. Distantly he realized that this car could never be driven again, but he felt oddly disconnected from the implications of that. In the back, he heard Steve fighting to open the trunk.

“Clint, she’s gone,” Steve said, and Clint nodded. Yes, he could see that. “Let’s get what we can out of the trunk and go rendezvous with Natasha, okay?”

He looked off, into the forest stretching off into the distance, and thought of the twists of the backroads that they had taken to get to Steve’s place. They didn’t know where Kate had been taken. They didn’t have a hope of catching up with her kidnappers. He knew all of this, and yet the idea of driving back to Steve’s house felt wrong on a moral level. Kate was out there, somewhere, getting further and further away,

“Clint,” Steve said. “She’s gone, man. I – if there was a chance, we’d be out there. You know we would.”

“We can keep looking,” Clint said without turning away from the wreck of the SUV. “Just drive and, and maybe we’ll find them. There’s a chance.”

Steve nodded. “If you really believe that, we’ll look.”

Clint turned his head up, away from his bent and twisted car. For a moment they just stared. Clint couldn’t bring himself to say it. There’s not a thing we can do.

“I know.” Steve sighed. “Let’s go.”

“Okay,” Clint said, and it felt like surrender.

***

Natasha waited for the phone to ring.

She’d made herself tea earlier, just to have something to do with her hands besides ball them into fists so hard that her wrists ached. Now the mug of tea had been sitting for twenty minutes. She looked at it for a moment, just to change things up, then let her eyes flick back to the phone.

There was no way to be certain that it would be her phone that rang, but the vampire had looked at her as he left, eyes slowly sliding over her face, and she’d just suddenly been sure. They were calling her.

She sipped the tea. It was cold.

Her phone rang, finally, and Natasha snatched it. “Hello?

“Nice to hear from you, halfing.”

“Who the hell is this?” Natasha almost recognized this voice. Something in her memory, buried by time and a desperate desire to forget. One of the other girls in the Red Room, she thought. But there’s been so many of them, a mass of faces that shifted as girls died and new ones were brought in. The only ones she remembered were the last of them all, the ones who’d walked away.

The voice, low and feminine, laughed. “This all feels so clichéd, doesn’t it? You, the enraged hero. Me, the dangerous villain threatening someone you care about.” She paused. “Though it’s a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?”

How did Natasha play this? She could always pretend to hate Kate, but she wasn’t sure how believable that would be. Fake an excess of emotion – no, not fake, she had enough emotion to burn down a city. That might let them underestimate her, but not if it was someone from the Red Room. They’d know better than that.

“You’re taking an awfully long time to decide how to manipulate me,” the voice said, and Natasha would have flinched if she’d been anyone else. She was still a spy, whatever she did, but she’d been out of the game for years. The few extra seconds it took her to react were too long.“I bet money that you go the ‘pretend not to care about the girl’ route.”

Well, at least she’d made the right choice in not taking that course of action.

“I’m deciding,” Natasha said slowly, “how I’m going to kill you. I’ve always been curious about how many bullets you can put into a vampire’s body before it can’t regenerate. People have told me that it’s not possible, but I don’t think that I believe them.”

The voice laughed. “Oh Natalia,” she said, and Natasha bit back a snarl. There were 27 other beings alive who knew her by that name, and none of them were merciful. “Little Natalia, you’re smart enough to have figured it out. You try to kill me, my people kill the girl, everyone is unhappy and people are dead. It’s a mess.”

“Yes, you have the upper hand.” No sense in denying it. “So what do you want?”

“Kill Wanda Maximoff.”

Natasha had expected something horrible, but not that. “You’re coming to me for that?” she asked. She had to stall for time, talk until her mind could analyze why everyone they ran into wanted Wanda dead. “There’s easier ways. Pay some idiot kid a hundred bucks to knock her over the head on the way home from the grocery store.”

“Kill the witch,” the woman said. “Or we kill Kate Bishop. I don’t see the need to explain beyond those simple instructions.”

“Why?” Natasha repeated, her voice flat.

The woman sighed. “Kill her and, I don’t know, bring me her head. If you keep asking questions, I’ll ask for other body parts too.” A paused. “Though I wonder if mutilating your friend’s body would really upset you. You’ve done worse.”

“You realize,” Natasha said quietly, “that you’ll spend the rest of your life running from me.”

“You’ll die first. Halflings don’t outlive normal humans, and you’ve always been slotted for a short life.”

The woman wasn’t quite sure what she was doing, Natasha realized. The woman was feeling her out, poking around, taking shots at what she thought Natasha’s insecurities might be. Clearly, the woman thought that Natasha considered herself a good person now.

This was a mistake. Natasha did not consider herself a good person. Natasha considered herself a murderer trying to claw her way out of hell. They were two very different things.

Think, Natasha told herself. I was the best of them all. I still am. The woman said ‘halfling’ like she wasn’t one, and people tended to project their own fears. Natasha wasn’t afraid of dying, but this woman? She had to be a half-vampire if she was one of the Red Room girls, and it sounded like she’d gotten herself turned into a full vampire to avoid death.

“I won’t die first,” Natasha said, “because you will. I will you find you, or Clint, or Steve, or the pissed off ghost of Wanda Maximoff. Even if you get everything you want, you’re going to die. You know that, right?”

“You’re actually threatening me with ghosts now?” No hint of stress, but that didn’t matter; Natasha hadn’t shown a bit of fear when the woman dropped her birth name into conversation. “Ghosts and a group of humans getting smaller by the year? I expected you to come up with a better threat.” Easy laughter, the kind that Natasha remembered hearing over again in her childhood. It had taken her years to learn to laugh genuinely instead of forcing it. “I’ll give you, hmm, a week to kill Maximoff. That should be enough. And I hope you realize that if you fail, and we kill the girl, we’re gonna take that human you’re so fond of, the one with the bow, and suck him dry.”

“Yes, I gathered.” She was going to kill this woman, slowly, with great patience and attention to detail.

“Good. I’ll call and check up in a few days. Oh, and by all means, involve the police. I’m sure that they’re….equipped to deal with us.”

“I want proof of life.”

“Hmmm….let me just walk to the stairs, put you on speaker…”

Natasha heard footsteps, and then, a muffled voice. “Make her yell.”

Her hands tightened on the phone at the sound. Yes, that was Kate’s voice.

“So just do what you’re told, and the girl will be fine. You’re good at that.” There was a pause. “We all know what you are, Natalia.”

“A murderer?” Natasha asked. She’d been called worse in her life, been called worse by the ghost as he snarled at her, only a line of grave dirt between them.

“No. The sort of person who ranks the people that she cares about. Unfortunately for Maximoff, we all know that she isn’t at the top of your list. The mouthy little girl who I’d bet money reminds you of yourself, however? The coffee drinking man who tells you that you’re worth something?”

Natasha didn’t have to pretend to be furious, or frightened, because she was. She did have to hide her absolute glee at finally recognizing the woman on the other line, and there was nothing better to cover that up with than rage. “Go to hell.” Yelena. Of course it’s Yelena.

“We’ve both already been,” the woman said, and the line clicked as the call end.

Natasha hung up and stood still for a moment, then dropped her head into her hands. Well, at least it really, really couldn’t get worse from here. She picked up her tea and took it like a shot, throwing her head back hard. The tea was cold and gross and her throat closed a little at the taste of it. She felt like she deserved it.

Steve and Clint dragged themselves back fifteen minutes later, failure weighing down their shoulders. She gave them a moment, a last few seconds before the news broke and everything got worse. “They want us to kill Wanda.” Me. They want me to kill Wanda.

Steve crumpled onto a kitchen chair. Clint began pacing. “Why does anyone want to kill Wanda?” he asked.

Natasha heaved her shoulders forward in a shrug. They all stared at the table. Clint picked up Natasha’s tea, took a sip, and spat it out. Steve started to stand, then sank back into his chair. They all stared at the table some more.

“We have to call her,” Steve said.

It was entirely one thing to know that an idiot ghost wanted to kill you, and something else to know that a group of people wanted you dead so badly that they were willing to kidnap people to force your friends to kill you. Specifically Natasha, because no person in their right mind would try to get Clint or Steve to turn on their friends. Just her. The killer, the one who was always a hairsbreadth away for murder anyway, so why not just shove her over the edge?

Suddenly she felt known and recognized, even though that person wasn’t who she’d ever been. She’d been violent, yes, but her life now was violent as well. She hadn’t really enjoyed the killing or the violence, just the knowledge that soon she’d have a break from the commands and orders rolling through her nerves. But to have that life dragged up and waved in front of her face made her want to hide somewhere dark and quiet, a bathroom or basement, where her weakness wouldn’t be seen.

Particularly by someone who’d lived through it beside her.

“Yelena was the one who called,” Natasha said. “She was one of the other girls there.”

Neither Steve nor Clint had to ask what she meant by ‘there.’ “Didn’t you all team up?” Steve asked.

She shook her head. “We didn’t team up so much as all spot an opportunity for murder at the same time.”

“Freedom,” Clint said. “You saw an opportunity for freedom. It’s not the same.”

“It really was,” she almost said, but she could feel herself slipping down, down into the place she’d been when she met Clint. The closeness of that place was terrifying, like living your life on the edge of a sinkhole. But Kate needed her here and focused, not curled up and wracked by memories of her past.

She’d never cherished any idea that all of them were friends, particularly Yelena. But whatever was going on with Wanda, some part of it felt personal. There were other factors in play, but she was certain that at least on some level, Yelena wanted to emotionally torture her.

Clint reached a hand out and settled it on her leg. She let her fingers intertwine with his, felt his arm shift, just slightly, as he breathed in. Her own breathing patterns fell into sync with his, a steady, deliberately rhythm.

Okay, she thought. Okay.

“You’re right,” she said aloud. “The first step is to call Wanda.” 

***

Awareness came slowly. Kate felt something under her face without being able to identify texture; her body hurt, but she couldn’t pin down which parts. Disembodied voices drifted back to her, low and harsh. She ignored them.

Her first coherent thought was why can’t I move my hands? And then my legs won’t move either.

Even then it took a while to realize what had happened. She thought her eyes weren’t opening until she realized she was in darkness. The texture under her cheek was a cheap car mat, and the voices were hard to understand because she was locked in the trunk of a car with her limbs bound.

But that didn’t make sense. Why was she in a car trunk? She remembered the house, tacos, muttering about coffee and trying to find a radio station in the car that wasn’t country. But she didn’t have a clue how she’d ended up here.

Why couldn’t she remember?

Panic crept in, but it wasn’t she sharp panic she’d felt when facing the ghost. This was a distant thing, something she could brush her fingers against but not really get a hold of. If only that emotion was stronger, something that could settle into her limbs, maybe she’d get able to organize her thoughts. She had to focus, had to think her way out – but she couldn’t think of how. How. There was something – car trunks – she couldn’t make herself focus.

The car went over a bump in the road and her head crashed into the side of the car. She moaned for a moment, the feeling in her head like someone had smacked her with a bag full of marbles, and the sound of her own voice triggered further pain. Then she had to painstakingly gather her thoughts back.

They’d taught them in school about kidnapping. She remembered an intense white-haired woman showing them pictures of kidnapped children, girls and boys who’d vanished into car trunks and basements never to be found. Kate remembered one, a girl with brown eyes and brown hair just like her, who’d been kidnapped while walking home. The woman had stared directly at her while talking, and Kate had dreamed of dark basements for a week.

No, this wasn’t the point. She needed – how to get out? She remembered something about tail lights – yes, kick out the tail lights! – but in the darkness, with her legs tied together, she couldn’t quite seem to do it, and was someone driving a stake into her head? It hurt so much.

The noises around her quieted; the car most have stopped. She heard noises outside, and it took a movement to identify them as footsteps on gravel. The trunk clicked open and Kate could see a vaguely man-shaped figure looking down at her, head cocked to the side; it was still night, and too dark to make out any features. She glared at him.

“You drive like a maniac,” said a female voice.

“Yeah, yeah,” said the man in front of her. Kate watched as he bent down towards her legs and untied them. The moment they were free, she kicked him in the face.

Well, tried to, but moving was hard and he immediately caught her leg. Still, it was the thought that counted.

The man sighed and she felt a spike of fear in her stomach as he looked at her. His hand flashed towards her and she flinched – stupid! – as he grabbed her chin and titled it backwards. “I think she has a concussion.”

“People don’t die from concussions,” said the woman.

A look of long-suffering patience crossed the man’s face. “Yes, they do.”

She most certainly did not have a concussion, just a headache from – something. Then light slammed into her eyes and she couldn’t stop from crying out, just a little, at the stabbing pain in her head.

“Her eyes aren’t focusing right.” Her eyes were focusing fine, some idiot had just shone a damn light in them.

The woman shrugged. “I don’t care. Just don’t let her die. Kick her awake every few hours or something.”

“Okay,” the man said obediently, and dragged her out of the trunk, ignoring Kate’s struggling and muffled swearing. She’d learned some good ones from Clint. Her fear grew stronger, slipping down her limbs and pooling in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t want to feel like this. What would Natasha and Clint do?

Natasha probably wouldn’t have gotten shoved in a car in the first place. Clint would just be mouthy. She could absolutely do mouthy.

“I can walk,” she snapped, then flinched at the sound of her own voice.

“Shut up or I’ll drop you,” the man said as he hefted her over his shoulder. “I’m not sure you can walk with that concussion.”

“I’m fine.” Where would she have gotten a concussion from, anyway? She remembered something, some sharp fear, and everything hurt and she didn’t know how she got here, but she wanted to stand on her own two feet and she definitely did not have a concussion. “I said I’m fine.”

The man jostled her and she cried out as her head bounced off of his back. “Sure,” he said flatly.

Kate hated him. She tried and failed to kick him in the face.

“Rumlow hasn’t reported back,” the woman said. “This is what I get for working with people who held out for a grand total of thirty seconds after being bitten. Idiot.”

The man didn’t respond. They brought her inside a ramshackle looking farmhouse, all old wood and chipped paint. It looked very much like the kind of place kidnappers would hide out, and Kate felt a stab of annoyance at the thought.

“Take her downstairs,” the woman said. “I’ll make the call. Hopefully Rumlow managed to deliver that message, at least.” The man nodded and Kate fumed, anger trying to edge out fear and not really succeeding.

The basement was even more depressing, just unfinished cement with a cot in the corner and a few tattered paperbacks. The only light came from a dim lamp on the other side of the room, a small, beat-up looking thing with a lampshade that looked older than Kate was.

“You keep all your kidnap victims in this crappy basement?” Kate asked. That came out fairly sarcastic. She was pleased with her efforts.

The man shook his head. In the faint light she could make out too pale skin, thought not-vampire pale, and chin-length dark brown hair. She thought he looked sickly, like he had the flu. “No, we don’t.”

She could admit that she’d been hoping that, upon saying the word out loud, he would insist there was a mistake, that he was friends with Clint and Nat. It wouldn’t have made sense (but nothing did and why didn’t she remember anything?) but she really just didn’t want…this. Any of it.

She curled herself up small on the cot, then noticed what she was doing and spread herself out, stretching her legs and tilting her head up. She wouldn’t be afraid. She wouldn’t act like a captive. “Do I get a blanket?”

“I’m not letting you sleep so that you can die of a concussion,” he said.

“For the last time, I don’t -”

“You were in a car crash,” he said with the slow, exaggerated patience of someone explaining something to a very stupid child. “I know this, because I crashed my car into yours, and then dragged you out of the car.”

“Well that was uncalled for. Why’d you do it?”

He stared at her for a moment, as though she’d just asked the stupidest question he’d ever heard. “Well, you know, we’re evil,” he said slowly. “Or were you hoping that I’d pull out a white cat, start petting it, and explain the evil plan?”

“I’m a dog person,” she said.

He didn’t respond, and the room fell into silence. Kate was just starting to think that perhaps the worst part of all of this would be the mind-numbing boredom when the woman from earlier came down the stairs. Her blond hair was shockingly bright against her pale skin; this was definitely a vampire. Without bothering to look at Kate, she spoke to the man. “Make her yell.”

The man did not grab her arm, just wrapped his hands around it like he was trying to be careful. Of course then he wrenched it back so hard that she screamed in pain, so it wasn’t like Kate felt any goodwill towards him.

He let go of her arm as the woman left, talking into the phone. Kate staggered back from him and the reality of everything finally crashed into her. She turned away and stared upwards, overwhelmed with the desire to cry. Her father had been right, and maybe he would never even know. She thought of her sister, waiting for a weekly call, calling her phone when she didn't hear from Kate. Did Clint and Natasha even know how to contact them?

Stop, she told herself. However bad things got, they were never so awful that she had to think that her father was right. And she wasn’t dead yet. Outnumbered, certainly, and out of her league, maybe. But that didn’t mean she was helpless.

Neither she nor the man spoke to each other. She couldn’t tell if the man was avoiding her glare out of shame or because he just didn’t care about the opinion of some kidnapped girl he happened to share a basement with. Maybe she could chuck a paperback at him.

The woman came back a few minutes later. “Well, that went about as well as expected. Romanoff wasn’t happy, but she’ll do what we said. She knows we’re serious about killing the girl, at least.”

“So I’m your hostage,” Kate said, her fist curling. It sounded brave and angry in her head, but incredibly stupid out loud.

The woman smiled, something low and lazy, and stepped closer. “How perceptive.”

Kate punched her. Or tried to.

Then she was slammed into the wall, the dark haired man shoving her shoulders hard enough that she thought they were grinding into the cement wall. She yelped in pain. It wasn't as bad as before, but it still hurt.

“Barnes, your enthusiasm is appreciated, but don’t break her,” said the woman. She sounded incredibly amused.

Kate had always been annoyed in books and movies when people begged. Obviously, no one was going to listen. But she could feel a please rising up into her mouth, and she had to physically swallow to keep from speaking it out loud. It wouldn’t make a difference, she told herself.

Natasha wouldn’t beg, she told herself. Clint wouldn’t either. Slowly the word sank back down as the woman left, still smiling in satisfaction. Barnes stepped back from her after a moment and she shoved herself away from the wall, back to the cot. It took her a few minutes to be able to look up.

When she did she saw that Barnes had perched on the stairs. He didn’t speak, just watched her silently from across the room as she tried to go to sleep.

Chapter Text

Someone, Clint thought, was going to have to call Wanda.

No one wanted to do it. They all sat at the table and looked at each other, dropping their eyes to the table if they held eye contact for too long. Steve finally said “Well,” and then trailed off. This tactic, shockingly, did not make Clint or Natasha agree to call.

“Maybe we don’t have to tell her,” Clint said.

“They want me to bring them her head,” Natasha said, and he didn’t miss the subtle self-loathing in the word ‘me.’ “We have to tell her.”

“Maybe there’s a way to make a rock look like a head,” Clint said. “I mean, we’re going to trick them somehow.”

“We’d still have to ask Wanda, our resident magic user, how to do that,” Steve said.

We don’t have to tell her.” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought. We don’t have to say that it’s her head.

“Fine,” Natasha said. “Can’t see that blowing up in our faces.” Natasha was never what anyone would call peppy, but she wasn’t normally this sarcastic during the planning stage. Yelena’s request was wearing on her in some way that Clint didn’t understand and couldn’t account for. When they’d first met, Natasha had been a bundle of seemingly contradictory motivations and impulses, all heavy guilt and sharp determination. Her kindness was ferocious, intense, like it was something that could be stolen from her at any moment and she had to make the most of it.

He hated not knowing what she was thinking now, but pushing her wouldn’t help. Natasha would tell him when she was ready, and she would tell him if there was something he could do, even if he was tense and twitchy from the sense that everything was going wrong and he couldn’t fix it.

The irritation was an improvement from the numb horror of finding the SUV by the side of the road, at least. A smaller kind of hell.

Clint dug in his jacket pocket for his phone; no one could bear to tell Wanda, so maybe they could dodge the issue. He paused for a moment when his fingers met Kate’s phone, then grabbed his own and yanked it out.

Hey Wanda, do you know of any way to make a rock look like a human head? You know, with magic?

Wanda texted back a moment later. He was surprised that she was awake. 

No???? Why.

He sent a response.

No reason.

His phone buzzed immediately.

CLINT

“Oh hey,” Clint said as his phone started ringing. “Wanda is calling right now, someone talk to her.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and grabbed the phone. “Hey Wanda,” she said, voice surprisingly even. “We – yes, that would be useful, Clint was just checking, you know, in case we ever need a fake human head.” Another pause. “I know that doesn’t sound very believable, I just…Wanda I’m going to put you on speaker.”

Steve flinched, just barely, as Natasha set the phone down on the table.

“What is going on?” Wanda asked, her voice too loud in Steve’s kitchen. “Why is Natasha using her “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” voice?”

Under different circumstances, Clint would have laughed at the offended look that flashed across Natasha’s face. Her started to, then remembered why they’d called.

“Wanda, we think that we’ve figured out who’s trying to kill you,” Natasha said. “And they’ve kidnapped Kate.”

Silence, for a long, drawn out moment. Clint ached to fill it with something, but there was nothing he could say to lessen the weight of that, nothing that would make it less terrible.

“They want you to kill me to get her back, don’t they?” Wanda asked.

“Yeah,” Clint said, barely loud enough to be heard.

“Yes,” Steve said louder, so that Wanda could hear him. “We’re trying to come up with a plan.”

There was silence for a moment as they all waited for Wanda to respond. He pictured her alone in her apartment, hands curled around her phone, eyes wide with shock. Desperately, he wished that she didn’t have to be alone to hear this, to hear that someone’s life was in the balance, to know how violently someone wanted her dead. None of them doubted that Wanda could handle it, but it’d be nice if she didn’t have to. It would be nice if someone in their increasingly tiny group could be spared from something.

“Okay,” Wanda said. “And I am assuming they asked for my head?”

“Yes,” Natasha said.

“Okay,” Wanda repeated. “That….okay.”

Clint leaned forward. “Wanda, talk to us. What are you thinking?”

“I am thinking…I can’t believe anyone wants me dead so badly.” He heard her sigh. “I…I just don’t know who would do this. I do not know how to fix this.” Not the anger or fear he’d expected just…exhaustion. They’d all been running from the fact that they kept dying. He and Natasha had worked job after job, Wanda had thrown herself into her work, and Steve had bunkered down in this house like sorrow was a storm he could wait out.                                     

“I know who did it.” Natasha said, and he heard that iron in her voice again. It meant she was close to a display of emotion she thought was unacceptable. “It’s one of the other half-vampires that I knew, though from the way she talked I think she’s a whole one now.”

“Are you sure?” Wanda asked. “I have not known many half-vampires, but none of them wanted to turn fully.”

“I have no idea. But she called me Natalia,” Natasha’s iron voice seemed to twist slightly, wavering under a great weight. “Very few people even know that name. I’d bet money that it was Yelena. I’m just not sure why she’d want to kill you, Wanda.”

Natasha had told him about that name one night in the middle of a rainstorm. “I went by Natalia as a child.” Her voice was soft, sad, almost swallow up by rain and thunder. “I picked a different name when I finally got away.”

“Do you want me to call you that now?” he’d asked, uncertain how to treat this new, fragile piece of her life.

“No,” she whispered, so quietly he could barely hear her. “I just…wanted you to know.”

“Because Wanda is a good person?” Clint suggested, dragging his mind away from old conversations in cars that were now wrecks by the side of the road. “Just spit-balling here.”

Steve sighed and ran a hand through his blond hair. “Wanda, I would suggest taking some protective measures. We’ll try to deal with these guys, but who knows if they have contingencies in place.”

Clint leaned towards the phone. “Or you could come out here and help us kill some vampires.”

Steve made an angry shushing motion at him, which Clint ignored. Let Steve deal with his problems by avoiding everything. Wanda wasn’t a paranormalist, but she was an extremely capable fighter. And, in her situation, hell itself couldn’t have made Clint allow his friends to walk into danger without him there. He and Wanda were wildly different people, but they had that in common.

“Hmmmm,” Wanda said. “I am leaning towards Clint’s suggestion.”

Natasha was smiling, just slightly, like she wanted to hide it but couldn’t quite manage to. “Alright. We’ve got a week, so I need a fake plan to give them.”

“A whole week?” Clint asked. “Wow, they’re generous.”

“I am not easy to kill, even for someone with Natasha’s considerable talents,” Wanda said. She still sounded a little shaky, but there was humor in her voice too. Clint felt his chest relax slightly at the sound of it. He’d made something better.

“Maybe tell them that you’re luring Wanda out of New York?” Steve suggested. His face was set like stone. He might be helping, but also clearly hated this plan. “She’d be far more difficult to kill there.” That wasn’t passive aggressive at all.

“I would be impossible to kill there,” Wanda said. Not bragging (Clint would have bragged, if he could do what Wanda could). She was just stating facts.

“Tell ‘em that Wanda thinks she’s helping to heal me,” Clint said. “Hey Wanda, can you heal me? I’m sure I could have a sprained ankle or something.”

“I still don’t do healing, Clint. Nothing has changed since Natasha broke her arm by falling down the stairs.”

Steve looked torn between confusion and delight. “Tasha, how big was that staircase? You’re pretty hard to injure.”

“Wanda left out the part where I ran into a werewolf halfway down,” Natasha said stiffly. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Wanda actually giggled. Clint grinned. “Of course, she tried to throw him off the staircase, and then –”

“Yes, alright, that’s enough,” Natasha said. “Who wants to hear about Clint getting kidnapped by a ghost?”

The same ghost that had wanted to kill Wanda, Clint thought. The two had to be related; perhaps the vamps had stalked Alexander Perry and then killed him, hoping to point a loose cannon at Wanda. And then he and Nat had stumbled in, two competent paranormalists who knew Wanda and all her weaknesses. Someone had probably pissed themselves in delight.

But asking Natasha to kill Wanda was still such a risk – they had to know there was a decent chance that Natasha would turn on them. Clint might have believed it from someone who didn’t know Nat, but one of the other Red Room students? They were still missing something.

“Do we have any idea of how to find Kate?” Clint asked. He felt the fragile humor of the conversation crack, their thin barrier against the situation buckle under the weight of his sentence. Whoops. “When we take them out, we’ll need to have a way to extract her.”

“I can get her, if we figure out where she is.” Steve said. “They won’t be expecting me.”

They very well might be expecting Steve. Sending one guy to fight a potential house full of vampires would be risky, but then again, Clint had seen Steve in action. He wished they still had Bucky; the two of them could storm a government complex and Clint wouldn’t worry. But Bucky was dead, and he’d really rather that Steve wasn’t. “Should Wanda go with you?"

Natasha shook her head, red curls swaying in front of her face. “They know what I am, and they know how good Clint is. There will probably be enough vamps or half-vampires there to subdue or kill us both. We need Wanda with us.”

“I can try to find Kate and then Steve can get here.” Wanda said. “I am not sure that I can do much, since I have not met her. I could track one of you across half the United States. Do you have an item of personal significance of hers?”

“They left her phone,” Clint said. He felt uncomfortably aware of the weight of it in his jacket pocket. There was the sudden, stabbing realization that if Kate died, someone would have to call her family. They’d need the number.

He pulled her phone out and his throat closed up as he saw her lock screen. Kate grinned up at him, her arms around a smiling blond girl and a Latina girl fighting a smile. They looked to be within a year of each other. He didn’t recognize either of them, but Kate hadn’t talked about her home much.

“Natasha,” he said quietly, letting Steve and Wanda take over the strategizing for a moment. “Did you ever catch Kate’s phone passcode?”

“Yes,” she said, a slight frown on her face. It didn’t bother Clint, but after all these years it still bothered Natasha that she was still a spy in so many unshakable ways. Those instincts, hardwired into her brain, would never go away. “It’s 4-7-6-2.”

He punched the numbers in and was met with another punch in the gut; her phone background was her posing with him, both laughing. Natasha was in the background, rolling her eyes at them. They’d taken it at a gas station they’d stopped at in Pennsylvania after killing the ghost. Clint let his eyes close for a moment then flicked through her contacts until he found the contact labeled home. Natasha, already knowing what he was doing, passed him a notepad sitting beside the landline so he could scribble down the number.

It took him a few tries to focus in on the conversation with Wanda again. He managed it just as Wanda agreed to borrow a car and drive down. “Watch for an ambush,” Natasha was saying.

“Where? Wanda asked, trying to work up to humor again and only sort of succeeding. “At a gas station? As I am driving down the road at seventy miles an hour?”

“On the backroads to my house.” Steve frowned. “That’s where they got Kate.”

“Oh,” said Wanda, and they all winced a little at how small her voice sounded. “I will be careful. I need to cancel a few appointments for readings with clients, and then I’ll be on my way.”

Natasha made a valiant effort to shift the topic. “Are they gonna be awake at two am?” 

“No,” Wanda said. “They will wake up to text messages. I will try to drive down tonight. Steve is only a few hours away.

“Great." Steve was in his element, planning and organizing, but Clint would her a curl of anger in his voice. It wasn't for Wanda. “Text up with updates whenever you stop. Please,” he added, presumably to make himself sound less like Wanda’s mom.

“Sure,” Wanda said. “I will text every time I stop.”

“Great,” Natasha said, and hung up.

Steve lasted approximately three seconds before yelling at them. “What are you thinking?”

“Steve,” Clint said, “I’m glad that we can have this calm, rational conversation.”

Steve was already up and pacing, his normally tightly controlled energy leaking out of every motion. “She’s safer in New York! You’re playing right into their hands by bringing her here!”

Natasha started to speak, but Steve cut her off. “No, I’m not done. You are both being reckless, dragging Wanda out here. And Kate! Just because you didn’t have anything like – ”

The sentence crashed to a halt. Clint wasn’t sure what Steve had been about to say, but it had been horrible enough that Steve now looked uncomfortable and guilty and was studiously not looking at Natasha. Clint could imagine, though.

So could Natasha, from the look on her face, but what mattered was that Steve hadn’t said it. “None of us would stay away from a fight like this,” Natasha said. “Not you, not me, and not Clint. We expected that Wanda would feel the same, and she did.”

“And we can’t do this without her,” Clint said.

“That’s the problem,” Steve said, and he dropped down into a chair. “We should have other people here.”

Natasha sighed. He could imagine how she felt; playing therapist wasn’t something any of the three of them enjoyed, and Steve looked as miserable talking about his feelings as they did hearing them. And, well, they all felt the loss of Bucky and Pietro.

“Wanda knows she could die,” Clint said. He didn’t know how to handle with anything besides bluntness. “She knows that we all could.”

“There isn’t any point to it,” Steve said, and Clint’s eyebrows went up. That…didn’t sound like Steve. “We fight and we fight and it doesn’t matter.”

Natasha was squinting at Steve as well. “That’s not how you felt before. Even after Pietro died, you didn’t sound like this.”

The fight went out of Steve all at once and he collapsed back into a chair. “Everyone around me keeps dying,” he said.

“That’s not -” Natasha started, but Steve cut her off again.

“Pietro died on a job that I told him about. Bucky died on a job with me. And now Kate is gone because she stopped by my house,” he said. “I don’t care whether or not you think it’s my fault. I can’t protect everyone, but I should at least not endanger anyone with my existence.”

“That’s insane,” Clint said, starting to get angry. “You cannot possibly blame yourself for that.”

Steve didn’t answer, just stood up, shoved the chair under the table, and walked out of the kitchen. He wasn’t even going to bother arguing with them, Clint realized. He’d probably just sit on his bed and watch his phone for Wanda’s texts.

Clint dropped his head into his hands. “That’s really why he’s stopped taking jobs? It’s ridiculous.”

“It is ridiculous,” Natasha agreed. “But I understand it.”

Clint groaned. He did too, in a way. A way completely separated from reality, but still. “Should we go talk to him?”

Natasha sighed. “Maybe? I just don’t…want to. Not right now.” It wasn’t exactly what she meant – Natasha had never let the fact that she didn’t want to do something stop her from doing it. She meant we’re all too tired to do any good with this tonight.

“Let’s go to bed,” he said. “It’s too much tonight.” It’ll get better in the morning, he almost said, but it wouldn’t. Kate would still be gone, and Wanda would be there but far less safe, and Steve would still be angry, and they still wouldn’t know what was going on. “Let’s just get some sleep.”

It wouldn’t be better in the morning, but maybe they’d be more ready to meet it.

***

When Kate woke up that morning, her first thought was okay, yeah, I probably had a concussion.

Her head hurt; not quite as badly as it had last night, but still enough that she moaned a little and curled up. Her back and arms ached, and she probably had bruises where the seatbelt had caught her. She was also exhausted, since Barnes had woken her up over and over during the night to make sure she didn’t die in her sleep; concussions, apparently, sometimes had that effect. Near the end, she’d been tired enough that she’d actually tried to punch him before freezing in horror. Barnes had simply muttered “oh, this is gonna be fun,” and shoved her arm back hard enough that she accidentally smacked herself in the face.

Now, awake, she could see him across the room, watching her. Kate wasn’t sure if the look was predatory or assessing or just curious, but she didn’t like it. Ignoring the part of her that wanted to curl up until everything got better, she glared at him. After a moment Barnes laughed a little, to her surprise.

 “What?” she demanded, hands curling. Don’t back down.

“Nothing,” he said. “You just remind me of someone.”

That was vague. “Someone you saw them eat?”

Barnes’ amusement vanished. “No.”

There was nothing to say to that, so she settled back on her cot to watch him. But, honestly, there wasn’t much to watch. Barnes mostly just stared at the wall. Great. Not only was she kidnapped by vampires, she was incredibly bored.

Kate tripped flipping through one of the paperbacks sitting by her cot – surprisingly nice of the vampires to give her books – but she just reread the same sentence three times before throwing the books down at glaring at Barnes. He just stared back at her.

That’s it. I’m not going to be silent and afraid. I’m going to

“Rumlow still hasn’t made it back.”

At the sound of the woman’s voice, Kate felt her courage flee. The blonde vampire walked down the stairs, taking in the sight of Barnes watching Kate. “I can’t think that any of them killed him.”

“He was hungry,” Barnes said without emotion, though Kate felt shudders slip down her spine.

The woman shook her head. Kate remembered last night hazily, but she thought they’d mentioned a Rumlow. Something about him not reporting back and only holding out for…seconds. Thirty seconds? It didn’t make any sense.

The woman turned towards her, and Kate flinched out of instinct, then held the woman’s gaze. Just looking at her made Kate want to drop her eyes and curl up in a ball. She dug her nails into her hands and kept staring.

“Hmm,” said the woman. Behind her, she noticed Barnes making furious slashing motions, which Kate ignored. Whoever this guy was, he’d dragged her out of a trunk and was working with vampires. She wasn’t gonna take his advice.

Rather than say anything particularly evil, the woman just evaluated her in a way that was definitely assessing, measured and far too calm. The room went silent at that gaze, held its breath and hoped for permission to breathe again.

When she finally left, Kate had to take a few seconds to remember how to breathe. She’d thought the vampires must just be like people. People who occasionally drank human blood, but still people. But the woman frightened and unsettled her in a way that Kate couldn’t have missed, not even if they’d been strangers on a street.

Barnes relaxed as well once the woman was gone, though what did he have to relax about. Kate was a damn prisoner, and she felt helpless like the girls that America always made fun of in horror movies. It grated.

“I don’t see what your plan is,” Kate said to Barnes, trying for bravado or righteous indignation or something. It took her a long moment to remember that her family was rich; she didn’t think that she counted as a member of the Bishop family after she’d walked out. She’d texted her sister a few times, mostly to assure her that she was still alive, and hadn’t said a thing about ghosts or even Clint and Natasha. Surely her father wasn’t so mad that he wouldn’t pay a ransom.

But the idea of vampires needing money seemed bizarre. They had to have money to live though, didn’t they? They wore clothes, and these guys drove a car. That meant gas money at least, and possibly car insurance. Did vampires pay car insurance?  “You gonna ransom me?” She asked, ignoring the image of a vampire filling a car up with gas. “Is that the evil plan?”

“Can’t tell you.” Barnes said. “You’re doing pretty well, you know.”

“With what, captivity? Yeah, I haven’t even tried to escape once.”

“With vampires,” Barnes said. “Most people can’t even meet their eyes. It’s a prey response; your hind brain goes ‘predator’ and tells you get small and avoid detection. You look like you’re going to puke, but stared down -” he made a choking noise, like his throat had suddenly gone dry. Kate watched him choke on nothing for a few moments, then shake his head. “You stared down her,” he said finally.

“What,” Kate asked, “was that? You just…did that.” She gestured vaguely.

Barnes shook his head. “I can’t tell you,” he said, and sounded miserable.

“How can you not just say the words?”

He glared at her. Kate suddenly realized that all he’d been before was annoyed by her; this was genuine anger. “I can’t,” he said, and the words felt loaded with meaning that she couldn’t quite grasp.

There were rumors that vampires could control people, but that was more of an old-wives tale than anything else. If it was possible, she couldn’t imagine why vampires didn’t do it all the time. But here was a man physical unable to say a vampire’s name.

Okay. This looked bad.

“Just to clarify, you physically can’t?” Kate asked. It didn't really make sense; if vampires could control people, everyone would have noticed. It was kind of a game breaking power.

Barnes paused for a moment before nodding slowly, as though he wasn’t sure he would be able to. Awesome, she thought. Why on earth didn’t Clint or Natasha mention this? Hey Kate, just a heads up, sometimes vampires control people. Should be find unless you get kidnapped by a few and....and what?

What was keeping them from doing it right now? Something, apparently, because she was being guarded instead of obeying orders.

She missed Clint and Natasha with a sudden ache that hurt nearly as much as her bruised chest. Had the vampires gone after them? She was sure they would look for her, if they could, but she didn’t have a clue how they could actually find her. Or if they’d get here before whatever the blonde vampire was planning.

“Are they going to control me?” Kate asked.

Barnes made a grunting noise, then did nothing. Presumably that meant he couldn’t answer. Kate wondered if he’d think less of her if she started screaming in frustration. “Okay, uh, you can’t tell me anything about these people, or their plans, or anything about why you can’t tell me.” Kate rested her head in her hands for a moment. “Are you even trying to help me?”

Yes,” Barnes said, so intensely that Kate believed him. Or maybe she just really wanted to. She wasn’t alone, she was just saddled with a guard being control by a vampire. That was a sort of improvement.

“Is there anything I can do to make it so you aren’t controlled by a vampire?” She asked.

“No,” Barnes said quickly. She stared at him. He didn’t meet her eyes. Why on earth was he lying? She was trying to help him, unless his life’s dream was to hang out in a dingy basement and wait for vampires to get hungry. Well maybe he was fine with that, but she wasn’t about to –

“How do you make a vampire?” Barnes asked suddenly.

“A vampire forces a person to drink vampire blood, and then the person who drank the blood bites someone else.” Kate said. “Everyone knows that.”

Barnes looked at her like she’d just explained everything, then sighed when she still looked confused and made a chopping motion.

“Do you cut the vampire in half?” Kate asked.

“Ugh,” Barnes said.

“You could just say no, you don’t have to be rude about it.” Kate stopped herself from continuing. “Okay, something in half? In the middle? The middle of becoming a vampire? This is like the worst game of charades ever.” Barnes didn’t speak, but he didn’t make any more annoyed noises either, so she assumed that she was on the right track. “Um, in between drinking blood and biting someone?” Kate shook her head. “The person is consumed with bloodlust, though. They won’t stop until they find someone to bite. There’s records of bitten people going three days to find someone to bite.”

“What happens on day four?” Barnes asked very, very quietly.

“They die?” Kate half said, half asked. “I dunno, I just assumed – I mean, they always find someone. Sometimes vampires have someone waiting for them; vampires usually pick people to turn, right? I figured that they just died.

Barnes was still staring at her, waiting for her to get it. The answer was within her reach and she really, really wanted to leave it alone.

When Kate spoke, her voice came out small and shaky. “They don’t die, do they?”

“They don’t die.”

Sitting in that basement, Kate suddenly felt the youngest she ever had, younger than when her mother died, younger than when she’d faced down the ghost, younger than when her father told her that she’d come home either dead or a failure. “Does the bloodlust fade?”

“Yes.”

Kate shut her eyes. “Can the vampire control the people they've turned?”

Barnes couldn’t answer. She didn’t need him too.

If she was right, and he was a half-vampire and under their control and – shit! Okay, okay that was – would have been great to know before now, great to have someone mention that, but whatever. Something she could work with – no, she could not work with a half-vampire under some kind of semi-mind control.

For a few moments, all Kate could do was swear in increasingly creative ways. Barnes watched her get it out of her system. After a moment, she refocused. How did she fix this?

She swore a little more, just to see if it would help.

Can I kill the vampire who turned him? She wondered. There’d been a movie with a half-vampire she remembered, but that movie had turned the vampire back into a human through the power of true love and hadn’t really had anything to do with the process Barnes described. The vampire had turned because of his heart or something, not because of drinking blood. There’d been some singing birds. It probably wasn’t useful.

Killing the vampire seemed like it would work, but the blonde seemed unkillable in the way that Clint and Natasha had; things like death just didn’t happen to them. There was also the chance that the blonde hadn’t turned him. Perhaps he’d just been ordered to obey her.

And why had Barnes lied to her and said there wasn’t anything she could do? She felt like she was back in the trunk of the car, too many thoughts flashing across her head. It wasn’t – she didn’t know –

Her mind snagged something that didn’t make sense. Could half-vampires become vampires after the bloodlust faded? Maybe there was a time limit, but maybe there wasn’t, and if that was the case, all he’d need was human blood. He’d be a full vampire and Kate had never heard anything at all about vampires controlling other vampires.

And there she was, full of human blood.

Barnes watched the emotions play over her face. “Like I said,” he repeated, “there’s nothing you can do.”

She could still hear the lie.

Chapter Text

Tomorrow came like a punch in the gut.

Natasha woke up with Clint beside her, doing a tolerable impression of a human heater. She watched his face, calm with sleep. For a minute she just wanted to wrap his arms around her and sleep until the world wasn’t so crappy. She let herself imagine it for a moment – just him and her, no kidnappings or conspiracies or old nightmares coming after them.

Well, Clint could have that for a little longer even if she couldn’t. She slid silently out of bed and let him sleep.  

In the hallway, Steve’s dog woofed slightly in well-trained delight and ran up to her to be petted. Steve followed a moment later. They stared at each other for a moment, Natasha crouched down to pet the dog. Natasha felt old beliefs sidle into her head and clash with newer angers. How dare he just walk away from them like they were annoying relatives at a family Christmas party? How dare he imply that they weren’t worried about Kate, imply that just because her childhood had been hellish meant that she couldn’t recognize hell happening to other people? He’d been about to say it, and they all knew it, and she’d squared her shoulders for the emotional blow –

But he hadn’t, she remembered. As angry and upset as Steve had been, he hadn’t said it. That was what mattered.

“I cooked some eggs and bacon,” Steve said, gesturing down the hallway to the kitchen. It wasn’t a peace offering, but it wasn’t not a peace offering either. It was whatever Steve could manage while maintaining his bullheaded stubbornness.

“Sounds good,” Natasha said, and her words were a peace offering.

They were poking at over-easy eggs in silence when Wanda arrived.

Natasha knew that Wanda tended to get hit hard with a barrage of stereotypes, and she tried to avoid them all. People often expected her to wearing massive amounts of jewelry, bangles and necklaces and maybe a headscarf. Instead, Wanda wore a soft red sweater for the autumn chill, jeans, and beat-up brown boots that Natasha had given her a few years ago for Christmas. She wore exactly one piece of jewelry – a battered Star of David necklace that she’d owned for as long as Natasha had known her. Her brown hair was braided away from her face, though it was a little frizzy from the drive. There was a hint of an accent when she greeted them. Usually, the only clue that Wanda wasn’t a native English speaker was her perfect grammar and impeccable pronunciation, no dropped vowels or slurred syllables. Clint had once pointed out that Wanda spoke more correct English than any of the rest of them, and Natasha was certain it came from people expecting broken English and a thick accent from an Eastern European.

At the moment, she had bags under her eyes and her hair was fighting its way out of its braid, but she looked satisfied. “I am here,” she said. “I…cannot remember ever being this tired, but I am here.”

“Any problems?” Steve asked. From somewhere in the house, Steve’s golden retriever came barreling in and nearly knocked Wanda over.

“No – down, Lincoln,” said Steve as Lincoln barked with excitement. He was loud enough to wake up anyone besides Clint, who could probably sleep through an apocalypse or two.

“No problems,” Wanda said as she bent down to pet the dog. Natasha frowned. Yelena had to know better than to count on Natasha to kill Wanda. Even if she really believed Natasha would do it – and she went back and forth on how much Yelena believed that – she should still have backup plans. Taking down Wanda at a truck stop gas station would be a lot easier than counting on someone Yelena hadn’t seen in years.

They were missing information and Natasha didn’t even know where to start looking.

“Do you have coffee?” Wanda asked, and Steve visibly flinched at the question. A sliver of memory pierced Natasha. “Okay, well, in the meantime I’m taking this one to go buy coffee.”

“Steve made eggs,” Natasha said loudly. “And there’s bacon.” She mouthed ‘don’t worry about it’ to Wanda, who looked confused and concerned by Steve’s sudden aversion to coffee.

“Hand me some bacon and I will scry for Kate,” Wanda said. “I am not sure that I will find anything, but it’s worth a try.”

Natasha understood the very basics of scrying – a connection to the person, a reflective surface, and then magic. Psychics were the only ones who could do it, and not even all of them. Most psychics had specific talents; the ghost had been able to see into the past, and some psychics could read auras or had empath abilities. Most had two or three abilities, with a few rare having four. Wanda had three – scrying the present, telekinesis, and a very limited, fantastically unhelpful divination ability. Seeing the future paid the bills, but Wanda considered it near useless.

“The future is not set,” she’d told Natasha once. “I cannot pinpoint things; I sense…trends, is the term I think. Patterns. Sometimes people think I will tell them that they will meet the love of their life on a Tuesday while wearing a yellow shirt. But instead I see where their lives are heading – towards happiness, or work, or sorrow. They can change it; they just usually do not.”

After Pietro had died, Natasha knew Wanda had told Clint that she used to check all of their futures every month and had seen death and danger every time. “Useless,” she’d whispered. “I could not see the difference between him dying and other things dying – just vagueness.” Clint had told Natasha about it one night on the road, somewhere in New Hampshire.

“We’re never enough,” he’d said. “Nothing any of us do ever feels like enough.”

It’s not, she’d thought, and then remembered that she only believed that about her own efforts. “We don’t save the world,” she’d said instead. “We can’t. We just make the world better for us having been here.” It wasn’t something she believed about herself, but she believed it about Clint. And Wanda and Steve, and even Kate.

Finding Kate was going to be difficult even with the scrying. It was more precise than divination as it showed the present rather than the past, but it depended on some sort of emotional connection with the psychic. Wanda hadn’t spoken two words to Kate.

“I feel guilt,” Wanda said as Steve pulled out the largest bowl he could find. “I feel quite a bit of guilt. Maybe that will be enough.”

“Not your fault,” Natasha and Steve said at the same time. She felt a flare of irritation; Steve was only saying that because he thought it was, somehow, his fault. They were all just competing to take blame, weren’t they?

Steve filled the bowl up with cold water and set it on the kitchen table so Wanda could stare at it, and Natasha set down Kate’s cellphone to give Wanda a focus. Wanda rested on hand just above the phone and settled the other hand on the side of the bowl.

Watching Wanda do anything with her psychic abilities was only odd because it felt so manifestly normal. There was no sense of anything unnatural, no cold chills or hair rising on the back of her neck. Natasha had seen multiple movies that treated psychic abilities like something bizarre and strange. But Wanda simply pulled the bowl closer and cocked her head to the side a little, eyes focusing on the surface of the water.

“Grey,” she said. “There is grey and there’s someone else in the room with her – a man, I think.”

“What is he doing?” Steve asked.

“I think he is…sitting? The entire image is the psychic equivalent of bad radio reception. It is greyed out and fuzzy and I cannot get enough details to work with. I cannot even tell what state Kate is in, but the man is across the room from her. He may be a guard or another prisoner.” Wanda sighed and leaned back in the chair, a hand at her temple. “I am getting a headache just from that much.”

“Would sleep help?” Natasha asked. “You’ve had a long night.”

“Perhaps,” said Wanda with a hesitation that meant ‘no, but I don’t want to crush everyone’s hopes.’ “It might make a difference.”

Wanda ate a few slices of bacon before half walking, half falling down the hallway, Lincoln at her heels.

“I don’t know what to do,” Steve admitted. “I was really hoping that Wanda would see something. The universe owes us a break.”

“I know,” Natasha said. If they couldn’t find Kate before the end of the week they’d just have to walk in blind. Hopefully Yelena would have brought Kate, and hopefully they’d be able to get her out, and hopefully they wouldn’t all get killed by vampires.

In the entire span of her life, Natasha had never been called hopeful. She had Clint for that. She thought about crawling back into bed beside him. And the world would rush past, and no one would die, and things would somehow be less terrible.

“Something will go right,” she said. “Eventually, something has to.”

***

Upon realizing that “a half vampire drinks my blood” was a possible solution to their problems, Kate had not gotten scared. She had, with great determination, gotten angry. She then spent a good ten minutes finding ways to blame her father, which made her feel better.

They needed a plan – well, she needed a plan. Who knew what Barnes had been ordered to do? Maybe he was supposed to report any plans to the vampires, or maybe this was all some sort of elaborate scheme that she couldn’t follow. The point was, she was going to get out of here. If Barnes could make it out too, great. But there was no way she was gonna get eaten by vampires to save him.

However, she was also not going to leave him here if she could possibly avoid it.

They both heard Rumlow when he came back. His voice pushed through the walls, loud and a little desperate, slurred just slightly. “Yelena, I need blood.”

Kate flinched, still keenly aware of the blood in her veins. Barnes shook his head at her, but she had no idea what that meant – don’t talk? Don’t worry? Never in her entire life had she wanted her bow so badly, or even just a few of the arrows. You could stab vampires with arrows.

“Shut up.” That was the blonde – Yelena, apparently. “You’re not supposed to –”

“I dropped off the message and I baited them and I didn’t drink from anyone even though I could have. I just need blood. Just a little.”

Shut up.” Yelena’s words cracked through the wall. Kate realized that it must be morning; her internal clock was off, but she would have guessed ten or eleven am. How had Rumlow been outside? If there was some secret ‘vampires can walk in sunlight now’ thing, she was gonna be pissed. Half-vampires already felt like cheating.

The voices faded into the distance; presumably Yelena had dragged Rumlow upstairs so he couldn’t blab about anything else. She felt vicious satisfaction in knowing the woman’s name, since the woman didn’t seem to want Kate to know it. Then she noticed that her shoulders tensed at the woman’s name, tried to curl around her and resisted her efforts to relax. “Barnes, what can you talk to me about?” she asked, mostly to have something else to think about.

“I can’t tell you the plan,” Barnes said slowly, as though he wasn’t sure he’d be able to say the words. “I can’t tell you anything about these people, or what I am. I can’t allow you to escape.” He paused for a moment, debating. “I’m not allowed to bite humans, or accept blood from them.”

“Would you?” she asked.

Barnes stared at the wall. “Yes,” he whispered. “To not be – not be this way. To not –” he stopped, and Kate didn’t think it had anything to do with him not being allowed to speak. Her mind tried to skitter away from thinking of what sorts of things a vampire might make a human do. They’d made him kidnap her, clearly. And he could lure other humans to where there were vampires waiting, or use him for blood or –

She shoved those thoughts to the side. “Are you sure?”

“There’s nothing you can do,” Barnes said, but he sounded a little unsure.

“I asked if you were sure, not if you were going to underestimate me.” She didn’t need his negative opinion.

“I’m sure,” he said without looking at her.

Well, she was just going to have to secretly feed him blood then, which was not a sentence she’d ever expected to think.

“You manage to tell me a lot,” she said to Barnes. “Whatever orders you’ve been given, there’s a lot of loopholes.”

“She hasn’t dealt with…” Barnes paused. “Me,” he said after a moment. It sounded less like a brag and more like a concept that he couldn’t explain. Kate didn’t know what to do with that, so she pushed it aside.

“How much blood do you think she’ll give Rumlow?” Kate asked. If he was still hungry…

Barnes squinted at her. “You better not be planning to lure him down here,” he snapped. “Don’t’ – you can’t tell me what you’re thinking or – it just better not be that.”

“I’m not,” Kate lied. “Do you have any orders specific to Rumlow?”

Barnes nodded. That could be good, though it could also be really bad. Considering that Yelena wanted her alive and seemed to think Rumlow was an idiot, Kate could guess what those were. So she grinned at Barnes, bright and at least 70 % confident that this could possibly work.

Barnes groaned. “Not this kinda crap again,” he said, mostly to himself.

“It’s a good plan,” she told him, which was definitely a lie. It was about a half a plan and it was definitely bad. She didn’t care.

It was also a plan that required a lot of waiting. Kate didn’t want to try anything with Yelena in the house, but she was hoping that the woman would be overconfident. Barnes kept finding ways to work around her orders, after all. Hopefully, she’d leave to enact some sort of evil scheme that would leave them alone in the house with Rumlow. That was also a risk; hopefully he’d be whatever the adult vampire version of grounded was.

If they were both out, maybe she’d just try to run past Barnes really fast and then find a car. Or a bike. Something. She could make her way back to Clint and Natasha, and they’d help her get Barnes out. Surely they’d be willing to help, even if it was for a stranger half-vampire that they didn’t know.

And she was going to have a talk with them about leaving out important information.

They both waited. The hours dragged past; there was no light in the room, so Kate had to rely on her still screwed up sense of time. She tried reading one of the paperbacks, but she threw it across the room after a few pages. “I hate James Patterson.”

“You’re welcome for those,” Barnes said. “I fought hard to have them included.”

Kate was torn between making a joke and apologizing. Instead, she said nothing and let the room sink into an awkwardness pregnant with fear.

It was hours later when Kate finally heard footsteps. Heels, Kate thought. Those are heels. Probably Yelena then.  Every time she heard Yelena or Rumlow upstairs, she flinched. She was tired of it, and tired of the worried looks Barnes gave her, and tired of the voice in the back of her head that hissed liability and weakling and just what your father said

Kate was getting out.

She counted out ten minutes. Barnes was getting antsy in his corner, but she shook her head at him. In her imagination, Rumlow was lurking outside the door, waiting to hear about her plan. After counting slowly to six hundred, she stood up. “I’m trusting you,” she told Barnes.

He looked up at her, and Kate saw the misery in his shoulders and desperation in his eyes. He wasn’t even trusting her. He was throwing himself at the first spark of hope he’d had since he’d been bitten. Suddenly, sharply, she wished that Clint and Natasha were there so that this didn’t have to be on her.

Barnes moved to intercept her as she stepped towards the door, looking apologetic. Kate stopped, took a breath, and whispered “how long could you hold off Rumlow for?”

“Maybe a minute,” he said, looking unhappy. “Listen, are you sure about this?”

“Yeah.” No. Kate swallowed and raised her voice. “Hey, Rumlow!”

“I hate this,” Barnes muttered.

She shushed him; if he kept up like that, she’d lose her nerve. “Rumlow! Vampire guy!”

“What?” Rumlow asked, still on the other side of the door. Kate very carefully did not jump at the sound.

“Heard you were hungry,” she said, and her voice did not shake.

Rumlow’s laugh could have cracked the door. “You offering, sweetheart?”

“I want out,” she said. Please believe me. “I’m willing to make a trade.”

“Isn’t Broody gonna stop you?”

“Can he?” Kate asked, and it was a question to both men.

“One minute,” Barnes whispered. “And you’d better find a way to kill him. Once he wants blood there’ll be no stopping him.”

Rumlow seemed to be thinking it over. “I could go out and get whatever I want,” he said. “Don’t need you.”

“But she won’t let you,” Kate said. “I heard you two, you know. Druggies on the side of the street have more dignity; you were practically begging. I’ll bet she didn’t give you very much, just enough to keep you from trying for me. And here I am, full of blood, with just a door between us and I’ll bet you’re hungry.” He had to know that she was playing him, but she was counting on him not to care.

He didn’t.

Barnes shoved her aside as the door broke down, Rumlow busting through it and making a grab for her. Kate leapt past him, scrambling up the stairs and ignoring the noise that Barnes made as he tackled Rumlow. It was a testament to the bizareness of her life that she felt relieved; she’d been right about Yelena ordering Barnes to stop Rumlow from attacking her.

The stairs led up to a kitchen, and Kate skid to the refrigerator. Inside was a carton of milk, an orange, and a few deli meats. She grabbed the orange and turned towards the counter.

How many seconds had it been? Twenty? Thirty?

It wasn’t a well-stocked kitchen, and Kate threw open doors looking for something sharp. She found a bread knife and threw it down the stairs then kept looking, shoving aside small notepads and pens and – scissors. She threw those down the stairs too.

“Kate!” Barnes yelled, and nothing else and what was she supposed to do with that? She yelled back something intelligible and kept running, looking for something wood. They had to kill Rumlow.

A corner of her mind thought you’ve never killed something living before, and if you choke, if you can’t do it, you’re both dead and it’ll be your fault.

The voice sounded like her father’s. Kate ignored it.

The chairs were all metal, and she hadn’t seen any wooden utensils. Of course vampires wouldn’t have a lot of wood lying around, but there had to be something. Ideally it would be sharp. Could a pencil work? No she’d only seen pens and there was yelling from down the stairs, painful noises and she was definitely at a minute -

There, sitting off to the side, was an end table. There was nothing sharp about it, all polished wood and rounded edges, but Kate grabbed it. Presumably not one that that a weapon could be made out of it. Or maybe Yelena had wanted some wood nearby in case Rumlow proved too much of a problem. At the moment, Kate didn’t care. She grabbed the table and slammed it into the wall, hard. One of the legs cracked. There were a few splinters, though it wasn’t sharp, but that would have to do because it had definitely been over a minute.

“Kate!” Barnes yelled again, and she heard the warning in it. There was an inhuman growl, and she remembered Barnes telling her about prey response, about the hind part of her brain that knew danger. She flipped around and there was Rumlow, running at her.

Instinct took over; Kate slammed him across the head with one of the table legs instead of stabbing him in the heart. Stupid, she screamed at herself. You had a shot and you didn’t take it!

Rumlow laughed aloud and backhanded her hard enough that Kate’s vision went white. She stumbled back, failed to catch herself, and hit the ground. Rumlow dragged her towards him and Kate screamed in fury rather than fear. In the scramble, she’d dropped the table leg.

Barnes was somewhere. She heard him stumble, but she couldn’t focus on anything beyond Rumlow’s teeth, her own breathing - and smooth wood under her hand. Barnes had shoved the other broken leg into her hand. Rumlow had her close now, close enough to bite, and she gave him one vicious grin before stabbing at his heart.

Movies made it look easy, but it wasn’t. There was skin in the way, and the angle was awkward, and Rumlow saw what she was doing and screeched at a pitch so high that Kate could barely hear it. She pushed hard, harder, and the splinters broke through skin and muscles as she pushed, and Rumlow screamed, and Kate was pretty sure that she was screaming too.

She knew the moment she hit the heart because Rumlow whimpered, the noise terrifyingly human. He fell back from her, body limp, and hit the ground with a too loud thump. For one moment he seemed to shake. Then he went still.

Kate could feel her heartbeat in her throat, down her arms, in every blood vessel in her body. For a moment, she couldn’t feel anything else.

Then Barnes grabbed her and grunted an apology as he started dragging her back towards the basement. Can’t let me escape, she thought. That was okay. She’d gotten what she needed.

The orange was squished at the bottom of the stairs from the force of her throw. The knife was a few feet away, on the floor, besides the scissors. I should sterilized that, Kate thought before realizing that was impossible.

She hadn’t thought this through very well.

Barnes pointed at the orange. “How is that going to solve our problems?” They were both still breathing hard, a little disconnected from reality, and Kate knew that was the only thing that kept Barnes from sounding desperate and afraid.

“You can’t drink blood,” Kate said. “Can you eat it?”

The look Bares gave her was flat and unreadable. “That,” he said slowly, “is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

He didn’t, but she could tell he wasn’t happy about it.

When Kate finally picked up the scissors, it took her a moment to actually bring them across her skin. It can’t possibly hurt that much, she thought. Not as much as the time you broke your arm, not as much as the time the girl down the street gave you a black eye. Don’t be a damn coward, Kate.

“You don’t have to,” Barnes said quietly. “Don’t feel like you have to.”

She imagined how he must have felt for the past six months – forced to do terrible things, trapped, imprisoned by words from a vampire’s tongue. It meant something, that he didn’t want her to feel guilt or pressure to do this. But it didn’t mean that she was right to do it.

Kate peeled the orange, letting the skin drop to the ground. It was the brightest thing in the entire basement. When she was done she paused for a moment, then cut her hand in a single decisive movement. She smeared the blood on one of the orange slices and passed it to Barnes. It occurred to her, suddenly, how ridiculous they must look – passing a bloody orange slice to him in a basement, both of them somber and desperate. Laughter tried to claw its way up her chest like a rabid animal, but she swallowed it down.

“You don’t have to, you know,” she said as Barnes hesitated. “Maybe we can just kill her.”

“No,” he said. “We can’t.”

They both stared at the bloody orange slice. Barnes was holding far away from him, like it might bite. She both wanted him to get it over with and chuck the orange slice out of the basement and apologize for setting this up. Maybe they’d just stand like this, frozen, until Yelena came back –

With a sudden, sharp motion, Barnes threw the orange slice in his mouth.

Nothing happened.

“Um,” Kate said. “So, uh, how do we know if it works?”

Barnes didn’t respond. As Kate watched, his pupils expanded until they were nearly the size of his eyes, black and vacant with a slim brown ring around them. She felt the same instinct to run and hide skitter down her backbone, the same feeling she had whenever Yelena looked at her.

“Kate,” he said, and she jumped a little at the sound. “There’s other blood in the house. You need to go find it. Now.”

His voice came out easy and light, not the flat, strained tones she’d been hearing for days. The words were worried but his voice was…easy. Confident. Worry was normal for them and this was not.

“Shit,” Kate said, and ran up the stairs. She passed Rumlow’s body – don’t look don’t think about it – wondering where people hid blood. It had to be kept cold, so a fridge. She’d heard Yelena and Rumlow – a desperate gasp, the wrongness of the corpse spread on the floor – go upstairs when Rumlow was begging. She tried the doors upstairs, motions more and more frantic, but there was nothing and nothing and then, finally, a locked last door.

Well, that was probably where the blood was.

There was no key and Kate’s mind kept trying to conjure up images of exactly what would happen if she didn’t get the blood. Something about Barnes’ voice made him into…not the person she’d been locked in a basement with. Not the person she’d been willing to risk her life for.

Focus. People shoot doors right? She’d seen a gun in one of the bedrooms, and she was positive that she’d seen cop shows where people shot doors open.

It was black and heavier than expected, sitting on the dresser in the room she was pretty sure was Ruml- not Yelena’s. Kate picked it up like a snake that might bite. It wasn’t that different from a bow in the sense that, at a very basic level, you aimed at things and then made holes in them. Walls. Ghosts. People. And she’d seen Natasha fire guns without a problem. This shouldn’t be an issue.

Admittedly, she hadn’t seen Natasha shoot a very large, black shotgun, but presumably it was still a point and click sort of situation.

She brought the shotgun to the door and aimed for the handle, then paused. Distantly, she remembered Natasha telling her that this wasn’t like the movies. What if she just broke the door by shooting the handle? After a moment, she aimed above the handle and shot.

The gun flew backwards and Kate dropped it in surprise. She hadn’t expected the recoil and she hadn’t realized how loud it would be, far louder than Natasha’s handguns. Bows were better than this. But she’d blasted a hole big enough to stick her hand through and unlock the door.

The room was neat and incredibly sparse. Rumlow’s room had a few signs of personality – a pair of boots by the door, some dirty clothes in a corner, a few crumpled receipts. Yelena’s room had a bed that looked like it had never been slept in, a dresser with a gun atop it, and nothing else. No rugs, no trash, no clothes on the floor. Even the bed frame and dresser were basic and unadorned; Kate had seen IKEA furniture with more personality. In the corner was a silver mini fridge, the closest thing to personality that the room had. She wrenched it open and was greeted by the sight of several red bags.

Oh good, she thought a little wildly. The blood is here. Blood didn’t make her dizzy, but the thought of Barnes drinking it certainly did.

Barnes was on his knees when she reached him, breathing slowly and with an unnatural steadiness. He looked up at her, eyes still unnaturally wide, head tilted to the side. Not threatening, exactly. But not normal. She tossed the blood bag to him and took several steps back.

Barnes spoke, the words harsh and grating. “Don’t look.”

She had to force herself to turn her back on him, and even then she could still hear it. The sound of Barnes slurping blood made her want to be sick. The consequences of her actions were starting to leak out of the corner of her mind where she’d shoved them. Every noise triggered the thought he’s drinking human blood, he’s drinking human blood and I helped.

The noises stopped after a brief eternity, and Kate turned around. She met his eyes, felt her body start to curl in on itself as he met her gaze. She was getting sick of feeling afraid. “You good?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, and she was relieved that there was no blood around his mouth. “Yeah, it worked. I can’t really believe that ‘eating blood’ was the way around it.”

“I didn’t have a better idea,” she said, ignoring the way she could feel her heartbeat in her neck. Could Barnes tell? “Uh, do you have a way out of here? I don’t think we can run far enough.”

Barnes nodded. “There’s a garage. Yelena probably took one of the cars, but there should be another.” He said her name harsh and mean and victorious, finally able to pronounce the word. “It’s got tinted windows, so vampire can drive during the day.”

“Are you telling me,” Kate said, every word heavy with anger, “that vampires get around the sunlight things with tinted windows?”

He nodded.

“The hell,” Kate said, her anger a lifeboat.

“I think I can find the way to Steve’s from here,” Barnes continued, and Kate stared at him, confused. She didn’t remember mentioning Steve. Maybe Yelena had?

Barnes stared back at her. “You don’t know,” he said slowly. “I thought that you must – you just teamed up with a stranger in a basement and helped turned him into a vampire on faith?”

“Well, you couldn’t be worse than the other vampires,” Kate said. She’d been a bit starved for options. “What is it that I don’t know?”

“I know them,” Barnes said. “Clint, Natasha, Steve, Wanda – we were all paranormalists. Well, Wanda wasn’t, but – didn’t you wonder? Why they grabbed you?”

Kate shook her head. “I just wanted out.” Out of this basement, away from these people, some way to silence her father’s voice in her head. It mattered, obviously, but it wasn’t the immediate issue. “They mentioned you, briefly, but no one said your name. Surely your mother didn’t name you ‘Barnes.’”

“Bucky,” he said, like that wasn’t even more ridiculous. “James Buchanan Barnes, actually. Bucky for short.”

Her gaze had dropped again, and she brought it back up. Barnes – Bucky didn’t look any different, about as pale as he had before. His eyes were finally normal. There was some subtle difference though. Not Rumlow’s hunger of Yelena’s cool calculation but a calmness she hadn’t seen him before. Like he was the most dangerous thing in the room and he knew it.

Shoulders back, gaze up, Kate faced him. “Well, let’s go tell everyone that you’re alive,” she said, and Bucky shook his head in a clear no.

“I’m sorry?” she asked, a verbal tic she’d picked up from her sister. A thin veil of politeness over as much sarcasm as possible.

“I’ll take you back, but we’re not telling them that I’m alive.”

“You cannot possible think that –” Kate stopped at the sound of a car passing the house out in the night. Suddenly, they both realized that Yelena was coming back. Not now, apparently, because the car kept driving. But soon. “We can fight about this in the car.”

The car turned out to be a banged up minivan. “It’s lame,” Bucky said as they both stared at it. “I don’t think anyone actually likes driving it, but Rumlow broke one sedan crashing it into Clint’s car, and Yelena has the other one.”

It was dented and scratched, but it ran just fine. She and Bucky briefly argued about driving, but Bucky won by pointing out that she didn’t have a clue where they were. “Last time you came here, you were concussed.” 

“I was not,” Kate lied. They were both dancing around the blood-drinking elephant in the room, but Kate was too tired to feel truly stressed about it. She’d been kidnapped this week. Today alone she’d killed a vampire and helped someone else become one. Her energy was spent.

That was probably for the best because a small corner of her mind that thought that maybe, just maybe, Bucky would look over and decided that he needed a snack. And that was ridiculous – he knew her friends, had tried to help her as much as he could. And really, if it came right down to it, he could have killed her in the basement. He hadn’t. If he was hungry, there was no point in waiting.

She hated that thought, but she also hated how much the events of the past hour had come down to chance. She’d used up a lifetime’s worth of luck tonight, and her body still ached from the car crash, and all she wanted was to sleep and wake up somewhere besides a basement.

“I have questions,” she said, because there were still too many things that didn’t make sense. “I have a lot of questions, about who those people are and stuff you said and stuff they said but I’m just tired. So, so I’m gonna sleep, okay?” She yawned. “And then, when I wake up, you’re gonna answer them.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Bucky said. “Vampires don’t need much sleep so I’m sure I’ll be awake when you are.” She didn’t miss the blatant self-loathing twisted around the word ‘vampire’ like briars. That was going to be a problem, but it seemed like an issue that future Kate would be equipped to deal with.

She mumbled a goodnight and rested her head against the window. The analog clock on the dash said it was something like three in the morning, and the night was thick with darkness. If she looked back, she could see the tiny house that they’d been in. Why had they been staying there, anyway? Why use that place as a base, why not –

 

Tomorrow, she told herself, and settled down into sleep.

Chapter Text

Kate could feel the steady rock of a car in motion, the soft mumble of a radio turned down low, so her brain went oh I’m home and tried to return to sleep. But she should have been able to hear Clint and Natasha breathing, and the car didn’t smell right – something sharp and lemony, as though it had been cleaned recently.

And then Rumlow’s body rose up in her mind, sprawled out like a dropped doll, and Kate’s head jerked up.

That’s right. She was in a car with a vampire, escaping from other vampires. Her life was a Shonda Rimes show now.

“Ugh,” Kate said, which felt like an accurate summation of the situation. Bucky glanced at her once, then let his eyes flick back to the road. Kate had no idea what to say; last night had been…a lot and now there was the awkwardness of ‘you’re a vampire and I helped’ hanging in the air.

She’d made out with a boy once at a party in high school, some guy from her biology class who was funny and sarcastic and not at all someone she wanted a relationship with. They’d spent a month awkwardly skirting around each other, neither sure what the expectations were now. Weirdly, this was a little similar. Did he blame her for helping him turn, for not coming up with a different plan? She certainly felt guilty, even though it had been Bucky’s choice. Should she? How did they move forward?

“You snore,” Bucky said just before the silence became intolerable. “Loudly.”

Kate was instantly indignant. “I do not.”

“Then you breathe loudly enough to wake the dead. That isn’t normal.”

“I breathe at a normal volume.”

Bucky laughed, and Kate had an odd moment of double vision – Barnes the guy she’d been stuck in a basement with, the only person on her side, held up against Bucky, a vampire who she couldn’t disassociate from the sound of slurping blood out of bags.

She considered skirting around the edges of this, treating the fact that he was a vampire like a particularly large zit that everyone was too polite to mention. It would make her less uncomfortable at least, but screw that. She’d been uncomfortable before.

“So can you talk about everything now that you’re a vampire?” she asked.

“Yelena doesn’t have any control anymore,” he said, viciously satisfied. “There’s a lot that I don’t know; she was pretty careful about not giving me too much information. She of all people know that a half-vampire could still be a danger even if you do have control over it.”

“Why would she know that?” Kate asked.

“Yelena –” he seemed delighted to be able to say the name, “used to be a half-vampire. There was a group of young girls taken and turned into half vampires and basically raised as assassins. Being half-vampire made them stronger than humans, and the person who bit them was around to keep them all very careful controlled. They found a way to kill the vampire controlling them about seven years ago and they all split. Yelena decided to become a full vampire, apparently.”

Kate almost said ‘I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a vampire’ but her mind caught up to her mouth before she spoke. She allowed herself a few seconds of horror at what would have happened if she’d spoken aloud. “What did Yelena mean about thirty seconds when she was talking about Rumlow?” she asked instead.

“The longer a person spends as a half-vampire, the more control they have as a vampire. If you’re a half-vampire for a matter of seconds, then as a vampire you mostly act on instinct. Rumlow clearly didn’t hold out too long; he could function on his own, but he was always asking for more blood. Vampires tend to form a bit of a hierarchy; the ones with more self-control will secure a source of blood and the ones with less self-control will work for them in exchange for it. Yelena went years without blood, so she had perfect control.”

“What about you?” Kate asked. “You said you had six months.”

“I’m not going to drink your blood, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“That is not what I meant,” Kate snapped, though it was. “If I thought that was a possibility, I wouldn’t be here.”

Bucky sighed. “Generally if you can outlast the bloodlust, you have pretty much complete control when you turn; you’re like any other human. A weekof resistance and a decade of resistance give you the same level of self-control.”

She knew that didn’t mean that he didn’t want blood, but she would have liked to know, more specifically, how much he wanted it. She kept trying to club down waves of fear, or ignore the sensation that her neck was weirdly exposed, and some part of her mind wouldn’t stop going VAMPIRE VAMPIRE VAMPIRE.

Ugh, she thought again.

“I don’t know what they’re planning,” Bucky said softly, and Kate was glad for the excuse to focus on something besides her own thoughts. “Yelena reports to someone else, I know that. There’s several other vampires working under whoever she reports to. Yelena is high up the command chain, maybe second in command.”

“Why did they want me?” Kate asked.

He shrugged. “Yelena wasn’t careful enough around me, clearly, but she was still careful. There’s a lot that I don’t know. What I did pick up on came from Rumlow, but there’s a lot he didn’t know either. He just wanted blood.”  

They trailed off into an almost-comfortable silence after that. Kate watched fields and forests blur past – Bucky wasn’t even pretending to follow the speed limit – and thought about Clint and Natasha and Steve.

“You weren’t serious last night, were you?” she asked. “You have to tell them that you’re alive.”

“I’d rather they think that I’m dead,” Bucky said. “They’d rather think that I’d dead than know.”

Apparently Bucky was going to treat being a vampire like having a giant zit even if she didn’t. “That’s idiotic.”

“Really?” Bucky asked, an edge in his voice. “You can honestly tell me that you’re not a little panicked by me? That you’re not worried? That a part of you isn’t wishing you were in a car with someone who didn’t have such pointy teeth?”

“I’m not,” Kate said, and flinched at how badly the lie came out.

Bucky shook his head. “I hunted vampires, Kate. I know how human being respond to vampires. It’s not your fault; biology kept human beings alive for centuries, and it’s trying to keep you alive right now.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I just don’t want to watch it happen to them.”

She stared at him for a moment. “No,” she said. “There’s things you get to keep to yourself. There’s things that you don’t have to tell people. But they’re mourning you, Bucky.”

“I know them better than you do,” Bucky said. “They’d rather I was dead.”

She wanted to smack him, wanted to tell him that there was no way she’d lie for him, but she took a moment to get her temper under some level of control. “You do know them better than me,” she said. “And you know that you’re full of shit. They’d want to know.”

Bucky didn’t respond and Kate felt a sense of hollow victory at the look on his face. They would all want to know, and she didn’t think it was fair to lie to people about being dead, but it wasn’t going to be a fun reunion either.

 *** 

Clint stared at the ceiling, one hand idly patting Lincoln. The golden retriever licked Clint’s hand, apparently satisfied that he’d fixed whatever had made Clint sad, and trotted off to cheer someone else up. Probably Steve. Steve had dug out all of his weapons, cleaned every gun, sharped the stakes, and even polished the silver amulets he had stashed around the house.

Steve was not handling this well.

Wanda had tried scrying for Kate again after sleeping, and this time she’d gotten even less information. Every few hours she’d tried again and gotten almost nothing – dark shapes, figures that might have been humans or vampires or just oddly shaped bookcases. Clint couldn’t be positive, but he thought she might have shut herself into a room and started crying. It was stupid for Wanda to blame herself, Clint thought, because this was so clearly his fault.

The day after Wanda arrived, Natasha found him sitting on the couch, still staring at the ceiling and wishing that Lincoln would come back. “Hey,” she said.

He looked up at her, too miserable to respond.

“Stop,” she said. “Just…stop.”

“Why?” he asked, letting his eyes shut. “Let me soak the guilt in, Nat. Let me…bask in it. Like a…a glaze. That sauce you put on food, but with emotion.” Oh, that was horrible. He didn’t have to see Natasha to know she was rolling her eyes.

“When did you eat last, Clint?” She asked.

He opened his eyes. “Uh.”

Nat dragged him into the kitchen. They did this for each other occasionally, when he started to spiral into depression or when Natasha’s past started to drag her down. They made eggs and tea and bacon, kept cooking until Clint laughed and momentarily forgot that he didn’t want to curl up in a ball.

After a bit, the smell of bacon and the sense of accomplishment – he couldn’t save Kate, he couldn’t fix this, but at least he could make food – started to cheer Clint up. Everything was still awful, but at least there was bacon. Natasha was looking a little better too. ‘Relaxed’ wasn’t the right word for her, but maybe ‘slightly less likely to snap from the tension.’

“Is there food?” Wanda asked as she stepped into the kitchen. She was slowly working a brush through her brown hair. “Please tell me that you have made food.”

“We even remembered to make the turkey sausage,” Clint said. Wanda made an appreciative noise as she scooped food onto a plate.

Wanda sat down at the kitchen table and Natasha sank into a seat beside her. He watched them for a moment, the two women tired and stressed and still here, in this house, waiting for a miracle. Waiting for a way forward, some slim path to open up and show them how to save Kate and beat Yelena and get through this.

He also knew, from long experience, that both of them were perfectly capable of making a path if one didn’t show up. So was Steve. And, somewhere out there, so was Kate. They were not a group of people who laid down in the face of danger.

He thought of all the people that he loved who were still in the world. They knew Kate was alive, even if they didn’t know where she was. And Steve and Wanda and Natasha were here, even if Bucky and Pietro weren’t. Wanda kept scrying, and Steve was polishing weapons for a fight, and Natasha was talking and planning and refusing to let any of them sink into their own guilt.

 

The pit of depression inside him was wide and yawning, his guilt pushing him closer and closer. Sometimes he couldn’t pull away from it; sometimes it sucked him in and he had to endure it until he could crawl back out again. But not this time.

 

Okay Clint. Get up off your ass.

One day, in the future, this wouldn’t work. But today it did.

He sat down beside Natasha, pressed his leg gently against hers – Thank you, I love you, I’m glad that you’re here – and started to eat his eggs.

 

***

When Steve’s house appeared, Kate’s shoulders relaxed back into the seat. She’d half expected something terrible to happen, for a car to run them off the road or a werewolf to attack or a plague of locusts to cover the sky. Her metric for the ways things went wrong had shifted since she got kidnapped by vampires.

As Kate relaxed, Bucky tensed. He looked at Steve’s house like a war zone he might have to march into as the farmhouse came into view. His obvious anxiety was starting to annoy her.

“You have to tell them,” Kate said. There was really only one option here.

He shook his head. “It’s my choice.”

“Yeah, and if you don’t tell them, it’ll be a dumbass choice.”

“I can’t,” Bucky said. “I can’t do it, I can’t see the looks on their faces, I can’t – you don’t understand.”

Kate was ready to keep yelling, but probably it wouldn’t help. That recognition felt quiet mature of her. “It’s not right,” she said, a little softer. A very little. “Would you forgive them for keeping that from you? I wouldn’t.”

Bucky’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. Kate wondered what Natasha would do – probably something involving patience. She twitched the entire way up the gravel driveway, waiting for Bucky to speak, watching his eyes unfocus with thought.

“I can’t tell them,” he said finally.

“I can,” Kate said.

Bucky’s voice warbled as he spoke. “Okay.”

The walk up to the house was long and tense and she had to fight the urge to glance back at Bucky. She had nothing to be afraid of. She was coming home, she told herself. She was with the people that she trusted. But she couldn’t shake the sense that something was going to go wrong.

Kate didn’t recognize the woman who opened Steve’s door. A few years younger than Natasha, brown hair, slightly narrowed eyes. “Can I help…” she trailed off, staring at Kate. It was slightly disconcerting.

“Uh,” Kate said. “Hi. I’m looking for Steve? Or Clint and Natasha.”

Dead silence. Then a high-pitched yell from somewhere in the house. “Kate?”

She hadn’t known Natasha’s voice could do that.

Steve and Natasha barreled into the entryway, eyes wide. Clint followed behind and kept going, didn’t stop until he had wrapped her arms around her and lifted her up in a hug. “You’re not dead,” he said quietly.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” she said, hugging him back. “Not for lack of trying. I fought a vampire.”

She’d killed a vampire, but the image of Rumlow’s body still didn’t quite sit right in her head.

“What happened?” Steve asked. “Who took you?”

“How did you get away?” Natasha asked.

It hit her suddenly, that she had actually promised to tell them that Bucky was alive and a vampire. Instantly, she regretted that promise. The idea of speaking those words out loud horrified her. She glanced back towards the car, where Bucky sat behind heavily tinted windows.

“Is someone in that car?” Steve asked, eyes narrowed. Already assessing for threats or problems, just like Natasha and Clint and even the woman that Kate assumed was Wanda. A habit developed from years of fighting vampire and werewolves. And here she was, about to say yeah Steve, there is someone in that car, and it’s your dead best friend who I helped turn into a vampire.

Just say it Kate. It’s not gonna get easier.

“Bucky Barnes is alive,” she said.

The joy in the house cracked like spun glass. Steve’s face froze. Wanda jerked backwards as though she’d been slapped. Kate only saw Natasha’s shock because she was looking for it, and even then she barely caught the millisecond of emotion before it was replace by a carefully neutral expression. Clint stepped back from her, shaking his head. “Kate, that’s not possible.”

Kate pointed back at the car. “I’m really extra sure that it is.”

“Are you sure it’s not just someone telling you that his name is Bucky Barnes?” Natasha asked. “Did you ever see a picture of Bucky?”

“Well,” Kate said, “I mean I don’t ah, technically...I really think he was telling the truth.”

Steve started to march towards the car, looking murderous. “Whoever this guy is, I’m gonna-”

“He’s a vampire.”

Steve’s face went absolutely unreadable, if only because there were too many emotions to isolate a single one. “What?” he asked softly. “He’s…what?”

“There were vampires – I guess they kidnapped him six months ago and turned him into a half-vampire?” Was there a way to do this so that her friends weren’t in agony? Clint looked confused and slightly betrayed, and Wanda looked horrified, and Kate couldn’t bear to look at Natasha. “And they were holding me there, and we had to find a way out, but to do it he couldn’t – they were controlling him. And so he had to –” her thoughts were jumbled, and the growing horror on Steve’s face was making it hard to keep talking.

“Kill the vampire controlling him or turn into a vampire himself,” Natasha said. Her voice was oddly toneless. “Those are the only two options.”

Steve stared at her for another moment, then stared at the car. He didn’t seem able to move.

She bit her lip. “Someone needs to – he’s afraid that you’re all going to hate him. Someone go tell him that you don’t.”

That broke the spell. Natasha drew herself up to her full height; beside her, Clint blinked away his shock and horror. Wanda had her hand over her mouth but she stepped forward, eyes on the car. Steve followed behind them. Kate would have expected them to run or at least walk briskly, but they moved with the slow, dreadful steps of people walking to a funeral. They had to go, but no one really wanted to arrive.

Kate felt intrusive for a moment, like she didn’t belong, then lifted her head and walked forward anyway. The others had reached the car and they ringed around it, uncertain, no one quite willing to cross the line and open the car door.

Kate was seconds away from ripping the door open and shoving one of them inside when Clint reached out and opened the door. “Bucky,” he said.

There was no answer. Kate craned her neck over and saw Bucky, his whole body pressed back against the driver’s side door, staring down Clint like an animal caught in a trap. Kate had expected fear, but instead it was the weary resignation of a hunted animal that had finally been caught.

“Bucky,” Steve said, angry and hopeful, and somehow it was the wrong thing to say. Bucky actually growled, something guttural and low that sounded so very much like Rumlow. Natasha, Steve, and Clint didn’t flinch.

Kate did. And so did Wanda.

And that was more wrong, and Bucky surged forward to grab the open door and slam it shut. His hand was in the sunlight for a brief moment, and Kate saw it blister before the car growled to life, fired backwards down the driveway, and sped off the road.

The five of them watched the van disappear until it was a speck, until it was nothing. Kate finally let herself look at the others. It was Natasha, surprisingly, who looked the most horrified, with a rawness that made Kate physically uncomfortable. Clint reached out to her and settled a hand on her shoulder, and she leaned into it, just barely. Clint’s own face was turned away. Steve looked quite ready to be sick, and Wanda had silent tears rolling down her face.

Kate felt oddly removed from her own feelings. Somewhere inside of her there was pain and guilt bubbling up, but they were far, far away. Instead there was a creeping numbness that was also terrible, but at least it was a different sort of terrible than the past few days had offered her.

Finally Wanda reached out to her, nearly touching her before drawing her hand back. “Have you eaten anything?”

Kate shook her head. She was suddenly aware of how her stomach hurt from hunger, of the streaks of grease in her hair. Her hands had started shaking at some point and she couldn’t get them to stop. “No,” she said.

“Come on,” Clint said. Gently, he turned Natasha towards the house and the two of them started to walk forward. Wanda followed. After a moment Kate did too.

As they walked forward, Kate noticed that Steve hadn’t moved, and was still staring out in the distance.

“Leave him,” Natasha said and Kate started to turn back. “He’ll come in, but give him some space.”

But he still hadn’t moved by the time they reached the house. Kate watched him for a moment. Steve was still standing still, a statue washed out by the midday sun, staring down the road.

Chapter Text

Natasha half expected to find Steve still watching the road like a soldier standing guard over a tomb. But instead he was sitting on the ground, head in his hands. Lincoln was circling him and whining, occasionally trying to lick Steve’s face. As Natasha walked up, the dog gave her a rather desperate look.

Just having a dog look to her for help made Natasha feel a little twitchy. Damn.

She wished she was normal. She wished any of them were normal. She wished that Bucky was still human and Pietro was alive and Kate wasn’t going to be traumatized by what had happened and that they didn’t still have to figure out what was going on with Yelena. But Lincoln was still staring at her. So she sighed, sat down by Steve, and waited.

What she wanted to do was shake him out of the self-loathing she KNEW he had to be feeling, but that wouldn’t work with Steve. They’d tried earlier, and it had backfired. So she waited, let the silence grow until she knew that Steve would have to feel it. She was like the most passive-aggressive therapist ever.

“He hates me,” Steve said finally. “I don’t blame him.”

“I would have reacted the same way,” Natasha said. “I’m shocked Kate convinced him to come near us, honestly. I would have dropped her on the front porch and taken off.”

“You would hate me too?” Steve asked, voice flat.

“That’s not what I meant,” Natasha said, careful to keep her voice even and not let her irritation show. “He didn’t run because he hates us. He ran because he hates himself.”

“He should hate me,” Steve said. “It’s my fault. If I’d just realized - it didn’t even occur to me that he could be alive, Nat. I didn’t look for the body.”

Sometimes it was so bizarre to her, Steve’s need to punish himself for everything he hadn’t done - every person in the world who died, who was upset, who was mildly inconvenienced was a person that Steve was personally responsible for. It was the things that she HAD done that hurt Natasha.

“You’re not responsible for the whole world,” she said. “Maybe if Clint and I covered a wider area, there are people in California or Oregon or Utah who would be alive, because we were there to help. But we’re not responsible for everything in the entire world we could have done. There are people we could have saved if we’d become doctors, or I don’t know, people who might be happier if we had all gone into non-profit work.”

Steve was shaking his head, just slightly, and so Natasha pressed on, rushing forward with a need to express herself, to make Steve understand. “We aren’t damned by all the things we could have done.”

“I left him,” Steve whispered. “I thought he was dead. I abandoned him, and that’s something I did .”

“Take a moment,” she said, “and think about who you’re talking to.”

Steve looked up at her then, concerned. “I wasn’t saying that you’re-”

She waved him off. “If you won’t accept that not everything damn thing is your fault, maybe accept that you hold yourself to a different standard than you hold everyone else.” He was clearly holding himself to a different standards than he held her.

Steve considered that for a moment. “I guess,” he said finally, which was about as good as she was going to get. He’d keep thinking about it, probably. This was the best she could do for the moment.

“Bucky will come back or he won’t,” she said. She had a feeling that he would, but she respected Steve too much to give him hope for things that might not happen. “Hating yourself for something that isn’t your fault won’t fix things.” She pushed herself up and then turned to face Steve, one hand outstretched.

Steve sighed and grabbed her hand so she could yank him up. Natasha did not mistake this as a sign she had fixed Steve; he would probably lay awake tonight, and many nights to come, thinking about what he should have done differently. But at the moment he was willing to stand up and go about the business of living, and she still counted that a victory.

***

When Clint found Kate, she was sitting on the couch, knees curled up to her chest, eyeing Wanda. A week ago, Kate would have been excited and chatty and what Natasha would have referred to as “painfully extroverted,” but now she was quiet. Wanda, for her part, was watching Kate like a fragile thing that might break if she looked too hard.

Clint simply plopped down on the couch and wrapped an arm around Kate. She trembled slightly, and he could smell several days worth of sweat and fear on her. “It’s okay,” he said as she buried her head into his neck. “You’re safe.”

“I know,” she said, her voice muffled. “I just -”

“Yeah,” Clint said, because there were no words for what it felt like the first time life stopped being an adventure and instead became a series of things that could kill you in horrible ways. “I know what you mean.”

“I killed a vampire,” Kate said after a moment.

“Good job,” Clint said before realizing that Kate did not look happy about it. He heard Wanda sigh behind him. “Um, you don’t seem happy about it though.”

Kate frowned and pulled back. “I didn’t - he wasn’t…”

And this Clint did not understand, because he’d killed a vampire at fifteen and hadn’t felt all that torn up about it. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Katie-kate. They’d kidnapped you.”

“No it's -” Kate cut herself off. “He was a person. And Bucky was a person. And I - it’s my fault.”

Guilt, Clint realized, and was annoyed that it hadn’t clicked sooner. Kate was feeling guilty. And that was something he did understand. It wasn’t Natasha’s guilt, not years of having your mind and body twisted into something else. Some days he had no idea how to even touch that pain. Kate’s guilt was something far more familiar.

“We own the choices that we make,” Wanda said from beside him. “We accept that we made them. We recognize that we did the best we could.” For a moment she stared into the distance, eyes unfocused. Clint wondered what she was thinking of - Pietro’s death, maybe, or people she hadn’t helped as much as she wanted to, or something from her childhood in Sokovia that Clint knew nothing about.

Kate shook her head without speaking, and Wanda reached her hands out and wrapped them around Kate’s shaking fingers. It was a gesture Clint had seen her use a few times, and for the first time he wondered if it was something people had done in Sokovia. “Kate,” Wanda said gently. “I know that I am a stranger to you, but please listen. You cannot carry every single unintended consequence. Accept that you made the best choices you could, learn from it if there is something to learn, and then move forward. Do not bury yourself with this.”

“It’s my fault,” Kate repeated. “It’s my fault that Bucky is a vampire.”

Wanda shook her head, but Clint couldn’t stop himself from pushing. “Was he a vampire when you got there?”

“No,” Kate breathed, and ooooookay there was a lot to unpack there. “I suggested turning him into a vampire so that he couldn’t be under anyone’s control anymore. But I didn’t think about -”

“Stop,” Wanda said gently. “Stop this. Perhaps you did not think through every consequence, but I am quite certain that Bucky did. He agreed, yes?”

“Yes,” Kate said, her voice trembling.

“He agreed,” Clint said. “You’re not a bad person. It was his choice, and I think I’d have made the same choice.” It was a good thing that Natasha wasn’t here, because he knew without a doubt that Natasha would choose death over becoming a vampire. Every day she woke up hating the fact that she was half-way to being one. Luckily the people who’d turned her were dead, so there was no chance of her being controlled again.

“I guess,” Kate said. She didn’t look comforted, but she wasn’t crying anymore either.

Clint patted her on the shoulder. “Maybe get some sleep and see if you feel better.” And a shower. He really hoped that she took a shower.

“I’ll show you where you can sleep,” Wanda said. Clint watched the two of them walk off and then leaned against the couch. There was too much emotion rolling under his surface, his own shock and grief and horror at Bucky and what had been done to him and what those people had wanted with Kate.

He heard Natasha and Steve come in a few minutes later. He pushed himself up and followed Natasha to their room; Steve was angsting in the kitchen. “How’d it go?” he asked as they entered the room.

She shrugged. “This is only going to reinforce his idea that he’s dangerous to everyone around him. I don’t think I made it any worse, so that’s good.”

“Kate is blaming herself for Bucky being a vampire,” Clint said. “She and Steve are more alike than we realized.”

Natasha looked up at him. He forgot sometimes how short she was - her presence was so much bigger than her body. When she chose, she could fill a whole room, draw everyone’s attention to her. The first time she’d done it he’d been blown away to see the suspicious, skittery woman he’d met command a room full of people like she’d been born to do it.

“It’s too much, Clint,” she said, fingers curling into his shirt and leaning against him. He wanted, very much, so kiss her, to drive away any fears or insecurities the best way he knew how - by pulling her onto the bed, pulling her on top of him, and shutting out the world for a while. It probably wasn’t what she needed at the moment.

He sat down on the bed and wrapped an arm around her, then tugged her backwards lightly so they were both lying down on the bed. She tugged his arm a little tighter. “You okay?” he asked.

Natasha didn’t answer - which meant no. She just curled up close to him and rested her head on his chest. His heart was still beating hard. He started tracing small circles on her back. After a moment, the tension in her body started to ebb as she laid beside him.

It made him remember a cheap hotel somewhere in rural Ohio, several years ago. It had been snowing, and they’d wanted to stay inside and be warm. They’d dragged in all the blankets from the car and curled up under them, and spent the night watching snowfall and crappy reality tv shows from the comfort of their bed. Clint had made crappy hotel coffee and they’d drank it sometime around midnight, just to keep the night going.

It had been one of the best nights of Clint’s life. He’d felt safe in that little hotel room, with snow falling outside. It had been close to Christmas, and even two screwed-up monster hunters couldn’t help but feel a little excited by the season. And his relationship with Natasha felt better than it ever had. They’d started out halting and uncertain, neither quite able to trust each other. Now things were simple and easy. He kept catching himself staring at Natasha during normal moments - packing up after a job, brushing her hair - and feeling slightly overwhelmed by the fact that she was with him.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, as the coffee wore off, Natasha had looked over at him. They were both curled up under the blankets, hands barely touching under the sheets. Everyone else was asleep, and there was snow outside muffling any sound. Clint felt like this room was the entire world, and there was nothing else but the two of them and the way Natasha’s eyes kept taking him in.

“Hey,” Natasha had said. “I - I feel a lot of…I care about you.”

Clint had kissed her forehead. “I care about you too.” Natasha was a little skittish about expressing her emotions, still. He’d learned to let her do it slowly, in her own time, and not to push. They’d said that they cared about each other before, but this time things felt different. Clint had kissed her lips, softly, and let his forehead rest against hers while he waited for her to speak.

“I love you,” she’d said, quiet and almost miserable with it. Her eyes had squeezed shut as though she couldn’t bear to see the look on his face, and he felt her curl in tight on herself.

“I love you too,” he’d whispered. For a moment she didn’t respond, and he thought wildly that maybe she hadn’t heard him, or maybe he’d hallucinated her words, or maybe somehow said the wrong thing. But after a  moment her eyes opened and she’d looked up at him, green eyes wide, and started to cry.

They’d stayed like that for a moment, Natasha crying while Clint tried desperately to figure out what he’d said wrong. She finally notice his face and started laughing and crying at the same time. “I’m relieved,” she gasped. “I’m happy, I’m the happiest -” she kissed him, hard. “I’m so happy.”

“You’re crying,” Clint said, still unsure.

“Happy crying,” Natasha said. “I’ve never done it before. It won’t become a habit.”

Natasha was blinking away tears and pulling back from him. She was already starting to shut down, a little bit, so Clint pulled her close. “Hey. It can become a habit it you want.”

“I’m not emotional,” Natasha said. “I don’t - wouldn’t you rather have someone else? Someone who’s normal, or at least something close to normal? Someone who doesn’t cry when someone says that they love them?”

“They wouldn’t be you, so what’s the point?”

Natasha was quiet at that, for long enough that Clint started to worry that he’d made a mistake again. “I’m so glad that I met you.”

“Yeah, sure am glad that I didn’t kill you.”

Natasha snorted. “You could have tried .”

And they’d laughed, and turned off the tv, and eventually fallen asleep with Clint’s arms wrapped around Natasha. And they’d stayed too late the next morning, until the hotel maids had kicked them out.

“Hey,” Natasha said, bringing Clint back into the present. “Thanks. I needed a minute.”

“This okay?” Clint asked, because it was entirely possible she’d had different ideas about de-stressing.

“Yeah,” Natasha said. She curled her head down so that it rested beneath his chin. With one hand, she traced the places on his chest where she knew there were scars. “Whatever I do is okay, as long as it’s with you.”

Since then she’d only said those words a few other times - but Clint knew what Natasha’s “I love you’s” sounded like. “Whatever I do is okay as long as it’s with you” was a pretty good one.

“We still have to figure out what’s going on with Yelena,” Natasha whispered. “If we ignore that, it’ll bite us later. I’m glad that Kate is back, but Wanda is still in danger and who knows what’s going on with Bucky.”

“I know,” Clint said. “But Kate’s back, you know? And Bucky is alive. Everything is terrible - but it’s a better terrible than this morning.”

“That’s true,” Natasha said. “We still have to face all of it though.”

“But not yet,” Clint responded. “Not quite yet. Later”

***

Later came too quickly.

A few hours later, they were all sitting around Steve’s kitchen table. Steve, who liked to deal with emotions in the time-honored American way of eating food and pretending you feel nothing, had cooked some frozen pizzas. Kate had a cold mug of tea in front of her and was slowly pulling all of the vegetables off of a slice of supreme pizza. Steve had eaten three slices and was working on a forth. Wanda had an uneaten slice in front of her, and Natasha had eaten one slice and then started staring out the window. Clint was working on a sixth piece.

For a while there was only the sound of chewing, and Clint felt a sudden stab of regret about the other people who should have been there with them. Pietro would have been making them all laugh. He would have gotten along with Kate, Clint thought. The two of them would have bickered like siblings.

And Bucky should have been there. Pietro’s death was an old ache, but Bucky was suddenly sharp and new all over again. He wasn’t there because he’d chosen not to be. He’d left them. All the questions he could have answered, the things he could have explained - gone. He had to know that they didn’t care what he was, not as long as they all had worked with Natasha. Not with Wanda taking in werewolves. Not with Steve being his best friend.

Kate cleared her throat. “So,” she said, then trailed off as everyone looked at her. “What now? I mean - what do we do?”

Steve looked up. “Well,” he said, “I think we should go find these vampires that have been giving us so much trouble. And we should kill them.”

“Good,” said Wanda, suddenly angry and sharp with it.

Kate nodded. “Yeah.”

“We’re in,” Clint said without even needing to look at Natasha. Natasha would go after the vampires even if none of them went with. “Of course we’re in.”

“Well then,” Wanda said. “Let’s start with a plan.”

Chapter Text

There was an argument, and Natasha lost. Badly. So when Yelena called again, she was standing in the kitchen surrounded by her friends, all of whom looked like they wanted to reach through the phone and strangle Yelena with their bare hands.

“Remember,” Natasha said as the phone rang. “Don’t talk. Don’t make noises. She has to think that I’m alone.” She’d wanted to be alone for this call, but everyone seemed to think she would need moral support. It was well-meant, but an audience was the opposite of what Natasha wanted.

“We know not to talk,” Kate said. Her hands were digging in to the edge of the beat up kitchen table. “Just answer it.”

Natasha answered the call and pressed it to her ear. “Hello?”

“Nata-lia,” Yelena said in a sing-song tone. “Have you done what I asked?”

Natasha looked right at Wanda, and let the hard look in Wanda’s eyes center her. “Yes,”’ she said, her voice flat as she stared at the floor. “She’s dead.”

“How’d you do it?” Yelena asked, her voice still obnoxiously casual. “I remember how much you like knives.”

She hoped, very much, that Kate couldn’t hear this conversation. Though they were going to have to have a conversation about Natasha’s past eventually. It didn’t look like Kate was going anywhere.

“I shot her,” Natasha said. “I wanted to do it fast.”

“How sentimental,” Yelena said. “I know you’ve done this before.”

Yelena was needling her, prodding at whatever she thought might be Natasha’s weaknesses. So Natasha gave her what she wanted - a show of emotion. “Did you call to talk about old times? I remember when they brought you in. You cried for a week. You were so covered in snot no one wanted to get close enough to turn you.”

It was a weak attempt to upset Yelena, and Yelena would see it as an angry, emotional Natasha lashing out. And sure enough, Yelena laughed, her voice artificially bright. She didn’t even bother responding - none of the red room girls were that easy to upset. “And how did your boy respond?”

If Natasha had killed Wanda, it would have been a good jab. As it was, Natasha was unprepared for the question. “Badly,” she said.

Yelena snorted. Natasha wasn’t sure if it was out of disbelief or not. “And you have the head?”

“Yes.”

Steve had been holding a coke can. As she spoke, Natasha watched him clench it tighter and tighter. Wanda still had that flat, hard look in her eyes. Clint was watching her, making sure she was alright. Kate looked like she wanted to rip the phone out of Natasha’s hand and threaten to shoot Yelena herself.

“Bring me her head to the address I send you. You can bring your boy, if he can still look you in the face. No one else.”

“Fine,” Natasha half snarled. She didn’t have to fake that.

After she hung up, the room was silent. She could feel the tension, strung out tighter and tighter and -

“No one's gonna pull any ‘Kate has to stay behind’ bullshit, right?” Kate asked finally. Her hands were white from how hard she’d been grabbing the table.

They all considered this. “We probably should,” said Steve with the casual tone of someone who routinely dodged opportunities to make responsible choices.

“Nah” Clint said.

Wanda shrugged. Natasha did nothing, but Kate wasn’t looking at her. Her phone dinged after a moment - Yelena had texted her an address.

“Looks like it’s gonna be on the outskirts of Philadelphia,” Natasha said. Steve leaned over her shoulder to see her phone.

Natasha clicked on the address. “Looks like an abandoned factory.”

“Great,” Clint said. “That’s just...great.”

Kate leaned over to look at the phone too. “So...road trip?”

 

***

Kate watched the outskirts of Philadelphia blur past. Beside her, Wanda was staring out the car window, her eyes glazed over. Steve and Clint had tried to keep a conversation going from the front seat, but eventually they’d all drifted into silence. Natasha hadn’t spoken a word since they all got into Steve’s car. They were probably all thinking about Bucky. Or maybe the fact that they might die soon.

Kate reflexively checked her bow. Whatever was coming, at least this all would be over. They’d kill Yelena, kill anyone else involved, and take off. She wanted this to be over. She hadn’t felt safe since waking up in that trunk.

Dead or a failure, said her father’s voice in her head. Her hands tightened around her bow. It would serve him right if she died. He’d have to live with the last thing he said to her being vicious and awful, and she hoped it would haunt him every day of his life.

So either she lived or she made her dad feel guilty. Every outcome was a win, so there was nothing to be worried about.

Maybe that was petty. Maybe she should call him – make up, forgive him, say she loved him. Not say that she was wrong, obviously, but offer some sort of olive branch. Unconsciously she pulled her phone out, then caught herself before she could call him. No, she wouldn’t do that. It wouldn’t make her feel better. He’d say something else terrible, and she’d have only given him the satisfaction of having the last word.

Instead she texted her sister, something short and not alarming.

Saw a bumper sticker that made me think of you. Love you!

She flipped her phone to airplane mode before her sister could text back. Somehow, if her sister responded, Kate thought she might lose her nerve. “How close are we?”

“Close,” Steve said.

Kate leaned back against the seat of the car. “Good.”

“They’ll probably know we’re coming,” Clint said. “They have to at least suspect that we didn’t kill Wanda.”

“Good,” Kate said again, with a bravado that she didn’t feel. “Let them all come. Saves us from having to track them down later.”


The car fell back into silence as they flew down the road, Kate gripping her bow the entire time.

***

Yelena sighed and rolled her neck to work out the tension in her muscles. The discussion in front of her had devolved from actual planning to fearful debate over what Natasha’s people might do. Various vampires - some who were turned centuries ago - were panicking at the idea of facing down a few humans and one half vampire. Yelena knew the dangers of overconfidence but…..these people were pathetic.

She glanced back at the door. He was behind it, probably listening to all of them bicker. No one else seemed to recognize how dangerous he could be to all of them; they just thought he could take down some paranormalists who gave them nightmares. They weren’t considering that this man would let every single one of them die, as long as he got what he wanted.

Yelena didn’t particularly mind that; she would let them all die too. She’d almost been grateful to come back and find Rumlow dead. There had been no choice in working with him, and someone else killing him was the perfect way to get him out of her hair.

She did want to find out how Barnes had found a way around her commands. She’d been so careful, but he’d always seem more….flexible than most half-vampires. In a matter of months he’d found a way around more of her commands than the collective red room girls had over a decade. It had infuriated her. Every time he did made her flashback to dark rooms and her body only partially under her own control. Years and years of having her free will syphoned away had broken her. She nearly growled just thinking of it. That broken little girl had been more pathetic than any of the adults sitting in this room.

For a moment, panic arose. All these years away and sometimes she still thought she was that little girl again. Some nights she heard a familiar accent and suddenly couldn’t remember where she was. In her dreams she wandered through bloodstained rooms and alleys littered with corpses that she barely remembered killing.

But that would change today. Let the others enact their complicated revenge plot. She only cared about killing Natalia. Her death would mean Yelena was truly the best of them all. Yelena had been so weak as a child, young and frightened and crying whenever she wasn’t killing. But once Natasha was dead, once Yelena had proved she was better than the best of the red room girls, she’d be able to stop the dreams and flashbacks. She’d know, finally, that she was the strongest. All those memories would stop haunting her.

 

She glanced at the room again, then back to the muttering vampires in front of her. Just remembering those days used to make her start breathing hard. As a vampire she didn’t need to breathe, but her body still had its old habits. She calmed herself by thinking of Natasha’s body on the floor, her red hair haloed around her face. She was close. She was so close. Only a few more hours until Natasha got here. Only a few more hours until Yelena killed her and could finally find peace.