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Wanda Maximoff came back to herself 39,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. The yellow and grey padded seat-back in front of her had "Lufthansa" embroidered on it, and the plastic LCD screen set into the back of the chair in front of her was displaying a map of the North Atlantic with a dotted line indicating the plane's flight path – from Berlin to New York.

She couldn't remember how she had gotten from Mount Wungadore to Berlin, couldn't remember boarding the plane. The last thing she remembered clearly was stepping inside the cottage she had been sharing with what she knew, now, was not her Aunt Agatha, and locking herself in.

No art on the walls, no plants, no books. No telephone. No way of contacting the outside world.

She hadn't lived there, despite the false memories of sharing the cottage with her "aunt" that had been poured into her head. She'd been a prisoner there, not only in the house, but in her own body, her own mind.

Everything after that moment when she had realized how wrong things were was a blank, as if something had dragged a hand over her memory and wiped an entire section out. Or perhaps she hadn't been there to remember it at all – the thing-that-was-not-her-aunt might have just switched her off like a doll, and put her away until she was needed again.

There was a half-empty plastic glass of orange juice sitting in the corner of the fold-down tray in front of her, and the taste of oranges in her mouth. She didn't remember drinking it.

The little screen in front of her had a box in the corner displaying the time and date for the plane's projected arrival in New York City. She blinked, rubbing at her eyes with one hand, and then looked at it again.

It had to be wrong. The last thing she remembered clearly was – the world around her warping, shifting, and Xavier refusing to kill her, refusing to stop her, and the thing-that-was-not-Agatha whispering in the back of her head, and when Pietro met her eyes and suggested that she use her powers to give their father what he wanted, she knew that he could hear it, too – standing in the United Nations building with Tony. Tony had been crying, wrenching sobs that shook his entire body, and she could tell, from his flushed face and the way his eyes hadn't quite tracked her movements, that he had been drinking. She remembered feeling indignant, angry, impatient – none of the worry or fear she should have felt for someone she had considered a friend for most of her adult life.

That had been over a year ago.

Everything between then and now was one long blur, only a handful of moments standing out with sharp clarity.

She remembered Carol pleading with her to stop – something, stop what? – and Stephen Strange raising a hand and commanding her to sleep. She remembered Mount Wungadore, walking through the village at the foot of the mountain like a ghost, people smiling and waving at her despite the fact that she had never spoken to any of them, never met any of them. It had altered their memories, too.

She remembered Beast coming to see her, telling her that something had happened to the world's mutants, something bad, and asking – begging – for her help in order to fix it. She had sent him away. It had made her send him away.

Whatever it was, Beast had thought that Wanda had done it, and therefore, that it was within her power to undo it.

It had used her to do something. Something awful – she didn't have to remember in order to know that, not when she could feel the clinging remnants of its evil still lurking in the corners of her mind. It was older than humanity, the weight of eons of malice and hate for everything living like a crushing weight sitting in the center of her chest. Anything she had done in service to its will would be abhorrent.

A flight attendant was pushing a cart down the aisle toward her, collecting all the passengers' trash. When she reached Wanda, the woman gave her a bright, false smile. "Thank you," Wanda said, passing her the mostly-empty plastic cup, and the woman blinked.

"You speak English?" she asked, her own English crisp and British-flavored and free of any hint of German accent. "Why didn't you speak it before? I told you I didn't speak Rumanian."

"Transian," Wanda corrected automatically. "It's a dialect of Rumanian." Technically speaking, anyway. The dialect spoken around Mount Wungadore bore about as much similarity to standard Rumanian as Portuguese did to Spanish. "I'm very out of practice with English," she continued, offering the flight attendant an apologetic smile. "I haven't spoken it in months."

The flight attendant's eyebrows went up, probably in skepticism at the sound of Wanda's fluent, American-accented English, but she didn't say anything – just smiled back and moved on.

The words had felt odd in her mouth, awkward after months spent thinking in Rumanian and Transian, when she'd been thinking at all. She had spoken English to Beast, and to Clint, but other than that... The "English lessons" she remembered taking with Agatha hadn't happened, anymore than any of her other memories of talking to Agatha had.

She had been studying magic with Agatha before It had taken control of her. Had it simply pulled the memories of those lessons from her mind and used them to create the false memories of studying English, of cooking together, talking together, all the little day-to-day interactions that living with another person was made up of?

No wonder she had been so hungry for human contact when Clint had come looking for her – all her supposed interaction with other people for months before that had been a lie. She had been alone in that house for half a year when he had come. Longer, maybe.

No wonder his presence had felt so sharp, so bright. He'd been real, the only real thing she had seen or touched in ages.

She'd fallen asleep in his arms, after reminding him to be quiet because 'Aunt Agatha' was sleeping in the next room.

It had watched her have sex. With Clint.

And then Clint had left again, had taken the smiling lies she had fed him, that the thing-that-was-not-Agatha had told her to think, to say, at face value. Had left her alone again.

Outside the airplane's thick window, the tops of fluffy white clouds glowed in the sun, almost blindingly bright. Only when she touched the window and felt the chill seeping in through the glass did it become obvious how cold it was outside. Those smooth, white mounds of cloud might as well have been snow.

It made no sense. Clint had been her friend for over a decade. He thought of the Avengers as his family. Even if he had believed that she had amnesia, he wouldn't have simply left her there. He wouldn't have slept with an amnesiac woman who didn't recognize him, either. She knew Clint, and that wasn't the kind of man he was – Clint rarely had casual sex, for all that he liked to act like a ladies' man occasionally. Well, except for that one time with Jan, and that had been an unqualified disaster all around.

It shouldn't have been funny, had actually been excruciatingly embarrassing to witness at the time, especially the raw, open pain on Hank's face when he had walked in on the two of them, but the memory of Steve's appalled and exasperated expression when he'd chewed Clint out...


Clint had said – he had told her that someone he loved had died, a friend. It hadn't meant anything to her at the time. She had even mused on the irony of it, later, during those brief moments of freedom and lucidity; he'd come to Mount Wundagore because of someone else's death, and had brought something inside of Wanda back to life, without ever realizing what he had done.

She hadn't thought about who her American tourist might actually have been, hadn't wondered about the life he'd had before appearing practically on her doorstep. Hadn't thought about his dead friend one way or the other.

She had kissed him the first time to make him stop crying – silent, embarrassed tears he had been trying to hide behind his hands, his shoulders shaking. "He was like the big brother I never had," he'd said, "and I never got to tell him that, you know?"

She had had some vague thought of comforting him, and then... things were hazy after that, but she remembered feeling satisfied afterwards that she had, indeed, managed to distract Clint, to make him smile.

He'd been talking about Steve. He had told her that Steve was dead, and it hadn't even registered, had meant nothing to her.

What kind of friend was she, to take advantage of Clint's grief in order to seduce him, and hear about Steve's death and feel nothing? What had the thing that had taken her over turned her into?

Steve was dead. Had been killed while she waited obliviously in Transia for orders from the thing that controlled her. If she had been there...

Steve had taught her how to fight, had been the first person other than Pietro to care about her opinion enough to ask her what she thought about the villains they were fighting, and ask for her suggestions on strategy. She and Pietro had had nowhere to go, after running from Magneto, and Steve had given them a home.

A home she had destroyed.

First her mother, then Django Maximoff, her real father, then her children, and now Steve. All her power, and yet Wanda was never able to save her family when it mattered. She had ended up hurting them more than she'd helped, failing them the same way she had failed to save Vision when he had been taken and disassembled.

Vision's body had split apart with a scream of tearing metal, pieces of it reforming even as they broke away, reality bending at the edges and remaking him, warping him – 

Wanda froze, staring blankly at the miniature screen in front of her. The little box in the corner still cheerfully counted down the kilometers remaining until they reached the runway at La Guardia.

She had killed Vision. Her magic had infected his body with the Ultron Protocols and literally torn him apart.

She had— It had used her to— She-Hulk had smashed the Ultrons into so much crumpled metal, impossibly delicate computer circuits shattering under her fists. Gone. Dead. Completely destroyed. So much power, the power to alter the world, and she hadn't done anything to change that. Why hadn't she tried to change it? Why hadn't – 

Wanda reached inside herself for the chaos magic that always waited there... and found nothing.

Even the attempt hurt, as if she were straining herself beyond her limits.

Hurt. It ought to hurt. Had Vision felt pain when he'd been... when the Ultron Protocols had...

The bathroom at the back of the cabin was blessedly empty. Wanda's hands were shaking hard enough that it took her two tries to lock the door.

As soon as the latch clicked home, she bent over the sink and threw up.

"Scientific progress must not be hindered by the petty constraints of 'law' or 'morality!'"

Steve didn't dignify that statement with an answer. Six seconds from now, according to the countdown Tony was broadcasting over the Avengers' communicators, the electronic billboard directly overhead would stop broadcasting its current giant Target ad and begin displaying a series of propaganda ads produced by A.I.M., filled with subliminal signals designed to drive every human who saw them insane.

Trusting Jan and Clint to deal with the A.I.M. hirelings he could just catch sight of sneaking up behind him, he turned and threw his shield at the billboard. It hit the giant LCD screen with a shower of sparks, and the red and white animated swirls that had been about to form themselves into the Target logo disappeared as the screen flickered, then went dark.

"Jan-" he began.

"Already on it," she said. She fired one last blast directly into the faceplate of an A.I.M. hirelings' yellow radiation-proof suit, then swooped up toward the billboard, flying toward the black plastic box just visible on its lower edge. According to Tony, the box was some kind of hacking device, programmed to hijack the screen and substitute A.I.M.'s images for its regularly scheduled advertisements. Hopefully, it would also serve to convince the city and whichever company owned this particular Times Square billboard not to sue Steve to within an inch of his life for destroying it.

Steve lifted his shield to block a punch from one of the few A.I.M. hirelings still on his feet, then slammed the front of his shield against the man's face – it split the front of his faceplate with a satisfying crack, and he went down in a crumpled heap of yellow plastic.

A.I.M. had been responsible for the fear toxin that had put both Tony and Jan in the hospital last month.

Steve shoved the memory of Tony huddled in a hospital bed, his eyes fixed on things only he could see, out of his mind, and resisted the impulse to give the downed man a good, hard kick in the ribs.

"Did he really just make air quotes when he said 'law' and 'morality?'" Clint asked. He ducked a roundhouse swing from one of the A.I.M. hirelings and slammed his elbow into the man's ribs, doubling him over. Then he turned back to their main antagonist, an arrow nocked and ready to shoot.

Sean "Head Case" Madigan was no longer capable of facial expressions; his face, inside the plexiglass containment helmet that surrounded his dead body with the chemical mists that kept it animated and functioning, was a nightmare vision of exposed muscle and half-rotted skin. Somehow, he managed to sneer at them anyway.

"You think you've won just because you've stopped us here? This was just part of our plan. We've hidden a series of timed explosives all over the city." Madigan grinned, a particularly gruesome expression that reminded Steve far too much of the Red Skull. "Good luck finding them."

"What, those?" Steve grinned back, knowing the expression didn't look particularly friendly. "Iron Man tracked them all down ages ago. You shouldn't have routed the countdown signal through a satellite."

"We were just the distraction," Clint put in, his voice laden with vindictive satisfaction. "The rest of our team's spent the last half hour disarming them all."

Steve's communicator came to life with a faint hiss of static. "Ms. Marvel just got the last one," Sam said. "You can stop playing with them now."

"You have no bombs remaining, the three of us have you and your friend there," Steve nodded at the only A.I.M. flunky still on his feet, a short, stocky man who had edged backwards so that Madigan was between him and the Avengers, "outnumbered, and the Wasp is removing your equipment from the billboard right now. If you're smart, you'll surrender."

"Fine," Madigan snapped. "But don't think you've won. A.I.M. will break me out of jail in a week."

Clint braced his feet and drew his arm back until the purple fletching on his arrow was level with his ear. He probably wasn't going to fire – Hank had warned them not to breach Madigan's containment suit, saying that he had no idea what the vapors inside would do to a living human body – but Madigan didn't know that. "The guys at Rykers hate terrorists almost as much as they hate pedophiles, so have a fun week."

"Threats don't frighten me; I'm already dead. And I will not allow my father's dream to die!"

Jan landed on Steve's right shoulder with a thud, the weight of the electronics equipment in her arm making her uncharacteristically clumsy. "You tried to have your father killed by turning him into a living bomb," she said.

Madigan shrugged. "That was part of his dream," he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. When your father was M.O.D.O.K., maybe it was.

For all his bluster, Madigan went relatively quietly once the police arrived. He might be M.O.D.O.K.'s son, but he hadn't inherited his father's flair for up-close-and-personal mayhem. Madigan preferred to do his killing at a distance, preferably with high-tech explosives.

Tony, Sam, Carol, and Thor arrived while the police were cuffing Madigan and shoving him into the back of an armored police wagon, each with an armful of wires and bits and pieces of plastic and metal that had once been A.I.M.'s twenty-five electronically-triggered bombs.

Tony's armor was still as brightly polished as it had been that morning, completely free of scratches or scuff. He landed beside Steve with a hiss of jetboots and the harsh, metallic scrape of metal on asphalt, and something inside Steve relaxed.

"I really hate A.I.M.," Tony observed conversationally. "The bombs had vials of some kind of chemical in them. I saved a sample for Hank to analyze."

Steve grimaced. "Nice surprise for the emergency personnel when they arrived on the scene. They shouldn't have to worry about that kind of thing." It was difficult enough being a firefighter or police officer in New York City without terrorist organizations trying to poison you, and men and woman who risked their lives to serve the public good deserved better.

"We did well this day." Thor's deep, rumbling voice echoed in Steve's ear, and only long familiarity kept him from jumping slightly. "You were a most admirable distraction, my friend." He clapped Steve on the shoulder with one massive hand, the force of it enough to make him sway forward a little.

Steve turned, grinning up at his teammate. He knew that it was never a good idea for a man to let himself get too cocky or complacent, but he allowed himself a moment to luxuriate in the joy of having his team around him again. Thor's cloak was flapping slightly in the fall breeze, his armor gleaming in the sunlight even more brightly than Tony's did. Several yards away, Clint and Carol were giving statements to police officers, Clint's purple leathers a garish splotch of color that nearly rivaled the billboards and neon signs around them, and if Steve looked up, he knew he'd be able to see Redwing circling overhead, keeping an eye on the situation from above for Sam. If it weren't for the absence of Wanda and Vision, Steve could almost imagine that the disasters of the past few years hadn't happened.

"I wasn't sure the four of you would be able to get all the bombs defused in time," he admitted. "I should have known better than to worry."

"It would have gone ill for the Falcon had we not. He has much skill and valor, but those do not protect against explosions as Ms. Marvel's invulnerability or an Asgardian's strength may."

He didn't mention Tony's armor. Thor had spent most of the past couple of weeks not mentioning Tony, or Hank. It was hard to blame him, as much as part of Steve wanted to come to Tony's defense, but it made for uncomfortable strategy sessions, since he wouldn't speak directly to the two of them, either.

There were moments when it did feel like the Avengers were whole again, the entire messy disaster of Registration over with, but the aftereffects still lingered. The police had seemed relieved to be able to hand the A.I.M. situation over to the Steve and the others, but some of the bystanders who had gathered to gawk at the fight with A.I.M. had just as much fear and suspicion in their eyes when they looked at the Avengers as they did when watching Madigan rant. Nearly a year since Stamford, two months since the SHRA had been repealed, and some people were still suspicious of anyone in a costume.

And while the Avengers might present a united front to supervillains and to the media, under the surface, the damage done during the fight over Registration still lingered.

"We wouldn't have been able to get to them all in time without Thor," Tony said. He turned to Thor, the expressionless faceplate of his helmet hiding whatever emotion lay beneath it, and added, "It was a good thing we had you with us today. Blowing up is not my favorite thing to do."

Thor's fingers tightened around the grip of his hammer, and he turned away to say something to Jan.

Tony's shoulders slumped a little, the motion visible even in the armor.

"At least you didn't get yourself electrocuted this time," Steve offered, resisting the impulse to lay a hand on one dejected metal shoulder. There were news vans from three different television stations parked only a few dozen feet away.

"Thor wouldn't do that," Tony objected.

Steve shook his head slightly. "I meant by the criminal." It wasn't actually a matter for jokes - watching blue-white lightning crawl over the outside of Tony's armor had been far too reminiscent of the stunt Tony had pulled when his armor had been hacked, and Steve had already been anticipating giving him CPR again, steeling himself for the feel of Tony's ribs bending and cracking under his hands, when Tony had groaned and sat up again. The shock his heart had gotten had probably been bad enough as it was, even if it hadn't succeeded in actually stopping his heart this time.

"That wasn't my fault. We didn't know Live Wire had developed actual lightning powers."

"You knew by the second time he zapped you."

Tony shrugged. "I knew the armor could handle it, and I needed to give the Falcon a chance to get into position behind him."

It would, Steve reflected, be reassuring if Tony occasionally demonstrated a little more concern over his own health. The Extremis allowed him to shrug off injuries more quickly these days, but not thatquickly.

Sam stepped away from the huddle of law enforcement officials and waved at Steve, coming a few steps closer to them so that they could talk without shouting. "The police want to talk to the two of you." He nodded up at where Steve's shield was lodged in the crackling remains of the billboard. "About that."

"I needed to shut it down quickly," Steve said, suppressing a flash of guilt as he stared up at the damage his shield had done. Someone was going to have to replace that, and he didn't even want to imagine what it was going to cost.

Sam grinned. "Well, that's one way to do it. I always hated those things. I swear they put up more of them every year."

Tony glanced up at the billboard, then turned back to Steve. "Want me to go get it for you?"

Footage of his shield in the middle of the expensive property damage the Avengers had caused was probably going to be on every news program in the city tonight, not to mention the front page of the Daily Bugle. "Please," Steve said.

When Tony handed it to him a few minutes later, he couldn't help running one hand over its polished metal surface, checking for the scratches he knew perfectly well wouldn't be there. Nothing could scratch or dent vibranium, except maybe for Thor's hammer, but old habits died hard. You looked after your equipment.

"This morning," Tony began, "before A.I.M. sent us the ultimatum, I was going to ask..." he trailed off, then began again, "They finished construction on the bottom floor of the mansion yesterday. The decorators haven't been there yet, and there's still construction work going on in the east wing and on the roof, but it's livable again. If you don't mind a little hammering in the background, I mean."

Suddenly, A.I.M., the crowd of reporters filling Times Square, the Fox news helicopter overhead, and the police officers who wanted Steve to come down to the station and discuss A.I.M.'s explosives with their bomb squad seemed like minor annoyances.

"I'm already packed," he said. "When do you want to move in?"

The plane's wheels hit the runway with a jolt, and the malevolent force Wanda had sensed lurking in the corners of her mind rushed in like water filling a bowl.

"At last," the parody of Agatha's voice sighed inside her head. "We are close; I can feel it. Soon I shall be free. Soon we will be free."

This time, Wanda could hear the flaws in its façade, the open malevolence that Agatha Harkness had never possessed, and wondered how it had ever fooled her.

Something about it felt familiar, however, and not simply because it was mimicking Agatha's voice. As if she had known it her whole life, as if—


Wanda had thought there was nothing left inside of her to throw up, but now she found herself forcing down a fresh surge of nausea. Of course it was Chthon. Who else would have brought her to Mount Wundagore? What else would be capable of warping and controlling her powers so completely?

He hadn't been able to influence her as strongly during the flight because the plane had been too far from the earth, where he was bound. Now that they had landed again, and she was back on solid ground...

Her mind was still her own, but for how long?

She had to act now, find a way to stop him, to break free. Now, before he erased her again.

The plane came to a stop just as she completed the thought, and a blandly pleasant female voice crackled over the intercom, telling passengers that the plane had completed taxiing, and they were now permitted to unfasten their seat belts and proceed to the exits.

Without any input from her, Wanda's hands began unfastening her seatbelt, and she found herself collecting her coat and a carry-on bag she didn't remember packing, and standing.

The blonde flight attendant from earlier was standing by the closest cabin door, bidding passengers farewell with a practiced smile. "Are you all right?" she asked Wanda, halting her just feet away from the exit. Somehow, her eyes managed to convey a frown despite the unfaltering curve of her lips.

'No,' Wanda wanted to say. 'No, I'm not. Help me, please.'

"Fine. I get airsick sometimes, especially on long flights. But thank you for your concern."

Then she turned and left the plane, her feet moving steadily down the ramp despite her desperate efforts to stop, to turn around, to exert any kind of control over her own body. She couldn't even twitch her fingers.

Chthon moved her through customs like a puppet, speaking through her mouth and posing her limbs as if she were a living doll. Hearing her own voice emerge from her lips, calm and polite and completely independent of herself, was utterly terrifying. She was helpless, the way she'd been when she had watched her children die, when she had watched Ultron tear Vision apart at Chthon's bidding. And yet she smiled, and told the customs officer how excited she was to be in New York, perfect sincerity in every word.

Nothing to declare, of course, because she hadn't brought any luggage beyond the carry-on bag. Mindless tools didn't need extra changes of clothing. Was she here for business or pleasure? Oh, pleasure, definitely. Just a brief sight-seeing trip. She had been looking forward to it for a very long time. Did he think she should visit the Empire State Building first, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art? She had never been to the British Museum, and she had heard that the Metropolitan's Egyptian collection was surpassed only by the British Museum and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

He stamped her passport and waved her through, and once again, her pleas for help remained silent, audible only inside her own head.

Chthon took her to a taxi, then onto the subway – the 4/5 line, traveling downtown. When the train passed through the two stops closest to the Avengers Mansion, Wanda was frozen in her seat; she couldn't so much as turn her head unless Chthon wanted her to.

The Mansion might not even still be there. Her memories after Chthon had begun to control her were vague, but the image of the Mansion burning was sharp and clear. Chthon had used Jack of Hearts' body to destroy it, killing Scott Lang in the process.

Scott's little girl would be what, now? Fourteen? Wanda could remember when Cassie had been seven, a tiny blonde girl in an over-sized Avengers t-shirt who had thought having a superhero for a father was the coolest thing in the world. She had collected insects in jars and kept them by her bed.

She got off the subway in midtown, emerging onto the street to see a familiar cathedral spire visible a few blocks away. The giant cross that topped St. Margaret's stood out starkly against the pale violet of the evening sky.

What did Chthon want in Hell's Kitchen?

"At last," he sighed, not bothering to mimic Agatha's voice this time. "Such power. I will be bound no longer."

Wanda could feel it as well, a faint but distinct aura of chaos magic that emanated from the church. Whatever it was, Chthon planned to use it to break free from his prison, probably killing her in the process. Once he was free, there would be no way to stop him. Chthon was an elder god, one of the primal forces of the universe; no one on earth had the power to defeat him in open battle.

'No,' she thought, throwing all the force of her will at the thought of not moving, of stopping, of turning around – of doing anything other than what she did, which was to walk right up to where St. Margaret's massive wooden doors stood open and enter the cathedral. She didn't even stumble on the threshold, despite the evil she carried inside her.

It didn't seem right that an evil as great as Chthon could walk into a church so easily; there ought to have been a barrier across the threshold, to keep the likes of her out of here.

Inside, the chaos magic that had been only faintly detectable from the street was a swirling miasma, almost visible. It seemed to envelope her as she walked closer to the high altar, seeping into every pore of her body. Unlike Chthon's power, it felt clean, pure.

If he touched it, he would twist it to his will the same way he had used and twisted her.

Another step, and she was at the altar rail. She grabbed for it, desperate to stop herself, and felt a jolt of surprise and stomach-twisting relief when her fingers closed around the polished metal. She tightened her grip until it hurt, her knuckles turning white.

She had moved her hand. Because she chose to, not because Chthon had made her. His control must be slipping, or maybe the power that filled the cathedral nave was interfering with it. It didn't matter – all that mattered was the tiny sliver of freedom it gave her.

"No," she forced out, her voice sounding rough and strangled. The word hurt her throat. "No. I will not be your tool."

"What treachery is this?" Chthon's voice boomed in her head, making the world flash red and black for a moment. "You have been my tool since the hour of your birth. It is for this that I made you. Do not fight your destiny. Step forward and claim the spear. Set me free, and you will rule the world as my child."

The people who wanted to use her for their own purposes always sounded the same in the end. "I am Django Maximoff's daughter. Not yours. Not Magneto's."

Her own power was out of reach, still locked away in whatever spell Chthon had tied it up in, but the cathedral was full of chaos magic, magic that didn't belong to Chthon and therefore couldn't be controlled by him. Wanda closed her eyes and grabbed desperately for it, reaching toward the altar with her free hand.

It was like laying her hands on a live electrical wire. Power poured through her like fire, raw and uncontrolled, and only the hard-won control of years kept her from being swept away by it.

Chthon reached for it, his presence like a vast weight in her head.

"No," she hissed again, through gritted teeth, as her knees hit the stone floor. She could feel sweat breaking out along her spine, hear her teeth grinding together.

She lashed out at him with the borrowed magic, feeling a surge of triumph at the pained howl that echoed in her skull, and wrenched her own powers free of the spell that bound them. Reality rippled around her, something that had been warped out of true snapping back into place. The cathedral's massive pipe organ rang like a struck gong, a great chord of sound that echoed discordantly off the stone walls and high, vaulted ceiling.

Her powers flooded back into her, and she staggered to her feet, slamming up magical shields the way Agatha – the real Agatha – had taught her. "Get out of my head," she snarled. "And stay out."

She took a step forward, then grabbed at the altar rail again as the floor lurched under her feet. She could still hear Chthon's whispering, a faint susurrus of sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was too indistinct to make out words, but the volume rose and fell in waves, as if Chthon were alternately shouting and cajoling.

The idea of letting him back inside her made her feel ill.

Wanda straightened, slowly uncurling her fingers from the brass rail and stepped away from it. She could feel cold sweat prickling up and down her sides, sticking her clothing to her skin. She wouldn't be able to hold him out for long – driving him out in the first place had already exhausted her.

She needed help.

She turned on her heel and began to walk toward the doors at a slow, measured pace. It was foolish to fear that Chthon would chase her if she ran – he was an incorporeal demon, not a lion or a wolf or some childhood boogyman. Still, running would call attention to herself, and she had probably already drawn enough of that. Everyone in two block's radius had probably heard the crashing chord from the pipe organ as it was, and drawing the attention of bystanders might give Chthon a chance to use Wanda's powers against them.

The Avengers Mansion was a good thirty blocks away, but if she took the subway – except that Chthon could probably reach her more easily underground, and if he did, she would be trapped in a metal tube with a dozen potential victims. And even if the Avengers Mansion were still standing, the rest of the Avengers had no magical abilities, no way to fight him. And no reason to help Wanda, or believe anything she told them.

The last time they had seen her, she had been insane, possessed, and bent on destroying them all. Going back there now would simply be handing Chthon a chance to finish what he had started, and she wasn't going to give him that chance.

If Doctor Strange hadn't been able to stop her...

Strange. She could go to Strange. The Sorcerer Supreme had faced Chthon before, and managed at the very least to fight him to a draw. Strange was the most powerful magician on Earth; if he couldn't help her, then she was beyond help. And even then, he would be able to do something. Cut off her access to her powers, maybe – it was possible to burn the mutant abilities out of someone. Sinister had done it – or even, if necessary, kill her.

Steve, in that position, wouldn't be willing to— Except that Steve was dead. Tony or Hank might be willing to kill her for the greater good, but Clint, Jan, Simon? They would want to save her at all costs, and there were some costs that she wasn't willing to pay.

Chthon would not use her to harm anyone else she loved. Better to lived maimed and shattered, a shadow of her former self, than be a mindless puppet of evil. Better, if it came to it, not to live at all.

Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum was only a twenty minute walk from Hell's Kitchen. Thirty minutes, in heels. She could be at his door before full dark. Good. Chthon might be more powerful after dark.

Once she was out of sight of the cathedral, she started to walk faster.

Chapter Text

After two months, watching the rest of the team fight via CNN and his Avengers communicator still hadn't gotten any easier. It hadn't been this hard when he'd been on the West Coast Avengers – he'd enjoyed having the extra time to devote to experiments, enjoyed playing support staff and scientific consultant for a while. He ought to be enjoying it now.

Surely he wasn't so insecure in his masculinity that watching Jan fight without him bothered him. She could take care of herself; she had for years, with and without Hank around. And it wasn't as if she were on her own – she had the entire team with her.

It wasn't like the old days, when it had been just Hank, Jan, and one or two of the other founding Avengers, and his absence from the field would have left a major hole in their line-up. Not like when his powers had kept fluctuating, before his body had adapted to the Pym particles. He was choosing not to use them. Because not using his powers was better than being miserable and out of control all the time, and being left out of things was better than losing it at the wrong moment.

Still, watching the security cameras as the rest of the team strode triumphantly into the lobby of Stark Tower, he couldn't help thinking that it would have been awfully fun to punch Sean Maddigan in the face a couple of times. Carefully, while making sure not to crack his faceplate and release unknown chemicals into the atmosphere.

"—and then," Clint said, coming off the elevator a few minutes later with a bounce in his step, "he said that being turned into a living bomb was part of his father's dream. I hope he has a really entertainingweek at Rykers."

"That's not actually all that funny." Steve's voice was only mildly disapproving, making it obvious that his heart wasn't in the objection. "You shouldn't threaten supervillains with hypothetical prison assault."

Clint snorted. "Like anyone will do anything. He's a rotting corpse who lives inside a containment unit."

"Well, yeah, but that's not the point," Steve was saying, just as Tony said,

"You underestimate some of the guys in Rykers' supervillain block."

"Please don't say that, Tony." Hank heard Jan's voice, first, laden with disgust, and then she stepped out of the elevator and into his line of sight. Her costume was smudged with dust and her hair was tangled from the wind, and she looked absolutely gorgeous. And completely fine and uninjured in any way.

"Good job," Hank said, stepping forward. "I saw you on CNN."

Steve groaned, one hand going up to cover his face. "How many times have they run the footage of my shield hitting the billboard?"

"I stopped counting after the third time," Hank told him. "They did have a nice close-up on Maddigan ranting about the beauty of destruction in the name of science before you guys took him down, though." As far as superhero-related publicity went these days, that was firmly on the positive side. A.I.M.'s poison gas attack on Wall Street was recent enough in everyone's memory that they were still being unanimously portrayed as the bad guys, and the perky, unblinking news anchor had chirped that a little property damage incurred in the name of stopping another round of mass toxin-induced hysteria was a small price to pay, especially in a major tourist area.

It was always nice to see that people had their priorities straight.

"We have some samples for you to analyze." Sam stepped off the elevator last, one hand firmly holding Redwing in place on his shoulder, and nodded at Hank.

"Great." Hank grinned, feeling a surge of ridiculous satisfaction at having something actually useful to do, and then the memory of Jan huddled in a hospital bed flashed into his head, and he added, "Nobody was exposed to them, right?"

"No, we're all fine." Jan closed the distance between them and put a hand on his arm, leaning her head on his shoulder. "There were vials of something in the unexploded bombs."

"I heard, but I just wanted to make sure..." A new substance to analyze was one thing, but trying to race against the clock to develop an antidote for something before it killed one of his teammates was not an experience Hank ever wanted to repeat, no matter how eager he was to contribute in some way beyond playing switchboard operator for them all – truly a vital use of his talents when you considered that a) Tony could do the same thing with the Extremis without even using communications equipment, and b) Thor wouldn't talk to him.

"We're all good," Sam assured him. "Iron Man's got half the vials for you, and Thor's bringing the rest."

Hank glanced automatically at Tony, who shrugged. "We didn't want to risk damaging them by passing them through too many sets of hands. The police bomb squad was afraid they were biological."

In which case, leaving them in Thor's custody made sense, given that he was unlikely to be susceptible to any human diseases – very unlikely, as Hank now knew from direct experience. Asgardian DNA was subtly different from human DNA in a number of ways that would probably be fascinatingly significant to a geneticist.... And which Hank was never going to even think of mentioning to anyone, because that project was dead and over with and Thor's genetic code was now none of his business.

Tony held a small, glass vial out to Hank, its contents as clear as water. It looked ordinary, non-threatening.

In Hank's experience, that usually meant just as much potential danger as things that glowed bright, radioactive green, flashed red, or made ominous beeping sounds. He took it gingerly, wishing illogically that he were wearing gloves – if the contents were capable of seeping though glass, they were all doomed anyway. "I'll take a look at it. If it's really some kind of virus, I'll send it to Beast; he specializes in that kind of thing."

Tony and Jan followed him to the lab, Clint trailing along behind them, his bow still held loosely in one hand. As Hank started to set up his work station, he unstrung his bow and ran his hands carefully up and down its length, feeling for flaws or weaknesses. Hank pointed to the far side of the lab without looking up. "Take it over there before you break something."

"That only happened once, and it was years ago," Clint complained, but he went, managing not to smack his six feet of unstrung longbow against anything in the process. Hopefully that boded well for Hank's luck today.

With an unthinking ease that Hank tried very hard not to be jealous of, Jan shrank down and flew to perch on the corner of one of the computer screens, where she could watch him from above without getting in the way. Tony was already shucking his armor without needing to be told, pieces of red and gold metal folding themselves up neatly into an open briefcase on one of the workbenches as if acting of their own volition; Tony's Extremis powers were as fascinating as they were mildly creepy.

It would probably be a simple thing to get Extremis to interface with one of the Ant-Man helmets, creating a cybernetic version of the biological antennae Hank had never been able to convince his body to accept. Unfortunate that the failure rate for Extremis was so high.

How useful would one of his old Ant-Man helmets be without the ability to shrink down and interact with ants on their own level, anyway? The frequencies would still work, even if he and the helmet were at full size...

He pulled his attention back to the task at hand, and slid the first of the vials under the lab's fume hood; he'd just gotten it open, his movements made agonizingly slow by the necessity of the vacuum chamber and the heavy gloves he had to work through, and extracted a sample for examination under a microscope, when Thor's deep voice echoed through the room.

"Wasp, I have brought thee the substance with which our opponents sought to poison the city."

Hank jumped at the sound, nearly dropping the micropipette full of toxin that he was currently awkwardly manipulating with his right glove.

"You and Hawkeye fought most admirably," Thor added. "I would not have been able to recover all the vials if you had not bought us the extra time in which to do so."

"Maybe if all of the people trying to disassemble the bombs had been speaking to each other, it would have gone more quickly," Hank pointed out, not bothering to contain his irritation. "Next time, don't just barge in here; you almost made me drop this."

"It would be best if the contents were analyzed swiftly," Thor said, to Jan.

Nice use of the passive voice, Hank thought. You had to give him credit for that. His ability to convey information to Hank or Tony without actually addressing them directly was improving. It was also getting both ridiculous and really, really irritating.

He sighed, and made himself look up to meet Thor's eyes. "I know you're angry at us. I know why. But Cap's not going to kick his boyfriend off the Avengers any time soon, so can you at least talk to Tony?" Hank pointed across the room to where Tony was trying to fade back into a bank of computers.

There was an interminable stretch of silence, as Thor glowered at both of them.

"I'm just going to-" Clint started, then stopped awkwardly and muttered, "Yeah, I'm leaving." The sound of the elevator door sliding shut behind him was loud against the faint background hum of equipment.

Thor cleared his throat, then said, deliberately, "I cannot fight beside someone whom I cannot trust at my back. Captain America has my trust and respect, as do the Wasp and Hawkeye. For their sake, I remain an Avenger, and have chosen not to pursue your treachery." The words 'drop this, or I will decide to pursue it after all,' were unspoken. Hank could hear them anyway; everyone in the room could probably hear them.

"Steve is grateful for that," Tony said, his voice carefully even in a way that Hank remembered from talks with HUSAC and Koening, and from California, before that. "Drop it, Hank," he added, turning to give Hank a stiff, fake smile that might have fooled him, once, before he'd spent months watching Tony smilingly present laws and programs he hated to the press. "Now isn't the time."

Tony wore guilt badly – it weighed down his shoulders like a heavy winter coat, and kept him from meeting anyone's eyes. Hank remembered that feeling, better than he wanted to.

"I already apologized," he snapped, ignoring Jan's immediate, sharp, "Hank." "What else do you want?"

It was a pointless question – Thor wanted Hank and Tony to have not cloned him, obviously, because apologies didn't erase things, any more than explanations did. He wasn't going to lay out the whole sorry story of blackmail and coercion and choosing the least terrible option; extenuating circumstances didn't change what had happened, what they had done, and trying to justify themselves would be an insult. Thor would see it that way, anyway. And Hank was tired of explaining his actions to people hell-bent on putting the worst interpretation possible on them. It was useless anyway. 'We had no choice,' wouldn't bring Bill back. 'I'm sorry,' wouldn't undo taking Thor's DNA and creating a monster with it. It wouldn't change how easily they had been manipulated into building a superweapon for the very people they had been trying to control.

He pulled his hands carefully free of the vacuum chamber's gloves, and took a step away from it, feeling belatedly ashamed at the look on Jan's face. He had no right to be angry at Thor, under the circumstances.

Baron von Blitzkrieg had congratulated him on his excellent work. It was almost funny – accolades from an ex-Nazi, for something that had been yet another mistake. The clone shouldn't have been so... They had screwed up somewhere. Hank had screwed up somewhere, the way he had with Ultron. It should have been controllable from the start; they should have had more safeguards....

Thor narrowed his eyes, then stepped forward and set the glass vials down on the workbench next to the fume hood, with the care of a man who would really prefer to be smashing things. He turned to Jan, nodded at her, and said, "I will tell Captain America that the substance will be identified in some little time. I shall accompany thee back upstairs, if it be thy wish; the air here below the ground is unhealthful, and the company equally so."

"You were an even bigger challenge than Ultron," Hank said, the words feeling as if they came from someone else. "You know that? No one's ever perfected the cloning of superpowered non-humans outside of Dr. Essex's labs." His voice was too loud, too fast, the hot, edgy emotion in his chest making him feel sick, choking him. "We fucked up. It was too complicated for us, and we were in over our heads. Even Reed."

The air pressure dropped perceptibly, and Hank heard thunder rumbling in the distance, just at the border of audible sound. "Be silent, little man." Thor's voice was low, the flat words said quietly, but with enough intensity to make the test tubes neatly arrayed in their rack to Hank's left rattle. "Or I will forget all that I owe to the Avengers and deal with you as I would a warrior of Asgard who had acted thus." His eyes were narrow flickers of blue, and his hair seemed to float in a nonexistent wind for a moment, and Hank fought the urge to literally shrink down into the floor.

Abruptly, Thor turned on his heel and stormed toward the elevator, his fists clenched and his boots striking sparks off the concrete floor.

The silence after the elevator doors shut was heavy and accusing.

Hank snatched an empty test tube from the rack and pulled his arm back to throw it, the wild urge to destroy something buzzing in his head. Then he remembered Jan, perched atop the computer only a few feet away, and made himself lower his arm, setting the test tube back into place with a stiff control that made his hands shake.

Tony stared at him, a world of lesser evils and silent evenings spent sitting in a lab with Reed, all three of them wrapped in their own misery and none of them talking about it, in his eyes. Then he looked away.

Hank stared down at his right hand, at fingers curled so tightly that his knuckles hurt, and heard the faint click of Jan's heels against the concrete as she jumped down from her perch on the computer and returned to full size.

Her hand was gentle on his arm, the burgundy paint on her fingernails bright against his white lab coat. Hank blinked hard, his eyes prickling with heat, and took a deep breath. Be calm, he told himself. He could handle this.

He wasn't angry anymore, just tired, his head aching from the aftermath of too much emotion. "That went well, don't you think?" he asked Tony.

Tony, unsurprisingly, didn't answer. "You should go upstairs," Hank told Jan. "I'll be busy down here for a while." He didn't have time for any of this. He had a poison to analyze, and a paper for the Journal of Medical Entomology to finish.

"Don't stay down here too long," Jan said.

Hank didn't answer. The basement lab felt even larger and colder once she and Tony had left, and even the glass-walled ant nest he'd installed in the back corner wasn't very good company.

"I still can't believe you don't know how to cook." Steve was resting his chin on his hand, looking at Tony with an irritating mix of affection and amusement.

"I can make coffee," Tony defended. He lifted his coffee mug and took a pointed sip, trying to pretend immunity to the way Steve's hair and eyelashes gleamed gold in the candlelight.

Tony had had the workmen he'd hired mimic the original building plan and even decoration wherever possible, but the kitchen in the mostly reconstructed Avengers Mansion still didn't look quite like the old one. The table was brand new, missing the scars and dents where Thor had hammered tankards down on it, the scratch marks in the veneer where an eight-year-old Cassie Lang had tried to carve her initials in it, the stains in the wood from years of hard use. The floor, walls, and appliances were all pristine, and the spot over the table where one of Steve's pen and ink sketches had once hung was bare. But the warm – and dim – glow of the candles covered a multitude of sins, and with Steve across the table from him, it was almost possible to pretend that the mansion had never been destroyed at all.

This evening certainly beat the last time the two of them had had the entire mansion to themselves, Tony reflected. Then he shoved the thought away, hard. They were moving on now, he reminded himself, putting the past behind them, and he couldn't do that if he let himself dwell on the memory of fighting Steve, of losing Steve.

'You got him back,' he reminded himself. 'He's right here, so don't ruin the whole evening by brooding about the past.' If he let himself start, it was far too difficult to stop, even after months of Steve's solid presence at his side.

No thinking about Steve's temporary death, or the Helicarrier exploding, or Stark Industries' still lackluster performance in the stock market post the SHRA's repeal, or the way Sally Floyd kept trying to get him to agree to another interview, or fights with Thor, or the memory – the false memory – of Steve with blackened repulsor burns in the middle of his chest. It would be days, possibly a couple of weeks, before he and Steve had the opportunity to spend an evening alone like this again, so he was going to make the most of it.

"That doesn't count," Steve said. "Cooking is a basic skill."

There were times when Steve's nineteen-thirties upbringing showed. Usually in things involving musical taste, pulp literature, computers, or discussions about unions – in Steve's world, they were still vitally needed guardians of workers' welfare, rather than corrupt organizations bent on driving half the industry in the country out of business, and even the transit strike a couple of years ago hadn't convinced him otherwise – but his conviction that the ability to prepare a home-cooked meal was an essential life skill was apparently also included.

Tony set his coffee mug down next to his empty plate and smirked at Steve. "And yet, remarkably, not one I've ever needed. This is Manhattan. I can get any kind of food under the sun just by picking up a phone."

Steve's eyebrows arched skeptically. The candlelight painted them gold, too, and turned his blue eyes dark. "I thought only that one pizza place would deliver to the Avengers Mansion anymore."

That was an exaggeration, but unfortunately, not much of one. "That's not the point," Tony said. "The point is that I can pay other people to cook for me."

Steve gave Tony a slow once-over, heat in his eyes. "How are you going to pay me?"

A opening that blatant really deserved to be met with detailed descriptions, but it was late already, and describing exactly what he'd wanted to do to Steve for the past two hours, ever since he'd watched him lick spaghetti sauce off the wooden spoon he'd somehow found in Tony's unopened boxes of cookware, would have taken longer than actually doing it was going to. "I'll think of something."

Steve stood, pushing his chair back and rising to his feet in one fluid movement, and picked his plate and glass up in both hands. He rounded the table and set them down in front of Tony, laying the plate neatly on top of Tony's plate. "You can start with the dishes," he said.

Tony turned in his chair so that he was facing Steve, and let his gaze travel slowly up Steve's legs to his crotch, located conveniently at chest height. "I think I'll start with something else," he said, letting his appreciation for the view show in his voice. He reached out and set a hand on either side of Steve's waist, pulling him closer.

Steve reached down and grabbed the ends Tony's unfastened tie – he hadn't bothered to change after coming home from Stark Enterprises – and tugged upwards, as if it were a leash.

Tony stood obediently, stepping forward to mold himself against Steve's body. His hands still on Steve's waist, he pulled their hips flush together and kissed Steve, hard.

Steve had Tony bent backwards, half seated on the table, his shirt unbuttoned, when one of the Mansion's perimeter alarms went off.

The signal buzzed irritatingly in his head, via the Extremis, and Tony closed his eyes. Damn it.

"What?" Steve asked, his hands stilling.

"Someone just tripped a perimeter alarm." Tony accessed the video feed from the security camera closest to the breach, and frowned as he pulled up the image; Sharon Carter was crouching in the shadows by the newly-restored wrought iron fence. Next to her, his arm slung over her shoulders in a way that indicated to Tony that she was bearing at least some of his weight, was the Winter Soldier. Both of them were armed, non-SHIELD-issue guns drawn and ready.

"What the hell are Winter Soldier and Agent Carter doing here?" Tony asked. He straightened up, knocking away Steve's hands as he helpfully tried to redo Tony's shirt buttons. "Did you tell either of them we were going to be here?"

Coming to the mansion for the night had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. They weren't moving back in yet, not until Steve's still-yet-to-be-unpacked boxes had been brought over and Tony had had a chance to get the downstairs engineering lab set up; tonight was supposed to be a trial run, to see if the mansion was really habitable yet, and to give Tony a chance to have Steve all to himself, away from the rest of the team. He'd been looking forward to a chance to share a bed with Steve without waking up to find Jarvis's cat chewing on his hair.

He could see his chances of that receding as Steve frowned and shook his head. "I haven't spoken to either of them in a week."

Tony took a reluctant step away from Steve and flicked on the overhead lights. "Do we have a first aid kit in here yet?"

Steve's fingers paused on his own buttons. "I think the construction crew keeps one in the living room. Why?"

"We're going to need it. Winter Soldier's injured."

Steve's eyes widened, and the last hint of arousal left his face and body. "Damn it. Why are they here? The Helicarrier has state-of-the-art medical facilities." He was already moving toward the door, body language shifting subtly into crisis/command mode.

Both Sharon and the Winter Soldier stiffened and turned to run when Tony opened the front door, and he had a split second, staring into the muzzles of two guns, to realize how stupid startling injured black ops agents was, before Steve's voice came from behind him, "Put the gun away and get inside, Bucky. Sharon. Nice to see you."

Tony stepped aside to let the two of them into the mansion, closing the door behind them and locking it. Without the glow of streetlights pouring in through the open door, the front hallway was dark, but he had memorized the bottom floor of this house before he'd turned six, and without furniture, navigating it in the dark was even easier.

"This way," he told Sharon. "Bring him into the kitchen." The lights there wouldn't be visible from the front of the house, and if anyone had been watching them this evening, they would probably think he and Steve had turned them back on in order to clean up after dinner.

He didn't think there was any surveillance on the mansion – he'd scanned the entire three-block radius for electronic surveillance equipment – but there was no way of knowing who, or what, might have followed Sharon and the Winter Soldier here. The briefcase containing his armor was tucked in the corner of the kitchen, with Steve's shield right next to it, so they weren't exactly unarmed, but it never hurt to be cautious.

Sharon and Steve were supporting Barnes between them now, Steve taking most of the injured man's weight. In the bright light of the kitchen, his face was pale and sweaty, overly-long brown hair sticking to his forehead. He all but fell into Steve's recently-vacated chair, wincing away when Sharon tried to pull his hand away from his ribs to get a closer look at whatever injury lay under his black clothing.

Neither he nor Sharon were wearing any SHIELD insignia, and their matte black weapons weren't SHIELD-issue, either. It looked like SHIELD was back to doing things the Nick Fury way, both above and below the table.

Barnes eyed Steve and Tony's rumpled clothing, and Tony's disheveled hair, and then his gaze went to the plates, glasses, and candles on the table, and the empty bottle that sat in the center. "Sparkling cider?" he snorted at Steve, slumping forward a little to rest one elbow on the edge of the table. "You couldn't even buy your fella real champagne?"

Steve's eyes went to Tony, as if by some kind of automatic reflex, and for a moment, Tony could almost feel the awkward silence in the air. He startled himself by laughing. Barnes didn't know about his alcoholism; not surprising, given that he had spent half the last century as a brainwashed Soviet assassin. He saw the pointedly non-alcoholic bottle on the table and his immediate reaction was not to glance awkwardly at Tony and then look away, but to mock Steve for his lack of romantic skill.

"Yeah, Steve," Tony said, before the silence could stretch long enough to be telling. "You're a lousy date. Rumiko would have brought champagne without even thinking about it." She would only have brought it for herself, though – the very first time they had gone on a date, she had brought two bottles with her, red wine for herself, and sparkling cider for him. The fact that he hadn't even had to ask that she not offer him alcohol had been one of the things that had made Tony love her, even though it had also made him want to cringe over how relieved he had been that she hadn't forced him to refuse a glass of the wine that had been sitting, open, in the picnic basket right next to him, perfuming the air with its scent.

Steve had never needed to be reminded either, and he somehow managed to make the fact that he always ordered soda or water in Tony's presence seem natural.

Steve's lips twitched, but he didn't smile. "You can critique my dating skills some time when you're not bleeding all over our new kitchen floor," he told Barnes. He set the first aid kit on the table with a thump, and flipped it open, pulling out hydrogen peroxide and a roll of gauze. "This kit isn't equipped to handle serious injuries. I think we should-"

"No," Sharon said. "Don't call anyone. In fact, if anyone asks you later, we were never here."

"Fury finally decided to do something about the Sino-Lemurian situation?" Tony asked, raising his eyebrows. Reports of two prominent Lemurian expatriates' deaths had appeared about half an hour ago in one of the two newsfeeds that were all the Extremis would let him monitor full-time these days. The NYPD hadn't released a statement yet, but the local news was already calling it a murder-suicide.

Both men had substantial business holdings in both China and several African nations, and SHIELD had been trying to get the extensive arms and heroin smuggling ring they ran shut down for months through legitimate channels, with no success.

"You no longer have the security clearance necessary for me to confirm or deny that," Sharon told him, voice cool.

Tony nodded absently in acknowledgement, already accessing SHIELD's files on the current Lemurian political situation – both men had belonged to a radical faction that wanted to depose the current Empress and set up a separatist theocracy in her place – and shuffling through satellite newsfeeds one by one. Cracking the new encryption on SHIIELD's data and getting around their firewall took more effort than he had anticipated; he'd gotten used to having all of SHIELD's files at his fingertips, before he'd had to hand control of the organization back over to Fury. He didn't regret resigning as Director at all, but there were times when being locked out of SHIELD's databases once again were inconvenient. "The police are on the scene in the Upper East Side now," he said. "We probably have about six hours before the news reaches Lemuria. Was Barnes bleeding when you left the scene?"

Steve was kneeling next to Barnes now, cutting his black shirt away from his side. His eyes stayed fixed on his increasingly bloody hands as he spoke, his eyebrows drawn together in a scowl. "Tell me you didn't just assassinate a foreign national on American soil."

"Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty for the greater good," Barnes said. He pulled off his left glove and rested his forehead against the silver metal of his left palm.

Tony sympathized. A headache was already beginning to form behind his eyes; he hadn't had more than three connections open at once in the Extremis in weeks, and he'd hoped that taking it easy had given the damaged connections in his brain a chance to heal. He'd clearly been overly optimistic.

He was supposed to have a mild healing factor. What the hell had happened to that?

"I thought you were through with being a hired killer." Steve's voice was even, quiet, and his hands were gentle as he swabbed hydrogen peroxide over the three-inch slice along Barnes's ribs.

"He wasn't injured on the mission," Sharon said. She took a step away from her position just behind Barnes's chair, where she'd been not-quite-hovering, and faced Tony fully. "Sin and a dozen of her snake-themed crazies ambushed us on the way back."

"I thought your mission was classified. How did she know-" Steve started, just as Tony said,

"I thought the Dr. Faustus leak had been handled."

"There's only one person it could have been," Barnes muttered thickly. He hissed through his teeth as Steve pressed a wad of cotton gauze against his side, the material swiftly turning red. "He will be dealt with."

Steve's frown deepened, his jaw tightening. "The Red Skull is dead. Who is she taking orders from now?"

Sharon shook her head, blonde ponytail swaying with the movement. "I'm pretty sure she was acting on her own. She kept ranting about Crossbones the whole time. How he was a hero. How she was going to make us pay for his death. How she was going to make James pay for killing her. Metaphorically, I guess, that part of her had died with him." She cocked an eyebrow at Steve. "You ever read the psych profiles on those two?"

Steve looked away from her. "I wish I hadn't. It was easier to fight her when I could think of her as just another of Red Skull's flunkies, rather than one of his victims."

"Don't feel sorry for her," Barnes mumbled into his hands. "She gets her jollies by torturing people. I should know."

Steve didn't reply to that, but Tony could see his anger in the stiff set of his shoulders and the way his hands suddenly became even more careful, their movements more precise. A lot had happened while Steve had been... gone... and Sharon and Barnes had clearly seen no more reason to fill Steve in on certain specific details about their attempts to take down Red Skull than Tony had to tell Steve about some of the nastier things he and Hank and Reed had had to do to try and keep Norman Osborn off their backs and Dickstein and his committee appeased. Most of it had come out in the congressional hearings, anyway. There had been no need to rehash it.

No need to relive it.

A lot of those two months after Steve had been shot were a grey blank in Tony's memory, anyway, the details fuzzier than he would have cared to admit, especially to Steve.

"This shouldn't be bleeding so much," Steve muttered, almost to himself. He held a hand out, and Tony and Sharon both moved to place another wad of gauze in it, their shoulders nearly colliding. The soaked gauze went into the sink, little threads of blood seeping out from the soggy material into the surrounding water.

The pristine black and white tiles of the floor, handmade by a company in Brooklyn that reproduced 1920s-style ceramics, were smeared with mud from Barnes and Sharon's boots now, and the new-paint smell in the air had been drowned out by the scent of blood. They'd have to clean the entire place before the construction crew returned tomorrow morning.

What did you use to get mud and blood off of floor tiles? Jarvis would know, Tony thought.

He glanced back at Steve and Barnes and frowned; the fresh gauze was already spotted with blood. Too much blood to come from a shallow cut no more than a handspan in length.

"You're right," he told Steve. "The bleeding should be slowing by now."

Barnes moaned, and mumbled something in Russian, too low for Tony to make out. His pupils were dilated wide, making his eyes look black in the bright overhead lighting, and he was breathing shallowly, a barely audible wheezing note underlying each breath.

"He says his head hurts," Sharon translated. She put one hand on the side of Barnes's face, and swore. "James, you're-"

"I'm going to be sick," he interrupted, voice perfectly calm.

Steve had him on his feet and bent over the sink with commendable speed, supporting his weight while Sharon held his ridiculously floppy hair out of his face.

Tony reached for the Extremis and opened a connection to Hank's cell phone.

*Tony,* Hank's voice sounded inside his head, slightly tinny the way voices filtered through both cellular connections and the Extremis always were. *Next time you spend the night at the mansion, take your damn cat with you, or I'm going to kill it. That is, if Sam doesn't just feed it to Redwing. It's been wandering around the apartment crying for you.*

*Don't feed him,* Tony answered automatically. *It'll only encourage him. Look, I need your help. Can you come to the mansion? And bring that portable lab of yours, and whatever anti-venoms you've got on hand?*

*What happened?* The alarm in Hank's voice came through loud and clear, despite the crackle of static in the connection.

*Agent Thirteen and the Winter Soldier are here, and I think Barnes has been poisoned.* He repeated the second half of the sentence out loud, and Sharon's head snapped up.

"That bitch. I knew she and her men gave up too easily."

"Call Hank," Steve said quietly. His voice had gone icy calm, the way it did when he was intensely angry – or scared.

"I just did."

Barnes spat into the sink, then mumbled something inaudible.

"James?" Sharon asked. She had one hand on the back of his neck, the kind of touch that spoke of intimacyx.

"I kept the knife," he repeated, more loudly. "Took it 'way from the sonuvabitch who cut me, after I broke 'is wrist. S'in my coat pocket."

"Good," Steve said. "That's good, Bucky. We can have Hank test it."

"He's on his way now," Tony added. Then, "If this were fatal, he'd probably be dead already. The wound's at least half an hour old, and the poison was introduced directly into his bloodstream." He resisted the impulse to google Barnes's symptoms via Extremis; his trying to diagnose someone via the internet would be about as useful as someone else trying to fix an engine using information from a Wikipedia article. Hank would be here soon, and this kind of thing was his specialty. He'd identified the toxin A.I.M. had released downtown last month in a few hours, and that had been a chemical cocktail designed by A.I.M.'s top scientists; it was doubtful that Sin had that kind of talent at her disposal these days. Sin was erratic even for a supervillain, and didn't possess her father's ability to manipulate people.

Sharon shook her head jerkily. "This is Sin. She likes to hurt people. For all we know it's something designed to kill slowly and painfully."

Barnes straightened in Steve's grasp, pushing away from the sink with his hands. "Doesn't hurt that much. M'side hurts, an' it's getting hard to breathe." He offered Sharon a slightly shaky smile. "You could suck the poison out."

"Unknown toxins are not on the short list of fluids I'm willing to suck from your body," she said dryly.

Steve pulled a face, the expression failing to disguise the worry in his eyes. "I like to pretend you're still fourteen and not sleeping with my ex-girlfriend. Please don't destroy that fantasy."

Then Barnes started throwing up again, the kind of dry, wracking heaves you made when there was nothing left in your stomach to expel, and all joking abruptly ceased.

When Hank arrived fifteen minutes later, Barnes was slumped in one of the kitchen chairs with his head resting on his folded arms, breath wheezing painfully in his lungs. Sharon was sitting next to him, one hand on his shoulder, while Steve hovered awkwardly in the background.

Tony had run out of reassuring things to say to Steve five minutes ago, and was now left silent and useless, with nothing to do but check the Lemurian situation repeatedly and hack into SHIELD's files on Sin.

She'd last been seen with Red Skull, but had dropped off the radar shortly before Steve had come back. Why make her move against Sharon and Barnes now? Crossbones had been dead for three months.

Hank took one look at Barnes and began pulling tiny scientific instruments out of his pockets, laying them out along the table and counters and returning them to their full size. "Where was the knife between being stuck into his side and one of you putting it there?" he asked, pointing a finger at the weapon that lay in the middle of the kitchen table, dried blood flaking off its four-inch steel blade. It looked vaguely like an SS dagger that had had a new, snake-shaped hilt welded onto it, save for the addition of several small grooves that ran the length of the blade.

"His pocket," Sharon said.

Hank frowned, then shrugged one shoulder. "I guess it doesn't matter that much. If his blood is still on it, traces of the toxin will be as well, especially in those little grooves. That's probably the reason they're there."

He stared down at the knife for a moment, then touched one surgical-glove-covered finger to its hilt, which had been cast to look like a coiled serpent. "Vomiting, headache, difficulty breathing... did he complain about his fingers going numb? Is the wound unusually swollen?"

Steve nodded. "It looks like it's been infected for days, and it took too long to get it to stop bleeding."

"Pit viper venom." Hank said firmly, as if there were no room for doubt, but he was already moving smoothly to a rack of test tubes and a miniaturized spectrometer to test the swab he'd taken from the knife blade. "There's a standard anti-venom for that, if it's from one of the common North American species."

"Don't assume that," Steve told him. "It could be from anywhere. And snake venom is just a guess."

Hank's eyebrows arched upwards. "With a knife shaped like that? At least if it's snake venom, we'll know it's not one of the deadliest species. Most of the really poisonous Australian ones will kill a man within minutes."

"Stark said that." Sharon's voice was low, the tension in it audible. "It wasn't helpful then, either."

"I found it helpful," Barnes mumbled into the table.

"And it is snake venom," Hank added, only a moment later. "The protein structure is distinctive. It's rattlesnake venom. A mix of Crotalus Horridus and-"

"Good." Steve said flatly. "You can give him the anti-venom now, and then he'll be fine."

Hank shook his head. "I don't have rattlesnake anti-venom, or any other kind of snake anti-venom. I work with insects," he added quickly, as Steve's eyes narrowed.

"The Helicarrier has it," Tony announced. "I just checked their medical stores." It was one of the less secure sections of Fury's data files, with only two layers of password protection. SHIELD didn't generally have to worry about people stealing their drugs to sell on the street – there were far more valuable things to be stolen on the Helicarrier, if you knew the right person to sell them to.

He could feel the tightness and pressure in his temples and behind his eyes that signaled the beginnings of a headache, despite the fact that he'd barely used a fraction of Extremis's capabilities. It wasn't painful enough yet to indicate a real problem, though, or to hinder him in any meaningful way, so he connected to Fury's private line, the one he wasn't supposed to have the number to, and waited.

*I told ya not to call me, kid,* Fury's gravelly voice echoed in his head. *Yer supposed to maintain radio silence until-*

*It's me, not Barnes,* Tony answered. *Your solution to the Lemurian problem has developed complications.*

It took only a few minutes to arrange for Fury to discover a sudden issue with the Helicarrier's engines that required Tony's urgent assistance. Tony spent most of those minutes carefully explaining how to cause the problem in the first place, and how to make it look as if the damage had been caused by the Helicarrier's long immersion under New York Harbor.

Steve and Sharon were the ones who got Barnes up and on his feet again, and the ones who snuck him into the trunk of the flying car Fury sent down to fetch Tony. They worked together with a smoothness that spoke of experience, and Tony bit back a sudden jealousy. He'd read both their SHIELD files. He knew they'd been on any number of missions together. He also knew exactly what had happened between them while Sharon had been under Dr. Faustus's control, and being jealous of a woman who had been mindcontrolled into sleeping with Steve and then shooting him was petty and wrong.

Whatever the two of them had once had between them had been destroyed by Faustus's meddling, and the fact that they had been able to salvage a friendship out of that wreckage was a testament to both of them. Sharon hadn't been responsible for taking Steve away from him – it had been Red Skull's doing, and Faustus's, and his own, for giving them the opportunity.

He wasn't going to think about that, Tony reminded himself. Steve was back now. Nothing else mattered. And there were more important things to focus on right now.

By the time he returned to the mansion, the Helicarrier's engines repaired and Barnes under observation in SHIELD's infirmary, it was four in the morning, and Hank had long since gone back to Stark Tower.

Steve was still awake, of course. He was waiting for Tony in the kitchen, where he had washed and put away all the dishes from dinner and cleaned up every trace of Barnes's blood.

"They gave him a shot of anti-venom and some steroids for his lungs," he told Steve. "The SHIELD medics think he'll be fine."

Steve's shoulders sagged in relief, and he rubbed a hand over his face. "Good," he said. "I knew he'd be okay."

Tony put a hand on his arm, giving in to the impulse to touch him, and didn't contradict the obvious lie. "Someday, we will manage a date that does not end in supervillains or disaster."

"Or SHIELD business, or some Stark Enterprises crisis that requires your presence on a conference call to Japan at five in the morning," Steve returned, but his eyes crinkled at the edges with a smile that didn't quite reach his lips.

Tony took a step closer to him, until he could feel Steve's body heat through his clothing. It was probably wishful thinking, but just being near him seemed to make Tony's headache fade a little bit.

"Hank thinks she didn't intend to kill him," Steve said, leaning into Tony's touch. "Sin is insane, but she's not incompetent; if she had wanted him dead tonight there would have been something more immediately lethal on that knife blade."

Tony nodded. "That's what I told Fury. He's more concerned with eliminating his leak at the moment than with her, though." Fury took betrayal seriously, especially among those SHIELD agents who'd survived the destruction of the new Helicarrier. The man responsible for relaying Barnes and Agent Carter's location to Sin was either going to spend a long time being de-programmed, or, if Faustus hadn't hypnotized him into it, was probably never going to be seen again.

Once upon a time, that would have bothered him. It still did, but in a distant, abstract way; Tony had gone along with much worse things in the name of expediency and national security over the past year. One corrupt SHIELD agent's death wasn't going to keep him awake at night, especially not one who'd sold out people Steve cared about – it was the innocent people who did that. Bill Foster. Happy. The minor supervillain who'd committed suicide in the negative zone prison, whose name Tony hadn't even known until he'd read the man's file.

Tony rubbed his thumb up and down Steve's bicep, the familiar warmth of his skin obscurely comforting, and leaned in a little closer. "We never got a chance to finish what we started earlier," he said, lowering his eyes to glance at Steve's crotch. "I think you said I owed you something for cooking for me."

Steve's eyes darkened, and he lifted a hand, reaching for Tony, then hesitated. "Bucky and Sharon killed someone tonight, didn't they," he said softly. "On Nick's orders."

Tony nodded. "Probably. Or they arranged for it to happen." Steve smelled like lemons, the earlier scents of spaghetti sauce and blood erased by dish soap. Cleaning products, he suspected, shouldn't smell so enticing.

"You didn't seem surprised." Steve said it carefully, as if he were feeling something out, and Tony winced.

"I ran SHIELD for three months. And I had no illusions about how Fury's people worked even befor that. Compared to the CIA, their consciences are spotless."

Steve's jaw tightened. "That doesn't mean I have to like it. And it doesn't mean it's right."

"No," Tony agreed. "It's not. But what's right isn't always enough to get the job done."

"You're quoting Nick."

"Dugan, actually."

Steve nodded. "You didn't seem surprised," he said again. "You were already thinking about how to keep their mission from being compromised while all I could think about was getting Bucky to stop bleeding. How many missions like this did you help clean up while you were running SHIELD?"

"More than one. But what you really want to know if whether I ordered any, isn't it?"

Steve looked away, and didn't answer.

"You shouldn't ask questions you don't really want the answers to." Tony sighed, and offered a half-truth. "I didn't order any assassinations as head of SHIELD." It was technically true, if not the whole truth. If Steve wanted to know more, he was perfectly capable of pushing Tony until he told him. Which Tony would do, eventually. Now, though, he was tired, and it was late, and Steve had spent half the evening wrist deep in a friend's blood. And once Steve knew, he would never look at Tony quite the same way again – most of the things he had done had come out in the Senate investigation, but there was always more. The blood on his hands wasn't going to wash off with soap and water. "I didn't ask many questions when Dugan asked for permission to do things 'the Nick Fury way', but I didn't give him any orders that violated SHIELD's official protocol."

Steve's fingers closed around his wrist, tugging his hand away from his face, and only then did Tony realize that he had been rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"You hated running SHIELD," Steve said flatly. "It was killing you, the same way working with Dickstein and Koening was."

"You were dead." Even months later, it still hurt to say the words. "I needed to do damage control, to keep everyone else safe. If I hadn't stepped in, things would have been even worse."

"I know." Steve smiled wryly. His fingers were still wrapped around Tony's wrist, his thumb rubbing over the scar that curved around the base of Tony's thumb. "I know," he said again, and lifted Tony's hand to his lips.

Tony closed his eyes, drawing in a long breath as Steve's tongue flicked over his skin. "There's a bed upstairs. Not as study as the one at the tower, but..."

"That would be the first piece of furniture you got," said Steve, and Tony yanked him close and set about trying to make both of them forget the past few hours.

The warehouse was lit only by the grey, early-morning light that filtered through its dust-streaked windows. The old building was in the process of being converted into expensive loft apartments, but the ninteenth century core of the structure was still visible in the thick brick walls and the windows' arched tops.

Much of the older architecture in this city aped gothic designs, some of the skyscrapers even including gargoyles on their roofs, as if the American builders had sought to compensate for the history and culture they lacked by decorating Manhattan with pale imitations of it.

The warehouse was owned by a local development firm who were business partners with a holding company that was owned by a man who was owned by Latveria. The construction crews who would be arriving here in a few hours had no more idea that their wages were coming from Latveria's royal treasury than their employers did, which was precisely as it should be. Doom had just finished tying up the long and tedious negotiations that had been necessary for him to visit United States soil once more, and he had no intention of watching his carefully laid plans come to nothing via interference from the American department of Homeland Security if he were discovered meeting with a known and internationally wanted terrorist.

Foreign governments became difficult to work with when one was required to murder their officials, and while Doom would hopefully soon be beyond the need to worry about such petty details, that happy hour had not yet come.

When it did, one of the first things he was going to do was force the imbecilic woman currently pouting defiantly up at him to kneel at his feet. Then he was going to kill her. Whether the method he chose would be swift or slow would depend upon how well she managed to redeem herself from last night's disaster.

"We had a plan," he said, keeping his voice level with a supreme effort of will. If he shouted in here, the sound would echo off the roof and walls and be audible outside. "No part of the plan involved you attacking SHIELD agents in Central Park." He slammed a mailed fist into the wall, feeling brick crumble under his hand; it wasn't as satisfying as putting the same fist through her empty skull would be, but it would have to suffice. "Your rash actions have cost us the element of surprise. Every fool in a costume will be on guard now, knowing that you're in the city."

Seemingly unimpressed, Sin folded both arms over her chest, glaring at him. "He killed Brock. I want him to suffer. And he shot Daddy in the head. He needs to pay." She said the words with a degree of venom completely at odds with her cheerful, freckle-faced appearance. "I wanted him to know I was coming for him."

"You will get your revenge later," Doom said, with admirable patience. "After we've gotten the spear." There was a reason he usually preferred not to work with the criminally insane, and he was reminded of that anew with each day of his association with Synthia Schmidt. The Red Skull might have been Nazi scum, but at least he had been coherent and lucid. And the thought of how deeply it would have offended the Red Skull to know that he would have owed his ultimate revenge over his greatest enemy to one of the undesirable people his kind had wanted to destroy had almost made the struggle to stand in his presence and not kill him worth it. Doom had savored that thought almost as much as he now savored the fact that it had been his own actions in reviving Steve Rogers from the dead that had brought about the Red Skull's demise. "You do remember the spear, don't you?" he asked the Skull's psychotic daughter, not bothering to keep the contempt from his voice.

Sin looked at him with cold, flat eyes. "Yes, I remember your stupid spear." She took a step closer to him, leaning up on tiptoe to press the point of one of her snake-handled daggers against his mask. There was a small, scraping sound as metal dragged against metal. "Don't underestimate me, Victor. Daddy thinks you're trying to manipulate us. I don't care, as long as I get to make Barnes and Rogers and the others pay for what they did to him, but he doesn't like it."

"You will address me as Doom," he said, not acknowledging her reference to the Red Skull. "Synthia." If he humored her delusions about hearing her deceased father's voice in her head, they would be here all morning. While it was just possible that the cosmic cube could have allowed the Red Skull to enter her body after the death of Aleksander Lukin, the man who had served as his previous host, such a possession would have left some form of magical residue. Lukin's possession had been nearly impossible to detect if one had not been looking for it, for Doom had searched for signs that Sin was telling the truth about her father's presence. Repeatedly.

"You know that's not my name, Victor. Not my real one, anyway." She removed the tip of the dagger from his mask and slid the weapon back into the scabbard at her thigh, probably intending the action to be erotic.

"I do not care what you prefer to be called. And if you wish to continue our association, you will stay away from Barnes. He is unimportant. Only Strange and Murdock matter." And Richards, of course, but Doom would see to him later. Once he possessed the power locked within Baldur's Bane, he would make Richards grovel at his feet. The thought of the man's skinny body writhing in agony on the flagstone before him was a pleasure to indulge in later, however.

She tossed copper curls over her shoulder, pouting again. "I still don't see why I can't just kill the lawyer for you."

"Because if you do so at my instigation," Doom snarled, "it will be the same, metaphysically speaking, as if I had murdered him myself, and the spear will be permanently sealed from us." Curse Strange for his thrice-damned interference, anyway. The spell barring Doom from the spear was a continual insult, too strong and subtle for even a sorcerer of Doom's abilities to break, and the fact that Strange had tied it to a person rather than to the spear's resting place was like a great, ticking clock working against him. If he was not able to act before Murdock inevitably got himself slaughtered by some supervillain or walked in front of a city bus, the locus of the spell would change, and he would have to begin his efforts to find a way around it all over again.
He should have had the spear months ago. Would have, had Strange not thrust his overly-long nose in where it was not wanted. If he did not have it by the equinox... The dark forces would not be aligned properly for another seven years, after that.

The need to act swiftly was an irritant in the back of his mind, continually running up against the need to handle Sin with care, and curb her bloodthirst and anarchistic tendencies. Yet one more indignity to make Strange pay for, given that it was his spell that made her presence necessary.

"The spear first," he repeated. "Then we can seek vengeance against those who deserve it." Personally, he was going to begin with Strange and the Avengers, for thwarting his plans before. Reed Richards, he would save for last. That piece of revenge had been a long time coming, and Doom intended to savor it.

Chapter Text

Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum had been disguised as an under-construction Starbucks, complete with a limp banner that proclaimed an opening date several months away. The familiar metal construction scaffolding and black safety netting that one saw all over the city had almost entirely obscured the building's Victorian façade – until Wanda looked more closely, and the construction debris wavered and faded, glimpses of the untouched house beneath the illusion showing through.

It was nearly full dark now, the sun having set some ten blocks ago, and she could feel the raw throbbing of a blister on her left heel. When she had come to a stop where Dr. Strange's house should be and seen a vacant building she had wanted to scream with frustration– she had nowhere else to go, and was so tired that part of her just wanted to curl up on the ground and go to sleep, except that that would have meant handing herself back over to Chthon – and the realization that it wasn't empty after all seemed to drain the rest of her energy from her.

She would be safe now. One way or another, Strange could keep Chthon away.

Wanda let her carry-on bag fall to the muddy ground of Strange's minuscule front yard – a tiny patch of green that was a spacious luxury by Manhattan standards – and limped up the front steps, walking straight through the non-existent "Starbucks – Coming Spring of '08" banner.

The knocker on Strange's door was heavy, made out of some kind of metal that looked like brass and hummed under her fingers like something formed of far less commonplace materials. She had been here dozens of times, and each time, the pattern engraved into the metal had been slightly different.

A long moment of silence followed her knock, and the door failed to open. She raised her hand and hammered on the wood with her fist, and was considering kicking it when she finally heard the scrape of a bolt being drawn back, and a low murmuring that sounded like someone disarming a magical ward.

Wong's eyes went wide when he saw her standing on the threshold.

"I need help," Wanda blurted out before he could say anything, or make a move to treat her as a potential threat. "Please, I have to see Strange."

She must have looked even more exhausted and bedraggled than she felt, because Wong didn't even ask any questions; he just stepped aside and let her in.

Hours later, Wanda sat on the sofa in Strange's study, drinking tea and watching the sky outside his huge, round window slowly shading into dawn. She felt empty, hollowed out, and so exhausted that she no longer felt like sleeping – just an ache in her head and a gritty burn in her eyes.

Strange, seated across from her and cradling a cup of tea in both gloved hands, looked nearly as worn out as she felt, the bones of his face standing out harshly; crafting seals strong enough to stand against a being as powerful as Chthon was a massive magical work, and even the Sorcerer Supreme apparently could not do it easily. Before he had set the seal on her, he had seemed magnetically appealing, attractive in a way she'd never seen before – even Vision and Simon couldn't have compared to the power Chthon's essence had sensed in him, and the trace of Chthon's taint in Wanda had been drawn to it, had wanted to pour itself into him, possess him as it had her.

Then the black, angular lines of the seals had formed on her skin – on her hands, on the back of her neck – and Chthon's presence had ceased battering at the frayed edges of the mental walls she'd thrown up against him as abruptly as a candle being blown out. Now, Strange seemed like an ordinary man, no more or less appealing than any other, and the ceaseless whispering that had echoed through her skull for longer than she could remember was finally silent.

Chthon had used her to murder. To attack and kill and destroy the people she loved. And then he'd tried to use her to destroy the world, manipulating her and Pietro both into it. And then...

She couldn't think of a more terrible use of her powers, save for mass slaughter. To strip people's mutations away – it was like rape, like mutilation. And to do it to all mutantkind came sickeningly close to genocide, in intent if not in actuality.

All her power had been tied up in maintaining the spell, Strange had said, in magically suppressing the expression of thousands upon thousands of X-genes. When she had broken free of Chthon and cut the spell loose, she had ended the flow of power that had sustained it.

"The shockwaves of your struggle against Chthon yesterday afternoon reverberated through this entire plane of reality," Strange was saying. "I could feel the universe attempting to restore itself to its proper shape, to correct the damage done, like air rushing in to fill a vacuum. I suspect that if one of us were to turn on a television, the news would be filled with accounts of mutants whose powers have been miraculously and abruptly restored."

"But not all of them," Wanda said.

"No," he agreed, "not all of them. Likely not even half. Undoing the spell in its entirety would take far more power than either of us possesses."

"But I was the one who cast it in the first place," she said, softly, hating the truth in the words. "Couldn't I-"

"No," Strange interrupted, holding up a hand to cut her off. "You cast the spell while possessed by Chthon, with his power amplifying your own. To completely undo it, you would need to channel Chthon's power again."

She shuddered, the thought of the hours – months – she'd spent as a prisoner in her own mind making her stomach twist. If she tapped into Chthon's powers to augment her own, he would have her again, seals or no seals. Strange's spells were powerful, but the seals that protected her could be broken if she put them under enough pressure.

Wanda stared down at her hands, at the circular, symmetrical marks that now decorated the backs of them. They looked like tattoos, black as ink against her skin, but where fresh tattoos would have stung and throbbed, these were painless. It hadn't been painless when Strange and Wong had put them on, Wong drawing them on her skin with a brush and ink while Strange chanted an invocation to the Vishanti that had seemed to last for hours. His voice had risen to a crescendo at the end, and the drying ink on her skin had burned like acid for one terrible, endless moment, as Chthon's scream of wrath had echoed in her head, then cut off as abruptly as a door slamming.

She twisted her fingers around each other, not looking back up to where Strange sat mercifully silent. The place inside her where Chthon had been felt empty, blessedly quiet. Her powers felt quiet, too. The last thing she could remember clearly before Mount Wundagore was chaos magic surging through her, warping the world around her at her slightest whim, too powerful for her to control, for anyone to control.

Strange's seals had walled that away from her, too. Her powers were back under her conscious control again, he'd promised her. They wouldn't be as strong as they had been while Chthon had had her – he had forced her mutation to Omega levels, altered it to suit his whims until she could mold the world around her in ways that probability altering or chaos energy should never have been able to accomplish – but they were hers again, and if she had less energy to fuel her hexes, it was a small price to pay for freedom.

It was even fitting, in a way. She had shut down thousands of people's powers; losing some of hers in order to prevent such a thing from happening again was an odd kind of justice.

"I am afraid," Strange's voice broke the silence abruptly, "that I owe you an apology."

Jolted out of her reverie, Wanda looked up at him. "For what? I can't thank you enough. You probably saved my sanity."

Strange hesitated, looking almost embarrassed. It was not an emotion she normally associated with the Sorcerer Supreme. "Your teammates called me in to help them when your magic went out of control." His voice was hoarse, the wear of hours' worth of spell casting obvious despite the calm, unruffled air he projected. He'd put at least four spoonfuls of sugar into the tea he was drinking; Wanda had always assumed that her own shaky hunger after major spells and hexes was an effect of having an energy mutation, but it apparently affected him the same way. "I assumed you had accessed a higher level of your powers, or developed a secondary mutation, and that the new, reality-altering nature of your powers had driven you mad. Omega-level mutants are almost invariably unstable, and many magicians lose their grip on this reality after too long spent on other planes of existence."

"You put me to sleep," she said slowly, remembering.

Strange winced, but didn't look away. "I didn't notice Chthon's presence in your mind. It didn't even occur to me to look. It was an arrogant mistake, and one that has cost you and many others a great deal."

It was probably the most abject apology she was ever going to hear from him. Strange was not a man who admitted to mistakes easily. "I didn't notice him either," Wanda said, unsure if she was angry at Strange or not. If he'd been able to set the seals on her then, before Chthon had taken control of her completely and started to influence Pietro... "I don't even know how long he was there, pretending to be Agatha."

"When your teammates searched Agatha Harkness's house, she had been dead for some time. I'm afraid he may have been influencing you for far longer than anyone suspected."

Wanda thought of Agatha dying alone, of her being replaced by some form of construct that had pretended to be her for months without any of her friends ever noticing, and shuddered. "He killed her, too?"

"There's no way of knowing that." Strange waved a hand, dismissing her guilt. "Chthon may simply have taken advantage of her death and the closeness of her relationship to you and used the opportunity to manipulate you."

The thought that Agatha's death might not have occurred at Chthon's hands was little comfort. Even if that was the case, it wouldn't bring her back, and the weight of the months she had spent believing in something that wasn't Agatha, neither missing her nor mourning her, loomed oppressively over her. It was only one of many regrets.

"He used me to destroy the Avengers. How much did I..." she trailed off, then tried again. "Is everyone that's... left... okay?"

She shoved away the memory of Vision disintegrating in front of her eyes and braced herself for Strange's answer.

He hesitated, clearly choosing his words with care. "There's been a great deal of trouble and conflict in your absence, as I'm sure you've heard."

Wanda nodded dully. The Registration Act. Steve's death. During the long walk from St. Margaret's, she'd managed to piece together more than she'd wanted to from her fragmented memories of Clint's conversation.

"The SHRA has, thankfully, been repealed-"

Wanda closed her eyes for a moment, surprised at the strength of the relief she felt. She hadn't been aware of the Registration Act while it had been in effect, but just the name was chilling. Superhuman Registration. Mutant Registration. Even before Bishop and Cable and the X-Men's other travelers from future time-lines had arrived with doomsday warnings about the future, she had known where those kind of political policies led. Everyone who'd ever been a member of the Brotherhood of Mutants knew; Magneto had made sure of it.

First they made you put your name down on an official list, so they could 'keep track of you.' Then they marked you, so they could tell you apart from the normal people, for 'the public good.' Then the sentinels came for you.

Of all of Magneto's rhetoric, that had been the one part she'd never had trouble believing.

"-and Iron Man and Captain America have, ah, resolved their differences and reformed an Avengers team."

Iron Man and—

Wanda stared at him, not daring to believe that she'd heard that correctly. "I thought Cap was dead," she interrupted.

"He got better," Strange said dryly. "Victor von Doom brought him back from the dead with black magic. I was able to intervene and make the situation permanent."

"Brought him back? As in, really back? Not dead?" If she sounded silly, it was difficult to care. Only this morning, she had been sure that almost everyone she loved was gone, in no small part through her own actions. Knowing that they weren't–

She blinked suddenly hot eyes as Strange nodded – "Yes, really not dead," – and drew in a long, shaky breath. Steve was alive. Clint was alive. Simon and Tony were alive. She still had family left, despite Chthon's best efforts.

She'd already asked about Pietro, even though just the thought of what Strange might say had filled her stomach with a sick, hollow pain, but he had been able to tell her nothing, offering only the vague reassurance that Chthon had probably not been able to possess him the way he had Wanda, and that he'd likely been able to influence him only while he'd been in close physical proximity to her. Did her brother still have his powers? Had he been one of the lucky ones who'd been spared, or one of the people her spell had destroyed? Even if he had been, it didn't mean—his powers might have been restored last night, when she had ended the spell. His mutation was primarily energy-based, like hers, like Magneto's. It had been the people with major physical mutations who had died, and the mutants with flying powers who had been airborne. Unless Pietro had been running over water. He did that, sometimes, just to show off, or for the sheer joy of running as far as he could without needing to slow down.

Just because Strange had heard nothing didn't necessarily mean he was dead. Strange had little contact with the X-Men or any other mutant organization, outside of the occasional meeting with Xavier, and Pietro was unlikely to go to anyone who was neither a mutant nor an Avenger for help.

The X-Men would know for certain, would probably be able to give her every detail of what had happened to her brother over the past year, but asking them was out of the question. No mutant who knew what she had done was ever going to willingly speak to her again. Not to the woman who had accomplished with one sentence what Reverend Stryker and dozens of other anti-mutant Extremists had tried to achieve for decades. Even Pietro, if he was all right, might not want anywhere near him.

How could she look him in the eyes, now, after everything both of them had done?

No. She took another deep breath and made herself focus on positive things. Steve was alive. Clint was alive. The superhuman population was not going to be rounded up and imprisoned. Chthon couldn't touch her anymore, as long as she was careful in using her powers. Some of the people she had hurt had been healed, when she'd broken the spell suppressing their X genes.

"I can take you back to your teammates," Strange offered several minutes later, when both of their teacups were empty and Wanda had regained some of her composure.

She wanted to refuse, a small, cowardly part of her wanting to put for as long as possible the moment when she would have to see her friends and family face-to-face and apologize for what she had done to them. Warring with that, though, was the need to see the rest of the Avengers for herself, to assure herself that Steve, Clint, Simon, and the others truly were all right. To go home, finally.

"I'd like to get some sleep first, if you and Wong don't mind putting me up for the night. Or, well, the day."

Strange shrugged, an elegant motion. "After my failure to help you earlier, a place to sleep is the least I can do."

"I don't even know what's in half of these." Steve gestured at the cardboard boxes that were stacked neatly along the walls of their newly completed bedroom, each one labeled in Jarvis's precise script. They had spent the past month stacked in his and Tony's bedroom in Stark Tower, and the months before that in a closet somewhere; Steve had gotten used to living out of a suitcase and one borrowed drawer in Tony's dresser.

He wasn't sure which was stranger: the fact that his entire life could be packed away in a dozen boxes, or the fact that he'd once had so much stuff.

"Just pick one and open it," Tony suggested from the bed, where he was leaning back on his elbows and looking thoroughly debauched in a way that begged to be sketched, if only Steve had known which box held his art supplies. "I don't know what's in them, either." His own collection of boxes was smaller than Steve's, but only because at least sixty percent of the things he'd wanted to bring over from the tower were already sitting downstairs in the mansion's lab. Several of the larger pieces of equipment had had to be hauled over via quinjet.

Steve picked the nearest box, labeled 'bookshelf,' and sliced through the packing tape that held it closed. Inside, a small stuffed bear in a felt copy of his costume lay atop a stack of books, staring up at him with its black, plastic eyes. 'You have adopted Captain A-bear-ica,' read the paper tag attached to its left paw. It had appeared in his room one Valentines Day, with no card or note to tell him whom it had come from; Steve had always suspected Clint. Clint found any and all Captain America-themed merchandise hilarious, and probably owned every embarrassing and creepy attempt to make money off Steve's fame ever manufactured.

This particular attempt, though, Steve hadn't minded. He picked it up, smiling, and held it up for Tony to see. "I can't believe Jarvis kept this."

Tony eyed the little toy with a smirk. "I can't believe you kept it. I thought you hated all that Captain America merchandise they used to sell. Which you really ought to have gotten some sort of royalties for, by the way."

"I thought it was cute." Steve set the bear down on top of a still-closed box and inspected the books he'd been packed with. A half-dozen paperback fantasy novels, one of which he vaguely remembered reading just before the SHRA had been passed; he'd never finished it. A book on twentieth century labor history that he'd bought just after he and Tony had started the New Avengers, and had never gotten around to reading. Then the yellowed edge of a battered paperback with warped, water-damaged pages caught his eye, and he reached for it automatically, already knowing what it had to be.

Bucky had carried that copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn though half of France, and through Italy before that; it was probably a miracle that it was still readable, after all this time.

"I should give this back to Bucky," he said, carefully working it free from its spot between a Terry Pratchett novel and a leather bound copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. "It used to be his." The paper was soft, worn, and when he opened it, the pages still smelled like mildew and the mothballs the Army had packed it in, during the long decades he had spent in the ice.

The Army had given it back to Steve when he'd been unfrozen, tucked into the single cardboard box that had held all his remaining possessions. They had been carefully stored away in a government warehouse somewhere for "posterity," Bucky's things jumbled together with his own, because there'd been no next of kin to claim them when the two of them been reported dead. He'd barely touched it since then, afraid that if he handled it too much, it would start to fall apart.

"We don't even have a bookshelf in here yet." Tony's voice came from directly behind him, moments before his arms slid around Steve's waist. He rested the sharp point of his chin on Steve's shoulder, the edges of his goatee rasping against Steve's neck distractingly. "Leave those for later and come help me test if the bed is sturdy enough."

"It's sturdy," Steve told him. "We tested it very thoroughly."

"Yes, but that was two days ago. Materials can weaken over time." Tony hands moved downward, to the fly of Steve's jeans. "Metal fatigue builds up," he laid an open-mouthed kiss on the side of Steve's neck, mouth hot against Steve's skin, "wood warps..."

Steve turned in Tony's arms, his jeans already painfully tight, and settled his hands on Tony's hips, pulling Tony against him. "You're supposed to be helping me unpack," he said, sliding his fingers beneath the waistband of Tony's trousers and kneading at the dense curves of muscle in Tony's ass.

"We can do that later," Tony mumbled into the side of Steve's neck, and the vibrations of his voice against Steve's skin sent heat rushing down his body. "I have a business meeting in an hour, and D.C. keeps calling me about the mutant thing." He ground his hips against Steve's groin, his voice going low and rough, and Steve shuddered, gripping him harder. "Fury apparently told Koening and Gyrich to go do something anatomically impossible the last time they bothered him, and they think I'll have some kind of special insight into what SHIELD's going to do about it. Or that I'm still the government's pet superhero." Tony slid a hand into Steve's hair, turning his face toward his, and kissed him, slow and deep.

Steve broke the kiss, biting at Tony's lower lip just hard enough for him to feel it before he pulled away. "I can't imagine why they would think that." He took a few steps forward, nudging Tony ahead of him until the back of Tony's thighs were pressed against a stack of boxes; the entire stack would probably topple over if both of them rested their weight against it. "Try telling them no for once."

Tony's lips curved into a lopsided smile that only made the ache in Steve's body hotter and harder. His pupils were wide and dark, his lips parted slightly, and his hair was falling into his face, already disheveled from the effort of lugging boxes around. Someone else might have just looked sweaty and tired—Tony looked as if he'd just finished having hot, sweaty sex with someone, and was looking forward to having more. "When we bring out the next version of that stupid satellite phone," he said huskily, as Steve began unbuttoning his shirt, "the one with tablet capabilities that are going to put the Kindle out of business, and it sells millions of copies, I'm going to tell Koening what he can do with all those DoD contracts he's always threatening to take away from me."

Steve didn't point out that said DoD contracts involved work Tony sincerely enjoyed, and that he'd repeatedly heard him refer to the StarkPhone as "boring." He dropped to his knees, letting his hands slide down Tony's body, eliciting a very satisfying choked-off groan when he deliberately brushed them over the front of Tony's trousers, and looked up at Tony with a grin.

"You're lucky I like listening to you talk," he said. "I wonder how long you can keep it up."

Tony raised his eyebrows. "Is that a challenge?"

"What do you think?" Steve reached for Tony's zipper, deliberately taking as long as possible to pull it down and free Tony from the confines of pants and underwear.

"Pepper's always telling me to put together some kind of-" Tony broke off, gasping, then ground out, "some kind of prepared remarks for these meetings."

"Let's hear them then," Steve said. After that, he let Tony do all of the talking; his mouth was otherwise occupied.

Afterwards, the two of them sat side-by-side on the floor, their backs against the wall of boxes, shoulders touching.

"What does it take," Tony said, his breath still coming in slightly ragged gasps, "for you to get out of breath?"

Steve didn't answer, just leaned his head back against the boxes and enjoyed the afterglow. It was a rhetorical question, anyway. After a few minutes, when the energy began to slowly seep back into his limbs, he asked, "What have you told Washington about the mutant situation?"

Tony leaned his weight a little more heavily against Steve, his skin hot against Steve's bare shoulder. "That numerous mutants appear to have spontaneously regained their powers, and that they'll have to ask the X-Men if they want more detailed information. Even if I actually had a clue what was going on, I wouldn't tell them. Not now that I have a choice."

Around them, the contents of one of Steve's boxes of books lay scattered across the floor, the box itself lying on its side a few feet away. The bare wood of the floor was hard, still waiting to be covered by rugs, and the air smelled like new paint beneath the already-fading odor of sex.

The room itself looked like a slightly off-kilter copy of his old room at the Mansion – the layout was identical, and the walls and floor were the same down to the plaster moldings, but the bare walls and lack of furniture other than the bed rendered the room strange, unfamiliar. He'd be sharing it with Tony, now; Tony's old room at the mansion had been the smaller of the two, because he'd been just as likely to spend his time in various expensive apartments or at his company, where according to Pepper, he had sometimes slept on a cot in his work room.

Less than half a year ago, Steve had stood downstairs in the burned-out shell of this building and said goodbye to Tony for good. Having Tony right there next to him, sweaty and messy-haired and smelling like sex and expensive aftershave and hot metal, was a gift he still hadn't completely gotten used to.

"I've been keeping track of the news all day," Tony went on. "Nobody else has a clue what happened, either. If anyone at SHIELD does, they're being careful not to say so within reach of any electronic devices, and not to let anyone on the Helicarrier type the first syllable about it."

"Hank's running some tests on mutant blood chemistry for Beast," Steve offered. Despite the seriousness of the topic at hand, he couldn't keep a smile off his face; Tony worried about any phenomenon he couldn't explain and therefore have at least the illusion of control over, but watching news broadcasts of men and women weeping tears of joy over their returning powers was enough to make Steve willing to accept the mysterious return of the X-gene with only a few reservations.

What had caused it? Why had it only cured some of the mutants affected by M-Day? Was it permanent, or would the "cure" go away as abruptly as it had come? Everyone seemed to have some pet theory – Hank's working hypothesis was that it was magic, and he'd responded to Thor's automatic, "Nay, but what form of magic?" with a snarl of frustration, followed by a blank-faced look of surprise when he'd realized that Thor had actually addressed him directly. Unfortunately, that state of affairs had lasted only a few hours, until the surprise of M-Day's partial reversal had worn off, and Thor had swiftly gone back to pretending that Hank and Tony were not in the room.

Steve was going to have to do something about that, eventually, before the team's performance in the field suffered for it. He wasn't looking forward to it.

But the problems of trying to command a team when half the people on it weren't speaking to one another were nothing next to the miracle of having Thor back; between that and Clint's still-unexplained resurrection at Wanda's hands, Steve was beginning to understand why everyone had kept hugging him and hovering over him when he'd first... come back.

Tony was smiling as well, a small, satisfied curve of his lips that Steve suspected had little to do with their conversation and everything to do with good sex. "Whatever caused it, I'm glad it's happening now instead of two months ago. We'd never have gotten the SHRA repealed."

Steve shook his head slightly, refusing to let his good mood be spoiled by cynical thoughts about what might have been. "I hate politics," he said, without any real venom. "There doesn't always have to be a negative trade-off for good fortune. Sometimes people really do get a second chance."

He scooted slightly closer to Tony, wrapping an arm around his shoulders, and let the feel of Tony's body against his, warm and close and there, make his point for him.

Tony leaned his head against Steve's shoulder, sagging downward slightly against the boxes in order to do so, and closed his eyes, the smile still lingering on his lips. "Someday, I'm going to run out of those."

Steve's eyes went automatically to the smooth, unmarked skin of Tony's chest, though he knew that wasn't what Tony was referring to; they were both missing a lifetime's worth of scars, now, and while Steve occasionally missed the small imperfections he'd grown used to in his own appearance – the scar where he'd torn his knee falling off a fire escape as a child, the smallpox vaccination mark on his arm that no one who'd grown up in today's world had – he didn't miss Tony's scars at all. "No," he said, willing it to be true. "You won't."

There was at least a quarter of an hour until Tony had to leave for his meeting; Steve let himself soak in the sound of Tony's breathing, the press of his weight against him, and stared up at the blank, white walls around them, trying to envision them covered in paintings and photographs. All of his old art had vanished somewhere, but he could always draw more, and Jan would probably leap at the chance to look through a few art galleries and help find them something to cover all those barren walls. If he left it to Tony, they would either end up surrounded by images of the Avengers, or live in modernist sterility surrounded by ugly, angular furniture.

The floorboards beneath him were just beginning to become uncomfortably hard when Steve's Avengers communicator, lying out of the way atop a pile of boxes, came to life with a soft ping. Beside him, Tony went stiff, his shoulders jerking.

"It's Dr. Strange," he said, his voice strained. "He says that he has Wanda Maximoff with him. He says she wants to talk to us."

Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum was still disguised as a Starbucks, despite the fact that he wasn't trying to hide unregistered superheroes from the government anymore. Maybe he liked the privacy, or maybe it just amused him. You could never tell, with Strange.

Tony steeled himself inwardly as he, Steve, and Jan climbed the steps, almost wishing he'd worn his armor. The last time he'd seen Wanda, she had been completely beyond reasoning with, beyond help. And the Avengers had just let Strange hand her over to Magneto, nearly causing the end of the world through their carelessness.

They should have helped her, should have tried harder to get through to her. Should have noticed something was wrong before it was too late; by the end, whatever had been looking out of her eyes hadn't been Wanda anymore. The real Wanda, the woman Tony had been on a team with for years, would never have attempted to destroy an entire race of people.

Carol had insisted that it might be a trick, that they had no way of knowing whether or not Wanda was actually sane again, or had used her incredibly powerful chaos magic to influence Strange into thinkingshe was. She'd insisted on coming with them, as had Clint, but both of them were hanging back, following slowly behind the others as if they'd rather be anywhere else.

Steve, of course, was ready to believe that Wanda really was back, that Strange had somehow managed to find her and, miraculously, heal her. If he hadn't, he would do what he had to do, just as Tony would, but it would hurt him to have to treat Wanda as an enemy once more. All of them had spent far too much time fighting old friends.

Sooner or later, though, they were going to run out of miracles and good luck.

Tony resisted the urge to check the latches on his briefcase and reached for the door knocker.

The door swung inward before his fingers had even touched the polished brass, to reveal Strange, standing several steps back from the entrance. The narrow, Victorian hallway was dark, wreathing Strange in dramatic shadows; Tony suspected it was intentional.

"There are fewer of you than I expected," Strange said.

"We decided that the entire team would be a little too intimidating," Jan said, just as Clint said,

"Where is she? Is she all right? Does she know who she is again?"

Strange nodded, stepping aside and gesturing for them to enter the house. "Wanda has recovered her memories from before her possession by Chthon. She has no recollection of most of what occurred while she was under his control. She was unsure whether she ought to contact you, but there are things you need to know."

"She was possessed?" Steve's eyebrows shot up, and then his jaw tightened. "For how long?"

How long did we manage not to notice it, he meant.

Carol was still standing in the doorway, her arms folded across her chest. Tony put a hand on her arm, nudging her forward, and the door swung closed behind them, appearing to move of its own initiative.

As it fell shut, the string of emails from Pepper that Tony was mentally glancing over with a corner of his attention dissolved into static, as did the newsfeed full of reports on the mutant situation. He stiffened, and reached automatically for the armor, relaxing again when he was able to access it easily. Jan's cell phone was still detectible, too, searching futilely for a signal.

Every electronic signal coming from outside the house had been cut off.

"I wasn't able to determine that," Strange said, answering Steve's question. He grimaced slightly, clearly not pleased to have to admit to ignorance about something. "Wanda herself is unsure when he began influencing her."

"It's like that," Tony said. He was gripping the handle of his briefcase hard enough that his fingers were starting to hurt, he realized. He made himself loosen his grasp, and tried one more time to access one of the cut-off datafeeds. Once again, no luck. "You can't tell, afterwards, how much of it was the mind control and how much was you." Or at least, he hadn't been able to tell, when Immortus had been influencing him. When the Extremis had been hacked, his memory had been wiped after every instance of mind-control, leaving him with large blocks of missing time, and Ultron's mind-control had worked the same way. But with Immortus...

He remembered far too much of that.

"I could tell," Carol said, her voice flat. "Afterwards, anyway. Even when it was happening, I knew something was wrong. I just couldn't do anything about it."

Steve was still frowning, and Tony wasn't sure if the stiff set of his shoulders was due to Wanda's situation, or the reminder of what Marcus had done to Carol, when he'd used mind-control to seduce her into leaving the team and traveling to another dimension with him. And to make her think she'd fallen in love with him.

"How did she break free?" Steve asked.

"When she reached New York, proximity to the Spear of Loki in Hell's Kitchen disrupted Chthon's control over her. She came to me, and I was able to place magical shields on her to prevent him from reasserting control." Strange stopped in front of a heavy, wooden door, pushing it open with one hand and waving them inside with the other. "I believe I will let Miss Maximoff explain the rest."

Wanda was standing at the far end of Strange's study, her back to the door, staring out the huge, round window that dominated the room. Wong was standing next to her, the two of them deep in conversation.

"—not entirely sure how to accomplish that," he was saying. "Stephen's always been able to ignore those little details. You weren't officially declared dead, and the police and SHIELD didn't really understand what happened in the first place, so there have been no legal charges, so your assets should still be in your name." He nodded at the doorway, and added, gently, "Your teammates are here."

Wanda turned, her face expressionless. She was wearing a conservative skirt and blouse in subdued colors, and her face looked drawn and pale with exhaustion. She straightened her shoulders and faced them unflinchingly. "Clint," she said. "Steve, Carol. I'm... I'm glad you came. All of you." Her voice wavered on the last word, but her face and posture didn't change.

The last time Tony had seen her, she had been hovering in mid-air, surrounded by the hectic red light of chaos magic. Now she looked... normal. For months he'd been inwardly dreading the necessity of having to deal with her one day, amnesia and supposedly vanished powers or not, and coming face to face with her now felt strangely anti-climatic. No potentially world-destroying showdown, no lives at risk, no need to make any impossible choices.

"Wanda," Clint blurted out. "You remember me now. I mean, you look... are you okay?"

She looked away, one hand crumpling the fabric of her skirt. There was something dark on the back of it, but Tony wasn't close enough to make out the details. "I'm... I will be. I hope."

"Scarlet Witch," Steve cut in, voice controlled. It was his Captain America, I-am-in-charge-here voice, despite the fact that none of them were in costume. "It's good to see you yourself again."

There was a long moment of silence. Jan smiled tentatively, Clint looked at the floor, and Carol glowered at Wanda and everyone else, pointedly silent. Tony stood there feeling awkward, watching Steve and Wanda try to smile at one another, and struggled to think of something to say. 'I'm sorry we never noticed that you were under mind-control', maybe, or 'I'm sorry we didn't help you when you needed it.' Both seemed trite.

There were some things that apologies never seemed to work for.

Then Wanda's stiff, tremulous smile widened into a real one, and her eyes started to shine with what looked suspiciously like unshed tears. "I heard that you were dead," she said. "I'm so glad you're back. I wish I'd been here to help, when it happened."

Tony felt a sudden surge of relief that she hadn't been, that he'd been spared fighting and trying to imprison at least one of his old teammates, and then instantly felt guilty. She hadn't been there during Registration because she'd been off in Transia with Chthon doing God only knew what with her mind and body.

Chthon could have done anything to her, during the long year when Tony had preferred to ignore her existence because he didn't want to deal with it. Used her to kill, warping her powers and will into a weapon the way he had on M-Day. Influenced her thoughts, planted suggestions and commands in her brain...

They wouldn't be able to trust her, anymore. She wouldn't be able to trust herself.

Tony knew that feeling intimately, had known it long before Registration had forced him to sell out. It was part of why he'd been willing to try and work with HUSAC and Superhuman Registration in the first place, why he'd gone along with Dickstein and Koening and Gyrich and all the others, and not just because Koening and Dickstein had used the things he'd done when the Extremis had been hacked to blackmail him.

When superheroes couldn't trust themselves, it was impossible to expect the public to trust them, especially after disasters like Stamford. Proving they were safe, non-threatening, willing to follow the rules... had not been a very good solution, but it had been better than proving everyone's fears right would have been. Had been.

He'd come so close to falling off the wagon during the Registration fight, closer than anyone knew. Part of him had wanted to – it would have been so much easier to just stop fighting, and he'd already thrown away nearly every good thing he'd once had. It was different now. Now he had a lot more to lose. In some ways, that made it harder.

Steve rubbed at the back of his neck, the motion awkward and jerky. "I'm glad to be back," he said. "But we have some questions we need to ask you and Dr. Strange."

"Starting with how we can be sure Chthon's influence is truly gone." The words felt stiff in Tony's mouth, accusatory. The last thing Wanda probably needed right now was more blame, not when she knew very well what Chthon had used her to do, and what it had cost them all – Vision, Scott Lang, Clint, until his unexplained return, very nearly the team itself – but it had to be said.

Wanda took a few steps closer to the rest of them and held up her hands, palms facing inwards. The dark markings Tony had noticed earlier were tattoos, circular designs that looked like the circles magic users like Doom sometimes used to summon demons and other entities bent on destroying the world. Black, angular writing wrapped around the edge and wove through the design, in a script Tony didn't recognize, though he thought he saw a few alchemical symbols worked into it at strategic points.

"These seal me away from Chthon's power. As long as I wear them, he can't touch me unless I break the barrier between us myself."

"Which we're supposed to just trust you not to do?" Carol's voice was acid. "The way Vision trusted you? The way She-Hulk and Tony did? And Clint?"

Wanda shook her head, rubbing at the tattoo on her left hand. "No. You don't have to trust me. I'm not asking to come back to the team. Not now. Not after-" she stopped, swallowing, and continued. "I know I can't apologize or go back. I wanted to warn you."

So that they would be prepared if she lost control again, Tony thought. It was what he would have done, what Steve had refused to let him do after the disaster with the fear toxin last month.

The Wanda spoke again, and proved his assessment completely wrong. "Chthon is trying to free himself from his prison and return to this dimension. That's why he sent me here."

It was probably a sign of how bad the past year had been that Tony didn't even feel surprise. Of course Wanda's return to New York was part of a demonic plot. Nothing good came without strings attached.

He heard Steve swear, so quietly that only Tony, standing right next to him, would be able to hear it, and revised the thought. Almost nothing good came without strings.

"To do what?" Jan asked, taking a step forward. Her chin was raised, and her arms folded casually across her chest, but she looked at ease, in control, her calm even more impressive against the backdrop of Carol's sullen anger and Clint's obvious unease.

He wasn't even looking at Wanda, as if the mere sight of her was painful. Maybe it was, after what had happened between them on Mount Wundagore.

"To remake the earth in his own image, preferably killing or enslaving everyone on it in the process." Wong said the words with faint disgust, as if he'd encountered entities like Chthon far too many times to be impressed by them any longer. "Unfortunately, he's powerful enough to do it."

"Considering the amount of influence he's able to exert on the world while still imprisoned..." Strange let the sentence trail off, the pause lingering ominously. "He intended to use Wanda to obtain the chaos power stored within Baldur's Bane, which would increase the powers at his disposal just enough for him to breach the walls of his prison. Once free, he would be undefeatable, especially with Loki's power added to his own."

Tony narrowed his eyes. "You said you'd sealed the spear away."

"From Doom and other sorcerers who seek its power for selfish ends." Strange gestured at Wanda, as if the answer ought to have been obvious. For him, it probably was. "Wanda was seeking it for Chthon's ends, not her own."

"There's always a loophole," Clint said, bitterly. "I hate demons."

"So do I," Tony muttered.

"So you see," Wanda was saying, her voice measured and careful, "I can't leave until Chthon has been stopped. And I can't fight him alone, not without using his own power to strengthen mine. And if I do that, he'll have me again. I can understand if you don't want to help me, but you needed to know-"

"Of course we'll help," Steve said firmly, as if the Avengers had already discussed the situation and come to a unanimous conclusion.

Wanda's face crumpled with relief for a moment, and then she looked away. "Thank you," she said quietly.

Jan put a hand on her arm. "Everything you've done – everything Chthon made you do – can be dealt with later. This is more important."

"Well, obviously, but..." Carol shook her head sharply, then turned to Strange. "Why can't you do it?" she asked bluntly.

Strange spread his hands. "Even the power of the Sorcerer Supreme pales beside that of an elder god. I, too, would not be able to accomplish the task alone. I have faced Chthon before, but never at his full power."

She narrowed her eyes. "I thought you were infallible and nearly omnipotent."

"Only nearly. Sorry to have disappointed you."

"I agree with Jan," Clint said quickly. "We can talk about everything else later."

Steve caught Tony's gaze, eyebrows raised in a silent question.

"All for one, and one for all," Tony agreed. He meant for it to sound light, upbeat, but the words came out sounding grim.

Good intentions and a common enemy had gone a little way toward repairing the shattered remnants of their team before, but that had been as much luck as anything else, Steve granting forgiveness to Tony almost completely unearned, and the rest of the superhero community grudgingly following his lead. Even now, the breach still hadn't completely healed, something Thor's pointed absence from today's visit made all too obvious. Tony had come, so of course, Thor hadn't.

They might not be able to repair things this time, not when they had wronged Wanda far more deeply than anyone in the superhero community had ever wronged Tony or Hank during the Registration fight – they'd been acting of their own free will. Even if the entire team and the superhero community at large were prepared to forgive her, something he'd bet money most of the world's mutant population was never going to do, she might not be able to forgive them.

And Chthon would be able to take advantage of that.

"She's been sane for what, two days?" Sam shook his head, frowning. "What if Chthon planted some kind of trigger, made her a sleeper agent? She could be following his orders without even realizing it."

"Exactly." Hank pointed a finger at Sam. "We need her where we can keep an eye on her."

"That's not actually what I was saying." On Sam's shoulder, Redwing cocked his head and eyed Hank's finger threateningly.

Jan had never been able to bring herself to like birds. They were pretty, yes, but their cold reptilian eyes and scaly feet had been off-putting even before the first three times she'd almost been eaten by one. Sam's pet was no exception – he looked at her as if he knew that she could shrink down to the size of something edible and was merely waiting until Sam turned his back during a fight in order to grab a crunchy, Wasp-shaped snack.

She had clearly been spending too much time around Hank lately, if she was starting to come up with her own paranoid worries; with matters on the team as they stood, Hank was spending a lot of time hiding in the Tower's lab, and it was never good when Hank spent days in a lab completely unsupervised. He forgot to shower, for one thing.

"We already agreed to help Wanda," Jan reminded everyone, resisting the impulse to get up and pace. She sacrificed some of her authority as chairwoman when she shrank down to six inches tall and paced back and forth across the table, but it always helped her think. "Stopping Chthon from breaking free is-"

"You mean Cap agreed to help her," Carol interrupted.

"He's right." Tony's metal faceplate was expressionless, as always, but even through the helmet's voice filters, he sounded stubbornly uncompromising. "We owe her. She wouldn't have ended up in this situation at all if we'd noticed what was going on sooner."

"Well, no, but..." Hank waved a hand, visibly struggling for words. "She nearly destroyed the world. She's incredibly powerful. Incredibly powerful and unstable, and that means she's incredibly dangerous. She killed Scott. And Vision. Maybe she didn't mean to, but they're still dead."

Dead like Steve had been. Dead like Bill Foster. The words hung in the air, no one needing to say them. Hank, she knew, could hear them anyway; he dropped his gaze to the tabletop, and fell silent.

Steve folded his arms across his chest, his jaw tilting at a familiar angle. "If Strange is right, that wasn't actually her. And I don't see any reason why we should doubt him."

Thor had been silent throughout the meeting – the argument, really – and when he spoke, it was almost startling. "If the Scarlet Witch was truly forced to do these terrible deeds against her will, then it would be wrong of us to blame her for them."

He had no problem blaming Hank and Tony for cloning him without his knowledge, Jan thought, or for the destruction said clone had caused, despite the fact that neither of them had been acting of their own free will, either. She couldn't blame him – it had been a horrible violation, and the cost... Dickstein's committee had forced Hank's hands, but assigning the blame where it was due still wasn't going to bring Bill back.

She'd left Hank and been prepared to leave the pro-registration side and her life as a superhero after Bill Foster's death, but she also knew how much Hank regretted it, and couldn't help feeling defensive of him. She didn't want to be angry at Thor, not when just seeing him sitting across the table from her still made her want to hug him in thanks that he was alive. He was right. What Hank had done had been terrible. Still...

How did Steve manage to be completely sympathetic to both Thor and Tony, to avoid obviously picking a side? He was a better person, a better leader, than she was – Jan could never manage that degree of impartiality where Hank was concerned. Even when he'd hurt her, leaving him had been almost as difficult as staying would have been.

Thor wasn't the one who had to try and get Hank out of bed in the morning. Steve either.

Clint, surprisingly, nodded. "The big guy's right," he said. "If she was possessed, it's not her fault. Nothing she did was her fault."

"She still did it," Carol snapped, glaring at him. "How can you defend her, after what she did to you? She could do it again at any time, the moment she uses enough magic to fry Strange's seals and lets Chthon back into her head."

Clint looked away, his hands still on the table-top.

"It wouldn't even have to be her fault," Sam repeated. "Like I said, he could have planted suggestions in her head."

Steve sighed. "If we kicked everyone off the team who might potentially have had a supervillain planting suggestions in their head, the only people left at this table would be Jan and Thor."

"Nay, the Enchantress hypnotized me once."

"All right, just Jan, then."

"Not after last month," Jan countered. "We all know there are no guarantees in this business. If Chthon truly is on the verge of breaking free, arguing about whether or not we can trust Wanda's information is a waste of time. Strange has already vouched for her, and if we can't trust his word, then we might as well throw our hands up and give up now."

"So we're just supposed to trust her not to use too much magic and burn through the seals?" Carol's voice dripped with scorn. Jan was tempted to point out that half the former anti-Registration superheroes had been equally unwilling to trust Carol, but that would have been petty, and wouldn't accomplish anything.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, we're supposed to trust her. The way we trust Hank to take his medication, and Tony not to start drinking again, or erase our checking accounts with the Extremis just because he can, or Steve not to kill somebody practicing unarmed combat moves. Or Sam and Clint not to..." she trailed off, unable to think of anything potentially threatening about Clint, or any way Sam could possibly misuse the ability to talk to birds.

Hank flushed, his face tightening with a familiar look of discomfort. She could almost hear him saying, 'Don't embarrass me in public, Jan,' in tones that would once have been an annoyed snarl and now were usually just resigned, but there were times when they had to stop tiptoeing around the truth. And the truth was that all of them had the potential to be incredibly dangerous under the wrong circumstances. It wasn't as if having to keep a watchful eye on a teammate was a new concept.

"I could do much better than just erase your checking accounts," Tony said, after a long moment of silence.

"This meeting is not a place for levity," Thor said stiffly, neither looking at Tony nor directly addressing him. "Trust must be earned, and is all too easily betrayed. But by all we have heard, the Scarlet Witch is, methinks, innocent of any such betrayal. And Chthon is a terrible enemy; none of the gods of Asgard have powers to equal his. My vote is that we accept her help."

Steve nodded. "Mine as well." No surprise there; he hadn't hesitated for so much as a moment at Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum before offering his – their – help.

"I agree with Cap-" Tony started.

"Oh, there's a surprise," Carol muttered. "I vote no."

She probably ought to vote no as well, Jan knew. Keeping a watchful eye on a teammate, trusting them to do the right thing, to use their powers wisely, was something they all did every day, but after a disaster as complete as Wanda's possession-driven breakdown, it would be foolish to just let her walk back onto the team without proving herself. She had kicked Hank off the team for a reason, all those years ago, and it hadn't been because he'd given her a black eye – he'd come within inches of getting the rest of them killed. They hadn't been able to trust his judgment, any more than they'd been able to trust Tony's judgment when he'd been drinking, though he'd thankfully taken himself off the team of his own volition before Jan or Steve had had to do it for him. Carol, too, had needed to be stricken from the Avengers roster when she'd been drinking, and it had taken more than simply her insistence that she was fine, afterwards, for Steve to agree to let her back on.

She ought to vote no. But the fact remained that Chthon was too powerful for them to face without Wanda's magic at their disposal. Strange had admitted that touching the spear and accessing its power was beyond him, that channeling pure chaos power would drive almost any magic user other than Wanda insane. "We need her," she said. "I vote yes. But not as an Avenger. Not until we can be sure she's really okay."

It had nothing to do with Hank and Tony, she told herself. She wasn't rushing to forgive Wanda because she felt obligated to give the other woman a second chance after being so quick to come back to the pro-Registration side despite Bill's death, despite how uneasy HUSAC's actions and the Fifty State Initiative had made her.

Hank cleared his throat. "I say yes, too. We need her where we can stop her, if something goes wrong."

"Falcon?" Steve asked.

Sam shook his head. "I vote no. There's too much we can't be sure of, especially this soon."


Clint shrugged one shoulder, his eyes on the table top. "I don't know. I- Can I abstain?"

Jan frowned. Clint's vote wasn't the deciding factor at this point, not with five votes for and two against, but she had expected him to have strong feelings one way or the other. He had known Wanda longer than any of them except Steve, and he had been the one to find her in Transia. He was the one she had killed, then raised from the dead.

And it wasn't like Clint not to have an opinion on a decision as important as this, usually a loud opinion.

"Are you sure?" Steve asked Clint, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "If anyone has the right to object to working with her, it's-"

"I'm sure," Clint interrupted. "She brought me back from the dead. And then I-" he broke off, looking uncomfortable. "I don't know. I don't think I can make a rational decision here."

"Who gets to bring her in here to hear the verdict?" Hank asked.

"No one." Tony held up one gauntleted hand. "You remember what it's like. She had no choice in any of this, and we're not going to haul her up in front of all eight of us to make her listen to us pass judgment on her. Making her wait in the hall is bad enough." He turned to Steve, the motion making light glint off his polished faceplate. "Send somebody out there to tell her what our decision is."

"That's... a good idea actually." Steve frowned slightly, his mask crinkling over his eyebrows. "Is that really what it's like?"

Carol sighed, pushing her hair out of her face with one hand. "No," she said. "Tony's actually downplaying how nerve-wracking having everyone sit in judgment of you is."

Steve rubbed his hands together, glancing at the door, then stood. "I'll tell her, then. We can discuss how we're going to make this work later. And it is going to work," he added, casting a stern look over the entire table.

Jan watched him stride toward the door, resisting the impulse to rub at her temples. Steve clung fondly to the belief that he could make things turn out the way he wanted them to by sheer force of will. It was endearing, most of the time, but sometimes...

Problems didn't go away just because you wanted them to. Eventually, you always had to accept that they were there, and deal with them.

Chapter Text

The massive, Victorian pseudo-Gothic façade of St. Margaret's Cathedral was wreathed in shadows, the soot-smudged stone seeming to draw the darkness toward itself. The floodlight that usually illuminated its five-story high steeple and the giant cross that topped it had burned out, leaving the upper reaches of the building in shadow. The two stressed-looking trees that grew inside cages of iron railing on either side of the building had lost almost all of their leaves; a handful of them drifted lifelessly across the sidewalk, the wind sending them scraping dryly over the cracked concrete.

From his position on the third-story window ledge of an apartment building across the street from it, Strange could sense the aura of malice that hung around the cathedral. It was thick, suffocating. Hungry.

"It sounds stupid, I know," Matt Murdock's voice was low, rough, the slightly nasal sound of working class New York Irish in it thick enough to cut with a knife. He had only the barest trace of accent in court, voice smoother and at least half an octave lighter – Strange had heard him speak when out of costume, and it was almost like listening to a completely different person. He would have applauded it as an effective trick to keep Daredevil's voice unrecognizable to people who knew him as Matt Murdock, but he suspected that Matt didn't even know he was doing it.

"If I thought your worries were foolish, I would not be here," Strange said. "You're not imagining things; the energy fields around the cathedral have shifted. Dark magic has been used here, and a great deal of it."

"It just..." Matt shook his head. The dull red leather of his mask obscured most of his face, but his body language conveyed unease – he was crouched low on the edge of the ledge, not bothering to look up at Strange as he spoke. Matt generally made an effort to face people when he spoke to them. "It feels wrong, somehow. Different. And I've been having these dreams. That there's something in there. Something that wants to get out."

"Well then," Strange said, "let us go down and investigate your church. There very well may be something inside trying to get out." He most fervently hoped not, given that Chthon was dangerous enough anywhere, and likely to be even more dangerous in such close proximity to Baldur's Bane, especially inside a church. The barriers between dimensions were naturally thin inside sacred places, the more so the older said sacred location was. St. Margaret's had been built nearly a decade before the Civil War.

Strange took a step forward and allowed the Cloak of Levitation to float him gently down to the street below. Behind him, Daredevil climbed down the building façade like a cat-burglar, dropping the final ten feet in an acrobatic jump that would have done an Olympic gymnast proud.

The oppressive atmosphere worsened as Strange drew closer to the cathedral. When he laid his hand on the door, the heavy wood and metal seemed to hum, the mystical vibrations sending a dull ache through damaged nerves and poorly knit bones.

His own protective spells were layered thickly around the nave of the cathedral. Had he not been the Sorcerer Supreme, a novice's uncertainty over a decade behind him, their familiarity would have been reassuring.

The inside of the cathedral was dark, illuminated only by the candles on the high altar, and by the flickering red glow of a dozen or so tiny votive candles left burning below the image of the Blessed Virgin. A middle-aged white man in a green windbreaker was praying at one of the stations of the cross; he didn't look up when they entered, Strange's magic subtly clouding his perceptions and hiding the two of them from his sight.

Other than him, Strange and Matt were alone in the cathedral.

So much the better. An audience would be a hindrance, diverting his attention from the task at hand with the need to keep a dozen pairs of unwanted eyes from witnessing his presence.

"There have been three mugging on this block in the past week, and two fights," Matt said softly, his voice pitched low enough that even without Strange's power masking it, the man praying a few dozen feet away wouldn't have heard. "This isn't exactly a brilliant neighborhood, but even for here, that's unusual. One of the parishioners actually threw a punch at me after mass this Sunday. People don't do that when I'm out of costume. Nobody wants to hit the blind guy."

Strange didn't answer. He focused his senses, opening his mind and reaching out through the Eye of Agamotto to see the unseen reality that surrounded them.

The high altar glowed with power to his otherworldly senses, the chaos energy that saturated the spear emanating up through the stones that covered it. That much had not changed since the last time he had stood here and gazed upon this place.

What had changed was the thin spot in the fabric of reality located just beyond the polished brass altar rail, a blurred space in the air at what would have been head height for a short man – or for a woman of average height. Tendrils of chaos energy writhed invisibly around it, perceptible only to those who had eyes to see, and knew where and how to look.

The energy was different in nature from the hot, orange-yellow-white power of the spear, moving in slow, sullen coils that pulsated with the unhealthy red heat of an infected wound. In the spaces between them, Strange could glimpse a cold, black absence of light, from which emanated unfelt vibrations on the same bone-hurting frequency as the power that had hummed through the cathedral door.

Matt's boots were silent on the stone floor as he came to stand beside Strange, the soles made of soft leather, or something else designed to let him move with barely a sound. "Do you... hear something?" he asked quietly. His chin was tilted up, his head cocked slightly to the left, as if he were trying to pinpoint the source of a sound. "Something whispering?" Strange began to say no, his attention still on the coil of energy in front of him, when he heard it, a faint susurrus of sound just within the threshold of audibility. As soon as he became aware of it, the volume increased, until it sounded as if someone – or something – was whispering in his ear, the words too garbled to make out.

"Try to ignore it, if you can," he advised Matt. "The less contact you have with Chthon, the better."

"In a church? I thought he was a demon."

Strange shook his head. "He is a primordial chaos entity, eons older than Christianity, and both unbound by and uncaring of its rules."

Matt nodded, and shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other, obviously wanting to pace. He talked with his hands when he was out of costume, gestures broader the more agitated he was, and Strange had recognized the signs of a person who didn't like sitting still, who enjoyed grandstanding, who liked to feel in control of his environment. He could guess from experience how long it had probably taken for the other man to teach himself how to stay perfectly still and silent, which he could do eerily well. Not at the moment, though. He had been visibly nervous from the moment they had walked through the front doors.

No doubt he could feel the same aura of evil in the air that Strange could sense; bound to the church as he was, by blood and oaths, he would sense any danger that threatened within these walls.

To ordinary eyes, the inside of the cathedral must have looked entirely normal, the stone wall and polished wooden pews glowing warmly in the dim light. The tiny brass number plates that marked each pew gleamed brightly, and the heavy gold embroidery on the green altar cloth blazed in the candlelight. Chthon's presence did not exist on the physical plane – it would not tarnish the brass candlestick holders or stain the altar screen or heavy wooden crucifix.

The damage his taint would do would be invisible, and far more insidious. 

Strange marshaled his thoughts, seeking the degree of mental clarity that would be necessary for a working powerful enough to seal the incipient breach between realities and drive the fraction of Chthon's essence trapped before the high altar back where it belonged. Chthon was likely using the destabilization of magical energies caused by the spear to keep a toe-hold in this world, relying on the thinness of the dimensional barriers here to make it possible.

His influence could only be felt in the immediate area of the church, and with the wards still in place around the building – both the ones Strange had erected, and the ancient, Asgardian protections that had lain heavy on the spear for millennia – leaving the confines of the sanctuary would require more power than Chthon, still trapped largely in the other realm, currently possessed.

To remove the spear from its hiding place and fully access its powers, he would need to possess a human host, and with Wanda sealed away from him, few humans were left who would be suitable for such a task. Even fewer of those would be likely to walk into St. Margaret's.

Strange adjusted the sleeves of his robe, then raised his hands to chest height, gradually ceasing to become aware of the smell of candle smoke and ghost of old incense, of the sound of Daredevil's breathing and the tiny creaks of his leather costume as he shifted, of the weight of the Eye on his chest and the flutter of the Cape of Levitation against his legs, until all that remained was the reality his supernatural senses showed him.

Chthon had only a toehold here, but given time, given the weight of human minds and souls that would press into this church every Sunday and Wednesday to worship, unprotected and vulnerable to his influence, his power would grow, feeding not on their faith, but on their darker emotions – anger, fear, anxiety, despair, all the chaotic and disordered states of the human mind.

"I summon the powers of the Vishanti!" he began, reaching out for the power that lay always waiting, ready for the adept to call upon it. In many spells, the words were, strictly speaking, unnecessary – the true magic was done by the exertion of one's will, with spells and gestures serving merely as a focus for the mind – but when drawing upon the great powers, they were vital. Spoken aloud, an invocation served as both supplication and invitation, addressed to forces who would only grant their aid when the proper forms were observed, or whose touch, if the forms were not observed, could be immensely dangerous.

"In the name of the All-Seeing Agamotto, all thy powers I summon." The magic came in a rush, like light flooding into a room when curtains were pulled back, until he could feel it thrumming within and around him, so vast that the sweetness of wielding it came near the edge of pain.

He focused his will upon the weak spot in reality, envisioning the thick coils of Chthon's power being driven back the through too-permeable barrier, like a reversed form of cellular osmosis. "Let all the Hosts of Hoggoth send you back to the netherworld from whence you came!" he cried, and set the force of his will and magic – both his own, and that lent by the Vishanti, for which he served merely as the conduit – against the cold, heavy weight of Chthon's presence.

It was as if he tried to throw himself against a brick wall. Chthon's snarl of rage rang through his head, and the whispering rose to an eerie almost-scream that blocked out all other sound.

The coils of magical energy were heavy, slick, and almost impossible to shift, slipping out of his grasp whenever he attempted to take hold of them. Strange shaped his fingers into a sequence of complex magical seals, envisioning the currents of power moving with his gestures like a puppet on strings. "Begone!" He forced the word out through the strain and effort, trying to imbue it with all the power and authority of the Sorcerer Supreme, of all the masters and adepts who had held the title before him. The Eye burned against his chest, its heat palpable even through his tunic.

He could feel sweat prickling against his skin, along his ribs and back, could smell the faintest hint of sulfur cutting sharply through the must of candles and incense and old stone as Chthon's power lashed at him. It battered at his shields, against the edges of his mind, full of malicious intent.

"Begone," he hissed, through gritted teeth, ignoring the assault. "I command you!"

You cannot compel me, mage. Chthon's hollow, whispery voice stabbed at his brain, the syllables like the crackling of fire, or the crunching of tiny, dried bones. This place is of Chthon, now. I have claimed it for my own, and all that lies within it.

There was a wordless shout from Matt, and Strange half-turned to look back at him just as the man who had been praying so quietly in the side chapel slammed into him.

He felt a hard blow against his side, and something cold slid between two of his lower ribs, and then Matt was on the man, ripping him away from Strange and landing three hard, effective blows with hand, elbow, and foot.

The man crumpled to the floor, his green windbreaker rustling against the stone.

With a torrent of magic pouring through him, Strange did not feel the pain of the wound in his side, but when he glanced down, the silver handle of a leatherman was standing incongruously out from his side, surrounded by a dark patch of blood.

As soon as he saw the way the fabric of his tunic clung wetly to his skin, he could feel the warmth of the blood soaking into it, but the knife itself might as well have been stuck into someone else entirely.

"You think such petty weapons can disable the Sorcerer Supreme?" he asked, and raised his hands once more, gathering the power he had never lost hold of into them and preparing to launch into another spell.

I will be free, Chthon howled. No interfering mortal gatekeeper shall stop me.

Matt grabbed at him abruptly, his hands pulling on Strange's arms and disrupting the building forces of the spell. "You're bleeding. Hold still and let me see where you're hurt." He began patting down Strange's arms, his torso, ignoring his attempt to pull away – and then his hands brushed against the knife handle.

The pain in his side was sudden and blinding; Strange grabbed for the altar rail, fighting the urge to curl around the pain, his concentration shattered for one brief, fatal moment.

Chthon's will slammed against his cracking shields like a wall of water pounding against a crumbling dam, forcing its way through the cracks and into him – and Strange knew, with an instant's cold clarity, that if his shields failed, if he did not succeed in driving the chaos entity back, out of his mind, then Chthon would possess him utterly, make of him a puppet the way he had the Scarlet Witch.

He reached out wildly for more power, all of his careful training and discipline deserting him, and it was there, waiting hot and orange-gold as fire just beyond his reach.

He stretched out his free hand toward it, seizing at it—

The pain was incredible, like grabbing hold of a live wire, worse than the knife in his side by an entire order of magnitude. Raw chaos magic filled him, corrosive and violent and burning, too immense and wild for control. He flung it at Chthon blindly, an exercise of magical brute force, but even as the chaos entity was expelled from his mind, the spear's power was burning through him from the inside out. "Hoary fucking hosts," he gasped. "I call—upon—"

His knees hit the floor hard. Matt was saying something, trying to pull the writhing Cloak of Levitation out of the way so that he could touch Strange's side again. "Leave the knife where it is," Strange snapped at him, as he struggled to release the power that was flaying his soul. Dark magic, even the powers of Dormammu and Satannish, was still rooted in a kind of order, still obeyed commands. This magic was unstable, dangerous; he had to release it, had to stop drawing on it before it destroyed him.

He managed to wrench himself away from the flow of chaos magic just as his vision began to go dark around the edges. The mocking sound of Chthon's laughter followed him down into darkness.

The Night Nurse's clinic reminded Wanda of a high tech version of the MASH unit from that old TV show – there were cots instead of hospital beds in some of the rooms, and the operating table was built to be easily disassembled and moved when necessary. All the equipment looked temporary, portable.

"And you are?" the Night Nurse asked coolly, raising an eyebrow at Wanda. She was in her late thirties, dark-haired and attractive in a severe-featured way, and the whimsical old fashioned nurse's uniform sat oddly on her, like a well-made Halloween costume. Wanda suspected that she would have looked more at home in surgical scrubs.

"She's one of Stephen's students," Wong said; he didn't look at the woman while he spoke, his gaze clearly on the camp bed where Strange lay, an IV line in one elbow and bandages wrapped around his torso and both his hands. "She's staying with us at the moment." He turned his head slightly, his attention refocusing on the Night Nurse, and added, "You didn't give me much information over the phone. What happened?"

The Night Nurse shook her head. "I don't know. Daredevil's account of the situation isn't very detailed. I was hoping you could tell me what's wrong with him. That astral projection form of his ought to be hovering over in the corner telling me how to do my job, but instead he's just lying there."

"He wasn't stabbed that badly," Daredevil halted his nervous pacing of the room to proteSt. "I can tell when someone's punctured a lung; their breathing changes, and you can hear the fluid in their-"

"How was he stabbed in the first place?" Wanda interrupted. "He was going with you to make sure Chthon hadn't tampered with the magical protections at St. Margaret's."

Daredevil looked away, and Wanda felt an odd sense of relief to have the opaque red plastic of his mask's eyeholes leave her. There was something unnerving about how steadily and intently he watchedpeople, his head cocked slightly to one side like he was committing every move they made to memory. "There was a man praying in the chapel there. He just lost it, went completely crazy and attacked us. I didn't," he hesitated. "I didn't hear him coming. There was this whispering, drowning everything out, like it was coming from everywhere at once."

"Or inside your own head," Wanda said, remembering the incessant whispering that had battered at the edges of her mind as she'd fled from the church.

"Strange heard it, too," Daredevil protested defensively.

"I'm sure he did," Wong said, his eyes going to Strange again. Strange looked older, lying so still, all the grandiose hand gestures and cool superiority absent.

She'd gone to him for protection, expecting him to wave a hand and solve all her problems, secure in the knowledge that the Sorcerer Supreme was the one person she wouldn't endanger with her presence. She should have known better.

"Chthon can do that," she said, to Daredevil. "It's one of his tricks. Sometimes he'll sound like someone you know."

The Night Nurse eyed Daredevil appraisingly. "I'll check you out when I'm done with Stephen and with those idiots from the bank robbery in room three," she said. "Supervillains," she added. "They always wait until the last minute to come in, and then it just makes my job harder. It took me ages to get the internal bleeding stabilized. Could you tell your friend Rand to hit people a little less forcefully?"

Daredevil shrugged one shoulder. "You'll have to take that up with Iron Fist. If those are the bank robbers I think you're talking about, I think he took objection to them trying to use some kind of poison gas on Luke."

The Night Nurse snorted. "A half hour with an oxygen mask and Cage was fine. Fortunately. I don't know what I'd do if it were ever necessary to operate on him." Then, to Wong, "I stitched and bandaged Stephen's side and treated the burns on his fingers. He can complain about my handiwork when he wakes up."

"I'm sure he wouldn't be that rude," Wong said, with the sound of a man who knew he was offering an empty promise. He brushed one finger gently across the back of Strange's bandaged left hand. "What was he touching, when he did this? Sometimes, if something's hot-"

"He doesn't always notice?" The Night Nurse finished. "I know. They aren't normal burns. It looks almost as if he did it to himself by grabbing some kind of electric wire."

"Whatever spell he was doing blew up in his face." Wanda hadn't meant to speak, and didn't fully realize that she had until everyone in the cramped little room was staring at her.

"He was going to cast Chthon back out of the cathedral," Daredevil said, frowning. "He told him to go back to 'the place from whence he came'. That was when Mr. Gillis tried to stab him."

"Luckily for our sorcerer friend, the knife was single-edged, and only a few inches long, and he managed to miss all the vital organs." The Night Nurse's fingers were taut around the edge of the clipboard she was holding, white surgical gloves stretched tightly over her knuckles. "He ought to be waking up shortly."

Wong shook his head. "Not necessarily. When a spell backfires upon the caster, the effects can be severe. There may be internal damage. From the disordered magic."

"I would have noticed that," the Night Nurse said, voice sharpening. "I don't need your assistance to do my job any more than I need his."

"He feels... there's an aura around him, something familiar. Not Chthon," Wanda hastened to add, before any of the others could suggest it. "Something warmer, sharper." She studied Strange more closely, looking past the bandages and pallor and the tired lines around his eyes to the faint hum of magic that still clung to him. The feel of it brought back a vivid memory of standing at the high altar of St. Margaret's, fingers clenched tightly around the brass altar rail that had been the only thing keeping her on her feet.

"The spear," she said slowly. "He drew power from the spear. A great deal of it."

There was a murmur of sound from the hallway outside – the building was a warren of little hallways and rooms, thin, pasteboard walls partitioning up what had once been either a warehouse or a factory floor – and Wanda lifted her hands, calling her power to her and trying not to notice that the energy she could feel welling up inside her was less intense than it had been before. Even constrained by her new wards, she had more than enough power behind her hexes to take care of anyone unfriendly about to walk through the exam room's door.

Cap entered the room first, ducking his head slightly as he came through the doorframe, as if he expected the jamb to be too low to clear the top of his head; it wasn't, but only by a few inches. He was in civilian clothes, the collar of his old-fashioned trench coat turned up against the cool night air.

If Wanda hadn't know what was in the artist's portfolio he carried slung over one shoulder, she might have been fooled into thinking that he was some ordinary citizen who'd stumbled into the Night Nurse's clinic by accident. Then Tony and Sam appeared in the doorway behind him, flanking him – Tony on the left, in the spot where a left-handed person would do the most good in a fight, and Sam on the right, his eyes glinting gold in the hard fluorescent lighting – and the illusion was shattered.

"What happened to him?" Sam nodded at Strange. "I thought he was pretty much indestructible."

The Night Nurse grimaced. "Only in his own mind, unfortunately."

"I believe he attempted to cleanse the cathedral of Chthon's power," Wong said. "Chthon... took steps to protect itself, and he tried to use the power stored in Loki's spear in his defense."

"It looks like that didn't work out well," Cap said, dryly. Behind him, Jan slipped into the room, shutting the door behind her. She was in street clothes, too, the three-inch heels of her boots somehow nearly silent on the tiled floors.

"It's my fault," Daredevil mumbled. "I dragged him there, and then I didn't hear the guy who stabbed him."

"Stabbed?" Tony's eyebrows arched. "I thought he'd been fried by magical feedback."

"That too," Wanda said. "How did you guys know to come?"

"Wong called us." Jan nodded to where Wong was standing by Strange, exchanging significant glances with the Night Nurse while she wrote something down on the clipboard that Wanda assumed contained Strange's medical information. She wondered what kind of entry one would make on a medical chart for "metaphysically attacked by an elder god."

"How badly is he hurt?" Cap asked, in the tone of someone who had already mentally taken charge of the situation. Cap tended to do that; it made him a good tactical leader for the Avengers. It also made him incredibly frustrating to work with at times, if his idea of the best course of action was different from your own.

Right now, though, it felt obscurely comforting to have Cap stride in and take charge of things. It was something familiar, something Wanda had thought that she had lost forever, during those few brief hours when she had believed that Cap was dead.

It would be dangerous to let herself rely on that comfort too heavily. She had run to Strange for protection from Chthon, and now Strange was unconscious on the Night Nurse's exam table, and he had had the knowledge and abilities to defend himself from a being like Chthon. Cap and the other Avengers had only second-hand experience with magic. If Chthon broke free, all Cap and Clint and Simon would be able to do if they stood against him was die. Again.

The Night Nurse was explaining Strange's injuries to the Avengers, her gestures short and jerky, as if being forced to repeat the information over again offended her. Daredevil had retreated back to the far wall, seeming uncomfortable in the now tightly crowded room. He'd never struck her as a people person.

At least Simon was safe in California. Maybe she ought to be grateful that he hadn't spoken to her yet. Apologizing to Clint had been difficult enough; she didn't know how she was going to face Simon again, after Chthon had used her to destroy Vision. She couldn't afford to mourn Vision yet, not with Chthon still attempting to break free, and she couldn't be around Simon without mourning him.

"You have a really impressive set-up here," Falcon was saying, waving a hand at the array of portable and semi-portable and not-really-intended-to-be-portable-but-jury-rigged-so-that-it-could-be medical equipment that surrounded them. "It looks like you could do just about anything for him that a hospital could. You ought to be getting some kind of support from the city for all this."

"Not as long as I keep treating anyone in a costume without asking what their real name is or how they got that interesting gunshot wound or laser burn. Bloomberg wouldn't like my expense reports." She gestured at Strange. "How would I itemize having him put up wards around the operating room? Or put the kind of injuries he's got now or that half the rest of you get into a normal medical file?"

The Falcon nodded, smiling a little. "I know what you mean."

Tony was frowning at Strange as if personally offended. "This entire thing doesn't make sense. Wanda used the spear's power, and she's fine."

She had been wondering that herself. If Chthon had been able to flatten Strange so easily, how had she managed to get free of him? "I did use it," she agreed, "and it didn't hurt me at all. And Strange has twice the experience I do with magic."

"I think being stabbed probably had something to do with it," Daredevil said, nodding toward Strange. 

The Night Nurse shook her head. "I've seen him work magic with more severe injuries than that."

Wong nodded. "Including stab wounds. I believe it was the nature of the chaos magic in the spear. Chaos magic can only be safely accessed if the caster follows one of a number of complicated rituals. If Stephen tried to use it without those precautions..." he trailed off, looking grim.

"I've never needed rituals or incantations to do simple hexes." And even when she did use them, it was to refine and control the magic she had always instinctively been able to tap into. The difference between a sorcerer and an energy mutant, perhaps. "I suppose the fact that my powers work differently protected me."

"So what are we going to do now?" Jan asked the room at large. "Everyone was counting on Dr. Strange to take care of Chthon. The Avengers offered our help, but Wanda's our only magic user these days."

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, as the Avengers carefully avoided Wanda's eyes. She resisted the urge to tug at her gloves nervously, and turned the half-finished reach to check the tattoo at the base of her neck into a tug at her hair. "I defeated him once," she said. "There has to be a way to do it again."

"Maybe we'll be lucky, and he'll just stay locked up in that church," Sam said. He glanced at Cap, and then both of them shook their heads slightly. "Or he'll find a way out, and we'll all be doomed."

"He'll find a way out," Cap said. "These kind of things always find a way out."

"We've used up far more than our share of good luck recently." Tony met Cap's eyes as he spoke, and the two of them shared a moment of silent communication that made Wanda very aware if how much she'd missed while Chthon had had her. The Avengers had presented her with a united front so far, as if the entire Superhuman Registration fight that she had heard so much about had never occurred, but there were moments when the attempt to put a brave face on things wore thin. They weren't always the moments she had expected, either.

Cap and Tony had always been close, but they hadn't used to have quite so many silent exchanges of glances, or surreptitious little touches that they obviously thought no one else saw. When Cap and Sam exchanged in-jokes or old-friends-who've-worked-together-for-years short-hand, it was mildly annoying, but no different than watching Clint and Hank snipe at one another. When he did the same thing with Tony, it felt oddly uncomfortable, as if Wanda were seeing something she shouldn't.

"There's no medical reason why Stephen shouldn't wake up soon." The Night Nurse touched Strange's bandaged left hand gently, much the way Wong had earlier – but coming from a supposedly clinical and detached medical professional, the gesture looked entirely different than it had coming from a close friend. And she had called him "Stephen."

Wanda told herself not to jump to conclusions – though it would explain both why the Night Nurse seemed almost personally offended by Strange's injuries, and why she had been visibly less than thrilled to see a strange woman arrive with Wong to check on him – and forced her attention back to the topic at hand. There were more important things at stake right now than Strange's admittedly morbidly fascinating love life.

"Even when he does wake up," she said, "I don't think I should keep staying with him. I placed myself under his protection when I ran to the Sanctum Sanctorum, but now, with Strange injured, I'll just be a big, flashing target putting him in danger. You, too," she added, before Wong could object.

"You can stay with us," Cap offered, and gave the other Avengers a stern, firm-jawed glance that dared them to disagree.

"Stark Tower has a lot of innocent bystanders in it," Jan said slowly. She looked faintly apologetic, as if she didn't like pointing it out.

It was true, though. An office building the size of Stark Tower was packed with potential victims for Chthon or any other supervillain from nine to five every day. It was probably a minor miracle that there hadn't been some kind of terrible disaster there yet. "Jan has a good point," Wanda began. "I appreciate the offer, but-"

"The Mansion doesn't have anyone in it right now but Steve and me," Tony interrupted. "You can even have your old room, if you don't mind some construction noises and the near total lack of furniture."

Construction, Wanda assumed, to repair the damage she had done. Saying yes felt strange, presumptuous, after everything that had happened, but she could think of nowhere else to go.

The last time she'd stayed at the mansion, Vision had been there, too. And Scott Lang. And Clint, and Jen, and... The last time she'd been there, the Avengers had still been a team, a family, and Chthon had used her to shatter them.

They were family again, now, but not one that Wanda had a place in. Not anymore.

Still, refusing would have been silly; turning down an offer of help to stay in cheap hotels out of her own sense of trite melodrama wouldn't help anyone, least of all the other guests in said hotels.

"Thank you," she said. "You don't have to-"

"It's Tony's house," Cap said, smiling a little awkwardly, the way he always did when people thanked him for things. "He can invite whoever he wants to stay there."

Wong offered her an equally awkward smile, protesting that she didn't have to leave, which was nice of him considering that she'd landed on his and Strange's doorstep virtually out of nowhere, with a literal demon on her heels.

Wanda thanked him for his hospitality, and told Cap that she'd be at the mansion's front gate by morning. The Sanctum Sanctorum was just one more place to hide. The things she'd done to her team and her home weren't going to go away if she avoided them.

Tony turned sideways, using his left forearm to block Steve's punch. The follow-up jab at his stomach, heavily pulled so that all it did was hurt rather than bruise internal organs or crack ribs, he unfortunately missed.

The punch had been deliberately easy to block, he realized, as he doubled over and fought to suck in a decent breath. Steve had distracted him with a blow he knew Tony would be able to see coming and react quickly to, and then sucker-punched him when he left his lower torso wide open.

Tony stepped back, out of Steve's reach, and forced himself to straighten up – he was only winded, after all, not actually hurt.

"And you accuse me of holding back," he panted.

"There's pulling your punches enough to avoid hurting your opponent, and then there's being afraid to punch him in the first place." Steve, unfairly, was neither out of breath nor even really sweating. Enhanced endurance had all kinds of benefits.

Just for that, Tony added extra force to the punch he threw at Steve's shoulder. Steve turned to deflect some of the force of the blow, but didn't manage to block it, and Tony felt a glow of satisfied accomplishment for a moment, before Steve launched a kick at his face.

He only just managed to dodge. Tony might have held back the first few times they had begun doing this again, and possibly once or twice after the incident at the Meridian, but he had been giving today's practice his all; his skin felt slick with sweat, and he could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

Exercise came in a decided second on Tony's list of favorite ways to work up a sweat, but it made you feel alive in the same way that very fast cars, flying, or good sex could. There were few other things that could do that.

The gym at the mansion wasn't finished yet, and wouldn't be for at least another two weeks, so they were still using the one at the Avengers Tower – moving into the mansion was proving to be a slow, gradual process, and even now that the vast majority of both of their things had been moved over, and both they and Wanda were sleeping there, they still seemed to spend about eighty percent of their time in the tower. It was where everyone else was, where the fully functional lab was located, and where the gym didn't still have only half a floor.

Even when he was only practicing, Steve moved with a speed and lethal grace that Tony would always only be able to envy; if his attention weren't primarily occupied with trying to guess Steve's next movement, he would have been tempted to just watch and admire.

"I think Wanda's been settling in well," Steve said, as he slowly circled to the right – as attempts to distract Tony went, he had to admit, it was a decent try.

Tony turned to follow Steve's movements, keeping his hands up. "You mean she hasn't been possessed again at any point in the past three days, the Mansion is still standing, and Carol hasn't tried to kill her," he corrected.

"I'll talk to Carol." Steve came at Tony abruptly, aiming a flurry of blows at Tony's arms and shoulders. "We all agreed to give Wanda a second chance."

The next few moments were a blur of fists and impacts and the unbearably sexy muted sounds Steve made when he fought. Tony managed to disengage and dance backwards, wiping sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand before it could drip into his eyes. "You had to give her a second chance," he said, grinning at Steve, "or it would have been obvious that you only forgave me because you're sleeping with me."

Steve narrowed his eyes, his gaze never leaving the center of Tony's body mass, and said, with dignity, "I decided to forgive you long before I started sleeping with you."

He lunged at Tony, and Tony sidestepped, grabbed one of Steve's wrists, and forced his arm up behind his back in an arm-lock. "How long," he asked, saying the words directly into Steve's ear, "fifteen minutes?" He didn't have to try and make his voice husky – lack of breath and proximity to Steve did that for him.

Steve's body was flush against his, radiating heat like a furnace, and he could smell the sweat on his skin, the clean scent of the soap he used. It made him dizzy for a moment, suddenly hard and ready to turn this sparring match into something else entirely – and then Steve jabbed him in the ribs with the elbow of his free arm, slammed a heel into his shin, and yanked himself free.

"No," Steve said. "It was more like an hour. Then I saw that tape and almost changed my mind."

That tape – just the thought of what must have been on it still made Tony want to cringe, let alone the thought of other people seeing it. Seeing him break down into a sobbing wreck, telling Steve's body things he would never have said to anyone living, including Steve himself. Desperately trying to justify everything he'd done.

Dum Dum Dugan had seen it. Sal Kennedy, he was sure, had seen it, too. In light of that, it was a minor miracle that Tony had managed to command even a shred of Dugan's respect.

And Steve... Steve had been livid, when Sal had shown it to him. Not, strangely, because he'd failed to accept or believe Tony's explanations, but because he had believed them.

Tony wouldn't have traded away the outcome of Steve's reaction for anything, but still... On the other hand, it had made his crying-and-hallucinating experience last month marginally less humiliating, since whatever he'd said or done under the influence of A.I.M.'s toxin probably wasn't anything Steve hadn't seen before.

"I had good reasons for everything I did," he said now, as he watched Steve move and tried to decide when and how to attack again.

Steve's lips might have twitched slightly. "You always have good reasons. Or at least think you do."

"And I have good reasons now. We owe her. She needs our help." Steve knew that, of course, and being Steve, had offered it before Tony had even had a chance to suggest it

"I think we're the ones who need her help, actually," Steve said, his face wry.

"That too," Tony agreed. "I-"

"Hate magic. I know."

Tony spun on the ball of his right foot and launched a kick at Steve's stomach. Steve's hand clamped around his ankle and yanked, his foot sweeping Tony's supporting leg out from under him, and then Tony was flat on his back, staring up at the high, white ceiling. He rolled before Steve could pin him, and scrambled back to his feet. "I thought we were done with this whole chaos spear thing after Strange took care of it last spring." At least Strange was awake now, though the fact that Chthon had been able to take him out so easily made that less comforting than Tony would have liked. Worse, his hands were apparently going to take days, maybe weeks, to heal completely.

"Doom never lets anything go that easily." Steve bent backwards at the waist, letting Tony's next blow glide harmlessly past him. He was showing off, Tony suspected, the same way he was when he did one-handed back handsprings while holding twelve pounds of unwieldy metal.

"Bite your tongue, soldier boy. The last thing we need is for him to show up. He'd probably break Chthon out of his prison himself, and then we'd have to fight both of them."

"We may not have to fight either," Steve said, with determined optimism. "Wanda only said that he wants to break free, not that he actually can. Without her to take the spear for him, he's in the same place he's always been."

Which was true, but, "Chthon's been causing enough trouble from there. And we don't know she's safe from him." As failsafes went, magic tattoos were probably less-than-reliable. How did you test them? How did you calculate for margins of error when you were working with alchemical symbols and incomprehensible sorcerous scribbles?

Steve rushed him, moving too quickly for Tony's eyes to follow, even with a computer in his head. The floor slammed up to meet him again, and this time, he just lay there for a moment, his eye closed, Steve's knee a hard weight against his sternum.

"Less talking, more action, rich boy."

He could hear the smirk in Steve's voice without needing to open his eyes. He did anyway, and found himself staring up into Steve's flushed, grinning face.

"I can think of more entertaining kinds of action," Tony said, writhing in a vain attempt to buck Steve off. Steve was only a couple of inches taller than he was, the difference in height almost negligible, but forty extra pounds of mass meant that when Steve truly wanted Tony to stay put somewhere, moving wasn't really a viable option.

"I'm entertained," Steve told him. The sunlight from the gym's floor-to-ceiling windows streamed across his face, turning his eyelashes into nearly-invisible glints of gold. The bead of sweat sliding along his throat and down toward his collarbone taunted Tony – close enough to touch, but with both wrists pinned to the floor and Steve's considerable weight on his chest, he was unable to reach up and wipe it away.

Then Steve let go of him and sprang back to his feet, holding a hand down for Tony to grab. "Come on, on your feet, Avenger. You should have seen that throw coming two moves ahead."

Steve was right – it had been an obvious move, and as fast as Steve was, Tony still ought to have been able to avoid it, or at least avoid being so thoroughly pinned. What was wrong with him today? Tony was nowhere near Steve's level in hand to hand combat, and never would be, but he usually managed to avoid being flat on his back twice in under two minutes.

Ten minutes later, he'd hit the mat three more times, and when he wobbled getting back up the third time, Steve declared practice over with.

"We can finish this later, when you're not as distracted."

"I'm not distracted," Tony protested. "You always have my full attention."

"Which is why you answer your email and run virus scans on your armor while we're in bed together." Steve turned away, stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt, and tossed it onto a weight bench.

Tony took a moment to appreciate the sight, resisting the impulse to bend over and plant his hands on his knees, or let himself breathe too raggedly. Gasping and panting in front of Steve was one thing, but in an actual fight, it was an obvious declaration of weakness. He'd worked hard at concealing those, over the years. And Steve worried, after last month. "Once," he said, when he was sure he'd be able to get the word out without sounding too breathless. "I did that once. Pepper doesn't red flag things unless they really are urgent." The repeated emails he'd deleted unread from Sally Floyd since the reversal of M-Day had been red-flagged, too, as was pretty much everything Koening sent him, but Koening hadn't earned the right to have his instant attention at any hour of the day or night. Pepper had. He owed her that much.

Steve raised his eyebrows, skepticism played up just enough for Tony to tell that he was exaggerating it. "How urgent can something be at that time of night? The business world survived just fine for decades before the invention of email, and even these days, every CEO except you has to go offline and get away from his computer in order to sleep." He rubbed a towel over his face and hair as he spoke, every other word half-muffled by the fabric. Muscle glided under his skin with every movement; Steve's body was perfectly sculpted to a degree that an Olympic athlete would envy, not just from the supersoldier serum, but from hours of training and practice – after Tony left to shower and dash down six floors for his nine o' clock meeting with Stark Industries' R&D department, Steve would probably spend another hour here, working first with the gymnastics equipment and then with his shield.

Tony's eyes were drawn down Steve's broad chest to his stomach, flat and ridged with muscle and completely unscarred. Perfect, as if Sharon Carter had never shoved the barrel of a gun against it and pulled the trigger at point blank range.

He would never get used to that unmarred perfection, no matter how often he saw it, touched it. Never get tired of it, either. The memory of the gaping wound in Steve's stomach, strangely bloodless in the autopsy photos, the better to reveal the blackened power burns around it, was going to be in his dreams forever. It was there even when he was awake, sometimes, a ghostly overlay when he looked at Steve. It didn't happen as often, anymore, but like the memory of Happy's face the last time he had seen him – black and purple and completely unrecognizable, and totally absent of any life, the sound of his heart monitor a cruel mockery in Tony's ears – he knew it would never leave him entirely.

He still hadn't completely gotten used to his own absent scars, either, but that was different; he'd had them his entire adult life, though few people had ever seen them. He'd probably been lucky that the shrapnel had hit him in the chest, and not someplace more visible. Like his face.

For someone whose entire body had been seamlessly healed of over a decade's worth of cumulative damage, this sparring match had taken a ridiculous amount out of him. He'd thought he was back in shape these days. A.I.M.'s toxin hadn't sidelined him for that long.

When was the last time he'd eaten? he wondered. Maybe Steve had a point about coffee not actually being breakfast.

"Once I shower, I'll still have twenty minutes before Pepper comes looking for me," he said, smiling at Steve. "I'm going to see if there's anything to eat in the kitchen. Want to come?"

Steve's eyebrows arched. "You're going to voluntarily consume food before nine a.m.?"

"If I don't, I won't be eating until dinner. The board wants to discuss the past quarter's financial reports and stock performance. And then I'm supposed to go sit in on arbitration proceedings for that lawsuit with Hewlett Packard."

Steve said nothing to this, just waved Tony ahead of him toward the door. He was probably tired of hearing about the HP lawsuit, if not half as tired of it as Tony was. He hadn't stolen anyone's designs. He'd analyzed their tablet computer, figured out the basic principles behind it, and designed a completely different – and more importantly, actually functional – piece of technology around the same basic concept. That was going to completely dominate the market as soon as he released it, and end SI's dependence on military contracts and thus the last remnants of Koening's hold on him.

All that trouble, for a project that hadn't been half as interesting as the last thing he'd worked on for SHIELD. Just the thought of the hours of arguing to come made him feel tired, the adrenaline he'd worked up already draining out of him. Maybe if he thought of himself as the Glenn Curtiss of the computing world, valiantly defending his aircraft designs against unfair patent suits, today would be less boring.

At least it had started out on a high note, he thought, and followed Steve out of the room, letting his eyes linger on the broad planes of Steve's back.

Chapter Text

For a SHIELD installation, the building was poorly guarded. Perhaps the research here was considered unimportant, or perhaps they arrogantly assumed that their pretense at being a subsidiary of General Electric would protect them from the likes of her.

There hadn't even been any sentries outside, just a single guard by the front gate. 

There were no guards inside, and the security cameras were easily disabled. SHIELD would have detected her presence the moment the first one went offline, but that was all right. Let them come; by the time their agents arrived, Sin and her men would be long gone.

The building was nearly empty at this time of night, but the lights in the lab were still on. Scientists like working late, particularly those working for secret organizations.

The door had a coded lock, but burst of machine gun fire made short work of it. Sin kept firing from the hip as she entered the room, aiming in only the most general sense. The gunfire drowning out the sound of the scientists screaming, bullets smashing through delicate equipment and making the body of the man who'd been standing closest to the door jerk and twitch fascinatingly. 

They all wore little nametags on their lab coats, slips of plastic-coated paper with the logo of their imaginary shell company stamped on them. No SHIELD badges or insignia, but they were branded with the enemy's mark as surely as those who wore SHIELD's uniform. They took SHIELD's money, worked to further its goals, and shared in its guilt.

They had taken Brock from her, taken her father. They all needed to pay, and until she could have Barnes and Carter at her mercy, these worker drones would have to suffice.

Synthia. Remember the plan. In and out, and leave nothing standing.

Her father's voice whispered at the edge of her mind, commanding and impatient, as always.

The room was a shambles now, sprayed with blood and filled with smoke from sparking and smoldering equipment. Nick Fury's severed head stared blankly at her from one of the workbenches, a line of bullet holes trailing down its forehead and between empty, robotic eyes. "Check the bodies," she ordered. "Kill anyone still breathing."

One of the scientists was sniveling under a workbench, begging for his life. As she turned to leave the room, there was another rattle of gunfire, and the noise thankfully stopped.

Three more targets to go, and SHIELD's supply of LMDs would be cut off. Without his army of duplicates to hide behind, Fury would have to come out of his hole and fight his enemies in person. When he did, Sin would be waiting for him.

SHIELD had stood in the way of her father's plans for years, stubbornly thwarting all attempts to impose a new and better order on the world. It had survived the Helicarrier's destruction, survived Stark's weak and faltering control, and her agents within its ranks had been eliminated. All attempts to re-infiltrate the organization had met with failure, and Doom had forbidden her to try again.

She had agreed. Let the filthy Latverian gypsy think he had the upper hand; she didn't need new agents within SHIELD, because destroying Fury would cut off the snake's head and draw the organization's fangs.

"Fury must die," her father's voice reminded her. "He knows too much. And then Wilson, and Barnes. And Rogers. We will leave him for last. After we have taken the spear, after our new Reich has risen."

Sin kicked a dead woman's arm out of her path, wrinkling her nose at the smear of blood the untermench left on her boot, and knelt to plant the first of the explosives. She set the timer for fifteen minutes. Any of her men who took longer than that to get out of the building deserved the death they would get.

The explosion, when it came, was a thing of beauty. The shockwave hit her like a wall, leaving her skin hot and tingling the way Brock's fingers had, and the shell of the building left after it was gone burned in a brilliant chemical rainbow, the smoke acrid and stinging.

The rifle bullet she carried in her hip pocket was hard between her fingers, warm from her body heat. "That was for you, baby," she whispered. "You and Daddy. We're going to make them all pay."

The flames lit the horizon behind her as she drove away, on eye on the hypnotizing glow in her rearview mirror, and the other on her dashboard's digital clock.

The robotics lab was only a day's drive away from the city; she would return before that fool, Doom, even realized that she was gone.

Hank left the elevator quickly, his movements jerky, every line of his body radiating a mix of anger, frustration, and guilt. Clint sidestepped just in time to avoid running into him; Hank had a bad habit of taking his anger out on other people. Verbally, usually, but Clint wasn't in the mood for a pointless argument with Hank right now.

Wanda was downstairs, inside the tower's basement lab, there to undergo whatever medical and scientific tests Hank and Don had been able to think of, and a few that had been suggested by Tony. It was probably as close as he was going to get to speaking to Wanda alone without actually having to hunt her down and ask for a chance to talk to her.

Now he just had to grow some balls and stop lurking in the hallway.

She was down there with Don, he reminded himself. It wasn't like he was going to be cornering her while she was alone. If she wanted him to leave, if being too close to him scared her or made her nervous, all she'd have to do was say so, and he'd be gone, twice as fast as Hank had left.

At least Hank was gone – Don and Hank glaring at one another in icy silence, or sniping nastily at each other, would only have made what was already going to be an excruciating conversation worse. Thor had made his feelings for Hank plain, and Tony as well, and Don not only tended to agree with the big guy, he was significantly bitchier as well. Obviously, the entire stock of sarcasm, spite, and passive aggressiveness that ought to have been split evenly between the two of them had all gone to Don Blake, with none left over for Thor.

Clint drew in a deep breath, sucked it up, and got into the elevator. It descended so quickly that his ears popped, the doors opening silently on mad scientist territory. He edged into the room, letting the doors slide shut behind him, trying to be as quiet as possible.

Wanda was fully clothed, thank God, sitting on a lab bench with her back to him while Don put a collection of intimidating-looking medical equipment away.

"I'd say you were lucky," he said. "There's no permanent damage from your ordeal. As far as Dr. Pym and I can tell, you're fine." He smiled at Wanda, and at Clint, over Wanda's shoulder. "Your brain patterns are normal, your blood work is normal, the genetic scan shows no alterations. You've lost about ten pounds, but that's not surprising considering the circumstances. I doubt Chthon bothered to feed you that often."

"I wouldn't know," Wanda said wryly, and Clint felt a moment of intense gratitude that nothing that left permanent scars or damage had happened to her, that no one had hurt her that badly. And also, selfishly, that he himself had never been under long-term mind control.

They ought to have had Beast come and examine her – he was the mutant expert, and the geneticist – but while Clint was sure he would have come, if one of the Avengers had been willing to ask him, Wanda, when it was suggested to her, had point blank refused and nearly begged them not to contact any of the X-Men. Not yet.

Clint couldn't blame her. He sure as hell wouldn't have wanted to see them. Looking at Wanda sitting there on the lab bench was bad enough.

He couldn't look at the dark hair falling down her back without remembering what it had felt like, couldn't look at the clothing without remembering the body under it. The body she'd never chosen to show to him.

"These marks on your hands..." Don indicated one of Wanda's hands, and the spiky black design on the back that made it look like someone else's. "Did Strange tell you if they were going to affect you in any way?"

She shook her head. "They limit the power I can draw on, and block Chthon's access to me. Other than that, they're no different from tattoos."

"In that case, I think you're all right. But tell me if you start experiencing any unusual symptoms; mind control on this scale, for this long, isn't really covered in medical literature." He shook his head, smiling ruefully. "At least, not that I've read. I've missed a couple of years' worth of it."

Wanda had turned slightly to face him, giving Clint a view of her profile. Any moment now, she was going to notice that he was in the room. Then he would have to say something to her. "I didn't know mind-control was covered at all."

"Dr. McCoy wrote an article on it a few years ago. It dealt mostly with telepathy and brainwashing, though. With magic, all bets are off." He reached for his walking stick, leaning against the edge of a lab bench, and then, turning to Clint, said, "Sorry, Clint. I was just finishing up with Wanda. Is there something you need? Are your ears-"

"I'm fine," he said. "I... um..."

Wanda turned, and her face went stiff when she saw him.

"I wanted to-" he started, and then stopped, his brain abruptly running out of words. He hadn't been this inarticulate since the last time he'd tried to make up with Bobbi, before... he hadn't been this inarticulate for a long time. Maybe he shouldn't ask to speak to Wanda alone. Maybe she didn't want to speak to him.

He owed it to her to give her the chance, though. He cleared his throat and started again, trying to not stare at her or loom or sound suspicious or threatening. "Wanda, can I, um, can I talk to you? Alone? It's fine if you don't want to," he added quickly.

Wanda looked down at her hands, then back up at Clint, her face carefully expressionless. "I think we need to," she said. Her voice was even, but Clint could hear the strain in it.

"I'll leave you alone, then," Don said, and Clint almost told him not to. Asking him to leave was a bad idea; it would probably be less threatening if he stayed, and he was a nice safety barrier between Clint and having to actually look Wanda in the face. Even if the idea of someone else hearing what Clint and Wanda were about to discuss was... well, the whole team might be learning about it soon enough. Maybe it would have been easier to get it over with one at a time.

He'd never be able to speak to Jan or Carol again, or Sam, probably. Sam would be disgusted and disappointed when he heard, and would immediately tell Cap, who would promptly kick Clint off the team. And rightly so, and he probably ought to have left already, except... but he couldn't tell Cap when he hadn't spoken to Wanda, because she might not want Cap or anyone else to know what Clint had done to her. Bad enough, probably, that he'd told Carol and Tony.

If she wanted to keep it quiet, he'd have to think of some other excuse to leave. He'd been putting it off, like a coward, because the team was his home and he had no idea where else he was going to go.

As Don walked toward the elevator, Wanda climbed down off the table and straightened her skirt. It was the same one she'd worn at Strange's place, the drab-looking navy one. She looked awful in it, all pale and washed out.

There were circles under her eyes, and something about the expression in them reminded Clint of Jan and Tony in the hospital, staring at horrible things that didn't exist outside their own heads, or Hank, sick-looking and white-faced after Jan had flinched back from him.

"I don't know how to begin," she said. "There aren't words for it."

Somewhere behind Clint, the elevator doors closed, quietly, like they were trying not to disturb them.

"I know," Clint agreed. "I mean, I didn't know. I..."  Maybe Cage and Rand were looking for an extra member for their Heroes for Hire group. Or maybe Rhodes would take him on as part of his superhero training program. Working with Rhodey wouldn't be so bad; he'd done it before, and it had worked well before half their teammates had been... possessed. Oh God.

"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry for what I did to you."

Clint stared at her, not believing his ears for a moment. Maybe he did need to have Don check them out again, because she couldn't have just said–

"I didn't want to," she went on, her face twisting. "He made me. I didn't want to hurt any of you."

He swallowed, feeling sick. She was apologizing to him, as if it had been her fault. After he'd slept with her possessed body without her consent. Had she even known that they'd had sex? The thought made the entire thing seem, if possible, even worse. "You... of course you didn't. You were possessed. You weren't in control of your actions, and I slept with you anyway, and Carol thought you'd used some kind of mind-control or manipulation on me and must have wanted it, but if you were possessed..." Then it hadn't been Wanda who'd wanted the sex. It had been Chthon. And even if Clint had been... influenced... somehow, he'd still had more free will than she had. Like sleeping with a falling-down drunk person when you'd only had a couple of beers. "I'm sorry. Oh God, I'm sorry. I don't know why I did it."

"Clint." Wanda laid her right hand on his arm, and Clint's flow of words instantly dried up. "It's all right."

Things were so far from all right that Clint nearly wanted to laugh at that. "I slept with you while you were possessed, when you couldn't even tell me no, and then I left you there!" He felt weirdly conscious of the weight of her fingers on his sleeve, as if it were far more than the simple, friendly touch she meant it as.

"You were supposed to. Chthon was influencing over half the town, warping their memories to make them accept my presence as if I had always been there." She hesitated for a moment, then her eyes narrowed as she added, "Warping my memories so that I thought so, too." She let go of Clint's arm, frowning now, but he didn't think the expression was meant for him. "He was manipulating everyone around me, by the end, including my brother, or Pietro would never have tried to create Magneto's filthy dream world. Compelling you to leave would have been child's play compared to that. So would making you want me."

Clint shook his head. Standing this close, the circles under her eyes and the pallor of her skin were even more obvious; had she looked like this in Transia, three months ago? Would he have noticed if she had, with Chthon screwing with his head? "I don't remember any of that. Just you, and that bedroom in your house, and then I was in an airport somewhere, and it was days later. I didn't even think of going back for you, not for weeks. I should have done something to help you. If not then, then after."

She made an attempt at a smile, her lips curving upward slightly, but Clint could see the strain in it. "You did help me. Before you showed up, I was like a zombie – I didn't remember anything, not even who I was. You woke me up. It took me a long time to escape from Chthon's control, but without you, I would probably still be locked up in that house on Mount Wundagore. Or, worse, Chthon would already be free." She looked down at her hands again, tracing the line of Strange's tattoo with one finger. "I know I ought to be more upset that it happened," she said quietly, "that Chthon used you that way, but I can't be. I can't be sorry that I escaped from there. But I am sorry you were dragged into it."

Staring at her felt painfully awkward, suddenly, as if he were seeing things he wasn't supposed to. Seeing her naked – except he'd already done that. Clint turned away, pacing over to the nearest lab bench, the one where Hank's fume hood sat, looking like something out of a CSI episode. One where they were dealing with radiation poisoning or some kind of death-by-contagious-disease. Beyond it, in the back corner of the lab, hundreds of ants trundled their way through a glass-walled ants' nest, completely unaffected by Clint and Wanda's presence. "I thought I was going crazy, at first, or that... I don't know what I thought." He reached for one of the little test tubes, then remembered that if he touched anything down here, it would probably poison him or give him chemical burns. "That I'd made you sleep with me in return for not bringing you in, maybe."

"Why would you think that?" She sounded honestly shocked, so much so that Clint automatically turned to look at her; she was still standing by the table, maybe a step or so closer to him than she had been. "You would never do that, and I would never agree to it." There was absolute conviction in her voice, and looking at her, standing there alone with her, suddenly got a little easier. "I don't really... remember much about what we did," she added, much more hesitantly, "it's all kind of vague, but I know you didn't hurt me or force me to do anything. I wanted to help you, because you seemed so sad. Or that's what he made me think, anyway."

This was all... Clint felt like he was missing parts of the conversation. They'd both been mind controlled, she was sorry she'd slept with him, she wasn't sorry she'd slept with him; she'd wanted to, she hadn't wanted to. He tried asking about one of the parts he was mostly sure of. "So... you don't want me to leave the team, then?"

"No!" She shook her head, hard, dark curls swaying with the motion. "You and Cap and the others are some of the only family I have left. I don't even know if Pietro's still alive, or if he'll ever want to see or speak to me again if he is." She paused, meeting his gaze and giving him a long, serious look; Clint had to fight the impulse to glance away. "Clint, I killed you. Twice. And Scott, and Vision. And..." her voice broke, and she looked away, her face twisting. "You sleeping with me while we were both under mind control isn't even in the same league as that."

"That wasn't your fault." She had brought him back from the dead, and she wasn't crazy anymore, and seeing Wanda be Wanda again and knowing that it hadn't been Wanda who had turned on them all and killed him was such a relief that beside that, who cared about some sex that hadn't exactly been unpleasant anyway?

Well, that hadn't been unpleasant for him. He could only hope it hadn't been unpleasant for her. Did it make it better that she apparently couldn't remember it clearly, or worse? Worse, probably – God, he might as well have been sleeping with a puppet, for all the input she'd had.

"I know," Wanda said, in a tight, choked voice, "but that doesn't bring them back. It doesn't make it any easier. I keep seeing it every time I close my eyes – the mansion burning, Vision being torn apart..." She trailed off, one hand pulling and twisting at the fabric of her jacket sleeve.

Clint knew that feeling far better than he wanted to, both the guilt he could see in her face and the way memories you didn't want stayed on constant repeat in your head. After a long moment of silence, he offered, "I used to dream about seeing Bobbi get... burned."

Neither of them spoke for what felt like a very long time. Clint stared at the patch of wall just above and slightly to the left of Wanda's head. She wasn't looking directly at him, either.

The silence stretched long enough to be painful, long enough for Clint to remember exactly what Bobbi's face had looked like when Mephisto's fireball had hit her in the back. He didn't really remember dying, or whether or not it had hurt, and he wasn't about to ask Cap about it, but he suspected that the answer was yes, that it hurt a lot.

"I'm just glad you're back," he said, suddenly needing to say something, anything that wasn't about death or burning or regrets it was too late to do anything about. "And I'm sorry for..." How did you even say this – 'I'm sorry we were mutually date-raped?' 'I'm sorry you have to remember watching your husband die and knowing his killer used you to do it?' – "I'm sorry Chthon did that to you."

She probably would have said something in response to that, but Clint didn't stay to hear what it was. He didn't actually run out of the room, but when the elevator doors closed behind him, he felt as shaky and breathless as if he'd just finished a wildly out-of-control sprint.

It had been Chthon. It hadn't been him. It hadn't been her. He wasn't actually the kind of man that would rape a woman, and she didn't hate him for it, and he hadn't hurt her.

Chthon had been inside his head. In his head, making him do things.

Clint ran his fingers through his hair, then leaned his head back against the wall of the elevator, trying not to think about what else Chthon could have done while he was in there, if he had felt like it. He should probably feel more traumatized. He'd been... rape was much too strong a word for it. He'd been coerced into having sex that hadn't been his idea. He'd been used as a weapon against Wanda the same way she'd been used against the team.

Maybe it was good that he couldn't remember the entire thing very clearly. At least his vivid memories of her naked body and the vague idea that it had been pleasant were all he'd taken away from it, and he didn't actually know what Wanda was like in bed. That would have been... wrong. Even more personal than the things he did remember.

He'd never asked her what she wanted him to tell the rest of the team. Maybe Cap and Sam and Thor didn't have to know; at least she'd have some privacy left that way.

She didn't blame him. She didn't hate him. She didn't want him to leave.

It hadn't been her.

Maybe if he told himself that often enough, it would get easier.

The elevator between Tony's basement lab and the Avengers' apartments rose with perfect silence; even more than the brass and wood paneling, that spoke for how expensive it was. Don, watching the floor indicator climb with impressive swiftness, wondered morbidly what would happen to anyone who happened to be in the lab if the building's power ever went out. As far as he'd been able to tell, there were no stairs between the lab and the ground floor lobby. On the other hand, forgetting to plan for disaster was not among Tony's failings; there had to be some alternative way out of there, not to mention a way to get massive pieces of equipment in and out. The elevator was the size of a freight elevator, but even it wouldn't have been able to accommodate some of the things that Don had watched slowly disappear from the lab over the past week, which had included giant arc welders, a massive sets of jacks for propping up quinjet engine blocks, and one of Tony's two Cray computers – slightly outdated, but they apparently had some kind of nostalgia value – along with half the contents of a machine shop.

All the medical equipment and bioscience stuff remained, or examining Wanda would have required taking her back to Oklahoma, to his vastly-less-well-equipped-than-anything-Tony-owned clinic. Advanced diagnostic equipment was hard to come by in the middle of nowhere, and Thor had deliberately chosen the middle of nowhere to rebuild Asgard.

She'd been all right, at leaSt. Or mostly all right – if he were a psychologist, he would probably have a laundry list of post-possession warning signs to watch out for, but all of his medical training had dealt with more concrete ailments. Physically, she was all right.

He'd been dreading the alternative. Being the only general practitioner in a small town had its disadvantages, one of which was explaining to a patient whom he'd just diagnosed with cancer that he didn't think the 'out of towners who'd built that big castle' were the kind of gods who performed miraculous healings. There were times when he would have been willing to trade all of Thor's strength and power in return for the ability to cure leprosy or blindness or paralysis with a touch.

Don shoved the thought aside as the elevator came to a halt. He might as well wish for the ability to raise the dead, while he was at it. Asgardian cosmology wasn't as forgiving as some.

Steve and Tony's cat was waiting outside the elevator. It gave an odd, creaky chirp, and did its level best to trip him before he could even get through the elevator doors, rubbing against his ankles and coating his pants with orange fur.

"No," he told it firmly, pushing it away from the closing doors with his cane. "You're not going down there."

The cat – exactly what its name was seemed to depend on who you asked – made an offended wheezing sound, and stalked away down the hall.

"I have no freakin' clue how she got there!" Sam Wilson's voice came loudly from the open door of the communications room, making the cat go low and dash out of sight. "Redwing was watching the outside of the building, and he never saw her."

"She didn't come in; she just... appeared." Tony's voice, equally startled and offended-sounding. "It's either magic, or some kind of teleportation device. Come on; I've told the security guards not to try to approach her."

They had a security breach. Don changed course for the communications room, walking as quickly as he could. 'Morgan le Fay?' he wondered. Some new magical troublemaker? 'Please, don't be the Enchantress,' he begged silently. Amora had sworn she wasn't going to cause any trouble, but her word meant little, and she and the Executioner were probably bored with lying low by now; two months back from the dead, and they hadn't tried to kill or brainwash anybody yet. That was very nearly a record.

He nearly collided with Tony and the Falcon on his way into the room, both of them intent on shoving their way out and toward the elevator. "Carol's in LA, of course. Steve's told her that she needs to pick a team and-" Tony broke off abruptly, jerking to a stop inches away from Don.

Forward momentum kept Don stumbling forward a step despite his attempt to stop, and only the Falcon's hand on his arm kept him from smacking straight into Tony.

"Sorry," Tony said, holding both hands up. "I didn't know you were-"

Don wasn't listening; he could see one of the security monitors over Tony's shoulder, displaying a slightly grainy view of the buildings front lobby.

"Damn it." The words burst out before he remembered that he wasn't talking to Tony. "That's Loki!"

"She's who?" Sam was staring at him, eyebrows arched. "Since when has Loki been a woman?"

"Don't ask," Don muttered. He glanced down at his cane, debating for a half-second the merits of turning into Thor and letting him handle this. On the one hand, with Carol apparently back on the West Coast for the day, Thor was the only Avenger here capable of going toe-to-toe with Loki. On the other hand, Loki might very well react to Thor's appearance in the lobby by blowing the building up, along with all the innocent bystanders who happened to be in it.

He started to run for the elevator, ignoring the way his knee twinged at each step and praying that it wouldn't pick now to suddenly go out from under him. Damn Odin's sense of humor, anyway.

"I don't care who it is," Tony was saying, dashing past him and through the already-opening elevator doors – the whole building did things like that for him, thanks to his new cyborg upgrades. "I want her out of my lobby."

"Clint and Wanda are downstairs in your lab," Don told him, as the elevator doors slid shut behind the three of them. "You should call them and-"

"I don't know if that's a good idea," the Falcon interrupted. "The Scarlet Witch just got rid of the last evil chaos magic thing that possessed her. The last thing we need right now is for her to face off against Loki and get screwed with some more."

"Maybe he's – she's," Tony corrected himself, "maybe she's not here to fight. Maybe she's just here to taunt us."

Wishful thinking, almost certainly, but it did sound like something Loki would do.

"Oh, and you two should probably stand back a couple of feet," Tony added.

Don was about to refuse and stay put when he saw the briefcase clutched in Tony's left hand. He and the Falcon both backed off as far as the confines of the elevator car would let them, while Tony's armor flew around him in a dangerous-looking whirlwind of red and gold metal. When the elevator doors opened on the lobby, moments later, Tony was completely armored up, and Don was the only one left who wasn't in costume.

Loki was standing dead center in the lobby, her feet planted in the middle of the silvery design – some kind of electrical diagram – inlaid in the marble floor. Dark-uniformed security guards and a dozen or so men and women in business attire were clustered nervously against the walls, staring at her.

The green and yellow fabric of her cloak made the colors around her seem dull, and her golden helmet blazed like fire in the natural light that flooded the three-story-high room, courtesy of the immense windows. If it came to a fight, the falling glass from shattering windows alone could be potentially lethal.

"I have come to deliver a message to my stepbrother," she was proclaiming, in a voice that echoed off the high ceiling.

She turned and saw them then, and her face, so eerily similar to Sif's, contorted in a sneer. "I see my darling brother is too busy to speak to me, and sends his mortal companions in his stead. Unless..." her eyes went to Don, and her sneer shifted to something more amused, a sort of contemptuous smirk. "The little doctor. It's always such a pleasure to see you, brother, whatever form you hold, but I cannot fathom your attraction to this fragile mortal shell. It doesn't become you."

"I could say the same thing about your current form." The words were out before Don could think better of them, and he tightened his grip on his cane, ready to slam it into the ground and let Thor take over if Loki responded to his jab with violence.

She laughed, the sound ringing hollow like the sound of bells.

"What do you want, Loki?" Tony asked; his helmet amplified and flattened his voice, making it ring nearly as loudly as hers did.

Loki ignored him, her gaze never leaving Don. "Come closer, my brother. I would speak with you."

"He can hear just fine from over here," the Falcon called back, taking a step forward so that his body was halfway in front of Don and Loki. His teammates occasionally forgot that he was a superhero as well, and every bit as capable of defending himself as they were; maybe it was the cane.

Don stepped sideways, giving himself a clear view of Loki once more. "Speak with me about what?"

"I wish to offer my aid against one of your enemies," she said, smiling faintly as if she thought that there were even the slightest chance of either Don or Thor believing her. "In return, I ask for your assistance in reclaiming what is mine."

Behind Loki, some of the businessmen were creeping silently toward the door. One woman had slipped off her high heeled shoes and clutched them in one hand, walking in her stocking feet to keep from making any noise. If they could keep Loki distracted for a few minutes longer, they would have significantly fewer potential hostages to worry about.

Don raised his eyebrows, not bothering to hide his skepticism. "Pretending for a second that I believe you, which enemy?"

"The Elder God, the embodiment of entropy." Loki waved a dismissive hand, her long nails glinting like talons. "Chthon. Have you any other enemy intent upon stealing one of my possessions?"

"You mean the spear?" Damn it, he was not actually having a conversation with Loki. With new, disconcertingly attractive Loki and her vulpine smile and bottle-glass-green eyes that were the only part of Thor's stepbrother face that he could still recognize in her. "You've been content to ignore it for the past several thousand years. Why do you care what happens to it?"

"Because it's mine." The temperature in the room dropped perceptibly as she snarled the words, and behind him, Don could hear the faint hum of Tony's repulsor gauntlets powering up. "The All-Father hid it from me behind barriers I cannot break, before he tried to banish me to eternal torment. For centuries, I could not even sense where it lay, but now his death has weakened the protections he placed upon it, and that mortal fool Doom's actions in this city last spring damaged them still further, allowing anyone who cared to look to feel the spear's power." She smiled at him, the angry sneer turning into a familiar, ingratiating grin in an instant. In the back of Don's head, he could feel Thor's automatic suspicion – that smile always meant trouble. That was the 'Trust me, I have a plan' smile, and even when they weren't evil, Loki's plans generally ended in humiliation for everyone involved except him, and occasional public crossdressing. "My powers are weaker since my resurrection, brother, and Chthon's have grown. He touches the world, through his human avatars, and seeks to make all chaos power his own. He would use my stolen power, the portion of my essence that is bound within Baldur's Bane, to break free of his prison, and doom all of creation. Not just Midgard, but Asgard and Jotunheimr and all the rest of the nine worlds as well. And Olympus, and K'un L'un, and every other realm connected to this dimension."

"But you're going to help us stop him, just out of the goodness of your heart?" Sam asked dryly. He'd shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet, knees slightly bent – ready to move if Loki tried anything.

Loki didn't so much as glance at him. "Use the powers the All-Father left to you to break down his protections, allow me to claim the spear for my own and take its power back into myself, and Chthon will no longer be able to lay claim to it."

The last of the bystanders had slipped through the door now, leaving just the security staff to get caught in any crossfire, and through the glass doors, Don could see Steve outside on the sidewalk, directing people away from the building. Tony must have used his Extremis abilities to call him. Jan, too, he realized – there was a small, moving dot barely visible just inside the door, flying towards the security personnel.

Back-up was here, if not quite the heavy-hitting back-up Carol would have represented.

"So, rather than making Chthon more powerful, you want us to make you more powerful instead?" Don asked. It was as much a rhetorical question as it was anything else – regaining the power stored in the spear would make Loki one of the strongest of the resurrected Asgardians, her powers a match for anything but the Odin force, and Thor preferred to avoid using that at almost all costs. Don didn't blame him; leading Valhalla was a crushing responsibility at times, he knew, but the powers Odin had wielded and passed on to his son were even more oppressive, and not simply because one's own near-death was required in order to master them fully.

She raised an eyebrow. "The power is rightfully mine, not Doom's or Chthon's or anyone else's. Such suspicion. One would think I was offering you threats instead of my hand in aid." Her voice was poisonously sweet.

Steve was standing in the doorway now, his shield in hand. From the look on his face, he was about to throw Loki's offer of 'aid' back in her teeth. Don beat him to it.

Prior to the Ragnarok, Loki had tried to kill Don repeatedly, tried to kill Jane Foster, tried to kill at least a half-dozen other people Don knew, and generally made his life a living hell more times than he cared to count. "Help from you?" he snapped. "So you can turn around and stab us in the back as soon as you have the spear back? You must think we're either insane or stupid."

Loki's smile was cold now, revealing teeth just a fraction too sharp to belong to anything human. "No, I merely had hoped that you would choose to follow the wisest course available to you. My aid is not a thing to be dismissed lightly. We were brothers once; does none of that bond remain?"

The hot flash of rage that filled Don was unexpected – his skin felt too tight, suddenly, his face hot, and he couldn't tell how much of the emotion choking him was his, and how much was Thor's. "You murdered Thor's brother!" he shouted at her. "What the hell do you think? He trusted you once and you betrayed him!" He had trusted him – her – like a brother, fought beside her, drunk mead with her and laughed with her and– The memories of Baldur convulsing in his arms, bubbles of blood at his lips while his breath wheezed with a wet, gluey note that Don's medical training recognized as the sound of someone drowning on the fluid in their lungs... were not his memories. They were still as vivid in his mind as the first time he'd ever had a patient flatline.

Loki made a pouty little moue that filled Don with the desire to wipe the expression off her face, and said, "So bitter. One would think Baldur were still in his grave. Save your anger for those it truly belongs to, brother."

"We're not accepting your help," Steve said, his voice as calm and controlled as if he hadn't just witnessed Don screaming accusations at Loki. "So you can turn around and leave, Mister. I mean, Ma'am."

Loki swung around to look at him, putting her back toward Don. "Bold words, from a mortal with no powers to his name. My business is with Thor, not you."

'I am getting really tired of you treating me like I don't exist,' Don thought, glaring at the iridescent sheen of her cape. "Thor's not here right now," he spat. "And if he were, he wouldn't be inclined to listen to you."

Traitor. The word rumbled in his head. Oathbreaker.

"I think what we're all trying to say," Tony announced loudly, "is that your presence in my lobby is making everyone in the building nervous. I suggest you leave before we end up having to make you. If your offer is sincere, we can discuss it somewhere else. Someplace I haven't just spent several million dollars repairing." He raised both hands, the repulsor ports in his palms a glaringly bright blue-white. "These may not be able to kill you, but I can guarantee it will be painful."

"We're not discussing it. She's leaving." Apparently, Tony hadn't had his fill of working with manipulative scum who wanted to destroy them. One would think he'd have learned, by this point, that there were some people you didn't want to get into bed with, no matter what they threatened or how persuasive they could be.

"I see you've decided not to be reasonable," Loki said coolly. "I had hoped we might discuss this as friends, as befits kinsmen, but since you insist upon spurning my offers of peace..." She shook her head, her expression a parody of regret. "I know where Sif is. Give me the spear, and when I have it safely in my grasp, I will tell you of her location. Persist in this foolish stubbornness, and I shall see to it that you never lay eyes on her again."

This time, the rage was entirely Thor's. Don felt it anyway, magnified by his own frustration at their inability to find his alter-ego's lover; he'd wanted to find her badly, for Thor – at least one of them should get to have a fresh start with the woman he loved.

"Stay away from her," he snarled. "If you're even telling the truth, which I doubt." Loki had not been called the Father of Lies for nothing; she lied as easily as she breathed. And threats against a conveniently absent Sif were exactly the sort of bluff she would make.

Loki smirked at him. Her skin was pale in the bright sunlight, and at one temple, Don could see the edge of a blue tattoo – the tribal markings of a frost giant, not entirely hidden by her hair. She had every reason to hate Thor, and no reason to help him. "You sound most certain, brother. Certain enough to risk thy paramour's life? Ah well," she gave an elaborate shrug, "mayhap Baldur or Heimdall will be more accommodating."

Don's ears popped as the air pressure in the room dropped, and he wasn't sure whether it was he or Thor who growled, "Get out, and stay away from my family."

Loki raised a mocking eyebrow. "Which one?" Her glance around the room at the other Avengers – the first time she'd looked at any of them, save for that one glance at Steve – made her meaning obvious.

"Both of them!"

She strode forward – behind him and slightly to his right, he could hear the Falcon's hard light wings snapping out, hear Iron Man's repulsors crackling – and then she was in front of him, towering over Don by half a foot. "The day will come when you will wish that you had accepted my aid, Thunder God." She reached out and laid one finger against Don's face, just beside his left eye, the end of her talon-like nail resting against his skin. It took an exercise of willpower not to flinch.

"Such pretty blue eyes," she whispered. "Always looking at me with such disguSt. Would she like you as well if I plucked this one out?"

"Step away from him, Loki," Steve called, but he didn't throw his shield, though Don could tell from the way he held it that he wanted to.

Loki's finger slid slowly down the side of his face, coming to rest under his chin. "If you reconsider, Son of Odin, you have but to call me. I am always willing to negotiate. You have but to hold this ring, and utter my name, and I shall hurry hence to do thy bidding." Her hand closed around his right wrist, gripping just hard enough to remind him that she could crush every one of the delicate bones there with a single squeeze, and forced his clenched fingers open, folding them closed again around something hard and round.

Then she took a step backward, and vanished into thin air, her wide, unfriendly smile the last thing to disappear.

Steve's shield whooshed through the air where she had been, a fraction of a second too late, and clanged loudly off one of the support pillars that held up the third-floor balcony.

Don stared down at the gold ring that glinted malevolently up at him from his right palm, and resisted the urge to rub at his face where Loki's hand had been. He could still feel her nail sliding over his face, leaving a trail of tingling skin, as if she were still touching him.

Chapter Text

The kitchen in Stark Tower's penthouse was not large enough to comfortably accommodate eight people, but the kitchen was where the team had always gathered to hold discussions too informal to have around a council room table, so once Loki had left and the men and women who had fled the building to huddle in little knots on the sidewalk outside had all come back in, and the police had been assured that there was no need for their presence, the kitchen was where everyone went.

The room was full of the sound of too many people speaking too loudly, all at once. Hank was apologizing to Jan for not getting back from wherever he'd stormed off to in time to help confront Loki. Wanda was protesting to Sam that she and Clint should have been told about Loki's arrival immediately, and that she couldn't help them if she didn't know what was going on. Clint was on the phone with the West Coast Avengers, filling Carol in. And Tony was making a thus far unsuccessful attempt to get Steve and Thor to see reason.

"I think we sent her away too soon," he said, for the second time. "We should have heard her out."

"Loki's words are oft as dangerous as her actions," Thor said flatly. He was actually talking to Tony now, Loki's appearance having presumably provided the distraction of someone he hated even more.

"Loki's still more of a known quantity than Chthon is," Tony countered. "Yes, obviously, she'll try to stab us in the back, but if she helps us defeat Chthon first, then whatever treachery we have to deal with afterwards will be the lesser of two evils. We're majorly outclassed in terms of magical firepower right now." He turned to Steve, who could be counted on to be practical when it came to tactics. "You saw what Chthon did to Strange. If we try and fight both him and Loki at the same time, we're going to lose both battles."

"I hate to admit it," Sam said, turning away from Wanda and joining the conversation, "but that is actually a good point."

There was silence as everyone considered this, and Clint's too-loud words into the cordless phone he was holding between his shoulder and right ear were clearly audible for a moment. "Get back to New York, okay? This is more important than your booty call with Spider-Woman. I thought you guys were 'taking a break from each other' anyway."

"Loki despises us all utterly and is naturally aligned with Chaos," Thor rumbled. "There is nothing to stay her from deciding to help Chthon instead with the intent of turning upon him later. Or of ruling the worlds at his left hand."

"Right hand," Jan corrected.

Clint pulled the phone away from his mouth and turned slightly to face the rest of them. "No, he's an evil Chaos deity. It would be his left hand."

"Left-handed people aren't automatically evil, you know," Tony said, knowing it was off topic but unable to resist making the protest. Especially since, from Clint, it was probably an intentional attempt at being annoying, since he knew how irritating baseless superstitions were and couldn't possible have forgotten that Tony was the only left-handed person in the room.

"No, but left and counterclockwise have symbolic importance in more than one system of magic, left hands are ritually unclean in multiple cultures, and this is not important." Wanda stabbed a finger at Clint reprovingly, and he turned back to his phone conversation, shifting to put his back to them again.

Steve was frowning, his eyebrows drawn together in a way that was usually endearing but that, right now, was just irritating. He was going to be stubborn about this. Damn it. "We can't just hand Loki that kind of power," he said. "God knows what she'd do with it. She might not be as evil as Chthon, but she's a lot less predictable."

"Well, we know she probably won't destroy the world with it," Tony pointed out, his voice sharper than he'd meant it to be. 

Thor gave him a dismissive glance, his eyes narrowed and full of almost palpable contempt. "It seems you are skilled at choosing lesser evils."

Tony winced, wanting automatically to deny it – wanting to deny anything that Thor said to him in that tone of voice – but knowing that it was true. He wasn't especially proud of it, but the ability to follow through on the most practical or effective course of action was vital in the business world as well as in politics and superheroing, and someone had to be the pragmatic one. "This has nothing to do with that," he said, instead. "Steve, will you just compromise for once? Sometimes surviving is more important than principles. We don't have to actually give Loki the spear; just give her the impression that we'd be willing to if she helped us first."

Wanda opened her mouth to speak, but Steve beat her to it.

"This isn't about principles," he said shortly, blue eyes boring into Tony. "This is about not relying on people you know you can't trust."

"We can handle Loki," Tony protested. "We've done it before."

Steve's jaw tightened. "You always think you can handle things. Some things, some people, are too dangerous to control."

Tony drew a deep breath in through his nose, staring at the wall just beyond Steve's head and trying to ignore the frustrated tension creeping up the back of his neck. Someone had tacked an 'endangered raptors of North America' calendar up on one wall, where Steve's pen and ink sketch of the Manhattan skyline had once hung; otherwise, the walls were still as bare as they had been after the SHRA had been passed and Steve had been gone, when Tony had pulled all of the pictures in the apartment down.

He felt silly about that now, especially after weeks spent looking at the bare, unfinished walls of the Avengers Mansion as it was slowly rebuilt. Spending months living in a house with no pictures on the walls was not normal, but by the time he'd actually noticed how barren the apartment suite looked, Steve had been back for almost a month, and the boxes with the pictures in them were sitting in the middle of a dozen other boxes of Steve's things, waiting for him to unpack them.

He shouldn't be fighting with Steve, not over this. They'd just barely started unpacking. He shouldn't-

His chest felt tight, as if the air in the room lacked sufficient oxygen.

"Captain America is right," Thor was saying. "We must-"

"Remember what happened the last time we tried working with supervillains?" Hank interrupted.

"This is not the same as Registration!" Tony snapped, finally losing control over his temper. "And even if it were, compromise was the safest course of action then, and it's the best one now."

Steve slammed a hand down on the edge of the table, the sturdy wood absorbing the impact with a dull thud. "If we let Loki get her hands on that spear, everything she does with it will be our fault." His voice had risen until it was halfway to a shout, his face flushing red.

"You think I don't know that?" Why was it so hard to breathe? His chest was starting to hurt, a sharp, familiar pain. "I'll take full responsibility for it if you want," he said, flinging his hands up angrily. "A little more blood on my hands is nothing next to saving the world." How would one even tell where the old stains left off and the new ones started, at this point?

Steve closed his eyes for a second, and took a deep breath, obviously trying to hold onto his temper. "You can't take responsibility for this, Tony. It's everyone's decision, not just yours."

"No," Thor said firmly. "It is my decision. And I have already decided that my answer is no."

"This is something that affects all of us," Wanda said. "It isn't just a personal family problem of yours, any more than Magneto was for me and– for me and Pietro."

Everyone seemed to be talking at once, then, raised voices overlapping and blurring into one another.

"Of course she'll stab us in the back," Hank was insisting, one hand flailing angrily through the air. "Supervillains always stab you in the back. Then you're left rotting in jail for their crimes, or trying to talk them out of cloning dead Initiative members as science projects."

"If we try to blackmail or manipulate Loki into helping us without delivering payment, she's going to try and kill us all." Sam's voice, less angry than the others.

"She cannot be trusted!" Thor's shout set the dishes rattling in the cabinets. "I will not ally myself with yet another who has betrayed me. There is a limit to my forbearance!"

"I'm trying to talk to Carol, will you guys shut up?"

"Calm down, big guy." Jan laid a hand on Thor's arm, only to receive an icy glare in return. "Tony wasn't suggesting we trust her-"

"Which is what makes it such a bad idea," Steve interrupted. "If I thought you were being naïve – but you know how dangerous she is. I thought we were finished with you putting yourself in dangerous situations because you think you—"

"This isn't about me," Tony defended. The kitchen felt much too small, too loud, and none of the rest of them were listening. Old instincts kicked in, reminding him not to let his struggle for breath or the twinges in his chest show. 'Breathe, don't lose it, make them think there's nothing wrong with you.' "If Chthon breaks free and we have to fight him alone, we're doomed." 

"–I don't think–"

"–you always–"

"—she has forfeited the right to my aid, and—"

"Damn it, Tony, we talked about this!"

"—how many shall die this time, through your foolhardiness?"

Tony stood up abruptly, his chair nearly toppling over – he grabbed for it, gripping the hard wooden back tightly for a moment. "I'm not doing this right now," he forced out.

The walk to the kitchen door took ages, despite the claustrophobic smallness of the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Steve stand, moving to follow him, saw Sam and Clint block Steve's path, Sam saying something to him in a low voice.

The words made no sense, the rushing sound in his ears turning them into meaningless, barely audible noise. The edges of his vision were blurred and grey, and suddenly he was in the hallway, leaning against the wall and trying to keep his hands from shaking, not entirely certain how he'd gotten there.

What the hell was wrong with him? 

Was he having some kind of bizarre panic attack over fighting with Steve? That made no sense; this wasn't the first time they'd argued about something since Steve had come back, and if he were going to completely lose it like this, surely he would have done it weeks ago, back when he'd still been waking up each morning from dreams that Steve was still dead.

Tony closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing, pressing one hand against the ache in his chest and letting the wall hold him up. He didn't have panic attacks. He'd been blown up, tortured, shot, gone under the knife for open heart surgery, and come out the other side of all of it still perfectly able to function under pressure.

Some kind of after effect of A.I.M.'s fear toxin, activated by adrenaline? He'd been exposed to it nearly a month ago, but with A.I.M., that didn't necessarily mean anything. He should ask Hank to check him out later, to make sure he didn't have some trace amount of it still lurking in his system. Should check with Jan to make sure she hadn't experienced anything similar.

"Are you okay?"

Tony looked up with a jerk to see Jan standing a foot or so away from him, examining him intently. How had she gotten there without him hearing anything?

"I'm," he began, starting to tell her that he was fine, and then stopped. "I don't know." He drew in a deep breath, feeling marginally less shaky, and balled his hands into fists to keep them from trembling. His hands never shook. Even when he'd been drinking himself to sleep every night and hungover every morning, they'd always been rock steady when he needed them to be. "Yelling at Steve and Thor wouldn't have helped anything. I didn't want to- The last time I got into an actual fight with Steve, I broke his jaw."

Jan winced, looking away. "That was a little different than this," she said. "And I've never seen you take your anger out on someone else physically. On lab equipment maybe, but not on people."

Tony tried to smile. "I have a lot more expensive equipment than I have friends."

Jan offered him a small smile in return. "That's not saying much. I've seen your lab."

'Calm', he told himself. 'You're fine. There's nothing wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with Steve. Suck it up, Shellhead, and be an Avenger, and not Tony Stark losing it because he got into a fight with his boyfriend.' He'd always been able to do that before, and when he couldn't, he'd known that it was time to take the armor off and give it to Rhodey.

"I think Steve can handle you arguing with him," Jan was saying. "It's good for him. And accepting Loki's help isn't out of the question as a last-ditch solution, but I don't think things are that desperate yet."

"Not yet," Tony agreed, "but we can't afford to have her as an enemy right now, either."

"I'm not sure we can afford to have her as an ally, either," Jan said. She patted him on the arm, and added, "Try to keep it together, okay? It's hard enough keeping this team functional as it is, between Thor and Hank and Carol's issues with Wanda." 

"I'm fine," he said, and it wasn't entirely a lie. He could breathe easily again; the tightness and twinges in his chest had faded almost to nothing now, leaving just the faintly jittery aftermath of an adrenaline overload and a hot prickle of embarrassment.

Chthon and Loki and the threat they both represented were far more important than his personal problems, whatever those were.

There was a loud thud from inside the kitchen, probably Thor slamming a fist down on the table again, and he and Jan both jumped a little at the sound. "Let's go back inside before the big guy breaks something," Tony suggested.

Then he braced himself, put on a smile, and followed Jan back into the room.

Thor practically stomped out of the kitchen, his back a stiff, straight line. No one was completely happy with the decision the team had reached, but Thor in particular had never been inclined to compromise when he was angry.

The Avengers were not going to contact Loki, or accept her help, and under no circumstances would she be getting her spear back. However, if she contacted them, they were all going to play nice, Thor included, and do their best not to give her a reason to fight them. Tony was right about that much, at least; they couldn't afford to fight a battle on two fronts right now, not when everything they had still might not be enough to face Chthon.

He had, Steve reflected, just told a god to be on his best behavior. Thor was not likely to take kindly to that at the moment, not where Loki was involved.

Knowing that Tony's "let's talk to Loki and see what she means by 'help us'" plan had been voted down five-to-three—Wanda's vote in favor hadn't technically counted—wouldn't make the need to smile and be polite, or at least not openly hostile, the next time she appeared any easier to swallow.

"I'm just saying, it can't hurt to keep our options open." Sam watched Thor go, frowning thoughtfully. "You saw what that thing did to Dr. Strange."

Clint half-raised one hand. "I didn't, actually."

"Take my word for it," Jan said. "It was intimidating."

Which was presumably why she'd voted to accept Loki's assistance, alongside Sam and Tony. Neither her vote nor Sam's had been as surprising as Hank's resounding vote against, but when he thought about it, Steve supposed it made sense. Hank had been burned – badly – by supervillains before; Jan was nothing if not practical, the flighty persona she liked to put on notwithstanding; and Sam was more than able to grit his teeth and work with people he disliked if he thought it would serve the greater good.

Tony... Tony's arguments almost always made sense, even when they were wrong. It was his reactions just now that Steve didn't know how to interpret.

He understood storming out of a fight because you were too angry not to do or say something stupid if you stayed, but Tony hadn't looked angry when he'd left. He'd looked... strange. Upset. Steve had wondered for a half-second if he'd just been informed of some kind of disaster via the Extremis. Then he'd come back in with Jan, only a few minutes later, and appeared perfectly calm and in control. Reasonable. Willing to accept the team's decision, but with that tightness around his eyes that said he wasn't entirely happy with it.

He'd been upset, visibly so, and then he'd been fine – or had looked fine. Steve had learned to tell the difference between Tony actually being calm and in control, and Tony forcing a false smile and faking it.

Tony was staring after Thor as well, eyes on the empty doorway. Nothing but a faint frown showed on his face, but his eyes held something close to the empty, damaged look they'd had just after Steve had come back. Not regret, precisely, or shame, or hurt, but some complicated combination of the three, probably with a sizable helping of guilt and self-loathing to round it out, Tony being Tony.

Hank, significantly less skilled at hiding his emotions, had left even before Thor had, storming out of the room with his head held high, determinedly not looking at the rest of them.

"You need to do something about Thor and Hank and Tony," Sam said in an undertone, following Steve's gaze to where Tony sat staring into space. Wanda sat next to him, looking as if she were debating putting one gloved hand on his arm; she seemed to wear her gloves more often since her return, even, as now, when she wasn't in costume. 

"You can't tell me that fight just now wasn't about more than just Loki," Sam went on.

It was nothing Steve didn't already know, but, "Why me?" Given that he was hardly uninvolved in the situation, he doubted Thor would welcome any further interference. He'd done his best to stay neutral, and not let his feelings for Tony influence him – not when Thor had a serious and legitimate grievance – but... 

Sam was right; he'd known for weeks that he was probably going to have to intervene eventually, before the teams' communication problems came back to bite them in the ass in the field. He'd just hoped he wouldn't have to.

"You're in charge," Clint said, as if it were self-evident.

"I don't solve Hank's problems for him." Jan wrinkled her nose, and added, "I doubt the big guy would listen to me, anyway. I was there when the cloning happened, and I didn't do anything to stop it."

Steve would have said something to that – agreed, probably, or pointed out that Hank's problem had the potential to become everyone's problem if it led to a communications breakdown in the middle of fight – but then Tony said something quietly to Wanda and stood, moving quickly and smoothly toward the door as if he hoped to quietly slip out of the kitchen without Steve noticing.

He was probably going to go hide in the basement lab, where he would stay holed up for hours, not emerging until either Steve, Pepper, or Jarvis dragged him out.

Steve nodded distractedly at Jan and followed Tony out into the hallway.

Unsurprisingly, he was headed toward the elevator, its doors already sliding open for him accommodatingly.


Tony stopped, half-turning to look at Steve. "I have a project for Rhodey to work on. His new shoulder gun keeps jamming, and he wants me to-"

Steve cut him off before he could get any further with his attempt at evasion. "I need to talk to you."

Tony turned to face him fully, holding his hands up, palms out. "You're right," he said quickly. "I shouldn't have walked out of a meeting like that, informal or not. It was about Loki, not about you and me."

Steve moved closer, taking hold of Tony's wrists, and gently pulling his hands down. "That's not what I want to talk about." He hesitated, then decided to be blunt. Subtle hints rarely succeeded in getting Tony to talk about whatever was bothering him. "Are you... all right? You looked-"

"I'm fine," Tony interrupted, tugging his hands free. 

Steve let go, backing off a step, and watched as Tony visibly struggled for words. 

"I just..." he started, then stopped, shaking his head. "I don't like fighting with you. With Thor. Not about important things."

He might not like it, but that had never stopped him from doing it – Tony had always been willing to stick to his planned course of action with maddening stubbornness if he thought it was necessary, even when said course of action was self-destructive and morally questionable. If he truly believed that an alliance with Loki was the only way to save the world, he would walk into the cathedral and pick up the spear himself to bring it out to her. Or he would have at least kept arguing a lot longer. The near-fight in the kitchen was probably as much about Tony's ingrained habit of playing devil's advocate as anything else.

Steve had missed that, he realized. Tony had only given in when his suggestion had been officially voted down by half the team. He hadn't just conceded and agreed to go along with whatever Steve wanted. He'd visibly flinched at Thor's anger, and the accusation that his poor decisions had cost lives, but he'd looked the rest of them straight in the eyes and argued his point, without apologies.

Granted, an apology or two more to Thor might go a long way towards smoothing things over, but...

All things considered, he preferred arrogantly-sure-he-was-right, it's-all-my-responsibility-let-me-decide-FOR-you Tony to apologetic, broken Tony. It was just wrong to see Tony unsure of himself.

He didn't say that, though, not quite.

"I know," Steve told Tony. "I'm glad you did, though. You haven't told me that I'm a naïve, unrealistic boy scout in months."

Tony blinked, expression uncertain for second, then smiled. It was only a little forced. "That's because you usually aren't one. I only have to remind you that there are options you're not considering once in a while."

"When I won't consider an option, there's usually a reason for that," Steve said dryly.

"Blind stubbornness?" Tony suggested, raising his eyebrows.

"Morals," Steve said firmly. "Ethics. The Geneva Convention. Or the fact that a lot of your plans involve disturbingly high chances of you blowing up."

"That lightning the other week would not have blown me up." The elevator doors began to close, and without looking, Tony thrust a hand between them, keeping them open. "The armor's designed to handle power overloads without exploding."

"Electrocuted, then," Steve said. He stepped forward and wrapped his hand around the edge of the elevator door. "Here, I'll come down to the lab with you. Maybe I can help." Tony was unlikely to need his assistance with anything technological, but Steve wasn't going to let him hide in the basement by himself for the rest of the day. He would end up spending hours down there, not bothering to come upstairs to eat, and Steve wouldn't see him again until tomorrow night; the Avengers' labs always had a cot or sofa shoved into a corner somewhere, testament to both Tony and Hank's screwed-up working and sleeping patterns.

Tony shook his head. "I don't need any help," he said, the teasing note gone from his voice now. "Look, I have things to do. I'll be back upstairs for dinner, all right?"

Tony was still angry, obviously, even if he was making an effort to hide it. He'd never objected to Steve's presence in his lab before. "Well, I don't have things to do, so I might as well come. I can hand you tools."

"You can watch," Tony corrected. He grinned, then, as Steve followed him into the elevator. "You're just hoping I'll let you test Rhodey's shoulder cannon, aren't you?"

Steve seized on it as the olive branch it was. "You mean, hoping I'll get to fire a gun the size of Spiderman? Actually, no. I just wanted to watch you get covered in sweat and engine grease." On the other hand... "But now that you mention it..."

Tony shook his head. That momentary grin was gone, but so was the tension that had been holding his shoulders rigid. "I'm at the disassembly stage now. There won't be any playing with guns for a while. Plus, it's part of Rhodey's armor. It would be like letting someone else play with your shield."

The doors started to slide closed. Moments before they shut completely, the cat came dashing through them, a low streak of orange fur.

He rubbed his head and side blissfully against Tony's ankles as the elevator started to descend, looking up at Steve with a smug expression in his huge blue eyes. 'Mine,' that expression said. 'I only tolerate you.'

The cat was going to come with them to the Mansion eventually, Steve suspected. He'd only ever been Jarvis's pet in name – he slept on Steve and Tony's bed, played with Clint, and begged for food from the entire team. It had taken him about two days to figure out that Thor was a particularly soft touch.

Thor. Steve's newly regained good mood deflated a little. "You need to talk to Thor," he said quietly, the words sounding stiff and awkward to his own ears. Usually, balancing his relationship with Tony with their responsibilities as Avengers was, if not easy, then at least not especially hard. They'd reformed the team together, fought to end the SHRA together, and Steve had quietly decided that he wasn't going to let anything, be it supervillains, government interference, possession or experimental drugs, or either of their own nightmares get in the way of that again.

And he wasn't, but that didn't make trying to play peacemaker between his... lover? boyfriend? All the words he knew for it sounded silly – and one of his oldest friends any easier.

Tony's body language stiffened up again as soon as he said Thor's name. "I already did," he said, ignoring the hoarse, creaky purr that now emanated from somewhere in the vicinity of his ankles. "Apologizing again won't change what we did." He sounded resigned, tired.

Well, no, apologizing didn't undo the past, but, "Try it anyway," Steve suggested. "The way Thor sees it, an innocent man died at... not exactly his hands, but close enough that he feels dishonored by it. You know what that feels like. I've seen your face when reporters throw those questions about landmines and unexploded munitions at you."

"That's different," Tony said. "That actually is my responsibility. Just like the clone was. Thor did nothing; he just got caught in the fallout from another weapon I lost control of, one I shouldn't have allowed myself to be forced into making in the first place. And he's got just as much right to be angry at me as any of the people those landmines and missiles have hurt." He studied the smooth, polished brass of the elevator doors intently, as if searching for something in his own distorted reflection. Or avoiding Steve's eyes. "What use would another apology be when he doesn't trust my word anymore?"

So he was letting it drop, Steve guessed, waiting for Thor to slowly come around when he saw Tony being a good teammate, trying to work with him, and generally not being a mad scientist. Try hard enough, be smart enough, plan well enough, do things right, and success was inevitable – it was virtually Tony's motto, along with the assumption that if he wasn't successful, it was his fault for not foreseeing whatever had gone wrong and preventing it.

Sometimes it even worked. Maybe this would be one of those times – maybe Thor would eventually come around as Tony proved to him that his apology hadn't just been empty words. 

If so, Steve hoped it happened before Chthon showed up on their doorstep.

The Avengers Mansion's white façade was entirely complete now, the late afternoon sunlight turning the pale stonework reddish-gold. From the air, the remains of the damage to the grounds were all too visible, but were it not for the crater still waiting to be filled in in the lawn and the half-dead remains of the gardens, the building itself would have looked untouched, as if it had stood there on the corner of Fifth and 70th unmolested since before the first world war.

This was actually the second time it had been rebuilt – the architects and construction company had done a very good job. How much, Carol wondered, had Tony had to bribe the Landmarks Preservation Commission in order to build an exact copy of the original building instead of some modern 'update' of it?

However much he'd spent, it had been worth it; getting the outside of the building completed in three months was nearly miraculous in New York, where scaffolding often clung to the outsides of buildings for years. 

After nearly four straight hours in the air, it was a welcome sight.

Carol landed on the lawn, avoiding the crater, and turned to wave at the security camera she knew was there. If the old defense system had been back online, she would have been dodging lasers all the way to the ground, but as it was, nothing greeted her but stillness and silence. The construction crew still working on the interiors had obviously gone home for the day.

If her urgent return to the East Coast hadn't been prompted by an apparent lapse of sanity on Tony's part, she might almost have been grateful for the excuse to leave LA. The trip... hadn't gone well, though it hadn't been as bad as she had feared. She'd expected shouting and bitter fighting and that she'd leave miserable. She'd gotten the shouting in spades, but if anything she felt... slightly better for it, actually. Not better enough to want to stick around and keep doing it, but better.

Arguing with Jessica was a lot more cathartic without the worry that this would be the time Carol finally went too far and lost her for good. With less to lose, there was less to fight about.

Maybe Jessica had been right to want to call a halt to things before it stopped being fun. They had worked just fine as friends who occasionally hooked up before the SHRA had passed. And friends who were willing to forgive you some of the things Carol had pulled when she'd been drinking, and put up with the dysfunctional mess she'd been after she'd come out of the coma were harder to come by than gorgeous women with sex pheromone powers who were great in bed.

Really. She just had to keep telling herself that.

Simon had made his sappily sweet fling with Henry Hellrung official shortly before Carol's first trip back East, the one that had ended in poison gas attacks and mass hysteria. Apparently, she and Jessica couldn't compete with the seductive power inherent in Hellrung's encyclopedic command of classic cinema, and Simon had amicably ended their relationship in favor of living in domestic bliss with the Disney Channel version of Tony Stark.

Carol had started spending a lot of time in New York, then. She and Jessica argued more without Simon and his dislike of emotional conflict there to smooth things over, and make-up sex might be deeply satisfying, but it only went so far toward patching things up again after they'd both said things they regretted. 

Jessica and Simon had been the first of Carol's lovers in a long time whom she could allow herself to get a little rough with, whom she didn't have to worry about accidentally hurting, but there were more ways to hurt someone than simply leaving too many bruises during over-enthusiastic sex.

They'd argued again this time, despite the lower stakes, over Wanda's return and Simon's refusal to come back to New York and see her. Hellrung was all for facing down your problems with a positive attitude, or at least with long-suffering endurance. Jessica, for once, had been in total agreement with him – she'd kept enough secrets in the rest of her life to prefer brutal honesty in relationships, she'd said.

Brutal honesty, Carol had learned, was a lot easier to dish out than it was to listen to.

Someone had needed to stick up for Simon. Jessica hadn't been there when Vision had died, when Wanda had tried to destroy them all. She didn't really understand how personal the betrayal had to be for Simon, who'd lost his entire remaining family in a single day. She thought he ought to be happy to have Wanda back, didn't see Wanda's madness as any different than what the Shadow King had done to her.

"She didn't choose it, Carol, anymore than you chose what Rogue did to you. Anymore than I chose to be his pawn and his plaything."

Vision, Scott, and Clint hadn't chosen to die, either, and Clint hadn't chosen to have sex with Wanda. Jessica, of all people, should have understood that. She knew what mind-control was like, what it was like to have your choices taken away from you. Wanda was not the person one ought to be feeling sorry for here.

No one answered when Carol rang the doorbell, but knowing Tony, he was just as likely to be walled up in some soundproof workshop, completely oblivious to anything that wasn't either mechanical or electronic.

She could come back later. It would give her a chance to shower, change clothes, relax for a while after hours of flying. She could sit around with Jan and rant about exes who thought they knew what was best for you and were distractingly sexy when they were angry. Jan had dated Tony once, so she ought to have experience in that department.

Or she could just let herself in. She hadn't flown at top speed all the way from LA to wait around for Tony to make room in his schedule for her. He had to have some rational justification for why he thought it was a good idea to accept help from supervillains after they'd just finished fixing the mess from the last time they'd done so, and she couldn't wait to hear it.

Complying with the SHRA had been necessary, both as the only viable way to exercise some degree of damage control, and because refusing to obey legitimate government legislation would have only made the public perception of superhumans worse – as the anti-Registration side's resistance, in fact, had.

Loki was not a representative of the US government, or anyone else they had any reason to respect, and had in point of fact tried to kill them all more than once. Trusting Wanda and letting her back onto the team – probationary Carol's ass, she was pretty much on the team again – was bad enough without accepting help from the overtly, self-admittedly evil.

She'd said as much to Clint, on the phone, but she doubted he'd relayed more than the barest gist of her words to the others. Probably just, "Ms. Marvel votes no, and she thinks you're crazy."

Carol pressed her thumb against the tiny biometric lock tucked discreetly into the corner of the door frame, and waited while it analyzed her fingerprint and possibly her DNA. After a moment, the door unlocked with an audible click, and for the first time in over a year, she was inside the Avengers Mansion.

There was no furniture in the front hall, but the staircase and the marble floor were the same. Untouched, this time, with no sign of the crack in the floor where Thor had once dropped his hammer, the uneven spots in the plasterwork where scratches and gouges had been filled in and painted over innumerable times. The smell of fresh paint and dry plaster dust was everywhere.

Her boots were loud against the bare marble floor, and louder still on the living room's wooden floorboards.

There was no one in there, either, but a fire had been laid in the fireplace, and either Steve or Tony had left a book lying on the coffee table, face down to keep their place in it.

The Maltese Falcon. It had been one of Vision's favorite books, she remembered, with a pang. He'd loved film noir and pulp detective novels, anything with trench coats and fedoras and hardboiled private eyes.

Carol frowned. Steve preferred the movie version of Sam Spade to the more ruthless and less soulful-eyed original, and Tony preferred his manly pulp novels to be of the James Bond variety.

There was a soft sound behind her, someone's shoes scuffing against the floor.

Carol turned sharply, feeling a flash of guilty embarrassment at being caught snooping through Steve or Tony's reading material.

"Wanda!" She felt her face heat, and hated it. Damn it, Wanda was staying here, too. How could she have forgotten?

"Carol," Wanda said, moving into the room. At least she looked uneasy, too. She was in civilian clothing, in dark colors, and her gloves were missing. The spiky black tattoos on the backs of her hands stood out in sharp relief, like a Shi-ar's facial markings.

She must have realized that Carol was staring, because after a moment, she pulled her hands back, letting the folds of her skirt hide them.

"They're not here," Wanda said, stiffly. "Cap and Tony are both out."

"Maybe you can explain what on earth Tony was thinking, then." It wasn't what she had intended to say – talking to Wanda at all was something she would prefer to avoid – but irritation overrode her better instincts, as it did too often. She had spent a good portion of her flight planning out exactly what she was going to say to Tony, one version for if she was able to get him alone, and another in case Steve was present; she hadn't wanted to call him on the carpet for poor decision-making in front of their team leader, boyfriend or no. Not unless it was necessary.

Wanda looked up, then, meeting her eyes levelly. "He was thinking the same thing I was," she said. "That Chthon may be too powerful for us to defeat on our own, should he break free, and that Loki is significantly less likely to try to destroy reality itself than Chthon is."

"That's the last thing I expected to hear from you," Carol told her. "If Strange is right, I'd think you would have had enough of evil chaos deities."

Wanda crossed her arms, the fabric of her blouse wrinkling, and said stiffly, "There's evil, and there's Chthon."

"Yes," Carol said. "And once upon a time, you wouldn't have sided with evil."

"I was a member of the Brotherhood of Mutants long before I was an Avenger."

Which was technically true, but, "That's not the same thing, and you know it."

"No." Wanda's voice was flat. "Siding with Magneto was my choice, even if it was a bad one."

And being possessed by Chthon hadn't been. However, exactly how much control Wanda had had over her actions while possessed was unclear – how much of what she'd done had been Chthon's influence, and how much had been her own subconscious desires? Or conscious ones?

'No more mutants.'

Who wished an entire group of people into extinction? How could you ever trust someone whose mind had harbored such a wish?

Carol folded her own arms, realized she was mirroring Wanda's body language, and unfolded them. "Lots of us have had our choices taken away," she said. "Most of us didn't kill people over it, or try to destroy the world." At the words, all of the anger she had felt at the time came back. The paperback she'd guiltily set back down on the coffee table stood out with painful clarity, the garish cover shouting the title in bright, block letters. Vision had died, if not precisely by Wanda's hands, then through her magic, and now she was sitting right there in the very building she'd destroyed, reading his favorite book. There was something obscene about it, and Carol felt a sudden urge to snatch the book away and take it back to LA with her, to give it to Simon, who had far more right to Vision's memory than the person responsible for his death.

She narrowed her eyes at Wanda. "Tony feels guilty about what happened to you. He's clearly overcompensating. Thor wasn't here to see what you did. Steve forgives everyone, eventually." Even Tony, who had fought with him so bitterly. Even Sharon Carter, who had shot him – not intentionally, true, but a lot of men wouldn't have seen past the fact of the bullet. "But I don't understand Clint forgiving you. Not after what you did to him. I don't see how he can stand to be in the same room as you." That, even more then the rest of this, made no sense. In her experience, men were more likely to shrug off being taken sexual advantage of than women were; she'd known at least a half a dozen guys in the Air Force who'd had sex they didn't remember while drunk, and the greatest source of trauma – that they'd admitted to, anyway – seemed to be the women involved's lack of perceived attractiveness. But Clint had been visibly upset, when he'd told her about it, afraid he'd taken advantage of Wanda, blaming himself for not resisting, for not bringing her back with him. And yet he hadn't said a word against allowing her to come back.

"That's between me and Clint." Wanda's voice rose sharply as she spoke, the words sounding strained, defensive, as if she truly felt guilty. Good. She ought to. "I brought him back as soon as I could. He's one of my oldest friends—do you think I wouldn't do anything to be able to do the same with Vision?"

Carol looked away from Wanda's tight, set face, and the suspicious shine in her eyes, to the living room's bare floors, their finish still glossy and untouched. "Yeah, you cared about them so much that you tried to kill them to, what, punish us for the fact that you lost your children? Was that how Chthon got you to do it?" Wanda flinched, her shoulders hunching up defensively, but Carol pressed on, almost glad to be hurting the other woman. "You got inside our heads! You used our worst weaknesses against us. Chthon couldn't have known those things." Making Jen lose control of her powers, shoving Tony off the wagon; those were personal attacks, the kind of thing someone did when they wanted to hurt someone they knew well as badly as possible. It would have made no sense for Chthon to have attacked the Avengers that way – they were nothing but pawns to him. Using Wanda's powers to slaughter them all without the cat-toying-with-a-mouse build up would have been more efficient.

And yet no one else seemed to see that. Even Simon didn't want to believe it, though in his case, she could understand why. Better to believe that Vision's death had been due entirely to some external force than to any part of the woman he and Vision had both loved. At least that way he could keep his memories of both of them untainted – which was, she suspected, part of the reason he was so reluctant to see Wanda now.

Wanda's hands were balled into fists now, her back stiff and her eyes glittering. She stared at Carol with her chin up, jaw set as if she were bracing herself for a blow. Carol wasn't going to give her the satisfaction – if nothing else, she would probably break Wanda's jaw if she let herself hit her, and it would probably get her kicked off the team again. And even if it didn't, beating an unarmed woman who didn't have superstrength would be the actions of a bully, and Carol wasn't going to sink that low.

"I didn't do it on purpose!" Wanda's voice was rough, almost shrill. "Clint knows that. Tony and Cap know that. I've tried to tell Simon, but he won't talk to me – your girlfriend hung up on me when I called."

Good for Jessica. That must have been before she'd decided that Simon needed to hear what Wanda had to say.

The core of the Avengers, the ones who'd been on the team the longest – Steve, Tony, Hank, Jan, Thor, Clint, Wanda – always got extra leeway with one another. It wasn't surprising, given how long they'd known each other, but it wasn't always a good thing, either. If Carol had pulled half the things Hank had... Or Tony, who seemed to go out of his way to fuck himself over. And yet they'd both been forgiven, just as Wanda had. On the other hand, neither of them had killed a teammate, though Hank had apparently come close.

Carol had never been able to stay on a team long enough to earn that – first there was Marcus, then she'd lost her Binary powers and had to leave the Starjammers, and then she'd fucked up her shot at the Avengers again with the drinking, and then she left the Avengers to work for the government once she'd earned her slot back. And she'd enjoyed the work, before the SHRA started, but... On the other hand, if she'd been given that kind of easy forgiveness, she might still be drinking. Or maybe they'd all have put up more of a fight to stop her from going off with Marcus.

Thank god Wanda and Chthon hadn't used those particular memories against her. They could have, so easily. If the whole thing had gone on a little longer, another of Marcus's dopplegangers might even have shown up, drawn there by deliberately created bad luck and altered chance.

She stabbed a finger at Wanda, and had the satisfaction of seeing her flinch back. "How can we ever trust you again? I get hauled off to another dimension by a rapist and no one lifts a finger, but they welcome you back with open arms? You should be locked up somewhere where you can't hurt anybody else," she spat, "not back on the team."

Wanda's eyes narrowed. "I was locked up!" she shouted. "On Mount Wundagore, for months. I'm still locked up now." She brandished her tattooed hands, all but waving them in Carol's face. "What do you think these are? Locks, on my power, to keep me from drawing enough to let Chthon take me again. To keep me safe."

"Safe," Carol repeated. "You mean, like Strange was safe?" Even at her worst, even when she'd been drinking, her problems had never caused anyone else to be hurt. She had come close once or twice, avoiding it only by luck – Tony could have been injured badly, that time she'd thrown him through the wing of a plane, or the airliner itself could have crashed – but nothing like the trail of collateral damage Wanda's possession by Chthon was leaving, even now.

Wanda shook her head sharply. "I didn't mean for that to happen! I thought if I went to Strange, I'd be safe, that he had enough power to defend himself if Chthon took me over again. I didn't want any of this. The last thing I remember is going to find Jen, and Cap says that was weeks before everything else happened. I was under Chthon's control for months, without anyone noticing, just like Tony and Immortus. Do you think I wanted that? That I wanted Agatha to die, or Scott, or Vi-vision." She stumbled over Vision's name, and looked away, eyes going to the coffee table. "I wanted someone to stop me," she said, more quietly. "I asked Xavier to, and he wouldn't." For a moment, she sounded almost bitter, but then her shoulders slumped slightly, and her voice just sounded tired as she added, "We never seem to notice when one of us needs help."

No, Carol thought. And when we do notice, and we usually manage to make things worse. The way Tony had when he'd gotten her kicked off the team over the drinking problem she'd barely even had yet. Or we try when it's too late.

"You're right," she said. "We didn't notice that anything was wrong until it was too late. This time we already know you're compromised. This time, if anything happens, it will be our fault for letting our guard down."

"Fine!" Wanda's hands made an angry slashing motion. "Do that. I want you to do that! The others all treat me like I'm either a victim or a timebomb, but none of them would do anything about it if I needed to be taken out. None of them could."

Carol raised her eyebrows. "Don't underestimate Tony. Or Hank. It would destroy them, but they'd do it."

"That," Wanda snapped. "That's why we considered an alliance with Loki. Because sometimes things you know could destroy you are worth it. Sometimes you need to do what's necessary even if it might hurt you."

'Like wipe your species off the face of the earth?' "I know. I've done that. It ended up with Steve dead and Tony suicidal and half of us hating the other half." Carol narrowed her eyes and pointed at Wanda. "Tell Tony I want to talk to him," she added, grimly.

"Fine. I will." Wanda stepped aside, pointedly moving out of the path to the door. "Don't break the door on your way out."

Carol didn't – in fact, she made an effort to shut the front door as gently as possible, before flying away to find something acceptable to hit.

Chapter Text

The last of the victims infected with the symbiote virus had just been sprayed with Hank's antidote and subdued when a fresh group of people climbed the steps out of the 59th Street subway station, several of them with shopping bags from earlier in the morning already in their hands.

*I thought the subway was being shut down,* Tony snapped over the police and emergency personnel frequencies he'd accessed via the Extremis. *Are the MTA shutting the subway down or not?* There were times when he hated trying to coordinate things with city authorities, especially now that he no longer had the authority of SHIELD to back him.

Most of the time, the city's police and emergency departments coped surprisingly well with supervillains, but there were times, like now, when the wheels of city bureaucracy turned much too slowly.

*Affirmative, Stark, the 59th Street and Lexington station is being shut down. All available units between Central Park South and Times Square, report to 59th and Lexington. Acknowledge.*

Tony tuned the radio chatter out as ambulances began reporting in, and gave his full attention to the two men and three women who had just exited the subway station, all of them writhing convulsively as sticky black goo began oozing over their skin. His helmet's air filters kept all foreign particles out, but if he'd taken it off, he knew the air would be heavy with the thick, cloying scent of cotton candy and burned sugar that always surrounded the Venom symbiote.

"Just stay calm, people." Steve stepped forward, raising the shield he had lowered when the last of the previous victims had slumped to the ground, fully human again. "You've been infected with an airborne toxin. Just stay still, and we'll get you the antidote." The breathing mask over his face muffled his voice, but he still managed to project calm authority.

The woman on the left dropped her Museum of Natural History giftshop bag onto the pavement, a pair of stuffed dinosaurs spilling out of it, and turned on Steve, hissing. The last few square inches of dark brown skin visible on her face disappeared beneath a wave of oily black, and eight inches of tongue lolled out of her mouth, twisting in midair like a snake's.

The two men were the last to succumb, their greater body mass buying them an extra half-second of cognizance – the older one, a white man with thinning hair and one of those omnipresent paint-splatter sweatshirts all the tourist shops sold, screamed hysterically as black goo crawled up his torso, the sound raw and grating.

As he stepped forward to seize the nearest victim by the arms, Tony spared a moment to be grateful that it was a weekday, and the city schools were in session at this time of year. Hank's antidote worked as well on children as adults, but subduing a child in order to spray anti-toxin in its face was far, far down on the list of things Tony ever wanted to do.

The woman struggled and clawed at him, preternaturally strong, but unskilled and completely out of control, and for a moment, he was back in the dining room of the Meridian, trying to prevent desperate, fear-crazed people from killing one another and unable to use his armor at more than a fraction of its capacity. The tiniest misjudgment could kill someone, break their neck, burn holes through them, and then the sticky-sugar smell his helmet was sealing out would be replaced by scorched meat.

The woman bucked violently, ripping herself free of his hold, and grabbed him by the throat, just below the bottom edge of his helmet – stupid, so stupid, letting himself get distracted that way – and then he was airborne.

Something hard slammed into his back, and bright lights flashed in his head.

Time lurched, like a DVD freezing and then skipping forwards. He was lying on the ground, the world at a 90-degree angle. Steve was charging at the woman, shield raised. Beyond him, Carol was struggling with the larger of the two men, arm locked around his neck in a hold that would have immobilized any normal human; the newly created symbiote howled and lashed out at her with sticky black pseudopods, pulling at the breathing mask on her face. Clint was pinned to the ground by a mass of writhing black, an impossibly wide, toothy jaw snapping at his throat.

Tony struggled to get up, struggled to breathe, his chest a tight knot of pain. For an endless moment, his lungs refused to work, and then he managed to suck in a shallow, ragged breath. The sharp, suffocating pain was immediately cut in half.

He shook his head, trying to force the high-pitched ringing noise out of his ears, and reached out for the bent remains of the lamppost he had hit, his gauntlet clinking dully against the metal. The armor's damage reports scrolled through his head as he pulled himself upright; it was barely dented.

Old Shellhead was a lot tougher than he was. He'd expended a lot of time and effort making it that way.

As he let go of the post and stepped toward the fight again, a tiny black shape dove for the man Carol was restraining. A cloud of white mist surrounded his head and shoulders, and then Jan was darting upwards again, easily evading the man's attempts to grab her with hands and prehensile tongue.

*Those tongues were disgusting the last time we fought these things, and they're still disgusting,* Jan muttered via the comlink.

*I think they get worse with repeated exposure,* Clint said. *Fuck, someone get this thing the hell off me. Falcon? Falcon, it's licking me. Spray it already!*

Steve hit one of the venom symbiotes in the face with his shield, sending it reeling back into Tony's waiting hands. He locked eyes with Tony over the thing's head for a fraction of a second, his gaze flicking from Tony to the bent lamppost, then turned away to help Clint. His hand latched onto the thing's shoulder – or what Tony thought was its shoulder – and yanked it backwards just in time to keep Clint's face intact.

The thing's jaws snapped shut on empty air, and then Sam dropped from the sky and hit it full-force, the momentum of the impact knocking it away from Clint. Sam thrust the canister of antidote in its face, only to be brought up short as its tongue wrapped around his wrist.

Tony tightened his grip on the violently struggling woman in his arms, ignoring the lingering dizziness and raw ache in his lungs that made each breath an effort. Jan was there like magic, probably evidence that he still wasn't tracking completely straight, and then the woman went limp, the black coating melting away to reveal a torn and rumpled business suit and short blonde hair spiky with the remains of the dissolving symbiote-substance.

It wasn't alive, unlike the real Venom and Carnage symbiotes, but a byproduct of the toxin, which contained protein compounds from one of the symbiotes as well as a cocktail of biological and chemical agents. It was a nasty piece of work, originally designed by Doom as a contact poison and refined by A.I.M. into a more easily controllable airborne compound that entered the body via the respiratory tract.

*Can you hurry it up up there, Goldilocks?* Jan asked, tone closer to an order than a question. *That was the last of my antidote.*

"But a moment more, and the vapors shall disperse." Thor didn't bother to use the comlink, his voice carrying easily over the noise of the fight and the drone of his spinning hammer even without it.

Tony lowered the unconscious woman gently to the ground, beside Carol's man and the limp form of the woman with the museum bag, looked up just in time to see Sam's canister of antidote hit the sidewalk with a clank.

Sam was beating at the symbiote with his wings and free hand both, yanking violently on the tongue still wrapped around his wriSt. Steve punched it in the kidneys, a hard jab that Tony could tell he pulled only slightly, and it howled, but kept its hands firmly locked around Sam's throat.

Clint had pushed himself to his feet, his hand moving automatically to his shoulder as if he were reaching for the quiver he wasn't wearing; he'd left the arrows in the quinjet, joking that the last thing he wanted was to be stabbed with one of his own weapons again.

The antidote skidded across the pavement, rolling toward the curb. Tony reached for it, and nearly overbalanced as the ground lurched under him. The canister skittered away from his fingers, his hands clumsy as they'd rarely been even when he'd been drinking. What the hell was wrong with him? He hadn't hit the lamppost hard enough to have a real concussion; he'd only been out for a few seconds.

He gritted his teeth and reached for it again, only to have it snatched out of his grasp by a blur of brown and white feathers.

With a harsh scream, Redwing launched himself into the air and dropped the canister into Carol's waiting hands. She sprayed it, covering Steve, Sam, and the sole remaining artificial symbiote indiscriminately with a white chemical mist, and the symbiote shuddered and went limp, gradually transforming back into a middle-aged tourist in a garish sweatshirt.

For a moment, everyone just stood there. Steve still held himself as if ready for an attack, whole body a study in coiled tension. Beside him, Sam rubbed at his throat with one hand, wincing.

Redwing landed on the unconscious man's chest, eyeing him first with one baleful golden eye, then the other; Tony wasn't sure if it was general suspicion, confusion over the fact that the monster of moments before was gone, or vengeful wrath because the man had tried to hurt Sam.

After a few long moments during which all of the victims of the toxin failed to move, Tony let himself relax, hunching forward to ease the ache in his lungs. Hank's antidote really did work, it seemed, even if the part of him that had seen one too many horror movies kept expecting one of the men or women who had been affected to suddenly sit up and try to bite someone.

His back throbbed hotly where he'd hit the lamppost; it was probably going to bruise. The armor made rubbing at the injury a useless gesture, but he did it anyway. Steve would probably tell him that bruises would remind him to pay more attention to the fight next time, and he'd be right. If he hadn't been wearing the armor, he could have broken his back.

"Is everyone all right?" Steve asked, looking first to Sam, then Tony.

"No," Clint grumbled. He rubbed at the exposed parts of his face with one glove, trying to scrape off the saliva that covered it. "I nearly had my face bitten off. And I've got its spit all over me."

Sam swallowed. "I'm fine," he said, voice hoarse. He held up one wrist, and Redwing hopped up from his perch atop the unconscious man to land heavily on it, talons digging into Sam's thick leather glove.

"The city's going to want me to pay for that lamppost," Tony said. It wasn't an actual answer, but he wasn't sure he could give one right now. He wasn't actually injured, beyond the bruises, but there was definitely something wrong with him. Maybe he'd hit the lamppost harder than he'd thought.

The Extremis had healed his body completely when he acquired it, erasing all the old damage. A new heart to replace the mechanical one, a new liver to replace the one he'd tried to destroy, new lungs to take the place of ones scarred by pneumonia and damaged by years of improper bloodflow. His body could be injured, or worn out by too little sleep or too much stress, but he didn't get sick anymore, couldn't suffer from any kind of cumulative damage, except, apparently, for damage to the Extremis itself. He'd barely been using the Extremis during the fight, though, so it had to be the impact.

There ought to be some way to increase the armor's ability to absorb kinetic force. Steve's shield's ability to do the same was an inherent property of vibranium and thus not replicable, but there were other things he could do. Force shields were too much of an energy drain, but maybe...

Sam turned to stare at the damaged lamppost, his eyebrows going up. "If it had been one of the old, wrought-iron ones, it wouldn't have bent like that."

"My armor's a titanium-steel alloy. It would still have bent."

The whine of Thor's spinning hammer abruptly ceased, and Thor landed in the middle of the street with a thud Tony could feel in his bones. "The last of the vapors have dispersed. The air is once more safe to breathe."

The others immediately pulled their masks off, Jan returning to full size after she did so.

"Good work, guys," she said. "Who wants to stay and talk to the police and the press?" The Doppler sound of an ambulance siren nearly drowned out the end of her sentence, as the first of the crews of paramedics arrived, swerving carefully around Thor to pull up next to the curb.

Carol took a half-step forward. "I can do it; I don't mind talking to reporters."

Steve didn't even bother to volunteer – he and Sam were already talking to the ambulance crew. As Tony watched, he gestured to the fallen pedestrians with one hand, saying, "Some of them may have minor injuries. We tried to be careful when we restrained them, but—"

"It was like that fear toxin thing all over again, huh?" the EMT asked. He folded his skinny frame down to peer at one of the victims, frowning, then turned to his partner. "DeSoto, can I get some help with a stretcher?"

Tony opened a link to Steve's com unit, making sure to broadcast just to him. *I'll see you back at the Tower. Hank will want a report on how his antidote worked.* And Tony needed to go sit down somewhere before he keeled over in front of a bunch of emergency workers and in sight of at least two news helicopters, not to mention most of his teammates.

The dizziness and pain were fading, but he still felt shaky, and while he could put on a smile for reporters while far more seriously injured than this, the others more than had this one covered. They didn't need Tony here to pose for the cameras.

Steve turned to smile at him, that recruitment-poster perfect grin that always made Tony want to smile back, even when he couldn't. There was a tear through the leather fabric of his pants, halfway up his right thigh, but he looked otherwise untouched by the chaos of the past twenty minutes. From the easy set of his shoulder and the open happiness in that smile, he was pleased with the fight's outcome.

He ought to be; they had been lucky today, despite Tony's slip-up. No one had been seriously hurt, not even the people affected by the toxin. A.I.M., unfortunately, had used a timed smoke bomb to release the formula into the air, so they'd been denied the dubious pleasure of helping the police arrest Headcase twice in one month, but compared to A.I.M.'s last poison gas attack, this one had been easy. Should have been easy, if he hadn't been so tired, hadn't let himself get distracted.

The gas main explosion three days ago had not been easy, and the subway accident yesterday had been an ugly, messy disaster all around – the Avengers hadn't been called in on that one, but it had been the top news item on every local news feed Tony had open until half an hour ago, when the venom symbiotes rampaging down Lexington Avenue had replaced it. Keeping all the datafeeds open made his head ache, the stab of pain over his left eye a familiar presence by now, but it was necessary. 

Spiderman claimed to have broken up twice as many muggings in the past week as usual, and according to Luke Cage and Daredevil, there'd been an increase in domestic violence incidents throughout Hell's Kitchen, with the worst of the fights taking place the closest to St. Margaret's Cathedral. Chthon's presence was poisoning the city, slowly but surely.

They needed to stay on the ball. And they needed to keep public confidence in superheroes high, or the tension caused by Chthon and the apparently steadily increasing power leakage from spear would find a new outlet.

Tony hadn't sacrificed his integrity, his reputation, half his friendships, and far too many people's lives to have anti-superhuman sentiment break out all over again. Not when they'd finally managed to turn the tide of public opinion and get Registration repealed.

"I don't think I like this new A.I.M.," Clint commented. "It used to take MODOK at least a week to get his plans in motion after a jailbreak."

"That's because MODOK had plans," Tony said. With his helmet on, he didn't have to try to cover his exhaustion or add animation to his voice – the helmet's voice modulators covered a multitude of sins. "I'm not sure Maddigan does." A.I.M. had never had much in the way of discernible goals, aside from the pursuit of ever-fancier ways to destroy things via cutting edge science, but lately their plans had been even more random than usual, as if they'd switched from the pursuit of knowledge and weapons development at all cost to pure promotion of anarchy for anarchy's sake.

"He doesn't," Carol said. "Jessica's done some digging on him – he's pretty much A.I.M.'s puppet, more of a figurehead than an actual leader. Whatever they did to him to keep him, well, alive's as good a term as any... his sanity didn't come through the experience intact. Not that he was all that sane to begin with," she added.

"We weren't great at plans, when we were his age." Clint shrugged one shoulder. "I don't know. I think you and Spiderwoman should keep an eye on him. Sanity is optional for supervillains." He glanced back over his shoulder to where Thor and Jan were talking to two uniformed policemen and a woman with a microphone and a plastic smile. "Jan's waving at you," he added. "I think you're on deck."

Carol ran one hand through her hair, and tugged her sagging left glove back up her arm. "Reporters aren't really that hard to talk to, you know. It's all in how you spin it. You just have to be careful what you let them see." She strode towards the camera confidently, the two-inch heels of her boots striking hard against the pavement. Tony had seen runway models display less poise.

"Are you waiting to go back with the Quinjet, or do you want a lift back to the tower?" he asked, turning to Clint.

Clint shook his head slightly. "Considering how lovey-dovey it looks when any of you guys fly while carrying someone, and considering the camera crews right over there and how much fun the media had debating whether or not you'd ever slept with Henry Hellrung, I think I'll wait for the Quinjet."

Even after years' worth of experience trying to manage his public image, there were still moments when the need to constantly worry over what the media would think got extremely annoying. Especially when other people worried about it for him. "Just because you know those rumors are true doesn't mean the rest of the country doesn't think they were all baseless tabloid speculation," Tony said, not bothering to keep the irritation from his voice. It survived the voice modulation loud and clear. "No one will think you've caught slutty bisexual cooties from me."

"Wait, they're true? You and Simon's new boyfriend actually-" Clint made a vague hand gesture that could have encompassed anything from sex to Parcheesi.

"According to reliable sources." Tony had been drinking heavily enough by that point that he didn't remember much, beyond the fact that he'd thought Henry's initial greeting – "Hi, I'm Henry Hellrung, and I'm going to be playing you on television," – had been a clever joke.

"That's creepy."

Tony rolled his eyes, secure in the knowledge that no one could see his face. "There are times when you're even less mature than Spiderman, Hawkeye." He probably should have been amused by it; people had been reacting to his sex life with everything from envy to disgust since he'd been seventeen. He didn't feel like being amused; his head hurt, his chest hurt, and reporters were starting to cast glances in their direction.

He sent one more silent status update to Steve's communicator, and fired his boot jets.

Steve studied the image on the screen in front of him; the security camera still was blurry and pixilated, but he didn't need to see the woman in the picture's face to recognize her. The way she held herself, the gun she carried, the knife strapped to the outside of her thigh would have been enough even without the blurred glimpse of curly hair.

He didn't need to look to Sharon for confirmation – which begged the question; why had Nick actually called him to the Helicarrier today? Sharon, too, would have known the woman's identity as soon as she saw her, making Steve's ID unnecessary.

"Sin," he said. "It's definitely her. And at least one of the men she had with her when she attacked Bucky and Sharon – you can see part of his arm just inside the frame, there."

"Oh, we knew that," Nick said. "She left three men alive at the third installation she attacked. I didn't call ya up here for an identification. I was hopin' ya might have some idea of what the hell it is she wants." He stabbed an unlit cigar at the picture, using it like a pointer. "That was taken four days ago, at a SHIELD R&D facility in Jersey. Everyone in the facility was killed. We kept it off the news, and the same for the one before that, but we're not goin' to be able to keep last night's attack quiet. Which comin' on top of getting a Helicarrier blown to hell and gone last spring, is going to have Washington on our necks. Again. We need answers, people."

Bucky shrugged one shoulder – the right one, the one that was still flesh and blood. "She wants revenge. It's not complicated; we killed Crossbones, and his death wasn't pretty, or easy." The dark circles that had still smudged his eyes the last time Steve had seen him were gone; he looked fully recovered from the snake venom now, and though there were probably still bandages hiding under his clothing, you couldn't tell it from the way he moved. Seeing him now did a little to ease the memory of him leaning on Sharon, his side covered in blood, but not enough. It had taken half an hour for Steve to get all the blood off the kitchen table, counter, and floor. They had thrown the ruined, blood-stained dishtowel away.

Nick gave him a flat look. "Yeah, but why now? And why bother with those men when it's the people right here in this room that she wants? Little Miss Crazy's always been the impulsive type. These attacks are targeted, planned. Without Daddy to hold her leash, who's givin' her orders?"

"The voices in her head," Sharon muttered. Then, slightly louder and with significantly less sarcasm, "When she fought us, she kept saying, 'You killed me, you killed Brock, I'll make you pay,' over and over. She may not have any endgame beyond causing as much damage to SHIELD as possible, and with James up here recovering from her poison, any SHIELD employee might do as a temporary substitute."

"It's a little more complicated than that." Nick slid three pieces of paper across the conference table, one to each of them. "This is a transcript of her conversation with one of the men she very pointedly didn't kill last night. The part that starts with 'We are coming for ya, Fury,' is particularly interesting."

"Like I said," Nick went on, as Steve took the paper and quickly scanned its contents, "we know she wants revenge. What we need to know is what she thinks she's doing, and who she's doin' it for."

The transcript had several lines of asterisk symbols scattered through it, where portions of the conversation had not been picked up by the microphone, but the important part had been perfectly audible.

"We are coming for you, Fury. For you, and for Barnes, and Rogers, and Carter. You will pay for the good men you have killed, and the plans you have ruined. The Red Skull is coming for you. Daddy and I are going to make you all beg for mercy before you die."

God damnit, they had killed Red Skull. Even dead twice over, he was still reaching out from his well-deserved grave to try and destroy people Steve loved.

What hold had he had over Sin, that she would carry on fighting for his warped cause even after his death, to the point where she tried to become the father who had used and tortured and brainwashed her?

Unless... Steve shoved the thought away. Sin couldn't have meant that bit about 'Daddy and I' literally. Red Skull was dead. He had to be dead.

"Interesting." Sharon's voice was serious, with the slightest hint of something that might have been skepticism, or might have been unease. "She's probably delusional, but... when Red Skull was killed the first time, everyone in this room saw his corpse. SHIELD autopsied it. I touched it. And then he showed up in Alexander Lukin's body."

Nick gestured with his unlit cigar, the motion encompassing all of them. "I want your honest opinion. Do you think there's any chance that she's not just talkin' metaphors? That Red Skull really is still around somehow, and in contact with her?"

"No," Sharon was shaking her head. "The first time he died, the cosmic cube was right there. He was able to use it to transfer his consciousness. The second time, there was no way for him to escape. We checked Lukin's body; the cube wasn't there."

Steve was tempted to agree with her – surely even the Red Skull only got so many opportunities to cheat death – but there had been those last few moments before his second, final death when Lukin had been in control of his body again. Had approaching death given him the strength to seize control from Red Skull one last time, or had Red Skull already been gone? It was a question that had haunted Steve, at first, but as the summer had passed without any sign that Red Skull's death had been anything other than permanent, he had let himself relax, let himself believe, finally, that the Red Skull was truly dead and gone.

"It wouldn't be the first time he's cheated death," he said, reluctantly. "It does seem unlikely, though."

Bucky frowned down at the note in his hand, the paper white against stainless steel fingers. The black SHIELD uniform had finally stopped making him look like a stranger, but Steve would never grow entirely used to that metal arm, or lose the faint twinge of guilt he felt whenever he saw it.

"Lukin spoke to me, before I killed him," Bucky said, slowly. "He asked me to shoot him quickly, to let him die as himself. I thought – I hoped – I was killing both of them. But Lukin was the one I saw when I looked into his eyes." He swore in Russian, crumpling the print-out into a ball. "How many times do I have to kill him?"

"I've been asking myself that for years," Steve said. He had never like killing people, had hoped never to have to do it again, after the war had ended, but for the Red Skull, he'd always been more than willing to make an exception. Red Skull had earned death multiple times over, before the end, but had always seemed to escape it at the last moment, generally leaving a trail of innocent corpses in his wake.

"Damnit," Nick muttered. "I really want to believe she's just looney tunes. If she's not, this just got a whole lot worse."

"Oh, she's that, too." Bucky made a face. "She really enjoys torturing people. Really, really enjoys it. Most people don't, not really, or if they do, it's the power they enjoy, not the opportunity to lick somebody else's blood off their fingers."

Sharon shook her head, a wisp of blonde hair that had escaped her tight ponytail falling into her face. "Does it really matter if it's her or him? Our people are just as dead either way. And either way, she won't stop until we capture her or kill her."

They were all talking about killing just a little too easily, Steve thought. That was what fighting the Red Skull did to you, even if it wasn't necessarily him anymore. "The Avengers have a lot on our plate at the moment," he said, hating the necessity of it. Chthon was a worse threat than Sin, even if the Red Skull was still present somehow. His own personal stake in the matter didn't change that. "I can't leave the team right now, not even for this. Not unless Sin starts spreading her attacks beyond SHIELD. But if you need me--"

"Don't worry," Nick said, with a familiar wolfish grin. "I'll let you know."

Sharon met his gaze, her eyes solemn; Steve suspected that she, too, was remembering listening to Bucky wheeze while the snake venom shut down his lungs. "So will we," she said, and it had the sound of a promise.

Bucky nodded, once, offering Steve a flash of the old, fierce grin that made him look younger, more like the kid Steve remembered; a 'we' from Sharon included him, now. He and Sharon had belonged to such different parts of Steve's life, until he'd woken up to discover the two of them had formed a relationship of their own without him.

Bucky was a capable, competent, deadly adult – had been all three of those things even when he'd still been a kid too young to vote – and Sharon was likewise a grown woman with a life of her own, but...

He couldn't protect them both from Sin and the potential threat of Red Skull and also lead the Avengers, and he'd already made his choice about which responsibility came firSt. That didn't make the idea of letting them face her on their own, of being only the back-up, called in 'if they needed him,' any easier.

He hugged both of them before he left, giving Bucky a clap on the back and letting Sharon go, gently, when she stiffened slightly in his arms. "I mean it, Sharon, James," and the look in Bucky's eyes was worth the effort it took not to call him by the only name Steve had ever known him by, "if you need me, then unless Chthon's broken free and about to destroy the world, I'll find a way to come."

Sharon smiled at him, taking away the sting of that unconscious flinch. "We know you will."

No matter how many times Tony saw Hank shrink and unshrink lab equipment, it still looked like something out of Looney Tunes. He watched from the lab's doorway, carefully out of the way of expanding equipment, as Hank set a pocket-sized mass spectrometer and electron microscope on the floor, and began slowly returning them to their full sizes.

Hank had insisted on bringing over the entire contents of his lab at Stark Tower himself, claiming that he didn't trust anyone else not to screw up the calibration of the equipment, drop his shiny new three-dimensional molecular modeling unit on the floor, or burn or poison themselves with his supplies. Tony hadn't argued, even when Hank had brusquely turned down his offer of help, as well as his offer to recalibrate the lasers in the modeling unit to produce a greater degree of precision; he could empathize with Hank's reluctance to let other people interfere with his equipment. He'd only enlisted Hank's aid in moving a few piece of his own workspace because there was no way to get the anti-gravity hoist for working on quinjet engines out of Stark Tower's basement without using Pym particles, much less its even bulkier hydraulics-assisted back-up.

Installing it in the Mansion's main lab had been much easier – one of the benefits of his grandfather's insistence on buying a house that occupied an entire city block was that there was more than enough room for garage workspace, labs, quinjet hangers, and anything else the Avengers needed, even if they had to go below street level for some of it.

"You realize you'll probably have to recalibrate everything again after I leave," Wanda said, from her perch on one of the newly installed work tables. "Sensitive electronic equipment doesn't like me very much."

Tony frowned. Computers and other electronics tended to be temperamental around some varieties of energy mutant, as well as most people who used magic, but he'd never been convinced that there wasn't some way to predict, control, and use Wanda's effect on computing equipment. "I still think we could find a way to tap into that if I could design a system flexible enough."

Wanda raised her eyebrows. "Considering the results we got the last time you tried to synch my powers with a computer system, I think it might be better to leave it alone."

"Leave it alone," Hank snapped. "Half the equipment in here right now is in a state of dimensional flux. One surge of chaos power while it's still recovering the rest of its mass will fry everything."

"I wasn't suggesting we try it now." Tony resisted the impulse to go over and help Hank set up the newly-resized spectrometer and fascinating yet maddeningly inefficient laser imaging set-up. It would be so easy to improve it, just one or two small adjustments... He reminded himself that one or two small adjustments had gotten him kicked out of technical conferences and trade shows more than once, and stayed put. Hank was twitchy enough without Tony adding to it. "The house isn't even finished yet – I'd like to at least get all the walls painted and the furniture moved in before we blow it up again."

Wanda looked away, her shoulders hunching ever so slightly. "I'm sorry about that," she said. "I didn't mean to destroy your home, Tony."

"You didn't." 'I did that myself,' he thought, and in a vivid flash of sense-memory, could smell the drowned remnants of smoke and ash and feel Steve's hands holding him down, violent and angry and so painfully far from what he'd wanted. It had been strangely appropriate, in a warped way – the two of them fighting in the ruins of what had once been their home, now as shattered and broken as the Avengers had been. As their friendship had been. "Chthon did. And I helped, to be honest. I turned us into a giant target, getting involved in politics the way I did. And there should have been better guards in place against Jack of Heart's power, and against Ultron."

"Yes," Hank said, not looking up from the tiny screen he was staring at, "you should have planned for Chthon to reanimate Jack's frozen corpse and bring it back from orbit."

There was a long, awkward moment of silence, while Hank obliviously continued to work. Wanda looked stricken, her eyes wide and her face raw.

Jack had gone through hell for hours every day to try and keep his powers under control, to avoid hurting anyone else – or destroying himself – with an accidental discharge of energy. Nothing Chthon could have done to him could have been crueler.

Thank god he had never known, would never know, what his body had been used to do.

Hank tapped a rapid-fire sequence of keys, and the machine made a chirping noise as it came online – Tony could feel the machine's electronic signature flare in the back of his head, joining the constant reassuring presence of his dormant armor, and the bright chatter of SHIELD's communication's systems, which he'd never shut down or logged out of after Winter Soldier and Sharon Carter's late-night visit.

Fury, he was sure, knew Tony was monitoring his organization's communications. The fact that he'd said nothing, and hadn't had any of the various computer hackers Tony had personally hired or promoted into their current positions attempt to throw him out probably meant something. Maybe it was an apology for continually foisting Koening and Gyrich off on him.

Maybe he just suspected that nobody at SHIELD would be able to successfully shut Tony out for more than a few hours. It was just possible that Carl Santacruz could manage to lock him out for as long as a day – he'd been able to disrupt the Red Skull and the Mandarin's access to SHIELD's satellites, after all – but no digital system on the scale of SHIELD's could keep Tony out completely. Not these days.

Wanda was staring down at her hands, carefully encased in black gloves that didn't match her navy blue dress. If Jan had known that she was going to wear her old Wasp gloves with a dress that color, she probably wouldn't have lent them to her – not so much because the colors didn't match as because the outfit's ugliness made it obvious that Wanda was wearing them in order to hide her hands. Jan didn't approve of hiding one's powers, or anything connected with them.

Tony left the doorway and went to stand beside Wanda. "One of us should have realized that something was wrong before it was too late," he said, keeping his eyes on Hank instead of on her. "I should have realized – I know what mind control looks like. I've even worked on ways to screen for it," he added, remembering his stubborn refusal to believe that Hank's inexplicable manic behavior had just been Hank, and not some kind of outside influence, "and then never bothered to use them, even after Immortus."

They had been so young and stupid then, all of them except maybe Steve, who had already survived four years of war. It had even been useful, in a way, when Tony had been trying to hide his heart problems, his identity, his dependence on the armor's chestplate, and, later, his drinking. Unfortunately, they weren't always much smarter now.

Wanda shrugged. "They might not have worked. Supernatural possession doesn't work the same way that brainwashing or telepathic mind control does."

Hank looked up, setting aside the tiny screwdriver he'd been about to open the spectrometer's instrument panel with. "That's a good point," he said. "Remember how the clone's innate supernatural abilities interfered with Reed's mind control device?"

"Yes," Tony said grimly. "I remember." The clone of Thor had been skin-crawlingly wrong. Tony had expected it to be familiar in some way, to be essentially the same man as the friend he had lost, albeit with no memories of its own. Deep down, some stupid, irrational part of him had hoped that the clone would open his eyes and be Thor, that whatever supernatural essence gods were composed of would come back if they gave it a body to inhabit. What they had gotten instead had been something else. Something... emptier.

Hank sighed and looked down again, blond hair falling into his face. He always forgot to cut it when he spent time out of the field. "We fucked up." His voice was flat, tired. "You'd think it would get easier admitting that. It's not like we haven't had practice."

"Not everyone wants to hear apologies," Wanda said, "or explanations." There was a rustle of cloth as she shifted on the worktable; its hard, metal surface couldn't have been comfortable, but Hank hadn't moved the couch in yet. It, like the ants and other live specimens, would be transported last, after all the equipment was in place. "I... tried to call the X-Men. Only Beast would talk to me, and he won't tell me where Pietro is. He just wants to know how I did what I did, and if I can undo it more completely."

Hank shrugged one shoulder. "I could try to talk to him for you. I've been working on some X genome studies for him. They're fascinating; it's really a combination of genetic sequences, not a single gene, and-"

"No thank you." Wanda waved a hand, cutting him off. "It would be... I need to know where Pietro is, but I don't want to..." she trailed off, then added, "Crystal doesn't know. They share custody of Luna, so I thought maybe.... He's alive. She knows that. He came and took Luna, and they disappeared somewhere."

"That's... good," Tony said, and there was a moment of heavy silence. Well, it meant that he was alive at least. "Pietro's a competent adult, and he's not going to do anything stupid or dangerous while Luna's with him; I'm sure they're both fine." It sounded like the lie it was. "At least she was willing to talk to you," he rushed on. "Blackbolt won't talk to any of us right now. Figuratively speaking, I mean. The Inhumans weren't pleased with Registration and the Initiative, or with HUSAC." Blackbolt never literally spoke to anyone, since the power of his voice could level cities, but he could convey a great deal with a look, and the look he'd given Tony the last time they'd met had been distinctly unfriendly.

Wanda raised an eyebrow. "Is there anyone in the entire superhuman community who doesn't hate us now?"

"Not everyone thought the Initiative was a bad idea," Hank said, an edge of defensiveness in his voice. "Some parents were glad to have their kids receive official training with their powers, and a lot of superhumans willingly signed up." He hesitated, then added, "And only some of them were supervillains, or just doing it because they were afraid."

"Of course they were afraid, Hank." Wanda spoke gently, voice serious. "Every time the government deals with mutants, you can hear the threat of 'do what we want, or the Sentinels will come for you again' in everything they say." She shook her head slightly, a lock of hair falling forward over her shoulder. "They're Magneto's greatest recruiting tool."

That had been one of the more surprising things about explaining the Registration Act to Wanda – she had understood. Tony had expected her to react with the same disappointment and anger Steve and Thor had shown, possibly more so, given the government's long and ugly history with mutants. Instead, she had nodded slowly, saying, 'You thought you could work with them, that if you were obedient enough, non-threatening enough, just making us all register would be enough for them. That it wouldn't go any farther.'

'You think I did the right thing?' he'd asked, surprised.

'No,' she'd said. 'I think you were unexpectedly naïve. But I understand why you did it. You were afraid the alternative would be worse.'

And it would have been. At the very least, whomever else HUSAC would have put in Tony's place would have had no qualms about dragging Peter into custody and turning him over to government scientists. And in the absence of Reed and Tony's work on the Negative Zone prison, captive superheroes would have been locked up in Genosha collars, forcibly depowered, used as experimental test subjects, or fallen victim to 'unfortunate accidents' as the superhuman facilities on the Raft became too overcrowded to keep superheroes and supervillains separate.

"The Inhumans won't talk to us, the X-Men won't talk to you, Thor hates us..." Hank ticked the points off on his fingers with the end of the miniature screwdriver. "I suppose it could be worse. At least we don't have to run off and start our own team this time."

Wanda's lips twitched, and some of the sadness left her eyes. "Poor Clint. He was ruined just by association with the rest of us."

"What about John Walker?" Tony asked, seizing on the new topic with relief. The dissolution of the West Coast Avengers had been humiliating and infuriating at the time, but compared to the past year...

"He asked for it. Literally." Wanda was smiling now, a real smile. "I don't think I'll ever forget him defending your dubious honor against Cap, though."

Tony shook his head, waving the statement away. "I was just a thinly veiled excuse for the two of them to get into a fistfight." USAgent and Steve were like oil and water; they respected one another, or at least, Tony knew John respected Steve, and was pretty sure Steve returned at least some of that regard, or he'd never have let John carry his shield, but they didn't actually like one another.

Hank put the screwdriver down and turned to face Tony and Wanda; he wasn't smiling, exactly, but there was a sort of rueful amusement on his face. "I still don't know what Steve thought he was doing. I mean, I know Jan was still angry at me, and I can't really blame her, but..."

"Punishing Tony for running away to the West Coast and leaving him all alone in New York." Wanda said as if it were self-evident. "He sulked about it for almost six months straight."

Steve would have denied that indignantly. He was convinced that he didn't sulk, despite all evidence to the contrary. In that case, however... "I don't think it was me going to California he was angry about. We had... a fight, before I left. When I was still drinking." Tony's memories of the exchange were vague – Steve's hard shoulder under him; smoke thick in the air, making him dizzy, or maybe that had been the alcohol; Steve yelling, demanding to know why, and Tony struggling to find words to explain, when even that took energy he didn't seem to have, and knowing that no explanation would be enough – and he didn't like to think about it too hard or too often.

Hank cleared his throat, and said, the words slightly awkward, "I wish I'd known about that when it was happening. You tried to help me – you were one of the only ones, actually." He looked away, down at the equipment he'd just finished adjusting, badly cut hair falling into his face again. "I owe you for that."

Tony shook his head, unsure how to respond. Hank wouldn't have been able to help him stop drinking, even if he'd tried. Rhodey hadn't been able to. Steve hadn't been able to. It had taken hitting rock bottom and the realization that maybe he didn't actually want to die after all, that he could do more good for other people if he lived, to do it. And even then, it had been a long time before he'd felt like anything approaching himself again. In some ways, he never really had. "You really don't," he finally said, after the silence started to become uncomfortable. "Especially since I slept with Jan while you were in jail."

Hank pulled a face. "Thanks for that, by the way. It's not like I have any right to complain, but seriously, you couldn't have waited a month?"

"Sorry?" Tony offered. In retrospect, that had not been his finest hour, no matter how pleasant spending time out of costume with Jan had been. "Steve took me to task for it like you wouldn't believe."

"Wasn't this before you told her you were Iron Man?" Wanda asked. "Because if so, I'm with Cap."

Smiling at her felt... strange. This entire conversation felt slightly surreal; discussing 'the good old days' as if they were any group of old friends reminiscing, as if the past year's worth of disaster and death hadn't happened. As if they hadn't all failed each other so spectacularly.

Wanda smiled back, a little wanly, but still recognizably like the woman – the friend – Tony remembered. Even tired and haunted, wearing the drab clothing that was all she'd brought back from Europe, and with the ridiculous-looking tattoos he knew lurked under her gloves, she was still Wanda.

It was unfair of him to doubt that, to worry that having her returned to them this way was too easy, too much of a relief, to come without a price.

Everything had a price. He'd always known that; he'd just thought, hoped, that the price for complying with Registration would be something he was willing to pay. Instead, Happy and Steve had paid it. And Pepper, and May Parker, and Bill Foster, and-- Tony cut that line of thought off before it could go any further. That was over now; he needed to move on. He had moved on.

Except... talking and joking with Wanda and Hank, pretending that their own teammates didn't hate them and their dead friends and family weren't haunting them, wasn't all that different from watching the Negative Zone prison at three a.m. with Hank and Reed, pretending that Reed hadn't come to stare at the portal after putting his kids to bed because he couldn't fall asleep alone, and that Tony and Reed weren't both silently keeping track of Hank's anti-depressant and mood stabilizer doses after the disaster with the cloned Thor, painfully aware that there was no way to keep a suicide watch on someone who could effectively kill himself with his own powers. And that had been before the end, when they had still had no inkling of how bad it was going to become.

Both of them had been watching Tony, too, just waiting for him to start drinking again. It was probably not a coincidence that Carol had refused to leave him alone after Steve's funeral, or that Sal had made a habit of checking on him every hour or so when he'd locked himself in one of the Helicarrier's tech labs.

The gradual disappearance of those measuring, pitying looks over the past few months had been an unadulterated relief. All the more reason to avoid a repeat of his bizarre near-panic-attack the other day; falling apart now that everything was mostly okay again, without chemical prompting, would prove once and for all that he was just broken in some fundamental way, damaged and fucked up beyond repairing, regardless of Steve's or his own best efforts. And that was unacceptable.

"Well, if things don't work out here, I suppose there's always LA," Hank said, after a long stretch of silence broken only by the faint whirring and grinding of computer fans as he plugged in the two computer systems he'd brought with him and started booting them up. One was a heavily modified Stark Enterprises unit, its fan wheezing in that distinctive way that all the 2006 models' did, before they'd started using solid-state hard drives and solved the heat problem, the other a much quieter back-up system Tony had built Hank from scratch during the week after his toxin-induced hospital stay, when he'd been barred from doing any real work and desperate to keep himself occupied somehow. "That is, provided Chthon doesn't destroy it."

"That's Simon and Jessica's team now," Tony pointed out. "And Henry's. I can't crash his team after telling him that I trusted him to lead it on his own, especially not after stealing Pepper back."

"And anyway, Carol's on it." Wanda frowned, sharply arched eyebrows drawing together. "At least, I think she is."

Tony was fairly sure that Carol was on the East Coast team at this point, thanks to Steve and Jan's hints that she pick a coast and stick to it. "She and Henry had a... falling out, over Simon." Which was something he was going to have to ask Henry about, eventually, given that he'd only heard Carol's probably-biased side of the story. How exactly had he managed to lure Simon away from a threesome with two stunningly attractive women, one of whom had pheromone-enhanced sex appeal? "They're trying to avoid each other, but she went back to LA anyway because she and Jessica are in the 'ill-advised post-breakup sex' phase of a relationship."

Wanda's lips curved into a smile again. "I think Simon and I managed to stretch that out over at least four months." Then she winced, and Tony mentally kicked himself for bringing up Simon at all.

"I've had relationships that consisted of nothing but ill-advised sex," he said, deliberately light, as if Vision's all-too-present ghost weren't suddenly filling the room. The smile he forced took effort, but the momentary twitch of Wanda's lips made it worth it. "They were fun. Well, some of them were."

"Personally, I've always found that fighting leads to no sex," Hank said. "So, LA's out then. There's always New Jersey." From Peter, or Steve, or Luke Cage, or any of the other native New Yorkers who'd been on the team, it would have been a sarcastic suggestion. Hank sounded as if he were presenting it as a serious alternative.

Tony shook his head. "Steve refuses to entertain the idea of living anywhere outside the five boroughs, and he considers Staten Island's inclusion debatable. My chances of ever living in another city again are slim to none." People thought of Steve as the quintessential all-American poster boy, but he was a city kid at heart, and New York was his city, just as much as it was Spiderman's, or Luke's, or Daredevil's.

Hank took a step back from the computers, clapping his hands together. "Okay," he said, "time to get to work. Safety gear, or you're both out." As he spoke, he pulled what looked like a doll's safety glasses and mask from the breast pocket of his lab coat, both of them growing smoothly to full size in his hands.

He'd been using that trick more lately than he had since California – the fewer Pym particles Hank expended on himself, the more he had to spare for inanimate objects. And Hank had always liked showing off, if not necessarily in a flashy way.

Wanda climbed down off the lab table, brushing the wrinkles out of her skirt. "Do you need Tony's help for this, or can I borrow him for a while?"

Hank waved the hand holding the goggles at her. "Please," he said. "The second I turn my back, he'll be up to his elbows in my equipment's guts. I miss my mini-lab."

"I've always found that locked doors work just as well as tree forts," Tony told him. He gestured around the room, at the empty racks of shelving waiting to be filled, the lab tables, the newly installed equipments, the walk-in temperature-controlled, humidity-controlled freezer for storing samples. "You've got a whole lab to yourself."

"I know," Hank said. "I know. It's just... not the same."

Wanda nodded, slowly. "As if part of you has been cut off," she said, raising one hand a little to flash the black glove at him. "And knowing that you chose to lose it only makes it harder."

Tony shifted uncomfortably, rubbing at his chin with his hand and feeling the rasp of his goatee against his palm. As frustrating as the Extremis's new limits were, they weren't completely unmanageable – he'd functioned without it, been Iron Man without it, for years. Even if the Mandarin's rings had burned his Extremis abilities out of him entirely, the way he'd initially feared, he didn't need to sense the armor in order to wear it and control it. He would have missed it, though, like missing a limb he'd only recently grown but had already come to rely upon. Like missing the burn of alcohol against the back of his throat.

Wanda had had her powers for her entire life; they were a part of her, not some new, technologically implanted addition. And Hank's size changing, while not an inherent ability, had been a part of him for as long as the armor had been a part of Tony. It hadn't always worked properly, just like Tony and old Shellhead hadn't always gotten along smoothly, but it was his.

He'd given it up for Jan, Tony knew, as much as he had for himself. Tony had told himself, during those brief hours when he'd thought the Extremis was dead, scoured out of him by the Mandarin's lightning, that the armor was a small price to pay for having Steve back. And it would have been, but giving it up one day at a time, knowing all the while that all he had to do was change his mind in order to have it back again... It was hard enough to fight that knowledge every time someone at the next table ordered a drink, or every time Logan had sliced the cap off a bottle of beer; he wasn't sure he could have managed to do it when it came to the armor.

"It's safer this way," Hank was telling Wanda. "You get to keep your control over your own mind, and keep Chthon out of it."

"Yes," Wanda said. "That's why I asked Strange to do it." Hank either didn't pick up on the slight sarcasm there, or simply didn't mind it.

When Tony and Wanda left, a few moments later, he had already donned safety gear and was muttering to himself as he sorted through the collection of minute containers of assorted chemicals.

"You wanted to talk to me?" Tony asked, as he followed Wanda along the hallway to the kitchen. She trailed one hand along the wall as she walked, over the scuffs still left in the plaster from construction; it would need to be repainted once all the work was finished.

"In a moment. Let me get something to eat, first."

The kitchen, in contrast to the hallways and Hank's half-set-up lab, already looked lived in. Steve had stuck a clipping from the Daily Bugle to the fridge, a photo of the Avengers fighting the miniature army of Venom symbiotes that had attacked the city a couple months ago, and bracketed it with a US Army calendar – the tank featured in this month's picture still used old Stark Industry designs for its armor piercing rounds, the technology every bit as effective and deadly as it had been a decade ago – and a deliberately cartoony drawing of the cat sleeping in his shield.

Jarvis had 'suggested' that it might be time to move Matthew Churchill Patton/Avenger-cat/Redwing's Lunch over to the mansion at least three times in the past week, ruthlessly quashing Tony's objections that the construction work might frighten it and/or provide it with an entire new realm of things to break, get stuck in, or otherwise destroy.

Wanda pulled sandwich ingredients out of the fridge and began making herself lunch. She glanced at Tony questioningly, holding the bread out to him, and he shook his head.

"I'm meeting Steve for lunch when he gets back from the Helicarrier." Even had he not been, he simply wasn't hungry. An Extremis-induced headache had been wrapped around his temples all morning, ready to turn into the familiar ice-pick stabbing over his left eye if he accessed more than three streams of data at once.

Steve was probably busy trying to talk Barnes out of being Fury's private assassin right about now – he hadn't said much about it to Tony since the night Barnes and Agent Carter had shown up on their doorstep, fresh from eliminating one of SHIELD's problems, but Tony knew it bothered him, and not just because of the risk involved.

Eventually, Steve was going to ask a few more questions about exactly how deeply Tony had been involved in that side of SHIELD's operations while he'd been director. It wasn't a conversation Tony was particularly looking forward to.

A lot of things that had seemed necessary at the time didn't seem quite so self-evidently vital and justifiable when he imagined trying to explain them to Steve. Cloning Thor was just the tip of the iceberg.

Wanda made an affirmative sound, and finished putting together her sandwich. "Carol came by yesterday," she said, as she carefully spread butter on each slice of bread in a perfect, even layer. "She wants to talk to you about Loki."

"I know," Tony said. "She already did. She thinks accepting Loki's help would have been a bad idea."

That was actually an understatement – Carol had asked him bluntly how he'd expected to deal with it when Loki stabbed them in the back at the worst possible time, and had added that she'd 'thought he was finished being deliberately self-sabotaging.' Loki, she'd insisted, couldn't be manipulated the way HUSAC could, or negotiated with like Gyrich or Koening. Tony couldn't even disagree with that; you could trust Henry Gyrich to keep a bargain, could trust Secretary Koening to do what he thought was best for national security even if what he thought was in the country's best interests was frequently not in your best interests, and even if he wasn't above using blackmail and threats to accomplish it. As little as Tony liked the man, he could at least respect him for that.

Except that if there was one thing his handful of months as Director of SHIELD had taught him, it was that you didn't throw potential allies away, even if they personally scared the hell out of you. You never knew when someone significantly scarier was going to show up.

"She doesn't think we can trust her," Wanda said, "probably because we can't. She doesn't understand how much more dangerous Chthon is. She's never really faced him; I think she's thinking of him as just another magical being, like Morgan Le Fay or the embodiments of chaos and order that we ran into a few years ago. Something limited, human. Something that can be defeated." She took a bite of her sandwich, chewing it without enthusiasm, as if she were eating mostly out of a sense of duty.

"Anything can be defeated." The objection was automatic. "You just have to figure out its weak points. Admittedly, Morgan Le Fay had a lot more of those than Chthon." Standing there hovering while Wanda sat at the table and ate was awkward, so Tony gave in and took the chair opposite her, taking advantage of Steve's absence to lean his elbow on the table and rest his forehead against his hand.

Steve worried too much, and he'd never liked the Extremis.

"We know his weakness – until and unless he can break completely free of his prison, he needs a human host. Unfortunately, he's rarely had any difficulty obtaining one."

"At least we know it won't be you," Tony offered, reaching out to lightly touch the back of one of her gloved hands. "Not this time." They could be thankful for small favors there – short of Stephen Strange, any alternate host Chthon could possess would lack Wanda's innate magical powers, and at least wouldn't have a connection to the interdimensional Nexus and an omega-level mutant's power levels to augment his own vast wellspring of power.

"We hope it won't be me," she corrected. Another bite of her sandwich was eaten, and then she set it aside. Tony sympathized; the smell of meat and cheese was making him feel slightly sick. "Carol doesn't think you can trust me, either." Her dark eyes held Tony's steadily. "She may be right. If I lose control again, the consequences could be catastrophic."

"That possibility has been considered," Tony said carefully. There was no tactful or friendly way to tell her that SHIELD had had plans to kill her if she re-surfaced and was judged to still be a global threat, or that the Illuminati had discussed meting out to Wanda the same treatment they had to the Hulk – eliminating the threat she represented by sending her off planet or to another dimension, as far away as they could, and, if that was not possible, killing her.

Professor Xavier had confessed that he felt partially to blame for M-Day, that he had let his sentimental attachment to an old friend's child prevent him from stepping in when he should have. Most of his proposed solutions had chilled Tony even further than the thought of killing Wanda in cold blood had. Better true death than the sort of 'merciful' living death Xavier had proposed.

It had to be better. Even Pepper had agreed that it was.

"Good." Wanda's voice was quiet, but there was an odd fierceness to it. "I caused so much destruction, hurt so many people – without these seals, I could destroy the world." She tilted her head to one side, sweeping the heavy mass of her hair to one side to expose the glyphs tattooed at the base of her neck. "You have no idea how dangerous I'd be without this. Omega-level mutants are... unstoppable. You remember what happened to the Professor, and Jean."

Tony met her eyes before he spoke, making certain she knew how serious he was. "We wouldn't let that happen. Not again."

Wanda stared at him for a moment, searching his face for something. Whatever it was, she must have found it, because she nodded slowly. "I believe you. I know it's a terrible thing to ask, but if it comes to it, Carol on her own wouldn't be enough to stop me. Maybe at the height of her Binary powers, but not now. Not anymore."

"You have my word," Tony said, the words awkward and heavy in his mouth. "If it comes to it, I'll do whatever it takes." Another old friend's life, balanced against the world – such an obvious choice, in the abstract, but when it came down to it... Steve's body would be burned into his memories forever, a permanent reminder that some sacrifices were too high to bear. Happy's face still haunted his nightmares; the empty absence of signal after Tony had shut down his life support had echoed in his head for days, until he'd longed for the whisky or vodka that would drown the silence out.

But if it were him, if the Extremis were hacked again... Better death than to be used as a living weapon against the people he loved. He'd lived through that before, under Immortus's control, killing two women who had known and trusted him, and if one of the other Avengers had struck him down then, he would have welcomed it.

"I won't let him use you again," he promised, and part of him ached even as he said it, wishing it were a lie.

Wanda was silent for a painfully stretched-out moment, staring at him with a stiff, blank expression. Then her face twisted, her eyes going bright and glassy with tears, and she jumped to her feet, leaning across the table and enveloping Tony in a hug.

"Thank you," she whispered. "There was no one else I could have asked. Thank you."

Pepper had thanked him, too. Tony closed his eyes, forcing himself not to stiffen under Wanda's touch, and was suddenly grateful he had refused her offer of food as his throat closed up and tight pain seized at his chest. The air in the room felt thin and hot, suffocating.

Doing what had to be done didn't always mean doing what was right, and it never got any easier, except when he'd been too drunk to care.

He should have said something, told her that he understood, that it was all right, but he couldn't find the words.

Chapter Text

Clint ducked low under a laser blast and rolled, coming up to one knee and knocking an arrow in one smooth motion. Jan, beside him, was slightly slower to dodge, the laser catching her on the shoulder.

Hank winced, watching her rub at the spot, and lowered the lasers' energy levels. With the training room's safety protocols fully engaged they were already at close to minimum, but you couldn't be too careful the first time you live-tested any version of a danger room.

She was trying out a twelve-foot tall height similar to Hank's old Goliath form, so the lasers affected her less than they would have at Wasp size, but the unfamiliar size also made her less graceful than usual. Jan had been able to grow as well as shrink for over a year now, but she almost never used the ability, and it took significant amounts of practice to get used to fighting while giant-sized, or even simply moving around.

One of the room's metal floor plates dipped sideways, making the floor under Jan and Clint lurch. The two of them didn't even break stride, charging forward at the holographic figures at the other end of the room.

The system's reaction-time to hits with Clint's arrows was lagging; the simulation reacted to the impacts a fraction slower than it should have, and the data display that should have broken down the exact angle of impact and degree of force the arrow had hit at simply read "error." Was there something wrong with the motion sensors? The pressure sensors monitoring the impact? The coding? The interface between the sensors and the computer? Hank made a mental note to mention it to Tony. Let him be the one to go over all the code line by line; it was probably his error anyway.

In biology, unexpected results meant new avenues to explore, rather than "somewhere within these millions of lines of code is an error to be found and fixed."

Two metal tentacles emerged from slots in the wall and reached for Jan. This time, she dodged easily, twisting sideways to let one tentacle grope past her and grabbing the other in her hand. In her place, Hank would have grown about fifty percent and then tried to rip the tentacle out of the wall. Jan simply grabbed for the other tentacle and wrapped the two around one another, then abandoned them to make a dive for the holographic supervillain, who was trying to 'escape' from Clint.

Jan grabbed 'him' by the shoulders and lifted him off the floor, then held him there, feet kicking uselessly. "I could get used to this." Her voice was crisp and clear over the intercom system – that part of the set up was in perfect working order. "It's kind of fun being the biggest person in the fight."

"It still hurts just as hard when people hit you." Clint yanked one of his arrows out of a laser port and squinted at the tip. "The longer reach is useful, though. You can pull a twelve or thirteen foot longbow at that height."

Hank had vivid memories of that longbow, and the thumb-thick arrows Clint had played around with before he'd decided that being Goliath was more trouble than it was worth and stopped taking Pym particles. He'd never gained the ability to produce them biologically the way Hank, Jan, Scott, and Bill had, anyway.

There had been a standard-sized crossbow, too, at one point, which Clint had waved around like a toy and drawn by hand. Being slow to adjust to Pym particles had probably been less of a factor in Clint's blithe dismissal of superpowers than the fact that being Goliath didn't involve playing with projectile weapons.

"Objective Achieved" the training program announced, in a pleasant female voice that was disquietingly reminiscent of Jocasta. "Program shutting down.

The supervillian vanished from Jan's grasp, and the tentacles unwound themselves from one another and retracted smoothly back into the wall.

"That looked good," Hank said. "Tony's going to need to do some fine-tuning on the motion sensors and the holo-dummy's response time, but everything seems like it's running smoothly." It had been a simple training sequence – Jan and Clint had barely broken a sweat – but serious exercise hadn't been the point. The training room had had to be tested before anyone could safely use it without supervison; thus far it had shown a reassuring lack of either sentience or a desire to kill them, but Hank had found that when it came to complex computer systems, a little paranoia never hurt.

"Great. If there are no major problems, then, now we can trade off." Jan locked her fingers together and stretched her arms above her head. The motion threw the curves of her body into momentary sharp relief, and Hank watched appreciatively. If he were in Clint's position at that moment, Jan's breasts would have been higher than his head, more than twice the size they usually were. The thought made him pettily glad that Clint hadn't chosen that moment to look up.

There was more than one reason why Hank missed the ability to shrink down.

"That's not necessary," he started to explain. "The system checks out, mostly, so it should be all right to run it without-"

"Yeah, it is," Clint interrupted. "Because you're coming down here now, and I'd like Tony's opinion on the computer systems before we let it run with nobody watching them."

"Why? Because you don't trust me with computer systems and AIs?" It wasn't until the question was out that it occurred to Hank that it might not be one he wanted to ask.

"No, because Tony's better with computers than you are."

That might be true, but Hank still knew significantly more about computers than Clint. He was trying to think of the most insulting way possible to point this out when Jan stepped forward and fluttered her eyelashes at the nearest camera.

"Boys, don't fight," she cooed, and then, in a significantly less flirtatious voice, "Turn off the computers and get down here, Hank. Exercise is good for you."

"We haven't run the second-level tests yet," Hank protested. Expecting him to work out in the training simulation room was unfair; the mansion had a perfectly good gym with weights and punching bags and brand new exercise equipment expensive and fancy enough to make luxury health spas weep with envy, and, most importantly, nothing in it to remind him of the powers he wasn't able to use.

The nearest monitor screen showed Clint rolling his eyes in high-definition close-up. "Forget the tests. Cap's not down here right now to kick your ass, so Jan and I are going to have to do it. She can run a basic level training simulation just as well as you can."

"Carefully," Jan said. "I have plans for Hank's ass that don't involve you damaging it.

"I don't think that's necessary. I'm-"

"Superpowered people depend too much on their powers in a fight," Clint said, and Hank didn't have to look at the monitor screen to know he was smirking, "and now that you can't use yours, you need to practice fighting the way us mere mortals do."

Why did Clint have to rub that in? Especially in front of Jan. "I'm not in the field anymore." Because I'm crazy and I have to take medication that won't work if I grow to Giant-Man or Goliath size and will kill me if I shrink, he thought. He didn't say it, because the whole topic was an uncomfortable one, for himself more than anyone else. It was humiliating to have to sit on the sidelines because he couldn't function like a normal person without medication, and hadn't figured out how to keep the levels of it in his bloodstream stable while shrinking.

It had to be possible. It was in theory, he knew, and he'd even verified it by having Reed check his math, embarrassing as that always was.

"Because it's not like anything ever attacks your lab," Clint said.

Jan smiled at him through the monitors, and even knowing that she'd probably orchestrated this whole thing to try and drag him out of his lab and make him 'do something fun,' Hank couldn't be annoyed with her. "He's got a point, honey. Come on. It'll be fun. I'm just going to go upstairs and watch the two of you get all sweaty."

Hank had already resigned himself to an hour or so of tedious and vaguely humiliating physical effort. The thought of Jan watching and enjoying the view made it a little more appealing, but not much.

"If I'm doing this without powers, I expect you to do it unarmed," he told Clint a short while later, eying Clint's garishly purple compound bow. 

Clint shrugged one shoulder. "Deal with it. In a real fight the other guys are going to have powers or weapons. Anyway, I could still mop the floor with you bare-handed."

"I thought this was a teamwork simulation."

"The beauty of team simulations is that I don't have to be faster than the holographic bad guys. I just have to be faster than you."

Hank didn't bother to reply, listening instead for the background whirr of the room's systems coming back online. The holodummies had a split-second lag time, he reminded himself. It would make them clumsier, just enough to give him an edge.

It did, in fact, give him an edge, enough that he was able to keep pace with Clint as they fought their way through the obstacle course of tentacles, lasers, and shifting floor and wall plates toward that nest of robots at the far end of the room.

They were supposed to be copies of Ultron V, complete with fixed, glowing red grins, but Jan had tweaked the scenario, turning them into generic robotic figures. Hank appreciated the gesture, though it might have been nicely cathartic to pound the snot out of a series of slightly-malfunctioning Ultrons.

A metal tentacle looped around his ankle, and Hank went sprawling, managing to twist just enough to hit the ground with his shoulder instead of his face. Another tentacle wrapped around his waist, pinning his left arm to his side. Hank struggled, trying to pull free and fighting the instinct to shrink down. The metal coils were smooth, with nothing to give a 'victim' any purchase if one's hands weren't large enough to wrap completely around them.

He heard the whine of Clint's arrow and the clang of it hitting metal and had an instant to brace himself for the crackle of electricity. It didn't come; there was a sharp shock of static, and the tentacles released him abruptly.

Hank rolled away, shoving himself to his feet inches ahead of a low-power laser blast. Practice arrows, of course. The real, fully charged shock arrows would have knocked him out cold, the electric charge travelling the length of the metal tentacles and taking him out along with them. 

"Nice creative problem solving," he gasped, as the first of the robots charged at them. "If this were real, you'd be on your own now."

"It's not," Clint grunted, blocking a metal fist with one arm and shoving his bow between the robot's legs, "and I'm not." The robot toppled, and Clint leapt over it with enviable ease.

Blows from holodummies didn't have the force of a real attack, but they still hurt. Hank was going to have bruises later – Jan had set the safety protocols at level two, not level one. It was actually kind of flattering, he reflected, as he tackled the robot trying to take Clint from behind, to know that she trusted him to take care of himself at least that far, powers or no.

By the time Hank had finished smashing the robot's head into the floor, exploding arrows had taken out three of the others, and Clint was wrestling with the final one, his bow lying on the floor several feet away. The robot had him pinned against the wall, and was slowly strangling him with a hand around his throat – or would have been, had this been real. Its hand was actually just wrapped loosely and completely harmlessly around his throat.

Hank tapped the robot on the shoulder and then, when it swung around slightly to face him, punched it directly in its metal faceplate. Or at least, that's what he had intended to do. 

"Ow, what the hell?" Clint yelped, clapping one hand over his nose. The robot staggered backwards into Hank's next punch, an arrow jutting out from the vulnerable point where its legs joined its body. Hank ripped the arrow loose and jammed it into the robot's glowing white eye, and the holodummy vanished, Clint's arrow clattering to the floor.

"Great, guys. That's level two cleared, and the system didn't throw up any red flags." Jan's voice was loud over the intercom, drowning out the faint whirr of floor plates shifting back into their normal position.

Hank flexed his fingers, his knuckles still smarting from their impact with Clint's nose. "You know, I really prefer either being small enough that I'm nearly invisible or being bigger than anyone else in the fight." In both cases, you were less likely to get in your own teammates' way.

Clint swore, glaring at Hank from behind his hand. "You didn't pull that last punch."

"I didn't expect your face to suddenly be between me and the robot," Hank said defensively, feeling his face heat. "Sorry." Clint's nose was the angry red of something that was going to start swelling soon, but it didn't look like it was bleeding, and Hank hadn't felt it crunch, so at least he hadn't broken it. 

Clint prodded at it gently, and winced. "Well, we don't have to work on your right hook."

"You could have ducked," Jan said, sounding more amused than sympathetic. "The two of you looked like the three stooges. And you have to be more careful about letting those tentacles grab you," she added. "You can't shrink down to get away from them, or increase size to break free."

"I know." It wasn't technically true; he could still increase his size if it were truly an emergency, he'd just pay for it later. Increasing size diluted chemicals in the bloodstream, so he was supposed to avoid it, but only shrinking would actually be dangerous. "I think I did pretty well for someone without powers or weapons." Especially considering that it had been far too long since he'd done this.

"You did," she agreed. "The way you tackled that robot was very manly."

"I took out about three times as many of them," Clint said, but he didn't sound as if he meant the objection. Hank had been on the receiving end of enough actual resentment from Don and Thor recently to know when he heard it. And when he didn't.

It was nice to have teammates around who hadn't had a front seat view of or a personal stake in the registration disaster.

"You were very manly, too. Almost as manly as Hank."

"Yeah, well, I'm kicking your manly ass tomorrow." Clint jabbed a finger at him. "Cap wants you and Wanda back in unarmed combat practice."

"We'll see about that." He should have been annoyed – the genetic research for Beast hadn't produced any results yet, but he hadn't started comparing the homo superior genome to baseline human genetic material yet, and that was sure to generate interesting data – but instead, he found himself smiling. Jan was right. It was good for him to get out of the lab once in a while.

"What part of 'keep a low profile' is too complex for you to understand?" Had a subordinate proved to be so disobedient, he would have lived only just long enough to regret it. The necessity of keeping Sin under the impression that she was an ally rather than a simple tool was growing tiresome. "Your vendetta against SHIELD contributes nothing towards our ultimate goal," Doom explained, with more than admirable patience. "When I have the spear and its powers, you will be amply rewarded. You can then deal with Captain America and his sidekick as you see fit. For now, you will do nothing. Do you understand?"

Sin sneered, the expression giving her the look of the sullen adolescent she all too frequently acted like. "I understand that doing nothing seems to be your entire plan lately. Are we going to sit around and wait until Strange or Murdock die of old age? You said we only had until March before the spear's power would be 'lost to you forever.'" She parroted his own words back at him with a mocking lilt.

Had he thought it would do any good, he could have explained that the levels of chaos energy in the city were slowly but inexorably rising, twisting the forces of chance and fate in their favor. The spear wanted to be found, the power in it hungered to be used, and given time, it would force a means of grasping it to surface. They simply had to bide their time.

Doom, however, explained himself to no one. "The equinox is still months away. I would council patience, but I imagine that is beyond you." 

Sin's eyes narrowed to slits, the pouty adolescent façade cracking and falling away. "I want blood, Victor. I want the vengeance you promised me. I want my father and Brock back, and I want to watch my father's glorious Reich rise from the ashes of this filthy country." She took a deep breath, and her voice was reasonable again, even sweet. "But I'd settle for some kind of progress. Give me results, or you can find someone else to fetch the spear for you. I think Zola is still out there somewhere."

"You forget who you speak to," Doom said, in tones of freezing menace. "You would accomplish nothing on your own, and amusing as it would be to see you fail and come crawling back, it would waste time." It was a calculated risk, all but daring her to leave, but the reminder of her own pathetic helplessness might work in his favor.

Zola, slimy little Nazi scientist who sold his skills to the highest bidder that he was, would be an inadequate assistant. If he were forced to hire someone to fetch the spear for him, he would have to completely counteract the sorcerer supreme's protection spells, at which point Doom might as well just walk in and take the spear himself. Sin, with her painfully obvious belief that she was the one who was using him, wanted the spear in Doom's hands to further her own agenda, not his. The portions of Strange's spell aimed directly at thwarting Doom would overlook her presence, leaving Doom only the task of finding a spell that would allow a person with no magical abilities to remove the spear from its hiding place and carry it out to him. Then, he could use its power to demolish Strange for his interference.

"My father was conquering the world before you were even born, you jumped up piece of trash," Sin spat. "You need me more than I need you. Don't forget that." She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room, boots loud against the warehouse's stone floor.

Doom watched her go with gritted teeth and reminded himself again of all the reasons why he couldn't kill her yet.

One of the benefits of having a significant other who gave more money to the Metropolitan Museum of Art than many people earned in a year was that the dinners, special exhibition previews, and private showings that museum sponsors were invited to generally included a 'plus one.' That was, for significant others who were free to broadcast their relationship to all and sundry without ending up on the front page of every newspaper in the country, and probably a few international ones as well.

Luckily, this particular exhibition preview was open to all museum donors at the $500 a year level and up, so Steve was able to be there without openly attending as Tony's date. Tony's official 'plus one' for the evening was Wanda.

Steve tugged at his tie, knowing he was pulling the knot out of shape but not particularly caring. The last time he'd worn this suit had been at the Senate and Congressional hearings over the SHRA; the day they'd arrived in DC, Tony had sent him shopping with Jan along as a guarantee of good taste, and he'd come back with clothing more expensive than any he'd ever owned, short of his costume.

He felt stiff and strange in it, not uncomfortable, but oddly on display in a way he wasn't while in costume.

"Stop fidgeting," Jan said. "You look perfect."

Steve let go of his tie, embarrassed at being caught yanking at it like a kid who'd been forced into his Sunday best, only to realize that Jan hadn't been speaking to him.

"That's because you dressed me like a doll," Hank was saying, as she straightened the collar of his shirt. "I still don't see what was wrong with the blue tie."

"It didn't match your suit." Jan smoothed his lapel, then gave it a little pat before letting her hand drop. "Navy blue doesn't go with black. And you make a very attractive doll."

Steve looked away, giving them a moment of privacy; Tony was on the other side of the room, smiling stiffly at a vaguely familiar-looking man whom Steve was fairly sure was involved in city politics somehow. He, unlike Hank, didn't have a single fold of fabric out of place, for all that his hair was artfully disheveled in a way that probably looked intentional, but was actually Steve's fault. Tony usually wore suits and dress shirts, unless he was planning to spend some quality time tearing machinery apart, and he always looked good in them, but when he made a real effort to dress nicely, as he had tonight, the impulse to muss up and pull apart that perfectly constructed armor of suit and tie was irresistible.

One good tug, and the half-windsor knot in his tie would fall right out.

Tempting as the thought was, they had too large an audience right now for Steve to indulge himself. Tony, being Tony, would probably make no effort to stop him if he tried.

"Isn't that the city councilman who wants to ban feeding pigeons?" Sam's voice was dry. "You think we should go rescue Tony?"

Steve shrugged. "He can fend for himself." Tony might not actually enjoy politics, but he was good at them.

"I'll miss the chance to ask Councilman Englehart some probing questions about his pigeon population control legislation." Sam glanced over at the man again, eyes narrowing slightly; under the joking tone was a thread of something more serious.

The name was familiar, and not from arguments about animal rights and public sanitation. Englehart was one of the supporters of a proposal to ban known superheroes from working for the city, citing potential conflicts of interest, as well as potential lawsuits. "I don't think that would be a good idea," Steve said. "This isn't an art show in DUMBO. A loud public argument about politics will get us kicked out."

"I'm not going to argue," Sam said mildly. "I'm just going to remind him that being a superhero is not currently against the law." 

Judging by the tightening of Englehart's lips, and the way he was shaking his head, Tony was already doing that. It didn't appear to be working.

"I haven't seen the rest of the exhibit yet," Steve countered. The 'Art and Artifacts of Alchemy' exhibit was scheduled to open to the general public next Friday, and a banner announcing its presence already hung outside the museum. Medieval and Renaissance art had never been Steve's field, but he could appreciate the complex symbolism in the one painting and two seventeenth century engravings he'd seen thus far. Tony would like them; they were like puzzles in visual form, each of the pictures showing some part of a chemical process.

Tony hated magic, but alchemy had enough science in it that it might not count. And the chiaroscuro woodcut he could see hanging on the opposite wall, just behind a knot of men and women in evening wear, looked utterly breathtaking in its degree of detail.

"You know," Sam said, after he had given Steve several silent minutes to appreciate the woodcut's workmanship, "I keep renewing my membership, but I don't think I've been here in a year."

"It's been a very long year." The words sounded more serious than Steve had meant them to, largely because they were true.

Sam nodded. "Longer than you know. Things were getting bad before you came back. Englehart's superhero legislation's going to set a real bad precedent if it passes, but it's a drop in the bucket compared with what was going on before."

"I know." Tony hadn't said much about the inner workings of the Initiative, other than what he'd admitted to on the witness stand, but the few things he had let slip had told Steve that there were things that hadn't come out even in the congressional hearings. 'I didn't order any assassinations when I was Director of SHIELD', he'd said carefully, and the deliberate phrasing had been a red flag that while Tony might not have been ordering assassinations, someone else might have been.

Not that SHIELD didn't solve problems by making people quietly disappear even now, but Steve had far more faith in Nick Fury's ability to make that judgment call than he had in the people who had been pulling HUSAC's strings. Not everyone involved with Registration or with the Initiative could have been as innocent of the true identity of Representative Dickstein's silent sponsor as they'd claimed. Whether they'd believed him to be Aleksander Lukin or known that he was the Red Skull, some of them had still had to know that he wasn't who he claimed to be. Known, and not cared, just as they hadn't cared about the innocent people shut away in extra-dimensional prisons, or the black ops program that had wanted to start a new super soldier project, with methods reminiscent of the Weapon X program. Or of the original Project Rebirth – unwilling or deliberately under-informed human test subjects had been part of that, too.

Next year was an election year. Steve hoped devoutly that the remaining congressmen who had served on the Unregistered Superhuman Activities Committee – and not been booted out of office already for taking bribes from known terrorists – would not be re-elected.

Sam shook his head, pulling his shirt cuffs straight and brushing futilely at the punctures in the fabric of his right coat sleeve, the spacing of the tears looking suspiciously like something Redwing's talons might have made. "I don't want to talk about this. I'm tired of thinking about it. And about Chthon and whatever part of Lower Manhattan's going to blow up or fall down next. Have they re-opened the Islamic art gallery yet?"

"I know what you mean," Steve said, with feeling. "And no. They're still refurbishing it. Very slowly and carefully. They've been slowly and carefully refurbishing it since 2001."

Sam snorted. "I'm surprised at you," he said, voice dry with irony again, "suggesting that they'd shut an entire gallery down for bullshit political reasons. I'm sure it really needs years' worth of renovations."

"Maybe I should suggest that Tony earmark his next donation for that gallery. Can you do that?"

Sam shrugged. "When you're giving a museum enough money to have your name carved on a plaque in the front hallway, you can probably do whatever you want."

It was a tempting thought, but actually attempting to put pressure on the museum via donations would be unethical. And it wasn't Steve's money to spend, either, though Tony wasn't likely to object to using financial blackmail for a good cause. Not ethical, he reminded himself.

At least the Museum of Natural History had refused to bow to pressure to remove all discussions of Homo superior from their new "Hall of Human Origins" exhibit. You had to take victories where you could find them.

Tony had managed to escape from Englehart, and was now talking to the owner of a major Manhattan development company. Beyond him, Wanda was walking slowly down the length of the exhibit hall, stopping to study each piece. Hank was deep in conversation with one of the museum curators, and kept gesturing at a display case of 16th century laboratory instruments. Jan, beside him, was watching with a proprietary little smile that Steve hoped he hadn't been wearing when he'd been admiring the fit of Tony's suit jacket earlier.

Steve was examining another woodcut, this one from the mid-1500s and carefully displayed in a dimly lit alcove, when he felt another presence behind him. He wasn't sure what bit of information told his brain that was Tony – maybe the sound of his footsteps, maybe some scent, the sound of his breathing – but his subconscious had identified him before the other man spoke.

"Someday we need to come here on a real date."

Steve smiled, and kept looking at the woodcut; he didn't need to see Tony to imagine the rueful little smile on his face. "When there are fewer cameras around, maybe." In the woodcut, a man and a woman were locked in a passionate embrace, while a bird hovered over them, transfixed in a ray of light. In the background, a lion was eating the sun. The little plaque to the left of the image explained that the couple represented the sun and the moon, and the lion, the role of spiritual mercury as a universal solvent.

There was a faint hint of apology in Tony's voice as he said, "If it was just my reputation and SE's stock points, I'd say to hell with it and just kiss you somewhere extremely public and get it over with. The tabloids have been speculating about me for years anyway."

Steve shook his head. Turning around was automatic; after years of dealing with Tony as Iron Man, Steve could carry on a conversation with Tony without needing to see his face, but hearing Tony's voice coming from just over his shoulder made the skin on the back of his neck tingle distractingly. "If it was just our reputations at stake, I wouldn't hide anything." Steve met Tony's gaze, hoping the words sounded sincere, and not like empty rhetoric. He meant them – their relationship was not the media's business, and part of him cringed at the idea of having it dragged through the headlines and discussed on talk shows as if it were something tawdry and sordid, something to be ashamed of, but hiding it was like a silent agreement that there was something wrong with it, with both of them – but he had never been very good at these kinds of conversations. But if Peter could unmask in front of cameras, Steve could hardly do less. 

Tony's eyes looked closer to grey than blue in the corner's carefully dim light, and some trick of lighting made dark shadows gather under them. Or maybe the dark smudges were real. "We don't have anything to hide," Steve went on. "It's not illegal anymore." He probably sounded as if he were giving a speech, he reflected, and from Tony's fractional headshake, it wasn't a very convincing one.

"We can't afford any distractions right now. Not until Chthon's been dealt with." Tony had the sound of a man trying to convince himself. 

It was true, just as the fact that they'd needed to make first the SHRA and then the team their priority was true. Chthon could turn the entire world into a barren wasteland, and would, if he got free.

"When he is, I'll take you dancing," Steve promised, recklessly. He'd danced with Bernie and Connie, and even Sharon, though she preferred unarmed combat practice to swing dancing. And with Diamondback, who had always tried to lead. Tony would, too – it was a nearly impossible habit to break, as Steve had learned when Rachel had tried to make him follow her and do all the steps backwards. Having Tony's arms around him in public would be worth tripping backwards over his own feet and looking like an idiot.

Tony's smile was real this time, crinkling the corners of his eyes, though the shadows under them remained. "I'll hold you to that." His eyes flicked over Steve's suit, and the smile turned amused. "What have you been doing to your tie?"

Steve glanced down at his shirt front before he could stop him. "Nothing. It's fine."

"It's crooked." Tony took a half-step forward, closing the distance between them, and took hold of Steve's tie in both hands, tugging on the knot until it was tight once more. He smoothed it carefully over Steve's chest, fingers lingering for just a moment, then stepped back.

He gave Steve a second once-over, his eyes filling with heat. "You should let Jan pick out your clothing more often."

"I feel like a fish out of water in suits." At least, he did in suits as nice as this one. Though Tony was probably imagining him without the suit, judging by his expression.

Tony's lips curved into something between a smile and a smirk. "You don't look like one. Not in this suit," he said, a familiar husky sound to his voice, the one that always sent a shiver down Steve's spine and started a slow heat in the pit of stomach. 

Not here, Steve reminded himself. Not yet.

"Besides," Tony added, "Happy was the one who always looked like a thug." He hesitated, looking away at the woodcut over Steve's shoulder. Steve was struck again by how tired he suddenly looked. "The more expensive the suit, the more he looked like hired mob muscle," Tony finished, voice subdued.

Then he looked back at Steve, and the smile on his face was strained. "He would have complained that he was just a big, dumb, ex-bruiser who didn't understand anything here, and asked me why I couldn't have brought someone else instead, and secretly looked at everything here while pretending not to, and loved the whole thing."

Steve let the topic of Happy drop. "I still think Carol and Clint would have enjoyed it if they'd come."

Tony didn't actually roll his eyes, but some quirk of facial expression implied the motion anyway. "Steve, not everyone enjoys art museums just because you think they should. Do you really think Hank would be here if it weren't an exhibit on debunked, pseudo-magical proto-chemistry?"

"Yes," Steve said. "Jan is here." He glanced automatically around the room once again, taking in the scattered knots of museum donors. Hank and Jan had split up, Jan chatting with a tall Asian woman in impressively stacked heels while Hank examined a display of woodcuts depicting the process of distillation.

Sam was talking to one of the museum curators; by the hand gestures he was making, either fishing or baseball was involved. Or he was waving a hand in frustration as he tried to convey exactly how irritating it was that the Islamic Art gallery was shut down, but Steve didn't think so. The conversation looked friendly.

It took him a moment to find Wanda – he still looked automatically for bold colors, and the steel-grey dress she and Jan had found at the last minute was the sort of thing the eye skimmed over without really seeing. Neutral, cool.

She was standing still, near the center of the gallery, staring at the room around her as if searching for something.

Steve thought for a moment that she might be looking for them, but as he stepped out of the shadows, she stiffened, her gaze locked on something on the far side of the room.

He went over to her, not needing to ask Tony to follow him. Sam met them halfway there, his eyes going from Steve to Wanda in a silent question.

Steve shook his head; there was no danger here that he could see. The stiff line of Wanda's back and the frozen lack of expression on her face had set off alarm bells, though. Something was wrong here, even if he himself had noticed nothing.

She was standing by a glass display case when they reached her, staring down at an old, leather bound book that had been carefully propped open to show an elaborate print of the symbols of the zodiac. The red leather of the cover and binding had faded to a rusty brown, and the pages were faded and worn.

"I can feel him whispering," Wanda said, softly, her voice eerily calm. "But only when I stand here."

A chill crawling up his spine, Steve took her by the arm, trying to be gentle, and pulled her a few steps away from the display case. The plaque beside it proclaimed that the book was a 16th century study of alchemy and astronomy by John Dee, collecting excerpts from numerous Renaissance writings on alchemy. From the central location of the display and the size of the plaque, it was one of the showpieces of the exhibit.

Sam cast an uneasy glance at the book, his eyebrows drawing together. "You mean Chthon? What do you mean you can hear him? I thought he could only enter this dimension from the cathedral."

Sam hadn't been there for the last time they had fought Chthon, or the time before that. Steve had done his best to brief him on what had happened each time, but he wasn't sure how well he understood the link between Wanda and Chthon himself. 

Tony, if anything, looked even more uneasy. "Strange didn't say that, exactly. He said he could only break through the dimensional barriers there, because a fragment of his essence is trapped inside the building. He didn't say he couldn't reach through and influence things in other places."

Wanda was shaking her head, eyes still on the book. "Not hear," she corrected Sam, the words quiet. "Feel. Everything else in here is just art, or old scientific instruments. This book has real magic in it." She shivered visibly and rubbed at her arms, and for a moment, Steve thought he saw glints of reddish light play over the tattoos on her hands and the back of her neck. "Chaos magic. Dark magic. Chaos can be a joyful and creative force, but whatever's in this book is destructive, malevolent. Like he is. It's..." she looked back at the book again, hesitating, then looked away, "it wants to be used. I can feel it waiting."

"How about we move a little further away from it?" Sam suggested.

"I think that would be good." Wanda backed slowly away from the display case, nearly bumping into an older white man who was trying to look at the case of lab instruments.

Tony touched one finger to the little white plaque. "John Dee," he read. "He was fascinated by angels and demons. He spent years trying to contact angelic powers; he wanted to ask them questions about theology and natural philosophy."

It could have been a coincidence. Steve wanted to believe it was. But Chthon was a chaos entity, a being who could reshape and manipulate probability as easily as he could human minds; there were no coincidences when you dealt with him.

"I think," Steve said, "that we should talk to one of the curators."

Chapter Text

Steve carefully smudged the shading around the curve of the vase until it was even, then studied it and considered the merits of erasing and starting over again. The entire thing was slightly but visibly lopsided.

Still lives were not one of his strengths, but then, that was what made them good practice.

The cat, curled up on the back of the couch, rearranged himself with a creak of leather and settled back into position with both of his hind feet shoved into the back of Steve's neck. A slight prick of claws warned that he would be displeased if Steve attempted to either move or push his feet away.

"See," Tony said. "I told you he liked you."

"As a foot rest," Steve returned. Thankfully, his hair was too short for chewing on — human hair seemed to inexplicably delight the cat, and he almost hadn't survived his first encounter with Carol, which had involved launching himself at her head from behind while she'd been sitting on the couch.

"Hmm," Tony said, the bulk of his attention already back on whatever he was doing with the laptop and tablet he had set up on the coffee table. On the screen, computerized wire drawings expanded, rotated through 360 degrees, and were minimized again, while his little plastic stylus flashed over the tablet's surface. He never actually looked at the screen, eyes focused on something invisible in the middle distance, probably the schematics in his head. Steve wasn't sure how much of that was the Extremis, and how much was just Tony's ability to design things in his head.

He had finally gotten used to the near-silence in which Tony often used computers these days; the lack of clacking keys was one of the few benefits of the Extremis, since Tony tended to type furiously and loudly. The quiet was nice, peaceful. They hadn't had many chances lately to just sit around and relax. 

The constant stream of disasters in Manhattan hadn't stopped. If anything, it seemed to be spreading — there had been a three-alarm fire in Brooklyn yesterday, apparently caused by a single dropped cigarette, and a woman in Chelsea had stabbed her husband and two dinner guests to death with a kitchen knife, before turning it on herself. Disasters, accidents, and a wave of violent crimes, all frustratingly completely beyond their ability to stop. Half the time, there wasn't even anything Steve could try to do to help. 

The chaos-tainted book at the museum was still unguarded, the museum administrators having taken Wanda's warning about it precisely as seriously as they did the insistence by museum staff that it was cursed. There had been a rash of minor accidents surrounding it, according to the security guard Sam had spoken to, but it was the keystone of their special exhibit, and they were reluctant to remove it.

Its presence could have been a coincidence, of course, but where chaos magic was concerned, very few things were.

In between crises, Steve and Sam had somehow managed to get Sam's things moved over to the mansion, after he'd decided that Steve and Tony staying there alone with Wanda wasn't a good idea. Steve wasn't sure if he was more worried about Wanda falling under Chthon's influence again, or about something — or someone — coming after Wanda, but his presence was welcome. Tony had been burying himself in his lab or his office at Stark Enterprises for the past week. Twice, he hadn't even come to bed, staying down there all night.

Sam had been remarkably good-natured about it when Steve had dragged him into the den to watch movies with him.

He didn't sleep well on his own, not after four months of sharing a bed.

Tony was poking desultorily at his computer now, resting his chin on one hand; Steve wasn't sure if he was putting the finishing touches on his project, or had just run out of steam. He had been working on it for at least an hour, by Steve's watch.

His own project, Steve decided, was hopelessly unfixable. He hadn't been paying enough attention to his work, and he'd nearly erased through the paper in two places, and the vase was still lopsided. He wasn't getting the curvature right, or the reflections.

He folded the page back, giving himself a pristine new surface to draw on, and let himself doodle absentmindedly. He was probably trying too hard, holding the pencil too tightly and over-controlling the lines.

"What are you working on?" he asked. Tony's answer might or might not make any sense, but listening to him ramble about engines or computers was always soothing.

"Some blueprints and computer models," Tony said, after a pause. He didn't sound particularly enthusiastic, which meant whatever it was probably didn't explode, break the sound barrier, pioneer a new computer operating system, or do anything else particularly interesting, at least by Tony's standards.

"What for?" Steve prompted, after a long moment of silence had stretched between them.

Tony sighed, and looked up from the computer, rubbing at his face with one hand. "Wind turbines. And the navigation system for the Boeing bid. R&D kept sending back crap, so I said I'd do it myself."

"Don't you always?"

"It would be nice not to have to once in a while."

Coming from a man whom Steve had known to personally redesign completely functional products from the ground up because they were only 'good' and not good enough, the statement ought to have been laughable, but some quality in his voice made Steve believe him. Tony sounded tired and frustrated.

A low, creaky purr started up behind him, and the cat's needle-sharp little claws dug into the back of his neck, then let go, then dug in again.

"Hey." Steve leaned forward, putting a hand to the back of his neck to protect it from Patton's sudden and violent affection. The cat flicked one ear back, and glared at him with baleful blue eyes.

Steve shifted to put himself sideways on the couch, his back against the armrest and his head and neck out of claw-reach. Designed to accommodate Thor if necessary, the couch was long enough that even with Tony sitting on the other end, he could stretch his legs out to their full length. He rested one foot against Tony's thigh and drew the other leg up to balance his sketchpad on his knee. "Is this what's had you pulling all-nighters?"

Tony shook his head. "I've just been busy." He offered Steve an apologetic smile. "Sorry."

"The cat misses you," Steve said, the words awkward. Their real meaning was probably painfully obvious. Steve's ears felt hot for a moment, and he wondered if his ridiculous inability to relax properly without Tony in bed next to him showed on his face.

He couldn't remember most of his dreams last night, but at least one had involved drowning, the water warm and metallic tasting. He wasn't sure if it had been Bucky's face staring down through the water at him, or Sharon's, or Tony's.

It wasn't just Tony not being there; he'd had nightmares after the team had fallen apart, when they'd thought Wanda had gone crazy, and he'd had them during the registration fight, too, and during the war. Wanda coming back had probably set them off again, or maybe Chthon's presence was affecting him, dredging up old nightmares. The security guard at the Metropolitan Museum had said that the John Dee book gave him nightmares.

"I'll stay here tonight," Tony promised.

Steve could feel himself smiling. He dug his toes into Tony's thigh and settled back against the couch arm. "I'll hold you to that."

Tony closed his laptop with a click, pushing it away, and rubbed at his face again, this time with both hands, digging his fingers into his temples in little circular motions. "I'll send Pepper an email," he said, the words muffled. "I'm supposed to come in for a meeting with the design team for the Boeing thing first thing tomorrow morning, and Fury wants to talk to me about something or other, and she's getting deluged with calls and emails from reporters who want an interview; Sally Floyd's left her six voicemails this week. And I'm getting nowhere with this." He waved a hand at the laptop. "I know I can increase the power output by another fifteen percent, but I can't think. It's theoretically possible. It has to be possible." 

Tony leaned his head back against the back of the couch, closing his eyes, and Steve could see the pulse beating in the long line of his throat. "Sometimes I hate my job." He paused, then his mouth twisted into something that wanted to be a smile but didn't quite make it. "God, that sounds whiney. Ignore me; I'm just tired."

Tired, and probably nursing a headache. His eyes had been dark before he'd closed the laptop, the oily black of the Extremis spreading across the normal blue like cataracts; Tony was monitoring the surveillance equipment around St. Margaret's continually, keeping track of city police and emergency radio bands, and repeatedly hacking into SHIELD's communications, plus responding to all of his business email and cell phone calls on top of that.

Tony was watching SHIELD communications for Steve, he knew, keeping an eye on Sharon and Bucky for him. It made him feel better, to know that he — that they — would know immediately if either of them was in trouble, but if Tony was getting headaches again...

The next step was nosebleeds. Steve wasn't sure what happened after that — Tony had never pushed the Extremis that far, after damaging it so badly fighting the Mandarin — but it couldn't be good.

He pulled his foot away from Tony's leg and sat up. "I thought we agreed that you wouldn't do this anymore."

Tony opened his eyes, rolling his head to the side slightly. "Do what?"

"Run yourself into the ground until you collapse. It's not good for you, it's not good for your company, and it's not good for the team."

"I'm fine." Tony's voice was sharp. "I can do my job, Steve. I don't need you second-guessing me."

"Past evidence says that you do," Steve returned, annoyed now. "Drop the SHIELD links. I told Bucky they could call me if they needed back-up."

"I'm not watching SHIELD's communications just to make you feel better. There are-"

"Have you seen this?" The living-room door slammed open, and Jan strode into the room, the clack of her heels loud and angry on the wooden floor. She flourished a copy of TIME magazine at them, holding it so that the cover was clearly visible; inside the traditional red border was a press photo of the Avengers, taken just after Thor had rejoined the team. "Did you know about it? Damn it, Tony, you're supposed to give the entire team a say in any press releases we put out." 

"What press release?" Tony reached for the magazine, fumbling it momentarily as Jan thrust it at him. "I've been dodging reporters all day. I haven't given an interview to anyone since Thor came back, and I haven't given a private interview since that bastard at the Meridian who thought we'd faked Steve's... him."

He opened the magazine, flipping through it to find the article. "That's why she kept calling Pepper," he muttered, staring down at the first page. "She was trying to get a quote."

Steve leaned forward, peering at the magazine over Tony's shoulder. 'Avengers Reassembled,' the title read. 'America's foremost superhero team has reformed, but can it last?' And below that, in small, discreet letters, the byline. 'Sally Floyd.'

"Give me that." Steve grabbed the magazine away from Tony, skimming the first page. The opening paragraphs were nothing but basic background information on the team, and a review of their activities over the past few months. No editorial commentary, no-wait.

He backed up and re-read the first paragraph on the second page again. "'Dr. Pym was previously under investigation for his role in the enforcement of the now-defunct Superhuman Registration Act,'" he read aloud, "'but all charges have since been dropped. Chief among those charges was the death of superhero and respected scientist Dr. William Foster, killed by a clone of Thor, Dr. Pym's teammate. Foster is not the first death that can be laid at the feet of one of Pym's creations...'" Steve broke off, his irritation at Tony redirecting itself toward a new target. "And then she speculates about whether Ultron and your clone had anything to do with Hank's 'psychological breakdown.'" He looked up at Jan, who was glaring down at both of them. Even seated and with her standing, he didn't have to look up far to meet her eyes. "I'm so sorry. Ms. Floyd and I didn't get along the last time we met. She's... abrasive."

"She implies that I divorced Hank because he's a crazy mad scientist," Jan said, her voice dangerously calm. "I think abrasive is an understatement. Keep reading. The next paragraph is about how Clint used to be a petty criminal before you gave him a 'second chance.' I didn't even read the rest of it. I'm sure I'll hear about it from everyone in the fashion industry tomorrow." She waved a hand at the magazine. "Veronica at work lent me this because there's a spread on her designs in it. It's an advance copy — the rest of them hit newsstands tomorrow morning."

"It's my fault," Tony said. "I should have answered her phone calls. If you don't give a reporter the story you want them to run, they'll find another one. And she's probably been dying to run a story on me since I threw her out of my office. And then she called me to ask for an interview after the SHRA was repealed, and I hung up on her."

"That was stupid," Jan told him bluntly. "Don't tick off reporters; it always comes back to bite you."

"It was after..." Tony shook his head, trailing off. "She said things about Steve, and about me, the last time I let her interview me. They weren't true, and I didn't want to listen to them. I don't really remember what I said then. Shouting might have been involved."

He was crumpling the magazine, Steve realized, and made his fingers relax. "I told her I wanted to apologize to you. What did she-"

"She said I did the right thing." Tony's voice was quiet, and his gaze was fixed firmly on his hands. "I don't remember most of it. Ben Urich was there, I think. I don't know. That entire week is sort of a blank. She probably thinks I owed her one; there were things she could have printed that she kept quiet about."

For a moment, Steve wasn't sure if he wanted to comfort Tony, or shake him — he hated hearing that particular dull note in Tony's voice. He almost reached out to lay a hand on Tony's shoulder, but thought better of it. Tony was holding himself stiffly, his shoulders hunched forward slightly, and didn't look as if he'd welcome a casual touch. 

Steve made himself look away, back at the magazine, pretending that Tony hadn't just uncomfortably referenced the breakdown he'd nearly had while Steve had been gone.

Two pages later, he was gritting his teeth. Nothing he'd read so far was actually untrue, and aside from the swipe at Hank, none of it was phrased in such as way as to openly attack any of the Avengers' abilities or integrity. It just... raised questions. About Hank's stability. About Clint's record. About Carol and Hank and Tony's involvement with the Initiative. About Tony's long record of health problems and, of course, his drinking. About Thor's presence, and what kind of consequences could come from gods interfering in human affairs. About Wanda's reappearance after a long and unexplained absence. About Steve's ability to lead the team properly after the disaster that the fight over Registration had become. About Sam's vaguely described connection to Red Skull — vague, because specific details would have made it obvious that he'd been manipulated against his will. Jan, oddly, seemed to escape Floyd's journalistic scalpel, possibly because in her case, there was simply less dirt to be dug up.

They weren't even bad questions, except for the ones about Clint and Sam, who had both proven themselves dozens of times over and didn't deserve to have this kind of mud thrown at them, even by implication.

He closed the magazine in disgust, knowing he'd have to open it back up and read the last few pages and already dreading it. It would just be more pointed, entirely legitimate and thoroughly uncomfortable questions, and possibly some more dredged-up dirt from the Congressional hearings. There was probably more about Tony's drinking, as well; reporters rarely got tired of rehashing that, and Tony had, unfortunately, given them a lot of material to rehash.

"It's just gone up on TIME's website," Tony said. He was silent for a moment, presumably reading, then winced. "Fuck, Steve, I'm so, so sorry. I swear I checked for cameras. I'm sorry. I'll deny everything if you want me to."

That sounded ominous. "Deny-" Steve started, and broke off as Sam came rushing through the open door, Clint on his heels.

Both of them came to a halt when they saw the magazine in Steve's hand. Sam nodded at it, looking sober. "You've seen it, then?"

"Yeah." Steve winced. "I'm sorry you got dragged into this."

Sam was silent for a moment, tilting his head to one side the way he did when he was contemplating something — Redwing did the same thing, and Steve had never been sure whether the hawk had picked it up from Sam, or whether Sam had picked it up from him. "You're way too calm. You haven't read the entire article yet, have you?"

Steve shook his head. "Only the first few pages, but that's enough to get the picture."

"Um, Steve," Tony said, face blank, "you need to read the rest."

Clint stepped forward and took the magazine from Steve's hands, opened it, and shoved it back at him. "Actually, I think he just needs to see the last page."

Two photographs stared up at him from the glossy pages. The first, on the left page, was of Tony, his face buried in his hands and his body turned sideways to the camera, into Jan's shoulder. There was naked grief in every line of his body — the hunch of his shoulders, the glimpse of his twisted, tear-stained face just visible through his fingers. Jan was crying as well, her eye make-up smeared, and part of Hank's shoulder and arm were just visible at the edge of the frame, his hand on her arm.

Steve didn't need to read the caption to know when and where the picture had been taken. In the upper left corner, over their heads, he could see rows of identical white headstones, marching away into the distance.

Arlington. Jack Monroe was buried there, and Toro, and all the Howling Commandos save for Nick, Dugan, and Gabe Jones. Bucky had a headstone there, that still hadn't been taken down. 

His own grave wasn't there anymore. It had already been empty, and Steve had asked them to take the stone down the last time he'd been in DC. Standing there and looking at his own name carved into the white stone, no different from thousands of others, he'd felt cold, numb; seeing the physical proof of his burial had made what had happened to him real in a way that even Tony sobbing in his arms hadn't — he'd been dead, buried — but the sick lurch in his stomach now was worse.

He didn't even see the second photograph at first, unable to process anything beyond the fact that he was looking at a picture of his own funeral.

He'd only seen Tony look that utterly broken twice; once in a nameless hotel in the Bowery, when he'd been trying to commit suicide with a bottle, and again in the security camera footage of Tony's 'conversation' with his body.

And Sally Floyd and TIME Magazine had put it into print for the world to see. 

It would have made him uncomfortable even were it not Tony, even had it not involved him. That kind of devastation was private. They had had no right to—

Steve caught himself before he finished the thought, reminding himself that they had every right to publish photos taken at public events, just as Floyd had every right to print things that were technically true even if he didn't like them.

Then he noticed the second picture.

This one had been taken at the museum showing the week before last, a close-up of himself and Tony. They were standing only inches apart, Tony frozen in the act of smoothing down Steve's tie. "Steve Rogers and Tony Stark share an intimate moment at the opening of a Metropolitan Museum of Art special exhibit," the caption read, but the words, and their implications, were unnecessary. The picture alone was damning enough.

It wasn't just the touch — it was the way they were standing, too close, the flirtatious way Tony was smiling at him, the pleasure in his face and body language a sharp contrast to the raw misery in the other photo. The way Steve himself was smiling back, one hand on Tony's arm as if to pull him closer.

Nowhere in the article, Steve noticed with a detached calm that surprised him, did Floyd directly say that they were involved. She didn't need to. In concise, clear language, she described Tony's shock and dazed grief when she and Ben Urich had spoken to him after Steve's... after his death, and contrasted it with his clear joy at having Steve back, given how 'obviously close' they were. They had refused, she reported, to respond to questions about the nature of their relationship. Again, technically true — Tony had apparently refused to speak to her at all.

By next week, half the tabloids in the US would be asking those unspecified questions for her, in bold, two-inch headlines. And answering them.

What kind of lens and development technique had the photographer used to get that good a resolution in dim light without a flash? Peter would know, he thought.

"I'm sorry," Tony was saying, again. "I checked for cameras. I always do a scan for cameras and recording devices before I do something like that in public. They must have used analog film."

"You mean, like the video camera in the Helicarrier's morgue?"

The words just slipped out, Steve wishing even as he said them that he could take them back. Tony's half-hidden face in the first photograph drew his eyes again, and for a moment, he could almost see the slightly blurry video footage of his own motionless body, and hear Tony's voice, low and broken. "It wasn't worth it."

"I know," Tony groaned. "It was inexcusably stupid of me. I was... distracted that time. This time, I have no excuse."

"What were the two of you doing in the Helicarrier's morgue that you had to turn the cameras off for?" Clint sounded far too interested, his eyebrows raised questioningly. He hissed as Sam elbowed him in the side, and took a step away from him. "I was trying to lighten the mood."

"That's private," Steve said, forcing the words out around the tight knot in his throat. "And so was this." He touched the picture of himself and Tony at the museum with one fingertip.

"I'll..." Tony started, then stopped, and began again, "I should have read those emails. Maybe she was trying to warn us before this hit newsstands, or maybe I could have talked her out of it by giving her something else to print." He sounded calm, his face forced back into a careful lack of expression, but Steve wasn't fooled; he was probably blisteringly angry with himself for slipping up in such an obvious way, not to mention humiliated by the idea of thousands of readers seeing that photo of him at Steve's funeral. Tony didn't like publicly losing control of himself.

He looked at Steve then, his eyes draining back to blue and refocusing on the world outside his head. "I'll make whatever public statement you want. Denying it might make it worse — the media's been speculating about my sex life for years, and denying things just encourages them — but we can try."

"We're not denying it," Steve said, flatly, wanting to squash that idea before it could get off the ground. "I'm not lying about this when I don't have to." Not mentioning something was different from actively lying about it — he'd sworn never to do that again after he'd first woken up in this time, when he'd first realized that he couldn't be arrested or imprisoned for sex with men anymore. It had taken him much, much longer to work up to admitting that he might like said sex with men to anyone he knew, but that was different. Before Tony, there hadn't really been anything to admit to — nothing that was worth potentially losing the respect or friendship of someone he cared about. "And we're not making a statement. It's no one else's business."

His eyes went back to the picture of his funeral, and he made himself look away from it.

Tony shook his head slightly. "We have to. We have to take control of the story now, before it spins out of control."

"Our relationship is not a 'story.'"

"Yes," Sam said, "it is. You know it is. You're Captain America, and four months ago you came back from the dead. Everything you do is a news story, especially right now." He took the magazine away from Steve, folding it up again; Steve watched the pictures disappear from view with something like relief. 

Steve's cell phone rang, then, a sudden burst of noise that made everyone in the room jump.

Jan snatched it up off the side table before any of the others could. "Avengers Mansion," she started, then, "Yes, I know. He knows. Yes, we've all seen it, Peter." She held the phone out to Steve. "It's Spiderman."

"I gathered that," Steve said, and took the phone from her. He brought it to his ear and found Peter midway through a stream of fast-paced speech. "-fire me again if I don't get the Bugle an exclusive, or maybe just fire me on principle for knowing all about it and not telling him. I can tell him no, though. It's not like Jameson hasn't fired me six times already, and he's mad enough right now that he'll probably do it anyway no matter what I do. And I can find out who took the picture, if you want; there aren't many guys good enough to get that kind of a shot in that kind of light. It was an old-school camera, right? That doesn't narrow it down much, but-"

"Peter," Steve interrupted, "we don't-"

"Man, I'm so sorry this happened to you guys. I know how much this sucks. Or, I don't know how much this exact thing sucks, but I know how awful it is to have the biggest secret of your life in the headlines. People are going to freak. Seriously, you have no idea how weird people are going to act around you, sometimes ones you don't expect."

"I know," Steve managed to get in. Sam hadn't 'freaked.' Sharon hadn't. Bucky hadn't. Hank and Jan and Carol hadn't. Even Clint, despite Steve's initial worries, had reacted more to the fact that he was sleeping with Tony in particular than to the fact that he was in love with another man. Thor had narrowed his eyes and told him that the bond between warriors was a sacred thing, and he should be certain that he gave his trust and affections only to those who were worthy of it, and said nothing when he'd snapped back that Tony was worthy.

Rhodey knew and didn't mind, he reminded himself. Pepper didn't. Jarvis was happy for them. All the people who were important to them already knew. How much of the rest of the world's reactions really mattered, in light of that?

He met Tony's eyes, and managed to summon up a smile. "Tell him we'll talk to Ben Urich or Robbie Robertson," he said to Peter. "Nobody else."

"I can do it, if you want," Tony said, at the same time that Peter said,

"Are you sure you want to? Like, you're not going to be able to take this back. Everyone will know."

Tony was smiling, a lopsided, rueful little smile. "I've discussed my sex life with reporters enough that it would barely even be news anymore if you weren't involved. I can-"

"No," Steve said, to both of them. "I'm not sure. But I'll do it. Tell Jameson we'll give the interview together."

Several hours later, when he'd finally joined Tony in his hiding place in the lab after one too many phone calls from people who wanted to express either shock or sympathy, he still had no idea what he was going to say. The truth, he supposed. That he loved Tony. It had taken months before he'd been able to work up the nerve to tell Tony himself that. Telling the entire world ought to be even more intimidating, but oddly, it was the one aspect of this that he wasn't dreading.

No more hiding what Tony meant to him as if he were ashamed of it. No more need to carefully avoid touching him in public. All he would have to do was tell a newspaper reporter, and the Bugle's entire readership, that he wasn't straight. 

He'd testified against the Registration Act in front of Congress. He'd fought Hitler and alien warlords and supervillains and demons and gods. He'd come back from the — Steve mentally flinched away from the word, then made himself think it, from the dead. I was dead. And he'd died still keeping that part of himself a secret, a small regret when stacked up against so many larger ones, but a regret nonetheless.

Compared to all that, this ought to be easy.

Tony hadn't even looked at him yet. He was fiddling with part of a computer circuit board, tiny bits of gold wire glittering between his fingers. As Steve watched, he reached up to rub at his forehead, just over his left eye.

"Would you really deny it, if I ask you to?" The words just came out, awkward and unplanned. He'd meant to ask some variation on 'are you all right,' the image of Tony's grief-stricken face and hunched shoulders still far too clear in his mind.

Tony looked up, his hands stilling. "You've been through enough because of me. You hate media attention, and coming out is going to get you tons of it, a lot of it nasty."

Steve shook his head. "Let people say what they want. They will anyway."

They'd already started. The magazine wouldn't even hit newsstands until tomorrow morning, but going by the reaction to the internet article, which thus far seemed to consist of titillated snickering and indignant proclamations that Captain America wasn't gay and anyone who suggested otherwise was an anti-American terrorist, it was going to be an absolutely miserable media circus. Exactly the kind of thing they didn't have time for right now.

He almost wished that Tony had never shown him how to read the comments on online news articles.

"I said I'd dance with you somewhere public," he went on. "How could you think I'd want you to lie about us?"

Tony's eyes went back to the bits of computer he was still holding loosely. Without any particular emotion in his voice, he asked. "Remember the way Miriam Sharpe looked at us, in that restaurant in DC? Remember those anti-mutant protestors who camped out around the mansion when you brought Wanda and Pietro onto the team?"

"Vividly. Just think about how angry it will make them to know that Captain America is fucking a guy." He said the words deliberately, not bothering to soften it with a euphemism. "Maybe we shouldn't have kept it secret in the first place." He'd been made forcibly aware over the past year of how much the actions of a single individual could affect the entire superhero community, the entire country; people listened to him, even when he didn't want them to. Maybe for once he could use that for a good cause and not have it backfire painfully.

Tony set the circuit board to one side, lining it up so that its edges were exactly parallel with the edge of the work table. "I just wish we had more control over how and when this came out." He set the tools he'd been using down next to it, in a neat, perfect line. "I hate lying to the media. I did far too much of it, last winter. And I hate trying to have a relationship while reporters scrutinize every imaginable aspect of; it got bad enough with Rumiko, sometimes, and that was nowhere near as deliciously scandalous." He met Steve's gaze, then, jaw tight, and his voice was strained as he added, "But nowhere near as much as I hated losing you. I..." he hesitated, then, "I hung up on Sally because I couldn't handle the thought of talking to her. Not then, and not now."

"Tony-" Steve started.

Tony pushed his chair back from the workbench and stood; for a moment, Steve thought he was going to start pacing, or shove the chair back in hard, or maybe sweep something off the workbench with his arm. Something violent or restless. Instead he stood perfectly still, his body humming with tension.

"I told you I was fine now," he said quietly, looking down at his hand on the back of the chair. "I... might have stretched the truth somewhat." He rubbed at his face again, the gesture disturbingly like that photograph. "I've made so many mistakes," he said, the words low and hoarse. "And they keep popping back up again every time I manage to forget them. Thor, you, the Initiative..."

This wasn't really about the fact that their relationship was about to be outed, then. Steve wasn't surprised; Tony had never seemed to care that deeply what people thought of his sex life, or who knew about it. His confession that it had made him uncomfortable when the media had speculated about his relationship with Rumiko was something Steve had never suspected.

Sex wasn't something Tony was ashamed of. Failure, or what he perceived as failure, was.

Steve took a step closer to him, until they were standing only inches apart, close enough to feel Tony's body heat and smell his aftershave and the faint metallic tang that the Extremis had given him. "They shouldn't have printed those pictures. The rest of the article was justified, mostly, but those were private."

Tony shook his head fractionally. "It was all justified, except for the shit about Sam and Wanda. And Clint." His eyes were red-rimmed, and Steve would have bet that Tony hadn't slept any better than Steve had last night, if he'd even gone to bed. "I thought I could make this team work, that we could make it work. It has been working."

"Just because the questions she posed were justified doesn't mean her prediction that our team's going to fall apart is worth anything." That insinuation had been almost as bad as the blatant invasion of their privacy at the end of the article, and just as uncalled for. Steve tried a smile. "I won't let it. Not after all the time and effort we've put into getting this far."

Tony smiled back, but only for a moment. "Even you can't keep things from happening just by willing them not to. I've screwed up before. I'll do it again. And next time, it might not be as relatively harmless as forgetting that someone might have a camera the Extremis can't detect."

"Considering how much chaos energy Wanda detected in that room, it's probably not a coincidence that some photographer was looking at us at exactly the wrong moment."

Tony nodded, swaying forward slightly into Steve. "Thor is right. I don't deserve you."

The impulse to pull Tony even closer to him warred with annoyance. "I get to decide who deserves me." Steve settled for grabbing Tony by the arms to prevent him from pulling away. "I was dead," he said, remembering what he'd told Luke Cage months ago. "I can sleep with whoever I want. And I don't care who knows about it."

Everything about this evening had been scripted, with a little help from Jan and Pepper. Tempting as the idea of giving the interview in either business attire or, even better, armor had been, he had deliberately worn casual clothing. It created the illusion of intimacy, and not appearing in costume would subtly make the point that this was about Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, not about Captain America and Iron Man. 

That had been Steve's idea, as had the plate of cookies on the coffee table. Tony had pointed out that Ben Urich was legendarily immune to bribery, and Steve had given him a shove that was somewhere between playful and admonishing and told him that it wasn't a bribe; it was good manners.

Ben was regarding them seriously now, his eyes moving between them as if watching for some visible sign of their relationship. He looked much the same as he had the last time Tony had seen him, at the press conference after the SHRA's repeal; graying hair, glasses that he presumably wore by choice, since he could easily have replaced them with contacts, with the kind of good-quality wool trench-coat that lasted for years draped over one arm.

"People are going to want to know how long you've known that you were gay, how long you've been together, why you haven't come out before now, and some kind of salacious intimate detail about your relationship," he was saying. "But what I actually want to ask is whether your relationship played a role in your decision to reform the Avengers and whether it influenced your actions regarding the SHRA."

Tony flashed him a brilliant smile. "Actually, I think many women would be able to attest that I'm bisexual. And... Since I was in college, since the Helicarrier blew up, and because the media was still having so much fun with all the other ways I've publicly exposed myself to them that it would have been a shame to distract them."

Ben raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you want me to print the double-entendre?"

"No," Steve said.

"Yes," Tony said. 

"Are you going to answer the question about Registration? I spoke with you during the repeal process; I know how hard both of you worked to get the SHRA repealed, and how much New York City owes your entire team, both past and present."

'No,' Tony thought. 'I'm not going to answer it.' He didn't know how to. Sharing the details of his sexual history with the press was nothing new, even if he'd never been quite this honest about it before, and any shame he'd had over the process had died a humiliated death during Kathy Dare's trial, when the judge had actually questioned him — and several of his ex-girlfriends — about it under oath. Sharing that kind of personal information about his feelings, for Steve or anyone else, felt like stripping himself bare for everyone to see.

Of course it had influenced his actions. He'd tried not to let it, to do what Steve would have done and soldier on regardless of what it cost him personally, no matter how much it hurt, but in retrospect... He'd lied to Steve to protect him, kept secrets from him for what Tony had thought at the time was Steve's own good. If he'd been acting entirely rationally, maybe he'd have done things differently, allowed Steve to make his own choices with all the information available to him, rather than not explaining things until the situation had gotten out of hand and it was far too late. Steve had insisted more than once that he himself would have tried much harder to come to some kind of compromise if he'd known what Tony's true goals had been.

Tony forced himself to smile, the expression feeling stiff and fake. This would be easier with a glass in his hand, something to make him just a little less tightly wound. He cut the thought off before it could go any further; nothing good ever followed it.

"Can we go back to the double entendres?" he asked, managing to work some humor into his voice. "There's one about Cap's mighty shield that I prepared specifically for the occasion."

Steve gave him a stern look, presumably meant to convey that he was Captain America and that Tony ought to be taking this much more seriously, and furthermore, that he was not secretly snickering over the shield comment at all. Then he turned to Ben, face and voice appropriately serious.

"I wanted to serve my country, and I knew that if I were completely open and forthcoming about certain aspects of myself, I wouldn't be able to. Things were different then; I don't know if I would make the same decision now." 

"And do you regret that decision?"

Steve shook his head. "It didn't seem like a sacrifice at the time. I fought alongside people who were willing to give their lives for a country that didn't even treat them as full citizens; compared to that, I felt like I had it easy. I wish now, though, that I'd spoken up, come out sooner. I never tried very hard to hide it, I never lied about myself, but... people see me as a role model, as something to look up to, because of what the costume I wear represents. And I don't know if they're always right to do that, but I think it makes visibility important." Tony could hear the sincerity in his voice. Steve never gave himself to things half-heartedly; when he believed in something, he was ready to sacrifice and fight for it. He'd lay money that Steve felt guilty about not being openly out, that he believed it was his responsibility to be an example to others, some kind of duty that he'd been shirking. "I never had any role models who were gay or bisexual growing up," Steve went on. "There were men who everyone knew were fairies or queer or a variety of other lovely words the Bugle's editors are not going to let you print, but people didn't talk about it."

Ben nodded. "I imagine they didn't. Mr. Stark said you'd been involved since shortly after the Helicarrier was blown up last spring. That was immediately after your return from the dead. Did that-"

"Dying makes a man re-evaluate things. Tony's always been one of my closest friends, and as we began trying to work out our differences in order to stop Red Skull, Doom, and the Mandarin, and get Registration repealed, I realized that he had become much more than that."

Tony found himself unable to look away from Steve for a moment; the little smile he was directing at Tony made his entire face look soft and happy and young, and even the knowledge that he wasn't entirely worthy of it couldn't diminish the warmth he felt at knowing he could cause that expression, knowing that Steve thought he was worthy of it. It made him want to sit up straighter and fight harder and be someone who deserved Steve's respect and affection.

Trying to took so much energy, more these days than it had before he'd been exposed to AIM's toxin — or maybe it just felt that way — but it was worth it. More than worth it.

Steve almost never mentioned dying, even after he jerked out of sleep gasping for air and shaking, something he'd done a lot those first few weeks. It didn't seem to bother him now, but Tony reached for his hand anyway, laying his own hand overtop of it and brushing his thumb along the back of Steve's knuckles. There was a faint, white scar across one of them, barely detectable even by touch. It was the only scar on Steve's body, now that the bullet graze by his hairline from fighting Red Skull had long since healed away into nothing.

"That's a nicely restrained summation, Mr. Rogers, but there must have been more to it than that." Ben turned to Tony, his eyes serious. "I spoke to you after Mr. Rogers' death, Mr. Stark. I came in to this interview expecting to hear that the two of you had been involved since well before that point."

"I'm surprised you were able to get a coherent sentence out of me at that point," Tony admitted. He kept his voice light, acutely aware of Steve sitting only inches away from him. Most of the interview he'd granted Ben and Sally Floyd was a blur, and the hours after it were one long, grey blank. It had been dark when he'd come to himself again, his knees stiff from the way he'd been huddled on the floor, and his head aching dully. There had been sunlight in the room when he'd spoken to Ben and Sally, and the notation in his schedule had blocked out time for them for an hour in the afternoon, starting at four-fifteen.

The lost time hadn't alarmed him then, unimportant in the face of everything else; it was only looking back that he could see how fucked up he'd been.

Just hearing Sally's voice on the phone last week had brought the memory back, made him long simultaneously for both the scotch he still kept in his office — not offering prospective business associates a drink would be a sign of weakness, as well as a breach of unwritten social rules — and for the sound of Steve's voice. He'd made himself get back to work, ignoring the temptation to call Steve just to make sure he was okay.

"There are things you could have made public after the Registration fight that you kept quiet about," he said, slowly. He doubted Ben meant the mention of that interview to be anything other than either the lead-in to another question about their relationship, or maybe a subtle offer of sympathy, but the unspoken knowledge of everything else they had discussed then hung in the air. "I owe you for that. So I'll give you a freebie. You can ask me one question, about anything you want, and I'll answer it honestly."

Ben gave him a measuring look, the lines in his forehead deepening as he frowned speculatively, and Tony felt a slow, sinking sensation; that had been a stupid offer to make. You never gave a dedicated reporter an opening like that, even one whom you liked and trusted.

At the end of the day, Ben had to walk back into the Bugle's offices and face Jonah Jameson, who didn't believe in letting anything, including friendship, loyalty, or libel suits, stand in the way of a good story. And a man who was willing to let the Kingpin break his fingers rather than squelch a new story would not be put off by evasions.

"The Scarlet Witch has just rejoined the Avengers," Ben said slowly, "after nearly two years where no one heard so much as a whisper about her. The Avengers Mansion was destroyed by Kang and Ultron, and then she was simply gone, with no explanation. A lot of our readers thought she was dead, possibly one of the mutants who were killed when the so-called M-Day event happened. Now she's back, and at the same time, thousands of mutants around the world have regained their powers. The X-Men have refused to answer any questions about the phenomenon. I'm hoping you'll be a little more forthcoming."

Steve went still, his eyes going to the living room door for a moment before returning to Ben and Tony. Sam, Clint, and Jan were probably all waiting on the other side, trying to listen in. Jan, as co-chairperson of the Avengers, had an actual reason to be present for this interview. Clint claimed he was waiting outside to 'offer moral support,' by which he meant 'satisfy my burning curiosity.' Sam was also there for moral support, but in his case, the offer was genuine — he didn't need to spy, not when he knew he could just ask Clint for all the gory details later.

Wanda was not there. Once upon a time, she would have been out there reminding Clint that spying on one's teammates was juvenile and silly, all the while elbowing him out of the way so that she could have a chance to listen at the keyhole.

Tony gave Ben his best bland smile. "Wanda spent the past year in Transia, her home country. She lost a great deal when Ultron attacked us; she and the Vision were married for years. Anything more than that is Wanda's story to tell. As for the X-gene, Dr. Pym can tell you far more about that than I can. It's a combination of genes, some of them encoding the potential for mutant abilities, and some of them governing the expression of those abilities, and no one in the scientific community has been able to figure out how or why so many people's abilities were suppressed, much less how they began working again. I don't believe in miracles, but I do believe in science, and much as it pains me as a scientist and an engineer, in magic, and I believe that there has to be an explanation, either scientific or supernatural. I just don't know what it is."

He spread his hands apologetically, waiting for Ben's follow-up question. 

In the long moment of silence while Ben considered his answer, no doubt looking for ways to pick it apart, the mental jolt from the Extremis as one of the subroutines he was running threw up a giant red flag was startling enough to make him twitch.

Steve had been right about over-using the Extremis; the headaches had been getting worse, and after the first nosebleed in months had hit him when he tried to do an everyday round of checking and answering email while running all the surveillance and data collection processes in the background, he had reluctantly taken Steve's advice and dropped the SHIELD connection, replacing it with a worm that he'd sent crawling through Fury's computers, programmed to send him notifications if anything of interest came up. He'd had to rewrite the code twice over the past week to keep SHIELD's IT specialists from tracking down and deleting his spy programs, more often than he'd expected to, but less often than he would have been satisfied with were he still head of SHIELD. Fury ought to be thanking him for the training exercise he was providing; SHIELD's personnel clearly needed it.

He'd replaced his previous direct, real-time link to the Metropolitan Museum's security systems with a notification system, too, designed to go off if any alarms were triggered.

It was doing so now.

"What is it?" Steve asked.

"The security alarms at the Met just went off. I'm pulling up video from their cameras now." Compared to hacking into SHIELD's systems, hijacking the museum's security cameras was child's play. The datafeeds popped up in his head, dozens of mental screens to sort through, and the spike of pain in his left temple was instantaneous.

A wave of dizziness nearly dragged the entire network out of his grasp, and it took all of his control not to let it show on his face. He dropped the local news channels and the police and emergency communications frequencies, everything but the museum's network and the armor, and breathed in slowly through his nose, willing it not to start bleeding.

Two of the cameras were damaged, transmitting nothing but static. A third, located close to the malfunctioning ones, but at a higher and harder to reach angle that had probably hidden it from even wary and suspicious eyes, showed him the motionless body of a security guard, dark liquid spreading in a pool around his head.

Blood always looked black in monochrome.

Tony offered Ben an apologetic smile, trying to ignore the trails of yellow and grey sparks that obscured half the man's face. "I'm sorry; we're going to have to cut this short. Duty calls."

Ben capped his pen, sliding it back inside his breast pocket — he'd been taking notes by hand, either because he didn't want Tony to look at them, or because he preferred a pencil and paper to a PDA. "We can reschedule." He stood, shrugging back into his coat. "I'll see you at the museum, gentlemen."

Steve was already standing. "Armor up," he said. "I'll round up the troops. They're all listening at the keyhole anyway."

"Call Don." Tony cut contact with the security cameras, just to be safe, and reached out for his armor's communication systems, signaling Carol's communicator. "Either he's blocked my armor's frequency from his cell phone, or he's gone back to Nebraska where telecommunication signals go to die."

"He'd better hope it's the cell phone reception in Asgard," Steve said, in an undertone just low enough that Ben probably didn't hear it. "Because if he's not either there or on the subway-"

"Later," Tony said, holding up a hand to cut Steve off. He grabbed the back of the couch and shoved himself to his feet, half expecting the dizziness to get worse when he stood, and relieved to find that it didn't. He stretched carefully, feeling his spine pop, and triggered the underarmor, the liquid metal a spreading warmth over his skin that almost immediately cooled to room temperature. "Someone's broken into the museum, first floor, and taken out the security cameras in the special exhibit area. They've killed at least one guard already. With," he pulled the footage back up, enhanced it, "a very familiar-looking knife."

Steve groaned. "Damn it. I was hoping she'd stay Nick's problem." He turned to Ben, holding out a hand for the other man to shake. "Thank you for being understanding. Jarvis will see you out. We can finish the interview later."

Ben nodded. "I think I have more than enough for an article already, but far be it from a reporter to miss a chance to dig for more information."

Tony wasn't sure if that sounded friendly, or ominous. Friendly, he decided. But still interested in getting a good scoop, despite the fact that they had just handed him the news story of, if not the year, then at least the month. By the time the ink was dry on this one, he and Jameson would already be looking for the next story.

The rest of the team — minus Thor and Carol — were waiting in the front hallway. Sam and Jan were already in costume, and Clint, whose costume didn't entirely fit under his clothes, was sitting at the bottom of the steps, pulling on one purple boot. His mask lay crumpled on the stair next to him, waiting.

Hank was there as well, with Tony's briefcase in one hand, saving him the extra minute fetching it from the monitor room would have taken; they really had been listening at the keyhole.

Tony glanced around for Wanda as he took the briefcase, its weight comfortably familiar in his hand. Behind him, he could hear fabric rustling as Steve stripped out of his street clothes to the costume he was wearing underneath them.

The museum was eight blocks away, a ten minute walk for a normal person and a three-minute run for Steve. Neither Clint nor Steve could fly, and Jan and Sam couldn't carry another person with them while airborne, which meant that Tony was going to have to give one of them a lift. Clint, he decided, as the armor slotted into place around him. Steve could handle an eight-block sprint without so much as breaking a sweat, even carrying twelve pounds of metal on his back.

The police would still be en route. If they hurried, they could beat them there, and maybe no one else would have to die. Sin would have automatic weapons, probably still had poison on all those knives.

He shouldn't have stopped monitoring the security systems; if he'd kept an eye on it non-stop, he would have seen this coming.

"The rest of you, go," Tony started. "Hawkeye and I will-"

He broke off mid-sentence as Wanda appeared at the top of the stairs, still pulling on one long, red glove.

She was wearing the red leather pants and bustier and ankle-length red cape that she'd worn before everything had fallen apart. The old, pointy headdress was gone, but aside from that detail, it was like stepping back in time a year and a half; for a brief, weightless moment, Tony half-expected Vision to glide through the wall behind her, or for Scott Lang to stroll in, helmet in hand, trading half-serious barbs with Jack of Hearts and followed by a trail of ants.

They'd agreed to put her back on active duty, he reminded himself, and turned to Steve, wanting to gauge his reaction.

From the slight wistfulness in his eyes, Steve was remembering old times as well. He glanced from Tony to Jan, who nodded ever-so-slightly, and then turned to Clint. "You're with me, Hawkeye," he said, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. "Wanda, Tony will fly you to the museum."

Clint groaned, and Sam grabbed him by the wrist and hauled him to his feet. "Running builds character," he said, giving Clint a slap on the shoulder.

"Says the man with wings," Clint muttered.

Wanda was still frozen at the top of the steps, staring down at them all, her face still and tense. She reached up with one hand and touched the hood of her cloak, as if to adjust it, then let her hand drop.

"The costume has nothing to do with what happened." Hank's voice was loud in the charged silence. Tony turned to find him staring fixedly up at Wanda, his body angled carefully away from Jan. "Wearing it will get easier."

Wanda nodded silently, the two of them sharing a moment of wordless communication whose content Tony didn't need to guess at. Then she pulled up the cloak's hood and walked briskly down the steps.

Steve clapped his hands together. "Let's move it, Avengers. People could be dying while we stand here staring at each other. You can brief us on the situation on the way, Tony."

He led the way out the front door, Clint and Sam at his heels, Jan a black and gold blur zipping over their heads.

Outside, the air was cool — 57 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the armor's sensors — and the sky had already turned the deep blue of twilight. Carol swooped downward out of the sky as they hit the front gate.

"Glad to see you haven't left without me," she said, and extended one arm out toward Sam. "Grab on, Falcon. I'll give you some altitude."

Sam took two long steps forward and reached up, letting her lock her hands around his forearms. Unlike Tony and Carol, he didn't have any independent means of propulsion; his hard-light wings allowed him to glide, but not take off from a standing start. He needed a tall building or someone to act as a tow plane.

Steve and Clint were already out the gate and running, their footsteps loud on the pavement.

Tony turned to Wanda. "Put your arms around my neck," he instructed. "And hold on."

She weighed almost a hundred pounds less than Steve did; he didn't even have to adjust the armor's power output to compensate.

As the mansion shrank into the distance below them, Tony could see Hank staring after them from the open door, his face rendered a pale blur by dim light and distance.

Chapter Text

Steve skidded to a halt at the base of the Metropolitan Museum's front steps, where a cordon of police officers had blocked off access. Three of them were standing in a huddle around Tony, while the rest of the Avengers stood impatiently a few feet away.

"Does anyone here have a smartphone?" Tony asked, as Clint caught up with Steve, breathing hard through his nose but not winded. "You." Tony indicated the youngest of the police officers, a woman whose tightly curled natural hair was pulled back from her face by a glittery pink headband. "You have one of my phones. Give it to me." There was a moment's hesitation, as she eyed him skeptically, then he added, "Please. I can hook it into the building's security cameras."

She handed over the phone, a sleek, black rectangle, and watched intently as Tony simply held it; he couldn't use the phone's touch screen with his gauntlets on, but with the Extremis, he didn't need to.

"Here you go." Tony handed it back. "That's the closest functional camera to the crime scene. Hit the star key, and you can switch to the next camera over. If someone calls, let it ring, because as soon as you either close the phone or answer a phone call, the program will terminate and erase itself from your phone."

"That's a useful trick." She didn't say thank you, probably because Steve, in her shoes, would be worried that his phone was going to either be damaged by Tony's hacking, or simply self-destruct when he tried to turn it off. He'd seen the promotional material for the StarkPhone; it wasn't cheap, especially the super-thin little black models like that one.

"Are we going in?" he asked, "Or is the NYPD taking this one?"

"One of them just walked past the camera carrying an automatic weapon," the police officer said.

"Call SHIELD," Steve said, then remembered to moderate his voice into something that was less obviously an order as one of the two male police officers — white, with thinning hair and a police sergeant's insignia — glared at him. "The weapon used to stab the security guard belongs to a woman on SHIELD's terrorist watch list."

"Fuck," the man muttered. "They're going to claim jurisdiction. I hate dealing with SHIELD."

"Give whoever answers the code word 'Paladin,' and ask to speak to Agents Carter or Barnes. Tell them Synthia Schmidt is active again." Steve avoided using Sin's much more recognizable nickname; pedestrians were already gathering on the other side of the police tape, and there was no point in panicking people. "Tell them the Avengers have gone in after her."

There was a loud thud behind him, then the unmistakable sound of Thor's massive, booted feet hitting the pavement. "Why do we wait?" he demanded. "Your message said it was most urgent." Then, to Tony, "This device does not function on the subway. Methinks you should remedy that."

Steve unslung his shield from his back. "Let's go. Ms. Marvel, you take point." Of them all, Carol was the most bullet-proof, her partial invulnerability giving her better protection from conventional weapons than even Thor possessed. 

"Do not break anything." Jan's voice was sharp over his communicator, slightly shrill the way it often was when she was in Wasp form. "Iron Man, Thor, you guys stay out here. We need you covering the exits in case they try to run."

Steve tightened his grip on his shield, and followed Carol inside. She was levitating slightly, making her footsteps utterly silent despite her two-inch heels.

The museum's high-ceilinged entrance hall was painfully exposed; the back of Steve's neck crawled as he walked through it, staying close to the wall. Just because Tony hadn't detected anyone hiding on the second floor balcony with a gun didn't mean no one was there. Security cameras could be tampered with.

Behind him, Clint had an arrow nocked and ready, hopefully one with a blunted tip. He was making an effort to walk quietly on the stone floors, but his boots still made audible clicking noises. Sam was having more luck, moving nearly silently beside Steve. 

A museum security guard lay crumpled by the foot of the stairs, unconscious. He'd been luckier than the man Tony had seen in the video footage, but not by much; he breathed with the shallow rasp of someone with a damaged trachea. He needed medical attention, and he wasn't going to get it until they cleared Sin's men out of the building or at least disarmed them.

They made it all the way across the hall and into the Greek and Roman gallery without seeing anyone conscious. Carol hesitated at the entrance, her eyes flicking over the dozens of statues that lined the massive hall. Any one of them provided enough cover for a man or woman to hide behind, and the stone columns that supported the roof only made the potential for an ambush worse.

Steve had only Jan's shouted cry of warning when the first of Sin's serpent squad leapt up from behind the stone plinth that supported a statue of Dionysus and threw himself at Carol. Maybe the man assumed that being both female and completely empty-handed would make her the easiest to take down.

Carol grabbed him by the wrist and thigh and spun him around into an armlock. The knife he'd been holding clattered to the floor, and she kicked it away. She slammed her forehead into his and dropped him, letting him crumple to the ground, then picked up the assault rifle he'd had strapped across his back and bent it into an arc; that was one gun they weren't going to have to worry about, at least.

The entire thing had taken less than ten-seconds, but it hadn't been quiet; Sin and her men would know they were there now.

Steve glanced back over his shoulder at Wanda and Clint, to find them moving to guard the team's flanks without needing to be told. He didn't need to check where Sam was; he'd been in enough tight situations with him to know which way he would move. 

They made it another fifteen feet down the hall, Sam on his left and Carol and Jan in the lead, before six men came charging out of the special exhibit space, brandishing a mismatched collection of rifles and handguns.

Steve brought his shield up, and realized just as he felt the first bullet hit it that he had no idea where the ricochets would go. "Scarlet Witch-" he shouted.

His shield seemed to hum in his hands as Wanda spoke, pink light crackling over it. "I can't control where their bullets hit, but I can make certain that the ricochets strike nothing important."

Steve managed not to drop his shield, despite his instinctive flinch at what looked like lightening crawling over his fingers. Another bullet clanged off it, slamming into the floor by his feet.

Trusting that Wanda's magic would work as she'd said — having brought her along, he could do no less — he ran toward the nearest black-clad man, slamming his shield into the man's arm to encourage him to drop his gun.

The man complied, then tried to gut Steve with the serpent-headed dagger he wore strapped to his thigh.

Steve spun sideways, grabbing the man's wrist and using his own momentum to pull him forward, flipping him over Steve's knee and face-first into the ground.

He started to roll back to his feet, and Steve kicked his legs out from under him. "The police have this entire building surrounded," he said. "You're not getting out of here. Why don't you drop your weapons and come along like a good wannabee Nazi thug?"

The man snarled silently at him and lunged upwards, his knife slashing at Steve's legs, only to skid harmlessly across his shield. 

There was a bright flash in the corner of Steve's vision as Jan used her stingers on someone, followed by another ear-splitting rattle of gunfire. Steve kicked the knife out of the man's hand and looked up to see Sam flick one of his hard-light wings out in front of Clint, bullets ricocheting off it in a cascade of red sparks.

Wanda raised a hand, her fingers limned in red light, and made a throwing gesture. 

The final gunman's weapon jammed with a loud click, and Carol grabbed him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides.

There was a moment of silence, the ringing in Steve's ears loud enough that all other noise was deadened into nothing, and then Sin stepped out of the special exhibit room, the John Dee manuscript tucked into the crook of one arm. In her other hand was a Luger pistol that Steve had last seen Red Skull carrying.

"Rogers." Her lips twisted into a smirk that held no trace of her usual cheerful, little girl grin. Steve had had always imagined that Sin would be less disturbing without that eerily bubbly façade, but this wasn't much better. "I might have known Fury would call in America's attack dog," she sneered, the words dripping contempt. "How is your little sidekick doing these days?"

She was a head shorter than him, weighed barely a hundred and thirty pounds, and had been tortured into insanity by Crossbones and her deranged monster of a father. Smashing his shield into her face and beating the Nazi brainwashing out of her until she never tried to hurt Bucky again would be wrong.

"He's fine," Steve said, his throat hurting from the effort to keep his voice calm.

Her face went from sneering disdain to childish glee like a switch flipping. "Good," she said brightly. "I have plans for him. He killed my Brock. I'm going to make him beg me for death. Poison would be too easy." She hefted the Luger, her eyes traveling slowly over the Avengers, then narrowing. "That one." She waved the muzzle of the gun at Sam. "He was there when you and your little friend killed Daddy. I think I'll shoot him first."

Steve half turned toward Sam, bringing his shield up to throw, though he knew his chances of actually being able to stop a gunshot with it this way were next to zero. Sam was already poised to duck — there was a bronze statue only a few feet to his right, and one dive and roll would put him behind it.

Then there was a bright flare of light in front of Sin's face, and she shrieked in rage, firing her gun wildly into the air, where Jan had been a moment ago.

The moment her eyes — and weapon — left Sam, Clint released the arrow he'd had drawn and ready. It tore through the air in a graceful arc and slammed into Sin's shoulder.

Both book and arrow fell to the floor, and Sam, already poised to move, launched himself at the book as if it were a fly ball.

Steve threw himself forward, reaching for Sin, very aware of the gun she still held, and the fact that she almost certainly had another of those repurposed SS daggers on her somewhere as well.

He was a fraction of a second away from contact when a bright flare of light whited out his vision; it snapped through his body like an electric shock, the hair on his arms standing on end, and then he slammed hard into a female body too tall and solid to be Sin's. 

Both of them lurched sideways, his arm hitting the side of one of the room's stone statue bases with numbing force. There was an ominous rattling noise from above them, and Steve pushed himself away from the statue before it could fall on him, trying to blink the spots out of his vision.

The statue stopped wobbling abruptly, and Steve's vision cleared enough for him to see Wanda standing with one hand outstretched, a look of concentration on her face. A few feet away from him, Carol was shoving her hair back out of her face, looking deeply embarrassed.

"Are you all right, Cap?" she asked. "I was trying to grab her, and then she just — where the hell did she go?"

*What the hell is going on in there?* Tony's voice sounded in Steve's ear, coming through the communicator clear and undistorted the way it did when he used the Extremis rather than the communication link in his helmet. *A massive energy discharge just shorted out all the cameras in the Greek and Roman gallery.*

"Sin just disappeared," Steve said, grimly. "Some kind of spell, or teleportation device, I don't know." Whatever it was, it was nothing he'd ever seen her or the Red Skull use before, which meant she'd had outside help.

*It was tech, not magic. The energy signal looked familiar; was SHIELD working on any teleportation equipment at those R&D sites she raided?*

"You would know that better than I would." 

"Hey, we saved the book," Clint said, crouching down to examine the limp form of the man Steve had disarmed and knocked down. "And Sin's the only one who got — damn it, this guy's dead."

Dead? "I didn't hit him that hard," Steve protested. "He was still conscious when I left him."

"This one's dead, too." Wanda was kneeling by the man Carol had dropped when she'd lunged for Sin, one gloved hand against his throat. "I think they may all be dead."

Steve glanced from the leather-bound book in Sam's hand to the half-dozen bodies littering the floor, and swore. They must have been under orders to kill themselves rather than risk capture. Six lives — seven, counting the security guard — for one manuscript.

Nothing in the museum's collection was worth that much.

"Tell the police that the building's clear, and there's a man in the front hall who needs immediate medical attention," he told Tony.

Sam was staring down at the book in his hands, frowning. "What does Sin think is in this book that's worth losing this many of her followers? Since when are ancient chaos demons and Renaissance alchemists her kind of tactics?"

"They're not," Steve said, meeting Sam's eyes and seeing by the look in them that his next words weren't necessary. He said them anyway. "She's not working alone."

The Avengers' Tower felt empty these days, not desolately so as Valhalla had when he had first rebuilt it, when far too few Asgardians had yet returned, but quietly so. The Falcon and Hawkeye had removed themselves to the nearly completed Avengers Mansion, and Jarvis had followed them, leaving only Hank Pym and the Wasp behind in the tower. 

Thor himself remained as well, during those times when his presence was not required in Valhalla. To return to the Mansion and dwell under its roof again would be to return to an earlier time when his fellow Avengers were all his trusted comrades in arms; to return would be to forgive Tony, if only symbolically.

Whereas in the tower, near empty as it was, it was a simple matter to avoid having to speak with Hank more than once or twice a day. Less than that, now that Jarvis was serving dinner at the Mansion; avoiding breaking bread with Hank or Tony had been out of the question before, when it would have constituted a breach of Jarvis's hospitality, but now, Thor was free to dine when and where he chose.

The thick carpet muffled his footfalls as he strode toward the kitchen, down hallways even emptier of decoration than they had once been; what little ornament the place had contained had been moved to the mansion now.

Fortunately Jarvis had left the refrigerator stocked with an amount of food befitting a warrior, even if Thor must forgo the pleasures of conversing with him while he prepared it.

Jarvis had an appreciation for storytelling, and for a mortal whose years numbered far fewer than Thor's, gave surprisingly wise advice.

But if he could not speak with Jarvis, he could at least make himself a luncheon.

Last night's confrontation with Sin and her followers had been unsatisfying, ending as it had in a stalemate — they had recovered the grimoire, but she had fled. Now, they waited while Tony attempted to determine the maker of the device she had used to escape, and the grimoire sat in one of the museum's temperature controlled vaults under lock and key while they arranged to have it transported to the Avengers Mansion, where any further attempts by Sin to obtain possession of it could be more easily thwarted and would not put the museum's people or property at risk.

The museum wished to have it examined by Dr. Strange, in hopes that he would be able to dispel the dark aura that clung to it, which had already caused not just the attack yesterday, but the suicides of two guards and an unhappy sequence of accidents. Until then, they wished the Avengers to take custody of it, preferably as quickly as was possible without risking damage to the book.

It was unwise, but then, many things they had done recently had been unwise.

The kitchen door was open slightly, spilling a line of light out into the hallway, and as he approached, Thor could hear voices from beyond it.

"I'm on the verge of a breakthrough with the DNA analysis." Hank's voice rang with a particularly irksome variety of enthusiasm, one that indicated that he would likely pay no heed to what others said. "I can tell. If I just run one more test-"

"You can run it after you eat," the Wasp interrupted. "Tony has many admirable traits, but that thing where he locks himself in his lab or a machine shop for days on end without eating or sleeping isn't one of them."

Admirable traits. Yes, he did indeed possess several admirable qualities. Unfortunate, that honor had turned out not to be among them.

"That's because Tony does it to hide from things," Hank protested.

Hank was in the kitchen. His luncheon could wait, Thor decided, and turned to go, not wishing to play the role of eavesdropper.

Their voices followed him down the hall. 

"And you're not?" The Wasp asked, sounding out of patience, yet not unaffectionate.

"No! This could revolutionize the entire way we conceptualize superpowers. This is Nobel Prize material, Jan."

"And the fact that working on it makes it easier for you to hide from Thor has nothing to do with it?"

Thor halted, despite the better instincts that told him that if eavesdropping was dishonorable, eavesdropping on a conversation that concerned oneself was even more so.

"I'm not hiding," Hank said sullenly. "I'm avoiding him because he hates me."

The Wasp sighed, the sound audible even at this distance. "No one hates you, Hank."

"Actually, I really think he does. If I hadn't lost control of the clone, Bill would still be alive; he probably thinks I dishonored him by turning a version of him into a murderer."

At least, Thor mused, one could not say that Hank was unperceptive. He found, however, that his desire to hear what the other two would say had diminished, and so began to move away once more. Hearing Hank speak of the abomination he had created would only rouse his anger.

"Have either you or Tony bothered to explain what actually happened yet?" The Wasp's voice was faint now, but the words were still clear to Asgardian ears. Don Blake would not have heard them, but Thor did. "Because if not, I'm going to do it. It's bad for the team, and it's making you miserable."

Better, Thor thought, that he had left more swiftly. For he had imagined that he knew everything there was to tell about Hank and Tony's betrayal, about the soulless copy of his body they had made, and used as a weapon against those who had been his shieldbrothers. The idea that there was yet more treachery to learn of made him grind his teeth in anger, the air about him growing thick and charged with energy as it did before a storm.

Hank's voice sounded pleading as he spoke, even embarrassed. "Please don't. He's not going to care why we did it. HUSAC didn't force me to rush the experiment, or order me not to add additional behavioral safeguards. Whether or not we wanted to do it, we still had a responsibility to do it right."

To do it right. His jaw ached with the effort to suppress his fury, to avoid simply charging into the kitchen and confronting Hank face to face, as a warrior ought. Mortal society was not Valhalla, and disputes among comrades were not settled with violence.

Given the deeds they had been willing to admit to, given that he already knew they possessed no honor, how much worse must these unknown things be for Hank and Tony to be ashamed to speak of them?

Thor walked away, taking care to make his footfalls soft, lest Hank and the Wasp hear them and come forth to try and speak to him. He would not hear the truth from Hank, not without forcing it out of him — the man had just admitted as much.

The Wasp would be willing to tell him, but the prospect of asking her was unsatisfying. He wanted to hear the admission of deceit from Tony's own lips. He was the one whose betrayal had struck the deepest; Hank had been ill, in the past, in ways that interfered with his judgment. Tony, whom he and Don Blake had both accounted a close friend, had no such excuse.

He had considered Tony Stark a brother, one nearly as close to him as Baldur, or Volstagg, or Beta Ray Bill. Or Captain America, whom Thor had searched for amongst the valorous dead and, when he had failed to find him, mourned for. His father's handmaidens had been the choosers of the slain, and a fallen warrior who had believed in him — and friendship could be accounted belief, if one was creative — always had a place in Valhalla.

Tony was often absent from his office, even during the hours when he was expected to be at work there, but it was, Thor decided, the best place to begin searching for him. If he were there, he would be alone, and there would be no need to fight with him, even with words, in front of Captain America. He would feel honor-bound to defend his lover, were he present, and Thor had no quarrel with him.

The office, when he left the elevator and the two awe-stricken men in business suits who had shared it with him, proved to be a cold, barren space. Massive windows let in sunlight, but the furniture was spare and angular, and everything gleamed black and silver, like rock limned with ice.

He had expected Tony's assistant to try to bar him entrance, and was taken off guard when Pepper Potts-Hogan smiled grimly at him and waved him inside. "Good, it's one of you guys. Go right in. Maybe you can talk some sense into him."

She nodded toward the closed door at the far end of the reception area, her bright hair the only spot of color in the room. "He's in there. Tell him I've cancelled all his meetings for the rest of the day, and he can pay me back by actually showing up for the ones I've rescheduled."

Thor opened the door and found himself at the threshold of a darkened room, all lights extinguished and the sunlight reduced to a dim shadow of itself by tinted glass. Tony was seated behind his desk, his back to the darkened windows, head buried in his hands.

Thor closed the door behind him and reached for the light switch. The click of the door shutting and the burst of illumination as the lights came on once more occurred simultaneously, and Tony straightened, head snapping up, then curled forward again and tried to shade his eyes with one hand.

"I thought I said no lights," he snapped. "If it's an emergency, make it someone else's problem, and if it's not an emergency, why are you-" his eyes finally focused on Thor, and he broke off abruptly. "Oh. It's you. What do you want?"

He looked terrible, his face pale and his eyes slitted against the light. There were smears of blood beneath his nose and on his lips, his goatee failing to hide them.

Were it not for the blood, Thor might almost have suspected that he merely suffered the aftereffects of a night spent drinking, but there had not been enough time since the battle at the museum last evening for a man with Tony's capacity for alcohol to drink himself into insensibility and then recover at least the appearance of sobriety.

"What is wrong with you?" he asked, not bothering to mince words. It was not the question he had meant to ask, but he could feel Don's wary, unwilling concern in the back of his mind. The idea of confronting a man when he was weakened and visibly unwell sat ill with him.

"Nothing." Tony lowered his face into his hands again, rubbing gently at his temples. His voice was flat, giving away no emotion. "The Extremis does this when I overuse it. Turn off the lights on your way out."

It was most certainly not nothing; Tony was hunched forward, curling in on himself as if in pain, and Thor could hear a slight wheeze in his breathing. He did not need Don Blake's medical knowledge to know that this boded ill.

He did not need it, yet still, he possessed it, and none of the various explanations for Tony's condition that it suggested to him were pleasant.

"Nay," Thor said. "I shall not leave." He strode further into the room to demonstrate this until he stood over Tony's desk, looking down at the top of his bowed head. "There are questions I would have you answer." More questions, indeed, than he had thought. To Tony's lack of honesty over the clone was added the matter of Tony's health; if he were ill, and concealing it, Captain America would be greatly upset, and though he did not approve of Steve's choice of lover, he did not wish his friend to be unhappy.

Tony lifted his head again, but did not meet Thor's eyes. "The SHRA is gone, and so is your clone. I don't think there's anything left for us to say to one another about them." He rubbed the back of his hand under his nose, removing some of the blood, then looked down at his blood-smeared hand and frowned, visibly irritated at the sight.

Thor regarded him levelly. "When you first spoke to me after my return, you concealed from me certain things you had done during my absence."

"You already knew what had happened." It was not a denial, nor did it even sound indignant or defensive. Merely tired, as if Thor and his right to know the full details of what had been done with his blood and bone were not worth the energy it took to summon any particular emotion.

"I believed that I did," Thor corrected. "I have learned that there is more that I do not know."

He had the satisfaction of seeing Tony wince. It was less satisfying than he had hoped it would be; he was not certain whether it was due to guilt, or physical pain.

"Give me your hand," he ordered.

Tony extended his left hand, and said, smirking up at him, "You don't need to break my fingers to get the truth out of me."

It was a direct insult — implying that Thor would stoop to torture over such things — and doubtless an intentional one. Tony was trying to get him to leave.

The god of thunder did not meekly depart simply because he was bidden to.

Tony's hand, when he took it in his, was cool to the touch. Poor circulation, Don commented in the back of his head, sighing in dismayed confirmation at the sight of the faintly bluish tinge to Tony's fingernails. His lips were likewise bloodless, and while not bluish-tinted now, they could very well have been so when Thor had first entered. The blood from the nosebleed would have concealed it.

The pulse in his wrist beat quickly, perhaps more-so than it should have.

"You have concealed things from my shieldbrother as well." Thor released his hand and stepped back, folding his arms across his chest. "You are gravely ill."

Tony stared flatly at him, his face empty of expression. "I told you what Hank and Reed and I had done, and I apologized for it." He held his hands out, palms up, the gesture too studied to truly be casual. "The details are public record; I didn't think you would want to hear me repeat them."

Thor had not read the transcripts from the Senate and Congressional hearings; even had he had the inclination to do so, rebuilding Valhalla had consumed all his time, and much of Don's as well.

"Nay," he said, "I would hear them from your lips."

Tony's eyes, already squinted against the light, narrowed further. "Do you think I wanted to turn one of my oldest friends into a living weapon? Do you think Hank wanted to? They didn't give us a choice." There was a sort of weary anger in his voice, too rough around the edges to be faked.

He had not come here to hear excuses. "There is always a choice," Thor told him coldly. "You could have refused them."

"No," Tony snapped, "we couldn't have. If we hadn't given them a superpowered test subject, there they would have gone out and found one. I wasn't going to give them Spiderman or Jessica Drew to dissect, or give them the Extremis and let them kill ninety percent of their test subjects with it, anymore than Hank was going to make them a new supersoldier virus to test on human guinea pigs, on kids who had no more idea of what they were getting into than Steve or Isaiah Bradley did. Cloning you was a compromise." He glared up at Thor, meeting his eyes for the first time in... perhaps for the first time since his return. "If I'd said no, and let them take me to experiment on instead, a lot more people would have died."

For all his willingness to serve as the government's tool, Tony would not have turned on Thor to save himself. To save others, though... That, Thor could believe, and Don with him.

It did not make his actions acceptable, or forgivable, but it did, perhaps, render them comprehensible. He said as much, and Tony dropped his face into his hands again, his shoulders sagging.

This was the dark secret Hank and Tony had concealed from him, that their actions had actually been motivated by more than lust for scientific knowledge and base treachery? That made no sense. Why conceal that which could serve to justify their actions?

Then again, one might also ask why Tony would choose to conceal his obvious illness. His health had ever been fragile, and his apparent decision not to seek aid for whatever ailed him could have grave consequences. His disregard for them offended Don nearly as much as Tony's secrecy and refusal to explain his actions had Thor.

Thor considered this for a moment, then said, "Captain America, Ms. Marvel, and the Falcon have all told me that my refusal to speak to thee endangers the Avengers as a team. I fear they are correct." It was somewhat embarrassing to admit, for it had not been his intent. "I fear also that this illness of thine, if untreated, will likewise endanger thy fellow Avengers."

"I have it under control," Tony said, the words muffled by his fingers. "I told you, it's a side effect of the Extremis. I damaged it fighting the Mandarin."

Thor frowned. He hesitated a moment, then gave voice to the concern he did not — quite — resent feeling. "It is more than that."

"No." Tony shook his head, the movement minimal. "I can't get sick anymore. The Extremis prevents it."

"We agreed long ago that the Avengers would not intrude upon one another's private lives, but I would suggest that you see a doctor." And until he did, Don would keep a watchful eye on him. His other self saw it as a matter of honor.

"I'll think about it." Tony looked up again, a thin, strained smile on his face. "Thank you," he said. "For understanding."

Thor turned the lights off on his way out.

The Helicarrier's medical bay was far better stocked and staffed these days than during the carrier's time in hiding under New York Harbor; SHIELD had been in the midst of a major recruiting push recently, and hallways that had been nearly empty by the end of Tony's tenure as director were full of people again, and a steady flow of agents had come in and out of the infirmary while Tony had submitted to a series of time-consuming and uncomfortable examinations at the hands of Maya Hansen and a vaguely familiar SHIELD doctor.

The doctor was currently speaking to Maya in a low, conspiratorial voice, both of them standing with their backs to Tony. In his experience, that rarely meant anything good.

The Helicarrier's temperature controls were always set slightly too low, something he'd never quite gotten around to fixing when he'd been in charge, and he'd spent the past twenty minutes alternately sitting and lying on a metal table with no shirt on. From some women, he might have suspected ulterior motives, but Maya had always set flirtation aside when a matter of scientific interest presented itself. Well, most of the time.

He had gained a new appreciation for the stimulating possibilities of open source software during the seminar where they'd first met.

There had to be some kind of digital recording equipment that was closer to Maya and Dr. Deodato than he was. Trying to hack into it might just give him a nosebleed at this point, though, after all the strain he'd put on the Extremis over the past few days, and yesterday's blinding migraine wasn't something he was eager to repeat.

His head still ached dully, his left temple and eye throbbing sharply in warning any time he tried to access anything other than the armor. It hadn't been this bad in months, not since those first few days after the fight with the Mandarin and Red Skull. It might possibly be worse now — he'd nearly keeled over in SE's boardroom yesterday, something that would have been a high point in personal humiliation not equaled since he'd stopped drinking.

The unrelenting ache made him feel vaguely nauseous, but at least the flashing lights in his vision and the breathless tightness in his chest had stopped; that and the sudden rush of airless dizziness that had nearly put him on the floor had been what had persuaded him to go to Maya. Thor had been right — whatever was wrong with the Extremis, with him, could be incredibly dangerous if it struck during the middle of a fight.

And though Thor hadn't said so in so many words, Tony had a strong impression that his willingness to speak to him again was contingent on his seeing a doctor. An end to months of the silent treatment was worth a little cold and discomfort, and even worth SHIELD agents who looked barely out of their teens staring at him as they ducked into the infirmary to get minor injuries treated or make dental appointments.

Had he ever been that young? Not since Afghanistan, certainly, and probably not since Sunset Bain.

Deodato had a cell phone in his breast pocket. It was already turned on — connecting with it, transmitting to the armor's communication frequency, and putting the phone on speaker would take less than a minute, and then he could-

Tony forced himself to look away from Maya and Deodato, down at the laptop he'd brought with him, and pulled up visual and numerical representations of the electromagnetic emissions given off by the teleportation equipment Sin had used at the museum. It was familiar — the combination of high and low band frequencies was something he had seen before — and he'd been meaning to break it down and study it for over a day now, but instead had spent most of yesterday afternoon curled into a useless ball, first in the desk chair in his office, and then, after Thor had left and Pepper had threatened to call Steve to come and get him if he didn't leave as well, in bed at the Mansion.

At least the armor's autopilot function still worked.

Manual data input was clumsy and slow compared to using the Extremis, but it was better than sitting around doing nothing while Sin and her collaborator planned their next move. She'd already cut a swath through SHIELD's scientific staff, and SHIELD didn't have any personnel to spare right now.

The clack of the computer keys sounded incongruously loud against the backdrop of hums and beeps from the room's collection of medical equipment, and the soft rush of the carrier's ventilation system, like the gunfire-rattle of typewriter keys in an old movie.

He played the energy burst back, first normal speed, then slowed down by 50%, then in reverse. The energy usage was immense and flashily inefficient, and the radiation was all over the spectrum, including parts of it that didn't naturally occur in this dimension outside of laboratory conditions.

Whatever Sin had had on her, she had used it to open an inter-dimensional portal, similar to the one Reed had created to access the Negative Zone.

In fact, if you reverse engineered Reed's design and built a copy of it out of stolen Chinese and Lemurian parts, and substituted Antarctic vibranium for anti-matter as the power source, and then used it to bounce someone into the Negative Zone and then out of it again at a different location, the way one would bounce a radar signal off of...

Lemuria. One of the Lemurian arms dealers Fury had had neutralized last month had dealt in explosives containing Antarctic vibranium. The money trail Tony had followed through what had felt like half the banks in Europe and Asia had ended in Latveria.

Sin was working with Doom.

It was so blindingly obvious in retrospect — who else would hire Sin to steal a book full of rituals on summoning chaos demons bare weeks after Chthon had been trapped just a thin dimensional wall away from the same chaos artifact Doom had tried to burn down half of Manhattan to acquire?

Tony closed his eyes and shoved his hands into his hair, fingers pressing hard at his temples — it eased the remainder of the headache, at least until he stopped. Of course Doom hadn't simply given up after they'd thwarted his attempt to grab the spear last spring. He was Victor von Doom. He'd spent his entire adult life attempting to punish Reed Richards for getting better grades than he had in grad school, and earning a PhD two months sooner than he had. He never gave up when he could hold a grudge, and he would have had the resources to know about the John Dee manuscript well before the exhibit had publicly opened. Hell, the museum probably would give diplomats from the Latverian embassy tours of it, if they asked nicely. In fact...

Gritting his teeth against the stab of pain in his head, Tony reached out via the Extremis and tapped into the Met's records on bookings of their private rooms for the past two months. They had hosted a diplomatic function last week, which had included Latverian guests, and a tour of the still-closed-to-the-public alchemy exhibit. How had he missed it the first time around?

Because he'd only been monitoring the security systems, not the museum's guests or scheduled events, because he'd been trying to limit what he did with the Extremis. Damn it.

He dropped the data connection, feeling his muscles relax slightly as the pain vanished, leaving only the residual ache from yesterday, and forced himself to take a deep breath. His heart felt like it was fluttering in his chest when he disconnected, a lurching sensation that he couldn't help comparing to the way his cybernetic heart had stuttered when nearly out of power.

Nosebleeds were far less disturbing, he decided. And he'd started to have the same panicky reaction to losing contact with the Extremis that he did to arguing with Steve. What the hell was wrong with him?

Back to obsolete technology, then.

He pulled out the modified StarkPhone Steve had made him promise to use instead of the Extremis at some point during the migraine-induced delirium he must have been in in order to agree, and dialed Fury's private line.

The line was picked up before the first ring finished; that alone was enough to tell him it wasn't Fury. Hearing a female voice on the other end of the line say, "Sub-Director Hill," just confirmed it.

"Hill," Tony said. "I need to talk to you — and Fury and Dugan, if they're there. I have information on the Sin situation."

"Go ahead," Hill said. She sounded less than thrilled to be speaking to him; most of SHIELD's high command tended to sound wary when speaking to Tony. He wasn't sure whether they still resented him for not being Fury, secretly wished he'd come back now that they were under Fury's significantly more aggressive command again, or all just silently thought he was crazy.

"Considering how easy it is to hack into your system, I think I'd prefer to do this in person." 'Easy' was something of an overstatement, but given that both the Mandarin and Red Skull had been able to infiltrate the old Helicarrier's security systems, take over SHIELD's satellites, and plant double agents in their ranks, it wasn't beyond the realm of probability that Doom had done the same thing. Or that some of the Red Skull's agents might still be in place.

Someone had revealed Agent Carter and Barnes's location to Sin last month. Barnes had said that the source of the leak had been dealt with, but the fact that one double agent had survived Fury's investigation meant that more could have.

There was a moment of silence, during which Tony imagined that he could hear Hill grinding her teeth, and then she said, "I'll be there in ten minutes," and hung up. Presumably, he was meant to note that she hadn't needed to ask where he was and be impressed by SHIELD's ability to track his cellphone signal.

Hill showed up eleven minutes and thirty-five second later, Sharon Carter in tow. Tony was waiting for them outside the infirmary doors, leaning his shoulders back against the metal wall; Maya, Dr. Deodato, the rest of the medical staff, and the graying SHIELD operative currently having a row of stitches removed from her shoulder didn't need to be in on this conversation.

When Hill and Sharon approached, he casually glanced down at his watch.

Hill ignored the gesture. "Agent Carter has been monitoring the Sin situation. She reports directly to Director Fury; you can tell either of us anything you would tell him."

He'd hoped to speak to Fury himself, but speaking to Hill probably cut five minutes worth of orders for Tony to get the hell out of Fury's computer systems out of the conversation, so he wasn't going to raise an objection. If Fury trusted Hill to run things in his absence, well... Hill had been an unqualified disaster as head of SHIELD, but Tony strongly suspected that he wasn't the only person who'd had Koening leaning on him and Dickstein's committee breathing down the back of his neck. It would explain a lot about some of her more ill-advised command decisions.

Tony himself had been an even greater disaster as director, and she had been a decent second-in-command — better than he had deserved, really. Dum Dum Dugan even vouched for her these days, a significant departure from his previous low-level resentment of her for replacing Fury.

"I've been analyzing the electromagnetic emissions given off by the teleportation device Sin used to escape from the Metropolitan Museum," Tony began.

"Should I even bother to mention that that data should have been turned over to SHIELD?" Hill asked. It had the sound of a rhetorical question, so Tony didn't answer it.

"Some of the emissions were a form of radiation nearly nonexistent in this dimension but common in the Negative Zone; the device was used to transport Sin into the Negative Zone and back out again at a different location." He held one hand up and mimed bouncing the other off of it. "Like skipping rock across a pond; the Negative Zone's ambient energy could be channeled to help propel her back into this dimension. It's not actually teleportation, but dimensional travel, using a copy of Reed Richard's Negative Zone portal technology modified and adapted to run on Antarctic vibranium rather than anti-matter. It's ingenious, really. I'm kind of ashamed Reed and I never thought of it. And I'm surprised Hank didn't. He has a feel for dimensional mass transfer." It had been a continual source of puzzlement to Reed that Hank had been able to calculate mass transfer into and out of the Negative Zone simply by eyeballing it, without actually using any higher math equations. 'But you're doing it the hard way,' he'd insisted. 'It's really much easier if you use the differential equations I've devised. They're much more efficient.'

Reed tended to forget that even people who could do calculus in their heads didn't usually find it easy and fun. Hank's explanation through gritted teeth that he'd been working with extra-dimensional mass transfer on a daily basis for years and was never, ever wrong about it, and by the way, organic chemistry was not a "soft science" hadn't helped matters.

It was really remarkable that the three of them hadn't killed... well, more people than they actually had. Including themselves.

Hill stared at him, her face expressionless. "That's fascinating, Tony. Is any of it actually significant?"

Tony gave up attempting to explain how innovative the device was — dimensional portal technology probably all looked the same to the untrained eye, anyway — and told her the abbreviated, journal-abstract version. "There's a characteristic instability in the energy signature that shows up only in high-energy physics equipment manufactured in Lemuria, China, and parts of the former Soviet Union, and judging by the energy signature and the fact the last Antarctic vibranium known to be in Lemurian hands was sold to Latveria, I'm ninety percent sure this device was built by Victor von Doom." Ripping off one of Reed Richard's designs, repurposing and improving it, and then pointedly using the result on Reed's home ground where he'd be sure to hear about it was also a strong indicator in favor of Doom, but it wasn't actually evidence. He told Hill and Sharon about the Latverian dignitaries who'd been given a tour of the Met instead.

"You should have been keeping an eye on their guestbook," Sharon said.

"I've had a lot to keep track of." It sounded like the pathetic excuse it was. He should have come in here and asked Maya to figure out what the hell was wrong with him days ago. Once she did, and he fixed it, he would be able to keep on top of things properly again.

Sharon frowned, staring off into the middle distance, her arms folded across her chest. "What would Sin want with a sixteenth century manuscript?" Then she shook her head slightly. "Never mind. For all we know, Doom demanded it as payment for giving her the dimensional transport device. We should have anticipated the possibility of those two working together; Doom was willing to cut a deal with the Red Skull to bring Steve," she hesitated, the pause so slight that someone who hadn't spent months carefully avoiding using the word 'dead' and listening to Steve do the same wouldn't have noticed, "back. Whatever he thinks he's going to get from that spear, it's worth enough to him that he'll work with Nazis to obtain it."

"That's not out of character with Doom's previously established-"

"Yes, it is," Tony interrupted Hill. "Doom's Romany. He hates Nazis. It's the one way in which he resembles a normal human being. According to Strange, he thinks the spear can make him a god, and Strange wasn't willing to say he was wrong."

Hill rubbed at her face with one hand, and swore under her breath. "Fury would choose now to decide to deal with the Madripoor situation personally. You have no idea how much I prefer targets I can shoot."

"With the right ammunition, you can shoot just about anything." And Tony knew from ammunition. As much from painful personal experience as from the fact that he used to make it.

Sharon said nothing, and for a moment, the memory of the last time she and Tony had been in close proximity to one another in one of SHIELD's medical facilities was so vivid that Tony could almost smell the blood.

He looked away, and grasped for a new subject. "According to Steve, Fury's afraid Doom's still working with Red Skull."

Sharon shrugged. "It's a possibility. Considering Sin's history of mental instability, it's also highly probably that she's simply delusional. At the museum, was she-"

"I don't know. I was outside the entire time." Which had probably been wise, considering how dizzy he'd gotten when he'd hooked that policewoman's phone up to the security system.

Maya would be able to figure it out, he reminded himself. The Extremis was her baby.

Hill shrugged one shoulder. "For our purposes, it doesn't matter whether she's actually hearing her dead father's voice in her head or just thinks she is."

It wasn't entirely true — Red Skull, from what Tony understood, had been a far better strategist than his daughter — but those also weren't the only options. "If she's spending a lot of time around powerful sources of chaos magic, she might be hearing anything. The security guards at the museum said the manuscript she tried to steal whispered to them."

"I hate magic," Sharon said, shaking her head slightly.

"So do I." Though since magic or something like it had given him back Steve, and brought Clint and Thor back as well, it might be worth rethinking that stance.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Hill said, her voice carefully casual, "I read your interview in the Bugle."

"Who hasn't?" Tony muttered. Half the agents he'd passed in the hallways had cast sidelong glances at him, and he was fairly sure that only some of them had been staring at him because he'd once been their commanding officer. Being the man who was either fucking or getting fucked by Captain America was much more interesting.

"James cut it out and saved it." Sharon's lips curved slightly. "He has a file on you, you know."

"He works for SHIELD. You have a file on everyone." Something that had been both more and less worrisome at various points in time.

"Almost everyone," Hill corrected. "A significant amount of our data on several of your teammates has been mysteriously deleted."

Tony smiled at her, the charming, ingratiating smile he usually reserved for the media and potential business partners who needed convincing. "I never did finish upgrading the security on all your IT systems when I was in charge. You might want to look into that."

Hill gave him a flat stare. "You deliberately left yourself a back door into them, you mean." Then her expression softened slightly, taking on an uncertain quality that sat oddly on her.

Tony felt his smile faltering as she spoke.

"I read your interview," she repeated. "I want to apologize for the autopsy reports. I would never have left them on your desk like that if I'd known."

There had been six glossy photographs, all of them full color. He could remember the details clearly, but nothing about what he'd felt or thought while looking at them. Maybe he hadn't felt anything; it had been easier not to. "I specifically requested the information."

Hill looked at him, her eyes uncomfortably sympathetic; he preferred her cold, professional mask, he decided. He even preferred it when she snarled at him. "You didn't request pictures," she said.

Tony met her gaze, and gave her the truth. "There are enough security cameras on this vessel for me to spy on every square inch of it outside of the Director's quarters. There was nothing in that report I hadn't already seen." He'd thrown up afterwards. He remembered that.

Maya hadn't asked any questions, just handed him a glass of water and gone back to her lab. She had never been good at comforting people, even those who wanted it, and he hadn't.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" The words burst out of Sharon, sharp-edged. "You watched? You watched while they cut him open?" Tony wasn't sure if the expression on her face was pity or horror, and found that he didn't particularly want to know.

"I had to." His voice sounded calm, self-assured. Good; Thor catching him huddled in a ball in his office was enough humiliation for one week. "I had to be sure."

They were both staring at him now, Hill appraising and Sharon visibly disturbed, when footsteps sounded behind him.

Tony straightened up, moving away from the wall, and turned to face Maya. She was staring at him, too, frowning. "You should have let me keep those rings," she said.

"What?" Tony blinked at her, unsure what to make of this. "Why? Have they introduced some alien computer virus into the Extremis?"

Maya shook her head. "No. A virus would be easier to counteract. The Extremis itself is corrupted." She hesitated, long enough for Tony to think of at least seven ways the Extremis could kill him slowly and horribly — or worse than kill him — then said, awkwardly, "Maybe you should sit down for this. You don't look good."

His entire peripheral nervous system would degrade or short out, and he'd be left paralyzed. The pain behind his eye was actually damage to his optic nerve, and he was going to slowly lose visual acuity until he was blind, and never fly or drive anything again. His internal organs would shut down, one by one, and he'd die slowly, but only after forcing Steve to watch him gradually slide downhill for months.

He'd go insane, the way all the other surviving Extremis test subjects had.

Tony shook his head, his stomach hollow. "Just tell me now and get it over with." She wouldn't meet his eyes, which didn't necessarily mean anything with Maya — like Reed, she didn't feel that actually looking at people was necessary for conversation — but they never asked you to sit down for good news.

One of Maya's shoulders twitched up in a shrug, and she looked away, addressing the deck planking somewhere between Tony and Sharon. "It was subtle at first, too minor for either of us to notice when we scanned you after you hacked the Mandarin's rings, but the damage has spread. The healing factor that was supposed to be its original purpose is no longer functioning properly; you're damaging your body whenever you use the Extremis to interface with anything other than your armor, and its healing factor is so reduced in capacity that it's overloaded, and the strain of continually trying to repair your body is only adding to the stress on your system." She looked back up, directly into Tony's face, and he could already anticipate what she was going to say next. The way he'd had to struggle to get his breath back after exercising, the pain in his chest. That fluttery feeling, like the cyborg heart beating arrhythmically as its battery ran down.

"Primarily on your heart," she said, because it was always his heart, no matter how many times he thought he'd found a way to fix it, "which was damaged when the Mandarin electrocuted you. And when you were poisoned two months ago. And I doubt it helped when you were electrocuted by that other supervillain last month, either." She rubbed at her scarred cheek with one hand, grimacing. "Under normal conditions, the damage should be completely healed by now, with no sign that an injury ever occurred. Instead, they've healed incompletely, leaving small amounts of myocardial scar tissue, because what healing factor you have left is too busy trying to keep up with what you've been doing to yourself to finish the job. The headaches, the dizziness, the shortness of breath are all warning signs, Tony. They're your body saying 'screw this, I've had enough.' Congratulations; you've managed to turn what was supposed to be my cancer-curing masterpiece into a health-destroying cyberpunk wet dream."

There was a long moment of stilted silence before Tony couldn't take it anymore. "And?" he asked. "Is it going to get worse? Get better? Kill me?"

Hill was looking at him with pity. He could feel it.

"Oh, it's not going to kill you." Maya was probably trying to sound encouraging. It wasn't working. "But if you keep using the Extremis like there's no tomorrow, it will get worse. The headaches aren't going to go away; if anything, they'll become more frequent and more intense. The cybernetic elements you added weren't part of its original purpose, not to the degree you have them, and at the rate you're going, you're going to burn those neural pathways you added to your brain out and end up back where you were last spring, barely to use the Extremis at all."

Of course he would. And then he'd go from working at only partial capacity to being an active liability for Steve and the rest of the team, with no one but himself to blame. Tony stared at her for a long moment, trying to come up with an appropriate response, humiliatingly aware of Sharon and Hill standing right there.

"Steve never did like that thing," Sharon said. "I guess he was right about it."

"You're not going to tell him about it," Tony snapped, abruptly missing the days when he could simply order SHIELD agents to do or not do something. "He'll be insufferable." Tony could already picture the pained worry in Steve's eyes, the concern, the way Steve was going to re-arrange strategies to keep him out of the field and out of the line of fire just in case, hear the 'I-told-you-so's he wasn't going to say but would very clearly and loudly think. "The team doesn't have time for this right now. I don't have time for it. And I'm not going to bother him with something that I might be able to fix with a single line of code tomorrow."

Sharon raised her eyebrows. "You can't just not tell him your upgrades are making you sick, Tony," she said, her tone just this side of confrontational. "You're dating him."

It was ridiculous to feel defensive. "Oh come on, it's not as if there aren't things you haven't told him. He still has no idea when Faustus actually started his brainwashing treatments on you."

Sharon's eyes narrowed, her face suddenly set and cold in a way that made Tony very aware that she was a trained counter-intelligence officer who had tracked down and killed at least three of the double agents responsible for Faustus's infiltration of SHIELD. "No," she said, "he doesn't. And because you're a decent human being who doesn't want me to cut your throat in your sleep, he'll never know. Those things are not remotely comparable." She didn't raise her voice, didn't even sound upset, not compared to the way she had when discussing Steve's autopsy, but she didn't have to.

Tony winced. Self-loathing was a familiar feeling by now, almost soothing. Bringing up Faustus had been thoughtlessly cruel; he couldn't have come up with a response better calculated to hurt her if he'd tried, and the fact that he hadn't even meant to almost made it worse.

The transcripts of Sharon's sessions with Faustus had been destroyed, probably by Faustus himself, but the first of them had taken place several weeks before the SHRA had passed — it was in SHIELD's files, every psychological appointment neatly logged in Sharon's medical record. He'd gone through the entire thing with a fine-toothed comb in the days after Steve's death, seeking some kind of explanation for what the autopsy results had told him was true. When Tony had finally, reluctantly spoken to Steve about it, after Steve had woken up gasping Sharon's name one too many times, Steve had been convinced that Sharon had only encountered Faustus once, mere days before the shooting. Days before the shooting, and well after the night he'd spent with Sharon during the registration fight.

Convinced, it turned out, because that was the only appointment Sharon had mentioned to him. She obviously didn't want Steve to know that she hadn't slept with him of her own free will, and Tony couldn't blame her.

Tony looked away, not wanting to see the guilt and shame that he suspected he'd find if he looked at her for long enough. Remembered that cold, sick feeling of waking up with no memory of the previous night and wondering what the hell you had done, and who you'd done it with. "No," he said, feeling very tired suddenly. "They're not. I shouldn't have brought it up."

"It's not as bad as all that." Maya patted him on the shoulder, her latex-gloved hand faintly clammy against his bare skin. "I'm sure we can figure out a solution, and in the meantime, you'll just need to take is easy for a while."

They probably would; Tony had figured out a way around worse problems before, or rather, Yinsen had done it for him. And then the surgeons who'd done his first heart surgery had, and then the sentient armor. And then Maya herself, after her first Extremis test subject had left Tony so smashed up that the Extremis was their only option to keep him from dying of internal injuries.

It was supposed to have been a fresh start. A new heart, to replace the cybernetic one. A new liver. A new body, with years worth of scars and damage erased, that wouldn't get sick, wear out, or fail him.

He should have expected that this fix would turn out to be temporary, too. Maybe he had, on some level. 

It was kind of fitting, really. Right back to the familiar status quo. His body had been failing him for his entire adult life. Heart attacks, shrapnel, spinal cord injuries, electrocution... the only thing he'd managed to avoid was cirrhosis of the liver, and that hadn't been for want of trying.

"Right. Take it easy," he said, trying for confidence and optimism. "I can do that."

Hill was frowning, visibly uncomfortable, though whether it was over his conversation with Sharon or being forced to listen to the gory details of Tony's health problems, he wasn't sure. "You do that. We'll handle the Doom angle. Agent Carter, I want you to go and talk to the personnel monitoring the Latverian Embassy. Get all their data from the past month; I want people going over it with a fine-toothed comb. I'm going to call Dugan. Madripoorian civil war or not, we need one of them back here."

Sharon drew herself up slightly, looking as if she were about to object, and then nodded. She straightened her SHIELD-issue jacket and turned back to Tony. "You're right; you shouldn't have brought it up, but I'll forget you said it if you will." She drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and added, "Go sit down somewhere and talk to the doctors; you look like hell. Let the professionals take care of things here."

Then she turned and left, her footsteps loud on the bare metal of the deck plates.

"She's right." Hill was giving him a long, searching look. "Go home, Tony. You've given us the intel on Sin and Doom; SHIELD can take over from here."

"No," he told her, not bothering with diplomacy. "You can't. SHIELD isn't set up to handle supernatural threats. The Avengers can. We've done it before."

Maya snorted. "Well, when you've worked yourself into some kind of collapse, don't come crying to me."

"I won't." Tony waved off her concern and turned back to Hill. "Call the Avengers Mansion. Steve promised you guys our help if you needed it, and he needs to know about this immediately. I'm going to talk to Dr. Deodato, and then I'm going back to Stark Enterprises." At least he could still do his job there without somehow hurting or breaking himself.

Deodato had a lot to say, and very little of it was anything Tony wanted to hear. There was nothing that could be done for the headaches, because the root cause, the damage to the Extremis, wasn't treatable. The best they could do was give him a palliative prescription for migraine medication, except that, given the still-healing damage to his heart, most of the drugs commonly prescribed for treating migraines were contraindicated. Except for opiates or sedatives, of course — those were off-limits because he couldn't handle taking them. Deodato wrote him a prescription anyway, 'just in case.'

It was too bad, Deodato told him, that Maya couldn't just reboot Tony with a clean install of the Extremis, but all the available data indicated that that would kill him. "At this point, your body relies on it to keep your heart beating and your lungs working, and you wouldn't survive turning it off, even for long enough to, um, reboot you."

Maya smiled with cheer that he expected wasn't even forced, and advised Tony to see it as just one more scientific challenge to solve. She avoided pointing out that she hadn't wanted to give him the Extremis in the first place, which was nice of her considering that she mentioned how much easier it would be to fix it if she still had access to the Mandarin's rings at least three times, and pointed out twice that it was Tony's alterations and additions to the original Extremis coding that had made it vulnerable to the data corruption in the first place.

If they failed to come up with a solution, it wouldn't be for want of Maya trying. He didn't need her promise to know that, insults about his code-writing abilities notwithstanding.

He avoided using the Extremis for the rest of the day, relying on clunky laptops and cell phones and even letting one of Fury's minions fly him back to Stark Tower in an aircar — disconcertingly, Barnes had shown up to drive it, despite undoubtedly having better things to do. When he called the armor to fly him home at the end of the day, he remembered why.

Presumably, he flew back to the Avengers Mansion under his own power, because when he landed, he didn't have to disengage the armor's autopilot function. He wasn't entirely sure how; he found himself sitting in his lab seventeen minutes after leaving Stark Tower with no real memory of how he'd gotten there, still wearing his armor and with a dull, sickening throbbing in his temples.

He took it off manually, not using the Extremis, and let the gold under-armor drain back inside his body. He didn't want to look at it.

It felt strange for a moment whenever he reabsorbed it, the liquid metal always several degrees cooler than his internal body temperature. It had felt safer, once, to know that he would always have a part of the armor with him, always be able to summon it when he needed it.

Having his cybernetic connection to the armor hacked, and used to control him, had put paid to that little fantasy — he'd turned himself into a living weapon, and weapons could always fall into the wrong hands. It had been a mistake to forget that.

A mistake to let himself rely on it so heavily.

If he'd died in Afghanistan, killed by his own company's weapons, it would have been cosmic justice. Maybe this was, too.

He'd told himself before that the Extremis was a fair trade for having Steve back, when he'd thought the Mandarin's rings had burned it out of him, Tony thought, as he slotted the pieces of his armor carefully into place inside its briefcase. It still was. And he'd still be able to control the armor with it; that used it at a low enough level that the damage would be slight enough to heal as it occurred instead of snowballing into a feedback loop and triggering a migraine.

Supposedly, anyway. The tight ache in his head at the moment said otherwise, but it was probably just a residual headache from yesterday's attack, made worse by spending half the day staring at computer screens.

It was a fair trade. If he'd known what was going to happen four months ago, he'd still have gone into the fight with the Mandarin willingly. Except... when he'd been prepared to lose the Extremis forever, after that fight, he'd expected a future where he wouldn't be able to use it. Not one where he'd have to keep his hands off it for his own good.

He wasn't going to be able to do it. It was easy to resist something when it wasn't around to tempt you. Feeling the Extremis waiting in the back of his head every day, the constant near-silent hum of electrical activity and digital information around him just waiting to be tapped into, and ignoring it, every day... it was hard enough to do that with alcohol, and that was something external. The Extremis was part of him. Not using it was like not using one of his hands. Like never wearing his armor.

Wanda could do it. Wanda was also stronger than he was.

The snap when the briefcase closed had a final quality to it. He set it aside and rubbed at his face with both hands, already feeling twitchy at the lack on mental stimulation — he hadn't accessed anything with the Extremis since yesterday, and his brain felt like it was running on a hamster wheel, too much energy with nowhere to go. Was this what Hank felt like when he got so revved up and twitchy?

This was stupid. He'd lived without the Extremis for thirty-two years. He didn't need it. He shouldn't need it. Instead, he'd turned it into another damn addiction.

And what the hell he was going to say to Steve?

He had assured Steve that the Extremis was harmless. He had looked into his eyes and promised him that he was through with trying to hurt himself, actively or passively. And now his own body was letting him down again, and it was his own damn fault.

It had been his decision to hack the Mandarin's rings, to deliberately let the Mandarin electrocute him in order to do so. His decision to get the Extremis in the first place.

His helmet was still sitting on the workbench, watching him with empty eyes; old Shellhead had the same blank expression he always had, whether he was watching Tony drink himself into a stupor or grieve over Steve's death. Remote. Untouched. Unhelpful.

The crash the helmet made when it hit the box of still-unpacked tools he'd left on the other workbench was loud, but unsatisfying.

When the last of the tools rolled into his foot and was still, and the last echo of metal on concrete had died away, his head still hurt, his chest still had that odd, lurching flutter inside it, and he was still going to have to give up the Extremis or risk making himself unable to do the job when the team needed him.

And now he had an entire box of tools to pick up.

Chapter Text

"It's imperative that it not be exposed to direct sunlight," Dr. Thomas said for the third time. "The damage would be irreparable." 

"Our scientific consultant has spoken to both your exhibit curator and to several archival preservation and manuscript conservation specialists from the New York Public Library's special collections department at length," Jan said, smiling up at him with publicity-perfect charm. Beside her, Steve was projecting square-jawed trustworthiness for all he was worth.

The Metropolitan Museum's manuscript curator was visibly nervous about entrusting a valuable sixteenth century manuscript to a bunch of costumed superheroes; Sam's careful explanation of the Mansion's security system hadn't reassured him much, which, considering the number of times the place had been attacked, blown-up, set on fire, or otherwise subjected to major structural damage, wasn't surprising.

At the end of the day, Thomas had to answer to the museum's board of trustees, as well as to the donors who had given them the book in the first place. The donors wanted the book to be protected from theft, especially theft by international terrorists, but also wanted it to go back on display as soon as possible, and the trustees were highly skeptical about the existence of any "so called curse" as well as the necessity of having Dr. Strange remove it.

"The Dee manuscript is going to be stored in an airtight, temperature and humidity controlled glass case." Hank's smile was considerably more fixed than Jan's. "It will be kept at 50°F and 49% relative humidity, inside a secure vault. In the dark. You can examine it if you want to."

Dr. Thomas smoothed his hair down with one hand and fixed Hank with a steady, assessing stare. "I would appreciate that. I understand you're a chemist, Dr. Pym?"

"Biochemistry and dimensional physics."

Behind Dr. Thomas, and slightly to his left, one of the museum's assistant curators was carefully cradling the hermetically sealed box that contained the John Dee manuscript. Wanda was hovering at her elbow, staring at the box as if she expected it explode. If he looked closely, Sam almost thought he could see light glowing through the thin material of her gloves.

He would have dismissed it as his imagination, but Redwing had mantled his feathers, let out a steam-whistle scream of offense, and taken off for the sky the moment the museum staff, and their box, had come within twenty feet of him. He had flatly refused Sam's suggestion that he come back down, projecting an impression of fear and disgust, and a mental image of the box distorted into the shape of a giant, evil-looking owl. There is a predator inside that, Sam translated.

"We're glad to help the museum in any way," Steve was saying. "Dr. Strange will examine the book as soon as possible, and we'll get it back to you folks in no time." 

"I hope so." The assistant curator shifted her grip on the manuscript box, grimacing slightly, then added, "I'm skeptical about this 'curse,' but the exhibit has been plagued by bad luck since it began, and one of our conservationists swears that it whispered to him when he tried to assess its condition. He's not usually a man given to superstition."

She was around Sam's age, with well-defined muscles in her arms that probably came from hauling manuscripts around, and mid-toned, coppery skin, and had shown no sign of Dr. Thomas's tendency to talk down to them all. Between himself and Hank, Sam had gotten the better end of the bargain.

"I didn't feel anything creepy around it," Sam told her, "but people whose opinions I trust think it's dangerous."

"The attack..." She shook her head. "Supervillains are one thing. Doctor Octopus tried to steal a Vermeer from us right after I first started working for the Met, but nobody's ever come in with guns before. They killed two people. Art thieves don't operate that way. It's not something you-" she broke off, her voice catching, then took a deep breath. "My fiancé keeps trying to get me to move out of New York."

People who weren't from New York always had an exaggerated impression of how dangerous it was — or how dangerous cities in general were. It was a toss-up whether the media liked scary inner-city gang violence or maniacal supervillains more in terms of depicting the city as a dangerous place full of sub-human criminals. Not to mention, "Where else are you going to get to work with a collection like that?"

"The Smithsonian, or the British Museum," she said, matter-of-factly, "but one doesn't have job openings in my field and the other one requires moving to England. Plus, I did an internship at the National Archives right after I finished school. You couldn't pay me money to go back to a DC commute." She shifted the box again, and nodded at Hank and Thomas. "Dr. Thomas is waving at me. I think it's time to go install this in your vault."

The vault had foot-thick steel alloy walls, with half-inch adamantium plating. It was meant to contain dangerous and potentially explosive tech, including Tony, if the Extremis were ever hacked again.

The original Mansion's plans had shown a shielded energy containment room in this location, designed to keep Jack of Heart's powers under control. Sam had never actually seen it, but he'd seen the damage Jack's body had caused — even after death, his flesh had still been charged with energy. Anything that could contain that was overkill to protect a book.

The manuscript case looked lonely and out of place against the sterile metal walls; Jan had lined the bottom in red velvet, like a display case. She'd suggested that they donate the thing to the museum when the book was returned, as a gesture of good will.

It wasn't a bad idea; when Thomas examined the case, his nervousness and general hostility decreased to almost nothing, replaced by stiff professionalism. By the time Hank and Jan were walking him out, he was almost smiling.

They hadn't needed Tony and his prominent donor status to make this go smoothly after all. Just a couple of pretty faces — Steve included — and someone to talk science.

The vault door was heavy enough that it took both Steve and Sam together to haul it shut. If Thor were there, he could have done it singlehandedly, but diplomacy was not his strong suit, and he'd had business in Valhalla.

Sam leaned his weight against the door to make sure it was fully shut while Steve keyed in the electronic lock. It beeped once, then engaged, unaffected by Wanda's presence only a few feet away; Tony had designed it to be resistant to energy fluctuations.

Probably a good thing, considering what they were shutting inside it.

"I can still feel it," Wanda said, frowning at the door. "It's fainter, but it's still there. The vault shielding doesn't block it."

Steve nodded at the door. "Is there anything you can do?"

She shrugged. "I can put some protective sigils around it, but that's not really my specialty."

There was a familiar, whiny "feed me" meow from the doorway, and then the cat padded silently into the room, sneering at Sam on his way to Steve — he and Redwing loathed each other, and he considered Sam to be an extension of Redwing. 

Halfway to Steve, the cat froze. For a long, motionless moment, he stared at the vault with his back arched and his tail puffed out like a bottle brush. Then he hissed and streaked out of the room.

"Put on lots of sigils," Sam suggested. 

An hour later, Steve was still trying to get the cat to come out from under the living room couch.

"Leave it alone. He'll take your hand off if you stick it under there again."

Steve ignored Sam's advice and stuck his hand back under the couch, causing the cat to make an evil growling sound and retreat even further.

"Come on, Patton," Steve coaxed. "It's okay."

All six-foot-two-inches of Steve were stretched out on the floor, his chin propped on one wrist as he stared under the couch — it was low enough to the floor that his arm only fit under it up to the elbow. It should have been funny, but the sounds of defensive fear coming from the cat made the hair on the back of Sam's neck stand up.

In the back of his head, he could sense Redwing's wary reluctance to return to the Mansion, balanced against the knowledge that Sam and food were both there. Redwing didn't spook easily. Neither did the cat, who had stood his ground against two and a half pounds of pissed off, territorial red-tailed hawk without blinking.

Keeping that book here was a bad idea, and not just because of the insurance disaster it would be if something happened to it while it was in their custody. 

'One of our conservationists swears that it whispered to him,' the curator had said. She'd sounded skeptical, but she'd held the box uncomfortably.

Daredevil had heard whispering in the cathedral, before Chthon had influenced a previously law-abiding man into attacking Strange. Wanda had said that she could feel both Chthon and the magic in the book trying to speak to her because of her powers, but magical ability didn't seem to be necessary.

Between Hank, Tony, and Wanda, they had enough unstable people in the house without adding evil chaos magic that spoke to people in their heads to the mix.

The cat made a particularly vicious spitting noise, and Steve jerked his hand out from under the couch, rubbing at a set of nasty-looking scratches that scored the back of his leather glove. "I'm not trying to hurt you, cat," he said, his jaw setting firmly. 

Trust Steve to try to lecture a cat. "Have you tried food?" Sam suggested. "It works for Clint."

Steve pushed himself up to his knees, brushing a scattering of orange fur off the front of his costume. "Wanda, your arms are smaller than mine. Do you want to-"

"No," she said, firmly. She eyed the couch warily, and added, "I don't blame him. I don't like having that book in the house, Cap. We need Strange here as soon as possible."

"Yeah," Sam agreed. "I know. I couldn't get any answer from him when I called, or from Wong." Calling Strange was a shot in the dark at the best of times, since he rarely carried a cell phone and often spent months away from home. He also seemed to regard the internet with a baffled and vaguely intimidated disinterest that Sam didn't expect from someone who usually seemed convinced of his own omniscience.

Wanda arched an eyebrow. "Did you try asking the Night Nurse? I think the two of them are involved."

"Jan thinks so too," Steve said. "So yes, we did. She said he and Wong are in another dimension. It's got something to do with Dormammu, and weaknesses in the dimensional walls around Manhattan. Apparently, Chthon's toe-hold in the city is like a giant, inter-dimensional beacon to all kinds of nasty things straight out of HP Lovecraft's nightmares."

Wanda's lips tightened, and she looks away, rubbing at the back of one hand. "I didn't think of that. I'm the one who brought him here."

That was bullshit, and Sam said as much. "You didn't choose to come here. There's only so much you can do when you're being mind-controlled, it's hard enough just to fight the control off. And there's no point in blaming anyone now, anyway; what's done is done." If there was one thing about his fellow Avengers that irritated him — and when had he started thinking of them as 'fellow Avengers?' He'd intended to join the team only temporarily, had no more intention of being their long-term token anti-Registration hero than he'd once had of being their 'token minority guy' — it was the way so many of them seemed to spend half their time feeling guilty for the wrong things. 

Steve might be capable of prolonged sulking fits and epic cases of missing the point, but he didn't wallow in guilt or self-pity.

"It's nobody's fault," Steve said firmly. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of orange-furred movement under the couch. The cat had crept forward while they were talking, now that Steve was no longer poking at him.

Sam dropped to the floor and reached under the couch, grabbing for the scruff of his neck. The cat squawked, and tried to bite him, raking Sam's forearm with his back feet. It was nothing compared to the damage Redwing could do to his arms and shoulders without even trying, especially not through a long-sleeved shirt, so he ignored the needle-sharp caws and hauled the cat out, handing it up to Steve. "Here. Maybe he'll feel safer if you take him to the other end of the mansion."

"I was planning to." Steve cradled the cat against his chest, not seeming to care that it was currently wrapped around his arm, kicking and biting and making vaguely demonic sounds. 

"You aren't good with cats," Sam observed. "Remember that time you kept your neighbor's cat for a week and it ran every time it saw you coming?"

Steve shrugged, looking faintly embarrassed. "It was afraid of my shield."

Probably, Sam reflected, because Steve had a habit of throwing his shield indoors when he was bored, something that he couldn't blame any self-respecting cat for objecting to. Sharing an apartment with Steve had been an exercise in broken lamps, cracked picture frames, and arguing over the radio — Steve had refused to listen to anything recorded after about 1960 that wasn't by the Rat Pack, which Sam suspected had been done out of a deliberate desire to be irritating. Sam had retaliated by spending entire days speaking in 70s and 80s slang he knew Steve had never heard of.

They'd been remarkably stupid in their twenties.

"Just give him some cat treats and leave him alone" he said. "It works with Redwing."

Wanda reached out to poke tentatively at one of the cat's front feet, then snatched her hand back as he swiped at her. "He has an extra toe on his front foot. I never noticed that before." Then, to the cat, "Hello, kitty, are you a mutant too? Yes, you are. An angry mutant."

Sam exchanged glances with Steve, and saw his own amusement reflected in Steve's expression. "I'd say something about girls and animals," he said, "but Hawkeye talks to it the same way."

Wanda pulled her hand, half extended to touch the cat, back again. "I always wanted a kitten when I was little," she said, a touch of defensiveness in her voice, "but we weren't allowed to have them because they're dirty."

"They wash themselves all the time," Steve objected, his eyebrows going up skeptically.

"Yes," Wanda said. "With their tongues."

When you looked at it that way, it did sound kind of disgusting. "I never had pets growing up either," Sam offered. "The superintendent in our apartment building hated them."

"Neither did I." The cat gave one more high-pitched growl then subsided into long-suffering silence, clearly having given up. Steve scratched it behind one ear with a gloved finger. "See, if you hold him long enough, he eventually calms down."

Wanda rubbed the cat's other ear, carefully, then smiled when he leaned his head into her hand. "The book will be gone soon, kitty," she told him. "I won't let it hurt you." She paused for a second, stroking the six-toed foot splayed against Steve's scale-mail. "I'm glad I didn't hurt you," she added.

What was she — Then it hit Sam. Something like ninety-eight percent of human mutations had nothing to do with the X gene. All of them had been unaffected by M-Day; Wanda's power had clearly been going by Chthon's intent, rather than a literal application of her words.

'No more mutants,' taken literally, could have completely halted evolution, going by what Sam remembered from high school biology. Or erased most of the human population from existence — just about everybody had some kind of mutation, from blue eyes, to sickle cell disease, to cats with six toes.

Reality altering powers were something Sam preferred not to think about too hard — the broader implications were too disturbing. One little nudge at reality, and your entire life could be rewritten, huge chunks of your past erased or replaced. Powers could be given to you or taken away again, just like that. One wish spoken by the wrong person could change who you were.

Tony claimed to be able to remember parts of his life in the alternate universe Reed Richard's kid had created. Wanda could remember bits and pieces of Magneto's mutant-dominated alternate reality. Sam had had two sets of memories long before either of those.

"It's not your fault," Steve said, to Wanda. "Like I said, if we blamed everyone on the team who'd ever been mind-controlled for what they did under mind-control, we'd have to court-martial pretty much everybody except Jan."

"Don't push our luck." Sam bent down and made a show of knocking on the edge of the coffee table. "If you say that too many times, Jan will be next."

Wanda's lips twitched, but then she sobered, the smile vanishing before it had fully formed. "It might not be my fault, but knowing that won't bring Vision back." She tried to smile again, but this time it was visibly forced. "He liked cats, too. We talked about getting one from the humane society, but then I got pregnant, and a new pet plus two babies would have been too much to handle."

It felt like he ought to say something, but Sam couldn't think what. 'I'm sorry,' or 'I know how you feel,' or any of the other platitudes people handed out after someone died were more for the sake of courtesy than anything else. 'You've never watched your best friend be gunned down right in front of you, so no, you don't know how I feel,' was not a response people were equipped to handle, either.

Steve shifted the cat to one arm, and reached back to rub at his neck with his free hand. "I'll try calling Linda again," he said awkwardly. "Maybe Strange is back now." He turned to go, and Wanda reached for his arm.

"Let me call her. I know Stephen better than you do."

Sam left them to it, and went outside to see if he could get his own frightened animal companion to calm down — Redwing's agitation was a continual presence in his mind, making him feel edgy, and his own thoughts about reality and memories weren't helping.

He shoved the worries aside with an effort, and spent the next ten minutes coaxing Redwing down off the roof of a neighboring building.

It was nearly nine, dinner had been over an hour ago, and where the hell was Tony? The last thing Steve had heard from him had been via Maria Hill, when she'd called to deliver a curt message that Tony had "discovered information which confirms that Sin is working with Victor von Doom." Then, when Steve had tried to ask questions, she'd hung up.

Taking a piece of vital tactical information and dropping completely out of contact with it for hours wasn't like Tony. Or rather, it was, but when Tony decided to keep something to himself because he was certain he could deal it on his own, he tended to keep everyone he knew completely in the dark about it. He certainly didn't tell the command staff of SHIELD and have them call the Avengers.

Steve kicked the door to their room closed behind him, and let himself drop backward onto the bed, arms flung out. Tony was fine. Sharon or Bucky would have called him if Maya's examination had gone badly.

He was fine. He was just being an uncommunicative jackass, because some business deal or other at Stark Enterprises, defragmenting his armor, or redesigning SE's tablet computer from the ground up because the patent infringement case had suddenly turned in HP's favor, was so important that he'd lost track of time.

It wasn't unusual for Tony to do that. Steve firmly squashed the thought that Tony could easily have used the Extremis to call him at any point, without even the need for access to a phone; he'd spent weeks trying to get Tony to use the Extremis less frequently, and just because it would be more convenient for him right now if Tony used it didn't mean it couldn't hurt him.

He'd been completely worn out by it yesterday afternoon, when Steve had found him lying on the bed in the dark, obviously suffering from another headache. This time, it had been bad enough that he'd actually confessed to overdoing it and agreed to talk to Maya.

Steve stared at the ceiling and tried not to think of all the things that might be going wrong with the Extremis in order to cause those headaches, or all the potential non-work-related reasons for why Tony hadn't come home yet or called.

He felt restless, twitchy, the kind of useless, jumpy energy he usually burned off by going for a run or working out, but a hand-to-hand workout with Sam earlier hadn't made a dent in it.

Sam had been on edge, too, throwing himself into the practice with a little too much enthusiasm. Because of the John Donne manuscript, probably. He and Wanda were both uneasy about it, and they still hadn't managed to get Strange on the phone.

And Hank was spending far too much time walled up in his lab, between the containment unit for that damn book, and whatever genetics project he was working on with Beast. He was probably trying to avoid Thor, but now he'd started asking the other Avengers for blood samples, and Steve wasn't looking forward to the explosion that was going to come when Thor heard about it.

And the newspaper articles about himself and Tony were still coming out. When Jarvis had started screening or blocking all calls from the media, they'd started calling the West Coast and badgering Henry Hellrung instead, trying to get him to tell them the juicy details of his possibly hypothetical fling with Tony. Steve had carefully not asked Tony if there was any truth to the rumors, because he would undoubtedly have to work with Hellrung in the future, and having too much knowledge of anything that had happened between them would make that awkward. The tabloids seemed hell-bent on ruining Steve's deliberate ignorance, though.

At least Sally Floyd had apologized for breaking the story without telling them, though she'd put most of the blame on Tony for not answering his phone.

That seemed to be a habit of his recently.

Steve checked his watch, found that only seven minutes had passed since the last time he'd checked it, and sighed. Calling Tony's office again would only get him an answering machine at this time of night, and contacting him via the Avengers communicator built into the armor would be an abuse of team communications equipment.

Thirteen minutes later, Tony appeared in the doorway.

'He looks tired,' was Steve's first thought. The dark smudges under his eyes that had been there this morning were deeper now, and his hair was a mess. His white dress shirt was crumpled and smeared with grease and machine oil, and there was a dark streak — probably more oil — down the side of his face.

He hadn't been doing something for SE. He'd been elbow deep in a quinjet engine, or overhauling the armor.

Steve's worry vanished in the heat of irritation. "Where have you been all day?" he demanded, sitting up with a jerk. "Sub-director Hill wouldn't give me anything other than that Doom and Sin are working together. You can't find out something like that and then go to radio silence for hours."

Tony's expression didn't flicker, which somehow made Steve only want to yell at him louder, in the hopes that maybe shouting would sink in where plain old annoyance had not. He stepped into the room, closing the door behind him, and turned to face Steve. "I've been building an electromagnetic jammer to block Doom's teleportation device," he said quietly. "Someone using it can still teleport into a space where the jammer signal is being broadcast, but they can't leave."

"That's... good, I guess." Actually, it was potentially very useful, but building it hadn't required Tony to hide all day. "We should have figured this out days ago," he added, feeling a flash of irritation at himself as well. "It all makes sense now. Sin's never had any interest in magic, but Doom's been after Loki's spear for months now. It's too much of a coincidence for a book with spells for summoning chaos entities to be stolen while Chthon is in the city and for the two of them to have nothing to do with one another." In hindsight, the likelihood of Doom's involvement was almost painfully obvious. Why had none of them seen it?

Too many distractions, he decided. First Wanda's return, then that damn magazine article, not to mention the onslaught of disasters and petty supervillain attacks that had run them all ragged for weeks. Was Chthon doing it on purpose? Did he have that much influence yet, or was it just a side effect of how thin the barrier between dimensions had become inside St. Margaret's, the bad luck that followed Chthon seeping out and working in Doom's favor?

Tony rubbed one hand over his face, smearing the engine grease even further. "We need to have Wanda take a look at that book; we can't afford to wait until Strange gets back from wherever he's run off to. Doom wouldn't waste his time on it if it weren't useful to him."

Steve nodded; Doom could devote himself to a goal with a single-minded intensity that was frightening, the same vanity that had prompted him to hide his face behind a mask making him refuse to acknowledge even the possibility of failure.

The book contained spells for summoning 'angels and demons,' according to the description the assistant manuscript curator had given Sam. Could one of those be modified to summon Loki's spear right out of the cathedral, or call up something Doom could send in to fetch it? Strange's binding spell kept Doom himself from physically entering the building as long as Daredevil lived, but maybe Doom had discovered some kind of loophole.

"Redwing and Patton won't go near it," he said.

Tony made an absent noise, then started to pace back and forth at the end of the bed, left hand rubbing at his temple.

Was that a sign of another headache, or was he just thinking? Steve couldn't tell anymore, and that worried him.

He was preparing to pointedly ask if Tony was all right when Tony stopped abruptly, his back to Steve. "We can talk about Doom later," he said, a note in his voice that would have sounded dismissive if Steve hadn't known him well enough to recognize the tiredness behind it. His shoulders had stiffened, the weary slump of moments before gone. "I talked to Maya," he added, then fell silent.

Steve waited for more, and when it didn't come, made himself ask. "What did she say?"

Tony sighed. He still wasn't looking at Steve, wasn't even facing him. "You're not going to like it."

A sinking feeling in his stomach, Steve got to his feet. "It involves the Extremis, so I'm sure I won't. What is it?"

For a long moment, Tony said nothing, and Steve's stomach sank even further.

He wasn't sure what he'd been hoping for — that there would, in fact, turn out to be a problem with the Extremis and it would be something they could fix, after which the headaches would go away, or that there would be nothing wrong with it, and Maya would give Tony orders to use it less that he would actually listen to. The former. The former would have meant that Tony wasn't subconsciously doing this to himself, and that there was an easy solution. That he wasn't using the Extremis just as heavily as always and lying to Steve about trying to cut back.

Tony drew in a deep breath, and when he spoke, it was in the same cool, distant tone Steve had heard him use on television after the Helicarrier had exploded. "The Mandarin's rings introduced a bug into the Extremis, corrupted part of the code. The healing factor isn't working properly, which is why the headaches are back. Until the coding is repaired, using it causes damage, so I'm going to be less useful in the field for a little while."

"Damaged," Steve repeated slowly. "What kind of damage?"

"It doesn't matter," Tony said, so calmly that Steve felt a hot flare of anger at him. "All we have to do is fix the Extremis and it will go away."

Tony always thought he could fix things, that everything had to have an obvious, neat solution if only he were smart enough to see it and could control enough variables to put said solution into effect, preferably while telling as few people as possible. Sometimes his attempts at damage control caused even more problems than the thing he was trying to fix. Work with the government to mitigate the effects of Registration, co-operate with Loki, break the law and flatten everyone in his path to steal his stolen technology back. Shoot himself up with experimental nanotechnology to take out a monster who'd been created by the same process.

And he still wasn't looking at Steve, wasn't even facing him.

Tony wasn't going to hold this conversation with his back to Steve. He reached out, grabbed Tony by the shoulder — the solid bone and muscle beneath his fingers felt healthy, part of his mind noted, normal — and jerked him around. "What kind of damage?"

Tony's eyes narrowed, his muscles tensing, and then he relaxed again; Steve had the feeling he'd forced himself to do so. He met Steve's eyes, and said, with an attempt at a smile, "Don't worry; it's not as bad as you're thinking."

"And how bad is that?" Tony didn't look sick, hadn't seemed sick, aside from the headaches. Had there been other symptoms, ones Steve had missed? How much had he been hiding?

Tony shook his head fractionally, reaching up to lay his fingers over Steve's, still wrapped around his shoulder. "Damage was the wrong word. It's not going to do anything to me, Steve. It just hurts when I use it, and until the problem is fixed, it's going to keep hurting. Maya thinks the migraines might get worse, and there might be some other, minor side effects. It's not a big deal, just an inconvenience."

They were standing only inches apart, in what probably would have looked like a romantic pose to anyone who walked into the room — he could smell the oil staining Tony's clothes, overpowering the faint metallic scent that he always seemed to carry around with him these days. Normally, being this close to a disheveled, grease-stained Tony would have made it hard to think about anything but sex, but right now, all he could feel was relief. And irritation. Relief that Tony wasn't seriously ill, despite his momentary fears, a tight irritation at Tony for refusing to listen to everything Steve had been saying about the Extremis all along, and an irrational desire to shake Tony and snarl at him for making him worry with all this drama.

Saying 'I told you so,' would be petty. Steve lifted his hand from Tony's shoulder, letting it fall back to his side. "You could barely move last night. I think the side effects are pretty bad already."

Tony shrugged slightly. "So I'm going to have to try not to use it for anything but running the armor for a few weeks, until we figure out a solution. I know this is a bad time to have me running at less than full capacity," he went on, not giving Steve even a moment's pause in which to respond, "but we got by before I had the Extremis. I can function just fine in a fight without it. I won't be able to monitor data from the cathedral or the NYPD or anything else continually like I've been doing but that's what we have Hank for." Another practiced smile, and his fingers tightened gently on Steve's arm before letting go. "Maybe it'll even keep him busy enough to stop walking around muttering to himself about genetics and Nobel prizes; working on the storage unit for the book kept him out of trouble for a couple of days."

"You should-"

"I'm not dropping down from active duty," Tony added fiercely, "so don't even suggest it. It's not an option right now, not while Doom and Sin and Chthon are all out there."

It was true, damn him.

Very dryly, Steve said, "If I ordered you to, you'd ignore me." He was probably going to ignore his own stated plan to use the Extremis only to run the armor, too. The first time being able to access a computer or security camera or satellite transmission in his head was faster and more convenient than doing it the old fashioned way, Tony would tough it out and do things manually. The tenth time, or the first time they needed information or access to a building's security network immediately in the middle of a fight with something, all good intentions would be forgotten.

Tony offered him what was probably supposed to be an encouraging smile. "We're going to fix it. Maya's working on it right now." Steve wasn't sure if he was trying to reassure him or himself.

"And if you can't fix it, what are you going to do?"

Tony winced. "Get used to being obsolete. But it's not going to come to that."

Of course not. Tony had never met a computer program or piece of machinery he couldn't fix, and if he ever did, he'd never admit to it.

Tony came a step closer to him, one hand coming up to touch the side of Steve's face. "I swear, I did not do this on purpose." He stared into Steve's eyes, expression uncertain. His eyes were a clear, bright blue, shading to darker grey around the pupils, no hint of oily Extremis black. Steve felt a sudden urge to wipe the smudge of grease on his face away, to clean all traces of SE and his workshop off of him.

"Why would you-" he started, and then felt a chill as he remembered Tony's face that night on the Helicarrier, when Steve had accused him of being suicidal.

Tony had worked his way through a laundry list of unhealthy behaviors in the past out of some warped need to punish himself. Had tried, both subconsciously and deliberately, to hurt himself with alcohol, with recklessness, by running the clock on his breastplate or artificial heart down to the last handful of seconds over and over.

It hadn't even occurred to Steve that he would still be doing it. Not intentionally, anyway. He'd sworn he was getting better. He had been getting better.

He wrapped his arms around Tony, tightly enough that he knew it probably hurt, and buried his face in Tony's shoulder. The prickly hair of Tony's goatee scraped against his skin, and his shirt smelled like oil and some kind of eye-watering industrial solvent. Steve closed his eyes, and didn't pull away. "I believe you."

"I know this is my own fault, but I really didn't mean for it to happen." One of Tony's hands rubbed up and down Steve's back. "I won't let it be a liability for the team. I promised Wanda I'd be there if Chthon got her again, and I promised you—"

"Promise me you won't do anything to make this worse," Steve interrupted. It was supposed to be an order, but came out sounding like something entirely different.

Tony's hands slid under his shirt, cool against his skin, and his touch was suddenly anything but soothing. "Of course not. I don't actually enjoy being in pain."

There were moments when Steve doubted that, but saying wouldn't do any good. Neither would getting angry, which was impossible anyway when Tony was touching him that way.

Steve kissed him, hard, then made himself pull back and be gentle. Tony didn't look sick, didn't feel sick — part of him, in fact, felt very aggressively healthy — but the memory of Tony curled into a tight ball on the bed, eyes screwed shut in pain and dried blood under his fingernails, was still vivid.

"I will pull you from active duty if I see you using the Extremis," he said into Tony's skin, as he started unbuttoning Tony's shirt. It was a promise, not a threat. "And to hell with Chthon. You'll be a liability if you end up in such bad shape that you can't take care of yourself in the field."

"You say the most romantic things," Tony said, and grabbed for Steve with enough force that all attempts to be slow and gentle went out the window.

They landed on the bed hard, with Tony on top, and Steve spared a moment to be grateful that they had tested its structural integrity thoroughly. A less well-built piece of furniture wouldn't have taken kindly to having four hundred pounds abruptly dropped on top of it.

Then he didn't do any more thinking for a long time.

The air was thick with dust, and her eyes kept tearing up. Carol tried to use the back of her arm to wipe some of the fine, grey and white powder out of her eyes, and only succeeded in making it worse. There were times when she seriously considered adding goggles to her costume, regardless of how silly they would look.

"Just keep holding that girder in place," Tony's voice crackled over her communicator. "I'm welding the support strut back into place. Once I'm done, you should be able to let go without the wall collapsing."

The floor beneath Carol vibrated slightly as a twenty-foot-tall Jan, propping up the West side of the building from the outside, turned her head to the side and coughed into her upper arm. "Weld faster," the other woman choked out.

Until nine thirty this morning, the unstable disaster area Carol and Jan were currently keeping from total collapse by main strength had been a nearly completed condominium, one of those modern ones with white walls and lots of big, glass windows. Most of the glass was currently covering either the warped and buckled floors or the street and sidewalk below; nearly all the windows on the building's north and west sides had shattered when the crane being used to complete the roof had collapsed and crashed straight through the top of the building.

The crane had sheared off part of the building's seventh, eighth, and ninth stories when it fell, finally coming to a stop in the rubble of the partially collapsed fifth and sixth floors. It was still in place, a massive piece of twisted metal that pierced through two stories, lashed into place with sticky white webbing — Spiderman's new organic webbing was stronger than the artificially produced substance he'd apparently used before, and he'd covered both the crane and a wide swath of the building's crumbling outer façade in it.

"If I try to do this any faster, the metal's temperature will increase beyond-"

"I can't hold this forever, Tony. My strength increases proportionally with my height, but this is a very big building."

Carol gritted her teeth, held the twisted steel I-beam in her hands steady — it required her to float just under the ceiling, with nothing to brace herself against — and silently echoed Jan's urgings for Tony to get on with it.

Thirty blocks to the south, something extremely large and possessed of a lot of tentacles had crawled out of the Hudson River and begun attacking lower Manhattan. Steve, Thor, and Wanda had managed to hold it off while the rest of the Avengers pulled construction workers and a handful of building staff and early move-ins out of the upper stories of the condo, but even now that Sam had flown south to join them, they were still having no success at driving it back into the river. The sooner they could get this place stable and leave the rest of the clean-up to the city, the better.

Going by the radio chatter that kept intruding on Carol's concentration, the tentacle monster secreted some kind of acidic slime. And had barbed suction cups on the undersides of its dozen arms. Carol breathed through her mouth, trying not to sneeze at the haze of plaster dust in the air, and reflected that it probably said something about her that that sounded like a more appealing challenge than this.

Where was Jen when you needed her? Or Henry and Simon — another pair of flyers would have been useful about twenty minutes ago. Even if one of them was a bland superhero wannabee who'd gotten his powers as part of a publicity stunt.

They were supposed to be temporary, but it was looking more and more as if Henry's flight powers, at least, were going to stick permanently. He'd actually looked kind of spooked when the Initiative scientists had explained that — it had made Carol like him just a little bit more.

"The police have gotten all the evacuees thirty feet away from the building," Clint said, via the comlink, cutting through Hank's babbling about tentacles and secretions. "As soon as Tony or one of the construction engineers gives the word, Jan can take off and join the monster fighting fun."

Jan coughed into her arm again. "I'll bring you back a sample of the slime, honey," she said, which cued another round of distracting babble from Hank, mostly speculation about what role the pollutants still layered in with the Hudson River mud had played in the creature's creation.

"Cute, aren't they?" Carol commented, tone dry as she could keep it while holding up several tons of brick and mortar.

"You get used to it." She could nearly hear Clint's shrug. "Hank doesn't like sitting stuff out; I think he thinks of this as helping."

"Mayhap he can help on a closed channel with Iron Man." Thor's voice, deep enough to feel in her bones even through a comlink.

"Can we pay less attention to the peanut gallery and more attention to the, ah, thing?" Steve sounded slightly annoyed. Carol sympathized.

The weight of the steel beam abruptly lessened, something else taking over the job of supporting it. "Got it," Tony said. "You can let go now, Carol. You too, Jan. The building should hold until they bring a demolition crew in to take the rest of it down properly."

"About time." Carol let go and floated back from the beam, rolling her shoulders to try and work the strain out of them. She resisted the temptation to rub at her eyes — her hands were too covered in debris for that to do anything but make things worse.

The building shuddered perceptibly as Jan stopped leaning her weight against the damaged wall, and Carol held her breath; if Tony said it would hold, it would probably hold, but the first few moments after the building settled felt very long. Thirty feet between the civilians and a potential collapse would be enough to save lives, but it was a narrow enough safety margin to be risky. People would get hurt, if Tony hadn't judged this properly, or if some unseen bit of damage made his calculations useless.

"I'm on my way, Cap." Jan's voice was clearly audible through the sheared-off break in the wall, the tinny comlink echo creating a weird Doppler effect. The ground shook slightly as she moved away, her footsteps loud and solid enough for Carol to feel them in her bones.

Carol ducked out through the hole in the wall, and let herself drop back down to the sidewalk. The ground below her was covered in glass shards and broken bits of rubble; from the air, they formed a pattern vaguely like a face, with narrowed eyes, and a gaping, grinning mouth.

She shook off fanciful thoughts and looked for a safe place to land, somewhere where she wouldn't be ankle-deep in debris.

There, near the edge of the glass's shatter radius; the imaginary face's left eye was formed by a patch of clear asphalt. Carol touched down, and glanced around for Clint — then saw him, a flash of purple by one of the ambulances.

Clint was surrounded by a small cluster of people, patting a short, grey-haired woman awkwardly on the shoulder as she sobbed into her hands. She had just lost a newly purchased apartment that had probably been close to a million-dollar investment, along with everything of hers that had been in it; what did you say to someone like that? 'I'm sorry everything you own was destroyed, but at least you're still alive?'

Clint was welcome to deal with her, and with all the other dusty and shell-shocked residents and construction workers. She didn't envy him.

Beyond Clint, two men in torn and bloody denim work-shirts were sitting on the ground, while emergency workers tended their injuries. One of them was holding a cellphone to his ear with the arm not currently swathed in bloody gauze, talking in soft, hoarse Spanish. He'd been trapped under a chunk of concrete on the fifth floor — she and Sam had pulled him out.

Beside him, a third man was stretched full-length on the asphalt, a sheet pulled over his face to hide it from the circling news copters. They had pulled him out, too, from under the same piece of rubble. He'd been alive, then.

The man with the cellphone was crying, too; she could hear it in his voice.

This hadn't been a supervillain attack. No one had made the crane collapse with powers or explosives and malicious intent; no one had tried to hurt any of these people, not on purpose. It had been pure bad luck and faulty equipment. 

The lack of someone to blame didn't make that body under the white sheet feel any less like a failure. His chest had been crushed the moment the rubble hit him, and five or ten minutes either way would have made little difference, but he had been breathing when she had lifted that chunk of curtain wall off him, and he wasn't now.

You couldn't save everyone, no matter how good you were or how many powers you had.

She heard the scrape of a boot heel on pavement behind her, and turned to find Clint at her elbow. "They said he would have died anyway," he said quietly. "There wasn't anything you and Sam could have done."

The wind was cold, much colder than LA, but at least the air out here was clear. A strand of hair lashed at her eyes, catching on the edge of her mask, and Carol shoved it away with the back of her hand. "Just think, we could have spent the past half hour fighting something with twelve tentacles that oozes caustic slime."

Clint's lips twitched slightly. "Have you ever noticed that Cap always seems to assign the fun parts of these things to himself?"

"There's nothing he could have done here that a fireman couldn't do better." Steve didn't have any powers, beyond the heightened endurance and flexibility granted by the supersoldier serum, and he didn't have Tony's engineering knowledge, either. What he did have was a lifetime of combat experience.

"There's nothing I can do here that a fireman couldn't do better."

"You're easy to see, even with all that dust in the air." It wasn't much, as jokes went, and Clint didn't smile again.

"It was stupid to send Wanda with the other team," he said, after a long silence while the distant sounds of the fight by the river echoed over the communications link. The monster's slime was apparently capable of dissolving through Spiderman's webbing. "It would've been nice to have probability on our side, here. Her powers would have been useful."

Carol raised her eyebrows, the field of unstable molecules that held her mask on pulling at them. "Useful? She doesn't even trust them to work safely right now." It had been Wanda herself who insisted that she not be sent in to the disaster site, claiming that she didn't trust her powers so close to central Manhattan.

"She brought me back from the dead, and she healed Cap's broken jaw that time in England. Maybe she could have kept that guy alive."

Carol glanced involuntarily at the shrouded body, then forced herself to look away, back to Clint. "She was already being influenced by Chthon in England. I don't think her powers naturally work that way, or she would have healed people with them a lot more often." And if Chthon's influence was necessary in order to do it, then one person's life wasn't worth the potential consequences.

Clint's usually bright costume was dull grey-violet with dust, and his gloves were scuffed and torn — he'd been pulling people out of the rubble under the fire fighters' direction despite not being trained for it beyond the usual superhero's basic knowledge of rescue techniques. She forgot, most of the time, that he had no powers, not even Steve's minimal healing factor and enhanced physical performance. Clint never let the fact that he was eternally outclassed by almost everyone around him slow him down.

It had gotten him killed once already — Steve, Clint, Tony... her non-powered teammates were frighteningly breakable in some ways.

Of course, so were the powered ones. Hank, Wanda, Vision. Simon, who had died twice. Tony again, who was still deeply fucked up despite his new cybernetic powers, for all that he'd gotten better lately.

There were times when Carol wondered if the role of superhero just inherently attracted fucked up or damaged people, the way adrenaline junkies were automatically attracted to fighter planes. Or maybe most of them had started out normal, and the job itself was what did it. She'd been innocent and normal once, hadn't she? It probably wasn't just the effects of her washed-out memories that made that much younger Carol feel like a different person.

"You're the last person I expected to be this pleased to have her back on the team," she said, the words coming out a little more sarcastically than she had intended. "After what she did to you..." Explicitly mentioning the mind-controlled sex Clint had been subjected to in Transia was not something she was willing to do in a place this public, but he would know what she meant. There were certain things that didn't need to be named — things terrible enough or significant enough that afterwards, 'what he did to you,' or 'what happened in Transia' could only have one possible meaning. "I would have expected Thor to greet Tony with open arms first."

"It wasn't her fault." Clint sounded almost defensive. "I'm lucky she was willing to forgive me."

"Willing to forgive you?" Carol stared at him, appalled. "What on earth did you do to her that needs forgiveness?" She expected this kind of self-recriminating stupidity from Tony, but Clint? How bad a number had Wanda done on his head, for him to blame himself? "You were mind-controlled, Clint."

Clint shook his head. "I left her there," he said, grimly. "I should have gone back for her after the mind control wore off. Even just from a tactical standpoint, it was stupid, even taking what I thought I'd seen at face value — she had enough power left to mindwhammy me, even without her memories, and I just left her there with possibly uncontrolled powers she maybe didn't even know she had?" He gestured vaguely at himself. "What kind of superhero does that make me? Other than a stupid one, I mean."

"Well, yes, but..." that made logical sense, but it didn't feel right. Half a moment later, she belatedly realized why, and the hair on her arms stood up. "No one would have expected you to go back, Clint. If it were me, I don't think I could have. Not if I thought it might happen again." Facing another version of Marcus during Kang's invasion of Earth a few years ago had been hard enough — her skin had crawled every time he'd tried to touch her. Going back to limbo with him would have been an impossibility. 

If some supervillain ever made it necessary to send Jessica back into the Shadow King's dimension... Even the thought made her stomach twist and her throat close up.

"Has Tony or Steve told you you should have gone back? Because if they have, I will hurt them."

Clint cringed visibly, his shoulders hunching up. "Thank you for that. God, Chthon could have made me date rape her again if I'd gone back to get her. I hadn't thought of it that way."

Carol glanced around them automatically, half-expecting to see one of the rescued civilians staring at them in horror or prurient interest. This was not the place for this conversation. Few places were, really. And the fight at the docks sounded like it was still going strong — they needed to be there, not here. "I'm pretty sure you were the one who was date raped, from what you told me," she said, keeping her voice low.

Clint waved the idea away, his hand making a hard, jerky motion. "That was when we still thought it was just Wanda with amnesia, before we knew about Chthon." He looked away, down at his torn and grimy gloves. "He wasn't just influencing her by that point; he was controlling her completely." His hands clenched into fists, and his jaw tightened; he looked older, suddenly, more so than he actually was. "She didn't choose any of it, not even subconsciously. Chthon used her body to seduce me like some kind of, of Wanda-puppet. She doesn't even remember it, not really. I don't even know what you call that kind of wrong."

'I didn't want any of this,' Wanda had told her, her anger raw and only partly directed at Carol. 'The last thing I remember is going to find Jen, and Cap says that was weeks before everything else happened.

And 'I wanted someone to stop me. We never seem to notice when one of us needs help.'

She hadn't really thought about what that meant. She hadn't wanted to. Wanda had killed Vision — she'd watched Simon cry for him, for Wanda, watched her team shatter. If it wasn't Wanda's fault, it was all of their faults, for letting her be taken and used.

They'd all let it happen, the same way the rest of the team had let Marcus take her.

"Rape," she said, very quietly. Naming it made it worse, somehow, made it sound dirtier, more pathetic. "You call it rape. Of both of you," she added, quickly, when Clint swallowed hard and took a half-step backward. "That's sick." Jessica had been afraid to sleep, during those first weeks Carol had known her, afraid of what would happen to her in her dreams. Jessica, who was afraid of almost nothing. No wonder Wanda was willing to work with Loki if necessary to keep Chthon away from her. "That's... that thing is evil. I want it destroyed." She surprised herself with how intensely she meant it.

"We can't destroy him." Tony's artificially distorted voice behind her made her stiffen. How long had he been there? How much had he heard? Carol should have heard his metal boots scraping against the pavement as he came up behind them, or felt the disruption in the air as he landed.

"Chthon's one of the primal forces of the universe," Tony went on, as Carol and Clint turned to face him. "The best we can do is seal him up again. That's about all you can ever do, sometimes." His helmet angled slightly toward the ambulances then, and he added, almost to himself. "This shouldn't have happened."

"Accidents happen," Clint said. He rubbed one hand against his thigh, raising a small puff of dust. "Sometime the best you can do is damage control."

"No." Tony shook his head, something within his armor whirring faintly. He smelled like hot metal and burned plastic. "This literally shouldn't have happened. The odds of that crane hitting the building at precisely that angle, at exactly the right point to cause the most damage possible, are minuscule, and even if everything went perfectly wrong, it shouldn't have done this. The building shouldn't have been on the verge of total collapse, unless it was loaded with structural flaws to begin with, and the company that was building it has an almost perfect safety record." He held up one hand, ticking points off on the fingers of his gauntlet. "Building collapses, gas main explosions, subway accidents. Do you know how many times two subway trains have collided underground in the entire history of the New York subway?"

"No," Clint said, "but I'm guessing from your tone of voice that it's a small number."

"It's a very small number," Tony confirmed. "It just doesn't happen."

"You think Chthon's causing all this?" She thought of the face on the pavement, leering evilly up at her. That one had to be a coincidence, even if the disaster itself wasn't — it was too pat, too silly and trite not to be.

"I think we need to talk to Strange again," Tony said. "After we get rid of the squid monster."

Over the comlink, she could hear a loud thud, followed by Steve swearing.

"Something I can shoot," Clint said, locking his hands together and stretching his fingers out. "I can't wait."

Chapter Text

Most of the people his age that Clint knew had spent Saturday mornings watching cartoons as kids. He had, too, once, but by the time he'd been a teenager, he'd been getting up early on Saturday mornings to get ready for performances. It had been a decade and a half since then, but he'd never broken the habit.

There was always some part of your equipment that needed cleaning or repairing or replacing. And there were arrows to make; you could never have enough arrows. 

Technically, he could have just bought them in bulk from a sports supply store or bow hunting catalog, but Clint preferred to make them to his own specifications. Plus, even online, it was hard to find a supplier that would dye the fletching the right shade of purple.

This morning, he'd settled down in the living room, cutting board, exacto knife, and bag of new purple feathers in hand, and started splitting feathers along the quill, sanding the bottoms down and sorting the halves into clockwise and counterclockwise piles. He'd gotten through twenty minutes of Looney Tunes re-runs and halfway through an episode of some cartoon about teenagers with elemental magic when he realized that something was missing.

"Has anybody seen the cat?" Clint asked the room at large.

"No." Carol turned a page in her book, not looking up. "I think it's hiding somewhere. I haven't seen it since yesterday."

Usually he couldn't keep the cat away when he was fletching arrows — the feathers and the sinew he used to bind the fletches on were apparently some kind of cornucopia of cat delight, and Matt/Patton/Churchill would sit inches from his feet and stare at him with huge, crazed eyes, occasionally reaching up with one questing paw to hook his claws through a loop of sinew or shred a fletch. Then he'd grab a thread of sinew in his teeth and run off to eat it, freezing every few feet to glance back and make sure Clint didn't want to follow him.

"There was food still sitting in his bowl when I got breakfast." Clint frowned down at the feather in his hands. "You don't think he's sick, do you?"

Wanda, laying out tarot cards on the part of the coffee table that wasn't covered in fluffs of purple down and crumbs of that styrofoamy stuff that filled the inside of quill shafts, shook her head. "He's afraid of the Dee manuscript. Redwing won't come in this part of the house, either."

She was sitting on the floor a few feet away from Clint, and when she bent her head to look at the cards, he had a perfect view of the tattoo at the base of her neck. It was weirdly captivating, drawing the eye from the knobs of her spine up to the edge of her hairline.

Clint dropped his eyes back to his hands; Wanda obviously wasn't comfortable with the tattoos, or she wouldn't keep wearing gloves over them. Staring at them felt... invasive.

"I'm going to go look for him," Clint said, standing abruptly and brushing feather barbs off his pants. 

Carol gave an absent hum, and turned another page. 

"You should leave him alone. He'll come out when he's ready." Wanda swept her cards into a pile with one hand and started shuffling them again, then cut the deck and laid three cards face up.

"The Tower, the Eight of Swords, and the Five of Cups," Clint observed. "That's not good." 

She made a face, gathering them up again. "Every spread I do comes out like this. It's statistically impossible. Even I ought to be able to get at least one vaguely positive reading."

"That's... really not good. Should we be worried?"

"Tarot cards don't actually tell you the future, Clint. Don't worry about it. It's not the cards; it's all the ambient chaos. Try flipping a coin ten times in a row and seeing what happens."

"I know they don't tell the future." Clint shrugged, vaguely embarrassed. "I used to work in a carnival." And he'd been up close and personal with demons and gods and magic far more times than anybody should have to be since then. Fortune telling might be ninety percent fakery and telling people what they wanted to hear and ten percent actual mysticism, but getting three sinister-looking cards over and over again couldn't possibly mean anything good.

He was going to need more arrows.

After he made sure the cat wasn't off somewhere chewing through an electrical cord.

The kitchen, the library shelves, and the staircase in the front hall were all cat-less, and so was the monitor room. That left Tony's lab, an endless source of potentially lethal things to destroy.

He'd planned to knock — or, rather, holler through the door — since walking into Tony's work area unannounced could get him either a face full of sparks from some welding project and a rant about safety goggles, or an eye full of Tony and Cap doing something he really didn't need to see. Instead, Clint found the door to the lab partly open, with nothing but silence on the other side.

It was probably safe to go in.

The lab was empty — of people, anyway. The cat was sprawled out across Tony's drafting board, one arm hooked over the top to keep himself from sliding down the incline. Several well-chewed pencils and a shredded blue-print were scattered on the table around him.

"I hope that wasn't important," Clint muttered, grabbing the cat around the middle and draping him over his shoulder. "Come on before you break something expensive." 

The cat made an irritated snorting sound and dug his claws into Clint's shoulder blade, hind feet shoving at Clint's chest. His tail thwacked repeatedly against Clint's side, telegraphing annoyance.

There was a single piece of paper in the middle of the drafting board, one edge damp and distinctly chewed-looking. "I bet this was important, too." Clint tried to flatten it out with his free hand, with limited success, and the writing on it caught his eye.

It was a prescription scrip, not a scrap of engineering print-out. A prescription for... Clint squinted at the name, unsure of what it was or even how to pronounce it.

"Hank shouldn't leave these things lying around," he told the cat, picking up the scrip. He was about to shove it into his pocket when he noticed who it was made out for.

Not Henry Pym. Anthony Stark. Which would make sense since this was Tony's lab, but what the hell did he need a prescription for? Hank was the one on two kinds of anti-crazy meds.

Whatever it was, it wasn't likely to be good. Tony didn't go the doctor over normal things like sinus infections; it was always heart surgery and being shot and his armor killing him with electromagnetic fields and experimental poisons that made you hallucinate dead people and other life-or-death or just plain weird things.

That didn't mean this prescription was for one of those things, though. Cap was probably forcing Tony to go to doctors' appointments and other 'good for you' things these days, especially after the poison incident. Cap worried about people; it was what he did.

The cat started to make a low, growling sound of frustration, and thrashed violently in Clint's grasp; he hated being carried or held for more than about sixty-seconds at a time.

"All right, all right, we're leaving the lab of kitty chew toys now. I'll put you down as soon as you're someplace you can't electrocute yourself."

The cat was distinctly ungrateful for Clint's efforts to protect him; the second his paws hit the hallway floor he was gone.

Clint winced; Jarvis wasn't going to be happy when he saw the scratches Matt/Patton/Churchill's claws had left on the shiny new floorboards.

When he heard Jarvis's voice coming from around the corner, he winced again, and considered slapping a foot over the biggest scratch.

"May wanted me to thank you for the tip; we had a lovely time."

"I'm just glad the restaurant is still there." Don's voice, vaguely Midwestern and always deeper than Clint remembered it as — probably because everything sounded high-pitched compared to Thor's rumbling bass. "I think it's been four years since the last time I ate there." He and Jarvis turned the corner, and only a quick side-step on Clint's part kept them from running straight into him.

Don slapped a hand against the wall to steady himself, his cane coming within inches of hitting Clint in the shin. "Sorry," he blurted out. "I didn't know you were there."

Clint shook his head. "It'll teach me not to lurk in hallways. I know what you mean about restaurants closing," he added. "That pizza place by the Met went out of business while I was dead."

"It did?" Don was visibly disappointed. "They were the only place that would still deliver here. And they had that carnivore special with five kinds of meat on it."

Jarvis raised an eyebrow. "I thought they opened while you were... away."

Which was one way to refer to the couple of years after Odin had somehow erased Don out of existence, or separated him from Thor, or... Clint had absolutely no idea how the two of them worked, and never had. It was probably safer just not thinking about it too much.

"Thor liked the carnivore special," Don said, which neatly side-stepped the entire existing and then not existing issue.

Did he remember being dead? Or had he just stopped being at all, after Odin had severed him from Thor, and come back when the Big Guy did?

None of them talked about it, not Thor, not Cap, not Spiderman - who had apparently died and been resurrected with fascinatingly disgusting spinnerets in his wrists while Clint had been gone — and not Clint himself. Cap wouldn't even say the word 'dead'; it was always 'while I was gone,' or 'when I wasn't here,' or 'after I was shot.' Always 'shot,' and never 'killed.' Clint wasn't sure if he avoiding saying it because he didn't like thinking about it, or because of the way Tony and Sam's faces went still and blank whenever you mentioned it.

He'd seen it on the news, when he'd been on his way to Transia; Steve falling, blood dark on the shoulder of his costume, and Sharon going to her knees next to him, and then a crowd of SHIELD personnel swarming in, their bodies blocking the camera shot. Actually being there, the way Sam had, would have been worse.

He didn't know how much of it Steve remembered; more than he did, probably. There had been an explosion — or, no Wanda had been there, with children, and turned her face away from him — and one instant of pain, just long enough for him to think 'This is how Bobbi felt,' and then he'd found himself in London, untouched and alone and knowing, somehow, that a long time had passed.

He wanted to believe he'd been with Bobbi, but if he had, that would mean she was alone now, and if they'd been together, surely she would have come back, too.

"Are you all right?" Jarvis asked.

He was talking to him, Clint realized. Both of them were. "Fine," he said. "Just thinking about something." He was suddenly very conscious of the prescription form in his pocket, for some unknown medication with Tony's name on it.

Don would know what it was for, but he wasn't about to ask him what was wrong with Tony in front of Jarvis. The old guy had been through enough lately, with May's coma and physical therapy; he didn't need to worry about Tony on top of that, especially if it was just something normal and everyday like cold medication.

"Do you have a second?" he asked Don. "There's something I wanted to ask you."

"Sure," Don said, and then there was a long moment of silence while the three of them just stood there.

"Um, just you," Clint clarified.

Jarvis probably assumed that Clint was either going to ask some embarrassing medical question, or talk about his sex life in vivid, over-sharing detail, or both, because he cleared his throat, thanked Don again for the restaurant recommendation, and took his leave.

"If you want," Don said quietly, after Jarvis had left, "I can run the same tests on you that I did on Wanda. If you're worried about dying and coming back, or about being exposed to Chthon in Transia."

"That... wasn't what I was worried about. Well, until just now." The possibility of 'coming back wrong' hadn't even occurred to him. Clint shook the thought off; it was better to not to wonder exactly how Wanda had brought him back, especially since she herself couldn't tell him. "I was kicking the cat out of Tony's work room and found this." He fished the crumpled and ragged-edged piece of paper out of his pocket, and held it out to Don. "It's some kind of prescription scrip. Is it something we should be concerned about?"

Don plucked the paper from Clint's hand and flattened it out, frowning at it. "Huh," he muttered. "He did go see a doctor. Good."

That sounded ominous. "So there is something wrong with him?"

Don looked up again, glanced at Clint's outstretched hand, and pointedly tucked the piece of paper into his shirt pocket. "It's not either of our business."

"Maybe you two don't like each other anymore, but he's still an Avenger. Just tell me whether or not it's serious, okay?"

Don's eyebrows drew together, and for a moment, the stern look in his pale blue eyes was reminiscent of Thor at his most stiff and honorable. "People's medical information is personal, Clint. Go ask Tony if you're so desperate to know."

"He'd say he was fine and lie about it." Which was slightly unfair to Tony, but not by much. He'd managed to hide both a serious heart condition and a steadily worsening drinking problem from the team for months, and back when they'd been on the West Coast, he'd spent all his time hiding behind something mechanical and pretending he was perfectly okay, all the while not meeting anyone's eyes and completely ignoring his hair, beard, clothing, and all the other details of physical appearance and grooming Tony usually devoted what had to be tons of time and money to — he spent more on haircuts alone than Clint spent on archery equipment.

"Which would mean he didn't want you to know," Don shot back.

Clint folded his arms across his chest, and drew himself up to his full height. "I guess you weren't there for the 'we need to support our teammates and help them in their hour of need,' speech Cap gave us all when we first joined the team."

The noble, determined pose never worked as well for him as it did for Cap. Looking unimpressed, Don said, "No, I was there for the 'we'll agree to respect one another's secret identities and not pry into our teammates' private lives' speech that apparently only I remember."

It wasn't prying when your teammate might have something seriously wrong with him.

"Yeah, that was before my time." Clint tried a smile. "Wanda, Pietro and I got the teamwork speech. Repeatedly." Cap had been even bossier back then, and convinced that being five whole years older than everyone else made them all children who needed his wise and experienced guidance. In retrospect, though, even Clint could admit that he and Pietro had been kind of bratty.

Don didn't actually smile, but from the way his eyes crinkled at the corners, that was only because he was trying hard not to. "Ask Tony," he repeated.

"Yeah," Clint agreed. "I will."

Don might have too much in the way of professional ethics to gossip about people's medical records behind their backs, but he wasn't the only Avenger who knew his way around a pharmacy. And professional ethics had never been one of their resident chemistry expert's major concerns.

The low, concrete building looked unimportant from the outside, squatting on the edge of the small collection of white tanks like an afterthought. The door was painted red, with a yellow plastic sign riveted to it proclaiming 'danger: high voltage.'

The guards at the entrance of the compound that wasn't a chemical plant had been easy to slip past, clearly low-levels unaware of the importance of what they were guarding. She had been tempted to take the extra few minutes and kill them, but the guards checked in with the main building by radio every fifteen minutes, and tonight's goal was too important to jeopardize by risking alerting the target just for the sake of a little fun.

She could always slit their throats on the way out.

Sin crouched low as the rotating camera mounted on the corner of the bunker swiveled in her direction, and gestured to the men behind her to do the same. The camera was angled to detect motion at long range; this close to the building, anything less than two feet off the ground was outside its field of view.

If the information her man on the Helicarrier had sent her was correct, Doom's precious manuscript was inside there, under armed guard. If it was, her last remaining mole in SHIELD would have finally outlived his usefulness; Fury would probably dispose of him for her, saving her the necessity of eliminating loose ends.

He hadn't sent her a decent bit of info in weeks, before last night's message. If this didn't pan out, she might kill him just on principle.

If it did, she was going to take great pleasure in informing Doom that she'd managed to locate and obtain the manuscript completely without his aid. He wouldn't be grateful, of course — gratitude was probably beyond him — but he wanted the book badly enough that she might be able to squeeze a 'please' or 'thank-you' out of him. He would hate choking those words out.

Once she brought Doom the book and he located the spell within it that would allow a "mundane" human access to the spear, she would no longer need to tolerate his arrogance. He would send her out to fetch the spear for him, blindly confident in his own cleverness, and she would do some spell-casting of her own.

Doom was not the only one with access to ancient grimoires. Her father had preferred more conventional — and reliable — means of gaining power, but had been wise enough to take advantage of magic when the opportunity arose. 

The pages she currently had tucked away in a secure hiding place were the only remains of a book of dark magic her father and a circle of the Nazi high command had discovered during the second world war. They had attempted to use it to summon a demon from hell to unleash against their enemies, and had they not been interrupted by Fury and his damned Commandos, Allied tanks could have been halted at the French border.

Fury had been interfering in the business of his betters long before the creation of SHIELD. He would be the first to die after Carter and Barnes, she decided. Daddy wanted her to save Rogers for last. Sin had no objections to that.

The single spell remaining from that grimoire would let her claim the power of the spear for herself. It wasn't the cosmic cube, lost with her father's first death, but it would do. America would burn — the world would burn — and from the ashes would arise a new order, in her father's image.

Beside her, Gustave gestured impatiently at the building. Sin nodded sharply; they had delayed long enough.

The front door of the bunker was secured by a single rusted padlock. Behind it, there would be a flight of stairs leading downward and another door, this one equipped with a fingerprint-coded lock and retinal scanners.

Killing the guards at the front gate might have been worth the extra time after all, if only she could be sure that they had the right clearances. The ten minutes that had elapsed since she and her men had slipped past them weren't long enough for a severed hand to cool to the point that it could no longer trigger a biometric lock.

It wouldn't have gotten them past the retinal scan, though. That was what explosives were for.

The padlock gave easily, and blowing the door was scarcely harder. With luck, the bunker's thick concrete walls would muffle the sound of the small explosions.

She could already hear the strangled note in Doom's voice as he grudgingly asked her to please hand over the book.

Sin adjusted her night vision goggles, which she had carefully turned off to avoid being flash-blinded by the explosions, until the world was brightly lit in shades of green again. The two men she had left outside would have cut the power, and the inside of the vault would be as dark as a grave. The SHIELD agents inside would already be on guard, but they would be blind, fumbling uselessly around in the dark.

She drew her gun, stepped to one side to avoid the shots even a blind agent would know to fire at the open doorway, and kicked open the door. 

She had a split-second impression of a dozen bodies, far more than the two guards her mole had described, and then the floodlights came on.

The world vanished in a searing flash of light. Sin hit the floor, elbows cracking painfully against concrete, and ripped her goggles off. Her eyes were watering, brightly colored sparks fuzzing across her vision.

"Compromised," the voice in her head snarled. "Our agent was turned. Or he has been dead for weeks. Foolish girl, you walked right into their trap."

"Sorry, Daddy," she mumbled, rolling to the side to avoid a burst of gunfire. She should have known better than to trust a contact made after so long a stretch of silence. Sin reached into her pocket and triggered Doom's teleportation device.

Nothing happened.

"Drop your weapons," a hatefully familiar female voice said. "SHIELD is placing all of you under arrest."

Sin aimed her gun in the general direction of Agent Carter's voice and fired, hoping one of her bullets got the bitch in the gut, then crawled backwards for the door, When her left foot hit the lowest step, she turned and launches herself up the stairs, shoving past the men in her way.

Gustave grunted as she ducked past him, then screamed. His blood sprayed warm against her back.

No loss; the man had been a coward anyway. Sacrifices had to be made in the name of the future Reich.

There were two SHIELD agents at the top of the stairs, and another outside the bunker. She didn't even bother to kill them, just put them on the ground as fast as she could and ran. The moment she crossed the bunker's threshold and hit outside air, the stomach-twisting lurch of the teleportation took her.

Doom would be waiting at the other end of the teleport, there to rant at her for her failure. Let him; she would have other chances, and the more he treated her as like an idiot child, the more he would forget to watch for treachery. Burning him alive after she obtained the spear was going to be very satisfying.

Almost as satisfying as killing every SHIELD agent she could find would be.

"You're pronouncing it wrong," Hank said, not looking up from the computer screen he was squinting at. "Come over here and tell me if these look the same to you."

Clint obediently bent over Hank's shoulder and examined the screen, where four rows of brightly colored CGI DNA strands were slowly revolving. "That bit there is in all of them except the last one. Are you cloning something again? Because if you are, Thor's going to kill you and none of the rest of us will try to stop him."

"Ha." Hank smacked a fist into his palm, grinning. "Beast is a genius. I am a genius."

"So what is it?" Clint prodded. "What's it medication for?"

Hank didn't seem to hear him; his face had lit up in a wide grin that would have been endearing if it didn't bring to mind evil robots, hoards of creepy-crawly things, and plans that went terribly, disastrously wrong. "I tried comparing mutant DNA to normal human DNA — just the sequences containing the X genes, to cut down on the computer processing time — and it kept throwing up false matches. And then I looked at the CAT scans Beast did on some of the X-Men to map the regions of the brain that control the use of mutant powers, and the chemical process that occurs when energy mutants convert biological energy to electrical-magnetic or kinetic energy, and there were a lot of very familiar neurotransmitters there. Did you ever wonder why Pym particles never took on you the way they did on the rest of us who used them?"

The question was so far out of left field that Clint nearly answered it by reflex, despite the fact that had nothing to do with what he was trying to talk about, but Hank didn't give him a chance. "That's you," he said, waving at the bottom line of DNA. "That's Wanda," the top one, "these two in the middle are me and Jan, and that" he tapped the color-coded pattern that appeared in every row but Clint's, "is the portion of the X genome sequence that encodes the potential for mutant powers. It's less well known than this part," he indicated another section of DNA, which looked only slightly different from the first, and only appeared in Wanda's row, "which controls the expression of powers. It was the first X gene sequence discovered, the one isolated back in the sixties by Xavier and a bunch of scientists whose names you wouldn't recognize, the part the Legacy Virus targets. No one but Sinister managed to isolate the second part until Beast started researching Legacy. It's recessive, which means that a certain percentage of the population are carriers for the gene without being mutants themselves." All of this came out in a rush, as if Hank had been waiting for the opportunity to share it with someone for hours or days.

"That's great, Hank." Clint drew a deep breath in through his nose, and reminded himself that he really did like Hank. "I'm really glad I'm not a mutant and you and Jan are some kind half mutants or something. What's the medication for?"

Hank's grin got even wider. "You actually understand what I'm talking about? I wasn't sure you would. It's a mild prescription painkiller and sedative," he added, "it's a prescribed for a lot of things."

Well, that was significantly less dramatic than Clint had expected. "Are you sure?" he asked.

Hank nodded enthusiastically. "I need to run more tests to be sure, but I know I'm right. Six people who've gained the ability to biologically produce Pym particles, and Scott and Cassie and Bill and his nephew are blood relatives. They have to be carriers for the gene, too." He frowned down at the screen for a second, tapping his fingers on the edge of the keyboard. "I wish I had some more DNA samples. Peter's the only other non-mutant superhuman sample I have, and some of his genetic material doesn't even look human. I can't tell if he's a carrier for a recessive power-encoding X sequence or not. It can't just be Pym particles, though." He looked back up at Clint, eyes bright and intent. "I think it's everything. All of us. Like unified field theory for superpowers. Steve has it, and I bet if I tested the Bradleys, they'd both come up positive, and Dr. Hansen's promised to send me the data on the junk DNA that allows the extremis to-" he broke off, as if suddenly realizing that Clint didn't care about his amazing DNA discovery. "You don't look excited. I just figured out how to genetically test for the potential to acquire superpowers. Why aren't you excited?"

"Because that's the creepiest 1984 thing I've ever heard of," Clint told him honestly. It was bad enough that you could test for a normal X gene. Testing for anybody that might possibly be able to have powers was like one of those anti-superhuman crazies' wet dreams. "So it's just painkillers and not, I don't know, something really heavy-duty? That they give you when you have cancer or inoperable brain tumors or something?"

"They prescribe it for all kinds of things; how should I know?" Hank frowned, something finally penetrating his mad scientist glee. "Why are you so interested in this?"

"No reason," Clint said hurriedly. Don was probably right, he realized. If Tony wanted half the team to know he had some kind of medical condition again, he'd have told them himself, and he probably wouldn't appreciate Clint going around behind his back and telling everybody, any more than he and Wanda wanted everyone to know what had happened between them in Transia.

Hank was staring at him now, inspecting Clint as if he were a lab experiment. "Clint, are you all right? Did Wanda screw up somehow when she brought you back?"

"Not as far as I know, but thank you for giving me something else to worry about."

"They don't give you prescription pain medication for no reason. And why are you letting some doctor prescribe you things without asking what they are?"

"I'm not. I just heard the name somewhere and was curious." Clint offered, knowing it sounded exactly like the lie it was.

Hank went still, the last traces of that manic enthusiasm draining out of his posture. Or maybe it was just normal science enthusiasm. Either way, it was gone now. "What's wrong with you?"

"It's not for me, okay?" Clint snapped, giving up on discretion. "I found a prescription for it in Tony's lab. Don wouldn't tell me what it was, so I asked you."

Hank rubbed one hand over his face, sighing. "If you'd told me it was for Tony, I wouldn't have told you, either," he said, the words muffled by his fingers. "If he wanted you to know what medication he was taking and why and what it was for he would tell you himself." His fingers froze, and he looked back up at Clint, frown deeper now. "And on that note, how much talking do the rest of you guys do about me behind my back?"

"A lot. All we ever do is talk about you." Hank didn't rise to the bait, so Clint went on, "I was worried. I thought maybe there was something wrong with him. And it wasn't like he was going to tell us; we wouldn't have found out until he passed out on the Senate floor or fell out of the sky during a fight or something."

"And so when Don wouldn't gossip with you about your teammate's personal medical information, you figured you come ask me?"

"I'd have googled it, but I couldn't remember how to spell it." Google searches on medical stuff always seemed to turn up as many ads and weird homeopathic remedies as they did actual information, anyway.

"So said to yourself, 'I know; I'll ask Hank,'" Hank said, in that bitchy voice he used when he was being snide to people, usually Clint. "'He doesn't have any professional ethics.'"

"Well, you kind of don't."

Hank's eyes narrowed. "That's not true," he snapped.

"I didn't mean it that way," Clint lied. "You're not a doctor. You haven't taken the Hippocratic oath."

"You meant it exactly that way. Why do people always act like my experiments go wrong on purpose?" Hank flung his hands out, narrowly missing knocking over a test tube full of god knew what.

It was probably DNA-related, Clint told himself. Hank would be more careful if his workspace were covered in poisons, acid, or some kind of bioweapon. If nothing else, he'd never have something corrosive so close to a computer.

He sounded legitimately hurt, though. "It's not so much that they all go wrong," Clint said reassuringly, "as it is that on the rare occasions when they do, the results always try to kill us."

Hank folded his arms, staring down at his computer screen. "It's not like I want them to. I didn't even want to do the experiments with Thor's clone; they were the least disturbing option out of an entire list of unethical experiments. The scientist they had me working with under the Initiative was dissecting and cloning dead teenagers without their parents' knowledge."

Clint held a hand up, cutting him off. "You don't have to rant at me; I sat through all those hearings, too. But I have to say, the more I hear about that program from you and Jan, the more I see why Steve was so freaked out by it." There were parts of it that sounded like a good idea, like giving superhumans some kind of official training, and locking supervillains up somewhere they couldn't escape from every other week, but they were vastly outnumbered by the blatantly horrible parts. Like pardoning Norman Osborn and putting him in charge of the Thunderbolts, which only someone heavily bribed with Oscorp money could ever think was a good idea.

"You do realize what those people would do with your X-gene research, right?" he asked. "Not all of them have been impeached or suspended."

Hank's frown had shifted from irritated to stubborn. "I'm not going to drop or suppress a line of scientific inquiry just because the results could be used badly. All science can be used badly."

He had a point, but still... "Maybe you and Beast should talk to the rest of the X-Men before you publish any of it, just in case. Or to Jan. Or anyone who's not each other, Tony, or Reed Richards." 

"Jan suggested the Pym particles angle in the first place." Hank shook his head, and tapped the computer screen with two fingers. "I don't think you're really grasping how revolutionary this could be. It's too big to sit on. It's also months away from being ready for any kind of publication. Less than a dozen test subjects is far too small a sample to reliably extrapolate from, and..."

When Hank was on a roll, he didn't need any input from anyone else in the room in order to keep going. After a while, Clint didn't even bother to make interested noises. Unless he actually fell asleep, Hank wasn't likely to notice.

Hank was having good luck with his research — amazingly good luck, if this gene thing was actually as big a discovery as Hank thought it was — and didn't have any immediate plans to hand it over to the government or build killer robots with it, and whatever was wrong with Tony, it wasn't the near-disaster that would utterly shatter Cap and destroy the team that Clint had been afraid of.

It looked like Wanda's ominous card readings were nothing but the chaos-induced coincidence she'd said they were.

Sometime over the past few weeks, it had turned cold. Barely October, and it was already only fifty degrees — and from a couple hundred feet up, with nothing to block the wind, it was even colder.

Jan rubbed at her arms, and wished the new, weatherproof and silk-lined version of her costume had been ready last night. Hank hadn't gotten around to infusing it with Pym particles yet, still too busy dissecting the remains of Thursday's giant squid and pouring over his recessive X-gene carrier theory to have time for anything else. 

"It looks so innocent from up here." Carol's voice sounded through her communicator, sharp and clear and without the wind noise that most sound equipment wouldn't be able to filter out. There were benefits to having Tony Stark design your tech. "How long is Cap going to have us doing this?"

St. Margaret's Cathedral was directly below them now, looking as benign as any of the hundreds of churches in the city. The tree planted in its small scrap of churchyard was already a winter-bare skeleton, giving Jan a clear view of the side of the building.

It looked normal, quiet and shut up like just about any church would be on a Saturday afternoon. She couldn't feel anything out of the ordinary, either, though why she should have expected to, Jan didn't know. Wanda was the one who was sensitive to those sorts of things, which was one of the reasons why they had decided to put her back in the field. Carol had a better chance of picking something up than Jan did; her powers were energy based, and chaos magic was, after all, a kind of energy.

"Until something happens, or Strange figures out a way to get Chthon out of there. Can you feel anything? Any energy coming from the building?"

There was a long pause. "No," Carol said, slowly. "I don't think so. But it wouldn't be normal energy. For all I know, the whole block could be lit up like a Christmas tree with magical radiation."

"Never mind," Jan told her. "It was just a thought."

"Although... I could feel Wanda's power, when she threw hex spheres, and when she created that spell circle at Mount Rushmore. Maybe Chthon is hiding."

Jan shook her head — uselessly, since Carol was ahead and to the left of her, and couldn't see the gesture. "If he's hiding, I don't want to think about what it will be like when he stops hiding. Train wrecks, two collapsed buildings, a gas main explosion, that squid... and Tony thinks the air traffic control mix up at JKR yesterday was his influence, too."

That one, thankfully, had been resolved by the pilots and ground crew without serious incident. The squid had been another matter entirely. It had taken an entire afternoon to drive it back into New York Harbor, and Spiderman had insisted repeatedly that there were more of them under there, saying that his Spider-sense had been crawling for days.

The original squid had washed up against a pier in New Jersey yesterday, dead, with the two tentacles Spiderman had stabbed with his stingers reduced to rotting masses of necrotized flesh, so even though his wrist had swelled up to the size of a baseball due to an allergic reaction to its slime, Jan privately voted him the victor. His previous anxiety over whether or not he was growing to grow squid arms as a result of the reaction had now shifted to worrying that the squid might have been sentient. Hank, still occupied with dissecting it, had assured him that it wasn't. Spiderman, as it turned out, was difficult to reassure, and Hank's best efforts hadn't exactly helped matters.

It had taken all of Jan' powers of persuasion to keep him from asking the poor kid for a tissue sample from his wrist. 'He has venom sacs in there' Hank had insisted. 'Probably producing a toxin similar to Brown Recluse venom.'

He had been wearing one of his old lab coats, his hair uncombed and the lower half of his face covered in blond stubble, looking every bit the scruffy, abstracted scientist he'd been when Jan had first seen him in her father's lab. Hank had no idea how cute he looked when he was all fired up with the joy of scientific discovery; numerous attempts to inform him of the fact had never seemed to penetrate.

He'd been so absorbed in gene sequencing and neurochemistry data and toxin analysis that it had taken barely any persuasion to get him to promise not to discuss the X-gene theory with anyone other than his fellow Avengers and Beast.

Thank god. The implications of his theory were frightening, enough that Jan preferred not to think about them. The squid's partially decomposed tissue samples were almost a relief in comparison.

"We need to drive him out of there," Carol muttered, low enough that Jan wasn't sure she was intended to hear it. "Get rid of him. Maybe we should have talked to Loki."

"There's no arguing that." The wind stung her exposed skin, and her fingers were slowly going numb; she lost heat faster at this size. "I've tried suggesting that Thor call her. He won't listen to me or to Sam or Wanda, or even to Cap. Neither will Don." Now that Victor von Doom was involved in the situation, the odds against them had worsened considerably. A chaos deity ace-in-the-hole no longer seemed like such a bad idea; even Hank was willing to reconsider working with her.

"He doesn't trust her," Carol said. "I don't blame him. Neither do I."

They had left the cathedral behind and were nearing the West Side Highway and the river now, brownstones, storefronts, and office buildings slowly being replaced by warehouses. Time to turn around for one last sweep over the area. It never hurt to be thorough.

Tony had a spy satellite watching the cathedral, and several street level cameras planted around the block, filming in infrared as well as visible light, plus a network of hacked traffic cameras, but the ambient chaos energy made them unreliable, the feeds prone to cutting in and out and half the data corrupted. And he couldn't monitor them 24/7 with the Extremis anymore, which meant that instead of seamless round-the-clock surveillance, they had a computer program designed to register "unusual activity" and set off an alert. 

Sam had his own eyes in the sky, and Hank had a tiny army crawling all over the outside of the building, but computers, birds, and ants weren't people. They missed things, sometimes dangerous, important things.

Steve had ordered daily fly-overs of Hell's Kitchen, just in case, and had even managed to get Daredevil to agree to report any disturbances in the area to the Avengers, via Luke Cage or Spiderman. 

Daredevil was territorial about Hell's Kitchen — the fact that he was accepting help in patrolling the area was not a reassuring sign.

The cathedral looked just as benign the second time around, but this time the bare branches of the tree caught Jan's eye. The trees in Central Park were still a riot of fall color.

Was Chthon's hand at work there, or was she reading too much into things?

"The big guy doesn't like it when people betray him," Jan said. "He takes it personally."

"I can sympathize. It's still weird to see Wanda in the Avengers Mansion, but if I can work with her — hell, if Clint can work with her — Thor can suck it up and talk to his stepbrother. And the rest of us, too."

Jan's response was cut off by a loud squeal of brakes from below, and she tracked it to its source just in time to see a car slam into a parked SUV with a loud, metallic crunch. It rebounded off the SUV, side-swiped the car parked illegally on the other side of the street, and came to a halt in the middle of the street. Several feet away, its crumpled front fender spun lazily over the asphalt.

The whole thing happened in seconds, too swiftly for Jan or Carol to intervene.

Jan dove lower, mentally preparing herself for the dizzy head rush that always ensued when she tried to grow immediately after returning to normal size from her Wasp form. If necessary, she and Carol could rip the doors off the car, get the driver out before—

The driver's-side door popped open, and the driver leaped out and began running down the street. Directly into Carol, who landed in his path, arms folded over her chest.

"Leaving the scene of an accident is a crime, you know," she said, voice mild.

"Jesus fuck, my car!" a man wailed. The black Mercedes that the driver had hit after bouncing off the SUV had probably cost more than most people made in a year. Now, with both passenger-side doors crumpled in, it was just a very expensive insurance claim.

Jan returned to full size just before she landed, putting herself between the Mercedes owner and the driver — now struggling futilely in Carol's grasp. "Has anyone called the police yet, or do I need to?" she asked. This was ridiculous — traffic accidents were not supposed to be the kind of thing superheroes dealt with — but they'd been right there, and jumping in had been instinctive.

Calling the police, as it turned out, wasn't necessary. They arrived on the scene only moments later, sirens quiet but lights on, arrested the driver, and began taking witness statements. Apparently, the driver had been fleeing from the scene of the crime after robbing a drug store on 8th avenue.

No wonder Spiderman was so mouthy all the time; he had to deal with criminals this stupid on a regular basis.

Of course, it wasn't necessarily bad driving on the would-be robber's part that had caused this. According to the police databases and radio frequencies Tony had been watching, traffic accidents were yet another thing that had increased in the vicinity of the cathedral, like muggings, domestic violence calls, and a bunch of other petty, every-day evils that superheroes could do nothing to stop.

Carol was right; they had to do something about Chthon. Waiting around in the hopes that they could stop him whenever he finally made his move was already costing the city too much.

At least no one had died in this accident. The subway passengers last week had not been so lucky.

The flight back to Stark Tower was uneventful, if even colder than before. By the time they were over Times Square, Jan had lost all feeling in her fingers and toes. Hank was either treating her winter gloves and boots with Pym particles tonight, or he was sleeping in his lab. Which would probably be a more effective threat if he didn't frequently do that anyway, because he'd worked on something non-stop until he crashed.

If he didn't come up for air tonight, she was going to the Mansion to fetch him. It was always a bad sign when Hank stopped sleeping.

"I hate to say it," Carol said, so softly that the communicator only just picked it up, "but in some ways, the city might be better off if she hadn't come back." She didn't need to specify who 'she' was. "Except... I would never want her to stay trapped, not like that. But if what happened when she destroyed the mansion is anything to go by, things are going to get a lot worse."

Thor was not the only one who needed to suck it up and deal with things. Jan executed a fast turn, hovering just in front of where Carol's face was going to be in about thirty-seconds. "She was possessed, Carol," she said flatly. "She had no choice about any of what she did. How is it different from when Vision was controlled by the Ultron protocols, or when Tony and I were poisoned by AIM? I could have hurt someone then. Tony could have killed someone — if Steve hadn't been able to talk him down out of the armor, he would have." She jabbed a finger at Carol, the motion making her dip slightly in the air. "Her brother is God knows where, her father tried to use her to destroy the world, and her husband is dead. Leave her alone."

"That's not what I meant," Carol snapped, holding up gloved palms defensively. She was hovering, too, now, the ground dozens of feet below them. "Jesus, what kind of grudge-holding bitch do you think I am? I understand that it wasn't her fault. I get it. I'm over blaming her. I just don't want Chthon to use her like some puppet again and destroy the city in the process."

"Really? You got over something?" She sounded bitchy, she knew, not at all the way the co-leader of the Avengers should sound when talking to a teammate about her inability to get along with another teammate. Carol and Wanda had been friends, once, but now Carol seemed just as resentful of Wanda as Spider-Woman had been toward Carol after she had sided with Tony and joined the pro-Registration heroes. Except this one probably wasn't going to be resolved by a threesome with Simon.

"You sound like Jessica," Carol muttered. "I know it wasn't her fault," she repeated, more calmly this time. "Cap told me. Tony told me. Simon and Jessica told me. Clint told me. Even Wanda told me. And then Clint... Chthon hurt her, while he was in her head. Used her body to do things. It's not her fault. It's ours, for not stopping it."

Below them, people on the sidewalk were starting to stop and stare. They were too far up for their voices to be audible, but the faint honking of car horns drifting up from stopped traffic could just be heard.

"Come on," Jan said. "Let's find somewhere else to talk."

The penthouse at Stark Tower was empty — Sam and Jarvis long since jumped ship to the now-completed Avengers Mansion, Hank was nowhere to be found, probably still buried in one lab or the other, and Thor was gone, too. Either he or Don was probably back in Oklahoma. They both had responsibilities there.

This, Jan felt, was a conversation that called for ice cream. She brought a pint of Haagen Daaz and two bowls out from the kitchen, offering one to Carol, who was sitting on the shorter of the living room's two couches, her arms folded.

Carol shook her head. "I don't have an energy mutant's metabolism."

Jan raised her eyebrows. "No, you have Kree metabolism, which is even better. I hate you and Jen sometimes. It's one of the perils of being short; five pounds looks like ten on me." She set the bowls to one side and dug her spoon straight into the ice cream; it wasn't as if anyone else ate it, anyway, with Spiderman and Jessica Jones no longer staying in the tower. Thor, who was better at respecting labels on food than most, never touched her ice cream.

"I was so angry at her," Carol said, after a long silence during which Jan dug all the pecans out of the top layer of ice cream. "I thought she'd put Clint under mind control. Tony and Jen, too. Lot of us have had bad things happen to us. The rest of us didn't try to destroy us all over it. And then... M Day scared me. Taking away people's powers, turning mutants back into normal people. There are people who'd like to do that to me. To take away what I felt for Jessica, what I still feel, and make me a good little woman who does what she's supposed to. Because they think the world would be better that way."

"It wasn't her," Jan repeated. If she said it often enough, eventually she would stop watching Wanda uneasily for signs of... something. She wasn't even sure exactly what, only that people who had been broken once could break again, usually in the same places. But possession was external, the work of an outside force, something you could guard against and fight.

Carol shook her head. "I know that now. It doesn't actually make it easier. How long did it take before you wanted to be in the same room as Hank again?"

"That's different." Jan set the ice cream container down, hard. "That was Hank."

Carol met her eyes, her face serious. "But he wasn't in control, any more than she was. Any more than Tony or I were when we were drinking. And anyone who loses control like that once can do it again."

"We're not talking about Hank."

"No," Carol agreed, "we're talking about Wanda. We screwed up, big time. We should have gone to get her as soon as Clint came back and we knew where she was. We shouldn't have let Chthon take her in the first place. But we did, and he did, and if he gets his hooks into her again, he could turn Manhattan into a smocking crater."

Jan shook her head, reaching for the ice cream again. "He won't. Strange took care of that."

"He shouldn't have had to," Carol said, frowning. "We should have helped her. I should have helped her. She tried to help me. But then Vision, and Clint, and... I wanted to leave her to rot. And all the time, he was doing things to her, with her." Her voice faltered on the last, leaving no doubt as to what kind of 'things' she meant.

"We don't know that," Jan said quickly. It was true, she didn't know for sure, but… Clint must have slept with Wanda in Transia, while she had been under Chthon's control, probably while Clint was under mind control, too. That, or something very close to it. Nothing else that Jan could think of would explain the way Carol kept being so deliberately vague about exactly what unknown but terrible things Chthon had done to Wanda, when it wasn't like Carol to dance around something. Not to mention the weird, guilty look in Clint's eyes whenever he looked at her, and Carol's previous fierce conviction that Wanda had hurt Clint in some way that clearly seemed worse to her than even his temporary death.

"Neither does she, other than that he used her to manipulate Clint." 'Manipulate,' another vague word. Carol rubbed at her arms for a moment, the gesture understated enough that it was probably unconscious. She had taken her gloves off, though her mask was still on, and Jan could see her bitten-off nails, one of them torn halfway across the nail bed where she had broken it moving pieces of rubble. If she offered to loan her a pair of nail scissors, or the name of a good manicurist, Carol would probably look at her blankly and turn her down. 

"That makes it worse," Carol added, and if Jan had still not believed her insistence that she didn't blame Wanda anymore, the odd, subdued note in her voice would have convinced her.

Not knowing probably did make it worse. If you knew, you at least knew exactly how bad it had been. Missing time, when anything at all could have happened, and might have, would be even more frightening.

Jan nodded, slowly. "What made you change your mind? I thought you were angrier at her than any of us." Tony had blamed himself. Steve too, in a quieter sort of way. Simon hadn't wanted to discuss it, and those first few weeks immediately afterwards, Hank had alternated between trying — endlessly and aloud — to figure out how they could have prevented Ultron from taking over Vision and shutting himself in his lab and speaking only to his specimen tanks. Carol had laid all the blame squarely at Wanda's feet.

Carol looked down at her hands. "Clint told me some things about what happened in Transia. I didn't want to listen, at first, but..." She looked back up, a rueful little smile on her lips. "I owe her an apology. God, that's going to be fun. What am I going to say, 'I wanted to believe you were evil because I liked you and then you hurt my feelings?' 

"By liked, do you mean..." Jan gestured vaguely with her spoon. Asking felt weird, intrusive. She was never quite sure when she ought to acknowledge Carol's sexuality, and when she ought to ignore it because it was supposed to be no big deal. Carol herself seemed occasionally unsure; she'd never actually said anything about it to the press, despite not doing anything to hide her relationship with Simon and Jessica from the public eye. In some ways, it was easier with Steve and Tony; before The Article, everyone had acknowledged their relationship to other superheroes and denied it to reporters, just the way you did someone's secret identity, and afterwards, Steve had been very insistent on never concealing or tiptoing around anything, to the point of delivering an embarrassing lecture on acceptance and tolerance if you tried.

Carol shrugged, tucking a piece of hair behind one ear. "If there hadn't been... a lot of missed opportunities, the two of us could have-um..." She waved her hands in an equally vague gesture. 

"Had wild lesbian sex?" Jan guessed.

Carol's ears and cheeks flushed pink. "I wouldn't go that far, but-" she broke off, then, "Give me the ice cream," she said, abruptly, grabbing for one of the abandoned bowls. 

"I've been eating it straight out of the carton," Jan said, tilting the top of carton towards her.

"I'm immune to most human viruses. It's a Kree thing." She didn't look at Jan while she served herself ice-cream — half of what remained in the carton, which was probably a good thing for Jan's thighs. "Right before the end, if I had stayed after Red Zone. Before that, either I wasn't on the team or she was with Simon, or I was still drinking. It was always something. I never expected anything like what happened. It felt... personal. Stupid, I know, but-"

"No," Jan said. "I know what that's like. You used to have a crush on her, and then she betrayed us, and the fact that part of you wanted to forgive her just because she was staring at you with those big blue eyes and looking all wounded made you even angrier."

"Wanda's eyes are brown," Carol said. Which wasn't really an answer, but in a way, was.

"That's not the point." Jan pointed her ice cream spoon at Carol again. "The point is that you feel guilty because she needed help and you didn't notice in time to stop it, or couldn't stop it. And the fact that she did terrible things makes it even more complicated, because you did have a legitimate reason to be angry, and where's the line between understanding and forgiving and condoning?" She'd asked herself that dozens of times, every time she had to justify to someone else why she'd chosen to go back to Hank. 'Because I love him,' wasn't enough, not after everything that had happened between them. "And you keep asking yourself if you could have prevented those things by noticing or helping sooner, if you made it worse. And sometimes it's easier to get angry than admit that there's nothing you can do to go back and fix things."

Carol was silent for a long moment. Maybe she had said too much, made it too much about herself. She didn't talk about her marriage — former marriage — to her teammates very often for a reason. It made things awkward, even with people who didn't know why it had ended.

"It's killing Simon," Carol said, finally, and Jan relaxed inwardly at the change of subject. "He still loves her, you know. More as a friend than anything else, but... he loves her. I know he wants to talk to her, but I think he still blames her for Vision dying and feels guilty for it. Simon doesn't like emotional confrontation." She smiled a little, just for a moment. "I think Jessica and I wore him out sometimes, honestly." Then the smile faded, and she added, quietly, "I don't know if he's afraid that she isn't really Wanda anymore, or that she is."

"You've told him she is, though." She didn't make it a question.

Carol bit at her lower lip for a second, then blew out a long breath. "Yes. I know he wants to believe it. Hell, I want to believe it. Everything in Transia was definitely Chthon, maybe all of it was even Chthon. M Day..." she made a face. "I can't imagine the Wanda we knew before or Wanda now doing something like that, but if she wanted to hurt Magneto, it was probably the worst thing anyone could possibly do to him. To Pietro. And Wanda had good reasons for being angry at them, for wanting to punish them." She took a bite of ice cream, then, "It didn't have to be about them at all, though. There are lots of reasons why Chthon might want to cut down the world's mutant population. But the things she did to us. Making Jen lose control and Hulk out, pushing Tony off the wagon, bringing Ultron back... Chthon doesn't care about us. We're insects to him. How would he know exactly where to hit to hurt us so badly? So personally?"

It had the sound of something she'd worried over for a long time, and Jan suspected that these weren't just Simon's concerns she was voicing.

Jan shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe he pulled the information from her mind."

"He probably did, but that sounds almost too convenient to be true. I wanted to believe it wasn't her, that she wouldn't do that to us, and so I couldn't trust the part of me that wanted to believe her, especially not when everyone else was accepting it all so easily. Simon doesn't do suspicious well, but if he lets himself believe it's really her, and then it's not... And I can't tell him what Clint told me. There are some things he doesn't need to hear."

"He'll come around eventually," Jan said, trying to sound certain. "And he doesn't need you to be angry for him."

"I'm not." Carol's voice was firm, level. "Not anymore."

"Good," Jan told her, "because Cap and I are keeping her on active status. With things the way they are, we're going to need her. And I don't think the team can take having two more people in the field who won't talk to each other. Hank and Tony and Thor are dangerous enough already."

Carol snorted. "Hank and Tony and Thor are all idiots. There wasn't anything else they could have done, not with the way HUSAC was breathing down our necks. Tony's going to give himself another breakdown if he doesn't stop feeling personally responsible for every single bad thing that happened under the SHRA."

Privately, Jan suspected that if it weren't for the Extremis, Tony would probably benefit from a prescription for anti-depressants. That, or therapy. He'd been barely functional during the endless three months when Steve had been dead and Registration and the Initiative had been in full force, though he'd hidden it well. And it hadn't been that long since Rumiko Fujikawa's death. Two dead lovers in as many years would have screwed up even someone who didn't have Tony's history with depression and self-destructive behavior.

Frankly, they could all probably use a few visits to a therapist, but years of keeping secret identities secret were a hard habit to break. She'd actually had to argue Hank out of just getting a recommendation for medication out of Leonard Samson and then synthesizing his own; during the height of the fight over Registration, before she'd walked away because she couldn't take Bill's death and the fighting and the 1984 levels of creepiness anymore, the government had kept a very close eye on anything that smacked of instability in superhumans. If he'd gone to an Initiative doctor, Hank might have ended up sitting in a cell in his and Tony's own prison.

Tony, thankfully, had found him a discrete, private source for the mood stabilizers and anti-depressants Len had suggested, and some day she was going to have words with Reed Richards about his ridiculous 'you could just make this yourself' suggestion.

Thank God he hadn't gone to a SHIELD psychiatrist. Dr. Faustus had been able to program Sharon Carter into shooting Steve, despite being both his friend and occasional lover for years; she didn't even want to think about what he could have done to Hank.

"The Hank, Tony, and Thor situation will be resolved," she said. "I was trying not to get involved because I couldn't be impartial, but that was when I thought they were going to work it out themselves." Clearly, that assumption had been overly optimistic. Thor wasn't likely to listen to her — she'd been on the pro-registration side, after all — but Hank would.

"Good," Carol said. "Because having Wanda back in the line-up is awkward enough." She put her empty ice cream bowl down, the spoon clinking against the side of the bowl. "What are we going to do if Chthon gets to her again?"

Jan ran a finger slowly around the rim of the ice cream carton, the waxed cardboard smooth and slightly sticky. After a moment of deliberate silence, she met Carol's eyes. "Whatever we have to."

Chapter Text

Months ago, when he had first rejoined the Avengers, Thor had sworn that he would never again sleep under Tony Stark's roof. Then he had begun staying in Stark Tower overnight, because the journey from New York to Nebraska was long even for an Asgardian. He had told himself that he was not accepting Tony's hospitality, but merely bowing to necessity because it would have been foolish to do otherwise. Meals were a different matter; it was Jarvis's bread and salt he ate, not Tony Stark's.

Then he had sworn that he would not move back into the Avengers mansion, that doing so would be to symbolically forgive Tony and Hank Pym their betrayal, just as treating them as the shield-brothers they had once been would be.

Visiting the mansion in order to speak to Jarvis, or Captain America, or another of his teammates, or to discuss strategy with them, or to perform any number of other duties required of him as an Avenger... He had decided that those did not violate his oath. Not as long as he still slept elsewhere. 

As he stood alone in Tony's old living quarters, at the top of the tower that bore his name, and stared out at the city lights, it occurred to Thor that perhaps such hairsplitting had been unworthy of him. His friends had acted without honor, yes, but they had not done so with deliberate ill intent, and while he had not-quite — forgiven Tony, he had already made the decision to treat him as an ally once more, if not a brother. There was no dishonor in accepting hospitality from an ally.

There was, if anything, dishonor in refusing it.

Sleeping in this hollow shell of a dwelling place out of pride was as foolish as refusing to speak to Tony or Hank had been, and served as little purpose.

"When morning comes, I shall remove myself from this place." He spoke the words aloud, to give further weight to the decision. "I shall sleep tomorrow night in the Avengers' old home."

"How touching." The voice was as familiar as it was unwelcome; the change in timbre from male to female had altered only the pitch, not the cadence of the words, or the sly hint of mockery that forever underlay them.

Thor reached for Mjolnir's handle, the leather wrapped metal fitting easily against his palm. "Show yourself, Loki," he growled.

"With pleasure." A ghostly feminine form blurred into being in the window before him, uncomfortably close to his own reflection.

Thor whirled, hammer at the ready, only to find the room as empty as it had been before. 

"I've been attempting to contact you for weeks, you fool," the hateful voice went on. "You don't look in mirrors often, do you?"

"Unlike some, I am not so enamored of my own reflection that I must gaze at it constantly." It was an unfair charge — Loki was indeed vain, but his vanity had always been for his cleverness rather than his face or form — but saying the words might provoke his quick-to-anger stepbrother into revealing himself.

Loki's reflection still shimmered in the great, floor-to-ceiling window, the lights of near bye skyscrapers shining through her body. In many ways, his stepbrother had changed little with this new incarnation; the same angular face, the same ice-green eyes, the same smirk on her scarred lips.

The reflection was too blurred for that detail to be visible, but Thor had seen the old scars from needle and torn-out stitches with Don Blake's eyes and knew them to be there. Not even sewing Loki's lips shut had been able to halt the flow of lies that spilled from his tongue like poison.

"This city is drowning in chaos. My chaos. Were that power once again under my control, I could make it cease."

The days when he had fallen for Loki's tricks were long past. "And what would you do with it then, brother?" Thor asked. "Whom would you slay? Which of the Aesir would you make a feast for the eagles? Where else on Midgard would you sow chaos and destruction?"

Loki folded her arms, the gesture emphasizing the lush curves of her breasts, and pouted. "What must I do to earn your trust, thunder-god? What further assurances of my goodwill can I give you?"

Thor folded his own arms across his chest and glared sternly at her reflection. "The last time you and I spoke, you threatened to rip my eye out."

"That fragile mortal shell you insist on donning is just too tempting." Her smile was no doubt meant to be flirtatious, and so it might have been had it not revealed the merest hint of pointed canines.

The jotunn, the frost giants, ate the flesh of men, and did not always trouble to cook it first.

"Leave me be," Thor ordered. "You will find no willing ear here for your lies." He turned his back to the windows, knowing it would infuriate her, and went to the fireplace to kick ashes over the coals of the fire. He would leave this room and go elsewhere, some place deeper inside the tower, with no windows.

"You have no right to keep the spear from me!" Loki's snarling face appeared in the mirror over the fireplace mantle, mere inches from his shoulder.

Thor was a battle-tested Asgardian warrior, and therefore he did not flinch. "I have every right. Indeed, if it belongs to anyone, it ought to be Baldur's, not yours. You made certain he became intimately familiar with it."

"Must you take everything from me?" Loki demanded, leaning forward so that she was practically hissing in his ear. He ought to have been able to feel her breath on the back of his neck, feel her heat pressed against his back. The fact that he could not was almost more disconcerting than her actual presence would have been. "You have Valhalla, you have your father's throne and all his power, and you cannot spare me this one small thing? Baldur yet lives, for you and all others in Asgard to fawn over. Must I be punished forever for his sake?"

Thor clenched his fingers around Mjolnir's handle, and curled his left hand into a fist. "He lives, yes, but not for lack of effort on your part. And he is far from the only one whose death you have sought." Jane Foster, Fandral, Hogun, Volstagg, his father, nearly every one of the Avengers at one point or another. Thor himself, countless times.

"So protective of these mortals. It doesn't become you, stepbrother. They live out their lives in the blink of an eye, weak and pitifully easy to deceive. What virtues do they possess that drives you to side with them against me?"

Thor ground his teeth, trying to ignore the crawling sensation on the back of his neck and between his shoulder blades, the knowledge that were Loki physically present, she would be perfectly positioned to slide a knife through the gaps in his armor. "Some of them are capable of honor, which is more than anyone has ever been able to say of you." The words held the weight of truth. Captain America lived and breathed honor, and demanded it of all who fought beside him. Much as Thor had wished to deny it, even Tony and Hank did possess honor of a kind, though not by the same code as his own. 

Tony had begged his pardon and sought forgiveness. Hank had not, had in fact flaunted his misdeeds in Thor's face, but he had not committed them out of spite and malice. Loki was warped inside, treacherous as rotten ice; perhaps she always had been, even in the days when Thor had considered her a brother.

Iron Man and the Wasp did not know what dangers they courted when they urged him to accept her aid. 

Loki's eyes narrowed to green slits. "You speak of honor to me?" she spat. "Your father slew mine. He and the rest of you treated me like tainted goods, good enough to serve and aid you, but never truly one of your own. Your precious All-Father wouldn't even let me keep my own children, and you call me traitor for opposing him?"

Loki's 'children' had been monsters, one of them fated to slay Thor himself, again and again at every Ragnarok. The three of them had been as vicious as their sire, Fenris most especially. "I call you traitor because you are one. Go. I tire of listening to you."

In the mirror, Loki's fingers curled around his neck, the gesture at once both seductive and threatening. She was powerful enough to kill mortal men through their reflections thus. "I am not your enemy this time, Thunder God, despite ample provocation," she said, the words still something close to a snarl. "How many times must I swear it?"

Of a sudden, Thor felt tired, the sort of tiredness that weighed on the soul and made him think longingly of the Odin sleep and letting Don Blake face the world in his stead for a while. "You may swear it a thousand times, with any oath you care to name, and I will not believe it. You are kinslayer and oathbreaker and your word means nothing to me. Nothing."

Loki leaned in and licked the edge of his reflection's ear with a long, pink tongue. "I would be your friend, Thunder-god," she purred, as Thor suppressed a shudder. "The halls of Valhalla must be empty without Sif beside you."

Enough. Thor stepped to the side, pulling his reflection away from hers, and forced himself not to rub at his ear. Loki had bedded everything from giantesses to stallions in order to further her ends, he reminded himself. She was not truly interested in him, not in that way. Not like Amora. "Your friendship comes at too high a cost, stepbrother."

Jarvis would be upset were he to break the mirror. Thor settled for turning his back on it and leaving the room in search of some place deeper within the tower, without mirrors or windows. He was careful not to look into any reflective surfaces on the way.

"And then he said that there had been complaints from parents that I wasn't a good role model, and they were going to have to reject my offer to volunteer and have someone else fill in during that time slot." 

Tony didn't respond. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the lab, fiddling with a partially assembled anti-teleportation device, his head bent forward over a laptop. There were two StarkTablets lying on the floor on either side of him; a single portable computer was apparently an insufficient replacement for having the Extremis running at full capacity. He typed something into the laptop, machine-gun-fire fast, muttering, "If I increase the strength of the energy field until it can penetrate lead or two feet of concrete, the radiation it gives off goes above fifty millirems, and that's unacceptable."

"You're not listening, are you." Steve said.

"No, I'm listening," Tony said absently. He rubbed at his forehead with one hand, reaching for a tablet with the other. "You should sue them."

"That wouldn't solve anything." All the lawsuits Stark Industries' legal department could dream up wouldn't change people's attitudes. According to an unspecified number of parents whose children attended PS 58, an 'openly gay' superhero was not family friendly enough to be involved in their after school art program for struggling students.* Steve suspected — hoped — that only one or two people had actually complained, but apparently even one concerned and angry parent had been enough.

It wasn't surprising, exactly, especially given the response Peter had received from the school district when he'd revealed himself as Spiderman, but it was still disappointing. It probably didn't help that the press had still not gotten tired of the shocking revelation that he and Tony were a couple, something they seemed to find more newsworthy than anything the Avengers had actually done over the past month, which only seemed to spur various self-appointed 'moral guardians' on. The last time he'd called the team in LA, Simon had answered the phone with "West Coast Avengers; we don't give interviews about Tony Stark's sex life." He'd been embarrassed and apologetic when he'd realized who he was talking to, killing Steve's hope that he'd recognized the Avengers Mansion's number on the caller ID and was only joking.

"You'd run out of money and lawyers long before the world ran out of idiots," he told Tony.

Tony lifted his head, putting the tablet down again. "I thought I was the cynical one."

"It's the twenty-first century; people should be better than this!" He knew it was ridiculously naive as soon as he said it; for all the social changes for the better than had happened while he was on ice, human nature itself never changed. He had known what they were letting themselves in for by making their relationship public, but he hadn't been able to stop himself from hoping that people would be better than his expectations. They'd failed to be on more than one front. "It's not just this, it's... you've seen what that columnist in the Post has been writing about all those mutants getting their powers back." Newspaper columnists calling for a return to mandatory registration of superhumans because of "the renewed mutant presence" was just a mildly irritating symptom of a much larger problem. Violent crime had been steadily rising all over Manhattan and the parts of Brooklyn closest to the East River for weeks, but the string of attacks on visible mutants and people who happened to look vaguely like they might have been mutants in Staten Island couldn't be blamed on Chthon's influence, unless his reach extended even farther than they'd assumed.

Tony was poking at the anti-teleport device again. Had he been this bad at putting work down for five seconds before the Extremis? "I try to avoid the New York Post. Do they still run that awful picture of me from six years ago every time they mention me?"

"This isn't something to joke about, Tony."

"Just try to ignore it," Tony said, his voice tired. "They've been recycling the same anti-repeal articles since this summer, and they'll probably keep doing it until the primaries start in the spring."

And in the meantime, people were being hurt, and the Post's editorials were encouraging it. Steve gave in to the impulse to pace — Tony wasn't looking at him anyway — and made a circuit of the lab, picking his way around a quinjet engine, partial suits of both Iron Man and War Machine armor, and a half-dozen pieces of welding and machining equipment. A purple tuft of feather that looked suspiciously like part of one of Clint's arrows was caught on the corner of Tony's drafting table; Steve pulled it free, smoothing the barbs back together.

"The public will start to trust superhumans again," he said, as much to remind himself as anything else. "They already have. This is just a temporary setback."

"Right," Tony agreed. He picked up a small tool and made a few minuscule adjustments to a piece of circuitry. "Maybe if I add more shielding..."

His laptop made the pinging sound that announced a new email, the tablet chiming in so closely afterward that the sound was almost a single electronic chirp. Tony glanced at it, then groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. "I've gone over that contract three times already," he muttered through his fingers. "What do they want to change now?"

Contract? "It's eight-thirty at night. Couldn't that wait until morning?"

"Apparently not," Tony said. He kept rubbing at his face, fingertips pressing into his temples. "And it's not eight-thirty in Japan."

"You have a headache." It came out sounding like an accusation. "And you didn't come to bed last night, or the night before," he added, trying to soften his tone. "You can get back to them tomorrow."

"I was planning to," Tony said, not quite snidely. "I caught a couple of hours of sleep at the office today, at lunchtime. I can go to bed after I finish this for SHIELD and go over today's security scans from the cathedral and run a probability scan on where the next subway accident is likely to be." Which meant he'd skipped lunch.

Even with a healing factor, pushing himself like this would have been wearing Tony down, and without it, he was going to end up working himself to the point of collapse.

"If you don't get some sleep, I'm going to get Jan to take you off active duty until-" Tony had his eyes closed, Steve realized, and was frowning thoughtfully, fingers still pressed against the side of his face as if to hold his skull together. Steve stopped pacing abruptly. "Are you using the Extremis?"

Tony's eyes snapped open, and he glared at Steve. "No. I am closing my eyes because my head hurts and my eyes hurt from staring at computer screens all day, which I used to not have to do. Contrary to what the Post and the Bugle have been printing about me, I do have some self-control."

"You promised you wouldn't-"

"I know," Tony interrupted. "I haven't touched the damn thing despite how much easier it would make getting through the work day or how much it means to our ability to monitor Chthon's effect in the city. You said my word was good enough for you, so stop asking!"

Steve took a deep breath, throttling back irritation. "I only ask because I'm worried about you."

"Apparently because you don't trust me," Tony snapped back.

"With your own health? No, I don't." When did this turn into a fight? 

"Well, that's flattering." From the tone of his voice, Tony was more than willing to have this fight, and there was something oddly satisfying about hearing the confrontational edge in his voice, and seeing him toss down the micro-tool he'd been holding and shove himself to his feet. Even obviously tired and headachy, with circles under his eyes and late-night stubble blurring the edges of his goatee, he moved gracefully. "I gave you my word, Steve."

After they'd shouted themselves hoarse, Steve decided, he'd drag Tony to bed and wear him out further with make-up sex. Then maybe he'd get the sleep he was too stubborn and self-destructively stupid to get on his own. "Your word isn't worth as much as it usually is when it comes to the Extremis. Or taking better care of yourself, apparently. If this is you not trying to hurt yourself, how did you make it to thirty-five?"

Tony's eyes narrowed, and his left hand curled into a fist. "I did my best not to get past twenty-seven, but you and Rhodey and Bethany thwarted me."

The prospect of a nice, loud argument vanished as the sick thrill of fighting with Tony soured in his stomach. "Don't joke about that." 

"About what? Being a suicidal drunk for most a year?" Tony flung both arms out in a needlessly dramatic gesture. "Why not?"

"Because it's not funny," Steve said — shouted, really. The labs were soundproofed; he could yell as loudly as he wanted. He took a step closer to Tony, into his personal space, where Tony would have to look up fractionally to meet Steve's eyes. "And we didn't stop you. You stopped yourself. When you're determined to destroy yourself, you don't let anything get in your way, especially not the people who care about you."

"Well, then we're lucky that's not what I'm trying to do right now, aren't we?" Tony shoved past Steve roughly, his shoulder colliding with Steve's. It would have been the work of a split-second to grab that both shoulder and his wrist and put him in an arm lock, but that would have taken the fight into physical territory, and even angry, he knew that wasn't a good idea. He could almost see Tony rounding on him, punching him in the jaw, and then thoroughly losing it as he had some kind of flashback to the hallucinations he'd suffered while under the influence of AIM's toxin. 

"I'm too busy trying to run my company and pull my weight on the team and keep the people in DC who hate me even more now that I've debauched Captain America happy to have time for anything else," Tony was snarling, as he snatched his laptop and tablet off the floor. "Get out of my lab. I have work to do."

"Fine," Steve threw back. "Gladly. When you pass out on your workbench, I won't come looking for you." He turned his back to Tony and stomped toward the elevator, stabbing the 'up' button viciously and wishing it came equipped with a door he could slam. The quite swish of the elevator doors closing wasn't nearly as satisfying.

The elevator started to climb, and Steve glared at his distorted reflection in the polished metal doors and silently cursed at himself. He'd come down here hoping to make himself feel better, and maybe convince Tony to take a break long enough to eat dinner. "Good luck with that," he told himself. "You sure handled that one well, Rogers." Why did Tony have to be so stubborn? So infuriatingly flippant about his own well-being? So good at knowing exactly which buttons to push to turn what should have been a simple argument into something nasty?

The elevator doors opened with a discrete, expensive-sounding chime. It was a far shorter ride than it had been in the tower, but by the time he stepped out into the ground floor hallway, Steve's frustration had shifted focus from Tony to himself. Why had he let himself get sucked in to such a pointless argument? He knew Tony hadn't been using the Extremis — if nothing else, he wouldn't have been typing so fiercely if he had been — but he still couldn't help worrying, or the momentary flash of suspicion he felt whenever Tony closed his eyes and rubbed at his face or temples while working on something. He'd seen that gesture so often while they had been trying to take down the Red Skull and the Mandarin, when Tony had been so completely and continuously immersed in the Extremis that he'd forgotten to eat, stopped sleeping, and begun having the first few of what had become a long series of nosebleeds.

Sitting around kicking himself and moping wasn't going to accomplish anything, Steve decided. He might as well go find something productive to do and kick himself and mope while doing it.

He'd been telling himself that he was going to unpack the things Jarvis had boxed up while he was gone 'eventually' for months now, and Tony had started to complain about tripping over them. Maybe he should go through a couple of boxes; by the time he was finished, Tony would probably have calmed down.

The half-dozen boxes still stacked in the corner of his and Tony's room had acquired a thin layer of dust, and a few clumps of the orange fur that seemed to coat everything in the house these days-Patton shed almost as much as Beast had. The first box he opened was full of books, the ones he'd looked through when they had first started to move in and then never gotten around to actually putting on shelves. He'd been meaning to give Bucky that copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn back for over a month.

As little as Steve had left from his life before the ice, Bucky had even less. He shouldn't have let this sit for so long.

Everything smelled of dust and old paper, and half the paperbacks had cracked spines and yellowed, dog-eared pages. Half of them had come from the Strand, or other second-hand book stores, because you couldn't find Rafael Sabatini, Fritz Leiber, or Grant Stockbridge anywhere else. Or Victor J. Banis, whose books didn't have to be carefully hidden behind something safely boring-looking anymore. Tony might mock his taste, but he was hardly going to complain about the content.

Two-thirds of the bookshelves were already filled with Tony's books, carefully shelved by subject. Steve slotted his own in and around them, deliberately re-arranging everything alphabetically by title. It would probably take anywhere from days to weeks for Tony to actually notice, but when he did, the whining about 'why is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea shelved right next to Max Plank's Treatise on Thermodynamics?' would be worth the effort.

The next box was clothing, which Steve closed back up to go through later, followed by a box of items that had once decorated his DUMBO apartment. A vintage ad poster for war bonds; an old radio that Tony had promised to fix up for him and never gotten around to; a framed photo of Steve and Sam in costume, back when Sam had still worn red and green; one of Tony's old helmets, autographed to 'the only person whose head is harder than mine.'

There was a small earring caught in the corner of the box, a silver ball on a straight post, missing the earring back. Sharon's. She'd helped him box up his stuff when he'd moved into the warehouse in Dumbo, then helped him unpack.

He set the earring carefully on the bedside table, then reconsidered and tucked it in his pocket where Patton couldn't get at it.

When he reached for the next box, picking it up to set it on the bed for easier access, it was unexpectedly heavy. How many books had he had?

Like all the other boxes, this one was unlabeled. The packing tape holding it closed had been sliced open and taped over again at least once, and was curling up at the edges. Steve didn't bother with the box cutter this time, just gave the edge of the right-hand flap a sharp jerk.

The tape snapped, the flap unfolded, and Steve stared down at a framed pen and ink drawing of an Avengers quinjet. The glass in front of the drawing was cracked, and one corner of the paper was scorched, but it wasn't so damaged that he couldn't recognize it immediately. He would have known that particular drawing anywhere.

The perspective on the wings was wrong, among other things, and he'd asked Tony not to hang it in Stark Tower's lobby, telling him that he could draw something better, something that wouldn't make him cringe every time he walked in and saw it hanging over the reception desk in all its slightly lop-sided glory. Tony had insisted that he liked it, and put it up anyway.

Steve picked it up, careful of the broken glass. Underneath it was a framed pen and ink sketch of the city skyline that had once hung in the tower's kitchen. 

He'd thought Tony had thrown that out along with the rest of the drawings and paintings that had once decorated Stark Tower, when he'd tried to erase Steve's presence in his life during the registration fight by erasing all evidence of him from his living quarters. Why had he kept these two when all the others had been disposed of?

Because, Steve realized as he lifted the picture frame out to reveal the smaller items under it, he hadn't disposed of them. They were all here. Every piece of Steve's art that had once hung in the Avengers tower or Tony's office, from pencil and ink sketches to charcoals to watercolors. At the bottom of the box, two half-filled sketch pads sat on top of a stack of loose bits of paper — sketchbooks he'd left behind when he'd left the team, the cartoon of the Avengers as characters from the Wizard of Oz that Jarvis had once had tacked to the front of the refrigerator, even doodles that Steve had tucked inside the pages of books he'd borrowed from or lent to Tony and forgotten about. 

Tony hadn't destroyed it. He'd kept it, all of it.

Steve stared down at years' worth of his own work, spread across the bed, and wasn't sure how to feel.

Tony had boxed all of this up and hidden it away, like something shameful. Or something precious; Steve himself wouldn't have bothered keeping those stupid scrap paper doodles at all, much less reverently packaged them away between layers of tissue paper.

It probably should have been creepy, but instead Steve found himself blinking hard, touched by the careful treatment of his carelessly discarded sketches in a way he couldn't describe.

Damn it. It had been easier when he could just yell at Tony, stomp off and sulk for a couple of days, and then pick up afterwards as if nothing had happened. A single stupid fight was hardly going to damage their relationship, but where a good shouting match with Tony had once been just another way to blow off steam, now it was more complicated.

The corner of the Wizard of Oz drawing was crumpled. Steve carefully flattened the soft, slightly yellowed paper out.

He'd drawn this years ago, not long after he'd joined the Avengers. Long before Wanda had been possessed — she and Pietro had still been with Magneto then — and before Hank's problems had started. Tony's drinking hadn't gotten bad yet, and... and Tony had also been hiding a serious and potentially fatal heart condition, and Steve himself had still been shaken up from the war. Hank's powers hadn't worked properly half the time, and they'd all been so new at what they were doing that Jan had nearly died just months after they'd formed the team.

It never did any good to romanticize the past. It usually wasn't that different from the present, and in some ways, it had been worse. 

What was he going to do with all this art? The framed pieces should probably go back on the walls. Unless Tony didn't want them there — he was the one who'd taken them down in the first place. Probably because he'd been sulking, just the way Steve had been when he'd come stomping up here and re-arranged all of Tony's books.

Steve rubbed at his face with both hands, just managing to stop himself from getting dust in his eyes. He'd as good as announced that he didn't trust Tony. There were things Steve didn't trust Tony to do, or not do, but he'd never doubted Tony's word, or the fact that he could always, would always be able to trust Tony at his back when it counted.

He wasn't going to go downstairs and apologize, he told himself. He'd had a point, and completely justified reasons to worry.

He'd wait until Tony finally dragged himself out of his lab and came back up here. Then he would apologize.

"I will skin her slowly," Doom muttered to himself. If SHIELD did in fact possess the Dee manuscript, they would guard it all the more closely now that Sin had so spectacularly tried and failed to seize it from them.

Winter was approaching, and the months until the spring equinox ended his narrow celestial window of opportunity were fast slipping away. The book was not his only option — there were powerful forces that might be willing to lend their aid against the Sorcerer Supreme — but all alternative involved compromises Doom would rather not make, and debts he preferred not to incur. Sin's bungling had set him to investigating still other avenues for breaking or sliding around Strange's protections to claim the spear, and some of those might eventually yield fruit, but it would take time.

Time was limited, however, and the need to divert some of his attention away from his plans was a constant hindrance. Still, Latveria would not rule itself.

The Latvarian franc had fallen against the euro, he saw, as he read the latest report from one of his more loyal ministers. Completely unacceptable; he would have to arrange for several bombings in France and Spain, and perhaps a bubble on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. That should bring world finances into a more appropriate state. Perhaps the assassination of the president of one of Greece's major banks...

"I believe the Avengers have something you desire."

The voice came from directly behind him, low and sultry and unmistakably feminine.

Doom spun around, bringing a weapon to bear on the source of the sound. The laser fire sparked harmlessly against an invisible shield, and the woman behind it smirked at him.

He considered her for a moment, taking in the green gown, the larger than life stature, and the great, curving pair of golden horns that topped her headdress. Her face was unfamiliar, but...

"Loki," he said flatly. "What brings you to this place? I took precautions to prevent anyone from teleporting in." He had not designed them with a god in mind, even a minor one, but they should at least have given him a warning. Alarms should have sounded, defenses been triggered.

"And had I been a mortal mage, or some pathetic human scientist, I'm sure they would have worked." She gestured airily at the laser pistol still trained right between her breasts. "Why don't you put that away, Victor von Doom? I'm here to help you. My enemies have something you need, and you can give me access to something I greatly desire."

It grated to follow another's suggestions, but Doom did as she said and lowered his weapon. It was useless anyway. "Baldur's Bane will be mine. You lost any claim to it long ago."

"And how do you plan to obtain it without the proper spells? I know where the grimoire you seek is, mortal. Chaos is my element; no artifact infused with it can be hidden from me. And for only a small price, I will tell you where you may find it."

Did she think him as blindly stupid as Richards? "What price?" he sneered. "My soul? My eternal servitude?" He would find the grimoire on his own in a matter of weeks, with no need to sell his allegiance to any more dark gods. 

Loki raised an eyebrow. "I have no need of human souls. No, what I propose will cost you nothing. I will aid you in getting the spear, and then you will give its power to me."

A fool's bargain. Loki must be desperate to regain the power the spear held; how much had she lost when Valhalla had fallen? "And how would I benefit in this little scenario?"

She smiled, revealing teeth just a little too sharp to be human. "You would have the gratitude of a god. After I reabsorb the spear's power and use it to slay my step-brother and assume the throne of Valhalla, the Odin-force will belong to me. I will have power beyond your imaginings, and the ability to grant you great favors."

"I can imagine quite a bit of power." The mask did not permit him the luxury of a sneer, but Doom had had years to practice conveying emotion with his voice. "I do not need your aid to gain possession of the spear; once the book and the ritual it contains are mine, all will fall into my hands. Why settle for the favors of a god when I can become one?"

Loki swept the heavy fur cloak she wore back over her shoulder, revealing a dagger long enough to serve as a short sword tucked into a heavy, golden belt, and crossed the room toward him, coming uncomfortably close. Despite her lush curves and the revealing neckline of her gown, she moved like the warrior she was; she clearly intended to intimidate him rather than seduce. 

It was not often that Doom found himself matched for sheer physical and magical power, though both circumstances were far more common than his being matched in intellect. Even so, if Loki thought something as childish as looming over him would secure her a psychological advantage, she was an even greater fool than he had previously assumed.

She leaned in toward him, and Doom found himself staring up into ice-green eyes that were anything but foolish. "Even with the powers of a god, you cannot stand against Chthon."

Chthon? Doom felt an unwelcome sinking sensation at the name. Loki could be dealt with once he possessed the spear, as could Strange, and several of the dark powers Doom owed unfortunate debts to. Chthon was another matter altogether. If he were interested in Doom's spear, it would complicate matters considerably.

Loki smiled slightly; it was too much to hope that she hadn't noticed the way Doom had stiffened upon hearing Chthon's name. "He plans to use the spear's power to return himself to this dimension and crush it beneath his feet. His pawn is on the game board as well, and you will find him an even deadlier opponent than myself."

Inarguably true, but, "If he can defeat gods, how do you plan to deal with him?" Doom demanded.

Loki's left hand brushed the hilt of her dagger. "I have ways."

She looked larger than life, leaning casually against the edge of Doom's desk as if she owned it. Some trick of otherworldly power made her seem more real than her surroundings, turning the rich gleam of the desk's polished wood dull and the glow of the LED desk lamp thin and watery. The barbaric splendor of all that armor and fur should have looked silly alongside the sleek, expensive computer and other electronic equipment. Instead, she wore it with as much aplomb as Doom did his own armor.

He was not impressed. "I doubt that," he said. "You've never been able to defeat Thor, and the only god you ever slew, you killed by trickery. You need my help as much as I need yours, or you would not be here." Now that she was here, however, her presence opened up intriguing new avenues of possibility.

"Do not underestimate trickery," she snapped, and beneath his mask, Doom smiled. Lesser minds were so easily manipulated. At least Loki, unlike Sin, represented something of a challenge.

"I do not. And you should not underestimate me. You wish to rule Valhalla, Trickster. Must you do it alone?"

Loki gave him a long, speculative look. "I would prefer to," she said, "but ruling by another's side would be better than kneeling at the Thunder God's feet as his humble subject."

"Then kneeling to that idiot? Anything would be." He reached out and placed one mailed hand over hers — accounting for his gauntlet, their hands were nearly the same size. That failed to be as off-putting as it perhaps ought to have been; power, in any form, was always more attractive than weakness. "Give me the spear, and when I have ascended to godhood, I will face Chthon at your side. Once we have sealed him away from this realm once more, we can kill Thor together and rule Valhalla and the earth itself as king and queen."

And Reed Richards would finally have to acknowledge that Doom was his superior in every way that mattered. It would make the even the months of waiting patiently at Loki's side until he could eventually betray her and rule alone sweet. 

Perhaps he would have Richards kneel naked at the foot of his throne with a chain around his neck. But only if he begged for his worthless life first.

Loki stared first at Doom, then down at his hand where it touched hers, staying silent just long enough for Doom to begin to fear that he had overstepped. Then she met his eyes, a cruel smile on her lips. "This plan of yours has merit, Victor von Doom. You have ambition, you lust for power. And, of course, you plan to betray me and rule alone." She leaned down, until her lips were inches from his mask, and purred, "I like that."

There was nothing to be gained through timidity. "As you will no doubt plan to betray me," he agreed.

Loki made a faint, pleased humming noise, and her smile deepened. "I am the rotten ice that breaks under men's feet. I am the fire that burns the hand that wields it. Betrayal is my nature. Just as it is yours." She pulled her hand free of Doom's and straightened from her slouch against the table, closing what little distance there was between them in a single step. "Take off the mask, and let me look on the face of the man who will rule at my side."

The smile froze on Doom's lips. She didn't intend to kill him. She had accepted his offer. She was reaching for his mask.

He turned his head to the side, away from her hand. "I think not."

Loki laughed, the sound sharp and mocking. "I have spent centuries chained to a rock in Hell. I have slept in the arms of giantesses. My children are called monsters. Do you think I will balk at a few mere scars?"

One cold hand gripped his jaw, just under the edge of the mask, holding him in place like a vise. Doom started to grab for her wrist, then made himself stop. Failing to meet her challenge would be showing weakness. He was Victor von Doom, and he did not back down from a challenge; he had revealed his bare face before when it served his purposes, and he could do so again.

He reached up, brushing Loki's free hand aside, and removed the mask himself. 

The air was cool against his skin — he had not bothered to turn on the heat in the hotel room, since by Latverian standards the weather was still warm — and the feel of it made his face itch, as if he could actually sense Loki's eyes moving over his scars.

She pulled him towards her, nails digging into the edge of his jaw, and kissed him.

The kiss was long and hard, almost bruising, and when she pulled back several long moments later, Doom could taste blood from a stinging bite to his lower lip. 

"If you even think about killing me and wearing my skin," Loki hissed, her breath hot against his bare cheek, "I will make you scream as no mortal man ever has before you die."

Doom smiled, the sting of his torn lip still sharp, and kissed her again.

*The NYC public school number was picked semi at random based on a Tales of Suspense issue number. It turns out, however, that there is an actual PS 58 (ironically called "the school of heroes"), that it turns out (again, ironically) is in fact exactly the kind of school that would be thrilled to have Captain America talk to their students, regardless of sexuality.  No insult to the actual PS 58 is intended.

Chapter Text

The alert jolted Tony out of a sound sleep, the Extremis sending it ringing through his skull and flashing the data against the backs of his eyes.

He was already sitting upright, one hand pressing at the ache behind his eyes, trying to wake up enough to focus on what the mansion's systems were telling him, when the building's intruder alert went off.

Steve rolled out of bed in one fluid motion, faster and more graceful than anyone who'd been asleep less than a second ago had a right to be. He was on his feet with his shield in his hand while Tony was still trying to disentangle himself from the sheets.

"It's Doom. Or Sin. One of them. They teleported in." The alarm currently trying to blind and deafen him was from the anti-teleportation shields, which he'd originally set up to alert him via the Extremis if anyone used Doom's dimensional transport device or anything that matched its energy signature to enter the mansion. Which meant that the invader, whomever they were, was already inside, not at the edge of the mansion's lawn where the perimeter sensors would have picked them up long before they set foot on Tony's property.

"The book." Steve was already moving toward the door, his bare feet silent on the wooden floor. "They're after the book. How did-"

"Steve," Tony interrupted, "clothes." Naked, bent in an athletic crouch with his shield in one hand, Steve was a sight to strike awe into the heart of an intruder, but he was also completely vulnerable to enemy weapons fire. His leather and scale mail wouldn't stop bullets, or even slow them appreciably, but it would at least blunt the impact of one of Sin's poisoned daggers.

His own protection was a lot more substantial. Tony let the under-armor ooze out of his pores and called his armor, grateful that that much of the Extremis, at least, still worked. He went from naked to armored-up in thirty-seconds, while Steve was still hopping on one foot trying to simultaneously pull on his leather pants and put on boots.

"Go," Steve ordered, the word muffled as he dragged his tunic on over his head. "I'll catch up to you in a minute."

Tony nodded and took off — literally — for the containment vault.

Interfacing with his armor didn't count as 'using the Extremis,' not really, and it was faster and more efficient than using voice commands and the HUD displays. The schematic of the mansion he called up via the Extremis was lit up like a Christmas tree with heat signatures, the armor's sensors picking up intruders on all levels. There was no way of knowing which one was Doom or Sin and which were Sin's hired thugs, but it didn't matter. They were here for the John Dee manuscript, so Tony would have to get to it first.

Several of the intruders were in the basement, almost on top of the vault, but it would take them time to get around the security he and Hank had installed, if they were even able to. Nobody Sin would have been able to hire could get around Tony's security protocols, and Sin herself had always favored machine guns and knives over electronic warfare. Doom, on the other hand... He could undoubtedly hack or disable almost anything Tony could set up, but he wouldn't be able to do it quickly.

The hallways and stairs blurred around him, and he distinctly heard at least one objet d'art shatter as he blasted by it. It was probably rare, antique, and expensive, and would take hours' worth of negotiating with art dealers to replace; Tony ignored the sound, and flew faster.

He turned the final corner sharply enough to pull almost half a negative G, and nearly ran directly into Thor's armored chest.

"Iron Man." Thor greeted him without inflection. He nodded toward the closed door to the lab that held the containment vault. "There are at least four imitations of Doom in yon chamber, perhaps more. I cannot tell which is truly him, if any." Mjolnir smacked solidly against the palm of his left hand, once, then twice. "They shall not obtain what they seek."

"Even if they do, they're not leaving with it. At least, not the way they came in."

Thor took a step back, clearly preparing to kick the door in, and Tony quickly over-rode the electronic lock with the Extremis and ordered it open. Doom was going to do enough damage the Mansion without them adding to it.

His pulse throbbed painfully in his temples for a moment, warning him that any more attempts to use the Extremis to interface with equipment other than his armor would be a mistake. He was treading on the edges of his promise to Steve as it was.

The lab's blast door slid back into the wall, revealing six identical copies of Doom, weapons at the ready.

Scanning them with the armor's sensors was useless; each one appeared human not only to infrared heat sensors, but to the armor's more complex biorhythm sensors. They had heartbeats, something that registered on his sensors as functioning lungs, and even minute electrical impulses that mimicked human brain activity. Doom might be a megalomaniacal drama queen in a silly mask, but he was a genius with tech.

When all of this was over, he was going to enjoy taking one of these things apart.

Thor took a step forward, spinning Mjolnir in a slow circle. "If any of you actually are Doom, know that we will make you regret invading this place."

The Doom standing farthest to the right laughed, his mask making the sound hollow.

"Your step-sister is right," the Doom farthest to the left said. "You are a tiresome fool."

Thor drew his arm back, his hammer revolving more swiftly, then hesitated and turned to Tony. "Which of them is the true Victor von Doom?"

"I can't tell," Tony admitted. "He's upgraded his robots. Even SHIELD's LMDs aren't this seamless, and I designed those." That wasn't entirely true — Tony could distinguish an LMD from the real thing if he had the right equipment and a few moments to study it, but he was the one who'd designed and built them — but still, it galled. Doom wasn't supposed to be better than him.

"There are times when you're almost a worthy adversary," the second-to-the-left Doom said. "At the moment, however, you are simply in my way." He raised his right hand, and shot a stream of energy toward Tony's face.

The first Doombot had appeared directly in Wanda's bedroom. She had been awake, fortunately; she didn't sleep well these days, not since they'd brought the Dee manuscript into the mansion.

Her first hex sphere had hit it mid-chest, and the thing had ground to a halt in a sudden burst of sparks. She'd rolled out of bed, coughing a little at the reek of burned wiring, and thrown herself to the floor where the next attacker to teleport in wouldn't see her as easily.

For several endless moments, nothing had happened, and then something elsewhere in the mansion had exploded with a hollow boom.

She still didn't know what it had been; she hadn't made it past the front entry hall, where she found over a dozen Doombots, all of them throwing energy bolts left and right, and one.

Wanda threw another hex sphere at the closest robot, and winced internally as it fizzled out against some kind of shield. The first two had gone down instantly, but obviously her brief flash of good luck had run out. Oh, well. Things got boring if they were too easy.

"I'm disappointed," the Doombot said, in a perfect imitation of Doom's deep, cultured voice. "You used to present more of a challenge than this."

It made a grab for her, and Wanda ducked under its arm and inside its guard, shoving a fist-full of raw chaos energy into its metal faceplate.

With a roar of rage that sounded uncannily like Doom himself, the Doombot grabbed at its smoking faceplate, trying to rip it free while spidery threads of energy crawled over its hands. The faceplate peeled free, revealing bare circuitry underneath, and Wanda dodged backwards as two arrows the length of her arm punched through the Doombot's metal skull.

It hit the floor in a clatter of metal, the sound almost swallowed up by the ringing clang from across the hall.

Carol had torn off a Doombot's arm and thrown it at second, knocking it off its feet. She launched herself across the hallway at the downed robot, and laid into it with her bare hands, her fists leaving deep dents in its metal armor.

The sound of hollow, clanking steps behind her warned Wanda just in time. She turned, throwing a shield of chaos energy around herself, and a mailed fist grazed her cheek. For an instant, there was no pain, only a dull feeling of impact, and then her face started to throb.

She threw an uppercut at the underside of the Doombot's jaw, beneath the edge of its mask, letting its own momentum increase the force of the blow. It was less effective than Carol's punches, and significantly less effective than a hex sphere or blast of chaos magic, but the feel of the impact jarring up her arm was satisfying.

There were times when she understood completely why Cap and Thor liked hitting things so much. Doombots weren't alive, couldn't feel pain. There was no need to hold back, or to worry about accidentally killing or hurting anyone.

She could hear gunfire from elsewhere in the mansion, but none of the Doombots in the hall carried guns. More unusual luck; her shield would be as much of a danger as a defense in the face of gunfire. Bullets ricocheted off it at random, and it would have taken nearly all her concentration to keep them from hitting one of the others.

The Doombot's energy weapons crackled uselessly as she forced them to malfunction. It barely seemed to notice her next punch, all of its attention focused on trying to rip free the handheld force cannon she had fused to its gauntlet. The cannon was emitting a high-pitched whine, only moments away from exploding.

There was a bright flash of light at the corner of her vision, and a deep groaning sound vibrated through the soles of her feet. Something was—

Hands closed around Wanda's arms like a vise, and she was yanked violently off her feet as the grand staircase collapsed in a crash of splintering wood and plaster dust.

A chunk of plaster hit her in the face, dust and grit stinging in her eyes, and there was nothing but empty air beneath her feet. Wanda started to struggle, kicking backwards at her captor's legs and turning her head to bite at the arm around her chest. She remembered just in time that biting a Doombot was a bad idea, and unleashed a raw burst of chaos energy at it instead.

Carol's voice shouted something obscene in her ear, and Wanda went limp and tried to calm down. She'd been rescued, not attacked.

Carol set Wanda down and let go of her, taking a step back.

"Thank you," Wanda said, not turning around. The staircase now ended in a jagged, broken stub at the first landing, jutting out into mid-air with a pile of rubble beneath it. A length of scorched and twisted metal that had once been a robotic arm was sticking out from under a pile of splintered floor boards. None of the Doombots were still moving. Seen from the corner of her eye, they morphed into brightly colored metal and plastic, red and yellow and green reverting back to green and silver only when she looked directly at them.

Months worth of rebuilding, all erased in moments.

She fought back the urge to apologize — it wasn't her fault that Doom had attacked them — and glanced around for Clint. He was standing on the second floor balcony, looking trapped, irritated, and out of arrows.

There was another explosion of gunfire from one of the upper floors, and the sound of clanking metal boots in the hallway.

"Hawkeye," Carol ordered, "get your ass down here."

Clint planted one hand on the balcony rail and sprang over it, tucking and rolling so that he hit the ground shoulder-first, and sprang to his feet with a dramatic flourish that he immediately ruined by stumbling over a chunk of plaster.

It wasn't like last year. These were Doombots, not Ultron clones, and Clint was still alive. And she was in control of her own powers, her own mind.

She'd been dreaming about Chthon until that first Doombot had woken her up. The tattoo on the back of her neck still itched, though the backs of her hands no longer burned — they had literally burned, before, with an angry red glow that had died away before she'd finished waking up. Maybe it had been part of the dream.

"Not all of us can fly," Clint was saying. "Toss me one of those laser guns; I don't think I have any arrows left that aren't broken."

Carol ripped an energy gun free from one of the 'dead' Doombots' hands and held it out to Clint. "This will be more effective against them anyway."

"My arrows are always effective. Tell her, Wanda."

"You brag about yourself well enough without my help." It was jarring for a moment, how normal everything suddenly felt; it seemed as if this shouldn't be real. Not anymore.

Something exploded elsewhere in the mansion.

"Cap? Wasp? Anybody hear me and care to tell me what that was?" Clint tried his com link again, grimacing when it presumably failed to work. Wanda's had been producing nothing but static since the Doombot had woken her.

"Looks like we're on our own." Carol picked up a second energy gun, squinted at its dented barrel for a moment, then shrugged and tossed it aside. "Let's go find some more robots to smash."

Chewing through the vital circuitry inside a Doombot's head and torso was a suicide job, but a colony's soldiers were expendable to a certain degree. They went willingly, trusting Hank's assurance that the Doombots were a threat to their nests, and, incidentally, filled with something good to eat.

"Ants? You think to defeat the mighty Doom with insects?" it taunted, brushing casually at the soldiers crawling along one armored forearm. "I will-"

Its voice cut out abruptly, and Hank never got to hear the rest of the threat. It was moving jerkily now, as the ants' work began to interfere with its ability to send commands to its limbs. Unfortunately, it wasn't the only Doombot in the room.

Jan had already partially disabled one of the others, diving inside its defenses and ripping the vital wiring in the back of its neck out with her bare hands. It was stumbling around blindly now, swinging its fists at empty air and getting in the remaining Doombot's way.

The final Doombot ducked under a mailed fist, brought up the energy weapon it carried, and shot its compatriot twice, once in the torso and once in the head. The blasts of energy — was it laser fire, or plasma? Tony would know — left huge, smoking craters in the Doombot's armor, and it crumpled to the floor in a heap.

Hank threw himself to the side as his Doombot lurched toward him, ordering the remaining ants toward the still fully functional one, which was now aiming its energy weapon at Sam.

It shifted the barrel of the weapon toward the trail of ants and fired, burning a channel across the floor boards and incinerating Hank's final group of reinforcements. The super-colony that stretched from the Mansion's grounds to the tree plantings up and down the street was exhausted, and if Hank called up any of the other colonies in Central Park, they'd be more interested in killing the ants already here than in helping him fight Doombots.

Sam ducked under the Doombot's next blast and rolled, coming back to his feet beside the downed robot, the energy weapon it had dropped in his hands. "Surrender, and you might get to keep all your circuits in working order," he said.

"Bold words for a man with no powers wielding an unfamiliar weapon," it sneered.

Maybe that one actually was Doom. It seemed more intelligent than the others. It certainly sounded like him, but then, they all did.

Hank dodged backwards as the Doombot in front of him made one last, clumsy attempt to grab him, and went sprawling as his foot collided with something that rolled. He lay there for a second, all the air knocked out of him, and tried to force his lungs to work and his body to move.

Jan landed behind the Doombot, grew until her head nearly brushed the ceiling, and gave it a hard shove. It went flying, smashing mask-first into the floor with a ringing clank.

She planted one foot on its back and reached down to give Hank a hand up.

That was when the first of Sin's goons came through the door.

The hallway was dark, with just enough light filtering in from outside for Carol to see the long crack spidering across the ceiling plaster just outside the front hallway.

The house hadn't even lasted three months. At this rate, the insurance company was probably going to try to sue Tony.

Carol took the lead, pushing in front of Clint, who looked irrigated, but didn't argue.

Even out here, the air was thick with plaster dust, enough so that Carol could actually taste it against the back of her throat when she breathed in. It was nearly as bad as the collapsing skyscraper had been. She blinked, hard, and wished for half a moment that her costume had flight goggles.

Her eyes were still tearing up as she rounded the first corner and nearly ran smack into a dark-clothed man with an assault rifle.

He reeled back, eyes wide, and Carol snatched the gun out of his hands before he could recover. She had a moment to notice small details — a stocky build, a gap between his front teeth, a combat knife strapped to his thigh — and then three more men and a woman came pelting around the corner behind him, guns out and ready.

Wanda said something in Transian that made Carol's teeth ache, and pinkish-orange sparks flickered over the guns. One of the men swore, and there was a sharp bang as they all fired at once.

Carol flung her arms out, instinctively trying to shield her teammates, and felt a sharp sting across her left biceps. The impacts she was braced for didn't come; all but one of the weapons had jammed.

"Put the guns down or I'll do worse to them," Wanda said.

Predictably, none of the invaders did as she said. The woman took a step forward, her hand going to the back-up weapon she wore in a shoulder holster, and Clint fired a burst of energy at the floor just in front of her feet. It lit up the hallway like a lightning flash, rendering everything in bright blue-white and sharp-edged shadows.

The sharp smell of burning wood and carpet joined the haze of dust in the air. The woman ignored it; she drew her gun and charged forward, as if Clint and his energy weapon weren't even there.

Carol grabbed for her, her fingers closing around the woman's densely muscled upper arms, and got the hard barrel of the handgun jammed into her stomach for her efforts. It, too, misfired.

She took back almost everything she'd thought or said about having Wanda back on the team.

Then a blast of energy shot through the air over their heads, coming so close to Carol that she could smell singed hair. Not her own; it took more than an energy blast to set her hair on fire, even with her Binary powers long gone.

"I want the Scarlet Witch alive," a male voice proclaimed. "The other two are unimportant."

She didn't need to look up to recognize it as Doom. No one else could sound quite so arrogant.

Clint's gun made a barely audible whining sound as he fired it, the momentary flash of illumination showed Doom silhouetted against the darkness of the hallway, his armor a blaze of reflections and his dark green cloak leeched of color. He dodged sideways, faster than anybody wearing that much armor ought to be able to, and Clint's energy bolt burned a chunk out of his cloak rather than catching him squarely in the center of his breastplate.

"Don't be a fool," Doom sneered. "Do you really think I have no defenses against my own weapons? Drop the gun, and perhaps I'll let you live."

Clint's hand didn't waver. "The last three robots didn't do so well against it. For all I know, you're a robot, too."

Doom inclined his head. "Perhaps. And perhaps not." He lifted his own energy weapon and shot a long stream of blue-white fire at Clint, sweeping it across the hallway as Clint dropped to the floor to duck beneath it and started to roll back to his feet.

Wanda held up both hands, palms out, and the energy arced away from Clint, curving around him to burn a long furrow across the wall behind him.

The female invader lunged toward, slashing at her with a knife, and Carol blasted her back into the wall, expending all her stored power in one shot. It felt good, as it always did — a moment of pure, unrivaled adrenaline rush as the power flowed through her, a shadow of what it had been like to be the heart of a star. She would feel drained and empty, afterwards, but it was worth it to hear the dull thud of the woman's body hitting the plaster.

One of the invaders shouted, sounding more startled than afraid, and then all attacked at once, and the entire hall dissolved into a melee that was more brawl than gunfight.

She left the goons to Clint and Wanda and strode toward Doom, ignoring the blasts of energy he fired at her. It was like wading directly into a fire hose; she had to lean her body forward slightly to brace herself against the force of it.

The blasts of energy almost hurt as they struck her — no, scratch that, they did hurt — and she wondered for a moment if she'd have bruises tomorrow to go with the welt on her arm where the bullet had hit her. What the hell had Doom done to his weapons?

Not enough to keep her from being able to absorb their energy. It burned in her veins and across her skin, something about the power not quite right, but she could feel it settling into the empty places inside her, recharging her.

Carol smiled grimly at Doom, stopping just short of arm's reach — his reach, not hers.

"Am I supposed to be intimidated?" His mask was just as expressionless as Tony's faceplate, but it seemed even less human, despite the open mouth slit and the glimmer of his eyes visible through the eye holes. "I grow tired of you."

"You shouldn't have used the energy weapon on me," Carol told him, smiling even more widely at him. "Big mistake."

This time, she didn't expend all her energy, only most of it. The combined force of half a dozen blasts from his energy gun incinerated the remains of Doom's cloak and blew his metal face-mask clean off.

Underneath it was a robotic understructure, the silvery metal "skull" reminding her of the Terminator after its human face had melted off. It was almost disappointing; she'd always wondered what Doom looked like under that mask. A hideous mass of scar tissue, or some other terrible disfigurement worthy of the Phantom of the Opera, or a relatively normal-looking face that he'd decided to cover up out of pure melodrama? Either one seemed possible.

Carol punched the Doombot in the jaw with all the force she usually tried not to use on humans, then grabbed it by the shoulder and chin as it stumbled off-balance and ripped its head clean off.

The body fell to the floor with a loud, metallic thud, and Carol turned and slung the head underhand at one of the no-longer-armed goons. He went down as well, nearly taking one of his buddies with him, and the remaining two invaders left on their feet glanced from her, to Clint and his borrowed energy weapon, to Wanda.

There was a moment of tense, frozen silence, during which Carol could almost feel them debating whether or not to make one last suicidal attack, and then the two of them turned and ran.

"What did he mean, 'the other two are unimportant?'" Clint asked, folding his arms across his chest. The gun he still held in his right hand made the motion awkward.

Wanda raised an eyebrow at him. "You'd prefer it if he wanted to kidnap you, too?"

Clint shook his head, frowning. There was a fresh bruise blooming on his cheekbone, a mirror image to the one on Wanda's face, and the eye on that side of his face was red and angry looking and probably about to start swelling shut. One of the invaders must have gotten in a lucky punch. "He wanted you specifically. That can't be good."

Wanda nodded, her mouth set in a grim line. "Let's go find the real Doom," she said, "and ask him about it."

Tony didn't have time to dodge; he brought up one arm just in time to partially block the Doombot's blast, letting the armor's shielding absorb the force of it yet again. It dropped his shielding capacity to 52%, but it was worth it to imagine the expression Doom was probably wearing under that mask when Tony dropped his arm and took another step forward, apparently untouched.

He glanced back over his shoulder as the armor's short-range sensors registered someone approaching at a run, ready to turn and defend Thor's back against more copies of Doom, and relaxed when Steve dashed into the room, shield raised.

The multiple Dooms attacked the three of them as a synchronized unit. Normally, they would have made short work of a handful of Doombots, but he and Thor were hampered by the need to avoid bringing the ceiling down on their heads. He'd just had the place rebuilt, Tony thought, as a muffled boom sounded from somewhere overhead and the walls rattled, and already it was being destroyed again. It had been hard enough to find an insurance carrier willing to insure it the last time.

"Next time, let's do this at your place," he told the nearest Doom, and fired a repulsor blast at his torso at slightly under full power, just in case that really was Doom inside the armor and cape rather than a well-made LMD.

Steve wasn't as hampered; the two Dooms he was currently fighting both had large dents knocked into their torsos by Thor's hammer, and exposed wiring where pieces of their armor had been torn free. "But the décor here is so much nicer," he said, then slammed the edge of his shield into the corner of a Doombot's jaw. Its head snapped back with a force that would have broken the actual Doom's neck.

One of the Doombots had stepped back from the fight, and was tampering with the vault door, trying to manually bypass the security. Had Doom programmed it to take care of the door, was he remote-controlling it somehow, or had he actually deigned to show up for this fight in person?

Tony took a step toward him, intent on finding out, when a hollow boom sounded from one of the upper stories, followed by a loud rumble as the floor abruptly shook under his feet. Part of the building had collapsed; he hoped it wasn't structural.

Steve glanced upward, his shield at the read to block falling debris. "What was that?"

"Expensive," Tony told him. "Jan? Carol?" He tried to raise the others through the communicator in his helmet, and got only static and interference. Something was jamming the signal. Something that didn't register on his armor's sensors, and didn't interfere with any other electronics. The Extremis didn't seem to be affected by it either, but the situation wasn't desperate enough to warrant completely breaking his word to Steve.

"I hate magic," he muttered, and fired his repulsors at the nearest Doombot just on general principle. Then he spun to aim them at what he was assuming was Doom himself, and groaned internally.

Doom had the control panel partially removed now, and was up to his wrists in Tony's carefully designed circuitry. Thor was halfway across the room now, the shattered frames of two Doombots littering the floor behind him, but not close enough to stop him from triggering the door release.

Tony's repulsor blast hit Doom just as the door to the vault slid open, knocking Doom inside it.

Brilliant, Shellhead Tony thought. Why don't you just hand him the book on a silver platter while you're at it?

If he could reseal the vault door, it wouldn't matter. No amount of power Doom could conjure up and no weapon he might have brought with him could get him out of there.

He fired his jet boots and threw himself at the control panel, ignoring the sounds of Doom struggling back to his feet and the screech of rending metal that was Steve or Thor destroying the final Doombot.

The delicate circuitry that controlled the vault's door and locking mechanism was so much slag, fused together into a lump of gold, copper, and silicon that could almost have been beautiful if it didn't represent days' worth of effort and the loss of a chance to trap Doom where he stood.

He could hear the ring of Thor's boots against the floor and felt the edge of Steve's shield brush his armor as the two of them drew even with him, blocking Doom's exit from the vault.

"Drop the book, Doom," Steve said. "There's no way out. Your teleportation technology won't work in there."

Tony raised his hands and let his repulsors charge, preparing to incinerate the book in Doom's hands if he didn't comply. He would find some way to appease the museum later, if he had to.

"I think not." Doom shifted the manuscript to his left hand and raised his right hand threateningly. "The way out is obvious. I will simply go through you."

"Come then," Thor rumbled. "We are ready for you."

Doom ignored him, his gaze remaining on Steve. "I gave you life again, Captain. It would be a simple thing to take it back again, and none of your friends or allies would be willing or able to raise you a second time. You do not want to stand in my way."

Steve's chin went up slightly, his jaw tightening. "I think I do."

Doom was bluffing, surely. If the magic that had brought Steve back could be undone, Strange would have mentioned it.

Tony shifted a little closer to him just in case. "Give up, Doom. Even if you get out of that box, there's an energy field surrounding the mansion and grounds that disrupts access to the Negative Zone. Next time you try to break into my house, try not to do it using a copy of technology I worked on."

Doom laughed. It was the sort of sound that should have been accompanied by pipe organs and a crash of dramatic thunder. "You think to insult Doom? I will beyond such petty concerns soon."

"You'll always be petty, Doom," Steve told him, in the firm, disapproving-and-slightly-disgusted tone Steve was so good at.

"More insults. I killed valuable men to resurrect you; you should be grateful."

Tony heard a quick intake of breath from Steve, and, nearly simultaneously, a scraping sound from behind them. The armor's sensors registered movement; one of the Doombots was stirring.

He didn't have to look to know Steve was frozen, distracted. Doom was probably counting on that, had likely known the Doombot was still active before tossing that little bombshell at Steve.

He and Thor turned at the same time, both of them shouting warnings. The Doombot fired, Steve ducked, and Mjolnir smashed into the Doombot's skull all in the same instant.

Tony breathed again, starting to turn back to Doom, and a wave of energy hit him from behind, enough force behind it to throw him to the ground.

His shielding held for one endless fraction of a moment while all the armor's alerts flared red, then shorted out under the onslaught, and everything went red and white.

One of Sin's men lunged for him, knife in hand.

Sam grabbed his wrist with one hand, fingers digging into his tendons, and slammed the butt of his stolen energy-gun into the man's stomach with the other. He had been well-trained, wherever Sin had dug him up from; he didn't drop the knife.

Sam could have shot him, but he wasn't sure what exactly the Doombots' weapons did to human flesh. The level of damage they'd done to the walls, floor, and ceiling gave him unpleasant visions of fist-sized holes burned through muscle and into bone.

Sin's snake-themed neo-Nazis didn't share his qualms about using lethal force. Two of them opened fire on him, and Sam had only a split-second's warning as the man he was fighting suddenly jerked and twitched in his grasp to fling his arm up and deploy one hard-light wing as a shield.

His attacker collapsed to the floor, clutching with both hands at his shoulder, his face twisted in pain. There was blood everywhere, bright red, and the sound of semi-automatic weapons fire was deafening.

One of Jan's 'stinger' blasts flared at the edge of his vision; she was diving at Sin's face, mobbing her like a blackbird or a crow. Sin flinched, bringing one arm up, then laughed. "I came prepared this time, Wasp." She tapped the edge of her knife against the thick aviator's goggles she wore, then lifted the muzzle of her weapon and started firing at the air, trying unsuccessfully to shoot Jan down.

Thank God Redwing still insisted on sleeping outside, away from what he thought of as 'the owl-book.' He was a larger target than Jan was.

Sin distracted and one intruder dead or dying still left something like ten or eleven men for Sam and Hank, and Hank's unarmed combat skills left something to be desired. It wasn't like fighting next to Steve, who always had his back and whose movements Sam could track without even looking, and whose shield would protect him from any bullets that ricocheted off Sam's wings. He had to keep one eye on the snake-Nazis and one on Hank, ready to yank him out of the way of a knife or burst of gunfire.

"The other two don't matter, Wilson," Sin shouted. "I'm here for you and Rogers. You'll pay for what you did to my father."

"He deserved it," Sam grunted, as he tried to keep an invader's gun pointed at the ceiling. He was white, of course — all of them were white — and nearly as tall as Sam was, packed with muscle despite the fact that the blond stubble on his chin was patchy with youth.

Where did Sin find these people? This one was barely old enough to vote, and willing to shoot his fellows to death on her orders.

Was she brainwashing them somehow? Or did they just hate everybody who wasn't part of their little Aryan cult just that much.

"I'll kill you slowly, Wilson. I'll start with that bird of yours, cook him alive and make you eat him-"

Sam ignored her. He punched the man currently trying to shoot him in the face, then threw him as hard as he could toward one of his companions. They both went crashing into a fallen Doombot and went down like dominos. That left nine — no, eight. Hank had just head-butted one of them with that fancy silver helmet of his, hard enough to knock him out cold.

"Do you ever shut up?" Jan demanded, and then Sin shrieked. Sam didn't see what Jan did, but it must have been effective, because when he swung around to pinpoint his fellow Avengers again, Sin was empty handed and snarling with rage.

Hank made a grab for her, suddenly gaining at least six inches of height until his reach was longer than Sam's, and caught her by the arm.

At the same moment, the last Doombot, still wildly flailing around as its processor ground to a halt, crashed through Sin's men, knocking them aside like bowling pins, and

Hank's head snapped around, and Sin yanked him forward and threw him over her hip and directly into the wall.

And just like that, Sam was the last one standing.

"Cap? Hawkeye? I could use some help here."

His communicator gave him back nothing but static.

The remainder of Sin's men rushed him, using the butts of their guns instead of the business ends on a snapped order from her, and Sam was good, but he wasn't that good. Not against half a dozen men at once.

Something slammed against the side of his head — a rifle stock, or the hilt of a dagger — and then he was on his knees, with someone's hand in his hair and the edge of a knife against his throat.

"This is where you should be, Wilson. On your knees, begging forgiveness."

The entire side of his face throbbed, and Sin's voice was patchy and far away, but he wasn't about to let her get the last word. "Do I look like I'm begging?"

His vision was coming back into focus now, and he could see Sin smiling down at him, all freckles and innocent-looking dimples. "No," she said, "but that will change. You'll beg me to kill you before I'm through with you. You," she jerked her chin at her men. "Grab the other two. We're taking them with us. Daddy did so much for you," she continued, pressing the knife harder into Sam's throat until he had to lean his head back as far as it would go to keep it from breaking his skin. One scratch, and the snake venom she'd poisoned James with would be in his bloodstream. "He gave you powers, the opportunity to serve a greater cause despite your inferior background, and you rejected it."

The Red Skull had "given" him false memories — ones where he'd been the sort of stereotypical street gang member the Red Skull had probably thought all young, black men were — and had tried to use him as a pawn against Steve. The only positive thing to come out the whole experience had been Redwing. "You're insane," Sam told her, and fought not to wince as her fingers tightened in his hair.

"Let him go, you-" There was a thud and a muffled grunt from behind Sam, and Hank's voice cut off abruptly.

Sin slid the edge of the knife gently along his skin, almost a caress. "I think I'll send your head to Carter and Barnes in a box. Rogers', too."

Sam's skin went cold all over, and the bottom of his stomach dropped out. Where was Steve? He hadn't answered his communicator; none of the others had. And there had been that explosion...

Sin jerked abruptly, her knife blade thankfully pulling away from his skin, and for one brief moment Sam thought that Jan had gotten loose and come at her from behind, or that Hank had come too again and summoned more ants.

"What do you mean, 'we're leaving,' Victor?" Sin snapped. Her voice sounded odd, harsher and deeper than usual, with a trace of a German accent. She let go of Sam as if he were something disgusting and swung around to glare at her men, one hand going to the earpiece just visible beneath her hair. "I'm not through here. You promised me Rogers' death. You-"

She vanished mid-word, and Sam was suddenly alone was alone in a room full of cold, damp fog that reeked of wood smoke and old ice.

Sin and her men were gone, and so, Sam saw as he staggered to his feet, were Hank and Jan. There was nothing left in the room but broken Doombots and corpses.

Steve almost didn't hear Thor's shout. The small, dark interior of the vault suddenly seemed almost suffocating, Doom looming in front of him surrounded by shadows, and the air was suddenly too thick to breathe, reeking of incense and blood. There had been a dead man in the corner, hanging from the ceiling like an animal in a slaughterhouse. He'd forgotten that. How could he have forgotten?

Steve hit the floor on one knee, moving mostly by reflex, the Doombot's blast sailing harmlessly over his head. Thor and Tony turned as one to take it out, and that was when Doom made his move.

Steve saw his hand come up, and raised his shield to cover himself, but he might as well not have bothered. Doom's energy blast hit Tony dead on, a steady stream of blue-white fire that sent flickers of light crawling over the surface of his armor.

The surge of adrenaline-fueled worry snapped Steve out of his daze, and he forced his attention back to Doom himself, now striding calmly toward them. Tony's armor was more than capable of standing up to Doom's weapons; he would shake this off, just as he had the other hits he'd taken.

And then Tony arched backwards, the lights in his armor flickering and going dark, and collapsed noisily to the floor.

Steve launched himself at Doom, no strategy behind the move, just a fierce, violent desire to smash his shield into Doom's face again and again until he had a reason to wear that mask.

Doom sidestepped, but not quickly enough. Steve slammed the edge of his shield into Doom's torso, all of his body weight behind it — not the neck or head, not even now, because this was very probably Doom himself and not just another robot. Doom staggered sideways a step, into the wall, then caught himself with the hand that still held the book and fired at Steve's shield with the other.

The energy splashed across his shield like water, the metal vibrating in Steve's hand and against his arm in a way that made the bones in his hand and forearm itch. It was bizarre and a little disturbing; vibranium didn't work that way.

If he could feel the energy blast even though his shield, what had it done to Tony's armor? To Tony himself?

Knowing it was stupid even as he did it, Steve glanced over at Tony. He wasn't moving, his armor still silent and dark, and-

Doom's mailed fist slammed into Steve's side, knocking him off balance. His shoulder hit the side of the vault and he pushed himself off it, intent on blocking Doom from reaching the doorway, just a fraction of a second too late.

His fingers brushed the edge of Doom's dramatically flaring cape, and then Doom was across the vault's threshold, forcing Thor out of his way with another shot of that strange energy, and dissolved into a swirl of mist, leaving behind the smell of smoke and ice.

Steve only just managed to keep himself from crashing face-first into the floor, his knee slamming painfully into the metal flooring. Damn it. His reaction times were off; he'd practically handed Doom that escape.

His teleportation was supposed to be disabled. Jack's vault should have been a trap, with the Dee book as so much tempting megalomaniac-bait. Instead—

Thor was snarling something under his breath, the words a low, indecipherable rumble. Tony... was still not moving.

Steve pushing himself to his feet, ignoring the stab of pain in his side — it didn't feel sharp enough to be cracked ribs, probably only a bruise — and walked slowly to where Tony lay crumpled on the floor.

The armor's override code did nothing. Steve tried it again anyway, then a third time, then gave up and started wrenching at the edge of Tony's faceplate. The fact that the armor was dead didn't have to mean anything. Tony could be completely conscious and unharmed inside it, trapped inside his own unresponsive armor.

The center of his breastplate was scorched, the red metal discolored in an odd, rippling pattern. It didn't rub off when he touched it, the marks somehow burned into the metal itself. Steve tried to fit his fingers around the seam at the side of the breastplate, then the one on the opposite side, with absolutely zero success. There had to be a way to get it off; Tony wouldn't design something that didn't have a manual override, no matter how much he liked to use the Extremis for everything.

He tried the override code again, despite knowing that it was useless, and forced himself not to panic at the idea of Tony slowly suffocating inside his helmet because Steve hadn't been able to figure out how to remove it. The Extremis wouldn't let that happen. Tony had stopped breathing for over half an hour once and been fine afterward.

But that had been before the Extremis had stopped working properly.

Steve wrenched harder at the breastplate, and was considering trying to pry one of the seams apart with the edge of his shield when a shadow loomed over him, blocking the light and making the near-invisible line that marked the border between the two plates of armor completely invisible.

"Let me." Thor crouched down next to him, hefted Mjolnir, and gave a firm tap to the side of the armor's shoulder-piece — could you call it a 'pauldron' on something as futuristic as Tony's armor?

The metal bent and crumpled, creating an inch-wide gap, and the two of them attacked it together, Steve holding Tony flat to the floor while Thor ripped the crumpled piece of metal off.

It was easier after that, but it seemed like an eternity before Steve was pulling Tony's helmet off, trying to be as gentle as possible. Tony had remained motionless throughout the procedure, no matter how violently Steve and Thor had jerked on his armor or rattled him around inside it, and the sick, frozen feeling that had taken up residence in Steve's chest when he'd first seen Tony go down and not get up again was all-consuming now. His fingers felt like someone else's as he touched Tony's face, felt for the pulse in his neck.

There was a thin thread of blood running out of his left nostril, and he didn't even twitch when Steve touched him, but he was alive. He was even breathing.

Steve sagged forward a little in relief. Tony was going to wake up any moment now, be annoyed at himself for missing the end of the fight and 'letting' Doom escape, and try to pretend he didn't need to go see a doctor.

Several endless seconds passed, during which Tony failed to open his eyes. "What's wrong with him?" Steve asked, tearing his gaze away from Tony's face to look at Thor. He was a doctor, some of the time, or at least, Don Blake was. How much of his medical knowledge did Thor have? However much, it was more than Steve, whose knowledge of medicine involved mainly CPR and first aid and how to administer a morphine injection and apply a tourniquet in a battlefield situation.

"I know not. Doom's weapons were more potent than usual. I had thought Iron Man protected, but..." Thor shook his head slightly, looking faintly regretful. "Mayhap he has merely been knocked unconscious. There are no visible injuries."

That sounded reasonable. Steve made himself take a deep breath, then another. "We should get him up off the floor. Take him to the—do we even have an infirmary anymore?"

"Perhaps not. There were several explosions."

Call SHIELD, then. And Strange, to warn him that they'd lost the book. Maybe he'd actually be able to do something about it this time.

Tony still had a small red mark on the side of his neck, left over from earlier this evening. It was the only visible bruise on him. Steve brushed a finger over it, reassuring himself again that he could feel Tony's pulse, slow but steady.

The sound of running footsteps brought him sharply back to attention, and he was halfway to his feet, shield ready in his hand, when Sam staggered to a halt in the doorway. "You're alive," he panted. "Good. Sin said she'd killed you. Said she was going to ship your head to Barnes in a box." His eyes went to Tony, and he winced visibly. "Is he-"

"Just knocked out," Steve said, willing it to be true. Wait. "Sin?" He glanced at Tony then back to where Sam leaned against the door frame. "Is she still in the house?" He should have thought to check whether the mansion was clear before it even occurred to him to call SHIELD in. What was wrong with him?

"No." Sam shook his head, wincing faintly again at the motion. There was a goose-egg already rising on his forehead, and his costume was smeared with dust and spattered liberally with blood. "She and her snake-Nazi goons all vanished. They took Jan and Hank with them. I tried to stop them, but there were too many of them. We tried to call for help, but nobody answered." He waved at Tony with the hand not gripping the door frame. "Did they knock all of you out? Is that why you didn't respond over the comm?"

Steve's hand went automatically to his ear, where his communicator should have been. He'd left it in the room, tucked safely into a drawer. Even the seconds he'd taken to put on his costume had been time they might not have had to spare, with the mansion under attack, and he'd taken off after Tony without even thinking of it, let alone stopping to dig it out.

That had been three different kinds of stupid.

"Took Jan and Hank?" he echoed. There really was a disturbing amount of blood covering Sam's costume. He thought of Bucky's SHIELD uniform, the night Sin had caught him with her poisoned dagger, and of Sharon's face and hands covered in bright red blood, so much blood, all over her skin and clothes and tipping the ends of her hair when she bent forward and it brushed his face, and was that why Doom had needed to drain that man of blood like a slaughtered animal?

"Is any of that your blood?" Steve blurted out.

Sam shook his head. "No. Some of them had machine guns. And lousy aim." He frowned at Steve, and added, "You want to sit down? How hard did Doom hit you? Or zap you, or whatever he did?"

"He is unharmed," Thor said, rising from his crouch beside Tony. "Doom shot myself and Iron Man, but was not able to hit Captain America. What has befallen the Wasp?"

"She vanished when Sin and her men did. I don't think she and Hank were hurt, at least not too badly, but..." Sam didn't finish. The fact that they probably wouldn't stay that way for long in Sin's hands was too obvious to need to be said.

Thor nodded solemnly, and the black flash of the communicator tucked inside his left ear caught Steve's eye. He'd been better prepared than Steve had. Except he hadn't-No, he wouldn't have ignored a distress call from another Avenger, no matter how angry he still was at Hank and Tony. "Did you hear any of this?" Steve demanded, turning to face Thor. Thor would say no, he was sure, but... "If someone had responded-"

"I heard nothing," Thor interrupted. "I would not act so dishonorably as to conceal such information from you, no matter how many other concerns you had." His eyes went to Tony's limp body, and Steve felt a sick tightness in his throat.

Tony's face was pale, except for that obscenely bright smear of blood, and the scattered pieces of armor that littered the floor around him were bent and wrenched out of shape, as broken as their owner.

"You could stand to be a little bit more concerned yourself," he snapped. "He took one of those shots for you."

"And another for you."

Because he'd been distracted by the looming shape of Doom's armored silhouette and the things he'd been saying about Steve's resurrection. And now Doom had escaped with everything he needed to summon Chthon or seize the spear or do whatever it was he and Sin planned to do, and taken two of Steve's teammates with him. And shot Tony in the chest at point blank range on his way out.

Enough, Steve told himself. Focus on the tactical situation. The room was still littered with the remains of deactivated Doombots, which meant not everything that had come with Doom had vanished when he did.

He made himself turn away from Tony and Thor, back to Sam. "You said Sin vanished as well. Are any of the intruders still here?"

"I don't know. All the ones I could see vanished." Sam grimaced. "I should have checked just in case, but... she said she'd killed you." He shook his head, slowly. "I knew she was probably lying, but..." He didn't finish, just smiled a little ruefully at Steve and gave a slightly embarrassed-looking shrug.

"I didn't even know she was here," Steve said.

"What of the others?" Thor asked.

"I don't know," Sam said. "I heard some explosions, but I didn't-" and then Steve wasn't listening anymore, because Tony had moaned faintly and turned his head slightly to the side, his eyes still closed.

Steve knelt beside him, ignoring the twinge from his bruised ribs, and laid one hand on Tony's shoulder. The gold under-armor was warm under his fingers, feeling disturbingly organic. It always did. "Tony?"

"Using magic to modify your tech is cheating," Tony mumbled. His face tightened into a pained grimace, and he reached up to touch his temple, then opened his eyes and squinted blearily at his bare left hand. "What happened to my armor?"

"It was completely shut down. We had to pry it off you."

"You what? There are manual releases. What did you do to it?" He frowned slightly, and the light on his discarded chestplate flickered on for a moment. The scattered pieces of armor wobbled, then went still again, the light going dark. "Ow. Okay, bad idea," Tony said, and tried to sit up.

Steve caught him before he could slam his head against the floor.

"Nay, you must lay still," Thor was saying. "You may be injured."

There was no 'may' about it. Tony looked grey, his eyes not entirely focused, and only Steve's arm was keeping him from being flat on his back again. Awake and talking was much, much better than still and silent, Steve reminded himself. It would be nice to believe that complaining about the state of his armor meant that Tony wasn't seriously injured, but Steve suspected that Tony would be complaining about the destruction of his armor even if he were on the verge of death.

Tony scrubbed at his nose and mouth, the motion clumsy, and then frowned at the smear of blood on the back of his hand. "That's not good."

"No," Steve said quietly. "It's not." He lowered Tony's head and shoulders carefully, until his upper body was propped across Steve's knees, and resisted the impulse to wrap his arms around him and cradle him to his chest. 'Not dying.' "You're going to be okay," he said, and for a moment, he could almost hear Sharon's voice echoing the words, touching his face with bloody hands and lying to him desperately. You always told people they were going to be okay. He brushed a few pieces of hair back from Tony's forehead, and tried to think of something more comforting to say. "Just lie still. We're calling an ambulance."

Tony frowned, clearly about to protest this, and then his eyes widened slightly and he glanced around at the wreckage of the lab. "Where's Doom?"

"He got away," Sam said flatly. "So did Sin. They took Hank and Jan with them."

"They what?" Tony started to struggle up again, trying to push Steve's restraining hands away. "How? He can't teleport out. The energy field-"

"Did not appear to hinder him," Thor said. "I have," he hesitated for a moment, "a theory about why that may be so."

"My device worked just fine," Tony snapped, a brittle edge in his voice that probably had as much to do with pain as anything else. "He was using some kind of magic."

Thor nodded solemnly. "I know."

"Doom won't kill them any time soon. That's not how he works." Tony said, after a moment, his voice slightly more ragged than it had sounded a moment ago, and Steve winced. Doom was apparently willing perform human sacrifice in order to get what he wanted, and even if he decided that Hank and Jan were more useful to him alive, Sin might not agree.

And no one had heard from Clint or Wanda since the attack began. Or Carol. With Chthon and chaos magic involved, Wanda would be more useful to Doom than any of the rest of them. For all they knew, he could have order his Doombots or Sin's men to take her and kill the others.

Thor shook his head, straightening from his crouch over Steve and Tony. "I fear it is not Doom alone we must worry about."

"Sin was pretty open about her plans to kill us all." Sam rubbed absently at his eye. "I think with that book in her hands, she might be able to. Everything feels... better... with it gone."

"He needs an ambulance, too," Tony added. He gestured vaguely in Sam's direction, then closed his eyes and turned his face into Steve's stomach.

"No, I don't." Sam straightened up from his weary slouch against the wall. "I'll go check the rest of the building, see if there are any of them left. Thor?"

"Let them take a look at you when they get here," Steve told him. It might not be Sam's blood drying all over his clothing, but the swollen lump on his forehead and the bruise already forming around his left eye said that he hadn't escaped entirely unscathed. "Call SHIELD when you get topside and get them to send a medical team." They'd be better prepared to deal with Tony and the Extremis than the city hospitals, as well as capable of serving as reinforcements just in case Doom had left any surprises behind for them.

"Do we know our phones will work? Or any other way of contacting them?"

He should have thought of that. If Doom had disrupted Tony's anti-teleport machine and possibly their communicators as well, cutting off all cell phone transmissions would be child's play.

"Let me check," Tony said, the words muffled by Steve's costume. "The mansion's systems aren't totally down. I might just need to reboot them." His voice sounded distant and faintly dreamy, and this time Steve didn't think it was due to his injuries. He hissed through his teeth, an exclamation of pain he wouldn't normally have let himself make, and muttered something that sounded like snippets of programming language.

"Tony." Steve's voice came out harsher than he'd intended, his fingers tightening on Tony's shoulders. "What the hell do you think you're-"

The lights shut off abruptly, then flickered back on, Sam and Thor's communicators came to life with twin shrieks of feedback, Clint's voice barely distinguishable amidst the static, and Tony went limp in his arms.

Chapter Text

He was, Tony decided, spending entirely too much of his life in the Helicarrier's infirmary recently.

The metal exam table and just-slightly-too-cold air conditioning had not improved since his last visit, and the vise-like pain in his head was all-too-familiar as well. His hopes that SHIELD's doctors would give him a quick once-over and then release him had probably been doomed from the start — he'd known that when he'd woken up in a quinjet with Steve's hand gripping his and no clear memory of how he'd gotten there — but they'd died an even swifter death than he'd expected once they landed on the Helicarrier's deck.

He still hadn't gotten around to reconfiguring the quinjets' wings to fold up, though he'd added tail-hooks and reinforced the landing gear for carrier landings just in case back during his brief and disastrous turn as director of SHIELD. The Helicarrier's deck crew was probably cursing his name at the moment.

Tony resisted the impulse to tug at the IV in the crook of his left arm — he must have still been dazed when they'd put it in, or he'd have reminded the doctors that he was left handed and it would be his right arm with tubes and needles stuck in it — and ignored the fact that what he most wanted to do at the moment was lie back down on the depressingly familiar infirmary bed and close his eyes. "Have you tried pin-pointing their locations with their communicators?"

Agent Hill would have said something cutting. Sharon simply shook her head. "It was the first thing we tried, while the doctors were still looking at you. Doom is either blocking them or he's destroyed them."

Of course he had. Doom wasn't stupid. Still, it had been worth a try.

"I've tried seeing if I could sense the book's location, but there's too much ambient chaos magic in the city now." Wanda, sitting on the edge of one of the other beds, stared down at her hands, tracing one of the black patterns that covered the back of her left hand with a fingertip. She had a butterfly bandage over her cheekbone, where a bruise had swollen and split the skin, and there were still tiny chunks of plaster in her hair.

The doctors had finished with both her and Sam in a matter of minutes, but Steve had insisted that they brief SHIELD on what had happened here rather than going to a conference room; Tony would have been grateful not to be cut out of things, but he suspected that Steve just didn't want to leave him.

The doctors had finished with both her and Sam in a matter of minutes, but Steve had insisted that they brief SHIELD on what had happened here rather than going to a conference room; Tony would have been grateful not to be cut out of things, but he suspected that Steve just didn't want to leave him.

"We have agents looking for property in the city owned by Doom or by Latverian companies," Sharon said, "but they've been at it for weeks already and haven't found anything that Doom could use for holding prisoners."

Barnes snorted. "An office building would work just fine. All you need is someplace with a basement. Or a storage or service area that no one checks that often. Hell, a restaurant with a walk-in freezer would work."

For a terrorist group or ordinary criminal or even most other supervillains, but not for Victor von Doom. "That's too pedestrian for Doom," Tony told him. "He'd insist on something with more flair."

Sam frowned. "We don't know that Doom has them," he pointed out once again. "Sin's the one that took them, and she didn't sound happy with Doom when they left."

"He has to have something she wants desperately in order for her to be working with him at all, and if Thor's right, she's just lost her place as his most valuable ally. She'd turn them over to him, if only in order to gloat about it." Steve sounded sure of himself, but Tony had known him long enough to be able to tell when he was trying to convince himself as well as everyone else.

He almost reached out to take Steve's hand, then remembered just in time that his left arm was a tangle of tape and plastic tubing and moving it would pull at the IV.

"You'd better hope so." Barnes shook his head. "I wish we could help more. I owe Pym for the snake venom thing." Barnes didn't believe in being reassuring; Tony liked that about him.

Steve, who did believe in being reassuring, smiled at Barnes as if he were still the cute, innocent kid he'd once been — a cute kid who, going by the man's record at SHIELD, had probably mostly existed in Steve's head to begin with. "You're doing plenty."

Tony pulled his attention away from Steve, making himself turn to smile at Sharon. The expression made his face ache — his entire body felt as if it had been slammed into a wall repeatedly, despite the fact that he had no visible injuries. "Once I've analyzed the mansion's security system and figured out what Doom did to it, I'll reconfigure SHIELD's anti-teleportation shields for you. Tell Maria she'll owe me."

Sharon raised her eyebrows. "You can tell her yourself. I try not to interfere in your relationship." Something about the way she said it made Tony automatically want to protest that he and Maria Hill didn't have a relationship, but recently he'd ended up talking to her almost as often as he did Fury or Dugan. Tony suspected that Fury had decided that watching him and Maria try to be as professional as possible while pretending they weren't sniping at one another was even more entertaining than baiting or manipulating Tony himself.

"You're not analyzing the mansion's security unless you can do it from here while the doctors finish checking you out," Steve said. He was staring flatly at Tony, his arms folded across his chest, stern expression almost hiding the worry underneath. He didn't sound like he was happy with the order, but he did sound like he was determined to enforce it.

Well, this was going to have to be one time that Captain America lost. "I'm fine," Tony said. "'We want to keep you overnight for observation' is doctor speak for 'There's nothing seriously wrong with you but your medical history makes us nervous.' I just need a couple hours of sleep and some aspirin, and then I'll be good as new." It was a slight exaggeration, considering how much effort just sitting up and talking was taking, but Tony had been in enough hospitals and seen enough doctors to know when they thought you were seriously ill or on the verge of death, and when they were just being cautious, and the looks he'd been getting and firm-yet-polite "suggestions" that he rest and recover and not pull the IV line out of his arm that he'd been given fell under "just being cautious." And even if they hadn't been, with Hank missing, Tony was the only one who could properly run a diagnostic on the mansion's systems.

Steve didn't dignify that with an answer; he simply stared at Tony, looking unimpressed by his logic.

"You didn't see yourself," Sam told him. "You were unconscious and bleeding from your nose and mouth."

"I bit my tongue when Doom zapped me." Which had probably looked gruesome, but was completely cosmetic. The nosebleed the feedback from his armor's frying systems had given him was a little less so, but it was nothing that hadn't happened before. He'd brought it on himself, really, between falling so easily to Doom's modified weaponry and then being stupid enough to try using the Extremis to reactivate their communication systems, which was a mistake he wouldn't be making again.

"I can't stay here," he told Steve, giving logic one more try. "No one else can fix the security system. And I need to take a look at any data the mansion's sensors got when they teleported out, if there is any. I might be able to track down their location that way, or at least give us a radius for how far away they could have gone." The method of teleportation Doom used made it impossible to pinpoint exact coordinates without access to the machine itself, but the more power the teleportation took, the farther the distance teleported would be.

Wanda looked up, her face half-hidden by a tangle of dark curls. "If you can get either me or Stephen within a few blocks of the book, we ought to be able to feel it then."

Steve vetoed that with a head shake. "No, you're staying here, too. He wanted you as well as the book."

Her eyes narrowed. "And he can teleport here as easily as the mansion," she said, voice sharp in a way Tony hadn't heard since she'd come back.

"Actually," Tony said, for the sake of accuracy, "he can't. Not as long as the Helicarrier's in motion."

Wanda gave him an annoyed look, and he belated realized that maybe it would have been wiser not to point out that the Helicarrier was, in fact, slightly safer than the mansion at the moment, though it was obvious enough that Steve wouldn't really have needed the confirmation. A moving target was always harder to hit than a stationary one.

They couldn't afford to waste time on this argument, not with Hank and Jan missing. "I'm not staying. We don't have time for it. Doom's got the Dee manuscript, which he can presumably use to acquire the spear, and once he's got that, there's going to be damn little we can do about it." And they still didn't know what Sin actually wanted, other than just to kill everyone. And if Thor was right, Loki was involved somehow as well, obviously having moved on to a new temporary ally in her quest to regain the spear for herself.

No matter how tempting it became, he was not going to point out how much better it would have been to have her nominally on their side rather than against them.

Steve's face and ears were starting to flush red. "And how is you giving yourself a heart attack or brain aneurysm going to help us stop that?" he demanded. He bent over Tony — who suddenly regretted the fact that he was still sitting on the side of the infirmary bed-and stabbed a finger at his chest, continuing in an increasingly louder voice, "What the hell was that with the communications system? We had an agreement!"

Tony swatted Steve's hand away and glared up at him. "I forgot for five seconds during an emergency situation while I was half conscious," he snapped. Purple and grey sparks flickered at the corner of his vision for a moment, and he blinked them away. "Sue me."

Steve straightened, throwing up his hands. "That's it," he half-shouted. "I told you that if I caught you using the Extremis you were off active duty."

Sharon took a step forward, sliding between the two of them with complete disregard for Steve's personal space. "Great," she said. "We can use him here." She set one palm flat against Steve's chest and gave him a firm shove backwards. "Calm down, Steve, or I'll have you thrown out of the medical bay. Tony's not the only patient here."

Steve turned away with an inarticulate noise of frustration. He looked as if he were contemplating kicking something.

Sharon looked distinctly unimpressed. "This kind of thing is why we broke up," she said, looking back over her shoulder at Tony. "More than once."

"This is different," Steve muttered.

Tony already regretted raising his voice. It wasn't going to do anything to change Steve's mind, not when he had that stubborn "my way is the only right way" set to his jaw, and had only succeeded in making his headache worse.

Sam, Wanda, and Barnes all looked uncomfortable; he was probably going to regret having this out in front of them later, but at the moment, Tony couldn't summon the extra energy to care. "I'm sorry I scared you, but we don't have time for this right now. Dealing with Doom is more important."

"You're not backing me or anyone else up in a fight until the doctors say you're not going to be liability."

The flash of hurt he felt was ridiculous — Steve was just being over-protective and stubborn and unreasonable and... he still managed to have a point. He was a liability at the moment, had been steadily more and more of one recently as his ability to use the Extremis decreased.

Tony gritted his teeth and tried for reasonableness. Maybe Steve was right to want him out of the field, but that didn't mean he had to be completely useless. "Then I won't. But that doesn't mean I need to be stuck here. The security system-"

"Please," Steve interrupted, his face and voice softening. There was something almost pleading in his eyes, and a raw, desperate edge to his voice, and what could Tony say to that?

Tony sagged back, defeated. It wasn't fair; all he really wanted at the moment was to lean into Steve's side and close his eyes, or maybe just lay down, but he'd gotten used to not doing what he wanted a long time ago. "Fine. I need you to send me all the data from the mansion's systems, and keep us" he jerked his head at Wanda, "updated on everything the rest of you are doing and anything you find out. And I'm not staying here more than twenty-four hours, no matter what the doctors say."

Wanda nodded. "And I need to talk to Strange. I know you don't want me going up against Doom or Chthon, but I have to do something."

"Strange is in Hell's Kitchen," Barnes volunteered, from where he leaned against the corner of another bed. For all that he'd trained with Steve, the way he held himself reminded Tony more of Natasha, a kind of coiled readiness that managed to be relaxed and dangerous at the same time. He'd stayed out of their fight, but Tony suspected that he would have been between them in an instant if he'd thought it was necessary, possibly with a knife. "He and Cage and Murdock are guarding the cathedral. Spiderman might be with them as well; he's hard to keep track of."

Tony couldn't help smiling at little, despite everything. That had been true of Peter even when they'd been on the same team. The concept of checking in and telling other people what he was doing seemed to be foreign to him, and he'd only just been starting to adapt to being part of a team when everything had gone to hell.

Sam was leaning forward slightly, looking deeply relived that the conversation had gotten away from Tony and back to the matter at hand. "Luke and Spiderman still have their Avengers communicators," he said. "We can stay in contact with them that way."

"Do that," Tony ordered. "And see if... no, if their communicators aren't showing up, Hank's Ant-Man helmet will be blocked as well. Doom probably wouldn't let him keep it anyway." Hank's helmet had a unique electronic signature, easy to track if you knew what to look for, but meaningless electronic noise if you didn't.

If it were activated, Peter would probably be able to track him down; it operated on a frequency similar to his spider trackers.

Tony pointed this out, along with the fact that it was a ridiculously unlikely long shot, and then one of the SHIELD medical personnel, who had until then been ignoring them, started heading in their direction.

The infirmary, he explained when he reached them, was not one of the Helicarrier's conference rooms, and everyone who wasn't a patient could go and find themselves one.

So much for being or even limited usefulness.

"We'll find you some temporary quarters," Sharon was saying to Wanda.

Tony reached out and caught Steve's wrist, tugging him back over to the side of his completely unnecessary infirmary bed. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly. As annoyingly irrational as Steve was being at the moment, he still didn't like the idea of letting him storm out still angry at him. Especially not after Doom's little bombshell earlier. It was probably too much to hope that Steve had forgotten it in the heat of the moment. Not when it had stopped him cold in the middle of a firefight.

Steve shook his head, and tugged his wrist away. "I'm fine. You should get some rest." He started to turn away, then, abruptly, swung back and bent down to kiss Tony.

It was more a momentary press of lips to his than a real kiss, and then Steve was wrapping an arm around him and leaning his forehead against his, holding on to him tightly for one brief moment.

Then he released Tony, straightened up, and followed the others out of the room.

There was a body hanging from one of the ceiling beams, blood dripping slowly from a slashed-open throat. The air was thick with the smell of it, like raw meat, and the choking haze of incense that surrounded him only made it worse. Blood, smoke, and underneath it, the sick, grey reek of something rotting. He couldn't breathe, couldn't-

He tried to sit up, to roll over onto his side, anything to get away to clean air, but his couldn't move, his body so heavy that he couldn't even lift his head.

There was blood in his mouth, thick and metallic, so much that he was choking on it, and he couldn't breathe, his lungs as paralyzed as the rest of him.

The body rotated, slowly, hair trailing through the puddle of blood on the floor, and Bucky's face stared at him with milky, dead eyes. His arms had been tied behind his back, before, but now they dangled limply, metal fingers brushing the floor, and that wasn't right, he'd still been a kid when he died. He hadn't had the arm until later.

Steve gasped, finally managing to draw in a real breath, and his eyes snapped open.

The cat was flattened on his chest, one ear flicked back. When he felt Steve start to shift his weight, he gave the little, unhappy growl he made when he was grumbling about something but not actually likely to claw you.

Steve closed his eyes again and went limp, trying to catch his breath. Not real, he told himself. Bucky was fine; he'd seen him just a few hours ago. There was no smoke, no blood, nothing wrong with his lungs, and whatever Doom had done to bring him back, it hadn't been like that. He didn't remember it, couldn't remember it. He'd been dead.

Whatever Doom had done to change that hadn't been his fault. Tony had been right about that, for all that he'd expressed it by mis-quoting C.S. Lewis. Steve had had no part in it.


Steve turned his head — the cat growled warningly again — to see Sam stretched out on the other couch, propped up on one elbow and blinking blearily at him.

"Sorry," Steve said, after several deep breaths to make sure his voice wouldn't come out in a shaky gasp. "I didn't mean to wake you up."

He hadn't meant to fall asleep at all. When they'd all returned to Stark Tower, to set up temporary headquarters in their remaining undamaged living space, Carol had "suggested" that everyone without a half-Kree metabolism catch a couple of hours sleep, so that they wouldn't be operating solely on what little sleep they'd gotten last night when the inevitable crisis hit.

Steve had lain down on the couch, intending to just close his eyes for a few minutes and then get right back up again, claiming that he was too keyed up to sleep and might as well make himself useful. They ought to have more than just one person on alert in case Doom picked these next few hours to make his move.

There had been no point in going to bed for a few minutes' worth of catnapping, and their bedroom here probably wasn't even made up anymore. And part of him had balked at the idea of sleeping in their ridiculously huge bed without Tony, which was pure silliness.

"You didn't," Sam said. "I wasn't sleeping." The way he was rubbing at his eyes and blinking made that a lie.

There was a moment of awkward silence, and Steve was contemplating shoving the cat off his chest and getting up rather than risking another nightmare when Sam spoke again.

"More nightmares, huh? Do you want to talk about it?"

"No." It would only sound pathetic, and he'd have to tell Sam about what Doom had said, that he'd been brought back by human sacrifice. Sam would be horrified, and he'd feel guilty for being relieved and happy that Steve was alive, and then would feel even worse about feeling guilty over that, and Sam had been through enough misery over the whole thing already. He'd been there when Steve had been shot; Bucky had told him about it, afterwards, and about Sam stepping up to finish the speech Tony had tried to give at his funeral.

Sam didn't need to know. And telling him about the dream wouldn't help, anyway. Talking about them had never had much of an effect on whether or not they recurred or how quickly they went away.

Sam rubbed at his face for a moment, then swung his legs over the side of the couch and sat up. The bruises on his face had swollen until his left eye was half-shut; Steve winced internally looking at it. Sin's handiwork.

"Yeah, okay," Sam said quietly. "Is there anything I can do?" He said it casually, as if Steve's nightmares were only mildly interesting to him, and Steve was grateful for that, even though he knew the casual unconcern was put on for his benefit.

Steve sat up, the cat leaping from his chest to the floor, where he paced back and forth, tail twitching in a series of offended little jerks. Steve had clearly failed in his duties as cat furniture.

Maybe Patton missed Tony; he usually made it clear that he regarded Steve as an inferior substitute for him in all ways. Considering how much noise and upheaval he'd been through today, though, he might still be traumatized enough not to care. He'd refused to come out of his cat carrier when Steve had rescued him from where he'd been huddled in the closet of his bedroom and brought him to Stark Tower, growling and hissing at anyone who came near him and actually climbing back inside it when Steve had tried lifting him out.

He probably blamed Steve for Tony's absence, for once not entirely without reason.

Making Tony stay on the Helicarrier had been the right thing to do, but at the moment, Steve found himself wishing he'd given in to Tony's arguments and let him come back with them. Tony kept the nightmares away, and when he didn't, he still managed to calm Steve down enough for him to fall back to sleep without fear of having more.

He offered Sam a weak smile. "I don't suppose you could recite the engineering schematics for quinjet engines?"

Sam cocked his head slightly, looking faintly amused. "Not really, no."

"I didn't think so."

They were silent for a moment, while the cat prowled around the room, tail and fur still twitching. The he froze, crouched low, wriggled his entire little orange body, and launched himself at Sam's foot.

Sam hissed through his teeth, snatching his — sock-clad — foot away. "Your cat is really annoying. You know that, right?"

"I've been trying to train him not to bite people. It doesn't seem to be working." Stern tones of voice didn't seem to bother the cat, and pushing him away or swatting him gently on the head or shoulders was giving him what he wanted by paying attention to him, and only seemed to encourage him.

"I wasn't planning on sleeping that long anyway," he added, after a moment. "I hate sitting around twiddling our thumbs when psychopaths like Sin and Doom have two of our teammates. There has to be something we can do."

"I hear you." Sam drew his feet up onto the couch and sat cross-legged, foiling the cat's attempts to bite and kick at his other foot. "Tony might be able to track them through the sensor readings we sent him."

"If the data's any good. None of us are computer experts." If that was the case, and Jan and Hank spent more time in supervillains' hands than they would have if he'd given in and let Tony have his way... Then he'd just have to deal with it. It had been the right decision to make at the time, and second-guessing himself now wouldn't help anyone, least of all Jan and Hank.

At least they hadn't taken Sam. The thought made him feel like a selfish bastard, as well as a terrible friend and team leader — he shouldn't be relieved to have one friend's safety come at the expense of another's — but Sin had a personal vendetta against all the people who'd been directly involved in the Red Skull's death, Sam included. Tony was probably right that she would hand Jan and Hank over to Doom in order to keep his goodwill. Sam, she would never have given up, no matter how many alliances it cost her. And if past experience was anything to go by, she might actually have lived up to her threat to send his body parts to Bucky in a box.

"The museum people are going to kill us if Doom damages that book," Sam said. As attempt to lighten the tone of conversation went, it wasn't bad, but Steve found that he didn't particularly care about angry museum trustees and potential lawsuits at the moment.

"We'll apologize to them as nicely as we can," he said. "I think I'll go call Bucky. Maybe they've made some progress on tracking down Doom's headquarters." He'd vanished from the Latverian embassy the previous evening, several hours before his attack on the mansion, and the Avengers, SHIELD, and the NYPD had all been met with polite shrugs and an obviously rehearsed statement that Latveria's beloved leader had left to return to Doomstadt, and that they had no idea of his current whereabouts.

"At least Sin doesn't have Barnes. Or Sharon." Sam touched a hand to his bruised face again. "What she did to me would be nothing compared to what she'd probably like to do to them. Crossbones didn't die easily, or cleanly." He grimaced. "It wasn't right. I should have stopped Barnes, but in the end, I wasn't sure Crossbones didn't deserve it. Half the reason Sin's as batshit as she is is because of what he did to her."

"I know," Steve said, trying not to think too hard about what Bucky killing someone 'not cleanly' might have involved, even if that someone had been a monster like Crossbones. "But if she's hurt Hank or Jan, I don't care how crazy she is. SHIELD's psychologists can have her when we're done with her."

He stood up, brushing futilely at the cat fur on the front of his costume. "SHIELD took custody of at least three bodies. There must be some clue on one of them that would tell us where they're operating from. A cell phone in someone's pocket, a wallet, mud on one of their boots that's found only in one specific part of the city."

Sam nodded, putting his hands on his knees and visibly forcing himself to his feet. Steve felt a pang of guilt; Sam was injured, if only minorly, and had probably needed the sleep Steve had interrupted.

"Go call and check on your boyfriend," Sam said, giving Steve a knowing look that implied that he was on to Steve's true purpose and that it didn't include asking SHIELD for tactical updates.

Steve gave Sam's shoulder a shove when he drew level with him — not hard, just in case he'd collected more bruises than the one on his face — but didn't dispute the statement. If SHIELD had truly made any kind of breakthrough, Hill or Sharon would have called. Tony was going to be fine; he'd been shocky and had some kind of electrolyte imbalance and the doctors had made worrying comments about 'being cautious' over his arrhythmia 'just in case,' but the Helicarrier's medical staff had sworn to Steve that rest, IV fluids, and a couple of weeks to heal would take care of everything.

They weren't going to have a couple of weeks, but for now Tony was safe from everything except the Extremis and his own stupidity. Steve didn't actually need to check on him, any more than he needed to talk to Bucky, who was also perfectly fine, regardless of whatever horror film imagery his subconscious had come up with.

It would still be nice to hear their voices, and even taking useless action was better than doing nothing at all. And talking to Tony would chase away the last remnants of uneasiness his dreams had stirred up.

Sam shouldered Steve out of the way and reached the door first — retaliation for the shove — then hesitated, half-turning. "If Doom's really working with Loki, are we sure wherever he's taken them is even in this dimension?"

Steve made a face. "Don't borrow trouble. We've got enough already."

After the many times Loki had betrayed everyone around him, it was foolish that this most recent betrayal still stung.

Loki had as good as told him of her intentions, threatening Thor and everyone connected with him unless he did what she bid him. He had refused, as anyone with honor or sufficient experience would have. He should have expected this.

Instead, he had been caught unawares, and his teammates had paid the price for it.

He would see this rectified. Thor examined the golden ring that lay in the center of his palm; so small a thing to seem so ominous. Loki had sworn that it had the power to summon her, that all he need do was hold it and speak her name thrice.

He would call, and she would come — not to the Avengers Mansion or Stark Tower, as she had no doubt expected, but to his father's throne room. Let her see Hlidskjalf, the throne she wanted so badly. Mayhap it would make her more likely to believe in what he would offer her.

The stones of Asgard were stronger than the mortal brick and mortar of the Avengers Mansion. Let her bring her new allies with her; it would avail her not. Here, Thor had allies of his own, allies less fragile than his mortal teammates, who were but a single shout away.

When Loki came, he would offer Asgard's aid in recovering Baldur's Bane in exchange for the return of the Wasp and Hank Pym. Their rescue would have to come first, he would tell her, as restitution for aiding Doom.

Then, when his teammates were safe once more, he would be the one to break their bargain. There would be a penalty, for deliberately breaking one's word was not a thing to be done lightly — men would call him oathbreaker, and he would know the words for truth — but honor ceased to be honor if a man held it more dear than his shieldbrothers' lives.

The idea of willingly aiding Loki in her transparent grab for power made him feel unclean, and the prospect of pretending to aid her only to stab her in the back as she had done to so many others was even worse, but had he done so before, she would not have gone to Doom to achieve her aims, and the Wasp would not have been captured, nor Iron Man injured. Iron Man, who was already ill. Nor Hank Pym captured, who was still Thor's teammate and thus his comrade in arms regardless of his past behavior and refusal to apologize for it.

Don Blake had wished to discuss this with the other Avengers first, but Thor had over-ruled him. Loki was Thor's area of expertise, not Don's, and the rest of their teammates were either wounded or distraught at the moment.

Thor closed his hand around the ring, grimacing in distaste, and then said Loki's name.

"Loki Laufeyson, Lie-Smith, sly one, sky walker, I summon you. Loki Laufeyson..."

No sooner had Loki's name left his lips for the third time than a cold swirl of fog enveloped him. Mjolnir was ripped from his grasp, and the floor dropped away beneath him.

He hit the ground hard, bad knee giving way. He flung out his hands to catch himself, and both hands and knees slammed against a concrete floor, sending a numbing jolt of pain up his bad leg.

Loki's malicious laughter rang in his ears. "You've made it even easier than I expected, Thunderer. No mortal heroes to aid you, no Warriors Three to guard you. I didn't expect you to be alone when you used my pretty little toy. It makes a woman wonder."

Don stared up from where he knelt on the floor to see Loki standing over him, the huge golden horns of her headdress silhouetted against the ceiling.

It was two stories overhead, with exposed iron ceiling beams. The high windows designed in the nineteenth century to let in light had been boarded over, so that the huge, open space of the warehouse floor was lit only by a dim, bluish glow that came from some unknown source behind Loki.

Mojlnir lay on the floor several yards behind her, transported along with him to a spot just close enough to be taunting, but far away enough to be completely out of reach.

Silently cursing Thor, and himself for being stupid enough to go along with Thor's brilliant plan to begin with, Don tried to shove himself to his feet.

One booted foot hooked his right hand out from under him, and he collapsed back to the floor.

"I think not, step-brother. I find I like the sight of you on your knees." Loki smiled down at him, and it wasn't just the sharpness of her canine teeth that made the expression predatory. She bent and cupped one hand under Don's chin, lifting his face toward her in a parody of gentleness. "Such a shame you can't be in your proper form for this. This mortal shell is not nearly so comely."

"Stop it," he snapped, trying to jerk his chin free from her grip. Her fingers tightened to the point of pain, and he forced himself to hold still. "We both know you're not attracted to me or Thor." The sexual harassment disturbed his other self enough that Don felt his own skin crawl at her touch. The dark hair that brushed his face could almost have been Sif's, if it hadn't smelled of dank caves and woodsmoke. "What do you want, Loki?"

She let go of his chin and straightened, and Don wished viciously for his cane. One swipe at her ankles with it, and she would be the one falling face-first onto the floor. Or not — Loki was stronger than he was, immensely so.

"I? I don't want anything from you. The time for bargains between us has come and gone." Her voice was poisonously sweet. "You, my dear step-brother, are my bride-gift for my new consort."

Doom. She was giving him to Doom. Don got his feet under him and launched himself at Loki, ignoring the way his knee flared with pain. Thor's memories of countless battles were there in his head, nearly indistinguishable from his own; he slammed his shoulder into her stomach, reaching for her belt knife. A stab upwards under the ribs or into the kidneys would take down even a giantess, and then he could get to Mjolnir and-

A hand wrapped around his wrist, crushingly tight, and Loki's fist hit his face so hard that he saw white for a moment.

Don went limp, everything around him knocked out of focus. Something slammed into his thigh with numbing force, and then he was flying.

He hit the concrete with bone-jarring force. He struggled to breath for an endless moment, lungs paralyzed by the impact, and then everything faded away.

The entire block was deserted, except for the huge black man who was loitering around 'reading' the list of service times posted next to the cathedral door. Luke Cage. It must be his shift in their pathetic little guard detail.

Normally, she'd enjoy taking him out on the way in, but it could wait until she had the spear. She'd have magic power of her own then, enough that his invulnerability and brutish strength would be no obstacle.

Then there would be no need to rely on Doom anymore.

It was past time to end their alliance anyway. His impatience to leave at the Avengers Mansion had cost the opportunity to capture Wilson. She'd had him on his knees to her, so close to opening his throat. If Doom had waited five minutes...

When she'd confronted him, he'd sneered at her and said that they had two other Avengers and Wilson's capture was immaterial to their goals. "To your goals, Victor," she muttered, "but not to mine."

"His kind always lie," her father's voice said. "They're naturally dishonest. You knew better than to trust him."

She almost pointed out that he'd been the one to form the alliance in the first place, but daddy didn't like it when she talked back.

If she'd still had her contacts in SHIELD, she would have gotten in touch with them and told them where Doom was holding the worthless extra Avengers. A nice little distraction to keep both her enemies out of her way. At least her efforts so far had SHIELD distracted enough by her attacks on them that Fury had never figured out her plan, despite her father's worries that he would remember the ritual and interfere. And they'd been fun. More would follow once she had the spear, until all her enemies were dead at her feet.

At least Barnes had gotten a taste of what was to come, even if she hadn't managed to kill Wilson or the Carter bitch. Next time, she'd use a stronger poison. Something messy, like strychnine.

Cage stayed oblivious to her as she crept past him to one of the building's side doors; irritating as Doom was, he did have his uses.

The nave of the cathedral was dark, except for a scattering of candles in front of a statue of the Virgin. Doom's spell muffled her footsteps, so her boots made only a faint whispering sound against the stone floor. It sounded almost like words.

Doom's spell from that damn book had to be read at the altar rail. He'd given her a computer print-out of the words, written phonetically and with the stressed syllables bolded, as if she were a child or an idiot. Being neither, it took Sin only a few minutes to read it out.

The air around the altar blurred and rippled, and then a spear was lying across it lengthwise, glowing with a faint, green light.

The head was about the size of her palm, made of some kind of silvery metal, and the haft was wood, just over two feet long. Sin frowned at it; she'd expected something more impressive, as well as larger. This looked almost like a toy.

The second ritual took longer to perform, involving a circle of red chalk, several candles, and a blood sacrifice. Luckily, it only required a few drops of blood and she could use her own — trying to bring along a human sacrifice victim or black chicken or goat would have made things a lot more difficult.

Magic had not been one of her father's preferred tools — it was a waste of time compared to the elegance of the cosmic cube — but that superstitious idiot Himmler had liked it, so he'd had to learn some of the basics. Yet one more reason why things would have gone differently if he had been given the power he'd deserved. This rite was intended to invite a demon or otherworldly force to possess the caster and imbue them with its powers. With it, she would be able to take the spear's magic into herself.

Sin smeared her bloody fingertip along the edges of the black sun she'd drawn in the center of the circle — right below the altar where the spear lay — and recited the final words of the incantation. The original ritual ended with the caster chanting the name of the entity they were summoning three times. Since Sin had no intention of actually allowing herself to be possessed by Loki in order to gain access to the power he'd stored in the spear, she substituted "open me to the power that is in this place," instead.

The candles on the altar flickered and went out, and a faint susurrus of noise began somewhere behind her, growing louder and louder until it echoed off the stone ceiling. The hair on her arms stood up, the power that was about to be hers crackling over her skin.

Sin laughed, a surge of glee filling her. She and her father would reshape the world in his image, create a new Reich on American soil, one that truly would last a thousand years.

Doom had given her a 'protective gauntlet,' supposedly to keep the power of the spear from incinerating her, but obviously intended simply to keep her from taking it for herself. She pulled it off, tossed it to the floor, and reached for the spear.

At last! After so long straining to send his influence through worn places in the walls of his prison, success was his. The mortal woman was offering herself up to him, all but demanding that he use her as a vessel.

His chosen avatar would have been preferable, of course, or even the interfering mortal sorcerer, but any avenue into the dimensions he'd been barred from was to be seized.

Another had been here before him, the fading remnant of a mortal spirit. It took only a thought to destroy it. The vessel resisted, but she was his now, and after a moment's exercise of his will, Chthon looked on the interior of the cathedral through her eyes.

His abilities would be limited in this new host, since she had no magic of her own for him to use, but she was only a temporary stopgap. With the spear's power and this form giving him the ability to influence this dimension, he would release himself from imprisonment himself, as he had meant to do through his avatar.

His vessel strode down the long center aisle of the church, the votive candles the mortals had lit to their virgin goddess extinguishing as she passed them. She had entered through stealth, but would not need it in order to leave. He was Chthon, and no mortal could stop him.

Chapter Text

She woke up still Wasp-sized, inside a shimmering bubble of energy that she knew already was going to be impenetrable and probably shock her when she tried to touch it. Through the greenish distortion of the bubble, she could see Hank chained spread-eagled to the opposite wall.

The energy bubble did, indeed, shock her when she tried to touch it.

"I-was going to tell you not to try that." Hank's voice was just above a whisper, not that that would actually help if Doom had them under electronic or magical surveillance. From this distance, without decent light, it was impossible to tell if he was hurt of not.

"I knew better," Jan said, tucking her stinging hands against her sides. "Are you okay?"

Hank made a bitterly amused snorting noise—the walls of her cell obviously didn't block or muffle sound. "Fine, for now. I'm not sure if Sin has a policy of not giving her prisoners food or water, or if she's just forgotten she's got us."

The two of them were being held in the corner of a huge, high-ceilinged room, lit only by the steady glow of her 'cage' and by a grid of finely spaced green energy beams that ran from floor to ceiling and walled their corner off from the rest of the room. Jan kicked at the round metal plate that formed the floor of her tiny cell, then flew up a couple of inches to try hammering on the identical plate that formed the ceiling. It did nothing, of course, but it made her feel better.

"How long?" she asked, once her attempt to vent frustration had predictably failed to do anything.

"A while?" Hank's shoulders twitched, the attempt at a shrug cut short by the fact that at least part of his weight was hanging from his arms. "I don't know. Long enough to be thirsty, not long enough to start desperately needing a bathroom, and definitely less than twenty-four hours."

Which meant it wasn't safe yet for Hank to try shrinking down small enough to fit through the gaps in the energy grid. Even twenty-four hours would have been risky — it took longer than that for most psychological medications to completely leave the body — and by that time, Sin was likely to have come back and started in on whatever plans he had for them anyway.

"We're in a warehouse somewhere," Hank went on. "I don't know if it's Manhattan or Brooklyn. Or New Jersey; we could be on the other side of the Hudson River."

"And Sam?" Jan asked. Her last memory of the fight involved one of Sin's goons clubbing him with the butt of a semiautomatic rifle. Had they taken him, too? Chained him up somewhere else? Shot him and left him for dead?

Hank shook his head. "I don't know." He leaned his head backward against the brick wall and sighed. "I don't know," he repeated. "I don't know what happened to any of them."

Jan resisted the impulse to put her palms against the energy field to try and press closer to him; it would only zap her again. She hadn't even thought of the others — Tony, Steve, Clint. Wanda, whom Doom had to be itching to get his hands on. Carol and Thor were hard to injure, nearly impossible to kill, she reminded herself. Sin and Doom wouldn't have been able to capture them with mercenaries and Doombots. And if she'd taken down Steve, Sin would want him chained up and at her mercy. He'd have been here next to them, and Sin would be standing right there with the electrical cables and knives.

"Do you think they got the book?"

"I don't know," Hank snapped, and then, "Sorry. I haven't been awake much longer than you have."

Under normal circumstances, Jan would have tried to say something to lighten the mood, but they were almost certainly being monitored.

Actually, given that they were probably being watched, "The mansion must be in ruins. When the others get here, Sin and Doom are going to regret that." She raised her voice. "You hear that, Mister Man in the Iron Mask? You and Nazi Barbie are going to regret this."

Hank didn't say anything in response, but she could tell he was amused. Jan decided to take that as a positive sign, and the fact that he seemed to be squinting at her energy cage, as if trying to make out the details in the dim light, as another. He'd figure out a way to get her out of here, she'd fly through one of the gaps in the energy grid that was keeping them fenced in, and then she'd turn it off somehow and they'd be out of here. If they were really lucky, there would be one or two of Sin's men on guard outside for her to blast on the way out. Dealing out a round of bioelectrical shocks and mild chemical burns would be very satisfying right about now.

It was impossible to tell how many hours passed before a pair of Doombots teleported into the middle of the warehouse floor in a flash of light. For a moment, Jan's vision was blurred by a smeared purple afterimage. Then it cleared, and she was able to recognize the man held slumped between them.

Don's clothes were torn and stained with something dark, and his head hung forward limply, hair hanging in his face. Behind him stood Doom himself, with one foot propped on Thor's discarded hammer.

How in the name of God — of several gods — had they managed to teleport that?

'Please,' Jan thought, 'let him be a distraction. A decoy.' At any moment, surely, Don would straighten up and lunge for Mjolnir, change back into Thor, and take Doom down with one swing, just before Steve and the rest of the team burst through the warehouse doors.

Doom waved an imperious hand. "Put him next to Pym." He gestured again, and the dim, hulking shape just beyond the energy grid was suddenly and dramatically spot-lit, revealing a generator of some kind. While the two Doombots dragged an unresisting Don toward the corner, Doom keyed something into the machine's controls and the energy grid vanished.

Hank tensed, clearly readying himself to shrink just enough to get out of his restraints and throw himself at Doom. Jan shook her head, and watched with relief as he visibly forced himself to relax again. Hank wasn't always good at subtle signals, and didn't always listen even when he was aware of them.

The Doombots locked Don into a set of empty restraints next to Hank's, then stepped back. The energy grid flickered into place again, and Jan let go of the hope that Don's presence was intentional. He was slumped against the wall, most of his weight hanging from his arms, and seemed too dazed to have even noticed his surroundings — the Doombots' rough handling had barely elicited a reaction. The dark stains on his clothes were blood, clearly visible now that she could see him in the light. His [left? Right?] leg was injured, and badly, if the amount of fresh blood soaking his pants leg was any indication.

Had they been torturing him? How many of the others did they have?

"So you're going to chain him up and leave him here, too? Are you starting a collection?" Hank's voice was at its most caustic and belittling, and he could do belittling better than almost anyone Jan knew. It was all in the tone.

Doom didn't even look at him. "I know you're awake, Dr. Blake. Feigning unconsciousness will do you no good."

Don mumbled something indistinct about Loki, not lifting his head. Jan didn't think he was feigning.

"What did you do to him?" she demanded. Mjolnir was still lying on the floor several yards behind Doom; he might have been able to teleport it here, but almost no one other than Thor was able to lift it by hand. If he'd had the hammer with him, then Don had been Thor when Doom had taken him, and Thor didn't turn back into Don involuntarily anymore. Simply taking Mjolnir away wouldn't have done it.

Magic? Some kind of coercion? Thor would have given himself up for any one of the others, probably even Tony.

Doom glanced at her, then apparently decided she was worth speaking to after all. "I did nothing. Dr. Blake is a gift from my future queen."


"You're marrying Sin?" she blurted out.

"Don't be an idiot," Doom snapped. "As if I'd tie myself to an insane fanatic who thinks her dead father speaks to her. I am about to become a god; the woman ruling at my right hand could be nothing less."

"She's setting you up," Don mumbled, the words a little less slurred this time.

"Obviously." Doom sounded, if possible, even more disdainful. "But by the time Loki makes her move, I shall be too powerful for a minor chaos deity to touch, something you, my dear doctor, are going to help me with. Once I've absorbed the power of the spear and attained godhood, I shall return here and revert you to your true form. When I sacrifice you to myself and devour Thor's soul, the power of the Odin force will be mine to command. I will rule Valhalla as well as earth, and Loki's powers will useless against me. "

"I knew you were insane," Hank said, "but you can't actually think-"

"You are the one who does not think. You lack vision, even more so than Richards does. I am a genius, a strategist, a master of both science and magic; naturally a second-rate scientist whose only accomplishments were accidents would fail to understand my plans."

Don lifted his head, glaring at Doom with the one eye that wasn't swollen shut. "You're going to destroy yourself. No human can wield the power of the Odin force; it'll burn your soul up like a candle, if Chthon doesn't destroy it for you first."

"You assume my soul is so easily consumed? If you can wield that power, I shall be able to command it easily. As for Chthon, he will be no match for my new powers combined with Loki's." Doom straightened, sweeping his cloak back with a flourish. "My new consort is right — Thor doesn't have the brains or vision to rule Valhalla, and you don't have the strength. It takes someone with ruthlessness and cunning to truly belong on Odin's throne."

"You're not seriously marrying Loki." The very idea was ridiculous, not the least because she couldn't think of anything about it that benefited Loki, aside from the ability to maneuver Doom like a pawn against her enemies, which she would probably be able to do anyway. Who in their right mind would want to marry Doom?

"Be silent." Doom held up one heavy, metal gauntlet. "I need keep you alive only until I have claimed the spear from my soon-to-be-late ally." He paused, and if it weren't for the mask, Jan suspected that she would have been able to see him smiling. "I had originally planned to make do with just Synthia Schmidt as a blood sacrifice for my apotheosis, but three is a much more powerful number than one. You should be thanking me, Wasp. How many people can truly say that their deaths changed the world?"

"Touch them, and you'll find out just how much my father's son I am." The air in the room seemed to grow heavier as Don spoke, like the thick stillness before a summer thunderstorm. She almost didn't recognize his voice as he continued, "First I'll flay the skin off your back, and then I'll use every bit of my training and knowledge to remove your muscles and ribs, so you'll still be alive and conscious when I rip your lungs out through the holes in your back and let you suffocate to death. Then I'll hang your corpse from the tallest oak tree I can find in Central Park until it rots away to nothing, and we'll see who consumes whose soul."

Doom threw back his head and laughed, the sound echoing off the high ceiling. "If I weren't planning to kill you, I'd be tempted to offer you a job." He sounded honestly amused at being threatened with disgusting and overly detailed death, maybe even a little impressed. "Enjoy the next few hours, gentlemen. They're all you have left."

The flash of light when he and his Doombots teleported away was almost anti-climatic.

Sharon tossed the file she'd just been reading down onto one of the stacks of print-outs that covered the table in front of her. "However Doom's getting around your teleportation blocker, there must be a way to counter it."

"It's magic," Tony said, "so, not necessarily." While it was nice that at least some members of SHIELD still seemed to have faith in him — or at least, his abilities — there were limits to what even he could do with technology. After all the effort he'd put into sweet-talking the medical staff into letting him unhook himself from their monitors and join Sharon's impromptu task force, it was somewhat deflating to admit, but, "I have to obey the laws of physics. Try hunting down Strange."

"We did," Barnes said. "He's never around when you need him."

"That's not always true," Wanda said, a little defensively. Considering that Strange had all but written her off completely as crazy and beyond help a little over a year ago, it was awfully forgiving off her, probably moreso than Tony would have been. The fact that he'd apologized and helped her when she'd escaped Chthon must have gone a long way.

Then again, she'd forgiven Tony and the rest of the Avengers, too.

"True or not, trying to Loki-proof our security is useless." Tony tapped a finger against the print-outs of what data Steve and Carol had managed to salvage from the mansion's security systems. "Forget her. Doom and Sin are the weak links there. Wherever they teleported to, it was within a five mile radius of the Avengers Mansion." Which covered almost the entire island of Manhattan, with no guarantees that they'd teleported directly to their final destination.

Sharon nodded. "For all we know, they're in New Jersey by now, but we can start there."

This entire process would be exponentially faster if he could use the Extremis to access SHIELD's computers and satellite data rather than having to go about everything the long way, or if the mansion's computers were still in working order — not that he'd have been able to use them, with Steve being so ridiculously overprotective.

Given Steve's mood at the moment, it was a good thing he wasn't seriously injured. If Steve had reacted this badly to a migraine, a minor electrical shock, and a few moments of unconsciousness, he would probably have completely lost it over a real injury.

At least it gave Steve something to focus on other than the things Doom had thrown in his face last night.

Tony wished he had a few more things to focus on. Tracking down Doom's location was vital, but it didn't feel like they were accomplishing anything. At least if he had a tool of some kind in his hand, or a computer system to mentally hack in to, he'd feel like he was doing something instead of just sitting in a climate controlled conference room while Hank and Jan were at Doom's mercy.

Helicarrier conference rooms were beginning to tie with medical facilities for places Tony had spent far more hours of his life in than he ever wanted to.

Barnes glanced down at the map he had spread across the table in front of him — it looked like a Department of Buildings map, but Tony suspected that it contained a great deal of information the DoB didn't have access to — and frowned slightly. "There are six possible locations in that area."

"Five," Sharon cut in. "I keep telling you; Doom wouldn't stoop to using a walk-in freezer."

"It's already effectively soundproofed, there are drains in the floor, the restaurant hasn't been open for-"

"Where is it?" Wanda interrupted, leaning forward slightly to peer at the upside down map.

Barnes tapped one metal finger against a building lot that had been highlighted in green marker.

Wanda shook her head. "Not there. That's right in the middle of Hell's Kitchen. He wouldn't risk trying to work magic that close to St. Margaret's."

There were a couple of moments of silence, while they all stared at the five remaining highlighted spots on the map, none of which helpfully stood out as abandoned Victorian Gothic mansions or conveniently empty state of the art lab facilities. Barnes drummed his fingers on the table, then seemed to realize how loud the metal-on-wood tapping was, and stopped. His arm was good work, especially for a Cold War relic, but the designers had sacrificed aesthetics for function — typical of Soviet work. He'd probably refuse an upgrade, but something like Misty Knight's cybernetic arm, with built-in weaponry...

How pressure sensitive was it? Some of the interfaces he'd built for previous iterations of his armor could be modified to provide more neural feedback, including sensory data.

Barnes leaned back in his chair, shoving the map away from him in disgust. "Three quarters of a century, and I'm still doing Nick Fury's grunt work. I'm more skilled and experienced than any agent on board this ship except Natasha — who I helped train — and you," he waved a hand at Sharon, "and he's wasting our time with this. Someone in the Latverian embassy has to know where Doom is, and those who don't probably know who does. At least one of them has to be willing to talk."

"They'd tip Doom off," Sharon said, without looking up from the map. "And we're still on shaky ground with Washington after the Lemurian incident."

After assassinating a foreign dignitary, Tony reflected, it wasn't surprising that SHIELD was on thin political ice, and charging into a foreign embassy and arresting everything that moved would spark off an international incident that would extend far beyond the already tense US-Latverian relations.

Barnes made a face. "By all means, let's not be politically incorrect." From his tone of voice, he didn't mean it in the usual American 'freedom to be rude' sense, but in the Soviet 'agree with the government or else' sense.

Ignoring him as if he hadn't spoken, Wanda leaned forward and brushed her fingertips across midtown, bringing her index finger to a halt at Times Square. "Strange is convinced Doom's ritual to access the spear's power and ascend to godhood will have to be performed here. Some magics are better performed at a crossroads, and Times Square is the biggest crossroads in the world."

"There'll be chanting in Latin or some other dead language," Barnes said. "And some kind of altar. There always is."

"Old Latverian," Tony supplied. Doom wouldn't use anything else, if he had a choice.

The map's hundreds of tiny block and lot outlines blurred for a moment, and Tony closed his eyes, blinking them back into focus. The fine print was almost dizzying, and trying to read it made him feel vaguely sick.

"The Nazis liked High German or Old Norse," Barnes said reminiscently. "Sometimes Latin when they were going on about the holy grail. Cap and the Invaders and I used to stop them all the time. So did the Howling Commandoes. There was this one time when the Invaders had gone off on some secret mission, and Toro and I were left behind with Fury and the Howlers because Steve thought it was too dangerous to take me, and we ended up stopping some SS ritual that was supposed to summon demons or put a curse on the Allies or make Himmler immortal, or maybe all three."

Wanda smiled slightly. "He can be over-protective. He tried to do that to the Avengers a few times when I first joined, and we ended up having to rescue him from the Swordsman."

"In the version I heard, he had to rescue Clint."

"I'm sure that's what he thought he was doing."

Sharon was staring thoughtfully at Barnes. "Was the Red Skull there?" she said slowly.

"At the ritual? He was leading it." Barnes smirked at the memory. "I think he was almost offended that Steve wasn't there."

Sharon was frowning now, a line drawn between her eyebrows. "And Fury helped stop it. We wondered why Sin had it in for him, when he wasn't involved in Red Skull or Crossbones'' deaths. What was this ritual supposed to do?"

Barnes slapped his good hand down on the table, muttering something in Russian that was obviously an obscenity. "I don't know. We didn't bother to find out; all we cared about was stopping it."

If the Red Skull had passed the knowledge down to his daughter, and if it were actually useful and not just another Nazi hoax dreamed up by men obsessed with the supernatural... "It would explain why Doom was willing to work with Red Skull's daughter," Tony said. "And why Sin has it in for Fury. It's obvious why she wants to kill you two so badly."

"He'd be the last surviving person who was present at that ritual, other than me and Dugan." Barnes shook his head, rubbing a hand over his face. "It would be a nice, tidy coincidence if that was it, and they were going to use the same spell to try and make Doom a god, but I can't see it. Sin wouldn't just hand something like that over to a member of an 'inferior race.'"

"No," Wanda agreed. "Doom's one of the people who wouldn't exist in her father's perfect world."

"We know she's getting something out of working with him," Sharon said. "Maybe she's just in it for revenge. Maybe she wants to destroy the world, now that her father's dead. How much does she actually care about Red Skull's goals at this point?"

Barnes shrugged. "Steve would know better than I would."

Wanda frowned down at her hands, studying the tracery of black tattoos for a moment, then looked up again. "We still don't know how Doom's planning to get the spear out of the cathedral. Strange's spells ought to keep him from even going inside. I assumed that's what he wanted the Dee manuscript for, but maybe he's planning to use her."

"The Nazis were obsessed with Norse mythology," Barnes said thoughtfully.

"I know," Tony said. "It makes Thor really angry." Several of the many lawsuits that had been filed against the Avengers over the years had come from neo-Nazi groups trying to sue them because Thor had discovered they were using his name and images of Mjolnir on their websites and gone off to put the literal fear of god into them. "You think she might know some way to get him access to the spear, or thinks she does?"

Either way, they ought to warn Peter and the others guarding the cathedral that it was a possibility.

It was irritating to have to fish out his Avengers communicator and tune it to Peter and Luke Cage's frequencies when contacting them ought to take only a thought, but at least the two of them were carrying them. Daredevil had refused, saying that it was 'too distracting,' and while Strange technically still carried one, it never worked.

And, at the moment, neither did this one. Had it been fried when Doom zapped — no, this was the spare one he'd started carrying around when he wasn't in armor, after the Extremis had begun acting up. "Wanda, can you reach Spiderman?" he asked, after a brief mental debate about whether this was important enough to risk the return of the crippling headache using the Extremis would cause when it had just started to be bearable again.

The communicator wasn't dead. He could feel it transmitting, if he concentrated, though doing so made his temples throb warningly. It just wasn't picking anything up, and Steve's frequency wasn't working either. What was-

Wanda made a small, choked sound, her communicator clattering onto the table.

Tony looked up to see her tattoos flaring a dull cherry-red, like iron that wasn't quite hot enough to work with.

"It's too late," she said, between gritted teeth. "Chthon's not confined to the cathedral anymore. He's possessed someone, I can feel it."

"Take us back to the Avengers Mansion," Tony said. "I need my armor."

Once Doom had gone, the other stared at Don silently for a long, uncomfortable moment. Even with his leg bleeding enough that blood was starting to run down into his shoe, he still had enough blood left to blush, because he could feel his face and ears burning.

He wasn't even sure if the snarled threat he'd delivered had come from himself or Thor. Both, he suspected.

"All that eating souls stuff," Jan finally said, "you were just making that up, right?"

Don suddenly felt very tired. Maybe it was the situation, or maybe it was the blood loss. "Where do you think the Odin force comes from?"

"Ew." He didn't have to be able to see Jan's expression to know she was wrinkling her nose.

Hank, on the other hand, was closer and not three inches high, and Don could clearly see him frowning. "Doom can't actually devour Thor's soul, though, can he?" he asked, and Don wasn't sure whether he sounded concerned or morbidly fascinated.

Out of all of his teammates, Hank Pym would be the one he ended up chained up next to. Don sighed, and rested more of his weight on his bad leg, trying to take some of the pressure off his arms — his arms and shoulders were starting to ache almost as much as his bad knee, but anything was preferable to the sickening pain that came when he put any weight on his injured leg. "I'd really rather not find out, since it's my soul, too."

Hank blinked, his attention suddenly utterly focused on Don. It was the kind of look some of the surgeons Don had known had gotten when they'd opened up a patient, or that Tony gave machines. To be on the receiving end of it was disconcerting.

"Hang on a minute," Hank said. "When did you come back from... wherever you were while Thor was dead?"

Did it matter? "During the middle of Tony's stupid registration disaster," and then, feeling suddenly defensive with both Hank and Jan watching him and remembering the stinging slap Jane had given him when she'd first seen him, he added, "It took me a while to get my head together; I came back before Thor did, and it was... confusing... for a while." He'd been just plain Don Blake for over half his life, until the first time he'd touched Mjolnir's handle, but that had been thanks to Odin's magic suppressing Thor's memories and personality. Having that part of himself missing entirely had been... strange.

"Damn," Hank said softly. He leaned back against the wall, his gaze going from Don to some unknown point off in space. "I think Tony was right. I thought he was just delusional from stress."

"This is not the time, Hank." Jan's voice was sharp, stern, and made absolutely no impact.

"He thought that if we made Thor a body, his soul, essence, whatever gods have, would come back." One of Hank's wrists twitched against its cuff, as if he'd forgotten that he was chained up. "Something about gods existing as long as people still believe in them — this from the man who says he hates magic. But if you were already wandering around somewhere, Thor's soul couldn't come back, because you were already using it, so we got..." he broke off for a moment, enthusiasm visibly draining away, then finished, lamely, "what we got."

Tony hadn't mentioned that aspect when Thor had finally gotten an explanation out of him. Don wasn't sure whether it was touching, or disturbing — maybe both. What he was sure of was that he didn't have either the energy or the inclination to discuss this with Hank right now. His leg hurt, he felt cold and slightly sick, and he really wanted to lie down. "Great, so you only created a murderous monster by accident while trying to play god. Why does that sound familiar?" It would have been a thundering denunciation a few months ago, fueled by Thor's anger as well as his own, but at the moment, Thor was too busy being angry at both Loki and himself to have anything left over for Hank.

"It-It wasn't like-," Hank stammered, "Ultron wasn't-"

He'd actually been thinking of Frankenstein, but since Hank had said it first, "You'd think Ultron would have been enough for you. And Clint says that now you're playing with mutant DnA. Do you ever think about consequences for anything you do?"

Having said it, he felt vaguely embarrassed, considering the position Thor had managed to get him into. 'You could have at least gotten Hogun or Heimdall to help you confront her,' he thought.

Hank's wrists jerked, the chains scraping against the wall. "For christ's sake, I've explained this over and over." The words burst out of him, not actually loud, but quick and intense enough that they might as well have been. "Of course I was thinking about the consequences. All the other options were worse. The original supersoldier serum only ever worked properly on three people, and you don't want to know what happened to the others." Hank's face twisted for a moment, something between a snarl and a silent, frustrated sob. "Tony's Extremis virus has a ninety percent fatality rate. Testing that on human subjects would be committing murder in the name of science. Cloning Thor was supposed to be the safer option, the one that wouldn't hurt anybody. I didn't think it would be Thor, but I thought..." he swallowed hard, "at least we'd be creating life instead of destroying it." He looked away, then, head bowed, and added, voice uneven, "No one was supposed to die."

No, none of them had intended for Bill Foster to die, least of all Hank. "I know," Don said wearily. Would he prefer that Thor's memory had been left alone and his body not been violated for the sake of science if the price was an unknown number of dead 'test subjects?' Put like that, it was impossible to say yes. Thor had accepted that — they both had. But it still felt... damn it, there were signed consent forms for medical experiments for a reason.

Hank looked almost as miserable as Don felt, so Don wasn't surprised when Jan spoke up.

"We can talk about this later, when we're out of here," she said firmly. "I really don't want to die in order to make Doom a god. If he's off meeting with Sin, he's too busy to come running back here the moment you shed the cuffs, Hank, so get over here and start figuring out how to get me out of this thing. Carefully." She mimed slipping her wrists out of cuffs.

Hank nodded, his shoulders straightening a little, and then he shrank down slightly, losing only about a foot of height, and worked his suddenly smaller hands through the cuffs. It took an agonizingly long minute to get the first hand free, then he was tugging at the second, and staggering away from the wall as it slipped loose.

Couldn't he have done that before? They could have been out of here hours ago if... no, Don reminded himself, not with no idea where they were and whether or not Doom was about to come charging in at any second. Once Doom or Sin had realized that Hank could use his powers to slip free of his chains, they would have taken precautions to prevent it, probably involving some kind of energy bubble like the one Jan was imprisoned in. When you only had one ace in the hole, it was better not to waste it.

Hank dropped to one knee, braced a hand against the wall, and began to grow, stopping only when his shoulder was in danger of brushing against the energy grid. Then he took the chain attached to Don's right wrist in both hands, and threw his weight against it, pulling for all he was worth.

The bolts attaching the chain to the wall gave with a violent jolt, Hank yelped as some part of him brushed the energy grid, and Don was suddenly dangling from one arm.

He concentrated on breathing in deeply through his nose, willing away the nausea, and then Hank was yanking at the other chain. This one took longer to give, the bolts giving way one by one as the strain in Don's shoulder and arm worsened.

When it finally broke, both Don's legs gave way and he sagged against Hank's three-times-larger-than normal knee. Hank grabbed for him, and managed to only jar his injured leg twice in the process of lowering him to the floor.

"I hate my leg sometimes," Don said, the stab of familiar frustration almost as hot as the knife wound.

"It's not your bad leg that's the problem." Hank pulled at Don's clothes with huge hands, as if searching for injuries. There were fresh, red abrasions at his wrists, and Don found himself automatically thinking of rusty chains and dirt and wondering when Hank had had his last tetanus shot. "You're covered in blood. What did-" and then he found the stab wound and sucked in a sharp, sudden breath.

"What is it? How badly is he hurt?" Jan sounded concerned, her voice sharp and shrill in the way it only was when she was Wasp-sized. "Hank?"

"I don't know. He's been stabbed." Hank shrank back to normal size, then went pale, swaying against the wall. "I hate being out of practice," he muttered. "This never happens when I use my powers regularly." He took a deep breath, then bent down to peer at Don's leg.

"We need something to bandage this with. Can you-"

Don swatted his hands away. "Leave it. If I were bleeding enough for it to be a medical emergency, I'd have passed out already." That was stretching the truth, but there wasn't anything remotely sanitary here to bandage the wound with. Hank's clothing, covered in plaster dust and soot, certainly wasn't. "Focus on getting us out of here. I'll be fine as soon as I can get to Thor's hammer."

It was true — transforming into Thor would heal almost any injury he received — but Hank didn't look convinced. Don gave him a shove in Jan's general direction. "Get her out of there fast. My leg hurts, and Doom could come back any time."

Hank didn't need to be told again.

Don had hoped that deactivating Jan's energy-bubble would be simple and quick, something Hank could do by yanking out a few wires or pressing some buttons, but several endless minutes later, when Hank started mumbling things under his breath, he realized with a sinking feeling that they weren't getting out of there for a while.

"Where are the others?" Jan asked. She was crouched on the floor of her prison, peering down at whatever Hank was trying to do to the circuitry and mechanisms inside the thing's wide base. "Maybe they'll rescue us."

"They're trying," Don assured her. "We didn't know where Doom's headquarters were, or where he and Sin had taken you." Then the embarrassing part. Better to just admit it up front and get it out of the way. "Thor thought he could get some answers out of Loki if he confronted her."

"That was stupid," Hank said, not looking up.

"Yeah," Don admitted. "But you try arguing with him."

"Is Sam-" Jan started, then broke off. "The last time I saw him," she went on after a moment, "Sin was getting ready to cut his throat."

"He's fine. They left him behind when they took off."

Jan's sigh of relief was audible. "Good. When I woke up and he wasn't here, I thought maybe they'd taken him away already." She didn't specify what she thought he'd been taken away for, but whatever it was, was unlikely to be good.

"Tony took a nasty hit from one of Doom's weapons," Don went on, "but he was awake and recovering when I left." Talking wasn't much of a distraction from the way his leg felt, but it was better than nothing. "Doom escaped with the book, but you probably already know that."

Hank hissed something about booby traps and security under his breath, then asked, more loudly, "How long have we been here?"

"Six hours? Eight? I'm not sure." He'd lost track of some time after Sin had stabbed him.

"So about half as long as it's going to take me to crack this thing."

"You're a genius," Jan said. "You'll have me out of here in no time." The cheer didn't even sound forced, though Don suspected it was.

"If this was anyone else's little toy, you'd be out already. Doom likes to put vicious little booby traps in everything he designs; one mistake, and the energy field could collapse in on you and kill you. Or electrocute me." Hank's tone made it obvious he considered the first the worse outcome. "Or it might explode. I could just smash the base panel or short-circuit it, but that could trigger the same response. You need Tony for this. This kind of thing is what he lives for."

He'd managed to get part of the panel covering the inner workings of the machine loose somehow, Don saw, despite not having any tools. No, wait. He had a tiny screw driver in one hand. Where had that come from?

"You have a screwdriver," Don observed.

Hank half-turned, a concerned look on his face. "It was in my pocket," he said. "I forgot about it when I went to bed." He was staring at Don oddly, but before Don could comment on it, he shook himself visibly and turned back to his task. "I wish I'd forgotten the entire shrunken tool kit," he muttered.

"Talk to me, Don." Jan waved at him, the gesture over-exaggerated, probably so he could see it despite the poor light and her size. From this angle, half-sitting/half-lying against the wall, all he could see was her upper body, the rest of her cut off from view by the floor of her prison and the back of Hank's head. "I'm going to go stir crazy in here."

"About what?"

"Where did they teleport you in from? Do you have any idea where we are?"

"Another warehouse." That had looked an awful lot like this warehouse, right down to the brick walls and metal ceiling beams. "Or maybe a different part of this one. The ceiling looks familiar."

"A warehouse where?" Jan pressed insistently. "Where did Thor meet with Loki?"

"I don't know. He tried to summon her to Asgard with the ring she gave me. We should have known it was a trap." He drew his bad leg — his good leg, now — up and bent forward to lean his forehead against his knee. It helped the dizziness a little.

Hank swore, slamming a fist into the ground in frustration. "This is going to take forever. If I were outside the grid, all I'd have to do is destroy the power core on the force-field generator. It's linked to your cage; the two energy fields are the exact same frequency."

"Don't even think about it."

It was a sharp command, distinctly unlike Jan's usual method of giving orders. She was usually the team's diplomat.

"I was just pointing it out," Hank said. "As a last resort. I think Don's going into shock, and Doom-"

"I'm not in shock," Don said. "I just need fluids, and something for blood sugar."

No one listened to him.

"Whatever Doom's got in mind for us will probably make Don's blood eagle look mild. It's probably going to be so gruesome and excruciatingly painful that a quick death would be a mercy."

Between his own memories and Thor's, Don had seen an awful lot of gruesome ways to die, none of which he wanted to experience himself or watch friends experience. "Please stop talking. You're not helping."

"Don't even think about it," Jan snapped. "The world won't end if it takes you a couple hours longer to get me out of here."

Actually, it might, but pointing that out would be even less helpful than Hank's morbid predictions.

There was nothing useful he could contribute for the moment, and he'd need what energy he had left for their escape; Don closed his eyes and let himself doze for a while.

He was jolted awake by the sound of Jan swearing. Jan. What was—

Don jerked upright and opened his eyes to light. A door in the opposite wall had opened, spilling a long line of harsh, fluorescent light across the floor. Silhouetted against it was a man in a dark uniform, a gun in one hand and three water bottles tucked under the other arm.

Hank froze like a deer caught in headlights.

Amazingly, the guard started strolling casually toward them, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. He couldn't see them well enough to realize that Don and Hank were partially free, Don realized, not coming from the brightly lit other room into the dark open space of the warehouse floor.

Time seemed to stretch out as the guard came closer, while Don frantically and uselessly tried to will Mjolnir into his hand. When he enters our prison, we may take him as our prisoner by force of numbers. He can be compelled to release the Wasp.

Numbers did them little good as long as he had a gun, Don thought, as he tried to get his feet under him. He could use the wall to push himself upright again, and look at least vaguely like he was still where he was supposed to be.

He was halfway to his feet when the guard realized what was happening. The man shouted, drawing his gun and charging forward.

If he moved, Don knew, he would fall. Damn Loki and Odin both. He had to-

"I'm sorry," Hank blurted out, and then he was moving.

Hank threw himself at the energy grid, shrinking down so fast that he almost seemed to disappear. Then he was through, full-sized again, and slamming into the guard in a flying tackle that would have made Steve proud.

The guard's head hit the concrete floor with a loud crack, and he went limp.

Hank collapsed on top of the guard, limbs twitching in sharp, hyper-reflexive jerks. He took medication now, Don remembered with horror. Anti-depressants. Mood stabilizers. Maybe both. How could he not know what kind? His own teammate was overdosing right in front of him, and he didn't know on what.

Jan was shouting, hammering on the energy bubble with both hands, heedless of the pain it had to be causing her.

Hank pushed himself to his feet, moving like a badly controlled puppet, and staggered over to the controls for the energy grid. He half-collapsed against them, fumbling with something Don couldn't see, and then the energy grid flickered and vanished, along with Jan's cage.

Jan streaked toward Hank, and Don gritted his teeth and forced himself away from the wall. He had to get to Mjolnir. Once he had his hammer, he'd be healed, could get them all out of here.

He crawled the last few feet, gritting his teeth against the pain, and then his fingers were around Mjolnir's haft.

The pain ceased almost instantly. Thor rose to his knees, still holding his hammer, and looked automatically toward the opened door, now the only source of light. No more of Doom or Sin's arms-men were forthcoming, and the one Hank Pym had struck down appeared unconscious.

Perhaps they would escape from this place yet.

Hank was on his hands and knees, vomiting. Jan knelt next to him, one hand on his shoulder, her face twisted with what could be either fear or anger. "Can you walk?" she demanded. "We need to get you both to a hospital."

"I am well. My counterpart's injuries were healed by the transformation." Thor rose, and approached his teammates, concern growing as he neared them. Hank was still being violently ill, his entire body jerking and shuddering, and the part of Thor that was Don Blake was cataloging symptoms, noting muscle tremors, nausea, weakness, lack of coordination.

"I should strangle thee," Thor told him, the familiar pronoun slipping out without thought. "What medicines dost thou take?"

Hank seemed not to hear him, another ill omen.

"Some kind of NDRI, and lithium. The SSRIs made things worse. I think it's the same thing as Wellbutrin, but a different brand name." The words tumbled out in a rush, while Jan touched Hank's hair, his back, his arm, as if unsure what to do. "Is he dying?" she blurted out after a short, jerky pause, her voice cracking. "Tell me he's not dying."

In the recesses of his mind, Don was protesting that lithium toxicity was grave indeed, but Thor overrode him. "Nay, I do not think he shall." Any other outcome was unacceptable. He would not stand helplessly by while a comrade died before his eyes due to Loki's treachery. "But we must be gone from this place, and find him aid."

Fighting their way out would be most satisfying, but they had not the time to spare. Thor raised Mjolnir above his head and began to spin it, building momentum, and then let his hammer fly at the wall he and his teammates had been chained against. The aged brick was obviously part of the warehouse's outer wall, nearly a foot thick, and proved no match for his hammer.

The dim grey glow of twilight appeared through the wide hole in the wall as the cloud of brick dust settled. Through it, less than a spear's-throw away, he could see the river, and the city skyline beyond it. It was not Manhattan, nor were any of the East River's great bridges visible, which meant their prison lay on the West side of the city.

Thor lifted his barely conscious teammate over his left shoulder, allowed Jan to perch on his right shoulder and take a firm hold on his hair, and began to spin his hammer once more, faster and with more force this time. The first throw carried them over the roof of the warehouse and to the top of a neighboring building.

"The closest hospital is that way," Jan said, tugging on his hair to indicate the proper direction, and then they were airborne again, moving father into the city.

They would be in time. He would lose no teammates today, not even infuriating ones.

And then Loki would be called to account.

Chapter Text

They saw the traffic jam first. Cars were backed up for blocks around Times Square, a solid mass of metal and red and white head and taillights. Up ahead, news helicopters were circling above the general vicinity of Broadway and 42nd Street, filming what they could in the last few minutes before twilight.

"Carol," Steve ordered, "get on the radio and see if you can get them to back off. We-"

"Need some clear airspace for a landing, I know," she interrupted. Without turning from the quinjet's controls, Carol reached up and tapped a finger against her earpiece. "The NYPD is already talking to them."

Steve had been thinking less of room to land, and more of the risk that Doom might decide to start using news copters for target practice. Supervillains had done it before, but the pilots the local news stations hired were apparently fearless.

Beside him, Clint made frustrated noise. "I can't get through to Wanda. Or the Helicarrier. Or Thor. Where the heck is he?"

"Did he tell anyone where he was going?" Steve asked; uselessly, he knew. If Carol or Sam had had any idea where their absent team member was, they would have said something before they'd taken off.

Sam shook his head, fingers never stopping their slow, soothing strokes through Redwing's feathers. The falcon hated riding in the quinjet, even with a hood shielding his eyes. It looked strange to see him wearing one, as if he were an ordinary bird — until you noticed the lack of jesses around his ankles. "I haven't seen him since we got back from the Helicarrier."

Steve forced down his worry; he couldn't afford the distraction right now, when they were about to take on Doom with half their team missing, captured, or out of action. Wanda would have been invaluable right about now, if only she weren't stuck on the Helicarrier, and if only all forms of satellite communication in the city weren't down.

They had lost contact with Peter and Luke first, their communicators going offline abruptly and setting off a wail of alarms in the tower's communications room. The city-wide failures had come later, while they were scrambling into the quinjet.

Peter and Luke were still alive, Strange had assured them of that, but he'd also said that he'd called an ambulance, and given no further details, his astral form fading out of sight seconds after telling them that he'd meet them at Time Square.

Carol banked the quinjet to the left, and the huge tower at One Times Square no longer blocked their view of the streets below. A huge circle of green flame surrounded Times Square, blocking off everything within a three-block radius. Steve could see at least one driver standing on the sidewalk beside their stopped car, yelling and throwing things at the flames. From the flickers of light around the circle's edges, some people were taking pictures of it.

He hoped nobody was trapped inside it, that they weren't about to have a hostage crisis.

Carol brought the quinjet down for a landing, the aircraft shuddering and jolting as if she were trying to land it in a windstorm. When they disembarked, Steve going first with his shield already up and ready, the air was heavy and motionless, without a breath of wind, and so charged with magic that the hair on the back stood up. He should have been able to hear shouts, car horns, the drone of the helicopters overhead, but instead everything was eerily, freakishly silent, as if the flames were devouring all sound.

It was never silent in Times Square.

Doom was standing at the exact center of the crossroads where Broadway and 42nd Street met, a leather book open in one hand and the other flung out dramatically. Beside him, Steve saw with a sinking feeling, was Loki.

Damn, damn, damn, where was Thor? They had to take both Doom and Loki down before Sin arrived with spear in hand; if one of them got their hands on it, it would all be over. They wouldn't be able to stop a vastly more powerful Loki, or a Doom with god-like powers, and would likely die trying.

Doom just stood there, making no move to attack the quinjet while Sam, Clint, and Carol exited it. Either they weren't even worth the effort of attacking anymore, or the ritual he had begun required all of his attention and energy. Steve hoped it was the latter.

"So," Loki said, her gleeful smirk visible even from across the street, "you have come to stop us. Of course you have. You're tiresomely predictable."

"Of course we have," Steve agreed. "Where are Yellowjacket and the Wasp?"

Doom threw back his head and laughed. "You and your pitiful fellow superheroes are no match for myself and Loki working together. You couldn't even defend your own home from me, so how do they imagine you're going to stop me?"

"Where are they?" If Doom had killed them, he'd be gloating about it. He ought to be gloating regardless, threatening to kill them if the Avengers didn't stand aside and let him do whatever he wanted.

Doom lifted one hand, his gauntlet crackling with energy, and Steve raised his shield slightly, just in case. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Clint drawing back an arrow.

"I believe I've said this before, but you are meddling in forces beyond your control." Strange's disembodied voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, and then he and Wong stepped through the flames behind Doom and Loki, Strange's cloak billowing and twisting around them, untouched by the fire. "The power within the spear will incinerate you," he continued.

Doom turned to face him, seeming not to care that he was turning his back on the rest of them. Beside him, Loki was toying with a dagger nearly the size of a short sword, still wearing the same disinterested smirk. If they rushed Doom, would she try to stop them? Carol could be on him in an eye-blink, faster than any normal human could move, but Loki was far from human.

"Such timidity from the great sorcerer supreme," Doom said. "You and Dr. Blake are two of a kind, both afraid of the risks necessary for true power."

They could-Dr. Blake?

"What did you do to him?" Clint demanded it before Steve could, taking a half step forward and raising the tip of his arrow slightly.

Loki's smirk became a true smile, the same wide, gleefully malicious one she'd always worn in her old form. "My stepbrother is awaiting my consort's pleasure. He will be dealt with later."

The twang of Clint's bowstring sounded almost before she'd finished speaking.

It did nothing, of course. She moved almost too quickly for Steve's eyes to follow, knocking the arrow from the air with a swirl of her heavy cloak.

Doom didn't turn away from Strange and Wong. They were fighting one another somehow, Steve was sure, but in no way that he could see.

Loki cocked her head, horned headdress casting distorted shadows on the pavement. "Think you your mortal weapons can harm me?"

"Perhaps not," Strange said, "but I have weapons of a different sort."

Strange, Steve thought, was in his element.

Sam had stepped up to flank Steve's right side, Redwing no longer perched on his wrist. Carol would be overhead now; he knew without having to look. Between the four of them, Strange, and Wong, they had them surrounded and outnumbered three to one. He caught Sam's gaze, then Clint's, nodding towards Doom's back. Carol and Strange could take Loki.

He wasn't sure which way Wong would move — he'd rarely seen the man in a fight, though Iron Fist and Spiderman had both assured him that he was good.

"Pathetic." Doom augmented whatever wizard's duel spells he was using with a blast of energy aimed directly at Strange's head. "I expected more from the man whose spells have so inconvenienced me."

Strange ducked fluidly out of the way, shouting something incomprehensible, and glowing red bands of... something... wrapped around Doom's torso, pinning his arms to his sides.

Steve threw his shield at the same moment that Clint loosed his arrow, already running forward as he did so.

The arrow caught in one of the joints of Doom's armor, the shield bounced off Strange's magical bindings — they were translucent, like glowing smoke, surely it should have passed through them — and then they were on Doom.

He swung around, cape fluttering, and caught Steve's fist in one heavy gauntlet.

His shield was back in his hand now, and the edge left long dents and gouges in Doom's armor. It was sturdier than the recent batch of Doombots had been; he obviously saved the stronger — and rarer — alloys for his own armor.

Sam couldn't glide from a standing start, and Clint's arrows were no use at close range, but there was nothing wrong with either of their right hooks. Unfortunately, Doom barely felt them through his armor.

Steve had just managed to wrench his hand free and duck another of Doom's punches — unlike last time, he'd managed to avoid being either hit or blasted thus far — when the man's cape began to writhe and twist, snaking up to wrap around Clint's neck.

Clint beat uselessly at it with his bow, trying to pull it loose with his free hand, and Steve turned from Doom to help him. The cloth slipped against his gloves, and it took all of his strength just to pull it a few inches away from Clint's throat.

The explosion of pain as Doom's fist caught him in the kidneys was like a flash of light behind his eyes, but then Clint was free, the cloak just a cloak again.

There was a blur of red at the corner of his vision, and Steve automatically focused on it long enough to see Sam dive through Doom's legs to snatch the Dee manuscript up off the pavement.

"Go long," he shouted, and then it was arcing toward Wong, who caught it easily in one hand.

"Return that to me, or I shall take it from your corpse!" Doom snarled. He fired a stream of energy at Wong, missing him by inches, then turned and aimed a vicious kick at Sam's ribs.

Sam, who'd been halfway to his feet, doubled over, but still managed to grab Doom's ankle and yank.

Clint thrust his bow between Doom's legs, hooking his other ankle, and Doom staggered forward just in time to slam into Steve's shield as Steve thrust the flat of it at his face. His momentum added force to the blow, and even with his shield protecting his hand, Steve could feel the impact all the way to his shoulder.

Doom staggered back, swearing in Latverian, and Steve started to smile. He couldn't see what Strange and Carol were doing, but from the sound of the curses he could hear Loki hissing, it was effective.

"You should have picked better allies. At this rate, we'll have you on the ground long before Sin gets here with the spear."

Doom's reply — something in Latverian that Steve didn't have to understand to know was a threat — was cut short by a scream of rage from Loki.

"YOU! How did you escape your chains?"

It was a rookie mistake, but Steve looked to see who she was yelling at. Luckily for him, Doom was doing the same thing.

Thor was landing in the center of the circle of flames, Mjolnir still spinning in his hand.

"About time, big guy!" Carol called. She was struggling to keep Loki in an arm lock, and sporting several long, shallow slices on her arms and thighs. Loki's dagger must be enchanted somehow.

"Release me, mortal-" Loki began.

"Victor von Doom." Jan's voice rang out, shifting in pitch as she jumped down from Thor's shoulder and resumed normal size. "Don's not going to get a chance to rip your lungs out," she continued. "Because I'm going to." She was striding toward them, movements quick and purposeful, growing larger with each step.

She didn't sound as if she were joking. Where was Hank?

Jan backhanded Doom across the face, not even wincing as her bare hand connected with his mask. "Sacrifice this!"

The mask went flying, metal scraping across asphalt as it landed, and Steve had a brief impression of pale skin, livid scars, and an enraged snarl — Doom had a narrower jaw than he'd always imagined, and broader cheekbones — and then Doom was diving for his mask.

"That's it?" Sam blurted out. "That's why you wear that thing? The Red Skull had you beat six ways to Sunday when it came to having a face that frightened small children."

"You'll pay for this, woman!" Doom spat, turning back to Jan with energy crackling over one gauntlet. The other hand held his mask to his face.

How many of those energy blasts could he fire before his power source was exhausted? Tony would have had some idea.

The sudden, delighted laughter seemed to come from everywhere at once. A woman's voice, but with a strange, harmonic echo to it that made Steve's teeth ache and his skin crawl.

Sin stepped through the flames, a short length of spear in one hand.

Sparks were smoldering in her clothing, and Steve could smell the sharp reek of burned hair. She was limping badly, covered in blood, and her left arm hung motionless at her side, flesh dark and swollen.

Her eyes were the worst; blank, glowing white in a face empty of expression.

"Oh, damn," Sam breathed. Redwing landed on his shoulder, huddling into Sam's neck.

"Is that from the spear?" Jan was frowning, the rage of moments before completely derailed.

"At last!" Doom cried, turning away from them as if they'd ceased to exist. "What took you so long? Never mind, just bring it to me."

"You fool," Loki called out. "Can you not see? That is not-"

Sin continued to laugh, flickers of energy spider-webbing over her skin like white lightning. "Do you imagine your pathetic schemes and quarrels concern me? Your minion is no more, Victor von Doom. Only I remain."

"Chthon," Strange said grimly.

Clint shook his head slowly, his fingers tightening visibly on his bow. "We are so fucking fucked and it's too late to run."

Chthon's voice whispered at the edges of her mind, as if she were standing inside Daredevil's cathedral.

'Free,' he gloated, as he had been for what felt like an eternity. 'I will be free! Come to me, little witch. It is time for you to fulfill your purpose.'

Putting her hands over her ears or trying to shake her head to chase Chthon out wouldn't work. The wards on her hands and neck itched and burned, like tight bands over her skin, and as she and Tony drew closer to Times Square, a dull glow began to seep through the back of her gloves.

Wanda tightened her arms around Tony's neck and resisted the urge to look down. She wouldn't be able to see anything yet, not with so many buildings in the way, and the three-hundred foot drop to the pavement below would only feel more yawningly lethal if she looked at it.

Iron Man had never dropped anyone yet. Not accidentally, anyway.

"When we get there-" she began, only to be drowned out by a squeal of feedback from her communicator as the chaos magic surging around them fried something. She turned it off and raised her voice instead, shouting to be heard over the wind and the dull whine of Tony's jet boots. "What you promised, before. If Chthon takes control of me-"

"You won't let him," Tony interrupted.

"If he does," she pressed. He was clawing at the walls she'd put up to keep him out, now, hissing that she wouldn't be able to keep him out for long with so much of her power walled away.

There were seven million people in Manhattan. Almost as many people as she had maimed and destroyed the last time Chthon had had her, but this time he didn't plan to simply mutilate, hurt, or erase. If he broke free, the whole city would burn.

Tony was silent for a moment, his face invisible behind his helmet. "If he does," he finally said, voice more stilted and mechanical than the armor's voice filters would account for, "I'll keep my promise."

It was probably wrong to feel relief. "Thank you," she said — shouted really. The chaos magic that surrounded them surged in a way that made her wards flare with heat, and Wanda pressed her forehead against the cold metal of Tony's chestplate. "I'm sorry," she added.

He didn't reply. Had he even heard her?

Something was glowing up ahead, an eerie green that didn't look or feel like Chthon's power, yet still felt like chaos.

The chaos around them surged again, and for a moment, she could see nothing but black and red, hear nothing but Chthon's whispers. Then they were descending.

Thor and Loki were rolling on the ground, throwing punches at one another. Mjolnir lay several feet away, and Loki was doing her best to keep Thor from reaching it. Everyone else was fighting Doombots. Including... was that Doom?

The Doombots' green surcoats and capes were on fire, burning with the same green flame that hedged them all in, and white and red chaos lightning crawled over their metal armor. Only one still looked normal, and he was trying to simultaneously destroy one of the others and attack a twelve-foot-tall Jan.

The others had found them, then. Hank must be back at the tower, glued to a monitor and storing up complaints about the fact that he'd been left behind. Unless Doom had brought them along as sacrifices, in which case... maybe Hank had gone for help?

It wasn't important. The only thing that mattered at the moment was Sin, and the short length of spear clutched in her left hand.

The air around it rippled with chaotic power. Familiar power. Even if she hadn't already known what the spear was, she would have recognized it. The fierce, barely controllable power that had broken Chthon's hold on her, that had struck down Strange and burned his hands.

Sin turned, either sensing them or hearing Tony's jet boots, and swept the spear sharply in their direction.

A wall of invisible force hit them like a wave, crushing her into the hard metal of Tony's armor, and then Wanda was falling the remaining few feet to the ground.

She landed in a crouch, the shock of the impact jolting all the way up her legs and stinging the soles of her feet. It was a good thing this costume had flat-soled boots instead of heels, or she would have gone sprawling across the pavement.

"Wanda!" Carol half-turned, ducking under a Doombot's flailing arm. "What are you-" the Doombot swung at her again, its motions oddly clumsy, and she wrapped both hands around the limb and ripped it off at the shoulder with a single, sharp jerk — "doing here?"

"We thought you could use the back-up," Tony said, as a repulsor blast took what remained of the Doombot square in the chest. "Agents Carter and Barnes are on their way, along with whatever SHIELD can scramble."

Sin kicked Clint in the chest, sending him flying back nearly ten feet to land on his back. She swung around, gesturing sharply with the spear again, and one of the giant concrete planters the city had installed down the center of the street lurched into the air.

Redwing banked sharply to the left, letting out a steam whistle scream of displeasure, and the planter crashed into a store window.

"I'll tell them to send the Hulkbusters," Tony added.

Steve looked up sharply. "You have live communications?"

Tony dodged another blast of invisible force, and fired at the Doombot still hammering on Steve's shield. It exploded in a miniature fireball that burned both green and orange-white, and the nearly invisible magical explosion that shadowed it stank of Chthon. "Only to the Helicarrier," he said, "and only if I divert power from the rest of the armor's systems to boost the signal. Sorry. Without Extremis-"

"Just do it," Steve ordered.

Clint was lying on the ground, flat on his back, eyes closed. Just beyond him, Jan and Doom were throwing punches at both one another and one of Chthon's Doombot puppets. As Wanda watched, Jan ripped the robot's head off and threw it at Doom. The Doombot stumbled backwards, Chthon's power still animating it even though the circuitry controlling its AI had to be shredded, and Wanda automatically brought her hands up. A small burst of chaos was all it would take to shift the Doombot's path away from Clint, keep it from falling on him.

The air around her was so thick with chaos already that she could barely think, Chthon's presence a choking miasma, and her skin burned as if the wards were being branded onto her. For an endless, frozen moment, she couldn't move. Her chaos magic was tied to Chthon, and with him this close, on the verge of breaking free entirely, just touching it would open herself up to him.

The Doombot was already falling; she wouldn't be able to get to Clint in time.

Sam seemed to come out of nowhere, his shoulder catching the Doombot mid-torso in a tackle straight out of American football. Both of them went tumbling in a mass of metal, wings, and long limbs, and Wanda ran forward, paralysis broken.

She dodged and swerved around energy bolts and flying pieces of metal without thinking about it, and threw herself under another blast of raw chaos from Sin — no, Chthon; she knew better than anyone that that wasn't Synthia Schmidt anymore — to land on her hands and knees at Clint's side.

He was conscious, she saw with a wash of relief. His face was twisted with pain, fingers clawing at the ground and heels scraping across the pavement as he fought to breathe. Sin had hit him hard, hard enough that Wanda had half-expected to find his ribcage distorted and crushed. Instead, it looked normal, which meant the desperate gasping sounds he was making weren't from collapsing lungs.

"Breathe," she ordered. "Slowly." She pushed down on his shoulders, gently, trying to keep him from getting up or moving without hurting him more. "You've just had the air knocked out of you." Once, she could have forced that to be the truth. Now, she just had to hope it was.

"Okay," Clint gasped. "I'm-okay." He didn't sound okay, or look it, but if he could speak, he was breathing again. "She's fav-favoring her left side. I tried to flank her. Don't let her kick you."

"I'll try not to," Wanda managed. Part of her was surprised at how normal she sounded, when the rest of her wanted to scream, or cry with frustration at being so helpless, or curl into a ball and hope Chthon would overlook her if she were very still and quiet. "Can you move?"

Clint pushed himself up onto one elbow, wrapping the other arm around his chest and curling in on himself. "Give me a minute," he wheezed. He flicked one hand vaguely at the battle still raging around them. "Go help... someone."

Without her powers, she was essentially unarmed, and taking on Doombots barehanded only worked if you were Carol or She-Hulk. And Chthon...

There was a flash of red and green at the corner of her vision, and she followed it to see Loki straddling Thor, struggling to keep his right arm — and Mjolnir - pinned to the ground. She had one knee on his elbow, and a dagger held against his throat.

Thor arched his back, twisted his hips, and threw Loki off him, sending her sprawling nearly at Wanda's feet.

Moving automatically, she sprang forward and planted one foot on Loki's cloak, pinning it to the ground with her weight, and kicked at the dagger in Loki's hand. The knife went skidding across the street, and Wong snatched it up, immediately turning to slam the blade into the joint of Doombot's shoulder. It sliced through the metal as if it were cheap tin, as easily as Wolverine's claws.

Uru was one of the few metals as tough as vibranium and adamantium.

"I thank thee, Scarlet Witch," Thor said, climbing to his feet again.

"You should be aiding me, brother," Loki spat, snatching her cloak free. "Or do you wish to see what should belong to Asgard in the hands of Chthon?"

Thor flung himself at her again, holding her back as Tony and Jan charged Sin. "Neither of you shall triumph," he snarled.

She should have grabbed for the dagger herself. She'd never liked using knives or guns, but Steve had put her through the same combat training he'd put them all through.

A shame none of these Doombots had the energy weapons their comrades at the mansion had carried. Guns of all kinds were always so easy to disable.

Instead, Wanda bent down and seized a twisted chunk of metal that had until minutes ago been part of a Doombot's torso. Taking a page from Steve's book, she threw it at the closest Doombot like a discus.

Sam moved in just as the metal caught the Doombot between the shoulder blades, and hooked its feet out from under it with a kick as it started to turn toward her, off balance. It went reeling back directly into Wong and his dagger, as smoothly as if the three of them had planned it.

The Doombots were only a distraction, puppets animated by Chthon to try and keep them from being able to concentrate all their efforts on stopping Sin, but Wanda found herself smiling grimly anyway as she looked around for another piece of shrapnel.

Sin flung her arm out at him, the shaft of the spear catching Tony across the chest, and then he was flying backwards. He hit the side of a building with bone-jarring force, hard enough that everything went white for a moment.

What- She shouldn't be able to hit so hard. It was like being smacked around by the Hulk. Even with magically boosted strength, Sin was barely five foot four and shouldn't have had the leverage to throw him around like that.

Tony forced himself to his feet — at least the building was sturdy enough that he didn't have to climb out of a pile of rubble — and tried to focus on the blur of red and black that was Sin advancing on him. Steve's shield seemed to come out of nowhere, slamming into her shoulder on her bad side and nearly knocking her off her feet — twelve pounds of metal hitting her at that velocity and not knocking her down was something else that shouldn't be possible — and then Carol was behind her, both arms around Sin's neck in a headlock.

Strange lunged forward and seized the spear in one gloved hand, striking Sin's forearm with the other. He twisted it free of her grasp and leaped back, miraculously avoiding tripping over his cape, just as she broke Carol's hold.

"There is no purpose in this defiance, sorcerer." It was deeper than Sin's voice, the sound buzzing in Tony's teeth and resonating in his bones despite the fact that the armor should have shielded him. "Your will is no match for mine, and my power is greater than yours, even in this inferior vessel."

Strange flung his free hand up, crying, "By the powers of the Vishanti, I," and then he was screaming as the spear flared with light and the glove on his left hand disintegrated.

The spear hit the pavement, still pulsing with sullen red light, and Strange collapsed like a puppet with cut strings, his cloak writhing around him like a living thing.

Tony swore. Of course it had felled Strange; it had done so before. They should have planned for this.

Could any of them touch it safely, other than Loki herself?

"Thor-" he began, intending to tell him to let Loki up to claim the spear, that anything she might do with it was unimportant next to stopping Chthon, and then Doom was moving.

He plowed past Wong like the tank his armor effectively made him, ignoring the chunk of pauldron, backplate, and cape he lost to the man's dagger, firing energy bolts indiscriminately at everyone still standing. One of them grazed Tony's arm, setting alarms blaring in his head and flashing in his helmet display, and he hesitated for one stupid, cowardly instant.

He fired his jet boots, but even though flying was faster than running, it was still too slow. Doom's fingers curled around the haft of the spear just as Steve's shield took him in the side.

Doom hit the ground with a clatter of metal on asphalt, but he kept his grip on the spear. "Too late," he mocked, rising to his feet and kicking the shield out of the way. "I should apologize to Sin. It appears she did her job after all."

"Drop it!" Wanda shouted. "You saw what it did to Strange." She was holding a chunk of shrapnel like a knife, her face covered in a smear of soot.

Doom laughed, raising the spear above his head. "That fool? He'll be the first sacrifice I offer." He swung the spear to point its tip at Sin. "You'll be the second. Elder god or mortal woman, whichever you are, you're going to make me invincible."

"Idiot," Tony wanted to shout, but Doom would never have listened to him. He raised his hands, diverting extra power to his repulsors.

Sin laughed, the sound reverberating in a way that shouldn't have been possible coming from a human throat. She thrust her good hand toward Doom, and Tony's vision dissolved into static as the armor's visual sensors malfunctioned and his helmet display warped into a distorted smear of light. He shut them all down and switched to simply looked through the helmet's lenses, normal vision with nothing enabled, just in time to see the spear hit the ground, the air around it wavering as if from extreme heat.

Sin stepped forward, hooking one toe under the shaft of the spear and kicking it up to snatch it out of the air. "I am chaos!" she shouted, empty, white eyes blazing. "I was there before time began, and when the last star in the universe has crumbled to dust, I will remain. Cower before me, mortal, and perhaps I will let you live."

Lighting was crawling over her skin, her hair lashing wildly around her head in a non-existent wind. It was sickeningly reminiscent of the way Wanda had appeared when Chthon had possessed her; any moment now, she would start levitating.

One good repulsor blast could destroy the spear, but—no, it was uru. Nothing short of the fires of a volcano could damage it. Damn it, they could have used Strange conscious.

Wanda had both hands pressed to the side of her head, her face twisted in pain. If Chthon was able to overwhelm her as well...

"Chaos?" Loki snorted. She was on her feet now, either escaped from Thor's hold or deliberately freed. "Chaos is both creation and destruction. You do nothing but destroy. Give me my spear and be gone. It is mine by right."

Now, while Sin's attention was on her.

Steve moved at the same time he did, both of them charging Sin, Steve from behind and Tony from her lame side.

Sin pivoted on her good leg and lunged at Steve, the spear's head skidding across the face of Steve's shield with an awful, metallic shriek that he'd never heard anything that had hit the shield make before.

Tony grabbed Sin's wounded arm, the swollen flesh splitting and oozing fluid under his gauntlet, and jerked her back around. He thrust his left hand up under her breastbone, and then—froze.

(a round, cauterized hole burned through a man's chest while his dead face still smiled at Tony, friendly, as if still asking for an autograph; the smell of burned meat; Steve standing there in the Meridian's dining room with blackened, smoking holes in his stomach and over his heart, his entire body drenched in blood)

Better her than Wanda, Tony thought, better all of them than the entire city, and made himself fire.

Steve shouted something, his voice angry and desperate, and Sin was still moving, how the hell was she still moving?

The spear went through his armor like a hot knife through butter, and the pain was like Afghanistan all over again.

It had scratched his shield. The spear had actually — nothing scratched his shield.

Tony was still moving, grabbing Sin and jerking her around, and Steve had a long, horrified second to both see Sin's arm draw back, to see Tony thrust his repulsor gauntlet into her chest, and know exactly what each of them was going to do.

He lunged forward, shouting a warning, already knowing that he was too late, as a repulsor beam blew a hole clear through Sin's torso. And Sin, impossibly still alive and upright, stabbed Loki's spear upwards, straight into the center of Tony's body.

Tony went rigid, back arching, as the spear punched easily through his armor.

"No!" someone shouted — Loki?

Sin ripped the spear back out, sending a spray of blood arcing through the air, and Tony collapsed to the pavement, unmoving.

"Stop her! Blood sacrifice unlocks its power. My power!"

Sin blocked the face of his shield with the spear, breaking the force of his lunge with a strength she'd never possessed. It was like slamming his shield full on into a stone wall, but the jolt that shocked up his arm and into his shoulder was oddly distant. His ribs, still bruised from the fight yesterday, didn't even twinge.

She disengaged and stepped back to face him, her battered and grotesquely swollen face expressionless. The spear's broad, silver head was covered in blood, and a smear of it blotted out the scratch on his shield, a streak of red through the center of the white star.

If it took her in the throat edge-on, the shield would crush her windpipe or break her neck, but if the hole burned through her chest wasn't killing her, that wouldn't either.

She moved abruptly, a gesture with the spear knocking Carol out of the air and into a huge LCD screen, and this time Steve could almost see the blast of power rippling in the air.

The spear was glowing again, red and white light pulsing like a heartbeat. Just looking at it made his eyes hurt and his stomach lurch, and Tony still hadn't moved, and Clint was still down, struggling to sit up, and-

Mjolnir came flying at Sin's head so quickly that Steve didn't hear the whistle of the air parting around it until she had already blocked it.

He moved automatically, the moment he saw her face start to turn away from him. The edge of his shield came down on Sin's right forearm with a crack of shattering bone, and the spear dropped from her hand.

Loki dove for it, hitting the ground in a swirl of green cloak and flashing gold. Her fingers came within inches of the spear's haft—

And Redwing fell out of the sky like a missile, snatching the spear from the ground with a shrill scream that was echoed by Sam.

"Don't-" Steve shouted, uselessly, too late, as Sam folded to the ground with both hands pressed against the sides of his head and Redwing flew to Wanda and dropped the spear directly into her outstretched hands.

She had a fraction of a second to think of what the spear had done to Strange, and then it was in her hands, and the world was nothing but white fire. She had thought its power was overwhelming when she'd reached for it in the cathedral, but that had been a slow trickle compared to the violent flood of chaos that engulfed her now.

There was so much of it, raw and pure and completely free of Chthon's touch, and the feel of it pouring into her was something beyond pain, making every nerve in her body sing. She could no longer hear Chthon's voice, could no longer hear anything.

Her hands hurt. Hands, and the back of her neck, a bright flare of pain like hot metal.

Wanda fought to keep herself from dissolving away into the chaos, forcing herself to focus on the rest of the world. Chthon was all around her, the barrier between his prison and the rest of reality nearly worn through, but he couldn't touch her while the spear's power filled her.

So much power, enough to break and remake worlds.

The remnants of the magic Chthon had made her work to erase so many people's mutations would be vaporized if she turned this on them, no matter how much of the spear's energy it took. Just a small pull on probability here, a twist of causality there, and reality would bend and reshape itself and Vision and Scott and Jack would never have died. Her children would exist again, as if they had never stopped, and this time she'd have enough power to make them truly real. They could be a family, herself and Vision and the twins, and Pietro, and-

And Chthon would destroy all of them, and she would be powerless to stop him, because remaking the world to set everything right again would consume all the power she held.

Wanda opened her eyes, and leveled the head of the spear at Sin - at Chthon. With this much chaos magic filling her, she could see the writhing tentacles of magic that engulfed Sin's body more clearly than she could see the woman herself.

The thin place in the dimensional barriers was no longer confined to St. Margaret's - it surrounded Sin now, and the tentacles of energy were stretching through it, almost solid. One of them was reaching out toward her, pulsing with dark energy like a heartbeat.

"GET OUT!" She poured all of the spear's power into the command, letting it flow through her and out through the weapon itself. It hurt, a searing pain that made even the white-hot burn of the wards on her neck and hands fade into insignificance, but when the raw chaos energy hit Sin, the tentacles curled away from it, thrashing and shriveling, and Chthon's screams of rage echoes at the edges of her mind.

He tried to claw at her, to leave Sin's body and force himself into her mind, but this much foreign chaos power filling her, there was no room for him.

"GET OUT!" she shouted again, as every LCD screen in Times Square exploded in a shower of sparks. "I BANISH YOU!" The words didn't matter — it was the intent behind them that incinerated the tentacles around Sin, engulfing them in eye-searing white light and forcing them back through the crack in reality that they'd slithered through.

Chthon's energy vanished, burned away, but the power kept pouring out of her, draining away into the dimensional walls until there was nothing left. Until the walls of Chthon's prison were solid again.

The spear in her hand crumbled to dust, the chunk of melted slag that had once been a narrow, wicked-looking spear-head hitting the ground with a dull clang.

Then everything faded to grey.

Chapter Text

All the giant electronic billboards blew at once, the noise swallowed by the painfully loud scream of sound that seemed to come from inside Steve’s head. He jerked his shield arm up automatically, and then—

The world lurched sickeningly, the ground pitching under his feet. His ears popped as the air pressure plummeted, and Wanda’s voice echoed through his bones, his head, the ground under his feet.


Wanda was levitating a foot off the ground, glowing with a light so bright that it cast sharp, black shadows. They stretched out behind Sin, long and distorted and wrong, darker and thicker than they should be.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. The light flared brighter, blindingly white.

Then it was gone, and Steve was blinking away a purple smear of afterimage.

The sound of the metal spearhead hitting the pavement was jarringly loud in the sudden silence.

Sin was lying limply in the center of a ring of shiny, half-melted asphalt. Sam was still down, and Clint, and Tony… god, Tony.

Wanda swayed for a moment, then collapsed to the ground in a graceless heap, and suddenly Steve could move again.

He hesitated for an instant, torn between the instinct to rush to Wanda’s side, the desire to grab Sam and shake him and make sure he was all right, and the fear that Tony was bleeding out, dying, already dead.

The blood still smeared across his shield decided him. Whatever Chthon or the spear had done to Sam and Wanda, it wasn’t physical, and it wasn’t going to kill them in the next few minutes. It couldn’t. Not when there wasn’t a mark on them. Tony, on the other hand…

His armor was dead again. It must have shorted out when the billboards blew. Steve fumbled with almost invisible metal latches, trying to find the manual releases, because Tony would be pissed as hell if he used his shield to smash them open again. It felt like hours before he felt the first catch come loose.

Somewhere behind him, he could hear Thor shouting – Loki was gone, escaped somehow – and Doom’s armor clanking as he tried to wrestle free of Carol’s grasp. None of it was as important as making sure he pulled Tony’s helmet off as carefully as possible, without jarring his spine.

He was breathing. Steve felt dizzy with relief as he pried Tony’s breastplate loose. As long as Tony was still alive, they could fix him. Maybe it hadn’t been that bad. The spear might have just grazed him, the magic knocking him out, or-

The breastplate finally came free, a hole wide enough for three of Steve’s fingers punched straight through it. Beneath it, his white dress shirt was soaked in blood.

Too much blood. Even when he pulled the shirt aside, he couldn’t tell how deep the stab wound in Tony’s left side was – the blood obscured everything, welling up again instantly every time he tried to wipe it away. He caught a flash of white the second time and his stomach lurched as he recognized bone.

Bone was good, Steve reminded himself. It meant the spear might have glanced off a rib rather than shredding internal organs. If the spear hadn’t just sliced through his ribs like a meat cleaver. It had scratched his shield, punched through the armor like it was paper.

Tony’s eyes were closed, his breath coming in small, shallow pants, but he flinched visibly when Steve put pressure on the wound.

“It’s over,” Steve told him. “Hold on. Help is coming.” ’You’re going to be okay,’ Sharon had said. She’d told him to hold on, too, and her hands had been covered in blood just like his were now.

SHIELD had to be coming. Even if Tony hadn’t gotten through to them, they had to know something had happened. Between the power outage, the green flames – they were gone now; when had they stopped burning? – and the blinding explosion of Wanda’s magic, everyone in the city had to know.

Tony flinched, his face drawn tight with pain, and then his eyes opened. “…we win?”

“Yes,” Steve said. He pressed harder, leaning his weight on his hands and ignoring the sickening way he could feel Tony’s ribs shifting – at least one had to be broken. “We won. Chthon’s gone.”

Blood was seeping between his fingers, the raw, metallic smell of it so thick that he could taste it in the back of his throat. He remembered drowning on it, feeling cold and sick and unable to breathe, and hoped the spear hadn’t caught one of Tony’s lungs.

Tony coughed faintly, then moaned, his eyes closing again. “Hurts,” he whispered. “Worse than being shot. Ow.”

“You’ll be fine.” The words spilled out automatically. “It’s not that bad.”

Tony’s lips stretched into something that might have been a smile. “You’re a terrible liar.” He hadn’t had a chance to shave in the past twenty-four hours, and dark stubble blurred the edges of his goatee, stark against pale skin. All traces of the gold underarmor were gone, reabsorbed back into wherever it went when the armor shut down.

He had looked less fragile when Steve had left him sitting in a hospital bed with an IV in his arm.

“SHIELD’s coming,” he repeated. He could hear the sound of helicopter rotors overhead again, too loud and the wrong rhythm to be from news copters.

Tony didn’t reply. Steve wasn’t sure he’d heard him.

He saw only snatches of what was going on around them, afraid to look away from Tony for more than a moment. Carol and Thor were restraining Doom, one of them holding each of his arms. Jan was kneeling by Clint, who was sitting up, one arm wrapped around his ribs, and trying to wave her off toward Wanda. Sam was on his knees, too, head bent, cradling Redwing in his arms. Strange was still unconscious, his balled up cloak supporting his head, and Wong was crouched beside Wanda.

Redwing had grabbed the spear in his talons, and he was so much smaller than Strange – what would it do to Sam, if Redwing-

Tony coughed again, his entire body flinching at the motion, and Steve could feel muscles jumping and shaking under his hands. There was no blood on his lips, so he wasn’t drowning it as it filled a punctured lung, but his breathing didn’t sound right.

“Tony?” He sounded desperate, Steve knew, afraid, when Tony needed him to sound calm. “They’re landing now. We’ll get you help.”

No response. Steve didn’t dare take his hands from the wound to touch Tony’s face or check his pulse, so instead he leaned down until his forehead was nearly touching Tony’s and listened for the sound of his breathing. The thumping noise of helicopter rotors drowned out everything else, but he could feel Tony’s breath against his face.

Someone grabbed his shoulder, fingers digging in so hard that his entire arm went numb, and pulled him upright. “Are you all right? Where are you hurt?”

Bucky was crouching over him, face tight, and Steve could almost feel his shoulder blade shifting and his tendons straining under his metal fingers. “You’re going to break my shoulder, champ,” he managed.

The pressure immediately eased, and then Bucky whistled softly. “Damn,” he said. “Stark looks bad. Is that all his blood?”

“Yes.” Forcing the word out around the tightness in his throat hurt. “The spear went right through his armor. I think some of his ribs are broken. Clint’s injured, too, and Wanda.” Once he’d begun, the words just kept pouring out. “And Sam – Redwing grabbed the spear. I think it did something to them. I don’t know. They need medical attention, too.”

“Yeah, we noticed.” Without taking his hand from Steve’s shoulder, Bucky pulled the glove off his good hand with his teeth and pressed his bare fingers against Tony’s throat. “Thor and the Wasp are the only ones that don’t look like they were pulled through a cheese grater backwards. I thought Warbird was invulnerable. His pulse is good,” he added. “Well, it’s there, anyway. Are you hurt?”

Steve shook his head. “No.” He was just about the only one who wasn’t.

“Medics over here!”

For the first time since he’d met her, Steve welcomed the sound of Sub-director Hill issuing orders.

Part of him didn’t want to let Tony go, superstitiously afraid that his hands against the hole in Tony’s side were the only thing keeping him from bleeding out, but the paramedics could do more than he could. Steve let Bucky pull him to his feet and out of the way, and watched as the SHIELD medics took Tony away from him.

“I’m fine,” Clint insisted, through gritted, teeth. “Go help Wanda. She’s just… lying there. What if it did something to her?”

“I don’t even know what she did,” Jan admitted. It had stopped Sin, or whatever it was Sin had become, and that was all that mattered at the moment. If there were any side effects... they’d deal with those later.

Clint was still trying to get up, each movement causing him obvious pain. Jan grabbed him by the shoulder. “Stop it. You’ll puncture a lung if you don’t stay still.” The words came out sharp-edged and harsh; she wanted to shake Clint, yell at him for being so careless, for not dodging, for sitting up and moving when he probably had broken ribs.

Sin was lying motionless in the center of a ring of blackened and melted asphalt. She looked dead. Jan hoped the bitch was. It was wrong, but— She forced herself to look away, to ignore the sound of Doom ranting as SHIELD agents cuffed him and dragged him toward one of the waiting helicopters.

Either way, it wouldn’t change anything. Hank was still-- he would be fine. He had to be fine. They had gotten him to the hospital within minutes, and the chemicals in his bloodstream had only been at lethal levels for a few seconds. Once he’d returned to full size, they’d have gone back to normal, so if wasn’t as if he’d have gotten worse after she’d left him.

Jan tensed, her body managing one last surge of adrenaline as she felt someone coming up behind her, and then Sam fell heavily to his knees next to Clint, Redwing cradled against his chest.

“You okay?” he asked Clint, voice hoarse and a little shaky.

“Yeah. You?”

Sam nodded. He didn’t look okay – he looked battered and shell-shocked – but since he was conscious, mobile, and coherent, Jan took him at his word. “Iron Man’s hurt pretty bad. Strange, too, I think. I don’t know about the Scarlet Witch.”

Clint winced, and she didn’t think it was from pain this time. “She’ll be okay. We won, right? Chthon’s gone. She has to be.”

Wanda didn’t by any means have to be – that explosion of magic could have killed her, or she could open her eyes and be nothing but a puppet controlled by Chthon, the way she’d been when Clint had found her in Europe – but after everything that had been done to her, that would be beyond unfair, and Jan pushed the thought away.

Her knuckles stung where she’d skinned them on Doom’s mask, bits of skin torn off them. It was a sharp counterpoint to the dull headache she’d woken up with in Doom’s warehouse, which had never quite gone away, and the muscles in her arms and legs still felt wobbly from the transition back from being goliath-sized. Shrinking never made her feel this worn out.

“Tony has the extremis,” she said. “He’ll be okay.” He hadn’t been able to use it as heavily since the Mandarin had zapped him, and lately he’d stopped using it for anything but controlling his armor, probably at Steve’s insistence, but the basic functions were still there. He’d survived stopping his own heart before; he’d survive this.

And so would Wanda, and Hank. And Clint would be fine, too, stupid broken ribs aside. They had to be.

A swarm of SHIELD personnel were carrying Tony and Wanda to the helicopters on stretchers, and three of them were headed purposefully toward where the three of them were huddled on the ground.

It took Jan a moment to recognize the blonde woman striding toward them as Sharon Carter. She needed sleep, she thought, and something to eat. It had been a very long day.

“Sam.” Sharon bent down, peering at Sam’s face and frowning at Redwing, still a terrified mass of feathers against Sam’s chest. “Steve said you and Redwing were hurt.”

Sam shook his head. “He’s just scared. All the fireworks were a little much for him.”

Sharon let it go, though Jan saw her surreptitiously wave one of the medics toward Sam before directing the other to see to Clint. “We’re taking all you into custody until we can get this mess sorted out. Director Fury wants to debrief everyone involved in this, including Parker, Cage, and Daredevil and anyone else they dragged into that mess at the cathedral.

“The cathedral?” Jan blinked at her, knowing she looked and sounded stupid. “What hap- oh, the spear. She wouldn’t have just strolled in and walked out with it.”

Sharon nodded, then grimaced at the collection of SHIELD agents that were blocking the spot where Sin had fallen from view. “Synthia Schmidt was on two different international terrorist watch lists, with outstanding warrants and extradition orders out for her in a half dozen countries. If you were military or police and one of you had shot her, you’d be media heroes. As it is... this is going to be a political mess.”

“She’s dead?” That was… she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Just moments ago she had been sincerely wishing the other woman dead, but- they were supposed to stop criminals and monsters, not kill them. Not unless there was no other option.

She remembered the way the air around Sin had rippled and distorted, the white glow of her eyes, and the otherworldly voice that had made her ears ache, and shuddered. Maybe there hadn’t been.

Still… she had planned to beat Sin to a pulp, her and Doom both, and make them stew humiliatingly in a jail cell, preferably one with nasty energy forcefields and ugly orange jumpsuits that would clash hideously with Sin’s red hair and Doom’s sense of dignity.

This felt empty, somehow. Sin hadn’t even been herself anymore when she’d died.

“Washington’s not going to like that she was killed with superpowers,” Jan said, after a moment. The CIA and half a dozen other government agencies would have fought SHIELD for custody of Sin if she’d been taken alive, with the other governments Sharon had mentioned putting in their bids. Dead, she had considerably less value to the intelligence community, and dead at the hands of superhumans, she was a Friends of Humanity or Anti-Repeal martyr waiting to happen.

The fact that she’d nearly destroyed Times Square, and possibly the entire city, would weigh less with Miriam Sharpe and her supporters than their political agenda did.

Jan looked up, for the first time really taking in the dark electronic billboards, several of them still emitting noxious smoke; the shattered remains of a building scaffold; the glass, plaster, and brick dust covering the sidewalk. Most of New York was just going to be disappointed they wouldn’t get to see Sin’s head on a pike.

One of the SHIELD medics – a woman who looked vaguely familiar – was prodding at Clint’s torso and checking his pupils, easily thwarting his attempts to prevent her from removing his mask. Her partner looked as if he were preparing to strap Clint to a backboard. Surely that had to be just a precaution.

“Just let them work, Clint,” she said, before he had a chance to decide to protest.

He ignored her. “Which helicopter are you taking me to? I want to go in the one with Wanda and Tony.”

There were sirens closing in from more than one direction now, and car horns and shouting from the still-blocked streets now that the eerie silence of the green fire was gone. One of the medics said something she didn’t catch to Sam. “No,” Sam said firmly, lurching to his feet and taking a step back, just a little defensively, from the man attempting to check on him. “Redwing stays with me. We’re fine.”

“We thought we were going to have to interrogate Doom about your whereabouts,” Sharon was saying. “Until Stark contacted us. Thor just grunted at me when I asked him, so I’m asking you. Where is Dr. Pym?”

Jan just stared at her for a moment, unable to think of an answer. She couldn’t remember the name of the hospital they’d taken him to. Some wife she was – flying out while her husband was still on the table in the emergency room and not even bothering to mark where she’d left him. Ex-husband. Boyfriend. Whatever he was.

She hadn’t even been able to remember exactly what he took. Not Wellbutrin, that wasn’t right – that had been the second one they’d tried, after the SSRIs and the first not-lithium mood stabilizer had just made things worse.

“Wasp?” Sharon’s voice was softer now, less brisk. “Are you all right?”

And Jan burst humiliatingly into tears.

He could still feel the blood under his fingernails. It was irrational, he knew; Sharon had forced him to wash his hands and face and change out of his bloodied costume and into a spare SHIELD uniform. More than that - he’d been wearing his gloves during the fight and after, when he’d pressed his hands against Tony’s side to try and stop the bleeding.

The gloves would be ruined. Hydrogen peroxide would take the bloodstains off his tunic and pants, but nothing was going to salvage his gloves.

He was still in surgery. It had only been forty minutes, Steve reminded himself. Not long at all, for broken ribs and a huge, jagged-edged puncture wound. There was no reason to think that anything had gone wrong.

Surgery took time. And Tony had been through worse, much worse. This was nothing compared to being shot in the spine, or his first heart surgery.

He’d been on the operating table for nearly eight hours that time. In retrospect, Steve wasn’t sure how he could have been so calm about it – he hadn’t known Tony as well then, hadn’t realized how much would be missing from his life if they had lost him.

He sat up straighter, then slumped forward and leaned his elbows on his knees again when the position failed to be any kinder to his bruised ribs and sore shoulder than his previous one.

Clint was going to be all right, at least. He had two cracked ribs and one out-and-out broken one, and a back full of nasty bruises, but considering how hard Sin – Chthon? – had kicked him and how violently he’d hit the pavement, he’d been lucky. They had given him a mild dose of painkillers, and when Steve had checked in on him, he’d been asleep.

Sam was doing okay, too, which was a minor miracle. Steve had been so certain, when he’d seen Redwing grab the spear and heard Sam scream, seen him collapse to his knees, that the spear was going to kill him, drive him insane, burn and electrocute Redwing the way it had Strange. He wasn’t sure what losing Redwing would have done to Sam, didn’t want to think about it too deeply.

Redwing was more than just a pet, had always been. Steve had never pried too hard into exactly how it worked, but Sam could see what Redwing saw, feel what he felt. Feeling his bird die was something he might not have recovered from.

If they hadn’t been in the infirmary, with Tony being cut up and stitched back together right there in the next room, and if Sharon and Carol hadn’t intervened, he would have ended up having a shouting match with Sam right there in the infirmary bay. And Sam hadn’t needed that, no matter how much Steve wanted to impress on him exactly how suicidally stupid he’d been.

It didn’t matter. He was alive, and mostly in one piece, and Steve could yell at him later.

Chthon was gone. The city hadn’t been destroyed. No one had died.

Except Sin. He ought to regret that, to see her as yet another of the Red Skull’s victims, but at the moment, he was too tired to feel anything but relief.

“Wanda’s awake.”

Steve jerked upright, his hand going for his shield even as he recognized Carol’s voice. Despite the number of fights and crises he’d been through in the past 48 hours, his body still had enough adrenaline left to set his heart racing. “Carol. Don’t sneak up on me.”

“You must be tired. No one can sneak on these floors.” She knocked the heel of one boot against the metal deck plating, the impact making a sharp, metallic sound.

Bucky and Natasha were both pretty good at it, though they were hardly typical, but she had a point. He should have heard her coming.

“Wanda’s awake,” she repeated. “They aren’t letting anyone in to see her yet; the nurse said the SHIELD psychics were still evaluating her.”

Awake. “Good. That’s good.” The doctors had brushed his questions aside when he’d asked about her, and it had been obvious from their careful non-answers that no one been sure whether or not she would ever regain consciousness, and if she would still be Wanda when she did so. Strange was still unconscious, so no one was entirely sure what Wanda had done to banish Chthon, but she had used the spear to do it, and everyone else who had tried to draw on its power was either dead or badly injured.

“How’s your leg?” He nodded at the gauze patch tapped over Carol’s thigh. It looked odd, out of place with the torn costume she was still wearing. Both her gloves were gone, and her right forearm was also wrapped in gauze – defensive wounds. She’d thrown her arm up to block Loki’s knife.

“Oh, that?” Carol glanced down at her bandaged thigh, shrugged. “Fine. It wasn’t deep. I probably didn’t even need the stitches; I think the nurse just wanted to play with his adamantium needles.”

They both stood there for a moment, neither saying anything. Carol looked as tired as he felt. Her hair was a tangled and windblown mess, and her red sash seemed to have gone wherever her gloves had.

“Is Tony-“ she began, after a few minutes.

“He’s still in surgery.”

Carol made a noncommittal sound. She didn’t need to ask for further details; superheroes were as familiar with casualties and hospital vigils as soldiers, and Carol had been both. She didn’t try to offer reassurances, either.

Steve appreciated that. It meant he didn’t have to pretend to be reassured.

“Don called in. Hank’s in stable condition at the Bellevue Hospital Center. And Hill says they’re having Spiderman and Luke and the others brought up to the helicarrier.” She dropped into the chair next to Steve’s, waving at him to sit down as well, and stretched her legs out in front of her, wincing a little as she straightened the injured one. Carol had a lot of leg to stretch out, most of it bare, but no one in the infirmary bay gave her so much as a second glance. “It’s a good thing Chthon was more focused on his end goal than he was on killing them. It sounds like he just bulldozed through them and didn’t look back. Or Sin did.”

“Whatever we fought, it wasn’t Sin anymore.” Had she still been in there somewhere, the way Luhkin had still been trapped inside the Red Skull’s stolen body, or had Chthon killed her when he took possession of her?

Carol didn’t have anything to say to that, and Steve was left to stare down at his clean hands again, and at the long scratch disfiguring the center of his shield. How was he going to get that out? You couldn’t polish vibranium.

Tony would know.

It seemed like an eternity passed before one of the nurses came to speak to them.
Steve’s heart lurched as the man came closer; Tony was out of surgery. Or had there been complications, internal bleeding they hadn’t been able to stop, irreparable damage-

The nurse smiled at them, his broad, freckled face pleasant. It was a real smile, not a polite or practiced one, and the knot in Steve’s stomach hurt just a little less.

“They’ve finished evaluating your teammate,” he said, to Carol. “Ms. Maximoff is being allowed visitors now.”

Carol’s answering smile was a little strained, and her voice was suspiciously thick as she answered, “Oh, good. Thank you.” She turned to Steve, smile still fixed in place. “You go first.”

“I don’t-“ he started, not sure if she wanted a chance to compose herself before speaking to Wanda, or if she was just being polite, and Carol gave his shoulder a little shove.

“Go. I wouldn’t even know what to say.”

Wanda was sitting up in bed, an IV line in the crook of her arm. They had stripped off her costume and put her in a light blue hospital gown, and her hands were wrapped in bandages – from touching the spear? From Strange’s tattoos? In Times Square, they had glowed with so much power that her gloves had been burned away.

Did she have a matching bandage on the back of her neck?

“Wanda-“ he started.

“Did we lose anyone?” she interrupted, the words sharp and hurried. “They wouldn’t tell me anything.” She leaned forward, no longer lying back against the raised hospital bed, eyes intent on his face.

“No.” And eventually, that would stop seeming both miraculous and too good to be true. “Sin is dead, but none of us… everyone’s going to be okay.”

Not for want of Tony trying, though. He’d done nothing whatsoever to stop Sin from stabbing him; Steve could still see the spear sliding easily through his armor, see Tony deliberately leaving himself open, taking the blow in order to get the chance to bring his repulsors up and blast her.

He had to have known his armor wouldn’t stand up to a weapon made out of uru, especially after seeing it scratch Steve’s shield.

Wanda winced almost imperceptibly, but nodded. “I knew she would be. Chthon began modifying me to be his avatar before I was born, and she didn’t even have any powers, or innate magical ability. Channeling that much chaos power through her body would have destroyed her.”

Steve nodded. He ought to have expected that. But even if Chthon’s power hadn’t been killing her, she would never have survived the injuries they had inflicted on her. A normal human would have been dead long before she reached Times Square, from the beating she’d taken from Luke’s team, and no one could have survived Tony’s repulsor blast.

Stopping Chthon had meant taking her down by any means necessary. He’d known that from the moment Sin had stepped into the spell-circle, her eyes glowing with inhuman power.

Luke and Peter shouldn’t have had to bloody their hands, though. Or Danny, or Jess, or anyone else they’d had with them.

“How did you stop him?” He immediately wished he hadn’t asked, as her face shut down.

“I’m sorry,” he offered, not quite sure what he was apologizing for. “You’ve just woken up, I shouldn’t-“

“I used the spear’s power to force Chthon back where he’d come from. And seal him back in.”

“Are you sure? I mean, are you sure he’s really sealed away again?”

“With that much power? Yes, he’s sealed up.” She hesitated, looking not at Steve but somewhere past him. “I don’t think you can really understand it, Cap. That kind of power – I was a goddess, just for a moment, or something that could have come close to one, if I’d wanted to.” She shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself despite the tangle of IV line. “It was terrifying.”

He ought to say something comforting, but what could he say to that? He had no powers – the super soldier serum barely counted. He would never know what having the power to alter reality was like, and he was thankful for it.

“You saved our lives,” he told her, though she didn’t need to be told.

Wanda gave him a tired smile. “We saved the world. Again.”

“I guess we did.” He’d be proud of them all later, Steve decided. Right now, it was hard to think of anything other than the casualties – than Tony – even with Wanda right in front of him.

It was silly to hover in the doorway, Steve decided. The tiny little room had no chairs, but there was a second bed parallel to Wanda’s. He sat down heavily on it, leaning his shield against his feet. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

She nodded. “I will be.”

He’d have to be satisfied with that.

There were things he ought to be doing, Steve knew. He still hadn’t been formally debriefed, he needed to find out Hank’s status, not to mention Peter’s and Luke’s, and the city was undoubtedly in an uproar right now.

There were things he ought to be doing, but for a moment, he let himself sit quietly across from Wanda and just be grateful that she was all right, and to try, again, to block out the memory of Tony’s blood seeping through his fingers.

She’d gotten away. He’d had her – well, Thor had – and then between Chthon and Wanda’s fireworks with the spear, Loki had managed to teleport herself away to safety. When faced with the potential end of the world, of course she’d looked out for herself first. Leaving the rest of them to die would only have been a bonus.

Don wasn’t sure what Thor had been planning to do with her if he’d been able to drag her back to Asgard in chains as he’d hoped to. He wasn’t sure Thor knew, either. After the destruction of the Ragnarok, he’d been unwilling to kill another Asgardian, and for all that Loki herself had rejected the label, Thor still thought of her as an Asgardian.

Odin’s old solution, the chains and snakes and venom, involved a degree of calculated cruelty that Thor would never be comfortable with. And considering that his other half had thought literally sewing Loki’s mouth closed was a funny joke, that said something.

They would have thought of something. The idea of Loki still running around out there, angry and humiliated at losing the spear and plotting who knew what in order to get back at Thor was one Don preferred not to contemplate.

He would have to think about it eventually, but at the moment, the mess she had left behind her was more than enough to deal with.

The staff at Bellevue had been kind enough to lend him clean surgical scrubs, to replace the torn and bloodstained clothes he’d still been wearing when he turned back into himself. The sleeves were too short, but it was significantly better than being covered in his own blood, as well as whatever grime he’d picked up from the warehouse floor.

Getting the clothing on just reminded him of the ache in his shoulders and leg from spending hours chained to a wall. Somehow, though transforming into Thor healed major injuries like the stab wound in his leg, it did nothing to erase exhaustion or sore muscles. His bad leg would barely bend, and his knee felt like it might go out at any moment.

He would stay off of it later, when there were no more crises to deal with.

Don reclaimed his walking stick and used it to push himself to his feet; the nurse he’d managed to catch between patients had told him that Hank was in stable condition, that there hadn’t been any neurological damage, and the multiple organ failures they had been afraid might occur hadn’t happened, but he’d feel better if he could read Hank’s chart for himself.

They had put him in a private room, of course – most city hospitals did that with superheroes now, for insurance reasons. It was a painfully long walk from the staff room, but at least it was on the same floor.

Don was halfway through the door before he realized that Hank already had company; Jan, shrunken down to Barbie-doll size in order to fit easily on the edge of the hospital bed, was sitting by Hank’s head, petting his hair with one hand.

“-thought of something less stupidly dangerous?”

Hank didn’t say anything, just turned his head into Jan, his eyes closed, and Don immediately felt uncomfortable and intrusive. He cleared his throat awkwardly, deliberately letting the end of his walking stick clack loudly against the floor.

Jan started, turning toward the door, and Hank opened his eyes, sitting up a little.

“Don-“ he croaked. "You’re walking. Is your leg-“

“It healed as soon as I turned into Thor.”

“Oh, right. Of course it would. I think I missed that part of our escape.”

“You were busy seizing and throwing up all over me.”

Hank winced. “Sorry.”

Don started to reach for the chart hanging at the foot of Hank’s bed, then stopped, glancing at him. “Can I-“

“Go ahead.” Hank waved a hand at him. “You probably understand it better than half the doctors here. I don’t think they’ve ever treated mass-shifting-induced poisoning before.”

“Neither have I,” Don said absently, as he began reading his way through the recorded vital signs, medications given, and other information. Most of the chart had been filled out by someone with blissfully legible handwriting, so it didn’t take very long.

The duty nurse had been right – there didn’t seem to be any serious damage. “You’re lucky you still have a central nervous system,” he told Hank, as he put the chart back in place. “What were you thinking? ”

Hank winced. “I wasn’t. I just… panicked.”

From Jan’s expression, she had already heard this explanation, and didn’t like it any better the second time around. Even scaled down, her face was eloquent.

Somehow, the fact that Hank hadn’t thought it through made it even worse, and Don had to fight the impulse to shout at him. “Do you have any idea what lithium poisoning can do to people?” Nearly two solid days of disaster and bloodshed and near-apocalypse, and they had come closest to losing one of their teammates through pure accidental stupidity

Hank’s eyes narrowed, and he looked entirely unimpressed. “I’m a biochemist. Of course I do.”

Don was tired enough that anger was hard to hold on to. He might still be chained to a wall, slowly bleeding to death, if it weren’t for Hank, thoughtless and unnecessary heroics or not. “You were far, far luckier than you deserve to be,” he told Hank finally, “and they’re pretty sure there’s no permanent damage.” Something which most of the hospital staff he’d talked to considered either a minor miracle, or just one more of the many reasons why superhuman biology was confusing and unfathomable.

There was a chair by the wall, the only piece of furniture the room contained other than the bed. It was the same hard, utilitarian plastic most hospital chair were made of, but Don was used to that. He lowered himself gingerly into it, sore muscles protesting, and stretched his leg out. “They want to keep you here for another 24 hours because they’re still not sure what actually happened to you, but SHIELD is pushing to have you transferred to the Helicarrier.

Hank closed his eyes, rubbing at his face with his free hand, the one unencumbered by either pulse monitor or IV line. “I don’t care,” he said, the words muffled. “Go away. My head hurts.”

It probably did. He looked pale, eyes bloodshot and his face still bruised from whatever had happened to him during the attack on the mansion. Had that really been less than forty-eight hours ago?

Passing out on the floor of Doom’s warehouse-turned-dungeon didn’t count as sleep. Thor might have nearly unlimited energy, but Don was more than ready to crash for a few hours, preferably a full eight.

“You scared the daylights out of Thor, you know,” he said, because the concern that had prompted him to make the trek down here hadn’t been his alone. “He’s decided to forgive you. Apparently suicidal bravery is honorable and valiant in his books, not pointless and stupid.”

Hank opened his eyes, his hands coming away from his face. “That’s… good,” he said tiredly.

It was less emotion than Don had expected. Hank had been nearly yelling at him in the warehouse, had snarled angrily at Thor the few times Thor had tried to confront him about it. Even his apologies had sounded angry. “Are you all right?”

“No.” Hank’s voice was tight, low, and he dropped his gaze to his hands as if he hated the admission. “Please go away.”

He could feel Thor’s bafflement, his other half not sure whether to be hurt or offended at having his first overtures of renewed friendship either ignored or rejected. They had faced great danger together, fought a sworn enemy and shed blood together, and blood was what brotherhoods were forged from.

His own vague feeling of affront must have shown on his face – or maybe Thor’s did – because Hank grimaced and elaborated.

“I can’t talk about the cloning thing right now,” he said roughly. Or Bill, or –“ his voice cracked, and he paused, swallowing audibly. “Look, you can come back later and we can talk things over like adults, or you can stay here, and we can scream profanity at each other. Your choice. I can’t do this now.” His face twisted, and he dropped his head into his hands, his breathing harsh.

Crying, or trying not to. It might have been jarring if the other man hadn’t just gone through significant physical trauma. His near brush with death by poisoning hadn’t left any visible physical marks, but his entire system would still be shaken by it. Thor’s prompting aside, this probably hadn’t been the best time to try to discuss anything significant.

“Damn it,” Hank hissed, voice uneven. “I’m crying. Why am I crying? Jan?”

Not just the aftermath of trauma, Don realized. It had been long enough since their escape that the medication that had almost killed him would be nearly out of Hank’s system by now. A good thing, from a medical perspective – the doctors would want to do more bloodwork on him, let all remnants of the lithium and other medications completely leave his body and make certain his liver was up to the task before prescribing any more. Probably not such a good thing from where Hank was sitting, though. “You’re probably starting to go through withdrawal.”

“I know,” Hank muttered. “I hate my life.”

Jan was making ‘go away’ gestures at him from behind Hank’s head, waving from him to the door.

Hank was going to be all right. Anything else could wait until later. “I’ll just… leave,” Don said, pushing himself to his feet.

They had cleaned up the blood. Steve didn’t know why he had expected otherwise. Of course they had.

It made Tony look less like he was at death’s door, but not by much.

He’d seen Tony unconscious in hospital beds so often by now that there shouldn’t have been any drama left to it. Even the IV line in his arm and oxygen canula in his nose, and the wide swath of bandaging around his torso shouldn’t have been anything new or frightening. He had looked worse after heart surgery, and when Steve had visited him in the hospital after he had stopped drinking, when he’d disappeared for all those weeks.

He’d seen Tony look worse, but that had been before.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d essentially hidden in Wanda’s room before Nick had come and personally dragged him off to be debriefed, or how long said debriefing had taken, but it felt as if he’d been on the helicarrier for hours. Days. There'd been a prepared media statement from SHIELD and a press conference somewhere in there, too, with more slanted questions about superpowers and public safety than he'd been able to listen to right now. By the time he’d made his way back to the infirmary, Tony had been out of surgery.

At a civilian hospital, he would have had to argue or beg to get the details of said surgery out of the medical staff. Not here.

There were strands of dark hair sticking to Tony’s forehead. Steve carefully brushed them back, Tony’s skin cool and clammy under his fingers. At least he didn’t have a fever.

He was going to be fine. He’d wake up any moment now, and smile at Steve, and offer some bullshit explanation about how deliberately allowing himself to be impaled had been the only way to save the world. Then he’d apologize insincerely, and do the exact same thing all over again three months from now.

His eyes were staring to burn. Steve closed them and let his head hang forward for a moment, his hand still in Tony’s hair. He felt almost as if he were floating, so tired that his ribs didn’t even hurt anymore.

The blood was all over his hands, seeping through his fingers despite his efforts to stop it. It dripped off the sides of the hospital bed, pooling on the floor, the red so dark in the smoky candlelight that it looked almost black. Doom would-


Steve jerked himself upright at the sound of Wanda’s voice, the world lurching around him for a moment. No blood. Not on his hands, or the floor, or the sheets. And Doom was locked away securely in the Helicarrier’s cells, though unfortunately not for long.

“Wanda,” he managed. He cleared his throat, and the next part came out significantly less hoarse. “They let you up.”

“The burns on my hands weren’t serious,” she said from behind him. She wasn’t barefoot, but whatever shoes she was wearing were soft-soled, much quieter than her costume’s boots. Steve didn’t bother to turn and look as she came up behind him; had Tony’s eyelashes just moved? No, his vision had blurred for a moment.

“I convinced them to let me out of bed, but I think they were planning to get me up and walking around soon anyway.”

Steve nodded. “Do you need to sit down?” he offered, as she came to stand by his side. As much as he didn’t want to, he gently slid his hand from Tony’s hair and sat up straighter, ready to surrender the room’s only chair to Wanda. She’d drained herself to the point of unconsciousness to save them; in her position, he’d be dead on his feet.

She shook her head, the movement just visible out of the corner of his eye. “I’m fine.”

While Wanda was one of the teammates he could trust to actually say those words without lying, years spent around Tony, Carol, and Nick – who had taken weeks to admit that he could no longer see out of his left eye after taking that piece of shrapnel in the face – had him automatically turning his head to check.

She was wearing pale green hospital scrubs rather than the flimsy hospital gown she’d had on earlier, and while she looked exhausted, she also looked a hell of a lot better than Tony did.

Wanda stared at him for a moment, concern on her face, and then said, tentatively, “Cap, is Tony… Carol said he was going to be all right.” It was as much a question as a statement.

“This time,” Steve said. His eyes were still hot and blurry; he blinked hard, forcing it away, and pressed the heels of his hands against them for a moment, blotting away moisture. “His heart stopped on the operating table,” he blurted out. “It was already damaged. The doctor said the blood loss and the stress of the surgery was…” he broke off, not wanting to continue.

“I thought the Extremis had a healing factor.”

“He damaged it fighting the Mandarin. It hasn’t worked properly for months now.”

“Oh,” she said. “Clint said he was using it less often.”

“You have no idea how much effort and nagging on my part that took.” It wasn’t all that funny, but Steve felt his mouth trying to pull into a smile anyway.

“I can guess.” Her voice was too tired and hoarse to be dry, but he could still hear the attempt at humor in it.

Tony had listened, though. Eventually. And had nearly died anyway, after they had stopped Sin and Chthon and Doom, after their backup had come, when they were all supposed to be safe.

“I could take a look at him,” Wanda said after a moment.

Steve looked up from where Tony’s hand lay in his – his fingers and palm were callused, rough with tiny, healed burns, and even long fingers and an expensive manicure never quite managed to make his hands look elegant. “Take a look?”

“The spear was a powerful magical artifact. And Sin used his blood to-“ she broke off, looking away for a moment, a quick movement of the eyes that meant that she regretted whatever it was she had almost said. “There could be magical damage.”

Steve wasn’t sure what she saw on his face this time – he was almost running out of the energy to react to bad news – but she hurried on.

“I can check for that,” she blurted out. “Now that I don’t have to worry about Chthon’s presence and the spear’s influence distorting any attempt to work magic, it would be simple. There’s barely any ambient chaos left in the city right now.”

It was probably an unnecessary risk. Wanda was tired, shaken, and SHIELD had to have magic workers on call somewhere.

But none of them would know the aftereffects of chaos magic as well as she would, and none of them were here right now.

“Do it,” Steve said, because now that the possibility had been suggested, he couldn’t stand not knowing.

He surrendered the chair to her, reluctantly stepping back from Tony’s bedside, and watched for several endless minutes as Wanda held her bandaged hands over Tony’s even more heavily bandaged torso.

Pink light flickered over them, and her face tightened. He was about to order her to stop, sure she was hurting herself, when she muttered something in Transian, and then, “It’s corrupted. I think if I-“ the light around her hands flared brighter, and Tony’s entire body pulsed with it for a fraction of a second.

Steve started forward—and Wanda sagged to lean against the edge of the bed, the light flickering out.

“What happened? Are you all right? Is Tony-“

“Fine. He’s fine. So am I.”

“Was there-“

“There’s no magical damage. I wish I could fix the rest,” she nodded at the bandages covering his torso, “but I can’t directly manipulate reality anymore.”

Steve nodded – he took Wanda or Strange’s word on that sort of thing. Magic was far from his area of expertise. Tony was all right; that was the important part. The spear hadn’t cursed him, or eaten his soul, or opened him up to possession by Chthon.

It had done enough to him without that.

“I couldn’t fix the injury, but I think I was able to fix something. My chaos powers are partially entropy-based, and I can… sometimes I can sense when a system is degrading or damaged. We tried to use that once, on the Force Works team, but the computer hardware couldn’t handle the chaos energy for prolonged periods of time. A human body has more natural chaos in it, and is more resistant to it, but Tony’s not a standard human anymore. I don’t know exactly what was wrong with his Extremis, but I could feel that it had destabilized. So I sort of… gave it a nudge in the other direction.”

“You gave- did you just do the magical equivalent of hitting him with a wrench?”

“I wouldn’t put it exactly like that,” Wanda said slowly, in a way that failed to diminish Steve’s certainty that that was exactly what she had done. “But it worked. There’s less low-grade chaos in his system now.”

He wasn’t even sure what that meant, but the steady sound of Tony’s heart monitor hadn’t changed, and none of the other monitors hooked up to him had set off any alarms, so at least she hadn’t made things worse.

He let Wanda keep the chair – she looked even more exhausted now, and he probably should have ordered her to get back in bed – and perched gingerly on the edge of Tony’s bed, taking Tony’s lax hand in his.

There had to be an empty hospital bed waiting for Wanda to return to it. Steve was tired enough that his eyes ached and his whole body felt hollow, and he hadn’t channeled colossal amounts of magical power.

He’d make her leave in a few minutes.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, absently rubbing his thumb back and forth over the back of Tony’s hand, before he felt Tony’s fingers twitch slightly.

Steve jolted back to alertness, leaning forwards, his eyes focusing intently on Tony’s face. “Tony?”

For an endless moment, nothing happened, but then the soft beep of the heart monitor sped up slightly, and Tony’s eyebrows drew together in a faint frown.


Tony’s eyes blinked open, dazed blue slits. It took him several seconds to focus on Steve, but then his lips curved in a smile. “Oh,” he said faintly. “The world didn’t end. Good.”

Steve blinked hard, trying to force back the tears that suddenly blurred his vision. “No,” he managed. “We won.”

“I know.” Tony’s voice was thick, the words slightly slurred. “Otherwise we’d be dead.”

’You nearly died anyway,’ Steve wanted to say, relief leaving him almost angry. Instead, he tightened his grip on Tony’s hand, and said, “You have one broken rib and one fractured one. The spear sliced clean through the first one and nicked the second. You were lucky, though – it didn’t hit your liver and only nicked your lung.”

Tony frowned, assimilating this. “It hurts like hell. How many stitches did they put in me?”

“A lot,” Steve said flatly. They were both being far too blasé about this, he thought distantly. As if this were old hat.

Tony’s fingers had curled around his, squeezing hard enough to make it plain that he wasn’t joking about the pain. Wanda had slipped out at some point in the past few moments, quietly enough that Steve wasn’t sure Tony had even known she was there.

Steve swallowed, his throat suddenly so tight that it hurt. “You nearly died.” His voice grated, low and hoarse. “Your heart stopped on the operating table. They- they got it started again, but-“

Tony’s eyes widened, and he lifted his head slightly, trying to look down at his chest. “I’m not going to die, am I?” He sounded honestly concerned. Then he closed his eyes for a moment, wincing, and answered himself. “I’m not hooked up to enough monitors for that.”

“You-“ words failed Steve for moment. “You just scanned all the equipment in the room with the extremis, didn’t you?”

“Yes?” Then confusion instantly melted into contriteness. “Sorry. I’m not supposed to do that, am I?” Tony closed his eyes again, and groaned faintly, his fingers relaxing in Steve’s hand. “I feel much too good, even with the pain. How much morphine do they have me on?”

“Enough,” Steve told him. He wanted to be angry, wanted to yell and kick something and exorcise hours’ worth of desperate worry, but looking down at Tony’s pale face and half-lidded eyes, he couldn’t bring himself to. “Why did you do it?” he asked softly. “Let her stab you that way. You had to have known your armor wouldn’t stop it, not after what it did to my shield.”

“I’m on drugs,” Tony said. “Remind me, what did it do to your shield?”

“Scratched it. Right down the middle. Not even adamantium can do that.”

“That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, but Thor’s hammer did dent it once. I wonder how they work uru; it must be even harder to work with than adamantium.” Then he seemed to remember what they were talking about, and smiled a little. “I didn’t even notice.”

“How could you not notice?”

“Not everyone pays attention to your shield in the middle of a fight, Steve. And even if I had, it wouldn’t have- she was supposed to be dead. I could see daylight through her ribcage. She wasn’t supposed to be able to stab me.”

Oh. Steve absorbed that for a moment. For hours, he’d been sure that Tony had taken that blow on purpose, because it was the sort of thing that Tony would do. Had done, in the past, more than once. “She died as soon as Wanda drove Chthon out of her,” he said, and then, before Tony could start wallowing in misplaced guilt, “Wanda says she wouldn’t have survived his possession regardless. She was a dead woman from the moment he took over her body.”

“And Doom?”

“We got him too, for now. He’ll probably be out of the Helicarrier’s brig by tomorrow, but at least he’s out of our hair for the moment.”

“Was anyone else hurt?”

“They’re fine.” It was only a slight lie – Clint, Wanda, and Hank might not be exactly fine at the moment, but they would all recover.

“Mmm,” Tony mumbled. “Good.” His eyelids were starting to droop, and his voice had gone distant, as if he were half-asleep. “C’mere.” He tugged slightly on Steve’s hand, still in his, and Steve obediently bent down.

Tony wrapped his other arm clumsily around Steve’s shoulders, pulling him into an awkward hug.

Steve kept himself tense, carefully braced over Tony’s body and trying hard not to lean any weight on him as he buried his face in Tony’s neck. Tony’s skin smelled like antiseptic and some undefinable scent Steve associated with hospitals, but it was warm and alive, not clammy with shock, and he could feel Tony’s breath against his ear.

“You almost died,” he said, closing his eyes and fighting the impulse to hug Tony to him. “Don’t do that again.”

“I didn’t use the Extremis,” Tony said, as if this somehow made the entire thing all better. “And you’re okay. So everything’s good.”

“Never again,” Steve repeated.

“No more being impaled on spears by chaos demons,” Tony agreed amiably, his words starting to slur again. “Jus’ because I love you.” He patted Steve on the back a couple of times, and then let his arm go limp, a heavy weight across Steve’s shoulders.

Steve gently disentangled himself from Tony’s arms, trying his best not to pull on any of the tubes and wires attached to him, and carefully lowered his right arm back to the bed. They had put the IV line in Tony’s left arm – they always did, unless Tony was awake at the time to insist they use his right. “I love you, too,” he said.

Tony was already asleep, but Steve thought he saw him smile a little.

Chapter Text

Daytime tv was sort of mind-numbing, even with the insane number of channels Tony’s television had. Clint shifted slightly on the couch, trying to find an angle to lean back against the couch arm that would put the least amount of pressure on the bruises on his back. It was, unsurprisingly, the one that put the most strain on his cracked ribs.

Talk show. Talk show. Some kind of soap opera in Spanish. CNN showing the same news bites he’d already seen an hour ago and the hour before that. Fox promising to reveal how prescription drugs would give you cancer. Commercial. Commercial. Commercial in Spanish. Something in Japanese that a normal tv wouldn’t even be able to pick up on this side of the planet. Four different ESPN channels that were all reporting on sports no one cared about like golf and tennis.

Finally, he found that kids cartoon about the children with magic kung fu that was more addictive than he was ever going to publically admit, and settled down to kill half an hour.

The worst part about deep bruises and broken bones was how long they took to heal. He wasn’t even seriously hurt, not like Tony was, but he was going to be stuck doing nothing for nearly as long, while his archery got rusty. It could be worse – he could have broken his collarbone or sprained something; nothing took longer to heal than a bad sprain – but it was still a pain.

The first couple of days, he had just wanted to take medically unsound doses of ibuprofen and sleep, and had mostly just been relieved that Chthon was gone and they were all alive. Now he was bored out of his skull.

Bored, and stuck in Avengers tower with nothing to do while Cap, Sam, Thor, and Carol got to handle all the meetings with SHIELD, the clean-up work with the city, getting the mansion cleaned up and repaired, and anything else remotely productive.

Hank was physically back to normal, supposedly, but his personality had been reset to mopey bitch scientist from hell and he’d barely left his and Jan’s room, and Clint was just fine letting him hibernate there. Tony had finally come home from the Helicarrier’s medical bay yesterday, and wasn’t up for anything but lying in bed and running his entire business empire over the internet. According to Barnes, the Helicarrier’s doctors had only let him go because he’d been all but attempting to run SE from a hospital bed, along with half of SHIELD for good measure, and they’d kicked him out before Maria Hill could kill him.

The ability to surf the web with your brain must be nice when you were laid up flat on your back.

Clint was contemplating how bored he’d be if he just turned the cooking show he’d ended up staring at after the kids cartoon had ended off vs. how much he didn’t care about cooking and the fact that it was making him feel both hungry and nauseous, vs. Rachel Ray’s boobs when Wanda came in.

She didn’t look as tired as she had for the first couple of days after Times Square, but the backs of her hands were still covered with bandaids, the thick, airtight ones you put over blisters and burns. Did she still have Strange’s tattoos under there, or had they been burned off?

Maybe she wouldn’t need them anymore with Chthon sealed up again.

“I didn’t know you were interested in cooking, Clint.” The tone of her voice wasn’t actually mocking, but Clint had known her long enough to be able to tell that she was mocking him anyway.

“Shut up, she’s hot.”

Wanda cast a considering look at the television screen, then shrugged. “She’s not really my type.”

He was never sure if she was joking or not when she said things like that. Was Clint the only heterosexual person on the entire team? Hank barely counted, what with naming himself after various female insects. The next thing you knew, Sam would turn out to secretly like guys, too, and Jan would hook up with She-Hulk and that would be kind of hot.

And he was just trying to distract himself from the awkwardness of a one-on-one conversation with Wanda. Clint sighed inwardly, and made himself smile at her. She was trying. He could, too.

“You had the hots for Wonderman back when he had a mullet. You have no taste.”

“It wasn’t his hair I was attracted to.”

“You and Disney Channel Tony.”

“We have to stop calling him that. One of us is going to accidentally say it in front of him someday.”

“Carol started it,” he returned. She was right, though. He would end up feeling like an idiot – an embarrassed idiot – if he actually called the other man that to his face. It was the sort of thing Spiderman would do.

He’d be very surprised if Hellrung hadn’t already heard it from Carol several times over, but just because she still resented him for stealing her boyfriend didn’t mean that Clint had anything against him. He had never even met Hellrung in person.

Wanda sat down on the other end of the couch, next to his feet, and they both watched as Rachel Ray perkily demonstrated how to mince garlic. The couch was sized to be able to handle Thor – even with Clint stretched out nearly full-length on it, there was still plenty of room.

He still had to fight the urge to draw his feet back, in case she didn’t want his toes touching her thigh.

The silence should have been excruciating, but something about it was oddly comforting. At some point, Clint realized, he’d stopped feeling so uncomfortable around her. Stopped picturing that night in Transia whenever he looked at her, remembering it whenever she touched him.

“So,” he finally asked, after several minutes of watching her try not to pick at the edge of the bandages on her hands, “are you… going to be okay?”

Wanda smiled at him, her face just a little too stiff. “I’m fine.”

Neither of them said anything for a long moment, and then she blurted out,

“I could have brought him back.”

Could have- Clint blinked at her, about to ask what she was talking about, but she didn’t give him the chance.

“I had the power to do it,” she went on. “For two minutes, I was a god. I could have brought Vision back.”

“Then why didn’t you?” It wasn’t very tactful, and as soon as Clint asked, he wished he could take the words back.

Wanda didn’t flinch, though, or look anything other than sad and a little haunted. “I had to banish Chthon. It took all the power the spear had; if I’d used it up bringing Vision back, he would have won.”

“Then you didn’t have a choice.”

“I could have undone the rest of what he made me do, too. Given everyone their powers back. I should feel guilty about that, but instead I just keep thinking, I could have had him back.”

“You brought me back.” And she hadn’t had the spear then.

“That was when I was still possessed by Chthon, channeling his power.” She shook her head slowly. “I don’t even remember doing it, or know how I did.”

“That makes two of us.” But- “Why me?” It ought to have been Vision. He’d been her husband, and she clearly still loved him, for all that their relationship had ended.

When she’d brought Simon back, it had been because she loved him, both for himself and for the ways in which he was a reflection of Vision, and because he loved her. And possibly because he hadn’t truly been dead, just disembodied or turned into pure energy or… something. No one had ever been particularly clear on that part.

Whereas he-- it had never been like that between the two of them. Maybe if things had gone differently at some point, if she hadn’t fallen so hard for Vision, and if he’d never met Bobbi, but as it was… the only time anything had ever happened between them, they had both been under mind-control.

Bringing him back didn’t make sense. Thor had come back to life entirely on his own, but he was a god, and the normal rules don’t apply to them. Cap had been brought back by Doom for god knew what reasons, probably some convoluted plan involving brainwashing and an army of Latverian super soldiers, but if anyone deserved a second chance at life, it was Cap. It was only justice that he’d gotten it. Whereas Clint himself – he was a pretty good guy, and a damn good superhero, but why him? Why him, and not the man Wanda had loved, or any one of the other people the Avengers had lost.

Why him and not Bobbi?

“I don’t know. I just know I’m glad I did. The world wouldn’t be right without you, any more than it would be without Cap, or without Simon, or my—“ she broke off. “I miss Pietro. I think he’s alive. I want to think I’d know if he weren’t, but twins don’t actually work like that.”

If he’d thought about it beforehand, Clint wouldn’t have moved, would have kept his hands to himself, but Wanda looked so miserable for a moment, and before he knew it, he’d shoved himself upright and leaned over to pull her into a hug.

“Don’t look so sad, Witchie,” he told her. “We won, remember?”

“Yeah,” she said after a moment, and he could feel her arms come up to hug him back. “I guess we did.”

Even gentle as it was, the touch on his bruised back still hurt. Clint didn’t particularly care.

SHIELD would pay for inflicting this humiliation upon him, Doom swore. He would not be confined down here long – Latveria’s lawyers were the best in the world, and would even now be arranging his release – but being forced to endure even a moment in the Helicarrier’s cells was intolerable.

It paled beside the infuriating loss of the spear’s power to the Scarlet Witch, but that had been defeat at the hands of a foe who, while not as great as Doom, was still worthy of at least minimal respect. Being forced to allow SHIELD’s busybody agents to haul him – him, Victor von Doom – away in cuffs, on the other hand…

The next group of SHIELD personal who trespassed across his borders to investigate some supposed “human rights violation” were not going to be leaving again. Ever.

They had taken Doom’s armor, but had at least left him his mask. Staring at his unmasked reflection in the sheet of polished metal that had been bolted to the wall over the cell’s primitive sink – presumably ionized force-fields that prevented the water from reaching a level sufficient to drown oneself in were what passed for high-tech amongst SHIELD operatives – would have been the final unbearable humiliation.

All that power... and the Scarlet Witch had wasted it all banishing Chthon back to his prison.

It had had to be done, of course, but Doom was certain that, had he been wielding the spear, he could have dealt with Chthon and still had at least a portion of the spear's magic left over. Perhaps not enough to elevate himself to the level of a god, but certainly enough to make good use of. If that woman hadn't taken it, if Blake hadn't somehow escaped his grasp, victory would have been his.

Replacing the men who had been guarding the warehouse would be yet another inconvenience. Better to allow them to return to Latveria with him first; it would be easier to dispense justice without American law enforcement interfering.

His jaw still ached under his mask, the bruise where Van Dyne had struck him throbbing. He would remember that offense as well.

"I'm disappointed in you, Victor." The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once.

He did not startle in surprise - Victor von Doom never did anything so undignified - simply raised his eyes to meet Loki's in the polished metal mirror. Her reflection stood behind him, slightly to one side, and close enough that he should have been able to feel her body pressed against his and her breath on the side of his neck. An illusion only; if he turned to look beside him, there would be nothing but empty air.

"Loki," he said. "I was growing tired of waiting. You will free me from this place at once."

If she was disappointed that he hadn't flinched at her sudden appearance, it didn't show.

"Why would I do that?" She smiled, revealing sharp, white teeth. "I thought it courteous to inform you that our engagement has come to an end. It was pleasant while it lasted, but at the moment, you're of little use to me."

Doom shot to his feet, nearly lunging for the mirror before he remembered the futility of that. He curled his hands into fists, wanting to smash her face in, to wrap his hands around that long, white neck and throttle her. No one dismissed him that way.

"Our engagement is over when I say it is," he shouted. "No one treats Victor von Doom this way! Do you think you'll get back into Valhalla on your own? We would have won if you hadn't let that bird take the spear from you! Instead you just stood there and let Sin ruin everything."

Loki's eyes narrowed. "No, that was you," she said sharply. "You chose to work with her in the first place. Now my spear is destroyed, my lost power is spent and beyond regaining, and my brother smirks and celebrates his victory. Had you chosen your allies more wisely, we would e'en now be enthroned in Asgard." She curled her hand into a fist, scarred lips tightening. “My brother will regret siding against me, and that mortal chaos mage will regret stealing my spear. That’s for later, though.” The smile she flashed him was cruel enough that Doom knew it was, for once, a real one. “In truth, I just came to bid you farewell.”

“When I get out of here,” Doom vowed, “I’ll make what Odin did to you look mild.”

She actually laughed. Laughed. At him. “It’s so cute when mortals try to threaten me. You were entertaining, for a Midgardian. Perhaps I’ll find a use for you again sometime.” She leaned forward just an inch or two and kissed the edge of his reflection’s mask, running her tongue along the seam where it joined to flesh.

Then she was gone, and the mirror showed only Doom himself, alone in an empty cell.

“We can’t avoid him the whole evening.”

“I can try,” Steve muttered, knowing he was being childish. The short, greying man currently standing by the buffet table was one of the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum, and Steve strongly suspected that he was the specific trustee he had argued with over the phone and through email for most of a week.

The fact that the John Dee manuscript had been severely damaged in the course of saving the world was less significant to the museum than the fact that it had been severely damaged, period. A very large donation to the museum might not be enough to avoid a potential lawsuit this time. The Maria Stark Foundation’s lawyers were working on it, and so were SE’s lawyers, but Steve preferred not to push his luck.

He might have been slightly rude in that last email. Tony usually handled that side of the Avengers’ business, but he had still been in a hospital bed at that point.

“You catch more flies with honey.” Tony eyed the trustee consideringly. “Maybe I should go apologize in person.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” The two of them had already been on display enough this evening, from the gauntlet of paparazzi with cameras outside to the handful of guests who couldn’t stop staring at them, as if they expected to see debauched playboy Tony Stark throw his famous superhero boyfriend up against a wall and have his way with him at any second.

It was the first public appearance either of them had made outside of an Avengers-related press conference in three weeks, Steve reminded himself, the first one since Times Square. He should have expected it. He had expected it. He just wasn’t used to being on display as Steve Rogers, rather than as Captain America.

That made it different, somehow.

No hiding, he reminded himself. Not even from rich strangers with plastic smiles at a fundraising gala.

They weren’t the only same-sex couple here. They were just the one the most people were looking at.

“We could always hide behind the—whatever those are.” Tony nodded at a large, feathery-looking bush that could have come straight out of Dr. Seuss illustration.

“Photographers would follow us in case we were sneaking away to make out.”

Tony waved a hand dismissively. “They do that anyway. They got a picture of me and Rumiko kissing behind one of the giant cycads once.” He smiled a little, his eyes going to a brightly flowered tropical plant. “Ru liked flowers; she used to love this thing. She’d have liked it even more this year, with all the snow outside.”

The New York Botanical Gardens’ annual gala was usually held in the spring or summer – the fact that Steve even knew this was probably a sign that he’d paid far too much attention to Tony’s social life even before they’d gotten together – but this spring, New York had been attacked by Doombots and the Mandarin, and the upheaveal caused by the fighting over registration had still lingered. Hence holding the 2007 gala in December.

The Gardens’ conservatory was a huge, glass and metal work of Victorian art, built back when public architecture had still been designed to be attractive. It was warm and humid inside, full of everything from tangles of exotic tropical plants to neatly laid out water gardens. On the other side of the glass walls, early snow was drifting down and just starting to stick.

If they were lucky, it would stay snow, and not turn into sleet and ice. And since the chaos Chthon and the spear had been generating was gone, they might actually get lucky.

Steve wasn’t sure if they were long overdue for some good luck in general, or if they’d already had more than their fair share.

“I know flowers aren’t your thing, though,” Tony was continuing. “I’ll take you on a real date eventually.”

“As opposed to something you have to go to anyway?”

Tony’s lips twitched. “What do you think I meant by a real date?”

He looked good – he always did, in formal wear – no longer pale or drawn and tired from pain. There were still bandages under that expensive suit, though the staples and stitches had already come out, and he was still moving stiffly, but he was in better shape than any normal person who’d had a spear shoved into his gut and broken two ribs less than a month ago had any right to be.

Wanda still couldn't explain exactly what she had done, either to Tony or Maya Hansen''s satisfaction, but some of the Extremis’s healing factor had come back, along with most of the rest of its functionality.

Steve’s own cracked ribs had already healed, so maybe Sam had a point about the super soldier serum having a mild healing factor. Not that he planned to admit it.

“Some place I don’t have to wear a tuxedo or a suit and tie,” he told Tony.

“You’re so hard to please,” Tony said. “Don’t use the Extremis, don’t get stabbed, don’t take me anywhere expensive…”

“Most people have no difficulty not getting killed,” Steve said mildly.

Tony’s smile slipped for a moment, and Steve remembered the raw grief on his face in those magazine photos. Before he could apologize, the smile was back, if a little too bright.

“We’re not most people.”

“No,” Steve agreed. “Most people lead boring lives.”

The silence stretched out, just long enough to be awkward and for Steve to again consider apologizing for bringing the topic of death up at all.

Somewhere behind them, the musicians began playing again.

“I said before that I’d take you dancing.” Tony gestured at the small dance floor that had been set up in the center of the conservatory floor.

“Are you sure you’re up for it?” He’d been trying not to hover all evening, but he couldn’t help asking. The visceral memory of Tony’s broken ribs moving under his hands was something it was going to take him a while to forget.

Tony didn’t actually roll his eyes, but something about his expression implied the motion anyway. “As long as you don’t do that pornographic thing I’ve seen you do with Sharon and slide me through your legs.”

Steve shook his head. “It wouldn’t work. You’re too tall, and you weigh too much.” Even slightly underweight from his recent hospital stay, Tony had a good four inches and thirty pounds on Sharon. Steve could pick him up, with a little effort, but tossing him around a dance floor in some of the more athletic swing moves wasn’t going to happen.

Tony grinned, and his eyes looked very blue. “Great, then dance with me. I want to see the expression on Assemblyman Liefeld's face when he has to watch Captain America dancing with another man.” He nodded at the State Assembly's minority leader, who had carefully avoided greeting either of them when they arrived.

Tony had a point there. There were times when Steve felt aggressively daring and defiant just for holding Tony’s hand or putting an arm around his waist in public, and other times when he found himself halfway through some blatantly intimate gesture before the question of how people would react and if he really should be doing this in front of an audience occurred to him. Tonight, he felt like being defiant.

They’d saved the world and almost died – actually died, in his case – and had damn well earned the right to dance with whomever they wanted. Or would have, if that was something that had to be earned.

“Which of us is leading?”

Tony stared at him blankly for a moment, as if he’d forgotten that that would even be in question. Then he smiled again, the expression not quite a smirk. “I’ll flip you for it.”

“You can lead next time,” Steve told him, and dragged him out on to the floor.