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Destroyed Under Gods

Chapter Text

“Sometimes- sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.”

It’s almost a whisper. He looks up from the paper he’s holding in his hand. His shaking hand. She’s met him before, but every single time that she has seen him, he’s always felt distant. Like he didn’t belong there, and she doesn’t wonder why. He was never like his brother - they were carved from the same rock, but they came out very different.

His words fade as she looks around. Most of them are wearing black - she recognizes Natasha, wearing a thin veil across her face. If she were to be honest, she’d say that she had expected her to cry, but not so openly. Maybe it’s because this all came as such a surprise - as such a terrible, terrible surprise.

Barney’s words fade back in, as she recognizes Melinda May, Hank Pym, Tony Stark and James Rhodes. There are others here, too, others that she knows come from SHIELD. Because that’s where Clint belonged. With them. As an agent, but also as a role model.

“Clint once told me that- that he wouldn’t let his work get the better of him.” Pause. “He told me that he knew what he was getting into - joining the secret service, like he called it back then. That he’d made a deal to keep Laura and Cooper secret- that he’d be keeping them secret forever. Nobody would ever give them up, to anyone, because that’s the secret service he joined. It was only much later that I learnt it was SHIELD. The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. We learnt about it at the FBI, they told us that it was a special task division, where they’d handle the cases we couldn’t. That Howard Stark and Peggy Carter had created it, in the hopes of creating a better future when they lost Steve Rogers to the icy North, when his Valkyrie went down.

He told me of the stories he heard there - of the heroes he learnt to admire. Nick Fury, Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, Alexander Pierce, Phil Coulson, Melinda May- all incredible people, of whom, only two still live and breathe. He told me that those were the people that he wanted to impress and be like - and if he could inspire just another rookie with an attitude to do something better, then he would have done a good enough job. Today, I see faces that I recognize from SHIELD. Young faces, whom I know knew Clint not as a young agent, but as the weathered and master assassin he became over the times.”

Barney finally pauses, and Maria realizes that her hands are shaking too.

She knew Clint well - ten years her senior, he was one of the youngest agents to go through the training before her. She beat his record by a month and a half - which never ceased to make him smile. He would tell her that if he hadn’t spent that month in isolation, he would still hold the record for youngest recruit into SHIELD’s ranks. She would laugh in his face and tell him that he should just have behaved back when he came in.

“We didn’t only lose Clint, though. We lost the Bartons,” Barney cuts in, and it feels like a knife to Maria’s heart - hearing him say it out loud, as flatly as he does, almost feels cruel. She still sees the smoke coming from their farmhouse, still hears the screaming from the horses in the barn and the creaking from the flames, still swallowing the last remnants of the woodwork.

Barney continues. “We lost Laura, the most valuable wife I could ever have wished for Clint. A childhood sweetheart that never wavered, that never faltered and never failed in her support in his mission in life. His steady rock, his safe place, his anchor. Without her, we wouldn’t be here. None of us. Laura was the kindest, warmest and friendliest soul I have ever had the pleasure to meet. And I knew her from our circus days. She was… the perfect match, for Clint.” He looks down at his hands again, and she notices a single tear rolling down his cheek, as he closes his eyes.

She wouldn’t have taken him for the crying kind, but then again- this isn’t a regular funeral. They lost an agent to a vicious personal attack, but they lost casualties.

They lost Laura too.

They lost the fucking kids .

Her hands ball into fists as the rage in her chest boils again, seething red and vicious at Thaddeus Ross, the one responsible for all this. In his quest to get revenge on the escape from the Raft, he’d cost them so much.

She takes a deep breath, as she focuses on Barney’s voice again. “Their three kids- Cooper, the one thing that scared Clint more shitless than being trapped in a collapsed building in Macau. How the hell was he supposed to be a father when he had no experience of one? When all the father figures he knew were distorted monsters, who beat and spat on him, turning him into something cold and cruel? He was- he was so afraid of failing. I’ve never seen him more scared than the night Cooper came into his life. He was terrified that he would be a bad parent! He was terrified that he would fail, that he would- that it would go wrong.” His voice is shaking, and she understands why.

“But it didn’t. Thanks to a kind soul, and their mutual love, Laura and Clint became the best fucking parents a kid could have. Then Lila came along, and she was their ray of sunshine - fuck-”

He takes a moment, looking up at the ceiling, looking up at the sky and she can’t take it anymore. It’s just a reception - a private reception where the people who knew Clint could come and pay their last respects. There had been some speeches, but she knew that Barney would want to say a few words. Nick had considered saying some of his own, but decided against it. Honoring Clint’s memory was best by remembering him instead of finding words that would feel too hollow to say.

“I’m sorry, I can’t finish this. I don’t know why I thought I could, but I can’t,” Barney finally says, and he leaves. Maria thinks that he storms out too dramatically, but then again that was always his ways. Drama. Barney Barton, the great bigger brother of Clint Barton, known to make the most of a situation. Seeing him like this?

She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to think.

So, instead, she remembers how Clint taught her to shoot. Noticed that she was a better aim with her left hand than her right, even though she was right handed. Taught her about the dominant eye - a trick her caught on from archery. She’d been unable to perform at top level for some time, in spite of the teaching. He’d told her to hold her arms out in front of her, eye level, palms facing away.

He’d told her to bring her hands together to form a small V shape, overlapping her thumb and fingers together, and while she laughed at the exercise, he’d told her to focus on a small object a couple of feet away. Told her to look at it with both eyes. And, while she smiled, unconvinced, he’d told her to bring her hands back, while keeping the object centered - and as he promised her, her hands did not come back in the middle of her face, but in front of her left eye.

Trickshot taught me that, eventually ,’ he’d told her, with that smile of his. A cocky thing, at first. She always thought that he was too flirty, too reckless, too stubborn and too arrogant at the same time, until she was included in on his family secret. Then, it all started to make sense.

As she watches familiar faces leave around her, noticing Leopold Fitz following Melinda May out, she sighs.

Clint may have thought that he didn’t have a big impact on SHIELD, but he did.

More than he possibly could have imagined.

To have lost him - to have lost his family - because of a mistake?

It all seemed so futile.

Chapter Text

They’ve been planning this for twelve days. Maybe it’s not enough, maybe it is. Steve doesn’t really care, at this point - as long as they make it out of there alive. By the time they’re back in Wakanda, they’ll have all of his teammates. Hopefully in one piece.

He looks up from his hands. He isn’t wearing the Captain America suit, but rather a stealth equipment that T’Challa allowed him to borrow. He’s got no funds, no money, no respect here. It’s a first, he muses, as he realizes that not everybody enjoys nor respects Captain America as he is used to.

He thinks back to Siberia, to the moment where he thought that he was going to kill Tony. That little flicker of hesitation in his mind, where he was sure that he’d lower the shield into Tony’s throat. For some reason, he lowered it into the arc reactor instead. The fit of rage - of adrenaline, anger and untamed wilderness had caused him to lose clarity for an instant.

He’d seen Tony’s fear. Like he thought he would die, in that abandoned laboratory, body bound to rot and disappear in the snow, his death left a mystery.

But Steve hadn’t killed Tony. But it had still been close, and he wonders still, if he could have. He probably could. Probably would.

“There’s a safeguarding protocol bound to their containment cells,” he hears Okoye say, through his headset. He looks up, hoping that it’ll help him. What sort of protocol would Ross have set up? Nakia and him are going for the room where they’re keeping Clint, Wanda, Scott and Sam holed up. Like a bunch of wild animals - but he’s got no idea in which state he’ll find them. No idea if they’re being contained in isolation, or if they’re allowed to talk.

He sighs, before he takes another step, resuming the quiet movement up to the cell doors, following the lead of a warrior he will never be able to beat in hand to hand or in tactical combat. “Bypass it, our priority is to get them out of here alive,” he whispers into the comm that’s biting into his cheek - he’s not used to this. It used to sit in his helmet, used to sit in the Captain America helmet that he dropped the moment he decided to take Bucky with him to Wakanda.

There’s a few moments of silence, but then Okoye replies. “Done.”

Nothing seems to happen at first, but then the lights flicker. Maybe he’s superstitious, maybe not. But he thinks that, if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t be a proper escape. Nakia leaps forward and plugs a device into one of the doors - it’s a slit that he doesn’t recognize, not USB, not jack - something more advanced. He’s frankly not surprised that he doesn’t recognize it, some of these things are still foreign to him.

Natasha used to be the one to do all the technology related tasks. He caught on, of course, in time. Learnt from Tony, from Clint. From Thor, even, who knew these different mechanisms like they were ancient. But some things still make him wonder - how much has he truly missed? How much does he need to catch up on? He’d been thinking of attending University classes in Wakanda, about global world history. Just to learn and know. Art history, design history, medical history, space and biology- take the time to learn.

A door creaks open, and Nakia stands aside. She’s quiet, but her eyes are wild and untamed - she’s ready for a fight, and knows there’ll be one. Stepping in, past her, Steve looks around when he realizes that his teammates are all in the same cell block. They didn’t separate them. Either that’s the cleverest move Ross has ever thought of, or the stupidest.

“Sorry about the wait,” he mutters, as heads start looking up - Sam is on his feet, and simply smiles when he sees him. Clint pushes himself upright from the bunk he’d been resting on, and Scott smiles so widely, followed by a grin.

He’s the first to talk. “I’ve said it before, but boy am I glad that I’m on Captain America’s side,” Scott says, when a loud bang echoes down the hall.

“Get Wanda out of there,” Clint says, urgency in his tone. “Get her out of that fucking jacket,” he rages, and Steve goes for her straight away, as Nakia starts working on the controls again. The glass walls to the cells seem too thin, so Steve tries to hit it with his fist.

The moment his knuckle impact the glass, a sizzling noise and a sudden bolt of electricity shove him off his feet, and the jacket around Wanda’s tiny frame lights up. She doesn’t scream, but he sees her pain in her eyes. Not only is it a straight jacket, but it’s also a torture device, to keep them from breaking out.


“Already on it,” she answers, in the same accent that T’Challa has. Steve doesn’t try to hit the glass again, but notices Clint is looking over at the door, through the cell glass and bars.

“Something wrong?”

“Ross said there were protocols to keep us from breaking out,” Clint starts, as he grabs one of the metal pipes running along his side of the cell, trying to twist in order to get a proper look at the entrance. “Said that there were means to kill us, and even destroy us if need be,” he continues, before finally looking over at Nakia, whose gaze wavers when she hears something in her own coms. Steve doesn’t understand it - it’s Xhosa - but there’s something inherently urgent.

“Now!” Nakia screams.

Clint moves away from the glass door, as do both Sam and Scott, and suddenly they move open. Steve runs into Wanda’s cell and rips off the jacket, before even Nakia manages to warm him of the electrical current running through it - he doesn’t care.

“We have to go, now,” Nakia barks, again, and they all fall into a sprint.

Clint waits up, motions to Sam to run before him, and he takes the time to get a last look at the cells they’ve just escaped before he runs.

Loud roars seem to catch up with them as they make their way back up - stairs and other ladders make their progress slower than Steve would have imagined, but suddenly, all the lights go out.

“Fuck,” he hears someone say behind him, and he feels Wanda twitching. Putting her down on her feet, holding her by her shoulders, he looks into her eyes. They’re glowing red - something is definitely wrong.

“He is here,” she whispers, and silence falls on the company. Steve listens - tries to hear anything different, but only manages to catch the breathing of his partners and Nakia by his side. Okoye’s voice registers through his coms, and when she reassures that there is no heat signature around them that would indicate a threat, he almost lets out a breath.


The loud banging and thud suggests that someone just hit the floor, and when Wanda pushes him aside, the collar’s red lights beeping in rapid succession, her eyes glowing redder than he’s ever seen them, he sees it.

It’s red, and huge. Clint’s feet are tangled in what looks like slimy hands, and the struggle that he finally notices takes its toll on him - Nakia throws a knife at the alien looking mass, only to get a hiss and a laugh back.

“Get it off me!” Clint screams, as his fingers catch the tiled floor, trying to hang on, but the hissing only grows louder as Wanda raises her hands.

"Magic will not help you here,” a voice, somewhere, says, and when the lights flicker back on, as if on purpose, they all move instinctively closer when they realize that the red tentacles are reaching out from everywhere around them.

Clint spits, as Wanda’s hands glow and a magic ball seems to appear in front of her - just like they trained. The tentacles seem to catch in on it, and move instinctively to reach out for her, leaving Steve, Sam, Scott and Nakia free of their threat - but he sees them, sees what they’re doing to Clint.

“Wanda, just like the gas in Nigeria,” he instructs, and she nods. He barely sees her nod, as she walks away, focused on Clint, whose grunts and breaths seem to indicate a struggle.

The lights brighten up suddenly, and a hacked up communication from Okoye suggests another threat incoming, but all Steve sees is the red mass, the alien red goo slowly seeping into Clint’s ears, through his eyes too, his nose, quietly drowning him - and Steve reaches out.

Scott does the same, and Sam tries to catch one of the tentacles and rip it off its body, but they all suddenly multiply into ten more, and before they can react, they’re trapped within the red gelatin like creature. Only Wanda seems free of it, and her eyes keep glowing - he’s seen her like this before, once, during a training session where her brother’s memories kept her awake. When her powers from the mind stone took over her body, as if possessing her-

“Wanda!” Clint finally screams, as a larger tentacle inserts itself into his mouth, and a laugh echoes through them, like it’s coming from the mass in front of them, around them- inside them.

“You can’t do anything, little girl,” the mass whispers, like the gentle touch of a snake against their ears, and Steve feels the tickling of the red mass on his face. He tries to struggle, but as soon as he’s closed his fingers in a fist, the mass tightens and locks him in the position, not allowing him any leeway. “Soon, there will be an abomination here and you won’t be able to save your friends,” the monster replies, “an abomination and a carnage always go hand in-”

“You’re just a parasite,” Wanda’s voice booms, and the red magic suddenly explodes from the ball in her hands, turning bright white, turning burning hot, scalding, burning, cauterizing everything in its path, and as soon as the energy hits him, Steve feels the touch loosen, and now, he fights- fights to get the tentacles off him, ripping them from the main body, grinding them with his boot, and he sees Clint’s form appear again, the tentacles gently sliding out of his head, out of his ears and nose, like a trail of blood, before the blood itself appears.

Clint’s body falls, as the mass seems to fade, seems to disappear like water down the drain, and as he reaches for Clint, Wanda falls to her knees in front of him. “Sam!”

“I got her, Steve, you get him, we gotta go!”

The urgency in their voices make his heart beat - what the hell was that? What the hell was that creature? And why was it here in the first place? Abomination? Surely it didn’t mean Blonsky?

Kneeling down, Steve picks up Clint’s lifeless body from the floor and throws it up over his shoulder, as they begin following Nakia again, a pounding echoing through the pipeline over their heads. Roars of anger, of rage, of- freedom? He doesn’t recognize it, and he wishes he had any information. Xhosa flows through his earpiece again, and Nakia replies urgently so, yet again.

“What the hell-”

“I don’t know, keep going!”

“Is there any new alien lifeform we don’t know about, because I really think that getting a lobotomy by a red monster was something we should talk about!” Scott bites in, and when they finally reach the first door they unlocked, Steve can’t help but look over his shoulder. Something huge looms at the end of the tunnel, and even though Clint’s weight on his back seems to crush him, he pushes on.

The seeming safety of the jet is but a short reprieve. Their take-off is delayed because of an electrical interference, and as soon as he throws Clint’s body onto one of the transport beds, he notices some of the red mass materialize outside of it.

“Get into the air, now!” he screams, as Sam picks up knives and other sharp objects from a box Nakia has opened, Wanda sitting down on the floor, playing and toying with her necklace, that’s turning bright blue.

“I’m trying!” Okoye screams, “Something is keeping us grounded!” she says.

“We can hear you,” the hissing sound suddenly whispers again, and Steve feels a cold shiver down his spine. He looks over his shoulder, almost as if he’s seen the shape of a man there, but there’s nothing to see. Then, a loud and booming baritone laugh echoes, making his bones tremble at the strength of it, at the sound and volume of it-

“Blonsky,” he says, leaving Clint’s side, hoping he’ll make it, and he joins Nakia down on the platform.

“Wanda!” he calls, and this time, it doesn’t take as long for her to conjure the energy that bans the red mass from their ship, and Sam sends off three shots at a huge, green, monstrous pair of hands holding the landing wheels of the jet down. As the red mass forms next to the Abomination, Steve notices it takes the vague shape of a man, but then- then it seems to fuse with the Hulk like creation, and panic throbs in his chest- this is beyond his knowledge, beyond his abilities, they can’t possibly-

The sudden jolt makes him lose his balance, and he catches one of the straps from the parachutes that are secured inside, as the jet tries to take off. Nakia and Okoye suddenly stand by his side, arming some sort of device, aiming at the monster that’s fusing in front of their eyes.

Steve dares a look over his shoulder and sees a blood trail from the bed he’s laid Clint on, leading to the pilot’s seat, and he figures that the archer took control of the foreign jet, allowing the two Dora Milaje to take up a fight they can’t possibly win on their own. The device charges, and as soon as they scream, the jet jolts again, picking up the incredible weight of the Abomination and Carnage together, and he sees their fingers slipping from the metal balustrade, the red creature clinging to it, but Wanda’s magic pushes it away.

When they fall, the doors to the jet close, saving them from falling to the ground again, and Okoye jumps from her position and back to the pilot’s seat.

There’s not time after that to think, as Nakia and Sam pick up Clint’s body from the chair, and lie him on the ground. Nakia’s found another box in the aircraft containing medical supplies, and Steve sees Sam’s instinctive pararescue skills set in motion: he reaches for a little torch and lights into Clint’s unresponsive eyes, before Nakia applies a mask to Clint’s face, starting to pump air manually and help him breathe again. The blood has trailed from Clint’s ears down onto the blue shirt he wore, and his nose has been bleeding proficiently. It looks like a mess.

There’s blood seeping from Clint’s left eye too, where one of the red tentacles inserted itself into him.

“What did it do?” he asks, as he kneels before Wanda, and quietly, gently, breaks the lock on her necklace and rips it off. Nobody replies.

“What did it-”

“We don’t know yet, Steve,” Sam snaps, and Steve gets the point. Now is not the time to ask questions.

He looks at Wanda, then at Scott, who sits in a corner, terrified out of his mind. This was not what they had planned. Wanda’s gaze is distant. Like she isn’t entirely here, and Steve tries to get her eyes to focus on him, but they don’t. She’s breathing, but it feels as if- as if she’s trying something else. Something on an astral plane he can’t understand.

Her eyes lose the glazed surface as soon as Clint’s body twitches and turns into a cough, and he instinctively moves to the side, Nakia failing to rip off the oxygen mask as Clint throws up.

No, this rescue wasn’t a success. Far from it.

There are arguments, and then there are… arguments. It’s not the first time that Sam has witnessed one between Steve and Clint, but it’s the first time that he’s seen it so heated.

Clint’s still in the medical ward. He’s got a nasal cannula attached under his nose and behind his ears, allowing supplemental oxygen to flow to him. One of his eyes is bloodshot because of the trauma he experienced when the creature - Carnage - tried to squeeze his brains out from the inside.

“You can’t decide what’s good for her!” Steve says, again. They’re trying to be adults and mature about it - they’ve all gone through a lot lately, but it seems as if there’s still some sort of discomfort left because of the sacrifices they made for Steve to save Bucky and keep Zemo from unleashing 5 additional Winter Soldiers on the world.

It had taken quite a lot of explaining when he’d told them that it had been a ploy to get him and Stark together, and break the team from within when Steve had had to admit to Stark that he knew Bucky had killed his parents. For some reason, Sam always had assumed that Stark knew. That maybe, he’d learnt it for some reason.

Clint’s throat is bruised from where one of the tentacles had squeezed, and his voice has been rough for a couple of days - but at least, he’s speaking now. The doctors have taken him through several MRI scans, and the drip in his arm is giving him the proteins he needs - swallowing whole foods that aren’t liquid is still problematic as his oesophagus is bruised too. They’re saying that it’s a miracle his eyes didn’t pop out of their socket, nor that his neck broke with the pressure.

His cervical vertebrae are bruised too, and C4 and C5 have signs of stress fractures, but they can’t decide if it was the assault by Carnage or the arrest that caused it. Clint hasn’t spoken about what Ross did to him either, while they were in his custody.

“They put her in a shock collar and a straightjacket because they were scared of her- because they wanted to keep control of her, because they didn’t know how to!” Steve exclaims again, and Clint pushes himself slightly more upright. They’ve tried to keep him from moving as much as possible, but Clint isn’t the most cooperative patient they’ve had.

Clint groans, before he speaks. “Because you check on her to make sure she isn’t torturing herself all the time? Because you feel some sort of brotherly bond over her? Is that why?” he asks, in a hiss, the words coming out rough and like gravel.

Steve snaps around and crosses his arms. “You aren’t her father, Clint, and as much as you like telling yourself that, you can’t decide what’s best for her.” He pauses, as Sam raises his eyebrows when Steve looks at him for support - this is a fight he won’t take part of. Wanda can decide what she wants to do for herself, that much he knows, and yet, here they are, fighting over her like they’re her closest family. “I was there after Lagos, I was there after Ross brought the Sokovia Accords to our doorstep- where were you?”

The instant the words fly out of Steve’s mouth, Sam sees that Steve realizes he’s gone too far.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that-”

“Yeah, you did,” Clint groans, as he lowers his hands onto his lap. “Ever since you learnt about my family, about my kids, you’ve been like this. Like I have a better priority than you, like I don’t understand the sense of urgency.” He turns his head, and looks at Sam too. His eye looks like something out of a horror movie, Sam realizes, and this time, that it could have gone so wrong in the Raft. That Clint was the only one to get caught up - that Clint survived what he went through? He wonders how it happened.

“You sent me to get her, when you wanted her out of the compound, because you knew she’d listen to me. You know how she’s been feeling with me, because of Pietro, because of herself- you know how she is. But you can’t possibly imagine to decide for her. She’s a kid, but she’s big enough to know what’s best for her. Sam says that-”

Steve shakes his head, as he interrupts. “I know Sam says that she’s decided what to do, but all I ever wanted to do was to keep her from going through what they did to Bucky.”

Clint laughs. He actually laughs, and Sam lifts his head from his fist - he’s been sitting in one of those wooden designer chairs that the medical ward has set up in Clint’s room. Usually, Clint’s laugh is warm and kind, but this, this is just cold. The kind you use when you see through someone’s bullshit, and it doesn’t take long before Clint spits the truth right back at Steve.

“That’s not what you want her here for, Steve, and we both know it.”

There’s a pause before Steve replies, looking over at Sam. “Can you give us the room, please, Sam?”

He nods, before standing up and walking out of there, pulling the door closed behind him. They’re in a foreign territory here, and he’s never felt more out of place - the Wakandans near him all look at him sideways, and he wonders if he can fit in if he tries. T’Challa has come to meet them several times, but as far as Sam understands, national threats are looming ahead, and with Ulysses Klaue stealing more Vibranium with internal help, there’s something more at stake here than there seems.

He decides to go walk up and down the hall, in order to give Steve and Clint the room completely, because that conversation is not one that he wants to be a part of.

“Are they arguing about me?” Wanda asks, when he finally finds her, sitting on a terrasse, overlooking a green tropical forest.

A huge Black Panther statue looms over them, and she looks better than he’s seen her for a while.

He snorts. “Yeah, they’re both trying to be overprotective of you, in their own way,” he replies, giving her his biggest smile. He likes Wanda - she’s innocent, while all knowing at the same time. They’ve been training together for a while now, and she was the only one who actually liked Redwing.

He briefly wonders what the US Army did with Redwing, and if they even figured out how to use it. Maybe Tony Stark took the technology back, and hid it in his compound, but he doubts it. It stings for Sam, that the US Army would take the Falcon wings back, and claim them as their own again.

“I have told them that I wish to go with Clint,” she says, playing with a necklace made of braided vegetable fibers. One of the Wakandans who were there when they landed gave it to her, told her it was a protective spell. Sam isn’t so sure, but he knows that Wanda liked her pendants and jewelry. They took it from her when they put her in the Raft - took the things Pietro had given her, that much he knows. The remnants from her brother, taken.

He feels sad for her. Her entire world, destroyed, and yet she still stands here. “I do not wish to look into the mind of Mister Barnes, for I cannot help him,” she finally admits, and looks down at the ground, as if in shame.

“What they did to him- those words? It’s beyond even your power. That’s years and years of formatting, you can’t take it away with magic,” he answers, trying to give her the support she needs.

She smiles. A sad, lingering smile on her lips. “I wish I could knock him on the head and make him be better,” she says, looking over at him. He smiles, confident in her words. “Like Natasha did when Loki controlled Clint. But, as you say, it is beyond that. Mister Barnes is beyond the power of the Mind Stone, and that is back home, with Viz- Vision.”

She catches herself saying his nickname, before she smiles again. It’s not fair, Sam thinks.

Both their heads snap up when Nakia appears before them, breathing fast- “You’ve got to follow me,” she says, and they’re both on their feet before they know it.

For some reason, Clint made it out of the bed. He made it out of there, and the confrontation between him and Steve had finished in a more than violent manner, when he’d tried to hit Steve, and failed.

Steve’s fist had collided with Clint’s chest. And then his face. The male nurse who was present said that their yelling had escalated to high levels of angered screaming, about their duties, about the people in their lives they loved- but the details, he could not recall.

Wanda had been able to restrain them. Her hands, shaking, but glowing red with her magic had torn them apart from each other.

It was never easy seeing two former partners get physical with one another, especially not this way, but Sam had seen it happen before. He’d pulled Steve out of the room, while Wanda remained there.

“What the hell were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t, that’s the problem,” Steve says, as he spits. Maybe Clint did nail a hit on his jaw, after all. “He said that I couldn’t fix Bucky, and I just lost it,” he continues, rubbing the back of his head, shaking it at the same time.

“You can, and you will, but you have to give it time. Barnes made his choice when he went into cryo again, to give you that time and prevent any harm from coming to him,” Sam starts, but Steve shakes his head more firmly this time.

“But what if he’s right? I mean- look at them both. Bucky and Clint both went through the same thing, and Clint still has nightmares about Loki, even if it’s been four years. How do you think Bucky will be when he went through that trauma for fifty years?”

Sam crosses his arms across his chest. He doesn’t say a single word, but does take a deep breath. “You can’t fix everyone your own way. They have to heal themselves first, before you can help them. That’s the thing people find hardest to accept, and what I struggled to teach at the VA. You can’t force it upon others.”

He pauses, as he turns his head to look up the corridor, to Clint’s room. “You could’ve killed him, Steve,” he says, but doesn’t allow Steve to cut him off mid sentence, “Wanda said that she made her choice. You can’t force her to stay, even if you wanted to, she’s more powerful than any of use are. You saw what she did to Carnage, she’s the only reason we made it out of there. The only reason that we made it alive was because Clint walked last out of that room, like he knew- he said to go straight for Wanda when you came in, remember?”

Steve nods.

“He knew something was off, and I’m ready to bet that if he hadn’t guided us through, we’d still be over there, you with us, and two faithful guardians of Wakanda too. You gotta trust him on this, even though I know you hate SHIELD and its agents for not doing something against HYDRA before, you can’t keep your grudge forever. Some of them actually make a change every single day. You weren’t there, those three weeks we were in the Raft, Steve.”

He pauses, before he goes on. “I don’t know what they did to the others, but they’d bring Clint back bruised and battered. He was a senior SHIELD agent, he knew things none of us did. Tony Stark dropped his family to Ross, and I’m pretty sure the first thing he wants to do is go back to them, alright? Let him rest, and heal, and then let him take Wanda with him, if that’s what she wants to do.”

Looking up again, Steve watches Sam’s features, as if they’re ready to give him the answers he needs. Maybe they don’t, but he sees something, Sam realizes. And his shoulders fall, the defensive stance failing. “I don’t know, Sam. Everything I’ve done so far? I feel like I’m a nomad in my own life, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now,” he admits, and Sam nods.

“Don’t worry buddy, I got your back, and I’ll always have it. But, you gotta go back and apologize to Barton first,” he says, uncrossing his arms and turning around to head up the corridor. “You banged him up pretty bad, and Wanda’s pissed at you. Next thing you know, Laura’s going to be coming for you too, for hitting her husband while he was in a medical bay and hooked up on a nasal cannula, among other things.”

Steve smiles. “I know,” he says, before he joins Sam’s side, walking back up. “There’s just so much anger that I didn’t know I had buried in me, I don’t know how to deal with it.”

“Good thing I worked at a VA for some years, then, huh?”

He’s never seen a connection like this one. Or so he thinks, anyway. The wifi at Stark’s tower was probably a good one, but this- this feels like it’s out of this world. Or maybe it’s just because the tablet he’s using is a newer technology and the screen is ten times brighter than what he’s used to.

So, he tells Laura. “It’s almost as if you’re right there, like I could reach out through this and touch your face.”

She laughs at that, the sort of laugh he knows she keeps for when he’s not entirely himself because of pain medication. “And you are high as a kite, young man.”

The bad thing with the high definition picture is that he sees everything - the deep purple tired marks under her eyes, the glossiness in her eyes because she hasn’t slept for days, the grey hair that he’s been teasing her about. And she probably sees the exact same thing back - his eye is still as bloodshot as it was earlier, as if nothing is happening to resorb it, the cannula under his nose still helping him breathe, and now, the soft cervical collar they’ve strapped on him after Steve Rogers tried to smash his face in.

“I’m not high as a kite, they’re keeping me sedated,” he replies, before he tightens and untightens his fist. Maybe this isn’t the best time, but he has to talk about this with her. “Otherwise I’d have already made it back to you and gotten you out of there, like I promise I would.”

She shakes her head, and readjusts the position of the laptop by pushing the screen lightly backwards. “You got out of the Raft and were attacked by some mutant creature, Clint. Press was talking about your escape, and Ross released an official statement saying that he covertly cooperated with two former dangerous threats to the United States. Which, by the way, is totally bullshit, because I looked at the files he gave out, and then Christine Everheart - that skinny, nosy journalist that Tony hates - started digging too.”

She sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose, and Clint cocks his head. “What did you find?” he asks, and she lets out a tired huff, before looking up at something behind the laptop that Clint can’t see. He recognizes Barney’s voice, cutting into the conversation.

“Emil Blonsky, son of a bitch got transferred from Barrow, Alaska, to the Raft as a safety procedure last year. Releasing any prisoner without going through the right protocols would break down the cryogenesis he’s in, and release the Abomination, which it did. But not only that, Ross put some guy called Cletus Kasady in the Raft too- that’s Carnage, by the way, the thing that squeezed your brain and almost killed you.”

Clint remembers the feeling of the red material making its way through his mouth, through his ears, and the ringing almost instinctively kicks back. Like when he’s afraid there’s going to be bugs on him, and suddenly his entire body is itching. Clint shakes his head, as Barney appears in the frame. “Kasady’s a serial killer who used to be locked up in Ryker’s Island prison, but his trail goes cold when we try and see when and how he got moved from Ryker to the Raft.”

Laura looks up at Barney, who’s put his hand down on the back of the chair she’s sitting in. “Barney showed up, like you said he would, after Tony told Ross about us.”

“Promised I would now, wouldn’t I? Besides, Ross’ll look into those things as soon as he calms the press down,” Barney adds, and Clint shakes his head.

“I still gotta make it there, I can’t stay here. Steve wants to use Wanda to fix Bucky’s head, and the high council of Wakanda won’t allow us to have asylum here forever-”

“You’re in no state to travel, Clint. Look at yourself. You can’t come just yet,” Laura says, and Barney closes his eyes, thoughtful.

“Look, I promised I’d make sure nothing ever happened to them, and I’m going to stand by that promise. They’ll  be fine. We’ve talked about this before, Clint, I know what to do to keep them safe. All you need is to do your own job and stay alive until this shit blows over,” Barney comments, and Clint grinds his jaw shut. He doesn’t like it, but this contingency plan sounds like their best option.

“What’d they track on what Ross is up to?” he asks, but as soon as the question leaves his lips, there’s a knock on the door. “Come in,” he answers, Laura and Barney staying quiet at the other end of the line.

Sam’s head shows up at the door, apologetic. “Sorry to interrupt the family time, but I think that the doctors want to run some more scans on your head,” he says, and Clint nods. The doors close again and he looks at Laura.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, alright?”

She nods, and Barney nods too. “I’ll look after ‘em until you get back here to do it, alright?”

Clint reaches for the red ‘end call’ button, but Laura reaches it first. When she screen shuts back to the desktop, he sits for a while and stares at it. None of this might be worth it if his body gives up on him before time. After all the shenanigans he pulled before the Accords, before Germany, running around and playing with the Circus of Crime and pulling Ronin out of the closet, maybe it’s time to lean back and take a break.* 

She’s felt this kind of pain before. It’s a deep pain, that sits so very deeply in bones that she doesn’t know if and when she will ever be free of it.

This is pain that isn’t entirely human, and she isn’t sure why Steve brought her here. She’s already said that she couldn’t help. That she wouldn’t help, more so, because this? This isn’t something that she’s supposed to fix with a waving of her hands.

“He is in pain,” is all she manages to say, looking down at her hands. She doesn’t want to be here - but maybe she’s learnt to hide what she wants too well, because Steve doesn’t pick up on it.

“I know that- it’s just- I just want to know if there’s anything you can do,” Steve says, then. She looks up from her hands, at at Barnes, in his glass container. He reminds her of Sleeping Beauty, in her glass casket. There are less flowers, she thinks, and it almost makes her laugh. Like a marble statue, immobile and unmoving, unaging. Strange and eerie at the same time. There are sensors all over the glass and going through the mechanism keeping him in cryostasis, and she doesn’t even try to read them.

“Maybe you can- maybe you can ease his memories-”

“That is not how it works,” she interrupts. She looks down at her hands again, and then feels the collar she wore in the Raft touching her neck again, even though it’s gone. The ghostly touch of it. It feels like a ghost limb, like she lost something that was so inherently attached to her. It sapped her magic, it sapped her powers, and whenever she conjured the red lights and the red power of the mind stone, she felt it drain her mind from everything happy. “I cannot look into his mind and press buttons to make him better, Steve. I am sorry, but it is not what I can do to help.”

She tries to smile, but Steve looks so heartbroken - and she understands. She can feel Steve’s pain rippling off him in waves, and she sees herself. If she could bring Pietro back, wouldn’t she do anything in her power to do so? Would she allow him to stay in his own peace, while they looked for a cure? Or would she try every single possibility she had the ability to touch with the tip of her fingers?

She shakes her head, readjusting a rogue strand of hair behind her ear. “His memories are pain. Screaming, and silence,” she answers, finally, closing her eyes and allowing herself to try and see something. Anything. Any light that could bring Steve some peace to allow the doctors to work on Barnes without having him loom over them, like a shadow. “He lives the same pain again, and again, and again, and the words echo in his mind. He hides them, tries to not think of them, but the triggers- they’re there. Have been there for half a century, when Zola first tried them.” She purses her lips, her eyes still closed, as her mind wanders into Barnes’.

She feels a hit through her body when she suddenly feels her eyes open again, and she’s looking through memories. Are these her own? Or are they- oh, she realizes. It’s a memory both Barnes and Steve share, she figures, when she suddenly sees a room, darkened, and hears screaming outside. Numbers are rolling through her mind, 32557038, again, repeated, like a mantra. For every number she hears, there’s a word, whispered beneath.

She sees the room, lit up, and sees a glimpse of the past - another memory, before this one. Barnes’ piercing screams make her ears ring, and when she puts her hands to her ears in order to block it out, she realizes that this is the first time they used electrical shocks to try and erase his memory. A furnace burns in her mind, when the other memory comes back.

Steve runs in, and finds Barnes on a stretcher. There are marks on Barnes’ face from where Zola’s algorithm and machine had left their claws - something benign, but still apparent. She looks around, wants to get out of there, but suddenly, it feels like she’s a part of it. Like Barnes knows she’s there, because he’s suddenly not looking at Steve anymore - not asking how he got this big - but he’s looking at her. There’s something rusted in his face, and Wanda feels the fear creeping in on her hands and in her bones. A presence behind her, whispering words in the dark, like a drum, like a rhythm she can’t escape.

The lights fade, and she’s left alone. One. One person alone, in a darkened room, trapped in a memory that isn’t her own. She wants to scream, but a cold hand touches her shoulder and she flinches away. She closes her eyes, and through her eyelids, she sees some light breaking through, like a daybreak suddenly hitting her with the full force of the sun, and she’s left standing in the medical ward, looking at Bucky’s frozen body again.

Yet, she sees her own too. And Steve. Frozen in time, she thinks, understands, figures. She hears shuffling around her, and suddenly sees nine pairs of eyes around her. Looking at her, like they’re judging her - and she wants to flee again, but this time, her powers won’t let her escape. There are faces she recognizes, but then there are younger ones. A young boy, and what appears to be his twin, with lighter hair, and her heart almost skips a beat for he looks like Pietro when he was younger.

She feels the longing in her chest, burning with heartbreak at the wish of being reunited with her family- she wants to see them again, to hear Pietro’s laugh and feel his presence behind her. He was the only one to hold her close, he was the only one to know what pain she went through when Strucker burnt her body with the Mind Stone and the Scepter. It’s been seventeen months, she thinks, since she last felt this desperate dread, like a death hanging over her.

A few seconds tick by, and she’s back in her own earthly body. She feels herself waver, the homecoming hitting her and she feels oh so heavy. Oh so broken and oh so heavy, as if she’s made of lead and is going to fall through the floor. Like when she made Vision go through the ground, made him heavier than he should be, and she wants to sit down, but her hands are shaking as she tries to reach for a chair. Nobody moves around her, and she feels so lonely.

She closes her eyes, to try and shut it out, tries to pull off a choker and a necklace that isn’t there, and suddenly, the image of a freight car blasts its way to the edge of her mind and she feels her chest tighten, her heart accelerate and then-


Steve’s voice calls. It’s hazy, but she doesn’t know why. Something hurts, something hurts really bad, but she doesn’t know where. She frowns, and the pain burns through her head, and she realizes that she fell. She fainted, hit her head on the floor. There’s a doctor trying to light a torch into  her eyes, and Steve is holding her hand.

“The triggers-” she says, tries to say anyway, but Steve shushes her, picks up a plastic cup filled with water and hands it to her. Something’s happening around her, and she feels out of place. “The triggers, they surfaced, he’s not asleep, he’s fighting them,” she manages to croak out, as she drinks some of the water in the cup. It feels odd to swallow, but she looks up at Bucky’s body, frozen in time.

No, this is deeper than magic. Zola’s words resonated in her- made her faint. She can’t help him with this, no more than she can help Clint fight Loki in his own mind. “I can’t do this, Steve,” she then adds, begs, pleads, and his eyes harden when he sees it.

This time, maybe, he understands. This time, maybe, he’ll see. This is beyond her powers. They need someone more powerful, with more knowledge. Someone who will understand just how broken a man Bucky Barnes is.

“You aren’t seriously considering going home?”

Sam’s voice is worried, and Clint feels it. He lets out a deep breath, and opens his eyes again. He had been hoping to rest a little bit, but then Sam had decided to come and follow up.

“I mean, you heard what happened with Wanda when she came close to Barnes, right?” Watching Sam’s face intently, Clint slowly smiles, a tired smile. He just wants to go home, if he’s being quite honest. “The doctors are saying that you shouldn’t move either,” he continues, “you’re not ready. Your neck is still healing, and there’s something in your head that they can’t pinpoint-”

“I know, Sam, I know. You don’t have to lecture me on it, but you gotta trust me on this. Whatever is going on, I’ll be fine as soon as I make it home to my family, alright? I’ve been through this before.” Clint bites his lip, before he closes his eyes again, leaning his head back into the pillow. He just wants to rest a little bit - just a little bit, enough to just, maybe, be able to sleep through a night. One night without waking up with a drip being changed, or a nurse coming in to check his eyes and his reaction to light.

“Laura needs me, you heard Stark- I mean, the first time Ross pulled me out of the cell after Stark’s visit, he asked about it. You have any idea how hard it is to lie about your family when they’ve got a monster like Carnage sniffing around your brain?” He pauses, before opening his eyes again, and looking down at his hands. “Carnage’s the worst of them, anyway.”

The frown that appears on Sam’s face betrays the question he thinks of immediately. “Them? There’s more of them?”

“Yeah, there’s another one,” Clint says, before going on, “maybe two more, SHIELD wasn’t sure at the time. We’d been tracking them for a while, like we tracked Spider-Man, but then we lost track of them. There’s Venom, which is a less violent version of what they think is a symbiote, but then there’s another one. I think we called the last one Toxin,” he adds. “That’s the reason why I wanted to be the last one out of there. You guys have no idea what Ross is hiding down in the Raft, nor what he’s got planned.”

There’s a knock on the door, and both their faces turn towards it. When Wanda’s face appears, Clint smiles, but he drops it as soon as he realizes that she’s got tear strokes on her cheeks. “You alright, sweetheart?” he asks, and she smiles.

Sam stands up immediately, and goes for her, taking her hand and leading her to the chair he’d been sitting in. “What’s going on?”

“I was thinking about what Steve said,” she says, and Clint tries to hold his head upright before he closes his eyes again. “About Barnes and what should happen- Scott has been talking about going back to his family and Mister Pym and Miss Van Dyne.”

She pauses, sitting down in the chair. “I want to try and help Mister Barnes,” she adds, looking at Clint. Sam sees the disagreement in Clint’s eyes, and he agrees.

“No, Wanda, you shouldn’t- he wasn’t even awake the last time you looked inside his head, and it almost drove you mad,” Sam interjects before Clint is able to say anything, but he jumps to the opportunity as soon as Sam is done with his argument.

“Whatever is hiding inside Barnes’ mind is beyond your control, Wanda.” Sam lets him speak out, as he kneels next to Wanda and looks up at her face. She wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand, and looks at Sam, almost smiling. She allows Clint to finish his argument. “You saw Loki in mine, but you can’t possibly understand what’s going in Barnes’ mind. You’re familiar with magic and what a mind can survive- that he’s even still- that he’s logical and able to think- it’s a miracle, Wanda. You can’t possibly know what he’s been through, how many times they’ve taken his memories from him and torn him apart.”

Wanda nods, and Clint lets her speak when she inhales deeply. “At least while you are still recovering, Clint. You are in no state to travel.”

Sam hears a warning when she says it, and Clint does too. They both nod, but Clint still looks on disapprovingly, and Sam recognizes a father when he sees it.

“But as soon as you have looked into Barnes’ mind, we’re going home, alright?”

She nods. Sam stands up after that, putting his hands on Wanda’s shoulders, and squeezing tight. “I’ll let you guys catch up, alright? I’m sure you guys have a lot to talk about too,” he smiles, before he lets go and walks towards the door.

“I’ve got a kid, you know,” he says, and Wanda can’t help but feel a little bit cheered up already. Scott is always so happy, and he always has a smile. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t get the grand picture - but Wanda is absolutely sure that he does. That he understands. He’s not stupid - that much she knows. He’s spent years in jail, because he wanted to do better. And then, he rose up when the opportunity came, and he became a superhero. Just like she had.

Sometimes she wishes she had made better choices than going to Strucker, and letting him experiment on her and Pietro. Because, maybe, just maybe, she’d still have her brother by her side. Scott goes on, not having noticed that she’s stopped listening.

“- she’s such a goofy kid. Got a big ant as a pet, too. Cassie’s eight, now. She doesn’t understand why I’m not there all the time, but she likes Hank, so I think it’s alright. I got Luis to look after her too, when Clint and you came to pick me up and bring me to Germany,” he laughs, as if he still can’t comprehend. “Gotta say though, I had no idea what I was getting into.”

“You didn’t ask,” Wanda starts and Scott smiles.

“No, I did not. Sometimes it’s better not to know the details and trust your gut, and when Captain America asks for help, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to answer that call.”

She almost wishes that he wasn’t so positive. “Cassie wants me to go home as soon as I can, so I’m gonna ask T’Challa to get me back to the US in some way, maybe Hank and Hope can help smuggle me back in-”

He treads off course, and Wanda thinks of Luis. They’d met, only briefly, but he had left such an impression - the mere fact that someone like Luis existed made her laugh. Not because he was funny, but because he possessed such a lively energy. Scott had it too, and she realizes then, that Clint usually has it too. That cocky smile - typical American. She knows why she likes Scott, then.

“- Hope’s been telling me that the press is going bananas about Abomination and Carnage. They’ve been playing footage from Harlem over and over again, and they are trying to figure out what the Raft is and who Ross has got there- if there’s even a protocol being followed. Something about the Hague or something, I don’t exactly know.” He stops up, before biting his lip, and watching her. “You got anywhere you wanna go home to, sweetie?”

She shakes her head. “I am not sure,” she whispers. “Steve wants me to look inside Barnes’ head-”

“Yeah, I heard about that. The trigger words got to you, yeah? I read them, they’re on a list somewhere, tricky things. I’m not sure if they’re ever going to go away. Kinda like candles, man. You ever smell a candle and you remember these moments where that smell was just so strong? I had it like that when I was in jail, man. The detergent smell on the orange suits we wore was the same as I used to use on Cassie’s clothes, right before they shipped me off behind bars, and every single time we got a new set of clothes, I was right back by her side. What kept me sane, I gotta say,” he chuckles.

She doesn’t hold it against him that he interrupted.

“But, eh, Hank’s saying that Ross is in the crossfire anyway. Someone figured out that Abomination was released on purpose, and not by accident like they’re trying to say - training exercise, my ass.”

Wanda laughs. “That is usually their excuse.”

“Yeah, it is. Usually isn’t a training exercise.” Pause. “How’s Clint doing?”

Wanda’s features tighten up, almost immediately, as she looks at Scott’s face. “He is still recovering.”

“He heard from his wife and kids yet?”

“Yes, Laura has been talking to him regularly. He wants to go back to them.” She scratches her eyebrow, as a pause, and speaks up again. “I want to go back with him too.”

“Then, you gotta do what you’re gonna do, kid. Captain America can’t keep you here if you want to go back, you’re the most powerful of all of us.” He raises an eyebrow. “You could probably level this place if you tried. Wipe it off the face of the earth, and all of us with it.”

Maybe it’s not exactly what Wanda wants to hear, but she’s happy that he’s so upfront with it. “Only pain-”

“Pain usually fuels most of our reckless actions, Wanda. Gonna learn that, eventually. If you let it control you, you’re going to lose yourself, but! Pain also fuels the best ones. The pain of losing Cassie was what brought me back from a subatomic world of never-ending agony. It can bring your smile back, too.”

She can’t help herself, the smile creeps up on her face.

Someone has been tailing her for quite a while now. They’re good - but they’re not that good. She’s noticed him following her for a couple of blocks, and she’s tried to divert her itinerary enough times to lose him or to lose his attention, but every single time she heads back to the airport, he’s back on her tail, a couple of cars behind.

Natasha isn’t sure if he’s even tailing her - he disappears every now and then, and then shows up behind her again. Maybe he’s just going to the airport too. Maybe he’s just headed home as well. Sometimes, it’s like when she’s driving in heavy traffic, the same car will pop up half an hour later, right next to her, and it’s all been because different turns and overtakings took them apart for a while. But maybe she’s just learnt to read it too well. After all, she is a spy.

There’s been so much because of the Accords. Christine Everhart has been on television so many times these past few weeks - discussing the events that took place in Germany, the arrests of Avengers, the disappearance of some of the others. Something happened in Greenwich too, but Natasha isn’t too sure what it was. People are saying some sort of cosmic event, like the one that happened when the Convergence was taking place. When Thor left a creature from Jotunheim behind she and Clint had to take care of, back in London.

There had been a lot of arguing. Can Clint actually fly home? Is it safe for them to fly in, on a private jet? Will it raise too many questions for her to go to an airport by herself? She’s ditched a rental car twice, and paid for this one in cash and with a fake ID. Everybody knows her face by now, though, and nobody blinks twice. There are those who agree with the Accords, and those who didn’t. She feels it, still today, and she wonders if this is what it feels like when people don’t agree with each other on a national level. She wonders if they can ever make things right again - if she’ll ever be able to go back to the life there was before Germany, before the fight. Before the Raft.

She still remembers Wanda screaming as Clint sprinted to get to her, when the soldiers tried to muzzle her, when they tried to put her away, to sedate her, to restrain her. They’d tackled Clint like an animal, and his head had hit the tarmac. Natasha had yelled, said that they didn’t have to, but somehow, the military had decided that there was no mercy to be done or given. They were enemies of the state, and were to be treated as hostile. Thankfully, there had be a no kill order out, otherwise she’s absolutely sure that Clint would have taken a bullet to the head instead of a hit on the floor.

She looks at the clock on the dashboard of the car - the bright orange letters indicate late morning. She’s still got some time before the jet makes it home, before they’re cleared to get out. It’s SHIELD personnel on the ground - people she can trust. Nick Fury will be there, that much she knows, because he’s one of those who organized the entire transfer from Wakanda, calling in favors from here and there. Barney called in a favor or two as well, but he stayed behind in Waverly. To look after the wife and kids, he’d told her in a phone call.

As much as she hates Barney - for all he did, for all he didn’t do, for all that he put them through when the Circus of Crime surfaced again - she admires his dedication to his brother. Barney has no family of his own, but the one Clint has means everything to him, and that much she knows. There’s been another person coming and going at the farm, in the middle of the night - hushed voices, darkened faces, whispers she can’t make out. She’s seen the light out in the barn, and the first night she climbed down the stairs to go out and investigate - because she needed to know if they had been compromised, only to find Laura sitting in Clint’s favorite armchair, holding a jumper she had been keeping from washing because it still had Clint’s scent on it.

“Don’t worry,” Laura had said. “It’s a friend.”

And the look in Laura’s eyes had meant everything. Absolutely everything. So, Natasha had only hesitated a couple of seconds before going back upstairs. As much as she knows Clint trusts her, there are still a couple of aces up his sleeve that she isn’t privy to. She doesn’t blame him - she’d rather not know, and make sure Laura, Coop, Lila and Nate are safe, than have her give up his deepest secret under duress.

So, there she is. Finally pulling up at the airstrip, scanning the skies for a jet that’s probably going to make it there anytime now. The car that has been following her, she lost a couple of swings back. She drove around in circles for ten minutes, trying to lose her tail, and it seems that it worked. She can’t shake the feeling - but Nick had told her. Be there. Three of the closest agents Clint trusts, some of Nick’s best, will be there along with Natasha, and there will be two cars. Diversions. They’ll be empty. And, one of them will drive Wanda and Clint back home to Waverly, where they belong, so Clint can heal quietly, far away from the political unrest brewing in Wakanda, following Bucky and Steve’s exile there.

Removing the key from the contact, Natasha pushes the door open, and steps outside. Locking the car, she looks over her shoulder. Nobody there. Bending forward, she looks at her reflection in the side mirror - readjusts a strand of hair, and walks inside. There are some faces she knows here and there, all eyes from SHIELD that she trusts. All people here voluntarily. Some people she doesn’t know, but an FBI insignia promises her that they’re good.

She recognizes a face from the Impossible Mission Force, as well. Jane Carter, she believes. One of Clint’s contacts, as an undercover agent for the IMF. She has never spoken to her, but she’s heard a great deal of praise from Clint about his colleague, and she’s absolutely sure that her being here means everything will be alright.

It was like grasping for straws, finding people to trust in a world that would gladly put Wanda and Clint back in the Raft. In spite of the interference of Abomination and Carnage, public opinion still favored their imprisonment until proven innocent. It had been the same when Frank Castle had been judged in Hell’s Kitchen - guilty, until proven innocent. And no amount of PR and announcements was going to change it. The public liked Tony Stark too much - they still remembered his persona from when he was a playboy and a billionaire. Not a superhero and a broken man, suffering from PTSD and nightmares from other worlds.

Crossing the tarmac, she meets Melinda May.

“Romanoff,” Melinda greets her, and Natasha feels the antagonism. They used to be good friends, Phil Coulson and Melinda May being Clint’s closest handlers when he was still a SHIELD agent above all.

“May,” Natasha says back, and she manages a smile. The tension eases a little bit, and Melinda nods at her, letting go. “Now is not the time to discuss politics.”

It’s true, and Melinda knows it. “Now is the time to make sure a father makes it home in one piece,” Melinda comments, and Natasha feels a heavy weight fall from her shoulders. Not so far behind, she recognizes Leo Fitz, a young engineer whom Clint praised for his trick arrows too, and she hopes that they’re doing good. After the fall of SHIELD to HYDRA, and the subsequent disaster, they had to run and hide. But, if they’re here, it probably means that they’re doing alright.

Maria Hill stands aside too, discussing with Nick Fury, who is concentrated on listening. Walking over, Natasha overhears their exchange.

“- I’m not saying that it’s a good idea, I just think it’s risky. We’ve got too many involved in this, Nick-”

“You gotta trust me on this, Maria. This is what Clint would have wanted to begin with, and it’s why so many people have showed up. All of them want his safety, first and foremost, and from what I’ve heard, Clint will need all of it. The injury he sustained in Sao Paulo seems to be annoying him-” Nick stops mid sentence when he sees Natasha, and a smile makes its way onto his face. “Natasha!”

She smiles, and Maria turns around. It’s been too long since they spoke, and instead of hugging her, Natasha just nods. “Maria.”

“Romanoff,” she gets back.

“We were just discussing the plan. Melinda, Maria and you will have to pull a straw as to who will be driving them home.”

“About that,” Natasha says, “someone has been tailing me. I don’t know who, but I suspect that it’s someone on Ross’ side. You’ve seen the media talking, he’s got dirty hands.”

“I know, I know. Someone followed Melinda here too, but we’re thinking it’s one of ours who’s just making sure to stay unseen until we’re sure everything goes by as planned,” Nick interrupts, and Natasha sees the shift in Maria’s eyes. Looking around, she sees that they aren’t as many as she thought they would, but then again… Some of them still don’t know about Clint’s secret family. She dares not mention them, afraid that she might betray a secret she swore she would protect with her life.

The sound of jets in the distance cut the conversation off, and they all look up. “Who’s piloting?” Natasha asks, and Maria smiles.

“Best not to know, to be honest,” is the only answer that she gets, and Natasha can’t help but raise an eyebrow. Sometimes, she wonders exactly how many people owe Clint a favor. How many people he’s saved, or made a different call with - how many people’s lives he’s changed by being the way he is.

Nick moves away from them, and Natasha is left with Maria. “You know who’s going to drive them home yet?” she asks, and Maria nods. “Melinda’s gonna lead them South, you’re gonna lead them North?” she guesses, and gets another nod.

It’s the most obvious solution, and she feels like she needs to regain control. Of course Clint would have a contingency plan in place, of course he would know what to do should something like this happen, but she still feels like it’s not enough. Like she can help, do more than what she’s doing right now. But she knows. As much as they believed different things, there are some things she can never be fully a part of, and the inner circle, privy to Clint’s most secret and dearest protection? She thinks she lost that privilege when she chose to side with Stark rather that Steve.

The plane touches down. It’s an old and rusty Lockheed McDonnell 3-12, and she hasn’t seen one of those in service for years. Why the hell would they fly in such an old plane? As it taxis on the landing strip, she feels her hands start sweating - the moisture settles in her palms, and she realizes she’s nervous. She hasn’t been nervous like this for years, and thinks that it’s unfair it should happen now. Of all times for that to happen. She almost wants to scream.

The exits open, and a small set of stairs appear, as a young cabin crew exits. Maria leaves her side to go and talk to him, as Natasha notices another woman climb down the stairs. She’s got a long braided ponytail, and a pair of aviator sunglasses perched on her nose. Natasha is absolutely sure that she’s seen her before, but can’t remember - until Melinda walks up to greet her by name, and the name Lara rings a bell.

Natasha moves as soon as Clint’s frame fits through the exit, and she almost misses a beat when she sees his shape. His eye is still bloodshot, and she wonders exactly what happened to cause this, and he looks like every single intake of breath he takes is a pain. He’s probably got ribs that aren’t properly put back, and she wants to scream at him for not taking care of himself.

“Hawkeye,” she starts, and Clint smiles. God, she’s missed that smile of his - it’s almost as if she hasn’t seen him for years, and yet, there he is. Like he’s always been - like he will probably always be.

“Widow,” he greets back, nonchalant, and she smiles again. Maybe, it won’t be as bad as she thought. Maybe he will be alright with the fighting, with the hits to the head. Something tells her, though, that he won’t. He can’t. Not after what they did to Wanda in the Raft - because Natasha knows. She’s known for a while now, known what Ross put her through. Because Steve told her. Told her about the bracer around Wanda’s neck, like a rabid pitbull ready to tear someone’s throat out. About Carnage, about Abomination.

“You look like shit, Clint,” she concedes, and Clint rolls his eyes, as he makes it down to the final step off the plane. When he touches the floor, she sees relief flood his eyes - maybe, just being home on American grounds is enough for him. Maybe it’s enough for him to get better. But he needs to get back to his family, and she understands that better than anyone.

“Hah,” Clint barks, “I feel like shit too. Ever had an alien symbiote squeeze their tentacles around your brain?” he stutters, before looking over his shoulder at Wanda, who’s currently standing at the top of the stairs. Maybe it’s not the most appropriate time, but he nods at her, a wordless conversation happening entirely with body language.

Natasha feels jealous, in the span of a couple of seconds, before she takes a breath and takes control again. She can’t feel jealous. She sees so much of herself in Wanda - young, unknowing, seeing Clint as a brother and as a father figure, always there to look after her. Or so she hopes, anyway.

Letting out a huff, Natasha cocks her head. “No, I haven’t had an alien symbiote squeeze my brain, but I have been through terrible things too,” she jokes, and the crack of his typically laid back smile reassures her. No, he’s not terribly mad at her. Only a little bit.

“When are we getting out of here?” he asks, and Natasha motions to the car behind her.

“Right as soon as you’re ready, birdbrain.”

As they both wait for Wanda to make it down the stairs, Natasha hears Maria and Nick talking again. Clint hops over to them, standing as straight as he can, and embraces Nick. She remembers that Nick was there for Clint the way Clint was there for her, and wonders if this is how Nick feels about his agents most of the time. Maybe no. She feels the urge to ask, but then snippets of the conversation make their way to her ear, and she can’t help but listen.

“- doctors said about your eyes?”

“Said they don’t know what’s going on, but it’s like ten years ago, same things happening. Pretty sure that-”

“You don’t have to tell anyone, we know. We’ll look into it, like we did back then. Now, get back to your wife and kids, alright?”

Maria looks worried, and Nick does too. His eye looks veiled, and Clint just nods. There’s something going on, something she doesn’t know about, and she turns her head to look at Wanda, hoping to get some sort of sense on it, but Wanda looks like she doesn’t care or that she hasn’t listened. Maybe she truly doesn’t care. (Although, that wouldn’t be like her at all).

She catches a glimpse of the car that was following them, and catches a glimpse of a bullseye that looks to be tattooed on the forehead of the driver. Clint comes hopping back towards her, and she loses her focus for half a second, and then it’s gone.

It feels like home again. There’s life on the porch, the kids have stopped looking down at their cereal like it’s their worst enemy. Even Nathaniel seems to be in a better mood since Clint made it home.

They drove up the dirt road during the night - Laura woke up because of the sound of the tyres against the gravel, and when she’d looked out the window and recognized the car, she’d sprinted downstairs. Barney had emerged from the guest bedroom too, weapon not so carefully slipped into the back of his pants. They both noticed a window opening up on the barn, and both of them nodded. Even if it wasn’t Natasha with Clint and Wanda in tow, they would be ready for it. For whoever it was.

Sitting on the rocking chair she’s inherited from her mom, Laura looks over Clint. He’s sleeping on the bench, his back against the wall, eyes shut with a peaceful expression on his face. He looks so young, and she remembers how he looked when he was just a teenager. The same pout on his lips, the same exact expression when he slept and he knew he was safe. Nothing to worry about.

She hears footsteps approaching, and recognizes Barney’s heavy footsteps. Wanda is asleep in the guest room, she’s been resting after the flight - and the jet lag. She still refuses to speak about the Raft, and seems to be more intent on ignoring it. Maybe Clint will be able to pry her open, like he’s done before, and get her to open up about what pains her. But just not yet.

“Would you look at him,” Barney exclaims, leaning on the doorframe after he’s pushed the mosquito net and the door open. Overlooking his little brother, Barney suddenly feels much older. Responsible. Like it’s his responsibility to take care of his little brother - and in a way, he has been doing just that. Laura smiles. It’s nice to have them all here together - the only thing missing is her sister, Kate. “Looks like a goddamn kid who fell asleep with his stuffed animal in his own bed.”

“Oh, leave him be, Barns. He’s been through hell - give him a night’s peace,” Laura teases, and Barney sticks out his tongue at her. It feels so incredibly childish, but at the same time, not really. This is the way it is. As much as she knows Barney can shift in a second, she knows that she won’t ever be unsafe in his presence.

“Got any news?” she asks, and the lights in Barney’s eyes go out like a light in the wind.

His eyes rush to the barn - the one place they don’t speak of. Where Laura knows that Clint keeps his Ronin suit hidden, from where he locked it away last time. They don’t speak of it. They don’t speak of what happened then, nor what they had to do to survive. “As far as I can tell, we need to get out of here soon,” he starts, and she feels his worry. “The one who tailed Nat when she went to pick them up? Got an ID on him and-”

“- He’s a bad guy Ross picked up, I guess?” Laura interrupts, and Barney nods.

“Lester, apparently, far as I can tell. He calls himself Bullseye. Claims he’s a better shot than Clint is,” Barney explains, as his eyes drift to his sleeping baby brother. They dropped the canula today, and Clint’s been breathing on his own most of the day. He fell asleep with a glass of lemonade in his hands, and almost dropped it onto the porch. Laura had pried it from his hands, quietly and gently, and put it on the table. “We got a tracker on him, made sure we knew where he was heading at all times.”

Barney seems final, and Laura feels safe now. She knows that they’re going to be looking after her, now that Clint is injured. When Natasha had finally left to go back to SHIELD to make sure all was under control, they’d discussed things with Clint. It was a relapse - that much she knew - and Barney agreed. But there was nothing they could do just yet, until they were absolutely one hundred percent sure. Natasha couldn’t know, they’d agreed. She couldn’t know what had happened in Sao Paulo - even though she had her suspicions. Clint would be adamant : she can’t know , he’d say. She would never forgive herself , he’d argue.

The window to the barn opens, and Laura’s eyes drift up to it. She’s familiar with it, by now, and she feels safer knowing that it’s supposed to do like that. She still wants him to come into the house, instead of hiding up there. Instead of hiding in the shadows - hiding from the kids. Hiding from his Godson.

But, maybe, it’s best that nobody knows. That nobody knows who’s hiding in their barn, for their protection, other than Clint, Barney and herself. Nick knows too, because he knows everything. But that’s it. In a way, it’s reassuring for Laura.

(But it is also tricky for her to accept the secrecy. She used to share everything with Maria and Laura, and here she is, lying to them, for her own protection…)

Clint suddenly moves, chewing on air before he licks his lips - his jaw had been falling a little bit down, and as endearing as it was, Laura had thought of recording the slight snoring that had come out of it. He opens his eyes, taking in the whereabouts again, and smiles when he sees Laura again. He always looks at her like that when he’s been in pain for a while, like he’s finally rediscovering how beautiful she is.

“I missed you,” he starts, but Laura holds her finger up.

“You do not get to play that game, we’ve got Wanda sleeping upstairs, you are going to have to wait until she’s rested,” Laura comments, “Besides, I don’t want you hurting yourself because you got too eager before healing up.”

Barney lets out a dry laugh, and Clint flips him the finger.

The loud bang of the window on the barn catches all of their attention simultaneously, and they all turn their heads. There are lights on the dirt road, far away and down. They aren’t expecting anybody. Barney disappears into the house, and comes back with two guns, handing them to Clint and Laura. She watches him, watches the window on the barn and sees a red light pointing at the door.

“Get the kids,” Clint instructs, and Laura nods. Even though she knows how to fight, Laura won’t get involved - they’ve got this covered. She takes the steps two at a time, not caring about waking the others, and knocks on Wanda’s door, before heading further down the hall. Cooper’s awake already, stirring in his bed quietly, looking like a lost puppy. He looks so much like his father Laura almost feels heartbroken.

“Come on, Coop, we gotta go,” she whispers, as she head to Lila’s room, and finally goes to grab Nathaniel up from his crib.

She hears footsteps, and the front lights from the cars start lighting up the rooms through the windows. It’s a too bright light to be any friend, like they’re invading an unknown territory. “What’s going on?” Lila murmurs, as she rubs the traces of the sandman out of her eyes. Cradling Nathaniel against her chest, Laura purses her lips.

“Just like we planned, alright? Uncle Barney and dad are gonna take care of it,” Laura reassures, and Cooper nods. They both understand, they’re old enough. Nathaniel is still too much asleep to react properly, but she doesn’t forget his binkie. They don’t want him to start crying right now, there’s too much at stake.

“Come on, follow me,” she whispers, as she heads back down the stairs. Both Clint and Barney haven’t moved, but Wanda’s made it down too. She’s standing on the porch again, eyes heavy with sleep, heavy with all the feelings she’s had bubbling up, and Laura takes Lila’s hand as they move to the living room, moving through it, out to the back door. “Just like we planned,” she says to herself, as a mantra. Maybe it’ll help them.

When she hears a roar that can only be defined as Hulk-like, however, Laura knows things are about to go from bad to worse, and Lila’s tiny hand gripping hers like her entire life depends on it breaks her heart.

“We know you’re in there,” Ross’ voices exclaims.

“You don’t have to shout or wake the kids, General,” Clint barks back, sliding his hands in front of him, showing that he’s unarmed. Barney stands to his left, behind him, the weapon still in his hand. Some of them know how to argue, some don’t. “You didn’t have to bring the Abomination, you know,” he continues, and sees Wanda stop right up as she realizes that the demon-like version of the Hulk is there. Somewhere.

She can probably feel him.

The large tank that follows the jeep almost betrays what’s going on inside before it happens - moving from side to side, Clint’s entirely sure that they had Blonsky frozen or sedated inside.

“Bringing Blonsky to my home, seriously?”

Ross laughs. “You can’t play the family card on me, Barton,” he says, and Clint feels mad. Maybe he truly doesn’t believe that he has kids - maybe it was a ploy from Stark, maybe it was an intricate lie. But right now, Clint wishes with all his heart that Ross didn’t think of this as an intricate chess game. Laura and the kids are hopefully on their way out, by now. But the fact that Ross brought the Abomination? It pisses him off.

Clint marches down the steps of the porch, forgetting he isn’t wearing any shoes or socks, and when his bare feet touch the gravel, he almost grimaces. Fuck off, he thinks. Fuck off my land, or I’m going to put a bullet in your head, he wants to say. But he doesn’t. He can’t bargain with the US Army, nor the soldiers Ross has brought with him. They’re all from the United Nations, and all wear the sigil of the Accords.

“Clint Barton, you’re under arrest-” Ross starts, but Clint doesn’t let him finish.

“Keep your speech for yourself, Ross, we both know why you’re here. You really wanna do this, you really wanna bring a fight to my home? You brought a fucking monster here, I’ll fight you til the end.” He pauses, and Ross arches an eyebrow. “How d’you think Elizabeth would feel if she knew what you were doing? I got fucking kids, man!” he finally barks, and Barney steps down behind him, Wanda following close behind. She hasn’t said a single word, and Clint hopes with all of his heart that she will be able to contain the Abomination once it breaks loose from its containment.

“You wanna tell your freak Hulk to go back home? We can handle this like adults- oh fuck,” he exclaims, because before he can finish his sentence the Green Rage monster breaks free.

“Clint, you gotta run,” Barney whispers, as he fires three headshots at the monster. “You gotta-”

“I know-”

“Sorry, can’t take any chances. You’re a fugitive, and anyone helping you is an accomplice to your crimes, I’m going to have to take your brother in, and anyone in that pretty little house of yours,” Ross says, as he moves to the side.

“Laura?!” Clint screams, as he runs back inside, both Barney and Wanda moving together to form a sort of barrier against whatever is going to happen. Laura makes it to the front door, and as their hands touch, Nathaniel looking out over his mother’s shoulders at the Abomination, Clint sees the look of horror that passes through Thaddeus Ross’ eyes.

Nathaniel starts screaming, and as the screams leaves his mouth, Barney shoots another shot at the Abomination, who is now heading this way. When it ripples off, he moves the gun to the side and shoots at Thaddeus Ross - hitting him in the arm, somewhere he knows for sure no kevlar is protecting the flesh.

Clint takes Laura by the hand, and runs back inside the house. Wanda knows this is her moment before she realizes it.

Stepping in front of her, Barney takes her by her shoulders and looks her in the eyes. “Kid, stay in control. You have this. You can only control your own fear,” he says, and Wanda nods.

As Barney turns around, a rain of bullets suddenly raining down on him - miraculously stopped by Wanda’s powers, and runs. Towards the barn. Out of there. To make sure Clint and Laura make it out. Wanda can do this on her own.

The scream that echoes through his head when he looks over his shoulder to see a bullet pierce her chest makes his nose bleed.

He doesn’t remember much that happened after that, other than a flash of red lights - swallowing everything whole, embracing everything around them, like an all encompassing, all knowing creature of darkness and light together.

He doesn’t remember much, except the sounds of the house creaking, of Nathaniel’s screams, bullets ricocheting against things they shouldn’t be able to ricochet off.

And then, Barney remembers being shot into the air, the air blown out from underneath him, the air shot out of his lungs by the force of the power suddenly echoing through the air as the Abomination collided with the Scarlet Witch’s powers.

He feels everything echoing through his body, and then, he feels the wave hit him before the sound rolls in.

What he sees before the barn collapses on him is the house in flames, ablaze like a nightmare, disappearing into the light, like it’s being removed from existence. Wanda is kneeling, hunched over, while someone lies in front of her. There’s damage everywhere. Barney feels his heart burn in his chest.

And then, everything turns to darkness when the wooden construction collapses onto his head and knocks him unconscious, burying him beneath piles of rubble and stone and ash.

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe it.”

He’s sitting in a couch that feels too soft. Detached from reality. As if what he’s seeing on screen isn’t the truth - that it’s a bad nightmare, and he is going to wake up from it soon. He shakes his head as the headlines loop at the bottom of the screen again. A clip of Christine Everhart starts playing again as a Breaking News, with more text displaying second after second on a screen that’s too yellow, too red.

“What’re they saying?” Sam asks, and Steve shakes his head, again. He doesn’t know what the answer is, because he can’t compute what just transpired.

They woke because Everett Ross knocked on their door, asking them to come and see. Because these things, these things they needed to see. His work alongside Ross to contain the Winter Soldier had turned for the better when he’d taken in Helmut Zemo in his place. Joining T’Challa as a representative of the Joint Counter Terrorist Center, he’d slowly grown accustomed to the life here.

When they made it to the living room - or what was their living room, anyway - they’d locked their eyes on the screen. And since then, close to half an hour ago, they hadn’t left the room.

“Clint’s dead, his house blew up- they’re saying that there are signs of civilian casualties. Saying the Scarlet Witch caused it, like she did in Lagos, that she lost control-”

The television screen cuts to a helicopter or drone view from above, and the large marks of a battle on the front of Barton’s porch make Sam quiver. “We positive Ross brought Abomination with him?” he asks, more to confirm than anything else.

From the back of the room, Everett Ross moves forward, and nods. “We’ve got confirmation that the US Army freighted Emil Blonsky to Iowa on a barely authorized action, and that he’s currently M.I.A. We don’t know where Ross put him, but my bet is that he brought him back to the Raft, or worse, the Vault.”

Everett Ross tries a smile. “As far as I can tell, Miss Maximoff and Mister Barton, and his family, were destroyed.” He pauses, rubbing at his temple.

“Tell me the rest,” Steve asks, and Sam looks from the one to the other.

“The rest?”

“They recovered Barton’s brother, Charles, from the collapsed barn. He’s in intensive care as of right now, but the crime scene investigation unit believes that there’s a second set of footsteps leaving the barn, and they’re currently undecided as to whose footsteps those were,” Everett replies, as Sam walks over to the couch, sitting down next to Steve.

“But they found Barney’s body, right? Have they found-”

“No, and that’s the problem. So far, their best guess is that when one of the soldiers managed to shoot Miss Maximoff in the chest, her magic burst and literally turned everything around her to dust. Including the bodies of Mister Barton and- and herself, in the process.”

Steve bends forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, and his head in his hands. How the hell did they let this happen? Natasha’s been sending messages, trying to phone, for hours now, she’s saying that there is something more to it. But Steve doesn’t know. He can’t help.

“She was just a kid,” he mutters, as he throws himself back into the couch, feeling the guilt set in, inside his chest. And he’s stuck here in Wakanda, unable to do a shit about it. “Got any words on Secretary Ross’ state?”

“The blast that destroyed the home hit him and some of his soldiers full force, but it seems that they’re going to be fine. Minor injuries, a few broken ribs, but he’s seen worse. With the way Miss Everhart has been hanging him out on television, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him bite back soon enough,” Everett continues.

A door behind them opens up, and as all heads turn towards it, Everett speaks again. “Mister Stark has released a statement condemning the actions that happened in Waverly, and said that he will find the culprit and make sure he is brought to justice.”

T’Challa enters the room quietly, and when Sam and Steve moveto stand up, he moves up his hands in a gesture to indicate they just stay seated.

“I am sorry,” he says, before he walks up to stand behind the couch. The tired lines on his face also betray the internal political struggle that he has been fighting ever since coming back to Wakanda as not only the King, but their leader. Taking up the mantle after T’Chaka seems to be taking a toll on him, Steve sees.

“If there is anything that I can do to ease the pain of loss, please.” T’Challa says, as Steve pushes himself to stand, and nods at him.

“Thank you, I appreciate your support,” he says, and he feels like it’s too formal. He feels like he needs to punch seven punching bags off their hooks, that he needs to spar or do something to get all of this anger out of his mind.

And yet, all he can remember is trying to hit Clint in the head after he’d said that Bucky was a lost cause and Wanda wouldn’t be able to help him.

T’Challa nods and moves to leave the room again, Everett Ross following closely behind. Steve allows them to leave before he sits down on the couch again, and this time, allows Sam to see just how devastated he is. If he could, he would cry, but he can’t summon a single tear. The heartbreak is too icy and cold- is Wanda truly gone? Is Clint gone?

The one member of their team who brought a bow and a bunch of arrows to an intergalactic fight? The one member of their team who had a family to go home to at the end of the day? Who had the most to lose? Who actually had a legacy to protect, more than friends and his work?

“Sam, they killed everyone in that house,” he stutters, like the words hurt too much to even say. “Nat said they drove Clint home, that- Barney was there too look after them, but also that- fuck, the kids weren’t at school because it was late at night- it’s all my fucking fault,” he whispers, and Sam stands up, moves away from Steve, trying to take a deep breath and distance himself slightly.

“We don’t know for sure- we gotta- let’s wait til Barney’s coherent again, alright? He will know. He will be able to say exactly who was in the house and what went down,” he states, mostly trying to reassure himself. It rubs off on Steve, whose hands seem to stop trembling, as he looks up, the youth in his eyes shining through. “Until then, it’s all just speculation- the press doesn’t know anything. For all we know, they made it out of there, alright? You know Clint- you know what he’s capable of. It would surprise me if he didn’t have a contingency plan in place in case someone came for his wife and kids, trust me.”

“I told you not to go after them.”

Stark’s voice is stern, hard and cold. Ross hasn’t slept since the accident. The media is spewing cyanide about his actions, and the entire world has suddenly realized what has happened. Instead of worrying about natural disasters wiping entire cities off the map in Bangladesh and wildfires in California burning everything down, they’ve decided to worry about two missing Avengers.

“- so, you’re not fooling me at all, Thaddeus. What the hell were you thinking?” Stark asks - no, he questions.

Ross looks up from his hands. He hasn’t been able to let go, to act like this wasn’t his fault. He still remembers the ear piercing shriek the Barton kid had let out right before it all got shot to hell. He still remembers the look on Barton’s face as he looked at him, as the Abomination lept at the house. How had he not seen through this?

“I don’t- I don’t know,” he tries, starting slowly, mumbling and trying to find his words. He’s been in such a state of rage after their escape from the Raft, he never thought to check before hand. Send in some scouts.

“Try better,” Stark barks. “Barton’s dead, the Maximoff kid is probably dead too, and you have three dead kids and a dead wife to account for,” he starts, and Ross looks for an exit. He wants to run. He’s never felt so old and tired as he does now, never felt so useless and broken. “You never thought to clock in with Fury? To clock in with intel from the FBI or Homeland? Send in a spy to check? Fuck, you told me you sent in Bullseye to see how Clint made it back home and you never thought to make sure that there wouldn’t be any civilian casualties?!”

By the time Stark is done talking, he’s yelling. Ross doesn’t blame him. This entire situation is a gigantic fuck up, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.

“Abomination was supposed to just intimidate, so we could bring them in again-” Ross tries, but Stark just laughs. It’s a mocking laugh, mocking and judging.

“Did you really think that Blonsky would allow you to use him? All along, all he ever wanted was to be better and stronger than the Hulk - I mean, we have proof that he coerced Samuel Sterns to inject him with Banner’s blood even after you gave him the serum, we have proof that he got too much of him. Have you not learned anything from 2008, or did you just choose to ignore it? The state they left Harlem in? Allow me to refresh your memory. Last time, you were so kind as to provide footage of the damage we did as the Avengers in New York, Sokovia and to the Triskelion- let me return the favor, Secretary.”

Stark swipes his fingers across the screen of the tablet in his lab and suddenly they’re engulfed in a hologram. Like a virtual reality embedding itself around him, Ross suddenly finds himself walking through Harlem, destroyed and ripped to pieces by the Hulk and Abomination. He finds himself reliving the crash of their helicopter, the thought that they were going to die from an explosion - right up until the Hulk clapped his hands together and saved them.

And still, he went through it all. He sees Pop’s Barber Shop, crushed and broken because of a flying car, and he sees names like Genghis Connie’s, and he shakes his head. All of these places, destroyed because of his eagerness to create a super soldier to protect the world.

"You see a suit of armor around the world, Tony-”

“Don’t use that speech on me, Ross. I tried to create artificial intelligence based on mind manipulation, caused by Wanda Maximoff. Even though I was aware of my actions, and I accept the responsibilities of the damage caused to Sokovia because of Ultron, you always knew what you were doing to Blonsky when you hired him from the Marines, you always knew what you were doing in your personal crusade against Bruce Banner for shagging your daughter and breaking your heart- don’t tell me you’re like me, because you’re not,” Stark hisses, “I’ve seen what my work did when it was corrupted, when they held me in a cave under a mountain and tried to coerce me into creating a deadly missile, I’ve seen what inspiration can cause, good and bad, with Justin Hammer taking shortcuts to men with bad motives, I’ve lived through all of that - I know how it feels to be broken by what’s happened.” He finally pauses, and Ross takes a deep breath as Stark shoves the holographic content back to his tablet, and the whiteness of the room hits him.

“It’s why Pepper left,” Stark continues, as if he hadn’t just stopped. “Because I’ve seen the other side of a wormhole, seen armies from outer space and threatened Gods.”

“And yet, I always tried to protect the little guy. The ones that we fight for- did you forget it along the way? Did you get bitter, on your trip to avenge your daughter? Who, by the way, can take care of herself just fine? Or did you take a page out of Schoonover’s book and decided to bend the law to your will? Like, I mean, you didn’t become a drug lord like he did, but you’re so damn close to being a villain in your own story, Thaddeus.”

“I didn’t know Barton had a family,” Ross finally manages to get out. His hand move to the wallet in his jacket, where a picture of a young, freshly graduated Betty Ross smiles and sits, and he manages to continue. “I heard you when you went to see him and- but there were no traces. Nothing. We followed his brother for a while, even tracked Romanoff- you said it yourself, Bullseye never saw the slightest hint of any domestic life. They were too good at hiding it, even though you basically handed them to me on a silver platter.”

Closing his eyes, Ross thinks back to what happened. After one of their bullets hit Wanda Maximoff in the chest, she’d exploded in a halo of red light - bursting through all of their gear, ripping the house to pieces behind her, hurling the Abomination through the air. The monster had fallen flat on its ass on top of one of their trucks, and he’d shrunk back to his human form, the knock out too powerful for even the Abomination to contain. The red lights had moved through them like a nightmare, ripping their souls from their bodies it had felt like, and Ross still remembers seeing Wanda’s eyes in his mind, all knowing and all powerful and all pain before the farm crumbled, a scream echoing in his head.

It had felt like Betty’s screaming, as if she was right next to him again and screaming in agony at him, but then he’d realized it was Wanda, shrieking like she was possessed as she fell down to her knees, and slowly started just… disappearing.

Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Ross sighs. “I can’t claim to know better, because I’m directly responsible for their deaths. I’ve seen the media, read everything on the subject, nobody is going to take it off my back-”

“And good for them, because you can’t forget. For fuck’s sake, Thaddeus, the youngest kid was barely two years old!”

Ripping the sunglasses off his eyes, Stark looks up at Ross and doesn’t let him look anywhere but in his eyes. “When you came to us, asking us to sign the Accords so you could gain control and oversight, I didn’t hesitate for one goddamn second because I trusted that you knew better, that you knew what you were doing. And all you’ve ever proved to me since is that you’ll gladly butcher anything that stands in your way to get what you want, and in that, you’re no better than Steve.”

Stark pushes himself upright, and looks over his shoulder at Ross. “I’m going to ask you to leave now. You can come back when the funeral’s gone and done. Meditate on responsibility and accountability while you see the world mourn an Avenger they barely knew and a kid they never got to learn to understand.”

She wonders if it’s just the flat that feels empty, or if it’s everything.

Looking out over what she always liked to call her “cold and white” home, she thinks that there is no personality in it. She has expensive furniture all around of her - a carpet she brought home from Masalli, coming home from a mission in Azerbaijan, and on top of that, a sofa table she remembers seeing in the home of a mark in Lund, Sweden. She also looks at the dinner table, solid oak that she had brought home from Saskatchewan a couple of years ago, equipped with Danish fishbone chairs. They’re vintage - bought on an online auction for a certain large amount of money.

Maybe, she thought that it mattered to have one safe place that looked like home.

But everything has its place.

There’s nothing out of place, other than what she’s pulled up - a single wine glass, and a bottle of red wine from the South of France, a Secret des Capitelles from 2006. She likes it, because it’s only a mix of grenache and syrah, and not a third or fourth variant of grapes. But, for some reason, today it tastes bland in her mouth. Like even that couldn’t cheer her up. Sitting on the sofa, looking at the television that’s running on mute, she tries to understand. She tries to comprehend what is going on - but, the only conclusion she comes to is that she’s heartbroken.

Nick had been the first one to call, when the information had come. Natasha was still looking over files a security breach leaked from the Raft - suspecting Tony Stark to have had a hand in that - trying to find any guilty culprits as to what caused Carnage to be let out. Looking at names, wondering who and what and why there was such a threat.

Nick had told her. “Ross attacked Barton,” were the only words she could hear before she snapped into action, wanting to go and help- “The house was destroyed,” he’d gone on, before she was able to make any sound, “only Barney seems to have survived.”

And silence.

She’d heard her name repeated several times, but she couldn’t- no, this couldn’t be possible, could it? So, she’d gone there. Looked over the pile of rubble and ash the wind suddenly made come alive by kicking the last dust and charcoal off the ground, as a vast pile of nothingness replaced a home she’d loved and cherished… At the time, she thought that it was such a cliché to find one of Lila’s toys amongst the rubble.

And yet, when she looks over to the side of the sofa table, seeing the toy lie on the floor, half burnt and with a nervous stitching holding the foam back inside the stomach, she wants to cry again. She’d bought some thread as soon as she’d made it home - the same shade of turquoise as the plushie, she didn’t want to use the thread she used to stitch herself up with. And she’d stitched it together, hoping to get the ash and the charcoal off it with soap later on, but it seemed that the heat of whatever had gone down  had melted some of the polyester fabric that was supposed to double as turquoise fur.

There’s a knock on the door, and in any other situation, she would be on her toes immediately, trying to find out who would show up unannounced, but right now? She just wants them to go away, so she doesn’t budge from her spot on the couch. When it knocks a second time, she lets her head fall onto her chest, almost begging out loud for them to let it go.

“It’s open,” she finally says, loud enough, she hopes, for someone to hear it on the other side of the door.

The door opens, and in comes Nick Fury. “Didn’t think you would let your door be unlocked,” he comments before she can even say anything, and he shuts it, locking it by the mechanism she’s installed like he’s done it before. (He probably has).

“Today, I didn’t care,” Natasha says, trying to smile, but she finds that she can’t summon anything. Her face is usually a mask, an unreadable book, open only to those with a very special key. Lately though? It’s been crumbling, and she can feel it. The sight of the ash and burnt down barn is still itching its way through her chest and heart.

“Talk to me, Natasha.”

He sits down next to her, and for a single little second, she hopes that he would just go away. Go away, leave me alone, she wants to scream, but she knows that he’s here for a reason. She’s holed herself up.

Her eyes well up when she realizes - no, when she remembers - that usually, it would be Clint sitting in Nick’s spot. Coming to ask her what’s wrong and why she isn’t letting anyone in. But Clint can’t do that right now, can he?

She can’t say anything just yet, so Nick lowers his head in understanding, as he speaks, allowing her the time to accept that she needs to talk. “Barney’s out of the ER, and it looks like he’ll make a speedy recovery. As soon as he’s ready, I’ll talk to him about what the hell happened,” he starts, trying so hard to find a smile, trying so hard to make it seem like it’s the most natural thing that has happened. “Maria sent Fitz and Sitwell to Iowa, to investigate and take samples on the scene. So we can figure out what-”

“We know, though, don’t we?” Natasha interrupts, as she rubs a tear off her cheek. It’s managed to make its way down from her eye, and she rubs it away, like she would an annoying fly. The Black Widow doesn’t cry. That’s a thing that does absolutely not happen. “Ross brought Abomination there because- because they were tracking me.”

“Natasha, they were tracking all of us. Melinda shot Venom in the chest the same night you brought Clint back to his family, and Maria got in a hand to hand fight with some AIM Agent who decided to kill himself before we managed to talk to him- you got trailed by the same guy you saw when you came. It’s on all of us, alright? We all fucked up. Clint’s death- Laura, the kids’ deaths- they’re on me.” He pauses, and even though she’s seen Nick with a collapsed lung, broken spleen, ribs torn apart and put together again, even though she’s seen him survive an assassination attempt by the Winter Soldier, she realizes how old he actually is.

How much weight is on his shoulders, and how much they’ve all be taking, and taking, and taking- without ever noticing. The responsibility he carries as the Director of SHIELD, when it collapsed and got overtaken by HYDRA. The Director, when everything went to hell and when the Avengers needed them the most. The Director, who started the Avengers Initiative to do good, which got corrupted when both Loki and Strucker decided to play with forces above and beyond any human being’s power. How long has he been keeping this?


“Looks like it’s not just my mask that’s broken,” she whispers, and Nick laughs. He actually laughs and she feels a little flicker of hope in her chest.

“Nah, I’ve lost so much over the last five years. I doubt I can make it back out in the world without letting people notice a couple of cracks in my otherwise perfect poker face.” He pauses. “How are you really feeling, Natasha?”

“I feel- I feel empty, Nick.” She purses her lips, as she looks for the words that don’t come. “Like- I’ve lost everything. When SHIELD fell, it was a fight. I was there, we fought, there were enemies, but we always had a plan, right? We always- we could always fall back and go to the shadows and work from there, like you did, when you faked your death, right?” She watches Nick’s face, and sees right through it. The same sorrow she’s been bearing for weeks now is staring her right back in the face.

“He didn’t- you didn’t-”

“No, I’m sorry. Clint’s gone for good, this time,” he states, looking down at the ground. None of the tics she’s usually managed to get from him tell her that she’s lying, and when he looks up again, Natasha can’t stop it. Another tear flows freely, followed by another.

Maybe it was this, she was waiting for? A little hope, a little prevailing hope that maybe, just maybe, Clint was still alive. That maybe, just maybe, Nick had helped him fake his death, to get to Thaddeus Ross.

“Clint was- you remember when he brought me in? God, I was such a kid back then,” she starts, and Nick lets her. “I was a kid, and he still took me in. Red Room instincts kicking in, after my fiasco in Sao Paulo, after failing to kill my mark back then. He was the first man to ever best me in hand to hand combat, did I ever…”

“Yeah, you’ve told me before.”

“He always said he made a different call, but he never told me what his prime directive was,” she realizes, as she looks down at her hands. The very mission Clint had been on when he took her in. He had never told her. Never told her who gave the order, nor who he had to report to when he broke the prime directive and brought her in. Nick smiles.

“Clint was a punk ass kid when he came in, ruthless and a fucking pain in my ass. Phil and Melinda pulled him in, though, even though we’d gotten clearance to terminate him. Director Carter, Peggy, used to say that any young man who’d gotten so far down a dark and violent path couldn’t be turned around, that their souls had to be broken somehow,” Nick begins, and Natasha wants to interrupt, because that’s not an answer. That’s not the answer she wants, but she knows it’s coming anyway.

“When we had to decide which Agent to send after you, we hesitated between Maria, Melinda and Clint. Some people said that it was better we send a woman, because, you know, girls stick together. Thought it would provoke a sentiment of empathy, for some reason. I always wanted to send Clint, and even Melinda finally pulled herself from the choices. Maria didn’t speak her mind, but it was clear that she wanted to do it- fresh out of the Academy, thinking she could take on a Black Widow by herself,” he continues, as if he’s never stopped, “we decided to send Clint. Maybe it was because he hadn’t grown up hearing stories of the Black Widow, of the Red Guardians and of the Winter Soldier, so he had no idea what he was getting into. I mean, he killed mob bosses and other bad guys but- you’ve killed those without even leaving a trace.”

She smiles, as if flattered. She’s heard the story before, from Clint’s own mouth, and from Laura’s too. “So, we send this circus kid after the Black Widow, with orders to kill you if he senses that he’s in immediate danger or if he sees that there is no other option. Usually we tell them that the bad guys they target cannot be saved - scum of the earth, better off without them - and that’s what we saw in you. Director Carter used to speak of Dottie Underwood, the first Black Widow she ever encountered. You’ve told me since that Dottie was one of the first to make it across the seas, and come to America… But Clint- oh man, Clint didn’t know about all of that. Well, no, that’s not true, he did, but he just read it like they do in the newspapers. Surely, a spy from Soviet Era Russia can’t be that bad, right? It’s all conspiracy theories anyway, the Ant-Man suit just being propaganda to scare the other super-powers, and all that shit.”

“He told Melinda and Phil, on coms that he had a shot on you, before you heard him the first time. They told him to take the shot and-”

“He didn’t. Instead he waited, and the couple of seconds he could have made a headshot on me, I noticed the laser pointer behind me and figured out exactly where he was hiding,” she completes, and Nick smiles.

“That he did.”

“Was he always like this?” she asks, finally. She doesn’t need to give any precisions as to what she means, because Nick understands.

He nods. “Yeah, Clint always had a life of his own, but it’s also why he became a senior agent. He was always on the list of people I wanted to be on the Avengers Initiative, although he constantly told me to scratch him off of it. Couldn’t match up with people like Anthony Stark and Bruce Banner, he said. All he could do was figure out was how to get the job done, he’d constantly repeat.” Nick smiles to himself. “In her late days, right after Alexander Pierce took over her position, Peggy Carter called him a thick headed boy with a stubborn heart. Only other person I heard her call that was Steve, when she talked about him,” he says, affectionately.

“When he brought me in, I only wanted to get out. I didn’t want to be a part of this, because I was scared- I was so scared of what would happen to me. And yet, Clint came back. Every single day, he came and taught me. Simple things, incredible things. When he disappeared the first time, I couldn’t decide if SHIELD was just going to terminate me,” she laughs at the memory, “and when he told me, years later, that it was his parental leave because Cooper had just been born, I just thought- of course he’d leave. Because he had just spent three months parenting me, instead of spending the time with Laura-”

“Or so you thought,” Nick completes.

“Yeah, or so I thought. I’d never have guessed that she would come to New York, that she’d help Clint figure out what to do when it came to me.”

“Clint once told me that you were the first kid he ever taught everything he knew,” Nick finally admits, and Natasha looks up.

Talking about Clint, remembering old stories- it almost made her forget why Nick was here, and for a second, she hates him. Hates him with all of her bones, all of her soul, all of her mind, because how could she? How could she forget that Clint is dead? That they’re going to bury an empty casket, because there was nothing but ashes to find where his body should have been? Where Laura’s, Cooper’s, Lila’s and Nathaniel’s bodies should have been?

“I used to tease Clint about adopting Wanda,” she starts, trying to keep the emotions at bay. “Telling him that he needed to stop seeing kids he wanted to protect everywhere. Didn’t realize I was the first one he did that to until later on,” she admits, looking at the wine glass she hasn’t touched in over half an hour.

Nick leans back into the couch.

This is the moment where she realizes that Nick came to tell her something, but has been polite enough to let her speak and let her remember with him. So she doesn’t say anything until the moment comes for him to finally tell her.

“Barney’s organizing a farewell, in Waverly. He’s going to lay them to rest next to their parents,” he starts, and Natasha nods. Of course. Clint would always want to come back to his mother, even though he never liked his father. “He’s inviting anyone who knew Clint, who would like to pay their respects, to come to a public little moment. The ceremony will be for family only,” he adds, and Natasha can only nod again, the words getting caught in her throat, unable to formulate themselves.

“Laura’s sister, Katherine, will be attending. Barney will be there too, and we’re expecting Laura’s grandparents as well, and if everything goes according to plan, Clint’s grandmother will be there too,” he says, and Natasha feels her heart break again.

She didn’t even know that Clint still had a living grandmother. He never hid anything from her anymore - she knew about Buck Chisholm, she knew about the kids, about Kate, about everything. Anything, but a grandmother.

“We’re not invited.” It’s not a question, it’s a statement, and Nick’s subtle nod of the head indicates that he hasn’t been invited either.

“Barney did not invite us, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t invited.”

He puts a hand on her shoulder, gently, and forces her to look up at him. Forces her to look at his eyes, and she hates that he knows her that well. “We’re going to catch the ones who did this, Natasha. We just have to find out who it was and how to hurt them.”

She hasn’t seen this many people before. Or maybe she has, but this is the first time that she realizes exactly who Clint was. How many people he was involved with.

Of course, she’s followed closely what he’s been doing as an Avenger. She had to, he was her brother-in-law.

Barney’s the one who’s greeting everyone. The black eye he’s still sporting is the only witness to what has gone down - how long was he trapped under the rubble of the barn, again? They’re saying 14 hours. Enough for his lungs to breathe in enough ash to damage them, and they’ve forbidden him to smoke. He’d always told her that he didn’t like the taste of cigarettes, but when he wasn’t looking - when Clint thought she wasn’t looking - they would sometimes share one.

She’d told on them, once. To Laura. Back when Lila was still a kid. Kate had been what, fourteen years old, at the time, but she’d told to Laura. Clint and Barney are smoking in the barn, and Laura had looked at her like she thought she was stupid. Well, not really, but Kate had thought Laura didn’t know. “It’s a thing from the circus,” she’d said. Told her that it didn’t matter, that they would sometimes do it, because Barney needed it.

Because Clint was always too good to his brother, and that he would do anything for him.

So far, she’s recognized Leo Fitz. He’s a cute guy, but she doesn’t know him more than that. He’d come to Waverly every now and then when Clint needed help with some custom arrows or some engineering feat. Leo had helped Clint engineer and build the barn so that it was the best training center in the world - especially after Kate had asked Clint to teach her. She suspects that he’s also the one who crafted the bow Clint gave her as her 18th birthday present.

He’d laughed in the face of everyone who told him she was too young to have a proper weapon - like it was a problem. She loved it. Hawkeye had given her a bow, she’d felt special.

Melinda May is there too, along with Nick Fury. They’re the only SHIELD agents she recognizes, because they’ve been to the farm - there are some others whose faces she knows, liked the bald guy with the glasses, and the younger agent with black hair.

She had hoped to see Frank here, too. Yes, Kate knows that the official story is that Frank is dead, exploded and burnt to pieces in that horrible explosion that happened the night the Blacksmith died in Hell’s Kitchen, but she knows him. Like she knows- or thought she knew - Clint. Faking their deaths is one of the more obvious solutions, but- not this time. There are the lawyers who represented Frank too, Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson. Foggy looks like a fish out of the water, and Kate decides to walk up to them as soon as Barney is done greeting them - mostly because she recognizes Benji coming up next, and him, she doesn’t want to speak to. Not now, anyway.

“Mister Murdock,” she greets, catching Murdock’s attention, before she puts her hand out to greet Foggy. “Mister Nelson,” she says, trying a smile.

“Call me Franklin,” Foggy replies, and Matt smiles. She wants to stare at his sunglasses, knowing they’re just hiding his eyes, but she forces herself to look at Foggy instead. The white cane in between Matt’s hands can distract her later.

“I didn’t know that you knew Clint,” she says. Most of the people here are here because they knew Clint through his SHIELD job. There are some that she knows are friends of her father - big publishing name, of course there are going to be people showing up at his daughter’s funeral.

Foggy doesn’t really reply until Matt takes up the lead in the conversation. “I knew him,” he says, and Kate forces herself to try and notice the little cut on his face that’s still healing. Maybe he fell, is her first thought, but Matt speaks again before she can focus anymore on it. “When he lived in New York, we used to meet up. Helped him out with some building problems, at one point,” he says. There’s a smile on his lips, and Kate thinks that maybe he doesn’t realize it’s inappropriate. Or maybe the building problems were really just funny.

“I’m glad you could make it here,” she says, finally, and Foggy nods.

“Glad we did, not that often that I get to take Matt out of New York, he’s lived there his entire life, and I think this is the farthest he’s ever been from home-”

“I’ve been to Monaco once,” Matt interrupts, and Kate almost laughs out loud at Foggy’s shocked face. She realizes it’s a farce when Foggy joins in.

“Yeah, with the Greek girl, I know. She took you everywhere, now let me take you at least somewhere where you’re not crying about the Punisher or telling Karen about-”

Matthew puffs his elbow into Foggy’s stomach, and that makes Kate frown. “Everything okay?” she asks, and Matt nods.

“Don’t want everybody to know about my personal life,” Matt smiles, and tugs at Foggy, asking him to move on. Kate lets them, watching as Foggy guides Matt to some of the food that’s been brought along, slowly going back to realizing why all these people are here.

Laura’s dead. She’s dead and there isn’t even a body to bury. Not only that, but the kids are gone too- there isn’t even a little sign or anything at all to put in the ground. Not other than some things they managed to scrape together from the house.

She’d seen it, after she’d gone to visit Barney at the hospital. The house was completely destroyed - childhood memories, pictures, clothes, things she knew were being kept so that Nathaniel could use them when he grew up. She’d checked the barn, too, gone through the gravel and the rubble, searching for the stainless steel box Clint had promised to keep her bow in.

As a strange sign from some distorted coincidence, only her box hadn’t suffered in the collapse. She’d found Clint’s Mathews Apex bow, the string cut to pieces, broken in half, lying in the rubble. The collapsible bow rested on the ground, string cut over too, dusted and burn marks all over it. All of the bows she knew Clint owned looked to have been damaged in the disaster, but for some obscure reason, hers had survived. She thinks back to it.

Thinks back to when he’d promised to teach her to shoot a bow and arrow. He’d never asked why, but he’d understood that there was something that had triggered it. He’d kept his distance, but stayed supportive. Just like Laura had- she had always been the best older sister she could ever have wanted. Even though there were so many years between them, Laura had been the best motherly figure she could ever have wished for.

And now, none of them are here, Kate realizes. She doesn’t have her sister, she doesn’t have her brother-in-law, nor her nephews and niece. Only another brother-in-law she isn’t sure she can trust entirely, and yet… Barney’s the only thing she has left.

Someone behind her whispers something about Wanda- nobody has showed up for her. They’re here for Clint. She hopes that some of them showed for her. She did. She liked Wanda- they were just a couple of years apart, and even though Wanda was only a new addition to the family, she felt so hollow.

The military was still acting like Wanda was just missing in action, but they were ready to bury Clint and the kids. The dichotomy of the situation hurt her, and when Barney had just given up, agreed to hold a funeral to help them move on, she’d spent hours yelling at him. Maybe it’s still why she refuses to speak to him or be near him.

“Stark’s here,” she hears someone say, louder than intended, but all eyes turn. The black audi that drives up to the little assembly house reveals a Tony Stark wearing only black. Happy Hogan follows behind him, like he always used to do before the Avengers became a thing, and instead of posing or allowing himself some of the glory, Tony walks straight through the cloud and up to- fuck.

“Miss Bishop,” he says, and Kate feels her mouth run dry. She can’t speak to Iron Man. That’s Tony Stark! Sure, Clint used to work with Tony, he’s still… He’s a superstar. Like Beyoncé or- or-

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he says, and she forces herself to nod. Maybe she’s numb because she can’t comprehend the things that are happening around her, but she never expected Tony Stark to show up. He moves on to go and speak with Barney as soon as another car slides up next to the audi, and Natasha Romanoff climbs out of it.

She feels eerily out of place. This isn’t her family. This can’t be for her family. They can’t be dead… right?

The names on the gravestones are too shiny. She doesn’t like that they’ve added black paint in the etching, but somehow, it makes it more real to her, she thinks.

Harold Barton, followed by Edith Barton. She knows their story - knows their names. She knows exactly which scars on Clint’s back were caused by Harold’s belt. Knows exactly how many times Edith would care for him. Clint and Laura come next, put next to each other even like this. Cooper, Lila… Nathaniel.

She wants to cry. Laura Eleonora Barton, née Bishop, it says on Laura’s grave. Derek Bishop didn’t make it to the funeral. Natasha didn’t expect him to- many people still haven’t made the connection between him and the wife of Clint Barton, dead Avenger. She overlooks Cooper’s gravestone too- Cooper Charles Barton. Nick had been the godfather, Melinda May the godmother. That kid had such a great potential, reminded her so much of Clint, and yet so little.

She forces herself to move on, to look at Lila’s, but somehow, it brings her even more pain. Lila Edith Barton, the most adorable little girl on the planet. She remembers seeing her for the first time, carrying her for the first time- they’d asked Phil Coulson to be the godfather and Maria Hill to be the godmother, but she’d refused, and instead, for some obscure reason, they’d agreed that Frank Castle - of all people - would be the second one. Laura had laughed and called him godmother to tease him before he got shipped off the last time.

In revenge, Frank had named Clint the godmother of Frank Jr, just because he could. Laura had taken to calling them the chicken hens whenever they would spend father time with their kids. Lisa was the same age as Cooper, and Frank Junior a year older than Nathaniel, so they’d always liked to take long walks in the nature whenever Frank brought them here, along with Maria.

And, the last name, Nathaniel Pietro Barton. She was his godmother, and she’d failed. Steve Rogers was the godfather of that kid too, but he never took it seriously. Always said that Clint would never need a godfather and godmother for their kids because they would always be there for them, and yet-

“Still lingering here?”

She looks up from her position, and pushes herself up to a stand. Barney’s walking over, his hands in the pockets of a black suede jacket, and his breath is condensing. It’s getting colder and colder already, winter coming along. The image of the smoke raising for the chimney reminds her that it won’t ever happen again.

She forces herself to laugh. “What can I say, I can’t believe that we had to say goodbye to them,” she replies. This is small talk. This isn’t what she came here for- Barney knows better. He knows that she came to say goodbye. That she came to let Clint know that she would have followed him forever- but not where he went. Not when he disappeared like this.

“You know, it’ll get easier with time,” Barney starts, and Natasha huffs, “even though they’ve left us, they aren’t entirely gone, Nat.” He pauses, allows her to digest the words, and moves on. “The world won’t stop turning because we’ve lost Laura and Clint. The loneliness will creep up on us, but they’d want us to move on. They’d want us to look at their legacy and make them proud,” he states, and Natasha can feel his own sorrow seeping through his heart. It’s like none of them are wearing their masks - first Nick, the one who usually is so good at hiding all that’s going through his mind, and now Barney too… She feels like this is too much.

If they can’t hide it, how could she possibly dream of doing it? He starts speaking again, and she lets him.

“Clint always wanted to do what was right, you know? Wanted to make sure the world was a better place, to be an example for that. Be the better person- he was always there for those who needed it. I mean, I almost fucked him up good time, back when he was a kid, but he never went as far down the rabbit hole I did, and that’s because his heart was so fucking good, man. And then, he met Laura, and you know how she was- how she made everyone around her want to be good and do good. I mean, she was one tough woman, and I’m so sad that she was taken from us this way. It feels stupid and silly, and it feels so unfair.”

She interrupts him, this time. “We lost the kids too,” she whispers, almost not loud enough for him to hear it.

“Aye, I know. And that’s what hurts the most, isn’t it?” He spits, and she almost feels like he’s spitting on their grave, but he’s spitting to Ross. To those who took them from him, because he was after all, their uncle too.

“Heal up, and then pick up whatever strength you got, because I’m gonna go after that son of a bitch, and I’m gonna rip him to pieces,” Barney finally says, and she almost sees a darkness pass onto his eyes. It’s too dark, or maybe it’s a play of the cloud on the setting sun, but she’s absolutely sure she sees something there, and for a second, she’s scared.

She’s heard Clint tell of Barney’s skills. He’s infiltrated HYDRA, Spectre, and all the others, and he’s always made it back alive. There has to be some sort of strength and knowledge there, right?

“I’ll be right in front of you the entire time,” she finally growls.

If someone is to put a bullet in Ross’ head, it’s gotta be her.

They’ve actually added the logos of his Avengers onto the potential candidates they have in mind. It looks no better than what an intern would have done, but Nick feels offended by it. They dare to use the symbol that the team came up with - that Tony Stark perfected - and add it onto the mug shots of known criminals and monsters?

“Talk to me about Greenwich,” he says out loud. The loudspeaker and microphone on the table seem to tease him.

A modified voice gives him a reply. “One of the Ancient Ones’ followers destroyed the Sanctum, but Stephen Strange seems to have protected the others. The tip Trickshot got fell through, the old Sorcerer Supreme is dead, Strange has taken his place.” There’s a slight distortion on the line, but Nick understands perfectly well what’s going on.

“Doctor Palmer’s spoken to some of her colleagues about an astral plane, from which she saw Strange. Seems that he’s able to project onto it, maybe he can find Miss Maximoff that way?”

“No, we don’t go after her,” Nick interrupts. “We concentrate on Ross’ plan. Trickshot’s getting deep into this, we can’t leave him if he needs our help- how far are we on getting the full profiles for Ross’ candidates?”

“Carnage, Venom and Toxin are all kept in isolation, they’ve been moved to the Vault. I hear he’s keeping some others nearby, but we already know most of their names- Bullseye, Simpson, Tarleton and Belova-”

“All of whom are replacements of the Avengers on Ross’ team. The Thunderbolts are bound to become public at some point, he’s still missing a replacement archer-”

“And he’s going to use Bullseye for that, we know.”

“No, he won’t.” Nick pauses, forcing his interlocutor to listen more intently. “He can never have an entire team to claim for his own- for all we know, he’s being pushed by Norman Osborn, and that’s no good. You remember what Osborn did? We can’t let that influence him.”

“What are you planning?” the voice asks, and Nick smiles, even though he knows nobody can see him.

“Things I won’t even say on an encrypted call. Follow your directives, and we’ll speak again,” he finishes, and ends the call. Turning around, he looks at the different tables laid out on the walls.

Captain America - potential candidates: Frank Castle (deceased?), former marine, gunshot to the head, vigilante and declared dead. William Simpson , former test subject of the IGH paramilitary group, unknown exposure to combat enhancers, potentially dangerous. Eddie Brock , former journalist, anger issues and depression, bond with alien symbiote known as the Venom.

If it was up to Nick Fury, all of these subjects should be in jail. All of them. He understands some of their motivations, but their actions speak so much louder than words- and even though he knows Clint used to hold Frank in high respects, he can’t help but feel that after the Massacre at Central Park, Frank Castle was never the same man as the one Clint used to walk in the park with and whom he named godfather to one of his children.

As far as William Simpson is concerned, Nick sees him as an immediate threat. If what Patricia Walker says about him, he can’t be good and the IGH drugs are making him lose it. SHIELD has been monitoring Kozlov and his experiments on him, but Nick knows that they’re up for more. Hired gunmen can’t be trusted, because they will always sell out to the highest bidder, and as far as anyone is concerned, the United States military always gives the highest price. Nick wouldn’t be surprised to see Will Simpson on a list of inmates in the Vault.

When it comes to Eddie Brock though, Nick isn’t sure. There are so many different aspects to take in when it comes to him, because half of it is an alien symbiote they know nothing about. Clint had been sent to investigate them, after the Mandarin crisis, before Ultron happened and the fall of SHIELD to HYDRA, but they had never learnt what had happened. With Spider-Man appearing in New York City and spewing a new set of enhanced humans, Nick can’t decide if Eddie is a threat or not. After all, Cletus Kasady represents much more of a threat that Eddie ever could.

The Hulk - potential candidates: Emil Blonsky, aka the Abomination, uncontrollable rage monster, subjected to a hybrid exposure of Banner’s gamma irradiated blood and the cure devised by Samuel Sterns, stability unknown. Samuel Sterns, aka the Leader, gamma radiation mutant, displays heightened powers and first signs of superhuman intelligence.

This time, Nick can’t help but feel his skin crawl. None of those candidates can be any good when it comes to it, and the disaster that just went down in Waverly should be enough proof, but still, Ross seems intent on keeping the Abomination as a back-up plan. Samuel Sterns has been in isolation in the Vault ever since he was exposed to Banner’s irradiated blood at Grayburn College. None of them can do any good, and if history is any proof, the fact that Steve Rogers was the only super-soldier to not suffer from some sort of brain damage seems to be the only reason as to why they should let go of that programme. The Red Skull was the first, and whatever Sergeant Barnes has been subjected to can’t be good either.

Iron Man - potential candidates: Norman Osborn , bankrupt business man, caught in embezzlement, ready to make amends, able to manipulate and personalize the Iron Patriot armor. Justin Hammer , disgraced inventor and weapons’ manufacturer, pardoned for his assistance in capturing Ivan Vanko, currently residing in Seagate Prison. George Tarleto n, AIM technician and mechanic, helped the United States military set up an Artificial Intelligence like program up for their protection.

Overlooking the three profiles in front of him, Nick feels the pain that Tony must feel. He always said that nobody would ever be able to use the Iron Man armor for evil, but it seems in the wake of the events in Germany, even he can’t pick up what the Military is doing with Lieutenant Rhodes’ suit.

Norman Osborn isn’t a good example here, and Nick can’t understand the first reason why he would be the first choice. Of course, there’s the issue of funding, and Osborn being one of the wealthiest (even though bankrupt) donors to the US Military, it makes sense that if Ross were to create his own team, there would be at least one tourist involved. Maybe this makes sense to them, but it sure as hell doesn’t for Nick.

The fact that the military is still interested in Justin Hammer, in spite of the consecutive fails and arguments he was faced with back when the Senator Sterns was trying to get his hands on the Iron Man suit, makes Nick laugh. Thankfully, Stark never gave in: with the Senator being revealed as a HYDRA member, it would sting to know that they allowed those fuckers to get a hand of his precious technology.

However, as far as Tarleton is concerned, Nick doesn’t even sense a threat. He’s never heard of him, and if he hasn’t heard of someone, then he mustn’t be important. After all, what could an AIM technician possibly know about anything? However, he makes a mental note to have them investigate further - this could possibly be one of their breaks.

Thankfully, the rest of the columns seem to be more empty - the one that’s set to replace Hawkeye still only holds Bullseye, and Nick has a very clear plan in mind for him. That they’re looking for a replacement for Natasha makes it sting, and Yelena Belova’s name hurts. She’s a former Black Widow as well. But, the name Karla Sofen seems to sting even more, because of all the people, why would she agree to this?

He doesn’t like this. Not one single bit. There’s no way in hell that this is going to go well - absolutely not. He looks away from the holographic screen that Vision commandeered to show him his findings, and frowns. He’s supposed to be heading out to visit Rhodey in the rehabilitation center, make sure he makes it home alright.

“No more kids,” he instructs, and Vision shakes his head.

“I know, but Mister Ross-”

“I don’t care what the hell he instructed you to do. You’re a sentient being who can lift Thor’s magical hammer, you have to be able to understand this simple thing: no more kids.”

Tony still feels the crippling anxiety in his back because of the disappearance of Wanda Maximoff. It could have gone so wrong in Germany - what the hell had he thought of bringing a teenager to a fight? Sure, the kid had powers and was stronger than he looked, he was still just a kid… He’d forever regret it. Even though nothing really happened.

“I’m never going to allow anyone to use kids to fight their wars ever again,” Tony adds, his tone final. Vision doesn’t speak for a couple of seconds, before moving the pictures around on the screen, widening one of the candid shots.

“They’ve been displaying similar abilities to those of the Maximoff twins, I believe that-”

“What the hell aren’t you getting, Vision? You’re not supposed to bring kids into war. Pietro Maximoff died with too many bullets in his chest, and now we’ve got Wanda missing on our hands too! What do you expect me to do? Hand these children over to Thaddeus Ross and say “here are your newest recruits, get ready to turn them into superweapons”? I can’t do that,” Tony hisses, as Vision switches the pictures around, apparently unwilling to let this go.

“Their energy spikes seemed to have activated right after Miss Maximoff disappeared from the Barton property, and all the algorithms FRIDAY is able to run seem to indicate that there is a correlation between the two events.”

“Did you hijack the scanning process we used to track the Tesseract by expanding the gamma radiation off the Scepter?” Tony asks, before he shakes his head. “No, don’t, I don’t want to know, because you know what? This isn’t what we’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to look up kids who-”

His words fade out when he sees the footage, apparently found off a twitter account which has later on been labeled as a fraud and a fake, of a teenager turning green. “- is that a teenage Hulk?”

“So far, data is insufficient, but the gamma radiation coming off him seems to be very close to the one we are currently using to try and track Doctor Banner,” Vision articulates.

Tony lets out a dry laugh - just the one, and turns his head around. “They’re coming in all shapes and sizes now, aren’t they?” he says, incredulous to what seems to be occurring. “But no, still not sending kids to Ross. We’re not going to let them be a part of this- it’s our responsibility, it’s my responsibility, as the head of the Avengers, to let them be safe. We can’t bring any more children into this, no matter how super-powered they seem to be, I refuse to let you do this.”

There’s a soft knock on the door, and the very second the second one hits the door, Vision has already hidden all the files and uploaded another project onto the screen to make it look like they were working on that.

“FRIDAY, let our mystery guest inside,” Tony says, and the door unlocks, the light on the lock shifting from red to green. One or two seconds go by without anything happening, but Tony trusts his system: if she hasn’t alerted them of an incoming attack, there isn’t one. The door opens up, slowly, and a young black haired girl walks through, looking out of place.

“Miss… Bishop?” Tony asks, blown away by what he’s seeing.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mister Stark,” she answers, and Tony sees Vision scan her. If anything, it’s good to know if she comes armed, but apparently, the only weapon she carries seems to be a bow. He doesn’t comment on it yet. “But I want to help you find who killed my sister.”

Chapter Text

This can’t be true.

It’s just not possible.

Even though he keeps looking around and around and around, it’s always the same picture, repeating in a pattern and in a never ending kaleidoscopic mosaic - he can’t escape it. He’s absolutely sure that it’s a nightmare, but at the same time it feels so real - he can feel it clawing at the insides of his head, like a monster trying to come out, burning red against his skin.

For a brief second, he wonders if this is what it feels like before Bruce Banner shifts into the Hulk, but the thought is gone almost as quick as it came.

“Stop,” he whispers, but the whisper turns into a repetition. “Please,” he asks again, and it turns into an echo, all around him, distorting his voice and making it come back in a deeper, lower tone, almost like a monster echoing inside his mind. He shakes his head, closes his eyes, but it feels like he doesn’t have any eyelids anymore.

The recurrent red hue that follows his eyes everywhere he looks haunts him - it hurts. When he wakes up, he remembers the red hue slowly fading out, like the nightmare doesn’t want to let go of him and won’t let him go back to the waking world without a struggle.

He finally unhinges himself from the floor, and as he pushes himself upright, the world flashes into colors.

Thaddeus Ross sits in his bed, drenched in sweat. He takes a deep breath, closing his eyes, counting to ten. One, two, three, four. Breathing in and out again, like it’s going to help him focus on what’s going on. Five, six, seven, eight. Breathing out, and holding it there, until he reaches nine and ten.

This isn’t what he’s supposed to be sleeping with - the nightmare is always the same, he’s being chased around ghosts in his mind, riding on red lights and demons that take the shape of people he loves.

When he turns around and grabs for the glass of water on his bedside table, he touches something warm and wet, and before he realizes, the blood that he’s just swiped all over the table is over his white night shirt as well. Looking up, he freezes in horror.

“You’re dead,” he says, but Clint’s shadow just shakes his head. “You’re- I saw you- you were turned to dust,” he whispers, his lips barely forming the words, but Clint still shakes his head.

“I’m not dead yet,” Clint throws at him, as he points to the other side of the bed, and Ross feels compelled to scream, but he can’t get any sound out of his throat. His head turns against his will, like Clint is trying to force him to do it, and when it’s too late and he can’t look away, a children’s coffin appears and instead of seeing Lila, Clint’s kid, like he usually does, he sees Elisabeth. He sees his daughter, dead and cold and covered in white, and he feels all the blood fall from his face.

“Leave me alone,” he begs, this time, looking back at-

Within the blink of an eye, everything disappears. Like someone turned on the light. He looks down at his hand and doesn’t see anything but a stain of water, and when he moves to turn on the bedside lamp he sees the glass of water shattered on the ground.

Another nightmare.

He takes a deep breath and exhales as long as he can, until his lungs are heaving for air, forcing himself to hold it. “It’s not real,” he whispers, closing his eyes.

It’s not real, it’s what he’s forcing himself to believe. But, as soon as he opens his eyes again, he sees a red hulk is staring back at him in the shards of glass on the floor, like it’s echoing his eyes and mind, knowing, lurking, and this time, he almost jumps out of bed, and rushes to the bathroom.

It’s been too long since he had to throw up, and his stomach complains, but he can’t take it anymore. The nightmares are too real. Too real.

They’ve been avoiding giving her straight answers ever since she came in and she won’t leave until she knows exactly what’s going on - this can’t be right. There’s something fishy going on, Natasha can tell. If Nick is being open with her, then why the hell aren’t Maria and Sharon?

“You can’t keep me out of this!” she insists, and Maria doesn’t even look up from the pad that she’s been staring at. Natasha is usually never at the receiving end of that treatment. Sharon’s eyebrow arches upwards, and Natasha rolls her eyes.

“At least tell me what you’ve got going?” she asks, but both of them shake their head at her.

“I’m sorry, Natasha, we’re under a need to know,” Sharon starts, and she puts her finger up when Natasha wants to interrupt. “Our orders are clear, and you know how Fury likes to compartmentalize. We can’t divulge anything-”

“You can to me!” Natasha interrupts, and she wants to say more, but this time Maria locks the pad and looks at her.

“No, we can’t. You signed the Accords, which puts you on the other side of this debate - no matter how much you thought that helping Rogers and Barnes escape from Germany would change things, your signature is still on that piece of paper, as is Stark’s, and we can’t know for sure that you won’t betray us to the Accords. You’re bound by them, you were the very day you signed them.”

She’s so eloquent, but all Natasha wants is to smash her face it.

“Maria, please. I signed the Accords because it was the right thing to do and you know it, after all that we’ve been through together, you can’t possibly think that I did this to betray SHIELD, to betray Clint!” Natasha bellows, and Sharon leans back into her chair.

“We’re not saying you are going to betray us, we’re saying that it’s a possibility.”

Natasha knows what they’re not saying. They’re not saying that they chose her to bring Clint home instead of Maria or Melinda, and Clint got killed as a result. They turned Clint’s home to ash and dust and brought a monster to it because she was the one to bring him there. And no matter how hard Nick tries to reason with Natasha, Natasha knows that maybe, just maybe, it is her fault.

“We have to keep you in the dark,” Maria asserts, and Natasha feels like she’s just been slapped in the face. Nick Fury trusted her to gather intel from the Lemurian Star, he trusted her to get Clint back from Loki, he trusted her to- he trusted- fuck.

She remembers the intimate moment she shared with Steve in Sam’s home, when he told her that he would trust her now, to save his life. Maybe it’s all been smoke and mirrors. Maybe it’s all been a long fetched lie, maybe it’s all just a big comedy that she’s being a part of- she isn’t sure she even knows what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. There’s too much going on, and the rift in her heart hurts.

“I just want to help,” she finally hears herself whisper, almost begging, and Sharon purses her lips. Sharon understands, Natasha knows that much. How it feels.

Maria, however, remains cold as ice. “There’s too much going on.”

It’s such an obvious repetition, but Natasha won’t give in. “I know Vision is tracking enhanced meta-humans,” she finally says, and this time Maria looks at her, impressed. “I mean, I’m not entirely dumb, I did release SHIELD’s files onto the internet,” she crows. “You guys are looking for Wanda Maximoff, right?”

“Natasha, as much as I want you to know what we’re doing, it’s best for you to know nothing. All of this is sensitive information, and I trust that you understand exactly how and why this is going to have to go down,” Maria finally admits, and Natasha nods.

“Just- if there’s anything, anything at all, that I can do? Let me know, please?”

She’s restless. Unable to sleep or rest, or do anything on her own, and she feels abandoned. Steve is still in Wakanda, stuck there. Sam’s there too, and she can’t go to Nick Fury that much anymore. He’s beginning to look into things, and she feels like she’s losing her relevance.

And it feels even harder to know that maybe, just maybe, it’s because she was depending on the others so much.

“The teenagers-”

“Yes, the teenagers, why won’t you shut up about the teenagers?” Tony interrupts, rubbing his temple. He’d just startled awake - Vision still haven’t learned the boundaries of sleep. Either that, or he’s ignoring them.

“The teenagers are puzzling me,” the android admits. “Thaddeus Ross asked of me to assist him in finding the perfect candidates for his team, but my sense of moral good seems to indicate that I should not hand them over to him.”

Tony lets him ponder while he thinks that this is absolutely and probably what it feels like when a robot has to decide to lie. Did JARVIS ever feel this way? Tony makes a mental note to ask FRIDAY next time - does she ever lie to him?

He almost laughs to himself - he might never find it out, because if she says yes, he won’t know if it’s his own programming staring him back in the face, or if she’s lying to him. Schrödinger’s lie. He focuses on Vision again, as the android seems to be getting back on his feet. “They are not even of legal age according to United States jurisdiction, and therefore, they do not seem ready to be drafted to the United States Army.” He pauses, and Tony lets him. “When you asked Peter Parker to join you, how did you deal with the responsibilities and the consequences?”

It’s a question Tony isn’t ready for - he’s just woken up from an unexpected map, and a philosophical robot isn’t exactly what he wants to argue with, but he gives the question a long thought before he tries to formulate a reply. “I didn’t think about it,” he finally answers, and the honesty almost shocks him.

“I had to find a new player for our team, since Steve had gotten and taken Wanda and Clint in one move,” he starts, and he thinks back to what caused him to walk up to May Parker’s apartment to find Peter. “I only thought that it was an investment of time and effort, because Spider-Man seemed to be the perfect opportunity to up the deck. A joker, of sorts.”

“You were looking to cheat,” Vision corrects, and Tony laughs.

“Yeah, sort of. I never thought that he was just a kid until I brought him back, bruised and battered - I can’t believe I asked him to fight the people we were fighting for me. I can’t believe that he’s out there, night after night, fighting for crime, when he’s barely old enough to drink,” Tony wonders. “I don’t understand how he can want to save a world that, for all he knows, is mean to him: I saw him, in his high school class, he’s not exactly the most popular kid, and why he would want to save the ones that don’t care about him, I don’t get.”

“You were always egotistical and narcissistic, Mister Stark,” Vision says, and he sounds so much like JARVIS that it almost makes him flinch.

“There is something more, however,” Vision continues, and Tony focuses on him again. “There are some vibrations that I have detected in the direct vicinity of the teenagers - the same quantum mass that Thor seems to be giving off, and I cannot explain it.”

Tony almost looks at Vision like he’s seen a ghost. “Show me,” he then exclaims - if Vision can’t explain something, then that something is very wrong. The answer he gets is graphs and heat signatures that seem to be emitting some sort of particle he isn’t familiar with.

“It would seem that one of the humans accompanying one of the teenagers has the same properties as an intergalactic traveler like Thor, or Loki, for the same matter. They have the same signatures, and give off the same-”

“She’s giving off Dust,” Tony mutters under his breath, and Vision frowns.


“Yeah, it’s a reference to a book I read some years ago, where Dust was this particle that fueled the worlds and it traveled through them through some windows-”

“Oh,” Vision says, and Tony focuses immediately.

“We need to figure out who that is, because if it’s not an Asgardian, I’m pretty sure that he’s going to be a threat-”

“Not a he. It appears that she’s a she,” Vision interrupts again, and looks up at Tony. “It would seem that a disturbance in this reality caused by the events at the Hong Kong sanctum opened up rifts, much like the one you traveled through when saving New York from the nuclear missile the World Security Council fired at your tower in 2012.”

He says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, but Tony’s arms are suddenly sprayed with goosebumps as he remembers the dark and dead void he entered when the Iron Man suit gave in.

“We have to look it up,” Tony finally manages to choke out as he feels his heart rate spike. He needs some air. The memories seem to be choking him up, and Vision gives in when he scans Tony’s reactions. He walks across the room and opens up one of the windows, causing a cold and icy breeze to blow through the room, but it seems to calm Tony down.

“Thanks,” Tony mutters, as he pushes himself up again, and goes to stand next to Vision by the window.

“I don’t think that we should give the kids up to Ross,” he mutters, as he looks out onto the darkness outside, “we can look them up and assess if they’re a threat. We’ve seen a great amount of superpowered humans that aren’t a threat, and for all we know, they’re just playing at vigilantes - with Daredevil and the Punisher making the headlines across the country, there’s absolutely no doubt as to where they’re getting their inspiration,” he slowly admits, as he closes his eyes, letting the cold air slowly cool him down again.

The translucent sheen of sweat on his forehead reminds him that he still needs to work on the traumas he’s gone through. He remembers Rhodey, lying in a bed somewhere, trying to learn to walk again, and feels absolutely devastated - how can he possibly be worse off when his best friend might never walk again? The guilt almost guts him when he realizes, but he forces his eyes open when a light far away catches his attention in the sky.

“Would you look at that,” he starts, but ends up trailing off, as it disappears on the horizon, slowly disappearing behind the trees. The mind stone on Vision’s forehead glows for a couple of seconds.

“Tell me about the kids again,” Tony finally says.

“Two of them share the same DNA but seem unrelated, and it’s been puzzling me. The existence of itself of siblings who are not siblings shouldn’t be possible, but they come from distinct families. I suspect the powers of Miss Maximoff to have had something to do with them,” he starts, and Tony closes his eyes, allowing Vision to lead the conversation. “It would seem that both of them have been sighted recently at the New Avengers location, when we had the open doors day to the press and the public, before the Accords came up. Maybe they came in contact with her then, but there is nothing to confirm such a hypothesis, and I see it as redundant.”

He pauses, and Tony huffs. “William Kaplan, oldest son of cardiologist Jeff Kaplan and psychologist Rebecca Kaplan. So far, his activity on social media seems to indicate that he identifies as-”

“I don’t want to know about his sexual life, Vision,” Tony interrupts, and waves him off, a smile on his lips, his calm returning from the high heart rate he just experienced.

“My apologies, Mister Stark. He is, as he calls himself, an Avengers fanboy and seems to be following your deeds closely. Or, used to follow them. After the disaster in Leipzig, it would seem your popularity with the millennials has declined greatly,” he asserts, before moving on. “Thomas Shepherd, currently in a specialized juvenile detention center, serving a sentence for what appears to be an accident.”

“What sort of accident?”

“Undisclosed. There seems to be some sort of dychotomy between the real story and the official story-”

“Isn’t there always?” Tony huffs, and turns around again. “I want you to promise that you won’t give them up to Ross, and that means lying to him. If he asks, tell him nothing is coming up but that you’re looking again. We never found Loki’s scepter until it was too late, so I don’t think that the US Military will look at us strangely if we tell them we haven’t found any metahumans yet.”

“That sounds like a very good strategy,” Vision blandly replies, and Tony rolls his eyes.

At least JARVIS had a sense of humor.

“How does it look?”

“It doesn’t look good. It looks like we’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg so far, Ross has been piling them up in the Raft and the Vault for years without our supervision or know how-”

“We knew. Or, rather SHIELD knew,” Fury interrupts. He looks across the room, as he takes in every single one of the agents present - and those who are not. “In the data dump that Romanoff released to the public, which has since then been mined by groups such as the Anonymous and Wikileaks, there are some files about correspondence between the higher ups of SHIELD and Ross.”

“Higher ups meaning the World Security Council and Alexander Pierce,” Jennifer adds, and the eyes around the room focus on her. She isn’t here to serve as legal counsel, she came here with intel on the situation in Los Angeles, but Nick had invited her to sit around the table.

Maria can’t help but feel like they are the new round table - all new, all female round table. She’d laugh, if it wasn’t a serious situation. They’re meeting in a meagre conference room, in the depths of the Triskelion, where nobody comes anymore: it’s been locked off for months, undergoing research, but the legal investigation was closed off earlier and the secret passage ways inside had been cleared again.

“So, HYDRA knew,” Sharon corrects, and Maria nods. “But, in a way, Ross always thought that SHIELD knew and approved- he probably still believes that we approve. Anyone tell him that?”

“We’ve tried,” Jessica interrupts, shaking her head. There’s a story there, Maria knows, but Nick had assured her that Jessica was clear. Sharon had told her that, the moment Crossbones had pointed a gun to the head of a technician, Jessica had pointed a gun at a SHIELD agent and worked for HYDRA: But they never got the full story: it had only been disclosed that they were to trust her. And if Fury did, then so could they. Maria almost smiles when she remembers that Nick had told her, even Clint does . And that was meaning something.

“But so far, it seems that the legal jurisdiction he got from SHIELD has been revoked, and he can move the inmates freely, under the jurisdiction of the Accords. Any and all threats that SHIELD secured and put behind bars has been transfered to the holder of the Accords, and that means that they can do exactly what they want with the prisoners if they see fit,” Jessica continues, and Sharon lowers her head.

“Basically, any bad guy that we worked hard to put behind bars, including Helmut Zemo, Karla Sofen and Cletus Casady, can and probably will be used in Ross’ grand plan to create a new STRIKE force that will mimic the Avengers.” Maria’s voice cuts off Jennifer and Sharon’s whispers, and she looks at Nick who allows her to speak again. She’s been doing a lot of that, lately, speaking on his behalf - what with HYDRA taking over SHIELD, it had felt a lot like Nick stepped down. Maybe getting half shot to death by the Winter Soldier had been one time too many.

“So far, we had gathered intel that he’s keeping famous villains on a list - Fury has handed it to you - about who he wants to represent each Avenger icon, and so far, we have no visible clue as to when he will move forward with it-”

“Three days from now.”

All heads turn, except Nick and Maria who know who have just joined them. The intel they’ve been getting - it has been a mixture of both Barney Barton’s old relations to the crime world, and some of Clint’s old contacts (MI-6 seems happy to share any information it can on the crime syndicate Spectre, it would seem), but also from a much closer source.

“Glad you could join us, Miss Ross,” Nick greets, “I’d turn around, but my ribs are still getting over being shot at by a Winter Soldier.”

“Elizabeth Ross, meet Sharon Carter, Jessica Drew and Jennifer Walters,” Maria says, as she nods to a chair Elizabeth can pull up and sit in.

She doesn’t, but speaks again, with a sense of urgency. “He says that ever since Wanda Maximoff blasted him, he needs to do something soon, and something great.” Pause. “I haven’t spoken to my father in years, but he asked me for help. I think there’s something wrong with him, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

Maria looks at Elizabeth, looking for any clue of lies. But, what she sees instead, is a scared daughter, worried for her father. She knows the look - it’s the one Natasha had on her face when Nick flatlined on a hospital bed. It’s the one close ones have when there’s trouble brewing. And if Thaddeus Ross’ daughter, with whom he’s been estranged for years, is coming up to former SHIELD agents and directors, saying something is wrong - then she must be right. Right?

“He’s been- he says there are nightmares and that he can’t differentiate between what’s right and what’s wrong,” Betty continues. “I’ve never seen him like this.”

“Anyone getting flashbacks to someone else acting like this?” Nick then interjects, and Sharon nods, as does Maria, but Jennifer and Jessica seem to remain blank. “When Tony Stark created the Ultron algorithm, extrapolating it from the Mind Stone, he had been hexed by Wanda Maximoff. When the Hulk trashed Johannesburg in a frenzy after the Avengers went to investigate Ulysses Klaue, it was because he had been hexed by Wanda Maximoff. The entire team was taken down by Wanda Maximoff, and spent the following days in a haze. Barton was very adamant - even Thor was hexed by Maximoff, and he was adamant about letting it be known that if she could hex an Asgardian, she was more powerful than intended. Our running theory, along with miss Ross here, is that when Wanda Maximoff was shot in the chest when trying to defend the Barton household, she hexed those present inadvertently, and caused Thaddeus Ross to enter a frenzy, much like Stark was when he created the Ultron.”

Sharon shakes her head. “How are we sure it’s not just him pushing around-”

“My father wouldn’t act like this. He’s reckless sometimes, and he wants revenge on Bruce, but he would never agree to take criminals and give them the names of heroes.”

“Then, how do we get someone close to Ross?” Jessica asks. “All of us are good and strong SHIELD agents, but I doubt that he would take any of our word against his own, and trust us with it.”

“That’s why none of us will be doing the dirty work,” Maria corrects, and leans back into her chair. “Barney Barton volunteered - Betty has provided us with intel on the individual he wants to use to be his Hawkeye, and so far, Barney claims he can eliminate this Bullseye individual and take his place. Bullseye is the one who tailed Romanoff to the Barton state home, and possibly lead Ross there, but we don’t know what his own motivations seem to be - Barton seems to think that taking out Clint would mean that he’d be the master marksman, and that it all comes down to a pissing contest.”

All the ladies around her roll their eyes, and Nick smiles. “If we’re to take Bullseye out of the equation, Ross, no matter how good or bad he feels, will need proof that Barney is there for him and to be on his team. He’s got a dirty record, so he’ll probably fit in nicely with Kasady, Brock and the others, but we need to have a plan in place he needs proof that Barney isn’t just after revenge for his brother.”

“We also need to discuss the young Miss Bishop going to Stark for assistance,” Sharon adds, and Nick nods again.

“First, we all agree that we are going to sacrifice one of our own in order to ensure Barney’s ceremonial entry into Ross’ club of big bad guys?” Only Betty Ross seems to disagree, and Nick takes notice. “Don’t fret, Miss Ross, it’s not anyone we’ll miss, I can assure of that.” She purses her lips, and looks up from her hands.

“I just want to know if my father will be alright,” she states.

“Miss Ross, I can assure you that your father will be alright,” Jennifer interrupts. “We will do our absolute best to make sure that he is protected and safe at all times, but first, it would seem that something has taken roots around him, and that needs to be purged for him to become your father again.”

“About that,” Nick says, leaning forward. “How is the situation in Los Angeles? I hear the South Ridge Penitentiary got a visit from our new friend.”

“Indeed they did, but your agents on site seem to be handling it.”

Jennifer came to provide with intel that’s above Sharon and Jessica’s clearance, so they will have to leave before they can speak of it freely.

“Sharon, Jessica, if you could bring Betty outside, and explain to her how Miss Maximoff’s hexes work?” Maria instructs, without lifting her gaze from the notes she’s been taking. The Penitentiary riot was caused by the intrusion of a new individual - one Nick has his eyes on, but Melinda has it handled so far.

“You are all here for a reason.”

If he’d expected them to sit around and listen to each of his words like any proper agent or soldier, he was wrong. Almost none of the individuals present have the tact and discipline of military training except two - Will Simpson and Emil Blonsky. However, neither of them are in their former military prime, as Blonsky is being contained in a special suit slowing down his metabolism but keeping him awake enough to be a part of the conversation. Simpson is also sedated - the IGH drugs he had been using during the Kilgrave incident have caused some damage, but made him stronger. He’s the perfect replacement of Steve Rogers under the Captain America mantle, if only Ross could be sure that it would be fine.

There’s sweat running down Ross’ back, and it feels odd. He shouldn’t be intimidated by any of the ones present, and yet however, the red halo that’s been following him around never seems to stop. Like something is gnawing at his mind, and the memories and flashbacks to his nightmares seem to come and go, as he speaks to the individuals in front of him.

“You’ve been briefed. You will be the new task force for the Accords, and you will take up the mantle of the Avengers,” he starts, and Blonsky laughs. He goes on, ignoring it. “Simpson, you will wear the Captain America mantle,” he states, looking over his shoulder at the crates with big bold, red letters stating CONFISCATED. The Avengers’ gear lies there, untouched and undisturbed since it was taken from them in Germany. Rogers’ vibranium shield was recovered from Siberia by Tony Stark, and it had taken a lot of negotiations to convince him to give it up.

“Time to bring back the real Captain America,” Simpson comments, and Ross takes a deep breath as a chill runs down his spine.

“Blonsky, you will the our Hulk. Bullseye will be out Hawkeye, and Karla Sofen our Black Widow. Kasady and Brock, you will stand in as Ant-Man and Iron Man while we figure out how to break out Justin Hammer from Seagate without creating a debate,” he recites. He’s told this lie in front of his mirror enough times, as his hands shook under the stress from the sleep deficiency.

“Who’s the hot chick?” Casady snarls, and Ross almost closes his eyes, but to show weakness now would mean losing the edge on this team of hardened criminals.

“Karla Sofen is a former psychologist attributed to Helmut Zemo by the Sokovia Accords and Everett Ross. She’s proficient enough to replace the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, who has been missing and hasn’t honored her signature of the Accords.”

“Tsk, tsk, what a naughty girl,” Casady says.

“Look at yourself,” Sofen bites, and he laughs, the symbiote manifesting around him. The red material covers his chest and releases a laugh too, and Ross looks over at Eddie Brock, who nods. He’s the contingency in case Carnage goes too far - the Venom hates Carnage, and will do anything to keep him from tearing the team apart.

When Steve Rogers had helped his friends escape from the Raft, the symbiote offspring and Casady had bonded with the Abomination and only Venom’s intervention had managed to keep Carnage from abandoning Kasady’s body and joining Blonsky’s. That would have been a catastrophe.

“Where is Vision?” Sofen asks, and looks up at Ross who looks at the door, unnerved.

“He should be here shortly. He has been with Tony Stark, as both have been instructed to look for more potential members for the taskforce.”

“Taskforce sounds so boring,” Kasady snarks, licking his lips. “You’re a thunderbolt, Mister Ross, so I’d rather say we’re your Thunderbolts of Justice.” He laughs at his own joke, ignoring the looks the others are giving him, and Ross ignores the nagging feeling inside his head as red starts to creep up around his vision, reminding him why he’s doing this. Why he must do this. To protect the world, and to protect everything that is dear to him.

She never thought that she’d be standing in the same room as- well, as all these incredible scientists. The only one missing here would be Bruce Banner, but as the entire world knows, he’s gone missing. Rather on purpose, hopefully.

Flying in from Korea had reminded her why she never came back - the tower had been absolutely torn to pieces last time she came here, and any and all involvement with the Avengers caused her to remember the feeling of the scepter against her chest and the actions she had undertaken- corrupting her life work, corrupting the Cradle for something so evil as Ultron?

She understood Barton’s agony even better now that she had seen his view of things. Both of them had almost destroyed humanity under the influence of the stone, and she could only hope that Barton had found peace, wherever he was now. He’d told her, during one of their check ups on the skin graft, that he still had nightmares about Loki, about the things he did while under his control. He had come to visit her in Korea too, after she was stabbed by one of the Ultron bots and hospitalized. Told her that she could take up her work again if she could and wanted, but that it would always have a bitter aftertaste. A trigger.

He’d been a loud and warm support in getting over that trauma, and helped her accept the survivor’s guilt she had felt after her lab assistants were murdered before her eyes. And, not, as she looks around the room, in one of Stark’s clean labs, she remembers that Barton won’t even come to visit her again. Maybe she should go and visit his grave, and put up a chrysanthemum. For his memory. And his support.

She tunes back into the conversation when Reed Richards speaks up again, and when she realizes that Sue Storm has been looking at her, making sure she was alright. With a slight nod to the scientist, she gets back into it. Tony Stark didn’t ask her here to dwell on the past. He asked her here for help, to locate the young Romanoff girl.

“You’ve extrapolated the algorithm used on the helicarrier to locate the Tesseract, that’s a smart move, but have you tried extrapolating the signature given off by the Mind Stone?”

“Yeah, see, I thought about that, but that would mean looking up all people who have been touched or in contact with an Infinity Stone, as well as locations where their power has left a mark, and I don’t think that-”

“You just write a side algorithm to rule out all already known suspects. How long is the list anyway?”

“Well, we’d have, Miss Cho who’s sitting here with us, Erik Selvig, Jane Foster, Clint Barton would have been on the list too, Stephen Strange, I would pop up, as would Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff, and anyone Wanda Maximoff ever hexed, to be honest, and then there’s going to be the cosmic reactions we aren’t aware off - Greenwich seems to be a hot one, and I don’t have a single doubt that New York has several hotspots, including the tower-” Tony starts to rant, but Sue Storm shakes her head.

“You’re looking for a specific signature - Wanda Maximoff’s powers came from the mindstone, so extracting that specific wavelength should be able to theorize and then modelize a similar reaction and get an exact specific point in time and space where she would be located.”

“Time? Did you say time?” Helen asks, and Sue nods.

“The power of these Infinity Stones seems big and strong enough to be able to manipulate space and energy, I wouldn’t doubt for one second that they’re able to manipulate time.”


Helen shakes her head, as Tony centers the attention back on him by slapping his hands flat on the table. “Vision and I have found surges of energy that are similar to Thor and Loki’s cosmic signatures.”

“You told us, they’re teenagers, right?”

“The 3D gridding and triangulation indicates that, yes, and it would seem that something stronger is hiding among them. I wouldn’t doubt for one second that Wanda is with them, she might have found a coven or something like that-”

“Magic might just be science we don’t understand yet,” Sue interrupts. “Maybe they’re protecting her while she recovers. Investigation so far indicates that she was shot in the chest, that’s not something you walk away from,” she continues. “I could try and triangulate her with my mind, if you want that?”

“No, don’t,” Helen says before Tony can. “You don’t want her mind near her powers, if she pushes you away, you might get hexed too.”

Leaning forward, Reed extends his arm and before both of them, his arm extends as he reaches for one of the tablets Stark has laid out at the end of the table.

“You know, even though I’ve seen you do it before, it’s still freaky as ever man,” Stark says, and Cho just sits there, dumbfucked. She’s seen Thor and Vision and even Wanda work, but this? This is insane. Her gaze meets Sue’s, who smiles and disappears underneath her clothing, and Helen closes her eyes. This is not something she wants or can compute right now.

“If you rewrite the algorithm like this-” Reed starts, tapping out at the keyboard, as the mirrored screen shows them what he’s doing, Helen looks down at her tablet. She’s a geneticist, not a physicist or mathematician, but she can understand, “- maybe you’ll be able to find a better match to your results.”

Richards looks over at Sue. “Any input?”

“No, I think that’s a good way to work around the issue of variables that shouldn’t be included.”

She hasn’t been able to help much today, but she appreciates Tony’s invitation nonetheless. Sue looks at her again, and Helen can’t help but smile. Clint was like that too - in spite of everything going on around them, he would always check up and make sure she was alright.

The day of the party for recovering the scepter, she had wanted to stay awake even though she was exhausted. She’s spent hours working on Clint’s injury and making sure that he didn’t tear the new flesh. But, when she’d gotten fluttering eyes and started yawning, Clint had told her that she could just sleep there, in the chair. He’d done it before, and nobody would comment on it. At first, she had been afraid, but in the end… Nobody had. She’d gotten the best rest she had ever gotten, right up until Ultron had burst through the room, but for some reason, Clint had made her feel safe.

She would miss him and his smile, she realizes, as she stands up and excuses herself.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Rhodey says, and Natasha wants to laugh. He’s stuck in bed, his legs barely functioning without the apparatus Stark has devised for him, and he’s the one trying to cheer her up. She allows herself a short laugh, before she looks down at her shoes, unable to face Rhodey’s calm face.

“I can’t help but feel like I lost everything because of these Accords,” she says, and she’s afraid that she’ll never stop talking and falling apart if she goes on like this, but Rhodey’s always been a good listener. “Was it worth it?” she asks, trying to keep her face neutral.

He shrugs. “I don’t know. Was it worth getting shot out of the sky for?” he asks back, and she almost feels bad for asking, but thankfully, he goes on. “You told me once that you signed because it was the right thing to do - after SHIELD collapsed, it felt like the best option for you. I’ve been stuck here ever since, and Tony hasn’t spoken with Ross for weeks, and it feels like nobody wants to have anything to do with the Accords anymore. Maybe it was worth it back then, maybe it’s not worth it now anymore. Most political cases like these are always hard - it seemed like the most obvious solution at the time because James Barnes had blown up a UN meeting and killed a representative and a king at that, but when it turned out that it was a ploy by Helmut Zemo, maybe it turned sour then. We can’t look at the world through a little keyhole and ignore the changes that events have on things, or we’ll stay stuck in the past.”

He pauses, takes a deep breath and looks at her. “I’m sorry about Clint man, I didn’t expect Ross to go after him like that.”

“I finally stood up for myself, and I’ve never been more alone since.”

There’s a knock on the door, and Natasha turns around, only to see Kate Bishop’s petite physique standing there. “Kate?”

“Hey, Nat, sorry to interrupt,” and to Natasha’s great surprise, she looks at Rhodey.  “Tony told me to tell you that he’s done and that he’ll come over as soon as Reeds and Sue have been introduced to their quarters, and as soon as Cho has gotten, and I quote word for word, “drunk enough to get a smile on her face,” Kate finishes.

Getting up from her seat, Natasha comes over to Kate. “What are you doing here?”

“Came to Stark, since nobody seems to want to help me figure out who killed my sister,” she replies, and Natasha says goodbye to Rhodey who nods, lying back into his pillow. When they both exit the room, Natasha sees the titanium bow Clint had custom made for Kate lying in the box on the floor.

“You can’t join this circus world,” she tries, but Kate waves her hand in front of her.

“You don’t get to tell me what to do. I’m tired of not being able to take action, and I’m tired of seeing the world change on television.”

Natasha understands that there’s something more there, but she doesn’t comment on it. “If you think that you’re up for this, then I will support you all the way.” She’s seen Kate grow up, turn into the yougn adult that she is now, and she would hate to see something happen to her.

Maybe this is how Clint and Steve feel about Wanda too - she felt it too, but never like this…

“Your archery getting better?”

“Well, with everything that’s happened, I haven’t been able to practice as much as I wanted to, but Mister Stark said that I could go down to the range and train until my arms fall off,” she replies, and Natasha smiles.

“He used to say that to Clint too.” It flies out of her mouth before she realizes it, but Kate simply smiles.

“He also told me to just ask FRIDAY for any training tips, because he extrapolated Clint’s archery skills into a program to help young archers but-”

“Clint has a shitty form and any archery instructor in the world would scream if Clint were to be used as an example,” Natasha finishes, and it almost feels nice to have Kate here. Maybe Natasha didn’t lose everything that night. “Let’s go down to the range, and then let’s go see what we can equip you with. If you’re going to be an honorary Avenger, you need gear,” Natasha adds and Kate bends forward to close the box containing her bow.

She’ll grow up to be a great young woman, Natasha thinks, and nods to herself. They did good with this girl.

He’s been tracking the other one for three blocks. Turning behind him at every single possibility, as if it would be easier to disappear into the shadows and creep the other one out.

But they’re not amateurs. Neither of them. Barney is positive that Bullseye did not earn his nickname for nothing, and he is absolutely sure that being tracked or followed is part of Bullseye’s job. No matter how good of an aim they both are, keeping sight of the other is a gentle art of disguise - one Barney knows particularly well. It’s all in the art of acting like as if he hasn’t noticed he’s being tracked, but carefully planning out every single turn and straight line he takes. No, Bullseye has earned that nickname, fair and square.

There’s a bittersweet taste in Barney’s mouth, and when he’s almost caught up with Bullseye - Lester, hah! What a silly name! - he can’t help but call out. The street is pretty deserted at this hour, except for a couple of late party goers, heading either home or to the next club, where they can start all over again at the bar.

“Was it because he was a better aim than you?” he asks, stopping up the exact same moment Bullseye does, and watches every single movement. Barney secures the grip on his gun, the mesh fabric holding neatly against his palm, keeping it from sliding or moving. One single bullet would be all it took, and Bullseye has got the spot tattooed on his forehead, as if asking for it. Oh, how Barney would love to just end it now, end it here, put a bullet in Lester’s brain, take him out, but that would be useless. He needs to know. Needs to know if Lester gave Clint up to Ross and Abomination out of jealousy or out of fear of being overshadowed.

Bullseye snorts before he deigns reply to Barney’s taunt. “He was never a better aim than me, Trickshot.”

He says Barney’s codename like a curse, like a swear word - something Barney is way too familiar with. They all know each other in these rounds, they all know what a name means - Trickshot is bad, Trickshot deals with the highest bidder, leaving the others to the sharks and getting out by selling his contacts out. It’s a dirty play, but Barney is magnificent at it. After all, he’s survived this far, hasn’t he?

“You really think you’re the better aim?” Barney taunts, as he stands up straighter. Maybe Lester’s younger than him, cockier than him, but he sure as shit isn’t a better fighter. He’s heard of what Bullseye has done - worked for the Kingpin before Nelson & Murdock took him down. Worked for Osborn, too. Bad things come out of working for bad people - Barney would know. He’s tried it before, been tied down to a chair and tortured for it. “Really think that you could ever pick a fight with America’s sixth favorite Avenger?” he smirks.

“Right, that’s right, he used to be an Avenger, right? He retired, though, didn’t he? Went back home and played house, pretended he could leave this life behind, aye. Such a shame he never managed to let go completely, otherwise he’d still be here, still be breathing,” Bullseye snaps. “Such a shame. It’s a shame on the part of the Widow lady though, she could have seen me at least the three times she stopped along the way to Iowa, of all places, but she didn’t. And, your lil’ brother didn’t see me either - they’re getting sloppy, as are you-”

Barney barely dodges the flying pin coming his way by rolling to the side, throwing himself onto the ground. When he makes it back to a stable position, Bullseye has broken into a run and is making for a pedestrian crossing, hoping to get away. Barney’s back on his feet pretty quick, after an assessment of the eyes on the rooftops following him and Bullseye. Good. Everything is going according to his plan.

“Bullseye! You lost something!”

He screams it, as he lifts the gun and takes a shot - the immediate sound makes people around them shuffle to their knees, someone yells ‘everybody get down!’ as Barney fires another shot, which ricochets off a bus. Bullseye stops up, turns around and laughs, mockingly.

“You missed!”

“Did I, though?” Barney bites back, as he falls back into a run, making good way back to Bullseye, who turns into a small alley and throws another dart Barney’s way. It lodges itself in Barney’s thigh, but before he gives out a hum in pain, he fires another shot that rips into Bullseye’s shoulder. The man stops up and looks up from the wound which starts to bleed, as if Barney had just personally insulted him.

“Really?!” he bites, and Barney laughs, pulling out the dart from his thigh.

“Yeah, really, and you should start to feel dizzy right about-”

Bullseye’s hand flies out to find support on a wall that’s too far out, and he stumbles, before catching himself. “If there’s something I learned from being around the Avengers a lot, it’s to always have a trick up your sleeve,” Barney states, as he walks up to Lester who’s looking around, wide eyed, like a deer caught in the headlights. “Why they call me Trickshot, eh?”

He slams the handle of the gun into Bullseye’s lower mandible and sees the man waltz a couple of steps back. “You brought a monster to the house of a father with three kids,” he then says, voice turning cold. “One of them could barely talk!” he bites again, walking up and hitting Bullseye in the back of the head with the gun, turning it around and using it as a blunt instrument. The wound is deep, that much Barney sees before a wild fist flies his way. Bullseye’s aim is off though, and his fist flies over a foot past Barney’s face. “Do you know what it’s like to bury a kid?” Barney seethes, as he pushes Lester up against a wall, as the other man starts to loose his footing. “Do you know what it’s like to bury a tiny, little kid, who could barely say your name?”

“Don’t care,” Bullseye finally mutters, as spit starts foaming at his mouth, Barney pushing both his thumbs into Bullseye’s throat, choking him violently.

“Tell you what, I care. I cared! I care so much that I’ll choke the life out of-”


Both men’s heads whip to the side, and Lester falls to his knees, coughing up blood and trying to heave air into lungs that seem to be stopped by whatever chemical Barney shot into him by grazing him with a bullet. Barney stands up, walks away from Lester’s body on the floor and looks at General Thaddeus Ross standing before him.

“The man himself!” he growls, lifting the gun. He barely makes it to eye level before he notices at least 4 red lasers on his chest. The man is not entirely stupid then.

“I never thought I’d say it, but any Barton is better than a Bullseye,” Ross says, and Barney barely hears him for the laughter that tickles in his throat.

“You really think I’ll come and work for you? After what you did to my brother?”

“As a matter of fact, yes I do.”

Ross throws an envelope at Barney’s feet, and as Barney bends forward to pick it up, two of Ross’ men move forward to take Bullseye off the scene.

“We’ve been tracking you for a while now, Mister Barton, and it would seem that you and I have a common interest in restoring the Avengers to their glory-”

Barney tunes the speech out when he opens the envelope and sees a candid photo of Kate Bishop talking to Natasha Romanoff and Tony Stark, taken undercover. He tunes back into what Ross has to say when he looks up from the picture, the sound hitting him like a tidal wave.

“You’re a better aim and shot than Bullseye was, and with your brother deceased, it would seem the only choice I have to replace him is to pick you. It’s a shame the younger Bishop girl had to be involved, but in my defense, she did go to Stark of her own free will.”

Barney frowns, his face locking in rage. They can’t bring her into this. She’s not an Avenger. She’s not even an adult. “What will you do if I don’t agree?” he asks, throwing the envelope back at Ross’ feet. None of his men deign pick it up, and neither does he.

“Well, let’s say, Miss Bishop is in possession of an illegal weapon, a bow prototype developed by Leopold Fitz of SHIELD, and that should be enough to take her in. She could be taken to any juvenile detention center, but in light of recent events, maybe a short stay in the Vault would do her some good.”

Barney can’t believe what he’s hearing and he says so. “Are you out of your goddamn mind?”

He sees Ross’ eyes falter for a couple of seconds, before the mask is back up. That’s always interesting - time to see the weaknesses in Ross’ plan.

“Well, it’s interesting, because I have a bargaining chip here,” Ross says, as three men pull another hooded figure into the scene.

“Lieutenant Frank Castle, also known as the Punisher,” Ross starts to recite, “caught escaping the scene in Waverly, Iowa, leaving you in the rubble and the Barton house in pieces.”

They push the former marine to his knees, and Barney looks at him. He’s met Frank several times - they have a mutual respect, mostly out of their respect and friendship with Clint. “If you don’t cooperate, Kate Bishop will go to the Vault, Frank Castle will die, and you, Barney Barton, will be shot in the head by the very man you just took out, and he will take on the mantle of best marksman in the world, eradicating your existence, and that of your brother, from this very universe.”

Frank moves his shoulders, dismissing the contact of the other soldiers. He looks up at Barney, and they both share a half a second lucidity. “I shot Wanda Maximoff in the chest,” he suddenly starts saying and Barney feels like he’s been shot too. Ross sees it, he knows, and smiles.

“I shot her in the chest and I watched her explode and take the entire Barton family with her - she caused the explosion in Lagos and Ultron, and Barton caused the destruction of New York City that ripped the city to pieces,” Frank spits, angry, unleashed, but for some reason, staying on his knees. “They deserved to die, as do you and every piece of shit around me. You think you’re so good, all of you, working for the benefit of the people? You’re fucking wrong, that you are. And you, Trickshot, thinking you could avenge your baby brother, but you know what? None of you can, because he’s rotting in hell where he deserves. He ever tell you that? That it was him that lead Loki to the scepter and who helped him build that hell machine which opened the sky? Nah, bet he never did.”

Castle spits onto the ground, and Barney feels his hands shake.

“Mister Barton, kill Lieutenant Castle, and we promise not to touch a single hair off Miss Bishop’s head. Fail to do so, and we’ll have another messy end to tie up again,” Ross offers, and for a second, for a single second, Barney sees a red halo of light in his eyes, and he almost takes a breath. There’s something wrong with Ross, but in this instant, what can he do? All the men around him are ready to kill him.

There’s only one way to deal with this.

Barney lifts his gun, and crosses the feet between him and Castle in a couple of steps. “You shot the Maximoff kid?”

A nod.

“You destroyed a family, for the sake of your justice? If your rampant vengeance in Hell’s Kitchen was about avenging your own family, do you think killing three other kids makes up for it? Don’t you think that they’re looking down on you, Castle, and wondering when the hell their dad became a mo-”

The fist that collides with his chin takes him by surprise, and before he knows it, the former marine is on top of him, unrestrained, and two, three, four hits to his face force Barney to reconsider. By the time the seventh hit makes him bite down on his tongue, he manages to throw Frank off of him again, picking up the gun he’d let go of in the shock, and points it at Frank’s forehead, the barrel touching the hot skin in front of him.

“You killed my family to avenge yours. I’ll kill you for taking everything from me.”

And he pulls the trigger.

Chapter Text

So this is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to have someone go through your mind - literally.

He can’t close his eyes because it hurts so much, so instead of focusing on the things happening around him, Barney focuses on the meshed light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The light they’re giving off is terrible, but then again, that probably happens when they decide to create an impromptu torture location in an old, disaffected factory. He can almost see the meat hooks that hang not too far away, probably where they hung the dead animals up after slaughter.

He feels him move inside his brain, inside his head. It hurts, and he’s pretty sure that the tears he can feel fall from his eyes are actually droplets of blood being pushed out by the pressure against his skull. So far, all he’s been able to notice is the dark circles under Thaddeus Ross’ eyes. The same kind that Clint had had after Loki, after being possessed - it’s not something you miss, they’re purple and dark and deep. Something is wrong with the General Secretary, but he doesn’t know what.

And, besides, for now, he’s got Carnage going through his head, looking for any sort of information that could incriminate him and prove that Bullseye is the better replacement for Hawkeye on Ross’ Thunderbolts team.

“You find anything yet?” he manages to heave, his voice rough and gritty, while he feels a tentacle moving through his ear, and the shock of a new one pushing its way through his nostril makes him grimace.

There’s a deep, growl like laugh, and Carnage’s face manifests in front of him, looking at him. There’s drool and teeth, and in any other circumstance Barney would be frightened, but all he can think about right this instant, is the body of Frank Castle lying in the street, his face shot to pieces by the blast. He shot him, right in the head, and he can still remember the loud thud that his lifeless body had made when they’d hit the floor.

Carnage had caught Barney from behind right after, locking him into a tight embrace and immobilizing him for better transportation to this- this hellish place. Barney needs to spit, but the red tentacle moving through his nostril is moving down towards his oesophagus, and he can barely force himself to breathe.

“Kasady, found anything?” Ross asks, and the symbiote snarls back at the General. There’s a shift in the hierarchy, Barney can sense it, likes something is off and something will go wrong very soon, but he can’t pinpoint it. Has Carnage done something to Ross?

A seething, guttural sound makes it out of Carnage’s mouth. “No, nothing, except for nightmares like yours.”

Like yours? Barney wants to frown, but restrains himself, as he feels the red, powerful and disgusting tentacles seep out of him, and the air is suddenly able to come back to his lungs, the pressure in his head is back to normal, and he manages to bend forward and wipe his chin on his chest. There’s snot and blood and something else that he doesn’t want to identify coming out of his nose, but the symbiote is out.

And it didn’t find anything incriminating. “Nightmares, uh?” Barney asks, and Ross frowns.

“Not your business,” he answers, and Barney raises an eyebrow. Nightmares are often the sign of something deeper, something hidden, and if he remembers well, nightmares usually come from some ongoing trauma. What is going on with General Ross is the main question he needs to ask himself, but then-

“Welcome to the Thunderbolts, Mister Barton.”

Ah, the nightmares will have to wait. He’s got work to do.

“They’ve managed to connect one of the Ultron bots up with the Yellowjacket suit and hijacked the Pym Particles. This could lead to a potential catastrophe if we let them go on like this-”

“We can’t face them. Half of our team and allies are spread across the globe, and the only men who could find the strength to gather them again are in Wakanda. Steve won’t leave Bucky’s side, and Sam goes wherever Steve goes, which means he won’t come here. They’ve all lost something in this fucking war, and I don’t think that they’re ready to take up arms again.”

“Sharon, you have to understand- even they can’t help us. This is beyond Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson. Ross just greenlit his own Strike Team, codename Thunderbolts, and as far as we know, he’s got absolutely no idea what they’re capable of. It’s an entire task force built like a suicide squad, and he’s going to use them to enforce his own will and power - you’ve seen what he can do, you heard Betty yourself-”

“If Steve and Sam can’t help, then let’s ask T’Challa and Everett Ross. Wakanda can help, their technology is more advanced than any other on this earth, except maybe for Tony Stark. You told me he’s looking for his own answers, and if he won’t help us, then you have to admit that maybe we need to call in help from the Hatut Zeraze and their secret service!”

Maria lets out a sigh, before she rubs her temple. This is a logistic nightmare. The bug they’ve planted inside the Vault is like a direct line to nightmares - Abomination, Ultron, Carnage, they’re all gathering together like stinging insects drawn to the same power source, and if Maria knows anything, it’s that this is not going to be a good thing. If only she had SHIELD, if only she had a team to send after them- but Natasha is busy trying to find peace after Clint’s death, Tony is busy trying to find peace after Clint’s death and it’s all turning into this huge mess-

“Maria, focus.” Sharon’s voice interrupts the flow of thoughts that seem to have overrun her mind, and Maria smiles at her wearily.

“Ross can’t be doing this on his own, there’s something wrong. After he moved Zemo to the Vault, he started acting strangely - and I’m pretty sure that there’s a correlation. He took Zemo to the Vault, Everett Ross told me that. Took away all the administrative paperwork against Zemo and put him in a cage next to all the others, and I’m absolutely sure that it’s the root of the problem.”

Sharon takes a deep breath. “He’s got his hands on artificial intelligence and molecular manipulation, and I’m absolutely sure that it’s going to blow up in all of our faces if we don’t do something about it now. Can’t you ask Fury to-”

“No, they’ve got their own agenda.”

“But we can’t let him assemble the Thunderbolts and lead an assault either!”

“Speak to Everett Ross. See if you can get T’Challa to support us, or get a line to Steve Rogers. God knows I need Captain America’s strength right now,” Maria mutters, and watches Sharon’s face carefully.

She’d think that they would be more clever than to hide him in his old home. That there would be some sort of precaution taken against him being discovered - but then again, this was Scott Lang she was talking about. She’s pretty sure he knows what he’s doing - after all, he does have Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne to back him up, and she wouldn’t be afraid to bet that Nick Fury nudges them in the right direction every now and then.

After all, Hank Pym and Nick Fury go way back.

Lifting her hand to press the buzzer, Jessica takes a deep breath. It’s been awhile since she’s been in San Francisco, but ever since they heard that Scott Lang had been smuggled back to the United States from Wakanda, they’d made it their first and foremost mission to make sure he knew their agenda. Or knew what was going on anyway.

The buzzer gives off a jolt of electricity, as her finger touches it, but the door opens up almost immediately. Talk about security, she thinks to herself. They’d have gotten them jailed already if it hadn’t been for the secrecy.

Loud music is coming from the flat on the right hand side of the stairs, on the first floor. Teenagers, probably. Or young adults. Rolling her eyes, Jessica climbs the rest of the stairs up to the third floor and knocks. She hears someone cheer on the other side of the door and hopes to God that she won’t be met with a gun to her face, because she could really do with a day without that happening. Ever since HYDRA fell, she’s been working for Nick trying to find loose ends and old contacts to bring down to their knees.

So far it’s been working pretty well.

The door opens up and she’s greeted by the sight of a cap and hoodie wearing latino man with a smile on his face. Her memory flicks through the brief, and she manages to land a name. Luis.

“Miss Drew!” he says, too loudly and she takes a step into the flat, forcing him to close the door behind her. Nobody needs to hear him say the name. He immediately puts his finger to his lips in an apologetic gesture. “Aw, sorry man, I’m not used to the super secret spy things.”

The speed at which he speaks astonishes Jessica. “But, Hope said you’d show up and we’ve been expecting you for like, three days, I been making waffles non stop since they said you’d be here to talk to my man Scotty-”

“Nice to meet you,” the man she identifies as Kurt greets and she turns around when she hears heavy shuffling footsteps to recognize Dave behind her. But no Scott in sight.

“Hey, man, told you, this is the one who can fly and send out webs like Spider-man- man, I wish San Francisco had super cool superheroes like the East Coast man, like, I know we got Scott and all, but he grows to the size of an ant, and I’m not saying that’s not cool because it is and all, but man, if we could get Iron Man or Captain America to swing by sometime-”

“Like Hawkeye, man! When he came knocking we all lost it!” Dave exclaims, and Jessica feels the need to take a deep breath in order to keep track of what’s going on.

“So sorry to hear he died, man, he was a good dude- not the uppity and snobby type like Pym, man-”

“Agent Drew, so sorry to interrupt the merry introductions,” Hank Pym himself interrupts, and Jessica has never felt happier to see a familiar face before. She knows Hank from her own time with SHIELD, and even though he retired from the board way before her time, Nick has always spoken fondly of Hank.

“Yeah man, it’s Agent Drew!” Luis excitedly barks, and nudges at Kurt with his elbow, before unzipping his pocket. Jessica watches something jump out of it and is suddenly taken aback when Scott Lang appears in front of her. Oh, so he was hiding somewhere. Not a complete security breach then.

And, she has to admit, hiding inside Luis’ pocket is a neat move. “Good job hiding in plain sight,” she says with a smile.

“Yeah, well, I learnt a couple of things working with Captain Am-”

There’s another blast of air when someone else manifests in their normal size, and Jessica immediately recognizes Hope. Scott takes the interruption lightly, and Kurt and Luis seem to be over the hills with what’s going on here. And they say so before she can greet Hope properly. “Man, a super secret spy meeting right here! Anyone want a milkshake?” Luis asks, before getting up and moving to the kitchen. “I got two smoothie machines right here.”

“No, Luis, thank you,” Hank starts, but Jessica smiles at him.

“Actually, it’s been a long trip, if you don’t mind?” she asks, and Luis nods, giving her a thumbs up. “Made it back home alright?” she asks, directing the question at Scott, who nods.

“Yeah, went straight for a Baskins Robbins when I made it here. Man, I never understood why Tony Stark went for a burger when he came back from Afghanistan until I got back home myself, and as much as Wakandan food is incredible, I really needed to get something unhealthy, if you know what I mean?” he answers, and Jessica smiles.

They all startle when Luis turns on one of the smoothie machines, apparently oblivious himself to the scare he just caused. Jessica lets go of the gun she’s just reached for in the back of her pants, and looks at Hank.

“You managed to look into the files Nick sent you?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I did,” Hank starts, as Hope moves over to the counter to help Luis find glasses for the smoothies. “We believe that they’re all here, hiding somewhere in plain sight but we haven’t been able to locate them yet.”

“You know how many teenagers here?” Kurt asks, pointing his finger at Jessica. “Millions,” he answers before she can give her own, and she looks over at Scott who simply raises his shoulders.

“San Francisco is huge city, man, and locating kids is harder than you think because they’ll protect each other,” he says, looking over at Dave who is nodding. “However, we’ve got seven signatures that match the readings we’ve amplified.”

“When miss Widow release files on internet,” Kurt starts, as he opens up his laptop - an old, dusty and disgusting Asus - and turns the screen towards her, “frequency for search for Hulk show up. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner look after scepter and Tesseract, we use frequency to find people who been in contact with the Matrix,” he says and Jessica almost laughs. The Matrix, really? She looks over at Hank who isn’t exactly laughing.

“Seriously, the Matrix?”

“The sub-atomic world Scott came back from is one of the many worlds we don’t know yet, and I believe that the astral powers that came from the skies when the Einstein-Rosen bridge opened the first time in New Mexico is one way to observe another universe,” Hank answers, and Jessica lets out a sigh. “You heard about what happened in Greenwich?”

“Yeah, Thor saved the world after a convergence,” she answers, but Luis comes to her a smoothie in hand.

“Nah, man, well, yeah, but this was years ago. Three months ago there was this huge fight and everything, and Hong Kong also burst open, and so far, Hope figured that the energy blast that came from Hong Kong and is still active there comes from an Infinity Stone-”

“We have reason to believe that an Infinity Stone was used there, but we don’t know for what. The readings can only show us that there was a signature emitted, but not why,” Hope completes, and Jessica closes her eyes.

“Is this why Nick says it’s imperative to find the kids now?” Dave questions, sitting down. Hank shakes his head, but answers with a positive answer.

“Yes, and also because General Thaddeus Ross is creating his own team of superheroes, except he’s using villains to do so,” he says, and Luis’ head snaps to the side.

“Say what?!”

“So far we’ve got reason to believe that he’s going to use the Yellowjacket, the Ant-man and all the other Avenger personas to his own ends, and that is not going to end well.”

Well, Jessica thinks. If Hank Pym says it won’t end well, then maybe it’s best to stay here, where there’s actually things going on.

She looks at Hope who nods, and before she pulls out her phone she takes a sip of the smoothie that Luis has just handed her stops dead in her tracks. Wow, that’s good. She looks up at him, and he smiles that cocky smile at her.

“So, if Ross is heading here with a bunch of monsters, what are we supposed to do to protect the city and the kids?” she asks, opening up the encrypted conversation she has with Nick Fury.

“Well, I beat them in Germany, so let’s just say that he might have access to the Pym Particle, but he ain’t got access to the ants,” Scott answers, and Jessica almost wants to laugh.

“We’re going to win with insects?” she asks, and Hope laughs.

“No, we’re not, but whatever he’s going to bring here, we’ll be able to fight. Scott went alone to Germany to help Steve Rogers, we’re not going to be alone here. We managed to stop Darren Cross before he created destruction, I firmly believe that we can stop Ross before he creates a team of monsters.”

“We’ve got confirmation that our technicians detected a quantum signature matching the Scarlet Witch’s in San Francisco, California, at oh seventeen hundred hours.”

He’s listening but not really. The internal conflict and dialogue seems to be putting him off, and for good reason - he wouldn’t exactly call it Spider-sense, but Venom is absolutely sure that there’s something going on. Eddie looks around him and watches the other members of the Thunderbolts team that Ross has managed to gather so far.

They all come from the deepest cells of the deepest prisons, and he wonders exactly how it could go so wrong. How could it have come to William Simpson, Emil Blonsky, George Tarleton, Carnage and- Karla Sofen? He frowns when he recognizes her but doesn’t say anything.

“The brief is simple: get Wanda Maximoff to the Vault.”

“Yeah, if we do that, then what happens?” Eddie asks, and Blonsky’s head pops up, interested.

“You’re not cleared for that information,” Karla Sofen answers, in that high pitched voice of hers. Eddie would have loved for them to pick Yelena Belova for the replacement Black Widow, but the Russian spy has declined - she was too busy fighting with the Red Guardians and trying to set up their own defenses to protect their territory should the Avengers decide to ruin it with another one of their fights.

Eddie had followed the Avengers from the beginning - it had been his job as a reporter, after all. He’d followed the PEGASUS project and tried to get comments for the Bugle, but he hadn’t been able to get anything out of SHIELD or out of Phil Coulson. Shame that fellow died in the taking of the Helicarrier in New York, because that would have been one hell of a contact to have. He’d also covered some of the Mandarin attacks, but then Spider-man had come along and nobody wanted to hear about meta-humans and Avengers anymore, they all wanted to hear about this kid who wore a hoodie and blue jeans and just-

Venom takes over, quietly, inside his mind, soothing the anger. This is not the moment to lose your cool, Eddie, the symbiote whispers, as they concentrate on what’s going on around them. He watches Will Simpson step into a make believe Captain America costume- it’s not the real thing, but it looks like a perfect copy of it. No doubt that the US Army managed to hack that information from SHIELD’s files. However, the shield Simpson picks up has the exact frequency it’s supposed to. Vibranium vibrates slightly higher than metal, and Venom can feel the taste of it on his tongue. Eddie shakes the thought out of his head.

“How are we sure the Maximoff kid isn’t dead and that it’s not a- an echo from uh- another time one of the super-powered used their powers?” he tries, and watches as Barney Barton - could you imagine, Clint Barton, Hawkeye, the Avenger, had a brother who was as good a marksman as him? - picks up the collapsible bow that the US Army confiscated from Hawkeye in Germany. They’d modified the gear slightly so it’s a darker tone of purple and there’s more knives along the boots, and Eddie knows that there are more concealed weapons on his body.

Where’d they get that guy again? Oh right, he shot the fucking Punisher in the face to prove he was gonna work for them. Talk about a double sided son of a bitch.

Surprisingly, it’s a new voice that replies to his question. “Because we have proof that she is alive, in that there have been repeated spikes of energy coming from the location in your briefs, and that there has been one sighting, based on an anonymous tip coming from the area.”

Eddie turns around and feels the symbiote move inside his mind. The lady standing next to him is military, that much he knows, but there’s something else to her.

“Gentlemen,” Sofen starts, as she zips up her boots, “this is Colonel Carol Danvers, from the United States Air Force, on loan from her duties to assist General Ross in his duties and enforce military leadership over this task force.”

What a load of bullshit.

Look around you, the symbiote says, what do you see? He feels its whisper in his head and frowns. Will Simpson, former military. Emil Blonsky, former military. Barney Barton, former military. Karla Sofen, current military. Only George Tarleton isn’t strictly military, but he’s got a background from Advanced Idea Mechanics, and as far as Eddie’s concerned, the man currently trying to tinker with the Yellowjacket suit they’d salvaged from Pym Industries is the least appropriate man for the job.

Alright, then. Maybe a Colonel is a good way to get them going, since General Ross seems to be off. Eddie looks at the General, but his attention is caught by Barney who is staring too. Oh, so the archer has noticed as well. Interesting, he thinks. How long has he known? How long has he known that there was something wrong with Thaddeus Ross, and is he going to do something about it?

“Colonel Danvers has also worked with NASA as a scientist and is one of Tarleton’s partners in the search for Wanda Maximoff, and helped extrapolate the science behind Tony Stark’s tracking algorithm,” Sofen continues, and Eddie wants to leave. He doesn’t want to fly out next to these monsters - but at least, Carnage seems to be behaving. There’s something there too. Something he should know.

Venom whispers against his mind again and tells him that if and when Carnage starts going mad, they’ll drop following protocol in favor of containing the mad symbiote. Eddie nods, imperceptibly, but he nods.

Barney Barton notices. They’re calling him Trickshot, and he’s excited to see exactly what the brother of the Archer Avenger can do. Is he really as good as he claims? Or would Bullseye have been the better man?

Eddie lets Venom take over, feeling the dark matter emerge from his pores and entombing him in darkness. The world changes taste and colors when the eyes of the alien start seeing and when the tongue of the alien start smelling the air, but Barney Barton doesn’t even blink.

That man has seen things worse than aliens, they both marvel.

What the hell has he seen that could be so terrible?

“Fuck me.”

Scott is always so talkative when it comes to fighting, but he’s always been that way. They’ve been monitoring traffic from the radios they’ve hijacked from the military stations (or, rather, Scott stole from them), and they are waiting for the Thunderbolts.

It’s a covert operation, and light is barely breaking - it’s going to be light in half an hour, but they’re still there. Waiting. Suited up. He looks over at Jessica Drew, who’s donned her Spider-Woman outfit, in all of its militaristic and stylized glory. She looks fierce, the red and yellow colors enticing his attention like it should: she’s a predator. Hope explained to him how Jessica’s powers worked, and Scott vows never to piss her off.

(Seriously, energy blasts? A hormone that attracts all males? That’s some praying mantis shit right there, and he’ll stay away from it as much as possible, thank you very much).

(And yet, he’s the one sitting on the back of an ant, with a thousand and more waiting behind).

(This world is weird, he thinks).

Hope is wearing the Wasp suit too - it’s the first time they’re going to use it to its full potential in a fight. She can fly, she can grow tiny as well and sting too, courtesy of a hybrid version of Natasha Romanoff’s widow bites and Hank Pym’s genius. And Scott’s too, he thinks. He did help with the converters and the power alternators.

He guides the ant - number 499 - into the hovercraft that the Thunderbolts are going to be coming in, and slides through some railing. Listening before he moves, he scans the ship for lifeforms - there are eight of them aboard, ten if you count the symbiotes that have bonded with their hosts. Jessica had explained that to them and Scott had almost thrown up. Luis had, then gone on to describe what the symbiote did in a great artistic fashion, but in the end, they’d all gotten the message. Aliens, bad.

Among other things.

He hears the distorted voice of the Abomination through his earpiece. “You guys hear that?”

“He does not sound happy,” Hope answers through her com, and Jessica hisses.

“We have to let them believe they’ve got the upper hand,” the last voice breaks in, and Scott startles. Hadn’t they said no radio contact?

“Sure, but what are you going to do when you’re facing another Captain America who, by the way, has a real shield to hit you with?” he asks, as he crawls through some circuitry up to a motherboard and tries to figure out which parts are for the stealth mechanism.

There’s a chuckle at the other end of the line, and he hears a gun cocking. “I’ll improvise.”

There’s another laugh, and Scott suddenly remembers that they’ve got not only one, but two jokers in this fight. It’s like playing chess and having two pawns right on the line to become a knight or a bishop again - time to impress the other party. He pulls at some circuitry and there are some glitching sounds around him.

“Bet this was important,” he mutters to himself as he hears something crawling through the pipelines and the cracks. “No, uh uh, I tried that, not doing it again,” he whispers as he runs from the way he came and exits the craft, jumping as far and fast as he can.

As he falls, guiding the flying ant towards him, he sees red tentacles emerge from where he had been standing a mere three seconds ago.


The moment it begins going south for the Thunderbolts is when Carnage and Abomination decide to play together again.

Until that exact moment, things had been going brilliantly for them: they’d managed to catch Spider-Woman, caught her up and knocked her half unconscious, managed to blow Ant-Man and the Wasp apart several times.

All in all, it had been going perfectly well. Or as much as it could have been, anyway. Hank is watching from a safe distance when he notices the Carnage symbiote and the Abomination playing together again - he’d heard they had done the exact same thing in the Raft when Steve Rogers had busted one half of the Avengers out of their cells, but to witness it?

The only thing Hank can think is that General Ross must have turned mad to allow these storybook villains to work together as a team.

Up until now, the Venom symbiote - the huge black and white monster, a much more sober alias than the red monster called Carnage - had been busy fighting off Spider-Woman in the hopes that she would give up, but the moment - the very, very precise moment - that Carnage had touched Abomination’s skin, he’d turned around and headed straight for the other alien.

Watching on, Hank notices that things are moving rapidly down there - the Yellowjacket suit reappears in human size and the smoke coming out of the different mechanics on its back seem to indicate either Scott or Hope managed to destroy it, but the thing that draws his eye is not the fact that William Simpson is parading as Captain America with an American Flag painted across his face, it’s the fact that their apparent leader, a Colonel of the US Army he’s yet to identify, is in a fistfight with Hank’s very own version of Captain America.

The ringing sound of a shield cutting through the air reaches him, and Hank turns around, redirecting some of his ants equipped with miniature cameras to give him a better outlook on the situation. William Simpson can’t manage to use his shield - the real shield - for the life of him, but this new player, sporting an old, revamped version of the Captain America suit knows how to throw it. It’s all in the wrist. It’s all in the movement of the wrist as he lets it go, and it catches the colonel off guard, hitting her in the back.

Hank looks over at camera number 2 and sees that Venom and Carnage are locked up in a fight Jessica is currently trying to break up with her energy blasts, but the Abomination is crawling up on her- “Jess!” he calls, and she turns around just in time to jump off the floor and miss Abomination’s impending fist.

The tarmac shatters under the force of impact, and he turns around once again to find his target. “Take Simpson out,” Hank speaks into his microphone, and even though he knows they all can hear him loud and clear (or so, he hopes), he knows that the person who is supposed to get the order is getting it too.

And, before a couple of seconds pass by, a red dot appears on Simpson’s back, moving up to his neck, to where the suit is less protected by kevlar.

Hank hears the shot only after the bullet has pierced the flesh, something with the speed of sound being slower than the speed of the bullet. Simpson falls to his knees, and the Abomination turns around, growling and monstrous, and suddenly everything changes.

The unknown Captain America smashes his shield into the colonel before jumping up and away, and a second bullet hits Carnage, followed by three consecutive shots. When the red alien symbiote separates just enough from Kasady to reveal his back, a last bullet pierces the flesh. Venom shrieks at the sight when Carnage falls to the floor and is seemingly reabsorbed into Kasady’s body.

“Scott, Hope-”

“Yeah, we know, we know,” Scott barks back as he reappears in human size and hits the Abomination in the knee before disappearing again. Hank notices Hope fluttering around the Abomination and soon enough, all of them are converging on the monster, leaving the Colonel - a blond, short haired woman by the looks of it, up to her own devices.


She’s the one who gave the order and everything grins to a halt. There are a couple of seconds’ tension when she looks at the team facing her, but by the time they’ve all managed to take a deep breath, Venom grows bigger than Hank has ever seen him and encapsulates the Abomination in a dark and black gooey matter, making him disappear from sight immediately. Something blares to Hank’s left, and as he looks up from the screen to make it shut up, another loud gunshot echoes in his earpiece.

Silence follows it almost immediately, and he asks one of the flying ants to move closer so he can hear what’s going on. “Whether it is Samuel Wilson or Stephen Grant Rogers underneath that cowl, you are under arrest for entering the country illegally-” the Colonel is saying, even with a bloody hole in her shoulder.

Damn he’s good. Hank knows that Nick had promised he would show his worth, but this? This is an entire level of incredible.

“Oh, do shut up,” a voice not so far off to the right behind the microphone says and an arrow flies across, hitting her in the front of the chest, effectively knocking her unconscious.

He can’t believe what he’s seeing. Even the news outlets in Wakanda have been playing it over and over again, as a sign of total and complete faith in the breaking news that’s been repeating on the bottom of the screen.

Lately, it’s as if his only way to see the outside world is through that damned CNN breaking news bar, and he can’t for the life of him manage to relax.

“You got copycats,” Sam teases, as he walks into the room, holding the door behind him for none other than Maria Hill. How the hell she managed to get into Wakanda so quickly, Steve will never know. He suspects favors being pulled by SHIELD and Fury in order to restore some of the Vibranium they collected in Sokovia when Ultron was destroyed.

Steve has learnt that the people of Wakanda took the theft very seriously and that ever since it had come to their attention that SHIELD had managed to recuperate some of the stolen metal, they were livid at their inability to get their hands on it. Steve wouldn’t be surprised if he found T’Challa discussing matters with Killmonger next time he gets summoned by the King.

“Do you have any idea of what just happened?” Maria yells, almost louder than intended, but then again, Steve knows that she has mostly taken over SHIELD after Nick Fury stood down.

“I was hoping to ask you the same question, Hill.”

“Don’t play smart with me, Rogers-”

“No, seriously ma’am, what the hell is going on?” Sam interrupts, as he comes over and points at the television. “What the hell is this? Thunderbolts? A K A Ross’ fucking band of criminals working together to what- go after some innocent people in San Francisco? And what the hell is this?” he asks, when the news suddenly show two blurry pictures of a Captain America with a flag painted across his face and another one, with a cowl pulled all the way down to hide his identity. “Two copycats? I gotta say, one of them looks like a nuke, but the other one? Who the hell did they dig up who could throw the shield like-”

“Sam, let it go.”

Steve knows Maria knows. There’s only one person in the world who’s able to throw the shield like that, and the moment he saw a blurry security camera replay, he felt his heart become so much more lighter - because it meant that there was some hope left.

“The real question is, what were they after?”

“And, why the hell was Colonel Danvers there?” Sam asks, too, before Maria can come with an answer.

“They were looking for Wanda Maximoff. As far as we know, the US Army is convinced that she’s been in hiding somewhere sincethe destruction of the Barton home in Waverly last month, and they’ve been using a hijacked version of Stark and Banner’s tracking algorithm to find her, tracking gamma radiations,” is the reply Hill gives him, and Steve frowns.

“Wanda’s alive?”

“It would seem so.”

“Does Nick know? Natasha?”

“I’m not at liberty to say who knows what, but as you’re well aware there are more layers to this than you could first think.”

“Alright, ma’am,” Sam says, lifting his hands, turning his attention at Steve, “what the hell?”

Steve sighs. “And you’re here because?”

He ignores Sam’s questioning look to watch Maria’s reaction. She wears the mask of indifference perfectly and he marvels at her. Maybe she learnt that from Nick, in her days following his lead in SHIELD.

“We need you, Steve.”

There, it finally came out. He shakes his head. “As long as Bucky is here in Wakanda, I’m not leaving him.”

“Then we take him with us.”

“No, that’s not an option either, and you know it. Bucky stays here where nobody can touch him - the layer and amount of administrative operations as well as military and defense factions here are more than enough to protect him in case someone decides to come for him. I’m not leaving him here or anywhere else in the world.”

Steve would otherwise consider going there... But frankly, whatever happens with Ross’ villains and this new team of Avengers that seems to have popped up is none of his business, and he wants absolutely nothing to do with it. Nothing.

“Look, I’m sorry, but you gotta go back there empty handed. You know that the person who threw that shield will be a better leader than I ever could be, especially in this moment and this political situation, so you gotta trust me when I tell you- ask him to lead. Ask him to lead them, because I’m sure as hell that they’re going to follow him.” He pauses, ignoring Sam’s expression of disbelief and going on. “If you’ve got any idea where Wanda is, tell him, and tell him to go get her. Get her safe, she’s a kid. He’ll understand. But as much as it hurts, I am not. Moving. From. Here.”

Nailing it in, as it is. Maria nods. She turns her head to Sam, and to Steve’s amusement, decides to answer his previously unanswered question. “Colonel Danvers was there on a mission for the US military, lent out by NASA. She was injured in the field and will be going back to her duty as a scientist. We’ve arrested one George Tarleton and William Simpson, both of which will be sentenced and put back in prison where they belong.” She turns her head and looks at Steve, nodding. “Steve.”

“Maria,” he answers back, and watches her leave through the same door she came in from. He has no doubt whatsoever that she will have a word with T’Challa about this, or about other matters at hand - Maria Hill does not go somewhere just to make a house call. He looks over at Sam before turning his head away from the television which is now discussing the discovery of another vibranium source in Wakanda.

“You want to go?”

“Told ya, I do what you do, just slower.”

“You don’t have to, Sam. They could use you over there-”

“Who the hell is that Cap lookalike? Not the crazy tattooed guy, but the other one?” Sam interrupts and Steve snorts.

“Ah, I can’t tell you that. As far as I’m concerned, he’s officially dead and buried.”

“Nobody ever stays dead, do they?” Sam asks, as he sits down on the couch next to Steve.

“Guess not. But, like I said, they could use someone like you. Scott, he’s a- he’s a scientist and a thief, and sure, he can speak with ants and stuff, but they need someone who won’t lose their cool in a mission. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s to protect Wanda, I’d rather have you out there than here, rotting away and getting angry comments from the doctors.” He smiles at himself, remembering the look on one of the doctor’s faces when he’d come to sit and speak to Bucky in his cryosleep. “Go back there, do some good. Besides, Romanoff said they managed to get the wings back-”


“Yeah, they did. Apparently, once you’ve broken them out of Fort Meade, it’s the easiest thing to get them back again,” he adds, looking at Sam again.

“When you say it like that, though, it doesn’t sound so bad. But what if something goes wrong here? You know the political climate isn’t exactly positive to both you and Barnes’ asylum here.”

Sam has a point, and Steve takes a couple of seconds to think about it before he answers.

“The way I see it, we’re gonna have to move at one point or another. I’d rather have it be as late as possible, and if you going back there buys us more time here, then-”

“Then you want me out of here. I get it.”

Steve looks down at his hands. “I don’t want to keep you here forever, Sam, and I know you’re curious about what’s going on too. I mean Barney, Clint’s own brother, was fighting for Ross, and as far as Maria says, and as far as some of the people here say, there’s something seriously wrong with Ross. If anything, it deserves to be looked into, and I trust nobody more than I do you.”

He knows he’s out on thin ice, but he has to. He has to trust himself to be able to convince Sam to go back there, understand, figure out how- how the hell did they manage all this? How the hell has nobody noticed?

“Still don’t wanna tell me who it was who was throwing the shield? Because he could throw you out of the competition, man,” Sam says as he gets up and lets out a laugh. It’s nice to have Sam here, Steve realizes. Makes him feel less alone in a country where he knows close to nobody except the king, who is otherwise occupied now.

He’s going to miss him once he’s gone back to the United States.

“Oh, Sam, I’m pretty sure you have an idea by now, and I’m pretty sure that you don’t want me to spoil that surprise for you,” Steve laughs too, getting up by pushing on the couch. He switches the television off with a flick of the remote control, and accompanies Sam to the door and out the corridor.

“I think I have thirteen ideas, where none of them make sense,” Sam shrugs, walking along the corridor, Steve following him behind. “But then again, I’ve seen Vision fight and I’ve partied with Thor, God of Asgard, so I guess something making sense isn’t a priority anymore,” he finishes off, turning around and crossing his arms. “You heard about that dude, the doctor, who crashed his lamborghini and couldn’t operate anymore? Apparently he’s become some sort of magic wizard in the meantime.”

“Well, what can I say, if you can’t be a doctor anymore, then it’s best to become a sorcerer, right?” Steve laughs at that.

Magic. He wouldn’t have believed it three years ago, but then he’d met Wanda Maximoff and she had changed so many lives just with a flick of her wrist. “Say hi to them all when you get there, right? I hate to stay, but you know-”

“Can’t leave your Bucky, I know. I hope they figure out a way to help him get better soon, Steve,” Sam says with such heartfelt honesty that Steve almost misses a beat.

Damn, he is really going to be missing him once he leaves to go back home. But, then, he realizes he will cherish the phone call he is bound to get once Sam realizes who the second Captain America was, and he will cherish the insults coming his way.

He watches Sam walk away and leans against the wall, wondering how they’re going to be able to work together. It’s one thing to have the team completely split, but to have it come together again like this? It’s like someone messed with the fabric of the universe. But, for once, if Steve is honest with himself, he feels happy that the weight of their responsibilities doesn’t lie on his shoulders.

For once, he can lean back and watch as things happen on the other side of the world, like everybody else has done for as long as he can remember. He never knew how to back out of a fight, but maybe, just maybe, he’s learnt to do that now?

The rapid beeping of the monitor sets him off. He’s been dozing off - something that he’s caught himself doing a lot, recently. Maybe the stress is finally getting to him, forcing him to actually take the rest that he’s so desperately in need of. He shakes his head, forcing his eyes to open up again, shoving tiredness back from whence it came, and looks at the screen next to him. It’s still darkened, but when he swipes his finger over the top of it, the light immediately blinds him.

“Luminosity, FRIDAY!” he calls, and the AI immediately tones it down and adds red undertones to the screen to allow him to read better. “Thank you,” Tony mutters when he pushes himself upright. His pants scratch across the fabric of the sofa, but he doesn’t really care.

“Show me what you found-”

“It would seem that the algorithm has finally located miss Maximoff,” Vision begins, as he appears through the wall. Tony has lost count of how many times this has happened in the past couple of weeks, and with nobody there to tell Vision off, it would seem he’s taken to the habit. Well, Rhodey tells him off, Tony remembers. But Rhodey is still recuperating after the injury that almost caused him to get stuck in a wheelchair.

Tony had requested that Doctor Strange fix Rhodey, to bring his spine back together because he was the best doctor in the field, but the man had managed to crash his car before giving back a reply, and Tony still feels like he’s in a fight against the entire universe. He sighs, tapping at the screen and turning on the lights around him. The screen of the tablet lights up at the same time, and he suppresses a yawn as he speaks. “Where is she?”

“It would seem that the brawl between the Thunderbolts and the mock Avengers wasn’t too far from her hiding spot, as the last positive gamma print she gave off comes from a high school in California,” Vision starts of, matter-of-factly, and his programming takes control of some of the LED screens in the room.

Tony still feels the tickle of sleep in his eyes as the screen locates the last positive traces of Wanda’s magic in the area, and it all seems to be leading back to the same spot. “Are we sure it’s just her?”

The stone on Vision’s forehead shines bright for a couple of seconds, and the screen starts spitting out traffic camera and surveillance footage from grocery stores, but none seem to reveal Wanda, and none of the facial recognition programmes that Tony has programmed over the years seems to be able to pick her up. “Is there a possibility that she’s learnt to manipulate her appearance?”

“Negative, her powers are based on neuro-electric interfacing and mental manipulation, if she is doing anything, she is hiding her face from the minds around her which-”

“Would mean that she couldn’t hide from the cameras, got it,” Tony huffs, rubbing his eyes in a motion that he’s learnt not to avoid anymore. He needs caffeine, he can feel it, if he needs to look into this. But then again, as he looks up at the screen where a red dot signifies the last known location of the kid, he wonders if there isn’t something more to this.

He’s talked about it with Rhodey. That his body is learning to associate the suit with pain, and that whenever he gets close to it, he starts getting wet palms and sweat pearls his neck. Maybe it’s not the best moment to think about it, though. As he takes a deep breath, he suddenly feels a whiplash catch him from where Vision has just disappeared in a rush and when his brain catches up to the scene around him, he’s watching Kate Bishop and Natasha Romanoff pointing arrow and gun at Vision, who’s stopped mid-air.


“What- what are you girls doing here?” he asks, and he forces the mask back up. He knows Natasha sees right through it, but maybe the Bishop girl won’t. Maybe he’ll still be Tony Stark, superhero to her. But then again, her brother-in-law is Clint Barton, so she probably has a very distorted view of what a superhero is. Or was. He catches himself thinking of Barton in the present tense again and sighs.

Natasha lowers the gun and Kate follows behind with the motion, keenly throwing the arrow back in the quiver at her hip, and Vision lands onto the floor again. “We heard you found Wanda,” Natasha starts, an eyebrow raised. “And that you’re wondering what you should do about it.”

“And, we thought,” Kate continues, and for a second she sounds so much like Clint that Tony has to blink in order to keep breathing, “that you’d need ladies to talk to the girl.”

There’s a pause as Tony waits for the other shoe to drop.

“Also, because we both know her pretty well, and if there’s something we know she doesn’t like, it’s the guy who put her in the Raft,” Natasha finally says, like a bite, a venomous bite, and Tony makes a grimace at her.

“You really want to pull that card, Romanoff?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve started getting emotional about her,” she smiles, and Tony lets out a relieved breath. Good, they’re on the same team, at least. Vision is still scanning Kate, Tony notices.

“Vision, you can leave the Bishop girl alone, she’s on our side,” he states, as Kate walks up next to him, throwing the bow down next to him, and sits. “What do you want to do about it?”

Kate looks over her shoulder at Natasha who seems to not have anything to say - which is codeword for let the kid talk, which Tony gladly obliges to.

“I want to know what happened,” she starts, and Tony knows that she has a lot on her mind that she wants to say. “I need to know, is it’s her, I need- I need to know why Laura died. Why Coop, and Lil- why they died. I know and I understand that they were going after Clint, and I know that they all understood, save maybe Nate who couldn’t speak just yet, but I need to know. I need to understand what happened, Mister Stark. If Wanda is alive, she’s the last person who saw them alive too, and she’ll be able to tell me what happened back there. I can’t rest until I’ve talked with her, and if I can’t do that, then I’m afraid I won’t rest for a very long time.” She pauses to look at Tony, and he feels exposed. She’s got the same eyes Clint had, even though he knows that she comes from Laura’s side of the family. His mouth twitches when he realizes she sees through his guilt. Sees through the guilt that has been eating him alive.

“You have to take me with you to the West Coast, Mister Stark. I don’t care that I’m just a kid in your eyes too, this is out of your hands now. There are people out there, everyday, fighting for justice and for what is right, and that doesn’t always mean fighting aliens and demigods. Sometimes it’s learning krav maga because of some asshole on the street or practicing archery so you know you can protect yourself from the men of this world, and if I don’t get to at least try to face the demons that haunt me, then how the hell can I be at peace with burying all of my family?”

He watches her intently, as Natasha sits down. Her eyes are drawn too, and he realizes that she must miss them too. It was a home for her, too, Waverly.

“You’re a kid-”

“Don’t try that talk, Tony,” Natasha interrupts, but he frowns, putting up her hand.

“I wasn’t done yet, Nat. You’re a kid, Kate, and I can’t pretend that I don’t want you as far away from this as possible. But like you said, like everybody has been telling me recently, Wanda was just a kid too. I don’t know what happened, nor why, but if you believe that it’ll make a difference for you, then I think you should come. The world needs a Hawkeye every now and then, someone who sees the bigger picture and remembers why we fight the big fight.” He pauses, forcing them all to look down when he rubs his temple. The migraine is coming on. “I can’t promise that you’ll be safe at all times, and I can’t promise that we’ll find the answers we need, but we can damn well try to get them.”
"Yes, Mister Stark,” Kate says then, standing up and picking her bow off the table. Vision, who’s been quietly watching the interaction, bends forward but Natasha puts her hand up to stop him and speaks next.

“Tony, I swear to God, if anything happens to that kid, I’ll never forgive myself,” she whispers, so that Kate doesn’t hear it. “I promised Laura that I’d look after her, since her own father doesn’t, and as much as I know she needs this, you have to promise me that you’ll help me protect her from harm.”

Her green eyes shine in the warm light from the lamps above, and Tony nods. “That, I can do. I promise to keep Kate Bishop from harm’s way.”

There’s some sort of hope within Natasha’s chest.

She’s felt it bristling inside her heart ever since they first found traces of Wanda - maybe, just maybe, there was a way for Clint to have survived too? For the others to- for them to-

She blinks and watches Tony’s steps. He’s following the GPS that’s embedded in his sunglasses, and they’re currently tracking the last readings of the gamma radiation Wanda gives off. They’ve figured out that it seems to come from a common room in the high school they’ve found - it’s past school hours, so there should be nobody there, except a janitor and some late working teachers.

Natasha never liked American high schools. They were too filled with a raw and unkind energy, where the weak are preyed upon and the strong and privileged laugh at those who have less than them. She looks over at Kate and wonders how she’s been going through high school, how it must have felt to go through it all on her own. Natasha remembers that Clint once told her that he never set foot in a high school, because he dropped out of the system too early.

She smiles at that. Clint would have hated it, to come here. There had been an undercover mission where he had had to pretend to be a maths teacher, and surprisingly, his unorthodox teaching method had allowed some students who were falling behind to catch up and overtake some of the smarter kids.

But then, Clint had always been a great teacher, whether he admitted it or not. He taught Natasha so many things. She knows even Maria Hill respects him in having taught her many things, respect and the courage to be kind to others one of those things. She looks around. Vision is nowhere to be seen, but she knows that he’s here somewhere, tracking them and tracking life around them.

Tony stops up, before he turns around. “There’s more than one,” he states, and Kate moves closer to Natasha.

More than one? One what?

Natasha moves closer and past Kate, walking in front of her, all of her senses at the ready. They’ve managed to make it onto the high school grounds fairly easily, and it had taken a couple of skills from Tony to pick the lock to one of the main doors, disabling the security systems with a virus that took out the blaring sirens.

As soon as they make it into one of the corridors, Natasha remembers entering one of the same in the Red Room. A corridor leading to teaching rooms, where they were taught everything. She shakes the thought from her head and hopes for the best. There’s light coming from one of the rooms in the back, and they all move quietly.

Natasha hears Vision before he appears besides her. “They are five,” he whispers quietly, and Natasha puts her gun back into her belt, while Tony lets her take the lead. As much as Tony is good at hand to hand, Natasha will always be the better fighter. She’s been trying to teach Kate all of the tricks of her trade, but she’s realized that Kate fights a lot like Clint. And Laura. They probably taught her after that event . Kate hasn’t spoken about it, but Natasha is too good at reading people to not notice.

Something had happened, recently, which had caused Kate to step up. Clint had mentioned it once, during a Skype session. That Kate was acting strangely, and that she spent more time at the farm than at school. That she’d run away in order to stay with them. At first, he’d thought that it was because of Wanda and because Kate was afraid that someone would realize who her family was. That, he’d told Natasha. But there had been something else. Something that had ripped her apart and set her ablaze.

Tony lifts his hand suddenly, and Natasha stops moving forward. He pulls his sunglasses off and lifts his wrist, turning on the watch he’s wearing and screen appearing on it. “It’s Dust.”

Tony had explained to Kate and Natasha what he meant by Dust. After he’d told her about the books he had stolen the concept from, Natasha remembered them. His Dark Materials, a book that caused such debate with the Christian Church that it had been banned many places. A book. Banned. She would have laughed had she not known the power of words on men.

Vision scans the room, the Mind Stone illuminating the hall ever so slightly. “The Maximoff girl is in there,” he states, and Natasha feels her heart start beating. This feels wrong. There’s something off with this place, and Kate can feel it too. Natasha steps forward and before allowing anyone to argue against it, she pushes the door open and steps inside.

Kate follows immediately, and Tony too. Vision stays behind for a couple of seconds as the five people inside the room take them in. Natasha assesses each of them immediately - the first one, black hair, brown eyes, slightly muscular physique and an ear piercing to the left of them, seemingly watching her with attentive eyes. Second one, to his immediate right, much stronger, with the same wide chest and open shoulders as Steve has, ears pierced as well, blonde and blue eyes, keenly watching Tony, as far as Natasha realizes. The third one, a young man with black skin and piercing eyes is watching Kate like a wolf watches a prey. There is anger in his face, and something Natasha seems to have seen before - does she know him? She feels like she does, but she doesn’t remember him from anywhere. Then, another young black man, a little bit older than the other ones, brown eyes, wearing glasses on the brim of his noses, looking up from a book they all seemed to have been arguing about. Natasha can’t see the title of the book, but by the symbols she can read on the pages open, it’s about paganism. The last young adult in the room is a young woman, of apparent latina ancestry, with beautiful curly black hair, proudly resting her Doc Martens on the table to her right. She’s got a look on her face that tells Natasha she knows exactly what’s going on.

For a couple of seconds nobody moves. Then, everybody moves at once, Tony moving before her, Vision appearing from the side, all the kids hustling to their feet, Kate ducking behind her, and within the time it takes Natasha to take a breath, the first boy’s eyes have started glowing.

“She is the one giving off Dust,” Vision says, flatly, from where he’s standing, motioning at the young lady in the group. Kate is watching the two bigger boys with an air of defiance Natasha recognizes as Laura’s, and before even Tony can reply, the bigger one of the two, the blonde, speaks.

“Mister Stark, Miss Romanoff, Mister Vision and Miss Unknown, we don’t want any trouble,” he starts, and Natasha feels her heart go back to a calmer rhythm. She notices the first boy mouthing words silently and frowns. Something tickles inside her head, and she shakes it, like trying to get a fly to stop buzzing at her ear. “We just meet here in peace, and whatever reason you came here for, you have to leave again.”

“You’re the ones in control right now, kid,” Tony starts, and doesn’t allow himself to be interrupted by the blonde boy, “so tell me now: why shouldn’t we try to figure out why all of our math seems to indicate Wanda Maximoff is here?”

“Cuz I’m the one throwing off your math, Anthony,” the girl answers, and Natasha watches her. She seems nonchalant enough in her red top with a white star on the chest, the hoodie covering her shoulders enough. She’s not afraid of a fight and Natasha can feel it.

Vision takes a step forward. “What are your names?”

“So you can put us in your little encyclopedia of freaks?” the first dark-skinned boy says, and Vision smiles before replying.

“I was just being polite, young man. William Kaplan, Teddy Altman, Elijah Bradley, America Chavez and David Alleyne, you are all a long way from home,” he says, and Natasha feels a tickle at the back of her head. There’s a blue light inside her mind, but it feels so much like when Wanda caused her to hallucinate in Johannesburg… She watches the boy apparently called William more carefully, but his mouth is barely moving anymore.

“We don’t want trouble, Mister Stark,” Elijah says, then, and David nods. Natasha caught on to their names when their eyes respectively moved to look at Vision when he recited their names, probably compiled from a database he’s downloaded into his cortex.

“There’s too many kids being dragged into too many fights, you’re not taking us with you,” America says then, and Natasha nods, before looking at Tony who, for one, looks defeated enough. “She can stay though,” she then adds, and points at Kate with her chin, before turning her head towards the boy apparently called Teddy. “What do you think?”

“She can stay,” Teddy replies, and William smiles.

“She stays.”

If there’s something off about the situation, Natasha can’t see it. She manages to catch Tony’s gaze, and when they both nod to each other, they accept it. Vision watches them incredulously, as they turn around and leave, but to Natasha, the tickle against the back of her head indicates that this is the best possible solution. This is the best way.

Kate doesn’t even say anything to stop them from leaving her here, and for half a second, Natasha wants to fight it. To fight the feeling and go back, take her out of there, bring her home, but in this instant?

In this instant, the world feels like it’s bathed in a nice bright light with blue hues, and it makes perfect sense to leave her behind in the hands of these other kids. They seem perfectly alright, don’t they?

“Viz, you coming?” Tony asks, and Natasha follows him out of the room.

She barely registers the door closing with a slam behind them when they exit, and barely realize Vision is trying to talk them out of this.

Kate stands there quietly. She hasn’t said a single word since Natasha, Tony and Vision left. But, somehow, she doesn’t feel intimidated. They’re all her age, and they all seem friendly. Even the one who’s called William, he seems a lot more friendly now that his eyes have stopped glowing. Teddy moves over to him and takes his hand, in what she gathers is to ground him in reality.

Something beyond her has just happened here, but she can’t put her finger on it.

She watches America walk to the back of the room, and knock on the wall three times. Frowning, Kate turns her head slightly, trying to figure out what she’s doing, but before she has the time to come up with five theories, the outlines of a door seem to have outlined in the back of the room. And, suddenly, Kate can’t even remember it not being there. It’s always been there, hasn’t it? She smiles, like it’s the most obvious thing in the entire world, and she realizes that none of them are watching her anymore.

They’re all looking at the door, where America has stood aside, allowing it to open. It’s another common room on the other side, Kate realizes, but there’s something more. One person comes out, and then another, and then-

The haze that’s been eating up her brain seems to disappear the very moment she recognizes Laura. Her entire heart bursts into a scream of joy and she lets go of everything around her, letting go of her things, of the bow she’s carried in her hand in case she needed to use it, letting go of the feelings that have been building up in her chest and she runs.

She runs towards her older sister and slams into her chest, like it’s the first time she can breathe again. She hears Laura shushing her, telling her that it’s okay, but it’s not, is it? She died! She died, and Kate buried her! Barney buried Clint!


She pushes herself out of Laura’s embrace and looks over at Clint, standing there with dark marks under his eyes, the typical sign that he hasn’t been sleeping, and before anyone can think of stopping her, she walks over to her brother in law and slaps him across the cheek as hard as she can.


But then she recognizes the man to Clint’s left who hasn’t said a single word either, and her hand flies to her mouth. No, he’s a- he’s a murderer, he’s the one- he-

She feels her heart start beating faster, faster still, and as she turns around to look for some sort of escape, she’s only met by the faces of five other people she can’t trust yet, five eyes looking at her like she’s a freak and she feels her breaths turn to short hiccups, and when a set of hands settle around her shoulders she allows her knees to buckle down under her.

They catch her, somehow, and allow her to keen over, bending forward as her emotions suddenly hit her completely.


She wants to ask, but the words get stuck in her throat. A knee appears in her peripheral vision, and when she looks up, she sees Laura’s face, looking peaceful and quiet.

“I’ll tell you everything you need to know, but before I do that, you have to promise me to stay with us, alright?” Laura whispers, and Kate looks around her, eyes wild and flaring, her heart in her throat like she’s going to maul a tiger, and she lets a sob escape her lips, grabbing Laura’s clothing, pulling her close to herself in desperation.

“You died, Laura!” she screams, finally, and this time, Laura puts down her knees onto the floor and pull her into her arms.

“Shhh, Katie Kate, it’s alright,” she whispers, and Kate closes her eyes. She’d- she’d thought that she had lost her sister forever- that she’d lost her niece and nephews forever- that- that-

The tears can’t stop coming, not when she realizes that Clint is still standing there, with none other than the Punisher himself standing to his right. How?

“Listen to my voice, alright?”

And she does. She does so much, closing her eyes, allowing herself to be transported elsewhere, and somehow, she feels her heart rate change, like someone is interfering, and suddenly her eyes jolt open and- “Wanda?!”

Frank and Clint look at each other, saying something that she can’t hear, and then William and Teddy say something more, but Kate can only Laura’s words, and it feels like she’s 5 again, and waking up from a nightmare before crawling into her bigger sister’s bed, asking her to look after her. Through the clouded tears in her eyes, she sees someone walk through the door and she almost lets out a shriek when she recognizes Wanda’s face.

"Wanda!” she calls again, and she feels something kind in her head, something that strokes her quietly, gently, calmly, and she feels her heartbeat slow down and her breaths settle in her chest, and for once in the last couple of weeks, she actually feels like this is the place she’s supposed to be. When her vision stops swimming, she allows herself to gaze at Clint again, and she realizes the dark circles under his eyes are actually black eyes, and when she forces herself to look at Wanda, she sees a bandage around Wanda’s chest and then she remembers-

Someone had shot Wanda before she destroyed the house in a burst of energy. Kate’s eyes immediately turn to Frank whose eyes dare meet hers, and she feels an entire renewed hate and spark in her chest. Kate leaps from Laura’s arms at Frank, but strong arms catch her, catching her in a locked position, forcing her to stop and she almost screams.

Things are happening too fast, there’s too many people, there’s-

“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” she screams then, and she closes her eyes as she feels not one, but two minds slowly move out of her mind, allowing her the space to breathe, and even though the pain comes back tenfold in her chest, she feels alive, she feels it burning in her chest, she feels the love and the rage and every single feeling in the entire wide world seems to be hers.

The arms holding her back let go of their grip and she falls to the floor once again, gently being put down on her knees, catching herself with her wrists and stopping herself from falling flat entirely.

“Kate, listen-”

“Not now, Clint.”

“Let her rest.”

She hears the voices speak over each other, and soon the words are going back and forth in a dialogue that seems so far out of reach, like they’re speaking in another tongue she can’t understand. She tries to focus on the faces of each person present  - Laura, her older sister, the one that she’s known her entire life, in spite of being from another mother, the one who took care of her when she was a kid and needed help, the one who got married so early their father decided to stop talking to her altogether…

Clint, her brother-in-law, the Avenger who brings a bow and arrow to an intergalactic gunfight, the one who always knows which words to say and who will always be there to allow her to talk out her feelings, and who will always learn her to spar, who’s always given her words to trust and rhymes to recite when things go wrong, the man who taught her how to use a bow as more than a weapon to shoot arrows with...

Frank, the Punisher, a murderer, who was supposedly blown up in Hell’s Kitchen after getting in a bloody fight to the death with a drug lord, father of Frank Junior and Lisa Castle, and Kate remembers the giggles of the kids when they’d introduced them the first time, when Frank Jr had run along with Lila in the fields at the farm, and suddenly, the One Batch, Two Batch rhyme echoes in her skull like the loud gongs of doom….

Wanda, a witch, a person who could look into her head and make her see her worst fears, the only person who knows exactly what Kate has been through and has helped her stop the nightmares and help her accept that it wasn’t her fault, that it can happen to anyone, that this was absolutely not her fault and that it doesn’t make her less a person because it happened…

When did she forget? When did she forget the pain of losing all of them? All of them had died in the past year - all them buried in the ground and forgotten by the world around them. She wants to scream again, but the screams gets caught by a sob in her throat, and before she knows it, she’s crying again, words catching her ears but not computing to her mind, as if it’s broken, as if she needs time- there’s too much going on, she can’t help it, she can’t stop it-

She feels hands slide under her knees and under her shoulders, lifting her up, and she thinks that maybe it’s Clint carrying her, but when she realizes she’s in Frank’s arms, she can’t even bother to fight against it, she doesn’t want to, this is too much- she sees Laura, upside down from the position she’s in now, sees Clint sitting on one of the chairs the young adults were sitting on earlier, rubbing his ears like something had just happened, and she notices Laura is speaking to her.

Did she scream?

She doesn’t remember. She doesn’t remember, she wants to ask but her throat catches and she realizes she must have. But she doesn’t remember. How can she not remember? Is that why Clint is rubbing his ears? Is this why Frank is carrying her somewhere?

Where are they going?

Why is she here?

What happened to Natasha and Tony? What about Vision?

Did they leave her here- no, they said they were leaving. She said she wanted to stay. She doesn’t remember. She doesn’t remember anything at all, and she feels like she’s been punched in the face.

Frank’s strong arms carry her for what feels like hours. She doesn’t remember being put down on the bed.

But, once she realizes she’s sleeping and dreaming, she smiles.

Maybe this dream is not so bad.

Chapter Text

He's seen people in better condition. Honestly.

Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross looks like shit. Barney has no other words for it, and he's been looking for other words for a while. But that's the truth: the former General looks absolutely terrible.

“You seen a doc yet?” Barney asks, but Ross only looks up from the papers he's been trying to fit into a plastic sheet for the past thirty seconds.

“I don't need to see a doctor, I'm fine.”

“You don't look fine to me.”

Ross shoves his palms into his skull, pressing hard against his eyes. He's been like this for days, refusing to let anyone tell him he should get help. But Barney can't let it go on. This sounds only too much about how-

He doesn't want to think about it. It's like looking at the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

There are smudges of darkened blood on Ross’ cupid’s bow, and it's been smudged to the side too. Barney connects the dried blood on the back of Ross’ hand to the motion of sweeping it away. He should use a Kleenex for that. The plastic sheets suddenly make a lot more sense.

“You sure you don't want me to bring in Sofen-”

“Get the hell out of here, Barton,” Ross snaps, and Barney frowns, glaring at the older gentleman. There's something off, something rotten that he can't put his finger on, and it bothers him. He doesn't want this to happen to anyone else.

Leaving the old man behind, Barney smacks the door shut- he needs to tell Fury. He needs to let him know that something bad is going to happen to Clint if they don't figure out what is happening to Ross.

He drops the façade and heads down towards what they're calling their barracks.

“You seeing it too, uh?”

He'd almost run into Eddie Brock, turning that corner. The younger man is standing with his back towards the wall, a knife in between his hands. It's an old fashioned flip knife, and Barney has absolutely no doubt as to whether or not Eddie knows how to use it.

“Gonna tell Fury about it?” Eddie asks, and Barney barely has the time to spur out a reply before he's speaking again, “Oh, don't worry, Trickshot. I'm not going to give you up.”

Eddie rolls his eyes as Barney takes a step back. “Why the hell should I believe that? You're not all alone in there,” Barney says, motioning to all of Eddie.

There's a dry laugh at that. “That is absolutely true.”

He's not going to lie to anyone if asked - as many times as he's seen it - watching the black goo appear from out of nowhere and cover the full human body in front of him? He's never going to be able to stomach it. It's like watching a reverse bad werewolf transformation on a low budget science fiction movie, except it’s absolutely not science fiction. He feels his stomach turn when the black elastic like material creeps out to reach Eddie’s fingers, and when Eddie’s face distorts into that of the humongous black and white monster, Barney wishes really, really hard that the alien can't smell the sweat that's started pearling down his back.

(Barney can deal with a lot of stuff. Alien web shooting monsters who live as parasites on living hosts? He still needs a little bit of help to believe that, especially when the spawn scene from the first Alien movie comes to mind).

“Eddie will let me do the talking,” the symbiote - Venom - says in a low, hissing tone.

“Yeah, you care to tell me what the hell is going on with Ross? He looks like he just Hulked out and fell down from it!” Barney bites, and Venom opens its big, spiky jaw, revealing a red, long disgusting tongue and Barney wants to shoot it. Even though he knows it will make absolutely no difference whatsoever.

“Our morphology is different than yours” Venom begins, “in that way that we don't need a male and a female to create offspring. We only need ourselves, and if we are lucky, we will find a host for our child- somewhere it can grow and mature, feeding off whatever the host believes in, or is afraid off. It will enhance emotions, and before long, the fully matured symbiote will be able to take over the host. With or without their permission,” Venom emphasizes.

Barney looks over his shoulder, up the corridor, back to where he knows Ross is sitting. “He-”

“Carnage spawned onto Thaddeus Ross the moment they met in the Raft. I hadn't been able to tell until now, until the bleeding started-” Venom continues, as politely as it can, black material covering Eddie’s body all over, like a suit. Barney has barely had the time to read or watch any of the material from Queens and New York about the Spider-Man that's popped up, but he knows Tony Stark has got a lot on his mind about the kid. “-but it is sure. There is an offspring festering inside Ross, and it is Carnage’s. There is absolutely no doubt about that.”

“What can we do to get it out?”

“Oh, that. That requires but one thing: kill the host before the spawn matures,” Venom laughs - at his own phrase as much at Barney’s look.

“There is also something else festering inside Ross,” Venom continues, before Barney comes up with any discussion. “It reminds me of Abomination, but I am unsure. Maybe you could send one of the used paper tissues from Ross’ trash to those allies of yours, with SHIELD.”

“I’m not with SHIELD-”

“Don't lie to me, Barton. I know why you're here,” and this time, Barney feels that he's being threatened as much as he is being scolded. “As long as it took me to realize that Ross had a spawn inside of him, the moment your precious brother and his team escaped the Raft, I knew. Have you seen the footage? Of the escape?”


“You've seen it, then. You saw how Carnage snuck up on him, as the Amazing Hawkeye tried to get everyone ahead of him- he knew, you know? He knew what would happen if Carnage got a hold of him. Because he'd seen Ross like you did. Like I did. Ross interrogated your brother for hours on end, about SHIELD, Nick Fury, the Winter Soldier, Wakanda, HYDRA… And when your brother wouldn't cooperate, he would send me. Or Carnage. After a while, I felt it. Inside your brother’s head, the same way I felt it inside Ross’. The Spawn.”

“Can we get it out of them?” Barney asks then, suddenly picturing Clint getting the same symptoms as Ross- aggressiveness, short temper, blood, violence. “How long do we have?”

“You do not want to be a part of the Thunderbolts anymore, Trickshot? Tut tut,” Venom mocks, but loses the amused tone as soon as it had come. “Not long. But I already warned you- the only way to kill the spawn is to kill the host.”

Venom turns his back and Barney stands there, stunned like he’s been hit with a bullet. Kill the host. That can’t be the only way. “There has to be another way to get them out of-”

“If there was, I'd tell you,” the spawn hisses at him, as it grabs onto the wall and slithers away from Barney, like the silent killer it is.

I have to tell them . He runs to his barrack, not caring about the looks he is getting. He needs to leave. Needs to find a way-

The kids. His thoughts drift to the kids- Ross has been getting violent. Clint always had that edge. Always too quick to anger, to hit, to smash. He grew out of it. But then Loki happened- Laura told him. Frank told him. Loki brought some of it back.


“You lied.”

She’s accusing - and he doesn’t blame her. After all, they did have to fake their deaths. All of them. They’d had to send Laura and the kids on a cross country trek from Iowa all the way to California across the midwest with three children, while he worked with Frank and Barney to figure out how to gain the upper hand on Ross.

Clint sighs.

“I know. I had to.”

He doesn’t even blink. He’s gotten used to it now. Everyone he lied to. Again. It’s coming naturally for him now, more than it ever was.

“We had a funeral! We- we put up a stone besides your parents!”

Looking down, Clint rubs his knuckles with his other hand. “I’m sorry, Kate. There was too much at stake, you have to understand that-”

“I don’t want to understand jack shit! You made me believe my sister was dead! That my nephews and niece were dead!”

He isn’t so sure he’s got the patience for it, though, right now, so he takes a deep breath and decides to keep going even if she interrupts him. He needs to say it now, and he needs to say it right.

“Remember when Pietro died, in Sokovia? Yeah? Well, Wanda released a burst of energy then, that exterminated all electronics near her, including all the Ultron bots that were going for her. It killed almost everything around her, but it also sent- We think it also sent out some sort of wave across the world, that got amplified by the greater altitude, and it caused mutations in some teenagers around the world. Vision picked up on it, doing scans to find the Hulk after he crashed the Stark jet in the ocean after leaving us behind, he found out that there had been reliable signatures in mutations that moved like an earthquake radius around Sokovia, which was the epicenter. Stark told Nick about it, back when I was still in the Raft with the others.

“It took Ross a little longer to figure out what was going on, but he figured it out anyway - you know how he is by now, right? He’s ruthless. He’ll do whatever he can to get his hands on anything that will bring him closer to the Manhattan project, and he ended up getting his hands on one of those kids- Fury told me, when Steve broke me out of the Raft and I came home. He told me about it, that Ross has got this 16 year old kid pulled from juvie either in Ryker’s or in the Raft, and I can’t-

Look, I have to get them out of there. By faking my death, it allowed me to work in the shadows-”

“Don’t you fucking give me that shadows talk again! You did that when you took care of Tiboldt and the others! You did that when you went to Greenland to look for Captain America and spent a year and a half on a dogsled! Do you think I-”

He slams his hand down onto the table they’re sitting at. It resonates in the entire room, and he takes a deep breath, barely controlling himself.

“You have no idea, kid! You have no idea what I went through to get all of this- to get all of this up and running! You think Fury came to me first? You think he came to me first when he heard about a kid, a goddamn kid locked up in a cell? No, he didn’t! He went to Barney! You know why he went to Barney? Because he was afraid that something had happened in the Raft!” Clint pauses in order to take a deep breath, and shakes his head, as if a fly was bothering him, his voice getting louder and louder. “No! They tortured me, they pulled tricks I’ve only ever seen in Guantanamo Bay, they- they used aliens to try and get information out of me, and I never gave them up!”

By the end of the sentence, he’s screaming and Kate has retreated all the way back into her seat. She doesn’t dare move, because she’s seen him like this. Years ago, right after Loki, when he’d get bouts of anger- when he would leave the house where she was staying in order to help take care of the kids and Laura. He’d do the same thing. He’d been better, though. He had been better.

“Clint, you’re-”

She doesn’t finish, because his hand flies to his nose almost as soon as she begins her sentence. It dripped two drops onto his shirt.

“I’m fine,” he growls through gritted teeth, and wipes the blood coming out of his nose with the back of his hand, as he looks at her. She remembers that look from somewhere else, she remembers it from her own father. She knows where it comes from and what it can do. Kate knows this is the same look that made Barney and Clint run for shelter when their dad was drunk too. Seeing it in Clint’s warm eyes- it terrifies her.

She takes a deep, deep breath and pushes herself to a standing position, and he follows her lead, standing up too. She doesn’t dare look him in the eyes- it’s as if there’s something red glowing there, like his eyes are bloodshot, the same way they are after boxers come out of matches. Like he’s been hit. “I’m going to go…”

She doesn’t even say what. He nods, and coughs, wiping his bloody hand on his shirt, splatting out the other drop that’s fallen on it. “It’s just the air in here,” he says, but she knows better. She knows that there’s something else that’s going on, and she doesn’t dare think about what it can be.

She needs to speak to Helen. Or Laura. Or Frank. Or someone who will listen, because this Clint? This is not the one she knows. This is a distorted monster. Much like the one they got back after Loki, who woke up screaming at night about aliens and cold and monsters, who yelled at the kids when he got a headache and who scared Laura enough that she thought about leaving for a while. Kate never wants to think about that again, but… With Clint like this, she can’t help but. It’s too terrifying.

“You got everything back, after everything?”

Happy nods, and motions around him. “Every single thing. Even the crates that crashed on the beach,” he begins, and nods again. “That spider kid really helped us contain a major leak.”

“I bet he did,” Nick answers with a smile. It’s been awhile since he’s set foot in any place that reminds him of the SHIELD of old, and he likes what he sees. Young agents training, people everywhere, buzzing, like it should. He knows Maria Hill is somewhere around here, probably trying to keep track of the Avengers recruits and the SHIELD ones. After all, Stark had allowed them to store the Helicarrier on the grounds, as long as it remained in stealth mode and nobody knew.

( You can’t work with fugitives from the law , he’d said, and Nick had smiled. No, you can’t.)

“How is Tony, by the way? His finger not too heavy, now that it’s got a ring on it?”

Happy grins- an honest to god grin, and Nick can’t help but reciprocate. He’s known Tony long enough, and seeing him finally asking Pepper Potts to marry him was one of the best things to come out of this Vulture disaster.

“He’s good! They’re both good! The press is taking the heat off the Avengers and Steve Rogers with this entire proposal thing, so that’s nice. Buzzfeed made a list of potential guests for the wedding, Mister Stark is very interested in actually inviting them just to cause a ruckus. Pepper, of course, said-”

“No. Of course she said no, she’s the only one who can reign in the infamous Tony Stark,” Nick chuckles.

“Now, Director Fury, what can I do for you? You never come around for small talk, not even weddings,” Happy says, and Nick cocks his head, in a mocking fashion.

“I would never- oh, why bother. Can’t lie to Tony’s personal security manager. I’m here to talk to Tony about creating some sort of container that can hold extreme heat. My team have encountered an asset who might be of use, but we need to contain it,” Nick explains, as he turns around to the sound of footsteps behind him. He greets the woman with a nod, and Happy frowns.

“Who’s this? Who cleared her?” Happy asks around, nobody really answering. “Who are you?”

She pulls off the badge attached to her hip, and hands it to him. “Natasha Romanoff cleared me, Mister Hogan. I’m a friend,” she answers, as Happy pulls out a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket.

“Sharon Carter? ” he asks, incredulous. He hadn’t imagined Sharon Carter to be working with SHIELD again. Not this fast after… Well, the shit show that happened with the Winter Soldier.

“Yes, it is. We’re here for SHIELD business with Vision, Natasha and Tony,” Sharon says, quietly as Nick nods.

“We need your help to settled something… Classified.”

Happy sighs. “Sure, right, everything always classified with you guys. I’m gonna have to talk with Natasha about clearing people without my knowing,” he grumbles, as he turns around and waves at them to follow him through the building.

Nick and Sharon exchange a glance when Happy starts talking to himself about security breaches.

“Ross is sick. That much we know.”

They’ve all gathered around the briefing table - the same briefing table General Ross himself had stood at and presented the Accords at. Where they had bickered and where the first rift in the Avengers had started appearing.

“As far as we know, he’s been contaminated by one of the assets he kept in the Raft,” Nick explains. Natasha sat down next to Sharon, Vision is standing in one corner, and Tony is playing with a pen while he sits on the opposite side of Sharon. Nick stands, at the end of the table.

“We believe they are of alien origin, and we know for a fact that they were used for torture. Agent Barton told us so, and the other previous tenants of the Raft will testify to it too. We also have intel from Ross’ team itself, that the assets are alien.”

“Yeah, right, Barton’s brother joined that team, right? After he shot the Punisher in the head? Thought that was worth noting as a break of trust,” Tony snarks, but Nick replies swiftly.

“He infiltrated the team, he didn’t join it. It will serve you well to know that Frank Castle is alive and well, and that it was all a ploy to get closer to Thaddeus Ross. But yes, Barney Barton is the main source for this intel. Ross has been displaying worrying symptoms, and Trickshot recently contacted us,” Nick points to Sharon with his chin, “to let us know it’s not going well. One of the aliens, known as symbiotes, because of the way they bond with humans as hosts, said that the symptoms might indicate that the other symbiote has spawned a child inside Ross’ body.”

“Wait, is this some Ridley Scott Alien shit? Is there going to be something ripping out of Ross’ stomach, because that is-”

“No, there isn’t, Tony. We don’t know yet how the spawn is reacting to its host, but we believe it resides inside his head, which is causing… problems.”

Sharon sighs, before she takes over from Nick who walks away, to let her do the talking. Natasha’s knuckles turn white when Sharon start talking. “Barney told us that Ross barely knows right from wrong anymore. He’s letting Carnage, the red symbiote, and Emil Blonsky, aka the Abomination, do whatever they want, and he’s let Helmut Zemo out of his cage. Tony, before you say anything, yes, we know how risky that is, but apparently whatever is inside of Ross’ body wants him to do it.”

“How do you propose we stop that? Half of us are out of the game, and the other half can’t get involved with Ross, or he’ll throw us into the Raft,” Natasha says, finally. Vision takes a step closer, and watches Sharon closely.

“You have a plan?” he asks, and she nods.

Fury answers for her. “One of my team, led by Agent May, have located a potential asset on the West Coast, which might be able to get the spawn out of Ross. Trickshot warned us that the other symbiote, known as Venom, told him that the only way to get the spawn out was to kill the host. Obviously, that is out of the question.”

“Definitely. Do not want a dead Secretary of Defense on my conscience,” Tony states, and Natasha sends him a look.

“Tony, we need you to build some sort of containment that can take heat beyond the reaches of science,” Nick finally admits. “If we can’t get the target to do it voluntarily, we’ll try to-”

“Force their hand,” Sharon interrupts. Natasha frowns, and Vision notices something unspoken happening between the two women, and decides to chime in.

“Is there something else, Director Fury?”

Nick shakes his head, as Tony stands up, clearly oblivious to the last bit of conversation, too busy talking to himself. “If there’s anyone who knows anything about heat, it’s going to be Reed Richards, he build the containment cell for Johnny Storm, and his heat levels broke the records. I’ll call him in for it, and-” he points at Nick who was about to interrupt, “Don’t even think about telling me it’s off the table. I trust you, Nick, but if I’m going to help Ross, I’m going to make damn sure I don’t kill him either.”

Tony leaves and asks Vision to come with him, while Nick watches Sharon and Natasha talking. Natasha looks up to him, and her eyes betray it: there’s something else at work here. “Is there-” she begins, but doesn’t get the opportunity to finish.

“We need to make sure that Ross doesn’t lose all these bad guys again,” Sharon interrupts. “If Abomination, Carnage and Zelmo decide to work together, they’ll wreak more havoc than the Chitauri did in New York. And believe me, we do not want any more superpowered villains in the world again.”

“You heard from Steve yet?” Natasha asks, and Sharon shakes her head.

“As far as I know, he’s still in Wakanda. Sam’s there too… There’s been some conflicting intel about Wakanda, so we still don’t know exactly what’s going on there,” Sharon replies.

He’s seen him with the kids before. Hell, he’s seen him with- he saw Clint with Frank Jr. and Lisa, and he never, ever, had a single moment’s pause.

Because he trusts Clint with his life. They’ve known each other long enough. He’s never had any reason to doubt Clint with his kids, so why should he be worried about Clint and Clint’s kids?

However, the message they got from Barney still rings clearly in his mind. Watch Clint. Something is off, and until Barney gets there, he can’t say anything more than that, as it might compromise someone else. Barney had said that he’d make it across the country as fast as possible to help and explain what’s going on, but in the meantime, he had been clear: Don’t let Clint do anything he would regret.

Leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed, he watches as Clint plays with Nathaniel. He feels the deep hurt in his own chest as he watches Nathaniel giggle and laugh when Clint tickles him, and he takes a second to breathe in. He remembers Frank Jr.’s giggles too, the memory haunting him. And then, almost as soon as the giggle fades out, the picture of his baby boy, blown to pieces by machine guns, erases all the warmth in his heart, leaving it cold and ruthless again.

Frank shakes it off and stands straighter, cracking his back in the process, as Clint looks over. Clint looks tired - he still hasn’t recovered from the Raft, and if anything Wanda has told them is true, if anything Scott has told them is true, Ross is a scumbag piece of shit and Frank wouldn’t mind punching him in the face should he get the opportunity. Frank himself is still sporting the black eye from where Barney shot a fake round into his forehead, and faked his death - although it’s more yellowish and brown than black.

“Fra’!” Nathaniel cries out, and Frank smiles when Nathaniel pushes himself up and runs towards him, leaving Clint on the floor. Nathaniel walks perfectly now, but he sometimes gets too enthusiastic when he runs, racing against himself before he trips forward and falls. Frank kneels in front of the kid and catches him as Nathaniel trips over himself and laughs out loud, handing Frank one of the books they’ve taken with them, from Iowa, before the farm was burnt to the ground.

“Read!” Nathaniel instructs, and Frank picks the book from the small hands with one of his own, and lifts the kid up onto his thigh with the other. He knows this book from back to end, he knows exactly how it goes, and could recite it with his eyes closed. This one, though? Lisa hasn’t gnawed the corners off, and page four doesn’t have the yellow felt pen doodle Frank Jr. had drawn it in. In this one, page 6 has been ripped in two and taped together, and the hardback is bent from where someone pressed too hard.

Gazing up from the front, Frank meets Clint’s gaze, and when Clint shakes his head, Frank takes a breath before reading the title of the book. “One batch, two batch.” The bear on the cover is holding their kid in their arms, while the kid is holding a cookie.

“Who’s this?!” Nathaniel asks, as he points at the smaller bear, before continuing, “It papa bear! Papa bear carry baby bear before bed!” he tells, reaching for the book and forcing Frank to open it up to the first page. Frank remembers reading this book to Lisa every night. It seems so unfair now, that he didn’t- that he- that he never got to read it to her one last time.

“Nate, let Frank read the book!” Clint calls out, as he squats down next to them, picking up Nathaniel from Frank’s thigh and placing him on his own thigh. “You can’t ask him to read, and then read it yourself,” he says, as he kisses Nathaniel’s cheek.

Nathaniel struggles slightly, and worms his way off Clint’s thigh, and Frank frowns when he notices that Nathaniel is slightly red where Clint had picked him up. Almost as if he had tightened his grip too hard. He eyes Clint, who seems unaware of his gaze, and Frank lets himself fall to sit on the floor, so Nathaniel can crawl into his lap to read the book.

Barney said that if Clint did anything out of the ordinary, Frank should knock him out or put him back in the medibay. Now as he recites the first line of the book, barely glancing at the page with the momma bear and baby bear making cookie dough, Frank watches as Clint shakes his head three times, as if shaking away a fly that definitely isn’t there. There’s something off, and it’s giving Frank goosebumps.

“One batch, two batch, penny and dime!” Nathaniel exclaims, as Frank reaches the bottom of the second page, pointing at the whisk, and this time, Clint slams his hand to the floor, and rips the book out of Frank’s hands and throws it towards the wall, growling as he does so.

A couple of seconds go by, where none of the three of them know what to do. After that quiet moment of contemplation, Frank reacts to three things: Clint getting up and raging out the room yelling about idiots and morons, Nathaniel slumping back to rest his back against Frank’s chest, and Wanda coming running into the room.

“What happened?”

Frank wiggles his arms under Nathaniel in order to get up while carrying the kid, who is still resting against his chest, and turns around to face Wanda, who went to pick up the book from where it fell.

“There’s something off about him,” Frank says, as Nathaniel moans.

“Daddy’s not happy!” Frank bends forward and puts down Nathaniel who looks back up at him, then looks at Wanda. “You make him happy again?” he asks, pointing to his arm, where Wanda sees the mark Clint left when he picked him up.

“Clint did this?” she asks, and Frank nods.

“Have you looked in his head again?”

“I saw the same. A red rage clinging to his mind,” Wanda replies, as Nathaniel walks over to Wanda, hands lifted up, asking for the book with his wiggly fingers.

When she finally hands it to him, Nathaniel points to Frank with the book. “Uncle Fra’ gave book to Cooper baby,” he explains, and Frank tries a smile, but keeps his gaze on Wanda.

“We have to hurry, or we need to do something before Clint does something stupid.”

They both turn their heads when footsteps come along, but when he sees Wanda doesn’t react, he decides not to either. Cooper appears before Lila does, and they both go their separate ways in the room: Lila goes for Nathaniel and sits down with him, while Cooper walks up to Frank.

“He isn’t well, is he? He’s weird. Ever since he came back from the Raft, it’s like- it’s like after New York, all over again, except this time, he’s mean. After New York, he was scared and he cried in the shower when he thought we couldn’t hear him, and he’d wake up at night and scream, but this time? He’s mean. He yells at us easier, Lila doesn’t like being with him anymore before he gripped her wrist too hard that one time, and Nate- Nate knows there’s something off too, but he can’t explain it yet.” Pause.

“Mom doesn’t want to say there’s anything going on, but- but we know, okay? Helen says there’s something about his body he’s fighting, she says it might be PTSD or something like that, but we know it isn’t PTSD. I know my dad, okay? He isn’t like this.”

“I promise ya’, kid,” Frank says, “I’ll do everything I can to fix your dad. He ain’t gonna keep doing this, not on my watch. We’ll look into it, with Helen and Hank and the others, and we’ll fix him. You’ll get your daddy back soon.”

From the top of his 14 years of age, Cooper manages to nod to Frank with all the dignity of a superior officer expecting the impossible from a subordinate, and for a moment, Frank feels like the rookie young kid he was in the military when he was asked to take care of his first dire situation.

This is different, though. This is- this is his friend and his friend’s family. And this time, he can’t fuck up. He can’t say he’s tired, or that he needs to rest, or that he’ll do it tomorrow. He has to act now. He has to figure it out.

His behavior is all wrong. She remembers him being playful, teasing and kind - not cold and angry like he is now.

The scans lying on the table in front of her are Clint’s, that much she knows, but there’s something off. Sam Wilson sent them from wherever it is that he’s hiding - Helen doesn’t really know, right now, where that is. But they’re the first scans that were made of them when they came out of the Raft after Captain America freed them.

She’s looking for clues - anything that might suggest irrational anger and a more explosive personality. Any symptom, anything that could explain it with a physical origin. She dares not think of the change in Hawkeye’s behavior as a psychological one, because that… That she can’t fix. She’s a physician and a scientist, not a psychologist or psychiatrist.

She’s read about anger being a consequence of brain injuries - she’s heard enough about them to know it’s true as well. (She still remembers her little brother sobbing when he heard that American wrestler on TV killed his kid and wife and then himself.) She knows that brain injuries can make anger worse. But, most of the time, the patients are embarrassed or distressed by the anger they display, suddenly.

She remembers this from her lessons - concussions can cause irrational anger because of the injuries or the fear that comes from the injury.

When she looks up from the papers in front of her, Helen thinks about Clint. He’s been mean. Genuinely mean. She can’t apply the word cruel to him, but it feels almost this way - he used to be so gentle. She’s always known and heard about how angry he could get after Loki, but that was a physical manifestation of the trauma he had been exposed to by the scepter. She understands that trauma, she went through it herself when Ultron took control of her.

She had been so close to giving Ultron what he wanted, and it still keeps her up at night.

She looks down at the scans again, and notices a little blotch in the hippocampus, blotted out in the MRI that she can’t figure out. Maybe there was a mistake, or the equipment was faulty? It seems though, almost as if something is clinging to Clint’s part of the brain that controls emotions.

She’d know, though, right? If something was controlling Clint? They’d know? Wanda would be able to feel it, she’s sure. Or maybe, it’s in her brain too- maybe it’s something the mind stone puts there to keep them in touch. Maybe they never really get free of the hold the Infinity Stone has on them? Maybe- maybe she’s bound to fall into its hands again?

She drops the papers when the door opens, the loud noise startling her. It’s Barney, Clint’s older brother. He looks like shit - black eye and she doesn’t want to know if the dry splashes on his face are blood or not.

“Cho!” he calls, and she stands up, struggling to get all the papers together again in a neat pile. He walks right into her office, followed by another man, one Helen doesn’t know. She’s sure she’s seen him somewhere before. Barney notices her staring. “This is Eddie Brock, he’s with me,” he grumbles, as he points to the scans she’s frantically trying to hide from him.

“You figure out what’s wrong with him yet?”

“No, not yet. It would seem-”

“Barton, course she doesn’t know. Listen, lady, you have to scan Hawkeye, make a full scan of his head. We gotta see how far along it is,” Eddie interrupts, and Helen swears she sees his iris go from round to slits, before returning to their normal state again.

“An MRI? A new MRI?”

The door slams again, and all three of them look to it to see Frank Castle walk in. “Barney, you have to come with me, it’s Kate-”

There’s one moment where Barney thanks every single deity he knows that Clint actually trained Kate himself, because he notices immediately that Clint is not holding back his punches.


“Already on it.”

As they both enter the room, Clint barely flinches but Kate manages a gaze over to them, which cost her a punch to the temple.

Barney runs straight for Clint, kicking him in the lower back with his knee, as Frank goes for Kate, throwing himself between her and Clint, taking the uppercut Clint had planned for the girl.

“Girly girl,” Barney huffs, as Clint turns around, his eyes red and crazed, blood seeping from his ears, “get the hell out of here.”

He takes the punch to his jaw and takes a step back, as he hears Frank’s own fist connecting with Clint’s shoulder. Clint drops to the floor and takes out Frank’s legs with a swift move, before lunging at Barney who’s still recovering from the punch.

Barney manages to catch Clint’s arm by dodging the hit and presses down hard on Clint’s elbow, twisting it as he does, just as Frank crawls from where he fell to catch Clint’s ankle.

“Chicken shit, you gotta calm down!” Barney growls, as Clint struggles to get his arm free, stomping down with his leg on Frank’s hand, regaining full control of his legs. The back kick to Barney’s knee hits him hard, and he’s absolutely sure he hears something crack, but by then, Frank is up again too, and has caught Clint’s other arm with both of his own.

Clint growls rather than say anything, and Barney almost sees something red in his eyes, something terrible and angry, and just as Clint starts to hiss, Frank gives Barney the nod to go ahead, and Barney punches his baby brother in the temple as hard as he can, effectively knocking him out.

Frank lets go of Clint’s arm, and watches as Clint’s body falls to the floor, unconscious.

“What the hell?!” he yells, and Barney feels himself being projected back, pushed towards the walls, as Frank’s hand lock around his throat. “What the fuck is wrong with him?” Frank barks, pointing to Clint.

“Ask the guy I brought along,” Barney manages to choke out as Frank loosens his grip on his throat. Coughing once, then twice, before spitting, Barney watches the mess they made. One chair is broken, there’s glass on the floor too, from where a drinking glass fell, and there’s a knife embedded in the wall on the opposite side of the room. “He’ll know.”

Chapter Text

“You promised that she could take it.”

Wanda is sitting with her legs curled up towards her chest, holding against them like a child hiding in a corner after having done something wrong.

“You told me that she would be able to take it!”

She flinches when his voice rises, and she half expects a blow, but thankfully, he restrains. She’s never felt him like this, never felt this anger, never felt this rage in his mind, rolling off him in waves, like something, like a parasite has made his mind its nest and has decided to take over.

She senses his action before he does it, and she manages to catch his fist with her magic before it impacts the wall. “This is not your home,” she says, through gritted teeth, as Clint sneers at her, a monstrous growl of rage that she wants to forget.

“I don’t care, it’s their fault,” he continues, as he turns his back towards her and leaves. She's never seen him like this. She's never seen him angry like this, mad like this, crazy like this- she knew that he could. That he had it in him to release all this anger, but she never thought that it would ever be directed towards her. That he would turn on her - Clint, the loving and kind mind who had welcomed her into his family…

She watches him go, and reaches out in her mind to Kate. She had thought- she had hoped that the girl would take the news better…

“Still angry, uh?”

Wanda flinches again - Clint's fist and anger still a recent memory, as she watches her hands. She tries a shy smile, and Frank reciprocates it. She can feel his worry- he’s so much like Clint that she could sometime mistake their energies for the same. Except Frank’s aura is much darker, a brimstone and crimson color, to Clint’s cool gray edge.

“I could not anticipate-”

“Don't worry about it, kiddo,” Frank says, as he sits down next to her. Far away enough from her to give her space, but close enough to show support. “We been talking ‘bout him,” he says, motioning towards the door through which Clint had left, “and we agree that there's something wrong.” He hasn't looked at her directly until now, until the last sentence. Something is wrong. So she had known. She had been right. “Anything happen in the Raft that could cause this?” he asks, rubbing his nose. He’s wearing a black tank top and she can see bruises and cuts, scabs and scars peeking up from behind the fabric. But the worst part is the bluish black bruise on his forehead from where a gunshot had hit him in the head.

She's still unsure of the details, but it had been necessary for him to fake his death - again - to make sure that Barney got in on General Ross’ team. Something along those lines. She knows, though, that it had been Barney behind the trigger and that they’d rehearsed the trick several times.

“He came back,” she begins, as she wonders why he isn't asking Scott. They’re in Hank Pym’s house, hiding behind a friendly cover- Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne had been kind enough to provide cover for them, as they regrouped and gathered their strengths. And, they had agreed to help guide the young gifted onto their path. “He came back from interrogations with bruises, sometimes unconscious. I don’t know what they did to him, but when he could, he would speak to himself. About what they could not know, about SHIELD secrets that Nick had told him- about everything, really. Ross and Tarleton would come to the cells and tell us that he was the most valuable member here, even though they took blood samples from me and Scott. Did you know Clint was one of the first-”

“That Nick thought of when he thought of the idea to the Avengers? Yeah, kiddo, I do. He was freaking out about it, wondering how the hell he could beat a guy who flew around the world in a tin can or a green rage monster that’s bulletproof. Nick told him, though, that one day he’d need Clint to lead them when he couldn’t- that what happened when SHIELD collapsed was one of the scenarios he had expected Clint to rise up from.” Frank pauses, as he rubs his ear, before stroking his chin. “Turns out we all may have underestimated the damage that Loki did to his mind.”

“You knew him? Before SHIELD?”

He nods. “Aye, me an’ Clint go way back. He’s a bit younger than me, right? Joined the army a bit after I did, lying through his teeth about his age and all. He told ‘em he was 19 when he was 17, the little bastard. So they put this scrawny ass kid in the same training bataillon as me, right? I see him, and I know- he’s not gonna make it, but the scores he would do on the range! Man, you should’ve seen us gaping at him like he was sent from outer space. I think someone pulled up sniper records and he broke some sort of marksmanship record that'd been standing since James Barnes, y’know, in the Second World War an’ all.” He laughs, a dry, thick laugh, before looking at the door through which Clint had left earlier. “Nah, he was fickle as a straw that kid, beat up and scarred beyond anything I’d ever seen from him, but we got through it together man, and he bulked up nice. Taught me a thing or two about shooting-”

“One shot, one kill,” Wanda mutters under her breath and Frank smiles. It had been the only reason why she had trusted Frank to take the shot. Clint had taught him to shoot.

There’s a short moment of silence, before Wanda speaks up again. “Clint has- he has something in his mind.” She frowns, cursing in Sokovian under her breath. “No, he has something on his mind? He said that they looked into his head, looking for secrets.”

Frank nods at this, and sighs. “Poor kid, he's been through hell. Probably seen more shit than any of us combined, and I've seen some pretty bad shit myself.” He pushes himself up to a standing position, and extends his hand. Wanda stops fidgeting with the hem of her blouse, and looks at the hand like it’s going to hurt her. He insists, shaking it slightly, and she moves forward, extending hers. He pulls her up and motions for her to go through the door.

“How is Kate?” Wanda asks, and Frank shrugs.

“Probably better now that she knows none of us are dead, I guess,” he says, flatly, as they walk through one of the corridors. They pass Hank Pym’s study, and the scientist barely interrupts his discussion with Scott and Laura to watch them walk past. “This William kid, though, he wants to talk to you. Says he has questions about how your-” he motions to her whole body “- magic works.”

“Oh,” she simply replies, and lets him guide her towards the teenager. She's worried about Clint, about how things are going with him. She can feel Laura’s mind extending towards her, to soothe her, but it's not helping. There's been something wrong with Clint since they got out of the Raft, and she can't shake the red burning sensation that burns through her mind whenever she tries to read Clint’s.

It’s been a long time since he’s seen a lawyer this close. Thankfully, Natasha is here with him, so it’s alright. “Miss Walters, I didn’t know lawyers did house calls in their free time, “ he quips, and Natasha rolls her eyes.

“I’m here on my own business,” she replies. “I don’t have anything to do with the legislation that still carries oversight of the Accords and the ones who signed it. I’m here because someone asked me to,” she continues, pulling up a file.

“You two paid the state of California a visit recently, and I’m here to follow up on that.”

“Yeah, we lost Kate Bishop, who, by the way, is Hawkeye’s sister in law, there and we haven’t been able to locate her-”

“Tony,” Natasha interrupts and he shuts up. “Let her speak.”

Jennifer watches Natasha before speaking, and Tony sees something much like apprehension on her face. “Whatever I tell you now, you have to promise not to tell anyone else,” she says, looking over her shoulder at Vision who is playing chess with FRIDAY in the room next door. Tony bends forward at that, taps a couple of keys on the holoboard in front of him.

“There, now, even the super intergalactic Android can’t hear us-”

“Clint, Laura, and the kids are still alive.”

They spoke at the same time, and in the three seconds that follow, Tony registers two things: Jennifer has clenched her fists in a gesture that is definitely NOT lawyer like, and Natasha looks like she’s about to faint, which is… new. And disturbing. Tony tells himself never to remember that look on a master assassin and spy, because it’s too odd. That’s the sort of look he gets himself every now and then, but on Natasha it simply looks… wrong.

“How?” Natasha finally manages to choke out, and Jennifer opens the file, in front of her, pushing it towards them both so they can read it. There are pictures of Frank Castle, Wanda Maximoff, Charles Barton, and a whole load of other kids whom Tony recognizes as the teenagers they were tracking.

“I know these kids, we know these kids-”

“Wanda created a powerful illusion in Waverly to escape Ross and the Abomination.” Pause. “It involved her getting shot, but- hey, before you get all worried, we got a master marksman to take the shot so she wasn’t injured further.”

“Nick’s name is on here,” Natasha whispers. “He knew?”

Tony can see her disappointment. “Is there anything that man doesn’t know? I’m beginning to think that he’s better at the NSA at knowing things,” he tries, but his joke falls flat. Not the time, then. He makes a mental note of it.

“He knew, and he’s currently helping with finding a… solution, “ Jennifer hesitates before she goes on, as if unsure of the words to use. “It would seem that Ross used unauthorized means of interrogation while he kept your colleagues in the Raft, and it has come forth that one of the inmates whose help he asked for may have compromised Clint.”

She bends forward, lifts a couple of files off, and reveals a picture Tony hates the moment he sees it. Big, red, gooey monsters are definitely not his style. “They call it Carnage, it’s a symbiote which they think comes from outer space, but they’re unsure. We know there’s a second one, they call Venom, who’s much friendlier than this one. They live in hosts, with which they bond. Carnage has bonded with a madman, whereas Venom has bonded with a ... well, not a psychopath. It would seem, however, that Carnage may have spawned some offspring.”

She pauses again, and Tony watches the pictures, as a blank expression falls on Natasha’s face.

“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” he says, and Jennifer grimaces, as if she had hoped it wouldn’t come to this.

“The symbiote spawns inside other bodies. And, this file here-” she pulls one forward, with a security camera screenshot of the red gooey monster definitely pushing its tentacles in wherever it can on a human body- “suggests that Ross used Carnage to interrogate Clint. We are certain enough that this,” she taps the human body in the picture, and Natasha lets out a gasp, “is actually Barton.”

“So… What you’re saying is-”

“Clint may have an alien offspring in his brain, which is causing all sorts of trouble.”

Jennifer pulls out her phone, and pushes it forward. Natasha reads the text aloud. “Subject tried to hit Scarlet. Move forward with plan.”

“Scarlet? Who’s Scarlet?”

“It’s code for Wanda,” Natasha explains. “He tried to hit Wanda?”

Jennifer shakes her head. “I don’t know the details, but it would seem so. Nick sent me on a mission to find an asset that his former SHIELD Agents have been working with for a while, in the hopes of finding a way to get the symbiote offspring out of Clint’s system.” She pauses again, pulling her glasses off her nose. “Venom, as it would seem, has decided to cooperate with Barney Barton, who is on the team, and has said that the only way to get rid of the symbiote is to kill the host. Since murdering Clint would be the last possible solution, we’ve had to look… elsewhere.”


“The kids Vision located, among other things. It would seem at least one of them has reality altering powers that are very similar to the ones Wanda Maximoff has, and one of them, would you believe it, has mastered multiverse traveling and seems to have taken a liking to this universe,” Jennifer answers, as plainly as possible. Tony almost chokes on his breath- did she just tell him that there was a multiverse and that it wasn’t a big deal?!

She looks over at him, an eyebrow raised, and sighs. “If you want more information on multiverse travel or how the multiverse works, you have to speak to Doctor Stephen Strange, Mister Stark.”

“You mean the physicist who refused to fix Rhodey’s back?”

“The one and only.”

Natasha pushed the mobile phone back towards Jessica and pulls the file towards her, flipping through some of the pages, back and forth. Some of the information is classified, blocked out by a black marker, but most of it, she can make out. She looks up at Jessica again, a blank stare masking deep pain. “Nick knew?” she whispers, and Jessica nods, solemnly.

“I’m sorry he lied to you, Natasha. I wish I could tell you why he didn’t include you in the plan, but I honestly don’t know why. You know him, right? He always does stuff like this.”

Natasha feels a bitter taste in her mouth as she pushes the file away from her, as if it’s going to bite her. Tony is just staring at both of them in awe - he still hasn’t made it past multiverse travel. Does this mean there are several of him? Could he meet them? Would the universe as we know it implode? Wait, does this mean there’s a female Tony Stark out there? Or is that just Doctor Who timey wimey stuff? He shakes his head when Jessica shuts the file abruptly and pushes back the chair, rising from it.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to find Agent Coulson’s crew.”

She turns her back and makes to leave at the same time Natasha and Tony turn shocked faces on her- Phil Coulson? Agent Phil Coulson? The one who died on the Helicarrier in 2012 before the Battle of New York Phil Coulson?!

Tony looks over at Natasha, eyebrows raised as high as possible. “Did she- did she just say Agent Coulson?” He turns to yell something at Jessica, but she’s already gone. “Didn’t he get stabbed through the chest by the God of Mischief himself? Didn’t- what the entire fuck?”

The banging has been going for a couple of minutes already, but it already feels like it’s been hours. Every single vibration of the metal coils inside the MRI seems to last for a lifetime, and if Helen’s instructions are to be followed, it will have to last for at least half an hour more.

Laura’s always told her children not to bite their nails, and yet, here she is, nails between her teeth, pressing down hard enough to break them. If she continues like this, she’ll manage to shorten all of her nails in the half hour the scan will take. That’s why, when Frank emerges into the room from the side entrance, followed by Helen, she lets out a breath that he picks up on.

“He’ll do fine,” Frank answers to that, and comes to stand next to her. He puts out his arm and she walks into his embrace, suddenly missing Clint’s strong arms. Frank is taller than Clint, but he feels the same way - you don’t make him the godfather of your children and not expect him to come visit. Besides, they’ve known each other for so long, she can use his support. He’s still sporting the black and blue bruise from where Barney shot the trick bullet into his head.

“What if they don’t find anything?” she asks, “what if they do all the scans, and can’t pinpoint what’s wrong because they don’t have the technology? What if they don’t even know what they’re looking for, Frank? They didn’t know what to look for after Loki, and they never figured out what happened to him. Not really, they just… guessed.”

She doesn’t speak of the research she had done into Old Norse mythology, to try and find answers there - she’d been in contact with Erik Selvig, and she had contacted the Ásatrú fellowship in Iceland to get help from them, she’d been talking to so many other healers, but none of them had ever figured out what was wrong with her husband. Nor with Nathaniel. She wiggles out of Frank’s embrace and walks over to the window, and lets the loud banging take its place inside her mind again. How many of these scans has Clint been through, anyway? Ten? More?

She isn’t sure.

“How long will he be out?”

Helen looks over at her, and Laura recognizes so much in her face. Clint had the same wrinkles, the same worry in his eyes, even months after Loki. That Ultron did the same thing to her- oh, Laura wants to hug the doctor. Tell her it’ll be okay. But she knows. It doesn’t get better. It won’t- it’s been years now, since Clint got that scepter burn on his chest, and he still wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, hollering at Loki to let him go.

“About an hour,” Helen answers. “The MRI will take 45 minutes, but it is best to let him wake up from it elsewhere.”

She doesn’t say it like it is. She doesn’t say that Clint doesn’t make a fuss because he didn’t want the scan and kept saying he was fine. Laura sees Frank cross his arms behind her. Wanda had told Frank- there’s something inside Clint’s head. Frank had first dismissed it as Wanda saying it wrong, since English was her second language. But…

They’d needed Frank and Scott to hold Clint down while they gave him the anesthetic shot, in order to make sure he stayed still in the MRI scan. Laura had hated every second of it.

Helen looks over at Laura before she goes back up towards the screen that records the ongoing results of each of the scans. A couple of bangs go by, and Helen bends forward, a frown making its way on her forehead, while she taps on a couple of keys on the machine. “What is it?” Laura immediately asks, because she knows that look- she knows it is the one you get when something isn’t going the way it should, and she knows that it means trouble.

If any of their theories are right - which, so far seems to be the case - Helen frowning may be the worst thing that she could possibly imagine. Nick’s words still echo in her head. If it has spawned, the only way to kill it, is to kill the host. The MRI was supposed to figure out if there was something inside Clint’s head.

“It’s completely-”

Helen reverts to Korean, and Laura misses the words that comes out of her mouth. “What?”

Frank walks over to them too, and takes the time to shut the door, so nobody could hear what was going on without them knowing. The loud banging seems to get louder by the second, and Laura can almost feel her heart rate go through the roof.

Helen clicks a couple of keys on the keyboard again, before looking at Laura, a bit wild eyed and confused. “It’s opaque. I can’t see anything around his brain.”

“You can’t- you can’t see- what?”

“The scans aren’t going through- I can’t see his brain. At all.”

Frank takes a step back and looks through the glass at the machine. “If we wait for it to end?”

“I think it’s best to- wait for it, yes,” Helen says, “then we’ll see from there what is going on.”

Laura is grateful, in that instant, that Frank puts his hands on her shoulders and guides her towards the door, which he opens, and pushes her through it. “We’ll come back when the scan is finished, alright?” he says, over his shoulder and Helen nods, as she finally sits down on the metal and leather stool next to the computer.

Nobody has begun asking questions yet. He’s got a black eye from where Clint managed to punch him, but other than that- nothing out of the ordinary. Except. Except Ross.

“You’ve figured it out, haven’t you?” Ross asks.

Barney just finished taking off his covert tech, the Government Agency has made some modifications to his suit, and he’s enjoying it. Working for the Government again, that is. He could also almost say it’s the same feeling as working for the FBI, but it’s not. No with Ross heaving for air, standing in the door frame.

“I have, it doesn’t take a genius,” Barney mutters, as he undoes the velcro on the gloves he’s been equipped with. They’re knock offs from those they confiscated from Clint in Germany, but he likes them very much. “Only question I got for ya’, is, why? Why d’you let a fucking alien into your head in the first place, Ross?”

Thaddeus Ross takes a step inside the locker room and sits down on one of the benches. He looks miserable, sweat pouring down from his neck and throat, soaking the shirt he’s wearing. He sighs. It turns into a cough. When he’s done, he’s spitting blood onto the back of his hand, and Barney shakes his head.

“Was it worth it?”

Ross chuckles, but it feels more like he’s giving in. “We- we chose the Symbiotes, because we knew they could enhance the human body. You’ve seen how Eddie turns into that… Thing, right? We wanted- we wanted that too.” He pauses, and Barney can almost see the image of super soldiers like Captain America, running around in the shadows to topple governments with minimal casualties. He shivers when he remembers that was exactly what HYDRA had done, when they created the Winter Soldier initiative. “We wanted to try another way of creating the Manhattan serum. Banner used gamma rays, we thought a bond between symbiotes and humans could work.”

This time, Ross laughs. “We were very wrong,” he whispers, as he looks as the blood on the back of his hand. He hasn’t even bothered wiping if off anywhere. “Or, we picked the wrong one. You can blame Tarleton for that,” he says, through a grit smile. “He said to go for the more aggressive one. Carnage cooperated with us, throughout the entire process. He said that he could turn us into supersoldiers, the likes of which we had never seen. None of us understood that it meant using us as hosts for his… spawns.”

Ross spits the last word out, like it stings on his lips, and Barney reaches into the locker. His dogtags are hanging at his neck. “Us. You said us.”

“Don’t act like I don’t know you know.” Ross looks up at the neon lights in the locker room, and sighs. “He spawned inside me first, and then they convinced me to use Carnage to extract information from your brother,” Ross admits, regretfully. His shoulders shrink together, as he lets his head fall, like a child expecting a blow from an angry parent. Barney recognizes the posture from his own childhood, and he wants to scream. Ross chose this. He could have said no at any given time. But he didn’t. Did he?

“I hear them, you know?” Ross starts, trailing off into a whisper Barney can’t hear, before speaking up again. “They whisper things about Zemo and Abomination. It’s like- it’s like there’s so many of them, but I know it’s just the one.”

“Do you know how to get rid of it?” Barney asks, as he pulls a white t-shirt over his shoulders, and down his chest, hiding his scars and other marks from Ross.

Ross hasn’t even bothered look at him since he got into the locker room. “Kill the host, right? That’s what Eddie told you. That’s why you went- why you went away. To see your brother. He isn’t dead, is he? It was all- all a ploy? You always had one, you Barton brothers. To get out of it. Family sticking together, and whatnot.”

Ross closes his eyes, as pain shoots through his mind, like an aggressive and living migraine. “I’m sorry,” he starts, and Barney feels the hairs on his arms rise when he realizes that Ross is on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry that I took Blonsky to your brother’s farm, I’m sorry I threw him to the dogs. I’m sorry I kept kids locked up so I could- so I could fulfill my obsession with the Hulk.”

He’s heaving now, and Barney feels his heart drop. He feels sorry for the old man, but in the same way he felt sorry for his father, years after the bastard had driven himself into a tree. It’s too easy to start crying when things go wrong when they’ve barely ever gone wrong for you, Barney thinks, and forces himself to stop caring for Ross’ tears.

“You’re the reason my brother has an alien monster in his head, and why we’re looking for ways to get it out of him without killing him,” Barney bites. “I always told you, only person who gets to kill Clint is me. Not you, not some dick ass alien, not some Asgardian god of whatever. Me. I’m the one who will put Clint in the ground, and I will kill whoever gets in my way or takes that from me. Do you understand?” Barney finishes, walking up to Ross, and handing him a towel. “Get yourself cleaned up, and man up. It’s your mess, sort it out. You surrounded yourself with criminals and monsters, get them locked up or get them back to the Raft.”

Barney doesn’t look over his shoulder as he leaves. Ross brought this onto himself.

This is the best idea they’ve been able to come up with. Hank, Helen, Hope. They’ve been at it all morning, Laura realizes, when she looks at the watch on her wrist. She hasn’t been able to sleep for days, and Nathaniel can feel it. He’s nervous in her arms, and she so wishes that she could bring him back to what he knows. To the home he knows.

But home is gone. It’s just, gone. And Hank has suggested, after heavy discussion with Hope and Scott- if there’s something inside Clint’s head, then, the best way to see it, would be… well. The ants. She’s still skeptical about it, because… ants. But she’s seen what they can do. And if there is one way to see what’s inside her husband’s head, then this might be it.

Scott went out to see his daughter - and she doesn’t blame him - so this falls on Hope’s shoulders. She’s been tinkering with the Wasp suit, and trained with it for longer now than Laura had thought, so this is going to be… interesting.

Nathaniel accidentally punched Laura in the nose when he turns around to see who just walked into the room. “Ow!” Laura says, though it didn’t really hurt, and looks up to see Wanda, standing awkwardly at the door.

“Wanda!” Nathaniel calls, and tries to crawl down from Laura’s lap, but Laura keeps him there.

“You figured something out?” she asks, as Nathaniel wiggles harder. He’s shaking his head now, and kicks her in the stomach as he manages to escape her hands.

Wanda nods. “We- Helen says it is best not to sedate Clint while they- while they go in and look. If the- if the symbiote suddenly grows, it will take over too quickly.” She pauses, as she looks down at her fingers, a tell that Laura has learnt to read as a mixture of fear and apprehension. “So, I have to- they want me to hold him still. With this,” she says, as her fingers glow red, with the powers she conjures, much to the delight of Nathaniel, who seems unaware of the conversation that is happening in front of him.

Laura takes a deep breath. “You said that there’s something on his mind,” she says, “did you see it?”

She watches as Nathaniel makes his way across the floor towards Wanda, who gets down to his level before picking him up. She doesn’t answer for a while, as Nathaniel takes her attention. “It was-” she says a word Laura is almost sure is Sokovian for monster, but she isn’t fluent in the language yet. It sounds a lot like the word for monster in Russian, but she doesn’t dare ask. Wanda finds the word in English on her own. “It was terrifying,” Wanda finally says, and Laura’s chest starts hurting.

The kind of hurt she’s felt whenever she saw Clint in a hospital bed, after a mission gone wrong, or when she’s seen Cooper getting a cast on his arm after he fell down from the tree, or when Lisa came home from school crying because two other girls had called her names and ripped her books to pieces. It’s the kind of hurt that goes deep, deep within her chest, and she’s not sure she can keep a straight face.

To know that there is something inside her husband’s head that Wanda would call terrifying terrifies Laura in turn. She’s thought too many times about whether or not Clint would come home from a mission or if he wouldn’t, and she’s thought too many times about what happened inside his head after Loki decided to play with him, but she never- she never thought that it would happen again. Or that she would be there to see it happen. He yelled at Wanda, and almost hit her, and the only reason why he hadn’t hit Kate had been because both Frank and Barney had intervened. Barney’s eye had swollen so that he could barely see out of it, and Frank had taken a hit to the jaw which was still getting darker every day that went by.

It terrifies her.

Wanda must feel her fear, because she walks over to Laura and hands Nathaniel to her. He protests, but accepts to sit in his mother’s lap when she pulls open the book he’s been very happy to read lately. He always requests Frank when he wants it read, but Laura has been a good substitute, lately.

“I will figure it out,” Wanda whispers, as she sits down, next to Laura.

Laura opens the book and starts reading it. Her heart is racing in her chest, and she knows that if she doesn’t do anything right now, she’s going to start crying. So, she does what she does best: she reads a story to her child. Like every single time she’s sat, in their double bed, in Waverly, and wondered whether or not he would ever come back to warm his side of the bed or if she would have to learn to sleep in a king sized bed on her own.


Chapter Text

”So you want me to what, exactly?”

Sitting on one of those office chairs that can turn around and around and around Scott has been listening to what Hope and Helen have been arguing about. He's got a Master's degree, but he still needs them to tell him again. Because he's not sure he heard it right the first time around. So he'd asked.

”We want you to shrink and-”

”-figure out what's inside his head.”

Hope and Helen had finished each other's sentences the last few minutes, and the talk of him shrinking small enough to actually fit into Clint's ear made his stomach turn. He did not want to go into another human being's head, least of all their ears. It was disgusting to him. What if Clint hadn't washed his ears in years?!

However, when he sees Laura, holding a sleeping Nathaniel, in her arms next to him, he nods, rather than thinking about earwax as his biggest problem. There was something very wrong with Clint, and for all he heard of Nick Fury's theories and choices, it was apparently an alien lifeform. If him going into another man's head meant getting it out, then he would do it. He just doesn't know if he'll do it gladly or not. He purses his lips and grimaces.

”What am I looking for, again?” he asks, scratching the back of his ear, as he tries to ignore the feeling in his gut that tells him it's going to go wrong.

Last time he'd shared the Pym particle's powers with someone, he'd ended up in a prison which Captain America had gotten him out of. He'd managed to get out of there relatively unscathed, but Clint had apparently given everything to get him out alive. He doesn't want to use the Ant-Man suit again if it means trouble. Scott wants to say he has a kid too, but Clint has three. That sort of makes things easier, he guesses before he sighs as Helen explains to him what they think they're looking for.

”It should look like an egg – not a chicken egg but a salamander egg or a reptile egg? Something like that, yes?” she says, motioning with her hands to make an egg out of thin air, and Hope nods, encouraging her to go on. ”We're not entirely sure what you'll find as the MRI and other scanning devices don't seem to work, but he'll be sedated the entire time so you have no risks whatsoever of injuring him.”

”Or making him more deaf than he already is,” Frank cuts in as he enters the room. He's still got a black eye from where Clint's fist had connected with his face. Laura stands up and hands Nathaniel over to the Punisher – Scott wants to scream, but only does so internally, because he still can't believe that Clint and the Punisher are best friends and it feels wrong on so many levels – before rubbing his elbow with the other hand. ”You'll do fine,” Frank states, confidently, as he takes Laura's spot. She walks over to the window to the room they're keeping Clint in and watches as her husband strains against the restraints they've put on his wrists and ankles.

She's seen him like this before. After Loki. When the nightmares couldn't stop, when they didn't want to stop. She sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose and looks over at Scott, her eyes pleading.


He nods. He'll do it. He accepts, standing up as Helen and Hope start talking over each over about what he needs to be careful about. Hope seems more intent on making sure he doesn't suddenly grows to full size again because that'll kill Clint by exploding his head, whereas Helen is more worried about the nervous system inside Clint's head and damaging nerves and his ears.

All things considered, it's going pretty well. He can ignore the smell of another man's ear canal when he thinks of it as going through the sewers in San Francisco when he'd first learned how to use the suit. He can't see that much, but the little flash light he's got embedded in the helmet is making things a little bit easier. There isn't much to see, to be honest, and the only sound he can hear over Hope's voice on the coms is Clint's breathing.

”So, we know he's got a rupture in this ear drum that should be small enough for you to pass through, right?” Scott hears Laura's voice in the back confirming it. He'd had no idea that Clint was deaf beforehand, but now that he sees the ear drum in front of him he wonders what the poor man has been subjected to to cause... well, this. He remembers the sight of the red goo – no, Carnage – going into Clint's body through the ears and nose and mouth and he almost gags. He doesn't want to throw up in the suit, though, so he keeps that under control.

”Found it,” he says as he climbs over some ear wax, trying to ignore what it is as he does it, ”how deaf is he again?” he then asks, as he's made it over to the ear drum and frowns.

Laura's voice comes on through the microphone. ”80%, but his coms are usually also doubling as hearing aids, or the other way around,” she says quietly. She's probably trying to keep herself focused on ignoring the fact that they'd had to use one of Banner's formulas on Clint to sedate him for this to go well.

”I had no idea,” Scott mutters to himself, as he puts his hand on the ear drum, quietly as to not damage it further. It resonates, and he finds himself wondering if that's normal. He takes a breath, ”Hey guys-”, and the deep rumbling he's heard coming grows ever stronger, ”- I think there's something that's definitely not sleeping down here!” he exclaims as he starts seeing something dark and gooey oozing through the ruptured ear drum.

He knows they can see what he sees through a camera on his suit and when Hope's voice tells him to run out of there, he turns around and makes for the ear canal as fast as he can. Looking over his shoulder as he runs, he sees red goo, seeping out from behind the ear drum, but more than that – it seems to be manifesting throughout the ear canal too, as if it doesn't have to stay behind one thing and is coming from everywhere at the same time and he screams.

He screams as loud as he has ever screamed as he makes for the outer ear, and once he sees the light, he jumps out, manifests himself full size and runs for the door, barely listening to what's being said to him through the microphone. He only stops once the door is locked again behind him, and he hears someone tapping on a keyboard and the hiss of air being sucked out, as the room seals itself.

”He's seizing!” ”Let go of me!” ”You can't go in there, Laura!”

He is unsure who said what, but he's positive the male voice was Frank's. He's met by Barney, whom he didn't know was here, and suddenly there's another voice coming from somewhere he can't see and as Barney screams at him to calm down, he turns around to look into the room he just left.

Something is coming out of Clint's nose and ears and his hands are straining against his bonds, but there's something else in the room with Clint too – black and white and the same kind of disgusting and Scott barely registers Barney is talking to him. ”- it's one of the Symbiotes, he'll figure something out, you have to calm down, listen to me man!” Barney yells as he flicks at Scott's forehead, annoyed. Scott focuses on what's happening around him, grounding himself in his own breathing and listens to Laura shrieking as Frank holds her back from running into the room herself, Hope and Helen trying to guide whatever that thing is in there along with Clint-

Right up until the black and white figure is thrown back from the chair with such force that the concrete wall caves in slightly. The only thing Scott hears then is Frank's soft ”fuck” and by then, he's panicking fully.

This is way above his paygrade.

They'd waited several minutes as Clint's limp body had stopped seizing and the red and black goo had subsided, as if it too was content with the havock it had caused before pulling out a now not so Black and White person from the room.

Frank looks over at the figure hunched at the table, conversing with Barney, with those sharp eyes of his and tries to ignore the rifts he's got in his hands from where Laura had ripped her nails through his skin.

They've all been arguing about what to do – call in Nick and his agents, call the authorities, send Clint to Wakanda again, and risking contaminating other people with the problems. Everyone was arguing. Barney had introduced the man as Eddie Brock, a strongly built man with some issues of his own. It rings a bell inside Frank's head, but he can't exactly pinpoint it. He's unsure where Eddie came into the picture, but apparently he had been in the Raft too. The question was just how the hell he turned out to be on their side.

Looking up from where he's been talking to Barney, Eddie looks at Frank as though he'd heard Frank's thoughts and wets his lips before speaking. ”Klyntars are good,” Eddie replies and Frank can't not hear the double voice coming out of his mouth.

”Some are bad,” Eddie says as he motions to the room in which Clint is contained.

Clint hasn't woken up from Banner's drug yet, and it seems that the thing protecting the body is this symbiote that Brock is talking about. Frank can deal with thugs and street criminals, and ex-military, but aliens?

There's a knock at the door and after they've all relaxed again – they'd all moved up, as if ready to attack – it opens up to reveal Laura standing behind Wanda. Wanda looks directly over at Eddie, past Frank and Barney. Frank feels her gaze brush his and he turns around to look at Eddie too.

”I can try to pull it out of Clint's head,” she says, and Frank whips his head back to her as fast as he can, falling forward from the chair he's been balancing on and hitting his arms onto the table.

”No,” he says, and he knows this is ridiculous of him, to be protective of the girl, but she had helped him with so much throughout the last months. When Barney had shot him in the head, she'd been the one to hex him to appear dead. She'd been the one to stand behind the illusion of Clint's farm and home blowing up and killing them all, she'd been the one to keep them all hidden, and while she had done all of that, Frank had made sure that nobody could find nor her, nor Laura, nor the kids. Where Clint had talked so fondly of her, Frank had taken up on it too.

”It is not up to you,” she says as she frowns, indicating to him that it is not up for discussion. She knows how he feels about Karen – he knows she's looked into his head enough times to make sure that he isn't a liability – and she knows it comes from a good feeling that he wants to protect her. But she won't let him. It's not his job. That was Pietro's job. Her brother. And he isn't here to protect her anymore, is he?

She walks into the room they keep Clint in behind Venom. Frank's learned that is the name of the Symbiote – or at least how it calls itself when it isn't Eddie Brock they're talking to. He's watched her walk into the room as if she had nothing to fear, and everything inside of him is screaming to make her get out of there again. Everything. He can't watch as she walks up to Clint's unconscious head, and lifts her hands above it.

Her red magic pools out from her palms, the same way he's seen her do it before, the same way she'd done when Crossbones had tricked Captain America, the same way she had pulled out Ultron's heart, or so she'd said. He watches the magic pouring out from her hands and into Clint's. Scott had told him that Wanda had been the only one to keep Carnage down in the Raft as they were escaping, and it had been the reason they had been able to make it out of there alive. Well, that and the Dora Milaje that had helped Steve get them out of the Raft.

Frank doesn't say anything as he watches and deliberately holds his breath. He wishes he had a gun on him, so he could at least feel safer that way, but who would he shoot? Clint? They'd said that it wasn't an option at this point, and for all he knows the limp body on the bed is all there's left from his best friend. He remembers the blood shot eyes and the shrieks of rage that had come from Clint before they'd sedated him, and the black eye on his face feels ever more the testament to the violence he's witnessed from whatever is inside of Clint's head.

Venom materializes behind Wanda again and watches as she tries to pull whatever has festered inside of Clint's head out, pulling delicately with her fingers as she does so, but before long, the same thing that he'd seen happening when Scott had tried happens-

Clint's breathing stops. His chest stops heaving, as if his heart has given out, and Venom's own slimy body starts shivering, anticipating whatever is going to happen – and all of a sudden, Wanda is thrown to the back of the room, softly landing herself through her powers as the Venom climbs onto Clint's body, holding it down as it shivers and seizes again – Frank watches as Clint's arms detach from the bed, ripping the harness off, and soon enough, his arms are free too, but something dark and hellish is looking out from behind them and Frank feels his skin crawl.

He rushes to the door and scrambles in to grab Wanda by the arm, pulling her out of there as the sounds of the two creatures reach his ears – he sees them from the corner of his eyes fighting, as Venom tries to hiss something into submission, razor sharp fangs hissing at what is no longer looking that much like Clint's face. An empty voice hisses back at Venom, and there's a laugh as a spasm ripples through Clint's body.

Venom shrieks again, and sinks teeth into the red and black goo that's slowly climbing all over Clint's body, taking over and seemingly burning away and over the clothes he's wearing. Pulling Wanda out from the room, Frank barely computes Laura's running body coming into the room again, screaming and yelling for Clint, ignoring Barney's arms, and Scott's, and it's only when Frank has pulled Wanda out of the room, he hears rather than sees Venom jumping from the bed, over on Laura and grabbing her, shutting the door behind him.

As the door locks again, the monster that has appeared through Clint's body takes over and rips off the shackles on his wrists, before ripping the ones around his ankles off.

It's monstrous.

It is truly monstrous, and Frank's blood drains from his face as he watches his friend disappear inside the body of a red and black monster with white eyes and sharp fangs, hissing at them and laughing at them as it sits on the chair, gazing back at them through the windows.

It's taunting them, he realizes.

Wanda hasn't said anything, and it seems that she isn't focusing on anything around her, as if she saw something terrible. Laura is crying again, against Barney's chest, heaving for air and screaming for the monster to give her back her husband. Venom is shrieking at the door, at the window, as if to show that toxic thing that it's not the only symbiote there.

The black and red monster grins, and flicks its longue tongue through its sharp teeth and laughs.

The goosebumps on Frank's arms are a testament to how terrified he truly feels in this instant.

This time, the monster isn't crawling back from where it came.

Barney watches as it paces the room, monstrous and gigantic, and engulfing his little brother in its enormity. It's huge, looming over the restraints as a giant, and Barney wonders if he'll ever get his brother out from the monster's claws.

He'd seen Venom bleed blood from where the monster had ripped him apart, and Eddie Brock still felt the violent gash on his face. Anything that hurt Eddie through Venom had to be powerful enough to be kept contained.

Especially with his little brother caught up inside of it.

Barney looks at the phone in his hands, before he looks up at Frank and Eddie.

”We need to call in some help,” he states, as he motions to the phone with his chin. ”Fury's been looking for a way to-”

”There is no way!” Eddie exclaims. ”Once the symbiote has bonded with the host, it's impossible to get it out unless the symbiote decides it has found a better host. Any one of you is an option if you go in there,” he says, as he looks over at Frank. Imagine a symbiote bonding with the Punisher himself? That wouldn't be good at all.

”Hear me out, okay? I know we can't go in there, because that thing isn't human, and Venom isn't strong enough to hold it at bay, we've seen that, but Fury has been looking for something that's stronger than us!” Barney growls, through grit teeth, as he rubs the bridge of his nose. He's still having issues breathing from when he hit the wall earlier.

He gazes over his shoulder, at the glass reinforced window behind which the monster – Toxin – is visible. It's sitting on the hospital bed, watching them. Barney can feels its glare, and he knows that he can see them through the double tinted glass.

”We can't let my brother disappear to that-- to that thing!” he finally barks, as he unlocks the phone. ”I'm calling Fury, we need help on this.”

Frank, who has been quiet until now, watches with a frown as Barney makes the call. He nods, quietly enough for Barney to notice.

It takes a couple of rings before the line connects, and Barney hears Nick Fury's voice answer with the same sort of no-nonsense tone he always answers the phone with.

”Director Fury, sir, it's time to bring in the Asset.”


Chapter Text

There’s been only a few times where Clint’s kids have been in immediate danger because of the thing inside of Clint’s body. Barney is still recovering from the battle inside the medibay, and Frank is still limping from the fight as well. Venom continually says that things are about to get worse, and frankly, Eddie wants it to just shut up.

Things can’t possibly get any worse, when it comes to symbiotes. This one - Toxin, it calls itself - has already taken Clint over. Eddie doesn’t understand why they just don’t kill Clint. It’s the only way to get it out of him. If Wanda’s magic - and it was a powerful of the sort - hadn’t managed to do it, then why the hell should they be able to find another way to get the monster out of Clint? That ship sailed, a long time ago, when they were both stuck in the Raft and when Carnage spawned inside his head.

Much in the same way Carnage had spawned inside the mind of Thaddeus Ross.

But it could get worse. And Eddie was only realizing this now, as the room they’ve kept Toxin in, sealed in all the ways imaginable, had become the center of interest for Clint’s kids. The last thing that they had been told, after seeing their father for the last time, was that there was something wrong with him.

But how do you explain to a soon to be teenager, a younger girl and a toddler that their father has been taken hostage by an alien monster who’s only there to eat any and all humans it can get its hands on, including them? You can’t. That’s why Eddie hasn’t even tried to do it: he just can’t figure out how to break those news to them.

Sure, Laura had tried to figure out how to tell them that dad was a little bit sick, okay, he’s going to get better, but her tone of voice suggested that even she was skeptical about the ways that Nick Fury had found to get rid of Toxin.

For Toxin was absolutely hideous. He was larger than Venom - both Eddie and Venom had felt that when Toxin had woken up for the last time and thrown them across the room with almost no effort. It hadn’t been a pretty sight, and for all Venom could remember of Riot, Toxin was worse. Much, much worse.

Toxin’s teeth extended farther back than they’d thought was physically possible. His crimson color reminded them of flayed flesh, and almost looked like the outer layer of skin from a human body had been peeled off. If it wasn’t for the seemingly liquid surface, they’d have thought that Clint’s skin had been taken off and his muscles exposed to the outside world. That and the musculature. And the fangs. The fangs were terrible - there were three rows of teeth, clacking against each other whenever someone walked past the room and the window. 

And the tongue - even though Eddie knew Venom liked to use that tongue to disgust others, Toxin’s own tongue was paler, whiter, sicker and more toxic - whenever drops of drool fell onto the surgical chair upon which Toxin had made his home, the faux leather would dissolve, as if it had been touched by a highly corrosive chemical. It was, frankly, a miracle that nothing had happened to any of the parties involved. Toxin’s claws had ripped the wall apart the first night, and Wanda had helped rebuild it from a distance, while Toxin stood right in front of her, staring at her from its white, lidless eyes, staring at her like he wanted to eat her whole.

It was terrifying to know that somewhere inside that, Clint Barton was caught and unable to escape. The tentacles and the gooey alien substance covered him, and ever since Toxin had erupted from somewhere inside Clint’s brain, where he had been dormant for weeks, Clint hadn’t been seen. At all. There hadn’t even been an inch given, when Laura, tears streaming down her face, had asked to see her husband. Toxin had hissed and laughed and bellowed, and nothing had changed the fact that he was completely in control.

So, when the sound of broken glass had woken Eddie up in the middle of the night, followed by cries of distress and shrieks of horror, as well as the screaming voices of all the adults present, it wasn’t entirely like they’d thought it through.

As it turns out, Cooper had taken Nathaniel by the hand, and walked up to the visitation room next to the medical room to see their father. In the middle of the night.

Ten minutes ago…

“I promise, Nate, Daddy’s probably fine.” 

They’d been discussing it for the past couple of nights. They hadn’t seen their father in a while, and Nathaniel was itchy to see his dad. Cooper was too, but in a different way - there had always been something about Nathaniel that made him want to see his father when he’d had a nightmare. From the time Nathaniel was very small, he’d always had dreams of space and time and a blue monster taking possession of him, and although neither Laura nor Clint had taken the time to explain it to him, Cooper figured it had to do with Loki, and that time in New York, when the skies opened and thousands of aliens swarmed the city.

“You sure?” Nathaniel mumbles, clutching his plush girafe tightly. “I don’ like this ‘oom,” he continues, and Cooper nods.

“Yes, I am. Otherwise they wouldn’t let us be this close to him. Before you were born, Dad came home from fighting some bad people in New York, and when it got really bad, they would send him back to Uncle Nick, where he got help,” Cooper recites. It’s what they’ve always told him. When Clint left, right after Loki, to get help, it had helped. All the time. Because it had been too dangerous, Laura had told them, to leave Clint here. Maybe it had been to protect Clint from himself, but Cooper had figured it meant protect them from him. So it made sense now, from the top of his almost 12 years of age, to deduce that them being in the near proximity of their father meant that it was safe to see him.

Cooper opens the door handle, and makes sure Nathaniel walks in in front of him, before closing it behind him. The room smells of disinfectant, and there’s something else in the air that he can’t quite put his finger on. It reminds him of that time him and Clint had found a dead deer behind the barn, which had died and began to rot, and nobody had noticed. It smelled of something foul and Cooper had to pinch his nose.

However, the second that came after, Nathaniel was clutching his leg tight, hiding his face, because a voice had spoken.

“Ah, they sent me children,” it had said. Whipping his head around, Cooper had finally realized that the large glass secure glasses gave them a wide view into a room which looked too small to contain that… thing that was inside. It was huge.

“I don’ like it,” Nathaniel mumbles, as Cooper tries to regain his footing. 

The thing inside the rooms laughs. “I can hear you, little humans.” It pauses, and opens its mouth, revealing more teeth than Cooper would have given any monster his mind could make up, and he takes a deep breath. Nathaniel is still clutching his leg. But the thing decides to speak again, as it reveals a large tongue, and something drips from it which makes the fabric on the chair melt.

“You are important to the human, yes?” it asks, the red goo pulling back and revealing something that Cooper recognizes briefly as his father’s head. His dad’s eyes are wide open, but they’re not seeing - his pupils aren’t moving at all, and he looks limp, unable to move or to signal them anything. 

The monster pulls back and soon enough, his father’s face is gone. “I can feel his heart rate and his body vibrate, because you mean something to him- ooooooh!” the thing says, as it lifts one of its hands and Cooper grimaces at the sight of the claws, they’re dripping with something and he really, really hopes it’s not blood, “you are the children!”

The thing laughs again. “I could see the children inside his head, when I first started growing. He thought of you so many times. You must be…” it stops for a couple of seconds, its lidless eye focusing on Cooper before it resumes, “You must be Cooper, the oldest, yes? Smart, strong, taking after your mother,” it hisses, smacking its lips together. “Right on the verge to puberty too, you’ll be a delicious snack - hormones raging inside that little body of yours, aren’t they? I can almost smell them from here.”

“I’m not scared of you,” Cooper manages to get out, and the thing smiles wider. If Cooper would even call it a smile. It isn’t, and he knows it isn’t, because all the hairs on his arms and on the back of his head rise, warning him that the thing, whatever it is - isn’t friendly. Cooper feels a tug in his hand, and he suddenly realizes that Nathaniel is still there too. He’d been too fascinated by the monster and its words to realize that Nathaniel was there.

And Nathaniel was staring at the monster with his big blue eyes, trying to comprehend what was going on.

“Dad in there?” Nathaniel asks, probably mostly to himself. 

“No, dad isn’t in there-”

“Oh, yes,” the monster interrupts, crawling down from the chair, making it all the way to the glass separating it from the boys on the other side, “your dad is in here. He’s the reason I’m alive, I wouldn’t be able to survive without him,” the thing says, and paralyzed by fear, Cooper is unable to hold Nathaniel back, as his little brother crosses the couple of feet between where they’re standing and the glass.

“It is thanks to him that I could sleep when I was a baby, much like you are now, and his body is my reserve of nutrients until it dies and I need a new host,” the thing says, thrilled at the sight of the toddler coming so close. “I can smell you, little one, and you smell just like your father. The same fears, the same spice running through your veins.” Pause.

“At first, I couldn’t figure out what it was that made your father so different from all the others, until I saw his memories. His memories of another time something took a hold of him, something from where I come from, from space. Something blue, something huge and something strong, and it gave him this- this kick, that makes him perfect for me right now.”

As it has been talking, it’s been raising its hand to the glass, and almost inevitably, Nathaniel has been mimicking the motion. The plushie is fallen to the ground, Nathaniel enthralled by the humming sound the monster is also making. If Cooper didn’t know any better, he’d say that it sounded like a cat purring, but it’s worse than that. It’s much worse than that, because this is dangerous. It’ll destroy them if they’re not careful.

The monster, however, continues with its monologue: “This is why he is strong enough to support me, and why, when I have drained his essence, you will come in handy, because you are very much alike, the both of you.”

And, with that, Nathaniel’s hand makes contact with the glass, right in front of that thing’s hand. Cooper feels it before he sees it, but the vibrations suddenly become stronger even now, pulsing through the entire room. The last thing he remembers is the sound of glass breaking, the whole panel cracking, starting from where Nathaniel’s hand was touching the glass.

Gunshots, fire alarms, different screams overlapping and a general sense of disaster. That’s all Wanda can feel.

There’s so much going on around her, and she had finally managed to fall asleep in her bed. Waiting for Fury to bring in whatever it was that he had found, which hopefully would be able to cure Clint, had turned out to be even worse than to be sitting in the Raft. Mostly because in the room almost next to hers, it wasn’t Clint. Not really. Not anymore.

She could always feel it. Toxin. Its mind was loud, crashing through everything she had learned to control - even Venom, whom she’d been afraid off in the beginning. Carnage had been the same, back in the Raft, but somehow, this one, Toxin, was worse. It was so loud, that everytime she got far away enough from it, she could feel her heartbeat fall to a steadier pace.

But that night, its screams had woken her up at the same time as a bright flash of blue in her mind. It hadn’t been a nightmare - she has those, she knows what they are - so she had jumped out of bed and into the corridor, where she had ran into Frank, Barney, Helen, Kate and Eddie, turned into Venom.

And then, she’d felt it. Oozing through everything, stronger than it used to be, because somehow, the glass and plastic and metal room containing it had been breached. Following the burn marks on the floor, they had all made it out into the street, where that thing, looming stronger and bigger than Venom could ever dream, it held Cooper Barton in one hand and Nathaniel Barton in the other.

And it was laughing.

Teeth bared, tongue lolling to the wind, it was laughing, holding the children up in front of it to defend itself from their guns and their arrows and their powers. Because who would shoot at a monster holding children to defend itself? It was one of the worst things that could have happened, and Wanda could feel the distress coming from the children, but there was something else too.

Something she hadn’t felt in a long time, something that tasted like cherry pie in the summertime and smelled like the fields of wheat under the baking summer sun, and suddenly she realized that, for the first time in many, many days, it wasn’t only Toxin. Somehow, that thing taking Cooper and Nathaniel, had woken Clint up from a deep, sedated slumber. She could feel his mental scream and anguish, fighting back against the symbiote who so desperately tried to show them that he didn’t care.

“Maybe I will eat him, and keep this one as a reserve body, hm?” Toxin spat out, lifting Cooper further up, its tongue sniffing the air around the boy’s face.

Wanda lifted her hands, the magic flowing through her fingers, strong and pulsing from her heart, and it manages to hold the kid away from the toxic chemicals rolling of Toxin’s tongue.

“Let them go,” she strained, as a gunshot sounded from behind her. Barney’s bullet pierced the flesh of the symbiote in the chest, passing through Nathaniel’s dangling legs, and as the bullet disappeared into the goo, Wanda felt the pain, almost as if she had been shot herself.

“Don’t!” she yelled, straining to keep Cooper away from Toxin’s head, lifting her other hand at Barney, “He’s letting the bullets through to Clint’s body.”

The pain came in waves now, and she wasn’t sure if she could differentiate between Clint’s, Cooper’s and Nathaniel’s, and Toxin’s - it was in pain, but she couldn’t figure out why. 

“You will not have his kids,” she continues, as she feels Toxin’s grip on Cooper grow stronger still, tentacles manifesting around the legs of the boy, the same thing now happening to Nathaniel too. It’s too strong, she can feel it. She can’t fight this. Carnage had been the strongest one she had ever had to hold back, but this - this was too strong. There was something else causing this, and she just wasn’t able to see what it was.

“Stop this!”

“Let them go!”


They were all screaming at Toxin now, who was just laughing, the goo materializing around the children, slowly absorbing them, and Wanda’s magic wasn’t working. She couldn’t hold it back, and slowly, but surely, she could see that Toxin’s powers were growing. Maybe Clint’s fighting was giving it another kick and allowing it to grow. Next to her, Venom had appeared in Eddie’s place, and was hissing, taking a step forward. 

But as soon as the distance between them was shortened, Toxin hissed again, spitting chemical drool all over the ground, hitting Scott in the process who recoiled in pain. 

“I can’t hold him!” Wanda screamed in Venom’s general attention, who launched itself off the ground and at Toxin, having apparently decided that the life of the kids would be better spent if they tried to save them, than let them be absorbed by this monster.

But, the very moment, that Venom should have collided with its half fellow Symbiote, something happened. Sparks of fire erupted from nowhere, blowing Venom back, the burning symbiote screeching in pain, as the flames seemed to catch onto what Wanda had thought was impossible to light on fire.

As Venom disappeared from the world and left Eddie in its place, half of his thigh burned through by whatever had happened, something new had appeared.

Wanda can’t see what it is, the burning image of hellfire and flames in her mind muting all of her other senses, but as she falls to her knees, holding her head and screaming, she realizes that a chain has caught Toxin across the chest and pulled it backwards, taking it off balance.

It happens so slowly, she barely registers what the hell is going on, but as Toxin flies through the air, she sees him. Skull ablaze, white marks on his jacket, the chain in his hand obeying every command he issues. She doesn’t know him, but she knows what she sees. The devil. 

Something bigger than she thought existed, something stronger than Toxin, stronger than her, possibly even stronger than the Infinity Stones.

Something that has, for the first time since he appeared, pulled Toxin off its balance and brought him to his knees.

Something, that has brought fire and brimstone to this fight.

And, as Toxin’s body his the ground, the blaze spreads. Toxin’s body catches fire, in the same way Venom had, and there’s absolutely nothing it can do to escape it.

The heat from the fire is excruciating. She’s never felt anything like it before - it’s as if everything around them is burning. As if something from the deepest pits of hell has crawled out with its whip, tail and horns and is filling every single breath they take with ash. 

But the worst? Kate can’t help but watch in horror as Toxin crumbles under the flames, brought to its knees by them and engulfed in what seemingly looks like a never-ending pit of crimson darkness. 

Before falling back, Wanda had managed to use her powers to rip Cooper out of Toxin’s reach, and he’d fallen to the ground, skidding to a halt a couple of meters away, skin bruised and burned, the marks from the gooey tentacles on his arms visible from where the symbiote had tried to corrupt his body. 

Nathaniel, however, was engulfed in the same flames that the alien was. 

The thing, the person who was wielding the chain, looked like something she’d once seen in a dream. Maybe she would have been able to imagine it, given enough time, but as the man with the blazing skull had stood aside, controlling Toxin with its flames, she’d realized that no, she wouldn’t have been able to come up with something as extreme as that.

Walking out from behind the figure, Nick Fury, accompanied by Melinda May and Maria Hill, had appeared out of a parked van. The melted asphalt that the man with the blazing skull left in his wake was the indication from where he had come from. 

They’re all in shock. Laura is shrieking, having run to Cooper’s body, kneeling to make sure he’s okay, as she’s crying out Clint’s name. Barney is holding Lila in his arms against his chest, and Frank has fallen to his knees. There’s a foul smell in the air, and before long, Kate realizes that it’s coming from the burning body in front of her.

And, just as soon as she’s realized what’s going on, a deep, shrilling sound fills the air, vibrations and humming coming from the crumpled mass and Kate shares a look with Laura whose eyes are filled with tears. It’s screaming. 

Slowly, Toxin pushes itself up against, one leg after the other. He’s standing, swaying slightly, as if trying to figure out how his balance works. As he stands up, the flames double again, and the figure wielding the chain tightens it, causing Toxin to shriek again.

Kate looks over at Nick Fury who nods, imperceptibly, and then, the flaming man loosens the chain, released Toxin, who takes a timid step forward, shrieking in pain. The red surface of its skin is blistering, pus and ooze coming from where its been burnt away. The teeth are burnt to a crisp, and Kate’s eyes focus on the pieces that are falling off, reforming slowly after it, and when she realizes what’s happening - that Toxin is healing itself - she gasps.

“Reyes, now!” Fury calls, and somehow that makes the blazing man react. Kate sees Melinda May walk up to her and stand to her side as the man with the fiery skull lifts his chain again and tightens it around Toxin’s body once more. The jerk causes Toxin to slip forward, falling as it makes a sound that sounds otherwordly, but suddenly, out of its claws, they all realize something is falling through the air.

Frank dives for it, and when he catches the crumpled, burned mass, he looks up and yells that “It’s Nate!” followed by a “He’s okay!” which instantly relieves everyone in the vicinity.

However, now Toxin has turned around.

“What is it?” Kate asks Melinda, unable to look away from the spectacle in front of them. 

A couple of seconds go by where Melinda doesn’t really give an answer, but just watches as the two creatures battle - the stronger the flames, the more angry Toxin becomes, shrieking, fighting and slashing to get rid of the chain. They’re fighting for dominance, and the flames are growing bluer by the second. 

“He’s the Ghost Rider,” Melinda finally answers, as if that should give Kate all the answers she needs. Something inside her mind rings a bell, but she’s unable to exactly pinpoint where she knows about the Ghost Rider. Was that who Fury was hunting in the Los Angeles district?

Toxin has gotten a hand on the chain now, and is struggling forward, the goo moving its head forward, so that suddenly, Toxin is chewing on the chain. It’s causing sparks to fly out, as the drool is reacting to the fires, putting it out as it goes. But Ghost Rider’s grip on the chain doesn’t falter, and as the two beings battle for a way to gain the upper hand, Kate looks on, as Maria Hill walks up to Barney.

“Here,” she says, as Barney hands her Lila, who hides her face in Maria’s shoulder immediately, and in the exchange, Maria hands Barney a gun. “Shoot it in the back.”

“No,” Kate whispers, and Melinda frowns.

“Why not? Distract it as the Rider burns away Toxin.”

“No, you can’t - it’s letting the bullets hit Clint, Clint is inside. He’s vulnerable to whatever you’re going to shoot… You’re probably burning him alive as we speak,” Kate manages to choke out, the realization of her words catching in her throat: if she’s right, that means that the flames are slowly burning Clint alive and that the shrieks Toxin is letting out are actually Clint’s muffled screams.

Barney, however, remembers the episode from earlier, where a bullet had pierced Clint’s flesh, and throws the gun away, much to the dismay of Hill. 

Something else is happening, though- something is strengthening the grip of the Ghost Rider onto the chain, and the flames are no longer only burning bright yellow. They’re becoming darker, more crimson, and looking around her, Kate realizes that Wanda is struggling to keep herself composed, her powers sifting through her body and manifesting outside it - her hands are glowing, but so is her entire body. Her eyes are practically a ball of red flames, and with the way she’s combining her powers with that of the Ghost Rider, Toxin’s screams keep getting stronger again and again and… 

They all whisper different things as the flames suddenly turn a bright blue and white color, turning into a large ball, engulfing both the Rider and Toxin at once, locking them away from the eyes of the team, watching on in distress as there’s nothing to be done. Kate runs over to Wanda, who is touching the ground with one knee, struggling to keep upright, blood seeping from her one nostril, as the effort is draining her physically. Whatever is going on, there’s something stronger than what simply exists between Earth and sky that’s influencing it. 

The ball of flames and energy suddenly expands, knocking everyone off their balance and several feet back. Kate hits the ground, hard, and by the time she manages to groan through the pain her entire body is causing her, she realizes that there’s nothing left in front of the Rider but a crumpled mass.

It looks like a cocoon. It’s struggling to reform, struggling to create any sort of shape, and from what she knows of symbiotes, it’s trying to heal itself. But the Rider puts his hand forward, having thrown the chain around his chest, and the moment his fingers connect with the remains of Toxin, looking like toxic waste on the black tarmac, it ignites again, burning a bright red, the shrieks replaced by the sound of crackling flames. Until a bright light, equally yellow, red and green at the same time hits the Rider and the cocoon both.

The fire fizzles out. The smoke coming up from the leftovers of the cocoon smells bad, like burnt plastic, and Kate covers her mouth and nose. If she didn’t know any better, she would be gagging from the smell. But there’s something else. Something moving in the rubble left behind by the flames and the brimstone. Something human.

Nobody moves for a couple of seconds. Another person, a glowing woman with long, blonde hair, has appeared from out of nowhere, probably hidden from Kate’s vantage point by the flames themselves, and she’s currently locked in a staring contest with the Ghost Rider.

A couple of seconds go by, as he watches the humanoid mass on the ground, before nodding, and turning its back, no words spoken. Actions do speak louder than words, Kate realizes, as the fires on the man’s skull disappear, retracting themselves, as he’s walking towards Nick Fury.

Looking over his shoulder, what was once a blazing skull is revealed to be a handsome looking man, whom Kate swears she’s seen around here, in San Francisco, before then. Until she realizes that there were pictures on the internet about him. About the riots in the penitentiary. About what he was. 

And then, as the man walks up to a car that Kate swears wasn’t parked there before and ignites the engine, something happens.

“It’s Clint!” a voice calls. She doesn’t recognize whether it’s Frank, or Barney, or Eddie, or Scott, or someone else, but immediately, all eyes are on the cocoon, which has crumbled to pieces, ashes scattered to the winds, revealing a burnt, limp and unconscious body on the ground. The body is still wearing the clothes that Clint was wearing the last day they’d seen him weeks ago.

It’s him.

He’s back.

But in what shape?

Here they are, again. 

As they’ve been plenty of times in the past. Laura is in the same position as she’s always been, when Clint’s been glued to a hospital bed. Her hand on his, still half asleep in the chair next to him, her book half open in her lap.

Except, this time, there’s two other beds in the room too. There are different machines making sounds in the room, one of them is pumping oxygen to little Nathaniel’s nostrils, as he’s still struggling to breathe on his own after Toxin had taken a hold of him.

The episode had weakened him, as if the sudden burst of energies clashing around him had broken something inside him. Or, like Wanda said, had pulled something out. Something irreplaceable, that Laura was afraid meant something was wrong with Nathaniel.

Another machine is slowly pumping Cooper’s blood out from his body, cleaning it up, and pumping it back into his body. Being shot out of the air from the grip of a monster had damaged his kidney, and as Helen had conducted a full body scan and check up, she’d realized that he needed help to sort out his body waste. Until the kidneys healed, hopefully. He’s hooked up to the hemodialysis machine, plastic tubes taped to his forearm, but he’s healing now. And then, there’s Clint. 

His body is covered in burn marks and bruises, and there’s barely any muscle left. Somehow, Toxin had used him as a reserve while they’d been locked into the medibay, feeding off of Clint’s body’s resources. Venom had warned them, told them that if the symbiote didn’t get its food somewhere, it would start draining its host. And that is exactly what Toxin had been doing to Clint.

He looked so small, the bones in his arms visible where once he had muscles to cover them up. His face looked sicklish, and the blue tint from the different infections his body was currently fighting off made him look like he was on the verge of death. Helen had decided to induce him in an artificial coma, to keep him from thrashing and spending too much energy dealing with the pain.

The burns, second and third degree some places, were healing slowly. Helen had conducted a small skin transplant on one of Clint’s arms, using a graft from his thigh, in order to minimize the infection risks.

Frankly, he looked like shit. The intubation and machines helping him breathe made him sound like Darth Vader, and although Laura has tried this a handful of times before, this time, she’s afraid for Clint. He’d suffered from seizures, immediately after Toxin had seemingly been burned out of him.

A crumpled heap on the ground, Clint had tried to call for help, before his eyes had turned in their sockets and he’d practically swallowed his tongue, shaking, until Wanda managed to force him to sleep with her powers. The seizing had stopped, and Helen had suggested taking an MRI to check whether or not something was wrong inside his brain - whether or not Toxin had gnawed inside his skull in the same way he had been feeding off Clint’s body - but Clint’s condition had been deemed too precarious. She’d consulted with Reed Richards and Betty Ross, to figure out what to do. 

They had suggested putting him the coma. It was the best way to stabilize him, until they could take an MRI and verify whether or not Toxin had left any signs inside his body.

Gently stroking his hand, Laura is fighting to stay awake. She’s never had to stay in a room where her three boys were fighting for their lives. Frank had had to subdue her grip on Cooper’s body after the shock, and Maria, Melinda and Kate had carried Cooper into the medical room, followed by Frank with Nathaniel in his arms. Wanda had lifted Clint off the ground with her powers and moved him. The gunshot wound had hit him right through the shoulder, and the bullet had remained embedded in the muscle tissue, so Helen had had to operate.

Venom had volunteered to help her, able to materialize more arms to assist her in the surgery. Frank had said, later on, that it was a way for Venom to make sure that Toxin wouldn’t manifest in the middle of the operation.

The teenagers she’s been staying with, before all of this, have been coming and going, visiting them. The gentle boy, Billy, had talked for a long time with Kate about the way he had interpreted the things that had gone down that day. Laura hasn’t spoken a lot since. Nick Fury tried to debrief them all, a couple of hours ago, telling them that he’d heard that the Ghost Rider - whatever that meant - was one of the only entities in the world able to kill a symbiote without killing the host. He’d had to risk it, because Clint deserved to be saved. He’d brought in Carol Danvers, a mole in Ross’ team, to control the Rider, if it started burning away at Clint himself. 

The deal had been to destroy Toxin through its powers, but there had always been a risk that the Rider would catch onto Clint’s thoughts and soul and decide that he didn’t deserve to survive, that he needed to die for his sins. And those were aplenty, especially after they’d realized that some of his SHIELD missions had indeed been HYDRA missions and that he may have killed innocent people. Thankfully, Carol’s powers had managed to knock the Rider off before it managed to destroy Clint any further than he already had been.

But they were all worried about the deep burn on Clint’s chest. Laura knew what had been there before the Rider burnt it away - the mark left by Loki’s scepter, by the mind stone. Somehow, the Rider had decided that it needed to be taken away too. Maybe that had been the blue light they had all seen erupt from the ball of fire. But she didn’t know. Clint hasn’t been awake yet, so she can’t ask him about what happened, what he went through.

Helen had found a similar burn mark on Nathaniel’s body. It seemed that, somehow, the Rider had decided that a toddler deserved to face unrepentant justice, and had burned a scar away. Laura had always thought that it was just a birthmark, but with the burn injury her youngest now sustained, she’d had to accept the reality that maybe, just maybe, Loki’s influence hadn’t ended when she had gotten her husband back, after the Battle of New York.

However, as she’s slowly trying to mend her boys back together, Nick Fury had taken Carol Danvers with him and gone to Washington to find Thaddeus Ross and confront him about the symbiote living inside of him.

Laura had tried to find out why the Rider had accepted to help mend Clint, but why it hadn’t said yes to do the same for Ross. But, those were things that she didn’t need to concern herself with. Not now. It wasn’t her problem. If they had saved Clint from dying, then Ross would have to deal with his problems himself.

Chapter Text

On the other side of the country, there’s things happening too. Nick Fury had, along with Carol Danvers, Maria Hill and Melinda May, gotten on the road in order to make it to New York overnight.

For there was business to attend to there too.

“It worked for Barton,” Carol says, adamant about her issue. Sure, the fire had burned out most of the Symbiote, but the Rider had decided not to help with Thaddeus Ross. A photon blast was the only thing thye had left to save the Secretary’s life. And it wasn’t exactly being well received.

“You can’t mean it- an energy blast? From her? Are you mad?” Ross manages to choke out.

He looks sick - much like Barton did, after they recovered his body out of the crumbled and burnt mass of former symbiote. Except Ross hasn’t been taken over by the symbiote nesting inside his body, almost like there’s something fighting it somewhere.

“Well, mister secretary, it’s the best option we have.”

Nick Fury doesn’t like to dance around tough subjects, but inflicting a potentially life threatening photon blast to someone the US Military looks up to is not something to be done lightly. So, he treads carefully. 

“Either that or you become a monster, much like Kasady was here.”

They’d done it to Carnage - a photon blast, that is. Carol had shot at the symbiote with all of her power, and somehow, the symbiote had given up its human host and tried to flee on its own. Thankfully, with a little neat kit, Melinda and Maria had managed to snatch it up into a sealed glass container. Courtesy of Leo Fitz, that was. So, Kasady was now locked up in the Raft again, where he rightfully belonged.

And, there, he would remain, separated from his symbiote friend, as long as necessary. It was just a question of what to do with the symbiote, actually - should they blast it off into space? Would it survive? Should they bury it? Destroy it? Burn it? Until then, the decision to keep it in a SHIELD storage facility had been decided, rather than leave it in the hands of Thaddeus Ross. Because he was not to be trusted.

So, they’re trying to get another risk factor out of him. And he is not having it.

“There is nothing wrong with me!” he tries, but the hysterics in his voice betray that there is definitely something wrong with him. 

Unfazed, the four SHIELD agents look at him, like you would a child having a tantrum. For what else was it, but a tantrum? 

Carol sighs. “Listen, Ross, you can either accept this, or it’s shooting you square in the face because you’ve got an alien monster inside of you. Barton barely survived being taken over by it, how do you think you’ll do?”

She’s frustrated, and it shows. In her world, those things should be done logically, which meant that Ross should know the risks. Her hands are itching to shoot the thing out of him, but Fury lifts his hand, as Ross tries to find words for something.

“I- I- I think I should be fine, thank you,” Ross mutters, barely audible, as he looks over at Fury. “You know, there were some vials left, right?”

“Thaddeus, what did you do?” Nick bites, as Melinda suddenly shifts into a more active position, unfolding her arms across her chest. There’s something definitively unhealthy at work here, but Nick can’t put his finger on it. Yet. “What did you do?”

“It was the- it was the only thing I could think of,” Ross continues, explaining, as he struggles to breathe, “I thought maybe the bloodwork would develop antibodies and kill the- kill the symbiote,” he heaves, as Nick lifts his head in realization, and finally hides his face in his hand.

“Ross, you absolute motherfucking idiot.”

Carol knows that it’s a big sign when Fury swears. He does so every now and then, and the last three times she’s heard him say the f-word weren’t especially good scenarios. This is no exception.

“What is he talking about?” Maria asks. She’s unclipped the security of her thigh holster and has her one hand hovering above the gun she keeps there. 

Ross is surrounded by habile SHIELD agents, but Carol is truly the only one here with the resistance and stamina necessary to survive an attack, should the thing inside of Ross decide to manifest.

Nick sighs. “The bastard injected himself with some of Banner’s serum!” He shakes his head, exasperated. “You didn’t learn from Blonsky? What good did that do to you? Now you got two things fighting inside of you, or what?” he says, angry.

“Does that mean-”

“There’s a possibility he’s got both a symbiote and some Hulk-like symptoms inside of him, which would be an indicator as to why the symbiote hasn’t taken over it. The infected serum he injected himself with must be fighting it back, keeping him alive and awake, where Barton had given entirely up to the symbiote,” Melinda explains. She’s understood the whole thing already and Carol wants to bang her head against the wall for not understanding it in the first try.

“So, what are we supposed to do?” Carol asks, her fists finally glowing. She wants to shoot him. 

What kind of an idiot would voluntarily inject himself with Banner’s serum? The Hulk wasn’t something she’d wish on her worst enemy - it was a creature that was practically impossible to tame and had a will of its own. She’d seen Blonsky turn into the Abomination, and it was just that. An abomination. She wanted it gone.

So, before anyone else could decide anything, she lifts her hand and releases a blast from the palm of her hand.

Melinda doesn’t seemed shocked, Fury barely takes a step back and Maria picks the gun out of the holster, as the beam hits Thaddeus Ross’ body. 

She can feel the resistance he’s giving her, and raising her other hand, she gives it a second blast. There’s something inside of him that’s accepting the power, but when he finally releases a scream filled with pain, she knows she’s hit something right. But she doesn’t know what.

“What the fuck?!”

There hasn’t been any time to compute what had happened.

It had taken a couple of seconds to happen. Like a delayed reaction to something inside of Ross’ body. As if the photon blast had needed to burn something away before allowing something else to react.

Something stronger than a symbiote. Something that even Carnage couldn’t contain, several months ago, when Steve Rogers helped his team escape the Raft.

“Stand back,” Carol says, jaw tight, hands raised, ready to blast at the thing again.

“Is he-”

“It’s Banner’s serum, I’m sure of it,” Maria says, her gun raised at the shape that’s currently transforming in front of them. Thaddeus Ross’ skin had started boiling for a couple of seconds after the blast had burned something out of him, and then it had started turning red. His entire body had began convulsing, changing hue, in favor of something redder. And, as it had done that, his musculature and his bones had started cracking in place, allowing space and room for something more.

“He looks like a-”

“Like a red Hulk,” Fury completes, as he finds a gun from the insides of his jacket. Both him, Maria and Melinda are pointing guns at the thing that Ross is becoming, while Carol is standing ready to blast it again. 

“Danvers!” he calls.


“Blast him. If we can knock him out before the transformation is complete, he won’t turn!” Fury quickly manages to spit out, and she follows his orders, ready and happy to blast him again with an energy blast.

The beam pushes the Red Hulk off its feet and he slams onto the floor, his back denting the concrete as he does so. There’s a grumble, a whine - but a deep sound. Coming from inside the humongous ribcage the Hulk here has developed. Instinctively, Carol blasts him with another beam, before jumping up on top of him and locking his head in a tightlock.

The Hulk struggles for a while, trying to figure out what’s happening, and the more she tightens her grip, the less red he seems to become, suddenly ever so slowly returning to his original color and shape, leaving the original Thaddeus Ross in the place of this other Hulk. Passed out.

“That motherfucker,” Fury bites, as he holsters the gun and walks up to Ross. Maria has produced some handcuffs, which activate as soon as they settle around Ross’ wrists. “I thought Abomination was the farthest he’d go with Banner’s serum,” Fury continues, as Carol helps him lift Ross up, “turns out he’s more mad scientist than soldier. Ready to try that shit on himself.”

“It would seem that we’ve got a new problem on our hands,” Melinda agrees, putting her arm under one of Ross’ arms, lifting him up, allowing Fury, Maria, Carol and herself to drag the former Secretary of State out of there. “What do you think we should do now?”

“Talking to Banner, for one, then I think asking Richards for assistance, potentially Stark too,” Fury replies. “Stark managed to build a machine able to contain the Hulk, so maybe he’ll know what to do here. But, as far as Banner is concerned, he’s told me several times that there is no cure for the Hulk. Once it’s there, there’s no way to suppress it, unless it’s something like putting Hulk to sleep for good.”

“And you can’t exactly put one guy to sleep while the other kicks around all day, I guess?” Maria snarks.

They’ve dragged Ross up to the door and elevator off the floor, hoping to avoid any and all attention from other people in the vicinity. Thankfully, the only other person they’ve met so far has been what looks like an intern, and nobody had asked any questions as to why the Director of SHIELD wanted to talk to the Secretary of Defense. 

“Where are you taking him?” Carol asks, as they enter the elevator, Ross still dangling from Melinda’s and Maria’s shoulders, head lolling as he stays unconscious.

A couple of seconds go by before Fury answers. “Somewhere safe, where we keep people like him,” he finally says. “It’s where we have Justin Hammer locked up and where we have other super powered individuals, kept in cells that are built to contain them specifically.”

“So, somewhere where he can’t get to the Abomination or Kasady?” Carol then asks, and he nods. “Good,” she continues, as the elevator dings open and they walk out into the open parking lot. “What will you tell the press and the army, when they come asking for what has happened to their Secretary of Defense?”

Shrugging, watching as Melinda and Maria put Ross into the backseat of a black SHIELD jeep, Fury purses his lips. “Don’t know yet. I suppose something about a training exercise gone wrong, that usually works out,” he says, a smirk on his face, as if they hadn’t seen an older, white male suddenly turn into a raging red hulk. Carol reciprocates the smirk.

“Sounds like you’ve got this under control, boss.”

“Well, there are bigger things at stake here than baby-sitting a man with delusions of grandeur,” he says, motioning at the car. “One of the teenagers Vision picked up through his tracker, one of the girls who’s been staying around Barton and the others, she’s got a different integral molecular structure than us. And yes, even you,” he says, motioning at Carol. “Her cells are built differently, but the biggest difference is the numbers of chromosomes, it would she has one pair more than we do.”

“So she’s not human, that’s normal, right? I mean, I’m part Kree,” Carol interrupts, but Fury shakes his hand.

“The composition of her atoms is different too - almost all life in this Universe is constituted of carbon atoms, which serve as the base to all life on this planet and all life out there-” he motions to the sky, “but she’s different. As if she came from somewhere else entirely.”

“What, like a parallel universe?” Carol scoffs at the idea.

“Exactly like a parallel universe,” Fury repeats, and the seriousness in his expression is enough to get Carol to stop smirking.

“But if she’s traveled here from another universe… How did that happen? And why did she choose to come there?”

Shrugging, Fury readjusts his jacket. “Only America Chavez knows how to answer that question.” He pauses, gazing up at the night sky, before he finally speaks again, as if he’d been pondering about whether or not to share something.

“There was another boy, in the Raft, that escaped the day that Abomination and Carnage took control, the day that Rogers broke out his former team-mates. A teenager, no older than miss Bishop. We’ve been tracking him too, he’s giving off the same levels of radiation as one of the other boys Vision picked up, but we’ve lost sight of him recently. I think that he caught onto us tracking his whereabouts, but the last time we had a trace of him, was right before Toxin manifested for the first time. Facial recognition had trouble separating him from the Kaplan-kid, but it’s obvious they’re not the same boy. This other kid, Thomas Shepherd, he’s got white hair and similar powers to what Pietro Maximoff displayed in Sokovia.”

Shaking her head, Carol frowns. “What powers?”

“Super-speed. Kaplan has reality warping powers, Wanda told me that, but he hasn’t figured out how to use them yet. Shepherd has similar powers to Wanda’s deceased older brother. Kaplan apparently told Wanda that he’d seeked her out, because after the Battle of Sokovia, he felt drawn to her.”

“So, you’re saying… What exactly?”

“Oh, Danvers, you know what I’m saying.”

“If Wanda Maximoff had the power to change the physical composition of humans and induce mutations in the general population, don’t you think we’d have noticed? Sokovia was years ago- there would be mutants walking around the entire Earth already,” she comments, frowning, unsure of what she’s trying to defend.

“There are more out there, I’m sure of it. Stark stopped Vision from looking for more, because Ross was getting nosy into the results Vision was digging up. And, in his righteousness, Vision had trouble keeping his results from Ross to begin with. So this,” he points at the jeep, which Melinda and Maria are now leaning up against, “is a win-win situation. Vision has been using a modified version of Zola’s algorithm to scan the general population for signs that others have mutated following a potential outburst on Miss Maximoff’s part, so there’s no way of knowing what exactly we’re going to find.”

“Whatever you say, Fury,” Carol laughs. “Are there any other fights or military facilities you need me to bust into, or can I go back to doing my job?” she asks, pointing to the night sky. “Because there are a lot of planets out there that need my help, and there’s only one of me, so…”

Fury laughs. “You can get on your way, I still have your pager, Captain Danvers. You’ve served your country well, once again.”

“Well, if you do figure out how to travel the Multiverse, let me know. I’m sure there’s going to be some threats coming in from one of those universes, no matter how ready we try to be,” Carol says, through a wide smile. 

Fury’s coat gets pushed back as she takes off, blasting into the sky at speeds Fury couldn’t possibly imagine. Melinda rolls her eyes at the apparent showing off, and smiles when Fury shrugs.

“What can I say, I didn’t know her then, and I don’t know her now,” he says, walking up to the passenger’s side of the jeep.

“Where to now?”

“You said something about getting this guy to one of our secure locations, and then going back to visit Barton,” Maria answers, as she gets behind the wheel, motioning to Thaddeus Ross, handcuffed and knocked out.

“Right. Well, let’s get rid of this guy and go see how one of our own is doing.”

“So, the implications were-”

“Doctor Foster was so close with her study on Einstein-Rosen bridges, but never managed to dig that much deeper,” Betty Ross replies. She lifts her hand and uses the laser pointer in her hand to showcase some of the numbers they’ve managed to compile. 

“She figured out space-travel, through the effect of what Thor called magic - which is just science we haven’t understood yet - but pushing that further, the very fabric of reality could be warped, with enough power.” Ross pauses, and Sue Storm shifts to the next slide.

“Wormholes are a gateway to another part of space, yes, but if the molecular density can be challenged enough to shatter the atomic void, then other vibrations begin to come in. CERN managed to create some replicable data with the theories we provided them. The Large Hadron Collider duplicated some of the reactions we’ve had before, and with Miss Chavez’ blessing, we’ve looked at the atoms that have been produced from that handshake: although the atoms extracted from the collision didn’t match Miss Chavez’ density, they didn’t match ours either,” Storm continues, as the slides behind her change.

“So, what you’re saying is, there’s at least three universes out there?” Stark hasn’t learned to raise his hand yet, but at the same time, if she was in his shoes, Betty would interrupt the lecture too. Even though this was more of a debriefing than a lecture.

“If all the hypotheses about multiverse and parallel universes are correct, there is an infinite number of parallel universes. It’s impossible to know exactly how many, because the number would be so high as to being infinite. Every decision we make, is dictated by the world we exist in. That world only exists in what we know it as, because we haven’t looked elsewhere. Miss Chavez is the first traveler to come into our dimension, that we know of, who proves that there is another adjacent universe, where life evolved in a similar fashion as to the one we know here on Earth.”

Sue looks out onto the audience - Nick Fury, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Jennifer Walters, Jessica Drew, Reed Richards, Erik Selvig. Fury looks as though he’s hanging onto every word they’re saying, Stark looks somewhere between bored and tired, Banner looks nervous, Walter looks fascinated, Drew is writing down notes, Richards is also writing down notes, except on a bigger notepad, and Erik Selvig looks confused. Not by the science being presented to him, more to the fact that he’s in that room. Ever since Loki, Selvig has been a mess - his mind, more prone to the crazy conspiracy theories than people like Clint and Helen, had decided that everything around him was to be questioned. They’re at the Wakandan International Outreach Center in Oakland, which had been opened to them following the Ghost Rider incident.

As it turns out, one of Selvig’s wilder hypotheses about multiverses has turned out to be real, but he hasn’t realized it yet.

“If she came here, though,” Fury finally asks, raising his hand before speaking, “doesn’t that mean that we could go there? Or worse, that things bigger and badder are going to come through?”

Ever the pragmatic one. Sue nods, and Helen begins to explain: “Yes, they can, but it’s possible that they haven’t figured out why, or that this Universe has something protecting it from intruders. Miss Chavez, who isn’t here today, told us that the only reason she was allowed to come here is because she was searching for a deity, a spiritual body that apparently is the creator of all life. If that power is real, it acts as judge, jury and executioner, deciding who gets to move between realities and who doesn’t.”

Sue continues where Helen stops: “It is also possible that this Universe is being watched over by other things, such as the Infinity Stones, which command all of reality. Vision told us that there are 6 Infinity Stones, yes? Soul, Time, Space, Mind, Reality and Power. As long as those six powers are defending us, it would seem that this Universe is unbreachable.”

“So, why are we discussing this?” Banner finally asks, and for the first time since the debriefing began, Helen and Sue shrug at the same time. He’s been fidgeting with a pen ever since Fury told him about Thaddeus Ross and the use of Banner’s serum on himself, and the idea of a third Hulk out there in the world has made him even worse than usual.

“The implications of a multiverse means that there are threats out there we couldn’t possibly imagine. But, it also means that Chavez was right about something protecting this universe, and we need to figure out what exactly it is,” Helen replies and Fury nods, pushing himself to a standing position.

Melinda May and Maria Hill aren’t here, but they agree: sharing the information about Wanda Maximoff’s potentially world reaching powers was something they needed to share, and if there was anyone to share it with, it was the minds in this room.

He clears his throat as Helen and Sue give him the floor. “She might be the reason why,” he says as a picture of Wanda Maximoff appears on the powerpoint.

“Her powers came from the Mind Stone, which had been in Loki’s position for years, given to him by an alien entity. Connected to her were Agent Barton, Professor Selvig and Doctor Cho here, who all underwent the same mind sweep at the hands of the scepter, and were exposed to the power of the Infinity Stones. We believe that the reason why Carnage decided to spawn inside Agent Barton was because of his contact with an Infinity Stone, and that it was the reason why Toxin managed to survive. Symbiotes need a host that is more than human to survive. Barton, Selvig and Cho have been carrying the scars of the scepter ever since they came into contact with it, and it would seem that Robbie Reyes managed to burn that remaining essence out of Barton, at the cost of Toxin’s life,” Fury explains, taking a breath as he places his hands on his hips. “The kicker here is that his youngest son, Nathaniel Pietro Barton, was also burned by Reyes’ powers, and that apparently, it would seem some of the powers passed onto Barton through the scepter were passed, hereditarily, onto his youngest son, conceived and born after the Battle of New York.”

“But then why- why did Ross also have a symbiote in his- in his mind?” Banner stutters out, perplexed.

“Because, Doctor Banner, he had already injected himself with your gamma-serum before Carnage decided to spawn inside of him. It would seem that your serum is what, ultimately, caused the symbiote to never properly mature inside of General Ross, because it was suppressing and killing it before it could even form. It’s what gave him the nosebleeds, the shakes and a whole bunch of other symptoms that we weren’t aware of until he told us.” 

Fury readjusts himself to point at Wanda’s picture on the wall. “Miss Maximoff and her brother were the only two human beings experimented on who survived the genetic manipulation Von Strucker subjected them to. All the others? We found their bodies, left to rot, in the very same compound that the Avengers stormed to retrieve the scepter, before Ultron and before Sokovia. There was something special about the twins, which came from something very specific, and our scientists weren’t able to figure out what that was, right up until Miss Chavez’ bloodwork came through.”

He takes a deep breath. “You see, whenever miss Maximoff was tested and blood samples were taken, it was always assumed that the anomalies in her numbers and molecular structure were caused by her powers. We never found the files on what kind of research Baron Strucker conducted, so we don’t know exactly what he did, nor if he knew what he was dealing with. But, when we finally managed to conduct tests on a subject from another dimension, it soon became clear that Miss Maximoff shared some of the atomic similarities with Miss Chavez.”

It would be possible to hear a pin drop on the floor. All the others are sitting completely still, and even Stark hasn’t tried to pipe in for the last five minutes, and Banner has stopped fidgeting. Reed Richards and Jessica Drew have put down their pens as well.

“That means,” Fury finally unveils, “that Miss Maximoff and her twin brother, were put into our world by something bigger than all of us. Something, that isn’t originally from this Universe at all, which explains why the scepter’s powers worked on them and not the others.”

He clicks the button on the little remote controlling the power-point, and a map showing purple dots, scattered over the globe, and multiplying over time, are being showcased. 

“This right here, represents what is a current global phenomenon that started the day Pietro Maximoff was shot. Wanda Maximoff released a burst of energy while on the rock that once was Sokovia, and although it seemed, at first, that it had only the effect of knocking out all the Ultron-bots from the sky, it impacted the world below. Each dot you see here, is a kid who has shown multiple signs of what we believe is a mutation. William Kaplan is one of them, and he was one of the first to display those signs. Another is Thomas Shepherd, who whe are still looking for, because their signatures are so incredibly similar to Miss Maximoff’s, that we believe them to be linked. The others, Theodore Altman, Elijah Bradley, David Alleyne, the ones who were hovering around Miss Maximoff and the Bartons, while they were in hiding? They are all impacted by these mutations we see.”

Reed Richards lifts his hands. “You’re using the word mutation, but I don’t think that it has anything to do with melanism or albinism, right? It’s something more-”

“Something more potent than that,” Banner interrupts. “Something that looks like something out of a comic book, reality warping powers, physical changes… This is- it’s- it’s extraordinary. Does it only happen to the youth, though? Do we have any examples of adults-”

“There are some cases, which would seem to indicate that adults have developed this mutation too. We haven’t attempted to contact them yet, but it would seem there has been one attempt at communication by one of them, a certain Professor Xavier, some of you probably know his name,” Fury replies.

For a couple of seconds, there’s silence, where none of them have anything to ask for. Right up until Jennifer Walters lifts her hand. Fury nods at her. “So, you’re saying there are multiverses, yes. Mutants, also yes. But what does that mean, for us, right now? Barton suffered unspeakable harm because he came close to things that a regular human being isn’t supposed to be subjected to, and he barely survived. I understand that as scientists, this is all fascinating, but I have to ask, why is this interesting here and now?”

“Well, because,” Fury starts, revealing another slide in the presentation, “I was going to present to you a new agency, the Sentient World Observation and Response Department, SWORD for short.” He turns around and motions at a rough 3D rendering of a space station.

“Until now, we’ve focused on protecting the Earth from threats coming from it - terrorist threats, biological warfare, even magical invasions at other points, but with the confirmation that one, we are not alone out there, two, there are different other universes around ours, and three, we are unable to contain them through gunpower alone, we need to be ready and specialize in the threats that relate to multiverse travel and the rising number of mutants.”

“You’ll need enhanced beings and mutants to do that job,” Selvig suddenly chimes in, his gaze finally focused, for the first time since this debriefing began. “If there are mutants able to survive in space, you will need those. Richards has been applying to research funds in order to set up a mission to space, in order to study cosmic rays coming from the Andromeda-galaxy. Start with that, use it as an undercover mission to see if an agency like SWORD would be able to work.”

And, just like that, Selvig’s focus is gone and he’s watching the 3D rendering of the Peak behind Fury with a crease in his brow.

“That would be dangerous, but doable, right?” Fury says, looking over at Richards.

“Yes, that’d be- that’d be possible. We’ve been campaigning for months to get proper funding to get an exploratory space mission going, in order to analyze some cosmic rays that have been showing up on scanners, but we can’t figure out what they are- even Doctor Banner’s knowledge of nuclear fission and fusion couldn’t help, so that’d be- that’d definitely be a good place to start,” Reed Richards answers, nodding to himself.

“Deal, then,” Stark says, leaning back into his chair. “I’ll fund the space shuttle, you go figure out what you need, and then we can see if there’s any way to get a suit of armor around the world,” he says, repeating a phrase that he uttered years ago, right before Ultron became a nuisance. Fury nods.

And with that, the meeting is adjourned.

The television is on. CNN has been doing continuous coverage of the announcement that Tony Stark had made jointly with Reed Richards, Sue Richards, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm: a pioneering space mission to gather data on cosmic rays coming from out of space in order to better understand solar flares and the beginning of the universe.

The television is on low volume, because Laura hasn’t been paying attention and didn’t want to bother the boys while Clint still rested.

There’s a knock on the door, and she lifts her head, saying a quiet “Come in.”

The door opens, revealing Natasha’s face. She looks disheveled, and looks like she’s been crying. Which is never a good sign. But, as Laura gets to her feet, Natasha crosses the distance between them and Laura finds herself locked in a hug that, if she didn’t trust Natasha wholeheartedly, would feel like a chiropractor trying to get her vertebrae back on track.

“You- you- I thought you were dead!” Natasha half screams, half whispers, because she can’t decide whether or not she wants to be quiet or scream at Laura. Nathaniel has been written out of his bed and is resting in the bedroom they’ve been staying at for months, so it’s only Cooper and Clint who are still resting. Clint is still in a coma, so he wouldn’t be disturbed by Natasha’s screaming, but Cooper is still sleeping. 

Laura pushes a loose strand of her back behind her ear and bites her lower lip, as she invites Natasha to sit down in one of the guest chairs in the room next to hers. “I know, I’m sorry,” she begins, as she looks over at Clint, who has slowly been getting better. At least, he doesn’t look like a ghost anymore, the color having returned to his face. “It was… It was the only way,” she says, looking back at Natasha, whose face reads like an open book.

She’s angry, but at the same time, Laura can tell that she’s happy and relieved. But, Laura knows that she owes Natasha an explanation as to what happened. So, she begins explaining.

“I’m sorry that we had to lie to you, but it had to be this way. With Carnage able to read minds and Ross having sent out so many different spies, we couldn’t… Well, we couldn’t let too many people know about this. Fury helped us figure out a game plan, which had always been about finding out Ross’ dirty secrets in the Raft, but things got more complicated when we found out that Clint had an alien inside his brain, eating away at him.” She pauses, looking over at her husband.

“Frank and Barney were in on the plan, as was Wanda, and it was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make, whether to include you or not, but we just- It was too hard. So we decided not to.” 

“The fake funeral- that was- that was a part of your plan?” Natasha asks, holding her hands together in her lap, trying to avoid looking over at Clint, who looks like he’s simply asleep.

Laura nods. “We had to appear dead. Right up until we knew what was wrong with Thaddeus Ross, and that’s about when Clint started showing symptoms too. Fury knew that Ross was putting together a team of his own, but in the beginning, it was only about figuring out what that team was and neutralizing it before it became too grand a scheme. Ross screwed us all over when he allowed that thing to take over Clint.” She pauses, closing her eyes, and taking a deep breath. “You remember, when Ross’ team and our team fought? And there was a mock Captain America on the field?” 

Natasha nods, and Laura motions to Clint. 

“He couldn’t really fit into Steve’s old suit, but he knows how to throw the shield, alright. It’s a shame that Steve hasn’t left Wakanda, but as I understand it, the royal family is still helping him figure out how to fix Bucky’s memories and his mind.”

“Yeah, but T’Challa’s little sister, Shuri, she’s doing great progress,” Natasha says, a little smile finally showing up on her face. “They’re even talking about coming over, to see Clint and this whole mess, when it’s all over.”

Laura smiles, her eyes shining. “I’m sorry we had to keep you in the dark, Natasha. I really, truly am.”

The two women share a knowing look. It’s never easy with SHIELD, and especially when Nick Fury is involved. But it has been worth it. That much Natasha knows.

“How is he?” Natasha asks, motioning at Clint, pushing herself out of the chair and walking up to his side to get a better look. He looks like shit still, more so than he usually does, but he is getting better. The saline solution that he’s getting through an IV is helping him keep hydrated, and Helen Cho even spoke about letting him wake up soon.

Laura stands up as well before she answers.

“He’s better. You should’ve seen him right after that thing burned Toxin out of him. He looked- he looked like a skeleton. I have never seen him so thin, nor so bruised and battered as I have, and you know, more than anyone else, that I’ve seen him go through some serious stuff,” Laura says, and Natasha huffs, suppressing a chuckle. “But he’s doing better. Whatever that Ghost Rider guy did to him, it looks like it worked.”

Turning around, Natasha walks over to Cooper’s bed. He’s still being treated with the dialysis machine. “And him?” 

Laura follows her, as she replies. “He’s doing better too. Nothing much happened, but he got bruised badly during the fight. He was barely in any contact with Toxin at all, so we’re just waiting for his kidney to heal. But that may take a while, so, he’s staying in the same room as his father until now.” Laura purses her lips, and blinks a couple of times, because she can feel the tears coming again.

“And how are you?” Natasha finally asks, looking Laura straight in the eyes.

Laura used to be a level 3 SHIELD agent, assigned to a desk and to monitor files on newly incoming recruits, but she was never that much of a field agent. Laura feels her bottom lip wobble, before she feels a single tear make it out of her eyes, down her cheeks. “I’m- I’m okay,” she struggles to get out.

Before she knows it, Natasha is hugging her. That’s not something they did too much, hugging, but here, she leans into it. Into the warmth Natasha is offering her, telling her with her body that it was going to be alright. That things were going to be better. But most importantly, that things were alright between them. That had been what Laura had been the most worried about. How Natasha would be taking it.

And so far?

It seemed like she was taking it alright.

When they part, Natasha looks Laura straight in the eyes, making sure she’s stopped crying, before taking a step back. 

“Alright, real talk though, I need to go chew that boy out who has the power to warp reality, because making me and Tony get the hell out of the room, back when we found you all? That was a really lame move,” she says, with a smirk, which makes Laura chuckle, as she wipes the tears away from her face.

“That’s Billy, he’s one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met. He’s probably hanging out with Kate and the other teens in the living room, it’s the only place there’s a PlayStation in the facility. We aren’t really sure where they got it from, but like Barney said, the kid probably warped reality to make him a PlayStation. Or something like that.”

“Or something like that,” Natasha repeats, as she goes over to stroke Clint’s hand one last time. She’s got the gentlest hands, and it’s been her way to reassure Clint through many, many missions, where they were stuck abroad and it had been impossible for them to come home.

Natasha looks over her shoulder at Laura before she walks over to the door and leaves.


Laura can’t wait to go back to the farm, and start building it up from the ground again. As much as the illusion of their deaths had been believable, the house had indeed been blown up. Thankfully, Laura had had the idea to store some of their valuables in the basement before everything went to hell, so they still had pictures, plushies, clothes and more things that were irreplaceable, but Clint would need to rebuild the whole homestead.

And, knowing the long period of convalescence he was looking at, maybe having something tangible to do would be the greatest thing to get him back on his feet. Especially when both Barney and Frank have offered their help to rebuild the home.

It’s been a long time since Frank has had this much fun. It’s not like he’s laughing his heart out, but he’s enjoying it. Him and Barney are sitting and watching the teenagers play video-games. Frank’s never been too keen on video-games, so when the teens had asked him if he wanted to try his hand at Mario Kart, he’d declined politely and said he’d rather watch them play.

That Theodore kid was quite agile in his handling of the vehicle, and Kate was currently trying to pass him, while Billy and America were fighting for third place.

“This is nice,” he says, taking a chug of his bottle of beer.

Barney nods. “It is, isn’t it?”

They stay quiet for a couple of seconds, before Barney turns his head and looks at Frank, the way someone who is going to ask a mischievous question looks. So he speaks. 

“Still not mad I got to fake shoot you in the head?”

Frank smiles, wide enough that his eyes wrinkle. “Nah, I’m past that. The Maximoff girl showed what she was capable of when she protected Clint and his family from the Abomination back home, in Iowa, when all of this began, I trusted her to make sure your bullet didn’t end up in my brain. You know I already got shot in the head once, right? Not about to make that happen twice.”

“Yeah, I know,” Barney laughs. “Just wanted to make sure.”

“You ever think about what had happened, if Venom hadn’t come to our side, though?” Frank asks, while still looking at the kids who are now yelling about Kate being unfair by releasing a banana onto the track. Honestly, Frank isn’t paying that much attention to it. 

A couple of seconds go by. “I think that Venom, and Eddie for that sake, are on their own side for most of the time. But, I don’t think that they’d have worked well with Ross, if they’d stayed on the team.”

“Yeah, makes sense.” Frank pauses, leaning forward in his chair. “Good thing he decided to help too, though.”

The door to the room opens, and both him and Barney immediately focus on it, while the kids are still focused on the television. Or, almost all of them are. America’s head tilted slightly to the side, but refocused on the television screen when they all realized it was Natasha Romanoff standing there.

“Nat!” both men call, and Frank immediately gets to his feet, picking up a beer off the floor, walking over to hug her. 

Behind him, he hears Kate tell David to take over her spot and not to fuck it up, as she comes over to greet Natasha too.

“Hey boys,” Natasha says, “Katie Kate,” as she accepts the beer and smiles at Barney and Frank, both of them unsure whether she is in the hugging mood or not. However, when Kate comes over, Natasha is the one to initiate the hug, and before long, Kate is standing to the side too, inviting Natasha over to the couch.

“I’ll come play with you guys later, let you set a high score I can beat, alright?” Natasha says, and Kate rolls her eyes.

Natasha comes over to where Barney and Frank are sitting and finds a chair to settle in.

“So, how are we all feeling?”

Barney purses his lips before answering, cocking his head, thoughtful. “Happy, I guess,” he finally says, before looking over at Frank, who nods.

“Something like that, yeah,” Frank agrees. “How are you feeling?”

Natasha shrugs, and takes a sip of the beer. “Well, I should know by now that there’s no real way to know whether you can trust someone or not.” She pauses, “I thought, after taking down HYDRA with Steve, that I wouldn’t need to be vetted whenever decisions regarding- whenever decisions regarding Clint were concerned,” she looks at Barney, “but I guess that my signing the Accords screwed that line of trust right out of the world, right?”

Barney nods, slightly. “You know how Clint is with his family. It took him years to introduce others to them, and protecting them was all he ever wanted, and I think… With the degree of secrecy all of this involved, I think it was the only way he could figure it out. It sucked that he somehow got an alien monster to stay inside his brain, though.”

Frank goes “Yeah,” as he leans forward to speak as well: “We wanted to include you. But you were speaking with Tony, and Clint told us that Tony gave up Laura and the kids in the Raft, when he was threatening them with treason. That’s how Ross got the knowledge of the wife and kids in the first place, and… Well, knowing how talktative Tony was, we didn’t know whether or not we could trust you with this secret, if you had to sneak around not only Stark, but Vision also. He’s fueled by the Mind Stone, and if there’s anything we know about that stone, is that it screws with your mind.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything for a couple of seconds, playing with the dew on her cold bottle, her warm hands erasing the condensed water from it. She finally purses her lips, and Barney sees that she’s still hurt. But, it will pass.

Ross has been neutralized, Fury and the others are taking Tarleton, Simpson, Sofen and the others into custody to keep them from reforming, and now there are no more secrets. No more Secret Avengers or anything like that. No more Thunderbolts either.

“I’m sorry, Nat,” Barney says, and she looks over at him with a sad smile on her face. 

It’s been a long night. 

A couple of hours after everyone had finally gone to bed, Helen Cho had, along with Betty Ross, started waking Clint up from his coma. It would take a couple of hours before the effects of the medicine would wear off, and so, they’d promised each other to look over him as he slowly regained his common sense of self.

His vitals remained stable for the first two hours, but as soon as his fingers had begun moving again, muscles waking up, his breathing had become unstable, seemingly as the pain receptors in his brain started waking up from the coma. Then, he’d started seizing again, and Betty had needed to assist Helen in giving him enough morphine to numb the pain. 

They’d changed the bandages on his burns before waking him up, and by the sheer amount of gauze on his body, Betty wouldn’t wish to trade places with him at all. But he had been healing, and waking him up had been the next logical step. That way they could take an MRI and see if they needed to do more, if Toxin still was inside his body or not.

Betty had stayed with a book in the same room as him for an hour, and then changed when Helen had come in to take over, and so, they’d done in shifts for the whole duration of the night, right up until the first rays of the sun had started breaking through the clouds above.

That’s when he’s opened his eyes for the first time. Betty Ross has been sitting with her book, and out of the corner of her eye, she’d seen his head move ever so slowly. Putting away the book, she walks up to the side of the bed, keeping an eye on the monitors around him, to make sure his vitals are holding steady. They are. She can even hear his breathing patterns change, now that his brain is recovering conscious life functions, and when he blinks, she can’t help but smile. He looks like he’s just come out of a long, well-deserved nap. 

“You’re in the Wakandan International Outreach Centre in Oakland,” she explains. It’s where they had been staying ever since the battle between the Ghost Rider and Toxin, and the best place where they had been able to keep him steady. And, the vibranium lined rooms could also be sealed more securely than the room in Pym’s laboratory, where they had kept Toxin in the days up to the confrontation. “Do you know who you are?”

It takes a couple of seconds to Clint’s eyes to fully focus on her, and he looks more like he’s ready to go back to sleep, but in the end, he nods. “Clint,” he manages to croak out, his vocal cords sore from the lack of use and strained from Toxin’s maltreatment of his body. Betty smiles.

Looking over at his vitals, which aren’t really fluctuating, Betty continues her inquiries: “It’s good to see you back with us, Clint. You’ve been in an artificial coma for two weeks, because you’ve got second and third degree burns all over your body, and you were incredibly weak. Do you remember anything about what happened?” 

He shakes his head slightly, before focusing on his body weight. She can see that he’s trying to push himself into a more comfortable position, and she lets him struggle for a bit, as he readjusts himself onto the pillow.

“Toxin... “ is the only word Clint manages to get out, before he grimaces in pain, a wince escaping his lips after that. Betty had given him some morphine prior to him waking up, so she can’t give him a new dose, so all she can do is watch and give him words of comfort.

“Toxin’s been, hopefully, burned out of you. Do you remember flames? Director Fury found an asset that managed to burn the symbiote out of you, although it almost took you with it too,” she comments, and Clint manages to lift his hands up and watch, with wide eyes, as he realizes the bandages are covering his arms and parts of his hands. Betty watches him clench his jaw.

“We’ll need to take an MRI to see if he’s still in there, but we don’t think so. Venom was there, right after you were brought here, to oversee Helen Cho’s surgery on you. You were shot, while Toxin was controlling you, and the symbiote allowed the bullet to lodge itself in your shoulder blade, so it had to be operated out, and then-”

“The kids?!” Clint finally realizes, as if foggy memories are suddenly coming back to him, and with the whites of his eyes showing, he looks at Betty, with the face of a man who believes he’s done something terrible. “Coop? Nate? They-”

“They’re fine,” Betty reassures him, and she can see that he’s on the verge of tears. The physical pain, and the mental pain that he just underwent believing that his kids were gone… She can’t imagine it. “Nathaniel was only slightly burned by the Rider, but he’s out there, playing and running along with the teenagers. Cooper was a little bit more battered, and he had to have help from dialysis for a while, but he’s out too. He’s tired all the time, but he’ll get over it. After all, he is a Barton,” she jokes, but then she sees his face contort into a grimace that’s both pain and tears.

“Hey, hey, Barton, it’s okay,” she says, as she bends forward, to try and make eye contact, but he’s in too much pain. He should go back to sleep, but she can’t give him any more painkillers. So, instead, she kneels and opens the valve to the nitrous oxide bottle, mixing it with the oxygen Clint is breathing through the tube attached to his face. It’ll help dampen the pain. 

He tries to fight it, lifting his fingers to his face, but Betty grabs both hands and force them down, as she tells him that, “It’s okay, your kids are fine, Laura is resting with Lila and Nathaniel, they’re all fine. You can rest now, you can see them when you’ve rested,” she says, struggling, right until he lets go, the effect of the gas making itself known on his body.

“They’ll all come and see you, now that you’re awake,” she says, as she places his hands next to his body, as he finally relaxes. 

It doesn’t take more than a few seconds, before Betty hears the door to the room open. Looking over, she sees Wanda, who has just thrown a jacket over her shoulders and left her room to come and see. 

Oh, right. Wanda could probably hear him. “He’s awake,” Betty whispers, now that Clint looks like he’s fallen asleep again, and Wanda tip-toes up to his bed, watching him. She nods.

“I could feel him,” Wanda whispers, afraid to wake him up. Betty could tell her that there’s no need to whisper, he’s knocked out from the drugs, but it’s better this way. He deserves the quiet. “His entire body is in pain,” she explains, “it’s… it’s almost more than I can bear.”

“He’s strong, though, he’s already regained some muscle structure, see,” Betty whispers, as she points to his arms.

Wanda watches, quietly, and Betty sees it as an opportunity to give her some peace with him. “Tell me if there’s any changes in his vitals,” she says, and Wanda nods. 

She doesn’t even ask how she’s supposed to tell her, but for a couple of minutes, after Betty leaves, Wanda just watches. Sitting down on the chair Betty has just vacated, Wanda explores Clint’s mind. She listens to the things he’s thinking of - of the homestead, with the wheat glistening in the summer sun. Of the view out of Tony’s tower in New York, giving out onto Central Park, where there’s people rowing in the lakes and people sunbathing on the grass. He’s dreaming of Nathaniel’s laugh, and of Cooper’s smile and of Lila’s curly hair. 

There are no signs of Toxin in there. All the memories are vibrant and they feel so much like Clint, that Wanda can’t help but sit there, in silence, and smile at herself, as she lets herself be consumed by the warmth that Clint has managed to keep inside of him in spite of it all. 

Chapter Text

Clint has recuperated enough to make it through an MRI. 

Eddie is anxiously pacing behind her back, and it’s making Helen nervous. “It’s fine,” she says, but that won’t help until they’re absolutely sure that there’s no sign of the symbiote left inside of Clint’s head.

So, as the heavy magnets circle around his head, Eddie can do nothing but pace.

“It’s not fine,” Venom says, as his head manifests out of Eddie’s chest, “Not if Toxin is still in there.”

“What if he isn’t?” Eddie argues, and the Symbiote makes a face.

“We have to be sure, you remember riot- no good that was!” Venom spits, and Eddie rolls his eyes, but resumes pacing.

Helen shakes her head. “The results so far are promising - when Toxin was inside of his head, we couldn’t see anything through the MRI, nor X-Rays, as Toxin was blocking out the rays and the magnetism. Here,” she shows a spot on the screen with a pencil, “this is his frontal lobe, which looks in perfect condition. We’ve got some inflammation of the brain, but that’s understandable knowing that there’s been an alien substance in there for weeks, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that he’s got a concussion too. But, so far, no aliens inside of him.”

Eddie walks up to the screen, so Venom can see it better, and seemingly satisfied, the Black and White alien creeps back inside of Eddie’s body, disappearing from sight. Eddie hears it mutter something about scientists, but he keeps it to himself. 

“Concussion? Inflammation of the brain? That’s something he can heal from, yeah?” he asks, and Helen nods.

“Everyone heals from those things, but his recovery may just take slightly longer. His body is damaged from a long life being a SHIELD agent, so he may need a longer time to recuperate, especially with all the internal and external injuries-”

“How is he doing?” Frank just entered the room. He looks rested - as much as he could, anyway - and ready for some good news. Nothing has been happening during the last couple of days since Clint woke up. 

“He’s doing good, there are no signs of the symbiote,” Helen repeats. 

Frank only has one response: “Oh thank God,” he mutters, as he releases a deep breath. “We were so worried,” he chuckles. “So that thing, the Ghost Rider, it burned it out? All of it?”

“And a little part of Clint too,” Helen replies, as she opens a drawer and finds some pictures they took of Clint’s body immediately after he was brought into the Center for urgent care. “It’s why Colonel Danvers shot the Rider away, because it was done with Toxin, and had begun working on Clint instead. Nick Fury didn’t exactly tell anyone how the Rider’s powers worked, but we think,” and when she says we, Eddie knows she means her and Betty Ross and the other science people, “we think that it’s got something to do with the soul. And since Toxin didn’t have a soul, no offense Venom, then the Rider was able to burn it out somehow.”

“Whatever that thing was,” Eddie replies, as he points to the picture of a half burned Clint Barton, “it was going to turn your best friend here into a french fry if she hadn’t stopped him. It’s a good thing it didn’t attack all of us either, because if it goes for people with no souls, I think we’d be toast too, mate.”

Frank chuckles, and looks at Helen, who also understands. She too had been taken under the influence of the scepter, and with all this talk of the scepter leaving something behind inside of Clint, there’s no way of knowing if there’s something left inside of her. After all, it had been Ultron, not Loki, to use the scepter on her, and Ultron didn’t have the same biological mass nor signature as Loki, so… It was only a matter of finding out. Thankfully, both Helen and Erik Selvig har been subjected to it, so they could do research on it together.

“Yeah, I don’t think I got much of a soul left either,” Frank bites, as he looks at Helen. “You told the wifey yet?” Helen shakes her head. “Alright, want me to do it?” 

She nods. “He will need rest when the MRI is completely finished, but he is safe. Only human injuries to heal from now,” she says, and Frank rolls his eyes.

“Still more than he’d ever be willing to take on his own,” Frank says, as he walks back out of the door, leaving from where he came through. Eddie crosses his arms as he does so.

“There’s nothing more to do here, then? Except all the mutant kids, or whatever they are?” 

Helen nods. “Tony Stark and the others will talk to them and draft a plan for it. I will be travelling back to my laboratory in Seoul to work on the effects of the scepter on the human body. Doctor Ross is coming with me to work there too, since she does not want to be in America while her father’s actions are still on the front page of every news outlet imaginable.”

Eddie chuckles. “Yeah, I can’t imagine that. I was a journalist too, you know. I’m thinking about going back to that, going back to New York, finding work there. With Venom, it’d be possible to get some good shots of dangerous things happening. And I hear there’s that spider kid there too, I’d love to have a chat with him.”

“So, New York for you, Seoul for me… Do you know where he will go now?” she asks, motioning to Clint’s body in the MRI with her head. 

“I don’t know,” Eddie shrugs. “Probably back home. You said he needed rest, so that’s practically all he can do.”

Helen purses her lips, thoughtful.

“I think Ross blew up his home, so he will have to build it again.”

Eddie looks at her with a look that says it all: poor guy. “That sucks, but at least he’s got the Punisher and his brother to help him with the heavy lifting.”

“He used the serum on himself? That’s what caused the Symbiote to never develop?” 

Tony’s ever the talkative type. They’re supposed to be clearing out the lab, but all Tony has really done since he’s arrived, is pester Bruce with never-ending questions. She isn’t really used to listening to Tony Stark talk science, but as much as she’s been able to hear in the past two hours, she isn’t surprised that people either love Tony with all their heart, or hate him, with every single cell in their body. 

“Apparently, I- I mean, that’s what Fury said anyway,” Banner replies, looking over to Jennifer in an attempt to call for help. She laughs, as she lifts a collection of petri dishes out of the storage to bring them to the portable cryo-freeze container Tony has devised for it. 

“He said that Ross took all evidence from Samuel Sterns’ research into custody, and whatever he hadn’t used on Blonsky, he used on himself,” she adds, catching eye contact with Tony who rolls his eyes.

“That man, honestly, the first rule of science is to never try something out on yourself before you’re ready for it.”

Jennifer snorts. “Really? Coming from you, the guy who built a flying armored suit in a cave with scraps in a desert? You’re saying that to my cousin, who injected himself with something because the US Army was going to cut his funding? You guys are like supervillains one oh-one, or something,” she laughs, as she sets down the petri dishes in the container.

“You may have a point, Mrs Attorney,” Tony quips, and Bruce walks over to make sure the dishes are safe and secure. 

“How many more are left?” he asks, as Jennifer walks back to the fridge and grabs the last row of six petri dishes, securing them in her hands. 

“Six,” she says, as she lets out an “ouch!” realizing that she’s cut herself on the corner of one of them. “Careful, this one’s got a chip,” she says, as she walks over and puts the remaining five down into the container. 

Bruce is immediately by her side, examining the petri dish she’s cut herself in. “Oh, good, it’s only the glass. You didn’t get any of the material on you?” he asks, and she shakes her head, bringing her hand to her lips and sucking. It’s bleeding, but there’s nothing there.

“Nope, just a cut,” she says, as she smiles. 

Bruce takes the broken petri dish and drops it into a container filled with bleach. “That should kill it, right?” he says, looking over at Tony who nods.

“Not even your serum can survive bleach,” Tony answers, and Bruce looks relieved. 

He walks back over to Jennifer and inspects the cut on her hand. “You sure you didn’t get any on you?”

“Yeah, I’m sure! Don’t worry, it’s just a cut,” she says, as she smiles at him. “It’ll stop bleeding in a bit, but I may have to find a band-aid, because cuts on the fingers are the worst. You think there are some around?”

Bruce lets out an amused huff. “If they could operate on Barton with those injuries, I’m pretty sure they can take care of a finger cut,” he says, and looks over at Tony who’s smiling.

Jennifer rolls her eyes, and leaves the two mad geniuses to each other in search of a band aid. There’s no reason to be worried - she didn’t get in contact with anything that was inside those petri dishes, right? She’d be feeling it already if she did?

It’s the first time since Toxin was burned out of him that Clint isn’t lying down. As a matter of fact, he’s sitting in a wheelchair, and he looks a little more like himself. He’s got his natural color back, and his eyes are focusing more and more on the people around him when they’re talking, but one of the things that Helen and the other medical staff have realized since he woke up is that unfortunately, whatever Toxin did to him also damaged his ears.

So, where Clint had previously been partly deaf, he was now completely deaf in one ear. It had taken a while to figure it out, because he had been able to reply and respond when he was lying on one side, but not on the other. But, when they had finally figured out what was going on, they’d done everything in their powers to get Stark to make him so hearing aids.

Which is why, sitting in his wheelchair with a blanket over his lap and over his shoulder to keep him nice and warm, there were a set of hearing aids in each of his ears. Stark had gone overboard by making them bright purple, but Clint had smiled when he’d opened the box. The first real smile since he’d woken up, anyway.

Nathaniel is sitting next to him, on the floor, while Cooper is sitting by the table in the room, playing a game on a tablet. 

They haven’t really talked about what had happened, the night where the boys had gone in to see Toxin themselves… The night where everything had gone to hell. Practically literally. Nathaniel doesn’t seem to understand that Toxin and Clint had been the same person, so he’s not that afraid of his father right now - he’s playing with one of those square shape toys that require the child to fit differently shaped items through specific holes.

Clint looks up at Cooper’s back and sighs. He doesn’t know how to tell his son that it was an accident. That everything happened because of something else, because his son had been hooked up to a machine just like Clint had, and there was nothing he could do to make it better. For years, Cooper had yelled and screamed at the fact that he wasn’t allowed to come with Clint on missions or even know what his father did for a living. 

Now, he had been pulled into one of those missions against his will, and he was deeply disturbed by the experience. Clint doesn’t hold a grudge, though. He understands. There are so many things they need to understand - Cooper had always thought that Wanda’s magic was fun, because it had never been dangerous. Same thing with the Hulk or Vision, they were always peaceful - but with all that had happened, they’d experienced the Abomination, Toxin, and all the others, and suddenly, it had all become too real, too fast.

There’s a knock on the door, and Clint manages to push out a “Come in,” from the back of his throat as he tries to readjust himself in the wheelchair. He hates being in it, and he would rather be sitting in a regular chair, but he can’t hold his balance himself. 

Wanda comes into the room, and smiles at him. “Hey,” she says, as she walks up to him. “Want to come for a walk with me?” she asks, and Clint looks over at Cooper again, who doesn’t seem to react to it, before he nods.

“Sure,” he croaks, as Wanda takes the handles on the back of the wheelchair in her hands and starts pushing. 

Nathaniel looks up, a big frown on his face. “Where dad going?” he asks, his eyes big and blue and curious, and slightly worried. Wanda looks at him with a smile. 

“Don’t worry, I’m just taking him for some fresh air,” she says and Nathaniel seems to accept that explanation, as he goes back to trying to fit the square block into the round hole.

As soon as they’re out in the corridor, Clint lets his head fall forward into his hands, and he lets out a sigh. It sounds more like a sob than a sigh, and Wanda catches onto it, but doesn’t stop pushing him. Clint has been more cooperative when there’s nobody looking at him, and somehow, walking him around the Outreach Center and him being able to see that the world outside hasn’t changed that much seems to reassure him.

“Talk to me,” Wanda says, as they turn left, into a large glass corridor connecting two adjacent buildings. She can feel that his mind is wobbly, foggy from the pain - he’s still taking painkillers, as the burns across his body are still healing. But there’s something else bothering him too. 

“I can’t-” he tries, takes a breath and readjusts himself in the seat, “I can’t feel Loki anymore,” he says, and she watches as he puts his hand to his chest, wincing as he makes contact with the bandages that are hiding the burn, in the spot where he had a scar from Loki’s scepter. “I didn’t know… Well, I thought I knew what it was, but it turns out it was Loki. I can’t feel him anymore. I can’t feel that power anymore either,” he continues, managing to clear his voice as he speaks. “Remember, we used to talk about the vastness of space and how we could feel the stars and the world moving around us?”

Wanda nods, adding a “Yeah,” so he knows she nodded, and he continues. 

“I can’t- it’s like something died inside of me. I can’t feel anything like that anymore.”

He stays quiet after that, and Wanda reaches into his head to see how he’s feeling, and she feels it. Where once his mind was vibrant with colors and excitement, there’s only a dull feeling instead, as if someone had shut off the lights inside his soul. “The Rider burned it out of you,” she says, trying to reassure him. It doesn’t exactly work.

“I didn’t- I- I thought I wanted to get rid of it. Turns out, it just made me feel useless again,” he says, voice breaking on the last word, as he hides his face in his bandaged hand again. He takes a deep breath - he’s tried crying before, and it hurt his entire body is he let the sobs shake it, so he’s been trying to bottle up his feelings instead.

“I mean, look at me, Wanda. I’m old and I’m useless,” he says, and she can feel his voice is on the verge of breaking again, but she lets him speak out instead of interrupting him, “I’m a broken man. I can’t even stand upright, I can barely feed myself, and I just… I never thought that it’d go this far. I’m so tired, Wanda,” he says, as he lifts his hands, indicating for her to stop rolling the wheelchair around. They’re reached the middle of the glass corridor, and Clint looks up at the reflection in the glass in front of them. Wanda looks young, healthy and strong, and he looks like a shell. A poor man’s rendition of his former self, broken, battered and abused by the events that have transpired the last couple of months.

“What can I do? I couldn’t even keep my family safe.”

Wanda locks the wheelchair and bends forward, to point at the reflection in the glass. “You gave everything you had to keep your family safe, Clint,” she says, trying to find the right words to reassure him. “You did everything you could - everything. You fought for the right thing, and when Ross tortured you in the Raft, you let him abuse you, so that you could protect your family. You had an alien nest inside your body and your brain and use you, so that you could protect your family. You let your home be destroyed, to set up smoke screens, to keep them off your trail. You could not have done more, you hear? You couldn’t have.”

He bites his lip, and she sees the tear before she hears his voice break, high pitched and sobbing: “I should have died for them!” he says, finally unleashing all the emotions that have been building up inside of him. “It should have killed me,” he continues, “what good am I now? I almost killed my boys… It’s almost like Loki all over again, you all say- you all say that it wasn’t really me doing it, but it was my body… I was there, I was awake. You felt it, you felt me, when the Rider started burning Toxin away, didn’t you? You knew I was there. I could see it all. And I couldn’t do a single thing about it!” he practically screams, almost throwing himself out of the wheelchair in the effort to punch or scream at his reflection, and Wanda catches him with her powers, helping him back into the chair.

She takes a deep breath and unlocks the chair, turning it away from the reflection.

“If you had died, there would be a whole team of people who would be missing you right now. You’re going to go home, and Barney and Frank have already offered to help rebuild your farm, so that it can become your home again. You’re not alone, Clint, we love you, and we need you,” she says, most for herself. She needs him. He was the one who brought her into the fold after Ultron, he was the one who talked to her, during the nights where she would cry about the loss of her brother. He was the one who would come with a mug filled with hot cocoa, a ridiculous amount of whipped cream and tiny marshmallows to make her feel better. It was him, all along, who had guided her to become an Avenger. And seeing him broken like this? It’s killing her inside. 

Because, although the rest of the team were all human, he was the most human of all. He was the one who represented what they fought for, and he was the one who gave the most of himself. Always. He had been the one Loki had taken, he had been the one who had saved the Avengers after she had hexed them, he had been the one to protect Pietro’s body, he’d been the one to help Wanda out of the compound when Vision wouldn’t let her leave, he’d shielded her with his body in the airport in Germany so she wouldn’t get hurt, and in the end, he was the one who took the biggest hit in the Raft, because he was the most valuable on the team. Not her, a literal telephath and witch. Not Sam, the soldier who had been running with Steve Rogers for over a year. Not Scott, the thief who had a suit that could alter size. 

He was the one Ross brought out of his cell and let an alien interrogate. The most human of them all.

“You’re going to go home, you hear me? And you’re going to get better, and you’re going to grow strong again,” she repeats, hoping that he’ll hear her. But there isn’t so much to do now, she can feel that the pain is taking over his mind again. The crying and screaming has drained his last energy, and thus, she turns the wheelchair around and walks back towards his room. He needs to sleep. 

He needs to get better again. He just has to. There isn’t another option, there are no other ways to do this, he just has to. Even if he doesn’t come back as an Avenger. He has to come back as Clint Barton, father of three and mentor. Because if he doesn’t, she doesn’t know what they’re going to do without him.

Vision has traveled all the way to Oakland, California to be a part of this debriefing. As has Nick Fury. All the kids in front of him are looking up in anticipation, but Nick is still waiting for a couple of minutes before starting his speech. Billy Kaplan and Teddy Altman have been hitting it off really well - and if Fury was a bad spy he wouldn’t have noticed that they’re sneaking off together whenever they can - while Kate Bishop and America Chavez have been bonding over their shared experiences too.

They’ve settled down in one of the debriefing rooms of the Center which has a view over the city, reminding them of where they’ve come from. 

“Seriously, when are we starting?” Teddy finally says, and Fury laughs, as Vision turns around and looks through that same window with a frown on his face. 

Shrugging, Fury looks over at Teddy. “When the last piece of your team gets here,” he says, and he knows immediately that his answer is neither satisfying nor fulfilling, because all the kids look at him like he’s just said something incredibly stupid. They’re looking at each other, trying to figure out who is missing, but they’re all there - all six of them. 

“Come on, we’re not missing anyone!”

“Oh, but we are. You see, there’s one specific youth that broke out of the Raft the same night as Captain Rogers busted his teammates out of there, and Vision here has been trying to find him ever since. Turns out, he’s heading this way, because he’s learned through social media that you are all here. All six of you,” Fury states, flatly, as he turns around to walk over to Vision who is still looking outside. The gem on his forehead is pulsing with light, just as Vision’s computer is scanning all the living sources outside the compound. As much as possible, that is.

When an alarm outside goes off, Fury’s one eyebrow perks up. “That’d be him.”

Almost all the kids scramble to the window from their seats. Teddy Altman hovers around Vision, hesitating whether to not to shove him out of the way, but when Billy Kaplan comes to his side, they settle and look out onto the street below. Eli Bradley and David Alleyne move to the other side of the window to see if their vantage point can reveal something else, while America Chavez and Kate Bishop remain in their seats, rolling their eyes at the boys.

“Vision, unlock the door to the room please,” Fury says, a quarter of a second before something lightning fast makes it through the door and stops up right in front of Fury’s nose. The whirlwind that causes throws all the papers on the desk and on the different tables out of order, making them swirl through the air.

It takes a couple of seconds for the person who has just burst into the room to focus and materialize completely, but when he does, Fury can’t help but notice the similarity between this boy and the Kaplan kid.

“Everyone,” Fury says, as the kid looks around, worried that he may have busted into the wrong room, “This is Thomas Shepherd,” he announces, as the boys come back from the window and circle the newcomer.

Billy is the first to take a step forward. “You look just like-”

“You’re the one with the reality powers, right?” Thomas Shepherd interrupts, and Billy nods.

“You’re the one with the super speed,” he replies, and Thomas nods.

“Wait a second,” Kate says, as she frowns. “One’s got almost the same powers as Wanda and the other as her brother Pietro? That’s freaky,” she continues, as America looks over at Fury, who makes a tiny gesture indicating that she’s free to speak.

“That’s because Wanda Maximoff influenced them to become like her and her brother,” America says, getting up from her chair. “When Maximoff was off flying on the giant rock Ultron created, she released a burst of energy throughout the whole world, which caused dormant genes to come awake from one day to the other. Turns out you boys,” she motions Billy and Tommy, “are closer related to her than you think.”

Without giving them a chance to begin arguing, Nick motions to the chairs again, “Sit down and listen,” he starts, Vision coming to stand by the door, which he locks again. “Altman, you discovered your powers around when?”

“About around the time of the Laos incident,” he says, “I fell off a rope in school, fell 30 feet, didn’t break or bruise or anything, but realized my blood wasn’t red anymore. It was blue,” he states, looking down at his hands. “A couple of days after, I realized I could shape-shift when I accidentally turned into my mom. It was weird.”

“Good, and you, mister Bradley? Care to enlighten us?”

“I thought… Well, it started when- I was out on the streets, and found out after I’d tried something new the others were using, that I’d gained superstrength,” Elijah Bradley says, looking down at his hands.

“We all make decisions based on the options presented to us,” Vision chimes in, and Elijah lifts his head. “What you did brought you here, now. Never forget that.”

Fury gives Bradley a couple of seconds to acknowledge Vision’s words, before turning to Billy. “Mister Kaplan, you discovered your powers fairly fast, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I… It was more or less right after the Sokovia incident, I wanted a dog. So I kept saying to myself that I wanted a dog, over and over and over again, and then a dog sort of showed up, and my family started acting like the dog had always been a part of our lives. When I noticed it was on family pictures too is when I realized that something weird was going on,” he says, looking over at America and at Kate who are nodding at him to continue. “After a while, I figured out I could  move things with my mind, and when I saw- when I read more about Wanda Maximoff, it sort of reminded me of her.”

“Good, good, and you’ve been talking to her about your powers?” Fury asks, to what Billy nods in affirmation.

“Alright, Miss Bishop, you have no powers, but you’ve been bonding with these kids here-”

“She’s ain’t got no powers, but have you seen her fight? And shoot with Hawkeye’s bow? She’s strong as hell, man, I wouldn’t call her completely unskilled just yet,” America interrupts. Kate blushes as she looks down at her hands.

“That’s a fair assessment, and I have a very good reason for having her sit here among you powered individuals, and I’ll get to that in a couple of minutes. However, Mister Alleyne, care to tell us of your skills? I’m sure you’ve shared it with others, but please, do elaborate,” Fury says.

Clearing his throat, David purses his lips, unsure of what to say. “I’m not sure, but whenever I’m in the same room as someone, I know all that they know too. It’s not like I can read minds, but it’s just that I know now what combination Vision uses to unlock the door, and I know a couple of things about you, Director Fury, that only you know. If it’s not important, though, I forget those things after a couple of hours,” he says, scratching his head. “It’s useful in high school, when you’re doing tests at first, but then it gets boring because you don’t have to learn anything.”

Nodding, Fury smiles at him. “Whatever knowledge you’ve gained from being close to me, don’t ever share it, or I will have to kill you,” he says, both serious and joking at the same time. David nods. 

“Last but not least, Miss Chavez, care to tell us what you are?”

She chuckles. “Sure, Director. I’m from another dimension, I have super strength, I can fly, and I can create portals between universes,” she says, nonchalantly. She holds eye contact with Nick Fury as she speaks the next phrase, “Doesn’t mean I’ll help all and everyone hopping through realities, though.”

Nick looks over at Vision, but concedes her unspoken threat. “No worries to be made, Miss Chavez. You’ll remain as free as you want to be,” he says, before turning to Thomas Shepherd, who still looks spooked, almost like a deer caught in headlights.

“And you, mister Shepherd, you have which powers?”

The boy doesn’t say anything for a while, until Kate puts her hand on his and tells him that, “It’s okay, you can tell us.”

Thomas takes a deep breath. “I have super-speed, I think. I came here from New York when I heard- when I overheard Stark talking about you all.”

“And when did you leave New York?” Fury asks.

“Four minutes ago,” Thomas replies to an audience of ‘wow’s and ‘oh my god’s. “I can run across water too, and one time I ran fast enough that I passed the speed of sound, but I don’t- I don’t really talk about it.”

“And, Thaddeus Ross kept you in the Raft, because you accidentally blew up a military base,” Fury says, matter-of-factly, before resuming, “You are all seven of you here, because you came forward when an Avenger needed your help. You didn’t know why, but all of you felt the need to do something good with your powers.”

Nick’s gaze crosses from one to the other, as they look down at their hands. “Thomas Shepherd interfered with Ross’ use of Carnage in the interrogation of Barton in the Raft, which caused Ross to throw him into lower levels of the Raft,” he says, “even though he didn’t know why this was the right thing to do.”

Pausing, Nick turns around and picks up some of the files on the table behind him and hands them out to the kids in front of him. “If you want, SHIELD and the Avengers are willing to take you in and teach you how to become better. That includes being mentored by Miss Maximoff, but not only her. Vision, unlock the door again,” he says, and as soon as the handles are lit up with green lights, the teenagers all gasp as they realize who is standing behind the door.

“Good to see you again, Rogers,”

“Right back at you, Director Fury,” Steve replies, as he moves into the room, but he’s not alone behind him. Bucky Barnes is looking sheepishly around the room, his eyes going over to Vision, before moving towards the kids sitting in front of them. He’s missing his metal arm, but looks good, Fury realizes. He doesn’t look exhausted or afraid anymore, he looks peaceful.

“Everyone, this is Captain Steve Rogers, and his partner James Buchanan Barnes-”

“You’re the Winter Soldier!” Tommy exclaims, jaw dropped in awe, as Bucky Barnes looks away a little bit, Steve nudging him with his elbow. 

“The Wakandan technology managed to heal Bucky from what HYDRA did to him,” Steve announces, before walking up next to Fury, as Bucky heads to the back of the room. “And, that’s the reason why I finally left Wakanda, after all these months. Because Fury asked me to.”

Fury smiles at that, before handing a file to Steve and taking a step back. “We saw Ross try to build a team of his own using renegade heroes, which is why you’re sitting here. You’ve shown great valor and judge of character, which is why I’m asking each and every one of you, whether or not you would want to become the next guard, after we decide that we can’t go on anymore.” Steve pauses, as he looks over to the door. 

“Barton, Rhodes, they’re too injured to continue to fight the same missions we’ve fought over the last few years, and Stark’s- well, Stark is looking forward to getting married with Miss Potts. He’s agreed to continue funding the Avengers Initiative, but as you can see, we need to ensure that the next generation is ready to help. And that’s you, if you should like it.”

Fury notices Kate putting down the file in front of her and look up at Steve. “I’m not like them,” she says, motioning to the people around her. “I’m just a girl, what could I possibly offer that you guys could use?” 

Steve takes a couple of seconds to reply, putting down the file before he speaks. And, as he does, he points at the door. “Out there, further up the corridor, Barton’s recovering. When I first met him, in the Helicarrier, the day of Loki’s attempted invasion of New York, Natasha had just managed to knock him back to his senses. He took matters into his own hands and got us to New York, and he fought aliens with a bow and arrows. He doesn’t have super strength, he’s not a god, and he’s certainly not a super soldier. But he’s just and he always fights for the little guy. And, from what I’ve been told about you, Miss Bishop, you’re not that far from him, are you?”

She swallows, biting her lip, and looks up at Steve, then at Fury, then back at Steve. “I don’t know,” is her final answer.

“I don’t know isn’t no, as far as I’m concerned, Miss Bishop,” Fury interjects, and Steve smiles at her, while the others lean back into their seats.

She’s been sitting outside the Outreach Center for a couple of hours. She’s been playing with the tall grass next to her, braiding and unbraiding the strands that she’s pulled out of the decorative vegetation. There’s something strange about being offered a spot on a team that mostly consists of super-powered human beings, and for the first time in her life, she can sort of understand how Clint felt, all those years ago, when Nick Fury came to him and offered him a spot on the Avengers Initiative.

She had been younger then, of course, but she’d never understood why he wasn’t immediately thrilled with it - he would get to be a part of an amazing team and he’d get to see the world and travel! But now that she’s in the same position as him, she isn’t too sure if she wants to say yes. And, suddenly, all those things that she’d overheard Clint talk with Laura about, all those years ago, made sense to her. What difference can someone who’s simply human make, when the team is composed of people with abilities? 

She hears the automatic doors open and close, and listens to the sound of feet against the gravel, but doesn’t look back. She knows who it is, she recognizes his footsteps. So, when he comes to sit down next to her, she only just lifts her head to look up at him.

She’d never thought that she would be sitting next to Steve Rogers in a professional matter. Sure, Steve has visited for celebrations back at the Barton farm, so she isn’t star-struck by him, but the idea that she may get to be trained by him… It feels a little overwhelming. He’s carrying something in a box, and she isn’t entirely sure what it is.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks, looking ahead, instead of focusing on her. She appreciates that he’s giving her some form of privacy.

She bites her lip, readjusting a strand of hair behind her ear. She really needs to find that hairband that she’s been using when she’s sparring with Natasha, use it a little bit more, her bangs are annoying her. 

She shrugs before she answers. “Well…,” she tries, lifting her shoulders up to her head, hoping it’ll give her some clarity, “I was thinking about Clint. About how he felt, being the only human one on the team. I mean- I- I mean, I always knew that he was the only one who was human and who went out there without some form of armor, but I never… I guess I never really thought about the real implications of it. What it truly meant for him, you know? Walking out there, with you guys.”

She pauses, looking up at Steve, who looks more thoughtful and more mature. While he’s been in Wakanda, he’s let his beard grow out, and she has to say it looks better on him. People could cut themselves on the sharpness of his jawline, and he looks more mature. And, after, he has been through hell these last couple of months. 

“At first, I thought the same,” Steve says, “I thought what the hell is a guy like him doing on a team that’s got the me, Thor and Iron Man? I remember the first fights against Loki where it was all of us together, and when Clint came into the picture, I didn’t understand why it was important to have him there. I mean, Natasha’s almost the same-”

“Yeah, but she’s got some variation of your serum in her,” Kate interrupts, and Steve looks sheepish. “You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I do. The Red Room and HYDRA developed a version of it for Bucky, when they were prepping him to become the Winter Soldier, he told me recently, after Shuri managed to fix his triggers. She heals faster, but she’s almost human too. Clint, though… He’s a guy who brings a bow and arrow to a fight, and at first, I thought what the hell is a guy like that doing in a battle like the one we were in, in New York, you know? What good is twelve arrows, when there’s thousands of aliens? But he was our eyes, man. He saw everything from a distance, and his mind…” Steve pauses, putting down the box he came carrying next to him before resuming, “There’s a good reason why Loki chose Clint as his general, when he was planning his invasion of Earth, and it took me longer than I’d like to say to figure out why. It’s the same reason why Clint was on Nick’s list from the get go, and the reason why you’re on the list now,” he says, looking over at Kate. 

She averts his gaze, and looks down at her hands. Her purple nail polish is flaking off, and she focuses on trying to scrape the flakes off with her thumb. 

“You guys are something special, there’s no doubt about it. The same thing I think, that Doctor Erskine saw in me, before he put me into the machine and injected me with the serum. My body was too small and too fragile, but if I had been built like Clint, or like you, I have no doubt that I’d have made it to an elite team like you will, if you decide to come with us to New York,” he continues, finally picking up the box again and handing it to Kate.

“I talked to Clint earlier, and he said that he wanted you to have this.”

She frowns, and carefully pops the locks open on the box, lifting it up. Lying on a velvet purple fabric is Clint’s folding recurve bow, and she can see that it’s been polished and repaired where it needed repairing. Kate looks at Steve, then back at the bow, then back at Steve again.

“I can’t-”

The words catch in her mouth as she realizes the handle has been modified to fit her hand better - the riser is smoother and smaller, thinner as well, and she immediately closes the box again, not knowing what else she’s supposed to do about it.

Steve chuckles at her reaction.

“Sure you can,” he says, folding his hands in his lap, looking out onto the neighborhood that the Outreach Center was built in. According to Shuri, this was the neighborhood Erik Killmonger had grown up in, and it seemed fitting that the location be remembered as a place to look forward instead of backwards. “We want you on the team, Kate. You’ve got strength, agility, and you know how to talk to people. Everybody’s been talking about it - Natasha has mentioned your decisiveness in figuring out who caused all this, Barney and Frank have both said you were ready to fight Toxin with your bare knuckles, and the other kids say… Well, they’re saying that they won’t join Fury’s program unless you do.”

It knocks the wind out of her, and she can only stare at Steve’s face for a couple of seconds before she allows herself to breathe. 

“But I’m not- I’m-”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to say yes or no right now. The bow is yours, and you’re always welcome to use the range here to train before you make your decision. We’re leaving for New York in a couple of days, after Clint has gotten better,” Steve says, before clenching his jaw, unsure whether he should say the next phrase or not, but decides to anyway, “He wants to talk to you about the team and about- well, about everything.”

He’s finally out of the wheelchair. It’s going slowly, but he’s managed to gather some strength in his legs again. He has to use a cane - a cane! Of all things! - to walk, but he’s managing. He does look like an old man now, hunched forward and fickle, but he’ll grow back. He’s determined to.

And, besides, he’s got a whole house to build again and kids to raise and teens to teach. He’s not done with this world just yet. Clint has asked Kate to come meet him in the sparring room, where he’s managed to sit down on the floor mats, legs crossed in front of him, in a position that he learned a long, long time ago, when he practiced meditation to calm his anger.

He hears the door sliding before he hears her, and he looks over at her with a smile on his face. He’s been smiling more and more, he can hear better, see better, and he feels stronger too. And, to be honest, it’s helped to have Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes around to take up the attention. Recuperating in peace, there’s nothing like it. 

“Thought I’d find you here,” Kate says, as she walks over. She’s wearing blue jeans and a black leather jacket, and she looks absolutely dashing. She kneels down before sitting down on her ass in front of him, and he notices that she gives him the up and down look, judging his outfit.

It’s true that sweatpants and a grey holed shirt isn’t exactly the best thing to wear, but he’d be caught dead if he wore one of the blue hospital gowns again. He’s not in a coma anymore, and he’s not stuck in the wheelchair either. So he can do exactly what he wants, thank you very much.

“Surprised?” he asks, and she snorts.

“Nah, I’m just happy to see you’re not sitting in that damn wheelchair again,” she starts, before she tilts her head slightly to the side. “You know that you’re a sneaky son of a bitch, right?”

Clint feigns ignorance and raises an eyebrow at her.

“Asking Captain America, of all people, to give me your bow. That was cheating, you know that, right? How can I possibly say no to Captain America?” she continues, as she motions towards the sliding door, before rolling her eyes and readjusting the hairband on her head. It looks good on her to have her hair back, Clint thinks, and he actually stifles a little laugh. 

“Thought it’d get you interested enough,” he says with a smirk. “Did it work?”

She lets out a heavy breach. “You know, at first, it didn’t. Because I was sat in that room with all the other kids, and- I mean, America can jump universes. Did you know that? She’s from another universe, and she just… Interdimensional jumping, that’s her thing. And then there’s Billy, who can do whatever the hell he wants just by saying it out loud, more or less. So, at first,” she makes a wavy motion with her hands, “not so much. Because I thought what the hell can I bring to the team?”

She looks down at her shoes and the laces on the trainers, playing with the edges before she goes on.

“And then Steve came along and handed me that bow of yours and said they need people like us on the team to remind them of why they’re fighting.” Her voice is more serious now, and she dares look up at Clint’s face. He’s not exactly smiling, but he’s not bored either - he looks happy. Happier than she’s seen him in a very, very long time. So, she continues.

“And, I mean, you’ve heard Steve’s speeches through time, he is one hell of a motivator, the guy could sell whatever the hell he wanted if he tried.”

Clint cocks his head, expectful, as he waits for her to finish her story.

“So I said yes,” she finally lets out, more a whimper than an actual statement, and immediately follows it up with, “and I have no idea why I did that because I’m low-key freaking out about it right now! What the hell, man? I know you were a circus boy and you were bendy and everything, but I’m- I’m not that good! I can shoot a bow and arrow fairly well, but I’m not… I’m not you, Clint.”

“And I wouldn’t ever want you to be, Katie Kate,” Clint says, as he bends forward, forcing her to look up at him, at his face. He gives her a couple of seconds before speaking again. “There’s always someone better, there’s always someone who did something more than you in the room. Or so you think, at first. Impostor syndrome is the worst thing that’s ever been invented, but it happens. Everyone feels like the odd one out, right up until they don’t. Right up until the team makes sense, and right up until all the chess pieces fall together on the board. You’re not me,” he says, pointing at his burn bandages on his chest, then the bullet wound on his shoulder, and finally his bloodshot eyes and newly applied hearing aids, “because you’re supposed to be better than me. Look around, Katie, the world has changed. You’re the new guard, you’re clever than me, I mean,” he shakes his hand as if he’s waving an annoying fly away and chortles, “I’m dyslexic, I can’t see a piece of paper in front of me unless I’m wearing reading glasses, and I’m beginning to moan about my knees everytime I have to get up from a position like this. I’m antiquated,” he says, but not in the usual self deprecating way he usually says those things.

He still means them, though

“I’ve seen you grow into the Kate you are today, you were just a kid who played along with my kids, but everything I’ve seen, ever since all of this started, all of this situation got out of hand, you’ve displayed leadership and critical skills-”

“But that’s only what you see,” she interrupts, and he shakes his head at it.

“I’m not the one who decides who gets on the roster or not. Or well,” he grimaces at his word choice, “I’m not the only one who decides anyway. Fury had a say in it, Steve had that too, and Frank Castle, as well as Natasha Romanoff, have been praising you. All those kids, who have powers to save them out of hard situations? They ain’t got that, you know? They just… Showed up,” he says, frowning to himself.

“It was so weird, at first it was just me, Wanda, Laura and the kids hiding at Pym’s lab, and then, one after the other kids started shuffling in, and they didn’t even know why, but turns out it was Wanda’s influence on them. You? You walked out of the funeral determined to figure out who had killed your family, and that’s something that only a few people get to talk about,” he continues, as he unfolds his legs and sits in front of her, elbows resting on his knees. “You deserve that bow, not because you know how to shoot with it, but because you know who to shoot at. That’s all, no more, no less. And yet,” he chuckles, “that’s the fairest skill of them all. Because, if, let’s say, you’re given orders to kill someone because the people up high have decided they’re a threat, and you find yourself face to face with them, unable to let the arrow fly because they want out of their own situation, then you need to have enough strength to make the right decision.”

“Listen, I know you’re talking about how you got Nat to join SHIELD, and that’s a low blow to use that story because it is quite damn impressive, so I’m pretending that I’m not biased in that example,” she says, looking upwards as she can feel her eyes welling up. “You’re- you- you know what, I’m just gonna say it like it is: there may be statues of Captain America scattered all the way across the US, and they’re building ones of Stark here and there too, but there should be one of you, somewhere, someday.”

Clint laughs at that, “Oh, please, no, I’d look horrible as a statue, they’d never get my ears right,” he chuckles, holding his hand against his chest to keep him from coughing up his lungs. When the mood lifts a little bit again, he looks at her.

“Kate, you have so much to see and do. You’re not supposed to grow up and become some fashionista like your father wants, you’re here to change the world, the way you’re already changing it now. I don’t ever want you to doubt yourself, you understand?” he says, and she nods. “Now get the hell out of here, I wasn’t done meditating,” Clint bites, with a smile across his face. He looks so happy, and he feels it too.

As Kate pushes herself upwards, into a crouching position, she crabs her way towards him and embraces him in a tight hug. “You’re not so bad, Hawkguy,” she says, before pushing herself up to a standing position and walking out of there.

He watches her go, and lets out a deep breath. It’s hard to pretend to be alright, he’s found. His entire body aches - there’s not a single cell in his physical being that hadn’t been affected by Toxin’s powers, and he can feel it now. More than anything, he feels the pain in his chest from where the Rider had burned Loki away - he hasn’t told anyone just how much it hurt then and how much it hurts now.

In a way, Loki’s influence - and that of the scepter - had always been something he’d liked to have, after New York. As a way to remind himself that he had indeed been through it all, that he hadn’t been under Loki’s influence for nothing, and that he had learned something. It had made him more inclined to be a part of the team, for if he could survive such a thing, if he could survive being mind-controlled by an Alien God, then he was absolutely deserving of being a part of that team.

But now? Now that it had been taken from him… He isn’t sure whether or not he deserves it. He’s been taken advantage of by another alien - and by the looks of it, it was because of Loki that Carnage had gotten the whiff of him in the first place, and it had turned a very simply mission into something that not even he could withstand. He didn’t get it. Throughout the whole thing, ever since Thor arrived in New Mexico, he’s been thrown around, into situations his training didn’t prepare him for, and ever since then, he’s tried his best to navigate a world that’s changed too fast for him.

That was just it, though. He’s a thing of the past. He’s got nothing more to give in this future, his bow and arrow will pass onto the next generation, and although there will be statues to remember Steve, Tony and the others, there will be no statues of Clint Barton, a kid who grew up in the Midwest and who fought his way to the strongest team the world has ever seen. Hopefully, the world will see more superheroes, and by the looks of it, it will. There’s a whole new generation ready to take up where the old one left off, and if Clint has guessed anything right, then Tony won’t be too long before calling it a day too.

‘Take a page out of Barton’s book, build Pepper a farm,’ Tony had told Steve, after Ultron, when things looked like they had calmed down. Maybe that was their only goal now. Settle down. Take care of their family and themselves. Maybe Clint should take a page out of his own book. He thinks back to Cooper and Nathaniel, who had gone through literal hell just to get to talk to him, while he was under the influence of Toxin. He thinks back to Lila, who’s been clinging to Laura for the past couple of days, asking when they get to go home. She hasn’t understood that there isn’t a home to come back to. That there isn’t… that their home will be different forever now.

Clint is still forever thankful that Laura had the idea to put their most prized possessions into storage before the whole plan was set into motion. That way, there will still be some things that they can hang to the walls when they rebuild. Some old kitchen things they can set up in the cabinets, and some mugs and other souvenirs that have some history. 

After the Triskelion was destroyed when the Helicarrier crashed into the building, Clint lost every single little trinket he’d been keeping in his office. All the souvenirs and items he kept because ‘they almost killed him’, as he’d say, they were gone, destroyed forever, and lost in the rubble.

So, maybe it’s fitting. Maybe it’s fitting that he’s going to rebuild his home. He’ll make it better, stronger, safer than it was before, and for once, he’ll have no surprises hidden behind the wallpaper that suddenly trigger violent memories of a violent father.

Clint pushes on his legs to get to a position on all fours, before making his way to a standing position, ever so slowly. He still has to be careful, though, if he gets up too fast he can feel his entire body swaying. The first time he’d gotten up too fast, he’d almost fainted. The doctors had told him that it was because of blood loss and heart rate and some other things, so he’s being careful now. Not that the soft mats around him wouldn’t pillow his fall, but… He’d rather not. So, he puts his hand on his chest, on the bandage that his grey shirt is hiding, and makes it out of the sparring room ever so quietly.

Chapter Text

“-broadcasting now, from Cape Canaveral, where the F4-shuttle is currently preparing for take-off. Inside, scientists Reed Richards, Sue Storm, her brother Johnny Storm and pilot Ben Grimm will pioneer space exploration by analyzing the components of the oncoming Cosmic Storm, named after Miss Storm herself. The storm’s nature is unknown, although it is currently hypothesised that it is formed of cosmic rays, although their specific wavelength hasn’t been determined yet. The mission, funded in part by the Stark Trust Fund, will be one of the first ventures to outer space, in a post-Avengers world, which has finally found out, that they are not alone in this universe-”

Clint rolls his eyes at the radio broadcaster goes onto another long spiel, about how everything is going according to plan and how this specific space mission will change the world. 

“Not a fan of space travel?” Laura asks, and Clint shakes his head.

“If I can stay on the ground, I’m good. If I have to get off the ground, I’d rather be the one flying the damn thing,” he says, as he leans back onto his elbows. They’re resting on a flannel blanket, laid out on the dirt that the Barton homestead is currently surrounded by. 

They’ve started rebuilding everything from scratch. First, they’d made the basement bigger - Clint had suggested that they might as well create a proper safe-room and a hidden room down there in the events that other bad guys came out here all the way, so that’s what they’d done. Now, the structure of the house has been set up, and they’re taking a well earned rest.

“What about you, Castle? On the ground or out there in space?” Clint asks, and Frank chuckles, putting down his beer bottle.

“Nah, man, I’m just like you, The less I get to go into space, the better I feel,” he says, looking over at Barney who’s laughing too. 

“You guys are a bunch of chickenshits, honestly, what’s so bad about flying?” he says, and Laura feigns covering Nathaniel’s ears - they’re not too careful about the swearing out here. He can take it.

Everyone is feeling a lot better, and the buzzing insects in the twilight across the wheat fields surrounding the area sort of helps. There’s nothing much to think about, when they’re out here. There’s all the wild animals around them - a bunch of rabbits, hares, there were even some white tailed deer that had passed through earlier that morning, and a fox had been sneaking around the edge of the property a couple of days before. There’s a whole lot of birds too, nesting in the tall trees to the north of the barn, hawks, but ravens and crows too.

Clint lets out a sigh. It feels good to be back here, and even though the wound on his chest is taking longer to heal than the rest of his body, he can accept it. He’s a kid from the midwest, nothing will ever change that.

“So, Clint, you never talked to us about the whole-” Frank makes a circling motion next to his head, “-you know, the whole hearing loss thing.”

Clint swipes the back of his hand against his nose, readjusting himself on the blanket. He points to his ears. “Well, turns out when the Rider and Wanda were pulling Toxin out, he kinda ripped my ear drums apart, so I’m almost completely deaf without these, but it’s alright,” he says, before switching to his hands, because I know sign language

Frank lets out a laugh at that, signing back, You’re not the only one , to what they all laugh. Cooper and Lila know a little bit too, but they haven’t picked up on yet.

“Everyone here knows it,” Laura interjects, as Barney nods. “Clint was deaf in his childhood too, so when we got married, I learned it in case his hearing got damaged again.”

And I was right to do so , she signs, Clint making a mocking gesture at her, looking up at the sky. 

“It’s nice though, when things get too loud, like that damn radio back there, I can just turn it all off. All of it. It doesn’t bother me so much,” he continues, picking up his glass of lemonade. “Why?”

“Just wondering how it happened, I mean, between all of that and all of the stuff that happened after,” Frank says, pointing at Clint’s chest then at the property, “I didn’t really know when it happened either.”

“So, what are you going to do now?” Barney asks both Laura and Clint, who share a knowing look.

Laura picks up her own glass, freshly pressed orange juice in it, and shifts her body weight slightly so she’s sitting a bit more comfortably, Clint pulling out the blanket so she’s got a spot to sit on. “Well, we thought about being there for our kids first, and then Clint’s been talking about training some of the new guard,” she shares a look with Clint, who blinks and nods, a small smile on his lips. “Just, build this back up, and pretend we’re a real family. Parent-teacher meetings at the school whenever Cooper creates trouble in his class, pretending to not know that something is green when Nathaniel points at it, reading Harry Potter for the seventh time to Lila, you know, regular parent stuff.”

“Don’t you mock me,” Clint says, pointing at Barney who had stuck out his tongue when parent-teacher meetings had been mentioned. “You’d actually be surprised, it’s a lot like a debriefing, but without all the weapons.”

“- and there it goes!” the voice on the radio suddenly interrupts, and all of them turn to look at it, as the radio itself would tell them what’s going on. 

Rolling to the side, Clint stretches just enough so that he can hit the power button of the radio, and rolls back to the spot he was occupying before that. “Those guys are crazy, just saying it now, something’s going to go wrong, because something always goes wrong on space missions, or they wouldn’t make so many movies about it.”

“You really think something’s going to go wrong? I mean, both Banner and Stark were involved in the building of that shuttle-”

“And they were both involved when it came to Ultron too,” Clint comments, and that shuts Barney up right then and there. “Nah, I don’t think the mistake will come from them though, I think it’ll come from out there,” he says, pointing at the sky which is turning from a pink and purple color to a deeper blue. Stars are beginning to peak out, and Clint points specifically at the North star, Venus.

“Don’t know what it is, nor what it’ll mean, but there’s something bigger out there than us. Something we can’t understand just yet.”

As he says it, though, Clint feels at peace. Being here, on a blanket, right outside of his soon to be home, with his wife and his kids playing in the background, with his best friend Frank and his brother Barney, it felt like the only and the best place he could be. There was nothing to do, other than go back to the hardware store when they ran out of materials. And for that, they had three large pick-up trucks they could use, and it wouldn’t make a damn difference whatever happened on the space-shuttle travelling too fast towards something they didn’t understand.

This right here?

This was where he was supposed to be.