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07 December 2012 @ 11:04 am
Holding the Light - Chapter Nine  

The next time it happened however was the very unsexy crash of his breakfast tray all over the floor. The metal tray, utensils, bowl and cup all fell to the floor in a loud, startling cacophony.

That for an instant afterward, he saw the outlines of the chair and the tray table like chalk outlines on a blackboard, but brighter and fuzzier.

Sound. It had to be the sound waves. Like radar. No, like a bat. Echo-fucking-location.

Then it was dark again. He snapped his fingers, hoping to see it again, but nothing. He groped around in the mess on the floor until he found the spoon and the lowered metal bed rail and tapped them together, creating a nice clear tone. Nothing happened.

He tried again, trying to concentrate and make it happen, but with no idea how to do it.

"Agent Reese?" the confused, appalled voice of Nurse Ramon questioned.

"Go away," he ordered. "And shut the door."

When all was all silent again, he waited patiently and banged the spoon again on the metal railing. He could very nearly feel the sound waves in the air, but there was no vision.

He was tempted to be annoyed, but tamped it down, holding onto the patience he'd had to cultivate in years of waiting for things to happen. This was a new talent, and he needed to figure out how to activate it.

* * *

By the time Phil got the report that Agent Reese was going crazy in his room, banging his silverware on his bed, and made it down to the infirmary, Natasha, two orderlies, and Nurse Ramon were there, too.

Phil glanced in through the window and saw John groping on the floor to gather the fallen items of his tray. Heedless of the spilled water and a bit of oatmeal, he gathered everything up on the tray and his expression was set and determined. It seemed like an excellent thing for him to be doing, really, if he'd spilled a tray. Phil was certainly not going to get in the way of John flexing some independence.

"This seems fine," he observed. "Why am I here?"

"Wait, sir. He's done it twice," the nurse said.

Phil noticed he'd missed a cup that had gone rolling away, but after making a sweep for it, John stood up without it. He had the tray in his hands and then dropped it. Everyone but Natasha flinched as it fell, and she, Phil noticed, seemed pleased by what John was doing, not concerned about his behavior.

"What the hell is he doing?" Phil asked, peering inside.

But then something startling happened - John looked toward the door. He didn't just turn his face in the direction of the door as if he heard them there, he looked at the window. Then with a smile on his face, he said, "You can come in, Coulson. I can see you."

That caught Phil flatfooted long enough for Natasha to wriggle past him inside. "You did it again?" she asked eagerly.

He nodded. "It worked."

"What worked?" Phil asked, picking his way across the floor which was now a total mess of breakfast bits, water, and dishware. He wasn't so busy looking at his feet that he missed the way John and Natasha's hands met in a quick squeeze.

John explained, "Turns out I have some sort of sound-based vision. It's just a flash, during the noise, but it gives me a glowing outline of things, but it's pretty accurate. Almost night-vision in front of me."

Phil listened, amazed. "That's… great." He might have been more amazed if he hadn't seen the Destroyer from another world and Captain America coming back from the dead, but he was getting used to odd things. At least this was an odd thing that was good. "A miracle even."

"Don't know about that. I've only done it three times and it doesn't last -"

"Training," Natasha interrupted. "It's like anything else. You need to train it."

Phil nodded. "We'll have to do some tests."

"Why? He's fine. It's a good thing." Natasha challenged, glaring at him as if she might break his arm for daring to suggest otherwise. Phil made a mental note not to get between her and John. Her protectiveness had definitely been activated for John, who couldn't fight for himself.

"Yes, of course. But if something in that weapons store did this, we need to know what it did and how. And make sure it's not doing something else to John." Phil paused, reluctant to mention it, but added, "The other children who grew up in the lab with John developed genetic diseases."

"That eventually killed them," John added softly and his expression darkened with sorrow, bowing his head. Natasha moved nearer to him, her shoulder brushing his. When they stayed touching, Phil smiled inwardly, now sure.

Phil added, "I'm not saying that's going to happen now. And I don't mean to crush your excitement, because getting any vision back at all is amazing, but I think we should all be sure about what's going on."

"That sounds smart," John agreed.

"I'll talk to Doctor Farhan." But because Phil didn't want to leave on that note, he reached out to squeeze John's shoulder. "I still think it's a miracle. Be back soon. Don't get up to anything you don't want me to see," he teased for the sheer joy of seeing them both turn a bit pink. Oh yes, that would teach them for thinking they had secrets.

At the door he glanced back. John was trying to make it back to his bed, and his foot was about to come down on the cup, but Natasha's foot lashed out to kick it away, as she gripped his elbow. "Let me help. There's crap all over the floor."

"Turns out echolocation requires a mess, who knew?" he joked.

She snorted. "I foresee a housekeeper in your future."

Phil left them to it, shaking his head.

* * *

John sat on the bed, a kids xylophone across his lap. He knew it had baby animal pictures on it and probably was different colors, but it had eight notes. The problem was striking them - he had to find each metal bar with his fingers, but he couldn't touch it as he tapped it with the small hammer. His aim was not the best, at first.

The door opened and John automatically turned his head that way, though it felt stupid the instant he did it.

"Hey," Barton greeted and deposited himself on the stool. "Came to see how you're doing. Have you learned to play 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' yet?" he teased.

John really wished he could bang out the notes, but that wasn't what he was doing. He shook his head. "I'm trying to find the right tone to make it work again, but it's not any of these." John shrugged, trying not to be discouraged, but the vision hadn't happened again since the breakfast tray and all he had to show for his attempts afterward was an ache in his ribs and head, and an irritable temper. He put the xylophone aside and heard the little mallet start to roll off. John tried to catch it, but missed completely, banging his hand on the wheeled table.

"I've got it," Barton said, and moved the instrument away to the bedstand. "It's like any new skill, it takes practice. But I am sorry you need it at all."


"But on the bright side," Barton added more lightly, "you don't have to worry about me kicking your ass at the range."

John snorted, unexpectedly amused by the reminder. "I'll have to take a rain check til I have the new vision sorted. But I don't know if it'll ever be accurate enough."

Barton's hand closed on his forearm with warm strength. "It'll be what it is. I'm just sorry we didn't do it before. I hope we can, it'll be fun. And if you want my help for training, I'm there."

"Thanks. I'd settle for the on-switch."

"All right. Let's work on that," Barton offered.

With a sniper's patience, he tried every combination of sounds he could in the entire room - the spoon against the tray, the pencil on the wall, even breaking a glass on the floor much to nursing's dismay. But the one that actually worked, was the simplest -- he hit two wooden pencils together.

The image of Barton's shape formed against the black and before John lost it, he grabbed the little rubber mallet for the xylophone and hurled it at Barton. the image faded before he saw it hit, but he knew the trajectory was good and he heard it hit with a soft thwack and Barton's exclamation of surprise. "Hey!" Then his voice changed to pleased excitement, "It worked!"

"Try the pencils again. I want to figure this out."

* * *

John stood in the training room they made for him. Punching bags hung from the ceiling, and the game was to make it across the room without touching them.

In his hand he held a castanet, to make the loud, sharp sound that seemed to work best. Click.

He got a view of the arrangement and as it faded, he clicked again, as he walked forward. Rounding one bag, he discovered a new obstacle of one on the floor. "Hey!"

Natasha's voice came over the intercom. "I never said they'd all be hanging."

Then Clint's voice joined in, "She made me do it."

"You're both cheaters," John replied. "Now shut up so I can concentrate."

Clint said, "If it's sound, it should be all sound, shouldn't it? Why not voice? Or singing."

"If you start singing, Barton, I'm going to have to make you stop," Natasha threatened, only half-seriously.

John clicked the castanet again and the resulting image was precise enough that he could step over the bag on the floor and even though it faded, he remembered the position of the next well enough to avoid it. He passed two more bags, while his friends were thankfully silent, and then he heard the far door open.

He didn't hear anyone come in - it was Natasha then - so it wasn't a complete surprise when she 'adjusted' the rules of the game again. But it was a surprise when he heard a thump against one of the bags and the next bag moved, swinging toward him. He barely leaned out of the way in time.

"Natasha! Dirty cheater!" he exclaimed.

"But you did it," she replied, smugly. "I knew you could."

"Thank you for your support," he grumbled in her general direction and clicked the castanet again, to reorient himself.

It was a strange sort of feeling that he was beginning to learn how to use consciously - a sort of reaching - but once he had it, it was easier to do it again, like knowing where the switch was finally.

So he reached and saw the glimmering outlines of the bags in his way that wavered with each click, but as he clicked rapidly, the images stabilized into near solidity.

"Good," Natasha coaxed from the side. "You're moving faster, with more assurance. Keep going."

He'd reached the last two bags, which she'd started swinging to play games with him, and he was clicking and trying to time the passage between them, when a vicious pain lanced through his head. It was so abrupt and agonizing, he dropped the castanet and bent to hold his head, gasping. "Oh God."

"Clint, call the doctor!" Natasha called and rushed to John's side, wrapping a strong arm around his back. "John? What is it?"

"Head. Like a spike in my brain. Oh God, this is worse than the concussion…" Consumed by the fire behind his eyes and in his brain, he staggered to his knees, Natasha at his side, keeping him upright and stroking the back of his neck.

That prompted yet another round of exceptionally boring scans and tests. The head pain had eased to an easily ignorable ache by the time all the testing was over.

Doctor Farhan reported when John was back in the bed, "There was nothing alarming in your results - no cranial pressure problem, foreign mass, or clot. The neurologist is checking for minor strokes, but I think what it was -- well, it was eyestrain, for lack of a better word. You're trying to make your brain do something it wasn't designed for, Mister Reese. Do it slowly."

John grimaced. He didn't want to do it slowly. He wanted to be able to use it all the time.

Coulson asked, "Does this mean John can be released from the infirmary?"

"I'd like him to be near medical care still," Farhan said, "With someone who's familiar with his… condition, but yes, he's healthy enough to go. In fact, he's released from the infirmary to quarters right now."

John raised his brows at Coulson. "Oh? You got someplace for me to be?"

"The apartment above Captain Rogers went vacant, and we've acquired it," Coulson answered. "I figured you might like to be near him."

John remembered Fury's tone of eagerness when John had mentioned a place near Rogers, and figured that the apartment hadn't gone vacant by chance. "Plus then you only need one SHIELD team to keep an eye on us," John pointed out.

"That, too," Coulson agreed easily. "Workers have been in there two days making it more useful to you. And there's already a basement training area for Captain Rogers."

Something - pride, maybe - jerked in resistance to the idea of being under SHIELD's eyes but it wasn't like he was ready to go out on his own, either. It wasn't just his new vision that needed training - he still had to learn how to do basic things like organize clothes without knowing what the colors were or how to use money. He knew there were ways, but he had to learn them. "I can't really say no, can I?" John said.

"You can," Coulson said. "If you want. I know it's a bit heavy-handed of us, but it's a compromise while you get yourself adapted. Then we can talk again about where you can fit into the organization. Your knowledge base is extensive so I think you could go into analysis pretty easily. There are definitely options for later."

"Good to know," he responded. Except boring. Boring as hell. 'Deskjob' was an insult or a swear word in his vocabulary, not a viable line of work.

Except it was what he had left.

As preparations were underway for him to leave the carrier, he was pretty sure that Natasha and Clint were both headed for reassignment rather than going with him to New York to keep him company.

Clint came first into John's small compartment. "Nat will be along in a few." He settled himself on the only chair and put something metallic on the desk, but John deliberately didn't try to see what it was, under orders to let his brain rest. "I uh…" Clint started. "I don't quite know how to put this, before she gets here…"

"You want to warn me away?" John suggested dryly.

"No," Clint protested, sounding sincerely as if he hadn't thought of that. "I mean, she can take care of herself, anyway, but actually I wanted to say the opposite. She's… different with you. It's good to see."

"It's probably bad timing, is what it is," John murmured. "Whatever it is."

"Is there such a thing as good timing in our business? For personal attachments?" Clint countered. "But without them, we'd still be murdering people for a living, right?"

There was some truth to that, John thought. Once they all took that step to come back across the line, to reject the loneliness and inhumanity, basic human feelings were impossible to shut out. It was what they wanted, really, not the pain of loss, but to feel alive again.

The door opened again and Natasha entered, perching cross-legged at the foot of John's bed. Her knee brushed his leg. "Hey. Clint, did you tell him? We're getting new assignments."

"We didn't get to that yet," Clint added and pressed a cold can against John's hand. "Here, it's beer. I smuggled a six-pack on board in my bag when I got recalled. Figured tonight was the best night to drink it."

John held up the can and the others clinked it. That was enough sound that when he tried, he could see them, faintly, these two friends. "To successful missions. What are you up to, if you can say?"

"I'm babysitting some scientist at SHIELD's R&D facility," Clint said as if he was already bored with it. "He's behaving a bit oddly, and they want me to keep an eye on it."

"You have my sympathies," John told him. "At least my babysitting involved threatening mob bosses with Captain America. Nat?"

"Georgi Luchkov. They traced some of the weapons in Shaw's basement to him, so I'm going to ask him some questions."

"Ah, have fun then. Punch him in the face for me," he told her, and held back a sigh that they had no matching question to ask him about his assignment. But no, his assignment was to try not to drown in his own self-pity and adjust to his new life. "Coulson said there's a chair in analysis with my name on it."

"That sucks, man," Clint said, and there was a sound as Natasha smacked him and John saw a brief flicker of her reproving glare.

"Clint. Really."

"I'm just saying, that'd be hard to get used to," he added defensively. "It's important work, I know that. But I can tell John isn't thrilled about it, and neither of us would be either."

John made sure they both knew Clint's words didn't bother him. "No, I'm not thrilled. It sounds like watching grass grow. but it's something, I guess."

"It is something," Natasha said. "You can steal Phil's job and be my handler."

She said it plainly with only a trace of a tease, and he still smiled, tempted to make the obvious rejoinder of handling her all over, but not with Clint there. So John cleared his throat and said instead, "I could tell you bad jokes on comms."

"I get enough of that from Clint," she teased.

"They're good jokes," Clint protested, and they all laughed.

It was an easy, fun evening as they drank the six pack Clint had brought, then when the beer was gone. Clint climbed to his feet with a groan and stretch. "Heading off to bed. My exit's early tomorrow."

John held out his hand for Clint's firm grip. "Hey. Watch yourself out there, babysitting or not."

"You too, John. I'll drop by when I'm in the city."

"Door's open. Anytime, Hawkeye," John promised.

Barton chuckled. "We need to find you a code name, don't we? I'll think about it while I'm bored at the base. G'night. Nat, I'll see you tomorrow."

The door opened and closed, and Natasha confirmed, "He's gone."

"You're on the early flight to shore, too?" John asked in disappointment.

"Yes, but it doesn't matter. I'm flying from DC to Munich and then Moscow. So a very long, very boring day awaits." She stretched a leg across him to sit on his lap and her fingers started efficiently undoing his shirt buttons. "I need some good memories to relieve the tedium."

That made him smile. "I'd like to help you with that."

She opened his shirt and shoved it off his shoulders, before she put her warm hands on his skin, while his lips found hers.

* * *

John could tell from the voice that it was the same nice female agent who had driven him to Rogers' apartment two weeks ago and who now took his elbow and shouted above the rotors, "This way, sir."

She helped him out of the helicopter. He was able to do it from body memory pretty well - he knew how high off the ground the floor was, and where to watch for the skids, but there was no question that he wanted the help as the approached the rotor path. He didn't try to reach for his special vision either, worried the noise would overload it. As Farhan and some other docs had told him, he needed not to lean on it too heavily. It was all too tempting to try to use it all the time, to compensate for what he'd lost, but after the second disabling migraine he knew that wasn't smart to push too hard either.

They went inside the stairwell of the roof and then she gripped his arm tightly, holding him back, "Wait!" He froze and she said hastily, "There are steps. I should've said something." As he cautiously found each step before he put his weight on his foot, she paced him, tucking his hand around her elbow for support. "Sorry, I'm not used to this. I'm a nurse and an agent, but I don't have any experience with this kind of recovery. I'll be more careful."

"No problem."

"Thank you. And I wanted to say I'm sorry this happened to you. I hope you like the apartment. We had some specialists in to organize it and one of them will be by this afternoon to start helping you."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," he said. They reached the end of the flight of stairs and out the fire door to the hall he remembered.

"There's an elevator this way." She guided him down the short hallway. "You're down the next level. This whole building is SHIELD's, by the way, so you don't have to worry about civilians." In the elevator she let him touch the buttons. He couldn't read braille yet, but it was interesting how he was able to feel the differences in the bumps, when he'd never noticed before. And the elevator now talked in a chipper female voice, "Level two," when he pushed the button for it. "Arriving level two. Doors are opening," the elevator announced as if it were the best thing ever for the doors to open.

John snorted. "Wow, that's already annoying."

She chuckled. "Maybe we should change the voice? Nobody wants to say anything since we know it's the right thing to have, but, yeah, it makes me want to slap it for being so damn happy about an elevator."

She led him forward toward the end apartment and exclaimed in surprised greeting, "Captain Rogers!"

"Agent Peltson," Steve greeted her, a little stiffly. "I heard the helicopter." He came closer. "John. Good to see you again - I mean -"

"You don't have to avoid the word, it's fine." John held out his hand for Steve to grasp, and they shook. Steve put his free hand on John's shoulder in a commiserating grip.

"Still, I wish you weren't here because of this. When Grace - Agent Peltson - told me, I couldn't believe it. What terrible luck."

"No kidding. I guess we'll both have to be babysat now," John told him with a bit of a shrug.

"I'm glad you're alive. And that you came here, and not someplace else," Steve told him, warmly, and the sheer sincerity of his tone seemed to ease something in John's chest at the genuine welcome. "Here, let me show you the new place. Your floorplan's the same as mine, but your back window lets out onto the fire escape."

"You've been inside?" John asked.

"I'm sorry, I was nosy," Steve admitted, sounding sheepish. "All the banging around on my ceiling. Grace didn't want to tell me what it was for--kept telling me it was classified, as if a house remodel is classified --"

"And then he looked at me sadly and I folded," Agent Peltson said with a sigh, then chuckled.

The two of them brought John into the small apartment. "There are some empty shelves here along the right hand wall, for your things," Steve said. "When your trunk or boxes come later."

Since he was wearing everything he owned, John answered, "There aren't any. I travel light."

There was a pause, and he could feel the other two exchange a look behind his back, before Peltson said with elevator-like cheeriness, "Well, I'm sure you'll be gathering stuff in no time, like the rest of us. There's a laptop on the dining room table, already equipped with SHIELD voice commands. From there you can control most things in the apartment --"

She continued to babble on, explaining all the enhancements to his new place. John listened to her, but after Steve said to him in a quick aside, "I'll be right back," he waited, too, wondering why Steve had left.

Peltson's cell phone buzzed and while she was talking in the other room, Steve returned through the open front door. He came up to John, "I have something for you." And he poke John in the stomach with them. "They're yours."

John grasped the eskrima sticks, but then let go instead of pulling them from Steve. "I - I think you should keep them. They're no good to me, now."

"The Lemas gave them to you." Steve pushed them at him. "Take them."

But John refused. "No. They thought I'd protect them, and now I can't." He let them fall to the wooden floor, and they clattered sharply against each other.

The sound of them striking each other was sharp and he got such a vivid image of Steve and the furniture behind him, he took a step back and reflexively raised his hand against it.

"John? Are you all right?" Steve asked in concern.

"I - the sticks," he said, kneeling down to grope on the floor for them, frustrated when they weren't where he thought they were. "Where are they?"

"Here, I've got them," Steve said, and John felt the sticks against his leg.

John took them and then holding one in each hand, struck them together. The resulting clacking sound was gave him a perfect image of Steve's face, brow furrowed in concern, right in front of him and his hand outstretched toward John.

John snapped out the stick to touch Steve's hand before the image faded.

Steve's voice was confused. "How? How did you do that?"

John hit the sticks together again, lightly this time, for a wavering silvery image of the sticks themselves and his own hands. The image was fascinating in a way, as if he was seeing his own skin glow. Then when it had faded to black again, he gave a smile. "It turns out I have a superpower, after all."

That led to Peltson revealing that the refrigerator was stocked with beer as well as other more necessary items, and she brought them out. "I've already been briefed on your amazing talent, and this sounds like something you two can have guy talk over anyway. So here's beer, and there's pizza on the way."

She left, and when the explanations, beer, and pizza were done, Rogers murmured, "That's amazing. So you think it was the experiments from when you were a kid?"

"Some of the doctors think it's something I could always do, but I never had the need before. But I think it was the experiments. Not that it matters, I guess. But it makes all this a little easier." He waved a hand all around, at the apartment, but really meaning his blindness.

Coulson's parting gift had been the sunglasses John was wearing. John's parting gift in return had been an envelope full of exactly the same amount of money Coulson had given him two weeks and a million years ago. Natasha had counted it for him, and John had sealed the envelope and slid it into Coulson's jacket pocket as he'd stumbled into him, on the way to the helicopter. Feigning clumsiness wasn't very hard when he could see only occasionally.

"That's… wow. I never heard of anything like it. Humans seeing like bats. That's extraordinary."

"Like you," John observed dryly. "And you must have seen the news about the Hulk. The world's getting more dangerous every day." He leaned back and with his free hand, held both his eskrima sticks and tapped them against his knee. "And I can't do anything about it. Not for SHIELD, or the Lemas."

"I'm not taking the sticks," Steve refused flatly. "Forget it. You need something in this place that doesn't look like it's on a showroom floor. And maybe you can use them."

"For what?" John asked, wondering what he was talking about, then realized, striking them together. "Oh. You mean this? It works with any sharp sound. I might be able to grow it to a vision I can keep all the time."

"That's good, but that's not what I was thinking of…" Steve trailed off thoughtfully.


Steve hesitated, not willing to spit it out yet. "You should settle in first," Steve decided. "And I need to talk to Grace and get some supplies. But I have an crazy idea. About how to help, if you really want to."

John was going to demand Steve spill but then decided not to. He'd have plenty of time to figure it out.

After Steve went back downstairs, John locked up and made his way to the bedroom. The house seemed so quiet after getting used to the noises on the carrier, but the sounds of the city were there, too, and welcoming in their own regularity.

His cell phone buzzed with an unknown number call and he fumbled for it on the bedside table. "Hello."

"Bonjour from Paris," Natasha's voice greeted him.

He stretched out on the bed. "Bonjour from New York."

Her voice was like a light in the dark and he thought he would have been content to listen to her read the newspaper. That she was asking about what he'd done and what the apartment was like, and how she was so bored and passport control hadn't even looked at her, was all a bonus. He didn't deserve her - or maybe he did. Maybe they deserved each other.

Either way he was willing to stay on this train as long as she wanted him there.

Chapter Ten