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The Touch Point

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He had paint under his nails.

Such a little thing, but over the course of the past several hours it had grown to be a major irritation. He huffed and shook the can of black spray paint. Glancing at the moldering old tome propped on a stool, he applied the last few lines and symbols on the bare cement floor.

The soft hiss of the spray can echoed in the dusty space. Old yellowing lights flickered overhead, their dim bulbs doing little to illuminate the room. Arcane symbols had been scattered haphazardly across the floor, some painted right over the tops of the others. More decorated the walls, the matt black paints dripping down the brick.

He sneezed, the air thick with the scent of smoke and various herbs, irritating his senses.

He’d been at it for hours. His blood was boiling in his veins, he’d been assured that the decrepit old book of magic was the real deal. But so far every spell he’d tried had ended in failure. If he didn’t start getting results soon, he was going to pay a visit to the seller that she surely wouldn’t like. After which he would dispose of her corpse by selling it to the black market for the organs, and sell the magic tome to some gullible schmuck. At least that way this wouldn't be a total loss.

The stranger finished and set the can aside.

He fought impatience, pacing while he waited for the paint to dry enough for his purposes. At last it was ready. From a corner he dragged a small man, bound hand and foot with a bag over his head, and shoved his sobbing captive into the center of his design.

Then he reached for the spellbook.

Unfamiliar words in a foreign language limped from his tongue as he chanted from the ancient book. Something felt different this time. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and his skin had started to crawl as a foreign energy slithered over his body. His victim sobbed and begged harder, able to feel the difference as surely as his captor could. He redoubled his efforts, baring his teeth at the strange words as he rattled them off. He hissed the final word and dropped a lit match into a bowl sitting on a design at his feet. The powder inside flared high, then died back down just as quickly. And he waited.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Flames erupted from the earth inside the design he had painted, but they didn’t consume or scorch. They slithered across the floor like living things, great ropes of amber flame scuttling towards the doomed man in the center. And the victim began to scream. Under the hood those cables of fire crawled, to where, the magic user wasn’t sure.

His best guess would be that they were forcing their way down his victim’s throat.

The last of the fire crawled under the burlap bag. The screams abruptly ceased, and the thrashing slowed to a stop. An eerie stillness descended over the dusty room, and he held his breath, eyes riveted to the prone figure on the floor.

At last it moved.

Ropes that had been sufficient to hold his captive for hours now snapped like thread. Hands came up to tear the bag from his head to reveal a deathly pale face that was slowly becoming flushed. Electric blue eyes surveyed the room, taking in the dust, the symbols, and the man who had orchestrated it all. A man who was so excited he could have danced for joy. At last, something from the magic book had worked!

“Why have you summoned me into this pitiful form, human?”

The voice that had once been a high tenor now rumbled deep in the possessed body’s narrow chest. It was a voice full of anger and malice. It sent shivers down the human’s spine. But then again, so had many others. He’d been around the block too many times to let freaky eyes and scary voices intimidate him. He snapped the book closed and set it aside.

“I’ve summoned you here, demon, because I have a job for you.”

The demon arched an eyebrow. “And you’re aware of what a demon takes in trade for such a task?”

A malicious smile twisted the human’s lips, and he leaned closer to the edge of the trap the demon stood in. “I’m aware. And I’m going to tell you upfront that my soul isn’t in the offering.”

“Then you are wasting both our time.”

The human waggled a finger. “Not true. You see, I’ve been doing my research. It doesn’t always have to be a soul you take in trade. If I can come up with something you and your friends like enough, you’ll make an exception. So I’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

“Have you indeed?”

He smirked and folded his arms. “I have. And I’m prepared to offer up a far more tempting deal…”

“I’m listening.”

Chapter Text


Clint heaved a content sigh and slung his duffel to the floor.

It was good to be home. Long missions for the new Shield reminded him how much he liked the Avengers upstate facility.

This mission had taken him almost a week to complete. A week in Italy that is. He flopped onto his bed. It was worth it though. Worth it both for the human trafficking ring he’d smashed, and the looks that were going to be on his kids’ faces when he gave them the souvenirs he’d stashed away in his duffel. He’d brought them things from Italy before, of course, but they would react the same no matter what. And he loved picking out just the right thing for them each time.

A soft chime sounded.

A grin threatening to split his cheeks, the archer rolled over onto his belly and fished his laptop out from under the bed. Eagerly logging in, his grin spread even wider to see the the source of the alert. Someone was trying to reach him through a chat room. And he was more than willing to bet he knew exactly who it was, and that it was two someones.

 

The_Pieman_Loves_Lead_Zepplin: You back in the states yet?

 

Dean. Keeping in  touch with his adoptive brothers had gotten so much easier since they’d started using chat rooms. And it’d gotten a hell of a lot more frequent since Dean and Sam had established a home base to return to between hunts. Clint hurriedly logged onto the chat site and posted a response.

 

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome: Yep! Double oh seven-ed the shit out of my trip. Got a bunch of souvenirs for the gang too. Can’t wait to see their faces when I pass them out. How’s the ‘squatch?

 

I’m_Not_A_Moose!: I’m fine thanks.

 

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome: Speak of the devil and he shall join the chat room. How have you two been? Did I miss anything while I was away?

 

The_Pieman_Loves_Lead_Zepplin: Not much. Wings and Lil D’s families are quiet for the moment. Not sure how long that’ll last, but here’s hoping. How about you? Pick up any new bumps and bruises on your trip?

 

Clint chuckled. Ever the big brother. They had all agreed that it would be safer for all involved if they kept specifics out of their conversations. Clint had enemies, and Dean and Sam were still on the FBI’s most wanted list. Much to the FBI's consternation. And confusion. They'd lost track of how many times the Winchesters had supposedly died. Clint had it on good authority that they had started to take the Batman on Joker stance when it came to his brothers. If you didn't find a body, then they were still out there. So asking about bumps and bruises was Dean’s way of asking after Clint’s health. If Clint even hinted that he was anywhere remotely close to seriously injured, Dean or Sam would be on the phone calling him minutes later. Consequences be damned.

 

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome: Not a scratch. For once I managed a trip without any form of injury. You two were going to go hunting last we talked. You catch anything worthwhile?

 

The_Pieman_Loves_Lead_Zepplin: Hell yeah! Nailed that sucker’s ass to a wall! Good to be home though, I missed my bed.

 

I’m_Not_A_Moose!: You always miss your bed.

 

I’m_Not_A_Moose!: Seriously, you should hear him in the mornings. Apparently nothing holds a candle to his bed back home. And if we had to sleep in the car? God forbid. He hobbles around like an old man and bitches the whole day long.

 

The_Pieman_Loves_Lead_Zepplin: I don’t hobble like an old man!

 

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome: Lol, enough you two! Argue offsite, I’m pretty sure you two are either in the same room or within shouting distance!

 

I’m_Not_A_Moose!: ...fair enough.

 

I’m_Not_A_Moose!: ...we’re sitting on the same couch actually…

 

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome: That’s what I thought.

 

The_Pieman_Loves_Lead_Zepplin: So… Have your roommates played any pranks on you lately? If I remember right, you left a trick in metal mouth’s workshop before you went on vacation.

 

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome: Yeah. I put confetti in the vents of his science project, so when he flips it on it shoots confetti everywhere. He hasn’t pranked me back yet, but I’m sure he

 

Alarms suddenly blared through the base, bright gold lights strobing out a warning. The smile dropped off of Clint’s face. He groaned and dropped his head against his forearms for a second.

“I literally just got back…”

He grumbled and typed out a final message to his adoptive brothers.

 

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome: I have to go guys, it sounds like Mrs. Stevens downstairs set off the fire alarm again. Talk to you later.

 

The_Pieman_Likes_Lead_Zepplin: Be safe.

 

I’m_Not_A_Moose!: Be careful!


 

“I’m just saying, these guys could’ve stood a few more years of practice before taking on the Avengers.” Clint commented dryly. He glanced down the shaft of his arrow and let it fly, confident that it would hit it’s mark while he searched for his next target. “I mean seriously, these guys are so easy, I’m almost embarrassed for them.” He fired off another shot, smiling proudly when his target dropped like a stone. “Almost.”

“I’m not.” Tony answered over the coms. “These guys make those lizard things we fought last month look efficient. And those guys were eating each other!”

“Head in the game Iron Man.” Steve ordered, but they could all hear the amusement there.

Clint sat up a little higher on his perch and scanned the surrounding area. The fight had barely lasted ten minutes. It was pretty pathetic. “Ok, looks like there’s ten more of these bozo’s near Scarlet Witch and Vision, and another two about three hundred yards east of Cap and Widow, just around the corner. Iron Man or Falcon should probably do a fly over to make sure, but I think that’s all of them.”

“On it.” Tony agreed, shooting by above Clint’s head.

Bruce’s quiet voice came over the coms. He was still waiting in the quinjet, just in case they had to call a code green. I know you said these guys weren’t all that great, but did any of them get a lucky shot off?”

Everyone chimed back in with a negative.

“Bird brain’s on the money. Cap, you can go ahead and have Hawk go back to the jet. Vis and Scarlet Witch are halfway through theirs, and these two look like they’re about ready to wet themselves. There’s nothing more for him to do here.” Tony reported.

“Understood.” Steve affirmed. “You catch that Hawkeye?”

“Copy that.” Clint agreed. He stood his post a second longer, keeping watch over his team. Then he headed for the fire escape. On the ground, he turned left into an alley. The quinjet was parked a couple streets over, and Bruce would be waiting for him there. He smiled as he thought about the soft spoken scientist. It had taken almost a month after the Ultron incident for Bruce to travel across borders and oceans alone and without resources to get back to them. They still weren’t sure why the Hulk had decided to run from them. Now that he was back, the Hulk hadn’t shown any inclination to run again, and he hadn’t cared to explain when his teammates had asked.

The damage had been done though.

Bruce and Natasha’s friendship still stood strong, but their budding romance seemed to’ve been cut off at the root. Clint couldn’t decide whether that was a good or bad thing. They both deserved someone who understood where they were coming from, but he’d never been entirely certain of their chemistry. Maybe he’d talk to Bruce about it. Give the man a friendly ear to bend.

He nodded to himself, already planning out a time and place to nonchalantly corner his friend and lead him into the conversation.

A sharp pinch hit the side of his neck.

Clint dove to the side, several years worth of honing his instincts screaming at him to move . Coming up behind a dumpster, his hand immediately went to his neck. A dart was buried to the hilt. He grimaced, and pulled the needle out. Barbed. Of course the stupid needle was barbed.

“...crap…”

His head was already swimming, the fast acting drug sapping his strength and coordination. Black encroached on the edges of his vision, swarming up to block out the cruddy little alley. His bow fell from nerveless fingers. He could hear it clatter against the pavement, and the sound of his beloved bow grating against the rough cement set his teeth on edge. He didn’t notice the rest of his strength seeping away until his cheek made contact with the dumpster.

The last of his senses fading, he thought he heard footsteps approach.


 

The stranger stared down at the unconscious archer behind the dumpster.

He smirked. As good as Hawkeye was purported to be, as good as he knew the man to be, it had been absurdly easy to get to him.

He tucked his weapon away, and hefted the smaller man up across his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. Crouched there in the dirty, trash strewn alley, he eyed the bow. That bow was the source of more hatred than he could adequately convey. It was on the cusp of his mind to break it. To wedge one end into a crevice in the concrete and lever it back until the frame snapped like kindling… no.

No, that wouldn’t do. It would be selfish and wasteful to destroy it here and now.

He scooped the bow off the ground and folded it, slipping the compact frame under his belt before rising to his feet. If Clint was to fulfill the plan, he would need the bow. As much as he hated that bow, and everything it stood for, his plan required it.

Required the Hawkeye.

He slipped away, back the way he’d come. A truck waited a block over. He dumped his captive into the bed, mindful that Hawkeye didn’t crack his skull against the side. He wanted the hawk to hurt, but a concussion would be counter productive right about now. A stained and crumpled tarp sat in a corner, and he pulled it over the hawk. A smile quirked his lips. He’d done it. He’d captured Clint Barton.

And the Avengers didn't have a clue.


Tony landed at the foot of the quinjet’s ramp.

His faceplate slid back automatically, and he strode up into the jet without a care in the world. Most of his team was already inside. Wanda and Vision were seated on the bench seats against the wall. Bruce was checking over a small cut on Wanda’s temple. Up near the cockpit, Tony could see Sam leaning against the stairs. It was a shame Rhodey hadn’t been able to make it, those two had hit it off like two peas in a pod.

Unfortunately, just because you joined the Avengers didn’t mean that you could just quit on the army before your tour was done. Rhodey still had other commitments to tend to, and seeing as how they had an honest to goodness Avenger under their thumb, the army wasn’t exactly keen on letting Colonel Rhodes go ahead and resign. They were kicking up all kinds of fuss.

Hmm, maybe he could have Steve reach out to the angry pirate, the captain probably knew where he was making people walk the plank at these days. Fury’d probably be able to do something about it.

Wondering if Clint had any thoughts on the matter, Tony turned to the cockpit.

“Hey feathers? I got a question for you.”

No answer.

“Feathers?” He climbed up a couple steps to look into the cockpit. It was empty. He frowned and looked back to the others. “Hey guys? Have any of you seen Clint? Steve told him to come back here to the quinjet before we’d even finished off with the idiots of the week.”

Wanda shook her head. “No, he hasn’t returned yet. I haven’t seen him since before the battle started.”

Tony looked to the others. Each were shaking their heads, varying degrees of concern beginning to show. Oh this wasn’t good. Tony tried the coms. “Hey Hawkass, I need a shoutout or something right now!”

“What’s the matter Stark, did someone kick your ego down to fatally low levels?” Natasha teased.

Clint didn’t answer.

For once in his life, Tony ignored a jab from a pretty woman. “Cap, we got a problem. You sent Hawkeye back to the jet before we’d even finished. He had a good head start and he was closer to the jet, he should’ve beaten us all back here. Except he didn’t. No one’s seen him, and he’s not answering on the coms. Something’s up.”

“Agreed. Iron Man, Falcon, and Vision, get up into the air. Start searching the roofs for any sign of Hawkeye or something that would make him go off coms. Scarlet Witch, Black Widow and I will search at ground level. Maintain an open com line until Hawkeye is found.” Steve ordered.

Bruce touched the com in his ear. “What do you want me to do?”

“Stay with the quinjet. If he’s injured, we need to know exactly where to find our medic, and if he makes it back I want someone there.”

“I understand.”

Good. Avengers, find him.”


Clint slowly returned to consciousness.

He was tied up, that much he could tell right off the bat. Which presented two options. Either Tony was getting really weird with his pranks, or he was in a bad place. Now, the prank idea wasn’t off the table. After all, Clint had turned the Iron Man suit into a walking party favor. But darting someone immediately after a fight and tieing them up hand and foot just didn’t seem like Tony’s style. If anything it was more Natasha’s M.O. than Tony’s, but so far as Clint was aware he hadn’t pissed her off recently.

So Clint was leaning toward option two.  

Using the most minimal movements possible, he carefully tested the strength of his bonds. Cuffs on his wrists, paired with zip ties and a pair of thumb cuffs. Overkill on his hands much?

His elbows had been tied together as well to keep him from bringing his hands forward under his legs. His ankles had been treated to a set of cuffs and a zip tie as well. Whoever had him certainly wasn’t taking any chances. They were either competent and well aware of what he could do, or just paranoid. Either one was a pain.

Getting away from these guys was going to suck.

Now he took stock of his surroundings. He could hear water moving through pipes, and somewhere in the far distance he could hear a train horn. The strong smell of smoke, ash, and potent herbs permeated the air. The smells wormed up into his nose. The urge to sneeze had him instinctively wrinkling it, trying to hold in a sneeze. No, no, no he couldn’t let one loose, that would give the game away!

Come on Barton, keep it together!

He couldn’t hold it. The ash and soot and strong herbal scents were too much, forcing a resounding sneeze out of him. It echoed off the bare walls of his prison, loud and oh so blatantly marking him as awake.

Well, so much for pretending he was still unconscious.

He rolled onto his side, lifting his head to look for exits, windows, sharp pipes, video cameras, anything. Anything that could shed some light on where he was, who had him, and how to get out of this place. The walls were painted with black graffiti. Graffiti that looked eerily like some arcane symbols he’d seen in the diary Sam and Dean used on hunts…

“Well, that took you long enough.”

He rolled onto his other side, facing his captor...

...and promptly began to rattle off every swear word he knew in as many combinations and languages as he was capable of.

Chapter Text


Barney Barton raised his eyebrows.

“Wow. Did you kiss Mom with that mouth?” He grinned down at his snarling little brother. “I mean, I’m no slouch in the profanity department, and I sure as hell know dad wasn’t either. But that? That was impressive. If nothing else it was inventive . I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone called everything from ‘asshole’ to ‘frog humping son of a bitch’ in that many languages in so short a time. What was that, three languages? Four? Hell, while we’re on it, where the hell’d ‘frog humping son of a bitch’ come from?”

Clint grimaced and rolled onto his back, using his hands and abdominals to get himself up into a sitting position. It kept his hands out of Barney’s line of sight too. He wasn’t sure how he was going to get out of any of the stuff on his hands quite yet, but the less Barney could see of his efforts the better.

Now to keep big bro occupied.

“You didn’t catch that reference? Damn, we couldn’t get along before, but now we definitely can’t be seen together.” Clint groaned. “I mean, I absolutely refuse to be seen in public with anyone who doesn’t watch the classics.”

Barney snorted and pushed away from the door. “That’s right Clint, yuk it up. It’s what you’re good at after all. But don’t think for one second that you’re going to distract me from what’s really going on.” He grabbed Clint by the front of his shirt and yanked him forward, sending him sprawling back onto his belly where his hands would be in full view. He squatted down in front of him and dragged Clint’s head up by his hair.

“After all, it’s the only way you can cope when someone else has the upper hand.”

“Is that what you’ve got?” Clint gritted. The angle Barney had him at was making talking a little difficult. “I wasn’t sure.”

Barney smirked and pulled the younger man’s head back farther. “It must really gall you. To know that I beat you. It was easy, I was actually a little disappointed. Word goes out that the Avengers are out about town, all I had to do was get between you and the jet and wait. You walked right into my arms, and it only took one dart to bring you down. Just one. And it’s all over in seconds.” He snapped his fingers in front of Clint’s nose. “Just like that. Pathetic Clint, I thought we trained you better than that.”

Clint grimaced, trying to pull his knees up under his body.

Barney just shook his head as he watched, not bothering to try and stop him. “You just don’t know when you’re licked, do you?”

“By you? Hopefully never. God only knows what's been in your mouth.” Clint got his knees under his chest and levered himself up, defiant.

Barney still had a hold of his hair, moving with Clint to keep his head pulled back at that painful angle. Keeping his throat bared. Barney was a nasty bastard, but Clint had little doubt that it was more to keep him vulnerable to whatever weapons Barney might have stashed on his person. Getting to watch Clint squirm was an added bonus.

He huffed a breath, craning his eyes to keep his brother in sight. “What do you want Barney? I haven’t stepped on your toes in a while. So what brought this on?”

The older Barton snorted disdainfully. “You think you’re in the clear because your transgressions are safely in the past? No Clint, I’m not letting you off the hook that easy.” His fingers twisted painfully into Clint’s hair, tilting his head as far back and to the side as it would go. Savage.

Ruthless.

“You betrayed me. And I’m never going to stop until you’ve felt what I felt. Until everything you’ve built and become comes crashing down around your ears. Until you’re lying broken on the ground at my feet. Then... then I’ll think about letting you off the hook.”

Cold surprise lanced down Clint’s spine.

He’d known that Barney was hurting. Hell, Clint himself was hurting. The giant crap shoot suck fest that was their lives had left them both with bones to mend and wounds to lick. But Clint hadn’t known how deep that hurt went. Now, staring up at the brother that had once been his protector and closest confidant, he was beginning to get an inkling.

Barney watched, waiting. “What? No snarky comment this time Clinton?”

“What’s wrong? Am I making you uncomfortable?” Clint rasped.

“You…”

“Not to interrupt this little family bonding session… but you did hire me to do a job.”

Both Bartons whipped toward the new voice. Or, Barney did, Clint barely jerked Barney’s grip when he tried. The figure in the corner of his eye was blurry. All he could manage was a general look. Overall, he got the impression of someone small. Male, if the voice was anything to go by.

Dangerous.

Barney stood, pulling Clint up by his hair until his knees just barely hovered above the floor. Unable to shift his weight forward on his knees or back far enough for his bound feet to take much of the weight, Clint hung there at his brother’s mercy. Then Barney was thrusting Clint headfirst at the newcomer. Unable to bring a knee forward or catch himself with his hands, Clint face planted brutally on the cold cement at the newcomers feet.

“I did.” Barney agreed. He sounded more in control of himself again. Less vendetta crazed psycho and more cold professional. “Have a look at your target.”

A new hand hauled him up by the hair, seeming to expend exactly zero effort doing it.

That couldn’t be good.

The man was small, like Clint had thought. Shaggy brown hair hung down in his face, and he was dressed in nondescript khakis and a light blue button up. He was skinnier than a rail, and Clint estimated that the man would be a full head and shoulders shorter than him if Clint could stand.

“Hey, no offense man, but you kind of look like a pipe cleaner with e...eyes.”

Electric blue eyes stared back from a heavily flushed face, unblinking. Clint swallowed down bile, they looked far too much like his had when he’d been under Loki’s control. These were a more brilliant shade of blue than his had been, but they were still way too close for comfort. They couldn't be natural...could they?

Oh God, please don't let Loki be back.

The newcomer looked him over, eyes delving into Clint as if he could strip him down to his very soul. Maybe he could. Whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him. He pushed Clint up and back until he rested in a kneeling position, letting him breathe properly for the first time in several minutes.

“He is strong. Much stronger than this sniveling buffoon. He'll make a suitable vessel.”

Clint felt as if he’d been dipped in ice. Vessel? That sounded less like Loki and more like something out of Sam and Dean’s neck of the woods. What on earth had Barney gotten himself mixed up in? The archer wracked his brains, trying to recall everything he’d ever heard his adoptive brothers mention about vessels. Being a vessel was... bad, that much he remembered.

Someone had tried to make them vessels, and they had fought tooth and nail to keep that from happening. They hadn’t been able to save their younger half brother though, and Clint knew that the guilt still sat heavy on them for that. He'd never met Adam, but from what they'd said, he'd seemed to be a decent kid. He certainly hadn't deserved to go to the deepest darkest pit in hell. 

Didn’t supernatural baddies need a person’s permission to enter? At least some of them did. Right?

Like hell that was happening!

He focused on the discussion, determined not to miss a word.

Barney was fiddling with his phone. “You need any help making him a vessel or whatever?”

The possessed man, as that’s what he obviously was, smirked at Clint and shook his head. “No, I can complete the possession on my own.”

Barney made a ‘go on then’ gesture. “Have at him.”

The possessed man squatted down to be on eye level with Clint. He studied him for a second. Then he opened his mouth.

Flames licked out of his mouth, reaching for the helpless archer. Clint tried to pull away from the heat, fighting the grip on his hair, but the hand could’ve been made from adamantium for all that it moved. He could hear the, the thing , laughing at his efforts as it leaned in closer to his face.

He closed his eyes, protecting his most precious sense.

Fire flicked over his skin, over his lips, hot enough to hurt but not hot enough to injure him. He clamped his mouth shut. Like hell he was going to let this bastard in that easily. Not that physical barriers were really a deterrent if what he remembered from Sam and Dean’s shop talk was true.

Still, it was the principal of the thing.

He could feel the demon’s eyes boring into him, prying at every private thought he’d ever had. Clint growled. Pulled up his training with Wanda to keep telepaths out of his head. Focused all his attention on the weight and feel of his bow in his hands, the warmth in his muscles from the draw, the slap of the string against his arm guards. Focused on it to the exclusion of all else. Until his bow was the only thing left in his mind.

Finally, the fire pulled away.

“Is it done?”

Clint opened his eyes and rolled them as best he could at the blurry figure at the corner of his sight. “I’ve been mind controlled before Barney, you really think I’m going to make it easy for the next comer?”

“Shut it Clint!” Barney growled. “I thought you said you could do this.”

The demon smiled, lightly caressing a hot, sweaty hand along Clint’s cheek. He seemed almost pleased with the way things had gone. “I can. But that does not mean that I can manage it on the first try. For me to enter, there must be a chink in the armor. Some place through which I can enter. I could already tell that he was stubborn, but in the grand scheme of things, stubbornness will not matter. All that is needed is time and patience. Both of which we have in abundance.”

“How long ?” Barney demanded.

That burning hand traced further along Clint’s cheek, running teasingly down along his jaw to cup his throat. “As long as it takes to find a hole.”

Clint couldn’t help himself. “And if I don’t have one?”

The demon leaned closer, and Clint could’ve sworn he felt the barest lick of fire against his ear.

“Then I will make one.”


 

Natasha paced.

Natasha never paced. It was actually freaking the other Avengers out a little. She was usually the calm and collected one. When everyone else was arguing, she was the one making sure Jarvis was recording them so they could all hear how much they sounded like morons later. When they were in the heat of battle and getting overwhelmed, she was the one to leap out of nowhere and give them a second’s breather.

They’d never seen her this tightly wound before. She glared at anything that moved, and verbally lashed out at anyone who got too close. And if they didn’t get close she growled at them on principle.

She whirled to face Tony with a snarl as soon as the man entered the room. “Anything Stark?”

The billionaire made a helpless gesture, and their faces fell.

The assassin finally stopped pacing and took a deep breath. “I’m...sorry. It’s just, with Coulson dead and Fury pretending to be, I’m the only one from Shield who knows about Laura. I have to call her.”

They softened, understanding her unease.

“I… I could make the call Natasha.” Steve offered. “I’m technically Clint’s C.O., it wouldn’t be outside my job description.”

Natasha pulled herself together and fished her phone out of her pocket. “Thanks Steve, but I’ve known Laura for years. This should come from someone she knows.”

“He is not dead yet.” Wanda pointed out.

“And he’s not going to be if I have my say.” Natasha growled as she headed for the door. “I promised Laura I’d bring him home. And I always keep my promises.”




“Mom! Auntie Nat’s calling!”

Lila came flying into the kitchen, leaning back on socked feet to slide across the kitchen floor. She had Laura’s cell phone held high in her fist, Natasha’s ringtone playing loud and clear. Laura smiled.

It used to be a song about spies...

...until she had walked in on Natasha dancing to a piece of classical music, a then four year old Lila trying to match the classically trained ballerina’s moves and failing miserably. Her six year old brother had looked on, enraptured by his auntie’s grace and poise. Natasha had praised Lila’s efforts, gently correcting posture and showing her more basic moves. She’d encouraged Cooper to join them too. Cooper had held out at first until he’d seen Clint exercising with Natasha a couple days later and realized that his daddy danced with Auntie Natasha, so of course it was ok for boys to dance like ballerinas. Lila had become one of Natasha’s constant companions, and Cooper joined them often. Lila had been the only one to go on to take dance classes, but Cooper still did the exercises with his sister and Aunt.

Now the song ‘Dance, Ballerina, Dance’ was Auntie Nat’s song, and whenever Buddy Clark started singing the family dove for the phone.

“Thank you Lila.”

Laura plucked the phone from her daughter’s grasp and shooed her back out of the room to do homework. Still balancing Nathaniel on her hip, she answered the call and pinned the phone between the ear and shoulder opposite the toddler where he would hopefully have a harder time reaching it.

“Hey Nat, how are you?”

“I’m alright. How are you and the munchkins?”

Laura frowned, something was off. Natasha sounded tired. “We’re fine. Nate’s been babbling, and I’m constantly diving for the camera on the off chance that he says his first word. Clint was here for Cooper and Lila’s. As such, I think I’ve caught more blackmail material for my kids’ highschool and college years in the past week than I did in their first years of existence. I can’t wait to show you the videos and pictures.”

Natasha stayed quiet.

Laura stopped bouncing Nate on her hip. Something was definitely wrong. “Natasha? What’s happened?”

“Laura…”

She heard Natasha hesitate, and ice sluiced through her veins.

“Laura, Clint’s missing.”

Laura’s heart stuttered in her chest. She took a deep breath, hugging her toddler closer. “Hold on a minute Nat?” She barely heard her friend’s quiet ‘of course’ , carrying Nate to the living room where his siblings were doing their homework. Instructing them to keep an eye on him, she put the toddler on a blanket with a few toys and returned to the kitchen.

Bracing herself, she put the phone back to her ear. “What happened?”

“We were called out to engage a threat in the city.” Natasha answered, responding to the Barton matriarch as if she were reporting to Coulson or Steve. “They were untrained amateurs, and posed little problem. We whittled their numbers down to a handful, and Steve told Clint that he could return to the jet. We didn’t need his help mopping up the last few. Clint acknowledged, and left his roof. He never returned to the jet. When it became clear that something had happened, we mounted a search of the area. The search turned up nothing, and we returned to the tower.” She hesitated, and her report tone faded. “We’re not giving up Laura. We will find him.”

Laura nodded, even though she knew Natasha couldn't see it. “I know. You always do. Um...keep me in the loop?”

“Of course.” Natasha promised.

“Ok… thanks for calling Nat. I… I need to talk to Lila and Cooper… take care of yourself.” She was glad Natasha couldn’t see her face. Her smile was probably watery at best. “Try not to bite anyone's head off, ok?”

Natasha’s throaty laugh came over the line. “I will try.”

“I expect you to do more than try little miss.”

“Yes ma’am.” Natasha agreed. “Give my love to the munchkins, I'll call you as soon as I have something.”

“I’ll hold you to it.” Laura promised.

The call ended.

Laura dropped down into a seat at the kitchen table, her arms folding over her belly. Clint was missing. Natasha didn’t know where he was. The Avengers couldn’t find him…

Clint was missing.

Her eyes roved the kitchen, settling on a banner hanging on the far wall. Welcome Home Daddy , it said. Clint had been gone for far too long. He was supposed to come home tomorrow. He was supposed to come home for a month. Cooper and Lila had taken poster paints and a sheet of butcher paper and spent a whole afternoon working on that banner out on the porch. Now she was going to have to go and tell them that Daddy wasn’t coming. That he was in trouble, and needed Auntie Natasha and the Avengers to save him for once.

She clutched her belly tighter.

Clint didn’t know. No one knew yet, not the kids, not even Nat. Barton Baby number four was in the works and well on their way here. She wasn't showing yet, and probably wouldn't for a while, but she'd already felt movement. Her doctor estimated that she was probably three and a half to four months along. She started showing later and later with each baby, clever use of loose clothing hiding her secret until she was ready for the world to know. She’d planned on telling Clint when he came home. He was always the first one she told.

She always tried to be creative when she did.

With Cooper, she’d snuck out to his archery targets behind the barn and planted an arrow in the center of one. She’d hung a pair of newborn sneakers off of it. Clint had flat out sprinted back to the house, booties in hand, to ask if it meant what he thought it meant. He’d broken down into happy tears when she’d confirmed that he was going to be a daddy.

With Lila, she’d taped the pregnancy test to the head of one of his arrows and put it back in his quiver. Clint tended to shoot until his quiver was empty, so there was no chance of him not seeing it. She’d been able to hear his whoop for joy clear back to the house.

And Nate, well, she’d been scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of ideas. Or she had been, until she’d seen him putting together some of his trick arrows while getting ready to go back to work. She’d taken a few supplies from his kit, and had applied an arrowhead and fletching to Nate’s pregnancy test. She’d been pleasantly surprised by how well it had turned out. That one she’d left in the bathroom for him to find the next time he’d come home, and Clint had been so excited he’d half killed himself coming down the stairs to her after he found it.

Laura hadn’t been sure what she was going to do with this latest baby, but she’d known that she’d wanted to stick with the archery theme. She sighed and hugged herself tighter.

“Looks like I’ll have more time to figure out how to tell Daddy about you after all.”

Movement fluttered under her hands, and some of her anxiety faded a little.

“It’s ok. Daddy will be alright.” Laura whispered, trying to sooth the baby in her belly. “He always is. And if he’s not, Auntie Natasha will bring him home so Mommy can give him hell for scaring us. That sound good?”

The baby gave a little kick into her palm in answer.

A delighted squeal came from Nate in the living room, followed by laughter from the two older children, and Laura stood. “We have to let your brothers and sister know what’s going on with Daddy in New York.”

More laughter and squeals rang out. Heart twisting in her chest, Laura headed for the living room.

“Come on then little one. Time to face the music.”


 

The_Pieman_Loves_Lead_Zepplin: Hey man, you there?

 

Dean sighed and sat back in his chair.

Clint hadn’t come back after Steve had called the Avengers to assemble. Dean sniggered. Using the code name ‘Mrs. Stevens’ for Captain Rogers had been his idea. All of the Avengers had chatroom code names. Names that he and Sam had come up with based off of the stories Clint had told them. Pairing the fire alarm with the Avengers call to assemble had been Sam’s idea.

Whatever the call to assemble had been about, it must’ve been something long, or someplace where Clint didn’t have access to a computer. He always answered back as soon as he could, if for no other reason than to let them know he was alright. 

Hope it’s not another one of those long emergency missions.

There had been times in the past when Clint had just dropped off the face of the planet, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. And he’d maintain radio silence throughout.

Sam leaned through the doorway to Dean’s bedroom. “Dean? You ready to go?”

The older Winchester huffed and nodded. “Yeah, was just hoping Clint would answer so I could tell him where we’re going. Doesn’t look like he’s back yet.”

“Hope it’s not one of those long ones where he disappears for months, those ones kind of freak me out.”

Dean grimaced and turned back to the screen. “You and me both, Sammy.”

 

The_Pieman_Loves_Lead_Zepplin: Just letting you know. We’re getting called out to hunt again a few towns over. Seems animal control can’t handle what they’ve got. We shouldn’t be gone more than a couple days. Might not get a chance to check back with you until we get home, so don’t worry. You’ve got the numbers in case you really need to reach us. Talk to you soon.

 

Satisfied, Dean logged off and grabbed his duffle. “Ready to go Sammy?” His brother nodded. “Alright then, let’s get out of here. That ghost isn’t going to hunt itself.”

Chapter Text


One Week Later…

 

He couldn’t take much more of this.

Clint hated his cell. Loathed it with a passion. After being stuck here in this tiny room full of dust for days, he felt like he was justified in hating it. Knowing his luck, the black smudges in the corners were probably toxic black mold and he was going to end up with lung cancer.

He wasn’t sure, but he guesstimated that he’d been here a week.

Barney visited every day. Some might have thought it was out of brotherly love or perhaps concern, but Clint held no illusions on that score. He came to see the demon try and whittle a large enough hole in the armor of Clint’s mind. Every day, most every night, he’d be sitting there on that stool in the corner. Watching. Grinning. Like the cat that ate the canary. Clint was starting to dread the sight of his brother’s face.

The sound of his voice was almost as bad.

He was pretty sure it was the only reason that Barney hadn’t taken Clint’s hearing aids. Clint had been trained by the original Trickshot and the Swordsman, and had since trained with some of the best of the best on both sides of the law. Barney would’ve been a fool not to take advantage of any weakness Clint had. But he loved to see that infinitesimal flinch. Clint couldn’t help but make it every time Barney spoke. He could see the way Barney’s eyes lit up to see the tiny shudders run down Clint’s spine when the demon leaned down to whisper into Clint’s ear.

So Barney took away everything else he could, from Clint’s boots, socks, and clothes to his mobility, chaining him to a ring in the wall by a collar around his throat.

Clint yawned wide.

They wouldn’t let him sleep. His body felt heavier than a dead elephant, and his gritty eyes burned with each blink. As if someone had lined the insides of the lids with sandpaper. He couldn’t help nodding off, even though he knew he shouldn’t. Much longer and he’d start having microsleep episodes. He’d experienced those more than once on missions that had gone on for weeks at a time, and they had almost cost him the mission more often than not. On one memorable occasion it had almost gotten him killed .

A throb from his right ear distracted him.

He hadn’t been able to take his aids out of his ears in a week, and his ears hurt . Not sore, like when he’d been pinned down in an underground base for days with the enemy fifteen feet away.

No, his ears ached . He could feel heat coming off of the right one when he leaned it against his shoulder, and the way the left one was hurting he wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t follow the right one’s example soon. He just hoped it was stress, and not an ear infection… Yeah right, he should be so lucky. Ear infections sucked when you needed hearing aids.

Exhaustion weighed down on his eyes.

Against his will, they drifted closed. A small voice in the back of his head that sounded vaguely like Coulson whispered that he needed to stay awake. That letting himself fall asleep was a very bad idea. He couldn’t remember why though. Black crept up along the edges of his mind, and his muscles slowly went lax against his restraints. Maybe just for a few seconds…

An air horn shrieked.

Clint flinched away from the noise by his left ear. Right. Now he remembered. That was why falling asleep was a bad idea. Because they’d be in like a shot to wake him up. And they were never nice about it. He wasn’t sure which one he prefered, the demon or Barney. Barney liked the air horn, but the demon liked his fists.

The archer cracked open an eye to glare at his brother.

“You know, one of these days, I’m going to get out of here. And when I do Barney, I’m going to cram that thing in your ear till you see stars.”

Barney grinned, slipping the little air horn into a pocket. “Big talk Clinton. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

Clint opened his mouth to spout off a smart aleck remark, and a hand whistled through the air to come down hard across his cheek. For as small as the body was, the strike had way too much power behind it. He rolled his head up to glare at the other half of the disastrous duo. The demon smirked.

Surtur.

Yes, the demon had a name. And as soon as he got a chance Clint was going straight to Sam and Dean for something that could kill a demon, because this guy was pushing all of Clint’s buttons.

The demon slapped him again. Just because he could. The loud crack went off like a gunshot in the small room. Slender fingers gripped the archer’s chin, bringing his head back up and forcing him to stare into those electric blue eyes.

“Think you’ll make it into him today?”

Surtur tightened his grip, digging his fingers into Clint’s cheeks. “What do you think Clint?” He leaned close, barely an inch between his nose and Clint’s. “Is today the day that you surrender?”

Clint spit into his face. “Like hell!”

Surtur’s free hand came up to curl around Clint’s throat. “We’ll see.”

The demon opened his mouth, ropes of white hot fire slithering over his tongue and out between his teeth. It was a sight that the archer had become intimately familiar with. Clint didn’t know where in the hell the flames stayed when not trying to crawl inside him , but he thought they stayed somewhere in the demon’s torso. Whenever they came out, the beast’s throat glowed from the inside, the glow fading down into the chest.

Fire licked over Clint’s face, hot and stinging without actually burning the skin. They always went for his mouth first, as if they could catch him by surprise and dart inside. Others went for his nose, his eyes . Clint grimaced, trying to shake them off, blow them out of his nostrils.

Grimacing was a mistake. Tongues of fire slid under his lips, trying to push past his teeth. The hand around his throat tightened, cutting his air supply on an exhale.

All the demon had to do was wait.

“Hmm…”

Barney got up off of his little stool and came to crouch behind Clint. He rubbed the archer’s back, as if trying to soothe him. It had the complete opposite effect. Which had probably been his intention. It had been years since his touch had brought comfort. “Give it up Clint. Know when you’re beat.”

The archer stubbornly clenched his teeth in response.

Clint could hold his breath for an impressive amount of time. He knew that. Even Natasha had grudgingly admitted that it was nothing to sneeze at.

But ‘nothing to sneeze at’ meant diddly squat when faced against someone who didn’t much care whether you passed out or not. His lungs were burning, his chest tightening. He thrashed against Barney and Surtur, desperate for air. Surtur barely batted an eyelash. He just tightened his grip on his victim’s throat.

And opened his jaws wider to release more ropes of fire.

Clint’s head started to go light. He struggled harder, doing anything he could think of to loosen the demon’s hold. Anything that would give him just the barest taste of air. Barney wrapped his arms around Clint, pinning him down. Clint tossed his head, trying to clip Barney’s nose. He tried to jab the demon with his knees, shoved his hands and elbows against his brother’s body. Anything to get them to relax their grip.

He never thought he’d miss the nasty smell of waste, sweat, dust, and strong herbs but even that sounded like it would be a breath of heaven!

His lungs finally gave out.

Clint’s mouth dropped open, instincts overriding logic as his weakening body made a last ditch attempt to breathe. Fire lanced at his throat, stinging and biting at the soft, vulnerable flesh. The hand around his throat loosened, and his oxygen deprived body responded immediately, sucking air and fire in equal measure.

But only the air seemed to make it down into his lungs.

For what felt like several long, agonizing minutes, Clint had no choice but to sit there. To sit there and take it while the demon dangled what felt like a house sized bonfire down his throat.

Finally , Surtur pulled back.

The fire retreated, and Clint coughed and hacked like a smoker.

Surtur smirked, pleased. Electric blue eyes stayed nailed to the gasping archer as the demon addressed the older Barton. “What is that saying you humans use? ...the spirit is willing? But the flesh is weak?”

Barney went back to rubbing those stupid circles into Clint’s back. “How soon?”

Surtur made a pleased rumble. “I’ll be wearing him by the end of the day.”

“I’m right here you know.” Clint grumbled.

Barney ruffled the younger Barton’s hair. “Clint. Clint . You just can’t help yourself, can you? You just have to have the last word. Even when you really should be quiet. Now hush, the grown ups are talking.” He looked past Clint to the demon. “You’re sure?”

“Of course. His walls are almost hair thin. Very soon now, they will tear like tissue paper. He will be unable to protest once I am within his mind. And once I am...Well. Let’s just say that no puppet will ever compare to the dancing this one will do on the end of my strings.”

“Perfect.”

“You two done patting yourselves on the back yet? Some of us are trying to ignore you here.”

Barney smacked Clint upside the head. “Laugh it up Clint. Soon you’ll only be able to say what we tell you to say.”

Clint rolled his head up to look at his brother. “You know what?”

“What?”

“Dad would’ve been proud of the man you became.” Clint gave him a tired smile. “He beat the tar out of us kids and Mom because it was the only way he could have control. And God help us, but you’re just like him. You didn’t have control back then. You didn’t have it in the circus or the army, and you sure as hell didn’t have it in the FBI, or the fiascos that came after. So now you’re following in Dad’s footsteps and beating the living hell out of anyone who dares look at you funny. Dad would be real proud of y-”

Barney’s fist made a solid sound as it crashed into Clint’s jaw and laid the archer out.

“Come on Surtur. Let’s give Clint some time to stew over what’s coming.”

Clint rolled over, watching the two of them leave. “Yeah. Just like Dad.”

Barney froze.

For one horrible second, Clint thought he’d gone too far. But finally Barney started moving again, and slammed the door shut on Clint’s empty little prison cell. He waited, tense as one of his own bowstrings. But neither his brother nor the demon came back.

Silence fell.

He could hear water running in the pipes. Somewhere outside he heard the train go by. His first day in the cell, he’d counted the number of trains that went by, both to help track time in his windowless prison and for lack of something better to do. Since the sleep deprivation had really started to set in, he’d started losing time. Now he had no idea how many trains had been by today, or if he was counting yesterday’s in with today’s.

Hopefully he wouldn’t need to keep track of them too much longer.

Clint rubbed his thumb along the edge of the cell phone. It had taken quite a bit of doing to get it out of Barney’s pocket with half an inferno down his throat. But then again, that was probably why he’d gotten away with it. He'd been thrashing like mad, and his groping fingers had gone unnoticed in the struggle.

It was a burner phone.

Dialing it behind his back was going to be fun. He fumbled the device open, sweat slick hands sliding against hard plastic. It hit the floor with a clatter.

Clint growled a swear word and leaned back, fingers fumbling over the concrete.

There. His fingers touched warm plastic, and he straightened his spine once it was in his hand. He let his thumb play over the keys. Made sure he new which ones were the numbers, and which were just extra keys. Then he worked on entering Nat’s cell number.

Natasha had pointed out years ago that each number on a phone's keypad was in the same spot and made a different sound. It was how Natasha could dial a pay phone to call in their extraction team on a pitch black street while being shot at and never miss a digit.

Loki knew about my family.

The thought froze him halfway through Natasha’s number. Once inside Clint’s head, Loki had known everything. About his family, who was aware they existed, who would retrieve them if things went irreparably south, and where they would go and what fake names they would use if they had to run on their own. Loki had known all of that and more. He just hadn't cared. He intended to destroy the world.

So what did it matter?

Somehow Clint didn't think that Surtur would have the same lack of interest. Every time the demon tried to break in, he could physically feel the beast prying at his secrets. Barney wanted Clint to hurt, wanted him broken. The demon would use the most painful method possible to do so. No two ways about it, his family was it. He needed someone to get the Barton clan off the farm.

He snapped the phone closed to clear it and flipped it open again.

When it came to his family, Natasha knew pretty much everything he did. She would do her dead level best, but demons were definitely outside of her wheelhouse. It was probably the only time that Clint could look at Natasha’s skill set and find her wanting.

He keyed in a new number and thumbed the volume all the way up.

Ring.

He needed someone who knew how to handle themselves.

Ring.

Someone he could trust with the most important aspect of his entire life.

Ring.

Someone who wouldn't hesitate to take his family in and protect them like a bulldog.

Ring.

Someone who knew the supernatural world. Who also knew not only how to survive it, but thrive in it.

Ring.

He needed a Hunter.

“This is Dean Winchester. I can't come to the phone, so please leave your name, number, and nightmare at the tone. And I’ll get back to you as soon as humanly possible.”

Clint didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Seriously Dean? Nightmare?

But at the same time, it scared him beyond belief. Dean always picked up his phone. Especially if it was a member of his little hodge podge family. There were only two reasons he wouldn’t. Clint prefered the first one, where Dean had to have turned it off for a hunt where silence was of paramount importance. The other option was that he was dead. And that didn’t bear thinking about. Praying that Dean would check his messages soon, Clint licked his lips and started talking.

Beep.

“H-hey Dean. It's me, I uh, damn it... Dean I fucked up. I don't know where you are, b-but I need you to burn rubber. T-they're trying to roll my mind again, and once they're in my head there's no t-telling what they’ll do with what they’ll find there.” Tears burned his eyes, and he choked back a sob. “I-I need you and Sam to get the g-gang out of there Dean. Get them someplace s-safe, and stay with them. Don’t let me find them. You’re the only ones equipped for w-what's coming.”

He bit his lip, his voice shaking. “Dean... tell them. T-tell the gang for me. Everything we talked about. Please . Because once this b-bastard gets inside my head, I won't be able to tell them myself.... I'm s-scared Dean. I don’t know how you and Sam do this for a l-living everyday. You two...you two are crazy. I'm… I'm sorry I had to pull you two into this.”

He choked back another sob and plowed ahead, he couldn't have much time left to record. “Listen I, if I don't make it I want you to know… I may have come into this world with a c-cruddy family, but I'm leavin’ it with one of the b-best.”

...Beep.

That tone sounded so final. Clint shivered. No time to waste now. The archer fumbled the cell closed and open again, then punched in Natasha’s number. Please pick up, he prayed , please pick up. Unlike Dean, Natasha picked up on the second ring.

“Hello?”

Hearing her low, familiar voice on the other end of the line was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. Pain and exhaustion finally overwhelmed him. His chin dropped to his chest, and he closed his eyes. Something that was either a strangled laugh or a sob wrenched through him. He gripped the phone tighter.

“Nat. Nat, it’s me. Please, I need your help. I can’t… I can’t get out. I can’t get out.”


 

Natasha froze.

She could count the number of times she’d heard Clint cry on one hand. Once at the birth of each child. And once he had cried from pain. But actual fear? Clint never showed fear. He covered it, cracked off jokes, made sarcastic comments. The more intense the situation, the more he gave his jaws a workout. She knew he felt fear, and more importantly she’d known him long enough and well enough to recognize when he did feel it. But he never let it show. Never let it control him, and he never let it influence his actions.

“Help me Nat. Please. I don’t know where I am.”

His words were slurring a little. As if his hearing aids weren’t working correctly or were completely out. As if he couldn’t hear well enough to self modulate his voice. Clint was at his most vulnerable, and his emotions said he’d probably been that way since he’d disappeared. That vulnerability was what snapped her out of her shock.

“Friday, trace this call now !”

“Right away Agent Romanoff.”

“And call an assembly in the conference room! I want all the Avengers in there ASAP!” She pressed the phone back to her ear. “Clint? Clint, can you hear me? Are your aids in?”

“Yeah, yeah they’re in.” Clint slurred.

“Are they working?”

He seemed to catch where she was going. “Yeah, they work Nat, I’m… I’m just tired. Haven’t slept all week.”

Sleep deprivation. Ok, she could work with that. The ex-assassin started running to meet the rest of the team. “Are you hurt?”

“Banged up, but...I’ll live.” His voice wobbled. “Nat. They, they’re gonna roll my mind. They’re gonna roll my mind again. I-I can’t keep him out anym-more. I c-can’t. I can’t hold out anymore.”

“Clint. Clint! Listen to me! Listen to me.” She hardened her tone. Demanded that he listen and tell her what she needed to know. “Friday is tracing this call right now. We are coming for you. I found you when Loki took you, I will find you again! So tell me what you see. What can you hear? How many are there; do you know them? Are you restrained? How? Tell me.”

“Nat…”

“Sit-rep Agent Barton. Now !”


 

Clint took a deep shuddering breath.

He gripped the phone tighter behind his back. Hearing Nat’s voice on the phone had been enough to flood his emotions. But hearing the Black Widow demand a situation report? That settled his nerves. This was just another mission. And the Black Widow never left her Hawk behind. Relief settled over him and he closed his eyes again. He rested his chin on his chest. He didn’t need to look at his cell to describe it to her.

He’d had a whole week to memorize it.

“Cell.” He muttered. “No windows. D-dust. Mold. Symbols painted on th’ walls. It’s cold in here. I...I can hear a train. Comes by couple dozen times a day... Freight train. I’m ch-chained to th’ wall. Collar. Elbows are tied. Hands too… cuffs. Zip t-ties. Thumbs. Blue eyed b-bastard got my feet ‘s well.”

“Excellent. Do you know who has you? How many there are?”

“Yeah. I…”

BANG!

Clint’s head snapped up.

The door swung slowly, having bounced off the concrete wall. Barney stood framed in the open doorway, hands on his hips. Surtur stood behind the older Barton, watching the show. A tight, angry smile twisted Barney’s lips. “Who are you talking to?” He asked mildly. “Better yet... How are you talking to them?”

Clint glared.

Barney stormed across the room, the demon on his heels.

Clint shoved himself back against the wall, fingers gripping the phone tighter. As soon as his brother was close enough he brought his bound feet up and slammed them into Barney’s gut.

Barney stumbled back with a curse. Then the demon was there, dragging Clint by the cuff chain on his ankles. He pulled him far away from the wall until the chain around his throat went taught.

“Shit.” Clint gasped against the chain. “Nat! Find Dean! He’ll have the answers! Find Dean !”

“Damnit, get him!” Barney bellowed.

Fire washed over Clint’s face, shoving down his throat without resistance. Heat flooded the archer’s veins. He felt as if he was burning from the inside. His vision flashed blue, and then it was done. A malevolent fiery presence spread through his head, burning away any semblance of control he had. He screamed and thrashed inside his mind, but his body remained still. He wasn’t the one driving anymore.

Barney snatched the phone from limp hands and hissed. “You’re too late.”

Then he snapped the phone shut.


 

Surtur curled the lips of his new meat suit up into a smile.

This one was strong. It would accomplish what he needed. He flexed the arms, inhuman strength snapping the pitiful restraints like so much thread. The legs were just as easy. He rose, stretching kinks out of muscles that had stiffened with a week of inactivity. They would respond to his needs whether he stretched them or not. But it wouldn’t do to damage the body so early. He had been ordered specifically not to injure this body seriously. Barney wanted Clint to suffer. He didn’t want him dead or maimed. Not yet.

His previous meat suit whimpered.

He eyed the sniveling worm at his feet. The demon looked to his companion.

Barney waved it off. “I ain’t got a use for ‘im.”

Shrugging, the demon gripped the pitiful human’s head in both hands and twisted, snapping it’s neck before it even had a chance to understand what was coming. He let it drop to the floor with a soft thud. After a moment’s consideration, he turned the broken neck so the head was facing the door. The better to greet whoever was hapless enough to find it.

Barney held out the phone. “Crush this. It’s no good now that the Avengers know the number.” He waited for the demon to crumble it up like so much play dough, then headed for the door. “Come on. There’s no telling how long Clint was on the phone with that bitch. There’s no way she didn’t trace the call. The Avenger’s could be here any minute. We want to be gone before they get here.”

Surtur quietly followed.

It was an irritation, having to leave this base. But a minor one only. The city was vast, and there were many places that would turn a blind eye to their comings and goings. All they need do was bide their time. Clint had thrown a wrench into their plans. But he hadn’t stopped them.

No.

This was only the beginning.


 

“You’re too late.”

The line went dead. Natasha let loose an angry stream of Russian and flung open the doors of the conference room. The rest of the team was already there, waiting.

“Natasha? What’s wrong?”

The ex-assassin stormed right past Steve and planted herself directly in front of the holograms detailing streams of code. Friday’s calculations fell across the screen in a veritable waterfall of data. Any second now she’d have a location. She had to.

“Natasha?”

“Clint called.” Natasha didn’t even turn to see the reaction her blunt declaration elicited. “Someone’s holding him captive, and they’re trying to roll his mind. They’ve had him all week. He managed to get a hold of a phone and called me for evac. He didn’t know his location, and the call was interrupted. As soon as Friday gives me coordinates I’m going after him, with or without the rest of you.”

Steve’s jaw tightened, and she paid him no more attention, knowing he’d handle it.

He didn’t disappoint.

“Avengers, suit up and head for the quinjet. We leave as soon as we have a location, anyone not on the jet is walking.” The Avengers scattered. Natasha thought that would be the end of it, but Steve paused in the doorway. “That goes for you too ‘Widow’. I know how formidable you are, but if these people are good enough to hold Clint for a week, I want you to have every trick you own up your sleeve when we go after them. Suit up and meet on the roof, Friday’s not going to trace the call faster because you’re glaring at one of her holograms.”

She glared after the super soldiers retreating back.

He was right, damn him. But that didn’t mean she had to like it. Spouting off curses, she ran at full pelt to go get her weapons and suit. Somehow, despite being the last one to leave the conference room, she was still one of the first to reach the Quinjet. She immediately climbed up into the cockpit and set to warming up the engines. As soon as Friday gave her coordinates she was gone.

The rest of the Avengers set a new record getting to the Quinjet.

And Friday was still working to triangulate a location.

Tony flipped back the visor on his helmet. “Yo, Friday, what’s slowing you down? Because right now Natasha looks like she wants to impale something and I don’t like working with the Black Widow when she’s feeling stabby, so what’s the hold up?”

The AI almost sounded embarrassed.

“Sir, the phone call didn’t last long enough for me to get an exact location.”

Every Avenger slumped in place, seeing their chance to help Clint slipping away.

“I’ve only been able to narrow down Hawkeye’s location to a four block radius in Jersey.”

Natasha snapped into action, closing the ramp even as she yanked the quinjet up into the air. Finally! Finally she had a location on Clint! She whipped the jet around and set it hurtling through the sky towards Jersey. Behind her, she could hear Tony praising Friday for narrowing it down that far. She’d thank the A.I. later. Right now, she had a an archer to save.

A hand came to rest on her shoulder.

“We’ll find him Natasha.”

She glanced away from the deepening sunset skies outside to favor the super soldier with a quick glance. “I know. I promised Laura years ago that I would bring Clint home. I’ve never broken that promise, and I don’t intend to start now.”

“We’ll do whatever we can to help you keep that promise.” Steve agreed. “Turn your com on. We need to know everything Clint said, and we’re not all going to fit up here in the cockpit. Everyone else already has theirs on.” He waited for her to comply, then started asking questions.

“What did Clint say?”

Natasha took a deep breath. Normally she would edit her report to preserve Clint’s secrets… but these were their friends. They could trust them. “He was scared. He kept saying ‘help me Nat. I don’t know where I am’. Repeating it, or some version thereof. He didn’t know where he was. And he couldn’t get out. I can count the number of times I’ve seen him cry on one hand. Only once because he was hurt. But he never lets fear show. Whoever has him is not a person to be trifled with.”

Dead silence hung in the jet as her teammates slowly absorbed her words.

She adjusted their course to match more closely with Friday’s readings and pressed on. “He said he was banged up, but that he would live.”

“And in Barton speak that could mean anything from bruises to broken bones.” They could all practically hear the grimace in Steve’s voice.

Natasha nodded. “As long as he can walk away, he counts that as a win. But that’s not the problem. The people that have him are either competent or paranoid. They secured his hands with cuffs, thumb cuffs, and zip ties. His elbows were tied together, and his feet had been secured with cuffs and zip ties as well. They even chained him to the wall with a collar around his neck.”

“Um, question?” Tony butted in through the coms. “Why would they tie his elbows together, I mean, isn’t that overkill?”

“To keep him from bringing his hands to the front by running them under his feet. Tieing the elbows isn’t foolproof, but it makes it nigh on impossible for most people.” Stark must’ve given Steve a funny look, because he sounded exasperated as he defended himself. “It’s easier to get free when you can see what’s holding you down Tony, even I can bring my hands forward with a bit of effort. Peggy insisted we learn back in the forties and it saved our lives more times than I care to count.”

“Yeah, that sounds like her.” Tony agreed, throwing Steve for a loop. He sometimes forgot that Howard and Peggy had been friends, and that Tony would’ve grown up knowing her. “Continue.”

“As if I need your permission Stark.” Natasha rolled her eyes. “Like I said, the people we’re going up against are either good or suspicious. And right now, I’m not sure which I’m hoping for. But my bet is on the first. Not only are they beating him, they’re keeping him awake.”

“Sleep deprivation?” Vision inquired.

Natasha nodded. “Yes. He seemed to be having trouble focusing and his speech alternated between slurred and stuttering. They haven’t let him sleep much if at all since they took him.”

“They’re wearing him down for something worse.” Sam commented.

“Yes, and if they haven’t done it yet then it’s happening very soon. He’d just finished describing the room when someone came in and caught Clint with the phone. There was a struggle. Someone yelled ‘get him’, Clint screamed, and then someone said ‘you’re too late’ very clearly into the phone and ended the call.”

Natasha brought the plane around and set it down in an empty lot.

“Keep the com lines open.” Steve ordered grimly. “We don’t know who we’re up against. Report back as soon as you find something. Doctor Banner, stay in the Quinjet. We need to know where our medic is at all times, especially if Hawkeye is in a bad way. Scarlet Witch, see if you can locate Hawkeye’s mind. Falcon, Iron Man, I want you two in the air. Look for anything out of the ordinary. I want Vision on the ground with me and Black Widow. We’ll fan out and work from the ground up. ”

The Avengers scattered.

In their ears, Natasha described the dusty moldy room Clint had told her about over the phone in as much detail as she could. Everything he’d mentioned, from being able to hear the freight train to the fact that there were no windows and the walls were covered in graffiti.

Those in the air started scouting out the nearest train tracks.

Usually, the most attention grabbing member of their team was Iron Man. The bright red and gold suit was neither subtle nor exactly quiet. Or Thor when he was around. He tended to draw thunder and occasional streaks of lightning. Sometimes even Vision, Falcon, or War Machine were the ones that attracted the attention of civilians.

But not today.

Today that dubious honor went to the Scarlet Witch.

Not that she cared. Clint had been the first to accept her. Her beloved Pietro had died to protect him. Clint had done everything he could to help her learn to cope with the grief afterwards. The others had helped, but it had been Clint who had got her back on her feet. More often than not, he was the one she went to when her nightmares were too much.

He was her Hawk, just as he was Natasha’s or anyone else’s on the team.

And now it was her turn. Her Hawk, her friend was out there somewhere, and he was trapped and hurt. He was scared . He couldn’t save himself, and needed her help. And so help her, she was going to make the people who had hurt her friend regret the day they’d ever set eyes on Clint Barton.

Her power flowed from her hands.

Misty red clouds floated around her outstretched fingers. They were the size of small bushes, larger than she generally used. She didn’t care, anything for Clint. Ropes of scarlet power twisted and coiled through the air around her, slithering in and out of windows and doorways, and up and down stairs and hallways. She walked to the intersection at the center of the four blocks Friday had mapped out. And she sent out her power in search of her missing friend. Reaching for his mind.

She didn’t find it.

She desperately thrust thicker cords of her power out into the surrounding buildings and alleyways. But there was no sign of Clint. One trembling finger pressed at the com in her ear.

“I cannot feel his mind.”

Steve responded immediately. “Scarlet Witch, are you sure?”

Wanda closed her glowing eyes, thrusting her powers out even farther to reach the blocks surrounding the target area. “Hawkeye does not trust easily. You know how long it took before he would let me touch his mind.” She remembered that moment with total clarity. Remembered being able to feel Clint’s fear, and the way he had fought it down because he trusted her enough to do this. It had been humbling, to be trusted like that, by him of all people. A tear slipped down her cheek. “I am sure. His is not a mind I could mistake.”

“I am inclined to believe that Scarlet Witch is correct. I seem to have found the room Black Widow described to us.” Vision interjected. “There is a dead body in it, a male I have not seen before.”

“Locked in on your coordinates, Vizh, we’ll be there in a sec.

Clint’s prison was in the bottom of an abandoned apartment building. It was slated for demolition in a month. Apparently that had been more than enough time for whatever Clint’s captors had planned. A room in the basement had been set up as a makeshift kitchen and bedroom. A door off to the side had a heavy padlock hanging off of it, and the padlock was what had caught Vision’s attention. Clint’s prison was on the other side.

The cell was worse than they’d imagined.

It stank. The acrid scent of fire and ash cut through the heavier scents of dust and mold, and the rankness of waste. A chain with a leather collar dangled from the far wall. Cuffs and broken zip ties littered the filthy floor underneath them.

Natasha wrinkled her nose. “This is the place.”

Tony was turning in a circle, taking  in the bleak little room. “Not that I doubt you or anything, but how are you so sure? Friday, I want full scans of the whole room. Give me everything you got.”

The assassin knelt and retrieved the remains of a crushed cell phone from the floor, careful not to touch it with her bare skin as she slipped it into a plastic bag. “We can dust what’s left of this for prints, but I know he was here. This place is exactly what he described.”

Steve was frowning at the walls. “Tony, make sure you get photos of all of these. Something feels off.”

“You got it Capsicle.”

The super soldier nodded. Wanda was standing next to that dirty spot against the far wall, fingers playing over the thick chain. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?”

She shook her head. “No… He was here, they kept him chained like an animal. He would not have given in. Why would they take the chains off now? What if he is…”

“He’s not dead.” Steve soothed. He gestured to the dead body Sam and Vision were looking over. “If they’d killed Hawkeye, they would’ve left him here. They don’t have a use for dead bodies. Since they didn’t, we have to assume Hawkeye’s still alive. Injured or even compromised, but he’s alive. Until we find evidence to the contrary, we’ll operate as if that’s so.”

The Sokovian leaned against him, accepting the comfort for what it was. “He told Natasha that they were attempting to take over his mind. What if we do not find him in time?”

Steve sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Then God help him.”


 

Dean groaned.

He stumbled down the spiral stairs, Sam’s lanky form shambling down after him. They were exhausted. Tired down to their bones. Dean smiled at the familiar sights and smells of the bunker.

Damn it was good to be home.

The hunt had taken far longer than it should have. An angry ghost had been terrorizing a nursing home, and had an impressive body count under her belt by the time the boys had blown into town. The trick had been ascertaining who she was. The hospital had gotten several cases of bad medicine several years back, and fourteen of the residents had died. Of those fourteen, two thirds had been women.

It had taken most of the week to whittle down the list to two women who could be the angry spirit, and the additional days to figure out where the women were buried. They'd burned the both of them, just to be safe. A passing dog walker had seen them go into the second cemetery though, and had called the police on them. The two had had to hightail it out of that town at top speed, and hadn't stopped until they were home. It was now two a.m., and all either of them wanted was a shower and bed. And to sleep till noon if possible.

Sam tripped over his own feet.

Dean blinked and helped his exhausted brother up off the floor. “You alright dude?”

“Yeah.” Sam grimaced. “I’m seriously considering skipping the shower and falling straight into bed though.”

Dean snorted and hauled Sam farther into their home. “Yeah, now I know you’re tired, you didn’t get any sleep at all on the way home did you?... Yeah, I didn’t think so. Go and grab some clean clothes, and don’t skip the shower. We both know how bitchy you’ll be if you wake up with your bed covered in graveyard dirt and smelling like smoke and kerosene. I’m not messing with that. So get moving.”

He watched Sam shamble off with  all the coordination of a newborn giraffe, then headed for the kitchen. They’d been gone for a whole week, longer than they’d intended. There were probably a few science projects that needed pitching. He dropped his duffel on the table and peeked into the fridge.

Yeah, he was definitely going to need to make a grocery run.

Off in the distance, he heard the shower turn on. Seems Sam had actually listened to him for once and done as he was told. Well wonders never ceased. Dean grabbed a garbage bag and pitched a plastic container of something that might have been beef stroganoff. It now looked more like a short and lumpy half grown topiary.

By the time the fridge had been cleared of all things growing and nasty, Sam was out of the shower and collapsed on his bed. Dean fondly shook his head tucked his little brother in. He retrieved his duffel and headed for his own room.

His own room, he still wasn’t entirely used to the concept. Or having anything close to a home for that matter. Fishing his charger out of his duffel, Dean plugged his phone in. It had died yesterday evening, he wasn’t sure when. Probably while they were salting and burning. He hadn’t had a chance to recharge it. His phone squared away, he turned to the next order of business.

The shower felt amazing.

Feeling a little more awake, Dean swung by the living room for his laptop. Maybe Clint had messaged him back while they were gone! He and Sam certainly hadn’t had a chance to check from Sam’s laptop while they were hunting. He waited until he was back in the bedroom to log in.

Nothing.

Dean huffed and sat back in bed. Now that worried him. Clint usually let them know that he was alright. He messaged them if he could, and called or texted from a burner phone if he couldn’t. It was rare that he was on such a tight lockdown that he couldn’t even get a word out.

Before Phil had passed away, Clint would have his handler get onto the chat room and let them know Clint was fine if he was locked down too tight. Phil never knew who he was talking to, only that they were someone very important to Clint, and that he trusted them implicitly.

Someone who would worry if he suddenly fell off of the face of the planet.

Clint had warned them never to respond to the user Agents_Cheese , but to regard every word he said as gospel. He was the secret agent’s secret agent, despite the nickname, which was apparently was an inside joke between Phil and the late Nick Fury. As such, he would be able to get information from even the most innocuous answers. Given some of the stories Clint had told them? The Winchesters absolutely believed it.

It never failed to make them smile and scare the bejesus out of them in equal measure  whenever Agents_Cheese  logged on. Because he was logging on to tell them that Clint was either alright or in the hospital.

There was no in between.

Two weeks after the Battle of New York, they’d dropped everything and driven all night to go be with Clint at one of his safe houses. Until he was cleared, Clint couldn’t go home, but he couldn’t be alone either. They’d stayed with him while he dealt with the grief and the guilt of losing Phil. And they mourned with him. They’d never met the man, but he had looked after their brother when they couldn’t. Through Clint, he’d become a sort of honorary member of the family, as had the other members of Clint’s cobbled together family. Natasha and the Avengers would’ve been surprised to hear that there were two men who would answer their call for help, even though they’d never met them. The same went for Laura, or any of Clint’s kids.

Dean wished Phil were still around now to tell them Clint was ok.

He shut the laptop and set it on the bedside table. His phone winked back. New message. Dean eyed it dubiously. He really wasn’t in the mood to deal with some hunter who didn’t know the difference between a wendigo and a rakshasa. He didn’t know how Bobby used to do it twenty-four seven. Garth fielded most of the calls now, but if he didn’t pick up his phone his answering machine would sometimes spit out one of the Winchester’s numbers in case of an emergency. Dean didn’t think Garth had his current number, but he’d thought that before and been proven wrong.

He sighed and grabbed the phone.

No harm in at least listening to the message. If it was a moron or a case where lack of knowledge wouldn't  result in people dying, then it could wait until morning. He flipped the phone open and put it to his ear, bracing himself for whatever bogus bullshit he was about to suffer through.

“H-hey Dean. It's me, I uh, damn it... Dean I fucked up.”

The blood rushed out of Dean’s face. He pinned the phone between his ear and his shoulder and scrambled for clothes. His adoptive little brother was crying in his ear. Begging for them to get his family farther off the grid where they would be safe. Where even Clint wouldn’t find them. Begging. His brothers didn’t beg.

“Listen I, if I don't make it I want you to know… I may have come into this world with a c-cruddy family, but I'm leavin’ it with one of the b-best.”

Dean slammed on his boots and hit redial.

The phone didn’t pick up. He snarled and stormed out of the room. No one hurt his little brothers. As soon as Laura and the kids were safe, he and Sam were going to bury the asshole who dared to threaten their brother.

“Sammy!”


 

Chapter Text


Three Days Later..

They had nothing.

It had been three days since Clint’s phone call to Natasha, and the Avengers had found diddly squat to lead them to their missing archer.

The dead man had been ridiculously easy to identify. A five minute call to missing persons had handed them his identity on a silver platter. He was a cashier at a small corner shop in the Bronx who had been missing for several weeks. Near as anyone had been able to tell, he helped lock up the store for the night, and had never made it home. His wife had reported him missing the next day. He’ been chosen apparently at random, and had literally become a dead end for the team.

Then there was the graffiti.

Something about it just didn’t sit right with Steve. Some of the symbols unsettled him. A few quick google searches identified a couple as arcane in nature, but most of them didn’t turn up in any search the Avengers could run. If this was all mixed up in magic, which Tony vehemently opposed because “ science Steve!”, then they were going to need help. Steve bit the bullet and made the call.

“Maria Hill.”

“Agent Hill, this is Captain Rogers. I have a situation, and I’m told you might know of someone with a particular skillset I need.”

The woman was silent for a moment. After the fall of the Triskelion, the Avengers had cut most of their ties with Shield. Since the New Shield had come online, they had been cordial but had maintained their distance. They weren’t going to take the chance of Hydra piggybacking Shield to get anything from the Avengers. The situation had to be pretty serious if Captain America was calling for some outside help.

“What skill set are you looking for Captain?”

Steve let go of a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. She was willing to play ball. He hadn’t been sure. He and the Avengers had stepped on a lot of toes during and immediately after the Sokovia incident. “I need someone trustworthy, and well versed in the occult field.”

“Occult?” She repeated.

Steve grimaced. “I know it sounds out there, but I’ve seen enough not to discredit anything out of hand, and all the leads we have seems to point that way. I’ve got a room full of apparently magical symbols that I can’t identify, and a ticking clock that could run out at any time. Do you know of anyone who fits the bill?”

He heard her heave a sigh, and the soft tap of fingers on a keyboard. “Let me see who we have on file...Do I need to be preparing for anything Captain?”

Steve glanced over at Wanda, who was glowing red for no apparent reason that he could see. None of the Avengers were taking their failure to find Clint very well. Tony had barely come out of the lab here in the upstate facility since they’d gotten back.

“I don’t know yet. Agent Barton was taken, and we’ve yet to find him. I’ll give you a heads up if it looks like this could become something major.”

Hill hummed in response, accepting the olive branch for what it was. The clicking stopped. “Alright Captain, it doesn’t look as though Shield has anyone fitting your description on the payroll. However, we have been watching someone who might have the skills you need. He used to be a very well respected neurosurgeon before his hands were injured in a car accident and flushed his career down the drain.”

More keyboard sounds came over the line and Hill picked up her narrative again. “He started to spiral and eventually fell off the grid. The next we heard, he was back in New York and setting up a place in Greenwich Village as an expert on the occult. Rumor has it that he’s not only the foremost expert in the world but a practitioner as well, and a very powerful one at that. We kept him under surveillance up until the Triskelion fell, and he never once gave us any reason to think he was into anything underhanded. If it’s an expert on the occult that you need, I’d start with him. I can send his information to your phone if you want.”

“Please.” Steve agreed. “Do you have a personal opinion on the man?”

“Before he fell off the grid, I got the impression of extreme arrogance. Some might have even gone so far as to call him a pompous bastard. Since his return, he seems to have done a complete one-eighty. My opinion, someone kicked his ego to the curb and stomped all over it in high heels. I’ve yet to hear much negative said about this new Doctor Strange. But then again, appearances can be deceiving. Mind yourself Captain.”

His phone made a soft chime, signalling the arrival of Hill’s information. “I will. Thank you ma’am.”

Wanda glanced up, glowing red eyes sharp and assessing. She waited for him to end the call, but only just.

“You have something?”

“Maybe.” Steve ran a thumb thoughtfully along the edge of his phone. “Shield doesn’t have anyone on payroll with the knowledge we need, which seems like an oversight on their part given what all has been cropping up over the last several years. They did have a name to give me. A civilian in Greenwich who is supposedly the world’s foremost expert on the occult. They had him under surveillance for a time, and think he could be trustworthy if they needed to bring him in. They just sent me his name, address, and number. A Doctor Stephen Strange.”

“Are you going to call him?”

He shrugged. “We don’t have much else to go on. Right now I’m willing to follow any lead to exhaustion if it means we might find Clint at the end of one.”

The redhead settled back on the couch, blank red gaze drifting to the coffee table. Someone had put a bowl of ornamental globes in the middle, and she lifted three of the spheres with a small gesture. They orbited lightly around her slowly waving fingers, trailing scarlet behind them. A tear slipped down her cheek. “I am sorry I cannot be of more help. I am a witch in name only I am afraid.”

“Hey.” Steve gently wiped the tear away. “You are helping. And when we find Clint we’ll need you then too, especially if they’ve managed to roll his mind. You’ll be the most effective in reversing whatever they’ve done to him.”

That seemed to settle her.

Steve patted her shoulder encouragingly and stepped away to call Doctor Stephen Strange. It was picked up on the third ring.

“Hello?” A lightly accented male voice asked politely.

“Doctor Strange?”

“I am sorry, Doctor Strange is not here currently. Perhaps I could be of some assistance?”

“To whom am I speaking?”

“I am the good doctor’s aid and manservant. My name is Wong.”

Steve grimaced. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to reach Doctor Stephen Strange. A friend told me that he was an expert on the occult, and that he might be able to help me with a problem. Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“I am afraid not. Doctor Strange left early this morning to help a friend, and was unclear when he might return. He stated that he would be gone a few days at the least. As it now stands, I have no way with which to readily contact him until his return. Perhaps I could take a message? I need only a brief description of your problem, and a manner in which to reach you when Doctor Strange returns. He will be certain to contact you swiftly.”

Steve debated the pros and cons.

Hill had said that Doctor Strange had given the impression of trustworthiness, but she hadn’t said anything about anyone else living at this number. She hadn't even mentioned the possibility of a manservant. He had no idea who he might be talking to on the other side of the phone. Knew absolutely nothing about him. But on the other hand, God only knew how much time Clint had left. If he wasn’t already out of time.

Steve had to take the chance.

“Sir, my name is Captain America. One of my teammates has been taken, and as it stands, we can’t find him. His last known location was a cell covered in painted symbols that appear to be occult in nature. I need to know if those symbols can shed some light on what they were trying to do to my teammate or where they might have taken him. If you could have Doctor Strange call me back at this number as soon as possible, I’d be very grateful.”

The man sounded concerned now. “It is an emergency then. I will attempt to reach out to Doctor Strange, but I can make no promises. Where he has gone, it is sometimes very difficult to reach, but I will do what I can. I will have him call you back as soon as possible Captain.”

“Thank you.”

“It is nothing Captain. I only hope your friend comes to no harm in the interim. If you find him before Doctor Strange returns, bring him here to the sanctum. I am not Doctor Strange, but I know something of treating magical injuries, and I will help if I can.”

Steve raised his eyebrows in surprise, but the man’s concern for someone he’d never known warmed him. “I appreciate that Mr. Wong. Thank you.”


 

 

“Nat! Find Dean! He’ll have the answers! Find Dean!”

Natasha was ready to rip her hair out. Clint’s words rang through her head on a loop, over and over again. Find Dean, he said. Find Dean. He would have the answers. But who on earth was Dean? So far as Natasha knew, there was no one in Clint’s immediate life with that name. Or with a name that could be shortened down to that. So who was Clint talking about? Could it be a place? An acronym? She didn’t know. The assassin rubbed at her eyes. Clint had stumped her.

Apparently her own secretive nature had rubbed off on him.

She had broken into his phone, searching through his contacts for anyone with a name even remotely resembling Dean. Nothing. His call logs yielded a large set  of numbers not in his contact list, most of them burner phones or belonging to agents of SHIELD. None of those numbers belonged to Dean either.

Her next target had been his laptop, which she had combed through herself, unsure of what secrets he might have hidden there. No Dean. Though she did note that Clint frequented several chat rooms. He seemed to stick to one for a few months, then switch to a new one using the same username.

Arrows_Are_Fletching_Awesome .

It made her smile. Maybe that was how he reached some of his contacts from his assassin days, she knew he still called in a favor from them every now and again. He used the same username over and over so that they could find him, they just had to troll the chat rooms until they found the username. He didn’t have any open chats on his laptop, though there was a message from someone telling him they’d be gone for a couple days. No one that had the word Dean or the letters D.E.A.N. in their name.

She had even searched his room, and had come up with nothing. Clint would probably give her a hard time when he came back and saw the way she’d torn his room apart. She should’ve cleaned it up, but she just didn’t have it in her. She’d take the ribbing, if only it meant that her friend was home and safe.

But now what?

“Friday, have you found anything in your search for a person, place, or acronym that fits the name Dean?”

The hologram in front of her began displaying possibilities. She had to give it to Friday, the A.I. was thorough. The computer had pulled everything from an anti-drug organisation to a guitar maker, a South Korean singer, and the webster's dictionary definition. And then there were all of the foreign language options.

The assassin huffed a breath and set to combing through the possibilities.


 

 

They were walking on eggshells around her.

Natasha had answered the call to dinner grudgingly. Her internet search had turned up nothing after several hours of searching, and the only reason she was still at it was because she refused to admit that there was nothing she could do. She was grouchy and irritable when she arrived in the kitchen.

The only reason she came at all was because she didn't want to hurt Wanda’s feelings.

The red headed metahuman had pulled out of her funk. Realizing that sitting around moping helped no one, she had turned her energies to the kitchen. But that wasn't to say that she was safe to approach.

Very early on, The team had discovered that Wanda loved to cook. It hadn't taken long for someone to suggest that using her powers in the kitchen might help fine tune her control. Now she did it out of habit, and the Avengers steered clear of the kitchen for fear of floating bowls of batter and ingredients and utensils that suddenly zoomed across the room when she was startled.

“Hey, who made the Paprikash?”

The other Avengers smiled at Sam’s question. There had been several instances where Vision had tried to cheer Wanda up by making Sokovian food. Usually Paprikash, as it had been one of her and Pietro’s favorites. He tried, but his Paprikash was the stuff horror stories were made of.

To be fair, he was getting better.

But after the third food poisoning incident, they always asked. And Wanda, Steve, and Thor were the only ones still willing to taste test. Wanda and Steve because they felt sorry for him and the serum protected Steve from the worst effects of food poisoning, and Thor because the man loved to eat and didn't know when to leave well enough alone. Food poisoning didn’t seem to affect him at all, and he was usually the one to finish the paprikash out.

Wanda passed a Sam a bowl. “I did. Vizh just kept me company.”

Across the room, the android smiled. His inability to turn out palatable food had become something of a running joke. He didn't mind. And he enjoyed spending time in the kitchen with Wanda. Able to alter his density so objects passed through him, Vision was one of the few who could sit in the middle of one of her baking storms with impunity.

Wanda gestured, sending plates and silverware floating through the air. The heroes gathered around the table, the empty seat in their midst a dark reminder of who they were missing.

As per usual, Tony stumbled in halfway through the meal.

Steve calmly passed the inventer a plate piled high with Tony’s favorites. Tony only offered a token protest over the portion sizes. Steve really did try to scale back for normal human appetites, but he rarely succeeded. Tony had long since gotten used to it, and his more ravenous teammates were usually happy to eat whatever he didn’t.

“Did you find anything?”

All conversation ceased at Wanda’s question.

Tony wearily shook his head. “The phone is completely crushed. It'll take days to put it back together.” Seeing the looks on their faces, he shoveled food into his mouth and continued to talk through it. Somehow managing to speak with perfect diction despite the obstruction. “Not saying I can’t do it! Just that it’ll take time. What about Natasha, have you found that Dean character yet?”

The ex-assassin leveled a dangerous glare at the genius. “As a matter of fact I haven’t! Because just the name Dean apparently isn’t enough! Knowing that he’ll have the answers doesn’t make up for the lack of a last name. And it certainly doesn’t make him any easier to find !”

Pepper leaned across the table to lay a hand on top of Natasha’s.

The hand curled into a fist, but didn’t pull away.

“Where have you looked Tasha?”

“His phone and computer are both a wash. There are several numbers belonging to burner phones or numbers that aren’t connected anymore, and he frequents several chat rooms online. No one with the name Dean or a name that could be shortened down to that. I just finished combing the internet with Friday for companies or acronyms, and I’ve found everything from anti-drug campaigns to guitar makers. But no one that I can tie to Clint or who could be even remotely helpful.”

She huffed and viciously stabbed at the paprikash with a spoon. “I don’t know where else to look.”

Steve frowned thoughtfully. “Natasha… What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Clint.”

“Steve, how is that going to help?” Sam wanted know from the other end of the table.

Tony tossed a roll at the offender and bounced it off Sam’s head. “Hey, unless you got any better ideas, let the man talk.” He gestured grandly at Steve. “As you were expounding?”

With the exception of Vision, almost the entire table rolled their eyes in unison at the billionaire’s antics. But, it had broken the tension, and that was what he’d been going for in the first place.

“Just bear with me?”

The Black Widow sighed. “When I think of Clint, I think of his eyes. He was staring straight at me when we met, right along an arrow. He had me dead to rights, and if he wanted me dead, I would’ve been. I remember thinking how they were nothing special, and how impossible they were to miss because of it. Because of the way they saw everything.”
“Good. What else? What makes him Clint, and not just another Agent of Shield?”

She frowned, really thinking about it now. “Because he’s nothing like them. He walks the walk. Talks the talk. But he’s not like them at all. He picks cuffs open with lightbulb filaments, and lights fires with a sandwich bag full of water. He treats women and that bow of his with the utmost respect, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. And heaven help anyone who disrespects either in front of him. He gets up after interrogations and walks away with a quip, as if they didn’t just half drown him in a bucket. He’s tougher than the rest, because he has something to prove.”

Steve nodded. “Exactly, but why does he have to prove it?”

“...because he never went to highschool. He ran away with his brother when they were young and joined a carnival. He met Trickshot and the Swordsman there, and they trained him through his formative years. They trained him to be an assassin and a thief.”

Tony snorted. “Not that their training stuck.”

Steve smiled. “Clint is Clint because he grew up differently than we or his fellow agents did. He sees differently than everyone else, literally and figuratively. So when he hides something, he’s not going to hide it where most people would expect. He grew up making due in a carnival. He’s learned to use technology more since then, but he still leans towards the old fashioned way of doing things because he can do it all by himself. Right?”

Natasha was beginning to see where the captain was going. And she should’ve seen it for herself at the start.

“You need to stop thinking like Natasha Romanov, and start thinking like Clint Barton. You’ve checked all of the obvious places. So where would Clint feel comfortable hiding something?”

“Someplace high. And it’ll be somewhere he spends a lot of time. Maybe someplace that he has easy access to but others would have difficulty reaching because of the amount of security or climbing involved. He prefers low tech, you’re right about that. Whatever he’s hidden, it’ll be something he wouldn’t need a machine to read or decode.”

Tony leaned back on two legs of his chair. “Ok, shout out! Where would you look for Clint if he’s not in his room?”

The answers came readily enough. It was actually a bit absurd, the range of places one could expect to find him. The firing range Tony had built for Clint and Natasha, complete with archery and throwing knife lanes. There was a second range outside for longer distance weapons. The gym, where Clint could still be seen showcasing a flexibility that defied all logic for a man of his build. The roof. The air vents. Up in the branches of certain trees on the facility grounds. Just to name a few.

Natasha could’ve kicked herself for not thinking of them before.

She finished dinner and left the table with renewed determination. The roof of the facility was her first stop. Nowhere near as high as the tower, it still afforded one of the best vantage points on the grounds. A flashlight and the roof’s security flood lights provided the only light. The roof was also seriously devoid of good hiding spots. She still searched, just to be thorough.

Nothing.

It took her much longer to search the gym. No hiding place was too small, because there was no way of knowing what she was looking for. If she was right about Clint’s preferences, she was probably looking for some sort of small hardcopy, maybe a small notebook? But anyone could open up a notebook, and given enough time could probably decode it. For something really important, he might be persuaded to use a flash drive. And those could fit in an almost infinite number of places. It took her hours to comb the gym alone.

Sam and Wanda both found her on the way to the indoor firing range.

The Falcon leaned against the wall, arms crossed. “Need any help looking?”

“You getting bored?”

Sam darted a look at Wanda. The young metahuman still had a touch of scarlet in her eyes, and she kept shifting her weight from side to side. “More like restless.” He admitted. “The rest of the team’s got stuff to do. Bruce’s analyzing samples from Clint’s cell, Tony’s in the lab trying to resurrect that crushed cellphone, Vision is trolling the internet, and last I heard Steve was walking the ground the old fashioned way to see if there was something we missed. There’s just not much to do right now that involves our skill sets. So if you could use us…” He shrugged. “Go ahead and put us to work.”

Natasha eyed the two of them. She hated the idea of having them underfoot. She’d be so much more effective on her own. But they needed to feel useful. And three sets of eyes were better than one, even if two sets were untrained.

“Fine. Come with me.”


 

 

No one was expecting the call to assemble at ten o’clock at night.

Natasha sighed and dropped down from the vent cover she’d just opened. It had to be the vents. They’d checked everywhere else they could think of over the past several hours, and they still hadn’t found any clue to this ‘Dean’ person.

Sam was already running for the locker rooms, but Wanda still waited for her.

“Do you think it is up there?”

The assassin grabbed the meta’s hand and hauled her after Sam. “I’ll find out when we get back, but I can’t think of anywhere else to look. Now come on, mind on the mission. Being distracted in the field could get you killed.”

They were all gathered in the quinjet in under five minutes.

A man was already in the cockpit warming the engines and running flight checks.

Tony lit up like a christmas tree at the sight of the black haired pilot. “Baker! Did you bake us anything tasty this time? Maybe an apple pie for our fearless capsicle? Spider cookies for the Widow? I’m partial to cannoli’s myself.”

“Nope, not that kind of baker.” The pilot grumbled cheerfully. He adjusted something on the control panel and turned to grin down at them, backlit by the indicator lights. “Though given the ingredients coming into my pot, I’m thinking I’ll be serving up something spicy to the guy holding my little sister’s favorite mall hostage.” Holograms popped up in the passenger bay, displaying blueprints for a large building. Then he turned back to his controls. “ETA fifteen minutes folks. Good luck.”

The quinjet lifted off.

Steve slipped into leader mode. “Alright. A mall in manhattan is under bomb threat.”

“Confirmed?” Sam asked.

Steve nodded. “It is. The fire alarm was triggered. Most of the civilians and staff evacuated. But when first responders arrived they found all doors locked and anyone who approached the doors has been gunned down.” The hologram switched over to footage of several women and children of various ages huddled on a tile floor. “They can see a small number of civilians gathered in the center of the food court through the various windows, and what appears to be a bomb close by. No sign of any mall security staff. Including two newborns and several small children, we’re looking at nineteen hostages all told.”

“I see no sign of restraint on the hostages.” Vision cocked his head. “Are they being held at gunpoint?”

Steve pulled on his helmet and checked his shield. “If they are, we can’t see the gunmen. They’re being careful to stay away from the windows.”

“Why are we being called? Don’t you Americans have special squads to handle situations like these?” Wanda wondered.

“We do.” Steve confirmed. “They’re called SWAT teams. Two teams have already gone in. Communications went dark with both teams within five to ten minutes of entry. But before going dark, one man reported back that the guy he was fighting ‘isn’t human’. After that, they called us. The officers of the New York police department are good at their jobs, but dealing with enhanced individuals is a little outside their wheelhouse.”

“Any chance the officer mentioned what sort of enhancement we’re dealing with before we lost communication with him?” Sam asked.

“No. We’re in the dark on this one.” The hologram split in half. One side displayed the building blueprints, while the other kept up the live feed of the civilian hostages in the food court. “Our first priority is to get the civilians out and defuse the bomb. The metahuman comes second.”

Sam gestured at the blueprint. “What’s our entry point?”

“The roof. The two SWAT teams entered through the parking garage and a subway access. The building is freestanding from the rest, and a helicopter would make too much noise to surprise them. We’re hoping that we’ll catch them by surprise if we put the quinjet in stealth mode and set it down on the roof.”

Tony spun the hologram around and zoomed in on the roof. “That could work, there are plenty of doors and windows we could use. What’s the plan once we’re inside? They’re not going to just hand over the hostages and the schematics for the bomb and tell us ‘mazel tov’.”

“Probably not. Tony, your priority is the bomb. You’re the most technically minded and the most well armored. You’ll need both. Once you make a break for the bomb, you’ll be painting a huge target on your back. We’ll cover you as we can. Sam. You’re with Natasha. I want the two of you to head straight for the hostages and shunt them upstairs to the roof.”

Sam frowned. “The roof? Steve, why would we…?”

“Because the doors are being watched.” Natasha cut him off, a speculative gleam in her eye. “They’ve shot anyone who approaches the doors. There’s nothing to stop them from shooting hostages trying to leave. They wouldn’t expect us to take them up to the roof.” She leveled a hard look at their captain. “Those hostages would be very vulnerable if we slip up.”

“They would. That’s why Kodie’s up in the pilot’s seat. Sergeant Baker will stay in the quinjet on the roof and wait for the hostages. As soon as he has everyone aboard, he has orders to take them out of harm's reach.” Steve motioned to the team’s android. “I want Vision and Wanda with me. We’ll focus on covering the hostages and Tony. Once the metahuman makes contact, Vision and Wanda will peal off to keep him or her busy. They’re our two heaviest hitters. After the hostages are out of the line of fire, I’ll either help them or cover Tony as needed. Sam and Natasha will rejoin the team at their own discretion. Bruce will wait on the roof in case of a code green… any questions?”

Up in the cockpit, their pilot Kodie raised his voice. “I hope you and your team are ready Captain. I’ve got eyes on the roof and we’ll be landing in two.”

“All right, you heard the man.”

The Avengers gathered at the back of the jet, weapons at the ready. The jet spun smoothly in midair, and the next second they felt the soft jolt as Kodie set it down on the roof with barely a sound. He let down the ramp and turned to watch them disembark into the warm evening air.

“Good luck guys and girls. Give ‘em hell.”


 

 

“Not to jinx us or anything, but am I the only one who feels like this is a little too easy?”

No one answered, but they couldn’t help but think that the genius billionaire was right. They’d been able to enter from the roof without trouble. And the halls and stairwells of the upper levels had been devoid of life, enemy or otherwise.

This was way too easy.

They reached the food court of the mall without any opposition. The food court itself was a large three story courtyard. Balconies wrapped around the massive room to form second and third floors. And the ceiling far above hosted several steepled skylights filled with frosted glass. Both balconies seemed completely deserted. No raging metahumans. No snipers with guns trained on the hostages. No one.

On the ground floor, the hostages huddled together like sheep who’ve scented a wolf.

Seven women ranging from elderly grandma to middle aged mother or businesswomen sat in a ring with two teenage girls, their backs turned outward. Forming a wall.

Inside their protective circle, eight children cuddled together.

A ten year old boy was the oldest of the kids, and he held one of the newborns cradled against his chest. Another much smaller boy leaned against him, the other newborn held oh so gently in his lap. Six toddlers sat and sprawled around them. Some clutched stuffed animals to themselves. Others played with small toys, nervous and quiet. One little girl who looked to be about four flipped through a board book, too young to actually read it, but softly whispering the story as she remembered it to the newborns in the boys’ laps just the same.

Not more than five feet away, a bomb the size of a small couch quietly ticked away towards zero with bright glowing red digits.

“They look unharmed.” Vision whispered.

Steve nodded. “Lets keep it that way… Tony, you’re up.”

The Avenger took off. He headed straight for the ceiling where he couldn’t be missed. The bright overhead lights shown off his reflective suit. The sounds of the repulsors in his boots and gloves bounced off the surrounding cement. If there was a sniper watching the hostages, Tony would be impossible to miss.

“One big shiny target, coming right up!” He joked over the coms.

No one opened fire.

“I don’t see anyone, I’m going for the bomb. You guys get the civies out of here.”

“Understood.”

Steve gave the ‘go’ sign and ran for the stairs. Wanda and Natasha followed close on his heels. Behind them, Vision and Sam took to the air. Still no one opened fire. Not on Tony, the hostages, or any of the other Avengers.

“I don’t like this.” Natasha murmured when they hit the ground floor running.

Steve’s sharp blue eyes swept the food court again. “I don’t either.”

Above their heads Falcon smoothly banked and folded his wings, dropping gracefully to the ground. “Let's hurry up and get these people moving, I feel like a sitting duck down here.”

“You're not the only one!” Tony called. He already had a piece of the bombs casing cut away and was starting to delve deeper. As he did  he kept up a running commentary under his breath. “Alright you demented old crone, show me what those fucking assholes got in mind…”

“Language.” Steve chided. He smirked at the exasperated billionaire and gestured to the frightened hostages. “There are children present.”

Tony shrugged and went back to the bomb. “Fair enough.”

Steve swept his eyes over the massive room again, but nothing new stood out. Something wasn’t right. The police were watching every exit and had orders to inform the Avengers if anyone tried to leave. But no one had said a word. The bombers were still here. The question was where? And what were they planning? He pushed his worries to the back burner. Priorities first. Tony had the bomb in hand. Hopefully. And Wanda and Vision were watching his back. That left Natasha and Sam with the most vulnerable aspect of the whole operation.

The hostages.

Steve made a snap decision. “Vision, Scarlet Witch, stay with Iron Man. I’m going to help Widow and Falcon with the hostages. Something’s up, and I don’t want to run the risk of them being waylaid on their way out.”

“Understood Captain.” Vision assented.

One arm buried elbow deep in the bomb, Tony absently waved over his shoulder. “Yeah, yeah, we got this covered.”

Natasha had the women on their feet. She’d handed the two newborns over to the oldest women, their lighter weight easier for them to carry. The rest of the women were asked to carry the toddlers, leaving only the girl with the board book and the ten year old to walk on their own. The children stared at the heroes with wide eyes, overawed.

One little boy gave a gummy smile and pointed at Steve. “See Mommy? Th’ ‘vengers come to help us!” He proclaimed proudly.

The mother nodded. “Yes baby, I see. You were right.” A tear slipped down her cheek. “I'm so glad you were right.”

The little boy giggled. Completely oblivious to the dire situation they were being rescued from, he waved to Steve over his mother’s shoulder. “Hi Cap’an Abberica!” He called.

Steve waved back, flashing the child a grin. He let the boy grip two of his fingers, jiggling them playfully. “Is everyone alright Black Widow? We need to get these people out of here before whoever set the bomb gets back.” And they would be back, of that he was sure. You didn’t go to the trouble of taking hostages just to leave them sitting in the middle of a food court.

She motioned to the last two kids. He nodded. The group was already moving, and they were picking up speed. She had had the women carry the kids to keep them close and moving quickly. The ten year old boy and the little girl with the board book would be hard pressed to keep up. And the Avengers needed their hands free in case of attack.

Shield at the ready, he moved closer to the kids on foot.

“Son? How strong are you?”

The little boy glanced at the girl holding on tight to his hand as she struggled up the stairs. His jaw firmed and he met the soldier’s eye. “Strong enough.”

Steve patted the kid’s shoulder. The determined look on his face reminded Steve of himself at that age. “Good man. But you have to keep up with the women.”

The boy snorted. “I can keep up with a bunch of girls !”

Ahead of them, the Falcon barked a laugh. “Yeah, in ya dreams kid!” He called back, shooting a glance at Natasha. One of the women paused at the top of the stairs and he gestured her to the left. “This way ma’am, we’re going all the way to the top.”

The boy shot a disgruntled look Steve’s way.

Steve grinned. “What’s your name son?”

“Aaron.”

“Well Aaron, don’t ever think you’re better than someone just because they’re a gal. Some of the strongest people I know are girls. And that girl over there?” He pointed to Natasha, then to Wanda stationed down on the floor with Tony, keeping a lookout. “And her? Both of those women have knocked me down flat. They’re just that good. The Black Widow puts all of us flat on our backs several times a week when we practice together.”

They reached the top of the stairs.

Steve squatted low to be on the little girls eye level. “Hey baby doll. I know you could probably keep up on your own, but Aaron was a gentleman and offered to give you a piggy back ride. You ok with that?”

She giggled and eagerly scrambled onto Aaron’s shoulders when he crouched. Her board book was awkwardly clutched in her hand. It dug into her would be rescuer’s neck. Steve tugged it out of her fingers and tucked it in his belt.

“I’ll carry it for you. You just hang on tight miss…?”

She giggled again. “Elena.”

“Alright, Elena. I’ll take good care of it. I promise.”


 

 

“Is this all of them?”

Natasha nodded, shepherding the last of the women up into the quinjet. “Yes, and I don’t like it. We didn’t meet any resistance going in, or coming back out. Something isn’t right. Have you had any trouble up here?”

“No.”

Bruce grinned, nodding towards where Steve was buckling a little toddler into a seat beside a larger boy. His grin only got wider when Steve pulled a board book out of his belt for her. “Once we’ve got this mess with Clint figured out, we should find more excuses to let him play with kids.”

“Not a problem.” Sam snickered.

They all straightened up as a round of swearing came over the coms.

“Iron Man, is everything alright down there?”

“Judging by his level of swearing, I am inclined to think that it is not.” Wanda answered.

“On our way.” Steve slipped back into leader mode. “Sergeant, as soon as we’re clear, you get these people out of here.”

“You got it Captain!”

One of the women’s heads snapped up. “Kodie?”

The pilot whirled in his seat. “Chrissy? What the hell?!”

“Sergeant Baker! You can ask questions later. Right now your job is to get these people off of this roof!” Steve yelled over the quin jet’s engines.

Kodie grimly turned back to his controls. The captain was completely right. Now was definitely not the time to sit down and have a committee meeting aboard the quinjet. He had a job to do. Anything else could wait.

“Sir, yes sir!”


 

 

Steve skidded to a stop beside Tony.

“What’s going on Stark?”

Tony had his head and shoulders buried inside the housing of the massive bomb. He had pulled out, but not disconnected, more wires than Steve had ever seen attached to one device in his life. And they now sat on the floor in a veritable rat’s nest around Tony’s knees. He’d also pulled out several bars of what looked to be thick gray putty.

“Um...Stark?”

Tony ignored them, his mumblings growing louder with each quiet beep of the timer counting down. “Ok, so, timer...what the hell?... chemical trigger and…. seriously?! A mercury switch?! Well they just wanted all the bells and whistles didn’t they?....Loads of nails for extra shrapnel, that’s nice…. What the hell are these assholes playing at?!”

He sat back on his haunches and yanked a handful of ribbon wire out of the machine with extreme prejudice. The clock gave one final beep and went dark.

Tony glared up at Steve. “It’s a dummy bomb. Everything looks good until you get to the core. Nothing is attached to the actual triggers.” He snorted irritably and straightened up. “You’ve got several crates worth of military plastique in there, and no way to blow it. The most this thing could do would be to count down to zero, dump a couple chemicals, and short out a small circuit that goes nowhere. It’s all window dressing, just without the window.”
“Are you sure?”

Tony looked insulted. “Cap, I used to build weapons for a living. Just because I got out of the business doesn’t mean that I suddenly forgot everything I knew about how to make them. There is no way on earth that this bomb could explode as it was when we got here. But someone went to an awful lot of trouble to make it look like it could .”

“This was a trap.” Natasha hissed.

“Of course it was! How else were we supposed to get your attention?” The voice bounced off of tile and cement, ricocheting around the room in a bid to confuse it’s origin. Laughter followed. “After all, we had to get you to come out and play somehow.”

Natasha’s grip on her gun tightened. She knew that voice. “It’s the man from Clint’s phone call.”

“Bruce.” Steve whispered into the coms. “We’re being engaged by Clint’s kidnappers. Find yourself a vantage point above the food court, but stay out of sight.” He raised his voice to address their unseen antagonist. “What do you want from us? What could be so important that it warranted endangering the lives of nineteen women and children and a bomb threat?”

The voice loosed another laugh, and a figure appeared up on one of the balconies. He stood tall and confidant. A black stocking cap covered his hair, and dark leather protected his fingers and the inside of his bow arm. He was dressed in a dark tach suit, splashes of navy blue hidden in the black. A quiver full of arrows hung between his shoulder blades. And he had a bow in his hands. An arrow was knocked to the string and loosely held at the ready.

But he wasn’t aiming at them yet.

That worried Steve. He’d learned very early on in his career as a fighter that an enemy that didn’t point their weapon at you was just as dangerous. It said that either his opponent was overly confident, and Steve could use that to his advantage. Or that the man was very skilled and knew he could have the weapon up in time to deal with an attack. And that was a man Steve needed to treat with caution.

“What indeed?” The man chuckled. He raised the bow and took aim. He paused, the fletching brushing against his cheek. “I came to take some much earned payback out of Clint Barton’s hide.”

Wanda’s eyes turned a crimson. “Where is he?” She demanded.

“Close enough. I have an understanding you see. They keep Clint until I pony up the goods. And you Avengers are standing in my way. So…” He shrugged. “Let’s dance.”

The arrow whistled through the air.

Steve blocked it with his shield, careful to deflect it away from his teammates. Wanda was already moving, racing across the room. Her magic could reach long distances if given time or effort, but in a fight she was more effective at close range. And she wanted a piece of this man. She wasn’t the only one.

Tony took off seconds after her, but quickly pulled ahead.

Their target knocked another arrow to the string and fired at the red and gold Avenger. Tony snorted. Seriously? An arrow against the most advanced armor the world had ever seen? Against armor that could go toe to toe with the hulk and walk away relatively intact? Tony didn’t count the Ultron incident, Hulk had been out of his mind at the time and had dropped a building on Tony, clearly the building helped! He should’ve known better. Anyone who went after the Avengers with only a bow had to be packing some huge surprises up his sleeves.

Unfortunately, that thought only occurred to Tony after the arrow blew up in his face.

Vision dove to catch the genius before he could hit the floor, helping him right himself in midair. Tony tossed him a nod in thanks and the two looked for their attacker. The archer was moving. He sped along the second story balcony toward the stairwell. Probably hoping to climb up to the third story, get the high ground on his side. Steve wasn’t about to let that happen. He was farther from the stairs than their quarry, but that was what the serum was for. He’d meet the man at the second story landing, or maybe even beat him there. He raced for the stairs, calling orders to his team.

“Cut him off! You all know what Clint can do with a bow, you know what an archer looks for. Keep him away from higher vantage points, drive him to ground. Engage at close range. That bow is more hindrance than help when you’re fighting hand to hand. Use it to your advantage. And keep an eye out for others, we’ve still got an enhanced in play somewhere in the building.”

Copy that. ” Sam responded.

He’d been hovering near the ceiling, circling the food court on the lookout for the terrorists that had taken the hostages and set the bomb. He stayed in the air. His team was more than capable of taking down one man. And Steve was right, they hadn’t run up against the enhanced individual yet. Best to let his friends have the fun this time around and keep an eye on their backs. He swung around for another pass and pulled up short. A man crouched at the corner of the third floor balcony.

He hadn’t been there a second ago.

And he was an archer. Like the first archer, this new one was dressed in a dark tach suit. This one had touches of deep purple instead of the navy blue the other one sported. A black ski mask hid his face, and dark gloves and guards protected his hands and both inner arms. He watched the fight on the second floor balcony across the room with an air of indifference. As if he didn’t much care how beat up his compatriot was so long as the desired outcome was achieved.

Sam frowned and flew closer. There was something so familiar about that man, particularly the suit…

The archer suddenly turned, drew back, and fired. It happened in the space of a heartbeat. One second Sam was moving in for a closer look, and the next there was an arrow flying right at his face! He swore and rolled to the left. The arrow whizzed past with a soft hiss.

The second buried itself deep in the top of his shoulder.

Sam screamed. He heard a loud snap, and the harness on his right suddenly went slack. The arrow had sliced clean through the strapping, parting the shoulder rig like a hot knife through butter. The roll and tilt of his shoulders was eighty percent of how he steered this thing. With an arrow stuck through him, his ability to steer had suddenly been cut in half . It had gone down through the top of his shoulder at an angle. And he’d felt the solid thunk when it had punched through flesh just below the shoulder blade and impacted the underside of his jetpack. If the arrow head had managed to puncture his pack…

He spread the wings wide, awkwardly gliding toward the ground in an attempt at damage control. If he could just get to ground…The pack started to splutter and cough.

Fate didn’t seem to be on his side.

He looked back up. The archer had stood and was calmly sighting along another arrow. An arrow pointed at him ! Frightened eyes searched his surroundings, looking for an out. He’d instinctively drifted away from his attacker, and that had left him well out of reach of the balconies. And he was still a solid forty feet in the air! Cursing whatever idiot architect had insisted on such high ceilings (and thus, large amounts of space in between floors), he touched his com.

“Cap, I’m hit! We got a bogey on the third floor, southwest corner!”

Three more arrows thunked into his pack in rapid succession. The wings crimped and froze, locking in their current position. In between his shoulder blades, the jetpack gave a high pitched whine, then fell still. Sam groaned, the pain in his shoulder almost blinding in its intensity. The floor was coming at him, way too fast for a reasonable landing. He braced himself, knowing it was going to hurt. Knowing there was no way he was going to catch himself.

He came to a stop with a jerk.

The sudden stop ripped a pained yell out of him. But the agony he’d been expecting from impact didn’t come. He opened his eyes. The floor was barely ten feet away. In between him and the floor, were rolling waves of translucent red.

Wanda leaned over the second floor balcony rail, leaning so far out over empty space that she was in danger of tipping herself into it. The fight between the first archer and the rest of the team continued to rage in the background, but she paid no attention to it. Her eyes glowed scarlet, ropes of power looped around her wrists and threaded through her fingers. The metahuman slowly straightened. Making a tipping motion with her outstretched hands, she lowered Sam the last several feet and slid him onto the tile floor.

He threw her a grateful little salute.

She grinned and turned back to the fight.

It shouldn’t be lasting so long. Something was wrong. Tony and Vision had peeled off to go confront the second archer, but that still left her, Natasha and Steve to deal with this one. He’d taken cover in a shop, firing on them from somewhere in amongst the racks of clothes. They weren’t entirely sure where. But even so, his marksmanship wasn’t good enough to explain why they hadn’t taken him yet. Wasn’t good enough to stand off five Avengers on the warpath…

An odd mark caught the corner of her eye.

Blood. Markings had been painted in blood on the walls! She turned her head to see, only to blink in shock when they flickered and disappeared. But she could still see them in the corner of her eye!

They were definitely dealing with magic!

She snarled and thrust her power into the concrete. Sent it tangling through the floor and up into the walls. Coiling around those symbols. And she could tell exactly where they were. Could tell where unforgiving stone resisted the passage of her power. Where cement tried to deny her entry.

She could hear Natasha calling to her. Could hear Steve asking her something. She must look utterly insane, threading her power into the floors and walls like some ornate quilt. But she ignored them. Because now she could feel it. She could feel the marks that she couldn’t see fighting against her pull, pushing back. Could feel the malevolence they directed at herself and her team. An angry snarl left her lips and her hands made a vicious twist.

All around them, cement cracked, and plaster dust rained.

A weight she hadn’t even known she carried fell from her shoulders. An oppressive cloak that had dulled her instincts and slowed her movements. And now it was simply gone. Bloody symbols decorated the walls and floors all around the shop their target hid in. She could see them directly now. Each one wrapped in spiderwebs of cracks. Jagged holes now gaped in those carefully drawn designs. Lines no longer connected.

Steve and Natasha stared at the marks in shock, finally able to see them.

“Magic.” Wanda rasped.

Above their heads, Vision screamed.


 

 

Tony threw him himself at the new archer.

Given how well that had worked last time, maybe he should’ve considered alternative attack strategies.

It seemed the second archer was as loaded for bear as the first one had been. Explosive arrows pelted him with pinpoint accuracy, knocking him back again and again. The archer had staked a claim on a corner of the third story balcony, dodging blasts from Iron Man’s gauntlets easily.

Vision flew ahead of Tony.

Arrows passed through the android harmlessly. He floated directly up to the balcony railing, hovering a little above the archer’s eye line. The green and gold hero cut an intimidating picture, floating in midair like some old god from legend. The infinity stone set in his forehead gleamed threateningly.  

The archer fired one last arrow at Tony then trained his bow on Vision.

Tony hovered below, waiting to see what this newcomer would do. On the HUD, Friday was running scans, trying to determine everything she could about the stranger and his weaponry.

“You cannot win.” Vision warned the archer.

The archer cocked his head. “So you say.” He rumbled in a deep voice.

Vision spread his hands. “How can you hope to fight a being that you cannot touch? Your bomb was a fake. Your hostages are gone. The Iron Man waits below, and the Avengers deal with your friend on the second floor. What could you possibly hope to accomplish? You must see that the odds are greatly against you.”

Inside the suit, Friday was displaying her findings on the HUD. “ Sir, there’s something you need to see…

Tony felt the blood rush from his face. “Oh my God…”

The archer fired another arrow.

The arrow head opened the second it left the string. It  with sparked with electricity. And it didn’t pass harmlessly through the android the way the others had. The electricity snapped and crackled, flaring as it passed through the Vision’s intangible form. The hero gasped, jerking back through the air. For a few fleeting seconds, he was solid. And a second electrical arrow stamped itself over the gleaming gold mind stone set into his brow.

Vision screamed.

He dropped from the air like a rock, hands wildly scrabbling at the arrow. It wouldn’t come loose! The splayed barbs had anchored themselves in the synthetic skin all around the infinity stone.

Tony swore and dove to catch his friend. The long flowing yellow cape snapped through the air after the tumbling form, and Tony snatched at it. He missed. Twice. The thick fabric brushed across metallic gold fingers. He fumbled at the cape, cursing as it slipped from his fingers again. The floor was rushing up to meet them, and Tony was starting to panic. It wasn’t likely that Vision would be seriously injured by the impact, but it would still hurt!

“Shit shit shit shit !

He finally snatched up a fistfull of the thick gold cape. The repulsors in his boots roared and he pulled up hard. Vision came to a dead stop in midair with a jerk. Not that he seemed to notice, all his attention  focused on the electrified arrow attached to his face. Tony carefully lowered him the rest of the way to the ground floor. Sam scrambled awkwardly out from behind a cement planter. His face was covered in a sheen of sweat and his right arm was tucked into his useless flight harness to keep it immobile. Arrows stuck up out of his shoulder and jet pack like some giant obscene pincushion. The frozen wings dragged along the floor behind him, scraping shrilly against the tile. But he gamely kept moving. He reached for Vision with his good hand.

“I got him Tony. Go get that bastard!”

“No, don’t touch him!”

Vision groaned as Tony lowered him to sit on the ground and crouched in front of him. The helmet’s visor slid back to reveal the genius’ worried face.

“Touch him right now and you’ll electrocute yourself. The charge on these arrows are freaky high! I’m serious. Touch it, your human popcorn. Just picture it, human popcorn... with wings!”

Gripping the arrow right behind the head, he gave it a sharp twist. The electricity immediately cut out. He twisted it back the other way, and the splayed barbs that had kept Vision from ripping it out retracted. The green and gold clad hero moaned and flopped to the floor, energy spent.

Sam was pale. “Is he going to be alright?”

Tony snorted, hoping his teammate’s paleness was worry for Vision and not blood loss. He wasn’t naive enough to believe it, but he could dream damn it! “Now I know how Bruce feels when the rest of us are hurt! I don’t know, but I hope so?”

The war veteran slid his good arm under Vision’s shoulders and gripped his friend’s belt, using it like a handle to keep him upright. Vision grimaced, forcing himself to help.

Sam glared hatefully at the arrow in Tony’s hands. “That’s one nasty little gadget.”

“It ought to be, I designed them.” Tony’s face hardened and he crushed the arrow head in his fist. He’d made those arrows for Clint. Made them to protect his friends and teammates. And now Vision was hurt because of the weapon he’d made. The visor on his helmet slid down and he looked to the second balcony. He could see flashes of brilliant red, could hear the bark of Natasha’s guns and the ring of Steve’s shield.

There was no sign of the masked archer on the third floor.

Tony addressed the rest of the team as well his two injured friends.  “Cap, Vision’s down. That bastard on the third balcony is using our Hawk’s gear. If he or his buddy whips out anything that looks like Clint’s taser arrow, you duck and cover. Clint had some of my new ‘circuit breaker’ arrows in his quiver. They’d take down a T-rex if you could find one. Or, you know, a small tank. Whatever comes first. I don’t want to see what they can do to normal humans.”

Acknowledged. I need you to... Gaghhhh!”

An explosion rocked the food court. Fire lanced out from the storefront, reigning embers and debris down into the empty courtyard below. Debris...and bodies. The three watched in growing horror as their teammates were thrown off of the balcony and into empty air like rag dolls. Steve was the first to gather his wits. The super soldier curled himself into a ball, his shield held tightly under his body to take the impact when he hit the ground.

Wanda was almost as quick. She was curled in the fetal position, glowing scarlet encasing her in a protective orb. It was Natasha who was vulnerable. At that height, there was no way she could land without hurting herself.

She was the one who needed Tony’s help.

He jumped into the air, arms outstretched to catch her. She landed in his armored grasp with a hard thump, a pained gasp escaping her lips. He winced in sympathy. His armor wasn’t soft. She would probably have some nasty bruises later. This was the second time he’d had to catch a falling teammate tonight.

He didn’t like it.

They were Avengers, they were better than this! And yet somehow, improbable, impossible as it seemed: they were getting thrashed by a pair of men armed with weapons from the paleolithic era! Clint was missing, and Sam was down for the count. Vision and possibly Steve now were fast on their way to following Sam’s example! And Wanda and Natasha were looking a little battered. Something wasn’t right!

The loud ring of metal on cement marked Steve hitting the ground.

The super soldier shifted gingerly, pain telegraphed in every move. He slowly clambered upright. The shield hung heavy off of his right arm, the weight dragging him down. For a few seconds he was just Steve Rogers. A kid from Brooklyn who was tired and sore and just wanted a break. The soldier took a deep breath. Visibly willing the pain away, he forced himself to straighten up. And just like that, Steve Rogers faded away, replaced by Captain America.

Tireless and determined.

Wanda had landed nearby, cracks spiraling out across the tiles where she’d landed. Her power had faded, leaving her lying in a shallow crater, unmoving. Steve crouched to check on her, sharp blue eyes watching the balconies as he touched a hand to her neck. She made a face at the touch of his gritty glove and opened her eyes. The metahuman brushed his hand away and sat up, shoving long copper brown hair back out of her face.

“I am alright.”

Taking some of his weight off of Sam, Vision moved closer to her. Some of the life seemed to have returned to his eyes, and his movements were easier. “Are you certain?”

A weary smile twitched her lips. “I am sure. I only had the breath knocked out of me. You?”

He shrugged. “My body heals rapidly. The shock began to fade almost as soon as Iron Man removed the arrow.”

Tony carefully set Natasha on her feet. “Something’s up. It’s not usually this easy to kick our cans.”

Sam nodded, warily scanning the balconies for any sign of their opponents. But the upper stories remained suspiciously empty.

Wanda let Steve pull her to her feet. “They are using magic. Symbols drawn on the wall in blood. I could only see them from the corner of my eye. But as soon as the walls cracked and broke them, they could be seen, and their power ended. We fought better when they were broken.” She made a face. “I would not be surprised if they had filled this entire court with them.”

“Magic symbols? Really? Is that what we’ve come to?” Tony threw up his hands. “Great. What’s next? Are they going to break out the pin cushions and voodoo dolls?”

“I have seen enough.”

Invisible hands gripped the heroes and thrust them up against a wall, feet dangling several inches above the ground. They strained against that pressure, heads thrashing and heels knocking against the wall. Even Tony, the only one really at one hundred percent, could barely move a limb an inch.

The archers stepped from a ground floor storefront.

The masked archer led the way, his free hand raised palm out toward them. His other hand was curled comfortably around Clint’s bow. He tilted his head, sharp eyes examining the pinned heroes. A buyer looking at livestock.

“You did not lie.”

The archer behind him grinned, pulling off  his stocking cap to run his fingers through brownish copper hair. “Told you they were powerful. You won’t find anyone else this sturdy outside of a mutant, and the really powerful ones are hard to come by. They do?”

The masked archer nodded, deep voice rumbling in his chest. “They will work well for my plans. You have upheld your end of our deal. I will uphold mine.”

Tony squirmed against the concrete. “Anyone care to explain what the hell’s going on? And who the hell is the carjacker?”

The first archer smirked. “Like I said, I got an understanding. My associate here makes Clint’s life a living hell. I provide him earth’s mightiest heroes for services rendered. And as for my associate’s identity…” He tugged the ski mask off of his companion with the air of a magician completing a spectacular reveal. “You already know him…”

Clint stared back at them, unperturbed. They recoiled at the sight. Clint’s warm brown eyes had been replaced with a sickening shade of electric blue. The coldness and malevolence in them made their stomachs turn.

“Clint!” Wanda cried, giving up on code names. Their captors obviously already knew Clint’s name.

“...or you know his body at any rate.” The archer finished with a smirk.

The meta-human’s eyes glowed a murderous red. “You monster! What have you done to our friend?”

“Me? I barely laid a hand on him. That was all my friend’s doing.” He patted Clint’s shoulder with faux affection. “Clint Barton has ruined my life, over and over again. Every time I finally get it in order, along he comes to strip away everything I’ve worked for. He destroys my life, and leaves me in a hospital with a new arrow hole to heal. Now it’s my turn. Clint will only be able to sit there in the back of his head while we send him out to destroy his own good name. Make him watch as he plows through the people that trusted him, and destroys every connection he ever had. When he’s a hunted fugitive, and finally has nothing left for me to take. Then we’ll let him free. I will shoot him with his own god damned bow, and leave him to make his way to the hospital on his own power. Then... then we’ll be even.”

The demon smiled. Brilliant blue eyes, so alien in Clint’s warm friendly face, looked over them malevolently. “Get the restraints.” He ordered. “We have what we came for.”

“You got it. Don’t know how long it’ll take those idiots outside to figure out the guns on the entrances are motion activated. Better to get moving before they realize they’re precious Avengers are…”

“AGHHH!” Clint’s body reeled, hands clutching at his head. His face suddenly snapped up to stare at them, and for one aching second, the blue faded away. Clint’s brown eyes were terrified, desperate. He bared his teeth, determined. “Like hell. I’m not letting you have them...ah!”

He leaned on his knees, panting. Deep inside his head, the demon shrieked and howled. Surtur raked burning razorlike claws across Clint’s mind. Sent rolling billows of fire to swamp the hawk’s consciousness. Clint screamed at the top of his lungs. His vision went blue, and Surtur took control again.

“Clint?” Wanda called softly.

The demon slowly straightened, flashing hideous blue eyes at the heroes.

Behind him, the other archer grinned. “I don’t think he’s available at the moment. Maybe you should leave a message.”

“You'll pay for that.” Surtur hissed. The air seemed to boil and waver around him, heat rolling off his skin as his temper climbed. His already ruddy face became darker, redder. But all of his attention was turned inward towards the Hawk. “You think you can fight me? You insignificant insect ! I have existed longer than your pitiful mind could possibly comprehend. You will suffer for your audacity.” Clint’s features contorted into a hideous caricature of themselves as the demon hissed. “I will make you kill those you care about most. I will tear them apart slowly; your bare hands will rend their flesh while they scream and beg you for mercy that will never be granted. Your face spattered in their own blood will be the last thing they see, your laughter at their pain the final sound they hear before they cross into the void. And you will be helpless to do aught else but watch .”

Behind him, the auburn haired archer cocked his head. The demon’s vitriol was setting off warning bells. After a moment he shrugged. What did he care if Surtur killed some worthless civilian Clint had a crush on? People died every day. He could mean the Avengers, Clint cared very deeply for them, but he doubted it. It made no sense to kill the prize you had offered your services to win. He didn’t much care either way. If Surtur chose to kill some of the Avengers, that was his affair. He’d provided powerful humans, or almost humans, just as promised. His side of the deal was done.

Now he could sit back and watch as Clint’s perfect little life came crashing down around his ears.

Pinned against the wall above their captors’ heads, the Avengers had gone pale.

Unlike the first archer, they knew that the demon wasn’t talking about them. They new exactly who he was talking about. Unbidden, images and memories of Clint’s family came to their minds.

Laura, pregnant with Nathaniel and doing her best to work around the big eight month bump while she cooked in the kitchen.

Cooper, trying so hard to be like his father, but still a child at heart as he followed the various Avengers around and asked question after question.

Lively young Lila, dancing beside Natasha in the living room early in the morning to some old ballet.

And little Nathaniel.

Only Natasha had seen him in person so far, but she and Clint were more than happy to share any pictures or videos Laura sent them.

The idea of any of Clint’s beloved family in this monster’s hands was a nightmare.

Steve pulled in a deep breath. “Wanda.” he gritted. “Coms.”

The metahuman pointed a finger at him. Down on the floor, the archer and the demon were shouting, moving in to stop her. A tiny tendril of power slithered across the space between them and pressed at the com in his ear. It was all the opening the super soldier needed.  

“Bruce, CODE GREEN NOW !”


 

 

“Bruce, CODE GREEN NOW!”

Bruce dropped his hand from his ear and glared down through the lightly frosted glass. That thing down there, that monster had taken over Clint’s body. Had hurt his friends, had threatened his family ! The anger that he’d been barely holding in check finally burned through the tight reins he’d held.

And he stoked it brighter.

Hotter. Hotter. Hotter the anger burned, blossoming larger and stronger as it became an all-consuming rage. Pain lanced through his body as it tore itself apart. Bones grew longer, thicker. Muscles tripled and quadrupled in size. Skin darkened. Emerald eyes opened, and the Hulk roared his rage into the night.

Deep within the beast, Bruce Banner watched.

He never remembered when he woke from Natasha’s lullaby. But while the Incredible Hulk rampaged away through the world, Bruce Banner watched it all through those raging green eyes. And just as the Hulk did, he could exert pressure on the current owner of their body towards one action or another.

Emerald eyes dropped to the glass.

“Your friends are in trouble.” Bruce explained to the massive beast. “You have to help them. The Arrow Man is down there too, but a bad man hurt his mind like the Puny God did. Please try not to hurt him too badly. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. But you need to get him to let go of the Star Man and the others.”

“Puny god hurt Birdy?”

Bruce switched nicknames without a thought. “No. A new enemy, but they’re hurting Birdy in the same way.” After joining the Avengers, they’d found that Hulk had a plethora of different nicknames for those he cared about. Hulk didn’t use ‘Birdy’ as often, preferring ‘Arrow Man’ when out fighting. It was a sure sign of how worried he was that he’d used it in the field now.

The Hulk was already moving before Bruce had even finished.

Glass shattered, showering down around them as all nine feet of the Incredible Hulk smashed through the window. A thousand pounds of forest green flesh slammed into the tiles, sending massive shockwaves through the floor. Giant hands swept the archer and the demon away, sending them sprawling.

Though Surtur had taken his eyes off of them, the Avengers remained pinned to the wall.

The Hulk roared again.

The demon rolled to his feet, with a snarl. He brought up his hands again to try and capture this new threat to his plan and his meat suit. The Hulk charged. Surtur’s hands jolted, but he pushed back. The Avengers watched in astonishment and horror as the Hulk slowed and stopped, struggling against the invisible hold of the demon.

“FIGHT!” Steve bellowed.

His team responded immediately. They threw themselves against their captor’s invisible hold. Threw everything they had against it. Their strength. Their power. Muscles strained, and scarlet red tendrils threaded themselves through the air to thicken into massive tree roots. The Hulk took a step forward.

Surtur’s ruddy face went pale, his hands trembling.

The Hulk roared and struggled harder. Deep within his mind, Bruce Banner smiled. Nothing enraged the Hulk more, made the beast fight harder, than being restrained. Whoever was controlling Clint, and he was beginning to think it was more than the puppet job Loki had done, had made a horrible mistake when they had tried to cage the beast.

The Hulk took another step forward.

Surtur shrieked. The iron hold of the demon snapped like kindling and the Hulk steamrolled over him. He kicked the demon, pitching him across the room. A smirk curling his lips, he made to go after him.

“Hulk! Don’t hurt Arrow Man too badly! Remember, someone messed up his mind, someone else is making him do this.”

The Hulk faltered.

It was more time than the first archer needed. The auburn haired man scrambled across the space and hauled Surtur back up off the floor. The demon shrugged him off with a snarl. He twisted Clint’s face up into a hideous parody of his usual smile, a baring of teeth.

A warning.

“You’ve won this round monster.” He hissed, snatching up the bow he’d dropped. “But you will not win the war. Take your comrades and be gone. I have some business to attend to with those closest to the Hawk’s heart. But we will meet again soon . Make no mistake, I will have what is mine!”

“Hulk belongs to no one!” Hulk roared after him. “No one owns Hulk’s friends!”

“I will.” The demon assured. “See to your...friends, if you are capable of having such. There will be another time. Soon .”

Hulk watched the two interlopers leave, standing guard between them and his friends until he was certain they were gone. Then he stumped back to his team. Who were still pinned to the wall. He cocked his head curiously.

“Hulk’s friends stuck?”

“Yeah.” Steve let his head fall back against the wall, tired but amused. “Yeah Hulk. We’re stuck… would you help us down please?”

The behemoth rumbled in pleased agreement.

He had ripped tanks apart with his bare hands all by himself, but there was no fear when he reached for their captain. He’d learned quickly that he should always reach for his captain first. The Star Man was more durable than the rest. Healed faster. If Hulk made a mistake, misjudged his strength, the Star Man wouldn’t be as badly hurt as the others. He and his captain had talked about this. The only time he was supposed to go for his weaker teammates first was if they could die. If he had a choice between saving them or saving their captain, he was to save them at all costs.

Hands the size of snow shovels carefully slotted themselves in between Steve and the wall.

Displaying a gentleness belied by his size, he tried to pull Steve away from the wall.

“Agh! Hulk, stop !”

The behemoth froze. Steve panted, shaking his head. Whatever was holding him to the wall, it wasn’t willing to let him go. When Hulk had tried to pull him off, all he’d really accomplished was to restrict Steve’s breathing. He’d been crushing Steve against those invisible restraints. Hulk carefully put him back against the wall.

“Star Man hurt?” Hulk asked worriedly.

Steve shook his head. “No Hulk, I’ll be ok. I just couldn’t breathe.”

“Captain, we need to get off this wall!” Natasha snarled. “He’s going after them! We have to get there first .”

“I know Widow. But if we can’t get off this wall… Hulk. Do you know where Hawkeye’s family is?” The Hulk nodded and Steve relaxed. “How quickly can you get to them? The man controlling Clint is going to make him hurt his family.”

“Birdy going to hurt little birdies?” Hulk looked horrified. Then angry .

“You heard the bad guy talking through Hawkeye, through Birdy. He’s the one in control right now, and he’s going to make Hawkeye hurt them.” Steve stressed. “How quickly can you get there?”

“Hulk fast.” The behemoth confirmed. “Hulk go...Star Man and friends ok?”

“Yes Hulk, we’ll be…”

The force holding them up suddenly disappeared. Sam yelled as his battered body hit the ground, jolting the arrow buried to the fletching in his shoulder. Steve was on his com in a heartbeat, switching to the police frequency.

“This is Captain America. Has anyone broken through your perimeter?” A confirmation came over the line and his heart sank. “The hostiles are gone. Repeat, the hostiles are gone. The guns covering the doors are motion activated. Iron Man will disable the ones at the front door closest to the food court. Have a medical team standing by, the Falcon is hurt. Get Colonel Rhodes on the line and inform him to meet the Falcon at the hospital.” He met Natasha’s eye. “And tell Sergeant Baker to warm up the quinjet. We know where the hostiles are going. If he hasn’t offloaded the civilians yet, he needs to get it done and bring the jet to the parking lot on the double.”

Tony was already moving to deal with the guns at the door. The sooner they put Sam in the hands of medical professionals, the sooner they could get on a jet and make a dash for the Barton farm.

“Copy that Captain.” An officer affirmed.

“Hulk’s friends coming?”

Natasha smiled, laying a hand on the man’s forearm. “That’s right big buy. We’re coming along. But we need to take the jet to get there, and you’re not going to fit.” She offered one slender hand. “Come on big guy. The sun’s getting low…”

By the time the Hulk’s emerald form had shrunk back down to Bruce’s much smaller body, Tony had finished with the front doors and the emergency responders were cutting Sam out of his harness. Sam’s pained scream when they tried to remove his jet pack was the first they knew of the arrow going through him to bury itself in his gear. Tony lightly pushed one of the medics aside and peered into the narrow space between Sam and the pack. Before anyone could say a word, the suit had produced a laser and sliced clean through the shaft of the arrow.

The wings were pulled aside and awkwardly folded, and the medics moved back in.

Sam gritted his teeth. “Guys, I’ll be fine! I’m in good hands, and Rhodey’s on his way. Now go ! You know the civilians won’t stand a chance, that monster will plow through them like a lawnmower. Get them out of there before those bastards reach them. Go !”

Steve threw his friend a little salute, and then the team was running for the door.

The jet was just settling down in the parking lot, recalled from wherever it was the sergeant had taken the hostages. He barely even had time to lower the ramp before the Avengers and one blanket wrapped Bruce Banner were scrambling aboard.

“Out of the cockpit Sergeant! On the double!” Steve barked.

Baker fumbled with his seat belts. Beside him, Natasha was already sliding into the copilot’s seat and taking over the controls. She had the jet in the air before he’d even left his chair. He turned to climb down into the hold, only to find his way blocked... Or, not so blocked. Vision phased directly through the human and took his place in the pilot’s seat. No one expected Natasha to relinquish the controls over the next two and a half hours it would take them to reach the farm, but stranger things had happened. And it never hurt to be prepared.

Sergeant Kodie Baker slid down into the passenger bay/cargo hold, pale as a sheet.

“You alright Baker? You’re looking a little pique-ish.” Tony smirked at him from across the hold where he had netted Sam’s wings against the bulkhead. The wings weren’t quite as high tech as his suit, but he’d added a few bells and whistles to the original design. Better for all concerned if they took the wings with them and kept the gear out of less scrupulous hands.

Kodie shuddered. “That was….unsettling.”

“It took us a while to get used to him walking through things and people.” Steve admitted. “We’ve talked about it, and he doesn’t do it nearly as often. But he still forgets sometimes in an emergency. You alright?”

“Yeah…” Kodie shuddered and visibly pulled himself together. “Where are we going sir?”

“Classified!” Tony yelled from the back of the quinjet. He’d climbed out of his suit and it had settled down on one of the bench seats where it would be out of the way. The genius grinned manically at his teammates’ glares. “I’ve always wanted to say that and actually have it be classified!”

Wanda rolled her eyes. “You are a child, Stark.”

“Who wants to adult? I mean really? I don’t want to adult. I own it! I freely admit it! I am the least adultiest adult to ever make the attempt to adult, which is why I surround myself with more adultier adults to point out when I suck at adulting; and they either help me do my adulting better or they adult like a badass and do my adulting for me.”

Steve blinked. “...I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone use one word that many times in a single sentence.”

“Shit!” Tony pointed dramatically at their captain. “Bruce, I think I might’ve broken a national icon!”

Up in the cockpit, Natasha thunked her forehead against the controls. “This is going to be a long flight.”


 

 

“Bozhe moi...”

Natasha’s whisper was the first hint they had that they might be too late. Two and a half hours in a small quinjet had left them all anxious and fidgety. Tony had been pacing up and down the jet for the last hour or so. Bruce, now dressed in the spare set of clothes they kept on each quinjet specifically for this purpose, had tried to distract him with science discussions. He’d met with limited success.

Steve jumped up the steps into the cockpit.

On the ground below, Clint’s farm was lit up like a christmas tree. Steve paled. The electric lights were on. It looked as if every light in the house was burning. But more worrying still was the fact that smoke was leaking out of some of the windows and doors. The house was on fire. And the closer the jet flew, the more destruction came into view.

The two story farmhouse had been trashed.

“Take over Vizh.” Natasha snapped.

The android took over control of the jet and Natasha followed Steve back into the hold. Tony, Wanda, and Bruce were already on their feet, ready and waiting by the ramp. Tony had climbed back into his suit, and a reddish haze floated around Wanda’s hands. Bruce’s eyes were tinged a murderous shade of acid green. He handed Steve his shield without a word.

“They set the house on fire.” Steve informed them. “Bruce, grab the fire extinguisher. Everyone else focus on finding the civilians and putting the hostiles down.”

Their faces grim, his teammates nodded.

“Can I help?”

Sergeant Baker sat on one of the bench seats, elbows resting on his knees. He’d been quiet most of the trip, dozing with his head back against the hull. His dark hair looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed, and there was still a sleepy look on his face, but his brown eyes were attentive and alert.

They’d all but forgotten he was there.

Natasha was checking her widow’s bites. “Only if you’re alright with the Scarlet Witch wiping your memory of this afterwards.”

Steve waved the sergeant off. It wasn’t fair to ask that of the pilot. He hadn’t signed up for this. “Stay in the jet Sergeant. Close the ramp behind us and stay away from the cockpit. We’ll take you back to base when we’re through here.”

Kodie’s jaw tightened. “Could you use the help?”

Steve paused in buckling on his helmet. “...we can always use the help.”

“Alright then.” The sergeant stood, checking his holstered pistol. “With respect sir, ma’am. I’m here to help. I want to help. Use me.”

Steve glanced at Natasha. The assassin arched an eyebrow, but he could see the sergeant had won her grudging respect. The two nodded and Steve gestured the young man to join them. It was so odd to think of someone physically the same age as him as being so much younger than he was.

“Grab the other fire extinguisher Sergeant. The house is on fire, work with Bruce and try and get it under control. Be aware that there are civilians on the premises. A woman and three children, one of which is a toddler who hasn’t figured out walking yet. Be on the lookout for them, and bring them back to the jet immediately if you find them. Anyone else is to be considered a hostile and should be avoided. Alert one of us if you see either. Am I clear?”

“Clear sir.” Sergeant Baker confirmed. He tucked the com Bruce handed him into his right ear and grabbed the fire extinguisher as ordered.

Under their feet, the jet touched down in the farmyard.

The house was definitely on fire. Dark smoke poured from the windows on the west side of the house on both the first and second floors. Every window had been smashed, allowing in oxygen to feed the fire’s voracious appetite. The broken glass littered the front porch and the grass below.

The doors had been torn off their hinges.

Weapons at the ready, the Avengers rushed inside. The smoke stung at their eyes, irritated their lungs. Following orders, Kodie moved ahead into the living room, brandishing his fire extinguisher. Tony, Steve, and Vision headed deeper into the house. Natasha and Wanda hurried upstairs to the bedrooms and nursery. Bruce was close on their heels, a second extinguisher in hand to deal with the fires upstairs.

The house was empty.

They found no sign of the Barton clan. Or the demon. At Steve’s orders, Vision and Tony took the search to the skies outside, their night vision giving them an advantage. Flying in ever widening arcs, the two heroes spiraled out from the farmhouse. Looking for any sign of the missing family. And the farther they flew, the lower their hearts sank.

Back at the house, the rest of the heroes regrouped in the living room where Kodie was putting out the last of the fires. Smoke hung in tatters throughout the house, acrid and cloying.

But when all was said and done, it couldn’t hide the destruction.

The Barton home had been trashed.

Holes had been smashed through the walls all throughout the house. Small holes appeared to be from fists. Others looked as though pieces of furniture had been forcefully hurled through them. It was a wonder some sections of the house hadn’t given away. Picture frames lay scorched and shattered on the floor, their precious memories vengefully shredded. In the living room cushions had been torn off the couch and chairs and gutted, the singed white stuffing strewn around the room.

A scorched winter wonderland.

It seemed as though everything breakable had been thrown against one wall or another. Everything that could be torn was shredded. Nothing escaped the tornado of destruction. Sooty trails marked where fire had licked its way all through the old farm house. The largest fires had seemed to concentrate in Lila and Cooper’s bedrooms, the nursery, and the living room.

Indeed, the most violent acts of destruction seemed to center on those rooms.

All of Lila’s stuffed animals had been disemboweled. Fluffy filling, furry limbs, and dismembered dolls heads were scattered around her room. The furniture had been smashed, and the dresses that had hung in her closet were nothing more than macabre streamers on hangers. Each step the heroes took in her room seemed to scream with the crackle and snap of china shards that were all that was left of her broken tea set. Someone had scattered it across the floor like confetti.

Cooper’s room was no better. The furniture had been smashed, just like Lila’s. His action figures had had their heads and limbs methodically pulled off, and his posters had been ripped from the walls and torn to pieces. Bits of molten plastic were everywhere. If Natasha had had to guess, she would’ve thought they were all that remained of the large lego constructions that usually sat atop her godson’s dresser. And her heart ached at the memory of the time Cooper had poured into building those sets.
Little Nathaniel’s nursery looked as though a tornado had gone through it. The wooden bassinet Clint had painstakingly crafted with love and care twelve years ago when Laura was pregnant with Cooper had been tossed out the window and onto the living room roof. The heavy wood dressers and changing tables that Clint had added later were now both in the master bedroom, having been thrown through the wall. In a corner, Nathaniel’s baby monitor hissed and crackled. And what was left of the baby’s mobile hung from a hook in the ceiling, a drunken lopsided jellyfish with a couple of plush… tatters hanging off of it.

Not a single room in the house had been spared.

Wanda reached out a trembling hand to touch a splash of red on the living room wall. Behind her, Kodie went pale. He’d seen the kids’ bicycles out in the yard, and the highchair in the kitchen. Captain America had told him that one of the civilians hadn’t even started walking yet.

“Is that…?”

She gave a mute nod, shellshocked.

Now that they were looking for it the stench of blood was all too prevalent under the acrid smoke of the housefire. And it was everywhere. Splashes decorated the walls, and dribbled across the floors. In their rush to find Laura and the kids, the Avengers had tracked it around even further.

Tony and Vision reported back through the coms.

Nothing.

Natasha looked as though she wanted to kill something as she cut loose an enraged stream of Russian. Steve, Wanda, and Bruce just looked heartbroken, staring at the devastation.

They had come too late.

The Barton clan was dead. Or at least some of them were. No one could lose as much blood as they had decorating the walls and floor and still live. And they knew Laura would fight like a tiger to protect her kids. It was very likely her. And Lila, Cooper, and little Nathaniel… If they weren’t dead yet, they likely very soon would be. As enraged as the demon had been it was only a matter of time before he made Clint murder his children. And the Avengers had no way of knowing where the beast had taken them.

There was nothing any of them could do to save them.

Chapter Text


Two hours previous

The demon eyed the darkened house.

Rage boiled through him, hissing and spitting like the fire that was his to call. How dare that insignificant little mortal attempt to take him over! Heat rolled off of his skin in waves, making the air shimmer and weave around him. Leaves from the bushes he stood in hissed and shriveled away from his touch. And those distinctive electric blue eyes glowed with an eerie light all their own.

He couldn’t take his anger out on Clint.

At least, not physically, never actually on Clint’s person. That buffoon who’d summoned him had forbade any serious physical harm to befall Clint straight off the bat. If Clint proved too strong to break, he’d agreed to consider stronger methods at a later date.

The demon snorted. That bumbling oaf didn’t know what fire he played with. It was pure luck that the mortal had snared him at all. But the restraints he’d set still held. Surtur might not have been a crossroads demon, but even he was bound by certain rules. The clumsy, fumbling spell work had bound him for the time being, but it wouldn’t hold forever. And every contract had a loophole. It was only a matter of time until one presented itself.

In the meantime... He might not be able to hurt Clint yet; but the precious little family hidden in the deepest corners of Clint’s head?

They were fair game.

And Barney wasn’t even aware they existed . Which was probably for the best. The fool put up a tough front, but he was not so heartless as he would have others believe. He wanted revenge.  Wanted his brother hurt and broken. But he didn’t want him dead or maimed. And he drew the line at purposefully killing children. He’d allowed the Avengers to escort the hostages out of the mall before beginning their attack earlier that very night. And he’d done it for the sake of the children.

It was why Surtur had been so quick to leave Barney behind.

Within a few minutes of fleeing the Avengers at the mall, the demon had ferried Barney back to their hideout and left him there without a word. Then he had set out for Clint’s home. It had earned his grudging respect, the lengths Clint had gone to to get his family off the grid. The farm had been carefully hidden in the middle of the backwoods nowhere of Iowa. But it didn’t slow him down. Surtur was a demon, and for a demon a few hundred miles was little less than the blink of an eye. And so he had come to be here, staring hungrily at a darkened house.

Sleeping. Vulnerable.

He dragged Clint’s consciousness closer to the surface, and made his move. He could hear Clint screaming as he approached the quaint old farmhouse, shamelessly begging  for the lives of his family. He ignored the begging, pulling the archer closer still to the surface of his mind, taking a perverse glee in knowing that Clint would remember everything that was to come with crystal clarity.

He tore the front door off it’s hinges with a gesture.

No one inside the house stirred. Drawing on Clint’s memories, the demon moved unerringly through the darkened halls to the master bedroom on the second floor.

The wife wasn’t there.

No matter, she was surely with the children. He shook off his surprise and made his way down the hall to the nursery. Perhaps one was ill. A smile quirked his lips at the thought. He hoped so. It would make Clint’s pain all the sweeter if they died terrified and miserable on top of it.

The nursery was empty.

A suspicion began to form in Surtur’s mind.

His pleas ignored, Clint was fighting again with everything he had, desperately trying to push the demon down and take control the way he had at the mall. All he needed was a few seconds. Just a few seconds to call out a warning. Surtur growled and pushed Clint’s mind back down. It would make it harder for the human to see, but if things were going the way Surtur thought they were, there wouldn’t be quite the bloodbath that he’d hoped. The next bedroom looked to belong to a young boy.

It too was empty.

His rage intensified into an inferno as he rushed through the rest of the house, confirming that the family wasn’t there. A glance fell on a family portrait in the living room. The smiling faces and shining eyes set his power boiling in his veins. Small fires slithered into existence with soft puffs of air around him as he stared at that photo. His boiling hands scorched the frame when he picked it up, and the glass cracked at the sudden heat.

And suddenly, the tether on his control snapped.

The demon raged through the house with an incensed roar. He took the anger out on the old house that had become the Barton’s home. And he took a malicious glee in the destruction. Smoke hung heavy in the air as he attacked those things that had obviously been well loved. Those things that would be difficult, or even impossible to replace. And when he was through with the house, he turned his ire to the barn and outbuildings.

When the demon was through, there was little left.


 

 

Three Days Previous

 

Laura woke with a jolt of fear.

For a scant second, she wasn’t sure what had woken her. She’d never been a particularly heavy sleeper, but having three kids and spending years married to Clint Barton had made her much more sensitive to odd noises in the middle of the night. The sound came again.

Someone was banging on the front door.

One hand cupping the slight swell of her belly protectively, the mother slipped out of bed and pulled on a hoodie over her baggy t-shirt. The alarm clock on the bedside table told her it was three a.m. Who on earth would be at her door at this hour? The loud banging came again. Clint would never knock on the front door of his own house. And so far as she new, Clint had never given Natasha a key, but the assassin still randomly showed up in her kitchen anyway. Some of the Avengers might knock, but they wouldn’t show up at three in the morning. Not unless it was an emergency, and they would call first.

Something was wrong.

Thoughts of her husband’s abduction flitted through her head and she reached into the nightstand. A hidden spring in the ceiling of the little cupboard gave way before sure fingers, and the panel swung down to reveal a gun and three loaded clips.

Technically it was Clint’s gun, but they both knew it was hers.

When she’d agreed to marry him, and he’d explained his job as in depth as he could, the first thing he’d done was take her to a range and teach her how to shoot. The range owner was a friend and had been kind enough to let them try several different guns until they’d found one she could manage easily. And a few days later that same type of gun had showed up in Clint’s arsenal. She still went shooting with him, just to keep her edge. And she was the one who maintained the gun.

He’d made damn sure she could take care of herself.

She loaded the weapon and tucked the other two clips in the pockets of her pajama pants. The hammering on the door was almost continuous now. Laura hurried down the stairs. She couldn’t decide whether she hoped the banging would wake Cooper and Lila or not. If it was one of the Avengers and there was no danger, she didn’t want to disturb their sleep. But if this was a threat on their doorstep, a little lost sleep was the least of their problems. Whoever it was hadn’t broken in yet, and that was the only reason she wasn’t panicking. Someone here to hurt them wouldn’t knock, they’d just break in. She’d never even know they were there if they were good.

She’d just be found dead in her bed.

For the first time in her life, Laura regretted their choice of front door. The upper half of the front door was clear glass, the door frame around it made of slender glass panels. Pretty to look at, and secretly bulletproof. Clint had insisted. But it didn’t do anything to stop her visitors from seeing into her home. Thankfully she could also see out.

There was a man on her porch.

He was tall. Taller than her husband. Clint topped out at five foot ten. This man easily had him beat at something closer to six foot or so. She wasn’t sure but if she had to guess he’d probably be pretty close to on par with Captain America. He was dressed in a heavy jacket, flannel, and jeans. And she would’ve bet even money that he was armed. Moving a little closer to the door, she peered past him. Bathed in the light of a full moon, she could see that there were two more men at the foot of the porch steps.

One was what she could only classify as obscenely tall. Though well built, his height gave him a lanky look. A man that large shouldn’t give the impression of being a beanpole. Like the man on the porch, he was dressed in jeans and a heavy canvas jacket, the tail ends of a flannel shirt peeking out from under the back of the coat. He and his companion were both facing out into the yard, apparently standing guard. She could only see the back of his head, and that he had long shoulder length hair. He had a shotgun in his hands.

His companion was several inches shorter, though anyone would probably look short next to that giant. He had a mop of messy black hair that looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed. Given that it was three a.m., he very well might have. He wore a long tan trench coat of all things, and instead of carrying a gun, he had an odd sort of long silver blade.

They looked as if they were waiting for an attack.

Gun cradled in both hands, she sidled closer still, careful to keep out of the man’s line of sight. Might as well ask him what the hell he thought he was doing hammering on her door at three a.m. Otherwise he’d probably just keep it up. And sooner or later he’d wake the kids. She clicked on the porch light, temporarily blinding him and making it harder for him to see inside the house.

“Who are you?”

He stopped his thundering immediately. “Laura? You’re Laura Barton, right? Clint’s wife?”

“That depends on who’s asking. Who are you?”

“A friend. Clint left me a message. Said shit went down and he didn’t have a window. That he needed us to get you off the farm and as far off the grid as we could manage asap.”

She arched an eyebrow. That was ballsy. Clint hadn’t even been missing a week yet, and already someone was trying to capitalize off his absence. It had happened in the past, but only at Shield, and no one had ever found their way to the farm. His presence here bothered her.

“I doubt that. There are very few people who know this place even exists, let alone who lives here. If Clint were to send anyone to evacuate his wife and kids, it wouldn’t be a stranger. He’d send someone they know.”

The man on the porch floundered. “Mrs. Barton…”

She purposefully readied the gun, knowing he would hear the click. “I’d think very carefully if I were you. Would you care to revise your bullshit story?” He didn’t answer. She huffed in annoyance. “Either tell me the truth or get off this property before I call in backup.” She bluffed, hoping he’d buy it. The Avengers were in New York, and the nearest police station was twenty miles away. To say nothing of the distance she’d have to travel to reach a Shield base. She was on her own out here.

On the other side of the door, the man rested his forehead against the glass.

He didn’t get angry, the way she’d expected him to. Instead, he almost seemed desperate. She’d seen that look on Clint’s face when he knew that he didn’t have a lot of time, and needed to make what he had count. And then the stranger said the absolute last thing she expected him to say.

“Your name is Laura Delilah Barton, used to be Laura Delilah Miller. You’re husband’s name is Clinton Francis Barton. You have three kids with him. Cooper Francis Barton, Lila Renee Barton, and Nathaniel Pietro Barton.”

She shook her head. “I fail to see how spouting off something you could get from a file is going to prove anything.” A very complete file, she thought, but kept that to herself.

He smiled a little. “You named your first son for Clint. Cooper is a nod to his job as Hawkeye; there’s a real hawk with the same name. And you gave him Clint’s middle name. He worried that you guys were naming your son solely after him, that you didn’t have any sort of presence in the name. You told him to stop being an idiot and that he could name the next one after you. He stuck to that, and when you two found out you were having a girl, he just hit you with the name Lila. You picked the middle name Renee for your mother, who still doesn’t know what it is that your husband really does for a living. She thinks he’s some specialist search and rescue or some bullshit, but she’s supportive anyway. And you named your youngest for the two people who saved Clint’s life. Natasha Romanov, and Pietro Maximoff. Clint still feels guilty about Pietro’s death, and he went out of his way to make sure that Pietro’s twin sister Wanda was taken care of. It doesn’t make up for it, but it makes it a little easier to sleep at night.”

He paused, face twisted up in thought.

The stranger racked his brain, trying to come up with something that would convince her to let him through the door. “You met Clint on the job. You were an E.R. nurse in Boston. You were no stranger to being hit on, and Clint was no different. What caught your attention was that he was becoming a regular in your E.R.. You’d find out later that he was on a long undercover op. You finally lost it when he came in with an arrow through his belly and an armload of plastic camels. He really couldn’t explain why he had either, and to this day you still don’t know why you agreed to date him.”

The man chuckled. “He asked you to marry him two years later. He tried to be all smooth about it, do the whole fancy restaurant thing. And dinner just went down the toilet when an Agent of Shield showed up and pulled him out. You were angry at him, ‘cause you didn’t know he was a secret agent till then, you’d thought he was military and moved from base to base a lot. You didn’t see him again for three months. When he came back from the mission he was fed up and sleep deprived and he just fired an arrow with an engagement ring on the shaft through your bedroom window. You said yes and let him in, and you asked why he’d had to put an arrow through you window, he could’ve missed. He just said that it seemed like a good idea at the time. He wasn’t going to take the chance of being interrupted again. And he never missed. You didn’t realize how true that was until he took you to a range and showed you.”

The stranger chewed his lip, before slowly saying the next bit. “He calls you his starling.”

Laura felt as though someone had punched the breath out of her chest.

Undaunted the man plowed on. “You asked him once, why he picked ‘starling’ instead of something pretty like a dove, or stupid and lovey dovey like pigeon. He didn’t answer right away. He just left the house for a couple hours, and when he came back you found out he’d gone out and caught a damn starling! He just held the stupid thing so you could see. And when you admitted that it was sort of pretty, he just grinned and said it was better than a dove or a pigeon. Pigeons were hard working but dirty birds, and doves were pretty much useless. You weren’t either. But starlings were different. They were tough, clever, and pretty. They’d chase birds of prey for miles if they got to close to the nest, and he freely admitted that you were more booksmart than he was. He might be a hawk, but you were the daring, clever little starling that looked after the nest while he was away.”

Laura slowly put down the gun and stepped up to the door.

This close, she could see the freckles on his cheeks, and the dark green eyes that were every bit as attentive as Clint’s. “I never told anyone that.”

“No, you didn’t.” He agreed. “Clint did.”

She huffed and folded her arms. “Sometimes I could smack that man.”

“Believe me, you ain’t the only one.” He grumbled. “Specially after that Budapest mission. We both high tailed it up to D.C. to ream him out when his handler contacted us to tell us how banged up he was.”

Laura remembered that mission.

It had been a bad one. Clint had broken his femur at the last possible moment before extraction, and Natasha had had to carry him the last block to the helicopter that was pulling them out. She hadn’t been able to thank Natasha enough for making sure Clint made it home. And she’d read Clint the riot act after Natasha had explained the stupid stunt that had won them the mission and almost lost them the hawk.

She still wasn’t sure how much of the story she’d heard was truth and how much was bullshit.

“What is his handler’s name?”

She was surprised to see pain etch itself into the stranger’s face. “His handler’s name was Phil Coulson. He was killed on the helicarrier by Loki just before the Battle of New York. Clint’s never forgiven himself for that. He feels that because he planned the attack on the helicarrier, because he hired the guns and set up the whole shebang, it’s his fault that Loki was a dick and killed Coulson. We don’t agree with him, but guilt like that doesn’t go away. You just live with it, and eventually time and distance makes it hurt a little less.”

She ran her thumb over the gun she held out of his line of sight. Considering.

Outside, he shuffled and glanced over his shoulder. “Listen, I know this is weird, having someone show up on your front porch at ass o’ clock in the morning saying your husband sent them. It’s a lot to take in. But right now, someone’s got your husband, and there’s a real chance they might come after you and the kids next. The Avengers are going to have their hands full soon and he doesn’t trust Shield the way he used to. We were the second best option. I’ve known Clint for years, and I know he wouldn’t do this lightly. We have to get you out of here. And we have to do it now ... Please... let us help.”

Laura took a deep breath and put the safety back on her gun. He knew too much to be a fake. Whoever this man was, he knew Clint. And Clint trusted him. Personal details about his family were shared with a very select few. She had no choice but to believe this man.

She unlocked the door.

The stranger sagged in relief. “Thanks.”

Laura shrugged and switched one of the spare clips over to the other pocket, placing the gun in the empty one. Her pajama pants felt as though they were going to fall off of her hips, but there wasn’t a whole lot she could do aside from tighten the drawstring. She tucked her hands in the pocket of her hoodie, the baggy clothing hiding her slight bump and the way she kept her hands on it. The man waved at the two men in the yard and stepped into the house.

“The kids are upstairs.” She admitted.

“Good.” His green eyes were darting around the entryway, scanning the stairs ahead of him and the rooms to the right and left for threats. “Clint told me he would run bug out drills every now and again. Your record’s fifteen, right?”

“Fourteen.”

She led him upstairs, deciding as she went that until she learned his name she was going to call him ‘Green Eyes’. Well, she’d call him that in her head at least.

They hurried past the master bedroom.

Clint had insisted that they take the room closest to the stairs when they’d first moved in. It wasn’t until much later that she realized he was putting himself between intruders and their future children. Cooper’s room was next in line on the opposite side of the hall, and Laura led Green Eyes there. Cooper was ten, he knew where everything was and could help get the younger two ready to go on the double. Her son was sprawled across the bed, an old teddy bear that had definitely seen better days tucked under his head like a pillow.

“Cooper.” She whispered, gently shaking him.

He groaned and rubbed sleepy eyes. “Mom? Wha’s goin’ on?” He spotted ‘Green Eyes’ standing behind her and bolted upright, suddenly very wide awake. “Who’re you?!”

“Never mind him. We have to bug out. I need you to hurry up and get dressed as quickly as you can.”

Cooper paled. He knew his father was a secret agent and an Avenger, but he wasn’t quite old enough to know what all that entailed. But he was smart enough to recognize that this wasn’t a drill. Her son scrambled out of the blankets and snatched a neatly folded set of clothes off of a stool by the foot of his bed. Laura and ‘Green Eyes’ left him to it and went next door to Lila’s room. The seven year old was curled up in a nest of blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals. A plush pony was cuddled tight against her chest.

She woke when ‘Green Eyes’ tripped over a jingly toy on the floor.

“Mommy?”

Laura smoothed her hair out of her face. “Bug out sweetheart, on the double.”

Just like her brother, Lila darted out of bed and dove for a neatly folded set of clothes. The clothes had been Laura’s idea. If they ever had to leave in a hurry in the middle of the night, it would waste time to go searching for clothes. They could leave in pajamas if they had to, but they’d draw more attention wherever they were going. So she’d gotten the kids into the habit of laying out their clothes for the next day. Avoiding the panicky search for clothes had shaved loads of time off their bugout drills.

The system had been doubly helpful when the new school year had rolled around.

The two returned to the hall and found Cooper dressed and carrying a backpack and duffle. The door to Nathaniel’s nursery was open, and Laura could hear her youngest beginning to fuss. The one and a half year old toddler was standing up in his crib, hands clutching the bars to keep himself upright. The curtains hanging from the bottom of the crib had been pushed aside, revealing the empty space below where the baby’s bug out bag was kept. If the time came and they had to evacuate it was Cooper’s job to grab it.

“I’ll get Nate, you go get dressed.” ‘Green Eyes’ patted her shoulder and stepped into the nursery.

Laura took a deep breath. This was really happening. She nodded and went to her other son. “Take the bags downstairs to the front door. There are two men standing guard outside, they’re here with him. Get the small bag out of the hall closet too. Then come back up and help your sister if she needs it.”

“Yes Mom.”

She didn’t waste time scrambling into clothes. A pair of sturdy jeans replaced the pajama pants, but the t-shirt and  hoodie stayed where they were. She transferred the gun and spare clips to the jean pockets. Then she grabbed her duffle out of the closet and hurried downstairs.

Cooper and Lila were ready and waiting by the front door. Laura could see ‘Green Eyes’ out on the porch talking to the tall one, Nathaniel perched on his hip and some sort of bundle hanging from the opposite hand.

Needing something to call them, even if it was only in her own mind, she dubbed the giant ‘Mr. Obscenely Tall’, and the black haired man was renamed ‘Trench Coat’. ‘Trench Coat was watching the yard like a hawk, that odd blade clutched in his hand. ‘Obscenely Tall’ took the bundle from ‘Green Eyes’, and hurried back down the steps to say something to ‘Trench Coat’.

“Mommy?” Lila whimpered, uncertainly.

‘Green Eyes’ turned around and smiled to see her there and ready to go. “Ten minutes. Clint’d be proud of you guys. You still have your gun?” She showed it to him and he smiled in approval. “Good. You shouldn’t need it, but better safe than sorry. Come on. Time’s wasting.”

Out in the yard, ‘Green Eyes’ pushed Lila toward ‘Obscenely Tall’.

“Take her. We need to make as few trips as possible.” He ordered cryptically, then he turned to Cooper. “Trade me. The bag for your little brother. If I need to make my hands free in a hurry I can put a bag down a whole lot faster than a baby.”

Cooper dropped the duffle immediately and reached for the toddler. Nathaniel babbled happily, reaching for his older brother with pudgy grabby hands. Said hands proceeded to bury themselves in Cooper’s dark brown hair as soon as they were in reach. Cooper made a face, but didn’t complain.

‘Obscenely Tall’ had picked Lila up, backpack and all, and perched her on his hip. If the added weight bothered him, he didn’t show it. Bundle still in hand, he nudged Cooper closer to ‘Trench Coat’ with a reassuring smile.

“Get us out of here.”

‘Trench Coat’ laid a hand on Cooper and ‘Obscenely Tall’. And all four of them suddenly winked out of existence. Laura gasped, pure terror shooting through her like a lightning bolt. For several long, horrible seconds she just stood frozen. Then she turned on ‘Green Eyes’, angry words already on her lips.

‘Green Eyes’ held up his hands. “They’re safe, I promise. I should’ve warned you we weren’t driving, and I’m sorry. But it’s the quickest way to get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ when you’re in a hurry.”

‘Trench Coat’ suddenly winked back into existence and touched two fingers each to their foreheads.

The world tilted on its axis, and pressure pushed against her body, as if she were being pulled at high speed. The world abruptly slammed back into disorienting focus. Laura stumbled, her balance lost. And then her body rebelled. Nausea rushed through her system, too sudden and intense to ignore. She doubled over and threw her guts up on hard packed dirt.

‘Green Eyes’ swore and dropped the bags.

He crouched beside her, gathering her long dark brown hair back at the nape of her neck and held it, his free hand rubbing her back. “Shhh.” He soothed kindly. “It’s ok, you’re alright. You’re ok.”

He kept up the mantra while she shuddered and heaved up bile.

Finally, her stomach settled. Laura wiped bile off of her lips and let ‘Green Eyes’ help her up. They were surrounded by trees. In front of them, a massive brick and concrete structure was set into the side of a hill. The door was open, and light poured out. She could see ‘Obscenely Tall' waiting in the doorway, Lila still perched on his hip and the bundle at his feet. Cooper was behind him, Nathaniel still awkwardly cradled against his chest. Her kids looked a little spooked, but otherwise alright. And ‘Obscenely Tall’ looked sympathetic. It made her wonder if they’d had people throw up in the past after teleporting or whatever that was ‘Trench Coat’ just did.

Speaking of ‘Trench Coat’, he looked a little shamefaced.

“I’m sorry.” He offered. “Had I realized you were gravid, I would’ve taken more care.”

That caught her attention. “How did you know I was…?”

‘Green Eyes’ waved it off and guided her towards the door. “He knows things. Let’s just leave it at that ok? Let me know if you need one of us to run to the pharmacy for medicine or something.”

She arched an eyebrow. Either he didn’t know the first thing about pregnancy, or he’d misunderstood the word. Either way, she possessed neither the mood nor the energy to deal with it tonight.

“I think I’ll manage.”

“Right.” Slinging Nathaniel’s duffle and the little backpack from the hall closet over his shoulder, he ushered her inside, ‘Trench Coat’ bringing up the rear with her go bag. ‘Green Eyes grinned at Nathaniel’s babbling and ruffled the toddler’s hair. “Alright, let’s get you guys settled.”

“No.”

All motion ceased.

Laura leveled the three men with her best mom glare. To her surprise, it actually seemed effective on ‘Green Eyes’ and ‘Obscenely Tall’. Even ‘Trench Coat’ seemed a little cowed by it. That was different, usually she had to work harder to get that response. She stubbornly folded her arms.

“You say we’re safe here. Fine. If my family is no longer in danger, I’m allowed to be stubborn. And I’d like names if you don’t mind. As amusing as nicknames are, I can’t keep thinking of you three as ‘Green Eyes’, ‘Mr. Obscenely Tall’, and ‘Trench Coat’.”

‘Green Eyes’ outright cackled. “Mr. Obscenely Tall? Really? Oh my God, that is great! I’ll have to remember that one!” He pointed at ‘Trench Coat’, still laughing fit to cry. “And ‘Trench Coat’?!”

‘Obscenely Tall’ rolled his eyes. “Very funny Green Eyes . Pity you didn’t inspire a more masculine nickname.”

Still sniggering, ‘Green Eyes’ waved him off. “Sorry Laura, I should’ve introduced us at the start. ‘Trench Coat’ over there, that’s my friend Castiel. Mostly we just call him 'Cas', ‘Feathers’, or ‘Baby in a Trench Coat’, whatever works. The walking tree is my baby brother Sammy, who is a drama Queen, and I’m Dean.”

“Sam? And Dean? ….Winchester?”

Memories were parading across her mind’s eye. Conversations with Clint in a warm kitchen, or a quiet night behind closed doors. Stories about two boys who’d been one of the few constants throughout Clint’s life. Who’d given him the love, comfort, and support his own older brother Barney hadn’t been able too. Two boys who’d stuck by Clint when his whole world went to hell, and who had his back when he had no one. Who had become men with him, and who he considered family.

No wonder he’d trusted them so much.

They, on the other hand, seemed astonished.

“He mentioned us?” Sam asked.

Talking right over the top of Sam, Dean added his own question. “You know who we are?”

Laura nodded. “Of course. He hasn’t forgotten what you did for him all those years back. You’ve had his back through thick and thin, even when everyone else was trying to stab it. He loves you two. As far as Clint is concerned, you and Sam are the brothers he should have had. You and Sam are family.”

The two Winchesters looked shell shocked.

“I didn’t think he’d mention us at all…” Sam admitted.

Seeing Laura’s confused look, Dean clarified. “We’re not exactly the type you introduce to your family. Our jobs are dangerous, and we usually have to work outside of the law to get it done.”

“Well, be that as it may, Clint speaks very highly of you and Sam. He even gave me your numbers in case of emergencies if I couldn’t get a hold of him or Natasha.” She chuckled. “I hate to tell you this, but I would’ve been much more inclined to trust you if you’d introduced yourselves at the start.” She gently took Nathaniel from Cooper, brushing a grateful kiss to her older boy’s head. “I still would’ve asked for proof, but It would’ve been so much easier than reciting every personal detail Clint ever told you about us.”

Sam face palmed, while his brother gave him an embarrassed but nonetheless shit eating grin.

“Oops.” Dean shrugged, not the least bit repentant. “It worked didn’t it?”

His brother just rolled his eyes, but there was no real aggravation there.

Still resting on Sam’s hip, Lila yawned and rubbed at her eyes. The giant smiled and adjusted the child so that her head could rest on his shoulder. His face softened as she tiredly cuddled into his chest. “Dean. I think our guests are ready for bed. We can talk more in the morning.”

“Right.” Galvanized into action, Dean picked up the bags again and led the way down the stairs. “Welcome to our home. We call this place the 'Bunker'. There’s plenty of room, and we’re the only ones living here, so don’t worry about stepping on anyone’s toes. Mi casa es su casa and all that. There are a few rooms that are off limits, but mostly ‘cause they’re not kid friendly. We’ll give you the grand tour tomorrow.”  

The tired family followed them through the tile halls, Dean and Sam pointing out the kitchen and bathroom along the way.

“There’s room enough that you could each have your own room if you wanted.” Dean explained, throwing open a door to a bedroom. The room beyond had a full sized bed pushed into a corner, a bedside table setting next to it, and a dresser set sideways against the wall and the foot of the bed. “This’ll be your room Laura… though,  we’ve got plenty of folding cots if you’d all rather stick together tonight. Believe me, we’d understand.”

Laura shifted Nathaniel to one hip and pulled Cooper close to her side with her free arm. “I think that would be best. At least for tonight.”

“Ok.” Dean tossed the bags onto the bed and grabbed Castiel’s shoulder. “Come on Cas, you can help me grab the cots. And we need to find something we can make up as a bed for Nathaniel that he can’t fall out of…”

His voice faded as he and Cas moved further away, leaving Sam with the Barton clan. Over the course of the short trip from the front door to the bedroom, Lila had fallen asleep against his chest. He’d carried the bundle Dean had given to him at the farm all the way to the bedroom and he dropped it on the bed so that he could shift Lila into a bridal carry. She mumbled sleepily and nuzzled into his flannel shirt, never truly waking up.

Laura smiled as she watched him.

Clint had told her about Sam and Dean. He’d never really gone into detail about what they did. But he’d been more forthcoming about their abilities. That they could easily have been agents of Shield, agents of his caliber, if they’d had a mind to. They were excellent fighters, deadly even. And they frequently put those skills to use. Doing what, she didn’t always know or understand. It had scared her half to death when she had heard that they were on the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. But Clint had impressed on her that they were good men, that their job was to save people. Clint trusted them, and she trusted Clint implicitly.

The sight of such a deadly man holding her daughter with such tenderness, and knowing that he would never hurt her, was quite the feeling.

“Thank you.”

He cocked his head at her curiously. “For what?”

“For coming for us. I know you’re not what the law thinks you are, but that doesn’t mean you can afford not to be careful. You risked a lot to come for us. You didn’t have to.”

“Yes we did.” Sam shrugged. “Like you said, you’re family. And as a wise,” he snickered, “and kind of crotchety old man once said: ‘Family don’t end with blood’.”

“Damn straight!” Dean agreed. He muscled a pair of folded cots into the room, with Castiel right behind him with a chest. Dean set the cots down and started unfolding them. “Clint is our brother. That makes you family. Don't worry about the law, they think we're dead. Again. And I promise you, we’re going to bury the bastard that has Clint.”

“Dean! Watch your mouth in front of the kids!”

Dean froze.

He ducked his head under Sam’s reproving glare, and muttered an embarrassed apology. The older Winchester finished setting up the cots and pushed them against the walls.

“Anyway, let’s get you guys settled. Cas, you can set the chest over here by the dresser. There’s blankets and pillows inside, so go ahead and share those around. Coop,  you can bed down here. Sam, you can put Lila down over there. We’ll leave the chest open and pad it, and we can use that for Nathaniel. Just make sure you tie the lid to the foot of the bed so it doesn’t fall and hurt him, ok?”

“You got it.” Sam agreed, carefully laying Lila down on a cot without waking her. She didn’t even stir.

Blankets and pillows came out of the chest in record time, and they settled the kids fairly quickly. Even Cooper, who was clearly trying to be the man of the family and kept checking to make sure that his mother and siblings were alright and had what they needed. Eventually, even he settled down. Despite his protests that he wasn’t even tired, he was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow. Wishing Laura a good night, the men filed out of the room.

Almost out the door, Dean paused. “Hey Laura?”


She looked up from rearranging Cooper’s blankets, Nathaniel still perched on her hip. “Hm?”

Dean blushed, seeming almost embarrassed. “That um… that bundle on the bed is for you guys. I… I know what it’s like to have to drop everything and run in the middle of the night and not look back. Clint would be proud of you guys tonight. Um… anyway, uh, good night. Sam and I have rooms down the hall if you need anything, and Cas almost never sleeps… Night.”

The flustered man shut the door behind him.

Curious, Laura set the drowsy Nathaniel on the bed and reached for the bundle. It was the same one she’d seen Dean carry out of the house, though what could be in it, she hadn’t the faintest idea. It was big and bulky. As far as the mother could tell, it was a dark navy blue fleece blanket, and Dean had tied the corners together to make a handle. She worked the knots out, and the tie blanket fell open to reveal a Star Wars pattern.

It was only then that she realized what he had done.

The blanket was Cooper’s. Inside the Star Wars blanket was a bright yellow afghan and a red and blue baby blanket. Cooper’s much loved teddy bear stared up at her with smiling eyes, Lila’s pony and Nathaniel’s teddy leaned against it on either side. Dean had taken the time to grab each child’s blanket and stuffed animal off of their beds, wadding them all up into Cooper’s blanket like a makeshift rucksack. If she’d had any doubt about whether she liked Sam and Dean, this washed it away. Overcome with emotion, she grabbed up the stuffed animals and returned them to their owners. Nathaniel cooed softly at his little black bear, cuddling around it like a cat.

Lila’s afghan was heavier than it should be.

Laura frowned, carefully unwrapping the crocheted blanket. A scrapbook photo album from the living room, and the family portrait from her bedside table tumbled into her shaking hands. A little tear slipped down her cheek. Yes, she had a small memory card with photos of her family stashed away in her go bag, but Dean couldn’t have known that. And to have these hard copies here in her hands… The photo album was mostly pictures from Clint’s childhood that Laura had put in a scrapbook for him, and now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember whether she’d scanned them into a computer or not. These might be the only copies. And they were irreplaceable. She set the book and album on the bedside table, arranging them just so.

Yes. She definitely liked these men.


 

 

Present

Barney didn’t know where Surtur had gone.

The demon had been absolutely livid with Clint when they'd left the mall. To the point where even Barney was starting to get concerned. And that concern had only ratcheted up several notches when they arrived back at base and Surtur immediately  disappeared, destination unknown. Leaving Barney to wait and wonder.

He was still awake when the demon returned a little before dawn.

“Where the hell have you- holy shit! What the hell did you do?!”

Surtur smirked, a cat that had eaten a canary. It was very disturbing, seeing as the face he was wearing was splattered in fresh blood. He was covered head to toe in it. Crimson stained his chest and washed the fabric covering his thighs. But it was his hands that arrested the mercenary’s attention. A thick coating covered his hands from fingertip almost to his elbows. The congealing liquid was still so fresh as to be dripping from his fingers. Soot stained his face under the blood, and his clothing was singed.

He looked as if he had stepped off some fresh battlefield in hell.

Surtur seemed absurdly pleased with himself. “I have only done what you asked. After that display before the Avengers, he needed to be punished. I couldn’t touch him, but getting at those he cares about was child’s play.” He glanced in a mirror, checking the blood spatter on his face critically. His tone was almost conversational. “I made him kill them. He tore them apart with his bare hands.”

“He what?”

The demon gestured aimlessly over his shoulder and led the way down the hall to a cell they’d set up. It wasn’t superhuman grade, but it would be more than enough to hold Clint. He let himself into the small windowless concrete room and locked the barred door behind him. Barney accepted the bloodstained keys through the bars, wondering who on earth Surtur had just made Clint kill. A new thought struck him like a thunderbolt and he froze.

“Why am I locking you up?”

“Because, I have just struck the first, and possibly most monumental blow towards making your brother’s life a living hell. What is the point of damaging a person, if you cannot enjoy the damage? So, I’m going to sleep for a while. Clint will be in control of his faculties. I will be able to take over at any time I wish, but for now I think it best to let him stew for a little while. I suggest you remain close. This promises to be quite the show.”

The demon’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he crumbled to the floor.

He seemed to fall asleep almost instantly. Unsure how long it would take for Clint to come up out of whatever corner of his mind he’d been shoved into, Barney grabbed a chair and settled in to wait.


 

 

Clint woke slowly.

For a moment he simply lay there, disoriented by the sudden return of his body’s control. What about Surtur? Had his team finally come for him? Had Natasha hit him over the head again? His head did feel stuffy and a little sore...

The archer took stock of himself. He was sprawled awkwardly across the floor like a rag doll. Concrete pressed hard against his hips and side. The cold had seeped up out of the stone to chill his flesh. Outside, an eighteen wheeler rumbled by. Closer to home, he could hear someone else breathing. He might not be able to feel any restraints, but he was certainly being watched. And it definitely wasn’t his team, they wouldn’t have left him on the ground. The archer braced himself. He wouldn’t get anywhere just laying there.

Clint opened his eyes.

His blood soaked hand was the first thing to greet his sight. His hand was coated in it, from fingertips on down his forearm. The viscous fluid had actually had time to pool a little underneath his arm and start to dry there!

What on earth had happened?

Memories tickled at the back of his mind the longer he stared at those sanguine stains. He remembered his home, lit up like a Christmas tree. Remembered destruction. Had he disemboweled Lila’s dolls? Had she seen? He couldn’t remember. He hoped not. He never ever wanted her to see the side of him that had been and probably always would be a professional killer. He’d never wanted his family to see that ruthless side of him.

It was why he worked so hard to keep them away from his work.

More and more memories surfaced, hazy and difficult to understand. Screams drifted through his head. Painful and terror stricken. An icy ball formed in the pit of his stomach. Were they memories from missions? Or were they from last night? The sensation of flesh tearing under his hands suddenly cropped up, and he felt the blood rush from his face. Oh God...Oh God, he’d killed his family. Dean didn’t get to them in time. Something must have happened to Dean, he never would have let Clint...unless Clint killed him too…

He rolled over.

Barney was sitting on the other side  of the door. He watched Clint impassively. Bored. “Who did you kill?” He arched an eyebrow at their prisoner. “Who was it? Hm? The sweet little old lady who landlord’s your apartment building when you’re away? The idealistic young fool of a grandson that helps her? Or maybe it’s someone a little closer. What about the innocent little waitress at that diner you visit whenever you get the chance? Hm?”

“You been following me?”

“I can’t fault you about the diner. Damn good grub in that tiny little box.” Barney chuckled. “Sides, ‘ts what you do when you’re hunting something. You find out where your target likes to be. What routes they like to travel...where they feel safe .” He smirked. “So, how close did the demon hit? One of your tenants? A friend? Maybe some secret agent of SHIELD girlfriend ?” He leaned back in his seat, balancing it on two legs. “Always wondered why you didn’t go for that red headed partner of yours.”

“Yeah? Hit on the Black Widow, that sounds like a marvelous idea… And you know what? After that ; I’ll hang a steak around my neck, chum the waters, and go flirt with a Great White shark. It’ll be less painful.” Clint groaned and pushed himself up off the floor. “Hit on the Black Widow, I think you got a screw loose brother.”

Barney snorted. “Least I got a screw… You gotta admit, she’d make you some good lookin’ kids.”

Dead silence greeted his words.

Barney paused, looking his brother’s tense frame over. Noting the way he wouldn’t meet his eyes. Something was off. “...Clinton?”

For a minute Barney thought Clint hadn’t heard him.

“My family. He made me kill my family.” Clint was shaking, his heart hammering in his chest. “I tore them apart. I… I think he made me do it with my bare hands…”

“What are you talking about? I’ve had a bead on you for months. Learned every little thing there was to know about you. You don’t have a family.”

“Then clearly you don’t know jack about me. That… That monster just made me kill my wife.” Tears slid down his face, the spoken words making it more real. “I… I murdered my daughter. My two boys. The little one was barely a year and a half!”

The legs of Barney’s chair thumped down on the ground.

It wasn’t possible! Clint didn’t have a family. A work family maybe, but not the wife and kids kind… right? It wasn’t possible. He would’ve known. Unless...Barney grimaced, feeling stupid. Twice Clint had taken a quinjet and left the upstate facility, and gone who knows where. But he’d always come back after a week or two. Barney had just assumed that Clint was on missions. Now he wondered if they hadn’t been something else.

It’s what he would’ve done, if he’d been in Clint’s shoes.

Clint had come to the front of his prison, hands gripping the bars. They seemed to be the only thing holding him up anymore. “I killed my family… maybe the men who were supposed to protect them as well. ” He whispered. Sharp eyes suddenly snapped up from the bars. Clint pinned Barney to his seat with his stare.

Gone was the disorientation and the shock, and all that was left was the Shield trained specialist. No, Barney corrected himself. That wasn’t quite right. He was seeing the mercenary and assassin Clint had grown up into, for the first time in years. An assassin with all the training of a Shield specialist to back him up, and the rage and hurt and conviction of a husband and father who’d just had his whole world ripped away to see him through. Every scrap of mercy or compassion had been burned away in the blaze.

There was nothing left.

“You better pray I never shake this demon, Barney.” Clint growled, his knuckles going white with the grip on the bars. “You better pray I’m never free. Because I’ll kill you, for what you just made me do.”

Barney had always had a good sense for people. Particularly for people who were dangerous. It had started with their abusive father when he and Clint were kids. The orphanage and circus had sharpened that sense. Training in the FBI and years worth of work as a mercenary for hire had honed it into a fine edged tool. He knew what to look for in an employer. And he knew what to look for in an opponent. Both possessed a certain amount of danger. After a point, it was better to just turn around and walk away, no matter how easy the job or the amount of money involved. Clint’s wild, unsettling blue gaze was cold and deadly. Similar and yet so totally different from the danger of his normal browns. Lethal. If he’d been a prospective client trying to procure Barney’s services...

...Barney would’ve walked away in a heartbeat.

Clint suddenly paled.

The archer spun around and stumbled across the room. He scrambled over to the toilet and dropped to his knees, emptying his guts into the bowl. Clint groaned. This wasn’t going to end well. The foul smell wafting up from the bowl turned his stomach and Clint bowed his head. Bracing himself. He threw up again. And again. He threw up until there was nothing left. Stomach empty, his body kept trying to bring up something he didn’t have. Locked into the most vicious cycle of dry heaves he’d ever had the displeasure of experiencing, Clint sat there and helplessly clung to the bowl to keep himself upright. He felt as if it would never be over. On some level, he didn’t want it to be. He could never suffer enough for what he had done that night.

Finally, his body settled.

Clint slid down to lay on the cement, boneless with his exhaustion. Surtur didn’t need sleep, so Clint’s body didn’t sleep. His body hadn’t been allowed to rest in almost a week and a half. Now that his strings had been temporarily cut, it was a wonder he’d managed to stay conscious so long. The Avenger settled his brow against the cool porcelain of the toilet, letting it soothe the feverish heat that had radiated ever since the demon had broken in.

His eyes welled up, and became gritty, and his throat constricted. He let the tears fall. Sobs wracked his chest and shoved out of his sore throat without mercy. He didn’t try and quiet them. He couldn’t have cared less that Barney was there to see. The archer just curled in on himself and let his grief take it’s course. Wept for the wife and children he was forced to murder.

He cried, unashamed.

He would be angry later. And heaven help Barney when the time came. But for now he would mourn. He would grieve for a family that had never deserved to end like this. He was broken. And he wasn’t sure how those broken pieces were ever going to mesh back together.

All Barney could do was stare.

Because he’d wanted Clint broken. He’d been trying to bring the hawk to his knees for years for what Clint had done to him. But now, he was seeing it. And it was not what he had imagined it would be. He had wanted Clint to hurt, the way he had hurt. He had wanted Clint to pay for what he’d done. He wanted it to be painful.

He wanted it to be agonizing .

And now he had exactly what he wanted. Oh sure, they still had to tear down Clint’s good name. Sully his reputation. But Surtur had accomplished their main objective.

The hawk was broken.

And Barney wasn’t sure it was what he wanted at all.


 

 

They couldn’t stay at the farm.

The desolation and sheer carnage done to the Barton home by one individual was staggering. The sight of the blood and the heart wrenching knowledge that it was probably Laura’s made it all the worse. The very idea that some of it might belong to one of the kids was almost enough to make the heroes sick to their stomachs. But they couldn’t leave either. They had to be sure that they had found everything there was to find. No matter how much it might hurt.

“Steve!”

Wanda flew through the front door, breathless from her run. The young metahuman zipped around the corner to the kitchen and plowed straight into the her captain. Steve staggered back a step, catching her before she could trip over his feet and take them both to the ground. Her sudden return had attracted Bruce and Kodie’s attention. The two came to the kitchen door, fire extinguishers still in hand, just in case.

Steve ignored them. “Wanda? What is it? What’s going on?”

“It’s not them!” Wanda had tears streaming down her cheeks, laughing in relief as she tried to make the super soldier understand. “It’s not them Steve! I went out to the barn. The animals…”

She could see the second he understood what she was trying to tell him.

“He killed the animals?” Steve felt his heart leap.

Wanda nodded, motioning the other two in to hear the good news. “I noticed some feathers on the porch, and more blood. They led out to the barn. It is like a slaughterhouse in there. There are dead chickens everywhere, or pieces of them. I think I saw a couple of cats… Did Clint have a goat?”

“One.” Bruce confirmed. “I think Natasha said that it was dumped roadside and the kids decided to keep it. They named it Billy. He only ever liked the kids, and he grudgingly tolerated Laura. I take it he didn’t make it?”

“No,” Wanda smiled a little, “but I think he went down fighting. He was up close to the door. And there is a body print in the dirt, as if he knocked someone down. I don’t wish ill on Clint, but the idea of the one controlling him being knocked down by a goat is immensely satisfying.”

“It is satisfying to me as well.”

From above, Vision dropped down through the kitchen ceiling. Outside, they could hear Iron Man’s repulsors as he touched down in the yard. Moments later, Tony stumped his way through the front door and retracted his faceplate.

“Guys?”

“In the kitchen, Stark.”  Steve called. He waited until Tony had joined them before asking for a report. What they had to say wasn’t promising.

“There is no sign of anyone coming or going.” Vision informed them all. “There are no tracks in the drive that do not belong to the Barton family van.”

“Which is still sitting in it’s normal spot around back of the house by the way.” Tony added. “Destroyed. It looks as if something beat the roof in. The whole thing grumbled up like cheap paper.”

Vision spoke up again. “I have been interfacing with Friday to compare data. There are several sets of footprints in the front yard. Almost all are too large to be Mrs. Barton’s. Definitely too large for the children. We have identified four sets of prints, most likely male. All four seem to simply appear in the front yard. They approach the house, and when they leave they disappear in much the same spot. There are too many footprints of Mrs. Barton and the children present from previous excursions to determine if they left with these men without more data.”

“Well they sure aren’t here.” Steve sighed. “Alright, do one more sweep of the area, just to be sure. Then rendezvous back at the jet. We need to…”

Upstairs, Natasha suddenly yelled.

She flew down the stairs to find her team coming to meet her at the bottom. Natasha roughly pushed past Steve and Tony. Confused, they followed her to a closet in the hall, and watched as she struggled to get the door open. Unsure what she was after, but worried it might be one of the Bartons, Steve expedited the process. He reached past Natasha and pushed her hands out of the way. Gripping the handle firmly, he wrenched it out of the frame with a loud squeal and crack. Unsure what else to do with the door, and unwilling to trash the Barton’s home any further, the captain leaned it up against the wall.

Natasha darted back in before he’d even set the door down.

The redhead dug frantically through the closet, looking for what, her team couldn’t guess. After several minutes of searching, Natasha came up triumphantly empty handed. She looked to her team, smiling genuinely for the first time in days. “They left. They’re not here.”

“We know they’re not here Tash. Vision and Tony have swept the surrounding area. There isn’t another human being around for miles.”

Natasha shook her head. “No, you don’t understand. Clint used to run drills. His family could be ready to leave and out the door in fourteen minutes the second he gave the word. I don’t know why, but I think Laura took the kids and left. The kids’ go bags aren’t under their beds. Neither is Laura’s.” Natasha pointed at the closet she’d just finished ransacking. “Laura and Clint kept copies of all their important papers and a full set of fake identification for each member of the family here in a backpack. If they’d been kidnapped, the bags would still be here. Since the bags are gone, there’s a chance that Laura and the kids made it out of the house before that guy got here.”

“I sincerely hope so.” Vision affirmed. “I have yet to meet Clint’s wife and children, but I know how much they mean to him. Wherever they have gone, I wish them well. They are certainly safer there than they would have been here.”

“I would feel better if I knew what happened to make Laura run.” Natasha growled. “I know none of us called her. No one drove to pick her up, and their van is still here. That means they left on foot. If she had had to leave in a hurry, she wouldn’t have done that. So what happened? Who called? Why did she feel that she had to take three kids cross country on foot? And where would she go?”

No one could answer her questions.

They searched the surrounding fields and woods one last time, hoping against hope that they would find something they had missed. Anything that might shed some light on what had happened to the family, or where they might have gone. They found nothing. It was as if the little family had fallen off the face of the earth.

Finally, Steve called off the search. They had found all they were going to find here. For now, all they could do was hope and pray that the Bartons were all right. Laura had a good head on her shoulders, and they had to trust her judgement to keep her family safe and contact them when she was able.

They returned to the house long enough to rescue what few possessions they could from the destroyed house. There wasn’t much. There was no telling when they would be able to come back, so they took what precautions they would. Furniture that could possibly be fixed was pushed against the inner walls where it the elements wouldn’t be able to reach as easily. Smaller personal items were gathered up in crates from the barn and secured in the cargo hold of the quinjet. They would store them at the upstate facility.

The fact that the entire house only yielded five crates was depressing.

Back on the quinjet, the heroes were quiet. Behind them, the farm had finally gone dark. Tony had tripped the breakers before they left, shutting off the power to the entire farm. Given all the holes in the walls, there was no telling if the wiring had been damaged. They had put out enough fires for one night. They weren’t going to risk any electrical fires.

Once the jet was at cruising speed, Steve got on the air.

The first call he made was back to base, giving them an ETA and instructions for their arrival. The second, was a video call to someone he hoped could help him. In case of emergencies, Fury had given Steve and the Avengers a means of contacting him. A secure direct line. Steve qualified this as an emergency. Fury answered his hail within minutes.

“I haven’t heard of any global threats Captain, so this had better be good.”

“You’re aware of our situation with Hawkeye?”

“Vaguely. Hill made me aware that there was a situation, but seeing as how you’re playing this close to the chest I don’t know as much as I’d like to. Care to fill me in?”

“Clint was taken after a mission. He managed to contact us a week later…” Steve briefed the colonel on the situation they’d found themselves in. He finished with a detailed report of the fight at the mall, and a description of the farm they’d just left behind. “...we don’t know what tipped Mrs. Barton off or where she might have gone. But right now we’re just going to have to trust her to keep herself and the kids safe. We need to focus on finding Clint and beating whatever is controlling him before they find his family.”

Fury sat back in his seat, visibly mulling over what he’d just been told.

“I don’t like this business with the Bartons.” Finally, he seemed to come to a decision. “You’re headed back to HQ?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good.” Fury rubbed at his one good eye, it was almost dawn. “Get back to your headquarters on the double. An agent will be waiting in the common room. Trust him. I’m sending you my absolute best. He was integral in setting up the farm when Barton first got married. If Mrs. Barton took the kids and ran, he’ll probably have a good idea where she went. I’d stake everything on it.”

Steve cocked his head. “You seem to trust this man sir.”

“I do.”

“Forgive my saying it, but you don’t trust anyone.”

Fury gave a tight smile. “I don’t. But this one hasn’t ever let me down. He’s more than earned my trust. Get back to base as soon as you can manage it. He won’t let you down either.”

“Yes sir.”

“Oh, and Rogers?”

Steve paused, hand halfway to the button that would end the call with the supposedly dead director of Shield. “Yes sir?”

“You’re going to have some questions when you see him. And a lot of those questions will be my fault. Try not to be to rough on him, that’s an order, if you’ll still accept it. He didn’t have any say, and I couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

“Fury…”

The line went dead, and Steve sat back with a huff. Some things never changed. Fury was still a secretive bastard, and shared only what he absolutely had to share. Steve shut down the communications equipment and left Vision to fly the jet, climbing back down into the cargo hold.

Wanda had taken a seat by Kodie, the other heroes looking on. One glowing red hand hovered next to his temple, slender fingers weaving streamers of red through the air and into his head. His vacant eyes glittered with her power. After a few moments she pulled away.

Kodie blinked, the red fading away. “Finished?”

“Yes.” Wanda gave him a kind smile. “I had to wash away several hours worth, as agreed. I’m sorry that it was necessary.”

“But the job got done?”

“As well as it could be.” Bruce answered tiredly. “It remains to be seen if we’ll be successful or not. But we definitely appreciate your help.”

“Then I can live with it.” Kodie assured them. “Are we headed back to base?”

Steve finally stepped into the conversation. “We are. I’ve already radioed ahead. Someone will be onhand to service and refuel the jet Kodie. You’re off duty as soon as we land. Get yourself a shower and hit the rack. No one will be calling for you in the morning, so sleep as long as you need to. I cleared it with the higher ups. You’ll be on leave for the next several days.”

Kodie offered up a tired smile. “I appreciate it sir. Soon as I catch some shuteye, I think I’ll go check on my sister, Chrissy. She was at the mall, and I’d feel better seeing with my own eyes that she’s alright.”

“So far as I know, none of the hostages were hurt. A little shook up maybe, but otherwise alright. Your sister should be fine.” Steve patted the Sergeant’s shoulder. “But I understand the feeling. I hope your sister feels better when you go to see her.”

“Thanks Captain.”


 

 

The rest of the flight was quiet.

Most of the Avengers tried to get some sleep along the way. The only ones who really succeeded were Steve and Kodie. They were both out like lights, dead to the world within minutes of settling in. Tony grumbled about it the whole way home. Finally, Natasha had enough.

“Shut up Stark, they’re soldiers.”

“Yeah, but…”

“No buts! You never know when you might get a chance to sleep, so you sleep when you can. Planes, boats, trains, and cars are as good a spot as any. Clint was never a soldier, but he does something similar. You should feel humbled that these two feel safe enough to sleep around us. To let us keep watch while they’re vulnerable.”

Tony frowned, eyeing the two soldiers. He’d never thought of it like that before.

“Take it as a compliment Tony. And shut up, or I’ll castrate you.”

The genius gulped. “Yes ma’am.”

“That’s what I thought.”

The rest of the flight passed without a hitch.


 

 

Back at base, there were people ready and waiting to take care of the jet, just as Steve had promised. Still half asleep, Sergeant Baker was passed off into the care of his fellow pilots. Satisfied that Kodie would be looked after, the team headed for the private section of the facility.

Steve addressed the ceiling as they headed for the communal area. “Friday, we were expecting an agent of Shield to meet us here. Has he arrived yet?”

“He has, Captain Rogers. He arrived only ten minutes ago. You’ll find him waiting in the communal room with Miss Potts...Sir, I think it fair to warn you that Miss Potts appears to be in some emotional distress.”

The heroes froze, then rushed ahead at a double time.

Pepper was a tough woman. It would take a whole awful lot to put her in emotional distress! Thoughts of Shield agents being Hydra fresh in their minds, the heroes burst into the common room.

It wasn’t what they were expecting.

A man stood in the center of the room, his back to the door. The one and only Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts was in his arms, crying and hugging him as tightly as she could manage. As if he would disappear if she loosened her grip for even a millisecond.

But she wasn’t so far gone as she appeared.

The strawberry blonde opened her eyes at the sound of the door. “Tony…”

The agent loosened his hug, but didn’t make her let go as he quietly turned to face them. Their hearts stuttered in their chests at the sight of those oh so familiar features. It wasn’t possible!

Agent Phil Coulson offered them all a shy smile. “Hello. It’s good to see you again.”


 

Chapter Text


Natasha pulled a gun.

“Step away from him Pepper.”

The business woman scrambled away from Phil. She’d become friends with Natasha while the assassin was undercover as a PA. Finding out Natalia was really Natasha, was in all actuality the Black Widow had put a bit of a damper on their relationship. But the friendship had come back stronger than ever after the redhead had moved into the tower. As contradictory as it sounded, Pepper trusted the assassin with her life. When Natasha said ‘move’, you moved ! Because very often your life depended on it.

Natasha waited until Pepper was behind them, then addressed Phil. “You’re dead.”

“I was.” Phil agreed amiably.

“You are  dead ,” Natasha growled, “I checked . Two days after New York. Loki’s scepter cut his heart. He was dead in under a minute. Phil Coulson is dead … So I’m going to give you one chance to tell me who the hell you are. I suggest you take it.”

Pain touched Phil’s face. “Nat. I’m so sorry you had to see that. It’s me, I promise it’s me. I’m real. What do I have to do to prove it to you?”

Natasha studied him. Assessed him. If he was supposed to be the late great Agent Coulson, he was certainly a dead ringer. Pun not intended. Someone had gone to a lot of effort...someone very observant.

Every detail was perfect. Everything. From the receding hairline to the quirk of the mouth. This double even had the dark colored freckle that sometimes used to show just over the edge of his collar. It was the eyes that caught her attention though. The same gentle, unassuming eyes that had first greeted her when Clint had brought her into Shield. As well trained as she was, it had still taken time for her to realize that those eyes hid a spirit of pure adamantium.

No one could fake those eyes.

But she had to be sure. “Phil Coulson had three of them. And he took them to the grave. Give them to me. Or we’re done here.”

Coulson blinked, startled by her request.

“I won’t ask again.” Natasha hissed.

“Alright. Easy Nat. You can have them. Clint, Coulson, Fury.”

Natasha arched an eyebrow. “Go on.”

Anna Karenina , The Catcher in the Rye , and The Great Gatsby .” Phil hesitated. “Are you sure you want the last one Nat?” She affirmed that she did, and he wasted no more time. “Black Widows don’t break. Madame told you so. You are made of marble.”

Natasha very slowly lowered her gun.

Phil stayed exactly where he was, watching her for some sign that it was ok to move. After a long moment, she put it away. Then the assassin stormed forward, grabbed him by his pristine blue tie, and yanked him into a bone crushing hug. He sighed and hugged back, careful to keep his hands away from the small of her back. Hugs were hard for Natasha. An enemy could easily take your weapons while hugging you. It had taken time, but she had finally allowed hugs from Clint and Phil. No one else. With time and trust, those hugs had eventually lost their limits. Phil knew he would have to earn her trust again, but the fact that she would still hug him at all said loads. So he kept his hands to the designated safe zones and held her tight. They would get there again someday.

With Natasha’s acceptance, the rest of the team relaxed.

“So that really is Phil?” Pepper asked.

Natasha broke the hug, holding Phil at arms length. “Yes. It’s him. I’m not sure how, but I’m certain Fury had something to do with it. And he and I are going to have words.”

“I already have. It was lengthy. And loud. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to be alive, but the method he used was less than ideal. I’ll explain what I can later.”

Steve finally stepped forward to clap Phil on the shoulder. “It’s good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be back Captain.” Phil agreed. “Fury said that  the situation was bad enough that Laura took the kids and ran. Seems I came back just in time. Care to fill me in?”

“No problem. Friday. Lights, camera, action!”

At Tony’s command, holograms appeared in the air in front of them. As the heroes got Phil caught up on current events, photos and footage of the fights and crime scenes played out before his eyes.  Then the fresh footage of the Barton’s home started to play. Phil’s face paled at the destruction. At his side, Natasha laced her fingers through his and squeezed. He didn’t look, but he gratefully squeezed her hand back.

“...there wasn’t a living thing on the entire farm.” Steve was starting to wind down the briefing. “Whoever or whatever is controlling Clint made him kill pretty much everything there. That’s where all the blood came from. So far as we can tell, Laura got herself and the kids out of the house and off the property before he got there. Fury said you might have some idea of where she would go.”

Phil let go of Natasha’s hand and rubbed his tired eyes. He hadn’t gotten any sleep in the last forty-eight hours, and the sky to the east was already starting to lighten up with a brand new day. He wasn’t going to get sleep anytime soon.

“There are a few locations I can try. Laura isn’t stupid. Her mother is still alive, but she wouldn’t go to family or friends. She wouldn’t risk bringing the heat down on them. The obvious is out. Clint had a couple of safe houses that I know of, and I will check them. But in this business, everyone has secrets. I dare say Natasha has a safe house or two that no one else knows about. I wouldn’t put it past Clint to have someplace set up specifically for Laura and the kids. If he did, then there’s no telling where they are. Half the time Clint was too resourceful for his own good.”

“Phil. There has to be something. Think.” Natasha ordered.

The tired agent sighed. “Clint was my asset from the word go. I found him. I brought him in. I fleshed out his training with Shield. I helped him buy the farm as a safe house, completely off the grid. When he married Laura, I was the one who provided fake id’s. I did the same for Cooper, and again for Lila when they were born. I even handled Nate’s paperwork, though we let Clint believe it was Fury himself. Neither of us were willing to take any chances with the kids after the Triskelion debacle.”

“In almost any given situation, I can make a fairly educated guess of which way my agent will jump. And ninety percent of the time, I’ll be right. I know the man almost better than he knows himself.”

Tony cocked his head. “Ninety percent? What about the other ten?”

Phil folded his hands behind his back. “I’m not omniscient. I’ve had to work very hard over the years to earn Clint’s trust. Natasha’s too. After this little fiasco, I’ll have to work doubly hard to earn their trust again. And what’s more I deserve it. But trust aside, Clint never told me everything . There were still subjects he’d shy away from as soon as I touched on them. Some of them the most mundane things you could imagine, but they made him clam up anyway. A classic black car, a pile of road salt, certain horror movies, kids with plastic swords on Halloween. Even certain brands of booze. I’d ask him, and he’d just shut down and go shoot his bow for a few hours. I dare say there’s still a lot I don’t know about Clint Barton. And it’s what I don’t know that let’s him surprise me.”

“You’re in for a surprise then.” Natasha informed him. “Apparently someone named ‘Dean’ has all the answers to what’s going on. Clint told me to find him when he realized that extraction wasn’t in the cards. But I haven’t found any mention of a ‘Dean’ anywhere in his contacts so far.”

Phil cocked his head. “Maybe it’s not a name, maybe it’s a title. Did you see any contacts that might’ve been the head of a school? Like the dean of a college perhaps?”

Natasha paused. “Not to my memory, but I can check again.”

“Do it. But sleep first. You’re fresh off a mission, and I haven’t slept in the last forty-eight hours. We’re all exhausted. Get a minimum of six hours Nat. Then you can come back to this with fresh eyes. Ok?”

The assassin sighed. “Alright. But six hours exactly. No more!”

Phil raised his hands in mock surrender. “I wouldn’t dream of it. That goes for the rest of you as well by the way. No less than six hours. You’ve all been running yourselves ragged.”

Steve folded his arms, an amused smile playing at his lips. “That goes for you too Agent Coulson. Come on, I’ll show you to the guest rooms.”

“Lead the way Captain.”


 

 

She was up in the vents.

Phil nursed a mug of hot coffee, and flicked the next image onto the screen of his tablet. He had all the evidence the Avengers had collected at his fingertips. Photos, videos, scans. He’d even listened to the recording Friday had made of Clint’s phone call to Natasha once they realized it was Clint. It had been unsettling to hear his strong, confident friend so afraid.

Clint didn’t let anyone cow him.

He’d checked the safe houses he knew about before going to bed that morning. And he’d tried them all again when he woke up six hours later. Nothing. So he had set to doing what he did best. He poured over all available data, and looked for a solution. He’d also been listening to Natasha search the vents above the lounge for almost an hour.

A loud bang sounded from above.

Natasha kicked open a grate and dropped out of the ceiling and onto an exposed rafter. She landed with catlike grace, rising up to shove the vent closed with a small hop. Phil didn’t raise his eyes, listening as she jumped to the floor and padded near silently across the room. Back and forth, back and forth. He let her be. He had work to do. She would come to him when she was ready.

He didn’t have long to wait.

Natasha settled into the seat next to him with a huff. “I never thought I would say this...Clint is better than I am this time. I don’t know where he hid it.”

Phil set his tablet aside and gave her his attention.

The assassin pressed on. “Clint wouldn’t tell me to find this ‘Dean’ character if he wasn’t confident I would find the right one. That means he had to’ve left me the means. But I don’t know where else to look, Phil. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. I’ve searched this place from top to bottom yesterday, and I just spent four hours up in the vents. I found more dusty shafts than I care to count, and three of Clint’s nests. But I didn’t find anything to lead me to this ‘Dean’. I don’t know where else to look Phil. I need fresh eyes.”

“No, what you need is a break.” Phil picked up his tablet again. “ Then you need fresh eyes. Go make yourself your favorite tea, then come back and help me with this. We’ll go through the evidence, and then we’ll go back to looking for ‘Dean’ together.”

Natasha obeyed.

She returned from the kitchen with a tall mug of hot tea for herself, and a pot of coffee fresh from the brewer to top off Phil’s cup. The assassin took her seat at his side once more, leaning in to see. He had the images from Clint’s cell on screen. He tilted the tablet, giving her a better view.

“The cell was heavily graffitied. Do we know what these symbols are?”

Natasha shook her head. “Not all of them. We’ve been able to identify some of them as occult symbols, but most of them don’t appear in any database that we have access to. We’re still working on them. Steve has reached out to an expert Shield pointed us to, but he has yet to get back to us. We’re doing the best with the resources we have.”

Phil flicked several pictures aside to one of the crushed phone. “And this? I believe you said Stark was attempting a recovery?”

“Yes. Tony’s been working nonstop. He’s yet to finish, but he’s confident. He’ll have it done soon.”

“Alright.” He moved on, pulling up the security footage of the mall fight. He fast forwarded through the initial rescue of the hostages, pausing it once the first attacker had arrived. “Alright, tell me about him. I’ve already watched the fight, but I want your impressions. How did he move? Was he trained? How did he hold himself?”

Natasha walked him through the fight, describing their opponents and their methods in precise detail. The apparent magical aspects of the attack worried and intrigued him in equal measure. The fact that one of the men was someone from Clint’s past was helpful, opening up avenues to new suspects that he wouldn't otherwise have considered.

Phil kept Natasha talking for almost two hours before circling back to her search for ‘Dean’.

“Alright, this is a good start. But more data never hurt anyone. Where all have you looked for ‘Dean’?”

Natasha poured herself coffee from the pot she’d brought for Phil, her tea long since finished. “Everywhere I can think of.” She admitted. She described her search, listing the places she had searched and why she had thought to look there, along with what she thought Clint had hidden.

Phil considered her problem.

He agreed with the team’s theory that Clint would go a more low tech route than most spies would. He’d often told Phil that his methods worked and that ‘if they ain’t broke, don't fix ‘em.’ So they were probably looking for a small notebook.

But where to look? Natasha had already searched most of the places he would've expected Clint to hide something. And Natasha was no slouch. If there had been anything to find, she would've found it. So where else? Where would Clint hide something that he wanted Natasha to find, but no one else would, except by freak accident? Where could he hide something, and be close enough to keep an eye on it?

“Friday, where in this facility does Clint spend the most time?”

“Agent Barton spends the majority of his time here in the common room. The archery ranges come in at a close second.” The A.I. Informed them.

Their eyes locked and Natasha jumped to her feet.

The assassin climbed up into the exposed rafters, searching the upper nooks and crannies. Normally, that would've been Phil’s first instinct too. Clint’s affinity for higher spaces wasn't exactly a secret. But the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If what Clint had hidden was this important, he wouldn’t go the obvious route. He’d hit something a little closer to home. Something only the people who knew him well would think of.

He looked around the room.

The common room had everything he’d expect to find in a lounge. Couches, coffee and side tables, tv, wall art. What would catch Clint’s eye? What would tie into what Clint would consider most important? Well, obviously his family was on the list, but that wouldn’t... Actually, that was it! That was the most important thing in Clint’s life. Given everything that had happened to him, was it any surprise?

A large photo of the Avengers hung on the wall. A photo of Clint’s work family. It was worth a shot. Phil stood and went to investigate. The picture was a huge print on canvas, at least a seventy inches by thirty-six inches. And whoever had commissioned it, Phil was dead certain it was Stark, had had the framers put it in a thick black wood frame that added another five inches on all sides. It was massive, heavy, and an awkward handful. No one would mess with it if they didn’t have to.

Which would’ve made it doubly attractive to Clint.

He carefully pulled the bottom of the canvas away from the wall and peered up behind it. There wasn’t a safe embedded in the wall, as cliche as that might have been. And there was no way that Clint would have been able to set a safe into the wall without Friday knowing. How he would manage to hide anything behind this monstrous canvas was beyond Phil. But he’d seen Clint pull off the impossible in the name of fun. Pulling off the completely ludicrous in the name of a job wasn’t all that much of a stretch.

Phil’s lips quirked.

It was small. He had almost missed it. But there was something attached to the back of the canvas. And it wasn’t the hanging wires. Phil began to laugh. A small flat black book was tucked into a pocket made of duct tape, the pocket stuck to the back of the canvas itself. Placing it in the recessed back of the canvas ensured that the photo hung flat against the wall, just like normal. The book was covered in dust. Clint most likely had most if not all of the information memorized. Any self respecting agent would. The book was his backup.

He wanted to make sure the information was still available if something happened to him.

The sobering thought wiped the smile off of Phil’s face. “Nat. I think I have something.”

The assassin dropped down out of the rafters a couple feet away. “Of course. The work family. I should’ve thought of it.” She peered behind the picture, amusement dancing in her eyes at the sight of the duct tape pocket. She slipped one slender hand up behind the canvas and plucked the book from it’s hiding place.

Phil made sure the photo was straight, then moved to peer over her shoulder.

The cover was thick black leather. It was scarred and worn, the veteran of many missions. Patches and lines of stitches marked where Clint had tried to repair it over the years. There were even a couple scorch marks here and there.

Natasha opened it and skimmed over the pages. Each page was dedicated, front and back, to a contact. The front had the name and contact information of the individuals. The back had additional details. Some of the pages were stuffed full, Clint’s cramped handwriting crossing itself out and filling in the margins with new data. Additional data had been added to certain pages with post-it’s and taped in notecards.

Natasha skimmed each page, working her way methodically from front to back. A little ways past the middle of the book, Clint ran out of people. He'd left plenty of pages empty for new contacts. The last two entries had no last names. They were simply titled ‘Sam’ and ‘Dean’ respectively. It was ‘Dean’ that they focused on. And they began to understand why Dean had been so hard to find.

Several phone numbers had been added and crossed out over the years as Dean got new phones. An absurd number of them actually. They almost took up the entire first page. The two agents snickered when they reached the bottom and saw that Clint had written ‘ Fuck It’ at the bottom of the page and made an arrow that indicated they should look at the back of the sheet.

Unlike the others, there was no personal information on the back of the page. There was just one address in South Dakota. ‘ Dean: Care of Bobby Singer ’, it said, and gave the address and telephone numbers of a junkyard in Sioux Falls. No direct route to ‘Dean’, but a stepping stone in the right direction.

“Call him.” Phil ordered.

Natasha already had her phone out and was dialing the number marked as being a mobile phone. That was the mostly likely to be picked up on the first try. It started to ring, and she put it on speaker so that Phil could hear both sides of the conversation. It picked up on the fourth ring.

“Hello?” A man answered, a bit of a southern twang evident in his young voice.

Natasha almost asked for Dean, but something changed her mind. “I’m trying to reach a Mr. Bobby Singer? Could you please put him on the line?”

“Oh, I’m sorry miss. Bobby passed away a while back. I’m the one that looks after things now. My name’s Garth. What can I do you for?”

“I’m looking for a man named Dean.”

The man hesitated. “...listen ma’am, I really am sorry to have to ask you this, but what do you want with Dean?”

Truth . Phil silently mouthed.

Natasha nodded. “I need his help. One of my closest friends was taken, and now his family has completely disappeared. But before he fell off the map, my friend told me to find someone named ‘Dean’. That he would have the answers. Now, I’ve looked everywhere. And the only ‘Dean’ I can find mentioned in my friend’s things is this one, and the only contact information here is a bunch of out of service numbers and a ‘ Care of Bobby Singer’ address for a salvage yard. I need to find my friend and his family before something bad happens to them, and Dean seems to be the only one who might be able to help. Do you know how to reach him?”

On the other end of the line, Garth whistled. “Well, if that don’t beat all. It sounds like the sort of thing he’d get into. No, I don’t know how exactly to reach Dean. But I can find out. I’ll nose around and see who’s got Dean’s most recent number. That boy goes through phones faster than a hound dog through bacon. Guess it’s one of the hazards of the job. If I can’t get a hold of Dean, I’ll get you his brother’s number, They’re pretty much tied together at the hip anyhow. You get one, you got the other. And you'll be the better for it. I’ll call you back as soon as I get something. Or I’ll have him call you directly. What number should I call back?”

Natasha rattled off her cell number, and she could hear the scratch of his pen as he dutifully jotted it down on the other end of the line.

“Oh, if I do get a hold of him directly, who should I say is trying to reach him?”

“Natasha. He doesn’t know me. Just tell him I’m calling on behalf of Clint Barton. As many numbers are here, these two had to’ve known each other for years.” She heard more scribbling with the pen.

“Well alright Miss Natasha, you just sit tight. I’ll do my best to find that boy in a hurry. And don’t you worry about your friends none. If anyone can sort this mess out, it’s those two. Y’all take care now.”

The line went dead, and Natasha stared at the phone in bemusement.

“Seems Dean and his brother are a package deal.” Phil commented.

Natasha made sure the sound was all the way up and put her phone away. “Good. If they’re that close, it makes it all the easier for this ‘Garth’ guy to find him. The sooner we talk to Dean, the better it is all around for Clint and Laura…. I don’t like this Phil. I’d rather find Dean myself, instead of waiting for a contact I have no history with to make good. I trust Clint, but I don’t know where the late Mr. Singer stood with him, much less Garth. Neither one of them is listed here in Clint’s book, we don’t know anything about them.”

Phil paged through the book, taking note of the names he was unfamiliar with. “Fair enough. You have Mr. Singer’s name and address. Late or not, you can still look into him. Find out what you can about him. Local law is always a good place to start, followed by bartenders and barbers. They usually know their regulars pretty well.”

“Should we put Clint’s notebook back?”

“Guys! Guys! I did it!” Tony pranced into the room, a tablet held victoriously in one raised fist. He skidded to a stop, suddenly aware of the seriousness of their mood. “Am I interrupting something? What’s that?”

“No, Clint can hide it again later.” Phil answered Natasha, then addressed Tony. “We found Clint’s notebook. Dean is going to prove to be a bit more difficult, but we’re on the right track. What have you found Mr. Stark?”

“I’m going to want to know what you mean about that in a minute, but right now, we totally need to get the rest of the boy band up here! They’re gonna wanna hear this!” The giddy billionaire clicked his fingers at the ceiling. “Friday! Call the Avengers in here! Get the rest of those sleepy heads out of bed!”

“Sir, I feel it prudent to inform you that with the exception of Miss Potts, you are the one who slept in the latest today. Captain Rogers was up two and a half hours ago, and went for his usual run a half hour later. Miss Maximoff was up an hour after that, and Vision of course never sleeps. You have only been awake an hour or so.”

“Has it really only been an hour? Wow, time is weird.”

Not surprisingly, Vision was the first to arrive. The android phased down through the ceiling, calling a polite greeting to the others as he landed. “Wanda asked me to inform you that she would arrive shortly. She indicated that she wished to stop by her apartment before coming down to the lounge.”

As promised, Wanda arrived a few minutes later with Steve.

“Tony,” Steve greeted, “Friday said you had something we needed to see?”

“Apparently I’m not the only one.” Tony gestured at Natasha and Phil. “Apparently Agent and Marriage Challenged found Feathers’ little black book.”

Wanda pinched the bridge of her nose. “I think your nicknames are getting out of hand Tony.”

“Never!” The genius blithely declared. He swiped his hand across the face of his tablet, tossing the display up into Friday’s holograms. A short, very basic contact list, a call log, and what looked to be a file of photos. Tony gestured proudly. “People would be really surprised how durable their phones actually are, if you’re willing to put in the time for hard recovery. I wasn’t able to get everything back, whoever busted it really did a number on it. But I got enough to start.”

“These numbers here,” he gestured to the contact list, “all check out with Shield as belonging to various mercs for hire. Most of the call log is a lot of the same. Except for these three.” He selected one from halfway through the log, then grabbed the last two calls made, dragging the three over to one side and waving the rest away. “Now, this last call goes to Natasha’s cell. That would be Clint calling for help. What I’m interested in are these other two.”

“To whom do they belong?”

Tony pointed. “And that is the million dollar question Vision! This call,” he highlighted the number under Natasha’s “was made about five minutes before the call to Natasha. Now, I’m no super spy, but it seems to me that that’s not enough time to steal a phone and make sure you won’t be heard. So I’m assuming that Clint made this call too. The average phone will ring for about a minute before going to voice mail, so he talked to this person for a minimum of four minutes. The number belonged to a burner phone, purchased in Dakota about a year ago. And they paid in cash. Any security footage has long since been erased. I can’t find out who bought it. The number was deactivated about seven hours after Clint called. Assuming that Clint did make that call, is it possible he was the one who tipped Laura off?”

“Absolutely,” Phil confirmed, “his family is the only thing he values above all else. He knew his mind was going to be rolled, and that his captors might not ignore Laura and the kids the way Loki did. He would’ve made sure they were safe, then called for an extraction for himself.”

“If that’s the case, Laura couldn’t use any of the plans she and Clint made.” Natasha pointed out. “She’s flying blind. And she’d have to be cash only. I don’t know how much cash they’d have on hand, but she’s going to run out sooner or later. We need to find them before that happens.”

“I am coordinating with Friday, using facial recognition software to search all throughout the United States for the Bartons. We will find her. She cannot avoid cameras forever.” Vision assured.

Natasha motioned to the holograms. “What about that last number? You said that it wasn’t a mercenary for hire like the others?”

Tony’s grin came back full force. “You bet it isn’t! It belongs to a semi-respectable antiquities dealer.” A website popped up onscreen beside the number. Along with several high priced show pieces she had for sale, the site displayed her contact information and an image of the dealer herself; an austere, auburn haired woman in a sensible business suit.

“Now, it could be that the phone’s owner just needed a fence for an antique he happened across, but I thought I should check anyway, and come to find out she remembered him!“ Tony gestured again and a receipt layered itself over the website. “She was happy enough to give me the receipt for his purchase. Seems he spent an awful lot of money on a book older than the capsicle! A book on the occult.”

“Which would explain all of the magic symbols on the walls of Clint’s cell.” Wanda pointed out.

“Exactly. And she did us one better. He paid in cash, but she remembered his name! Our mystery man is none other than, drum roll please! ...One ‘Charles Bernard ‘Barney’ Barton’!”

The website and receipt disappeared, replaced by dozens of photos.

Some of the photos were from the mall fight. An image of the first archer mid-draw. Another of him after he’d taken off his ski cap. Still more showed the man in various tactical gear. He’d traveled the world, if the backgrounds of the surveillance photos were anything to go by. They all showed the same rugged face, copper brown hair, and dark eyes. A lot of them even showcased the same arrogant smirk.

Both Phil and Natasha went deadly still.

“I take it this means something to you two?” Steve asked.

Natasha’s lip curled. “Clint has an older brother. They’re estranged.”

“Not good enough. If this man is the one who has Clint, then I want to know everything we have on him. This is the first solid lead we’ve had. Tony?”

The billionaire gave him an almost pained grin. “Way ahead of you ‘oh captain my captain’! And we have a mile high pile of almost nothing. Seriously, there are a lot of freaking holes in his past! I thought maybe I could fill some of those holes in by backtracking Clint, but honestly he’s even worse than Barney. I’ve got birth, immunization, and school records from their childhood in Idaho up until Clint was six and Barney was eight. At that point I’ve got autopsy reports and death certificates for their parents Harold and Edith Barton, along with police reports for the car accident that killed them. Then I’ve got paperwork from the foster care system, who apparently couldn’t handle them to save their lives, and then an orphanage. There’s a missing persons report when Clint was ten and Barney was twelve. After that, I’ve got nothing on Clint until he’s recruited for Shield at age twenty six. And nothing on Barney until he pops up in a medical report for an arrow to the abdomen at age eighteen. Three guesses who gave him that. Barney goes dark for eleven years, and then he starts popping up here and there as a mercenary for hire. He hasn’t pinged anyone else’s radar in the past several months. Probably setting up whatever caper he’s got going for Clint.”

“That’s all?”

The billionaire shrugged. “That’s all Steve. I raked through Shield and anyone else I could get my hands on. This is all anyone has on either of them! Hell, Clint worked for these people and they know less about his past than they do about his dirt-bag brother!”

Steve leveled a look at Coulson. “Is that true? Shield never bothered to learn anything about Clint’s past?”

Coulson folded his arms. “As a matter of fact they did. I made sure they didn’t find it. Coming from nowhere, Clint had enough issues. As his handler, I knew. And I told Fury what was pertinent. Nothing more. No one else needed to know about the skeletons in my agent’s closet. Not when they didn't affect his performance. When Natasha came along, and was assigned to our team, I left it up to Clint how much she knew about his past. She earned his trust, the same way I did. I think we’re about on equal footing now. For anyone else, it’s always been need to know.”

Steve sighed. “I’m sorry Phil,  I know you and Natasha are trying to do right by Clint. But I think the Avengers have the proverbial need to know.”

Phil glanced at Natasha. “Nat?”

The redhead considered, jaw tight. “We could do worse. Clint trusted them enough to give them the most important secret he’s ever had. I think we can trust them with the rest.”

“You’re right.” Phil visibly drooped. “Alright. Like I said before, I don’t know everything. But I’ll tell you what I can. Harold Barton was an abusive alcoholic. Edith tried to protect her children, but Clint was small and didn’t entirely understand. He was easy for Harold to catch and find fault with. Mr. Barton beat his family black and blue. I suspect that’s where Clint began having hearing problems.”

Surprise rippled through the room. They hadn’t known Clint’s hearing was flawed.

Coulson waved the surprise aside. “Let me continue. You can ask questions after. Harold made their lives miserable. It was almost a mercy when he died, but he took Edith with him. Clint and his brother Charles, or ‘Barney’, as they liked to call him; were put into foster care. For reasons I’ve never understood, and Clint was never willing to discuss, they never stayed in any home for long. When no one else would take them, they ended up in an orphanage. I believe that’s where Mr. Stark, and most people, lose track of them. The two ran away and joined a traveling circus.”

Coulson smiled a little, remembering the way Clint’s eyes still lit up whenever he saw a carnival.

“It was a hard life, but Clint liked it there. One of the acts took an interest in him. Taught him a lot of what Clint knows about the bow. Everything else Clint has learned for himself. Unfortunately, the circus wasn’t entirely what it appeared. Several of the acts, including Clint’s mentor, were deadly crooks. And Barney had fallen in with them. When Clint spoiled a con for them, he was beaten and left in a field for dead. He survived, but never went to a hospital. Hospitals meant questions, and the carnival certainly couldn’t pay for that level of professional care. They made do with what was available, and thankfully Clint healed. But his relationships with his mentor and Barney both deteriorated after that.”

“But what does this have to do with the present?” Wanda asked softly.

“I’m getting there.” Phil assured. “Eventually Barney left. And Clint’s mentor Trickshot pulled him in for a job. Clint was young and reckless. Imagine his shock when he shot a security guard while on the job and only realized after he had fired that the guard was Barney, trying to go straight? Clint stayed with Barney until help arrived, then left. But Barney knew who had shot him. Stark loses him after that, because Barney Barton ceased to exist. He was recruited from a hospital bed directly into the FBI and trained for undercover work. Thus, no paper trail of any kind. The man became a ghost. And at the same time, Clint left the circus and put his bow to use as an assassin.”

Coulson settled into a chair. “The Hawkeye still has very negative connotations in certain circles. It’s what put him on my radar. But what held my attention was that this master assassin seemed to have some form of moral compass. His targets had to meet a very specific set of criteria, and he never ever killed a child. To me, that sounded like someone who was doing the work because they thought they couldn’t do better. So I made him an offer to join Shield. And he accepted. He performed admirably with a rifle, but once we discovered how good he was with a bow, we let him take his pick from mission to mission. R&D even started making up more trick arrows for him. Using an untested one on a mission lost him eighty percent of his hearing in both ears. R&D started making hearing aids alongside the trick arrows.”

“So, if the purple dinosaur wannabe,” the entire team rolled their eyes at Tony’s new nickname for Barney, “was an FBI agent, what set him on the road as a gun for hire?”

“Clint had a run in with Barney on a mission. The mission went south, and we were fairly sure that Barney died. We only found out about the FBI connection later. As far as Barney was concerned, it was all Clint’s fault. The two have had a few run ins since then, and they’ve been at each other’s throats ever since. But we certainly didn’t expect this! Barney is very hands on, I’m surprised he’d even entertain the idea of contracting his revenge out, much less actually acting on it. This is very out of character for him. It worries me.”

Natasha growled several words in Russian that almost had a predatory sound to them.

Tony threw up his hands and took several steps away. “I don’t know what she just said, and I’m not entirely sure I want to!”

Steve was thoughtful. “Alright, so we know who’s pulling the strings. That’s a start. Out of character or not, old habits die hard. Find out everything you can about Barney Barton the mercenary. What weapons he preferred, what he looked for in a safe house, and how much he was willing to sacrifice comfort for security. He needs to bunk down somewhere, and he needs transportation. Find out what vehicles he prefers; cars, trucks, motorcycles, I don’t care. Whatever you can dig up. He’s worked with other mercenaries in the past. Find them. Someone’s going to be able to shed a little light. Is there anything else we should be aware of?”

Tony dismissed most of what was on the screen and tapped the picture folder. “I haven’t gotten into this yet. Unlike everything else, this stuff is encrypted. The phone getting junked didn’t help. Normally I'd be able to get in after a few hours, max. I’ll keep trying. But hey! On the bright side, Natasha and Agent found Dean!”

Wanda whirled round to face them. “You did?”

“Not quite.” Natasha plucked the notebook from Phil’s hand and held it up. “Phil found it. Dean is listed in here, but apparently he’s still hard to reach. Clint gave up trying to keep a current phone number for the man, and instead he put the name, number, and address of someone who could reach Dean. I called. It seems Mr. Singer passed away some time ago, but the man who answered the phone seemed to be on top of things. He promised to track down Dean’s current number or reach out to the man’s brother. Whichever was faster. I gave him my number, and he promised to get back to me as soon as possible.”

“Keep us informed.” Steve ordered.

He rubbed the back of his neck, some of his tiredness showing through despite having actually gotten some sleep. “I spoke with Rhodey a few hours ago,” he admitted, “he was still with Sam at the hospital. As you know, the arrow punched cleanly through his body at an angle. Sam spent considerable time on the operating table, but his doctors are very optimistic. Given time and rest, they’re confident that he will make a full recovery. Rhodey has promised to stay with him until he’s released. I’ve already spoken with Dr. Cho. She’s going to pull some strings to see if she can get him released early into her care. Barney indicated that he was bartering us for services rendered. Until we get this business with Clint settled, I’d feel better if we kept those who are more vulnerable close to base.”

“I’ll reach out to the hospital.” Phil stated, already reaching for his phone. “Between the two of us, Dr. Cho and I should have enough clout to spring Sam fairly quickly.” He stepped away to make the call.

Tony rubbed at his goatee. “You know the one thing I don’t get? Back at the mall, how come Barney seemed to be a better shot than Clint? I mean, you’ve all seen Clint shoot, he wasn’t even close to par during that fight! Why?”

“Because it wasn’t Clint shooting.” Natasha tucked the notebook away in a pocket. “Whoever or whatever is controlling Clint, it is relying on it’s own skill and Clint’s muscle memory. They can’t match Clint’s skill with a bow. Not on their own. You heard what Phil said. Clint was an assassin. One of the best in the business. So much so that Red Room saw fit to brief me on what they knew of the Hawkeye, just in case I met him in the field. If Clint had wanted Sam dead, Sam would be. The only reason he’s not, is because it wasn’t Clint shooting. This isn’t like Loki, where Clint’s mind has been twisted into wanting to help Loki. You saw Clint fight back at the mall. Someone else is pulling the strings. And Clint is trapped inside.”

Chapter Text

 


Two Days Ago...


 

The bedroom wasn’t hers.

Laura gasped and rolled out of bed, heart hammering as she began to panic. The room was a plain one. Simple pale yellow paint job, and basic wood furniture. Two cots had been pushed against the walls, and an open chest had been roped to the foot of her bed next to the dresser. Nathaniel’s black teddybear stared at her from inside the box.

Slowly, memory began to return.

Laura sighed and sat back down on the bed. Right. The bunker. The Winchester boys and their friend Castiel. They’d come for her. They’d brought her and the kids here where they would be safe. The boys had even brought their blankets and stuffed animals to try and make them feel more at home.

They had tried so very hard.

Laura sniffled, wiping at teary eyes. Damn, hormones sucked. You were right Clint, she thought, the Winchesters really are as kind as you said they were… But what on earth am I supposed to do, Clint? All of our planning assumed that you would be with us. Or that there would be someone to come for us when it was over. To let us know that it was safe to go home. That there would be a home for us to go back to. But you sent the Winchesters. Why not Nat? Why not Shield? Why did you feel that you couldn’t trust anyone but Sam and Dean? Did something happen to Natasha? Has she been compromised? And what about our I.D.s? Is it even safe to use those papers? Or have those been compromised too?

Her eyes wandered around the room, coming to rest on the family portrait.

She traced her fingers over the smiling faces behind the glass, lingering on Clint’s brilliant grin. That had been a good day. One of the rare occasions that Clint wasn’t sporting some sort of bruise, cut, or scrape somewhere on his face, and she had capitalized on the moment. Her mother had been demanding photos of the family, and Laura just didn’t have many where Clint was not only healthy and whole, but looked it.

How long will I need to hide, Clint? She wondered. Who do I need to hide from? I know you trust Sam and Dean, but we can’t stay here forever. That’s not fair to them. God, Mom will be so worried when she realizes that we’re missing. Her eyes strayed further, coming to rest on Cooper’s cot.

Cooper’s empty cot.

Fresh adrenaline set her heart hammering again. How had she not noticed that the kids were gone? The blankets were ruffled and hanging off the sides of the cots, and Lila’s stuffed pony was missing. Had they woken up and gone looking for breakfast? They might have, it was what they would’ve done at home if they got up before she did. But Lila and Cooper didn’t usually try and take care of Nate for her.

Not unless she was feeling sick and they were trying to help.

Heart drumming at double time, Laura hurried from the room. Dean had said that certain rooms were off limits. What if the kids got into them by mistake? What if they got hurt? She had to find them before they got into trouble! She paused in the hall, trying to remember which way they had come the night before.

Laughter drifted down the hall to her left.

It was Lila’s. Some of her panic receding, Laura followed it. Cooper’s laugh joined Lila’s, and she trailed the sound through the tiled halls to an open door. Beyond, two steps led down into a well appointed, if somewhat retro style kitchen. Walls were covered in butter yellow tile, contrasting against the cool cement floor. A wooden cafeteria style table with six connected metal stool seats, and a stainless steel island counter almost gave the impression of a kitchen in a military base. She could see that the boys had tried to make the austere rooms more homey. Kitschy, homemade dishtowels and potholders hung around the kitchen. Homestyle ceramic dishes had been set out on the table. Magnets with pictures of classic cars had been stuck to the fridge. They’d even hung up a calendar in one corner, the picture of the month depicting a golden retriever rollicking through a field. Clint had mentioned offhand once that Sam was a dog lover.

Her smile widened.

Poor Sam looked out of his depth. He was seated at the kitchen table. Lila was kneeling on the stool seat across the way, her stuffed pony tucked firmly under her arm. Cooper was perched on the seat beside her. The two were watching Sam avidly. Sam had Nathaniel perched on his knee. The toddler had dishtowels tied around his neck and waist like a bib and apron. Both of which had probably started out clean, but had long since ceased to be so. The hunter had some sort of green puree in a bowl, and was clumsily trying to feed it to Nate.

Nate, was having none of it.

The mother covered her grin. Her youngest could be exceptionally stubborn if he cared to. And he generally cared to be stubborn at the absolute worst possible moments, like when the family had someplace to be or when she had a dish in the oven that was just this side of burning.

Or, on the rare occasions when someone he didn’t know tried to feed or change him. Or play with him.

Or anything really.

The obstinate toddler smacked the spoon away, spattering the green mush all over himself and Sam. Not that he cared, this was the most fun he’d had in ages. Sam grimaced and wiped at the splashes of puree on his face. He only smeared it further, leaving an emerald streak along his cheekbone under his eye, and tinting the rest of his cheek green. The toddler made a squeal that could’ve been either irritable or delighted and smacked the hand Sam was holding the spoon with again. A fresh layer of puree speckled Sam’s face and dripped into Nathaniel’s hair.

Sam groaned. “Come on Nate. I know you have to be hungry!”

“You’re not doin’ it right.” Lila informed him from her spot across the table.

The hunter got a hopeful look in his eye. “Yeah? How do I do it then?”

She shrugged. “Like Mommy does. Even Daddy does it like Mommy.”

The hope died a quick and painful death. Sam offered another spoonful of puree to Nate and got a fresh coat of goop for his troubles. “Right.”

Lila giggled.

To her left, Cooper was trying to suppress his laughter. “Keep going Sam. I think you can do it!”

Over by the stove, Dean seemed to find the whole situation funny as hell.

“Come on college boy, you can take him! He’s only a year and a half!”

“Jerk.” Sam growled under his breath.

“Bitch.” Dean muttered under his snickers and went back to minding breakfast. He had multiple pans going on the stove. To one side, bacon hissed and sizzled in a skillet. On the back burner, hash browns slowly turned gold. And directly in front of him, several fluffy pancakes were beginning to take form.

Laura stepped into the kitchen.

“Morning Mommy!” Lila chirped.

“Good morning Lila. Cooper.” Laura greeted. She stepped around the table to hug her older two children, then looked across at her beleaguered host. “Sam. What on earth are you trying to feed him?”

The hunter finally gave up on trying to feed Nate. He put the spoon back in the bowl and tried to wipe some of the mush off of his face. He didn’t succeed. “Well, Cooper and Lila said he was still mostly eating baby foods, and we didn’t have any. But Dean said baby food was just pureed fruits and veggies, so we pulled out an apple and some of the greens I keep for salads and put it in a blender.”

Dean nodded sagely. “It’s what Dad used to do for you when we were on the road. You grew up into a frigging tree, so he must’ve done something right.”

Laura laughed. “Yes, he’s still on babyfood, but it’s the chunky kind. And he can handle some solid foods so long as it’s in small pieces. You don’t have to reduce everything to mush.” Laura ruffled Cooper’s hair. Casting a wink at Sam, she twisted her long hair into a knot at the base of her skull and plucked the spatula out of Dean’s hand, hip-checking him away from the stove. “If you think it’s so funny then I expect that you can do better Dean. I can mind the stove. You feed Nathaniel. Cooper, please get Sam a wet washcloth so he can clean himself up.”

“Yes Momma.” Cooper called, and hopped off his stool.

“Yes ma’am.” Dean answered at the same time.

Dean stepped away from the stove, pointing out where the plates for the finished pancakes, hashbrowns, and bacon were. Then he looked to Sam. Without breaking eye contact, he opened a drawer and pulled out an apron. Shit eating grin firmly affixed to his face, he put the apron on and sat down by his affronted brother.

“Dean! I am literally covered in green goop! Why didn’t you tell me there were aprons !”

Dean shrugged. “You didn’t ask. Sides, you two seemed to be having fun. Right guys?”

Cooper and Lila lost it and started laughing.

Sam threw him his very best best bitch face and and held Nate out to Dean. “Take him. Before I set a very bad example for the kids.” He growled.

“Hey Nate.” Dean greeted the toddler, ignoring his exasperated brother. “Let’s get you fed, ok? Ok. Come on lil’ man.” He settled the little boy on his lap. Bouncing him on his knee, he pulled the bowl and spoon over and scooped up half a spoonful. “All right Nate, let’s get this show on the road.”

Sam rolled his eyes and went to go get cleaned up at the sink. Cooper helpfully offered up a wet rag. It was soaking wet, a thin stream of water dripping from a corner. Sam didn’t bat an eyelash. He just thanked Cooper and set to work trying to get the green off his face.  

Nathaniel saw the spoon coming and squealed.

He swatted at the spoon again, sending puree everywhere. The dish towels and Dean’s apron took the brunt of it, but some of it hit Dean’s face. Lila giggled, Cooper hiding his grin behind his hands.

Sam barked out a laugh. “Harder than it looks, huh Dean?”

Dean shrugged and lightly tapped Nathaniel on the nose with a finger. The toddler jerked back, surprised and affronted at Dean’s audacity. “We’ll get there.”

Dean offered a fresh spoonful. Nathaniel batted it away again with an ear splitting squeal, waving his hands in the air. Dean didn’t get discouraged. The hunter lightly tapped his nose again. They repeated the process again. And again. Nathaniel eyed the spoon.

Sam leaned against the sink, a smug smirk on his face.

Finally, Nathaniel opened his mouth for the spoon. Dean grinned and gave it to him. “Alright Nate, now we’re getting somewhere. There’s still plenty left, so I hope you’re hungry. Okay, here comes the aeroplane. Neerooom!” Still making engine noises, he moved the spoon in a swooping motion and piloted it right into the toddler’s mouth. He made a screeching brake sound once the plane had ‘landed’.

He shot Sam a victorious smirk. “See? We just had to come to an understanding.”

Sam flipped Dean the bird, confident that only the adults would see since Cooper and Lila were looking at Dean. Laura hid her laughter behind her hand. She had wondered if Dean would be able to out stubborn her toddler. He had the knowing look of someone who’d been there and done this before. Though where he would’ve gotten the experience, she hadn't a clue. So far as she knew, neither of the boys were parents.

Lila leaned across the tabletop. “Why did you tap his nose?”

“Because he didn’t like it.” Dean gave Nate another spoonful, making airplane noises for the spoon. The toddler giggled. “Tapping his nose doesn’t hurt him, but he doesn’t care for it. I can fuss and cajole, but it ain’t gonna do much good if he doesn’t know enough words to understand. But he’s smart enough to draw a line between hitting the spoon and getting his nose tapped.” He shrugged. “Anyway, it’s what I used to do for Sammy when he was this age.”

Laura frowned, her eyes shooting to Sam.

The younger hunter’s face softened, a sadness in the set of his features that spoke of old wounds. But there was fondness as well, and it far outweighed any sadness he might have felt. There was more to the story here, that was certain.

But the story wasn’t for right now.

Laura flipped the last few pancakes onto the plate and turned off the stove. “Breakfast is served!”


 

They left the dishes in the sink.

Laura shook her head as the Winchesters led the way through the bunker. Her mother would’ve had her head if she still lived under her mother’s roof. Ahead of her, Lila skipped along at Sam’s sided. His large, callused hands dwarfed the little girl’s. Her head barely came up to his belly button he was so darn tall. But it didn’t seem to bother her. She skipped along at his side, braided pigtails bouncing and her hands swinging without a care in the world. Cooper followed along behind them, not quite so at ease with these two strangers yet. But if Laura knew her son, it wouldn’t take long.

The bunker was amazing.

The concrete behemoth was even bigger than she realized from her quick once over outside. Dean hadn’t been kidding when he’d told her that there was more than enough room for everyone to have their own room. It was incredible. She didn’t bother to hide how impressed she was as they gave her a tour of their home.

There were the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and library/livingroom/dining room. Those she’d already seen. Now they showed her the rest. A pantry that Dean promised to restock with the young family in mind. The boys’ bedrooms quickly followed, in case any of them ever needed anything and couldn’t find them, that was probably where they’d be. Seeing as how both men had weapons in their rooms, in Dean’s case all over the walls, those rooms would definitely be supervised access only for the kids. Some of the storerooms also fell under that heading. One only held dried herbs of every size and description, and the equipment to do the drying. But the others were an entirely different story. One held all manner of weapons.

“I don’t think you’ll need to, but if you need them, they're here. Anything mounted on the walls or here in the racks is fair game. But steer clear of these ones in the boxes. We don’t know whether those have been enhanced or not.” Dean told her.

The weapons room was off limits to the kids after the tour.

Another storeroom held all manner of wooden and iron boxes, each one coated with burned and painted symbols the likes of which she’d never seen. And there were a lot of them. Shelves upon shelves of boxes in every size and color.

Laura gestured at them. “What on earth are all of these? And what are all those symbols?”

“Um…” Sam bit his lip, hiking Lila higher on his hip. He’d picked her up before they’d come in here in an effort to keep her from touching anything. “Exactly how much did Clint tell you about what Dean and I do for a living?”

“He told me what you did for him while he was in the circus.”

Sam blinked, stunned. “Well… wow, um, yeah. That should cover it. Helping people like Clint is kind of what we do. All of these boxes. They’re sort of like jail cells for cursed objects. They keep the curses from leaking out and hurting someone. I know you’re a smart woman, but we’d prefer it if you all stayed out of this room unless you have Dean, me, or Castiel with you.”

“Not a problem.” She leveled a serious look at her older two kids. “I catch either one of you in here, and there’ll be hell to pay. Do you understand?”

“Yes mama.” Cooper promised.

Lila gave a solemn nod.

Other rooms included a basic science lab, another bathroom, what looked to be a woodworking shop, and several more empty bedrooms. Then they led the family into a basement room. The room was bare, but there were rings set into the walls and floors, and chains hung from them. Symbols and pentagrams were painted on the cement floor, and a sink was set into a corner near the door.

“And this is the dungeon!” Dean announced proudly.

Laura stared at him in consternation. “You...have a dungeon . Why on earth do you have a dungeon under your home! What in the world would you even need a basement dungeon room for ?”

Dean blushed. “Sorry, that probably set off all kinds of mommy warning bells didn’t it?”

She snorted, holding Nathaniel close. “You think?”

“Right. Um… Ok, to put it bluntly, sometimes it takes longer to help a person. We have to have someplace to put them where they can’t hurt anyone. And we have to be able to restrain them so they can’t hurt us or themselves.”

A ball of ice settled in the pit of her stomach. “And you bring these...people, here often?”

“Not often.” Sam assured. “Bringing people here is strictly a last ditch effort to save them. A lot of times we don’t even have the option of transporting them here. If we can’t save them in the field, they’re beyond saving. We won’t bring anyone here during your stay if we can help it. We don’t even intend to hunt unless an emergency comes up. Finding and rescuing Clint is our top priority right now.”

Laura relaxed a little. “Alright. But I want this room locked up. I don’t want Cooper or Lila in here again.”

“Fair enough.” Dean agreed.

From there, they led her and the kids back upstairs. At the end of a hall, they ushered her up a short flight of stairs and into a massive garage. Antique cars and trucks lined the far wall , each one settled neatly in between painted white lines on the floor. Motorcycles sat in sunken slots along the near wall, just as antique as the cars. A long work bench was settled against the back wall, light fixtures above promising bright light for the workers should they need it.

Parked in the center of the garage was a sleek classic black muscle car.

Dean threw his arms out, a huge grin mauling his features. “Behold my kingdom!”

“Yeah yeah, the garage is all yours. Lord knows I don’t spend any time out here.” Sam agreed with the air of one humoring a toddler.

Standing by the car, his brother responded as any mature adult would. Dean stuck his tongue out at Sam in the most horrendous face he could manage.

“Wow Dean. Very mature.”

“I try.”

Laura stepped closer to Sam and impishly tweaked Lila’s braid. “Hey now baby bird. Are you going to let that stand? You give as good as you get. Give Sam a hand.”

Lila giggled. Reaching around Sam’s head, the little girl hooked her fingers into the corners of his mouth and pulled them wide into a lurid grin. Sam crossed his eyes at Dean, completing the look.

The older Winchester barked a laugh. “They’re ganging up on me Coop! Give me a hand!”

Cooper bounced over to stand by Dean, and the two made new faces, each more horrendous than the last. Sam and Lila gave back as good as they got, Lila playing with Sam’s face to contort it into new expressions. It started getting significantly harder and harder to make face at each other through the laughter.

“You four should see yourselves!”

Dean glanced Laura’s way and started laughing all over again, leaning on the hood of his car for support. “Hey! No fair, you didn’t tell us you were going to videotape this!”

Laura hiked Nathaniel higher on her hip, balancing her little digital camera with her free hand. “All’s fair in love and war Dean!”

“Fine.” The hunter stomped over to pop the camera out of her hand and turned it on Laura and Nathaniel. “Alright then, let’s see you guys make some faces for the camera! If we’re going to make fools of ourselves, so are you. You’re family. And family means no one sits alone at the nuthouse.”

Laura blew a raspberry on Nathaniel’s temple, then made a face at the camera while the toddler squealed. “There. Satisfied?”

“Yup.” Dean stopped recording and handed the camera back. “Do you always carry a camera in your pocket?”

“I’m a mother. With parents like Clint and I, my kids are prone to video worthy shenanigans, and my youngest has yet to say his first word. Of course I keep a camera handy!”

“Fair enough.”

Cooper trotted up beside Dean. “Mr. Winchester? Are all these cars yours?”

“Mr. Winchester was our dad. Call us by our first names, it’s ok since we asked you to. And as for the cars…” He ran an appreciative eye over the antiques. “They’re mine and Sam’s. We sort of inherited this place and everything that came with it. But the black Impala in the center is mine. Our dad left me that. She’s home for us.”

“Cool. Do you think I could ride in them sometime?”

Dean grinned and ruffled Cooper’s hair. “I don’t see why not. Tell you what. We’ll get this mess with your dad straightened out first. Ok? Once that’s done we’ll grab some grub and drive out somewhere for a picnic or something. Sound cool?”

“Yeah. Can I look inside now though?”

“Be my guest. But stay out of the Impala’s trunk. Clear?”

Cooper nodded eagerly. “Clear. Come on Lila, let’s go look!”

Lila shimmied down out of Sam’s hold and ran after her brother. Even from clear across the garage, they could still hear her exclaiming over the pretty colors and shiny pieces of each car. Doors opened and closed, and they could see one of the cars bounce a little as the two kids climbed around inside.

Sam sat down on the hood of the Impala. “Dean, you know these cars are pretty much yours. You’re the one who puts most of the work into them.”

“Damn straight I am. The last time I let you near a car you douched the Impala up.”

Sam threw up his hands. “What! You were dead ! It was one time Dean, and all I did was add an ipod jack!”

“Yeah, and the fact that you’d defile the Impala with that crap you call music still disgusts me.” Dean fired back, and sat down on the hood by Sam.

Sam made a bitch face at Dean and abandoned the argument. He turned to Laura as the only other rational adult in the room. “The kids should be cool to play in here. The keys to the cars are out of their reach, and the tools in the workbench are all locked up. There’s a storeroom in the back of the garage that has the bigger power tools and any and all spare parts we’ve got, but we keep that locked. If you need to get in there: for whatever reason, I don’t even know, the keys to the storeroom are in the box above the workbench. The keys to pretty much all the cars are there. Except for the Impala’s anyway, Dean or I usually have those. If, for any reason, you need to take a car…” He ran a pensive eye over the row of antique cars, then looked to Dean for support. “I don’t know Dean, what do you think? The green one in slot B5 is pretty low profile compared to the rest…”

Dean was already shaking his head. “Low profile yes, but I haven’t had time to go over that one yet. If she has to make a run for it and she can’t take the Impala, I’d say the red one parked next door in B6 is the best bet. I’ve been over her already, and she runs pretty well. She doesn’t even have all that many miles on her. Guess whichever man of letters left her here bought her new and hadn’t had her long. A little bit more flashy, but she’ll get you from ‘A’ to ‘B’ without too much hassle. And I can give you some names and addresses just in case so you won’t be flyin’ blind.”

Laura arched an eyebrow. “Are you expecting trouble?”

“I hope not.” Dean muttered. “But you saw how much being prepared paid off with Clint. Sam and I’ll have to leave eventually. We can’t hunt down whatever is messing with Clint from in here. But we’re going to make sure that you and the kids are kitted out here in the bunker before we go anywhere.”

Laura nodded. On her hip, Nathaniel burbled away, quietly playing with the hair that had come loose from the knot she’d made at breakfast. She nuzzled him on a whim, and the toddler giggled. Somewhere down the row she could hear Lila and Cooper moving to new cars, still exploring.

A thought struck her. “A lot of the doors look exactly the same. Could you lock the ones Cooper and Lila need to stay out of?”

“Except we still want you to have access to some of those rooms if you need them.” Dean pointed out.

“What about a marking system?” Sam offered. “There are several different colors of masking tape in the work bench. I could put a strip of tape on each door, and the different colors will mark where the kids can and can’t go… They’re your kids. Do you think they’d respect those boundaries?”

Nathaniel pulled too hard on Laura’s hair and she pulled it out of his fingers. “They should. They’ve never once gotten into Clint’s archery cabinets in the barn. Everything else probably, but never the archery cabinet.”

“You’re sure?”

She smirked. She would’ve known if they had. The handles and lock were coated in something that turned the skin purple. She’d gotten some on her fingers once, and it had taken an absurd amount of time and effort to get the color to fade, and almost a week before the color left completely. No way her kids would’ve been able to hide that. But it had never been a problem. Clint had made them promise, and they’d yet to break it.

“I’m sure. They don’t know it, but Clint booby trapped the handles. We’d know if they did. They’ll stay out of the rooms if we make them promise. Tape should be fine. Now, was there anything else we needed to see? Or were you going to let them play here in the garage for a while?”

Sam and Dean adopted matching grins.

“Well…” Dean hedged, “college boy here has one more thing he wants to show the kids. He was all excited to see it when we moved in and, even I gotta admit, it’s kinda cool. Lila and Coop oughta get a kick out of it.”

“Well, then we’d best get moving.” She fished a whistle out of her pocket and tossed it to Sam. “Would you blow that Sam? I don’t want to hurt Nate’s ears. Three whistles ought to do it.”

Sam puffed on the whistle.

Two brunette heads popped out of the open window of a black antique car. At a wave of their mother’s hand, Cooper and Lila slid out of the car and hurried back to the adults.

Sam flipped the whistle over in his fingers. “Neat trick. How’d you come up with that?”

“Clint did.” Laura slipped the whistle back into her pocket. “Lila had only just started walking. I’d lost my voice, and Lila was sick. Cooper couldn’t hear me when I called him in, but I didn’t dare take Lila out into the cool spring air. So Clint called him. And when he had to leave on a mission, he gave me a whistle.” She  ruffled Cooper’s hair. “System worked so well, we kept it.”

“Cool.” Dean grinned. “Alright, Coop, Lila. Geek boy here,” He playfully elbowed Sam, “has one more room he’d like to show ya. Even I gotta admit it’s kinda cool. You guys should get a kick out of it.”

“Really?” Lila bounced closer to Sam. “What is it?”

“Well, you’ll just have to come and see.”

They went back through the halls and up a set of spiral stairs into a tower-like structure. A metal cupola roofed the top of the tower. And sitting in the middle of it all? A massive telescope, it’s great glass eye gazing unerringly  towards the heavens like a sentinel standing guard.

“A telescope!” Lila squealed, dancing around the monstrous beast of a machine.

Sam laughed, enjoying their reactions. “Yeah. Your Dad used to tell us about how you guys would go out into the back yard to watch the stars and stuff. Thought you guys might like it.”

“This is fantabulous! Thanks Sam!” Lila enthused.

“Yeah, thanks Sam!” Cooper concurred.

Sam gestured. “You’re welcome. Go ahead and have a look. You won’t be able to see as much, but you should still be able to see something.”

The two converged on the lense.

Dean opened up a door in the roof for the telescope to look through. Then the adults leaned back against the wall and watched them ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over the view through the telescope.

“Thank you for this.” Laura murmured.

Sam shrugged. “They might not be under the same roof. But they’re still under the same sky. I figured it might make them feel a bit more at home.”

“Well, that and you’re a geek. You just want to have someone to nerd out with.” Dean teased. They returned their attention to the kids, eyes softening at their obvious delight. “But yeah. Mostly it’s to make them feel at home...you nailed it Sammy. You did good.”


 

 

Laura wasn’t sure what to think.

After the morning’s antics in the kitchen, she had decided that Dean would probably be the best with kids. She wasn’t sure when or where he’d gotten the experience, it couldn’t all have come from being a big brother, he and Sam were to close in age. But any help he was able to give her was thoroughly appreciated, any mother could attest to the need for helping hands.

Sam helped too.

He seemed to like Cooper and Lila, but he seemed to feel a little awkward around them. As if he were afraid to mess up and say the wrong thing. He reminded her of Clint, just after Cooper had been born. And Nathaniel… Nathaniel, Sam regarded with the utmost suspicion after the breakfast incident. And Dean seemed to thoroughly enjoy dropping the toddler in Sam’s lap at any given opportunity, just to see the hidden look of terror in the man’s eyes at being presented with a small child. It didn’t escape her notice that he seated himself as far away from her and Nate as he could after Dean left the room, curled up in an armchair with his laptop.

And then there was Castiel.

He’d returned to the Bunker a little while after their tour, and the Winchesters had been happy to see him. But at the same time, Castiel was a conundrum.

He definitely liked her children.

Of that she was certain. If he’d known her kids longer, instead of just a day, she would’ve almost dared say that the strangely quiet man was completely enamoured with her kids. They’d moved into the library, and Castiel had made himself busy with the books immediately. But every time she glanced his way, it wasn’t the book in his hands he was looking at. He would be watching the kids over the edge of the book, or out of the corner of his eye. And the look on his face… it was as if he was in awe of them.  

And yet, he seemed to be in a constant state of confusion at the same time.

He had no idea what to do with kids. As if he’d never interacted with one before in his life. He treated them as if they were made of spun glass. Lila and Cooper, every the friendly pair, tried to pull him into their games. She could see the uncertainty he telegraphed from clear across the room, and she tried not to laugh when the poor thing got overwhelmed and found an excuse to sic the kids on her or Sam, and Dean if he was there. The oldest brother seemed to come and go as he pleased.

“Cooper, why did we have to come here?”

Laura froze and looked up from Nathaniel. Cooper and Lila had settled down from their game of tag. Sam had given them printer paper and a set of pens and pencils, and the two had commandeered one of the tables for their craft time. Laura shook her head, trying to signal Cooper.

He didn’t see it.

Cooper shrugged. “It’s ‘cause someone’s got Dad I think, and Mom’s worried that they might try and come get us.”

“Someone’s got Daddy?” Lila’s lip trembled, her imagination running away at a mile a minute. “Can’t the Avengers help? Daddy is always saving them, why won’t they help him? What if the bad guys hurt him? What if he comes back and we’re not there? He’ll think we left ! That we don’t love him anymore! What if he never comes back? What if…?”

Lila burst into hysterical sobs.

Cooper shot a terror stricken look at Laura, unsure how to to stem the the flow of tears. He hadn’t meant to scare her so badly! This was why Laura hadn’t said that Clint was captured , just that he was missing .

Lila had an incredibly active imagination. Cooper did too, but nowhere near as bad as Lila. Laura wouldn’t be at all surprised if her daughter had nightmares that night. Hopefully she’d be able to wake up and catch it before Cooper. He took his duties as a big brother very seriously. At least he was willing to try.

He pulled his sobbing little sister into a hug. Laura gave him a sad, encouraging smile. He was doing his best. She gathered up the blanket on her lap around Nathaniel, getting ready to get up and go to her sobbing daughter.

Except someone else beat her to it.

Castiel seemed to sweep  out of nowhere, his book abandoned, and the tales of his coat flaring out behind him. The dark haired man gently pulled Lila out of Cooper’s hug and up into his own arms. Any hesitancy he’d had towards the kids before wasn’t in evidence now. Kind eyes and tender arms enveloped the seven year old, cradling her to his chest.

“Hush.” His deep voice rumbled. “Your father isn’t lost yet.”

Lila buried her face in his chest, her hands fisting themselves in his ever present trenchcoat. Her slender legs wrapped themselves around his waist. Castiel rolled his shoulders and shifted her onto his hip, smoothing a hand up and down the sobbing girl’s back.

Lila wasn’t a fussy girl.

Emotional was a whole other story. As hard as it was to get her to that point, it could take hours to calm her down once she was well and truly upset. But not today. Even as Laura watched, Lila’s sobs grew quieter. Hiccups hopscotched through the seven year old’s chest. Those settled down even more quickly than the sobs had. In minutes, Lila had completely settled down. Only a sniffle or two gave away the fact that she was still awake where her rested her head against his collarbone.

Eyes wide, Laura slowly sank back into her seat with Nate.

In ten minutes, Castiel had done what it usually took her and Clint a half hour to accomplish. At the very least ! It was impossible!

Castiel rested his chin on Lila’s head. “All will be well,” he soothed.

Against his collarbone, Lila gave a sleepy little nod. Her eyes fell closed, and her breathing smoothed out. Within seconds, she was fast asleep, as comfortable in the arms of this man she barely knew, as she had ever been in the arms of her Daddy.

Castiel met Laura’s eyes. A small, self conscious smile twinged his lips. “She’s just tired and worried,” he soothed, “she’ll be alright.”

“Thank you, Castiel.”

“It is no trouble.” He assured her. He wandered back to the bookshelves without another word. All of Lila’s weight on one arm, the dark haired man picked his book up off one of the shelves and easily thumbed it open to his original place. Laura expected him to find himself a seat now that he had his book back. Instead, he stayed where he was. If the extra weight on his arm bothered him, he didn’t give any sign of it. In fact, now that she was looking for it, he didn’t behave at all the way she would’ve expected him to. He didn’t shift his weight from one foot to the other. He didn’t rest his hip against the bookshelves. There was no tremble in arms, either the one holding the book or the one holding the little girl.

As if it wasn’t any effort at all.

Clangs and thumps sounded from the hall. Given that Sam, Castiel. and all three kids were there in the library, it had to be Dean. Laura laid out a blanket on the floor and set her sleepy toddler on it.

“Watch Nate for me Cooper.”

Satisfied that her kids were settled, she left Sam, Cooper, and Castiel to their own devices. She had some questions, and she knew just the guy to answer them. She found Dean in the kitchen, a mess of pots and pans on the floor around the kneeling hunter. So far as she could tell, he’d been trying to get a griddle pan out of a lower cabinet. And apparently the rest of the cabinet’s denizens had decided to attack him. Dean had set the griddle up on the counter and was trying to wrestle the others back into the cabinet.

“I can’t tell which is funnier. The fact that you got into a wrestling match with a cabinet full of pots and pans… or the fact that you’re losing. Do you want help?”

“No, I got it.” Dean kicked the cupboard closed and tossed the griddle on the stove. “What’s up Laura? You look like you’ve got some questions.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah, you do. You have your stubborn face on.”

Laura leaned on the center island. “You pick things up quick.”

“No, your stubborn face looks a lot like Castiel’s.”

“Actually, Castiel is what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“He’s a little out there.” Dean agreed.

Laura folded her arms, resting her hip against the counter. “I think ‘out there’ might be pushing it a little. He’s not exactly ‘normal’, is he?”

Dean froze in place, the soft hiss of the oven burners and the steady hum of the fridge the only sounds in the quiet kitchen. Then the hunter sighed and tossed a hamburger patty onto the griddle. “What did he do?”

Laura shrugged. “Nothing much. Lila had a bit of a breakdown, and I had my hands full with Nate. Castiel picked her up and calmed her down. Fairly quickly in fact. When she’s that upset, it usually takes Clint and I fifteen minutes to a half hour to get her settled again. It’s more than that though. I don’t know… It’s the way he talks. The way he moves, the way he holds himself. He doesn’t act like a regular human. And when he does, it’s as if he’s reminding himself that humans do things a certain way and he’s trying to conform. Then there was that whole teleporting me and the kids here in the blink of an eye thing. That was something of a giveaway. Is he a mutant?”

Dean shook his head. “He’s not human at all. Never was.”

The quiet admission brought Laura up short. It was one thing for Clint to bring home his team, whom he’d known for sometime, and trusted. To trust her kids to an alien prince, a genteel super soldier from the forties, a billionaire who had more of a heart than he let on, and a man who supposedly was an uncontrolled rage monster but in reality had the best self control of any of them… that wasn’t a hardship. Both Clint and Natasha had vetted them and had found them safe. She hadn’t met the new members of the team yet, but Clint and Natasha both had a lot of good to say about them.

This was different.

Clint trusted Sam and Dean like family. But he knew nothing of Castiel so far as she was aware, and neither did she. She shouldn’t become wary at the mere mention that Castiel wasn’t human, because a human could just as easily hurt her kids as someone who wasn’t. It was not knowing what he was capable of that bothered her. She didn’t understand him, and it concerned her.

“So… he’s what? An alien?”

“Might as well be.” Dean huffed a laugh and finally turned to face her. “You gotta understand, he’s… damn, I don’t even know how to say it. I wanna say a little closer to home than an alien, but I really couldn’t quantify where the hell his home even is , just that the door is in a frigging sandbox. And…”

He trailed off as he realized that he was losing her.

“Sorry. Um… Are you religious? Like, do you pray?”

Laura nodded, thrown by the sudden change of topic. “Yes. Often. With Clint doing the job he does, I think this family needs all the help we can get.” She shrugged. “I don’t wait around for miracles, if that’s what you’re asking. Mom always says that God helped those who helped themselves. And Dad…” she giggled. “Dad always said that God protected fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.”

Dean grinned. “Your dad was a Trekkie?”

“Definitely.”

“Awesome.” The hunter went back to the burgers. “Little word of advice? Always address your prayers to God or a specific angel. Otherwise it’s like leaving your mail open for anyone to read. And there are definitely some grade ‘A’ douchebags that you don’t want intercepting those… Cas is an angel. And I don’t mean he’s sweet or well behaved or whatnot. Literal angel. Fluffy wings, halo, the whole nine yards.

“Dean.”

Their heads snapped up. Castiel stood in the doorway of the kitchen, Lila still fast asleep against his chest. His head was cocked, and he was casting a reproachful look at the hunter.

“… well, more like badass warrior straight out of the bible, but you know. Same difference.” Dean shrugged. “What’s up Cas? You doing double time as a teddy bear?”

“Not as such.” Castiel carefully shuffled Lila in his arms, somehow managing not to wake her. Now that Lila was fast asleep, crisis temporarily averted, some of his uncertainty was starting to show through again. “She was tired after last night, and her brother’s comment made her fear for her father’s safety. I wrapped my wings around her, to calm her, and she fell asleep in my arms. I was wondering, Mrs. Barton, if she would not be more comfortable in bed? Or would she do better to remain in my arms?”

“If Laura doesn’t mind, go ahead and cuddle her Cas.” The hiss of the griddle called him back to the stove and Dean added over his shoulder. “Sammy always did better after an episode when he had a heartbeat under his ear. Just keep her warm and read your book. Or talk to Sam. Whatever works. She looks like she’s down for the count.”

Cas looked to Laura, and smiled when she nodded her assent. “Thank you Dean. Laura. I had thought that that would be preferable, but wished to be certain. Humans have always been a tactile species, more-so than any other that God created. It is why the calming effect of our wings works so well on humans. I will continue to hold her. My brethren and I were created for this. To comfort and defend in equal measure.  I find that offering her protection, even though the threat is nothing more than a child’s fear, is… pleasant.”

The angel left, still not showing any strain from Lila’s weight.

“Wings?” Laura asked.

Dean pulled the finished burgers off the griddle and threw on raw ones to cook. “Yeah. Angel wings have a calming effect on humans. Cas has used it on us a couple times when we were really hurt or pissed off. It’s a weird feeling. Like you’re just, warm and… safe… I don’t even know how to describe it.” He shook himself and pressed on. “Don’t ever expect to see more than their shadow though. And if you’re seeing their shadow it either means they're pissed or trying to impress you. You better hope it’s impress, ‘cause an angry angel is nothing you want to tangle with. Most of them are frigging flying dicks anyway. I had one give me stage four stomach cancer once, just to prove a point. I very happily ganked that son of a bitch later. They can mess with me all they want, but no one hurts my brothers.”

“Brothers?” Laura pulled clean plates out of the cupboard and started to set the table. “I thought it was just you and Sam.”

A heavy weight seemed to settle around Dean’s shoulders. “Yeah. That’s what we thought. It’s the way it’s always been. Until he called. Seems Dad knocked up a good samaritan who saved his life after a hunt. We had a half brother named Adam. Dad never told us, and he did everything he could to keep Adam as far away from the hunting life as he could. In the end it still wasn’t enough to save him…”

Unsure if she wanted the answer, Laura laid a hand on his shoulder. “What happened?”

“Angels.” A single tear slipped down the hunter’s cheek. “In order to interact with humans, they possess humans from specific bloodlines. Bloodlines strong enough to hold that much angel mojo. They call them vessels. Cas’s vessel was some poor schmuck named Jimmy. Weirdo friggin volunteered. Got himself killed. It’s just Cas in there now… The Winchester line are vessels for archangels. Specifically the two douchiest douches to ever walk the damn earth. So when Lucifer and Michael wanted to duke it out, heaven and hell came after us. Michael couldn’t get me to say yes, so he went after Adam. Kid never stood a chance. Sam said yes to Lucifer and dragged Adam and Michael down into the pit with him. World saved, apocalypse averted. I managed to get them out eventually, but I could only choose one. And God help me, I chose Sam… I left Adam there to rot. It was like my mouth was on autopilot. I couldn’t say Adam’s name. Just Sam’s. Like my heart wasn’t in it…”

Laura squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. “Sometimes our hearts are smarter than our heads. You might find a way to get him out too.”

They needed to get away from that subject. She nudged Dean’s elbow to get him flipping the burgers again and went back to prepping the table and the rest of the meal.

“An angel… well that’s certainly new. I mean, my husband works with aliens, metahumans, norse gods, and lord knows what else. So I really can’t make any hasty judgments. But he definitely unnerves me the most. Especially the way he watches the kids…”

Dean stilled again, but then he barked a laugh.

“Yeah. That stareing of his does take some getting used to.” He agreed. “I’ve lost track of how many times he’s gotten himself in trouble because he parked himself on a park bench and stared at the kids like a creeper until some frightened mom called the cops on him. He doesn’t mean to weird people out, but people fascinate him. Kids in particular.”

He swapped cooked burgers out for fresh ones, finishing out the packet.

“Cas told me once. He said people were works of art. Each one ‘beautiful and unique’. I guess being an angel he can see souls or something. And while every soul is beautiful to him, kids are his favorites. He can admire the artistry, even in a soul that’s dark and tainted, but kids are so damn pure and bubbly. So, no, Cas isn’t watching your kids like a pedophile. He’s staring at them like an art connoisseur would stare at a rediscovered Da Vinci painting or something. Admiring his Dad’s handiwork.”

Somehow, that was oddly reassuring.

“Are you almost finished there? I can call the kids…”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. That’s the beauty of having an angel in the house. Cas, lunch is ready.”

There was a whoop from the library a moment later, and then Cooper came flying in. Sam and Castiel followed at a more sedate pace. Cas still had Lila in his arms, leaving Sam to carry Nathaniel. The younger hunter had the toddler gingerly balanced on his hip, jiggling Nate’s rattle to keep him occupied.

Dean immediately burst into laughter. “Jeezus Sammy, lighten up! He’s a toddler, not a changeling!”

Sam tossed him a bitchface and gratefully passed Nate to Laura.

Cas, meanwhile, was giving Dean yet another reproving look. “Dean, that was not a proper use of prayer.”

Dean shrugged. “Bite me Cas, it worked just fine. Now come on in and grab a burger. I know Jimmy ain’t home anymore, but that doesn’t mean the body’s cravings change.”

Cas huffed and settled at the table with Lila. “I do not require sustenance Dean. Nor does my vessel.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

A plate with a burger and potato chips was set in front of Castiel anyway. And it didn’t escape Laura’s notice that Castiel did eat the burger and most of the chips. What he didn’t finish, he shared with Lila and Cooper. But eating the burger didn’t seem to be a hardship. And judging by the knowing and amused looks on the Winchesters faces, they were well aware of how much their friend liked his burger.


 

 

“So. How are we going to find Clint?”

Dean sighed and leaned back in his chair. “That’s going to be a neat trick. Cas spent most of the morning trying to get a bead on Clint. Nothing.”

Laura’s fingers dug into the armrests of her chair. She’d laid the kids down for a nap after lunch. Cooper hadn’t wanted to, but he’d eventually given in when he realized his mother wasn’t going to budge. She’d waited until she was certain that they’d drifted off before returning to the library. She and Clint had learned the hard way that little feet were just as capable of going unheard as trained adults. And she didn’t want them to hear this conversation.

Chances were, it wouldn’t be good news.

Sam leaned forward in his seat. His face was earnest and kind, trying to reassure her. It only made her worry more. “Cas is our first option, but he’s not our last. There are ways to hide from angels. Dean and I both do. Unless we call them or someone tips them off, they can’t find us. I doubt anyone would think to carve into Clint’s ribs but…”

“Carve his ribs?!”

Both Winchesters winced at her shout. Dean held out his hands placatingly. “It’s not what you think… well, it’s actually probably exactly what you think, just with less blood ok? And it didn’t hurt. Cas did it and we didn’t feel a thing. It’s a protective measure, it’s not…” he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Damnit. I suck at this.”

“No, I just… I’ve seen Clint’s scars.” Laura hugged herself, knowing that the bunker had nothing to do with how cold she felt. “I’ve visited more hospitals than I can count, and I just… the amount of cutting someone would need to do to carve on his ribs …”

Castiel laid a hand on her shoulder.

Warmth washed over her, wrapping around the mother like a blanket to soothe her frazzled nerves. She relaxed under the rush of heat and genuine care. This had to be Castiel’s wings. Now Laura understood what Dean had been trying to explain in the kitchen. She felt safe, protected .

No wonder Lila had settled down so quickly.

“Thank you Castiel. I’m alright. I’m just scared for Clint. I’m not used to Clint going up against the supernatural. If it were humans I’d worry, but I’d know that he’d be able to handle himself. But this? This is monsters , and magic . It’s so far out of his wheelhouse…”

Maybe . But Clint is extremely capable.” Sam pointed out. “Granted, as far as hunters are concerned, Clint is a civilian. But if I had to pick a civilian to fend for themselves against the supernatural, it’d be Clint. He can manage himself, and he knows enough about us to make some educated guesses. He’ll make it. He just has to hang on until we can get him back.”

“But how are we going to find him?”

“Well,” Sam rubbed his hands thoughtfully, “There are a few locator spells we can try. But if Cas couldn’t pin Clint down, they probably won’t do much better. We’re going to have to treat this as if it were any other hunt. We visit the scene of the crime. We talk to potential witnesses. We find whatever lore we can get our hands on, and we make an educated guess.”

“Then we go gank the son of a bitch.” Dean added helpfully.

“But we don’t even know where Clint was taken . How can you go look at the scene?”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” Dean grinned. “You’d be surprised what you can do with fake credentials and the right keywords. I made some calls. Seems the Avengers were out in force shortly after Clint called me. And they spent a lot of time combing over a warehouse in Jersey. They’ve probably trampled all over our crime scene, but it’s as good a spot as any to start looking. Once we see what sort of trace this thing left behind, or lack of marks, we’ll have a better idea of what we’re dealing with and how to prepare.”

Sam drummed his fingers on the side table. “We’ve already got a shortened list. Clint was certain they were going to roll his mind. Not everyone can do that. Trick your senses maybe, but genuinely roll your mind? That’s something else. And after Loki, Clint would know the difference.”

“You should reach out to the Avengers. They could help.” Both men were already shaking their heads. Laura tamped down on her frustration and folded her arms. “Why not? They have resources you two could never access on your own. They saw the crime scene while it was pristine, and they’ve probably already talked to any witnesses they could find. They’re looking for Clint, the same as you are, they just don’t know what they’re dealing with. You could help each other. Fresh eyes, fresh perspectives. Is it really such a bad idea?”

Dean grimaced. “Laura. You don’t understand. We know the Avengers could help, but we also know that some monsters travel in packs. Yeah, Clint could’ve been singled out by a lone monster. But it’s just as possible that a pack went after the Avengers and Clint managed to stay free long enough to call us. We don’t know, and there’s no way to tell without actually being in the same room with them.”

The hunter leaned forward and squeezed her hand. “Clint asked us to keep you and the kids safe. This is the best way we know to do that. We can’t reach out to the Avengers.”

Laura squeezed his hand back. “Dean. The Avengers are just as much family to Clint as you two are. If they have been taken over, he won’t rest until they’re rescued. And if they haven’t, then they won’t rest until they have him back safe and sound. Don’t you think it would be better to meet them on your own terms? Rather than run into them while you’re looking for Clint? Wouldn’t it be safer that way? And if they haven’t been taken, wouldn’t it be good to have the extra help?”

Dean huffed and dropped her hand.

They watched as he stalked away, pacing beside the bookshelves. Finally he stopped and came back. Running a hand through his hair, he leaned over the back of Sam’s seat to look at the laptop balanced on Sam’s knees.

“Sam, how long would it take us to get from here to New York?”

Sam grinned, fingers flying over the keyboard. “About twenty-four hours, if we don’t hit traffic and drive straight through. Neither is going to happen, so I’m going to say probably closer to a day and a half if we shag ass. Two too two and a half days max if we really run into trouble.”

“Not the first time we’ve lived out of a car.”

“Probably won’t be the last either.” Sam huffed.

Laura folded her arms. “I still think it would be easier to just call Natasha and arrange a meet. If for no other reason than to let them know we’re alright. Natasha is the godmother to my kids you know.” Seeing both men already opening their mouths to argue, she added, “However, you two are the experts. I bow to your wisdom. However much I don’t like leaving my family in the dark. How soon will you head out?”

Sam sat back in his seat. He pursed his lips thoughtfully at Dean. “What do you think? If we call Jody, she might be able to come stay with Laura and the kids. Think she’d be willing?”

“If she can get someone to cover Sioux Falls for her while she’s gone, yeah, she’d do it. And I’d trust her more than anyone else we could wrangle in on short notice. Plus she was a mom. She won’t get frustrated with the kids. Between her and Cas, they should be fine. We can head out as soon as she gets here.”

“I don’t need a pair of babysitters Dean. Sam. I’ve managed alright on my own so far.”

Dean smiled. “Laura. Castiel is the heaviest hitter we’ve got. If something goes down here, I want to know that the Barton clan is safe . Lucky for us, Cas also has the awesome ability of being pretty much anywhere in a couple seconds. Isn’t that right Cas?”

The angel nodded solemnly.

“All we’ve got to do is pray. Just a quick, ‘Cas, we’re here’ to let him know where we are. So long as we’re not someplace that’s warded against angels, and there’s no one who’s trying to stop him, he can be there before we even finish saying ‘here’. So, if we need help, we’ll call him. But otherwise, he’ll be here. Keeping you safe. We’re going to have Jody come stay with you, in case we need to call Cas away.”

“I’ll call her.” Sam murmured. He set his laptop aside and left, phone in hand.

Dean grinned as he watched him go. “You’ll like Jody, Laura. She’s a sheriff for Sioux Falls. We used to have family there, so we’d run into her from time to time. Eventually we had to give her the talk. She’s not a hunter, not full time like us. But she knows enough. And she keeps her head. Even when she’s thrown ass first into the deep end of a hunt. Between her and Cas, I’ll feel at least half ways comfortable with leaving you and the kids here at the bunker.”


 

 

It didn’t take Sam long.

“Jody says she can do it. She’s got someone who can stand in for her. She’ll be here sometime tomorrow. It just depends on how soon her stand in can get there. Probably sometime after noon.”

“Then that’s settled.” Laura stood. “Now, unless there’s something else boys, there’s a pile of breakfast and lunch dishes in the kitchen with my name on them. And you three have some studying to do.”

“Laura, you’re a guest! You’re not doing the dishes!” Dean hollered after her retreating back.

She didn’t pay him any mind.

“And who’s going to stop me? You? You and what army?” She called back lightly, careful not to raise her voice too high. The kids were still napping after all! “No, you’re letting us stay here, the least I can do is help out around the house. Besides, I need something to keep me busy while the kids are down for a nap. Otherwise I’m just going to sit and worry about Clint, and that’s not going to do anyone any good.”

Sam laughed as he followed her and Dean into the kitchen. “Fair enough. And you’re right, we should do some research. But it’s only going to be a basic overview of anything that can roll a human’s mind. Without a better idea of what we’re dealing with, that’s all we can do.”

“I’ll take what I can get. Start studying.”

The men settled down in the library, laptops at their fingertips and books of every size, color, and description stacked around them like unsteady jenga towers. Castiel wandered the shelves, perusing this book or that as they caught his eye. Satisfied that they were doing their ‘homework’, Laura turned her sights on the dishes.

She wasn’t sure how much time passed, but it was enough time for her to finish the dishes, acquaint herself with the system in the kitchen, and put everything away correctly. The boys were still reading, and the kids hadn’t woken up yet. She cupped a hand around the slight swell of her belly.

“Come on then little one. Let’s see what else there is to do around here.”

As it turned out, there was quite a lot.

The sweeping alone would have taken her hours if she took on the whole bunker. Not a single room in the entire place had carpet after all, just tile or linoleum. The more liveable rooms where people spent more time, such as the bedrooms, bathrooms, and the library had rugs strategically placed. And those would need to be vacuumed. And the dusting! Dear lord, the library alone would probably have taken her most of a day!

Laura shook her head with a rueful smile. She shouldn’t have been surprised. The building only housed three people. Two of whom were bachelors. And the third, by his own admission, was a ‘multidimensional being of celestial intent’ that was proportionally the size of the Chrysler building when not contained in a vessel! He certainly wouldn’t be doing any cleaning!

As she walked the bunker’s halls, she was pleased to see that Sam had made good on his promise. She wasn’t sure when he’d found the time, but the younger hunter had gone through the whole bunker and color coded the doors with masking tape. Green strips marked the kid friendly doors, yellow tape for adults only, and red tape for the rooms that were just for the hunters and Cas.

Still shaking her head at the mens’ cleaning habits, Laura returned to the kitchen.

She checked through the pantry and the old fashioned icebox, taking a tally of the various foodstuffs. Dean had said he intended to make a run to the store, and a grocery list would probably prove useful. A roast in the freezer caught her eye, and she set it out. It would take hours for the chunk of meat to thaw and cook thoroughly, but that was alright. By the time it was ready, people would be hungry enough to eat.

No one was expecting the scream.

Laura nearly dropped the potatoes she’d been cleaning. Then her head caught up and realized that it was Cooper who’d screamed. Then she couldn’t put them down fast enough.

Sam appeared in the door, gun in hand.

His hazel eyes met her brown, and he nodded to his brother behind him. Reassured, Dean darted past Sam, Cas hot on his heels. Sam stepped into the kitchen. He passed Laura his gun and drew an odd serrated blade from somewhere, laying it against his arm. Ready to cut. Laura wasn’t sure what good cutting himself would do if they were attacked. But, he was the expert.

Dean made a beeline for the bedroom.

The screams had quieted down, but he could still hear crying. He was pretty sure it was Cooper. Dean shoved the door open, his gun at the ready. Cooper was thrashing on his cot, his eyes tightly shut. Whimpering cries escaped his lips. Calls for his daddy. Pleas for someone not to hurt him. To leave his daddy alone.

A nightmare.

Dean shoved his gun into the back of his waistband. “Cas, check the other two. I’ll look after Cooper. Don’t know how Lila slept through this racket.”

Castiel went to soothe Nate. Lila was somehow miraculously still asleep on her cot, but Nathaniel was wide awake, and definitely not happy about it. The little toddler was standing up in the trunk, his pudgy little fists clinging to the edge of his makeshift cradle. Castiel scooped him up without hesitation. He must have wrapped his wings around the boy, because he settled down almost immediately.

It wasn’t nearly so simple with his older brother.

“Cooper. Hey, Coop, it’s ok. You’re safe. No one's going to hurt you here.” Dean gently shook the little boy’s shoulder. Cooper came awake with a gasp of panic, bolting upright in bed.

“Dad!”

The boy flung himself into Dean’s arms, clinging to the hunter with terrified strength. Dean hesitantly wrapped his honorary nephew up in a hug. He rubbed the boy’s shaking shoulders, murmuring reassurances into his hair. Eventually, Cooper calmed down. Pink burned his cheeks when he finally dared look up.

“I’m sorry Dean. I… I thought you were D-dad…”

Dean’s heart melted, and he squeezed the boy tight. “It’s alright Coop. It ain’t easy being the oldest. Believe me, I know. Specially when your Dad’s not around. You feel like you gotta be brave for the younger kids. Like it’s your job to make sure they’re taken care of.”

Cooper’s eyes welled with fresh tears as Dean put words to the boy’s feelings.

The hunter’s heart ached for him. Everything had changed after they’d lost Mary. He remembered what it had been like on the road. Looking after Sam while John was driving, or reading, or cooking, or the myriad other things you couldn’t do with a baby on your knee. Whether he was researching monsters, learning to be a hunter, or cleaning his guns, Dean was the one who watched little Sammy while John was busy. He knew what it was to grow up too fast.

Staring down at that teary eyed boy, Dean came to a realization. He didn’t want that for Cooper. And Clint wouldn’t have either. Clint had mentioned several times how scared he was that he was going to mess up. That he was putting too much on his son’s shoulders. Dean had always assured him that he didn’t. And he wasn’t going to let it happen now. He couldn’t bring Clint back right this minute, but he could do this. He could shoulder the brunt, so the little boy wouldn’t have to. Just the way he used to for Sam.

Dean straightened his shoulders.

“It’s ok Coop. Everyone has nightmares. Even me and Sam.” Subtly scooting the gun in his waistband around to the front, he turned his back. “Come on. I’ll show you what I do when I have nightmares. Hop on up.”

With Cooper clinging to his back like a baby koala, Dean headed for the kitchen. Castiel quietly followed, having put a sleeping Nathaniel back in his makeshift crib. They found Sam and Laura waiting, weapons at the ready.

“It’s alright folks, just a little nightmare is all. Everyone’s fine. Lila didn’t wake up at all, and Nathaniel’s already asleep again.”

Laura put the gun down and hurried to check on her son. She smoothed his bangs to the side, cradling his face tenderly. “Oh sweetheart…”

“I’m alright Momma.” Cooper mumbled.

He still looked tired. Especially around the eyes. Laura debated trying to get him to lay back down. He probably wouldn’t do it. At the oh so mature age of ten, he was convinced that he was too old for naps. If only he knew how much adults wished they could have scheduled nap times!

Dean shrugged Cooper higher on his back. “He’s alright Laura. He just needs something to do is all. Sam? We’ll be hanging out with my baby if you need us!” Waving over his shoulder, he piggybacked Cooper through the tiled halls.

“Do you really have a baby Dean?” Cooper asked curiously.

Dean laughed. “Not the kind of baby you’re thinking of. You remember that big black car in the garage?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s my baby. That car has been in my family for as long I can remember. She belonged to my dad first. And after my Mom died, and our house burned down, me, Sammy, and our Dad lived in that car. She was our home for more than twenty years. And when I got to be old enough, my Dad gave her to me.”

He climbed up the short flight of steps and into the garage, Cooper leaning over to flip the lightswitch. In the center of the garage, the impala patiently waited. A black panther waiting for her driver to bring her purring to life. Her ebony paint gleamed warmly in the light of the overheads. There wasn’t a scratch on her.

Dean couldn’t hide his pride.

“I take care of her. And she takes care of me. And she’s never let me down… Tell me Coop, what do you know about cars?”

Cooper slid down off Dean's back. “Well… I like cars. And Mom let’s me look at the engine in the van sometimes. But I don’t know much about how they work. Dad knows some stuff, but he mostly just gets me books about ‘em. One time he got me a puzzle that looked like a truck engine!”

Dean smiled fondly.

Some things never changed. Clint never cared much for what went on under the hood of a car. He knew the basics, and he knew a couple different ways to hotwire a car. A couple of which Dean had taught him and Sam when the two of them had been about thirteen, and the Winchesters had happened to be hunting in the same town Clint’s circus was visiting. But that was about as far as it went.

“Would you like to learn some more?”

“Really?” Cooper’s eyes lit up. He stared at the cars, trucks and motorcycles eagerly. “I’d like that! Can I look at their engines? I promise I won’t get in your way. I could pass you your tools and parts and stuff. If that’s ok?”

Dean laughed and ruffled Cooper’s mop of brown hair. “Hell yeah you can! I taught Sammy about cars, and I taught your Dad how to hotwire ‘em! Don’t see any reason not to teach you how to fix them. You never know  when those kinds of skills could come in handy. Come on. We’re going to go over that green antique with a fine tooth comb and see if we can get her to purr like a kitten.”

The car had been sitting for years.

Probably decades. Dean wasn’t at all surprised that they couldn’t get the engine to turn over. He showed Cooper how to put the car in neutral, then showed him where he wanted the car. With the ten year old in the driver's seat, Dean put his hands on the verdant green trunk and pushed. The antique car slowly rolled out of her slot. Cooper turned her to the left, gingerly  guiding it past the impala to the work area. As she rolled closer and closer to the workbench, Cooper wondered how Dean moved the cars when it was just him.

“Alright Coop, hit the breaks. It’s the wide pedal on the left.”

Cooper stomped on the fat pedal and the car jerked to a halt. He blushed, embarrassed, and stuck his head out the window. “Sorry Dean. I didn’t mean to make it jerk like that.”

Dean ruffled the boy’s hair. It amused him, how close Cooper’s haircut was to the style Sam had when he was that age. It was making him a little nostalgic. He’d have to give Sam shit about it later.

“It’s alright Coop. How hard did you hit the breaks?”

“Pretty hard.”

“And it stopped right away?”

“Ah huh… that’s good. Right?”

“Well, it means the breaks aren’t all bad at any rate. But I’ll check the pads and fluids just to be safe. No sense taking any chances. You think something’s wrong with your lady you check her over asap. It’s not worth it to put it off.”

The hunter sent Cooper to grab Dean’s toolbox.

When the ten year old hobbled back with the heavy box, he found that Dean had already lifted the hood and was studying the engine underneath. Cooper climbed up on the bumper, leaning in to get a better look at the inner workings of the antique. Dean pulled a flashlight from a pocket and pushed it into the boy’s hands.

“Go on Coop, show me what you know.”

Excited to test his knowledge against someone who was actually knowledgable on the subject, Cooper grinned and clicked on the light. They didn’t really need it, strictly speaking, there was plenty of light from the overheads and from the workbench. But that wasn’t the point, at least, Cooper didn’t think it was. He used it as a sort of pointer, shining it on various pieces of the engine like a spotlight as he shared what he knew.

Dean listened attentively.

Now and again, he would offer his own comments, expanding on what Cooper already knew. It wasn’t often that he had to correct Cooper outright. All the books about cars had certainly paid off. It was a good starting point. But, Dean told him, there was still so much more to learn.

The two settled into an easy rhythm.

Time flowed by effortlessly for them. Dean slowly and methodically took the engine apart piece by piece, laying them out on an oil stained tarp. Cooper chalked a number on the tarp beside each piece as they went. Dean had stated that he didn’t need it, but it would help Cooper keep track of the pieces, so they did it.

And all the while, Dean talked.

The ten year old had a proclivity for the workings of an engine. What was more, he had an interest in it! For him, Dean was a goldmine of information. Where Cooper had the basic theory, Dean had practical working knowledge, and he was more than happy to share what he knew. But the best part? Dean was the sort of teacher that was completely hands on. He happily answered Cooper’s questions, and encouraged him to get up close and personal with the innards of the car. With classic rock playing from a boombox on the workbench, the two lost themselves in the flow of tools and parts and fluids.

By the time Laura came to fetch them for dinner, Cooper had all but forgotten his nightmare.

“I see you two got into a fight with an engine. I think you lost.” She teased, snapping a picture of the grease and oil smudged pair.

Dean planted a foot on the car’s bumper and struck an exaggerated heroic pose. “You kidding? We totally won! See, we dissected her and laid her out on the tarp over there. We beat her!”

Laura rolled her eyes. “You two are covered in I don’t even know what. If you think I’m letting you anywhere near the kitchen after I swept and mopped the floor you’ve got another ‘think’ coming! Go get cleaned up and get to the kitchen. And you better hurry, or I won’t save any for you!”

Dean laughed as he watched her go. “Well, you heard her Cooper. Let’s turn of the lights and go get cleaned up before she gives our food to Sam and Lila.”

It wasn’t a valid threat, but they hurried just the same.

They found everyone in the kitchen. Lila and Nathaniel had since woken up from their nap, and Nate was perched comfortably in Sam’s arms. The hunter and toddler had apparently settled their differences, as Sam was making faces at the giggling baby while Castiel looked on.

Lila meanwhile was busy on a stool at the counter.

Her face lit up at the sight of them, and she eagerly waved a frosting covered spoon at them. “Cooper! Dean! Momma let me help cook! I made sugar cookies all by myself. Aren’t they pretty?”

“Definitely.” Sam agreed, snitching a cookie from the racks and popping it into his mouth. “Tasty too.”

Lila gave him an affronted look, only slightly mollified by the compliment and not entirely willing to forgive his grievous cookie theft. Then she giggled and snatched one for herself.

“Hey! I gotta get in on that action!”

Dean was across the room in a few strides. He had a cookie in his mouth and was tossing another one to Cooper in another heartbeat.

Laura scowled. “That’s enough. You’ll spoil your dinners.” Spying the mutinous way her daughter’s fingers were straying towards the cooling racks, she reached over and lightly swatted her daughter’s hand away. Pouting, Lila climbed down off her stool and went to wash her hands.

Laura turned back to the stove, satisfied.

She was spinning around a few minutes later to swat Sam’s fingers away from the cookies again.

By the door, Castiel smiled at the show.

It was probably just as well that Laura and Lila had made several large batches of sugar cookies. Because the kitchen’s denizens were waging a near silent war over them. Laura had to swat Sam’s fingers away from them just as often as the children's’. He even beat Dean out for the highest number of finger swats!

The angel almost laughed when Sam finally realized that Dean wasn’t getting fewer cookies, he just wasn’t getting caught as often. Dean was also slipping one or two of them to the kids when Laura wasn’t looking. As soon as Dean realized Sam had caught on, he started flipping Sam one every now and again with a shit eating grin. Dean’s eye caught the angel’s over Sam’s shoulder. He smirked and high tossed one over Sam’s head to Cas.

The angel caught it easily.

Unfortunately, Dean had also given himself away. Laura smacked the older hunter across the back of the head, her glare withering in its intensity. Dean gave her a sheepish little shrug and muttered a quiet apology. She mutely pointed at the table, and Dean and Sam ducked their heads and obediently took their seats with the children. Only Castiel could see Laura smile and roll her eyes at their antics. And he was the only one to see when she cast him smug look and a triumphant wink.

And Cas couldn’t help but smile.

Castiel liked her immensely. And he could tell that Sam and Dean did too. Like Ellen, Jo, Charlie, and Jody before her, Laura was a force to be reckoned with. Castiel sincerely hoped that things would work out well with Clint. But in the meantime, Laura wouldn’t let them get away with their normal shenanigans. It was good for them.

“Castiel. Aren’t you going to come eat?”

Who knew. Spending time with a non-hunter and her children might do them all some good.


 

 

Laura let them watch cartoons on Sam’s laptop after dinner.

It had been kind of him to offer, and he’d been happy to pull up some old Tom and Jerry cartoons. Sam had settled down with them on the couch, Lila and Cooper settled on either side with Nathaniel in Cooper’s lap.

It left Laura free to do the dinner dishes and put away the leftovers while Dean went to tidy up a few things in the garage. She didn’t mind, doing the dishes was one of those mindless tasks that left her free to think.

So she was fairly surprised when Castiel stepped up to rinse and dry.

“You have not told the others that you are gravid.”

“You definitely don’t pussyfoot around.” She scrubbed off a particularly stubborn bit of gravy and passed him the plate. “Please don’t say anything to the others. I haven’t told anyone yet.”

He cocked his head, brilliant blue eyes quizzical. “Why? There is no shame in bearing children. You have already born three, and you seem to love them unconditionally, as any parent should. Why would you wish to conceal this one? Unless…”

“Don’t even go there. The baby is Clint’s.” Laura stated firmly. From anyone else, the mere suggestion that she would betray Clint like that would have been grounds for at least a slap to the face. Depending on how they said it would determine whether that slap was with a frying pan or not. But with Castiel there was no judgement, merely curiosity. He was genuinely trying to understand.

“I hadn’t thought you would.” He frowned and set the plate in the drying racks. “But I still do not understand why you should feel the need to hide your pregnancy.”

“It’s not because I’m ashamed or afraid or because I cheated on Clint; which I didn’t, by the way. It’s because… because I wanted to be there when he found out.” She blushed and passed him another soapy plate to rinse and dry. “I’m about fourteen weeks. I only found out for sure a month ago. Clint hasn’t been home, and he’s always the first one I tell. It’s sort of tradition at this point.”

She sniffled and wiped at her eyes.

“The day Clint was taken, he was supposed to come home the next day. The kids made a banner and everything. He would’ve loved it. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell him, but I couldn’t wait to surprise him. And then Natasha called and said that he’d gone missing … I don’t know, I guess I’m just hoping that I’ll still get the chance to tell him first.”

Castiel considered her words.

“Sam and Dean will not give up. And neither will I. You may rely on that. However, some hunts take time. I have been a part of many hunts. Some have taken several months to complete. The hunt for the demon that slaughtered their mother lasted decades. I pray that this hunt will be concluded swiftly. But. Should this hunt run long, you will not be able to hide your pregnancy indefinitely.”

Laura nodded. “If we haven’t found Clint by the time I really start to show, I’ll tell them myself.” She passed him another plate. “I have time though. It takes me longer and longer to really show every time I get pregnant. So long as I wear baggy clothes, I should be fine.”

“Then I will respect your decision.” Castiel promised.

The two lapsed into silence, the work passing quickly between them. Cas turned to leave as soon as the last of the dishes were set in the rack by the sink. The air would finish what they had started.

“Castiel.”

The angel paused. “Mrs. Barton?”

“How did you know? That I was pregnant, I mean?”

Soft blue eyes dropped to her belly, almost tenderly. “When I look at humans… I see them. Every part of them. I see the flesh. But I also see the soul that is housed within them. Every soul has a beauty to it. And a soul is gifted to each child, from the very moment of conception. Your child is small, barely the size of a lemon. But the soul is pure, and shines with it’s own light beneath yours. I simply didn’t look far enough. Not until you became sick. Dean has had… adverse reactions to traveling with me, but I have never once had someone become so violently physically ill because of me. There had to be a cause. So I looked more closely. I am sorry to have done that to you. It will not happen again.”

“Thank you.”


 

 

Sam woke in the middle of the night.

Sweat covered his body, trickling along the flat planes and long cords of muscle, chilling his skin. He shivered and rolled out of bed. He wasn’t going to get any more sleep tonight. Sam grabbed a hoodie and stumbled from the bedroom, down the hall to the bathroom. Meeting his own tired gaze in the mirror, his mouth twisted into a grimace.

“Nightmares suck.”

When he had finished, he paused in the hall. He wasn’t going to sleep again tonight unless Cas forced him to. Dreams of hell, of Jess, or watching Dean die tended to have that effect. He wasn’t exactly crazy about the idea of Cas knocking him out. The angle would probably offer, but he wouldn’t accept. Which, meant he needed to find something to do until dawn.

Usually, he’d read.

Books, police reports, newspaper articles. Working on a case or reading for pleasure, reading was generally his fallback. Decision made, he headed for the library. He’d already pulled pretty much anything and everything he could think of that might apply to Clint’s case earlier. There was a fairly short list of supernatural beings in the U.S. that could roll a human mind and control them for a long period of time. Clint traveled all over the world for work, so it was entirely possible something exotic had gotten a whiff or taste of Clint and had followed him home. But even when they’d realized that and opened up their list to include a global collection of baddies, the list wasn’t overly long. There was literally nothing else he could look up! Until they found Clint and got a look at him, there was nothing more he or Dean could do. They’d hit a dead end.

A quiet noise whispered through the silence.

Sam frowned and crept to the door. It was possible that it was just Castiel in the library, but the noise just didn’t seem right for the angel. The hunter sidled up to the door and peered past it into the library common room.

A huge grin split his face.

Dean was in the library, and he had Nathaniel with him. It was Nate that Sam had heard. The toddler seemed to be in a fussy mood. Not out and out screaming, but grumbling and crying almost incessantly. A diaper bag and various supplies were scattered on one of the tables. Apparently a dirty diaper had been the reason for the little tyke’s upset. Dean had apparently already changed and redressed the toddler. He’d cradled Nathaniel against his shoulder, and was trying to calm him down.

The toddler made a particularly irritable squeal.

Dean sighed and stood. “Come on Nate, it’s not the end of the world.” He grumbled softly. “I changed your diaper, you’re clean. You ain’t got anything left to cry about.”

The hunter stepped and swayed, rubbing Nathaniel’s back. The quiet words and slow rhythmic movements seemed to placate the irritable toddler. Nathaniel began to quiet down. “There you go. That’s better.”

Nathaniel made another irritable noise, just to be contrary about it.

“Aw, don’t be like that. I can’t take you back to Laura if you’re fussy.” Dean huffed.

Sam muffled his snickers behind a hand. He watched his brother pace up and down the library. Watched him bounce the baby and listened to him mumble bribes and vague threats that he didn’t mean. Eventually Dean gave up and just started to hum. It took several bars for Sam to realize what it was Dean was humming.

“Hey Jude…” Dean sang softly. “ ...don't make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better…”

Something moved in the corner of Sam’s eye.

The hunter’s head whipped around to see a frantic looking Laura hurrying down the hall towards him. Realization hit him and he darted back to meet her. “Dammit Dean…” he mumbled.

“Sam! Someone took Nathaniel!” Laura panted.

Sam caught her shoulders, slowing her down. “Laura, Laura! It’s alright,” he whispered softly, “do you have your camera with you?”

Laura blinked, thrown by the non-sequitur. Her voice automatically dropped to match Sam’s whisper. “My camera? Yeah, I think so, but what… Sam, did you hear what I said? Nathaniel is gone!”

“No, I know, I heard you.” Sam held a finger to his lips and led the bewildered woman back down the hall to the library door. She peered past him, and a small smile began to grow on her lips.

Dean hadn’t heard them.

Laura relaxed, the sight of the tough as nails hunter rocking her little boy and singing him to sleep as if Nate were his own soothing her frazzled nerves. She understood why Sam had asked about the camera. Laura patted her pockets. She’d laid down with the kids when she’d put them to bed, and she’d fallen asleep. Thus, she still had the camera in her pocket.

She snapped a couple pictures of Dean and Nathaniel.

Behind her, Sam smiled and slipped his arm around her shoulder. They watched Dean and Nathaniel, Sam softly humming along with his older brother.

“I must have been more tired than I thought if I didn’t hear Nathaniel fuss.” Laura whispered.

“Understandable.” Sam agreed.

“...why ‘Hey Jude’?” Laura asked. “Dean struck me as more of a Metallica or ACDC type of guy. Does it mean something special to him?”

“Our Mom used to sing it to us. I don’t remember. But he does. And for as long as I can remember, he always used to sing it to me. When I was sick, or had a nightmare… anytime really. Whenever I was hurting, or things just weren’t going my way.” Sam shrugged. “It’s what he does. He protects people. I’d be happy if I end up half the man he is.”

“You already are.” Laura assured.

Sam grinned and tightened his hug. She leaned into him, accepting the hug gratefully. She was so used to having to do things on her own. Having to be strong when Clint was hurt or missing. It was refreshing to have someone here to help her now. To know that she had backup if she needed it. That all she had to do was ask.

To be taken care of for a change.

“We’re going to fix this Laura.” Sam whispered. “I promise.”


 

Chapter Text

 


One Day Ago

 

Laura’s second day in the bunker began much like the first one did.

She woke to find her kids already up, and the Winchesters were already feeding them. It was after breakfast that the trouble started.

It was a fundamental law of nature that kids couldn’t be kept cooped up inside forever without serious consequences. Thankfully, the bunker was still a new place. A truly massive one at that. The novelty hadn’t quite worn off yet. But it was only a matter of time before they got bored and started looking for new ways to entertain themselves.

“I am so giving Clint an earful the next time I see him.” She grumbled as she straightened up the library common room. “Provided he’s in his right mind that is.”

Lila squealed from somewhere deeper in the bunker.

Laura shook her head. She’d already had to settle four petty squabbles in as many hours, and she was about ready to scream. Who knew that two human beings could get into a screaming match over which color of blanket made a blanket fort look cooler. Or which library books were acceptable for a game of ‘library book jenga’... go figure.

“Pack the bags, he said. Survival items only , he said.” She muttered irritably. “Yeah, well, apparently a book or toy or something is necessary to my survival! If we have to 'hurry up and wait', we need something to keep them occupied so they don’t drive us crazy ! Next time I pack a go bag, I’m putting a rubics cube and a coloring book in each damn bag!”

“Umm...Laura?”

The brunette froze. That wasn’t one of her kids. She sighed and turned around. Dean was on the entrance balcony, his hands loaded with plastic bags. He’d left after breakfast to get the groceries they needed. Her list had made Sam raise his eyebrows, but Dean had only laughed and asked him if he was aware how much one kid actually ate. How expensive kids actually were? Three kids meant you had to triple that. Food, money, the lot. End of story. He’d smiled. But something about him had seemed almost sad. Laura had asked Sam about it after Dean had left the bunker. Sam had blanched. He’d shaken his head and simply stated that Dean wasn’t a stranger to kids.

It was all he would say about the matter.

Castiel was standing behind Dean. He was loaded down with just as many bags as the hunter. But whereas Dean seemed to feel the weight, Castiel could’ve been carrying feathers. Laura hadn’t known he was back. He’d left the previous night after dinner to look for Clint again.

“Anything Castiel?”

“I’m sorry. He is well and truly hidden.” The angel cocked his head. “Tell me, how would a rubic’s cube preserve your sanity?”

Laura pushed her disappointment aside with a huff. “There’s trouble brewing. When Clint had me pack the kids’ go bags he gave me a specific list. I packed exactly that he told me to. It never even occurred to me that I might need to keep the kids busy if we had to ‘hurry up and wait’. I’ve settled four fights already, and it’s only day two. It’s not even noon yet! My kids aren’t hellions, but they’re still kids.”

Dean snorted. “I hear that. Cabin fever is a bitch.”

Castiel cocked his head even farther. “I don’t understand.”

Laura met them at the bottom of the stairs. She took some of the bags from Dean, shaking her head at the angel. “He means that Lila and Cooper are going to get bored Castiel. They’re going to want to go outside.”

“Unless we can find a way to keep them interested.” Dean agreed.

The angel gestured around them. “These books will not suffice?”

“I’m sure they’re good reading.” Laura agreed. She led the way into the kitchen. “But they’re a little beyond Lila and Cooper’s reading level. Most of them anyway. I haven’t had a chance to really go through and have a look at them. There might be a few classics they could read.”

“Talk to Sam.” Dean advised. “He knows this library better than anybody. And even if it’s above their reading level, he’d probably be happy to read it to them. Think they’d go for The Hobbit ?”

“Probably.” Laura dumped her bags on the table. “But they’re kids. Pretty active ones. You can’t expect them to sit still and listen to stories all day.” She started to sort through the bags. “I can get these Dean. It’ll give me something to do.”

“If that’s the way you want it.” Dean agreed.

“Yeah. I… hmph, I guess the kids aren’t the only ones suffering cabin fever.” She shoved her hair back out of her face. “Wow. You never realize how much you take freedom for granted until you can’t go outside.”

“Yeah. I know.” Dean mumbled. He shrugged and dropped the last of his bags on the table. “Well, if you’re sure. I’ll leave you to it. Don’t worry about the kids. Cas and I have another run to make. We’ll take care of it.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“Hopefully not too long. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” Dean fished his keys out of his pocket and put them on the counter. “In case you need these. I’m flying angel air. If you see Sam before we get back, tell him that Jody called. She’s got someone to stand in for her, and she was just leaving Sioux Falls. She’ll be here sometime in the late afternoon.”

“I’ll tell him. Now shoo! The sooner you leave, the sooner you’ll get back.”


 

 

“Dean, where are we going?”

Dean shoved the trunk of the impala closed. The reassuring weight of his favorite gun and several knives were settled around his person. Each one close to hand and easy to reach. He’d looped the straps of two empty army duffles over his shoulder, and he carried a sawed off shotgun in his hands.

“Well Cas. Seeing as how Lila and Cooper are getting cabin fever, it seems to me the best thing to do would be to find something for them to do. No better place to look than home. You ok running me to the Barton farm and back?”

To answer, the angel merely touched two fingers to his forehead.

The world lurched and tilted on its axis. Everything suddenly snapped back into place, and Dean stumbled a step. He’d gotten more experience over the years, but that sudden stop always made him flinch. He couldn’t help it.

A hot summer sun beat down on his shoulders.

It was a beautiful day, not a single cloud in a clear blue sky. A breeze played with the grass, and birds and insects called. Not a single person around for miles. Dean could understand why Clint loved this.

The farm looked different in the light of day.

Warmer. The farmhouse was old, but well maintained. Clint wouldn’t accept anything less. When Harold Barton had really started to devolve, one of the first things to go was the upkeep of the home. If Dean had had to guess, he’d say it was Clint’s way of making sure he never ended up like Harold.

Making sure that he was doing right by his family.

So long as he cared enough to treat their home with as much love and care as he did his bow, he had to be doing something right. He took care of the house, and by extension, he took care of them. So he put his heart and soul into it. Into them . It was more than Harold had ever done. And that was one thing Clint had been dead sure of as a child; he would do better for his future wife and kids than his dad had ever done. They would never have to survive from day to day. Not like he had. But he’d done it. He’d survived .

And he’d thrived !

Staring at the picturesque little farm, Dean felt a surge of warmth and affection for the little brother he’d unceremoniously adopted all those years back. Clint had been dealt a shit hand. And he’d made it work for him, in ways most people could never have even imagined! And now he had it all. A home, a loving wife, beautiful kids… Clint had done alright.

Looking at this beautiful home that Clint had made for his wife and children, his family , with his own damn hands...Well, Dean was as proud of his adopted brother as he had ever been of his flesh and blood brothers.

“Keep watch Cas.”

“Of course Dean.”

Secure in the knowledge that Cas was watching his back, Dean stepped up into the house. Laura had locked the door behind her when she’d left the day before last. Dean picked it open. It took him longer than it usually would. He’d have to compliment Clint on the locks the next time he talked to him. They certainly weren’t original to the house.

Inside, the home was quiet.

It looked just the same as it had before. No sign that anyone had come looking for the Bartons. Dean doubted it would stay that way forever. He had to make this quick. He cautiously explored the house, making sure no one was hiding out in a backroom waiting for him to lower his guard. He didn’t find anyone. Or anything. The house was clean.

For now.

The hunter opened the first of the empty duffel bags and began carefully picking up items for the kids. He’d grabbed the stuffed animals they slept with the other night. Those special friends were safe. Now he focused on things to keep them busy.

He started with the bedrooms.

Dean picked up toys that looked well loved. Toys that were favorites. Cooper’s Avengers action figures. Nathaniel’s rattles and jingly toys. Lila’s doll and a sock monkey that looked like Captain America.

Dean huffed a laugh, he remembered hearing about that sock monkey.

Clint had almost laughed himself sick when he’d come home and Lila had rushed out to show him her and Laura’s handywork. The monkey had been put together fairly well, Clint had admitted. It was the thought of how Steve would’ve reacted that had set him off into a fit of giggles. Said giggles had only gotten worse when Lila had informed him that she wanted to make one for each Avenger. Dean didn’t find any other Avenger monkeys. Lila must not have gotten to them yet.

Wooden animals followed the sock monkey. Three small nerf guns, foam bullets, toy cars, and a box of wooden blocks went into the bag as well. Dean kept moving methodically through the house. Clint had mentioned building a cabinet to hold the family’s games once, and it took next to no time to find the darkly stained piece of furniture in a back room. Every card game the little family owned went into the duffel, and whatever board games would still fit into the cramped bag.

He jerked the zipper shut and left it by the front door.

The second duffel was for books. Clint had said his kids were avid readers, and Laura’s only objection to the library had been the age appropriateness of the material. So, books seemed like a good idea. They’d gone a long way to keeping Sam happy when he was that age.

Chapter books with bookmarks were a given. If they were blatantly part of a series, he made sure to grab the rest. Given the way Sam bitched and moaned when he finished a book and the next one wasn’t available, Dean wasn’t taking any chances.

The others he picked off the shelves at random. Books that had interesting covers, or whose names and authors he recognized. He’d never read most of them, they were just ones he remembered Sam liking as a kid. Board books from the nursery were added to the pile for Nathaniel, and another photo album he found on a shelf. He knew how some photos were almost impossible to replace.

Coloring books and a box of crayons topped it off.

“I made it myself. I can’t wait to show her!”

Clint’s voice echoed up out of the depths of the hunter’s memory. Dean frowned and dropped the second bag by the door.

It had been one of those increasingly rare face to face meetings they’d managed after Clint had joined Shield. Clint had had a few days off and had arranged to meet them three towns over. He’d been so excited to show them what he’d made. The first handmade gift he’d ever given Laura.

Dean pushed open the door to the master bedroom.

He checked the tops of the dressers and the bedside tables. When those didn’t yield up his target, he dug deeper. The little box was in the bedside table. It was stupid. Dean knew it was. But he felt that it would be something that Laura would want and appreciate. And he knew that she’d forgotten it in the excitement of the bugout. He opened the box.

And there they were.

Nestled in black velvet, two rings gleamed brightly in the afternoon light. Clint had so wanted to make them special for Laura. He’d still been paying off his farm when he’d asked her to marry him. Not much left over for fancy rings. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t still be nice . He’d always been good with his hands, and raw materials were so much cheaper than a finished product.

So he’d made the ring himself.

It was a simple thing, really not much of anything. Clint had twisted, pulled, hammered, and soldered fine sterling silver wires into a braided engagement band. And he’d put together the wooden box to present it to her in at the restaurant. The restaurant idea hadn’t worked, and the agent who’d pulled him out for a mission had been in the dog house for a long time after that interruption. He’d given her the ring on the end of an arrow, appropriately enough. Clint had saved the wooden box for the wedding ring. The wedding ring had also been made of fine silver wire. Laura had loved them, and had emphatically refused when he’d offered to get her ‘real’ rings when money wasn’t quite as tight.

Both box and rings went into Dean’s pocket.

“Alright, let’s get the hell out of here.” Dean mumbled.

He hurried back down the stairs and was almost out the door when it caught his eye. A heavy bow hung over the mantel in the living room. It was old and beaten up. Scratches and dings marred its sturdy length. But the wood still gleamed. Polished smooth to the touch by layer upon layer until the scratches and dings became a part of the wood’s beauty, rather than something to be hidden or removed.

It was all too familiar.

Dean could still recall with excruciating clarity how much that stupid bow had seemed to dwarf Clint when he’d first gotten it. A skinny brat with big eyes and pale skin that showed bruises far too well. And a bow that looked big enough to bowl him over. But his eyes had been alight in a way that the Winchesters had never seen before. And for that, they couldn’t help but love the bow as well.

Dean took the bow too.

Outside, Castiel was still waiting. And he had company. A flock of almost twenty chickens had gathered around the angel’s feet. One particularly precocious hen had perched herself on Castiel’s shoulder. The gaggle of birds fussed and squabbled mindlessly, picking at his trenchcoat. He tried to shoo them away, but they only flapped their wings and came right back. What use did they have for an angel’s personal space?

Taking a page from Laura’s book, Dean pulled his phone out to film him.

“...Please. If something happens, you could be harmed. I would not want that.” Cas told the hen sincerely. She ignored him. He shrugged his shoulder a little, trying to jostle her off. The hen flared her wings for balance and immediately settled back down.  “You should get off,” Cas tried again. “… Please? Ma’am?”

Dean couldn’t take it anymore.

He burst out laughing. Several chickens startled at the sudden noise. They squawked and flapped indignantly. It only made him laugh harder. Castiel made a frustrated face at the hunter, not the least bit appreciative.

“Dean. You’re not helping. This hen is being very obstinate.”

Dean snorted and ended the video. “She’s a chicken Cas. You can’t reason with a chicken.” Eyeing the sizeable flock around Castiel’s feet, he shrugged. “I completely forgot Clint had animals. They gotta be hungry by now. Come on. The  feed is probably out in the barn. We’ll top off whatever needs fed around here, then head back to the bunker.”

The hen still perched comfortably on Castiel’s shoulder, the two men left the bow and duffels on the porch and went to check the barn. Along with the flock of chickens, they discovered that the Bartons had four barn cats. And a goat... A goat that didn’t much  like men, Dean was dismayed to learn. Or strangers. Male strangers were probably at the top of the goat’s ‘most hated’ list. And he was going to do something about that.

The hunter glared up from the dirt and hay that coated the stall floor.

“Damnit Cas, it’s not that funny!”

The angel stifled his snickers and turned his attention to the irascible goat in the stall. Dean had no sooner stepped into the pen to get the feed and water buckets and the goat had plowed him down without warning. The gray coated bill was pacing the stall. Irritable noises and aggressive tossing of his horns warned the two that he didn’t much like their intrusion into his territory. And he’d be only too happy to run Dean over again if he made a wrong move.

“Let him alone.” Cas instructed the goat. “He’s with me.”

The goat made an angry noise and stamped a hoof.

“No, I understand that. But you still need to stop.” The angel leaned on the rail. “Your family is alright, but a predator is after them. They had to leave. We will be feeding you and the others until it’s safe for them to return.”

The goat pricked his ears toward Cas, his head cocked. He made a questioning bleat.

Castiel nodded. “That would be agreeable. I will allow it, if you will let my friend alone.”

The goat bleated again.

Dean glared. “If you two are done, can I get up now?”

“Yes.” Cas opened the gate and stepped into the pen to help Dean up. He didn’t bother to close it, but the goat didn’t try to make a break for it. “Billy was merely protecting his stall. We are intruders after all. He’s agreed not to knock you down again. You shouldn’t have anymore trouble.”

“Great.” Dean snatched up the empty buckets and marched away.

Castiel shrugged. “I think you hurt his feelings.” he told the goat.

Billy laid his ears back and snorted.


 

 

Castiel was deep in discussion with Billy.

Dean put the refilled buckets back on their hooks in the goat pen. Neither of them paid any attention to him. Castiel was crouched low to the ground, almost at eye level with the stocky goat. And the ridiculous hen was still perched on Castiel’s shoulder! The goat was face to face with the angel, barely a foot between them. Not that either of them cared. Apparently it was an absolutely riveting conversation.

Dean rolled his eyes and leaned on the fence to listen.

“No, the kids are alright, as is their mother.” Cas assured the goat. “We merely came to collect a few of the children’s belongings. Until this predator is dealt with, it won’t be safe for them here.”

The goat gave an angry bleat and stamped a hoof emphatically.

“What’s he say?” Dean asked.

Castiel rose from his crouch, the hen doggedly clinging to him like a barnacle. “He is glad to hear that Laura and the children are safe. He likes the kids, and Laura has always treated him well. He grudgingly admits that even Clint is a decent human, as far as male humans go. He hopes that we will be able to help him.” The angel smiled. “He also wishes that he could take a few good runs at the predator after them.”

“Yeah, you and me both pal.” A thought struck him, and Dean grinned. “You know, if that dude comes out here looking for them, it might be a good idea to have a reception committee waiting for him. If I left the gate to his pen open, would he behave himself?”

“I believe so. He seems most determined to protect. This is his home too.”

“Awesome. I’ll prop open the gate here in the barn so he can get in and out. Now explain it to him and come on. It’s almost noon. Sam and Laura will be wondering where we are. And the guy who took Clint could show up here any minute. I want to help Clint, but we’re only going to get to surprise this dude once. I’d rather know what he is and how to gank him before we come face to face with him.”

“That’s probably for the best.” Cas agreed. “I will explain it to Billy and meet you out front.”

Dean left him to it.

Out in the yard, the farm looked as empty and abandoned as it had when they’d arrived. The chickens were all in the coop chowing down, and the cats were doing the same in the barn. A bird sang from the eaves of the house, and a rabbit nibbled at some clover  under the trees, but that was it. Nothing else moved.

When Castiel finally came back to the front porch, the chicken was still perched on his shoulder. The angel seemed almost sullen.

“She refuses to get off.” he mumbled.

“I told you Cas. You can’t reason with a chicken.” Dean scooped the hen off Castiel’s shoulder and deposited her on the porch rail. “Now come on, grab a bag and let’s go! Laura’s probably got lunch ready by now!”  

The angel picked up a bag, waiting patiently for Dean to get the other and the bow.

Calling a goodbye to the hen, and instructing her to go join the others when they were gone, Castiel pressed two fingers to Dean’s forehead. In a rush of wind and the rustle of feathers, the two were gone.


 

 

“Hey Laura? You got a minute?”

Laura dried her hands and draped the towel over the handle of the oven. “Only if you’re quick Dean. Cabin fever’s setting in and lunch gave them plenty of energy to burn.”

“Yeah, about that…” Dean hefted the duffel bags up onto the freshly cleared kitchen table in front of Laura and Sam. “I think I found the answer to your problem.” The hunter unzipped the bags, putting his haul on display. Out in the living room library, they could hear Lila squeal. She and Cooper were playing tag under Castiel’s watchful eye while Nathaniel played on a blanket in the corner.

“Those are from the house…” Laura murmured.

Dean settled beside Sam with a grin. “Yeah. Cas and I made a run back to the house. I don’t think anyone’s been there yet, and if there’s anything else you want from the place we can run again. But this should be enough to keep the cabin fever away for now.”

Laura beamed. “Castiel, would you please send Lila and Cooper to the kitchen for a minute? And thank you for the duffels.” She dug into the bag full of toys, setting out the action figures and the wooden animals. Then she zipped the bag full of toys back up so her kids wouldn’t be able to see what was in it. “I’ll keep some in reserve. Cabin fever will come back sooner or later, and you can’t keep making trips back to the farm.”

Cooper and Lila both leaned in the door, heads cocked like puppies.

“Momma! Cas says you wanted us?” Lila hollered.

“Yes Lila. Dean and Castiel ran back to the house for a few of your things.”

The two scrambled into the kitchen, shouting excitedly as they scooped their toys off of the table. Lila piled the animal toys into the hem of her shirt as if it were an apron. Even with her little t-shirt sagging under the weight, it wasn’t quite enough to take them all. Cooper picked up the last few animals without a word. He piled them into his armload with the action figures.

“Thanks Dean!”

“Don’t forget to thank Castiel as well.” Laura gently reminded them.

Dean snickered. “Yeah, and ask him about the hen. One of you guys’s chickens really seemed to like him!”

Lila took off for the living room, Cooper trotting after her. “Cas! Cas! Momma said you brought some of our toys back! And Dean said you like our chickens?!”

Laura went back to investigating the second duffel. “A hen huh? Let me guess, a tan gold hen with a yellow band around her ankle? Her name is Penny. She’s always been affectionate. Used to follow us around everywhere, like a puppy. Clint thought it would be funny to teach her to sit on your shoulder.”

“Clint was right. I have some videos to show you later.” Dean chortled. “That hen was stubborn!”

Laura pulled the photo album out of the bag. A soft smile warmed her face, and she hugged the book to her chest. “I didn’t realize how irreplaceable some pictures were until I realized all I had was what was on the stick drive in my bag. If I had to cut all ties with my old life… There would be no way to get those back. Thank you.”

“You shouldn’t have ever had to run.” Sam answered honestly. He’d pulled the duffel farther open and was eyeing some of the book titles. “Anything we can do to make this easier, we’ll do… wow, I haven’t thought about some of these books since I was a kid. I think the last time I read Harry Potter was when I was twelve...”

“You’re welcome to read it again. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you borrowed it.” Laura assured. “Is this everything you brought back? That came out wrong. I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. I’m just wondering how long I can string the stuff in these bags out…”

“Not a problem. This is most of it.” Dean confirmed. “We brought back Clint’s bow too. Like you said, if you have to cut ties, some things are irreplaceable. I figure it’s something they might want someday. You might want it too, but I figure you’ll want these even more.”

He set the wooden box from his pocket on the table.

Laura cradled the box tenderly, as if it would vanish in a puff of smoke if she held it too tightly. The rings were still safely nestled inside in the velvet. She sniffled and wiped at eyes that had become suspiciously wet.  It had hurt more than she had thought it would to realize that she’d left them behind. But she’d rationalized it, thinking that so long as her kids were alive, safe, and healthy she would be content. And she’d tried to put them out of her mind.

She put the rings back on her fingers where they belonged.

“Laura? Are you alright?”

Castiel stepped down the last two steps into the kitchen, Lila and Cooper on his heels. Both angel and kids were looking at her worriedly. It almost made her laugh, how similar the expressions were between her kids and the adult, who was still so childlike in some areas. Even though he was thousands of years old at the very least. She sniffled and wiped at her eyes again.

“Yes Cas, I’m alright. I’m just happy to have my wedding rings back. I forgot them at home… Um, did you and the kids need something?”

Lila tugged on Laura’s shirt hem. “Momma? We forgot about our chores. Who’s going to take care of the animals while we’re gone? Is Mr. Travis going to come do our chores again?”

Laura tucked the box into her pocket and pulled her daughter into a hug. “No Lila. We had to leave the farm because dangerous people might be going there. We can’t ask Mr. Travis to come take care of the animals if it’s going to be dangerous. It wouldn’t be fair to Mr. Travis. Or to his family.”

“So...so the animals are gonna die?”

“No.”

All eyes snapped up to Castiel. In his arms, Nathaniel burbled, oblivious to the serious mood of the room. Castiel jiggled a rattle for the toddler, Nate reaching pudgy hands out for the jingly toy. “No, they will not starve to death. I will return every other day to see that they are taken care of. You have my promise.”


 

 

Cooper was being obnoxious.

It had started out innocently enough. The ten year old had been driving a toy car over every available surface in the living room. He’d completely ignored Lila, who was having an impromptu tea party with her stuffed pony ‘Giddy’, her Captain America sock monkey ‘Steve’, and some cups and plates she’d borrowed from the kitchen. She seemed content to stay there, chattering quietly to her two stuffed animals while Cooper made racing noises and Nathaniel played with a couple of toys from the duffel bag. They all seemed content.

Until they weren’t.

Cooper suddenly snatched up Lila’s sock monkey and raced away with it. Lila gave an indignant yell and raced after him abandoning her pony to his own devices with her makeshift tea set.

“Cooper! Give Steve back!” She shrieked.

“Gotta catch me first!”

Castiel watched them run around the room. Cooper had much longer legs than Lila, and he put them to good use. They ate up the distance. But Lila wasn’t slow. She doggedly stayed on her big brother’s heels, determined to rescue Steve the monkey. After almost ten minutes of chasing, Cooper ran up the stairs, his long legs making good use of his head start and getting him up to the landing in a hurry. He abandoned his captive there and raced back down. But not before knotting Steve’s arms around one of the bannisters at the far end.

Castiel thought it was over.

Lila shoved past her brother on the stairs as he came back down. Steve hadn’t been knotted too tightly, he wouldn’t be damaged. But it still took her a few seconds. And those few seconds were her undoing. Coming back down the stairs with her rescued monkey, Lila shrieked and ran after her brother again. Cooper just laughed and ran, the stuffed pony he’d purloined tucked under one arm like a football. He didn’t work as hard to stay ahead of Lila the second time around, instead using his height to keep it out of her reach. He danced around the room, Lila thundering after him. Anytime he stopped for more than two seconds, Lila tried to climb Cooper like a tree. A job that was made significantly harder by the fact that she refused to set Steve down. The way Cooper was still eyeing the monkey, it was clear that he’d snatch the sock monkey up in a heartbeat again.

Nathaniel made an irritated squall.

“That is enough!”

Castiel grabbed Cooper by the back of his shirt and hauled him away from Nathaniel. He gave the toddler back the toy Cooper had knocked out of his reach, then turned on the older two. He held out his hand imperiously. Shamefaced, Cooper handed over the stuffed pony.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” the angel admonished. “Lila and Nathaniel are your siblings. They are to be cherished and defended. Not tormented for your own amusement. Stay here until you are summoned.” He laid two fingers against Cooper’s forehead, and the boy disappeared.

At the living room door, Laura gasped.

She’d come to check on Nathaniel, having heard him from the kitchen. And she’d arrived at the door just in time to see Castiel make Cooper disappear. The frightened mother flew across the room, placing herself between her kids and Castiel. Everything else falling by the wayside as she focused in on the angel.

“Where the hell did you just send my son?!”

Castiel backed up a couple steps, surprised by the sudden onslaught. “Laura, all is well. I was only trying to…”

“No! You tell me what the hell just happened, or so help me God I’ll kick you feathery behind six ways to Sunday, angel or not!”

“Please do not use my father’s name in vain.”

Laura’s eyes narrowed.

When Sam and Dean arrived she was still yelling at him.
“What in the hell is going on here?” Dean demanded. He stormed across the room, Sam at his heels. “Laura, I thought you were fine with Cas. What’s got you spinning a one- eighty on us?”

“You said they were safe with him! I…”

“Woah! Woah! Woah! Time out! Cas wouldn’t hurt your kids!”

“He made Cooper disappear !” Laura  shouted.

Dean sighed. “Ok, suddenly this makes a lot more sense… Cas, where’s Cooper?”

“In his room.” The angel answered, confused. “He is perfectly alright, he never left the bunker. I told him to remain in his room until he was summoned. It is what humans do when a child has acted out… isn’t it?”

“Sam, go check on Cooper.” Dean huffed, rubbing his eyes. “ ‘t’s not that I don’t trust you Cas, but it’ll make Laura feel better. Generally when you send a kid to his room he walks there. You scared her when you ‘poofed’ Cooper off to his room. Now, why did you think you needed to put Cooper in a time out?”

“Dean, I would appreciate it if you would refrain from calling it ‘poofing’.” Castiel grumbled at the hunter. Adopting a politer tone, he added. “I sent the boy to a ‘time out’ because he was tormenting Lila and almost stepped on Nathaniel. He seemed content to play with his toy car for a time, but once he got bored, he proceeded to snatch Lila’s stuffed animals and hold them outside of her reach. I intervened when Nathaniel was almost injured.”

Dean arched an eyebrow at Lila. “That what happened?”

The six year old gave a solemn nod and pointed to the pony Castiel still held in one hand. “Cooper took Steve, and when I got Steve back he took Giddy. Cas got Giddy back.”

Sam jogged back into the library. “Coop’s fine. He says he was picking on Lila and Cas put a stop to it and sent him to his room.”

Laura sighed, a knot in her chest relaxing at the confirmation that her son was safe. “I’m sorry Cas. I shouldn’t have freaked out. But you can’t just make people’s kids disappear like that! Ok? I just…”

Laura didn’t even realize she was ranting.

Castiel let her rant. He understood how badly he must have scared her. He knew what it was to be human, or close to it. Had he been in her place, and if a being as powerful as he knew himself to be had made his child disappear, he knew that he would have been terrified. So he let her rant. Let her work out some of her anxiety. It was the least he could do after frightening her the way he had.

Dean and Sam let him take it.

After five minutes of ranting, with no sign of slowing down, Sam grabbed Lila’s hand and Dean picked up Nathaniel. The two slipped from the library and took the kids to the kitchen.

Sam blew out a breath as soon as they were safely out of earshot. “Wow.”

“Mama’s not happy.” Lila nodded sagely. “Daddy always said that if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Sam grabbed a pair of cookies, one for himself and one for Lila. “Yeah, I’m beginning to think Clint wasn’t wrong.”

“Dude, that’s the rule of motherhood.” Dean broke off a piece of cookie for Nate. Only a day old, they were easily soft enough for the toddler to handle. “I know you don’t remember, and Mom wasn’t angry often. But that’s the way it was with her too. And you know it was no joke when Ellen was on the warpath.”

“It’s no joke when Jody’s on the warpath!”

“Amen to that.”


 

 

Jody arrived at the bunker around five thirty in the evening.

Since the ruckus, the bunker had settled. Laura had eventually wound down, and as the panic had died, she’d begun to realize just how badly she’d gone off on Castiel. She’d been scared, but that hadn’t justified her ranting at him for almost an hour. She’d been fairly impressed that he’d let her do it. She definitely owed him an apology later. As it was, he’d promised to send the kids to her using more conventional methods the next time one of them misbehaved. A small part of her felt a little guilty to think that he’d probably promised just to keep her from going off on him again.

An even guiltier part of her wondered whether she’d been harsher because of her hormones. She didn’t generally have extreme mood swings, but every pregnancy was a little different. Anything was possible.

The first she knew that someone had arrived was a stranger waltzing through the front door.

Laura snatched up a sword from it’s display and pointed it at the door. She didn’t know a thing about how to use a sword, and even if she did, it probably wouldn’t have applied to the curved scimitar she currently held. But it was the closest weapon she had to hand. Guns just weren’t practical or conducive to housework.

The woman paused at the bottom of the stairs.

She was a little bit taller than Laura herself. Short brown hair was trimmed in a pixie cut, giving her an almost tomboyish look. Sturdy jeans, hardy boots, and a button up shirt accentuated the look.

The woman slowly raised her hands, but her arched eyebrow said it was more of a courtesy than it was deference to the sword Laura was pointing at her.

“Who are you?” Laura demanded.

“Sheriff Jody Mills. I take it you’re the one Dean told me about?”

“Probably. If you don’t mind Jody, I’d rather have Dean here for introductions.”

Jody shrugged, keeping her hands up. “Whatever makes you comfortable. Personally, I think being cautious is a good thing. Especially when you have kids. Go ahead and call him. I’m not going anywhere.”  

Laura smiled. “Castiel, a woman claiming to be Jody Mills is in the library. Would you let Sam and Dean know? Sooner rather than later would be preferable please.”

The angel arrived in a soft rustle of feathers and a puff of air. “They’re coming.” He looked the newcomer over and offered a small smile. “Jody. It’s good to see you again. You may put your hands down, I know who you are.”

“You never change Castiel.” Jody let her hands drop.

Castiel shifted, seeming almost nervous in the newcomer’s presence. “Claire?”

Jody softened. “She’s fine. Irritated that I wouldn’t let her come, but it’s a school night. I’ll not have her missing school to go hunting. And besides, it’s not even like I’m here to hunt. The way Sam told it, I’m just here to bodyguard.”

“Hopefully that’s all you’ll have to do.” Dean trotted down the two steps into the main library and went straight to the sheriff to give her a hug. “Hey Jody, thanks for dropping by on such short notice. We really appreciate this.”

“Not a problem. I’ve been meaning to take some time off. If nothing else it’ll give me a chance to test out Anderson. He’ll either show the chops he thinks he has, or he’ll crash and burn spectacularly. It’s times like this that I miss Bobby. I used to send some of the newer deputies his way, see how long it took him to talk them in circles or scare them off.”

“He always thought you were sending them on purpose.” Dean snickered. “Laura, this is Sheriff Jody Mills. Jody, this is Laura Barton. Laura’s husband Clint is an old friend of ours, he’s family. Seems something got in his head. Now Sam and I have to get it out.”

“Any idea how long that will take? I can stay for some time, but not indefinitely. Some of us actually have lives outside of hunting.”

Dean sighed. “Yeah. I know. Believe me, we want this thing out of Clint as fast as possible, for everyone’s sakes. Come on. You’ve not been here before, so we’ll give you the grand tour and hit the road.” A smile lit his face and he snickered. “But first, there’s something you guys have got to see! Laura, put the sword down and bring the camera! I want to immortalize this moment for posterity!”

Wondering, the two women followed him back into the bowels of the bunker, Castiel bringing up the rear. Dean led them straight to Sam’s room. Holding a finger to his lips, he crept up to the door and motioned for them to look inside. Laura dropped into a crouch and pulled out her camera, Jody peering over her head. The sheriff immediately put a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles.

Sam had all three kids on the bed.

The hunter had his legs folded indian style, Nathaniel asleep in his lap. He was hunched over the toddler, reading the first Harry Potter book aloud to the older two. Cooper, who had been released from time out after about two hours, was stretched out across the end of the bed drawing. And Lila? Lila was sitting on a box behind the large man, carefully braiding his hair. Her tongue was sticking out of the corner of her mouth, and her eyes were narrowed in fierce concentration. Her small fingers had their work cut out for them, trying to keep a handle on his thick hair. But her movements were sure. She had half his hair up in a dutch braid, and was working towards the base of his skull.

Dean edged the door open a little further.

The four of them watched, trying to contain their laughter. No one saw them. Sam and Lila were both facing away, and Cooper was too engrossed in his drawing and the story being read to notice. They were just starting chapter two when Dean couldn’t take it any longer.

“Looking good Samantha! What’s next? Flowers? I bet Lila could weave some little violets or dandelions or something into that braid for you.”

Sam glared at Dean out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t dare turn his head and mess Lila up. She’d worked way too hard on that braid and had had to restart once already. “Really Dean? You’re gonna stand there and pretend you wouldn’t let her paint your nails and do your makeup if she asked? Those puppy dog eyes are dangerous.”

Dean made an inelegant snort. “Now you know how I feel. I’ve been telling you that about your puppy dog eyes for years.” Sam opened his mouth and Dean hurriedly cut him off. “Anyway, Jody’s here, so we can go. We just need to show Jody where stuff is and pull the Impala out of the garage.”

“You and Cooper’s pet project going to be in the way?” Sam asked.

“You know me better than that. It’s back by the workbench, completely out of the way. Speaking of which, Cooper, you need to leave the car alone while I’m gone. No tinkering without supervision just yet. Not until you’ve got a little more wrench monkeying under your belt.”

Cooper nodded.

Lila finished tying off the end of the braid and finally looked up. “Dean, who’s the pretty lady?” She frowned. “And how come her hair is as short as Daddy’s?”

“Because she likes it that way.” Dean assured. He pulled the brunette farther into the room, grinning at her glare. “Lila, Cooper, this is Sheriff Jody Mills. She’s going to be staying here with you and your mom until Sam and I get back. She’s here to keep you safe. If she tells you to get into a room and lock the door, I expect you to do it. She knows what she’s doing. Everything else? Your bedtimes, or meals, or anything like that? You’re mom has the final say, just like with us. Don’t go to Jody, she’ll back your mom up all the way.”

“I will.” Jody agreed.

Dean clapped his hands. “Great, now that that’s settled! Jody, let’s show you around and get you settled into a guest room.”

With Sam, Castiel, and the Barton clan tagging along for the ride, Dean walked Jody through the bunker. He made sure she knew where to find weapons should she need them, and explained the colored tape labeling the doors. Then he launched into an explanation of the supernatural defenses of the bunker. Laura moved closer, interested in spite of herself. Dean hadn’t said anything about those defenses to her.

It was all new information. And it was interesting.

Jody asked a lot of questions, jotting some things down in a notebook if she seemed to find it especially interesting or important. It made Laura feel a little better to realize she wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand the jargon the hunters used. It went over Jody’s head too.


 

 

“You sure you guys’ll be alright?”

Jody rolled her eyes at Dean and shoved him toward the impala. “Get your butt in that car Winchester, or you won’t make New York before next Christmas.”

Sam propped an elbow on the roof of the car. “Jody, it’s April.”

“Exactly my point! Now get your butts moving.”

Bowing to the inevitable, the two climbed into the car. Laura hurried up to the driver side window, passing a reasonably sized lunch box through to Dean. He took it without question and passed it to Sam, who put it in the back seat. The two looked to Laura curiously.

“You two were complaining about greasy diner food.” She shrugged. “I thought you might appreciate a sack lunch. There’s four sandwiches in there, I used the leftover meat from the roast.”

Dean lit up. “Awesome!”

“I also added a bag of pretzels and some tupperware boxes of veggies. And before you start complaining about ‘rabbit food’ Dean, I know for a fact you ate just as many of the veggies I put in with the roast last night. So don’t start. I put veggies in. And Lila packed you a box of sugar cookies. I expect you two to share. Am I clear?”

“Sure thing ‘Mama Bird’.” Dean teased. “We’ll see you soon! Hold down the fort till we get back!”

“Thanks Laura!” Sam called. “We’ll keep in touch. Probably through Cas, he can’t be tracked the way a cellphone can.”

The Impala roared to life.

She rolled out of the garage and into the late afternoon sunlight. It gleamed off of her jet black paint. The purring rumble of her engine seeped through the surrounding trees like the far off roll of thunder. It would take them a little over twenty-four hours. They were hoping to shave that time down a bit. The sooner they could get a bead on whatever had taken over the rent in Clint’s head, the sooner they could evict the sorry son of a bitch and get their brother back to his family.

They just hoped the Avengers were still who they were supposed to be. Possession was hard enough to deal with when the person was normal. Metahumans would be a whole new ballgame.

Dean huffed and fished a cassette tape out of the cardboard box. He took a second to glance at it, then shoved the tape into the player and hit play. Metallica rang out of the speakers, and Dean drummed along to the beat on the steering wheel.

“Seriously Dean?”

“Oh bite me, bitch.”

“Jerk.”

Dean grinned at the familiar call and response and focused on the road. It was good to be on the move again. No matter how much he liked the bunker, this was home. With him in the driver’s seat and Sammy riding shotgun beside him. This was home. He was on the move, and he finally felt like he was doing something to help Clint. He wasn’t being forced to sit on his hands anymore.

Neither one commented on the fact that Sam’s hair was still in a braid.


 

Present

 

Natasha’s phone was practically glued to her hip.

It hadn’t left her person since she’d talked to Garth. That had been almost a full day ago. Even when she had put it on to recharge, it had stayed in her hands or on her lap the entire time. And she had hated every second of being tethered to the wall. The next time her phone had needed charging, Tony had wordlessly handed her portable power bank and gone back to his lab. She’d thank him later.

Her patience was wearing thin.

Every time her phone rang, her teammates looked to her hopefully. Every time it rang, she hoped and prayed to any deity that might be listening that Garth was calling back with the number to Dean’s cell. So far, those prayers had gone unanswered. The hopeful looks fading back into grim determination. They wouldn’t give up.

And that was the only reason Natasha’s well of patience hadn’t run dry.

There had been several times where she’d been on the verge of calling him back. Only lack of information had kept her from doing it. She didn’t know what sort of contact Bobby and, by extension Garth, was. Was he a contact from Clint’s circus days? Was he somehow affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or was it something else? Could the polite, unassuming sounding man on the phone be a leftover from Clint’s days as an assassin?

Natasha didn’t dare call back. If she pushed too hard, there was a strong chance that the contact could become skittish and disappear off the face of the map. Depending on how good he was, it could take them months or even years to find him again. And he would take any chance of finding Dean and saving Clint with him.

So she sat on her hands, and waited.

The rest of the team tip toed around her, unwilling to do anything that might set her off. At any other time, she might have felt guilty about it. Not today. Today she welcomed the solitude with open arms.

Or she would, if Steve and Phil would let her alone.


 

 

Tony was making headway.

The shattered phone still had some secrets left to offer up. He’d been slaving away for god only knew how long, trying to decrypt the file folder of photos. Normally, he would’ve been in by now. He’d hacked S.H.I.E.L.D., the U.S. government, Hydra, and god only knew how many terrorist organisations since becoming Iron Man. He should’ve been able to do this in his sleep.

Friday could’ve done it with half her computing power tied behind her back!

But the phone had been damaged. And therein lay the problem. But he was close now. So very close he could almost taste it! He just had to…

“How goes it Tony?”

The genius jumped and swore, darting a grumpy glare at his captain before sending his fingers flying across the holographic keyboard again. “What the hell is wrong with you Cap? You been taking lessons from the Widow? I’m telling you, one or two sneaky ass assassins in the building is enough. I draw the line at three. It’s not allowed, I’m disallowing it now! You’ll give us all heart attacks. Then how will we get any work done?”

Steve shrugged. “I did knock.”

“Sure you did, Nanny McPhee.”

On screen, the lock on the file disappeared.

Tony threw his hands up into the air and crowed in delight. “YES! Yes! Yes! Yes! Ha! Birdbrain owes me a drink or three for this! Yes!”

Steve came to lean over Tony”s shoulder. “You’re in?”

“Oh, I am in baby!” He grabbed the holographic screen and expanded it with a gesture. Pictures  cascaded through the air all around duo. They stared at them, drinking in the new information. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

The pictures were of Clint.

Most of them anyway. Candid shots of Clint. There were shots of him in uniform. Of him standing with the team or perched on a rooftop with his bow. But more disturbing were the pictures where he was out of uniform. Pictures of Clint in a diner chatting with a waitress. Leaving a Starbucks with a tall white cup in one hand and a pastry in the other. Clint on the roof of an apartment building having a barbecue with a bunch of people neither of the avengers knew. Their archer kneeling down to pet a dog on the street.

Picture after picture of the Hawkeye in the normal moments of his life.

“Surveillance.” Steve murmured. He pointed at the dates attached to some of the photos. “He’s been watching Clint for months.”

“How did he get that close?” Tony countered. “The camera on this phone isn’t all that great. You’d think that Clint would’ve noticed someone getting this close, much less his own brother. No one sneaks up on birdbrain!”

“Don’t they make lenses you can attach to your phone now?” Steve asked. “I thought I saw Pepper fiddling with one.”

“They do. And it would give him a little more range. But they’re not exactly subtle.” The genius eyed the photos. “These are interesting though.” He pointed at the only photos that didn’t contain Clint. There weren’t many of them, barely fifteen of the several dozen Tony had recovered. Each one was a close up shot of graffiti. Spray Paint adorned brick, cement, and steel in vibrant color. Each one depicted some sort of symbol.

“They’re similar to the ones in Clint’s cell.” Steve commented.

“He was doing his homework.” Tony agreed. “Friday. Analyze the backgrounds of these images and match them to any existing images you can find. Use the backgrounds and landmarks in each photo and try to pinpoint a location. I want exact locations on a map if you can, and I’ll accept approximations if you can’t. We need to know where the Barton brothers have been.”

“Right away, boss.” Friday quietly agreed.

A map hovered into view amongst the pictures. Pale blue lines traced out the backgrounds, thousands of other photos flickering past as Friday compared and rejected them. And slowly, she got results. The photos that had been identified were numbered and set aside, and numbered points appeared on the map in two colors. It took Friday almost thirty minutes to completely plot everything out.

“Complete.” She finally intoned. “Each photo is numbered to match the pin. The pins that correspond to the photos of Agent Barton are marked in purple. And the pins that mark the graffiti are in red. I was unable to approximate the location for three of the graffiti photos, as the camera was too close and the wall made up the entirety of the image plane.”

“Thank you Friday.” Steve murmured, making Tony smirk.

He hadn’t been able to break the super soldier of the habit of treating the computer like a person. After Jarvis had become the Vision, there hadn’t been any chance of breaking him of it. So far as Steve was concerned; Jarvis, and now Friday, were people. And no one could convince him otherwise. Thus the computers were subjected to ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. And Tony was sure that they secretly loved it.

Seeing as how he hung up a stocking for the computer and each of the robots each year, that was definitely the pot calling the kettle black.

Steve stepped closer to the map, unaware of Tony’s amusement. “He’s mobile…” he frowned. “Very mobile. He’s followed Clint all over the city, and even to some of our missions in the surrounding states. See? This is from that mission we had last month. The one that took us two weeks to finish.”

“The one with the giant spiders?” Tony shuddered. “Yuck. If I never have to watch one of my teammates reenact a Samwise Gamgee on a giant spider, it’ll be too soon.”

Steve gave him an odd look, then seemed to decide to ignore him. “It looks like he’s followed Clint to any mission within driving distance.”

“Great. So Clint could be anywhere in the tri-state area.” Tony grumbled.

Steve sighed. “Have a little faith Tony.”

“You have a lot of faith. I’m going to dig back into this phone.”


 

 

He was toying with them.

There had been several sightings of Clint and Barney all across the city. Thankfully, the public hadn’t recognized Clint yet.  There was no pattern to it. None that the Avengers could see. They hadn’t caught up with the Barton brothers either. By the time they arrived on the scene, the two bowmen were already gone. Some of the intelligence community had figured it out though, and they were having kittens! One of the Avengers had gone rogue!

Fury, on the other hand, was having a conniption fit over the disappearance of the rest of the Barton clan.

“It’s a hot mess all around.” Phil stated emphatically at lunch.

At the other end of the table, Sam glanced up. He’d finally been released from the hospital after a good deal of cajoling from Phil and Dr. Cho. The good doctor and Colonel Rhodes had escorted him back to the upstate base. Rhodey hadn’t been able to stay, as the military still called the shots. But he’d left with a smile, knowing Sam was in good hands. None of the Avengers liked mandatory bedrest, but they would all enforce it.

Sam wouldn’t be happy, but he would be ok.

Sam was stiff and sore, and his right arm had been bandaged tight to his chest to keep it completely immobile. The doctors at the hospital had ordered complete bed rest. Sam had complained until Dr. Cho had repealed the order. But she’d made it clear that he was to take it easy, or else she would confine him to bed all over again. Sam had only been home a couple hours, and so far the veteran had behaved himself. Tony was currently taking bets on how long that would last. Not monetary bets, oddly enough, they were betting their share of weekly chores. They were pretty sure Sam didn’t have a clue.

The veteran frowned at Phil. “It’s that bad? I know the idea of an Avenger going rogue is scary as hell, but Clint isn’t doing this on purpose. Someone’s controlling him.”

Phil pointed a spoon at him. “You know that. And I know that. But I’m doing everything I can to keep the information out of the intelligence community until after the fact at least. And then only when I can’t keep it private. People know the Avengers can’t be bought. And for the most part they know you can’t be intimidated. So how else do you control one of the most powerful teams on the planet? As you saw with Strucker and the twins, you fight fire with fire. Or, in this case, magic and mind control apparently.”

“More people are going to try it. Now that the idea’s out there.” Steve grimaced. “Once we get Clint back, we’re going to have to look into ways to protect ourselves from things like that.”

“From what? Hocus pocus?” Tony snorted. “Really? You believe in little old women that wave their wand over cauldrons and chant ‘bibbidi-bobbidi-boo’? Please.”

“Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Sam snickered. Tony glared, and the snickers got louder. “I’m pretty sure that’s what witches say over cauldrons. Not ‘bibbidi-bobbidi-boo’.”

“I’m not above holding grudges.” Tony warned.

Sam put his left arm across his eyes. “You wouldn’t hit an injured man would you?” He asked dramatically.

“You won’t be injured forever.” Tony shot back, much to the others’ amusement. “And I can totally be patient when I want to be! You just watch! I’ll have Friday switch your music to disco music! Or better yet! I could…”

 

Rock me Mama like the wind and the rain. Rock me Mama like a southbound train. Hey Mama rock me…

 

All eyes swiveled to Natasha.

The assassin had already ripped her cellphone from her pocket. She punched in the code and swiped open the lock screen. Her eyes scanned the screen, and her face went pale. “Friday, trace the phone that sent this text! NOW !”

Steve stepped closer, and Natasha obligingly tilted the phone so he could see the screen better. The contact was coded, like all of Natasha’s contacts were. The profile picture was a small iridescent bird covered in speckles. The contact name simply said ‘Starling’. But he had no doubt that the number was Laura’s. Previous messages in the conversation featured pictures of the Barton children, and discussion of what the family was planning to surprise Clint with when he returned to the farm.

Tony hadn’t been able to track Laura’s cell phone after they saw the state of the farm. But Natasha had been sure that Laura hadn’t taken it with her. Clint had drilled Laura to leave her phone behind when she went on the run. The heroes hadn’t thought anything of it when they didn’t find the cell at the house though. The whole place was trashed, her phone could’ve been anywhere. Apparently they’d been wrong on both counts. Laura definitely had the phone. The new message was barely six seconds old. It only had three words, but those three words sent chills down the super soldier’s spine.

Trace me. It said. Hurry!

“Is it Clint?” Wanda demanded.

“No. It’s Laura.” Steve answered grimly. He squeezed Natasha’s shoulder and let go. “What are the chances that she thought she was going to be caught and wanted you to be able to find her?”

The assassin was already shaking her head. “She wouldn’t keep the phone unless she had no other choice. And even then, she knows to take the entire phone apart if she thinks that someone might try to track it.”

“Take it apart?” Sam asked.

A tight smirk curled her lips. “You’d be surprised how fast and far most phones can break down. Especially burner phones… I don’t like this. Clint and I both told her not to take that phone with her. She has the numbers memorized. If she had to run, she was to leave that phone and put some distance behind her. Then she was to purchase a burner, put more distance behind her, and work her way through the numbers until she got a hold of someone Clint trusted and got instructions. She wouldn’t have kept it without a very good reason.”

Phil grimaced. “For that matter, why would Laura come to New York? If something’s compromised her husband, she should be trying to take the kids as far away as possible.” The seasoned agent suddenly paled. “Oh god. What if Clint found them? What if this is their way of luring us in?”

“I have the location Agent Romanov. The signal is coming from a retail building on the outskirts of New York. According to city records, the establishment closed down, and has been empty for several months.” Friday announced.

The Avengers wasted no time.

Sam was not happy to be left behind. He was even less happy when he found out that they were leaving Phil home to hold down the fort with him.

Or more accurately, to look after Sam.

With the exception of Sam and Rhodey, the whole team turned out to go help Laura. It took less than no time for them to get to the building, Tony arriving first on the scene.

As Friday had said, the place was deserted.

Far enough from the center of New York’s metropolis to be freestanding, the building sat in the middle of a small parking lot. It had been a pristine white once. But that had been a long time ago. Now the paint was dirty and peeling. The caulking around the window frames was falling off in strips. Garbage was mounded against the walls, and black trash bags were taped over the insides of the windows. Strings of faded, tattered flags were strung from light poles and an old faded sign hung from the roof by one corner. Apparently the place had been a secondhand car lot before it had gone out of business.

Natasha shifted on the balls of her feet. “I don’t like this.”

“And there’s the ominous phrase of the day.” Tony answered. He lifted his faceplate. “Friday says that the place is empty, but there’s a huge amount of heat coming from the basement room underneath. Which is weird, by the way, how many used car lots have basements? Because I didn’t think that was a thing. It’s not like you can put more of your stock in the backroom on a shelf or something.”

“I’m more worried about the heat. Why would you heat the basement of an empty building.” Steve answered tersely. “Wanda?”

The metahuman’s eyes glittered red. “I cannot sense any minds…”

“But something’s bugging you anyway.” Steve paraphrased. The metahuman nodded. “Yeah, I don’t like this either. It’s too easy. They go missing, and now all of a sudden they’re being handed to us on a silver platter.”

Vision floated smoothly  to land beside his teammates. “We cannot stay out. Not if they are in there.”

“I’m not saying we do. Just that we need to be careful. Something’s not right.” Steve shrugged his shield down off his shoulders and lead the way into the building. There was only one door. Steve caught Visions eye. The android nodded and floated up over the building. He would phase through the back wall.

Inside, an empty, trash strewn room greeted them.

Large, flat pieces of plywood covered the floor in front of the door, though what their purpose could’ve been wasn’t readily apparent. The heroes fanned out, sweeping the rooms to the right and left. Steve pressed further into the back of the building, shield at the ready.

The first floor was empty.

“Cap, over here.” Iron man lifted a trap door inside a closet. “Cell phone signal’s definitely coming from down there. Friday still can’t get any bio readings, but like I said, there’s a lot of heat down there. I’m not one-hundred percent certain you’ll get a warm reception.”

“I’ll take point.”

Tony’s snicker slipped past the Iron Man faceplate. “Age before beauty? I’m flattered Cap, but let’s just save the niceties for later. You got to take point at the front door because you're the leader and you have the big shiny shield. Now it’s my turn to go first and stick my shiny boots into the dark and scary hole...”

Natasha slipped between them and slithered through the trapdoor.

“... or we can follow her lead.” Tony finished lamely.

“Or you could do that.” Wanda agreed and followed Natasha.

The basement below was almost as empty as the ground floor. A single bare bulb hung from a wire in the middle of the ceiling, casting spidery shadows on the walls. Metal industrial shelving covered the northern wall. Across the way, a few cardboard boxes had been stacked against the opposite wall, and three large oil heaters had been plugged into a power strip. They would’ve accounted for all the heat. Small bits and pieces of trash were scattered across the floor. Mostly rat poison wrappers and a few odds and ends. A massive tarp lay in the center of the room, and a cellphone lay in the middle of it.

“This explains the heat.” Steve murmured, pulling the power strip out of the wall.

“Well, that’s weird. Add that to the list of weird shit that’s gone down over the past two weeks.” Iron Man’s faceplate slid back.

Before any of his teammates could say a word, the genius strode across the room and picked up the phone. He flipped the phone over, nimble fingers not hampered by the metal gloves. “This is the phone alright. The signal ends here.”

“What does it mean?” Wanda eyed the empty basement around them suspiciously. “Is this their way of saying they have the family? That he is holding them hostage?”

“No.” Natasha stalked back toward the stairs. “This tastes like a trap.”

“Taste? You’re a spider, not a snake! Snakes are the ones who taste the air and WHAT THE HELL?!”

Water poured down over the startled heroes heads, drenching them. The sprinkler system had been triggered. The sprinklers flung water out to blanket the room with a soft hiss and the quiet patter of rain on the cement and tile floors. It wasn’t just the basement either. Vision had stayed up on the ground floor, and he was under a similar deluge. He’d fared slightly better than his teammates, shifting his density to allow the water to fall through his intangible form.

Barely two minutes later, the sprinklers stopped.

“What in the hell?” Tony demanded, madder than a wet hen.

“It was a trap. And we walked right into it.” Steve stormed back to the center of the basement and tore the tarp off the floor. The cement underneath was bare. But the bottom of the tarp wasn’t. The underside of the tarp had bright red spraypaint all over it. A large red pentagram, several other odd glyphs painted in and around it. Steve stared at it for a second, then whirled.

“The plywood on the floor.”

Natasha scrambled back up the steps. Seconds later the loud slap of plywood on tile ricocheted through the building. “It’s here too. The same symbol!”

Steve’s jaw hardened. “Search the building. Tony, I want photos of anything we find. These symbols are meant for something. Seeing as someone deliberately lured us here, odds are good that it wasn’t friendly.”

“Aye Aye, oh captain my captain. More pictures of scribbles on walls coming right up. Maybe I’ll make a calendar out of them when this is over.”

Steve rolled his eyes and patted Tony’s shoulder. “I’m sure Clint would appreciate one Tony. Now come on. We’ve got an archer to find.”

They found fifteen painted symbols and glyphs. Tony photographed all of them. Aside from the phone, there was no sign of Clint, Laura, or the kids. No sign that any of them had ever been there. And, aside from the painted symbols, no reason for anyone to have lured the Avengers here. It made no sense, to bring them in, just to drench them all. The water seemed normal enough according Tony’s suit. They took samples, just in case. Samples they handed to Bruce as soon as they were in the quinjet.

“So, I take it Laura and the kids weren’t there.” Bruce lifted the vials up to the light. “What am I looking at?”

“They weren’t there. Someone went to an awful lot of trouble to paint hidden pictures and dump water all over us. But according to the sensors in Tony’s suit, it’s normal water.” Natasha paraphrased. “Steve wants you to take a closer look.” The assassin fished in a pocket and pulled out four small cameras. Each was barely the size of a gumball. “They also wanted to watch us.”

“Gimme.” Tony held out his hand. “Where did you find those?”

Natasha gave them to him without complaint. “Under pieces of trash on the floor. I almost missed them. Usually when you set up hidden cameras you want a higher angle so that you can see more.”

“They were streaming live. Hey Steve! They wanted to see our reactions!” Tony yelled over his shoulder. “They cut the feed. Give me five minutes back in my lab and I could probably tell you where they were streaming to.”

“You heard the man Vision! Get us home! I’m more than ready to stop chasing my tail.” Steve growled up at the cockpit.

“We will arrive in approximately ten minutes.” The android replied.

“Thank you.”

The heroes settled into their seats. As Vision predicted they arrived in under ten minutes. The android carefully maneuvered the quinjet to land on it’s designated pad. Disheartened, the heroes left the jet. Even knowing that it was probably a trap, they had hoped.

“Alright, first rule of business, figure out where they were watching us from.” Tony said, stepping out of his suit and heading for the compound common area.

“No.” Steve grabbed Tony by the collar and jerked him back away from the hall that would lead to the labs. “Our first order of business is dry clothes before someone gets sick. None of us are good patients, and the last thing any of us needs is pneumonia right now. So, dry clothes are first.”

Natasha stiffened. “Wrong. Our first order of business is finding out how two strangers got into our home!”

The heroes whirled to follow Natasha’s pointing finger.

Two men were seated on the couch in the Avengers common room.


 

Chapter Text


Earlier

 

Dean carefully spray painted a devil’s trap onto a tarp.

They’d gotten into New York late the previous night. Knowing that being dead on their feet would help no one, the two had checked into a little no tell motel. This week’s stereotypical cheesy decor featured an homage to Elvis the king that had both Winchesters rolling their eyes at the over the top theme. They took the time to secure the room, then face planted on the beds.

Morning found them sharing a diner breakfast and planning strategy.

Testing the Avengers out would be tough. Getting into their facility would be hard, but not impossible. Clint had made sure that his adoptive brothers could reach him if they needed to. It had scared him, the idea that they might be hurt and need his help, but be unable to reach him. He’d always made sure they had a way to get to him. They’d never thought about using it till now.

But it hadn’t made sense.

Why waste all their effort breaking into the Avengers’ compound if they were just taking the battle to the enemy’s home ground? If the Avengers had been taken, they didn’t want to give any extra advantage if they could help it. So, they’d devised a different plan.

The two set up a trap.

It had taken only a couple hours to scout out a location to set it up in. The most likely option for mind control in the U.S. was demons. And frankly they were the only option that were willing to work in packs. It was actually kind of surprising that demons didn’t target heroes more often, now that they were thinking about it.

Dean left the technological aspects to Sam. Setting up and hiding the cameras, and making sure they could stream live. And rigging up a remote trigger for the sprinklers while he was at it. Dean painted devils traps under pieces of plywood and tarps, placing them strategically throughout the little building. Three oil heaters from a sidewalk sale down in the basement were, he hoped, enough to fool any sensors so they would think that there might be people down there. By the time he was through, Sam was finishing up blessing the water for the sprinkler system.

If there were demons in the Avengers, they wouldn’t get away.

Dean baited the trap with Laura’s phone. He’d found it at the farmhouse, and had grabbed it specifically for drawing the Avengers out. Clint might have drilled Laura to leave it behind, but the Avengers wouldn’t be able to resist coming to check it out.

They’re crouched within sight of the Avengers compound when the Quinjet left.

The ability schedule text messages to go out at certain times was a nifty trick it turned out. They’d crept up on the back of the compound wall. It took them barely a minute to find the spot Clint had told them about. The two whispered Clint’s full name and flashed their tattoos at the camera, and watched as it turned off and faced away from them obediently. Getting over the wall and into the actual compound had been a cakewalk. Friday ignored them, as if they were invisible, and the security guards were right where Clint had said they would be. They’d been inside barely minutes before the Avengers had breached the car dealership. Sam had live streamed the footage using Stark’s wifi.

Now if only dealing with a bunch of wet and pissed Avengers were that easy...


 

 

Present

 

The Avengers pointed weapons at the intruders.

The shorter of the two slowly raised his hands. “Um… we come in peace?”

At his side, his companion grimaced. “Really? That’s the best you can come up with?”

“Oh bite me, bitch.”

“Jerk.”

It definitely wasn’t the sort of reaction the heroes would expect intruders to have upon being confronted with almost the entire complement of Avengers. In fact, they seemed almost relaxed. Neither one made an effort to get up from the couch. The one had a laptop balanced on his knees, while his companion was sprawled back across the couch with his feet propped up on the coffee table. A battered green army duffle sat on the floor.

Those who knew what to look for could see that the nonchalance was a blind.

At least one pair of eyes was on the Avengers at all times, and all of their attention was focused on them. Even when it looked like they were focused solely on each other. Steve would’ve bet even money that they were soldiers of some sort, and they’d fought and travelled together a long time. The blind was almost habitual now, as if they were doing it without even thinking about it.

Steve didn’t like it. The last confident enemy had handed them their heads on a platter.

Wanda’s eyes flared red. Red mist gloving her hands, she sent a tendril snaking across the floor to tangle with the legs of the coffee table. She made a sharp  slash with her hand, the table mimicking the gesture and jerking itself out from under the intruder’s feet. His boots hit the ground with a quiet slap.

“Sorry.” He offered, not sounding entirely repentant.

Natasha cocked her head. “Stark. I was under the impression your security was some of the best in the world. That no one could get in here without our permission.” She sounded as if she were discussing the weather, rather than holding two guns on a pair of intruders.

“It is. You and Clint tested it for me!” Tony scowled at the strangers on his couch, as if they’d broken in solely to ruin his day. “Friday. Care to explain to me how these two got past you without tripping any alarms? For that matter, care to run facial recognition and tell me who the hell these people are?!”

“Scanning… recognized.” Holograms floated to either side of the two intruders, displaying rap sheets, mug shots, and wanted posters next to the appropriate individual.

The shorter of the two grinned and muttered appreciatively under his breath. His companion elbowed him. He gave the tall one an affronted look and gestured at the holograms.

“What? You gotta admit it’s cool!”

Friday ignored them in favor of reporting her findings. “The intruders are the Winchester brothers. Both wanted by the law for multiple counts of theft, fraud, assault and battery, grave desecration, and murder. Both presumed dead on multiple occasions.”

“What?! How the hell did two dead asshats from the FBI’s most wanted list end up in our living room?!” Tony yelled.

“Tony…”

“If you say ‘language’ Cap, I swear to God…”

“Hey, uh, robocop? You might want to take a deep breath or two.” The shorter of the two shrugged. “Or you know, as deep as you can manage with that battery in your chest… damn, hyperventilating must suck for you… Or no, wait, you got the arc reactor taken out, I forgot about that.”

Tony jerked, unnerved. “How the hell…?”

“Look,” the long haired one jumped in, “we’re not here to cause trouble. We wouldn’t have even set up the thing in the car lot, but we had to be sure. We heard about Clint and…” Natasha cocked her gun. He shut his mouth.

She eyed him thoughtfully. “Wise decision.”

Steve rubbed his eyes. “Alright, that’s enough. Natasha, could you put them in a holding cell? We’ll get to them in a minute. I want to know how they waltzed into the compound without anyone the wiser.”

“Magical time traveling elves.” The short one snarked.

Steve leveled an unamused glare at them. “Holding cell. Now.”

The two stood, abandoning their laptop on the couch. The heroes watched as the Black Widow expertly herded the two strangers from the room, not the least bit worried that the two would overwhelm or get away from her. Then Steve turned back to his team. “Everyone into dry clothes. Take an hour and meet up in the observation room. Tony, try to figure out how they got in. Bruce, I need to know if there was anything in that water. If there was, I need you to find a way to counteract whatever it was supposed to do. They didn’t go to all that effort for nothing. Vision? These two have a laptop here. Go through it with Friday, see what you can dig up.”

Wanda laid a hand on Steve’s arm. “I do not know how the Winchesters tie in to Clint’s disappearance. But rest assured, we will find it. Even if I have to tear apart their minds to do it.”


 

 

They looked far too relaxed in the holding cell.

Steve stared through the two way mirror as his team filed in behind him. According to their files, the taller of the two was also the younger. He was sitting at the table, where Natasha had cuffed him and his brother, quietly drumming his fingers on the table top. Beside him, the older Winchester had stretched out and had apparently fallen asleep… Or not. One of his hands moved over to quiet the tapping fingers.

“Sam…” He mumbled sleepily. His brother immediately subsided.

Natasha stepped up beside Steve to eye their prisoners. “They don’t feel like monsters.” She stated calmly. “I’ve met a few in my time. I know a monster when I see one. These two don’t feel the way I’d expect them two.”

“Considering that Sam has the smaller rap sheet, and he’s still wanted for multiple counts of murder?” Steve asked.

“Say what now?” Sam Wilson stopped halfway through the door, completely flummoxed.

“It is not you.” Wanda assured him, drawing their injured teammate into the observation room. “One of our intruders is also named Sam, though I believe his full name is Samuel. We could call him by his full name, to avoid confusion.”

“I’d appreciate it.” Sam stepped closer to the glass. “Which one?”

Natasha gestured carelessly. “The on on the right. He’s wanted for breaking and entering, accessory to armed robbery, kidnapping, and three counts of first degree murder. The one on the left is his older brother, who is wanted for several crimes: mail fraud, credit card fraud, grave desecrations, breaking and entering, kidnapping, and several counts of first degree murder. Both of them have been presumed dead on multiple occasions. Until they showed up in our living room, they hadn’t shown up on anyone’s radar in a while, the authorities think they’re dead. According to the files I looked over, they’re supposed to be tough and clever… Who wants first crack at them?”

Bruce glanced up from his tablet. “Natasha isn’t going to do it?”

“I didn’t want to hog the fun. If one of you want to work out some pent up frustration, I’ll stand back and let you have the first go.” Natasha answered glibly. “Care to try, Bruce?”

“Ah, no.” The scientist went back to his tablet and studiously ignored them all.

Vision smiled in amusement, but didn’t comment, addressing himself instead to Sam. “How is it that the Winchesters managed to enter the communal area without  being spotted? When we left, you expressed an intention to nap in the common area.”

Sam was already shaking his head. “Yeah, that didn’t happen. Coulson and I wanted to watch the mission, so we both moved to one of the conference rooms. Piped in you guys’ cameras and coms. Your faces when the water hit were priceless, by the way. I think I’m going to print off still shots of some of those and have them framed or something.”

“So where’s Phil?” Natasha queried.

Sam shrugged his good shoulder, mindful that jostling the other one would prove painful. “You were pretty much wrapped up with your mission. And Agent Coulson got a call. I guess he’s had feelers out for Clint and his family since we brought him up to speed. He said he needed to take the call and left the room. I glanced out the back window before coming in here, and he was still out back on the phone. I don’t think he’ll be coming in for a while.”

“I hope he’s having better luck than we are.” Natasha went back to staring through the window.

“We’ll make our own luck.” Steve folded his arms. “Bruce. The water?”

The scientist was already shaking his head. “Normal city water Cap. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Steve looked to Wanda and Sam. “The duffle?”

Sam shrugged. “Mostly full of weapons. Nothing exotic. You could find most of that stuff just about anywhere. And most of it’s older, but they took good care of it. Some stuff looks like something straight out of a ‘Buffy’ episode.” He saw Steve’s confusion. “TV show about a vampire slayer Steve. There’s a wooden stake in that bag, rosaries, and several other odds and ends.”

“Vision? The laptop?”

The android glanced up from the computer in his lap. “I am still combing through their data. I will need a little more time.”

“Let me know when you’re finished… Tony?”

Tony shook his head. “Sorry Cap. So far I’m drawing a blank.”

Steve grimaced. “I was afraid you’d say  that.”

Wanda eyed the men on the other side of the glass. “I think I will take you up on your offer Natasha. I can get the information we need quickly and efficiently. They will not be able to sully the truth if I take what they know from their minds instead of their tongues.”

Natasha arched an eyebrow at her. “Are you comfortable with that?”

The meta human's eyes hardened. “They are not good men. If it brings us closer to finding Clint, I can live with it.” Seeing Steve’s sharp glance, she added grumpily. “I will not harm them. But they will not be happy with me either…” She stalked from the room, going around to enter the cell.

Both men lifted their heads when she entered.

The older one grinned. “Lookit, they sent Little Red Riding Hood,” he joked, poking fun at her scarlet jacket. His brother elbowed him, but it didn’t do much to dissuade him. He just smirked up at Wanda. “Any chance Red Riding Hood brought a basket full of treats? ‘Cause I’m starving.”

“Silence.” Wanda’s eyes glowed red, and both men stiffened in their seats. She slowly made her way around the table to stand next to the smart ass, eyes locked on her target. He shifted away from her, pulling at his cuffs, but they held firm.

“Careful ‘Red’. The big bad wolf has other disguises too.”

“We will see.” Wanda stretched out scarlet laced fingers, and sent her power into the older Winchester. His eyes went red, and his hands fell lax against the table. Beside him, his brother paled.

In the observation room, the Avengers watched.

They had been working with Wanda for some time. Learning how her powers worked. What made her stronger, weaker. Where her limits were. Integrating her into their team, and teaching her to trust them, even as they learned to trust her in return.

They’d also been learning how to block her power, should the need arise.

They trusted her. But they’d seen the damage she could do. Assuming that she was the only telepath out there wasn’t just arrogant, it was stupid. And it was inviting trouble. Better to use the resources to hand, and learn to protect themselves with someone they trusted. Practicing with her helped them prepare for the day that someone else would inevitably try to roll them. But either way it was hard. Wanda had an incredibly powerful will, and keeping her out of your head was almost impossible without a boatload of practice. Clint had held out for a week against whoever had taken him. It was a toss up whether it was the training or sheer stubbornness that had allowed him to hang on for so long. But they liked to think that it was both. That they’d done something to help him.

The Winchesters didn’t stand a chance.

On the table, her victim's hands slowly curled into fists. His face twisted in a grimace, and the cords stood out in his neck. He was fighting back. Sam wrapped a hand around his wrist, offering his silent support. Not daring to speak, lest he distract his brother and get him in trouble.

A growl rumbled deep in the older Winchester’s chest. “Not today ‘Red’. No one messes with my head.”

Wanda suddenly yelled.

The metahuman jerked her hands back, cutting the connection and scrambling away as if she couldn’t do it fast enough. She put herself in a corner, staring at him in shock.

Steve tensed. “That’s not a good sign.”

Vision set the laptop he’d been working on to the side and walked through the wall. The android cradled her forearms, crouching a little to catch her gaze. Wanda stared past him, unseeing. She seemed almost shell shocked. He brushed her hair back out of her face, softly calling her name.

Wanda’s eyes suddenly snapped into focus.

If looks could kill, the two men at the table would’ve been greasy spots on the pavement.

The Winchesters stared right back, the one sweaty and panting and hunched over in his seat. Sam was leaning close to his brother, as if he could shield him from Wanda just by being close. But his face was pale, his eyes wide.

“Dean…” He whispered. “What did you do?”

Dean Winchester gave a tired laugh. “I learned that from the ‘pizza man’.”

The Avengers didn’t understand the reference, but the younger Winchester apparently did. Sam couldn’t seem to decide if he should be impressed or mortified. Judging by the tone of his voice, it looked like he was leaning towards mortified. “Dean! You didn’t!”

“Course I did.” Dean growled. “Bitch was poking around inside my head where she didn’t belong. I’m sick of people trying to dick around with other people’s minds. She tries it again, I’m walking. I didn’t sign up for this bullshit. We can find him without these asshats.”

“Dean…”

Behind the glass, Natasha and Steve had frozen.

“What are the odds of Clint telling us to ‘find Dean’, and then having someone named Dean show up in our living room?” Steve asked.

“A snowball’s chance in hell.” Natasha growled. “Friday, show me Dean’s rap sheet, and anything else you can find on him.”

The documents and several photos and silent videoes arrayed themselves between her and the glass in front of her face and Natasha scowled. She hadn’t been worried about their first names when they’d first been identified, it was what they had done, what they were capable of that had mattered. And somehow she had missed it. They all had. And now she wondered what else she might have missed. Beyond the glass, she could hear Wanda hissing and spitting in Sokovian. But she paid it no mind, intent on the records in front of her face. There just wasn’t enough. Like Clint’s own records, gaping holes ate massive amounts of time. She needed more information. She needed…

Her phone’s shrill scream broke the silence.

The assassin snatched it out of her pocket and checked the number. It was the salvage yard number! She answered the call. “Garth?”

The friendly southern accent hopped on the other end of the line with a smile she could hear, even though she’d never seen his face. “ Yes’m Miss Natasha. Sorry to keep y’all waiting. You heard anything from your friend or his family?

“No. But I think I might’ve found a clue or two.” Natasha admitted, eyeing the Winchesters through the two way mirror. Dean looked to’ve gotten his  breath back, but Sam was still leaning protectively close. Neither one was taking their eyes off of Wanda, who was still in the middle of an angry Sokovian diatribe. “Did you find Dean’s phone number?”

You bet I did! Took some doin’ though. That boy’s harder to track down than Bin Laden sometimes. And getting personal information is hard at the best of times, but lately it’s been like pulling teeth! Something big’s going down, and it’s got folks nervous.

Natasha tensed, shooting Steve a glance. He moved closer, and she turned the phone a little so he could here if he leaned in. “Something big? You’ve heard something?”

Nothing in particular Ma’am, but hunters can read the writing on the walls better than most. And what it’s saying has got folks jumpier than a cockroach in a hot skillet. You’d best look out for yourself while you’re looking for your friends. I wouldn’t want you ending up hurt. ” He paused, as if considering something. “ Could you do me a favor Ma’am?”

Natasha arched an eyebrow. “What do you need?”

Just, don’t jump to conclusions when you meet Dean and Sam. Ok? I know they look tough, but they’re alright.

“That sounds ominous. Should I be worried?...They’re not wanted by the law or something are they?” Natasha asked, playing a hunch.

... Well, I won’t lie to you Ma’am, they are. But most hunters are, on account of most people don’t understand what’s going on. Sam and Dean are tougher than a pair of alley cats, and I’ve always said Dean could start a fight in an empty house. But they’re good people. If they told you a rooster dipped snuff, you’d find the can under his wing. They look out for their friends, and those boys’d do anything for family. If Clint’s a friend of theirs, they’ll move heaven and earth, and I don’t mean figuratively. I’ve seen what they can do. The police think they’re murderers. They ain’t. They didn’t ever kill someone who didn’t start the fight. And then only if they had to. You remember that when you meet them. Remember they’ve saved more folks in a year than a preacher baptises! And most folks aren’t even aware they did. You listen to them, y’here? You listen to what they tell you, and they’ll see to it y’all make it out ok.

Natasha glanced at Steve. He seemed as surprised as she felt. It didn’t jive with the serial killing psychopaths that their rap sheets portrayed. “I’ll remember that. Thank you.”

Just thought you oughta know. Anyway, the number. You have a pen Ma’am?

Steve produced one from a pocket.

Natasha arched an eyebrow, silently asking what he expected her to write on. He shrugged and offered her the back of his hand. She rolled her eyes at him, but took the cap off the pen anyway. “Yes, I’ve got a pen. What’s the number?” Garth rattled it off and she dutifully jotted it down on the back of Steve’s hand. Once she was through, she read it back to him, just to make sure she had heard it right. She had.

“Was there anything else Garth?”

No, that’s it. You tell Sam and Dean I said hello?

“I’ll do that.”
Alright, you have a good day Miss Romanov. Hope Dean can help you and the other Avengers find Hawkeye ok. Y’all take care now!

The line went dead.

Steve stared at the phone in consternation. “Did you tell him who you were?”

“No… I think it’s time we get some answers.” She stared at the glass, then keyed in the number on the back of Steve’s hand. “It might be a moot point, but…” She hit ‘call’. Her phone connected. For a moment, they just listened to her phone ring.

Inside the cell, the Ghostbusters theme began to play.

Both Winchester’s jumped. Sam tossed Dean a bitchface. “Really?”

“What? I got bored with the guitar riff. You seriously telling me you wouldn’t have fun hunting the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?” Dean tried to get at the phone in his pocket. The handcuffs jerked his hands to a halt at the edge of the table. He grumbled, and tried to stand up a little so he could bring his hip within reach of his hands.

“I would advise you to remain seated Mr. Winchester.” Vision warned.

Dean huffed and sat back down, continuing his conversation with Sam as if nothing had happened. His phone stopped ringing. “Hope it wasn’t important...Admit it Sam, you’d have fun.”

Sam snorted. “Dean, I would rather eat worms than take on another Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The last one turned out to be H.H.Holmes, and Ellen damn near killed us when he kidnapped Jo! No thanks! I’ll take Gabriel any day!”

Vision touched a finger to his ear, then whispered quietly to Wanda. The two left the room without a word, responding to Steve’s summons through the coms. Neither of the Winchesters seemed to notice.

Dean grimaced. “Point to you. That Holmes guy was a friggin’ piece of work.”

“Jo and I thought Ellen was going to murder you on the ride home when you put in that tape and it started playing ‘Cold as Ice’.” Sam snickered.

“That or break the knob off the player turning it off. I saw my life flash in front of my eyes dude!” Dean agreed. “But I don’t know about Gabriel. I mean, he did kill me. A lot. And there was that time he made us live inside a TV…”

In the other room, Natasha shook her head.. “If they’re talking in code, it’s unlike any I’ve ever heard. The number is the final bit of proof. This is the ‘Dean’ Clint wanted us to find.”

“Nope! Na ah!” Tony was already shaking his head in denial. “I refuse to believe that Clint wanted us to find a pair of serial killers!”

Wanda folded her arms. “I agree. This man cannot be the one who will have all of the answers. He….” she curled her lip in a snarl of distaste. “For the love of God, he forced me from his mind using pornography!”

There were two beats of dead silence.

Then Tony lost it.

The genius bent over at the waist and howled with laughter, clinging to a table to try and keep himself upright. Sam covered his mouth with one dark hand, trying to hide his snickers. Bruce’s lips were twitching, and Vision was trying and failing to hold back a smile.

“Are you kidding me?” Tony demanded when he’d finally got his breath back. “ That’s the key to breaking mind control?! You’re telling me all we’ve got to do is clock him over the head or sit him down in front of a porno?! The secret’s out! Movie night’s gonna get a lot more interesting!”

“Alright, settle down.” Steve admonished, intercepting Wanda’s murderous glare and pointing her into a seat. “Tony you’re not helping. I’m sure anyone would find… that, jarring. Moving on, now that we’ve found Clint’s missing ‘Dean’, the question is ‘how do we proceed’.”

“I’m still not convinced this guy is the Dean we’ve been looking for.” Tony fired back. “I mean, think about it. If you wanted to infiltrate the Avengers, and word got out that the Avengers were looking for someone named Dean… How hard could it be? Clint’s not here to tell us we got the right one. Any Dean could walk up and say that he’s the guy, and we wouldn’t know the difference.”

“The man’s got a point.” Sam agreed.

“You bet I do. I think we need to ask a few more questions before we just blindly trust these guys.”

“Alright. Come with me, I’ll prove it.” The rest of the Avengers trailing behind her like ducklings, Natasha led the way back into the cell. Both Winchesters tensed. Natasha held up her cell phone and hit redial. The bouncy Ghostbusters theme jingled merrily away in Dean’s pocket.

Dean looked down at his pocket as if he’d never seen it before. “Um… How does the freaking Black Widow have my number?”

“Garth says hello.” The assassin offered.

Sam shook his head. “Better question, how does the Black Widow have Garth’s number?”

“Bobby.” Dean sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I gave Clint Bobby’s number and address in case he ever needed help and didn’t have our current cell numbers. He must have written it down somewhere.”

“He did.” Natasha confirmed. She put her phone away and folded her arms. “Now. Hawkeye went missing two weeks ago. Less than one week ago, I received a call from him, in which he instructed me to ‘find Dean’. He said that Dean would have the answers. The only reference I could find to Dean was through a contact name Bobby. Garth just called me back with your number, and glowing praise. Additionally, he also knew who I was, even though I only gave him Clint’s name and my first name. And here you are, waiting for us in our living room…”

Sam Winchester grimaced. “Yeah, that does come off a little weird.”

“Precisely. So,” Natasha pulled her wallet from a pocket and took a photo out of it, “I going to ask you questions. You are going to answer them honestly. And if you try to bullshit your way through, I will happily hand you over to the authorities. Do I make myself clear? Good.” She placed the photo down on the table between them. “The man in the picture. You know him?”

Sam picked it up, holding it so Dean could see.

It was a nice enough picture, clearly professionally done. Clint, dressed in jeans and a dark purple button down was sitting on a wooden stool. Behind him, Natasha was dressed in her customary black and red. Her arms were wrapped around his chest, one over a shoulder, the other under an arm. Her chin rested on Clint’s free shoulder, and her hair blew loosely in the breeze. The two were in the middle of a sunny grassy field, laughing at a joke or something someone had said. A stereotypical couple shot.

Dean pushed the photo away. “Alright, that’s it.”

“Dean… I’m sorry ma’am, I understand you’re just trying to make sure we’re on the level…”

“Understand nothing Sammy, I’m tired of being chained to a table. I’m only saying this once, so you guys had better catch it all the first time.”

He eyed them, then dove in. “The guy in your pretty little picture? His name is Clinton Francis Barton. We’ve known each other most of forever, and we tease him mercilessly about that middle name. His mom was sweet, and his dad was an abusive asshole who shouldn’t have been within forty miles of kids. Clint is thirty-five. He’s addicted to coffee and drinks it straight from the pot, and he loves anything arrow related. His eyesight is freaky good, and he’s eighty percent deaf in both ears because of his dad and a mission gone wrong. And for whatever God-forsaken reason, his favorite show is Dog Cops . His favorite character is Sergeant Whiskers.”

He leveled a glare at Natasha. “And if you’re hoping that I’ll mistake you for his girlfriend because of that cute snapshot, you’ve got another ‘think’ coming. It’s a leftover from an undercover mission you two had to do as a couple. Clint is married, and damn happy about it. And those kids are the light of his whole goddamn world. To hear him tell it, they’re the light of your world too, seeing as how you’re the godmother for all three. I’ve been sending him dad jokes on father's day every year since Cooper was born. Coop’s got a thing for cars and legos. Lila sleeps with a stuffed pony named Giddy, and Nathaniel is two seconds away from his first steps. And Laura is a friggin’ trouper.” He leaned forward in his seat, thunder in his eyes. “The only reason I’m here at all is because my little brother called me in a panic and left a voicemail. He said they were going to roll his mind. That he didn’t have much time. He begged us, begged us to hide his family. To make sure that he never found them. My little brothers don’t beg. He’s scared and in danger, and the longer you keep us locked up, the lower his chances of survival drop. So back the hell off and tell us what’s going on with our brother!”

Silence hung in the room.

 

Vision cocked his head. “I was of the impression that Clint only had one brother. Barney?”

Sam and Dean’s faces hardened.

“He lost any right to Clint a long time ago.” Sam growled.

Steve leaned forward against the table, blue eyes intent. “You said Clint asked you to hide his family. Are you saying that you have them?” They nodded and some of the tension in Steve’s shoulders bled away. “Thank God.”

Sam straightened in his chair. “Why? What happened?”

“The farm is gone.” Natasha shrugged. “Clint fought back against whoever is controlling him. They have enough access into his mind to see that he had a family, and went after them. By the time we got there, the house was in flames and there was blood everywhere. The only reason we knew that they weren’t there was because the go bags were gone, and the only dead bodies belonged to the animals.”

Dean grimaced. “Damn. The kids are gonna be devastated. Don’t worry, Laura and the kids were off the farm and safely tucked away in a safe house within an hour of us getting Clint’s message.”

Natasha frowned. In her head, she was reviewing what she knew of the countryside around Clint’s farm. There was no one around for miles. It was the reason Clint had taken so long to pay it off, even on a S.H.I.E.L.D. specialist’s salary. He’d bought it all. Even if they were speeding the whole way to and from the farm, if the safe house was close enough that they could get to the farm, load up the family and make it back then it was far too close. Even a fool would know better than to stay that close. But if Dean was to believed, they’d done just that. It was foolish. But Clint wouldn’t have entrusted his family to a fool. There had to be something she was missing.

“Are Laura and the kids alright?” She asked.

Sam smiled. “They’re fine. Worried about Clint, and about you guys, but that’s no surprise. They’re staying with some friends of ours, in the safest place we knew.”

Dean chuckled and bumped shoulders with Sam. “It’s nice having someone else around who likes cars. They stay there long enough, and Cooper and I’ll have all those old cars running like new.”

“You’re just happy that you found someone who’s willing to be your wrench jockey for hours on end.” Sam teased.

Dean drew himself up, broadcasting affronted dignity. “I’ll have you know I would never exploit a child!” Grinning, he added, “Actually, he’s got a knack for what goes on inside an engine. I think if I asked him to talk me through putting that engine back together without letting him use the numbers, he’d have a fairly good idea where most of it went. Most of the problems he’s hit up against so far is that he’s been looking at newer engines, and we’re working on something straight out of Captain America’s era. The basics are the same, but he’s used to more bells and whistles.”

“What does that have to do with it?” Natasha inquired.

“He’s got to get used to looking at a more basic engine.” Dean explained. “I think the newest car in the garage is something from the mid-fifties. And most of the cars and bikes aren’t even that new. My car was new in ‘67, and she makes most of the cars there look like dinosaurs!”

Natasha cocked her head. “You said the newest car was mid-fifties?  What was it?”

Dean opened his mouth to answer, when Sam touched his arm. He glanced at Sam’s serious  face, then at Natasha, and grinned. “Damn. Clint said you were good. You’re trying to figure out where they are without actually asking. It’d be easy enough to find a short list of lots or collectors who had that many old cars with nothing before 1960. And easier still to find someone like that close to Clint’s farm.”

“You’re good at what you do.” The younger Winchester added respectfully. A smile quirked his lips. “But you’re talking to someone who’s fought the devil and his demons and won. You’re going to have to do better than that.”

“Fine.” Natasha’s eyes narrowed. “Where are Laura and the kids?”

“Safe.” Dean answered immediately. “And they’re going to stay there. Whatever grabbed Clint was strong enough to worm it’s way in after Loki. That’s a tall order. I don’t know how Scarlet Witch over there works, but ‘once bitten, twice shy’. Clint knew what was coming for him, and he knew how to fight back. And it still got in. You really want that location bandied around the whole team?”

The Falcon leaned forward. “You saying you don’t think we can be trusted?”

The younger Winchester gripped his brother’s forearm. “He’s saying that you don’t know what you’re up against. Clint called us because we had a different skillset. We don’t know enough yet to say who or what has Clint, but we’ve got a good idea. We can find out. And we know how these people operate. If it’s who we think it is, then you should know that these bastards can pull thoughts off the surface of your mind as easy as blinking. Dean and I are used to keeping secrets. They’d have to work a whole lot harder to get that from us. It’s not that we don’t trust you, it’s that we don’t trust them to play fair.”

“Oh, and you do?” Tony scoffed. “Somehow I doubt it. I’ve been trying to figure out how you two got in. And frankly there’s no way. Not unless you have a backdoor I don’t know about.”

Dean rolled his eyes and sat back in his seat. “You’re just mad someone messed with your stuff.”

Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, so very tired of his brother’s shenanigans. “Dean, not helping.” To Tony he added, “We were able to get in because Clint let us. Pure and simple. Our jobs are dangerous. And wanted the way we are, we tend to avoid hospitals. Outside of a life threatening injury, most hunters do their own patchwork. Clint was a second option. He told us if we ever happened to be hunting in the area and needed medical help, we were supposed to come see him.”

Tony threw his hands up in the air. “So Clint let you in! What is the point of having a top of the line security system if you’re going to put in backdoors for everyone and their mother ?!” He whirled and pointed at the prisoners. “How specific is this door? Can anyone use it, or is it just you?”

“Take a chill pill Stark. The only one’s who know it’s there is us and Clint, and we’re the only one’s who could use it.” Dean rolled his eyes. “Not even Clint, funny enough. The way he told it, the door only works for someone who has the right face, mark, voice, and voice key. And it only works in one place. So don’t go panicking Stark, physically your compound is safe.”

“What the hell do you mean physically? Last I checked, buildings don’t have minds or emotions that can be hurt.” Tony snapped, sounding almost pissy.

Dean snorted. “I’m saying that even if Clint hadn’t left us a glorified backstage pass, we still could’ve gotten into this place, no trouble. Staying out of sight would’ve been harder, but getting into the compound or any room we feel like would’ve been a damn cakewalk. You’re compound might be the most secure place in the world, but it’s wide open to anyone with the right resources.”

“Listen here jackass, I…”

“Captain Rogers. You have a visitor.” Friday’s calm voice cut through the tensions like a hot knife through butter, defusing hot tempers.

Steve straightened, glancing up at the ceiling. “Go ahead Friday.”

“A Doctor Strange has arrived through what appears to be a portal at the front gate. He says that you called and requested his help, and is patiently waiting permission to enter.”

Steve nodded. “Permission granted Friday. He’s the expert S.H.I.E.L.D. pointed me to for the symbols. I was hoping to hear from him, he was out of contact with his office when I called. I…” The captain trailed off, shocked.

A glowing gold portal had opened at the other end of the holding cell. Looking like nothing more than a spinning circle of fire, the center of the circle showed not the back wall of the cell but the verdant green landscape outside the compound walls. Sparks skittered across the floor, extinguishing and leaving no sign that they had ever existed as they bounced away. Absolutely no marks were left on the floor.

Out from the center of the fire encased greenery stepped a man.

He was dressed in an ornate blue tunic, and dark pants and boots that looked like something out of a bygone time. A thick heavy cloak hung from his shoulders, it’s broad expanse covered in ornate embroidery. A high collar encircled his throat. His face was lean and angular. Short dark hair was shot through with touches of silver at the temples, and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache framed his mouth.

His sharp eyes landed on Steve, and he smiled.

Closing the portal with a gentle gesture, he held out a hand to Steve. “Captain? I am Doctor Stephen Strange. Wong informed me that one of your teammates had gotten into trouble, and that you had requested my help. I apologize for keeping you waiting, I came as quickly as I could once Wong informed me of your trouble. I…” The doctor froze mid-handshake, eyes fastened on the Winchesters.

The Winchesters, who had both gone deathly still, and were looking at him with appraising eyes.

“Damn Cap, you’ve just got all the clout. I didn’t know the Sorcerer Supreme made house calls.” Dean commented.

“Sorcerer Supreme?” Steve asked, confused.

Strange nodded absently, attention focused solely on Sam and Dean. “It is my title. I certainly didn’t expect to find hunters here. Particularly not you two… I would’ve expected more aggression at my presence if nothing else. Hunters don’t usually look kindly on sorcerers.”

Sam shrugged, the chains of his handcuffs jingling. “You guys definitely make our jobs harder sometimes,” he agreed, “magic users can have just as high a body count as a monster. Sometimes higher, because they can get closer to their victims.”

“I take it you’re here for me then?”

Dean shook his head. “If you know anything about us, then you know that aint true. We aren’t here for you, we’re here to help our brother. Nothing more. ‘Sides, you’re safe from us. Bobby came up to have a look at you once when you first set up shop in New York, and the body count was high. Don’t know what you were fighting, but it sure left one hell of a mess all around the globe. He stuck around when you settled in New York for good. Said you were one of the few who used your power to actually help people. He kept an eye out, just in case you turned, but you never did. And he always spoke highly of you. You’re safe from us. We don’t kill without a damn good reason.”

Strange slowly relaxed, belatedly letting go of Steve’s hand. “Alright then. Though if they have you two here, I fail to understand why they called me in as well.”

“Because we were not aware that Clint had summoned them.” Standing with his arm around Wanda, Vision cocked his head. “I feel that I am not entirely cognizant of some of the salient pieces of information. You have both used the term ‘hunter’ on multiple occasions. What all does that term entail?”

“Substantially more than shooting ducks or white-tail.” Strange answered grimly. “There is more to this world than the majority of the population is aware of. Or needs to be aware of. The Avengers battle global threats: power mad dictators, rogue scientists, alien invasions, and terrorist organizations the likes of which the government is not equipped to handle. The Sorcerer Supreme combats extradimensional threats. In America, the hunters are the third line of defense.”

“Defense?” Sam Wilson shifted his weight, wincing at the pangs of his injured arm. “Defense against what? The dark arts?”

The Sorcerer Supreme seemed to settle down, shooting the Falcon an amused smile. “There are monsters out there, who would happily feed on humanity and all that they have to offer. Friends and family members of the victims, or more rarely the survivors of such attacks, become hunters. They learn to kill. Things go bump in the night, and the hunters bump back, killing anything that lays a hand on a human. Since the advent of mutants, their jobs have become somewhat more difficult. Some don’t particularly care who dies. They are there to stop the body count from getting any higher. If killing a mutant or a magic user ends the killing of innocent people, then they count their job done.”

“So you’re saying that their sterling reputations as psychopathic serial killers is well earned?” Tony asked smugly.

“Not at all.” Strange corrected. He’d picked up on Tony’s dislike of the Winchesters. “At least, not in the way you mean. I dare say to the supernatural community, their reputation is well earned. Hunters seek out and kill anything and everything supernatural, and these two gentlemen are the deadliest hunters in the world. And they’ve saved the world from the apocalypse a couple of times over.”

Sam pushed his hair out of his face. “We’re not killing machines. We only go after the ones that hurt people. Anyone else is free to live their life in peace. There’s a coven of vampires out there somewhere that can attest to that. They’d switched to cattle blood, so they wouldn’t attract hunters. They weren’t hurting anyone.”

Dean nodded. “I was raised to kill anything that wasn’t human. Thanks to Sam, I learned different. We’ve both had too many friends that were on the supernatural side to pass judgement too quickly.”

“So, you want us to believe that both your rap sheets are what? Giant mistakes?” Tony demanded.

Dean rolled his eyes. “Show me the damn rap sheet, and I’ll tell you what I was hunting at the time!”

At a word from Tony, Friday obliged.

Dean perused the list. “Ok, the frauds are all me. So are the breaking and entering, and the grave desecration. I’ll own those. Cops don’t tell a random guy who walks up to the police line jack, but they’ll bend over backwards for a visiting official. And at least one of those breaking and entering charges was to land us in prison for a hunt a prison guard tossed us.”

“Still one of the worst ideas you’ve ever had.” Sam put in.

“Hey, we owed him. And we got the bitch who was killing the guards and inmates. And we got away, so no harm no foul.” Dean shot back. “ Anyway. Depending on the situation, the kidnapping might also be me. There’s been a couple times where I’ve had to grab someone and take them someplace to deal with whatever’s attached itself to them. It’s really tough to explain that a pair of ballet slippers are cursed while you’re trying to wrestle them off a twelve year old’s feet before they kill her. Her parents would’ve had a shit fit if they’d seen Sam and me trying to get them off her feet in the bathroom. Would’ve added pedophile to the list.” He shuddered. “No way in hell… Anyway, the murders. The first three, the ones in St. Louis. Those were a shapeshifter wearing my face. He figured if he looked like me, Sam wouldn’t kill him in case he got the wrong one, and my face let him get close to Sam’s friend. Come to think of it, these ones were a shape shifter too. I hate those bastards.”

Sam shrugged. “To be fair, the one at the Oktoberfest wasn’t all bad. More sad than anything.”

“Yeah, says the guy who didn’t end up strapped to his Frankenstein table.” Dean grumbled. “And sad or no, he was still killing people and trying to hold that one girl hostage. I’m saving my sympathy for them.”

He went back to the list, mentioning this monster or that for each killing. The heroes looked to Strange, but he didn’t bat an eyelash at any of the monsters. Not even when Dean mentioned the leviathan. He did have a question though.

“I was wondering if you could tell me how those got out. They shouldn’t have been able to.”

Dean grimaced. “Because my friend is an idiot. To be fair, he did what he thought he had to. He always tries to do the right thing, and he does his best to make up for it when he does something spectacularly stupid. Everyone makes mistakes, and I wouldn’t have him any other way.”

Beside him, his younger brother snickered. “Sap.”

Steve folded his arms. “What about the grave desecration? That’s not exactly a run of the mill crime. And you fully admit to that one. So why? What did you do to the graves? What possible reason could you have to exhume someone’s remains?”

Dean chewed his lip. “Oh buddy, I did a whole lot more than exhume them... See, sometimes folks don’t want to let go when they die. They hang around. They get angry. And sooner or later, they start killing. Only way to get rid of a pissed off ghost is to cut the only tie they have left to this world. You salt the corpse and burn it. Leaves a mess for the groundskeeper, but better a mess than more people dead.”

Steve frowned, looking troubled. Whatever it was, he seemed to set it aside to deal with the present. “Alright… Whatever else is going on here, it’s pretty clear that the Winchester’s know Clint. And given what we’ve seen from Clint, and all the symbolism left behind, it’s pretty obvious we’re dealing with the occult. I know you don’t believe in it Tony, but we’re dealing with stuff that science has yet to explain. We need help, and Clint doesn’t have time for us to dither. If you want to put a tracking bracelet on the Winchesters for your peace of mind, do so. Natasha, unlock the cuffs.”

The assassin produced a key and dropped it on the table.

Dean immediately scooped it up and set to work on Sam’s cuffs. “So, you gonna tell us who’s gotten their claws into Clint?”

“Agent Barton was taken by his biological brother, Barney. It seems that he bartered with an unknown third party, and Clint is being held as collateral until they are paid for services rendered. The price, seemingly, being the capture of the Avengers in their entirety.”

Sam had taken the key and was unlocking his brothers cuffs, but both froze at that.

Dean growled. “If I ever get my hands on that douchebag, he’s gonna wish he was never born for ever daring to lay a hand on Clint.”

“You won’t be alone.” The younger hunter agreed. “What can you tell us?”

“Come with us.” Steve ordered grimly. “You too Doctor.”

The captain took the lead, the three guests following behind. Not comfortable with having strangers at their backs, the rest of the heroes brought up the rear. They watched the newcomers like hawks, the Winchesters in particular. It wasn’t that they trusted Strange implicitly. Far from it. But Hill had recommended Strange. And Hill was no fool. She’d gotten even more aggressive in her vetting since the fall of the Triskelion. The Winchesters were unknown variables. And the Avengers wanted to be ready if the two tried anything.

Steve didn’t seem at all bothered, having them at his back.

He should’ve worried more.


 

 

Phil was in the conference room.

He stared at the photos in the holograms, lines leading to points on a map to mark where they’d been taken. Marking sightings of the shanghaied archer. But that wasn’t what the call had been about. For the length it had been, his phone call had yielded very little. His contacts hadn’t been able to turn up much on the Barton clan. Members of his team had been running facial recognition across the entire U.S. It was tricky, making sure that no one knew they were doing it. If anyone picked up the photos of Laura and the kids, things could get hairy. Better to take it slowly and make sure no one knew they’d even been there. It was all a moot point. Laura hadn’t surfaced anywhere.

He’d just given the order to take the search global.

“Where are you?” Phil huffed, glaring at the map. He was beginning to believe that their best bet to find them was to rescue Clint. Whatever ex-fil strategy he’d put in place, it had been a damn good one. They hadn’t pinged customs yet, and if they hadn’t yet they probably weren’t going to. Phil knew Clint and how he operated. They wouldn’t find them without a spate of very good or very bad luck.

Phil shook his head and waved away the holograms. They weren’t doing him any good. He turned to leave, wondering where the Avengers had gotten off to. He’d seen the quinjet come in for a landing, but none of the heroes had come looking for him. At first, he’d thought that it was in deference to the fact that he was on the phone. But he’d gotten off some time ago. And he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of anyone. Something was going on.

The door swung open.

Phil turned to meet the newcomers. Steve swept into the room. Behind him were two strangers. And behind them, Doctor Stephen Strange. Him, Phil knew. He’d helped Hill vet Strange. The man had an issue with pride, but not so badly as he once did. He was a good man, though he was still learning that. The other two, Phil had never met. But he knew them just the same.

If only by reputation.

The Winchester brothers had spent the beginnings of their lives hopping on and off the radar, and their adult lives had been spent in multiple stints at the top of the FBI’s most wanted lists. Stints that usually ended in their apparent deaths. Apparently these two were harder to kill than a pair of cockroaches. If a nuclear apocalypse were to hit tomorrow, Phil wouldn’t have been surprised to see them walking through the wasted landscape as if nothing had happened.

Samuel Winchester… and Dean Winchester….

...suddenly Clint’s reticence made so much more sense.

Surprise flooded him. Not that Clint knew such people. Clint had brought a plethora of odd contacts with him when he’d joined S.H.I.E.L.D. Most of whom Phil had never met, though he had never been sure if that had been for his safety, or theirs . If the situation was dire enough, Phil wasn’t above leaning on someone else's sources to save lives. Clint looked after his own. And he settled his debts. Even if those favors were called in by the scum of the deepest rings of the earth. But not all of them were. And those that weren’t scum? Clint looked after them especially. Either way, he only named his sources if he had no other choice.

Two serial killers on the lam from the law was a stretch though, even for Clint.

Phil frowned, watching the way the Winchesters scanned the room as soon as they were through the door. Checking for threats, exits, anything that might prove nasty or an advantage. Walking with a fluid energy that screamed ‘dangerous’. They reminded him of Clint. Or maybe Natasha. These two men were deadly.

Sharp green eyes speared Phil.

Dean’s eyes widened. He grabbed Sam’s arm, his jaw tightening. Their faces hardened. Rage, the likes of which Phil had only seen once or twice in his life, flashed through Dean’s gaze. Before anyone had time to realize what was coming, the older Winchester stormed across the room towards Phil.

A vicious punch snapped Phil’s head back.

Phil stumbled and fell, hitting the floor hard . He rolled away from the heavy boot swinging his way. Away from the thunderous face that towered above him with murderous eyes. He could hear the yells of the Avengers. The less familiar voice of Strange, and the unknown voice that had to belong to Samuel. Demanding answers. Demanding that Dean stop. Warning him that there would be hell to pay if he didn’t. Samuel trying to keep them from hurting Dean.

A heavy boot caught him just below the ribs.

Phil kept rolling, sliding under the conference table feet first and rolling back onto the seat of his pants. Gun drawn and ready. Dean could follow him under there if he really wanted to. But Phil doubted he was that stupid. He couldn’t possibly think that Phil was unarmed. If he got down on his hands and knees and came after him, he would find a gun waiting for him. Phil might not be an expert marksman like Clint, but at that range he couldn’t miss.

“Winchester! Stand down! Phil is a friend of ours!”

Steve’s voice thundered through the room, freezing hero and stranger alike. It was a voice that had accosted bullies in the forties, and had led troops into the heat of battle all across the world.

The command voice of Captain America was very hard to ignore.

Dean glared at the man under the table, but he didn’t try to shrug off Steve’s restraining hold on his upper arm. He’d produced a vicious looking knife from somewhere on his person and held it ready to attack. The blade was serrated, and odd symbols were etched on the flat sides.

“I don’t know what you are,” Dean growled at Phil, “but I know for a fact that the man whose face you’re wearing died two years ago. The jig is up. Get your ass out from under the table.”

Under the table, Phil sighed.

They thought he was dead. That would explain the unprovoked attack. Clint might have mentioned his death to them, and that would explain how they knew to think that he was an imposter. He couldn’t blame them. After all, Natasha’s first instinct had been to hold a gun on him. Phil cautiously crawled out from under the conference table.

Dean watched him like a hawk.

Across the room, Vision had twisted Sam Winchester’s arm up behind his back, forcing the tall man to bend a little at the waist to take some of the strain off his shoulder. Wanda’s power flickered at her fingertips, and she’d moved to place herself between the Winchesters and Sam Wilson. Strange had erected some sort of round energy shield on each hand that reminded Phil of a mandala. Bruce had backed up, cautious. Natasha looked as serene and put together as ever.

But her sharp eyes missed nothing.

“Please.” Sam Winchester panted. “You have to believe us. Clint told us that Phil Coulson died. And that he was buried. There are plenty of things that can take someone’s shape. Or possess a body. Living or dead doesn’t always matter. Coulson’s dead. Which means whatever the hell this guy is, he’s not human. You can’t trust him!”

“Let him up Vision.” Natasha ordered. “Sam, Dean. I’ll vouch for Phil. I know he died. I saw his dead body days later. I had to be sure. I don’t know how he’s alive now, but this is Phil. Clint and I each had three call and responses with Phil, in case we needed to be absolutely sure of his identity. I only ever used the first. When Phil showed up in our living room, I drew my gun and asked for all three, because I knew that Phil had taken them to the grave. He had them all, word for word. Apparently Furry had something to do with his revival. Though I haven’t heard the full story yet…”

Dean slowly put the knife away. “There are ways to bring people back. But nothing I’d recommend.” To Sam he added, “If I find out Clint made a deal for Coulson, I’m going to kick his ass six ways to Sunday. He knows better.”

Phil lowered the gun. “So, we’re good?”

Dean snorted. “No offense to the Black Widow, but I’d rather find out for myself. You ok with my testing you?”

Nervousness prickled along Phil’s spine. They were going to test for his humanity. But what all did that entail? And would he pass? Top experts in their field couldn’t find any trace of the drug that had been used to bring him back. Surely this escaped felon wouldn’t be able to find it. But what if he did? What if he did, against all odds? Would the Avengers still trust him?

By some miracle, his nerves didn’t show on his face or in his voice.

“If it reassures you. I’d rather not be on the receiving end of anymore haymakers.” Phil agreed easily. “Test away.”

Dean drew a small flask from the inside pocket of his jacket. “That your coffee on the table?” Phil nodded, and Dean poured a small amount into Phil’s cup from the flask. Under the intense scrutiny of the Avengers, plus Strange, he took a healthy swallow before putting it back in his pocket. The hunter gestured at the coffee. “Drink.”

Phil picked up the mug and took a deep draught of the coffee before he could psych himself out of it. It tasted fine. Whatever the Winchester had put in it, Phil couldn’t taste it over the dark, bitter brew. Cup still in hand, he turned back to the Dean.

The hunter watched him closely. Whatever reaction he was looking for, he didn’t see it. “One other test. Sam?”

The taller Winchester produced a small, bright blade. Spinning it expertly between his fingers, he moved to join Dean and Phil. “Roll up your sleeve.”

Cautious of the blade, Phil obeyed.

The hunter grabbed him by the wrist and turned it upwards. He held up the blade. “Silver. A lot of supernatural creatures don’t like it. For those guys, it burns.” He gave Phil a smile that was probably supposed to be reassuring. “I’m not going to cut deep. I don’t have to. Deep enough to draw blood, that’s it. Just a scratch. If it’s red, and the metal doesn't burn, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Phil relaxed into his hold.

Just a scratch. He could do that. Sam laid the flat of the small silver blade against the inside of Phil’s forearm. Phil took a deep breath and nodded his head. Almost before he could blink, it was done. The sharp little knife sliced easily through the skin and was gone. He didn’t even feel it until after the cut started to bleed.

Sam breathed a sigh. “He’s clean.”

“Then what the hell?” Dean glared at Phil. “Someone make a deal to get you back in the game?”

“I don’t know that that means.” Phil shrugged. “After I was killed, I stayed dead for about three days. Until Fury decided that he wouldn’t bury me... There was a project. Sort of a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ deal. The emergency being the death of an Avenger. I was the one that oversaw it, and I shut it down. The price was too high. Fury used my findings from that project to resurrect me. It was…”

Phil paled, remembering the pain and terror of those dark, half-remembered days. He dropped his eyes, unable to meet the gazes of these people who had grown to become friends.

“...Excruciating. One of the side effects of the drug that stimulated most of my recovery is insanity. The only thing that seemed to help before I shut down the project was a wipe of certain memories. Fury authorized procedures I never would’ve agreed to. I lost my will to live. I begged them to let me die. When they were finished, they completely wiped my memories of the entire process. To give me back my will to live. And replaced them with new memories. So far as I knew, I was dead for only twenty seconds or so.  I was in a coma for some time, and then recovering in Tahiti, before being brought back into the game as head of a covert ops team. I was kept a secret. Only level sevens were cleared to have that information, and then it was only strictly need to know. Given how much effort Nick went to to keep the Avengers in the dark, I was very surprised to get the order to report here.”

Dean didn’t seem to buy it. “So, two years worth of secrecy is just going to be pitched down the drain? And if you shut down that project, how come that wonder drug was still available to use on you?”

“I’ve learned a lot in the past year.” Phil answered grimly. “Secrets landed me six months of torture when I should’ve been dead, and nearly got my team killed on multiple occasions. I don’t keep secrets from my team. Not anymore. If towing the company line is going to see people I care about get hurt, then I’m going to tell them everything so they can make an informed decision. And as for the drug, just because I shut the program down doesn’t mean everything we had was thrown in the trash. It was just stored. Fury had no trouble pulling it back out. I had a very loud and lengthy conversation with him after I found out the whole truth. And the rest was destroyed. It was bad enough one of my agents was exposed to it before I found out what it was and what it could do. So far she hasn’t shown any negative signs. I’m hoping she’ll be okay.”

“And you?” Natasha asked.

Phil shook his head. “Fury had The Cavalry assigned to my team. Just in case. It almost destroyed our friendship when I found out she knew and was there to watch me. I never went mad. Wiping my memory seems to’ve saved me from that, even after I got some of them back. But I did end up with spates of hypergraphia, which was another symptom we’d seen in the original project.”

“Hypergraphia?” Wanda asked.

“It’s a disorder. Usually a possible sign of temporal lobe epilepsy, but opinions differ.” Bruce clarified. “It’s a compulsion to write. Prolifically. Does it interfere with your work when you’re on missions? Your daily life?”

“No.” Phil disagreed. “I get the urges, but they’re controllable. I don’t become manic. I can choose where and when I give in. The worst I’ve ever done was an isolated incident where I covered one wall in a plane’s cargo hold late at night. But mostly I just doodle on napkins and cover the pages of steno pads at my desk with scribbles.” He made a face. “I’ve gone through a lot of napkins and steno pads.”

“Drugs now. Son of a bitch…” Dean muttered. Turning his back on Phil, Dean faced Steve. “You said you’d tell us what went down with Clint. So tell. Time’s wasting.” His brother Sam followed his lead, ignoring Phil in favor of listening to Dean and Steve.

“Phil.”

The agent smiled and accepted the first aid kit Sam Wilson passed him with a murmured ‘thanks’. He could already see where the name was going to be a problem. Natasha quickly cleaned up Phil’s cut and covered it, the same quiet efficiency he remembered evident in every move.

When she was through, they seated themselves at the table with the others. It didn’t escape his notice that the Winchesters were pointedly ignoring him. All throughout the briefing, their eyes stayed focused on the heroes or Doctor Strange, skipping over him as if he weren’t there. Even when he was talking directly to them. It made him wonder. It was definitely something to consider later.

For now, the focus was on finding Clint.


 

 

Natasha watched them. Gone were the smart-asses from the holding cell. Now the Winchesters were professionals, focused on a common goal. Her estimation of them ticked back up a few points. Maybe Clint had chosen right.

Strange and the Winchesters studied the crime scene photos from both Clint’s cell, and the mall. Then the graffiti photos from Barney’s phone. Holograms floated over the table like macabre willow-the-wisps, playing out silent videos and displaying bloody scenes from the farm,  and the corpse of the unfortunate man in Clint’s cell.

“Wait, freeze that!”

The video of the mall fight froze at Sam’s sudden order. The younger Winchester pointed at the hologram. “Dean look at this. Um, can you zoom in on his eyes?”

Friday obligingly zeroed in on Clint’s face, showcasing the malevolent shade of electric blue.

“Dean?”

The older hunter leaned forward, staring intently. “Everything else points in the same direction. The strength, the speed, the telekinesis. It all fits. It reads like a standard demon possession. But the eye color’s wrong. And I can’t think of anything else that turns its victims eyes blue. Doc?”

Strange shook his head. “I can’t think of anything. But then, I have only been a sorcerer a few years. As Wong is fond of reminding me on a frequent basis, I may have a gift for the mystic arts, but I still have much to learn.”

The younger hunter picked up a pen, tapping it thoughtfully against the table top. “...what if you’re not far off? I mean, think about it. Not all of them have the same color eyes. Maybe this is just a kind we haven’t seen yet?”

Dean grimaced and shook his head. “Hate to burst your bubble Sammy, but eyes aren’t unique. They’re a part of the hierarchy.” His brother leaned closer, and Dean took a shuddering breath. “The black eyes are at the bottom. They’re minions. In a fight they’re cannon fodder. Above them, you’ve got the crossroads demons. The deal makers. They’ve got the red eyes. A step up from them are the Knights of Hell. They’re black eyed, but with a hell of a lot more juice. The elite soldiers, hand picked by Lucifer. Theory is he left their eyes black so that they could blend in and attack by surprise. A rung above them are the Princes of Hell, the yellow eyed demons. Second generation bastards with far too much power. So far as I know, Azazel was the only one still active till I killed him. At the top you have the white eyed demons. The first generation. They’re basically Lucifer's ‘chiefs of staff’. Scary powerful sons of bitches. Not many of them left. I’ve only ever heard of maybe two or three. I’m not sure if Samhain counts.”

He gestured at the frozen image floating in front of them. “If that’s a demon, then it’s something new. So here’s a scarier thought. You saw how powerful that kid Jesse was? The cambion? What if they decided to do that, but not with a human? There’s a lot of scary shit out there. And most of it would be happy to wipe humans off the map. Think what they could accomplish, if something like this possessed one of the Avengers heavy hitters? Maybe go for some mutants? Some of them are damn powerful. This whole world would burn, and it’d look like just another war.”

Sam sat back in his chair, flicking long hair out of his face. “That’s disturbing… but we’re agreeing that it’s more than likely a demon?”

Dean pointed to the photos from the other sightings of Clint and Barney over the past week. The ones showing Clint doing things a human shouldn’t have been able to do. “That sure as hell ain’t human. You Avengers find any traces of sulfur at the scenes?”

Bruce nodded slowly. “All over Clint’s cell. There were traces of it at the mall too, though not nearly as much. I haven’t noticed any at the other scenes, but there could’ve been…”

“Then it’s definitely some kind of demon. And it’s damn strong.” Dean confirmed for Sam.

“Wait, wait.” Strange waved his hands to get their attention. “A cambion ? You met one? There hasn’t been a cambion on earth in centuries ! How did you beat it? They’re incredibly powerful!”

“What was there to beat?” Sam asked quietly. “He was just a scared kid. Barely ten years old if he was a day. Once he found out what he was, and what heaven and hell wanted from him, he ran. Neither one will find him, and lord help anyone that does. It’s the best we could do.”

Strange shook his head. “Once this trouble with Agent Barton is over, I’d like to have a lengthy discussion with you two. It’s always a good idea to get a different perspective. I think we could learn a lot from each other. As to this…” he waved a hand at the holograms. “I think we’re going to need all the different perspectives we can get. The sigils, the diagrams. They’re… eclectic to say the least.”

Both hunters nodded.

“That’s normal.” Sam confirmed. “At least for hunters it is. Some stuff only works for adepts in the field. I can copy out all of the diagrams from your sorcerer texts that I like, but I don’t understand how to use them. They won’t work for me. Hunters use what works.”

“Basically anything that’s effective and user friendly.” Dean agreed. “These? The ones you see repeated the most? They’re ‘plug and play’. So long as you draw them right, they do what they’re supposed to do. No extra effort required. He had a specific goal in mind, but not a lot of knowledge or experience. So he wanted something that would do it without busting his ass. He…” Dean trailed off, staring at the graffiti photos. “Son of a bitch…”

“Dean, what are you...Oh shit…” Sam looked to Steve. “They’re not playing cat and mouse captain, that’s a concerted attack . All of these marks? They’re summoning sigils! Some are for specific demons, but a lot of them are for any nearby demon. If you check in with the police, they’ve probably had a huge uptick in crime.”

The Avengers stilled.

“You’re saying he’s trying to wear us out.” Steve said slowly.

Strange nodded. “New York has become a breeding ground for heroes and villains alike. Sooner or later, the demons will bleed into the mutant and metahuman communities. Once that happens, the police, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Avengers are going to be very busy. Especially if the specific demons they were trying to summon answer the call. Unless I’m much mistaken, they were trying to summon the seven deadly sins.”

“They won’t get all of them. Gluttony, Pride, and Greed are dead. We ran up against them in a hunt. But Envy, Sloth, Lust, and Wrath might still show up if the sigils stay long enough.” Sam told him grimly. “We need to get these sigils down before New York gets overrun. The seven deadly sins leave a tall body count.”

Tony grimaced and kicked back a drink. “Great. So it’s going to be Zombieland meets The Exorcist ? Hope you guys like pea soup. Because I am not getting ralphed on for the greater good.”

“Pea soup?” Steve asked.

“He hasn’t seen The Exorcist yet?” Dean was aghast. “What the hell are you guys doing? That’s a classic!”

Tony smirked. “We’re working him up to it. We watched The Princess Bride at the last movie night. So he’ll get those references. But nothing from the horror movies yet unless it’s really old. And…”

“Now is not the time Stark.” Natasha snapped. Her gaze pinned the supernatural experts in their seats. “You said those markings would attract demons. How quickly can we expect things to become critical?”

“Very. It’s a matter of how many were around New York to start with.” Sam shoved his hair out of his face. “Think of it like putting an electromagnet down in a bunch of metal shavings. At first it’s only the ones that are close, but if you up the juice you get the ones that are farther away. The more of these summoning symbols there are, the more juice goes into calling the demons. Hopefully he hasn’t kept putting them up since he lost his phone, otherwise this could get ugly really quickly.”

“Wong and I can deal with the summoning sigils.” Strange stated firmly. “If the Avengers will provide a printout of this map, we can deal with the ones they have pinpointed, and locate the rest. We will be better prepared to deal with whatever might be hanging around looking for a host.”

“Good. Sam and I’ll stay here and try to figure out what that bastard called down and where it went once he got it.” Dean agreed. “You keep us posted?”

“Of course.”

Sam Wilson leaned forward. “But what about Clint? How are you going to save him? If this thing is something you people haven’t seen, how can you fight a monster you don’t understand?”

The other Sam grinned. “You Avengers do it all the time. You just keep plugging away until you win. And if your first strategy doesn’t work, you improvise. Besides, just because we haven’t seen it doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t. If it really is something new, well, it’s got to have a weakness somewhere. They all do. We’ll find it.” He asked Friday to bring the images and readings from Clint’s cell to the fore. “These will be our biggest clue. From the looks of it, this was his ‘workshop’ before he kidnapped Clint. So this is where he summoned whatever it was. It’s our best shot at figuring this thing out.”

“Can your computer isolate all the sigils?” Strange asked.

Tony shrugged as Friday started doing exactly what Strange had requested. “You don’t have to keep looking to us, she’s more than capable of making a distinction between what you can and can’t ask. Anything classified will be withheld, but otherwise she’ll do what you need her to.”

“Excellent. Friday, if you would be so kind?” The symbols isolated, Strange stood. Raising scared, trembling hands, he guided the images with swiftly growing confidence. “These symbols I know. But I am unfamiliar with the rest.”

Dean and Sam followed his example, pulling the ones they knew away from the group. By the time they were done, only three were left.

Dean grimaced. “And these are the ones that had the most sulfur. So these are the ones that actually got the job done. We can ask Cas to take a run through the library. See what he can dig up. We’ll do what research we can from here and start tracking the bastard down.”

“Cas?” Phil asked mildly.

Dean very pointedly didn’t look at the agent. “A friend. He’s at home looking after Laura and the kids.”

Strange faced to the side and held up his hands, making a circling gesture. A new portal sparked into existence, and the sorcerer reached through the serving tray sized opening to pull a book through. He did it twice more, stacking another four books on the table.

“These should help you with your research. I’ll take the map, and print outs of the symbols. Once the summoning sigils have been destroyed, Wong and I will see what we can find in our own library. Captain, would I set off alarms if I opened portals here to come and go?”

“Only if you show up in rooms you’re not cleared to be in.” Steve answered.

“Then I shall keep you informed. Please inform me if there is anything else I can do.” The Sorcerer Supreme waited just long enough for Vision to hand him the printouts he’d requested, then opened up a larger portal. On the other side of the spark edged circle, a room full of heavy wood furniture and tiled with slate stared back at them. A study full of books, a desk, and a massive globe. Strange stepped through with a wave of one scarred hand, the portal closing behind him.

Leaving the Avengers alone with the Winchesters.

Neither hunter paid them any attention. Sam had pulled Strange’s five massive books to himself and was opening them up to start searching for the three mystery symbols. Dean had turned back to the holograms floating in front of him. He waved away the images and videos.

Dean huffed a breath and set to work. “Friday. Clint said you’re plugged into just about every system Stark can get his hands on. I don’t need specifics. I just need you to look for trends.”

“Understood. What manner of trend am I searching for.”

Dean scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Here’s where it gets fun… Ok, powerful demons trail weird shit behind them. It could be anything. Violence, cattle deaths, blights, freak electrical storms, monster hail; the works. Find out what date that bastard Barney bought the book, and work your way forward from that. No, wait. Find out what date that shopkeeper went missing, and work forward from there. He went missing before Clint did. Barney probably needed a host to call the demon into. As soon as demon climbed into Clint, the shopkeeper became a liability. Look for weird shit happening in and around New York from then to present. The more that weird shit starts to cluster together, the better.”

“You got it.” Friday agreed.

“Those parameters are fairly broad Mr. Winchester.” Vision commented. “Is there aught else that could narrow the search?”

“Not until we know what sort of shit this fucker trails behind it.” Dean disagreed.

“Language.”

Tony snorted. “Really Steve?”

Dean shrugged. “Hey: his house, his rules. I might let one fly out of habit, but I can try to mind myself. Any other rules we need to know? You mentioned tracking bracelets earlier.”

“Ah, yes! Friday where’s Dum-E with those… ah! There you are! Get over here already! We need those. Hey no, over here , I swear I will donate you…!”

The bot slowly backed up. With a trill that was equal parts confused and despondent, it reversed direction and whirred around the table to Tony’s seat. In the pincer of it’s single arm, it clenched the bracelets it’s master had asked for. It offered them to him with a hopeful warble. Tony rolled his eyes and patted the little machine, transgressions forgiven. As if there had ever been any doubt that he would. The genius tossed the two trackers to Sam and Dean. They both caught them, Sam without even looking up from his book.

Dean turned his over in his hands. “The least you could do is buy me dinner first.” he snarked. But he fastened it around his ankle anyway. “This is to keep us from going anywhere you don’t want us to?”

“Pretty much.” Tony agreed.

“Anything else you want to know?” Sam asked, affixing his own tracker.

“The location of the Bartons.” Natasha requested acidly.

“No way.”

The tension of the room went taut as piano wire. Sam rolled his pants leg back down and rose to stand by Dean. Across the table, Phil and the Avengers glowered back. None had risen yet, but their seated positions didn’t lessen the air of threat that hung over them.

Dean glared at Natasha. Few men had met the stone cold gaze of the Black Widow, and fewer still who held it without cold hands and trembling knees. Dean managed both. It was amazing, what forty years in hell at the hands of a white eyed demon could do to a man. The Black Widow was an intelligent, ruthless, and deadly woman. But she also possessed a well of kindness, love, and loyalty. Something demons could never understand. No, the Black Widow held nothing on the fiery pits.

“All due respect Miss Romanoff, but no.” Dean growled, surprising his listeners with the deference. “You’re the Black Widow, and you’re Clint’s best friend. I know you’d do anything for him and his family. And I’d like to let you. But I can’t. Because I’d do anything for them. If keeping them safe means I hold back information, or that I walk barefoot back into hell… I’ll do it. I won’t even think twice.”

Behind him, his brother nodded emphatically. “Same for me. I’d rather die than let those kids be hurt. The demons will put our home under siege if they find out where it is. Our friend Castiel has a good amount of power under his belt, but he…”

“DEAN! SAM! DEAN !”

Dean froze dead in his tracks. “Cas?”

“There is an intruder in the living room!” Friday snapped out at the same time.

“Dean!” Apparently Dean’s call hadn’t gone unheard. The intruder stepped out of thin air and into the conference room. No swirl of sparks, or puff of smoke. He was just suddenly there . He looked ordinary. Tousled dark hair stuck up in all manner of directions, refusing to be tamed. A tan trenchcoat  hung limp and loose over his frame, protecting an equally wrinkled black suit. A backwards blue tie hung loose around his neck.

And his hands and coat were bloody.

Chairs clattered to the floor as the Avengers leapt to their feet. Already strung tight, Wanda didn’t hesitate to lash out at the new stranger. Moving to restrain rather than injure, Vision followed the burst of power.

Neither touched the stranger.

One moment he was there, the next he was clear across the room. A door slid open and Tony’s suit flew in. Red and gold metal enfolded the genius, an armored cocoon. Iron Man leapt to join the fray. Phil drew his gun, hanging back by Bruce for the moment. Natasha would never forgive him if he got himself killed straight off the bat. Besides. Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Iron Man would surely be enough to put this guy on his heels.

“Sam, stay back!” Steve yelled, jerking his shield out from under the table.

“WHAT?!” Both Sams yelled back. The two glared at each other irritably. Wilson suddenly tossed his good arm skyward, clearly asking God for strength or patience as he stomped over to stand by Phil and Bruce, and Winchester laughed.

“Cas! Stop hopping around like a hot potato and get your feathery ass over here! You’re not an X-man!” Dean thundered through the uproar. “Steve, tell them to stand down, Cas is a friend !”

The stranger blinked from one end of the room to the other, appearing directly in front of Dean. He didn’t pay attention to the Avengers, ignoring them the way a human would ignore a housefly. As long as they stayed out of his face, he didn’t much care what they did.

“Dean! Sam!”

“Cas, what are you doing here?” The younger Winchester asked. “You were supposed to stay with Laura and the kids! And the blood…!”

“They are well. Jody promised to pray every half hour I was gone… Dean, the farm has been  attacked! I went to see to the animals, as I had promised Lila. The house was smoldering, and blood was spread all throughout the building. It slaughtered the animals Dean! I promised I would look after them, and it slaughtered them!”

“Hey! Hey!” Dean gripped his friend by the shoulder. “Cas, it’s not your fault! You promised to protect Laura and the kids, not the animals. And you haven’t failed yet.”

“But Lila…”

“You promised that they would be cared for.” The younger hunter stated firmly. “All she was worried about was if someone would be going to the farm to feed and water them. Believe me, she and Cooper will be heartbroken, but they’ll get over it. Better the animals than them.”

Dean smiled kindly. “They’ll understand, Cas. It’s not your fault… Hey. If you really feel shitty about it, once all this is settled you can talk to Clint about replacing what he lost.”

Cas drew himself up sternly. “Dean, one soul is not equal to another. Not those of humans, and certainly not those of animals.”

“No, I know that. But maybe something good can come out of all this. Ok?”

Castiel took a deep breath. “You’re right.”

“Damn straight I am. Now clean yourself up and come meet the Avengers. You scared the crap out of them.”

Cas had the good grace to look semi-embarrassed. A flash of white light blinded all assembled for a moment, and when they looked again he was clean. But he was still rumpled. His tie was still backwards and his hair still defied any attempt at taming. Brilliant blue eyes finally turned to the Avengers. They were ranged in a half circle behind him, weapons at the ready. Sam and Phil were back near the door, Bruce in between them and the fight just in case. His attention skated over most of them, pausing on Phil and Steve before being arrested by Wanda.

Sam saw it. The hunter patted Cas on the shoulder. “She’s a metahuman, Cas. Her eyes glow when she uses her powers. They just happen to glow red.”

He relaxed, murmuring a quiet ‘thank you’. “Steven Rogers. It is good to see you finally free of the ice. The world certainly has need of you now, just as it did back in the nineteen-forties. My name is Castiel. I apologize for my sudden entrance. I found the farm devastated and rushed to find the Winchesters. To be sure that they were safe. I asked Jody to trace your phone.” He added apologetically to Dean. The hunter muttered a curse under his breath, prompting a smile from his brother and friend. “Has there been any word on Clinton Barton? Having seen the farm, I would be grateful for good news to impart with the bad.”

“It looks promising, Cas. They roped the Sorcerer Supreme in to help out, and they actually handled the crime scenes pretty well. Most police officers trample all over everything and ignore any sigils as graffiti. Between the powers this thing showcased and the sulfur it leaves behind, we’re thinking demon. Except that it has these really wild blue eyes.”

Castiel’s head spun round so quickly the Avengers half expected him to get whiplash. “Blue. That’s not a demon color. It can’t be…”

“Except that’s the only thing that fits .” Dean cut in. “This is either something so old no one remembers seeing it. Or it’s something new . We’re just hoping those black eyed bastards didn’t decide to try making a cambion with something less than human.”

The Avenger’s saw their visitor’s spine stiffen. “That’s not possible. Cambions are very difficult to create, they can’t…” he trailed off. “Then again… We did not believe cambions or nephilim were possible until we saw them with our own eyes. For your sakes, I hope that your theory is incorrect. One cambion loose in the world is enough… what steps are you taking to locate this creature?”

Dean gestured to the holographic map of New York and the surrounding countryside that still hung over the conference table. “This thing pinned all of the Avengers against a wall and still had enough power to slow down the Hulk . That kind of juice, it’s bound to trail some kind of omen behind. We just have to find out what . And we’ve got the symbols from the summoning grounds. We know most of them, and it looks like he messed up on a lot of them, which is why they didn’t work. I could see mistakes with the way he painted half of them. But we’ve got three we haven’t seen before. Maybe you can help with that. Friday, can you show Cas those three mystery sigils?”

The computer obliged.

Castiel stepped closer, studying the painted lines dusted with sulfur. “These are not symbols with which I am well acquainted… But there is something familiar about them. And I believe I know from where. May I copy them down? I know someone who will be able to identify them. And they owe me a favor.”

“Please.” Sam agreed. He passed a note pad and a pen over.

Cas quickly and accurately copied down the symbols and tore off the sheet, stuffing it into one voluminous coat pocket. “My friend might prove somewhat difficult to find. I will let you know as soon as I have word. May I pass on what you have learned to Laura and the little ones?”

“Go for it.” Dean agreed. “But make sure you tell Laura and Jody first, and not in front of the kids. Laura can decide how much to tell Lila and Cooper.”

“Very well. I will call and inform them of my intentions, then attempt to locate my friend. I will pass on news of the farm when I see them next. I would rather tell them in person.” He turned, as if to leave, then paused. Blue eyes tracked back to the other Sam, still standing by the doorway. “Sam Wilson. You are a member of the Avengers?”

Startled to be addressed by name, Sam nodded. “Yeah. Why?”

In the blink of an eye, Castiel appeared at the other end of the room, directly in front of Sam. Eyes intent, he touched two fingers to Sam’s forehead. Another brief flash of white light came from where those two fingers touched. Then he disappeared, leaving the former pararescueman blinking at empty space.

“The hell?” Sam asked, turning all the way around to make sure Cas hadn’t somehow gotten around behind him or something.

Phil grabbed his arm, stopping his spinning. “ Sam . Your face. There’s not a scratch on it!”

It was true. Where bruises, scratches, and cuts had marked the Falcon’s features before, now there was only smooth unblemished skin. Stitches were missing, and the pallor that had set in after his injury had disappeared. Sam frowned, looking down at where his injured arm was bandaged to his chest.

“...uh, guys? I don’t hurt anymore. Either Dr. Cho put me on the really good drugs… or my arm’s fallen asleep… or…”

“Or nothing.” Dean slipped his hands into his pockets with a shrug. “Cas isn’t exactly human. And one of his gifts is being able to patch people up when they’re hurt. He’s practical, if nothing else. If this thing is something we’ve never seen before, it’s gonna be all hands on deck. Hope you’re ready for round two.”

The falcon smirked. “Hell yeah. You get whatever it is out of Clint and I’ll go as many rounds as my wings will take me. As soon as Tony fixes the pair they ruined.”

“Fix? I’m scrapping them and making a whole new pair.” Tony corrected.

“Awesome.” Dean hunched his shoulders. “So… any chance one of you would mind taking me to go get my car before someone tows it?”


 

 

Surtur sat in the cement cell.

He wasn’t locked up anymore. That buffoon had released him as soon as he’d ‘woken up’ and taken back control of Clint’s body once more. He snorted. Clint’s body. It wasn’t. Not anymore. Surtur had complete and utter control over it, and nothing could force him to leave if he didn’t want to. But he could be forced to stay .

And therein lay the problem.

The demon growled, careful to keep his voice quiet lest he wake the human sleeping down the hall. But it did nothing to ease his temper. When he had made the deal with the human, he had thought himself to be getting the better bargain. Now he was several weeks in. He was still sitting in a meat suit that, while far beyond what he’d originally been called into, he was bound by deal not to harm! And no closer to achieving his goals! It was ridiculous! Absurd! He was doing all the work! And…

The demon froze.

Slowly, his borrowed mouth twisted up into a feral smile, and his blue eyes became almost gleeful. That was it! He had found it. The loophole he had been looking for! He held up one hand in front of his face. The fingernails darkened, lengthened.

The demon’s cackle echoed through the building.

The deal was broken.


 

Chapter Text


“You know, when you said your car was new back in the sixties, I didn’t think you meant you owned a classic muscle car.”

Dean grinned up at the genius. “Yeah, well. Judging a book by it’s cover and all that.”

He patted the sleek black body of the impala fondly. It had taken some cajoling, but the Avengers had eventually agreed that the Winchester’s car needed to be retrieved. They were a little bit more confused on the ‘why’ of it having to be Dean who went to retrieve his car. But he was wearing the tracker, and aside from attacking Phil and refusing to tell them where Laura and the kids were, he and Sam hadn’t caused any trouble. And to be honest, even Phil readily admitted that going after him was understandable.

They were here to help, and Clint had trusted them to keep his family safe. So they would roll with Clint’s people reading skills. Even if they didn’t understand his choice. It had all resulted in Dean setting out on foot with Steve to go retrieve the car from her hiding place, the Vision watching Steve’s back from on high. They needn’t have worried.

Dean hadn’t tried anything.

Tony came down the last few steps into the garage, walking around his two teammates to get a better look at the car. He eyed it appreciatively. The impala was beautiful, and gorgeously maintained! It was the type of car he would’ve purchased for his collection before he’d become Iron Man. A lot of that collection had been damaged or outright ruined after the Mandarin incident. And he was still trying to reclaim some of them from ruin in his spare time. But this would’ve been exactly the type of car he would’ve snapped up in a heartbeat.

“Original engine?” Tony asked.

Dean beamed. “Have a look for yourself.” He popped the hood, and the genius leaned in to get a better look at the engine. Dean leaned on his elbows, smiling contentedly. “I kept as much of the original engine as I could. She used to be all original, but there was a uh… hunting accident, and I had to build her back up. Some of her didn’t quite make it.”

The Vision looked over the impala curiously. “What manner of hunting accident necessitates a new engine?”

Dean grimaced. “The kind that involves a semi-truck and trailer with a pissed off demon at the wheel. Sam was ok, and Dad wasn’t bad off, but I was already hurt and ended up in a coma. And my baby here was well on her way to a junk yard. Thank god for Sam. He knew I’d never give up on her. Convinced Bobby to tow her back to the yard for me. Soon as I was up and around, I started putting her back together.”

“Well there went my plan to buy her out from under you.” Tony joked.

Dean snorted. “No way man. I grew up in this car. She’s home.” He straightened up and closed the hood. “So. We miss anything while we were gone? Sam find any of our mystery symbols in Strange’s books yet?”

Coming down the steps to see what was taking them so long, Sam Wilson snickered. “No, I didn’t. But your brother might’ve. You’d have to ask him.”

“Damnit, this is going to get old real quick.” Dean grumbled.

Steve pursed his lips. “The file I saw said Sam’s full name was Samuel. Maybe we could stick to his full name until we get this ironed out?” He watched the hunter pale where he stood. “...or, maybe not?”

The hunter grabbed a pair of duffels out of the trunk and locked up his car. “Just… just don’t. Sam was named for our grandpa, Samuel Campbell. We had some experiences that just… yeah, don’t call him Samuel. It’s Sam, or I call him Sammy. That’s it. End of discussion.”

Sam shrugged. “Hey, no problems here. It’s gonna be a bit confusing, but if worse comes to worse, I was in the army. I’ll answer to my last name just as quickly as I’ll answer to my first.” He shrugged and grabbed one of Dean’s duffel bags. “Come on. Let’s get you settled in.”


 

 

Sam was on the porch.

Steve watched the younger hunter curiously. It was almost dawn. The sky to the east was just beginning to go pale. The birds hadn’t even started to stir yet, though they wouldn’t be asleep much longer.

Steve honestly hadn’t expected anyone to be up, much less one of their… Guests? Consultants? What was he supposed to call them? The Winchesters weren’t exactly prisoners. They had come of their own free will, and they had come to help. He wasn’t even sure that they couldn’t just walk out any time that they wanted if their friend ‘Cas’ was any indication. ‘Voluntary house arrest’ was probably the most accurate term for what was going on, if he was being completely honest.

He slipped out onto the porch. “Sam?”

The younger Winchester jumped, hand instinctively reaching for a weapon he may or may not have had. Steve wasn’t sure. Sam had willingly surrendered his weapon after the Phil incident yesterday, but the fact that Sam had managed to get the silver knife past Natasha was impressive. It would probably take a strip search before he would be completely sure they weren’t hiding a weapon somewhere . And even then, he’d seen the way the two of them moved, had seen the sharpness of their minds. Much like himself, short of being unconscious they would never be completely unarmed.

At any rate, the hunter didn’t produce a hidden weapon this time.

Sam slowly relaxed, sitting back down on the porch rail. “Captain. Sorry, didn’t mean to freak out on you.” He hesitated. “I’m sorry, I should’ve asked Friday if it was ok to be out here. I should go back inside. I…”

Steve waved it off. “It’s fine. No harm done. If you tried to go somewhere you aren’t supposed to, she would say something. And call me Steve. If we’re going to be working together we might as well be on a first name basis.” He studied Sam’s tired eyes and slumped shoulders. “Are you alright?”

“...Yeah. Why?”

Steve shrugged. “I’m usually the only one up this early. Anyone else is usually up because there’s a problem or because they were pulling an all-nighter. I know you didn’t stay up all night, so… is there a problem?”

Sam huffed and turned his face to the east.

For a moment, Steve didn’t think he was going to get an answer. Which was alright. He couldn’t exactly force someone to talk to him and tell him their troubles.

But Sam seemed to be in the mood to surprise him that morning.

His voice was quiet, as if he were afraid to wake someone. “Nightmares. Normally I’d go for a run but...” He hiked up a pant leg to display his tracker.

Steve settled on one of the deck chairs. “They can be tough.” He agreed. Looking Sam up and down, he added, “I know the papers I looked at said you and your brother had never been in the service. But I know a soldier when I see one. Where did you and your brother serve?”

Sam gave a grim, harsh laugh. “Nowhere you’ve ever heard of Captain. Nowhere you could ever end up.” He looked out at the east again. The lack of eye contact seemed to make him feel easier. “No, there’s a special place in hell for Dean and me…”

“Every soldier feels that.” Steve soothed. “Doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Sam snorted. “That’s the difference between a soldier and a hunter capt- Steve .” He corrected himself. “Soldiers only think they’re going to hell. I’ve already been there.”

Steve felt something cold creep down his spine. “Sam…”

“Sam!” Dean trotted out onto the porch and straight to his brother. “You give me a heart attack like that again and I’ll kick your ass!”

Sam chuckled. “No note, beds empty, car gone ! You could’ve died !” He parroted in a high pitched voice with a terrible british accident.

“The car better not be gone, and don’t you dare go dying on me.” Dean growled. “Demons know better than to take my deal, and I’m fresh out of favors.” He seemed to notice the tired look in Sam’s eyes, and he frowned. “You alright?”

“ ‘m fine.” Sam muttered. “Just dreams.”

“What about?”

Sam huffed. “Lollipops and candy canes.”

It was on the tip of Steve’s tongue to point out that Sam was more than likely not fine. Lollipops and candy canes didn’t exactly inspire the kind of fear that would drive a man from his bed at the crack of dawn.

Dean gave Sam’s shoulder a squeeze and let the subject drop. Steve didn’t question it. Something told him Dean already knew what Sam’s nightmares had been about. There was a tightness to his eyes that said he understood all too well.

So he switched tactics. “So, if the two of you never served, how did you learn to be soldiers?”

“Dad.” Dean answered. “He was an ex-marine… He didn’t exactly know what to do with a pair of kids after Mom died. He raised us to be hunters.”

Steve cocked his head. “You two don’t strike me as the forthcoming type. Yet for the most part you’ve been very accommodating the whole time you’ve been here. I know Tony was pretty surprised when you agreed to wear the trackers. For that matter, so was I.”

 “Usually we’re not so open. When you’re trying to convince a civilian that monsters are real and want to eat them, and that staying where we put them will keep them alive , it’s really not a good idea to tell them more than they absolutely need to know. We don’t have to worry about that with you guys. You’ve already seen weird shit. Shit that even hunters haven’t seen. You guys deal with norse gods, and saw aliens come out of the sky! What are demons and ghosts compared to that ? You guys can take it. And you’ll keep moving even though something’s knocked you for a loop...That and...Clint trusts you.” Dean shrugged. “It’s literally that simple. He’s our brother. He’s never let us down. And he’s made it clear that the Avengers are his family too… It’s funny. How our family can grow, even though we’ve never met some of it. So… yeah. We’re playing nice for Clint’s sake.”

Steve considered that. It made a certain amount of sense. And was a better explanation than most of what he’d come up with. “And the trackers?”

Dean shrugged. “We can get out of them if we want to. If it makes you guys feel better, it’s no skin off of our nose. Plus it’s a cheat sheet on which rooms we’ll get in trouble for entering. We put colored tape on the doors back home to mark which rooms were ‘open season’, ‘adults only’, and ‘just for hunters’.This is your home. It’s only fair you get to do that too. The trackers work just as well as anything else.”

“Fair enough.” Steve allowed. One of the Winchester’s stomachs grumbled, and Steve grinned. “Sounds like I’m remiss in my duties as a host.” He announced, glancing at his watch. “Come on, I’ll make breakfast… Oh, and Sam? Sam and I go running most mornings about this time. You’re welcome to join us if you like.”

“How come you two didn’t go running today?” Sam asked curiously.

“Because even though Friday says he’s fine, Sam hasn’t been cleared by a doctor yet. Until Bruce or Helen, preferably Helen, clear him for active duty he’s not allowed to come jog with me.”

In the kitchen, Steve proceed to fetch down the biggest mixing bowl they owned. A big creamy colored thing with blue flowers along the rim. Tony used to tease him mercilessly over the patterning until Steve had explained that it was the only thing big enough to hold all of the pancake batter at once. Who cared what pattern was on it if it cut down on the number of dirty dishes afterward? Tony had shut up. The standing house rule was that whatever couldn’t fit in the dishwasher had to be done by hand by someone who hadn’t cooked. They’d all been slapped with that chore more than once.

“Hope you two like pancakes.”

Dean straddled a chair at the kitchen island. Watching Steve ladle in cup full after cup full of ingredients, the hunter gave a low whistle. “Jesus Cap, how many pancakes are you planning to make?”

“Call me Steve. And I’m making Avengers sized portions.” Steve answered glibly. “I don’t think you realize how much food my team can put away. That and coffee. Speaking which, Sam, could you put the coffee on? All three pots please. The coffee is in the cabinet above the machine on the far right.”

Sam was already moving to follow Steve’s request before what he’d said had completely registered. He looked dubiously at the three large pots. “All three?”

“If you would.” Steve confirmed. “Tony and Clint are downright coffee fiends and…” he grimaced, realizing what he’d just said. “On second thought,  two pots will be fine. The third pot is usually for Clint. He usually drinks straight from the pot.”

Dean gave Steve a sad smile. “We’ll get him back. Even if Sam and I have to drag his ass back to the land of the living.”

“That reminds me. Sam said something earlier, and I wanted to ask…”

“Good morning Steve. Dean. Sam.” Phil trotted into the kitchen, looking as neatly put together as ever. His sharp eyes noted the status of coffee and breakfast, and he dropped into a seat at the kitchen island.

“Good morning Phil.” Steve greeted. “The first of the pancakes will be ready in five.”

“Take your time.” Phil answered easily. He glanced expectantly at the Winchesters. Neither one answered his greeting. Sam continued to fuss with the coffee machines, as if he hadn’t heard. Dean didn’t even bother to pretend. The older hunter just blatantly ignored him in favor of talking to Steve.

“You wanted to ask?”

Steve frowned at the passive aggressive behavior, but plowed back into his question. “Sam and I were talking earlier. He said the difference between a hunter and a soldier is that a soldier only thinks they’re going to hell…”

Dean looked over at Sam. “Really?”

Sam shrugged. “We either treat them like family or we don’t Dean. If we’re going to work with them, they need to know what we’re capable of. The good and the bad. We’ve already got a good idea of what they can do. It’s only fair, if nothing else.”

Dean huffed and nodded. “Damn. I hate it when you go all ‘Bobby’ on me.”

Sam finished with the coffee and flopped into a chair beside Dean, his older brother between him and Phil. He playfully shoved Dean’s shoulder. “Someone has to. Everyone needs a ‘Bobby’ to club them over the head every now and again. Now, are you going to tell him? Or do you want me to?”

“No I’ll do it.” Dean grabbed the salt canister Steve had sitting in with the rest of his ingredients. He toyed with it, spinning it on the granite counter top. “Sam and I have died. Several times.”

“Then how is it that you’re still here?” Phil asked.

Dean’s jaw tightened, but he answered the question, directing the answer to Steve. “We’re still here because neither of us was willing to let our brother stay dead.” He ran a hand through his hair, unsure how much to say. “Sam died first. It was always my job to look after Sammy. I couldn’t leave it like that. So I made a demon deal to die in his stead. We’ve both made the rounds since then: heaven, hell, purgatory. The Winchester brothers: supernatural tourists…”

“How did you die? How…. how many…?” Steve asked, batter bowl under his arm. He dipped a ladle into the batter and started spooning it onto the griddle. He was almost afraid to hear the answers.

Sam swallowed hard, skin a little pale. “Knife to the back. Hellhounds…” He grimaced. “I’m still in single digits, but Dean’s died a hundred some odd times now.”

Steve nearly dropped the bowl. “What?!”

Tony stuck his head through the door, bleary eyed and hair a haystack. He narrowed his eyes at Sam and Dean. “I don’t know what you just said to the capsicle, but I want to hear it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him make that noise before!”

Sam rolled his eyes at the genius. “We were after a trickster. Except he saw us coming. He cursed us to re-live the same tuesday over and over again. Every day Dean died a different way. Dean would die and I’d wake up back at the start of the day, with Dean bobbing his head to the radio and telling me to ‘rise and shine’ as if nothing had happened.”

“You never did tell me how many tuesdays you had. But Bobby told me about the next six months you spent trying to get me back after that wednesday.” Dean told him. He looked to Steve. “I’ll march straight back down into hell if that’s where Clint ends up. But only as a last resort. Nothing good comes of pulling someone back. Sam and I have both paid the price. What’s dead should stay dead.”

Eventually the rest of the Avengers wandered in.

Bruce immediately went for the kettle Steve had set on the backburner for tea, pouring out cups for himself and Wanda. Tony was on his third cup of coffee when Vision dropped down through the ceiling to join them, making Dean almost choke on his coffee. No one was sure when Natasha arrived, she just seemed to appear on the counter with a mug of coffee in hand.

Steve served them all with pancakes and a smile, while Tony announced to the room at large that the Winchesters had apparently been dead on multiple occasions and survived it. And apparently the catholics got it right, seeing as how Dean had mentioned purgatory and they were the only ones who believed in that. Sam was quick to correct him. Purgatory wasn’t for souls that didn’t fit in heaven or hell. Purgatory was where the monsters went when they died.

Sam Wilson was the last to join the group, but he was beaming.

“You’re certainly chipper.” Steve commented, passing him a plate of pancakes he’d set aside.

“Hell yeah! Just came from talking to Dr. Cho. She’s cleared me for the field! She can’t explain how, but she wants to know what technology whoever healed me used. Says it’s centuries beyond anything her ‘cradle’ can do.” Sam dug into his pancakes with a will, taking quick breathers for sips of coffee. “Should’ve seen her face when I told her it was a person. She just sort of stared at me, then threw up her hands and said ‘what on earth do they need me for?’. I told her her job was safe.” He cocked an eyebrow at Steve. “Unless Steve’s planning to try and draft that Cas fella to the Avengers?”

Dean snorted. “Fat chance… Though if there’s an emergency, Cas might help.”

“I’d like to know a little more about him before I draft him.” Steve laughed. He set a large platter of pancakes in the center of the kitchen island and passed the bottle of syrup down to Tony, who was making grabby hands at it.

Natasha tutted. “Words Tony. Use your words.”

The genius stuck his tongue out at the assassin.

“Very mature Tony.” Natasha commented. “I’m glad to hear you’re alright Sam. It’ll be good to have you watching our backs again.”

“I’m just glad you guys don’t have an excuse to leave me home on the porch anymore.” Sam agreed. “Hey Sam, Dean, thank your friend for me? He saved me a boatload of recovery time and physical therapy.”

“We will.” Dean promised.

“ ‘Preciate it.” The pararescueman grinned. “I’ve been wondering. How did you guys meet Clint? I mean, how in the hell?”

Sam shrugged. “I met him through Dean. Dean just sort of brought him back to the hotel room one night, both of them beat to hell. Told me ‘this is Clint’ and ‘he’s in trouble’ and ‘he’s staying here with us until I can fix it’. I think I was nine, and Clint was about my age. I didn’t know much about the hunting world yet. I just accepted it and scooted over so Clint could fit in the bed. But looking back, I’m pretty sure Clint was Dean’s first solo hunt.”

Dean didn’t look up from his mug of coffee. “I was thirteen. I’d been on a grocery run. ‘Bout halfway home, I hear a kid yell. Some big douchebag is beating on this scrappy little kid just up the block. No one else around to help him but me.  And he’s beggin’ this guy ‘Daddy stop’. I’m not all that big, but I know how to fight, and that kid couldn’t be much older than Sam. So I dumped the groceries on the ground and jumped in. ‘Cept the bastard disappeared before I could hit him. Kid was getting beat up by a ghost! No way in hell I was leaving him there.”

He tossed back the last of the coffee and went to get more, keeping a respectful distance between himself and Wanda when he passed her. She hadn’t quite forgiven him for the porn episode.

“I told Clint I’d keep him safe, and took him back to our hotel room. That douchebag jumped us about halfway back. Got in some good hits before I chased him off with the salt.  Clint opened up after that. Told me everything. How his mom and dad had died in a car accident. And their dad had attached himself to Clint and Barney. It’s why the boys couldn’t stick a foster home. Bastard would throw things, yell, hit, and generally scare the shit out of anyone who got close to the boys. No one wanted to admit the boys were haunted, so they said they were trouble and passed them on… I kept asking him if there was something that his dad could’ve attached himself to. If he had anything that had belonged to his dad. He kept telling me ‘no’. He didn’t have anything of his dad’s. Barney didn’t either. Damn dead end.”

“They must’ve had something. Otherwise Harold Barton couldn’t have gotten hold on them.” The younger hunter pointed out. “Did you salt and burn Harold?”

“Harold and Edith were cremated. No way he could’ve been clinging to his body. And he wouldn’t have been able to follow the boys around without some kind of anchor.” Dean settled himself back down by Sam. “Clint took me back to the circus and I went over everything those boys owned with an EMF reader. Nothing pinged. But we did learn something interesting. Harold used to show up in the middle of the night and go after them. Except, he hadn’t shown up the night Clint stayed with us. So it had to be attached to Clint. We went back to the motel, and I hit up Dad’s journal. He’d left it behind, and I was hoping maybe it’d give me an idea. You were asleep, and Clint was fiddling with the EMF reader. And all of a sudden, the stupid thing goes haywire .”

Phil frowned. “He didn’t know the item belonged to his father?”

An angry flush stole across Dean’s cheeks. “He didn’t have anything . And that was the problem.”

At his side, Sam went still. “Dean…?”

“You know that scar on Clint’s side? The burn scar tucked up underneath his left ribs? ...It didn’t used to be a burn. Back then, it was initials... H. B. ... Jagged shit, cut in deep with a broken bottle end. That monster was rip-roaring drunk and claimed Clint was ‘disrespectful’ and that he was going to make sure Clint never forgot who ‘owned his ass’. Clint had just moved the EMF reader close enough for it to pick up on it. Bastard considered Clint his property. Guess it counted.”

Sam shook his head and finished his breakfast. “Just when I thought Clint’s dad couldn’t get worse… Damn. What did you do? You didn’t…”

“...Yeah. I did.”

Natasha leaned forward. “Did what?”

Dean grimaced. “The only way to send a ghost packing is to salt and burn what they're attached to. Their dead body, a lock of hair someone kept, their car, an object. Whatever. I’d never heard of a ghost attaching itself to a living person before. Dad hadn’t either, leastways, not according to his journal. No idea how to bust it up. Clint understood it all going in, what needed to be done, and that it might not work. I rubbed salt into those damn scars until his skin was raw. Then I patted gasoline on with a sponge and struck a match. Harold went up like a god damned firework, and we couldn’t have been happier. I patched Clint up and made sure he was safe, then took him back to the circus. But before that, I bought two burner phones and programed numbers into each of them. It looked enough like the burner I already had, so Dad never noticed I had two. Told Clint he was to call if he ever needed anything . Anything at all. He was supposed to give me or Bobby a call. We’d come get him.”

Dean shrugged. “We kept in touch through the years. I kept track of where the circus was. Steered our hunts towards them if I could. Looked for any excuse at all to go see him. He sort of became another little brother, though Dad didn’t know it. Sam and I basically adopted him. Then when all that shit with Barney and the Swordsman and Trickshot went down, we were the ones he called. Dad was off on a month long hunt, so I talked Bobby into letting me borrow one of his cars and go get Clint. Clint stayed with us for the two months it ended up taking Dad to finish the hunt, then took his bow and went to go and try to make his way on his own. We all knew Dad wouldn’t take another kid on the hunt. Two were enough of a pain in the ass. We never really liked the work he found. A hunter's job is saving people. His was to put people in the ground. We got into a lot of arguments over that.”

The others nodded. They could see were that would rub them wrong.

The younger hunter piped up. “It was a relief when he contacted us to say that he was quitting the assassin game.” Sam snickered. “Some hoity toity suit had somehow managed to run Clint to ground and offered him a job. In a way that he couldn’t turn down. Not that he would have turned them down. He hated his job, but he was good at it. Didn’t mean we didn’t worry. Being a secret agent isn’t exactly any safer than being an assassin for hire. Then again, hunting isn’t the safest either, so I think we were pretty even on the worry front. Plus, he seemed to really like the suit that ran him down.”

The Avengers glanced at Phil, amused. It was common knowledge among the Avengers that Phil had been the one to convince Fury that Clint was worth recruiting. And that Phil had been the one to track him down and bring him in. ‘Hoity toity’ was about as far from the truth about Phil as it was possible to get.

“Damn if he wasn’t good at the spy game too though.” Dean muttered into his coffee mug. He finished it off and rose from the table. “Anyway, that’s how we met. Hey Stark, think your computer’s done looking up the weirdest New York’s got to offer?”

“Ask her.” Tony answered. “She’s wired into the whole building.”

“Sweet. Friday? You find anything interesting?”

The quiet, feminine voice gave a hint of amusement as she answered the query. “I believe the appropriate phrase is ‘always’, Mr. Winchester. However, I have noted an occurrence that I believe will interest you. If you would step into the living room where I have more hologram projectors?”

Intrigued, the group moved to the living room, coffee in hand and dishes in the dishwasher. Friday projected a map of New York and the surrounding area. Black dots appeared on the blue map.

“These are the summoning sigils that Doctor Strange promised to remove.” White dots appeared in clusters around the black dots, becoming more sparse as they got farther away. “The white dots mark the violence and petty crime since they were put up. If Doctor Strange has not found the other sigils, I have noted more clusters which might denote additional sigils. However, I thought this would interest you more.” A flare of red dots appeared, assorted other red dots appearing in strings across the city. “Fire was not in your list of specifications, but I believe it falls under the heading of ‘weird shit’. Each one of these red dots marks a suspicious fire during the weeks leading up to Clint’s abduction. Most appear to have started spontaneously, and the city’s fire departments are becoming concerned. The fires form a cluster around the building Clint was held in. Another, much smaller cluster formed around the mall in the hours preceding the hostage incident. Other instances of odd events have been tracked and plotted, but these were the ones which gathered close together and could possibly help track the demon.”

“Son of a bitch.” Dean muttered. “These are from the kidnapping and attack? Have you started tracking the past few days?”

“I have. However, the police and fire department computer systems are much slower than my own, and some of the information has yet to be entered in their databases.” Friday confirmed.

“Keep tracking them.” Dean ordered. “Demons don’t need to sleep, but Barney is human enough and needs someplace to lay low. He’s not stupid. He won’t stay in a hotel where those random fires could give him away. He’ll pick somewhere that isn’t all that flammable. No reason to give the demon an excuse to burn the place down on his head.”

“Of course.”

Tony huffed and added alcohol to his coffee. “So… You’re putting a lot of effort into finding him. Any chance you know what you’re going to do when you do find him? Because I did some reading last night, and even if a tenth of what I read is bullshit, it’s looking more and more like our chances of getting Clint back alive are slim to none. How the hell do you beat something that can’t be killed ?”

“Alright, first things first: What did you read? If you read a method that isn’t true and use it to try to protect yourself, the demon is just going to laugh at you.” Sam pointed out. The young hunter had seated himself on the couch, and was using a borrowed Stark pad to look for the missing mystery symbols. “So what do you think you know? We’ll help you fill in the blanks.”

“It’ll probably be better in the long run if you all know how to protect yourself from what’s out there.” Dean added.

Steve rested a hip against the couch. “That sounds reasonable.”

Tony shrugged. “Ok. A lot of what I saw used ‘demons’ and ‘evil spirits’ interchangeably. I saw a lot of people talking about energies and other such nonsense. I’m willing to bet they’re full of bullshit. Saw some others talking about clearing nasty things out of their homes with sage smoke. Protecting themselves with crystals, or holy symbols. Rosaries and that sort of thing. A glass of water under the bed or behind the door. Different mirror placements. Prayer. Salt sprinkled in the corners of the house. Any of that work?”

“I’ve heard certain types of wood are effective, though for the life of me I can’t remember where I heard it. Maybe in polynesia?” Phil offered.

Tony gestured at Phil in a ‘see’ gesture. “There you have it. ‘Blank’ away Winchester.”

Dean snorted. “Gladly. Most of what you just rattled off is bullshit. Demons are evil, and they’re spirits. But evil spirits are something else. Demons are souls that were in hell so long that they are charred to a cinder. Their humanity has been completely burned away, and there’s nothing else left of them but evil and spite. They’re cunning as hell. Always assume they have an angle that they’re working. You better believe that this  demon is doing everything he can to get out from under Barney’s thumb. That he hasn’t yet is a friggin’ miracle.”

Natasha folded her arms. “So what does work on a demon?”

“This.” Dean pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it at her.

The assassin snatched it out of the air. She gave Dean a warning look. “For future reference Dean, unexpectedly throwing things at assassins does not generally end well.” She glanced down at what he’d thrown her. It was a heavy crystal salt shaker. She recognized it from the set Stark had in the kitchen. She wondered when he had palmed it, and how no one had noticed. “Salt?”

“Salt.” Dean agreed. “By and large, that is one of the best weapons you can have in the supernatural game.”

Sam Wilson folded his arms in amusement. “So we’re fighting monsters with condiments now? What’s next, mustard? Hey, is ketchup good for anything?”

“Unless you’re planning on drawing a devil’s trap inside your burger so a demon doesn’t steal your sandwich then no, sorry. Just salt. Though some hoodoo practitioners use pepper in ‘goofer’ dust.” The other Sam laughed. “Salt is a pretty ancient trick, but it still works. It symbolizes purity, and it’ll burn against evil. Or form a barrier against it. But the barrier has to be unbroken. Putting salt in the corners only ensures that demons and ghosts don’t congregate in your corners. If you want protection, you need to be inside a salt circle, or be ready to hit them with salt. That other stuff you mentioned… Sage smoke might work against some stuff, but it’s not as effective. Crystals and holy symbols are about a fifty-fifty split, and even then you need some prep before they’ll work. And rosaries won’t do anything without invoking the name of God. Mirrors aren’t always protection, but placement is definitely important. There is a type of wood that works. It’s harder to get a hold of, but I did know a hunter that used it. And the water under the bed or behind the door is a hoax. I’m pretty sure Dad tried it once, just to see. And prayer…”

“Prayer isn’t protection.” Dean stated firmly. “It’s communication. I don’t know if any of you are believers, and if you are, good for you. Just make sure you address your prayers to God, or a specific angel you’ve met personally and trust with your life. And whatever you do, never tell an angel ‘yes’. It’s how you end up dead.”

“Angels?” Tony made a helpless gesture with his hands. “There are angels now? Pull the other one, it has jingle bells. Angels aren’t real. I’m having a hard enough time believing in all this other hocus pocus you’ve got going so far!”

Dean shrugged. “To each his own. Used to be, Sammy was the one with faith, and I was the one who didn’t believe it unless I could see it and touch it. I’m not saying you should believe in every boogie man that’s ever been dreamed up by some crackpot with too much alcohol. But understanding that you don’t know everything is a good place to start. And besides, you’ve already met an angel. Cas is one of the few who actually exemplifies what God intended for angels to be.”

“Castiel was an angel?” Steve asked sharply. “He looked human. I thought maybe he was a mutant. Like Professor Xavier’s X-men.”

“So that’s who runs the x-men. Explains why it looks like there should be a hunt around his place, but no one ever actually finds anything. The dude’s place is notorious with hunters as a hoax… Cool. No, Cas isn’t human. Our lives might’ve been easier if he was, but they would’ve been a hell of a lot shorter. And planet earth would’ve died bloody by now. He’s been human a time or two when something was off with his grace, and he wears a human’s body the way we wear clothes. But he’s not human.” Grimacing, Dean admitted, “he’s also exhibit ‘A’ of why you should never say ‘yes’ to them. The dude he’s wearing volunteered to play meat suit for an angel. Idiot didn’t know what he was getting into. Cas did his best to keep Jimmy and his family safe, but Jimmy still ended up dead. His wife went looking, and she ended up dead too. Jimmy’s body is essentially Cas’s now. Talk to Jimmy though, he’s not exactly broken up about it. Better Cas keeps his body, rather than let it die and move on to another vessel in the bloodline. Other angels aren’t so conscientious as Cas... Just be careful what you’re agreeing to is all I’m saying.”

“Or else they wear you like an armani. Got it.” Tony added more alcohol to his coffee.

“So. How do you intend to catch Clint?” Natasha asked.

“Through experience and sheer stubbornness.” Dean answered. “Any chance we can have our duffel back? We’re gonna need that. Along with some things from our car. If you guys are going to pinch hit as hunters for this caper, then we need to make sure that demons can’t climb up inside you too.”

No one could think of an objection, so Sam Wilson retrieved the duffel.

The beat up army surplus bag wasn’t much to look at. Some of the threads were broken, or the edges of the straps frayed. Sam set the bag down with a rattle by the coffee table, and the Winchesters took over. Dean pulled out one item after another, laying them out on the table for the Avengers to see.

Like the Falcon had said, the weapons weren’t new.

All manner of weapons were jumbled inside the bag like the christmas sack of some murderous second hand santa. The guns were older models, nicks and scratches denoting decades of service in hard conditions and even harder fights. But they were well maintained, the metal and oil gleaming in the late morning light. Mixed in with the guns were a hefty mix of other weapons and innocuous items that the average person would never have considered for self defense.

Let alone offense.

Wooden stakes and flasks were at home beside Glocks, and machetes nestled against leather bound books and shotguns. Boxes of bullets and shells sat beside knives and dream catchers, and the leather cords of different charms tangled with beaded rosaries and large cans of Morton Salt. The little girl in the yellow raincoat seemed very at odds with the guns and knives.

Apparently the Winchesters rated a good spot on the murderous second hand santa’s ‘nice’ list.

Sam Wilson grinned and picked a wooden stake from the pile. “For Dracula?”

Dean made a scornful noise. “Compared to actual vampires, most versions of Dracula are push overs. If the real ones had as many rules and weaknesses as the novel version had, they’d almost be easier to catch. Though I’d take a nest of vampires over a demon any day. Even when a bloodsucker’s victim is changed, they can be cured so long as they don’t feed on humans. Nope. This is for the vampires.” He picked up a machete and traded it for the stake in Sam’s hands. “Take their head off or molotov their asses. Nothing you see in the movies works. Crosses are useless, sunlight just gives ‘em a light sunburn. And a wooden stake is just going to make them laugh, or maybe give them splinters.”

The pararescueman pulled the machete halfway out of its sheath to look over, then allowed his attention to wander back to the stake in Dean’s hands. “Then what’s the stake for?”

“Trickster gods.” Seeing the disbelieving looks on their faces Dean grinned. “Hey, the pagans weren’t exactly right, but the bastards were gods to them .”

Sam nodded helpfully. He expanded on what Dean was saying. “Norse, Hindu, European, African… Everything starts somewhere. America being a melting pot, a lot of the monsters immigrated here with the people. It’s why hunters here in the U.S. have a high mortality rate. There’s more here than any one country would usually host. And they’re from all over the world. One week you could be after something native like a wendigo, the next you could be after something more exotic. Like a kitsune from Japan.” He gave Dean an amused look. “Or, you know, an angry apple orchard scarecrow from Norway. But only if the apple pie is freaking worth it.”

“That was one time, Sam! One ! And how did you know?”

“I talked with your fellow sacrifice before we dropped her off. She had plenty to say.” Sam ignored his spluttering brother and picked up the rat’s nest of rosaries and charms. He set to work untangling the mess with practiced fingers, laying them out neatly when he got one free. He set the knotted lump of leather and beads to the side as soon as he had nine identical charms loose from the hoard.

He held them up so the Avengers could see.

“Until we get Clint back and put the demon down, you’ll need to wear these. They won’t keep a demon from hurting you or throwing you around. But they’ll definitely keep them from breaking into your head and taking control.”

Steve leaned forward to take one of the little metal charms. Conscious of the eyes of the rest of the Avengers on him, he pulled it on over his head. Nothing happened. “Am I supposed to feel anything?”

Dean shook his head. “No. It might get warmer if a demon won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but that’s about it. Not that you’d notice. Demons aren’t exactly subtle. If one’s after you, you’ll know it and fight back instinctively. No time to feel or worry about if your jewelry’s getting hot.”

The other Avengers took one.

Sam Winchester made sure to pass one to Vision. “I don’t know if a demon could roll you the way it would a human, but better safe than sorry.” Vision politely thanked him, and Sam moved on. But he hesitated with Bruce. “Should I cut a longer cord? In case you have to change? I don’t want you to lose it in the middle of a fight.”

Dean winced. “The Hulk as a demon… that’d suck ! I’ll go back to the impala and cut a new cord. ‘Bout how big should I cut it Doc?”

“I’m not sure. About…” Bruce blushed. The doctor held out his hands, showing them how big the circumference of the Hulk’s neck was. “About that big around? The Hulk’s size isn’t constant. He could be ten feet tall, or fifteen. And his weight fluctuates. I don’t know why, it just happens. He might still end up being too big for it, or tearing it off and throwing it away if it annoys him. There’s just no guarantee.”

“We can work with that. I think I can make one that’ll adjust larger for him and small for you.” Dean assured. Meeting the eyes of the rest of the Avengers he added, “If all else fails, and you do get possessed: You lose your charm, someone tears it off your neck, whatever . You can still fight.”

Dean tapped his temple grimly. “It’s all about willpower. Once the demon is inside, they dig in like a tick. But if you can muscle up enough willpower, you can take control back for a few seconds. A minute max. Go for the salt and down it. I don’t care if it’s a shaker, a salt packet at McDonalds, or a bag of friggin road salt. Even one of those fancy salt lamps will do in a pinch. Shatter it and grab a piece. Find something , and put it in your mouth! Demons can’t abide salt, and if you swallow enough of it they will smoke out faster than you can blink . Once you’re demon free, get yourself someplace safe. Churches work for lower level demons. That means most of the ones with black or red eyes. There aren’t many nights of hell left, so your chances of running up against one of those is slim. White or yellow eyes...Well, you’re pretty much fucked. Let’s hope this bastard hasn’t managed to call in those kind of reinforcements. The best thing you can do is if you can get into a room  without windows and line the perimeter with salt. And don’t skimp. That stuff is all that stands between you and the pissed off hell breather you just kicked out. If you don’t have enough to line the room, make a circle and get inside. Until the circle is broken, they won’t be able to touch you. But they’ll do their damnedest to break it without touching it. So make it thick. Any questions?”

“You are not wearing one of these.” Wanda pointed out, playing her new charm back and forth between her fingers.

Both Winchesters pulled the neck of their shirts down to display the tattoos underneath their left collar bones.

“This one’s a little bit harder to lose.” Dean explained. “After a demon locked herself into Sam and tried to make him kill me, we realized the charms weren’t enough for hunters who had all of hell on their asses. So we figured out how to lock those friggin bastards out. Doesn’t stop them from plucking surface thoughts out of our heads, or keep out anything else. But angels need permission, and djinns need to touch you. We can deal with them. So long as these keep the demons from sneaking in while we’re not looking, we’re happy. Now the charms are for the people who survive the exorcism. We don’t need them anymore. I don’t know if a tat would’ve helped with Loki, but as soon as we get him back I’m carving one into Clint’s hide.”

Sam laughed. “We should’ve done it years ago, honestly. Maybe we could’ve headed off this mess.”

The other Sam patted his shoulder. “Shoulda, coulda, woulda man. You can’t change what happened before. All you can do is keep movin. Try and do better.”

“That’s all any of us can do.” Steve agreed.


 

 

Dean’s cell started to play the Ghostbusters theme.

As they’d given the Winchesters their weapons back, it hadn’t made sense not to trust them with cell phones. So those had been returned to them as well. Dean fished it out of his pocket and glanced at the text. A little smile touched his lips.

“Hey Sam!”

“Yeah?”

“Yo?”

The two Sam’s looked at each other with shit eating grins and laughed. Though the same name thing had proven frustrating for Dean and the rest of the Avengers, the two Sams had embraced the confusion with amusement. Both now took a sadistic glee in answering to their name in unison at any given opportunity.

The rest were wishing that they’d known to keep the two Sam’s apart.

My Sammy. Jodie’s texting. Says Lila is gripeing ‘cause she’s missing her hair buddy. Laura has a limit on how many times Lila can do her hair in a day because she’s got things to do, and Cooper doesn’t have long enough hair for her to braid. At least that’s the excuse.” He snickered. “Coop would let her. At least he would unless anyone else is around. You’re the only one who’ll let her do your hair as many times as she likes.”

“Yeah, tell her I miss her too. How about Cooper? You mean to tell me he’s not missing being your tool monkey?”

“Probably.” Dean agreed. “But Jodie hasn’t said anything about him busting into the garage yet to work on the car, so at least he’s listening.” His eye caught the intent way everyone was listening to the conversation. Dean sighed. “Look… Would it make you guys feel better if one of you went and checked on Laura and the kids? Cas can run one of you home and back. So long as you don’t take something trackable. Weapons are fine. Never know when shit’s gonna hit the fan.”

Natasha raised her chin defiantly. “Call your friend. I’ll go.”

Sam waved at Dean and went back to the books Strange had lent them. “You go ahead and call him Dean. He always answers you. That and I’m not praying in front of the Avengers.”

Dean rolled his eyes, but couldn’t quite suppress the embarrassed shuffle of feet, or the way he turned away from the heroes. “Hope you got your ears on Cas. We need you to run one of the Avengers out to the Batcave to see Laura and the kids. Get here, soon as you can, ok?”

A minute passed.

“Ok Dean.”

Between one blink and the next, the angel had appeared directly behind Dean. He looked just the same as before, hair all mussed, and the same rumpled suit and trenchcoat. His lips twitched, and his eyes twinkled as the startled hunter leapt away from him with a yelp.

“Damnit Cas! How many times I gotta tell you? Personal space!”

The angel shrugged, a gesture he had picked up from his humans over the years, much to the hunters’ chagrin. “You said you needed me to ferry an Avenger home. While I understand the necessity, I feel it prudent to point out that I am not a taxi service. Now, which one is coming with me? Jody is waiting at the door to let us back in, and it is rude to keep her waiting.”

Natasha removed her phone from her pocket and passed it to Steve. “Right here. Who’s Jody?”

“One of the hunters we trust. She dropped everything to come help. She lost her family to a monster. She’d never let anything happen to Laura and the kids.” Dean assured. He gestured her towards Cas. “Better get goin’. It’s never a good idea to leave a hole in your defenses for too long.”

Castiel reached for Natasha.

The assassin tensed, and he paused. “Are you alright Miss Romanov? You do not seem ill at ease with your teammates, or with my friends. Many of whom are physically stronger than yourself.”

“There’s a difference between humans, metahumans, and beings that can take you over. We have enough to worry about with Clint.” She answered stiffly.

“You are not of the correct bloodline. Nor do I require a new vessel at this time. The one I currently wear is fully functional, and I can reconstitute it as I need. I do not believe I will ever need to take a new vessel again, so long as this one can be repaired and remade.” His eyes softened. “An angel cannot posses a vessel without express permission. We cannot infringe upon free will. Some of my brethren have become  more ...creative, in encouraging their vessel’s choice. But no matter what threat is levied against you, the choice is still yours. To bear someone away, I must touch them. I generally reach for their brow, the housing of the mind, so that I might shield them should we be attacked in flight. Is that acceptable to you?”

The assassin didn’t tense again. “Do it.”

Castiel laid two fingers against her brow, and the two were gone.

Dean shrugged and went back to cleaning their weapons. “Well, she’s not gonna poop for a week.”


 

 

 Natasha blinked up at a sunny sky.

The world seemed to settle into place under her feet, and her eyes focused. Castiel immediately took his hand away, mindful of her personal space. They were standing in a wooded clearing. Set into a hill was a massive brick and concrete building. A tower topped the back of the structure, and windows were set into the thick walls.

Cooper and Lila were in one of the tower windows.

Natasha felt something in her chest loosen at the sight of their smiles.

“Y’all just going to stand there, or are you going to come in some time today?” A woman about Natasha’s height waited at the door. She had a slim build, but wore a gun on a belt around her hips like she knew how to use it. The belt looked like something a law enforcement officer would wear. Her hair was a dark chocolate brown, and she was dressed casually in jeans, a tank top, and a plaid flannel shirt.

“Castiel.” She greeted as the two approached. “An’ you must be the Black Widow. Miss Romanov, right? Name’s Jody. Welcome to the bunker. The kids have been going bananas since they found out you were coming.”

“I have to go.” Castiel stated bluntly. “Give my love to the children. There is someone I must see about some symbols.”

“Hop to it then. We’ll look after the Avenger.”

Cas nodded and disappeared with a soft rustle of feathers.

Natasha hadn’t been expecting such a warm reception. She shook hands with Jody and followed her inside the bunker, Jody reaching back to make sure the door was properly closed behind them. Inside, the furnishings more opulent than the spartan things she would’ve expected to find in a ‘bunker’. Bunkers were about endurance and utility. Here it was all hardwood and leather, instead of steel or plastic.

As soon as the lock on the door clicked into place, Jody went to the railing and yelled at the top of her lungs. “Laura! Miss Romanov’s here!”

“It’s ‘agent’, actually.” Natasha corrected.

Jody accepted the correction with a dip of her head. “Know that feeling. Took years to break people of the habit of calling me ‘Mrs’ instead of ‘Sheriff’. Visitors thought we didn’t have a sheriff, and someone’s wife was running the town.”

“You’re a sheriff?”

Jody grinned. “Not all hunters travel. Some of us just stake out a territory and hunt anything that comes close to our home. And then some of us are just folks who are hunter friendly. Folks who know the supernatural world is out there, and help the hunters as we’re able. Doctors, lawyers, law enforcement, motel owners. You name it. Word gets around quick who’s willing to lend a hand. I’m a cross between a territory hunter and hunter friendly myself.”

“Natasha?” Laura came into the library, drying her hands on a dishtowel.

Cooper and Lila stampeded past Laura and straight to the assassin. “Auntie Nat!” They hollered, slamming into her at full speed and almost bowling her over. She laughed and hugged the pair of them.

“Yes, yes, I’m glad to see you too!” She ruffled Cooper’s hair, and tweaked Lila’s braid. “Where’s your little brother? And have you been good for your mom?”

The two nodded solemnly.

“We’ve been being extra good for Mommy and Jody and Castiel, and Sam and Dean; when they’re here.” Lila asserted proudly. “Or at least we’re trying to be. And we’ve gotta be quieter, Mommy put Nate down to a nap. It’s so cool here Auntie Nat! They have a telescope! In a tower!”

Cooper nodded eagerly. “And a garage! Dean and I took a car apart to see why it wasn’t running. But he had to leave before we could fix it, to help find Dad… Have you found Dad yet Aunt Natasha?”

Natasha stroked a thumb over his cheek. “No Coop. But Sam and Dean found us in New York. With all of us working together, we’re bound to find him soon.”

Laura cocked her head, listening to her kids chatter to Nat. Natasha was quiet. Not an unusual occurrence for her. But she had different kinds of quiet. Clint had names for her different types. Her ‘happy’ quiet, ‘sad’ quiet, ‘angry’ quiet, and ‘deadly’ quiet. Laura wasn’t as fluent in silent Natasha as Clint was, and probably never would be. She hoped to never have to be in a situation that required Natasha’s ‘deadly’ quiet.

Right now, Natasha was using her ‘we need to talk’ quiet.

“Laura, Cooper, supper’s almost ready. Why don’t you go set the table? Then go get your brother from the bedroom. Jody, Aunty Nat, and I will meet you in the kitchen.” The two kids obediently trotted away. Laura waited until they were out of sight. “Alright, what’s wrong?”

“Have you talked to Castiel yet?”

Laura shook her head. “No. This is the first he’s come back since yesterday. He left to go feed the animals, then called Jody’s phone to say he was helping the boys and wouldn’t be back for a while, and to pray if we needed anything. He called again a few minutes ago to tell Jody you were coming, and to ask her to open up the front door for him… Nat, what’s wrong?”

Haltingly, Natasha told Laura about the farm.

She described their encounter with the possessed Clint, their mad dash to get to the farm, and the smoking ruins they’d found there. She told her about the destroyed minivan, and the slaughtered animals. Everything.

“Castiel was devastated about the animals.” She concluded. “He went straight to Sam and Dean when he saw what had happened to them. He seemed heartbroken. He promised Lila and Coop he’d drop by every couple of days to do the chores I guess?”

“He did.” Laura confirmed. She sighed. “The kids’ll be heartbroken. But at least they’re alive. I’ll talk to them… Castiel, Natasha told me about what happened at the farm. It’s not your fault. Don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to the children.”

Jody clapped her hands together. “Well! Now that that’s settled, let’s go get lunch!


 

 

… ya better call GHOSTBUSTERS!

“Damn it Dean!”

Sam scooped his brother’s abandoned phone up off the table beside him and flipped it open. Dean had a picture message from Jody.  He opened it, and a smile curled his lips. He tilted his head back to look at the kitchen behind him.

“Hey Dean! Steve! Jody sent a picture text. I think you guys’ll like this one! Come see!”

Hunter and heroes gathered around.

It was a photo of Natasha, Laura, and the kids. Natasha had Nathaniel on her hip, and her free arm around Laura. Cooper and Lila were in front of the two women. Cooper was holding a sign that said ‘all good here’. And everyone was making a silly face at the camera.

Steve laughed. “Well, I guess they’re good!”

“Told ya.” Dean clapped a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Come on Sammy, pack it up. Dinner’s on in fifteen.”

“ ‘k. I could use the break.”


 

 

Dinner was an easy affair.

Steve and Dean had tag teamed in the kitchen. Dean had manned the griddle pan to put heaping plates of burgers on the table. Steve had formed the patties by hand, and once the last of the patties were on a plate waiting for Dean to cook up, Steve had started in on side dishes. Together they’d managed to put together a pretty impressive spread. Even by Avengers standards.

But conversation didn’t flow. With Dean getting stuck next to Phil, it was painfully obvious that Dean was avoiding interacting with the mild mannered agent as much as was physically possible. Sam was slightly better, but he was giving Phil the cold shoulder too, only speaking to Phil when addressed directly. Phil bided his time until after dinner, when the breakable dishes and sharp cutlery were safely away from hunter hands in the dishwasher.

“Dean.”

The older Winchester tensed. Even from behind, Phil could see his jaw clenching. “...Yes Agent Coulson?”

“Did I do or say something to offend you? Breathing maybe? Because whatever it is, we need to put it to bed and focus on finding and saving Clint. We need to work together and…”

Dean spun around and clocked Phil in the jaw for the second time in as many days.

The hunter seemed to loom over the agent. “It’s not that you came back. God knows Sam and I can’t pick bones over that. It’s what you did once you were back . We mourned for you, you asshole! Mourned ! For a dude we’d never met outside of a chat room! Yeah that’s right, we’re the ones you were talking to ‘Agents Cheese’. You’ve been keeping us updated on our brother for years.”

His hands curled in fists, Dean glared down at Phil. “Do you have any idea what you did to Clint? How destroyed Clint was when he found out that Loki murdered you? How much he still feels the ache of missing you? The guilt of your death? Do you? Because we do! We’re the ones who drove clear across the country to pick him up from Shield when he couldn’t go home. We’re the ones who stayed with him, in case Loki wasn’t done with him. Because Natasha couldn’t. We helped put him back together! Us! Not you! And now you show up after two years and expect us to be all hunky-dory about it? How hard would it’ve been to let Clint know? You couldn’t drop him a damn postcard while you were off gallivanting around the world? It’s been two god damned years you bastard! Yeah, I’m fucking pissed. In fact I am beyond pissed with you. You have no idea how badly you fucked up. So back the hell off, or I will beat the shit out of you.”

His outburst spent, Dean stormed out.

Phil stayed sitting on the floor, stunned. Slowly, he looked to the younger Winchester. Sam was halfway to the door, looking as though he wasn’t sure if he should stay with the Avengers or go after his brother.

“Sam? ...You feel the same?”

The younger hunter made a helpless gesture. “I let Dean think I was dead for almost a year once. I was ...soulless at the time, and logically it made sense. But I really hurt him, and there’s a part of me that’ll never forgive myself for doing that to him. You doing that to Clint… It hits close to home.”

“Do you think he’ll ever forgive me for not telling him?”

“Clint? Probably. Eventually. Dean? ...I don’t know. You hurt a member of his family. He’s not likely to forget that anytime soon.”


 

 

Authorities have spotted Agent Barton and his brother in Greenwich village. Authorities request that the Avengers hurry.

Steve dropped his sketchbook and pencil on the coffee table and jumped up off the couch. “You heard her folks! Let’s move!”

Avengers scrambled into suits and out to the helipad. The quinjet waited there, preflight checks done and the engine warmed under the Vision’s careful hands. Sam and Dean were already on board and strapped into their seats.

“Since when were they Avengers?” Tony bawled over the roar of the engines.

“We don’t have time to put them off!” Phil yelled back. “I am not missing them again because we didn’t get there fast enough! We are catching Clint and Barney today ! If the Winchesters can help with that? They’re coming!”

Tony looked helplessly to Steve.

The captain shrugged and closed the ramp after the last of his teammates. “I’m with Phil on this one. We can’t afford to ignore a resource. They stay.” He patted Tony’s shoulder and went to sit by the Winchesters.

Dean had his arms crossed over his chest, gripping the shoulder straps of the harness holding him in his seat. His knuckles were bone white, and his freckles stood out like ink spots against his pale cheeks. He hummed softly under his breath, eyes focused on nothing.

At his side Sam looked both concerned and amused.

Steve leaned forward to give Sam a worried look. “Is he alright?”

Sam laughed, and Dean shot them both a watered down glare.

“He’s alright.” Sam snickered. “Dean’s just aviophobic. He’s deathly afraid of flying.”

The other Sam stared at them, incredulous. “You guys fight demons, monsters, and ghosts on the daily, and you’re afraid of flying ?! Are you kidding me? You’ve both come back from the dead , what have you got to be afraid of anymore?”

“Death isn’t anything to sneeze at.” Dean snapped. “Death is a scary son of a bitch who likes his pizza. We might not be as afraid of dying as we used to be, but no one in their right mind ever stops being scared of Death .”

“That’s disturbing.” Tony stated. “On several fronts, actually. You’re saying that…”

Sirs, the live footage of the Bartons are coming in. There’s something you should see.

Holograms floated into being in the center of the quinjet, the same images displayed on screens in the cockpit to keep Vision informed. The heroes stared at the unfolding scene with growing horror.

“Holy hell…” The Falcon whispered.

“Well, you’re not wrong.” Dean answered sadly. “Looks like the demon finally found a way around the deal with Barney.”

The others couldn’t find the words to answer.

Clint looked like hell.

He looked like he’d come from hell. Any attempt on the demon’s part at pretending to be human had long since been abandoned. Eyes that had been an eerie electric blue now blazed with gold fire, tiny tongues of flame licking out across his face. A fiery mane had replaced the short sandy hair, snapping and hissing as it played in the breeze. Ebony black horns had sprouted from his brow, and the tips of his fingers had morphed into deadly sharp black claws.

He now truly looked the part of a demon.

Fire played around his boots. It scattered out and away, dancing on the breeze like fall leaves. The air around the demon’s stolen body slithered and shimmered. He almost looked like a mirage in a dessert. The demon bellowed and tossed his horned head. Fire licked around his fingers, and he cast it into the fleeing civilians. The unnatural flame bit into the pavement, entrenching itself and leaping even higher to trap those who hadn’t been fast enough. More streams of molten heat and fire so hot it was tinged blue rushed out from the demon’s hands to cage them in. Even more fire wrapped around cars and smashed storefronts. The demon roared with laughter, amusing himself by tossing tongues of flame at his captives. They tried to dodge, but there were too many people in a very small area. Inevitably, some were burned, while others frantically tried to put out smoldering garments.

Up above it all, Barney Barton watched it all with a worried frown.

Into this hell, Vision piloted the quinjet. The Android set the jet down with ease and skill. As soon as they touched down, Wanda lowered the ramp at the back. Steve led his team out into the fray.

“You two stay here!” He yelled, pointing a stern finger at Sam and Dean when they tried to follow. “That goes for you too.” He added at Phil. “I’m not losing you again if I can help it. We can’t count on another resurrection. Stay here in the quinjet with the Winchesters. Be ready to back us up if we need it. Bruce! Code green! It took all of us combined last time just to make him sit up and take notice.”

Bruce pulled his glasses off and set them on a nearby ledge. His kind eyes flashed to a shade of acid green. And then he was changing. Dean and Sam stared, indignation put on the back burner for the moment in favor of awe as they watched the mild mannered scientist they had come to know shift into a massive green giant with rage filled eyes.

The hulk crouched on all fours in the cargo bay of the quinjet. He growled a warning at the two strangers on board. They stayed exactly where they were. He snorted approvingly. He got the impression that puny Banner liked them. Those emerald eyes turned to look at Phil, and he bared his teeth in a welcoming smile. It was good to have Secret Agent Man back.

“Hulk!” Steve barked.

Hulk gave the Star Man his attention. And then he was climbing out of the quinjet and into the fiery hell that had been Greenwich Village. Together with his teammates, the Hulk went after the fiery man who was also Birdy. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a circle of sparks swirl into being. He almost swerved towards it, thinking that Fire Man was attacking from the side. But then people came out of it. A man in a red cape, and an oriental man dressed in charcoal grey.

It’s alright Hulk. That’s Doctor Strange. He’s a friend. He’s been helping us look for Clint. Once we catch Fire Man, Strange will help us turn him back into Birdy. Bruce whispered inside the Hulk’s head.

Hulk gave an approving nod and went after Fire Man again.

Something struck him in the side, knocking him out of the line. He stumbled, then whirled with an angry roar. A roar that was abruptly cut off. A man in civilian clothes stood there, arms akimbo. Behind him, Hulk could see other civilians attacking the avengers.

“What’s the matter monster? Can’t you take it? Or can you only dish it out?” The man grinned. “Or are you afraid?”

“Hulk not afraid!”

“No?” The man smirked, flashing demonic black eyes. “I think you are.”

Hulk roared, drawing back a fist to smash the man. Inside his head, Bruce Banner threw everything he had against it. Hulk! Hulk, no! Don’t hit him! Look at his eyes! See how they’re black? It means a demon is inside him. If you hit him, you won’t hurt the demon, just the person he’s wearing !

Hulk checked his swing with a frustrated snarl. “Hulk not want hurt man. Hulk want fight demon. Come out demon! Out and fight Hulk!”

The demon laughed. “Oh! That is so not going to happen!”

Black eyes flashing, the demon attacked.


 

Chapter Text


“Shit!”

Dean stared, aghast as the majority of the cornered civilians suddenly stopped panicking. They leapt through the flames without fear, turning on the Avengers. Most didn’t even have weapons. They went after the team with their bare hands, or weapons of opportunity. Purses, briefcases, umbrellas, canes, high heeled shoes. Anything readily to hand was brought to bear against the Avengers.

The attack set the heroes back on their heels.

Black eyes stared at them from every face, evidence of possession deathly clear. Their myriad voices taunting. There was no way to fight the demons without hurting the civilians they wore. Men, women, teenagers, twenty-somethings, older. Some of the demons were wearing men and women well into their seventies! What would happen to them when the demons left, and their bodies had been under more stress than they could stand? What then?

They had no way to fight back.

On any other day, the sight of Captain America using his shield to fend off a pissed off soccer mom with a purse while her bewildered and terrified kids looked on would’ve been hilarious ! Hell, Dean might’ve even looked forward to the inevitable instant replay that would be running on loop on pretty much every news station in the states, let alone the world. And if they got out of this, he had no doubt that he’d be giving the lot of them shit over this. Stark was fending off a geriatric couple, and Hulk was almost swamped by the sheer number of possessed civilians coming after him. Wanda had erected a glowing red bubble around herself, and Falcon and Vision were trying to stay out of reach. Even Strange and his buddy looked a little off kilter, though most of the demons seemed to be giving the Sorcerer Supreme a wide berth. Oh yes, Dean would give them plenty of shit, and ‘I tried to tell you’s would be the most common phrase to come out of his mouth.

But not right now.

Right now he had a job to do. Dean spun around and rushed back into the bowels of the quinjet. Sam had pulled their duffel full of weapons out from underneath the bench seats. The Avengers hadn’t even noticed it was there. The younger hunter was hurriedly loading shells into the shotguns, additional shells disappearing into his pockets. Two more sawed offs were on the seat beside him with a box of shells.

Dean snatched up an extra gun and shoved it into Phil’s hands. “You know how to use one of these?”

“I’m not going to dignify that question with an answer.” Phil checked the chamber and started feeding shells into the empty gun, extra going into the pockets of his suit coat. “I’m going to assume you have a better plan than running in guns blazing?”

“Of course. You got that necklace we gave you?”

Phil pulled it out from under his shirt.

“Good. I’m going in guns blazing. You’re going to help Sam. Here’s what I need you to do…”


 

 

The shotgun blast was as sudden as it was unexpected.

The soccer mom shrieked and backpedalled. Her face was peppered with small cuts that both smoked and bled. She clutched at her face, screaming curse words and profanities. Steve stepped out of her way, putting himself in between the demons and her kids; two boys in soccer uniforms and cleats. More shotgun blasts resounded through the air. Dean waded through the demons, firing point blank into anyone with black eyes. Spent shells were dropped carelessly to the ground, new ones replacing them between one heartbeat and the next. The new ones were spent just as quickly. The hunter put his back to Steve and the kids, firing into the civilians.

“Dean!” Steve grabbed the hunter by the back of the jacket. “There are people in there! I thought you said that guns wouldn’t hurt them!”

“Bullets only hurt the people.” Dean yelled over his shoulder. “Rock salt on the other hand hits those bastards where it hurts. The people will heal!” He fired point blank into the gut of a demon wearing what looked to be a corporate businessman, knocking the man off of Wanda’s crimson bubble. She gave him a grateful nod, eyes wide. Dean nodded back and reloaded the sawed off.“ ‘Sides, I’m the distraction. Backup’s gettin’ their shit together.”

“What?”

“Wait for it! And watch that blue eyed bastard, he’s going to be pissed when all his little hell raisers get canned!”

Steve lifted his shield, fending off a bourbon bottle before it could hit the two boys. “We need a better plan than ‘backup’s getting their act together’!”

The loud retort of the sawed off  and a shouted ‘Wait for it!’ were Dean’s only reply. With Steve and the boys behind him, Dean backed them up against a wall. Steve defended the boys from projectiles, while Dean peppered the demons with rock salt if they got too close.

Strange’s voice suddenly roared over the battle.

Spell work amplifying his voice like a megaphone, the Sorcerer Supreme’s voice resounded off the buildings. Strange hovered well above the fight. His red cloak floated around him, though no breeze played in the street. Flawless latin spilled from his lips as his hands formed glowing mandalas in the air.

Below him, the demons shrieked.

Black eyed civilians fled. Strange roared out the final words of the incantation, and thrust outward. Fiery gold streamed from the mandala floating in front of him, raining down on the demons as they ran. It formed intricate collars around their necks, cuffs binding their hands and feet together. They screamed and swore, bringing every ounce of supernatural strength to bear on their restraints.

It didn’t work on the demon possessing Clint.

“Everyone regroup around Strange!” Steve ordered, pulling the two boys along with him. Other civilians that had been trapped by demons and fire were herded in the same direction. He stayed between them and the flaming demon. The monster roared, hurling streams of fire after his escaping hostages and their rescuers. Wanda scowled back at him, erecting a large wall of scarlet power between her team and the attacker.

Strange slowly floated back to the ground, landing behind her shield. His companion steadied him, looking almost worried. He might’ve had reason to be. Strange’s scarred hands trembled in their fixed position, but the mandalas of fire he had formed in the air were steady and sure.

“‘Bout damn time!” Dean grumbled.

“I’d like to see you do better.” Strange huffed.

Dean flipped him off.

The doctor chuckled at that. “Charming... Unfortunately, I won’t be able to help you rescue your friend. There are approximately forty-six demons here, not including the ringleader. My spells don’t seem to affect him. But I don’t dare let up on the others, or it will free them all. I can’t help you any further.”

“You’ve done enough.” Steve assured. “Wanda will stay with you, watch your back. The rest of us will…”

“I will look after Doctor Strange.” The oriental man that had come through the portal with Strange, finally broke his silence. It was with surprise that Steve realized this was the man he had spoken with on the phone when first trying to reach the Sorcerer Supreme. Face stern, he hefted a thick, ornately carved half staff in clear defiance. “I am a master of the mystic arts of Kamar-taj. My family has served the Sorcerer Supreme for generations. It is to me that his protection falls. I will not fail. Take your Avengers, they are not needed here.”

Steve looked questioningly at Strange.

The sorcerer nodded. He adjusted his stance, trembling hands shifting slightly higher. “Wong has been a sorcerer longer than I have. He’s a very formidable individual. He’ll keep me safe. It’s up to you Avengers to bring the boss down. I’ll pull the rest of the small fish out of your way.”

“Alright. Dean, do you have a com link?” The hunter tilted his head so Steve could see the tiny bud in his ear. “Good. Use it. Get the civilians safely out of the line of fire, then check back in with us. We’ll need your help. Find us some salt, if you can. I don’t care where.”

Dean pointed. “Hardware store would be a good place to look. I’ll start there. In the meantime…” He offered the sawed off to the Falcon, digging in his pocket for the extra shells. “Put this to good use. And don’t be afraid to hit him. Clint will heal. The demon won’t. I’ve only got about fifteen shells left. Make them count.”

Sam holstered his own two pistols. “Thanks man. You got spares?”

“Gave ‘em to Sam and Phil. They’re working on a surprise for our friend ‘Sparky’ over there. We only had three in the duffel.”

“It’ll have to do. Alright Avengers, let's move.”

Wanda pulled her shield close, making an umbrella over the team. They charged the Demon. Immediately, Wong stepped in front of Doctor Strange. Half staff in hand, he began to chant and move his hands. Burning lines sparked into being, unfolding out of thin air. Mandalas formed around his clenched fist, the half staff glimmering in the other with a life of it’s own. But he didn’t stop. The chanting intensified, and a dome of squares, triangles, and octagons formed over him and his charge. He finished and straightened. And just in time. Across the way the demon roared, incensed, and sent gouts of fire streaming towards the Sorcerer Supreme and his manservant. The fire washed harmlessly over the dome. They didn’t even feel the heat.

“Thank you Wong.” Strange murmured.

“Of course.” was the quiet reply.

The demon snarled, and turned his attention to the Avengers. Hulk’s fist smashed into the burning monstrosity. He flew backward, a building front crumbling under the impact.

Tony hovered above their heads uncertainly. “Think he’s got a glass jaw?”

“We’re not that lucky man.” Falcon snarked.

As if to prove him right, the demon stormed out of the dust and rubble. His face was flushed, and his eyes burned with a manic light. “You will pay for that monster.” He snarled. “I am Surtur. Learn it well. For it is the name of your lord and master. It is the name of your doom. And I vow, that before this day is done, you will bow before me!”

The emerald giant roared in defiance, and slammed a car down on the demon’s head.

Surtur deflected it with an almost negligent wave of his hand. A malicious smile on his face, he went on the offensive. The streets became a reenactment of world war two. Explosions rocked the buildings. Vehicles and bodies flew through the air. Fire hissed and snapped, and broken power lines crackled. Thinking to douse the demon, Vision opened a fire hydrant. Surtur walked through it with a hiss of steam. It did nothing to quench his fire.

But he was wary of the Hulk.

Then he started to levitate. Hovering well over twenty feet in the air, the demon gloated down at the heroes who couldn’t fly. It didn’t deter the Hulk. The emerald giant launched himself repeatedly at the demon. Sometimes Surtur managed to dodge. But not always. Tony, Vision, and the Falcon harried him from above as much as they could. Of the three of them, Falcon was the most effective with the salt gun. After the third shot, Surtur started treating Falcon as more of a threat, telekinetically thrusting him away as quickly as he did Iron Man and Vision. Vision’s intangibility didn’t stop him from being grabbed. From below, Steve and Wanda tag teamed. Steve called the shots, while Wanda flung pieces of rubble upwards.

All around, fire raged.

And the longer the fight went, the less human Clint looked. A blast of salt from the shotgun; the skin reddened. A strike from the Hulk; Surtur’s frame became taller, broader. Again and again they hit him. His skin became a deep scarlet red. The fiery mane became thicker. The figure grew taller and broader still.

“Shit! Shit! Ok, Clint’s got a freaking tale now! Shit!” Tony yelled. “Holy cow that barb on the end is sharp! You should see the gash it just put on my armor!”

“I shall cut more than a gash into your hide babbling mortal!” Surtur shot back.

The sky suddenly darkened. Thunder rumbled. From out of the deepening clouds, a bolt of white light darted down to strike the pavement with a roar. And then it was gone. But still the sky roiled.

For the light had left a person behind.

Thor rose from his crouch, lightning crackling through the air around him. Anger flashed in his eyes. He pointed his hammer at the demon. “You dare to lay your hands upon a comrade of the son of Odin? Release him Surtur! Or you will feel the wrath of the house of Odin once more!”

“Long has the house of Odin held me prisoner.” Surtur rumbled. “Long has my anger against the allfather boiled. You think the sound of his name will bring me to my knees? Faugh! I will spear your corpse upon my claws, and throw it at the allfather’s feet! Your head shall hang above my door, scion of Odin!”

The demon spat fire like a dragon. He only just barely missed Thor, who dove to the side. The Asgardian raced to join his teammates, summoning lightning as he ran.

“Stand clear my friends! Stand clear!”


 

 

“You! Where’s your captain?”

The bewildered fireman pointed at another yellow clad man in a red helmet.

“Thank you!” Phil called. The agent hurried through the firefighters, Sam hot on his heels. Both men carried the sawed off shotguns, and Sam had the duffel slung over his shoulder. The men and women they passed threw suspicious looks at the sawed offs and those who carried them. Especially Sam. He didn’t look like he should be there behind the police lines. But he was clearly with Phil. They didn’t stop them.

Amazing what a respectable looking man in a suit could do.

“Captain!” Phil shouted.

The fireman stopped barking into a radio. “What the hell are you civilians doing behind the police lines? Carlson! Get these civs out of here!”

“We’re not civilians.” Phil pulled his badge out of an inner pocket. “Agent Phil Coulson. Sam here is a special consultant. We need your help Captain. Will you and your men do it?”

The captain eyed Phil’s badge, clearly suspicious. After several long minutes, he handed it back. He looked Phil up and down. “I was on the ground that day the aliens fell out a’ the sky. ‘The Battle of New York’. And I remember Shield had a lot of people on the ground helping us out. This gonna be another ‘Battle of New York’?”

“I sincerely hope not.” Phil put his badge away. “If we can put the big one down, we’re hoping to nip this in the bud.”

The captain rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Sounds like a plan. The last one was an unholy mess to clean up after… Alright. We’ll do it. Name’s Angus. My boys and I will help you. What do you need us to do?”

Phil gestured at Sam. “Listen to this man, and do what he tells you to. He’s fought things similar to this before.”

The fireman turned more fully to face Sam. He looked Sam up and down, assessing him much as he had Phil. This time he didn’t automatically dismiss him as a civilian. The information that Sam had fought something like this before had brought a little more respect to his eyes.

“So what’s the plan?”

Sam grinned. “We’re going to fight fire the best way I know how…”


 

 

The lightning had an effect.

Namely, it jolted the demon pretty hard. Which pissed him off even more. Not the effect they were going for, but it did have an effect. Thor kept the barrage of lightning up a couple more minutes, then dove for cover from the fire. Wanda raised a shield of scarlet power between him and the flames. He cast her a grateful nod.

“My thanks!”

“No problem.”

Thor rose and moved closer to Steve. The captain was tired and dirty, panting for breath. The Asgardian patted his back consolingly. “You have my apologies Captain. Had we known you faced an enemy of Asgard, the allfather would have allowed me to return sooner.” His face became grim as he stared up at Clint’s mutilated body. “Had I known that such had taken our comrade, I would have returned with or without my father’s permission. Clint has suffered enough at Asgard’s hands.”

“Save it for later.” Steve panted. “We need to take this thing down. And I’m running out of ideas. You got anything?”

Thor gripped his hammer. “Surtur is a mighty foe. It cost us many lives to contain him before. More than we have at our disposal.”

“...Great.”


 

 

Angus shook his head. “I don’t know about this son.”

Sam grinned. “Trust me, this is going to work. I haven’t messed this trick up since I was eleven. It’ll work.” He watched a pair of firemen scramble up onto the top of their truck and into the bucket. “Once we start going, your guys aren’t going to have much time. You sure your guys can get it done fast enough?”

“Those two are the best I have, they’re even faster than I am. They’ll get it done. You just make sure that thing doesn’t come after them when they’re done!”

Sam nodded. “The Avengers won’t let him hurt them. It’s their first priority.” He put a leather bound book back in his duffel and pulled the sawed off back out. “Phil! All set on this end!”

The Agent touched his com link. “Dean. Sam and I are set. Are you in position?”

“You bet your ass I am. Cap? You hearing this?”

“I hear you.”

Good. I got about ten bags of road salt over here by the hardware store. Might have more coming. Couple shopkeepers are checking their backrooms to see if they’ve got any leftovers from last winter. Can the Scarlet Witch move salt around without the bag?”

Wanda’s voice cut in. “I can do it.”

Good. Next time Hulk hits Surtur, get over here. I’ve got a couple bags open already. Take what you can hold and control accurately.”

“Understood.”

“Anything else I should know?” Steve asked dryly.

“That a truck full of firemen is waiting in the wings to drive onto your battlefield. Soon as they’re out here, you need to set someone to make sure Surtur doesn’t hurt them.”

“What?!”

“Trust me. Here’s the plan…”


 

 

Everything happened at once.

Hulk roared in triumph as he kicked Surtur to the ground. The demon impacted hard on the pavement, leaving massive ruts in the cement. Hulk landed on top of him.

Wanda bolted from Steve’s side. The Scarlet Witch made a beeline for the hardware store. Dean was out front. As he had promised, large bags of road salt sat open and ready. Scarlet tendrils slithered at lightning speeds ahead of her to the bags. Wanda emptied two of them with a gesture. Then she was racing back.

Hulk managed to get several good hits in on Surtur.

The demon telekinetically thrust the emerald giant away, flinging him into a building. Fiery mane snapping and crackling in his rage, Surtur rose from the crater. Only to be met by Wanda. Red laced salt lanced through the air in a gritty cloud. It slammed into him, blanketing as much of him as it could. He was well over ten feet tall now, and growing fast. Two bags worth of salt just weren’t enough to coat him. Instead, she embedded it into his skin.

Surtur roared in pain.

Smoke rose from the demon’s hide for an entirely new reason as the salt burned against the demon’s evil. He swiped ineffectually at the source of his torment. Wanda caught the falling pieces and embedded them again. Coming up behind her, Dean set another two bags down and tore them open.

“Keep it coming ‘Red’.”

Wanda’s lip curled, and fresh salt flowed across the ground towards the thrashing demon.

Steve trotted up with another two bags of salt. “Phil and Sam’s fire truck is coming in now. Think this’ll be enough?”

Dean shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine Cap. A normal hell breather would’ve smoked out by now. This one’s hurting, and he’s slowing down, but he’s not stopping. It’s just pissing him off.”

“It’s better than we were doing. I’ll take it.” Steve clapped Dean on the shoulder to get his attention and gestured at Thor. “Dean, this is Thor Odinson. Thor, this is Dean. He’s our… paranormal expert? I don’t even know what to call this.”

“Hunter will do.” Dean gave Thor an odd look. He opened his mouth to say something, when the fire truck pulled up alongside.

“Now!” Sam Winchester yelled.

The firemen had already been lifting the ladder on the truck. At Sam’s yell, the two firemen in the bucket at the end of the ladder turned on their fire hoses full blast. They aimed them at the demon in the crater. And they were dead on.

Surtur shrieked .

The salt became a small irritation in comparison. Water poured down his body in streams. It pooled in the crater, already ankle deep and climbing. And it burned. Smoke and steam rose from his skin in clouds.

“Holy water. Works every time.” Dean gave his brother up on the truck a thumbs up. “Keep it coming! ‘Red’! You can lay off the salt. I need as thick a ring of it as you can manage around this crater. We’re trapping this bastard here and now.”

Wanda’s eyes flared red. Salt poured out of the new bags to join the sodden salt, all of it laying in a three inch thick ring around the crater. The thirteen foot occupant inside didn’t even notice. Not until he tried to escape the water. The salt stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Sam!” Dean yelled. “Tell those guys to put it at his feet. Bring it up to the edge and stop.”

Sam relayed the instructions, and the firefighters lowered their aim. Surtur rubbed the last of the holy water out of his eyes, and glared down at the heroes. He was bloodied and burnt. He looked as if someone had dumped acid over his head. Wisps of smoke drifted from the cuts. His face wasn’t even recognizable as Clint’s anymore. He was just a giant red skinned devil. Behind him, a barbed tail twitched irritably back and forth.

“You ready to call it quits yet sunshine?”

Burning blue eyes fixed on Dean. “What mortal dare address Surtur in such an impudent manner?”

“Impudent huh? Seems to me that we’re the ones holding all the cards. Care to parley princess? Or would you like another shower?”

“Fool! Surtur does not bargain with the likes of you! I….” The demon coughed. Gobbets of blue fire dripped from his mouth, hissing as they landed in the holy water pooled at his feet. Another cough brought up more. He brought up one massive red hand, trying to stop it. Trying to stay inside the meat suit he had claimed.

Dean frowned. “That’s new. Usually these bastards look like smoke.”

“Perhaps…” The demon hacked and coughed, sucking the fire back into his mouth. Bits of fire flickered in his mouth when he spoke. “Perhaps you are not so knowledgeable as you believe…”

“I know enough to introduce you to Death himself if you push me.” Dean snarled.

That would be decidedly ambitious of you. It is certainly more than Odin or his armies could manage. I am almost tempted to give you the chance. Just to see what mad plan you would conceive. It would be futile. One cannot kill one such as I. Such is the nature of being an immortal.”

Dean smirked up at the hulking beast. “Been there. Done that.”

The burning blue eyes stared suspiciously, then widened in shock when it became clear that Dean wasn’t bluffing.

Something whistled through the air.

“Down!”

Steve grabbed Dean, shielding them both beneath his shield. He was barely in time. The arrow exploded on impact with the pavement. It threw the heroes back, knocking them off their feet. Wanda thrust upward, walls of red shielding herself and the firemen behind her from the blast.

It took two seconds too long to realize that she had lost hold of the salt. The explosion had blown a hole in the ring.

Surtur stepped up out of the crater full of holy water, malicious glee on his face. Fire formed over his hands. Blue tinged globes of it, ready to be thrown. The massive beast lifted one snowshovel sized hand to throw it.

“Turn the hoses straight up and fire full blast!”

The firemen responded to Sam Winchester’s shout with precision born of years of intense training. In the split second after the order was given, they had already responded. Nozzles were pointed up, and powerful streams of water fired skyward. Twin jets of water, clear and clean as Old Faithful climbed up into the air. When they could climb no higher, they umbrellad out, and scattered themselves back to the ground.

Right on top of the fight.

Surtur roared in rage and pain. Finally seeming to concede defeat, the fifteen foot demon stomped over to the building on which Barney perched. He snatched up the human archer, and stormed off down the street at a brisk pace, barbed tail lashing behind him.

“Tony! Vision! Grab bags of salt and go after him!” Steve yelled. “Don’t engage, just trail him!”

The two Avengers specified took off after the fleeing giant demon and his passenger. The Falcon darted down to the fire truck. Without a word, Sam pulled the box of extra rounds out of his pocket and threw it up into the air. The other Sam caught it. He locked his wings into position, circling overhead while he reloaded the shotgun. Keeping watch over his team and the firemen.

Steve pulled Dean up off the ground. “Sorry about that.”

“Not a problem.” Dean cupped a hand around his mouth. “Nice call with the water Sammy. I think you might’ve saved our bacon. You want a fruit cup with lunch?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “I’ll take a beer if you're buying... You think they’ll catch him?” A grimace was his only answer. “Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”

“What are you talking about?” Steve demanded. “He’s a fifteen foot tall monster with flaming hair. His feet are too burned to move quickly, and even on a bad day Tony can outfly our jet. Surtur isn’t going to outrun him!”

Vision’s voice came over the line, the normally calm tones now taut with worry. “Captain. I am afraid we have failed in our pursuit of the demon.”

“What? How?”

“Bastard freaking ‘apparated’ right in front of our eyes, with Barton in hand. God that’s weird to say and not mean Clint… He’s gone Steve. We’re headed back your way.”

Steve sighed. “Acknowledged. See you back here.” He looked up at the men on the truck. “Thank you gentleman. We appreciate the help. You men probably just saved New York today. I won’t forget that.”

“You be needing us for anything else Captain?” Angus asked from his perch on the truck beside Sam and Phil.

“If you could put these fires out, it’d be appreciated.”

“Aye Captain.”

The firemen waited for Phil and Sam to climb off, then turned the truck around to face the fires left over from the battle.

Wanda made a helpless gesture. “What do we do now? We have failed.”

That brought the two Winchesters up short. Dean spun around to face her. “Do? What do you mean ‘what do we do’? Don’t give me that bullshit about ‘we failed’. You’re alive aren’t you?...Then you haven’t failed. Nothing’s ever over until Death calls your number. And sometimes it’s not over even then. Until then, you pull yourself up any way you can, and you keep moving. That’s what you do. And you do it anyway you know how. Clint’s still out there, waiting on us to figure this shit out. So you know what? I’m going to start by doing my damn job! Strange is still holding on to forty-six demons. So Sammy and I are going to do what we do best. And we’re going to get answers. Forty-six demons can’t all be clueless.”


 

 

Strange looked a little the worse for wear.

The Sorcerer Supreme floated a few feet above the ground in a cross legged position. His blood red cloak fluttered and rippled around him. A portion of it had become stiff and flat, giving him something to sit on. His eyes were closed in concentration. Sweat streamed down his face, and the trembling in his scarred hands had gotten worse. Wong stood close by, feet spread apart and both hands on his half staff. He looked like a soldier, holding the staff as if it were a baton and he were at parade rest. The glowing tent he’d created still held strong.

Outside the shielding tent, struggling demons lay against the glowing walls. Their clothes were torn. The skin underneath was scraped. Even as the heroes watched, more demons slid slowly across the ground to come to rest against Wong’s shield.

“Doctor Strange. Are you alright?” Steve called.

The demons shifted. An unseen force dragged them to either side to open up a path for the heroes to approach Wong’s shield. They hurried to the shield, the demons spitting curses at them as they passed.

Strange grimaced. “I will be better when the demons have been contained. Sorcerer Supreme I may be, but forty-six demons is still quite a strain. Where do you want them?”

“Can you get them back to base?”

“No.” His breathing was becoming heavier, the strain beginning to take it’s toll. “I can’t use my sling ring and maintain the spell. And Wong has never been there.”

Wong eyed the sorcerer. “I can do it. But I need an image to work off of. If you can provide such an image, I can open a portal.”

“We can get you that.” Steve searched the sky for his returning teammates. “Tony? We need an image from on base. Doctor Strange’s friend can transport the possessed people back to base.”

The genius’s voice crackled back across the com. “Copy that. Vision is swinging by the quinjet for a Stark Pad. You want an indoor or outdoor shot?”

Steve glanced at the sorcerers. “Uh… Doctor? Mr. Wong? Does it matter if it’s indoor or outdoor?”

“Either is acceptable.” Wong assured. “And it is simply Wong.”

Sam Winchester cautiously tapped a finger against the gold shield. The light rippled out away from his fingers, a soft ‘tooomb’ sound echoing outwards. He smiled and tapped it again a little harder. It made the same noise, the ripples even brighter. “Cool. Very neat work. Wish I could learn to do that.”

Wong’s stern gaze regarded Sam. He didn’t think Sam could do it. It was clear in his gaze, in his stance. Then something shifted. Understanding flashed through his eyes, and something in him softened slightly. “I believe you could.”

Strange groaned. All eyes swung to him, worried that the strain had become too much. To their surprise, the groan morphed into amused laughter.

“Really? I had to fight and claw for your respect. And you just welcome Sam with open arms after five seconds? You’re getting soft Wong.”

“Not at all. I just like him better.”

“You don’t like me?”

“You grew on me… like a fungus. I must like you, or I am miserable.”

Strange barked a laugh. “Love you too Beyonce.”


 

 

“You are so scraping that off later.”

Dean snorted. “I’ll paint it over if you’re that worried about it. Now shut up and let me do my job.”

Tony subsided sulkily. Dean went back to spray painting the floor of the gym. He wasn’t the only one. The Avengers ranged all across the gym, each one with a can of spray paint from the trunk of the Impala in hand. Forty-six demon traps took a bit of time to make after all. The only one not painting was Sam. The younger Winchester moved from one trap to the next, checking each one to make sure that it had been done right. The trap wouldn’t hold if even a millimeter of space was left open. And they couldn’t afford any mistakes. Not now, with almost fifty demons to contend with.

After the first few corrections, he didn’t need to tell them again.

“Sammy? We good?” Sam held up a thumb, and Dean nodded. “Ok people, let’s get this show on the road. One hell breather to a trap. They give you any trouble, pitch salt or holy water in their faces. If you still have trouble, ask Sam or me.”

One by one, the struggling demons were shoved into the traps.

They weren’t happy about it. As soon as they entered the trap, Strange relinquished his hold over them. The cuffs and hobbles disappeared in a final flare and crackle of sparks. The second the spells were gone, the demons threw themselves at the boundaries of the trap. They bounced off of the invisible walls. They hissed, spit, screamed, and cursed. The sounds echoed off the walls of the gym. A kennel full of angry beasts. It ended almost as quickly as it had begun. The traps held.

The demons waited for their captors’ next move.

Dean pulled the serrated knife from the inside pocket of his jacket and offered it hilt first to Sam. “Care to do the honors? Or do you think it’d be scarier coming from me?”

His brother pushed the knife away. “My ties with hell might be a bit stronger, but those aren’t ties I like to encourage. It’s better if it comes from you. Threats from the Righteous Man tend to be scarier to demons than a Man of Letters.”

“Righteous Man, Men of Letters, Angel Vessels. I couldn’t give two shits about any of it. We’re the ones they should be afraid of, not some damn title.” He flipped the blade around to grip the hilt. “I’ll do it. Hope the heroes don’t take offence of the language.”

Steve rolled his eyes.

He was soon to realize it wasn’t profanity Dean was talking about.

Dean raised his voice the way his father used to. The bark would’ve made any marine drill sergeant proud. It echoed through the silent room. The raised the knife glinted in the fading sunlight over his head.

“My name is Dean Winchester. Chances are good you’ve heard of Sam and me. You’ve got two choices today. Either you tell us what we want to know, and Sam boots your asses back down to hell. Or you keep your mouths shut, and you’ll find yourself on the blade. I can promise you, dying is the only way you’ll get off of it. Half of you have already damaged your meat suits beyond the point of saving. I have no compunctions about digging you out by hand if I have to. It’s your choice.”  Dean grinned. “...So….Who’s first?”

He slowly stalked through the traps, watching the demons’ reactions.

Sam Winchester touched Steve’s arm. “Do you have medical facilities here on base? Enough to treat the ones that survive?”

Cold slowly crept up the captain’s spine. “Yes. And we have more staff available offsite if we need it. Should I call them in?”

Sam surveyed the sea of soot smudged and bloody faces. He was counting gunshot wounds. Stab marks. Bloody mouth’s that might denote possible internal injury. There were far too many. “Call in the extra manpower. Better safe than sorry.”

“Vision?”

The Android inclined his head. “I will see to it… Mr. Winchester… Your brother indicated that many of these people are dead. Yet their hearts beat. They move, they speak. How can they be dead?”

Oh, how to answer that question.

The hunter ran a hand through his hair. “So long as the demon is in charge, nothing can kill the host. But that doesn’t mean that the host is safe from harm. While the demon leads,  the human it’s wearing doesn’t perform any bodily function. That includes healing. Wounds that wouldn’t normally be life threatening are a hell of a lot more serious when coupled with six or seven other nonfatal wounds. And that’s if they’re lucky. Demons don’t think twice about taking a shotgun blast to the chest, or falling from a ten story building. And if that wasn’t enough, exorcisms are hard on the body. Sometimes they can’t take the strain. Their body just gives up. There’s nothing we can do.”

“What  do you think the chances are for this group?” Phil asked softly.

Sam bit his lip. “Not good… ” He headed for Dean, who seemed to’ve honed in on his first target. “Have medical standing by. And make sure they bring body bags…”


 

 

“She’s dead.”

Sam Wilson’s jaw tightened as the nurse said the words that had become all too common over the past hour and a half. He’d watched the Winchesters, and then Dr. Strange and Wong once the doctor had caught a second wind, go through the traps one by one and talk to the demons. If he was understanding what they were saying aright, the demons were small fry. Most of them were basically pissing themselves as soon as hunters or socercers got within five feet of them.

Apparently that was a lucky break.

It meant the demons were more than happy to talk. Especially once they got a look at the knife. But that was where their luck ended. Lower level demons didn’t have a lot of information to share. They offered what they had at breakneck speed, terrified of the humans who’d trapped them. Once the hunters and sorcerers were certain the demons had nothing left to offer they exorcised them.

Sam and Wong performed the exorcisms. Sam rattled the latin off from memory, Wong read from the leather bound book Sam passed him. The incantation might not have been familiar to him, but Wong read the exorcism without hesitation or stumble. As soon as the demon smoked out, they were on the ‘meat suit’. Almost a third of them were dead before their bodies hit the ground.

But the rest lived.

For those that lived, the facility’s medical personnel were on standby. Strange had coached them before the exorcisms had started. Drilled it into them that, under no circumstances, were they to step over the painted lines. If they stepped over the lines, the demons would be able to grab them. Some had scoffed. Who believed in demons? Sam had seen the other Sam smirk when the first demon smoked out. It definitely changed the medics’ tunes. He could just see them reevaluating what they knew and believed they knew. It didn’t stop them from doing their jobs. If anything, it made them more determined.

Dean stepped back out of their way.

They watched as the medics bagged the body of an elderly woman and loaded her onto a stretcher. If the charm bracelet around her wrist was any indication, her grandchildren had thought her the ‘Best Grandma Ever’. Dean wondered how many of those memories the demon had tainted. He shook his head and clapped a hand on Sam’s shoulder.

“Come on Sam. One more to go.”

The younger hunter nodded morosely and allowed Dean to lead him away. Dean let Sam go and turned his attention to the last demon. A smirk tugged his lips. It was the soccer mom who’d tried to beat the shit out of Captain America. He folded his arms.

“I don’t know who you are, but I have to give you props. In better circumstances, the sight of a soccer mom beating the shit out of Captain America with her purse would’ve been comedy gold.”

The soccer mom leaned back on her hands, crossing one leg over the other. Her shoulder length brown hair had been pinned back with a headband, but she’d discarded it almost as soon as she’d been placed in the trap, letting the hair fall down to frame her face. Her red t-shirt had a team name on it, and a massive flaming soccer ball. The coin trim stitched to her black culottes jingled with every move she made. She didn’t seem half as nervous as the others had.

“Arguably some of my best work.” She admitted. Her voice was a deep alto, tinged heavily with an irish brogue. “Though I think my best was still the one I played on that french asshole a couple centuries back. Nothing like taking a pretty lass to bed and waking up next to a plague infected corpse. Served the cheating bastard right. The peasants were laughing at their lord for a fortnight for his folly.”

Dean stared, then started laughing. “Connor? Who the fuck let you out of your cage? I thought you were in such deep shit you were going to be locked up for another millenia.”

“Dean, you know this one?” Sam looked as if he didn’t know whether to be glad or terrified.

“From hell, yeah.” Dean waved him off. “Lower level demon that still manages to have half of hell terrified of him. Apparently a sense of humor is quite the weapon in hell.”

“Only when the prank is right.” The demon gave an elegant shrug of his female host’s shoulders. “I let myself off for good behavior. So…” He turned the corners of her lips up in a lurid grin at Dean. “I see Alastair’s lessons paid off. You truly are a menacing sight to behold. You were his last student, yes?”

The smile dropped off Dean’s face. “Yeah. Turns out being the Righteous Man has it’s drawbacks. I got to take a shot at him later though. And Sammy here canned his ass for good.”

“Really?” The demon turned appraising black eyes on Sam. “I heard the bastard had been permanently… retired, shall we say. You’re putting together quite a kill list. Azazel. Alastair, Lilith . All the hosts of heaven, hell, and purgatory. You should noise it around more. They’ll be more afraid of you than they already are.”

“We’ll take it under advisement.” Dean squatted down to be on eye level with the demon. “Listen. This thing, Surtur? He’s wearing one of my family as a meat suit.”

The demon stilled. “How long?”

“Few weeks.”

“Then your family member is already dead.” The demon leaned back again. “I’m sorry. I truly am. But the beast is ruthless, Winchester. There’s nothing left to be done but exorcise him and let your family member be at peace. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t go after Surtur at all. He’ll tire of the suit eventually.”

Dean shook his head. “Not an option. No one hurts my family. We’re taking Surtur down. So. Anything you can tell us about him would be helpful.”

“I take it your earlier ultimatum still applies?”

“It does.” Sam put in. Dean nodded.

Connor shrugged his slim shoulders. “Pity. Good thing I like you laddy buck. I’ll help you. Just do me a favor? Make sure someone saves a copy of that tape of Ellen here beating the piss out of Captain America with her patriotic little purse.”

Dean barked a laugh. “You got it. What do you know about Surtur?”

Connor rearranged his meat suit into a cross legged position, chin in hand and elbows on knees. “He’s old. I’m almost seven hundred years old, give or take. He’s far older than I am. Damn near immortal too, more’s the pity. He’s a demon.” Connor leaned forward, black eyes intent. “But he’s not like us laddy.” He smiled, laying a finger alongside his nose in a knowing gesture. “I’m no prize. But I’m not stupid. Not even Lilith whipped flames out of thin air. Nor any other demon. None burn with a fire so hot inside that it shines through the eyes. We’re naught but cinders and ashes. This one’s still got substance .”

“A hybrid then?” Sam asked.

“If he is, than I don’t know what he might’ve been crossed with. But I’m thinking, not. There’s something here you’re missing. And for the life of me, I don’t know what it is. But it’s strong. And it’s not been here before. An’ I don’t mean not this country. Someone broke open a cage they shouldn’t ‘ave done. Let loose something that shouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. You’ll have a time of it putting him back in.”

Strange finally spoke up. “Do you know where we can find him?”

Connor shook his head. “Can’t answer that. He never let us near his lair. Always met us in parks and empty lots. Him and that pet human of his. Today’s the first day he started changing his meat suit though. Never seen a one do that afore. Guess the human didn’t hold up his half of the bargain… I’m sorry I can’t be more help to you Dean. That favor I owe you covers more than this. I’d like to be shed of it.”

Dean tapped the tip of his knife thoughtfully on the gym floor. “You going to be caged when we boot your ass back down there?”

The demon blew a strand of hair out of his eyes. “Not likely,” he huffed. “I’d be surprised if they even noticed I’m gone yet.”

“Your meat suit damaged?”

“Not irreparably. Exhaustion more than anything else. I’ve barely had this one a week. Not even time to set up a proper prank.

“Good. I’ll keep that favor in reserve. Call you if I need something.” Dean stood. “Send him home Sam. We need to call Cas and hit the books again. Something isn’t adding up.”

Sam started rattling off the exorcism.

Inside the pentagram, Connor shuddered and growled. His host flopped onto her back spasming hard, but never leaving the edge of the trap. Suddenly her mouth dropped open, and black smoke poured out. It hung in the air for several long seconds. Then it dove down into the ground, the trap sparking and sizzling. Then it was gone. They waited a heartbeat.

The soccer mom gasped.

She rolled onto her side, coughing and rubbing at her throat. Dr. Strange immediately stepped into the trap.

“The boys! That thing made me leave them in the fight…!”

“They’re fine.” Strange soothed. “We brought them with us. They’re safe. Last I saw them, they were telling Captain America, Falcon, Thor, and Iron Man about their latest soccer game. About how you took time off of work to take them. They’re waiting for you just outside with the Avengers.”

She relaxed, letting the medical team move her onto a gurney to take her to the infirmary. “Thank you.”


 

 

“You always exorcise them one at a time?”

“No.” Sam Winchester flopped into a chair in the living room, exhausted. But he answered Vision’s question. “Not always. Only when we need information. One time we recorded an exorcism and played it over a PA system. But the one on one approach worked better here.”

The other Avengers slowly settled in.

It had taken hours. Of the forty-six demons they’d exorcised fifteen people had died. They’d almost lost another, but the medical team had been able to revive him. Another three were in critical condition. Doctors weren’t sure they’d pull through. Out of the survivors, seven had been seriously maimed. And one was in a coma.

The anti-possession charms the Winchesters had on hand weren’t enough. Strange had sent Wong home for more. No one left base without one. Those that could make the trip were sent to the nearest hospital with an open bed as soon as they were stable. The three in critical condition stayed. They wouldn’t survive the trip, and the medical facilities on base were better equipped to care for them.

The last to leave were the two boys, who had to wait for their father to come pick them up. Strange and Wong had followed soon after, promising to return should the Avenger’s need their help again. But in the meantime, Strange was exhausted. He needed a rest.

Thor stopped beside the younger hunter’s chair. “I was introduced to Doctor Strange and his manservant, but I have not made your acquaintance. I am Thor Odinson.”

Sam smiled and offered a hand. “Sam Winchester. Dean’s younger brother. Pleasure to meet you.”

Thor nodded and claimed a seat on the couch.

Sam Wilson groaned and propped his bare feet up on the coffee table next to Mjolnir. “Well… that could’ve gone better. Neat trick with the fire truck by the way.”

The other Sam held up the leather bound book he’d leant to Wong to read the exorcisms out of. “Dad’s journal. He said he did it once or twice with the sprinkler system in the older buildings. The ones that have the water towers and reservoirs on top. Stood to reason the truck wouldn’t be any different.”

“Lot of good it did us.” Tony gowled. He slammed his fist on the arm of his  chair. “We lost him. Again! You saw the way that thing was growing! It’s just going to keep getting stronger! And I don’t know about you, but I’m out of tricks! This is as strong as I get.”

“It is not strength alone that wins a battle.”

The Avengers whirled to face the new speaker.

Castiel stood near the window, hair askew and blue tie on backwards. The same as always. His companion seemed more aware of his appearance. Not that he took more pride in it, but he was aware of it. He wore baggy jeans, a pair of broken in tennis shoes, and a black t-shirt with  white text. The text read ‘Vulcan in the streets, Klingon in the sheets’.

Steve had no idea what Vulcans or Klingons were, but he was pretty sure the saying was an innuendo of some kind.

His sandy blonde hair had been semi-neatly brushed to one side. Like he’d combed his fingers through the variegated strands and called it good. A cocky smile curled his lips, and sharp honey gold eyes seemed to laugh at them with every blink. A few inches shorter than Castiel, he nonetheless oozed the sort of brash confidence that Steve would normally associate with Tony.

The stranger snickered. “Well, strength might not do it alone, but it sure as hell helps, Cassie.” He waved at the assembled heroes and hunters. “Sup guys? Que pasa?”

Phil slowly lowered his coffee mug. “Castiel? I thought you were going to talk to a source, not bring someone else back with you.” His tone indicated just how much he disapproved of Castiel bringing an unknown back to their secure base.

“Cas?” Dean’s voice cut right over Phil’s, rough and questioning with some unknown emotion.

The angel laid his hand on his companion’s shoulder. “It is alright Dean. He lives. Lucifer killed an illusion. I found him ‘bombing’ tourists with velociraptors in Italy.”

“Oh for the love of… Cassie, it’s ‘ photo bombing’. Not ‘bombing’. Bombing makes it sound like I’m nuking someone. And you should’be seen their faces when they realized a real live velociraptor was posing for a picture behind them!”

The hunters relaxed marginally.

“Hell of a time to come back.” Dean snarked.

The stranger shrugged and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I could leave if you want. Come back at a time that’ll be funnier...”

Sam hurriedly cut him off. “No! We’re glad you’re here. Cas told you what we’re up against?”

Castiel nodded. Addressing Phil, he answered the agent’s earlier unspoken question of why he had brought someone with him. “The symbols appeared to be norse in origin. I have very little experience with that part of the world, christianity took quite some time to reach them. There was not much call for a soldier there. That being the case, I thought it better to ask someone who is far more familiar with the area and it’s people. He insisted on coming to help. There are many symbols and spells that are no longer remembered by humanity, and he might be able to furnish something useful.”

The stranger gave a jaunty little wave.

“Sam? Dean?” Steve asked slowly. “Who is this?” Partially, what he really meant was ‘ what is he?’. Having already encountered demons and angels, he wasn’t about to make assumptions about this new comer. ‘What is he?’, he wanted to ask. And ‘can we trust him?’.

Dean shifted uncomfortably. “He’s …”

“Loki.” The stranger finished.

The Avengers froze.

Then everyone moved at once. Hands reached for weapons, bodies dropped into defensive postures. But none moved faster than Thor.

Mjolnir flew to Thor’s hand, a halo of lightning crackling around her head. The god of thunder’s face was twisted into a snarl, sparks playing in his long hair. He pointed the hammer at Loki.

“You dare impersonate a son of Odin? You dare to tell such falsehoods before me? I am Thor! My brother is gifted in the art of deception and illusion, but I would know him still. You are not Loki. Speak quickly imposter, ere I teach you the error of your ways!”

“Shit!” The would be Loki turned more fully to face Thor, a long silver blade sliding from his sleeve and into his hand. An odd blade, it had four sides that all narrowed swiftly into a deadly sharp point. Castiel produced a similar blade, worried and wary. The false Loki held up his free hand placatingly to Thor. “Whoa! Easy Goldilocks! I’m really not in the mood for a lightning tango today!”

Dean and Sam inserted themselves between the combatants.

“Damnit! Cas! Gabe! Put the blades away! No one’s beating up anyone!” Dean yelled.

Sam meanwhile went after Thor.

The younger Winchester didn’t even think about it. He grabbed Mjolnir’s handle and yanked. The move was so unexpected, it shocked Thor out of his indignation. The lightning died immediately. Stunned, Thor slowly let go. Sam stood there holding the hammer, glaring down at the thunder god as if nothing were amiss. He unlooped the leather strap from Thor’s wrist and set Mjolnir back on the coffee table. She was out of Thor’s reach. They were all well aware that she could be back in her warrior’s hand in an instant if she chose. But the message was clear.

“Just listen to us! Ok? It’s not what you think.”

Thor gave a grudging nod, somewhat stunned to’ve found another who could lift his hammer. “I will listen.”

Castiel and his friend cautiously put away their swords. The fake Loki couldn’t resist a parting shot at Castiel though. He snapped his fingers, producing a sucker from thin air and sticking it in his mouth. “You neglected to mention a potential ‘family reunion’ Cassie. If you’ve got someone from the ‘true pantheon’, what on earth do you need me for?”

“I was not aware he had returned.” Castiel defended. “However, your help is still needed.”

Dean looked like he was ready blow a gasket. “Seriously? Loki ? The other one fucking killed that guy!” He yelled, pointing at Phil. The agent’s hand instinctively went to the scars that marked where a well placed strike had ended him. Dean didn’t notice, waving his arms at the rest of the Avengers. “And he dropped an alien army on the rest of them! You really wanna play the Loki card here ?”

“Well how was I supposed to know what the special snowflake’s up to?”

“How do you miss an entire alien army invading New York?!”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. He hadn’t had one headache since the serum, but he could feel one coming on now. “Would someone please explain what is going on? How is it that there’s two Loki’s? One is enough. And that isn’t exactly a common name. I can’t really see parents lining up to name their kids after the guy who tried to take over the world.”

“People still name their kids Adolf.” Loki offered.

Steve glared.

“There are two norse pantheons.” Castiel cut in to explain for the mortals, not at all perturbed. “The ‘true pantheon’ are the ones who live on Asgard. Beings such as your teammate Thor. They visited earth a very long time ago, and the humans worshipped  them as gods. When they returned to Asgard, they left their legends behind them. From those legends arose the ‘second pantheon’. They were much like the tibetan tulpas, in that they were born of human belief. But they were not as durable as the tulpas. With the right weapons, they can be killed.”

“Ok, so that explains how we were able to meet Thor twice.” The younger Winchester finger combed his hair out of his eyes. “And you think Gabe will know more about the symbols we found because he’s been here in the thick of it while the Asgardians were gone?”

“That is my belief.” Cas confirmed.

“Ok, hold up.” Tony held his hands up to form a ‘T’ shape. “Time out. He says his name is ‘Loki’. Winchester here calls him ‘Gabe’. Which is it? And you’re saying that there’s basically two of every norse god who ever visited earth running around out there? Plus whatever gods any soused norseman might’ve come up with?”

Thor looked mildly unsettled by the idea.

Phil looked like he might be sick. The asgardians were not inherently evil, and good to have on your side in a fight. But they tended to cause as many problems as they solved. And cleaning up after a pitched battle that had had even one asgardian participant was a job and a half. More than one was a nightmare. Phil shuddered to think of the damage, of the body count, if the asgardians ever made a concerted movement against earth. Asgardians like Loki, the enchantress, god only knew who else.

A lot of people would die, of that he was sure.

The fake Loki snorted. “If we’re getting technical, my name is Gabriel. At my core, I’m an archangel. Always have been, always will be. However…” He grinned. “For top secret reasons, when the ‘second pantheon’ started to form, I stepped right in as ‘Loki: Norse God of Mischief’. They didn’t even notice I wasn’t quite the same as them. I think they assumed it was because Loki is technically a trickster god, with all the powers that that implies. As to soused norsemen, one believer isn’t enough. It took the collective belief of the whole lot of them. So the ‘true’ and ‘second’ pantheon line up pretty closely. And no , there aren’t two of every god. I mean, there were at the start , but not anymore. Due to arrogance, stupidity, and incredibly bad luck most of the so called ‘second pantheon’ is pretty much extinct. I think Baldur might still be around. I know some of the other pagan gods are, though there’s not much power left in most of them. They’re not much without the juice from their worshippers. Hermes from the greeks is still around, and Athena. The hindu goddess Kali. She’s a kick ass lady by the way. I’m pretty sure most of the tricksters like Coyote, Raven, and Anansi are still kicking… Oh! And Dionysus? That guy’s making a killing in this day and age! If he wasn’t half soused most of the time he might almost be dangerous.” Gabriel leveled a look at Thor. “You and your brother started some grade ‘A’ level shit by showing up back on earth. And not just for the humans.”

“My apologies, Gabriel. That was not my intention.”

The polite reply drew the archangel up short. He looked Thor over again. “You’re different. From the ‘second pantheon’ version of you, I mean. Not going to sugar coat it, but that guy was an asshat. Like the jock football players in highschool who think the world owes them something. ‘No’ means ‘yes’, and ‘get lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours’ . I figured you’d be kind of similar.”

Tony spluttered. “Did the friggin’ archangel just quote Disney’s Hercules ?”

Thor grimaced. “Then perhaps the copy was not so wrong. I was not the man I should have been. Not until I had spent time amongst the humans. I have since learned the error of my ways.”

“Humans do tend to have that effect sometimes.” Gabriel agreed. He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Now! Down to brass tacks! Cassie showed me those symbols you couldn’t identify. You guys are in a heap of trouble, you know that?”

Sam Wilson settled into the couch and threw his feet back up onto the coffee table again. “Tell us somethin’ we don’t know man. This thing’s been kickin’ our asses.”

“Surtur. He is a foe of Asgard. One of the mightiest we have ever faced.” Thor intoned. “But I do not understand how he has taken over our friend. Surtur is a member of the eldjotnar. A fire giant. Jotuns have their own forms. They do not need the flesh of another to become corporeal. Entering into a human host and controlling them is not  an ability they possess. Nor one that they would find useful.”

“Not normally .” Gabriel corrected. Having finished his sucker, he tossed the stick in the trash can and snapped his fingers again. This time the finger snap produced a bowl of M&M’s. He offered the bowl to Castiel. The dark haired angel refused. Gabriel shrugged and offered it to Dean, who did not refuse. Sam politely turned the offer down. Gabriel shrugged and chowed down, talking clearly despite the mouthful. “Jotuns don’t generally have the ability to possess a person. But if you whip out the right spell work… or, you know, get incredibly lucky slapping stuff together, you can force one into possessing a mortal form. Samoose, Cassie said you had pictures?”

Dean snickered.

Sam rolled his eyes at the nickname and waved the two angels closer. “Yeah Gabe, over here. Friday? We need the photos from Clint’s cell.”

Still munching on M&M’s, Gabriel stepped closer to Friday’s holograms. He offered the candies to Tony, Steve, and Thor, who were all within reach. Steve and Thor accepted. Tony just fished into a pocket and pulled out a bag of chocolate covered blueberries. Gabriel giggled and gave him a thumbs up. He went over the photos almost negligently, talking as he went.

“Pretty straight forward. He was trying to summon a normal demon. Looks like he mixed up some of the anglican symbols with the norse ones. This one? This one’s for fire. Specifically for hellfire, or fire at the center of the earth. Surtur has a lot of both, and legend says Odin and the Asgardians locked him up in the center of the world. A world. They never specify which world they buried him in. Our luck, probably this one. Asgardians have way too much by way of nasty stuff in the vaults under Asgard. They didn’t need a pissed off eldjotnar with an axe to grind under there too.” He looked over his shoulder at Thor. “Any thoughts on where, big guy? We might be able to pop him back in that.”

Thor shook his head. “I do not know. I was very young, and was not a part of the inner circle at the time. I was old enough to fight, and little more. But I know that the Allfather holds our foe’s blade in his keeping. With his blade, Surtur is a foe of unmatched might.”

Phil shuddered inwardly. It took a lot to make an asgardian sit up and take notice. What did it take to make them respect you almost to the point of fear the way this eldjotnar had? And this thing had Clint? Even as he listened to the others talk about the properties of the sword, and how long it had taken the asgardians working together to beat Surtur, he felt his hope dwindling. What chance did Clint have of surviving being possessed by a being like that ?

Sam leaned over the archangel’s shoulder. “What about the other two symbols, Gabe? You recognize those?”

“Course I do Samkins.” He offered the bowl of M&M’s again. Sam huffed a quiet laugh and took a handful. Gabriel fist pumped in victory and pointed to the next symbol. “This one here is our bad guy’s handle. No better way to get a fella’s attention than yelling his name at the top of your lungs. Your boy went overboard on the herbs too. Would’ve given him some extra umph . No matter which of the nine realms they buried this guy in, he would’ve heard it.” He fished for more M&M’s and came up short. Gabriel pouted at the empty bowl.

“Hey.” Dean flicked the angel’s temple. “You can always get more. Now come on. That last symbol?”

“Alright, keep your shirt on.” Another finger snap. Another bowl full of candy. Reese's Pieces this time. He cast an appreciative eye over the rest of the room’s occupants. “Then again, there is a lot of gorgeous eye candy in here. Dad definitely did something right . If you do want to lose the shirts that’s fine by me.”

“Gabe!” Sam barked.

Sprawled on the couch, the other Sam hid a smile behind a hand.

Dean and Tony weren’t half so polite. The two snickered.

“Right! Ok! Yeesh!” Gabriel didn’t sound the least bit repentant. The angel pointed at the last symbol. “The last one… well it’s a bastardized version of a protection sigil. Either someone royally screwed the pooch, or they really wanted someone to get hurt and did it on purpose. It should ward the nasties off. Except this piece here, and this here are for binding , not repelling . Put this in a summoning spell… well, we all know how this went down. He’s bound to Clint on a metaphysical level. The only way he’s coming out is if he wants to come out. Seeing as how he’s changing his host body to match his own body, I’d say he found a loophole in the deal to wiggle through. He intends to stay.” He flopped into a seat on the couch, kicking his feet up beside the Falcon’s combat boots. None of them had had a chance to clean up from the fight yet. “So… How are you boys going to catch him?”

“We already had him once. But the guy who did the summoning broke the salt circle and let him loose.” Sam offered his hand. “Sam Wilson. ‘Preciate the help. We need all the help we can get at this point.”

“Well, I’ll try to oblige. But even I can’t snap my fingers and spontaneously know where he is. Or catch him for that matter. I specialize in tricks, which are useful. But the real thing is a bit harder to manipulate.”

“Any help will be appreciated.” Steve confirmed. “Frankly, I think we might be in a little bit over our heads.”

Gabriel thumbed at Sam, Cas, and Dean conferring amongst themselves. “Good thing you got ‘Team Free Will’, then.”

Friday’s soft, lilting voice drifted through the air above their heads. “Sir, my search algorithm has run it’s course. I believe I have pinpointed Surtur and Mr. Barton’s home base.”

The Avengers clustered around Friday’s holographic map.

Arrays of dots clearly marked the trails and hotspots Surtur’s movements had left behind. One hotspot was especially large, indicating prolonged use. That was where they needed to go. Hopefully their quarry hadn’t decided not to take any chances and go to ground somewhere else.

Tony’s armor was already flying to enclose him. “Let’s go get our archer back.”

Steve grabbed Tony by the nape and hauled him back. “No. We’ve walked blindly into ambushes and rushed in without so much as considering it might a trap. Not this go around. This time, we’re going to plan this out ahead of time. And we are going to bring Clint home.”

“And that’s why they called him the ‘Star Spangled Man With A Plan’.” Gabe offered Steve the bowl of candy. “Alrighty then, Captain. Let’s go bag ourselves an eldjotnar!”


 

 

Barney was scared.

His plan to take revenge on Clint was coming down around his ears. And he wasn’t exactly sure where it had gone wrong. One minute he was sitting pretty, handing over the Avengers to Surtur the way they agreed. And then everything had gone to hell. Surtur had made Clint slaughter his family, which Barney hadn’t even known existed ! Now the demon was waging an all out war with the Avengers on the streets of New York! And losing no less! And changing Clint’s shape !

Barney was scared shitless .

And he hid it with rage.

He jabbed a finger at the hulking monster towering over his head. “What the hell was that?! We had a deal, god damnit! You weren’t supposed to hurt Clint! What do you call this ?! Fifteen foot tall and you’re still growing! And you grew a fucking tail ! How in the hell does that not violate our deal?”

Flaming blue eyes regarded him, as if he were an insect.

It was unsettling. “Answer me goddamn you!”

At last the monstrous beast dained to speak. “Fool. You know not with whom you speak. I am Surtur. Greatest of the eldjotnar for time immemorial. Think you that I care aught for your insignificant machinations? They are as dust to me. As are you. As are the mortal I now wear and his paltry spawn.”

“So you did kill them? Clint’s kids? His wife?”

“The worm opposed me. None oppose Surtur. I slaughtered his brood and their damn, and all else that lived and breathed upon their soil. He will know true suffering, his soul entrapped within this form with his guilt. Unable to leave, unable to flee. Unable to seek peace in oblivion. Such is the fate of those who oppose my will.”

Barney’s stomach gave a lurch.

His hands tightened around his bow. “That wasn’t the deal.”

The demon shook his massive head, tail lashing. “The agreement is at an end! You promised to deliver the warriors known as the Avengers into my hands, in return for the sullying of your brother’s name and reputation. You have sought to do so, and you have failed. You have not upheld your end of the bargain. It is hereby null and void! Your brother is forfeit to me, body and soul, to do with as I please!” The arrogant monster turned his back on the archer to leave. “Be grateful I do not claim your own pitiful hide for your failure as well.”

Barney shook, but it wasn’t the footsteps of the demon that caused it.

Emotion surged and crashed in his chest. Rage, and guilt, and hatred, and responsibility, and love in equal measure. Filling him up like an incoming tide fills a sea shell. He did this. It was all his fault. He had wanted Clint beaten, broken, bleeding. But there was a microscopic grain of decency left in his cold heart. A grain of sand that chafed at him until he was raw with the rubbing. Until he couldn’t ignore it anymore.

No matter how much he hated Clint, the fact remained that Clint was still his little brother.

The tide pulled back, draining out of the shell and leaving him cold and empty. He couldn’t let this stand. He owed Clint. Owed it to the woman and children who should never have died. He owed them all. And he would make good on what he owed. Or die trying.

Barney had drawn and fired before Surtur took his seventh step.

The fiery giant whirled. The arrow embedded underneath his shoulder blade exploded. The demon stumbled, roaring in surprise and pain. His burning blue eyes locked on the archer. Tail lashing, he stormed after Barney.

“Foolish mortal! You will suffer for your presumption!”

Barney hit him in the face with another explosive arrow. “Kiss the darkest part of my lily white ass, fucker! I wanted Clint hurt. I  wanted him ruined. Not fucking enslaved! I might hate that little bastard’s guts, but he’s still my little brother. And no one kicks my little brother’s ass but me!”

The demon replied with a fireball.

Barney retreated, firing arrow after arrow. He scooped up Clint’s quiver as he passed it, taking a few precious seconds to loosen the straps and slide it on over his own. Then he was running again, firing some of Clint’s trick arrows with his own explosive ones. He found himself grudgingly coming to respect the gear. The arrows were top notch. He wouldn’t mind getting his hands on some of those!

Except for one.

Barney watched as the arrow with the weird cylindrical head gracefully curved to the left and headed back to him. He dove behind a stack of crates and raced down an aisle. “Dammit Clint! What the fuck do you need a boomerang arrow for?!” He dodged again to avoid a gout of fire. “Ah, who’m I kidding? Fucker probably made it because he thought it was cool . Moron.”

A hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Actually, that arrow has won him a mission or two.”

On the other side of the stack of crates Surtur slung fire indiscriminately, hoping to hit the hiding human.

Barney barely noticed. He was too busy almost decking the guy who’d grabbed him. He just barely managed not to. Getting into a pitched fight would definitely give his hiding spot away. Plus his new companions didn’t seem in any hurry to attract the demon’s notice either.

There were two of them. Both men. They crouched behind the crates with him. He hadn’t seen or heard them coming. The one was about his size, but the other was easily several inches taller. Both men were dressed in plaid shirts and canvas jackets, and clutched sawed offs in their hands.

The one that was about Barney’s size smirked. “What’s a matter Barney? Don’t you remember me?”

No. No he didn’t. He didn’t… maybe he did. Those green eyes and freckles were damn familiar… Images flashed behind his eyes. Memories that he hadn’t thought about in years.

That he’d actively tried to forget .

The feel of ghostly fists hitting his body. Of dead eyes boring into his. Hearing his brother scream and beg their dead father to stop. He remembered the teenager that had come out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly as soon as the ghost was gone. Oh yes, he remembered the green eyes and the no nonsense attitude. But he couldn’t remember a name.

“I remember. You killed Pops.”

The man snorted. “You don’t gank the dead. You just make ‘em lay down again.” He sat up and peered over the edge of the crates. Flames licked across the top of the crate and he dropped back down. He combed his hands through his hair to check for fire, cursing under his breath. “Looks like you two had a falling out.”

Barney grunted, pulling a new arrow from his quiver.

The taller man leaned over his companion to tap the arrow shaft. “No, save your arrows. They won’t do much against him.” The light of an idea touched his face. He fished into a pocket and came up with a flask. Odd symbols had been painted on the metal. Symbols that looked sort of similar to the ones he’d painted to summon Surtur in the first place. The tall man unscrewed the cap and offered it to him.

“Here. Pour some of this into both quivers. Even if the arrows themselves won’t hurt him, holy water with nordic blessings on it will. And it shouldn’t foul up the arrows. Most of Clint’s are waterproof.”

“Pour it on.” Barney growled and turned so that the men could reach the quivers. He held still through the little jerks and tugs and the wet trickle as they made sure there was enough water in each quiver to cover the arrowheads. Outside their little haven, Surtur was becoming increasingly furious at not being able to find his quarry. Barney heard them put the cap back on the flask.

“You boys got a plan?”

He caught a flash of teeth in the dim light. “Hell yes. You in? Way I see it, you owe him one.”

Barney studied them. He wasn’t sure what they were up to. But he knew a confident, capable man when he saw one. These two had a plan. One that they were sure would work. And he was right, he owed Clint for what he’d done. And he owed Surtur a sock to the jaw.

“I’m in.”


 

 

“Yo douchebag! Ya miss me?”

Surtur spun, fire flaring out in all directions. It dissipated, and a human climbed out from behind a pile of crates. It wasn’t the mortal who had summoned Surtur to this wretched realm. The little monster gave a cheeky, impudent wave.

The flames at his core burned all the hotter. It was the human that had turned the tide of the battle against him! From behind the insect, two more small forms crawled out onto the crates behind him. The one was his summoner. Only eons of hardwon patience kept him from blasting the insignificant little worm to cinders on the spot. The third was abnormally tall for a mortal. Surtur recognized him too. He had been the one to direct the soldiers in their burning deluge.

The oath breaker loosed another arrow. It struck the demon in the shoulder. Twice blessed acid burned into his skin. It hadn’t had an effect before. Swiping a hand over it to get it off only spread it.

Surtur’s control snapped.

“Woah! Move it or lose it people!”

The fire demon tore after the humans in a blind fury. He crushed crates under his bare feet. Walls crumbled like tissue paper before the brunt of his shoulder. Ebony horns scraped the ceilings.

The space opened up around him. They’d led him into a large open space. Across the room, the mortals were scrambling up a staircase to a second level. Fools. Didn’t they realize that he could reach the second story without climbing up after them? A cruel smile twisted his lips. The second story was a dead end. They had nowhere to go except back down the stairs.

He had them.


 

 

The three men leaned on the railing, gasping for breath.

“You boys sure about this?” Barney panted.

Sam didn’t take his eyes off the approaching giant. “We’re sure. Cap won’t let us down.”

Barney’s knuckles were going white with the grip he had on the iron rail. “Hope you’re right.”

“We’re right.” Dean leaned forward. “...and three… two… one!”

Surtur slammed into something. The demon looked as though he’d run into an invisible wall. He bounced off of it, only to hit another invisible wall three steps back. He stared around himself in bewilderment. There wasn’t anything there!

His eyes snapped to the ceiling.

There, painted in dark red spray paint on the thirty foot high ceiling was a trap. An anglican devil’s trap, barely visible in the gloom of the moonlit building. And ranged in rings around it were other symbols. Norse ones for binding and capture. Symbols the like of which hadn’t been seen on earth in millenia. Symbols the Avengers should never have had access to.

Surtur shrieked his rage and threw himself against the walls of the trap.

Up on the catwalk, Dean crowed.

On the ground, Steve lead the Avengers out of hiding. They carried heavy lengths of chain. Each chain was as thick as a four by four. Steve, Thor, Vision, Tony, and Hulk carried the vast majority of the chains. Sam and Wanda dragged the lengths that draped between their teammates. They struggled, but they weren’t about to quit. The heroes stopped just outside the protective ring.

Above their heads, the angels appeared on the catwalk with Phil, Wong, and Doctor Strange in tow.

“Wanda!” Steve barked. “Get the chains in the air!”

The red flare of Wanda’s power lit the room with an eerie glare. Ropes of ruby red slithered across the floor. They laced themselves through the links. The chains shifted and rolled into the air. They snaked themselves into the trap. Round and round the giant they twined. Hands and feet were bound and hobbled. Arms and chest were wrapped in them. His throat was collared by three tight loops of chain. Far above their heads, Strange, Wong, and Gabriel chanted in unison. Strange drew signs in the air, working off of a book Phil held open for him. Sparks of golden light interwove themselves with Wanda’s scarlet laced chains.

And then they began to tighten.

The eldjotnar kicked and thrashed against his bonds, almost losing his balance. But the chains held firm. And with every inch they took, every passing second, the chains shrank. And Surtur shrank with it. Faster and faster the process went. Within minutes, he matched Hulk’s ten foot height. Finally, he reached Clint’s height.

Strange and the others stopped chanting.

They had him.

The demon sat on the floor. So thoroughly had he been wrapped in chains thicker than Thor’s wrist, barely a scrap of skin showed. Skin red as blood. Normal sized he might be. But he looked no more human. The ruby red skin, the ebony horns and claws, the spaded tail, and flaming blue eyes were all still there. The jotun was still in control. He’d become too powerful to be backed out.

They hadn’t saved Clint. Not yet.

Tony clapped his hands. “We got him! ….now what?”


 

 

No one could seem to agree.

Naturally, the Avengers wanted to take Surtur back to their base. They could paint another trap on the floor, pop him in it, and exorcise him out of Clint. No muss, no fuss… Right?

Eh, not so much.

Which was why the Winchesters were insisting on taking Surtur back to their place. They had the facilities. The restraints. The materials. It was what the place was built for!

It unsettled the Avengers on several levels to learn that their new allies had a ‘dungeon’.

“That’s creepy. And besides, didn’t you say that the fam is staying at the ‘bunker’? We don’t want this thing anywhere near them.” Tony argued hotly.

“Yeah, but your base won't hold him. Not for long.” Dean growled right back. “The dungeon is the best place for him.”

Wanda folded her arms. A bit of red still lingered in her eyes. “And what will you do to him in this dungeon? Torture him until Surtur leaves? Clint is in there too. I am not comfortable with this plan, and I do not like the idea that one of the children might wander and be hurt.”

“What if I could promise that he couldn’t lay a hand on them?”

All attention zeroed in on Gabriel.

The archangel shrugged and pulled the sucker out of his mouth to talk. “Cassie and I can both whisk them away at a moment's notice. Anywhere in the world, in barely the blink of an eye.” He shrugged. “I could pop them in a pocket universe if I wanted to. Surtur could never touch them there. One way or another, he’s not laying a hand on them... That, and he’d burn your base down around your ears. The Winchesters are better equipped to hold this asshat, and the dungeon they’re talking about will cancel out those spontaneous fires that tend to follow him like flies.”

Steve looked like he wanted to argue.

The angel flicked the sucker away, the candy winking out of existence before it hit the floor. “Steve. This isn’t going to be like the other demons you dealt with this afternoon. It’s going to take time while we figure out how to root him out of there. Better to put him somewhere where his powers are completely useless than risk him getting away again. You won’t catch him a third time. If we rush this, Clint’s lost.”

Steve sighed and put his shield on his back. “Alright. You can take Clint and Surtur to the bunker. But we’re coming along. If something happens, I want to be on hand to help.” He looked over to where Hulk was pacing just outside the demon trap, eyes locked on Surtur. “I’ll try to calm him down. You people sort this out and be ready to move as soon as we’ve got Bruce.”

Tony gave a mock salute.

Gabriel arched an eyebrow at the Winchesters. “Dean-o? Sammoose?”

Sam shrugged. “... We have the room.”  

“Fine.” Dean gave his ankle a demonstrative shake, so that the tracker thunked against his boot. “Gabe, drop these at the tower please? The less people who know where the bunker is, the better. Cas, grab our stuff and a change of clothes for the Avengers from the base upstate?” The angel nodded. “Alright, let’s get out of here. Doc, you coming?”

Doctor Strange shook his head. “No, thank you. I think I have had enough adventures for one day. Between the demons this afternoon, and Surtur, I’m all but tapped out. I don’t know how much space you have, but you’re probably going to need it for the Avengers. Perhaps some other time? I’d be very interested in seeing the library Sam mentioned.”

The younger Winchester beamed. “Of course. We’ll be in touch.”

The Sorcerer Supreme bid the others a polite goodbye, ordering them to call if they needed any more help. Or to tell him how things worked out, if for no other reason. Looking bone tired, he let Wong open up a portal and shepherd him through it. It closed behind them with a soft ‘shush’ of falling sparks.

“My life used to be a whole lot simpler.” Phil commented, staring at where the portal had been.

Dean snorted. “Believe it or not, so did ours. I take it you're tagging along too?”

“I’d like to. God knows I owe Clint that much.” The agent huffed and glared and at the handcuffed archer seated on the stairs. “But if we leave him here alone for pickup he’ll be out of those cuffs in two minutes. Someone has to stay. As much as I hate it, it might as well be me. When you get Surtur out, the first people Clint will want to see are his family.”

Dean eyed Phil thoughtfully. Considering. Finally, he nodded. “Who’s coming to pick him up? And how long till they get here?”

“Agent Hill is sending some agents. They should be here in about fifteen minutes. Why?”

Dean ignored him. “Cas? We need Barney to stay put till the authorities get here. You mind?”

“Of course not.” Castiel winked out of sight, appearing again directly in front of Barney. Before the startled convict could say a word, Castiel laid two fingers on his forehead. Barney’s eyes rolled back in his head. He slumped back on the stairs with a silent sigh. Castiel cradled his head, making sure he didn’t hit it on the iron steps. “He will sleep for an hour and a half. Your agents will have plenty of time to collect him.”

“Thanks Cas. ‘preciate it.” He patted Phil on the shoulder. “You’re family too. You owe Clint one hell of an apology. Now I’m not gonna lie to you, you hurt him bad. Hell, I’m still pissed with you. And he may yell, and fuss, and throw you out on your ass. But you’re still a member of this family. And sooner or later he’ll forgive you. Life’s too short not to. But you two actually have to see each other and figure out where you stand.”

“Thanks Dean.”

Steve came back to the group. An absolutely exhausted Bruce hung off of Steve’s side, one arm slung across the super soldier’s shoulders, despite the difference in height making the hold a little awkward. One transformation left him tired, cold, and hungry enough to eat a horse and a half. Two transformations had all but finished him off. He was haggard, pale, and shaky. Goosebumps stood out on his bare skin, and his tattered pants seemed to stay together only by an act of God. Steve was carrying more of his weight than Bruce was. Bruce looked like he was going to collapse any minute.

Gabriel caught sight of them. His hard edged smirk softened into something gentler. The archangel slipped through the Avengers without a word to get to Steve and Bruce.

“Here.” He murmured. “Let me just…”

He smoothed a hand across Bruce’s face, brushing his hair back. There was a brief flash of white when he did. Bruce blinked, and some life seemed to come back into his eyes. He looked between Steve and Gabriel in confusion. Gabriel beamed and snapped his fingers. A dark green zip up hoodie and sweats appeared, and he pushed them into Bruce’s hands.

Steve held Bruce steady, helping him pull the sweats on over the rags he was currently wearing. “What did you do?”

Gabriel shrugged. “Amazing what a little warmth and a drop of grace can do. Don’t worry, no tricks. I just gave him a little boost so he wouldn’t look half dead in front of the kids. I don’t know if they’ve ever met him before, but he kinda looks like death warmed over right now.” He held up the hoodie so Bruce could shrug into it. “He’s still going to sleep like the dead for a while. And you know the saying hungry enough to eat a horse? I’d highly recommend feeding him at least one before and after he sleeps. He’s going to be hungry enough to eat a whole team of them.”

“Thanks.” Bruce mumbled.

“My pleasure. So, we all set to go?” The assembled humans nodded. Gabriel straightened up to catch Castiel’s eye.

Castiel disappeared, leaving the soft rustle of feathers in his wake.

Gabriel smirked, and snapped his fingers.

Unlike when Castiel flew someone, there was no sensation of movement, or stopping. Quite the opposite in fact. One second you were there, the next you were somewhere else. The blink of an eye.

The Avengers stared at their new surroundings, trying to wrap their heads around the sudden shift in scenery. Surtur snarled and lunged, making a break for the trees.

Thor grabbed the demon by the scruff of the neck. The journey hadn’t unsettled him nearly as much. Traveling by angel was somewhat similar to traveling by bifrost. If the moving sensation had been included, it would’ve been almost exactly the same. He wrestled the demon back under control. Flashes of red tangled themselves in the chains, and he nodded his thanks to Wanda.

“Good catch ‘Point Break’.” Tony praised.

“Sam, get the door, and let Gabriel in. I want him between our guests and this bastard until we’ve got him settled.” Dean ordered.

“Sure thing!”

“You got it!”

The two Sams raced for the front door. A chortling Gabriel trailed close behind.

“Hey, where’s my suit?!” Tony held out his arms, showcasing his clearly changed clothes. “For that matter, where are the rest of you guys’ suits?”

The heroes stared down at themselves in shock. As Tony had pointed out, their suits were gone. In place of the missing costumes, the heroes now wore casual clothing. With the exception of Bruce, they were all wearing clothing that they recognized from their own wardrobes. And they were clean! The soot stains, sweat, and dirt from the battle in Greenwich earlier that day had been erased from their bodies as if it had never been there.

“I dropped them at your base, safe, sound, and clean . Y’all stunk! ‘Cept Bruce’s. I just trashed his. I’m not even sure Dad could save those pants!” Gabriel yelled back. Castiel appeared by the front door, backpacks at his feet. “Cassie! Just in time! Come on, introduce me to the missus!”

Cas rolled his eyes and followed his brother and the two Sams inside, bags in hand.

Vision tilted his head. “A very unique individual. And quite powerful. The amount of energy needed to transport all of us instantaneously for any distance is staggering. Let alone to change the team’s clothing, clean us and our uniforms, and deposit the uniforms back at base. And he does not appear at all winded or fatigued. The display of power is immense.”

Dean huffed. “He’s a trickster god. They create things out of midair and warp the fabric of reality for shits and giggles.” He shrugged. “He’s also got the juice of an archangel, and they ain’t exactly something to sneeze at either… I don’t know man, Gabe is Gabe. You get used to him. Come on, let’s get this bastard inside.”


 

 

“Momma! Momma! Sam is back! And Cas! They brought the Falcon with them, and Cas brought a friend!”

Laura put her book down on the kitchen table and glared at the two kids. “I put you two to bed hours ago.”

Jody hid her smile in her mug, fingers playing with a corner of her magazine.

Reading her own book across the table, Natasha smirked, knowing that only Laura and Jody could see. She took a sip of her tea and turned the page. Laura could handle it. She didn’t know why Sam and Cas were back, or why they had brought Sam the Avenger with them instead of Dean. But Sam would know that the kitchen was a good place to look for them.

Besides, she wanted to see what excuse the kids would come up with.

Lila and Cooper skidded to a halt halfway across the kitchen. Guilty looks flashed across their faces. Laura repressed a smirk. Caught red handed. At least they were still in the clothes she put them in.

Well, at least partially.

Lila was dressed in her favorite blue nightie, the one with the ponies on the front. She had Steve the sock monkey and Giddy the pony under her arm. Cooper was wearing a pair of green pajama pants with red, yellow, and blue lego bricks on them. Though she had put him to bed with a matching lego pajama shirt, he was now bare chested. Clint tended to walk around the house without a shirt whenever he got the chance, and Cooper had picked up the habit. Especially when Clint was away. As if Cooper felt like he had to be the man of the house. That self assigned responsibility didn’t stop him from being a kid though. His worn old teddy bear was shoved in the crook of his arm, and held there just as securely as Lila held Giddy the pony and Steve the sock monkey.

Cooper scuffed one bare foot against the floor. “We had a nightmare. I thought we could go get one of our books from the library.”

Jody put down her mug. “We? Both of you at once?”

“Yeah.” Cooper’s cheeks burned. “We didn’t want to sit in the room alone, and…”

“No, you both had a nightmare at the exact same time?” She glanced worriedly at the other two women when both kids nodded. Once upon a time she would’ve dismissed it as a coincidence. But that was before she’d learned that there were things that went bump in the night. For hunters and the people close to them, when weird stuff started happening, there was no such thing as a coincidence. “All of you? What did you dream?”

At the kitchen door, the men and angels paused.

The kids didn’t notice. At the mention of their dream, Lila teared up, and Cooper went sickly pale. Lila sobbed and hugged her dolls close. Natasha immediately put down her book and turned around to face them.

“We all dreamed it. Even Nate started to cry! ...We dreamed about Daddy.”

Cooper reluctantly nodded. His grip on his teddy bear tightened. “Something was wrong with Dad’s eyes. Dad’s eyes are always watching, you know? But it’s a good kind of watching? ...it wasn’t good anymore. I didn’t want him to see me.”

“His eyes were blue !” Lila burst out.

Natasha stiffened.

“Blue, and then they were on fire .” Cooper agreed. “And, he started to change! He grew horns, and a tail, and his skin turned really red and stuff! He got claws, and he kept growing bigger, and bigger…”

“He turned into a monster!” Lila shrieked.

Castiel slipped down into the kitchen, leaving the bags he had been carrying by the steps. He knelt and gathered Lila into his arms. She cuddled into his chest, one small hand clinging to his trenchcoat. Cooper sidled closer, his need for comfort outweighing his embarrassment. Though they couldn’t see Castiel’s wings, the effects were clear. It was obvious he had spread them to shelter the kids from their fears. Their tears subsided, and the color came back to their faces. Watching from the door, the stranger smiled softly to watch them.

Sam Wilson leaned in the door. “Yo fellas? We got incoming. Hey Tash!”

The other Sam hurriedly pulled him and the stranger in the door and shut it. The stranger immediately took up a defensive position between them and the door. Outside, they could hear others passing. There was shouting, and the heavy tramp of boots on the tiled floor. Snarls and curses sounded, and a moment later there was a loud bang on the kitchen door.

The stranger shook his head. “That’s enough of that.” He snapped his fingers. Outside, all noise died. The voices, footsteps, banging. All of it. Like flipping a switch. Gesturing as if to wash his hands of the whole business, he spun around to join the others. “They’ll  come get us when the coast is clear. Now, who do we have here? Cassie? Introduce me? I gather the rugrats are his, but which one’s the missus?”

Sam Wilson snickered. “Well, it you believe what you read in the tabloids, it’s Natasha.”

The other Sam gave an inelegant snort. “Yeah, and they said the same thing about him and Pepper when you were dealing with a stalker problem and he took her to get coffee.” One large hand came to rest on Laura’s shoulder. “Gabe, this is Clint’s wife Laura. That’s Natasha, the Black Widow, she’s been Clint’s partner for years. The ‘rugrats’ are Lila and Cooper. Nathaniel, his youngest is probably asleep in the bedroom.”

“Oh.” Gabriel disappeared in a rustle of feathers, returning seconds later with a still sleeping toddler in his arms. “Wow, he’s cute… oh, don’t worry, he won’t wake up. But if the name of the game is safety, it’s probably best we keep him here with us until they lock the dungeon. Don’t ‘cha think?”

“Probably for the best.” The falcon snarked.

Nathaniel snuffled in his sleep, and Gabriel shifted his weight to rock the baby. Nate immediately settled back down to sleep. “So. We’ve got the missus. We’ve got his partner. Who’s the third lovely lady?”

The hunter smiled. “Sheriff Jody Mills. She’s been a good friend of ours for several years. She agreed to drive clear out here to stay with Laura when we went to New York to hunt. Guys, this is Gabriel. We had to bring something back to the dungeon. He and Cas’ll be standing watch until we get it sorted out.”

Laura’s attention snapped to the hunter. “I thought you weren’t going to be bringing your work home with you while we were here.”

Sam winced. “We didn’t have any choice. It’s why we have Cas and Gabe staying here, along with the entire complement of Avengers. We’re taking every precaution we can. You and the kids’ll be safe… Believe me Laura. It’s the only way.”

She sighed and nodded.

Lila slipped out of Castiel’s hold, scooting closer to Gabriel. He saw her and grinned. The archangel squated down to be on her eye level. “Hey. I see you brought friends. What are their names?”

Lila giggled. “This is Giddy, and this is Steve. I made Steve myself! Mama helped me. Are you an angel? Like Castiel?”

“You did a good job on Steve. I’m sure he appreciates how much hard work you put in to him. And as to being an angel…” For one horrible second, Sam thought he was going to whip out the ‘loki’ nonsense again. “I’m an arch angel. It basically just means I’m older and stronger than the other angels.”

Lila pointed at Cas. “Older than Castiel?” she checked.

Gabriel shot Cas a wicked grin. “Definitely. Cassie is one of our youngest angels. He’s my baby bro. Just like Nathaniel is yours.” He turned his attention to Cooper. “How about you? What’s your friend’s name?” Cooper blushed, seeming to only just notice that he was in front of strangers in his pajamas with a teddy bear under his arm. Gabriel’s smile got wider and he chucked the boy under the chin. “Oh, hey now, no blushing. No shame in liking stuffed animals. You should see the collection I have at home! Heck, I bet if you asked your mom, she’d tell you that she and your dad still have their favorite stuffed animals somewhere.”

Laura suppressed a smile. She did actually still have a stuffed cat tucked away with some dolls in a box. Or she had. She wasn’t sure how much, if any, of their things had survived the wholesale destruction of the farm that Natasha had described. She was pretty sure Clint didn’t have a stuffed animal from his childhood. But too many oversized animals had found their way into the Barton home over the years for her to think that he didn’t have some affinity for them.

Cooper ducked his head shyly. “His name’s Edgar.”

“Edgar Bear Barton. I like it. Rolls right off the tongue. Good choice.” Gabriel cocked his head. “Ohp, there’s the bell. Seems they got the baddie roped up. We can go back now.” He snapped a finger, and abruptly the sounds from outside the room started up again. Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Dean, step out of the kitchen so I can snap this back into place already… And quit swearing at me, the kids’ll hear!”

Dean’s voice grumbled and moved away. There was the eerie sound of footsteps walking back across the room to the door, which made a slaming noise, even though it hadn’t opened.

Gabriel snickered. “I love messing with him. You can come on in now! But keep a civil tongue in your head and keep it quiet ! If you wake the baby I’ll raise holy hell on Laura’s behalf.”

The door edged open, and Dean glared in. “Angels.” he muttered. “Cas, can you help Laura put the kids back to bed? And stay with them. Nat, both Sams, we need you and Gabe to come on downstairs.”


 

 

Natasha stared through the door into the dungeon.

When Dean had told her that they’d brought down Clint, and the demon that had taken him over, she’d felt hope swell. Now, looking into that underground room, she felt it start to whither. A beast sat in that dungeon. It wasn’t Clint. Though of the correct size, that was all the similarity she could see between this monster, and her own dear friend. Blood red skin stood out sharply from ebony claws and horns. Flaming blue eyes stared around the room with a contempt born of centuries of arrogance. More arrogance and contempt even then Loki had managed, if that were possible.

Surtur had been placed in the center of the trap in the middle of the room. Chains wrapped him from head to foot. A metal collar encircled his throat, and heavy metal manacles held his wrist and ankles. He’d been bound to a heavy wooden chair, the old, weathered gray wood looking like something straight out of the spanish inquisition. For that matter, several other items looked like they might have a worryingly similar origin.

Behind her she heard Jody suck in a shocked breath.

That’s what was possessing your brother?!”

Dean grimaced. “That’s what’s still possessing our brother.”

Jody leaned over to see around Natasha again. “It’s hideous.”

“They all are. You just can’t usually see it.” Dean folded his arms. “Gabe? Will that hold him for the time being? We’ve all had a long day, and I think we’re all pretty much shot.”

“No shooting. I’m not in the mood to patch up bullet holes.” Gabe peered into the dungeon. “They’ll hold. Get some sleep. Cas and I will keep watch. Angels don’t sleep, so twenty-four seven watch. We’ll take turns watching the fam and the douchebag.”

“I will assist you. I have no need to sleep either.” Vision offered.

“Awesome, the more the merrier!” Gabriel slung an arm playfully around Vision’s shoulder and pulled him close. “Come on, we’ll take first watch of the douchebag.”

“Wait.” Natasha folded her arms. “Winchester. Both of the children woke with nightmares earlier tonight. Nightmares where their father had burning blue eyes, grew horns, claws, and a tail, and his skin turned red. Sound familiar?”

“That’s odd.” Phil commented. “That can’t be normal for them to have a dream that accurate.”

Sam looked worriedly up towards the bedrooms, as if he could see through the floors and walls to check on Laura and the kids. “It’s not. Especially for both of them to have the same dream at the same time. I wish we knew if Nate had the dream too.”

“They said that Nate woke up when they did.” Natasha confirmed.

Sam went a little pale. “Dean. You don’t think…?”

“No.” Gabriel’s tone was firm, leaving no room for doubt. “They’re safe Sam. It’s just because they’re kids. They’ve still got some innocence to them. It’s what lets them look past what’s supposed to be there and see what actually is. It’s why kids and animals can sometimes see things that adults can’t. Right now these three know something’s wrong, even Nate. And they’re worried. It’s not surprising that they saw something, not with the three of them together. We should consider ourselves lucky they only caught a glimpse. It scared them, but you can put it off as ‘just a nightmare’. They’ll forget, and move on. You should still let Cassie know so that he can shield  them. Who knows what they might glimpse next time...We could probably get a zanna in in a pinch. This is unorthodox enough that they might make an exception, and they’re probably the best at dealing with kids. But only as a last resort, I’d rather not deal with them unless I absolutely have to. Those people would drive Death himself up the wall, I don’t understand how kids can put up with them, let alone like them… It’s alright Sam, I promise. They’re not getting visions the way you did. They’re fine.”

Sam took a deep breath. “Yeah, ok… Come on. Let’s go figure out where everyone’s going to sleep.”


 

 

As they weren’t used to or expecting so many guests all at once, sleeping arrangements presented a bit of a challenge.

When the men of letters had left for the last time, they hadn’t expected to die. Everything was still there. And, probably thanks to spellwork, most of it was still as serviceable as it had been decades ago. It was the only reason that they had enough blankets, pillows, and sheets to go around. Promising to clean more of the bedrooms in the morning, they made up the rooms that they kept clean in case of guests and had the Avengers double up.

Natasha had bedded down with Clint’s family. She and Laura had opted to share the bed. Steve suspected that Natasha wanted to be close in case something happened. In case the kids dreamed again. Or, if Surtur got lose, to serve as the last line of defense.

He couldn’t fault her either way.

Wanda, they bunked with Jody. None of the men would’ve done anything, but Steve still didn’t think it was appropriate for her to share a room with her male teammates. Not if they didn’t have to.

Wanda would’ve been more comfortable rooming with Natasha, but agreed to share with Jody. But only if Jody was ok with that. Otherwise she would stake out a spot on the couch.

They were expecting there to be some awkwardness between the women. After all, it couldn’t exactly be easy to share a bed with someone who could read your mind. Wanda wouldn’t, but the idea was discomforting.

Steve was bracing himself to try and convince Jody that it would be alright, and Wanda that she didn’t need to sleep on the couch.

What they got was the exact opposite.

Within minutes of meeting Wanda, Jody was smiling and chatting with the younger woman without reservation. The Avengers watched in amazement as Jody linked arms with one of the most inherently intimidating people on their team and lead her away, offering to lend her pajamas if Cas hadn’t thought to grab some for her. The Winchesters just smiled.

Jody was a mom, of course she’d take Wanda under her wing.

The men were easier to sort out. Tony and Bruce were pitched in a room together, along with a large tray of reheated  leftovers from the fridge and a pitcher of orange juice. When they closed the door, it was on Tony informing Bruce that it would be hazardous to his health if he got crumbs in the bed. The fact that Bruce was half slumped over the seat by the desk ten feet away from the bed with no apparent intention to move from that spot didn’t seem to have any bearing on the conversation. Sam Wilson and Phil took the next room through silent mutual consent.

That left Thor and Steve.

Dean shrugged. “Like I said, we’ll shake the dust out of a couple more rooms tomorrow so you can use them, but for tonight you’ve got  two choices. Sam and I can double up, and you two can take the other room. Or you two pick your favorite Winchester and we just go straight to bed.”

“We’re not booting you or Sam out of your beds. It’s late, and you’re just as exhausted as we are. We’ll bunk with you tonight, and worry about everything else tomorrow.” Steve asserted. At three a.m., he didn’t much care where he slept anymore. God knew it would probably still be miles above some of the places he’d slept back in the war.

Thor, easygoing as ever, agreed.

Thor ended up with Sam, and Steve with Dean. After a quick check of the front door to make sure they were all locked up for the night, and a final check on Vision and the angels, the four of them fell into bed. They didn't even bother to change, just shucked their boots at the door and flopped as if half dead. None of them were particularly looking forward to what the new day would bring. Hopefully it would be easier than the long hard day they’d just finished.

They were asleep within minutes.


 

 

Dean woke to an empty room.

It took him a minute to remember why that wasn’t right. He’d had a roommate, hadn’t he? ...Holy hell, Captain America was his roommate. When had his life gotten so weird  that things like Ghandi almost killing your little brother and having Captain America as a roommate were the norm, and not the exception?

Dean groaned and rolled out of bed. He’d better go look for him. He and Sam hadn’t thought to explain the system of tape on the doors. If Steve or one of the other Avengers wandered into the wrong room, they could be seriously hurt or even killed. Pulling on fresh clothes, Dean idly wondered what the U.S. government would say if Captain America touched a cursed object and died. He grimaced. They’d probably either try him for murder or send him to Gitmo for treason for destroying a national icon.

He found Steve in the library.

Reassured that his imminent treason had been averted, Dean watched Steve wander aimlessly around the bookcases. The clock said it was almost ten a.m.; but Dean would’ve been surprised if anyone but he and Steve, and Vision and the angels, were up and about yet. The bunker was too quiet for that. The women had been up just as late, and nightmares had probably taken the wind out of the kids’ sails. His bets were still on the kids being the first ones up.

“You won’t care for those.” Dean called.

Steve glanced up from the shelf of books he’d been studying. “Why?”

“Every book on that shelf is all on supernatural parasites. Trust me, that shit’ll give you nightmares.”

Steve pulled his hand away from them, as if he’d be infected by a parasite just through proximity. “You deal with those a lot?”

“Depends on what you qualify as a parasite. If you’re broad enough with the term, a demon is a parasite. So yeah, fairly often. Most hunters don’t think that way though, since demons don’t feed off of us. Djinns, vampires, and changelings though? They fit the bill. And like we told you before, sometimes things get imported. Usually immigrants, but soldiers’ll bring shit home too.”

“Soldiers?” Steve lost all interest in the books. “What happened to them?”

“They died. We gave it our best shot but… We didn’t get to them in time.” Dean shook his head and gestured at a different shelf. “You need something to read, that shelf over there is the fiction section, and you’re welcome to it. Anything else, read at  your own risk. The more you know about what’s out there, the more it’s attracted to you. You Avengers have enough to deal with without getting mixed up in our bull.”

“Ignorance isn’t bliss Dean. If we run up against something supernatural, we’ll be sitting ducks.”

“Then focus on defense. If you can defend yourself, then the battle’s already halfway won. Salt. Silver. Iron. Sam could point you at some of the books that focus on protection. Those are about the only hardcore books I’d recommend. Like I said, the more you know, the more you attract them… Trust me Cap, once you get pulled into the hunting life, there’s no getting back out.” He shook thoughts of Lisa and Ben out of his head and switched subjects. “So, you’re up early.”  

Ok, it wasn’t all that great a switch.

Steve gave him a knowing look but let it go. “Ten oclock isn’t early Dean.”

“It is when you were up till three a.m.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I’m usually up early to run. But seeing as how I have no idea where I am, it seemed like a bad idea to go outside. If I got turned around while out on a jog and had to call for someone to come find me, I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Well that’s an easy fix. Come on.” Dean led the Avenger back through the quiet hallways to Sam’s room. He knocked once, then barged in.

Sam was already up and dressed, Thor still snoring on his side of the bed against the wall. The younger Winchester glanced up from tying his shoes. “Dean? Everything alright?”

“Perfect Sammy. You mind a running partner?”

Sam looked as if Dean had grown a second head. “Ok, who are you and what have you done with my brother? ‘Cause last I checked you were of the opinion that ‘we exorcise, not exercise’. You’re about as anti-healthy behavior as they come.”

“Bitch.”

“Jerk.”

Dean jerked a thumb at Steve. “I meant Steve. He doesn’t know his way around and didn’t want to run the risk of getting lost.”

“Oh.” Sam stood, running a critical eye over Steve’s clothes. Gabriel had popped him into jeans, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes. T-shirt and tennis shoes were fine, but the jeans would suck to run in. He dug into a dresser. “Here. I don’t know what Cas brought for you in terms of clothes, but you can borrow some running clothes.”

Dean left them to it.

Lord knew he had more important shit to do. He had a bunker full of Avengers on his hands. One of which had burned a metric shit ton of calories the other day turning into a giant green rage monster, and would definitely be starving when he woke up from his near-coma. They were probably going to eat him out of house and home with breakfast alone.

Running through the contents of the pantry in his head, he grimaced. Yeah, he was definitely going to need to make a supply run today. Good thing he and Sam had brand new cards to max out. He’d have to go several towns over to make sure that they couldn’t trace him back home though. Dean shrugged. One problem at a time.

Problem number one: Making breakfast in Avenger sized portions.


 

 

“Dean?”

The hunter glanced up from the griddle full of sausage and bacon. “Hey Laura. You sleep well?”

“Mm.” She got herself a cup of apple juice. She'd stopped drinking coffee cold turkey as soon as she'd found out she was pregnant. “You didn’t have to make breakfast Dean. I wouldn’t have minded cooking.”

“Technically it’s a breakfast themed lunch at this point. But I wasn’t about to drag you out of bed and throw you ass first into cooking for the entire Avengers team. Seriously, have you seen how much these guys eat?”

“Clint brought them to the farm once. It was before they got some of their new members. And Thor didn’t stay long enough to eat. But I remember how much food Steve and Bruce could put away between them. And Clint’s told me stories. Do you want help?”

“Finish your juice first. So, there are Avengers you haven’t met?”

“Yeah.” She took a sip of her juice. “I met Sam last night when he came in with Sam… that’s going to get old.”

Dean snorted. “Tell me about it. Those two are milking it for all they’re worth.”

“Like you wouldn’t do the same.” She set her glass aside and started pulling dishes out of the cupboards. “I haven’t met Wanda yet. Or Vision. Or Rhodey for that matter.”

“I’ll introduce you.” Dean promised.

They settled in to work, laying out big plates and bowls of food. And slowly but surely, the Avengers made an appearance. Steve and Sam came back in, both showered after their run and dressed in fresh clothes. Both greeted Laura, Sam going so far as to give her a quick hug before going to wake the kids. The others slowly wandered in, lured by the smell of coffee and a home cooked breakfast. Tony headed straight for the coffee machine. They let him, knowing that he couldn’t really manage a coherent sentence until he’d had his first fix of caffeine. Bruce just shook his head and dug into the cupboard Laura pointed him to for tea bags. It was generic earl grey, but it was better than nothing. Wanda and Jody wandered in next, and Thor, and the other Sam. Last came Natasha and the kids, Nathaniel in her arms. Other adults stepped in to make sure Cooper and Lila were fed. Satisfied that her kids were being looked after, Laura started sorting out her own breakfast come lunch. Movement at the door caught her eye.

Laura’s plate clattered on the floor, scattering her food.

She was staring at someone her husband had had a hand in murdering, so she supposed she was entitled. Phil Coulson had just walked through the kitchen door and frozen like a deer in the headlights at the sight of her and the kids. The kids, who were looking at her, and had yet to follow her line of sight and spot supposedly dead Uncle Phil. She darted a glance at Dean, Steve, and Natasha. All three gave her a nod. This was Phil. They’d checked. It was safe.

She stomped over and slapped Phil upside the head.

The agent jumped but didn’t move. “Hello Laura.”

“You and I are going to have a talk later mister.” She growled. Then she threw her arms around his neck and hung on tight. She cried unashamedly against his button up shirt, knowing that she was probably leaving a wet patch and unable to bring herself to care. He rubbed her back soothingly, his hands staying away from her waist and lower back. It was a habit he’d picked up early on with Natasha, who didn’t like having anyone’s hands near her weapons. Behind her, she could hear her kids getting excited. They were leaving the table and coming to see their godfather.

And she needed to pull herself together dammit!

Laura backed off, sniffling and wiping at her eyes, to let the kids get through. Phil lit up like a christmas tree and crouched down to greet them. Lila had to show him Steve the sock monkey, who hadn’t been around before Phil’s death. Phil was delighted. Cooper was chattering on and on about how cool the bunker was, and about the car he and Dean were fixing. Phil said he’d definitely want to check out the garage with Cooper at some point. They had so much to tell him that he had missed. And the whole time he crouched there with an arm around each of them. Just drinking it all in. He hadn’t realised exactly how much he’d missed this. Missed them .

When the kids calmed, they dragged him over to a seat at the table.

“Phil.”

The agent glanced up. Natasha was seated at the end of the table, a toddler sitting on her lap. A toddler with Clint’s eyes and Laura’s dimples. He was in a dark blue onesie, a brightly colored bib secured around his neck. And big brown eyes were watching the newcomer curiously.

Nathaniel Pietro Barton.

How could Phil have forgotten?  He’d been ecstatic for Clint and Laura when Fury had told him that they were expecting again. And he hadn’t been able to stop smiling when Fury called him at four in the morning to tell him that Nathaniel Pietro Barton had made his grand entrance into the world. Phil had been on cloud nine for the next several days on the Barton family’s behalf. His team had definitely noticed. And it hadn’t taken a rocket scientist to figure out that Nathaniel was named for his godmother Natasha.

Even from the other end of the table, he could see how proud she was.

He sent her a pleading look.

Nat rolled her eyes. “If I wanted to torture you, all I’d have to do is keep Nathaniel on my lap and out of your reach.” she grumbled. She didn’t sound like she meant it though. The assassin came around the table and set the toddler down in Phil’s arms.

Over by the counter, Laura fumbled out her camera and surreptitiously snapped a photo. Phil looked like he was going to melt into a puddle on the floor as he stared down at the latest addition to the Barton brood. She kept from touching her belly only through a supreme act of will. Nathaniel wouldn’t hold that title for much longer. She wondered whether this one would be a girl, or another boy. Castiel might be able to tell her. Him or Gabriel. She wondered if Lila could handle having yet another brother.

God, the teenage years were going to be a bitch.

For now, she was content to watch one of the world’s best secret agents dandle her son on his knee while a team of superheroes looked on. She smiled and snapped increasingly sappy looking pictures.  

She was going to have so much fun scrap booking these with Nat when all this was over...


 

 

“You got our backs on this?”

Castiel glanced at the monitor showing the inside of the dungeon. Surtur was as they had left him. Bound to a chair and thoroughly pissed off. Nothing seemed to’ve changed, for better or worse. “Of course. Should you need me, I will be there… I wish that you did not need to do this, but I understand.”

That seemed to make Dean feel marginally better. “Yeah, thanks Cas... Gabe? You got the family squared away?”

The archangel didn’t even bother to take the sucker out of his mouth. “Pocket universe with Jody, Vision, and the non-moose Sam. They’ll be fine. You sure you don’t want me in there with you?”

“No, it’s a really bad idea to show all your cards in the first play. We need to keep him guessing.”

Dean took a deep breath, eyes trailing over the Avengers. They’d insisted on being present. Dean really would’ve rathered they wouldn’t. In the end, they’d compromised. The Avengers stayed out of the dungeon, but they could watch proceedings through the dungeon’s newly installed security feed. Given the suspicious look Wanda was shooting his way, it would be a minor miracle to keep her out once this shit started.

“Once again, no matter what you think you’re seeing, stay out of the room. Got it?” Dean had to content himself with reluctant nods. “Ok. Come on Sammy. Cas. Let’s get this show on the road.”

The three slipped into the dungeon.

Gabriel locked the doors behind them, sealing them in with the monster.

The Avengers focused their attention on the screen. The Winchesters that walked on screen weren’t the friendly, rough around the edges men that they’d come to know. The men who stepped up to the edge of the trap were cold. Distant.

Dangerous.

It was as if someone had flipped a switch, and turned off everything that made them thinking feeling human beings. Now there was nothing left of them, but shells without a spark of life in them.

Surtur pulled on his chains, a snarl twisting his face. “Release me, mortal! Release me, and I shall grant you a swift death.”

“Yeah. Not gonna happen Sparky. Grab the cart for me, would you Sam?”

“Then you have sealed your fate. I am Surtur, greatest of the eldjotnar, and…”

“And I. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck .” Dean walked slowly around his captive, eyes never leaving the demon. Surtur didn’t try to turn to see him. “I’m Dean fucking Winchester. And I’m the one who’s going to murder you with a smile on my face if you don’t get the hell out of my little brother’s body!”

“Winchester…” Surtur hissed. “So yours is the face that belongs to the name. The name which puts fear in the shriveled hearts of this realms demons…”

Outside, Steve darted a surprised glance at Gabriel.

“We’ve all learned the hard way not to underestimate these two.” The archangel’s face was drawn and serious. “They both have quite the reputation. Especially in the demonic crowd. They’ve killed or gotten the better of most of hell’s heaviest hitters. I’d be more surprised if he hadn’t heard of them.”

Inside the dungeon Surtur laughed. “Murder me? Do not pretend that one with a reputation such as yours would consider my death a murder.” He smirked, eyeing the tools on the cart Sam was rolling close. “Your brother on the other hand… Have you truly fallen so far as that? Can you murder your own flesh and blood? Because that is what will be required. I am bound to your brother, body and soul, by that bungler’s spells. You cannot kill me without murdering him as well.”

Dean stopped in front of him and put his hands on the chair’s armrests. He leaned in, invading the demon’s personal space. “Bullshit. You can cut ties with Clint whenever you feel like it. But you’re clinging to him. Because you know he’s the only card you got left. The Avengers won’t hurt you, so long as you’re wearing one of their own. You’re counting on it.” He looked pointedly at the cart.

Surtur's unwilling gaze followed it.

The cart held all manner of intimidating things. Knives of all shapes and sizes lay in neat rows across the metal surface. Thick, slender, long, and short. Some were serrated, or etched on the flats with supernatural symbols. Different shapes of pliers lay there. Large old fashioned syringes, and metal jars. Small stainless steel trays held needle sharp probes. Some trays were just empty, awaiting something to hold. The shelves underneath held bags of salt and jugs of water with rosaries wrapped around their mouths. A plastic funnel and a scoop. Leather strapping and pieces of metal that couldn’t be seen clearly.

Dean gave him a dead eyed smile. “Counting on the Avengers not wanting to hurt one of their own. It’s a good plan. Hell, I’d use it. Sucks to be you though, ‘cause there’s a hole in your plan. You see, I made Clint a promise . I got no problems digging around in there for you. Only difference here is that I can’t force you out. But I can make you hurt . And I promise you, by the time I’m done, you’ll wish you’d never laid eyes on Clint. I’ll make you wish you were never born. If Clint dies, it’s no skin off of my nose. Least dead he’s free of you. But him alive is the only way you leave this dungeon alive. So I suggest you think long and hard about just how stubborn you wanna be.”

The hunter slowly straightened.

The canvas jacket was shed and tossed to Sam, who hung it up on a hook. Dean rolled up his sleeves. Then he turned his attention to the cart. Callused fingers trailed over the knives. The flats of the blades flashed in the light. Dean took his time choosing one.  He decided on a small knife with a curved, slender blade a little longer than his fingers. Sam had pulled a jug of water off the lower shelf and filled one of the steel trays . Dean dipped the knife in it, letting the water drip down his fingers and over his hand.

Then he took it to the inside of Surtur’s wrist.

Surtur shrieked , steam and blood welling up from the cut as the twice blessed holy water burned at his skin. He thrashed and jerked in his seat. Dean wordlessly hung on, wet hand gripping at a bare forearm as he continued to cut.

Outside, the Avengers watched in horror. Wanda was the first to break free of her paralysis. She exploded up out of her chair. Red flashed in her eyes and she flung the doors of the dungeon open with a thought. There was nothing inside. The room was empty. She whirled and flung Gabriel against the wall.

“Bring them back!”

“Wanda…”

“No! I heard what he just said! He does not care if Clint dies or not!” Angry tears streamed down her cheeks. She futilely dashed them away with a free hand. “All they care about is killing the monster! They do not care if Clint dies!”

Gabriel hung limp and relaxed against the wall. “You really think so?”

“He did just say as much.” Phil pointed out tightly.

“I will not stand idly by while my friend is murdered by someone he trusted!” Wanda snarled.

“Nat?” Steve asked.

The redhead hadn’t strayed from the screen. Intent eyes followed every move Dean made, analyzing the placement of the blade. The depth of the cuts. The cold look in his eyes whenever the camera could catch it. The little smirk that played around his mouth whenever Surtur screamed.

“He means what he says.” She stated bluntly, hands curling into fists on the arms of her chair. “If killing Clint is what he has to do to get at Surtur, it’s what he’ll do. He won’t hesitate.”

Gabriel made a rude noise. “Because when you’re torturing someone, you have to be in a position of power. You have to be willing to go as far as necessary to get what you want. And your captive has to believe that. You can’t halfass shit and expect them to be afraid of you! Go big or go home. The Black Widow should know that, even if none of the rest of you do.”

Natasha gave a grudging nod.

On screen, Surtur’s screams went up a notch.

Gabriel sighed. “Look. I know you don’t like this. Believe me, no one does. They don’t. They hate it! And you think that they don’t care? Those men care more about their family than anyone else I know! ...Why else do you think they have Castiel in there with them? He and I are their safety net.”

Wanda slowly set him on his feet. “What do you mean, their safety net?”

“Exactly what I said. Cas is in there to keep track of Clint. If Dean cuts too close, Cas will step in. Dean isn’t going to hurt Clint if he can help it. But he has to play a good game.” He gave them a sad smile. “I know it’s hard, but you have to trust us. We know what we’re doing. We won’t let Clint go without a fight. You have my word as an archangel.”

Reluctantly, the Avengers took their seats again.

And they watched. They watched as Dean almost happily carved away at Surtur’s forearms. Hours passed while he beat the demon black and blue with brass knuckles dipped in holy water. While he pushed and pulled, cut and bruised in every way he could think of.

Wanda started crying when Dean put a blindfold over Surtur’s eyes and punctured his eardrums with a needle sharp probe. One quick prick in each ear. And the world went completely silent.

Never once did Sam or Castiel leave their positions against the walls.

Gabriel suddenly tensed. The archangel stood and turned to face the dungeon doors. There was no one there, at least that the Avenger’s could see. But something was there. Something dangerous. They could sense it, could feel the hair standing up on the backs of their necks.

“You’re not welcome here.” Gabriel commented blandly.

There was no audible response.

Abruptly, the archangel seemed more threatening, though he hadn’t so much as twitched. He snapped his fingers, producing a candy cane. He stuck it in his mouth, cold amusement dancing in his eyes.

“That might be.” He admitted to the unseen, unheard intruder. “But I’m certainly not going to open them for you. I’m not done with this one yet. Maybe some other time.”

Again, the silence.

Again, he answered it. “I’ll take it under advisement. But you’re neither welcome nor needed here just the same. You’re only going to waste valuable time spinning your wheels here. I’m sure you’ve got a list of names longer than I am tall.”

Honey gold eyes tracked the movement of something the rest couldn’t see to the stairs.

“Rude.” Tension the Avengers hadn’t even known was there bled out of Gabriel’s shoulders in a sudden rush. He slumped for a moment, then seemed to shake himself out and jump back into the game. “Cassie, tell Dean to back off. A reaper just came for Clint.”

On screen, Castiel stuck his hands in his pockets.

Dean went on a few minutes more, finishing pouring a scoopful of salt down the plastic funnel and into Surtur’s throat. As soon as the funnel was out, the hunter clapped a hand over Surtur’s mouth and held it there until he stopped thrashing. He gave no indication that he’d seen the signal.

But he must have.

Dean stepped back from his victim, looking him over, then looking at his watch. “Much as l’d like to continue our little game, seems I’m needed elsewhere at the moment. Oh, but wait, I forgot. You can’t see me.” He leaned forward and slapped Surtur’s face. The demon jumped. “Can’t hear me.” Another slap. The demon jumped again. Dean ripped the blindfold off Surtur’s head. The demon blinked at the sudden influx of light.

Burning, disoriented eyes fastened on Dean almost immediately.

“This ‘as just been one hell of a bad day for you, hasn’t it? Me? I been enjoying myself more than I have in years . So thank you for that. Oh, what am I thinking? You still can’t hear me. Maybe I can…” Dean’s hands started to move. The smile he tossed at Surtur was more a baring of teeth. “But, that doesn’t mean anything to you either. Maybe I can help you with that.” Dean boxed the demon’s ear.

Surtur snarled at the abuse.

Dean boxed the other one for good measure. Surtur still snarled, but it was quieter this time. Like an animal that knows it’s been beaten, but still wants to convey its displeasure.

Dean smirked, never taking his eyes off of the demon. “Cas. Soon as we’re gone, you mind putting this trash back together a bit? Put the ears back the way they were, and patch up anything else that might cause a problem. Leave the rest. Let him stew in his own juices a bit. I’ll come back down when I have time to deal with his bullshit.”

Surtur growled, low in his chest.

Dean’s eyebrows rose. “You can read lips then. That’s good to know. See ya around, bastard… You know what, on second thought…” He went back to the cart and retrieved a glass bottle and a wooden box. He held the bottle up in front of Surtur, speaking slowly so that the demon wouldn’t miss a word. “Lots of blood loss today. ‘Magine that body’s gettin’ a little dehydrated.”

Surtur watched warily as Dean pulled an I.V. line out of the box and attached it to the glass bottle. The jotun didn’t even bat an eyelash when the needle was set into his left arm. After everything else he’d endured, what was a single pin prick? Dean taped it in place to make sure the needle wouldn’t come out, and hung the bottle off of a pole behind the chair.

Surtur suddenly went wild.

He screamed and thrashed in his chair. But the chains and manacles held firm. Old the chair might be, but it was just as strong as it had ever been.

Dean stood watching for a few minutes, then nodded. Satisfied with his work. He put his back to Surtur, just to make sure that he couldn’t read his lips. Not that Surtur had much attention to spare.

“Stay with him Cas?”

Castiel angled his body so that Dean was shielding him from Surtur’s sight. “I will watch over him. Go. Rest. Gabriel has re-attached this pocket to the world for a time to let you back through.”

“Thanks Cas.”

The two Winchesters went back to the doors, waited just long enough for Gabriel to unbolt the door, and slid through as soon as there was space. As soon as the doors were bolted behind them, Gabriel snapped his fingers again. The screams from inside died away immediately.

“What was in that I.V.?” Bruce asked, shaken.

“Fluids. To keep Clint from getting dehydrated.” Sam answered.

“Except, we blessed it, our way and Gabe’s.” Dean added. “Doesn’t hurt Clint, but feels like acid in his veins to Surtur. Usually we just use a syringe, give them a hard hit, it only lasts ten minutes or so. But the I.V. will stretch out that burn for hours yet.”

Sam leaned closer to his brother, watching him worriedly. “Are you alright? Dean?”

The older hunter grabbed Sam and pulled him into a tight bear hug. “... no. I’m not. Fuck . I never wanted your or Clint to see that, let alone to use it on one of you...I don’t know how many sessions like that I’ve got left in me.” He grimaced, and pushed away to talk to the others. “He’s not gonna give it up Gabe. If I had a few years to beat the tar out of him, I might be able to wear him down… If I put a bullet between Clint’s eyes, would it cut the bond between Surtur and Clint’s soul? Exorcise Surtur, then find a way to pull Clint back...”

“No. If Surtur doesn’t let go of his own accord, anything we do will affect Clint just as surely as it’ll affect him. Exorcise Surtur to hell, and you exorcise Clint to hell with him. And yes, I’m sure. You started playing rough with Surtur and a reaper showed up for Clint. I sent her packing, but I wouldn’t advise attracting their attention again.”

Tony put up a hand. “I’m sorry. A ‘reaper’? The hell is a reaper?”

Dean dropped into a chair, exhausted. “Think ‘Grim Reaper’ Tony, and you’ll be sorta close. Death travels where he likes. He kills with a touch. And he moves on. But the soul is never left alone. There’s always a reaper there, waiting to take the soul where they need to go. If a reaper showed up for Clint, it means he was close to dying. ‘Cept he can’t. Not tied to Surtur the way he is… Gabe, we might need your help after all. Can you cut the bond?”

Gabriel shrugged. “He’s weakened. And he’ll be even more of a pansy by the time that I.V. line is through. Castiel and I could rip him out. Like a weed. Problem is, that could maim or kill Clint. I’m not gonna pretend I’ve got all the answers. Not here. And even if we rip him out, if Clint was fatally injured while possessed we could lose him the second Surtur skips town. Castiel and I won’t have our breath back in time to catch Clint’s coat tails and keep him here. Much as I’d like to just snap my fingers and say ‘bibbidi-bobbidi-boo’, we’re gonna need a better plan than that.”

“There is another option…” Sam drummed his fingers on the door frame, eyes distant. “We’ve all been focusing on getting Surtur out of Clint. But what about when we get him out? What if Surtur’s still alive? Where do we put him? How do we make sure he stays there?”

Natasha cocked her head. “What are you saying?”

A slow smile spread across Sam’s face. “I’m saying we might’ve been looking at this wrong. Dean, when we do a normal exorcism, where does the demon go?”

Dean shrugged. “To hell, Sammy. You know that.”

“Right. And eventually they crawl back up out of the pit. So Surtur could too. It’s not a long term solution. Not unless we could ensure that he stayed down there for all of eternity. We could give him the option. For someone like him, eternity in hell has to be better than dying.”

Steve slowly nodded his head. “When the Nazis first took the jews off the trains at the concentration camps, they told them that they were going to put them to work. The people calmed down and walked right into the showers.” He swallowed hard. “Dean’s already made it clear that he won’t hesitate to hurt or kill. If we dangle a carrot in front of him, it might be enough to get Surtur to move.”

“That might be, but how are you going to cage him once he’s got the carrot?” Phil retorted.

There was a long silence.

“Dean, we could maybe ask…”

“No! No, no, and no ! We are not calling up that douchebag Sam! Forget it!”

Sam passed Dean a towel. “Dean. We might not have a choice. And who would be able to bind a demon better than him? We could talk him around. Like Steve said, we just need a big enough carrot.”

Dean groaned and wiped his bloody hands on the towel. “Damnit Sam….Damn. I don’t like it. But you’re right. If anyone could whip something out of their ass that would hold an eldjotnar in hell, he could. I just hope the price he asks isn’t too steep to pay.”

“Who are you talking about? And how much does he charge for what?” Tony wondered.

Sam chewed on his lip. “We… might know someone. Someone who could chain Surtur down in hell for all eternity. But… well, the trick is doing it in such a way that he doesn’t screw us over while we’re not looking.”

“That sounds charming.” Wanda snarked.

“Yeah, he thinks he is.” Dean tossed the ruined towel in the garbage, along with the bloody overshirt. “Sam’s right though. He’s the best choice we have. Let’s just hope he doesn’t bone us in the process.

Steve shook his head.

The description wasn’t at all reassuring.


 

Chapter Text


Six people appeared in an empty room.

The building was abandoned.

“Nice digs.” Tony commented.

Sam shrugged and slid the duffel off his shoulder. “Wouldn’t know. We’ve never been here before. We just needed someplace away from the bunker to make the call.” From inside the bag, he produced a small dish, a bag of yellow powder, a can of spray paint, and a few other items.

“This person has the tech to track your call?” Steve was eyeing the walls and exits. The building was an old, single room warehouse. Not all that big by modern standards. Thick layers of dust and cobwebs blanketed the floors, walls, and doors. No one had been there in years. It wasn’t likely that anyone would bother them.

Sam was already painting some sort of design on the floor. “Sort of. It’s actually pretty easy to track someone’s phone if you have the number and know the right words to use. We’re not using phones to call this guy, but it’s still better safe than sorry. If you know the right spells, it’s pretty easy to track a call back to where it came from.”

“Can’t beat supernatural tech support.” Dean joked. He’d finished walking the perimeter, and seemed satisfied by what he’d found. “That and we’re not exactly crazy about inviting him home. Better to let him spin his wheels here in… Where the hell are we Gabe?”

“Detroit.” The angel rolled his shoulders. “Which reminds me. If you boys don’t need me, it’s been forever since I’ve been in Detroit. I could really go for a coney dog. And like, six bottles of Rock ‘n Rye. I wonder if they still sell those…”

Dean waved him away. “Yeah, yeah, get out of here. The last thing we need is for you to scare him off. Just make sure you keep your ears on.”

Gabriel gave a salute and disappeared. He was back a second later. “Hey! You guys want me to grab some food? It’d save Laura the trouble of cooking. And take some of the brunt off of your pantry. Don’t think I didn’t notice Laura making a list.”

“I’m sure she’d appreciate it Gabriel, thank you.” Phil affirmed. The agent had squatted down next to Sam to study the preparations he was making. He didn’t know what any of the plants were, but he would’ve bet anything that the yellow powder was sulphur.

“Should we be worried that you really seem to have a soft spot for Laura?” Dean asked.

“Course I like her Dean-o. She reminds me of the Virgin Mary! Well, not so virgin as Mary was, but still she’s a lot like her. I mean, can you imagine being engaged to some guy and all of a sudden you’re pregnant and swelling up like a blimp? And then telling your prospective hubby that it’s God’s kid? Now that woman had some pluck!” Gabriel gave a jaunty salute and disappeared again.

Tony stared at the spot where Gabriel had been. He turned a bemused look on the hunters. “Does it ever weird you out that you’re talking to someone who’s been around long enough to remember biblical events?”

“Not really. Old as dirt has sort of become the norm for us.” Dean answered glibly.

Tony didn’t even bother to disguise his snigger. “No wonder you didn’t bat an eye at the capsicle. He must seem like a spring chicken compared to your buddies.”

“Tony…” Steve grumbled. He didn’t mean it.

“Does anything ever trip you guys out?” Tony ploughed on.

Dean stared up at the ceiling in concentration. “Eh, some things are up there. Getting wailed on by Paris Hilton and Ghandi, dealing with suicidal teddy bears, living inside tv-land, battling the wicked witch of the west with Dorothy, ganking a B-movie Dracula, hunting H.H.Holmes’s ghost, and finding a couple guys murdered by a homicidal unicorn and a shark in a ball pit all stand out as surreal moments.”

Tony’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.

Phil’s face lit up. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Stark speechless before!”

“I think I could get used to that.” Steve agreed.

“Oh fuck you guys!”

“I’d really rather you didn’t…”

Sam rolled his eyes. He pushed Phil back to stand by Dean, then dug a box of matches out of his pocket. Latin rolled fluidly off his tongue, rising and falling easily after so many years of practice. Behind him, he could hear the bickering die off. Could hear Dean chambering a shell in a sawed off, just in case. The hunter lit a match. Rattling off the last words of the spell, Sam dropped the match into the bowl of sulfur powder. There was a hissing poof , and a dull flash of light. The fire died down.

Sam surveyed the empty warehouse.

“Really? Who uses summoning spells anymore? So fifteenth century.”

The man had appeared behind them. His hair and eyes were dark, as was his clothing and shoes. The stranger wore a suit. Unlike Castiel, the suit was neatly pressed, and fitted him like a glove. Probably professionally tailored. The long coat he wore over it was along the same vein, in good material. The shoes looked like fine italian.

It reminded them a bit of Tony.

Steve glanced at the hunters. They were wary, but not tense. They didn’t expect trouble from this individual. Dean hadn’t even brought up the gun when he’d appeared. He carried it more as a precaution, rather than from need.

“Moose. Squirrel.”

“Crowley.” Dean greeted. Sam nodded.

The newcomer ran appraising eyes over the heroes, noting the way the Winchesters were staying in between him and them. He didn’t seem overly surprised by the gesture. Having seen what he wanted, Crowley surveyed his surroundings. That took even less time.

“Classy place you boys have got here.”

Steve frowned. With more words strung together, the scottish inflections were more obvious in the newcomer’s voice. But he couldn’t place it. Back in the forties, he, Peggy, and Falsworth used to make a game of guessing where a particular soldier came from based on their accent. The soldiers were usually british, but they weren’t picky. If the man had the time to stay and talk, they played. Falsworth had been particularly good at it, even going so far as naming the section of London the soldier had come from on one memorable occasion. Steve had never gotten as good as Falsworth or Peggy, but he’d picked up a lot. This accent wasn’t like anything he’d heard before.

“Dean? What is he? He doesn’t seem like an angel...”

Crowley smirked. Abruptly, the man’s eyes flashed a vivid, bloody red. “I’m the daringest devil you ever did see, darling.”

“Crowley’s a crossroads demon.” Sam explained. “They specialise in contracts and demon deals. Which is exactly what we need. If anyone would know how to bind a demon for eternity, he would.”

“Crowley. The angel that didn’t so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards?” Tony’s lips quirked in amusement.

Crowley arched an eyebrow. “No. Crowley, the bastard son of a whoring witch. Excellent book reference though. I didn’t think Anthony Stark ever set foot inside a library if he could help it.”

“Digital books.”

“Ah. Yes, that works I suppose, but you can’t quite get the same experience from a tablet.”

“You haven’t seen my tablet.”

“Touche.” Crowley turned back to the others. “I’m surprised at you boys. You brought Captain America to a demon summoning? You boys should know better than that. Especially after the ruckus in New York. I can feel the righteous indignation from here.”

Steve’s jaw tightened. He didn’t like the idea of dealing with a demon, that much was true. It went against everything he believed in. But Steve trusted Clint, and Clint trusted the Winchesters. If they said dealing with this demon Crowley was the only way, he had to trust that they knew what they were talking about. “I’m not comfortable with this. But I trust the Winchesters.”

“Poor choice. And everyone gushes about how clever you are. Here’s a bit of advice, Captain. Trust them. But don’t get close to them. People who get too close to them, tend to end up dead. With a few notable exceptions, such as myself. Even their pet angel has bit the dust a time or too. Believe me, Death trails after these two wherever they go.”

“Cas is not a pet!” Dean growled.

“But he is certainly something .” Crowley agreed easily. He bounced on the balls of his feet, hands in his pockets. “So. What’s it going to be? Given the decor, I’m assuming this isn’t a social chat. You boys want something. Spit it out. I’ve got places to be, deals to make, hounds to feed… You get the gist.”

“We need a contract.” Sam stated bluntly.

“Yes I gathered that. But what do you need the contract to do ?”

Dean shifted his gun to the crook of his arm. “You saw the shitstorm that went down in New York?”

“Not personally, but I saw the aftermath. I don’t know what you boys set loose, but I can tell you should’ve left well enough alone. That thing stole some of my fledgling demons. Poor darlings weren’t ready to leave the nest yet.”

Dean made a rude noise. “Yeah, I’m sure you’re all broke up over it… Listen, we caught the thing that was busting up New York. It’s a jotun. A Norse fire giant. And some moron summoned it here and straight into a human host. The damn thing is tied to his host’s soul. We exorcise it, we send the host to hell with him.”

“And you want me to collect this wayward soul when it reaches hell and, what? Slap the little beastie in a box and mail him back to you? That’s quite an order, boys.”

Tony folded his arms. “Well, if you think you can’t do it…”

Crowley arched an eyebrow. “Winchester, I suggest you tell your guests to keep a civil tongue in their heads, before they say something they’ll regret. I’d hate to have a … misunderstanding.”

Cold washed over Steve, Tony, and Phil. Misunderstanding? What sort of misunderstanding was he alluding to? Could he take their souls if they said the wrong thing to him? Wouldn’t the Winchesters have warned them if that were the case? Or maybe Gabriel?

“Back off Crowley, no one’s dicking with the Avengers today.” Dean snapped. “We need a contract to trap the jotun bastard in hell for the rest of his miserable life. Can you do it? Or are we just wasting our breath?”
“I can get it done.” A wicked smirk was growing on Crowley’s face. “But, I assume you boys have something for me in exchange? A contract like that doesn’t come cheap. And I’m certainly not going to do it out of the goodness of my heart. So… Do you have something to offer? Or am I just wasting my breath?” He tossed their words back at them with a mocking twist of his lips, confident that he held all the cards. No way would the Winchesters let one of the Avengers give up their soul for this contract. If this unnamed host was special enough, maybe the Winchesters would, but it wasn’t likely. What else could they have to offer?

“You make that contract for us, and the jotun is yours.”

Crowley blinked. Well, that wasn’t what he had expected. But his mind was already awhirl with the possibilities.

He hadn’t been kidding when he’d said that he’d seen the aftermath of the battle in Greenwich Village. And he’d been in a position to scoop up his demons when Sam and Doctor Strange exorcised them back to hell. Along with several other demons that hadn’t been his before, but that were relatively easy to pressgang into his services. They’d told him even more about the strange demon and his unusual powers. About the sheer, raw strength this stranger had at his command. Was he interested in power like that? Of having this Jotun under his thumb? Oh hell yes he was. And, judging by the looks on their faces, the Avengers and their accountant looking friend weren’t all that happy about Dean’s offer.

The crossroads demon tried to mask his avarice. “An interesting offer. And how exactly do you intend to make good?”

Sam smiled. “It’ll be in the contract. The jotun has to sever his ties to his host, all of them. The contract will stipulate that he can’t ever go after the host or a member of his family. We’ll exorcise him to hell, and the final clause of the contract will be the one that binds him to service to you.”

“Hmm…. An interesting proposition. I can think of several good uses I could put him to in hell. There are several factions that could use a reminder of exactly why I’m not the devil to play with. A visit from a flaming fire giant from Muspelheim would make quite an impression I’d imagine.”

“Yeah, but he has to stay in hell.” Dean added adamantly. “I don’t want to leave any  loopholes this bastard can wiggle through to come back up out of the pits. If you can bind him down there for the rest eternity, he’s yours. I don’t care what you do with him in hell, you can use him to hang curtains or give you foot massages for all I care. The arrogant bastard could use a knock to his ego.”

“Really Dean,” Crowley huffed, “what is the point of having a big stick if you have to leave it at home?”

“But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it while your at home.” Phil pointed out. “And you and Surtur are the only ones who would know the terms of the contract. No one else would know that Surtur can’t leave hell.”

For the first time, Crowley genuinely paid attention to Phil. He seemed to consider the agent’s words carefully. “Surtur. That’s the name of the jotun you caught?” The Winchester’s nodded. “Well…. That’s different. That particular jotun’s name carries quite a bit of weight. It would be a feather in my cap to have him under my thumb. Even if I couldn’t use him outside hell…” He heaved a sigh, but it did nothing to hide his excitement. “Alright. I’ll make up the contract. Of course, you realize I can only make the deal. I can’t force him to take it.”

Dean waved the concern away. “That’ll be on us. We’ll get him to take it one way or another, no matter how long it takes. Dude thinks he’s immortal, untouchable. I’ve already put in several hours showing him that theory’s crap. Shouldn’t take too much more to convince him that I might be able to deliver on my threats.”

A full career as a spy let Phil keep a bland face. Dean hadn’t sounded half as confident when he’d come out of that dungeon. Glancing at the others, he could see that they’d caught it too. But only because he knew them. Steve and Tony both had excellent poker faces when they needed them. The only one he couldn’t get a read on was Sam. Sam looked as confident as Dean sounded. If he hadn’t seen exactly how shaken Dean was when he’d come out from torturing Surtur, he would’ve never believed that these two doubted they could get the job done.

“So, just to be clear. You need a contract. One that will bind one of the most powerful eldjotnar in remembered history to hell for the rest of his supposedly immortal life. His exile to hell is contingent on his breaking the tie with his current host’s soul. Said contract must prohibit him from ever setting foot in the living realm ever again, or trying to take vengeance on his current host or the host’s family. I’m assuming that includes descendants. Surtur isn’t exactly known to be the forgiving type. This same contract will also serve to bind him into my service, unconditionally. Is that the general gist?”

“Yes. And we’ll want to go over every inch of this contract with you before we take it anywhere.” Sam looked as if he were daring Crowley to object to that.

“Of course. So… We have an accord?”

“We have a deal .” Dean stated.

Sam paled, and he almost choked on air. “ Dean !”

Steve wondered at the reaction. At the odd emphasis in Dean’s sentence. Apparently the phrase meant something to the demon. His head snapped around to face Dean, his eyes briefly flashing red before he schooled his reactions. Ice poured down Steve’s back.

Deal .

Demon deal.

“Are you sure you want that?”

“Want to make sure that this contract will do exactly what it’s supposed to do? That you won’t turn around and stab us in the back at the first opportunity? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I am. I’m willing to take that risk if it means saving the host.” His jaw tightened, back ramrod straight. Steve wondered if that was what he looked like when he’d decided he wasn’t going to back down for anything.

“What do you say Crowley?” Dean growled. “The jotun Surtur for the contract?”

The demon considered. A small smile twitched his lips. “Never let it be said that hell doesn’t have standards. The deal isn’t equal. Not for a jotun that high up the food chain. I suggest you reconsider your asking price. It isn’t often that a deal doesn’t cost a human soul. Better make it count.”

Green eyes narrowed suspiciously. “It’s not like you to be this helpful…”

The demon shrugged. “I don’t like owing you Winchesters favors.”

“Hm.” Dean glanced at Sam. Neither said a word, but a world of meaning passed between the two of them. The older hunter gave a sharp nod. He stepped forward, ducking his head to say something in the demon’s ear. Crowley seemed surprised by the request. But he nodded accommodatingly.

“...and? That’s all you’re going to ask for?”

“That’s all.” Dean agreed. “I don’t need anything else. Guess you’ll still owe us a favor.”

“I’ll owe you at least three if you can pull this off.” he grumbled. The demon huffed a sigh and shrugged. “Oh well. Can’t blame a girl for trying. Shall we get this over with then?”

Dean shook his head. “We seal the deal when the contract changes hands. How soon until it’s ready?”

“... give me three days. It’s not often I have to deal with the first pantheon. If you want this done right, I need the time to make sure there aren’t any loopholes specific to jotuns that he would exploit.”

“You’ll have it.” Dean promised. “We’ll meet back here three days from now to go over the contract and seal the deal.”

The demon turned, as if to leave by way of the door. Something seemed to occur to him, and he glanced back. His eyes flashed red. “You’re sure that’s all you want? I could probably swing Singer. I’m not ashamed to admit that I miss the saucy grump. It’d be nice having him around again.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Dean agreed sadly.

Sam shook his head. “Bobby made us promise not to bring him back. I think he was tired. That last apocalypse really took it out of him… How sad is it that when we talk about the apocalypse we have to specify which one we mean? The end of the world is starting to become run of the mill.”

“It definitely says something.”

Crowley winked out of sight without another word. And he didn’t appear again. After five minutes with no sign of the demon returning, the last of the tension ebbed away. Sam gathered up the leftovers from the summoning. He tossed the spray paint can to Phil.

“Paint out the sigil please. It doesn’t have to completely mask it, just obscure the lines so it won’t work anymore.”

Phil was thorough anyway, careful not to get any paint on his clothes.

Dean checked his work when he was through. Satisfied, he shouldered the shotgun. “Alright Gabe, we’re done here.”

“Cool!” The angel winked into existence. He had a flat cardboard box in his arms, mounded high with wrapped coney dogs and boxes of curly fries. Four more cardboard boxes sat at his feet. All were equally piled high with food. Gabriel looked exceptionally pleased with himself. “Everyone grab a box and we’ll get out of here. Cas says the kids are hungry.”


 

 

“I do not like this Steve.”

The captain sighed. “Truth be told Wanda, I don’t like this either. But we don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.”

The metahuman grumpily folded her arms.

Steve had just gotten off the phone with Maria Hill. She’d gone out to the Avengers base, only to be informed by Friday that the Avengers weren’t on base. Hadn’t been for most of the day. Friday didn’t know where they were. Apparently Gabriel had done something to keep the A.I. from tracking their phones.

But that wasn’t why Maria had called.

No, Maria had called, because there was a threat. Of course there would be a threat. Because when it rained it poured, and the Avengers didn’t already have enough problems on their hands. Someone was threatening to hide bombs in New York city’s more heavily populated areas. Normally that would be a homeland security thing. But this wasn’t the average, run of the mill crackpot or terrorist. This was a rogue AIM scientist. And they were threatening to release a bioagent, not just blow people up.

Maria was confident that Shield could handle it, but it would be nice to have a little extra help. Specifically, help of the superhero variety. Superhero’s were harder to break than her agents were. Steve had wanted to take the Avengers and go. But at the same time, it didn’t sit well with them that they would be leaving the Winchesters alone to deal with Surtur and look after the Bartons. If something happened while they were gone…

“So divide and conquer then.” Phil cuddled Nathaniel close on his lap. Since meeting the toddler, he’d made a point of holding or playing with Nate whenever he got the chance. “Think about it. Maria doesn’t need all of the Avengers. She needs the ones that can deal with the bombs. Vision is well suited to that task. If he can’t defuse the bomb, he shifts his density. He’s already shown that most bioagents don’t have much affect on him, if at all. Take his abilities, and pair them with Wanda’s. Her power can contain the blast, or move the bombs to containment that Maria will provide. She’d never need to get close. Of all of the Avengers, Vision and Wanda are the only ones who’ll really be useful to her in this situation.”

Steve tapped his fingers on the table. “...alright. Vision? Wanda? You’re ok with running this op?” The two nodded. “Ok. Then that’s what we’ll do. Sam? Would you go as well? You won’t be much help with the bombs, but I’d feel better knowing you’re watching their backs from the air. Gabriel? Could you or Castiel give them a lift back to our base? Sam and Wanda will need their gear, and the less time we waste, the better.”

“Oh, I’ll do better than that.” The archangel snapped his fingers, and he and the three heroes were just, gone.

At the other end of the library table, Jody leaned back in her seat and stretched. The sheriff arched her back, groaning at the pull. The she stood. “Seeing as how you’ve got more than enough guards here to look after Laura and the kids, I think it’s time I got back to town. I can’t keep Anderson on the hook forever. Even if I do think it’s fun to leave him twisting in the wind. If I leave now, I’ll be able to get home at a semi-reasonable time and have dinner with the girls.”

Dean leaned over and pulled her into a one-armed hug. “Yeah, ok. Thanks again for this. It means a lot that you just dropped everything to come lend us a hand. You gonna be ok getting home? Need gas money or something?”

“No, I’m good. I’ll take a sandwich for the road if you or Laura wouldn’t mind parting with some of the roast beef in the fridge.”

The hunter laughed and gave her shoulders an affectionate squeeze. “You got a deal! Hey, I bet there’s enough you and the girls could make a decent meal of it. Want to take the whole thing to go? You’d just have to reheat it when you got home. Pick up some buns and chips on the way. It’d save you the hassle of cooking.”

“And that is how you settle your debts! Pony up the goods Winchester!”

Dean obediently trotted off to the kitchen.


 

 

“Ok. Everyone knows the plan?”

Lila and Cooper giggled, giving the archangel two thumbs up. The two were both hunkered down with Gabriel in the corner, shielded from the eyes of the adults by one of the floor to ceiling bookcases. The space was small and cramped, barely large enough to hold the three of them. Gabriel was almost folded double, his knees pulled up against his chest. If he was uncomfortable, the kids couldn’t tell.

Gabriel ruffled Cooper’s hair. “Awesome.”

The past twenty-four hours had been tense.

Jody had left within half an hour of Vision, Wanda, and Sam. The sheriff had made them promise to keep her up to date on Clint. She’d also given Laura a little notecard with her contact information and an admonishment not to be a stranger. Then she’d climbed in her truck and driven away. She’d sent them a text to let them know she’d gotten home safely, and another to pass on the girls’ thanks for the roast beef.

Information had been more forthcoming from the ‘away team’.

Tony had been unashamed of his Star Trek reference, exchanging high fives with Dean. Unfortunately for Tony’s ego, the term fit all too well, and the others found themselves using it without meaning to.

The ‘away team’ had just rolled with the new moniker.

Sam had assumed the responsibility of keeping Steve and the rest up to date. They’d managed to locate and defuse or contain the bombs. There had been seven in all. But the rogue scientist had slipped through their fingers. A contingent of Shield agents had bungled the catch. Maria was pissed about that. Sam was all too happy to describe the thorough tongue lashing she’d given the men and women responsible for his escape.

With the rogue still on the loose, Sam, Wanda, and Vision had opted to stay at the Avengers’ base. Much as they’d like to be at the bunker, they couldn’t ignore the fact that they could be needed at any given moment.

Tensions had only climbed higher after that.

When you gathered a bunch of action oriented people together and made them sit on their hands… well, patience got a little short and tempers were only a spark away from flaring.

And with each trip down to the dungeon to change Surtur’s I.V. bag, the tension only ratcheted higher.

Cleaning out a few more rooms and shuffling the sleeping arrangements had done a little to smooth out some feathers. At least that way everyone had their own space to retreat to if they thought they were going to blow. They were only just coming up on twenty-four hours since the agreement with Crowley had gone down. All of their hopes rested on that contract. If it fell through, they’d be three steps behind step one, with no idea how to move forward again. It was all too understandable how trusting a demon would rankle. If they kept on like this, they wouldn’t make it another two days cooped up in this bunker.

Which was where Gabriel came in.

The archangel put his hand in the middle of their little confab. As if this were a football huddle. Lila and Cooper piled their hands on top of his. “Ok. Go forth, and be clever little chits! Go! Go! Go!” The two kids darted away, giggling as they ran. Gabriel watched them with a wicked grin.

The adults wouldn’t know what hit them.

He snickered and spread his wings. “Oh yeah. Operation Get the Sticks Out of Grownup Asses is a go!”


 

 

Their first victim was Dean.

Mainly because Gabriel was pretty sure he’d take it well. Like, ninety-five percent sure anyway. There was always the chance that the angel would end up with a shotgun shell of rock salt to the ass… eh, details. This would totally be worth it.

The hunter was in a spirited debate with Steve. Over what, Gabriel didn’t particularly care. Into the middle of their ‘discussion’, bounced Lila. The pigtailed little girl had a paper plate in hand, with two chocolate brownies covered in powdered sugar. Lila tugged on Dean’s sleeve, and offered the plate. Barely sparing her and her offering a glance, Dean still thanked her and took a brownie. The hunter absently shoved the entire brownie in his mouth…

… and promptly choked on it.

“Dean?!” Steve thumped the hunter on the back. He didn’t pull his strength as much as he meant to. Dean staggered. And out of his mouth popped the offending brownie. Inside the bite marks, the ‘brownie’ was blue.

And spongy.

Gabriel and the kids had painted kitchen sponges to look like brownies, and sprinkled them in powdered sugar. Gabriel wandered into the living room and picked up the sponge.

“Damn Winchester, you almost bit through it! I knew we should’ve used a thicker sponge.” The cackling angel took off, an angry hunter hot on his heels.

Dean was the first victim.

But he wouldn’t be the last.


 

 

Sam took the next hit.

It took a bit more interference on Gabriel’s part, but the end result was worth it. The looks on the faces of the Avengers when Samuel Winchester, one of the world’s deadliest hunters, went careening down the hall with the most terrified look on his face was great. But their faces when they looked to see what he was running from? And realized he was running from a bunch of Precious Moments clown figurines come to life? Not a one taller than five inches?

Yeah. Worth it.

Dean was on the floor dying of laughter, and the rest of the Avengers weren’t far behind him. Even Sam had grudgingly admitted that yeah, ok it was kinda funny. But only after the clown figurines had gone back to being lifeless knick knacks and removed from his sight.

The rest of the bunker’s occupants were soon targeted.

Some of them were targeted more than once. Sam found chia sprouts growing up out of his laptop keyboard later. After a good laugh, Gabriel was kind enough to remove the seeds and whatever damage the moisture would’ve caused.

Natasha took a shower, and discovered too late that bright blue kool aid powder had been added to the shower head. The combination of blue skin and vivid, purpley-red hair made the her look like a somewhat bizarre looking smurf. Seeing as how she wasn’t sure if it was Gabriel or the mini-Bartons who was responsible, she couldn’t retaliate.

The rest of the Avengers started to get nervous. If the prank brigade had the gall to take on Natasha, then no one was safe.

Thor woke up from a nap on the couch to find his hair intricately braided. The left half of his face, which hadn’t been buried in the pillow, had been covered in makeup that was three shades paler than his skin. Gaudy blueish green eyeshadow ringed his left eye in a style that could best be termed as ‘I tried for cat eyes and ended up with giant raccoons’, and hooker red lipstick had been applied to two thirds of his mouth. Both of his hands had been accesible, and his feet had hung off the end. The pranksters had painted his nails in a brilliant neon rainbow. One color for each nail. All had then been overlaid with silver glitter.

Tony had almost fallen over he was laughing so hard, and the rest stayed on their feet only because they were clinging to furniture. Eventually Natasha helped him wash the makeup off. But the norse God left the braid and nail polish alone. The way his teammates’ faces lit up when they saw him was more than enough justification. Not that he needed any. He was a prince of Asgard, what did he care for what anyone else thought? It made his friends smile, when their smiles and laughter were few and far between. That was all that mattered to him.

Thor was the last victim of the day.

They naively thought the war was over. Until they saw Gabriel high five Lila and Cooper before bed. The archangel saw them looking. A cheshire cat grin spread across his lips, and he said words that sent dread curdling through their stomachs.

“Excellent hustle. I’m proud of you guys! Make sure you bring your ‘A’ game tomorrow!”


 

 

The second day of the prank war didn’t get off to a grand start.

The first that anyone knew that something was wrong, was when the kitchen door opened and Bruce came in for breakfast. A wall of ice water came pouring down from an unnoticed storage tub suspended above the door. The scientist froze in shock.

So did everyone else.

Lila and Cooper glanced worriedly at Gabriel. They’d set the trap for Dean after Sam and the Avengers were inside the kitchen. But they’d completely forgot about Bruce! And he was the only one that they’d made a point not to prank!

For a long moment, the kitchen was dead silent.

Bruce chuckled. The scientist pushed sodden curls aside and lifted his head to look at them. “Well. That’s one way to wake up in the morning… Could someone hand me a towel?”

Cooper slid out of his chair and grabbed a dish towel. “Sorry Uncle Bruce. We were trying to get Dean.”

“And I just walked through first.” The boy nodded and Bruce shrugged. “Oh well. It could’ve been worse… At least my science equipment didn’t come to life and chase me down the hall.”

At the table Sam choked.


 

 

“Hey Phil. Wanna come on a supply run with me?”

The agent looked up from the rattle he was dangling in front of Nathaniel. The toddler took the opportunity to grab it while his uncle was distracted. Phil laughed and let Nathaniel have it. “I can. But I would’ve thought you’d want one of the others for your pack mule.”

Dean leaned on the bookcase. “You kidding? Everyone knows the Avengers faces. They might not recognize them right away, but there’s always the chance. And Sam and I still have to live here after you guys are gone. Better to just take someone Joe Public won’t recognize.”

Phil hesitated.

Dean spun his keys on his fingers. “Plus, it’ll give us an excuse to get out of the bunker and away from the prank war.”

That settled it.

They dropped Nathaniel into Sam’s lap and headed for the garage, Dean snickering at the mildly terrified look on Sam’s face.

“How are we going to get to the store?” Phil asked. “You’re car is still in New York isn’t it?”

Dean pushed open the door to the garage. “Yeah, well, the previous owners left more than bedding and furniture when they moved out. I don’t think even Grandpa Henry knew how much was here when he left us this place. I’ve got one of the antiques running. We can take her.”

Phil came up the last few steps and stopped, staring at the roomful of antiques. He loved Lola with all his heart, and would never part with her. But if he’d never gotten that car, he wouldn’t have minded having one of these. They were beautiful, and most were in pretty much mint condition. Most of them were well over sixty years old.

“How many of them run?” He asked in awe.

“The red one, which is the one we’re taking.” Dean pointed behind Phil. “Few of the motorcycle's turn over, but I’d only classify one as roadworthy. I haven’t had time to give these babies the attention they need yet.” He ran a fond eye over the garage. “I’ll get there though. Most of them are good, they just need a little help to get moving again. They’ve probably been sitting here since Captain America was overseas. Cooper and I are going over the green chevy’s engine. We’ll have her purring soon… You’re welcome to come tinker with us if you want. Clint said you had a thing for antiques.”

“I’d like that.” The two ambled down the line of cars, taking their time so Phil could look his fill of each one. Reaching the red car Dean had pointed out, Phil’s eyebrows shot up. “An Astin? Your grandfather didn’t know there was an Astin this old here in his garage?”

Dean drummed his fingers on the hood. “Last time Grandpa Henry was here, the Men of Letters were still living here. The night he was supposed to be initiated to the next level or whatever, a hellbitch wiped them all out. He managed to escape by time traveling along his bloodline. Ended up in our motel room. The hellbitch followed… Grandpa Henry didn’t live long enough to come back to the bunker and see what got left behind. Sam and I are pretty much the only living descendants of the men of letters.” He looked around the garage again. “Believe me, we were just as surprised to see all of this as you were. We knew they’d been wiped out, but I don’t think it hit us how sudden it was until we came here and found their dishes and coffee cups still on the table.”

“Wow…” Phil shook his head and climbed into the car. “...Do you really think we’ll escape the prank war?”

“Probably not. But I’m sure as hell gonna give it my best shot!”


 

 

Laura groaned, resting her head against the side of the toilet bowl.

She hadn’t had much morning sickness with the previous three kids. But this one seemed bound and determined to make up for it. This was the worst she’d ever had. Thank god it was only in the mornings so far. It made it easier to avoid people.

Up until now anyway.

It was going on eleven, and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight for this bout. If morning sickness became ‘all the damn time’ sickness like it had with her mother...Another wave of nausea rolled her stomach and she put her head back in the bowl.

A soft knock sounded on the door. “Laura? Are you ok?”

She huffed a tired breath and put her head back down on the seat. Of course it would be him. “I’m alright Gabriel. Just…” What could she say? Under the weather? He was an angel, he could probably hear a lie. Praying to the porcelain god? Yodeling groceries? That was Clint’s favorite descriptor.

“Yeah, it sounds like it. If I come in, are you decent?”

“Yes.”

Gabriel slipped in and closed the door behind him. The archangel looked her over and whistled through his teeth. “Wow… Just...Wow. The rug rat really has you jacked up.” He crouched down next to her and pulled her long hair up out of the way. A few quick twists and a hair tie off the bathroom counter turned it into a respectable bun.

Laura’s lips quirked. “You do this often?”

Gabriel sat down on the edge of the tub. “Being an angel means little to no hangover, so no, not so much… I used to help the virgin Mary though. Joseph couldn’t exactly be around all the time, and a lot of the women thought she had some sort of fling and got herself knocked up. Didn’t do a lot for her social life. Figured it was the least I could do after Dad turned her life upside down… So, Cassie says you’re keeping the bun in your oven a secret?”

“Mmhm. Clint was always the first one I told. I’m about fifteen weeks, and I’m not showing much at all…”

“You’re hoping you’ll still get the chance to tell him first.” Gabriel finished. Laura nodded and put her head back in the toilet bowl. He sat there in silence, rubbing soothing little circles over her back and shoulders. If a his eyes and hands glowed just a little with each soothing movement, no one would know but him. Finally, the heaving stopped. He passed her a glass of water to rinse out her mouth.

“Well, here’s hoping you get that chance. In the meantime, I won’t tell if you won’t.”


 

 

“Here. Make yourself useful.”

Phil stared down at the grocery bag Dean had just dropped into his lap. “Um… What am I supposed to do with… a head of broccoli?”

Dean smirked. “Take revenge.”

“And how are you hoping to accomplish that?”

“Well, trickster gods have this huge sweet tooth. And I thought…”

Dean quickly sketched out his plan, hands tracing patterns in the air as he talked. It wasn’t complicated. In fact it was beautiful in it’s simplicity. All he needed was for Phil to put the prank together on the way back home. Phil looked at the grocery bag with new eyes.

“Take your time driving, this could take a while.”


 

 

Something hit Steve.

Said something was soft and wet and hit him in the small of the back. Two more wet somethings quickly followed. One to the back of his thigh and another to the back of his head. The super soldier ducked for cover behind the table. Only to get pelted again from a new direction!

Steve crawled under the table.

The projectiles were brightly colored spongy fabric balls. All of said balls were sopping wet. More sponge balls whizzed in under the table. They bounced off of Steve’s back and shoulders and the chairs around him. Leaving wet spots on anything they touched.

Steve grabbed some of the balls and threw them back in the general direction they’d come from. It was hard throwing around the chairs and table legs. He still couldn’t see his attackers. But he knew there were at least three of them. The balls were coming at him from three different directions. Two of them were ok shots, but the third pinged one ball after another under the table with pin point accuracy. And the balls kept coming. Soaking him through and through.

It was utterly ridiculous.

Steve started laughing. He couldn’t help it. The super soldier slid his hands out from under the table and held them up. “Alright! Alright! Truce! I yield!”

The sponge balls stopped flying.

Then Lila’s voice rang out over the impromptu battlefield. “You surrender?”

“I surrender.” Steve agreed in amusement. “I know when I’m beat!”

“Alright, you can come out now.”

Still laughing, the super soldier crawled back out from under the table. He was a bedraggled mess. And he couldn’t remember having had that much fun in a long long time. Lila’s head popped out from behind a column. If he leaned to the right a little, Steve could just see a five gallon bucket full of sponge balls behind her.

The little girl burst into giggles. “Wow, you’re really wet Uncle Steve! You should go get dry.”

Cooper sat up from behind the stairs that lead down into the living room. “Wow. Lila’s right. Don’t worry, we’ll pick up.”

Still chuckling, Steve headed back to his room.

He should’ve known it wouldn’t be that simple. Inside his newly assigned bedroom, Steve stripped out of his wet clothes and got into the dresser for the clothes Castiel had brought for him. They weren’t there. Which wasn’t to say that there weren’t clothes there. Because there were. The dresser was actually overfull.

But they weren’t Steve’s clothes.

The dresser was full of the gaudiest array of red, white, and blue clothing Steve had ever seen. Given some of the costumes he and the girls had been required to wear on the USO tour back during the war, that was really saying something! On a hunch, Steve went and opened the closet. Just like the dresser, it was full to bursting with patriotic clothing.

He shook his head.

So that had been their game! They’d gotten him soaked so that he’d have to change his clothes, then switched out every stitch of clothing he’d had here with these monstrosities. Well, the joke was on them then. He’d just wear the wet ones until they dried. He closed the closet and went to get his wet clothes.

The wet ones were gone.

There wasn’t even a wet spot on the floor! Heart sinking,  Steve checked the rest of the room. He even checked under the bed just to be safe. On the off chance that they just moved his clothes somewhere else instead of out and out taking them.

Nothing.

The super soldier groaned. His reluctant eyes were drawn back to the closet and dresser. The overly cheerful clothing was still there. Still mocking him. Putting his shoulders back, the super soldier marched back to the dresser. Like hell he was going to walk out of this room in nothing but his underwear to go look for his clothes.

Steve  started fishing through the drawers, holding up items in an attempt to find the less gaudy options. He was eyeballing a pair of blue jeans with bleach stars on them when a thought struck him. He discarded the jeans and went back to searching through the clothes.

Two could play at this little game.


 

 

“Laura! We’re home!”

Dean and Phil set their grocery bags on the kitchen table. Laura bustled over, peeking into the bags to see what they’d brought.

“There’s more in the car.” Dean promised. “Phil and I’ll snag some help on our way back out and bring the rest in. How goes the war here? Anyone else get hit while we were gone?”

Laura produced her camera from her pocket and passed it over. “There was a water fight a little after you left. They ambushed Steve and cornered him under a table. He was soaked by the time they were finished. It’s been pretty quiet since. I get the impression it’s more the calm before the storm rather than an armistice.”

“I’d be inclined to agree.” Natasha slunk into the kitchen, Nathaniel on her hip. She obligingly passed him off to Phil. Rifling through the bags, the assassin added, “I saw them coming out of Steve’s room earlier. If I had to make a guess, I’d say they only got him wet to send him back to his room. The real prank is there. If he doesn’t come out in another half hour I’m going to go check on him.”

“Probably a solid plan. Where’s the rest of the crew?” Dean was watching the water fight, holding the camera so Phil could see Captain America hiding under a table from wet sponge balls.

The redhead shrugged. “Bruce is meditating in his room, and Thor was perusing the books in the library with your brother. Gabriel is no doubt scheming with Cooper and Lila up in the tower, Tony is doing something on his phone, and so far as I know Castiel is still standing guard over Surtur down below. He said to let you know that he can change out the bags. He just needs more water.”

“He’ll get it.” Dean promised. He pulled a half eaten bag of Tootsie Pops out of his coat pocket. “In the meantime, I brought suckers. Better get to them before Gabriel realizes we have sugar in the house.”

“Someone mention me?” As if summoned by the very mention of his name, the archangel plucked the bag out of Dean’s hand and darted out the kitchen door again. Dean didn’t bother hiding a smile. Seconds later there was an anguished wail and Gabriel appeared in the doorway again. He had the Tootsie Pop bag in one hand, and a sucker stick with a floret of broccoli in the other hand. “Dean! I thought we were friends, how could you…?”

“You pranked me first! All’s fair in love and war!”

Gabriel narrowed his eyes and assumed his best Bugs Bunny voice. “Oh course ya know this means war?!”

Dean held up a brown paper bag. “They’re here, unharmed. I just needed the Tootsie Pop wrappers to make it look legit. Wouldn’t want them to go to waste… truce?”

“...I’ll forgive you on behalf of the suckers.” Gabriel caught the brown bag Dean overhanded to him. Looking pointedly at the Tootsie Pop bag he admitted, “I don’t know what I’ll do with these... abominations …”

Dean shrugged. “Eh, give em to Sam. He likes that rabbit food.”

“So I’ve heard…” Something in the hall caught Gabriel’s eye, and he leaned back to see. The archangel grinned and saluted. “Well played captain! Well played !”

Steve arrived at the kitchen door. “Well if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

Phil was choking on air, and Dean was roaring with laughter. Even Natasha snickered, leaning aside so that Laura could snap a picture with a trembling hand.

Steve was dressed head to toe in baudy patriotic wear.

Glittery blue bell bottoms with bleached stars and red and white striped panels on the sides hung down over Steve's toes. The tank top was completely covered in sequins, the red, white, and blue arranged to look like a wavy flag. Over the tank top he’d pulled a zip up hoodie. Every inch of which was covered higgledy piggledy in little U.S. flags about the size of a match box. Above it all a stars and bars jazz hat perched on his head at a jaunty angle. The outfit was completed by a blue leather belt with white stars, a large belt buckle shaped like a bald eagle mid flight decorating the front.

Steve gave them a little twirl to show off his new outfit. “They filled my dresser and closet full of red, white, and blue.” He explained. “I figured I could either pick the least gaudy items in there, or I could go all out. Two can play at this game… So, how long are my clothes going to remain hostage?”

Gabriel clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll get ‘em back tomorrow morning. We’ve gotta give the others a chance to see your patriotic spirit! Especially the kids! ‘Preciate you being such a good sport about it. This place needed a laugh or two… Anyway! See you later! I gotta go give Sammoose some broccoli suckers!”

Steve stared after the retreating angel. “...do I even want to know?”

Dean clapped him on one spangly shoulder. The sequins made a quiet rustley noise at the movement. “Probably not. Come one, you can help us schlep groceries.”


 

 

“They’re beautiful.”

Dean and Phil paused with the groceries. Steve was walking along the row of motorcycles. A fond smile was bestowed on those that had been popular in the army during the war. One bike in particular seemed to arrest his attention. The soldier stopped, reaching out a hand to stroke the sleek lines.

“It’s a Harley WL, right?”

“Yep. From round about your time too.” Dean ambled over. “Feel free to pull her out if you like.”

Steve pulled the motorcycle carefully out of it’s slot. It was a coal black creation from head to toe. Streaks of creamy white graced the fenders and tank, and touches of red popped here and there. Black leather gleamed dully in the garage lights, the seat and saddlebags still supple despite their age. No cracks, no rust. The motorcycle looked like she had rolled off a showroom floor.

“You ride one back in the day?” Dean asked.

Steve squated down to get a better look. “No. Saw them around, but I didn’t get to ride a motorcycle until I went overseas. It was similar to this though. Harley Davidson modified their WL’s for the military. Called them WLA’s. Things could take quite a pounding and keep going strong.”

“How long did it take you to learn?”

Steve blushed. “Um… I sort of faked it. Gabe asked me to try out a motorcycle. The colonel thought they’d be easier for a guerilla band like us in the field. I thought he was going to show me how. I was wrong. They threw me up on the back of a WLA, and expected me to know exactly what to do. I figured it couldn’t be that hard…” His blush got stronger at Dean’s snickers. “Yeah. Bucky ‘bout fell over laughing at me. He knew I’d never ridden, but he wasn’t quick enough to stop Gabe. I was just grateful it was just him, Peggy, and Gabe that saw me wipe out.”

Dean leaned over the seat of the bike. “Makes you feel better, Sammy still can’t ride one of those things. I tried to teach him to ride a bicycle as a kid and he broke his arm. He figured the bicycle out eventually, but it’s like watching some cranky western miner arguing with his crabby mule. You never know who’s gonna win the argument. He won’t touch a motorcycle.”

“Probably never had a need to.” Steve answered. “I never rode one until I needed. I did a lot of stuff just because it needed to be done. Didn’t mean I wasn’t scared spitless while I did it.”

The hunter gripped Steve’s shoulder. “Yeah.”

“Something like that.” Phil quietly agreed, his mind running through all the hard decisions he’d had to make since joining the rangers, and later Shield. A slow smile suddenly curled his lips. “... so, has anyone told Tony about what you have out here?”


 

 

Gabriel high fived Cooper and Lila. “A plus lady and gentleman! Cap is star spangled within’ an inch of his life! Check him off the list!”

Lila dutifully produced a small pad and a pen from a pocket and put a checkmark next to Steve’s name.

Cooper looked over her shoulder. “Who we got?”

“Dean, Sam, Auntie Nat, Uncle Bruce, Uncle Thor, and now Uncle Steve.” Lila recited.

“So that leaves…” A cheshire cat grin curled Cooper’s lips. “Uncle Phil and Uncle Tony. What do you think Gabriel? Who should we go after first? And what should we do?”

Gabriel shrugged. “Seems to me you two have got the hang of planning pranks. Why don’t you guys plan the next two?”

The kids looked at each other, matching mischief in their eyes.

“Uncle Tony next.” Lila declared. “Then Uncle Phil.”

Cooper nodded. “Ok.... Hey! Gabriel, do you think you could…?”


 

 

Tony stared down at his chest in confusion.

He’d gotten out of the shower, only to discover that something had definitely changed in between stepping out of the shower and getting to his clothes. The arc reactor was still in his chest, cool blue light glowing steady and sure. No, the problem was the chest it was currently situated in.

Said chest had the wrong equipment.

The genius whirled around to stare into the mirror over the sink. Yep, definitely something wrong. A woman stared back at him. For one second he entertained the notion that there might have been a body swap. His brain in someone else’s body. But all those stories usually involved people close together, and the woman in the mirror didn’t look like Laura or Natasha. Thank god. Besides that wouldn’t explain the arc reactor still being in his chest.

He studied the woman.

Correct height. Hair and eye color were the same. Though the hair had gotten a little longer. It looked more like a messy pixie cut now. The skin color was right. He leaned forward over the sink. Features that he had known his entire life stared back at him. The face had lost some of its ruggedness, but it was still undeniably his. Just, you know, female.

Tony groaned and hung his head. “Oh, this is not going to end well.”


 

 

Tony stayed in his room until the evening meal.

He wasn’t really even intending to come out at all until he went back to normal or whatever. But that plan crashed and burned, courtesy of Natasha. The assassin pounded twice on the door and breezed into the room without any further warning.

“Tasha! I can explain!”

She folded her arms. “Really?”

“Um… Ok, maybe not exactly… I’m pretty sure it was the trickster or whatever though!”

Natasha smirked. “As a matter of fact it was. He warned us so that we wouldn't take your head off. There’s no sense you hiding here in your room and missing dinner trying to hide something we all already know. Besides, the kids want to see the results of their prank. Apparently turning you into a woman for a while was their idea.”

“Really?” Tony pushed past the assassin and trotted off to the kitchen. “I am wounded you two! Completely and utterly wounded!”

Trailing after him, Tasha smiled as every man in the kitchen clapped and made wolf whistles, just the way they’d planned.

Clint was going to laugh himself sick when Laura showed him the videos later.


 

 

Day three dawned with Tony the correct gender and Steve’s clothing returned.

Gabriel almost regretted turning Tony back. Since encountering the Winchesters, he’d tried to avoid actually hurting or killing someone with a prank. Confuse, don’t abuse, Dean had told him teasingly. And he’d taken it to heart. It was almost funnier to know that the people he pranked would wonder about the experience for the rest of their lives. It would’ve been fun to keep Tony on the hook a bit longer, but he’d promised to turn him back at the end of the night. It could be fun to consider a redo in the future though… But in the meantime, with only twenty-four hours to Crowley’s deadline, tensions were starting to rise again.

Which meant that the prank on Phil had to be good .

They caught Phil in a rare unguarded moment. The Shield Agent had fallen asleep on the couch, an open book propped up on his chest. Gabriel grinned at the kids and gave them a thumbs up.

“Care to do the honors Lila?” He whispered.

“I can’t do that! I don’t have powers.”

The archangel snapped his fingers. A silver wand appeared on his palm. Slender and delicate, the wand was easily the length of his forearm. A teardrop gem on the tip glowed with a pearlescent light. He put the spiraled handle in the little girl’s hand with a flourish.

“Take your best shot Tinker Belle. One touch on the forehead ought to do it.”

“Ok!” The seven year old bounced across the room. As she got closer to Phil, Lila’s bounce morphed into a Scooby Doo style tip-toe. Phil slumbered on. Smothering her giggles with one hand, she lightly tapped the silver wand on her godfather's forehead. The gemstone shimmered, and what looked like glitter sprinkled across the agent. Phil batted at it in his sleep. Lila giggled and ran back to Gabriel.

The archangel gave her a high five. “Perfect. And now, we wait.”


 

 

Something wasn’t right.

Phil bolted upright and cracked his head. He groaned and rubbed it. His fingers brushed against something. Probably the same something he’d hit his head on. Phil looked up.

The ceiling was inches from his face.

Phil yelped and flailed. He didn’t fall off the couch the way he expected to. He didn’t fall off anything. The agent looked down. The floor, the couch, and all the rest of the furniture was sixteen feet below. Phil was floating.

“Um… That’s new.”

The agent pushed off from the ceiling. His body dipped down a couple feet, then floated right back up. Ok, so that wouldn’t work. Maybe if he faced the direction he wanted to go? He rolled onto his belly in midair. It didn’t change a thing, except his feet ended up higher than his head.

Footsteps sounded down below.

Sam trotted down the steps into the room. “Phil? You still here?”

For a long second, Phil weighed the pros and cons of calling attention to himself with a hunter present. Pros being that the hunter would hopefully have some idea how to get him down. Cons being that the startled hunter might shoot Phil on sight. Pros won. He couldn’t stay up here forever.

Phil cleared his throat. “I’m up here Sam. I… seem to be in something of a pickle.”

Sam’s head snapped up, and his jaw dropped. Words seemed to fail him as he stared up at the helpless agent floating almost upside down near the ceiling. But, finally, “Phil? What the…? I’d ask if you’d been in the storage vault for cursed objects, but I know for a fact none of them do that !” His eyes narrowed. “And since we have a trickster god in the house, I know where I’d lay my bets.”

Right, the prank war. Phil relaxed. He’d been so flustered by the sudden power of flight that he’d completely forgot about Gabriel’s prank war.

“Do you remember how you got up there?”

Phil shook his head. “No. I fell asleep while reading, and woke up next to the ceiling. So far I’ve tried pushing off of things, and facing the direction I want to go. Neither of which has gotten me more than a couple feet away from the ceiling. Any ideas?”

“Um…” Sam made a helpless gesture. “Think depressing thoughts?”

“Sam, this is not Mary Poppins.”

“Right. Ok, hold that thought.” The hunter ran back the way he’d come.

Phil sighed and rolled onto his back again. “Not like I’m really going anywhere.”

He didn’t have long to wait. He was tracing a painted design on the ceiling with his eyes when the sound of heavy footsteps thumped through the library and into the living room. Phil rolled back over. Sam had come back, a coil of rope in his hands. And he’d brought Thor. The Asgardian carried a pair of ten pound weights.

“Son of Coul!” Thor exclaimed upon spotting him. “We have come to return your feet to the ground!”

“That would be much appreciated, Thor! How are we planning to do that?”

Thor set the weights aside and took the rope from Sam. “We will throw the rope to you, and draw you back to ground level. Then we will tie weights to your belt so that you will not float away again.”

“Sounds good. Ready when you are.”

Thor carefully tied a thick, complicated knot in the end of the rope. Finished, it was as big around as his fist. The blonde let it hang, testing the weight. Satisfied, he swung the rope several times, then flung it upwards. Phil lunged for it. The rope struck the ceiling three feet from his grasping hands and tumbled back to the floor. Thor gathered the rope up with a shrug and tried again. It took four attempts before Phil finally managed to grab it. Not because Thor had bad aim. Phil would lunge for the rope, and would then slowly drift when he missed.

Finally, Thor managed to toss the knotted rope over Phil’s hands.

“Got it!”

“Excellent! Well done son of Coul!” Thor looped the rope twice around his wrist and began to pull Phil in hand over hand. Phil was halfway down when Gabriel wandered in, munching on a candy apple. The trickster took one look at the situation and started cackling. Thor paused in reeling Phil in.

“Really?” Gabriel snickered. “You couldn’t figure out how to get down? It’s not that hard. All you have to do is move.”

Phil frowned. “I tried leaning in the direction I wanted to go…”

“But did you really want to move?” Gabriel took another bite of his apple, using a free hand to catch the sprinkles he dislodged. “Mmf. There’s no secret to it, you just move. But you can’t be afraid of falling. Then you go no where. I made sure it was impossible for you to fall. Go on, give it a shot.”

Mustering his nerve, Phil gripped the rope firmly and used it to right himself in the air. Feet pointed at the floor, Phil took a deep breath… and moved. It wasn’t the sudden drop he’d been expecting. More of a smooth descent, like going down some big invisible slide. His toes touched floor, and the agent relaxed.

“I knew you were going to get me sooner or later. But, why make me fly?”

Gabriel smiled warmly. “Lila’s idea. Seems a certain uncle told her that one of his favorite classic stories as a kid was ‘Peter Pan’. She thought it would be fun to see Uncle Phil get a taste of being Peter Pan for a while. Plus, I imagine your initial reaction was probably priceless. I’m sorry we missed it. But Laura wanted the kids to run through the bath and I ran down to the dungeon to check on Cassie.” He shrugged. “Oh well. Win some, lose some.” The archangel turned to go back the way he came and paused. “Oh, one other thing. I’d highly recommend taking the kids for a piggyback ride or two. You’ve got until midnight before it wears off.”

Phil laughed, floating a couple inches off the floor.

Yeah, he was definitely giving his god children piggyback rides!


 

 

Laura’s shirt was soaked.

With an irritable growl, the brunette turned the faucet off. Someone, she suspected at least two someones, had taken it upon themselves to include her in the prank war. She’d given them her blessing on the condition that she be left out of it. She had too much to do keeping so many people fed and in clean clothes and bedding to deal with these shenanigans. The Winchesters had already told her multiple times that she didn’t need to cook or clean or do laundry. She’d politely informed them that they’d have to deal with it, she would go stir crazy without something to do. They’d let her alone after that.

She pulled the rubber band off of the spray handle on the sink and tossed it in the trash. “Oldest trick in the book too.” She muttered.

Fine. if that was the way they were going to play, then she could roll with that. Laura stomped down the hall to the bedroom for a new dry sweatshirt. Her baby bump was small enough that she could hide it under baggy clothes, but said clothes lost their concealing qualities when they were soaking wet and clinging to her skin.

Her bump hidden by a fresh hoodie, Laura checked herself in the mirror.

“Alright. No more Mrs. Nice Mom.” She growled playfully and set off in search of Sam. She needed a cardboard box, and odds were good the younger Winchester would know where she could find one.


 

 

Gabriel swept into the kitchen.

He’d been lured by the mouthwatering aroma of herbs and cooked chicken. Laura had battered chicken frying in a pan on the stove. She hummed as she worked, some catchy little tune that had her swaying along.

Gabriel snuck up behind her and tweaked her braid. “How’re you feeling? The rugrat treating you ok?”

“So far.” Laura nodded to a covered plate on the counter. “Chicken, buttered bread, and vegetables. If you could take that plate down to your brother? I know Castiel said he didn’t need to eat, but I get the impression that you angels can still enjoy it.”

“Once you figure out how to taste the food instead of the atoms it’s made of, yeah.” The archangel picked up the covered plate with a wink. “Cassie’s sort of got the hang of it. But a little bit of practice never hurt anyone. Make sure you save me some food!”

Laura waved him off. “Don’t worry, I won’t let anyone eat your chicken.”

Satisfied, the angel spread invisible wings and darted away. It was always nice, being able to use his wings. They were always hidden from sight, human and supernatural alike, tucked away in the space between dimensions were nothing could sense them or touch them. It was nice to be able to use them without having to worry about being judged or giving a game away. To be what he was, nothing more, nothing less. His wings beat strong and sure, and he reveled in it. A quick bank around a corner, and he dove down a set of stairs. When humans flew with an angel, it seemed  instantaneous. Not for an angel. They slipped through the space between seconds with nary a thought. A moment’s flight could last as long as an angel wished if they felt like a leisurely flight. Human’s just didn’t have the stomach for that sort of prolonged time.

Castiel glanced up as the door opened.

The younger angel didn’t seem surprised to see Gabriel. He nodded a silent greeting, then returned his eyes to the prisoner on  the other side of the room. Gabriel smiled sadly at the picture he cut. Cas was seated on a chair by the door, his angel blade drawn and laid across his knees in preparation for a fight. Castiel had always been heaven’s perfect soldier. He followed orders without question. He never doubted.

Until heaven made him doubt. It had made Gabriel laugh, the first time it had happened. Naomi’s orders had been drastic, and negative. And if Castiel had one failing, it was that he loved humanity to much. Their father would have praised Cas for that love. Naomi had seen it as a failing. If it was possible for an angel to be sick to their stomach, Gabriel would’ve been when he heard what Naomi had done to his little brother to bring him back under her thumb. When he had found out how deeply she had crawled into his head, effectively taking a sledgehammer to his memories. At times, controlling him like a marionette without his knowledge or consent. And she had done it over and over again when Castiel’s love of humanity became a problem again. The infamous spanner in the works. Gabriel had left his little brother to that . And he would regret it for the rest of his imortal days.

He offered Cas the plate and drew his own blade. “Eat. I’ll keep watch.”

Castiel offered up a grateful smile.

Gabriel fixed his eyes on their prisoner. He had failed his little brother spectacularly. But maybe it wasn’t too late to reconnect. Maybe it wasn’t too late to try and be the big brother that he should’ve been all along.


 

 

“Took you long enough! We were just about to start without you!”

Gabriel crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue at Dean. “Laura had me take dinner down to Castiel. I had to stand watch while he took the time to eat. Blame him for being a slow eater.” He gave the assembled adults suspicious glances. “Tell me somebody saved me food.”

Laura held up a plate.

The trickster made grabby hands at it. “You’re awesome!”

The plate was passed to Phil. Still possessed of his ‘Peter Pan’ abilities, the agent hovered relaxed above their heads. After the initial scare, he’d stopped trying to keep his feet on the ground. Instead, he enjoyed the ability to levitate while he had it, and used it to be out of the way of the heroes and hunters crowding around the little table and kitchen island. He darted over their heads, reaching down to pass Gabriel his plate. The angel tossed him a playful salute, earning an amused smile.

Much like the plate that he’d taken down to Castiel, the plate Gabriel received had a piece of battered chicken, a mound of vegetables, and a thick piece of buttered bread. Gabriel dug in with gusto, several bites of the veggies disappearing in the blink of an eye. All around him, Avengers chatted, hunters joked with spies, and kids laughed. It was nice. It felt, homey. He switched to the chicken.

And promptly choked on it.

Thor reached over and pounded between Gabriel’s shoulder blades. “Are you alright my friend?”

Gabriel coughed and snapped his fingers. The offending piece of meat vanished. He stuck his fork in the chicken and carefully peeled back the breading to reveal the meat underneath. And he started laughing. “You know, I’ve heard folks say that their wife’s food tastes like cardboard. But you’re the first person I’ve met who legitly served up cardboard. I take it this is over the rubber band on the sink spigot?”

“You’d take it correctly.” Laura offered the plate of spare chicken breasts. “All’s fair in love and war. I told you to leave me out of it.”

“You did.” He speared a new piece of chicken. “Alright. Truce. Prank war is over.”

Around the table, adults breathed subtle sighs of relief. Gabriel ducked his head to hide a sad smile. The war had served it’s purpose. There weren’t enough pranks in the world to distract them tomorrow when the chosen hunters and heroes went back to the warehouse in detroit.

Depending on how it went, he’d have to find other ways to distract them.


 

 

Crowley was prompt.

The dark haired scottish demon appeared in the middle of the empty warehouse at one fifteen on the dot. They hadn’t set a specific time, but they’d said ‘this time’, and it had been one fifteen at the time so….Yeah. Crowley highly doubted they cared, but the integrity of hell and all that. At least, so long as it served his purpose.

He wasn’t expecting the newest addition.

The demon narrowed his eyes at the sixth addition to the Winchesters’ boy band. There was an air of mischief around him that the demon didn’t like. He wasn’t human, Crowley was certain of that. More than likely he never had been… He knew him. Maybe only by reputation, but he knew that being. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to know him in person. There was an impression, an undercurrent of power around the newcomer that was dangerous.

He rolled his shoulders back. Never let it be said that he was easily intimidated. “Hello boys. I see you brought your new favorites again. Poor Castiel must be feeling so neglected right now. Especially what with you picking up a new powerful pet.” He made a show of looking the newcomer up and down. “Angel? That would be quite the slap to the face to replace him with one of his brothers. Especially after everything he’s done and given up for you two.”

The newcomer snapped his fingers and produced a sucker. He stuck it in his mouth with a lazy grin and winked at the horrified devil. “Trickster actually. Cassie’s elsewhere with more important things to do. I’m here to help Samoose look over the demon contract you cooked up.” He pulled the sucker out of his mouth and waved it vaguely in Crowley’s direction. “You did bring the contract with you, right?”

Crowley made an affronted noise and pulled a scroll from his pocket. He let one end of it drop dramatically to the floor and unroll to it’s full fifteen foot length. “Of course I did. Dean’s offered me quite the deal. I’ll owe him two or three favors besides, but still, it’s quite the steal. No chance I’m missing this.”

“Good.” The trickster crunched the sucker and pulled the stick out. “Let’s get to it then. Come on Samkins, wow me with your legalese!”

Crowley watched, bemused, as the trickster produced a long table under the contract and enough chairs for everyone to make themselves comfortable. “Might I ask who the Winchesters have dragged into their mess now?”

“Loki, norse god of mischief.” The trickster answered absently. He held up the contract. “Hey Sam, this look fishy to you?”

Crowley felt his stomach drop into his boots.


 

 

Knowing that Sam had been a Stanford law student was one thing.

Seeing the hunter come to life as he poured over the contract with Gabriel and Crowley was something else again. Half the time only Gabriel and Crowley seemed to understand the stream of legal terms he spouted as he picked his way through the contract with  a fine toothed comb.

Tony sat back in his chair, stunned. “Wow. Where was he when my legal team was hiring?”

“He’s certainly something.” Phil agreed.

“He oughta be. He’s a Winchester. Being a lawyer was what he wanted to do with his life. He would’ve been damn good at it. Sammy’s never done anything by halves… If it weren’t for heaven and hell having a hard on for our family, he might’ve made it out.” Dean leaned a hip against the table, arms folded over his chest. “Been awhile since I’ve seen him get this excited about something… Didn’t realise how much I’ve missed seeing him come alive.”

“He tried to get out?” Steve asked softly, wary of the demon hearing the conversation.

Dean nodded. “He left for Stanford. We thought he was clear. A yellow eyed demon saw to it that it all ended in blood and fire. Once a hunter, always a hunter apparently.” He sighed and sank into a chair. “You might want to settle in. This’ll take a while. Crowley’s contracts are a rats nest of legal gibberish. But they’re thorough.”

They took Dean’s advice.

Sitting around a table listening to a hunter and a trickster argue legal terms with a crossroads demon wasn’t exactly riveting. The most interesting point was near the beginning. Gabriel had read all the way through the contract. Picking up the bottom of the scroll, he turned it towards the hunter.

“Sam? Is that right?”

Sam had leaned over, skimming the section Gabriel was pointing at. “Yeah. It’s why Crowley only owes us three or four favors instead of six or seven. I’m willing to compromise on some things, but since Dean is insisting that this is a deal, that is non-negotiable.”

“Cool beans.” And Gabriel had gone back to perusing the contract.

It had gotten spectacularly boring after that.

They’d arrived at one. Crowley had shown up at one fifteen. It was going on seven p.m. and there was still no end in sight. Steve had pulled a small notebook and a pencil from his pocket and occupied himself with drawing his companions. Tony was fiddling with his phone again, not surprisingly, and Phil had produced a worn paperback from somewhere. Dean was busy trying to build a castle out of a deck of cards. He had three layers going, and was working on the fourth.

Gabriel sat back in his seat. “Ok kiddoes, that oughta do it. This contract is about as tight as anyone can make it after having all three of us run it over like mack trucks. Dean-o? You ready to seal this bad boy up? Pretty sure we’re all sick and tired of hanging out in this motorcity dump.”

The hunter put the last two cards on his castle.

He eyed it for a long moment, then shrugged and blew it down. The cards scattered across the tabletop and the contract. Dean watched them settle. Putting his shoulders back, he suddenly stomped around the end of the table, grabbed Crowley by the front of his black great coat and jerked him up into a kiss. And it didn’t look like he enjoyed it. Every line of his body was tense and defensive. As if he expected to be struck. As if he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but there. Then it was done.

Dean shoved Crowley away from him.

The demon’s eyes flashed bloody red again, a smile playing at his lips. “At least you kiss better than Singer did. Pleasure doing business with you boys, as always. Call me if your avenging friends over there ever need anything. Ciao.” He disappeared, leaving the contract behind.

Sam’s knuckles were white with the grip he had on the edge of the tabletop. “I still don’t like this Dean. If this doesn’t work, Crowley won’t be shy about coming after you. Gabe and I did our best, but you know Crowley, he…”

“Can’t touch Dean, even if the deal falls through. You two will just owe him a favor for the effort he put into this monster.” Gabriel snapped his fingers. The scattered cards returned to the box, and the contract rolled itself back up. The archangel passed both to Dean. “You did good. Now let’s blow this thing and go home.”

Dean huffed in amusement. “Star wars?”

“Never a bad time for a Star Wars reference.” Gabriel agreed.

“Which Capsicle still hasn’t seen.” Tony put in. “Which is a travesty, but what I’m more interested in is why the hell ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ just kissed a demon ! What the hell Winchester? I mean, he’s a demon for crying out loud! And you didn’t really strike me as the type of guy who swung that way anyway.”

The hunter leveled a glare at him. “It’s a demon deal. They seal it with a kiss. They don’t particularly give a shit about what your gender is. They’re just after the soul under it.” He irritably shoved the deck of cards in his pocket. “Get us out of here Gabe. I’ve got a Jotun to take apart.”


 

 

Surtur looked horrendous.

The constant I.V. of holy water had taken its toll. His red skin had paled down to a coral color, and even his horns and claws had started to go a little grey at the edges. There were lines on his face that hadn’t been there before, and his fiery mane had died down to flickering embers. The demon’s once powerful frame now slumped against the rough hewn timbers of the chair. If he’d been a plant they would’ve described him as ‘wilting’.

Outside, the Avengers huddled around the tv.

They watched as Dean and Sam entered the room.

Castiel finished switching out the I.V. bag. The demon shuddered as soon as the fresh holy water hit his system. He’d lost the ability to scream before the first twenty-four hours were up. The angel stepped back, his blade sliding back into his hand. He nodded to the Winchesters and returned to his place against the wall. Sam took the space next to him.

Dean approached the monster alone. A self satisfied smirk curled his lips. He walked around the demon, running an appraising eye over him. As if he were a cut of meat, and Dean was debating how he wanted it cooked.

“Well, well, well.” Dean murmured. “How the mighty have fallen… What’s a matter Surtur? You’re awfully quiet today. No grand claims of superiority? Got tired of putting us pathetic insects in our place?”

The demon lolled his head to one side, he didn’t seem to have the strength to hold it up. His voice, when he spoke, was rough and very nearly inaudible. “What do you want?”

“From you? For you to die in a hole, cold, wet, painfully, and alone.” Dean sassed. He bent down and invaded the demon’s personal space. His nose was barely inches from Surtur’s. Strong hands gripped pale wrists, leaning all his weight on them. Hard green eyes didn’t flinch at the demon’s suppressed groan. “Still, we don’t always get what we want. Seems Sam found someplace to put you. Some place you’d never be able to hurt humans. I’d just as soon kill you, but he insisted we had to try. So: Sever your tie to my brother’s soul, and we’ll exorcise you down to hell. Otherwise, I’m not leaving this room until you’re dead and bleeding at my feet.”

The demon closed his eyes. “Do your worst.” he rasped.

Dean smirked. “I thought you’d never ask.”

There were no screams this time around. Surtur just didn’t seem to have the energy for it anymore. It didn’t stop Dean. The hunter cut, and bruised, and tore at his captive, heedless of the damage it caused. He was going to kill him.

Gabriel slipped into the room and shut the door.

Dean straightened, dropping a bloody knife on the cart. “Gabe! Glad you could make it. You want a turn before I finish him off?”

The archangel chuckled. “Sounds like fun.” He sauntered past the hunters, eyeing the demon. “Shield your eyes.” he suddenly ordered.

Used to such orders from Cas, they obeyed without question.  

A blinding light filled the room, originating from Gabriel. It grew brighter and brighter. Surely it would set them afire, or strip the flesh from their bones! As quickly as it had started, abruptly it was gone. Gabriel stood in the center of the room before the bound demon, the silhouette of wings playing on the walls. White light glowed deep within his core, casting the bones of his ribs and sternum in stark relief. His eyes shown with an unearthly light, and his face was stern as granite. There was nothing left of the trickster, that mask had been stripped away.

All that was left now, was the archangel.

Surtur pressed weakly back into his seat. The demon had been reduced to a wizened ashen thing. His skin was pale grey, his horns and claws crumbling like dead coals in a fireplace. The lines on his face had deepened, and the fiery blue gaze was now flat and lifeless.

Gabriel spoke.

Not in the human tongues, nor the language of the asgardians. He spoke in the voice of the angels. Glass jars shattered, and the tools on the table trembled. Castiel joined him. An earthquake of sound that had the two hunters clapping their hands over their ears and dropping to their knees while the angels chanted. For the first time that day, Surtur screamed. He thrashed and shrieked. Shaking his head in an effort to dislodge the sound. He couldn’t escape it.

Against the wall, Dean and Sam huddled in the fetal position, hands clapped over their ears and eyes squeezed shut. Pained cries escaped them, their voices going unheard beneath the roar of the angels.

Finally, Surtur slumped in his seat.

Gabriel fell silent. Castiel followed suit.

Outside, the Avengers held their breath.

“... release me…” Surtur whispered hoarsely. “... I will submit…”

The archangel grabbed the demon by the ear, hauling his head up. The glow hadn’t faded, from his body or his eyes. His wings still stood out in stark relief against the wall, the shadows overlapping with the shadows of Castiel’s.

“Do not think you can trick me monster. The king of snakes is my brother, and I am inured to his lies.” He drew the contract from the pocket of his ratty hoodie and held the scroll up so the demon could see. “You escaped your previous contract. Now you will enter into a new one. Or we will give you back to the mortals and the slow and painful death they had planned for you.”

The demon eyed the contract warily. Then he glanced to the cart of torture implements, and the I.V.  line in his arm. He shuddered and closed them. “Very well. I will do as you ask. I care not which mortal form I wear.”

Gabriel snapped his fingers, producing a clipboard and a pen.

The scroll was unrolled just enough to see the blank space for his signature at the bottom. They placed the pen in his hand, the one who’s fingers Dean hadn’t gotten around to breaking yet, and Sam came to hold the scroll and clipboard in place. Dean’s bloody hands would’ve left marks on the parchment. It was never a good idea to let a demon have a sample of your blood.

Surtur signed the contract in a heavy, archaic hand.

Gabriel wasn’t satisfied.

The archangel produced his angel blade and sliced open Surtur’s palm. Hot black droplets sizzled as they struck the page below the eldritch symbols that signified his name. “You'll not escape so easily as that. Names are cheap. Blood is not. No matter the name you take, you cannot escape the blood spilled here by an archangel’s blade. You are bound, by contract and blood, for all of eternity.”

The demon snarled, his blue eyes taking back some of their fire. But there was nothing he could do. Gabriel had waited until the jotun had signed it willingly, then sealed it more thoroughly than Surtur could ever have imagined. He was well and truly trapped, and it was all on his own head.

At a nod from the angels, Sam began the exorcism. The angels joined him, Castiel speaking in enochian, and Gabriel in ancient norse. Neither calling on the power that they had displayed only five minutes before. They didn’t need it. The three voices should have grated on each other, negated their words. They didn’t. The three languages had a harmony of their own. They fueled each other. Surtur threw himself against his bonds, his muscles straining. The restraints held firm.

The chanting came to a finish.

“Rot in hell you son of a bitch.” Dean snarled.

Surtur threw back his head and roared. Blue fire gouted up out of his throat. It struck the ceiling, cascading back down to be swallowed by the earth inside the devil’s trap. More and more fire, more than Dean would’ve ever believed could fit inside Clint’s lean frame. The last of the flames slipped from his throat with a sickening hiss.

Clint slumped in the seat, a marionette who’s strings had been cut.

Dean and Sam leapt forward. Sam carefully checking for a pulse, Dean already undoing the restraints. He was done with the hands and moving for Clint’s feet when Sam yelped.

“Dean! He’s not breathing! I can’t find a pulse!”

Outside the door, Natasha covered her mouth with a hand. Thor slipped an arm around the assassin. She leaned against his chest, accepting the comfort he offered. But she refused to take her too-bright eyes off the screen. On her other side, Bruce laced his fingers through hers and squeezed. Nearby, Phil kept a white knuckled grip on the armrests of his chair. Steve laid a hand on Phil’s shoulder. Behind them all, Tony anxiously paced.

Gabriel moved in, eyes glowing. “Lay him down.”

Dean and Sam hurriedly pulled Clint out of the chair and laid him flat on his back on the floor. Gabriel knelt beside him, the hunters scooting well out of his way.

Castiel’s head suddenly snapped around, focusing on something to the right. “Clinton Francis Barton. We have not labored so long to allow you to flee now. Come away from the door.”

Dean paled. “He’s out of his body?!”

“Yes, he’s out of his body. The pain is more than he can take. That jotun screwed him over on the way out. Seared everything he could touch. Vindictive bastard. Now lower the volume and let me work on this!” Gabriel trailed glowing hands over Clint’s prone form. One hand settled on his brow, the other on his chest. “Talk to your brother. He’s hurting and scared, and if he walks out that door he’ll walk right into that reaper’s arms. I can fix this, it’s just gonna take a couple minutes. Surtur had enough juice, he might as well have been a pagan god.”

Dean looked frantically to Castiel. “Cas? Where’s Clint standing?”

The angel obligingly pointed to a space midway between Clint’s corpse and the door.

Dean turned and faced him. “Clint. I know you can hear me. Don’t you dare turn your back on this, not now. Not when we’ve almost got you home. Don’t you dare throw in the towel. I promise you it’s almost over. Gabriel is patching your body up. It won’t hurt when you go back in. Please . Just, stay ... Laura and the kids are waiting for you to come home. You gonna disappoint them?”

“Please Clint.” Sam whispered. “Come back here.”

Castiel’s head turned, blue eyes tracking something the hunters couldn’t see. He moved in between them and the door, presumably blocking Clint off from it. “He is in front of you Dean. He is asking about Laura and the kids. If you found them?”

The hunters laughed.

“Yeah, they’re alright. They’re havin’ a grand ol’ time in the bat cave. Cooper’s having a hayday out in the garage. Sure as hell knows more about engines than you do.” Dean teased. “Should’ve seen their faces when they saw the telescope up in the tower… They miss you though. They need you.”

“They’re not the only ones.” Sam agreed.

Castiel smiled. “He says to tell you that he isn’t going anywhere.”

“Good.” Gabriel sassed, never taking his hands off the corpse. “I’d hate to put all this effort into rebuilding a house that no one’s going to live in.” It took him a couple more minutes, but by the time he was finished Clint’s body barely showed any signs of wear and tear. The body had lost some weight, the skin was paler than it had been. But it was breathing, and the heart beat steady and sure under his hands. “Good as it’s gonna get. Cassie? You wanna pop him back in here? You did the other two, might as well keep up the tradition.”

Castiel rolled his eyes. But he raised a hand and touched two fingers to empty air.

Clint’s body suddenly sucked in a gasp. Bleary brown eyes opened. The hunters and angels gathered round. The unearthly glow finally faded from Gabriel’s eyes. His work here was done. With the loss of the glow, the shadows of their wings disappeared from the wall. Dean grabbed a tin cup from the cart and filled it with holy water. With Sam bracing him in a semi-upright position, Dean helped Clint drink it. No reaction. A small nick with a silver blade was just a formality after that.

“What’s a matter Winchester? You don’t trust me?” Gabriel teased.

Dean slipped an anti-possession charm over Clint’s head. “Trust but verify. After all this, would you take chances with your brother?”

“No.” Gabriel tossed Cas a fond smile. “No, I wouldn’t.”

Clint’s eyes slipped closed.

“Clint?” Sam’s voice went up a little with worry.

The archangel clasped the younger hunter’s shoulder. “It’s alright Sam,” he soothed. “He’s just exhausted. He’ll probably sleep for a day or two. But he’ll be alright after that. Come on. Let’s get him upstairs and into a bed.” Addressing the camera, he added “You guys can come in now. The danger’s passed.”

The doors swung open and the heroes scrambled in.

Natasha was the first to reach his side. Phil was barely two steps behind her.

“He’s alright.” Gabriel soothed again. “He’s just tired. Steve? Thor? One of you big beefy types feel like hauling his ass upstairs?”

Thor nodded. With a gentleness belied by his size, the asgardian carefully gathered the unconscious archer up into his arms. Clint’s head lolled limply. Natasha immediately caught it and tenderly resettled his head on Thor’s shoulder. Family and friends hovering close, Thor carried his unconscious friend up and out of the dungeon.

They settled him in Dean’s room. Bruce checked Clint over, more for his peace of mind than because they thought there was something wrong with him. There wasn’t. He just needed sleep and several home cooked meals.

Gabriel leaned against the wall by the door. An amused smile played on his lips as he watched the world’s best heroes, hunters, and spies anxiously hover over an unconscious man with nothing wrong with him. Slowly, it started to sink in that they’d done it. Clint was here. He was alive . He was safe . The demon was gone! Surtur was gone! They’d won! As the realization started to sink in, it was accompanied by the realization that they should probably let Clint rest. Gabriel was pretty sure that Clint wouldn’t be in any danger of waking up for at least a day. But why take the chance? It would be better if they just let him sleep for as long as he needed. They began to slip out the door.

Castiel seated himself on the foot of the bed.

“Cas?” Dean paused in the open door.

“I watched over him for the past four days. It seems only fitting that I keep watch until he wakes.” The angel smiled. “I’ll stay. It’s probably for the best that he doesn’t wake alone in a strange place.”

Natasha hesitated. “I could stay. He knows me…”

The angel shooed her away. “He won’t wake today. Go be with Laura and the children. If he shows signs of waking, I’ll send for you.” He smiled as he watched them slink reluctantly out of the room. The door clicked shut, and he settled himself in for the wait. The bed was infinitely better than the hard wood chair in the dungeon.

“Sleep well Clint Barton. You’re safe here.”


 

 

Laura froze as soon as the adults entered the living room.

Natasha smiled.

Laura broke down into tears, much to the bewilderment of her kids, and flung herself across the room and into Natasha’s arms. The redhead hugged her tight. She rubbed the brunette's back, leaving the other adults to answer the kids’ worried questions.

“It’s alright.” She murmured into Laura’s hair. “He’s safe Laura. We got him.”

In her belly, the littlest Barton did a joyful somersault.


 

 

...who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!

Dean checked the caller ID on his phone. “Sam! Six-six-six is calling.” The younger hunter jogged over.

Steve leaned closer so he could hear. “What’s happening?”

“It’s Crowley. Either he got the jotun, or something messed up and he’s calling us to bitch about it.” Holding a finger to his lips, Dean answered the phone on speaker and set it on the library table.

“Crowley.”

The gravely voice of the demon slithered up out of the phone. “Dean. Just wanted you to know that I received your...package. You didn’t tell him the terms of the agreement.” There was a hint of amusement in his voice. “You’ll be happy to hear that he’s now been informed of the minutia of his contract… and is hating every second of being subservient to a crossroads demon.”

Dean beamed. “Awesome. I hope you put him to work bussing tables or polishing your toenails.”

“That’s quite a vindictive streak you have there Winchester... I like it. I don’t know about polishing toenails, but I’m sure I can find something equally menial in nature.” The sound of shuffling paper came over the line. “Anyway. That’s only part of the reason I called. This written contract is unorthodox compared to our usual methods. It’ll take a bit longer for some of the clauses to go into effect. The rest of what you asked for should shake loose in a few days. A couple of weeks at most. I’ll be on the lookout. Give you a call as soon as they do.”

Dean’s lips tightened into a thin line. He clearly wasn’t comfortable with that. A silent conversation passed between he and Sam. Whatever the consensus was, he didn’t like it. The hunter grimaced, hands tightening on the back of his chair.

“Ok Crowley. Let us know as soon as you hear something.”

The demon hung up.

Steve cocked his head. “What else did you ask for?”

The hunter shook his head. “Leave it Steve. Just… leave it.”


 

 

The mood turned decidedly lighter after that.

Steve called the base after they’d talked to Laura. Wanda, Vision, and Sam were ecstatic to hear that Clint was alive and demon free. Shield was closing in on the AIM scientist, and the three Avengers were hopeful that they’d be free to come back to the bunker soon to be with the rest of the team.

Free of the tension that had been driving him for the past several days, Dean and Cooper retreated to the garage. After all, the car couldn’t sit out there with her engine strewn across the floor forever. Phil went with them, and Tony.

Dean wasn’t sure what to expect from Tony, whether he would be ok working with Cooper, or whether he would make an ass of himself and Dean would have to ban him from the garage. He was pleasantly surprised. Tony behaved himself, happily chattering about car parts and engines. Between the two of them, Cooper had hit the jackpot. Dean had the most experience with antiques, but Tony could answer the questions Cooper had about the bells and whistles on the more modern cars.

Phil, though not as knowledgeable with cars, could hand over tools or hold lights with the best of them. The agent drank in the happy atmosphere, soaking it in like a sponge. Storing it away against future, rainier days. After all, who knew how Clint was going to react when he woke up and found out Phil was alive?


 

 

Thor shook his head. “I had thought, as he is this world’s version of my brother, that he would be cut of the same cloth as he. But it seems he is not cut from it in the same manner.”

Sam looked up from his book, following Thor’s gaze. Gabriel, Steve, and Bruce were sitting on the floor having a tea party with Lila and her dolls. Apparently for shits and giggles, the trickster had brought the stuffed animals to life. Steve the sock monkey was currently climbing his namesake like a cat in a christmas tree. Giddy the pony meanwhile had settled himself in Bruce’s lap and was doing his dead level best to steal Bruce’s cookies. It was bizarre watching bites of cookie disappear down the pony’s nonexistent throat. Lila was giggling and scolding her dolls. Gabriel presided over the whole mele with bright eyes and a wicked laugh, egging the dolls on to knew heights of shenanigans while the makeshift tea set gained sentience and started dancing and singing ‘Be Our Guest’.

Sam shook his head, using his finger to mark his place in the book. “From the same cloth, but not in the same way. How do you mean?”

A melancholy air surrounded the asgardian. “They are very similar. As I understand it, the second pantheon is supposed to be so. Built of the legends my people left behind, and the belief of the midgardians, how could they not be? And yet, as he pointed out, he was his own being before he became Loki. It is strange, how closely they match, and how widely they differ. The same love of mischief. But where my brother sought to trick or frighten, and later to control,  this Loki does not. He seeks instead to confuse, and to entertain. Where my brother could only create illusions, this Loki manipulates reality itself. And yet he does not abuse it, the way I fear my brother would.”

“Like you said, he was something else before he was Loki.” Sam murmured. “That’s gotta count for something.”

“Indeed.” Thor chuckled, watching the trickster scoop Lila up and tickle her ruthlessly. He pointed it out to Sam. “There is one other trait he and my brother share. They both posses a fondness for children. Little ones bring out a softness to their nature that remains dormant otherwise. The children never had to fear Loki’s tricks. He reserved them for those who picked on them ad belittled them because of their youth.”

Sam wrinkled his nose. “And yet your brother was going to let the chitauri destroy earth?”

“Aye. And that is my stumbling block. Loki possesses very little love for humanity, or authority. But to threaten children? It is alien to my brother’s character.”

Sam cocked his head. “The fact that they’re midgardian children wouldn’t have made a difference?”

“No!” Thor made a slicing gesture with his hand. “Race has never mattered to him before, save with those of the frost giants. Asgardians are raised to fear or hate them. They are regarded as monsters. But then there are his own children. Many would call them monsters. But they are his children nonetheless. I cannot believe that he’s fallen so far that the deaths of children at the chitauri’s hands would mean nothing to him.”

The hunter shrugged. “Sometimes people reach their breaking point. But if it’s that out of character, then sometimes it means you have to dig deeper. Start considering what could’ve made them act the way that they did. Look for evidence of coercion, blackmail, the supernatural. People don’t act out of character until something makes them do it. Find that something, and you find a way to reach them.”

Conversation apparently through, Sam returned to his book.

Thor sat back in his seat, watching Gabriel work his mischief with laughing honey-gold eyes. But in his head, he was thinking of another set of eyes.

Blue eyes beneath a gold helmet, haunted and broken.


 

 

“Uncle Steve! Look what we found!”

Steve put his sketchbook down, giving his full attention to the two excited children running his way. Lila had a doll under each arm. Cooper was brandishing a book above his head, eyes alight.

“What did you find?” Steve asked.

Cooper offered the book to Steve. “We were looking through the books for Castiel. Gabriel said he might get bored, and that some books might help. So we were looking through the shelves, and…”

“And we found a book about you!” Lila chimed.

Cooper slapped the book down on the table with a broad grin. It was old, the leather cover faded and scratched. But the comic book style image of Captain America was still distinct.

“So it is.” Steve agreed. He flipped open the cover. The usual illustrations of Captain America were there, just like he expected them to be. The comic book images, the promotional ‘I Want You’ posters. But there were photos too. Page after page of them. Pictures that he hadn’t even been aware still existed. Pictures of him on stage with the USO tours. Meeting important officials. Him overseas. Still shots from the documentary videos they shot of him and the howling commandos in the field. Places he’d been. People he’d met.

“Who’s that?” Lila stabbed her finger at a picture.

Steve felt a lump well up in his throat. There were two whole pages devoted to his best friend. “That’s… That’s Bucky.”

“Bucky?”

“Yeah.” Steve traced his fingers over the image. “His name was James Buchanan Barnes. But we all just called him Bucky. He was my best friend.”

Cooper cocked his head. “Was?”

Steve nodded. “Yeah. We were on a mission, and he died protecting me. Here.” He pointed to a picture of the mountain ravine that haunted his nightmares. A part of him wondered which of the howling commandos had led the photographer back up into those mountains, because that was the exact bend where Bucky had fallen. He shook the thought away. “At least, we thought he did. I found out a while back that he made it. He’s still alive. I just have to find him again.”

Lila rested her head against Steve’s arm, thoughtful gaze fixed on the picture. “Do you think you’ll ever find him?”

He gave her a one armed hug. “I hope so. I’m definitely gonna give it my best shot.”

They moved on through the rest of the pages, Steve telling them stories about Bucky, Peggy, and the Howling Commandos. About the people they’d met, and the places they’d seen.

Elsewhere in the bunker, an angel pondered what he had heard when the children had said his name.


 

 

Dean’s screams woke them in the middle of the night.

Steve raced into the living room, the rest of the Avengers at his back. Dean wasn’t in trouble. Not the kind that could be solved with force. The hunter had fallen asleep on the couch watching t.v. He was dreaming.

Sam slipped past them.

The younger hunter grabbed a throw pillow, then shook Dean’s shoulder. The reaction was immediate. Dean came awake with a shout. A knife appeared seemingly from nowhere. It sliced through the air, directly towards Sam’s face. Sam intercepted it with the sofa pillow.

Dean froze.

Wordlessly, he peeled his fingers off the handle. The knife stayed buried in the pillow. The heavy fabric and thick stuffing seemed to have done the trick. Sam hadn’t so much as flinched.

Dean slumped back on the couch. “Dammit Sam. I told you not to do that. One of these days…”

“Yeah, well it’s not today. Wanna tell me what you were dreaming about?”

Dean groaned and rubbed tired eyes. “Lollipops and candy canes. What else?”

“Yeah.” Sam patted his hip and gave him back the knife. “You coming to bed?”

A negative shake of the head was the only response. Sam picked up the blanket Dean had kicked off and gave it back to him. One last squeeze to the arm and a murmured ‘night Dean’, and Sam was silently shooing them out of the room. Sofa pillow still in hand.

Dean never even knew they were there.

“You’re hurt.” Steve whispered as soon as they were out of hearing range.

Sam glanced down at the shallow cut on his arm. “Yeah. Don’t worry, it’s just a scratch.”

Steve rolled his eyes. He herded Sam into the kitchen and fetched down the first aid kit from the top of the fridge. Sam obligingly let him clean the cut and cover it. He bore it all with a long suffering air. Humoring the mother henning worry wort.

He looked the dressing over when Steve was finished. “Satisfied?”

“For the moment.” Steve gathered the first aid supplies back into the kit. “If you have to wake him up, there are better shields to use than a pillow.”

“True, but then he worries.”

The captain made a helpless gesture. “ Sam ! He came out of a violent nightmare and nearly stabbed you! And all you had to defend yourself was a pillow ! He should be worried!”

The younger hunter shrugged and tossed the eviscerated pillow up onto the table. Now that he could see it clearly in the well lit kitchen, something immediately became apparent. If it hadn’t already been obvious that this wasn’t the first time this had happened, the state of the pillow would’ve confirmed it. Several carefully mended slices about the same size and shape testified to the pillow’s frequent use as a shield. The second thing that became apparent was that the pillow had been altered. Underneath the thick fabric was another layer, this one made of leather. The stuffing stuck up out of the second slice.

Sam looked the slice over, then pointed to the cupboard by the fridge. “Bottom shelf, left hand side. There’s a cardboard box with my name on it, could you hand it here?”

Steve retrieved the box and settled in to watch.

Sam shucked the fabric outer cover. From the box, he pulled handfuls of fiberfill stuffing and methodically shoved it through the knife slit. Packing it in. Making the pillow firmer. Once he was satisfied, he grabbed a heavy needle and thread and set to mending the pillow’s lacerations.

“The firmer the pillow, the harder it is for Dean’s knife to get through. I add more every time he stabs it. The fiber condenses when you use it, so there’s always room for more… I do take this seriously Steve. I do. I know I could get hurt. And I don’t particularly care. It’s just something I have to do. I have to wake him up.”

Steve toyed with the pillow case. “Can you at least tell me why?”

“Because I know what he’s probably dreaming about.”

Steve’s lips twisted wryly. “Lollipops and candy canes. Seems to run in the family.”

“Not really. It’s just us.” Sam shrugged, eyes carefully glued to the wounded pillow. “Normally we don’t get loud when we dream. We’re quiet. Barely move. Even when we were kids. But we could always tell when our brother had had a bad night. But we’d ask anyway. ‘What did you dream about?’ Knowing full well we dreamed about monsters. But the only answer we ever gave was ‘lollypops and candy canes’. Because Dad raised us tough. Winchesters are made of iron. We don’t get nightmares. We dream about lollipops and candy canes.”


 

Chapter Text


This wasn’t good.

Clint stared up at an unfamiliar ceiling through slitted eyes. Where the hell had the demon brought him now? And why was he in control again? What had Surtur done now that he wanted to rub in his face? Who else had he killed?

Something brushed his calf

Clint tensed.

A hand gripped his ankle.

So much for pretending to be asleep.

The archer scrambled upright and away from the touch, putting his back against the headboard. A stranger sat cross legged at the foot of the bed. Peter Pan , The Hobbit , and Freckles were all neatly stacked beside him, and he held what looked like some sort of Captain America memorabilia book open in his free hand. The tails of a  tan trench coat flared out across the bed behind him like some sort of cape. At least he’d been thoughtful enough to toe off his shoes before getting on the bed.

He stared at the man. At features that he felt he should know, but couldn’t place.

The man didn’t seem fazed. He closed the book and neatly set it aside with the others. “You’re free of the demon.” He commented, for all the world as if he were talking about the weather. “How do you feel?” He was careful to keep his face directed towards Clint, speaking clearly. He knew that Clint couldn’t hear him. That he was relying on his lips.

“Um… Ok?”

The stranger considered that. “Ok will do.”

“Listen, who are you? Why the hell should I trust you? For all I know you could be another trap Surtur and Barney set up!” Clint snarled.

The stranger arched an eyebrow. “Clint. If it were a trap, do you really think this is the room we’d choose?”

Clint glanced around. Ok, yeah, the guy made a pretty good point. The room had weapons mounted on the walls for christsakes. Several of them near the bed where they’d be in easy reach. If Clint were setting a trap, this would be the last room he’d choose. So either this guy was really really confident in his abilities, or he was on the level. Clint pulled his feet farther away from the stranger.

Just in case.

“So who are you then?”

The stranger smiled. Holding out his hand, he offered a battered little cardboard box that Clint recognized as the one he stored his spare aids in. “My name is Castiel. I’m a friend of Sam and Dean’s. You’re in their home. Surtur is gone, exorcised forever to hell. You are safe.”

The archer cautiously took the box.

His spare aids were inside, just like they should be. The outrageous purple color stood out like a sore thumb. So far as he could tell, the chunky BTE’s hadn’t been tampered with. He hurriedly slipped them on. The world of sound flooded back in, easing some of his worry. The soft hush of air through the vent, the rasp of fabric when they shifted position. All the little noises that a house made as it breathed.

“Castiel…” Clint repeated slowly. Memories were starting to crawl back into his head. Half remembered conversations with his brothers over the phone, and hearing a gravelly voice in the background. Of being tied to a chair, while Castiel stood guard. Of opening bleary eyes and finding Sam, Dean, Castiel, and a man who’s name he didn’t know staring down at him. “... where are my brothers?”

The angel, if he was who he said he was, held up a small cell phone. “On their way.”

The two waited in silence, Clint tense as one of his own bowstrings.

Finally, footsteps sounded out in the hall. Dean burst in, Sam hot on his heels. Their faces lit up when they saw Clint awake and sitting up. The archer slowly relaxed a little. They weren’t upset or surprised that Castiel was here. The angel had been on the level. He settled back against the headboard.

“Hey guys. Miss me?”

“Damn right we did.” Dean stomped over and jerked Clint into a bear hug. “Don’t you ever scare us like that again!” Clint felt Sam settle on the other side of the bed, his arms slipping around Clint from behind to form a group hug. Dean rested his chin on Clint’s head. “Soon as you’re up to it, first thing we do, I’m taking you to the nearest tat shop and putting some ink on your hide. I’m sick of you being possessed. Should’ve done it ages ago.”

Clint finally allowed himself to fully relax. They were here. He was safe, it was really over. He leaned against his adopted brothers and hugged them tight. “No argument here.” He mumbled into Dean’s shoulder. “Being possessed sucks… the bastard didn’t even drink coffee!”

“Heathen.” Dean joked while Sam giggled.

“You love me anyway.”

Dean ruffled his hair. “Someone has to.”

Speaking of people who loved him… Pain wrenched his heart at the memory of fire and blood slicked hands. Tears slipped down his cheeks and he broke down into sobs. He could hear Dean and Sam calling his name, hear the alarm in their voices as they realized something was wrong. Sam was anxiously rubbing his back, trying to comfort him. Dean was asking him to look at him. Begging him to talk to him. To tell him what was wrong.

“I killed them.” Clint finally sobbed into his shoulder.

Sam and Dean went deathly still.

Sam gripped his shoulder. “Who Clint?”

“They’re dead . Laura, the kids… Coop, Lila...little Nate...” Clint was shaking, clinging desperately to the only family he had that had stuck with him through thick and thin. “Oh God, I killed them! The blood… !”

Dean abruptly grabbed Clint by the hair and roughly jerked his head up. Blazing green eyes glared down at him. Clint couldn’t look away. He’d never seen Dean so furious before.

“Bull. Shit.” Dean stated, slow and distinct so that there could be no danger of Clint not understanding. “You didn’t kill anyone Clint. Surtur did. And that douchebag never once even set eyes on your family. They were here within an hour of us getting your message. They’re fine Clint. They’re safe . Matter of fact they’re just down the hall in the living room with the Avengers and Gabriel.”

The archer’s world tilted sideways.

They were alive? Laura, Cooper, Lila, Nathaniel… they were alive ? He hadn’t hurt them?! Time seemed to stand still as he tried to wrap his head around that information. He’d seen the blood, the fire, smelled the smoke, felt flesh tear under his fingers… He’d come back to himself covered in blood! And now to find out that his family was alive and unharmed? It didn’t compute. It wasn’t possible!

But Dean wouldn’t lie to him. Not about this.

His elder brother softened, loosening his grip on Clint’s hair. “They’re alive Clint. I promise. Cooper’s been helping me put an antique back together in the garage, Lila’s been having a tea party with anything that moves and several things that don’t. Nate still hasn’t said his first word, but he’s almost got that walking thing figured out. And Laura? Clint your wife is a god damn trooper and if anyone tries to argue differently I will punch their teeth in. That is one hell of a woman you hitched yourself to. You’ve got an awesome wife and amazing kids… and Sam and I couldn’t be prouder of you if we tried.”

“... the blood…”

Sam hugged him tighter from behind. “Surtur went to your place. When he couldn’t find your wife and kids he slaughtered the animals. Killed anything he could find in a mile radius. And he tore the farm apart. Cas said the barn and sheds looked ok for the most part, but the house is wrecked.”

Clint shook his head, dazed. “...so it was chicken blood? Not…?”

“Chicken, cat, goat, and whatever else Surtur could find.” Sam confirmed. “He never got close to your family.”

Clint’s head fell down to rest on Dean’s shoulder. “Thank God… I can’t thank you two enough. I owe you, shit I owe you everything.”

“That’s what family’s for.” Dean gave him a rough squeeze. “Now come on. I know a kickass woman and some rugrats who are dying to see you.”


 

 

A hand tapped Laura’s shoulder.

“Excuse me ma’am. Is this spot taken?”

For one second she froze to the spot, her book falling from numb fingers. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t… She whirled around in her seat. Clint was standing behind the couch, eyes shining and an infectious smile slowly growing on his face. Laura spun around to kneel on the couch and hug him for all she was worth. Her husband buried his face in her hair and hugged her back as best he could with a couch in between them.

“Thank god you’re alright.” He mumbled into her hair. “I thought…”

She shushed him, carding her fingers through his hair. “We’re fine. It’s you I’m worried about. You scared the living daylights out of me…”

Hunters and Avengers alike watched from a distance.

Natasha arched an eyebrow at Castiel. “I thought you were going to call me as soon as he woke up. I take it Gabriel taking Phil and the kids to the garage to play tag was you two conspiring to give Laura and Clint a moment to themselves?”

Castiel had the good grace to look at least a little repentant. “He woke suddenly, and immediately asked for his brothers. And yes, Gabriel and I thought they deserved a little time alone… It is just as well that I called Sam and Dean. Clint was under the impression that Surtur had made him kill his family.”

“But…” Tony looked between Castiel and the Winchesters. “You told him they were fine. While he was…”

“...while he was out of his body.” Dean finished. “When your’re in a coma, or dying, it’s possible to leave your body and wander around. Sometimes you remember. Most times you don’t. I never did, though I found ways to communicate with Sam while I was out. I don’t remember a thing. It’s not surprising he doesn’t remember.”

“Will he forget anything else?” Steve asked softly.

Sam shook his head. “No. But he’ll have gaps from the possession. Times where Surtur had pushed him down so far that he was basically deaf, blind, and dumb to the world. It’s almost like being unconscious, but you feel like something is very wrong. Other times you get flashes. Sights, smells, sounds. They go by in a blur, and most of the time you’re not sure what it was. But some demons will hold the soul of the host close to the surface when they’re being nasty. They make the host watch what they’re doing, to torment them. There’s no telling how much Clint will remember, or what he’ll remember. We just have to wait for the fallout and hope he never remembers the worst of it.”

“I can think of a few memories I hope he doesn’t get back.” Dean murmured.

Their minds flashing back to the bloodbath in the dungeon, the Avengers winced. They could understand Dean’s hope that Clint wouldn’t remember that.

Eventually, Clint pulled back from his wife.

He never really let go, just loosened his grip enough that he could climb over the back of the sofa to sit beside her. Laura obligingly leaned against his side, seeming to understand without asking that he was looking for reassurance that she was really here. He slipped an arm around her shoulders with a happy sigh. Only then did he pay any attention to the other people in the room.

“So… someone feel like filling me in?”

Heroes and hunters settled around him. They took turns filling him in on what had happened, switching from one storyteller to another as the story progressed. Then they got to Phil.

“Clint…” Sam hesitated, then bit the bullet. “You should know, Phil is alive.”

Clint went deathly still. His face paled, and it took him a minute to whisper a word, though he sounded like he was choking on it. “...what?”

Sam scrubbed a hand over his face. “Phil is alive. We don’t know all the specifics. But it’s him. Natasha checked him with an identity challenge, and Dean and I did a hunter's test to make sure he was human. He checks out Clint.”

For the second time in an hour, Clint’s whole world seemed to tip out from under him.

Dean rested his elbows on his knees. “To be fair, he was dead for three days. Not that that makes the radio silence any better… Apparently there was some sort of scrapped project in case an Avenger died. Fury used it on Phil, then wiped all his memories of it. Phil only thought he died for less than a minute. He’s got his memories back now, and I get the impression he sort of wishes he didn’t. Fury made him cut ties with pretty much anyone who didn’t have a high enough security clearance to know about him.”

“Project Tahiti.” Clint was going to ralph all over the carpet. “They used that monster on Phil? And he’s still fucking alive ?!” He gritted his teeth. “If I ever get my hands on Fury I’m going to punch his teeth in.”

Steve looked like he’d been sucker punched. “You knew about this… project?”

Clint grimaced. “Too much and not enough. I worked some of Phil’s security details. No one told me jack shit, but I’m not called Hawkeye for nothing. Tahiti patients volunteered for the project. They all went bonkers and died. If it’s Project Tahiti and Phil’s alive and sane then it’s a god damned miracle.”

“So…” Tony fiddled with the hem of his shirt. “You’re not mad at him? Because the way Dean went after him, we sort of thought you would be.”

Clint grimaced. “No, I am. I’m furious. But I know that Phil would have squeaked by by the skin of his teeth. By all rights he shouldn’t have made it. He and I are going to have a long talk, but after that I’m going to drop it. Life’s too short for this bullshit, and I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Dean’s lips twitched. He looked oddly proud of his brother.

Natasha folded her arms. “How long are you going to wait before you put him out of his misery? He and Gabriel are keeping Cooper and Lila busy in the garage with a game of tag.” A smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Phil hasn’t been able to put Nate down since he met him. Nate was born after Phil died.”

Laura rested her head on Clint’s shoulder, and he propped his chin on it. “We’ll see..” He sighed. “Besides, we might need his help. If the house is as wrecked as you say, we don’t really have anywhere to go…”

“Who says you have to go anywhere?” Sam sat up from his slouch and leaned forward eagerly. “We’ve got plenty of room here. And the kids already know which rooms are off limits to them. You and your family are welcome to stay until you can get back on your feet.”

Clint beamed. “You guys really mean that?” He looked eagerly to the older hunter. “Dean?”

Dean shrugged. “Coop and I still have a couple more days worth of work on the chevy in the garage. At least. Wouldn’t be fair to rip him out of here before he gets a chance to button her back up. And who would braid Samantha’s hair? You guys should definitely stay a little bit longer.”

“Alright. We’ll stay.” Clint laughed. The laugh turned into a yawn. Puzzled, he tried to hide it behind a hand.

“You will be drowsy for several days yet.” Castiel told him gently. “Your body has not slept since the demon entered it almost three weeks ago. Gabriel has wiped away what traces the demon left behind, but the exhaustion will remain. You will find yourself sleeping for long extended periods of time. Be sure to eat and drink while you are awake. Sam mentioned your proclivity for coffee, drink it if you must, but focus on water please. Caffeine will not help you stay awake longer, and will only dehydrate you. The exhaustion should only last a few days. After that you should feel relatively normal.”

“So in other words, the Amazing Hawk Eye is going to become the Amazing Sloth Guy for the next few days?” Tony summarized.

“Essentially.” Castiel agreed.

Clint groaned. “Wow, you know you’ve had a rough few weeks when Tony makes a horrible pun and you realize that you’ve missed listening to him shoot the shit.” He yawned and rubbed his eyes again. “Damnit. If I don’t get up and move around I’m going to keel over, and I at least want to see my kids before I conk out again. You said they were playing tag in the garage?”


 

 

Gabriel saw them first.

The archangel was perched on the hood of the red astin, dandling Nathaniel on his knee. The toddler was chewing on the ear of his teddybear. It was soggy as hell, but there wasn’t much chance of Nate doing any damage to it, so Gabriel let him be. Cooper and Lila gleefully hollered and shrieked at the other end of the garage as Phil chased them in and out of the parked cars.

He picked up Nate’s hand and made him wave at Clint.

“Hey buddy.” Clint cooed, propping a hip against the car. His son made a happy noise and dropped the teddy in favor of reaching for Daddy. Clint scooped him up, blowing a raspberry on the giggling toddler’s belly. “Damn I missed you little man.” He mumbled. The toddler responded by gleefully bopping his father on the forehead.

“Looks like the feeling’s mutual.” Gabriel snickered.

Clint’s face flushed with embarrassment. “Yeah. Hi. Um… sorry, I saw Nate and sort of got tunnel vision… my name’s Clint?”

Laura kissed Nate on the cheek. “You, don’t beat Daddy up. Clint, this is Castiel’s older brother Gabriel. Apparently he also works part time as a trickster god. He’s been helping with the hunt and instigating prank wars on the Avengers with our kids.”

“Prank wars huh? Did he and the kids win? And are there pictures?”

She held up her little digital camera. “There are, and some videos too. Now, give Nate back to Gabriel and call your kids.”

Clint brushed one more quick kiss to Nate’s temple and handed him back to his babysitter. Keenly aware that Laura was filming the reunion, the archer put two fingers in his mouth and loosed an earsplitting whistle. His kids skidded to a halt. Clint grinned and waved his arms. “Pick me! I wanna be it!”

“DADDY!”

Lila dropped her dolls and rocketed across the garage. She and her brother slammed into Clint hard enough to make him stumble back a few steps. The archer dropped to his knees. Laughing and crying, brother and sister burrowed into his chest. Clint wasn’t in much better shape.

Phil picked up Giddy and Steve the sock monkey.

For the first time in his life, Phil felt awkward in Clint’s presence. He didn’t know what to do. What did you say in a situation like this? What did you say to one of your closest friends after letting them think that you were dead for almost a year and a half? After they had grieved, and healed, and moved on without you because what else were they supposed to do? How did you apologize to them? What could you possibly say or do that would make it up to them for the pain you had caused? There were no words that could possibly undo all of that.

Nothing at all.

So he waited. He stood awkwardly by with a pony and a sock monkey draped over his arm and watched Clint reunite with his kids. The archer looked better. Tired, but better than he had before. His obnoxiously colored purple hearing aids stood out boldly against his hair. And for once his face was devoid of the bruises and scratches that he usually picked up on missions. Laura would more than likely try to wrangle in a family photo at some point, so rare was it that Clint didn’t have some sort of visible injury.

Dean caught his eye. ‘He knows’, the hunter mouthed.

They’d warned Clint. Phil felt a trickle of relief. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about startling Clint into pulling a weapon.

Lila finally pulled back. “Daddy! Daddy! Uncle Phil is alive! Momma said Mr. Fury made a mistake, Uncle Phil’s been alive this whole time! Look Daddy, see?” She pointed to Phil.

Clint looked up, brown eyes locking on the man he had thought he’d never see again. Phil hadn’t changed a bit. Well, no, that wasn’t entirely true. To the casual observer, he looked the same as ever. A bland tax accountant type. Not in the least bit threatening. But Clint had always been able to read him. There was a tightness to the set of the mouth, the edges of the eyes, that hadn’t been there before. A weight on his shoulders that he hadn’t carried before his death on the helicarrier. The past year and a half hadn’t been kind to the soft spoken agent. Clint had never considered seriously injuring a commanding officer before, but that was changing rapidly.

He wanted to push Fury off the roof of the Empire State Building.

The archer stood, Lila perched on his hip and Cooper wrapped around his free side like a clingy octopus. “Phil.” He greeted.

He saw some of the tension drain out of his friend. Had he called Phil by his last name, it would’ve been over. Phil would’ve gracefully bowed out, and he never would’ve darkened Clint’s doorstep again. By calling him by his first name, Clint was showing that Phil hadn’t lost his friendship. Not yet. He hadn’t entirely alienated Clint.

“Lila honey, why don’t you grab your dolls and you and Coop go with Mom and the Avengers. I need to have a talk with Uncle Phil alone, ok?”

The kids were clearly reluctant to let go of their dad, but did as they were told. Lila quickly reclaimed her stuffed animals, thanking Phil with a hug. Everyone trooped out of the garage, leaved the two agents alone.

The silence weighed heavy on their shoulders.

Phil broke first. “Clint… I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you and Nat. But by the time I was in a position to do it, it had been months since I’d died. You two were finally moving on. I… I didn’t want to hurt you anymore. It was the wrong choice. I know that now. I wish to God that I’d known it back then. That I could take it back. But I can’t. And all I can do is… Is say how sorry I am. And hope that you’ll be able to forgive me someday. I’m sorry Clint. I’m sorry I hurt you, and your family. That was the last thing I ever wanted.”

Clint studied him grimly.

Phil fidgeted under the intense scrutiny.

At last, Clint spoke. “Tahiti?”

Phil flinched as if Clint had punched him in the gut. “...yes.”

“Did you agree to the procedure?”

“No! God no!” Phil shuddered. “I shut that program down for a reason. Fury should’ve never dragged it back out of the mothballs. He almost got me and my team killed!”

“Your head?” Clint checked.

Phil deflated. “... stable. Fury wiped my entire memory of the six months it took to complete treatment and get me back on my feet. It staved off the insanity. I’ve gotten some of the memories back, and I developed the hypergraphia we saw in some of the patients. One of my agents was exposed to it, but she hasn’t shown any symptoms at all. Somehow, we dodged the bullet… I never would’ve let the Winchester’s bring me here if I thought I was a danger to the kids. The two scientists on my team are two of the brightest minds ever to come out of our science division, and they can’t find any trace of the project in my system. So far as we can tell, I’m in the clear.”

“If you ever do this again, you won’t get a second chance.” Clint told him grimly. “... I accept your apology. I hope you handed Fury his ass.”

“I had a loud and lengthy discussion over the ethics of putting me through six months of hell.” Phil admitted.

Clint shook his head. “Not good enough. Nat and I’ll track him down.”

“Clint…”

No Phil. He put us through hell too by not telling us. We’re hunting him down and having a discussion of our own. And you’re not gonna warn him we’re coming either.”

The senior agent groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. But don’t do anything drastic, alright? Methods aside, I am grateful to be alive. A lot of people would be dead right now if it wasn’t for the team Fury gave me.”

Clint grinned. “Drastic? Me? When have I ever…?”

Phil opened his mouth.

“Don’t answer that!”


 

 

Clint barely made it through dinner.

The exhaustion was manageable at first, but by the time Laura broke out the cookies he was struggling. The archer felt half dead. It was a level of exhaustion heretofore only achieved at the tale ends of extremely rough missions. He hadn’t thought it was possible to get to that point any other way.

A hand kept his head from dropping into his mostly empty plate.

“Whoa! Easy there Barton! Laura’s cooking is good but not to the point that you should skip the silverware!” Tony patted his back, concern in his eyes. “Maybe it’s time you hit the hay?”

Almost too tired to think, Clint gave a dazed nod.

He stumbled to his feet, and Natasha guided Clint out of the kitchen and away to the ‘Barton bedroom’. They’d only put him in Dean’s room before to keep anyone from disturbing him. Now that he’d woken up for the first time, he wanted to be surrounded by his family. For their part, they wanted to be as close to him as they could get too.

Laura glanced at the clock.

It was late. Clint had had so many more questions about what had happened while he’d been held captive. His friends and family were happy to share the basic gist of the run of events. After all, little ears were present. Mostly, they focused on the prank war. It was safe neutral territory. But, it had allowed dinner to run late.

Very late.

Laura clapped her hands for her kids’ attention. “Alright. It’s bedtime: show me your best impersonations of Auntie Nat being sneaky and go put your pajamas on. We don’t want to wake Daddy. Auntie Nat will tell me who’s the best, and winner gets to pick the first cartoon tomorrow.”

Lila giggled and quickly blew goodnight kisses to the rest of the adults. Cooper set off like a man on a mission. Laura followed with Lila and Nate a few minutes later. As soon as they were gone, Dean leaned forward and put his elbows on the table.

“So… I have a question…”

Thor tilted his head. “You have only to ask Dean. We will not lead you astray.”

“No, I don’t doubt it… How good are you guys at building?”

A smile crept onto Steve’s face. He had an inkling of where this was going. “What sort of things did you have in mind?”

“Well…”

“You want to rebuild Clint’s house.” It wasn’t a question. Tony looked positively gleeful. “You want to fix what that demon did, and you want our help to do it. Am I right? Because if that’s what you’re asking I am definitely in!”

Dean shrugged. “I at least wanted to clean it up. From what you guys and Cas said, it looks like a slaughter house over there. The last thing Clint needs is to go back to that house and pick up pieces of the animals he ripped apart with his bare hands.”

That was a sobering thought.

“Yeah, no, fuck that! I’m definitely in.” There was a steely glint in Tony’s eye, highlighting the determination. “But if we’re going to do this, why not go all out? Clint is a normal guy on a team of superheroes. He works harder than most of us, and not once does he legitly complain. And his family? This family definitely deserves everything we can give it.”

The others were nodding agreement.

Sam grabbed a pad of paper and a pen out of a drawer. “Alright. Then let’s figure out what needs to be done, and what we want to do and go from there. So, first things first. Needs?”

“Cleanup.” Dean said flatly.

Sam jotted it down. “What else?”

“Well…” Bruce drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “We need to salvage anything that’s still worth saving. After that we need to tear out anything that we’ll need to replace. There was a lot of fire damage to the walls, floors, and ceilings. Being exposed to the elements probably hasn’t helped matters any.”

“Salvage. Gutting the house.” Sam muttered.

“We’re gonna need to rebuild the section that collapsed.” Steve put in helpfully.

Sam added it. He flipped to a new page. “Alright, that’s enough to start. We’ll probably find or think of other things along the way that need to be done to make the house livable again. But in the meantime…” He smirked. “What do we want to do for the Barton clan?”

Answering smiles on their faces, the team leaned in.

When Natasha came back from putting Clint to bed, and subsequently judging the ‘sneak like Auntie Nat’ contest, that was how she found them. Brainstorming ways to take care of their favorite bird and his family in the best way they knew how. She slipped into the discussion with the very same sneaky powers Laura had mentioned, scaring the daylights out of Tony just because she could.

They were already on their third page.


 

 

“You’re sure he won’t wake up while we’re gone?”

Gabriel rolled his eyes at the question. “Yes Sam, for the hundredth time, I’m sure that Clint won’t wake up till later this evening. I made sure of it. And before you start griping about underhanded methods, you and I both know the extra sleep won’t hurt him. Now will you calm down and put your other shoe on?”

The hunter blushed and hurriedly shoved his foot into a boot.

The rest of the Avengers smiled in amusement. They had all gathered in the library at the foot of the stairs after breakfast. Ready to depart. Clint had gone back to sleep, unaware of the day’s plans. Castiel was remaining at the bunker to watch over the archer.

Gabriel would be escorting the rest of the Barton clan for a day out. Now that the threat of Surtur was gone, there was nothing to keep them here. Besides, they’d handled being cooped up indoors for days remarkably well, all things considered. They deserved a day out.

“We’re ready when you are Gabriel.” Steve asserted.

“Have a nice trip!” Gabriel waved and snapped his fingers. The Avengers and the two hunters disappeared. All but one. Gabriel offered his arm to Natasha. “Shall we my lady?”

Natasha allowed a little amusement to peek through, laying her hand on his arm.

Gabriel beamed. “Awesome! Let’s go brave the masses at the beach! I’m feeling like ice cream!”

The assassin rolled her eyes. “We’d better hurry before the Barton clan comes back out and realize no one’s here.”


 

 

The house was a shambles.

“It looks even worse in the daylight.” Steve murmured.

Phil shook his head, the duffel he’d been asked to carry slipping from nerveless fingers. Dean and Sam looked just as shocked. The pristine farmhouse they had visited almost two weeks ago was no more. In its place was a horror that more closely resembled the fake haunted houses that showed up around halloween every year for the amusement of the masses.

Dried blood, brown and crackling, was smeared everywhere. The corpses of the dead animals had been dragged out by the local wildlife and consumed or shredded. The poor goat that had fought so valiantly now lay bloated and rotting just inside the door of the barn. The house itself had continued to collapse. Barely half of the ground floor remained standing, and the second floor had completely given way. They could see some furniture standing up there, but not much else. Branches and other debris was strewn around the yard with the corpses and charred remnants of the Barton clan’s earthly possessions.

Tony looked up from his phone. “Friday says they had a bad storm come through here a few days ago. The structure was already compromised, it wouldn’t have taken much wind to knock it down. Guess we should be grateful anything’s left standing.”

“No kidding.” Dean scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Damn. I knew it was gonna be bad… I don’t even know where to start .”

“That’s why we’ve got the ‘star spangled man with a plan’ on our team. Take it away Cap!” Tony pointed at Steve in a ‘Vanna’ pose.

The captain snorted. But he was already eyeing the house and grounds like a battlefield. “Alright. Here’s what we’re going to do…” He delineated tasks to the Winchesters and his remaining Avengers. He was just finishing when the rumble of a powerful engine began to sound in the distance.

Out of the clouds dropped an aircraft, headed straight for the farm.

Sam shaded his eyes. “A quinjet? What’s one of those doing here?”

Tony smirked as the jet landed and disembarked Vision, Wanda, and the other Sam. “Reinforcements.” His suit walked down the ramp after them, and the smirk got wider. “And equipment! Now we’re ready to rock and roll! Friday! Give us some music we can work to!”

The quinjet’s speakers began to blare Back In Black .

Dean whooped.

Sam Winchester groaned. “Oh god, now there’s two of them.”

“Well, you know what they say about payback!” Tony hollered and stepped into his suit.


 

 

“Thanks Rick, I appreciate this.”

The tattoo artist shook Dean’s hand with a shrug. “It’s no skin off of my nose. If it weren’t for a hunter my son wouldn't have made it out of grade school. If I can help a hunter out now and again I’m happy to do it. You folks don’t usually have much call for a hunter friendly artist.”

“I’m still paying you for it.” Dean slapped a wad of bills down on the counter.

The artist huffed and accepted the money. Looking over at the bench, a bewildered look crossed his face. Clint was still sprawled out across the bench, shirt rucked up and waistband pulled low over one hip. A white gauze pad was taped down just inside the edge of his hip bone. Covering a fresh new tattoo.

Rick shook his head. “I will say this for your brother, he’s got the highest pain tolerance I’ve ever seen. I’ve had fellas come in, an’ they don’t bat an eyelash at anything. Even when I’m working over bone and I know it’s gotta hurt like hell. But your brother is the first customer I’ve ever had that fell asleep mid session!”

Dean smiled fondly at the slumbering archer. “Yeah, well, he’s had a rough time of it the past few weeks. He ready to go?”

“Yeah, I’m done with him. You make sure he takes care of that tattoo! Seein’ as how this is his first it’d be real easy for him to forget.”

Dean tossed the man a playful salute and went back to Clint. Over the past two  days, he’d learned from experience that once Clint was down he wasn’t coming back until he was damn well ready to. So the hunter didn’t bother trying to wake him up. He settled the waist of his pants back where they belonged and pulled Clint’s shirt back down. Sitting the comatose Avenger up, Dean put him across his shoulders, mindful of the fresh tattoo. One more playful salute to the artist and owner of the little shop, and he trotted out the door. The car was parked only a block away, they’d be fine.

He didn’t make it.

“And where would you be going with that young man?”

A police officer had climbed out of his cruiser and was blocking Dean’s path. For the first time, Dean thought about how bad this had to look. Trying to lessen the damage, he flashed the officer an embarrassed smile.

“Ok, I’ll admit this looks bad.”

“You don’t say?”

Dean shifted Clint on his shoulders. “This is my brother Clint. He’s a narcoleptic. Passes out at the drop of a hat. He wanted to get a tattoo, so I went with him, just in case. You can check his wrist, he’s wearing one of those medical warning bracelets. Or you could ask Rick, he just finished Clint’s tat about ten minutes ago. Startled the shit out of him when Clint fell asleep mid tattoo.”

The officer still looked suspicious. “Which wrist?”

Dean nodded to the correct one, sending silent thanks to Bruce for pointing out that Clint might need an excuse for falling asleep at random. The doctor had suggested narcolepsy, and Gabriel had happily provided the bracelet.

Dean had to suppress a laugh. Clint and Tony both owed him twenty bucks. They’d insisted that the bracelet and fake narcolepsy wasn’t necessary.

The officer checked the bracelet.

The tension eased a little. He flashed a thumbs up at his partner in the car. “Stay here with them, I’m going to go talk to the owner. Just to be sure.”

Dean groaned and shifted Clint on his shoulders again as he watched the officer walk away. “You owe me dinner after this Clint.” He huffed. “You weigh a fucking ton! What in the hell have you been eating, lead?”

Still sitting in the car, the other officer snickered.


 

 

Laura caught Steve’s arm.

The soldier paused, concerned. “Laura?”

She folded her arms. “Is there some reason why Gabriel and Natasha have been bound and determined to get us out of the house every day? I get the impression something’s going on…”

“... It’s nothing bad.” Steve admitted. “It’s just a surprise...Ok?”

Laura huffed. “Fine. Come on, you can read a story to the kids.”

“Yes ma’am.” Steve snapped her a salute and dashed away when she playfully growled and tried to swat him.


 

 

Clint couldn’t believe his eyes.

He’d known that something was up. His sleeping pattern had generally consisted of sleeping the whole night, waking up for about an hour for breakfast and the necessities and falling back asleep again until around six in the evening, when he’d stay awake for about three more hours before going comatose again. It was like clockwork. And he was pretty sure the two angels had something to do with it.

On top of that, he’d known that he was missing something while he slept. His kids told him about the places they’d gone that day, and the things they’d done. Usually with Laura, Auntie Nat, and Gabriel. They never mentioned Dean, Sam, Phil, or the Avengers. And hunters and Avengers always looked tired but satisfied. They were putting a lot of effort into something during the day. He just didn’t know what. He should’ve suspected.

But he hadn’t.

He’d woken up, to find himself  alone in an empty bunker with Castiel. The angel had told him the other Avengers were waiting for him, and that they had something to show him. A quick flight had landed them here. His house was in the process of one hell of a makeover. Half the ground floor had been stripped down to the studs, and the entire upper story was nothing but a floor and framework.

And there were Avengers crawling all over it, inside and out!

He watched in stunned amazement as Wanda lifted boards in waves of ruby red up to the second floor. As Vision flitted through walls, helping Tony install the wiring, switches, and sockets. Steve and Thor were tag teaming to move sections of wall into place. The two Sams took over from them to secure them. And on the ground, working on saw horses outside the barn, Dean and Phil were measuring, cutting, and assembling the wall pieces.

Hulk picked up a finished segment without any apparent effort. He carried it over to the house and passed it up to Steve and Thor one handed. Spotting Clint from the corner of his eye, the jade giant bared his teeth in a welcoming grin and waved before returning to the barn.

Castiel laid a hand on Clint’s shoulder. “It was badly damaged when Surtur attacked, and a severe storm tore down even more. What could be saved has been stored in the barn. Everything else was cleared away. Now it is just a matter of repairing what was broken. They have come here each day since you awoke.”

Clint wiped at suspiciously teary eyes.

It was overwhelming. They’d already gone through so much to get him back from Surtur. All the hassle the team had been through, Dean entering into a demon deal. The two hunters were still housing six of the Avengers, plus Phil and the Barton clan! That was an additional eleven people to look after for crying out loud! And he wasn’t counting the angels! Natasha had run herself ragged trying to find Dean, and he’d felt bad for not being with it enough to tell her how to find Dean. The Avengers had had to fight Surtur, Barney, and a veritable hoard of demons on multiple occasions. They should’ve been done with helping Clint!

And yet here they were, helping him rebuild.

He’d truly lucked out in finding this amazing family.

Tony spotted Clint. He handed the work off to Viz and came trotting out, Stark Padd in hand. “Hey bird brain! Glad to see you finally kicked the Sleeping Beauty routine! Well? What do you think?”

Clint shook his head, genuinely at a loss for words.

Tony seemed to understand. He pushed the padd into Clint’s hands and tapped the screen. Blueprints popped up. And, as it was Tony, they stood up from the padd in a holographic 3D replica of the house. The genius sent the little model spinning with a flick. “So, the idea was to just put it back together the way it was, but… well, we were thinking. You’ve been talking about adding on, and there couldn’t be a better time to do it than while we’ve got the house down to the studs anyway…”

Clint’s jaw dropped. “Tony, I can barely afford what you guys are doing , let alone…”

Tony waved away his protests impatiently. “Who said we’re letting you pay for any of it? That’s one of the perks of being friends with a billionaire! We want to do something nice for you and your family. So we’re donating time, money, and effort. Donating being the key word, it means gift. You don’t pay for a gift last I checked, unless you’re the one giving it. That would suck if you had to buy all of your birthday gifts…”

“Tony.”

“Right. Anyway.” The genius pointed at the blue print. “We’re already here and working, and someone’s gonna have to make a run for more lumber sometime tomorrow. So, if you want to add on, we need to figure out what’s going up, how much material we need and so forth.” His voice took on a coaxing tone. “Come on Clint! You get to build the house the way you want to! No holds barred! Go nuts!”

Clint looked down at the blueprints again.

At his side, Castiel smiled. “You’re family is only going to grow…”

Thinking of the Avengers newest additions, and how cramped they’d been the last time they’d stayed out at the farm during the Ultron incident, Clint couldn’t help but agree. Castiel was right, odds were good that the Avengers were going to keep recruiting. And at some point said Avengers were probably going to end up at the farm again. Now that they’d met the kids and become honorary aunts and uncles, he was pretty sure he’d have to beat them off with a stick to keep them away.

Excitement curling in his chest, he and Tony wandered up to what remained of the porch to plan.

Castiel watched them go with an amused, secretive smile, whispering under his breath in enochian.

Miles away, Gabriel dissolved into peals of laughter in the middle of the street. Laura, Natasha, and the kids couldn’t fathom what on earth Gabriel thought was so damn funny.


 

 

Clint was certain no house had ever gone up this fast.

Or had so many celebrities working on it! He threw himself into the building and renovations with a will. Projects that would’ve taken a normal crew days to complete took one day, or even just a matter of hours, to complete with his team’s abilities.

The basement had been extended underneath the addition. Hulk dug it out in less than two hours. They spent more time waiting for the cement to dry. The wiring was installed in the part of the house that was still standing in less than twenty-four hours thanks to Vision working tirelessly through the night. Clint found out later that they’d just ripped everything out and replaced it with all new wire. Wanda could lay flooring, shingles, or drywall quickly and precisely with just a thought and a flick of her hand. Each piece fit seamlessly into the next. Multiple teammates had super strength, and it negated their need for machinery.

Even the inspections were a breeze, seeing as how Tony was already certified. He’d become certified after becoming frustrated with the inspectors several years prior when he’d been adding onto his own home in malibu. After the fifth one had stared at him like he was insane for wanting to put ‘x’ machine in ‘y’ wall and ‘z’ floor, he’d given up. He’d kicked the man out, installed everything without approval, and was enrolled in the online courses the next day.

Now he breezed through the house with the iron man suit stumping along behind him double checking.

More materials were flown in each day. Half of the time Clint didn’t even know what was being brought in. He did, however, know that Pepper was okaying each order. She wouldn’t let Tony order out anything too outlandish for Clint’s farmhouse. Looking at the blueprint he and Tony had hashed out, Clint shook his head. His farmhouse was going to be half again as big as it had been. The addition was as big as the original house had been. For his own amusement, the archer had put the addition on the back of the house. From the front, and from the road if anyone swung by this far out, the house would look the same as it always had. He was far enough back from the main road that they would have a hard time telling that the house had gotten bigger.

As the addition flew up, some of his teammates turned their attention to the outbuildings.

“Hey Clint! What’s with all the boxes of windows back here in the storage room?”

Clint nearly dropped his hammer at Tony’s question. “Are they broken?”

Dean shook his head. “No. Why didn’t you say anything? We could’ve used them on the house.”

Clint shook his head and started laughing. “No, guys, you don’t understand.” He set his tools aside and turned to face the confused genius and hunter. “Back when we first moved into this house, Laura and I talked about what we wanted to do to turn it into our dream home. And Laura mentioned that she had always wanted a solarium. Just someplace where she could sit and read. Where she could look up at the stars at night without getting eaten alive by mosquitos, or put her plants during the winter. It was something she really wanted. But it’s expensive, and she’d never ask for it when there was so much else that needed to be done. The house was a bit of a fixer upper.” He shrugged. “Then Cooper came along, and we needed a nursery and diapers and all the other stuff babies need. Three kids later, the house has been fixed up and toys and dolls have taken it over. And I realized she didn’t really have a place that was just her space. I have my archery range behind the barn, and a woodshop in the shed. But she doesn’t have anything like that. I’m pretty sure there’s even a toy or two in our bedroom! And I know they’ll probably migrate into any other space in the house eventually, but it’d hopefully take a little while at least. So I started saving up. Bought the materials. Hid them in the barn while she made a grocery run. I was going to show her on her birthday, and take a vacation to put it up. I can’t believe the windows aren’t broken!”

“When’s her birthday?”

A grin slowly crawled up Clint’s face. “Fourth of next month…

An answering grin lit up Dean’s face. “I can take over for you here. Steve’s out in the barn. You and Tony go grab him and figure out where you want to attach it to the house. If we’re going to have this done and ready for your family to move in by the fourth we’ve gotta shag ass! That’s only two weeks away!”

His brother and the genius trotted toward the barn.

Dean leaned around the corner.  “Phil! I need an extra set of hands  over here if you’ve got a minute. We’re getting this section of the porch done today .”

Phil set down his box and came to help. “What’s the rush?”

“Laura’s birthday is in two weeks.”

Phil gave the unfinished wraparound deck a considering look. “You know… if we grab Thor we could probably finish the next segment too…”


 

 

Laura leaned on the railing with a smile.

Her kids played out in the surf, the sun overhead turning the Atlantic an absolutely beautiful shade. Cooper and Lila were diving in and out of the waves with goggles and mesh bags, collecting shells, sea glass, and interesting rocks. Natasha was at the water’s edge, both keeping an eagle eye on her god children and playing with Nate where he sat at the water’s edge with a brightly colored plastic bucket and a few other toys. The assassin suddenly snaked out an arm and caught one of the sand toys before it could escape to sea.

Clint would’ve loved it.

Gabriel settled himself on the railing beside her. His honey gold eyes crinkled at the corners as he watched her family play. He had what looked like an earthenware bowl balanced in one hand. “So… I take it you haven’t told him yet?”

Laura drooped. “No. I don’t know what he and the others are doing all day, but they’re all exhausted by the time we get back to the bunker. He has