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06 December 2012 @ 08:07 pm
Holding the Light - Chapter Four  

Chapter Four

Phil watched as Barton and Reese sparred. He could see Natasha's influence already making Reese faster and more fluid. Barton was skilled too with more recent practice, and even so it was a pretty even match.

She stood beside him as they watched through the window, nodding in approval at an occasional move.

"They get along," Phil said. "I thought they might. Or hate each other because they have such similar skills."

"We'll see if it holds when they battle for real at the range. One of them is going to have to lose, and if it's Barton, he'll pout for days."

"Not Reese?"

"No. He thinks of it as a tool, where Clint's is a part of him."

Coulson wondered if that was because Reese hadn't been born with it. To him, it was an outside power that gave him the ability that he didn't want, since it was destructive and lethal and John didn't enjoy it. Whereas it had been a part of Clint since birth, and it was part of who he thought himself to be.

She added, "I told John you were going to sell tickets so he'd have to up his game."

"That's a good idea. Very motivational."

"And money-making."

"There will be no betting on the Helicarrier," he retorted, primly. "Boss wouldn't approve."

"What he doesn't know…"

He gave her a look, that suggested Fury knew everything they all did, every day, including what color underwear they had on. Phil wouldn't put it past Fury, some days.

Natasha's lips twitched in amusement. "You know exactly how to ruin everyone's fun."

Within, John slammed the heel of his hand right beneath Clint's ribs and he folded over with an audible oof, even outside the room, but instead of following up on his advantage, John stepped back. Phil was pretty sure that was because his next move would have been a seriously incapacitating one, especially when Natasha darted to the door when she saw the hit land.

"Barton?" John asked. "I thought you were going to block it."

Clint shook his head and straightened, looking rueful, and his voice was a little breathless. "Damn, you hit hard when you want to. Nice move, though."

"That's enough," Natasha declared. "You two are going to kill each other by accident." Not that either of them were truly likely to do that, but stupid things happened when they were tired.

Phil watched as his three pet assassins wandered away toward the showers, trading barbs as if all three had known each other for years, and he smiled to himself. It was working pretty well.

It was almost a shame that he had an assignment for John, but it needed to happen.

The message from Coulson came to him after he'd changed clothes and was heading for the firing range, and John left to find Coulson's office.

"I have a job for you," Coulson sat down in front of him. "Nothing strenuous, but we need some oversight. Have you heard of Captain America?"

John gave him a look. "I was in the Army, Coulson. Of course I have."

"And you grew up in a place with someone obsessed with him," Coulson said, and John froze, not expecting the reminder.

"Fury should never have told you." John snagged the folder. "So, some asshole tried it again?"

"Not exactly."

John flipped open the cover to be confronted with a photo he'd seen before. It was a copy of an old one from the Forties of a man in a spangled outfit: Captain America. Practically every Army base had this photo or one like it posted as a good luck charm, memorial, whatever. It was tradition.

But beneath that well-known image there was another color photo of what looked like the same man, his eyes closed, stark pallor above the dark blue suit. It was too clear and colorful to be an old photo.

He lifted his eyes to Coulson, in surprise.

Coulson nodded. "The original one's alive. They dug Captain Steve Rogers out of the ice two weeks ago, and he's alive. It's really amazing. He woke up four days ago, sprang himself out of our facility in New York, and nearly got himself killed in Times Square. He's … confused. He missed sixty years."

"That's… incredible," John murmured. Captain America was alive, and had slept through the last six decades. Somehow it was even more amazing than finding out there were people from other worlds who'd visited Earth. The second he had sort of expected someday, but who the hell could've expected Captain Rogers to come back from the dead?

Then John was struck by the idea that Steve Rogers might have walked right past him on the street in New York. Strange. He tapped the folder. "So what do you want me to do?"

"Director Fury wants you to babysit," Coulson answered, with a refreshing lack of bullshit. "Don't let him do anything stupid. Get him to talk if you can."

"Sounds like he needs a shrink."

"He has one or two. But he could use someone who has some idea of where he's coming from. You're the closest I've got. And you can work an asset."

"Is that what he is?" John asked. "An asset?"

"Hell, no, he's a goddamn national treasure," Coulson snapped with sudden intensity. "A hero and now a living legend, so don't screw it up."

John raised his brows, and Coulson cleared his throat and shuffled the papers unnecessarily. "I, uh, studied him in school," he explained. "I never thought he would turn up."

"Maybe you should go talk to him," John teased. "If you're such a fan."

"That's not necessary," Coulson retorted a bit stiffly, and John hid a smile. It was always a good thing to have something on the boss. "Just see what you can do to help him out and get adjusted."

"I'll do my best," John promised. Thinking that whatever else he was, Rogers was probably really sick of people treating him like a living legend.

Later on, Natasha met him in the mess, slipping into the chair next to him. "I hear you're going to visit Captain America."

"Nice to know the base gossip machine works."

She ignored his mutter. "I read the file. He has greatly increased strength, stamina, resistance to pain--"

He interrupted, "I'm not going to fight him."

"You may not intend to fight him, but sometimes it happens. If you get into a fight, shoot him. He's not bullet-proof and it'll slow him down."

He eyed her and peeled his banana. "I'm not going to shoot Captain America. Coulson would kill me."

"He might try. You can take him." She said it as a flat statement of fact, and her face held only seriousness, as if she didn't get that he'd been joking.

But there was a glint of humor in her eyes, so he didn't buy it. He smiled a little, returning, "But then I'd get in trouble with Fury, and I like my current name."

She shook her head and rolled her eyes with more open amusement. "No wonder you and Phil get along. You both think you're funny."

"We are. Nobody else gets it, though."

"You're not back all the way," she advised. "You want to spar once more before you go?"

"More ass-kicking?" He gave a plaintive sigh and won a quick flick of her lips in a smile.

She rose from the table, lithe as a viper. "That is entirely up to you."

That was a lie. As she'd said, he wasn't back to form yet but he got a little closer this time. She was too well-trained against the usual military and Krav Maga style he generally used, so he found himself reaching back into his childhood training more to mix it up.

It felt a little … surreal. As if he wasn't quite present. That his body was fighting but his mind was back there, and then abruptly, he just … stopped.

Natasha pulled her counter-strike, realizing something was wrong. She frowned. "John?"

He glanced down at his hand, remembering so clearly that moment when he had struck out.

His hand punched forward and Jimmy's neck went back with an audible crack. Jimmy kept falling backwards, slamming onto the thin mat. He lay utterly still, and in the sudden silence of the practice room, John heard and saw no breath, and the blank eyes didn't blink.

Essex applauded. "Nicely done, John." He put a hand on John's shoulder. "Jimmy was careless and he paid the price. Let this be a lesson to you all, boys. You must be strong, or you will die."

John blinked away the darkness and looked up at Natasha. "I … remember. I was back there. A kid. One of the other boys - I killed him. In training. He was trying to make another supersoldier, and made…" his voice faded to a whisper, "… me."

Her eyes held no horror, no judgment, only dawning understanding. "It was part of my training as well. Train children to kill children, so other people's lives become meaningless. Only survival."

He nodded, understanding, but still shocked. "What else don't I remember?" he whispered. "I thought I knew what happened in that place."

"They made us monsters," Natasha murmured. "But you escaped, John. You made it out."

He knew she hadn't escaped, and it made him terribly sad and upset on her behalf. But escaping hadn't made much of a difference - he knew all the other kids had died anyway and he'd ended up in the same pitch-black evil he'd tried to run away from - killing and torturing the innocent and guilty alike. He shook his head. "No, in a way, I don't think I ever really did."

"You did." She put her hand flat on his chest and looked into his eyes. "They could not crush this, John. All these people that try to use us and make us into weapons to kill, you're stronger than they are. You are better." He laid his hand over hers, but couldn't speak. But after a moment he drew in a breath and nodded slowly.

Then he smiled and squeezed her hand. "If it's true for me, it must be for you, too."

She shook her head and pulled free. "No, I'm a weapon."

He shook his head. "No. You're so much more than that, Natasha. Or you wouldn't have crossed that line to go with Barton."

"I know what I am, what they made me. Not like you -" she smiled a little sadly. "I know about the boy in Peru. You got into this mess because you want to protect people. You protected even me, because I reminded you of them. But I - I burned a hospital," she confessed, in a whisper. "So I could escape."

He seized her hands and she let him - her fingers were limp and cold in his. "If it hurts, you're not lost. Or, maybe we're both damned," he murmured. "But you told me we can still try. I believed you."

"Because you're a fool," she retorted harshly, turning away.

"Probably. But if you're lost, so am I. My ledger's full of the blood of innocents, too."

"John…" she protested.

"You see only the good in me, and only the evil in yourself." He reached out and gently coaxed her chin toward him. "But we're the same."

She raised her eyes to his, with slow reluctance, as if she knew he was right but she didn't want to admit it.

The sight of her beautiful face torn by doubt hit him like a visceral punch. He wanted to touch her skin and to kiss her lips, make that doubt go away, and it was hard to push it down. He was a little glad that he was getting off the carrier, after all.

She nodded a little, and he hoped she believed him. He continued, trying for a little levity from this deeply personal discussion, "Anyway, I think babysitting Captain America is a good thing, especially if I don't shoot him."

Her lips flickered in a smile. "You could throw a knife. Don't let him into close-quarters, or it's over."

He had to chuckle and teased, "Yes, mom. I'll be fine. I'll see you soon."

Raising a hand in farewell, he stepped away from her and left the room.

Chapter Five