Steve Rogers was the most nicely stubborn person John had ever met, he decided. John had a reputation for stubbornness, but he found himself worn down by Steve's insistence and disposition - he just wouldn't give up. Which was an admirable trait to be sure, except when it was pointed in opposition to John's conviction this idea was crazy.
"You can't be serious."
"I am. Come on; they have a basement gym in this place. We might as well use it. You can train your X-ray eyes, and spar against me."
"It's not X-rays."
Steve didn't even deign to retort that one. "You use your sticks, and let's see how it goes."
John didn't get up from his couch. "You're nuts. This won't work."
John groaned in surrender. "Fine. But this is ridiculous. I don't even know what you're trying to prove."
Steve's hand gripped his upper arm. "That you can still contribute," he said, softening his voice. "Isn't that what you want? And you think you can't? Maybe everybody else has even told you that you can't, that you're helpless and weak and dependent and you can't hack it anymore. But you can, if you got a second chance and some training. If there's anybody who gets that, John, it's me."
John clenched his jaw. "Even if you're right, and this works, it won't be what it was."
"No," Steve agreed. "It won't. That's true. But that doesn't make it bad. And maybe it'll still be better than it is now."
John gave in to the inevitable. Steve was clearly going to hound him until he did, anyway. "All right, I'll try. Still won't work."
"Twenty bucks says it will."
John was about to quip about how he should put his money where his mouth was if he really believed that, then thought with amusement that twenty bucks was probably quite a lot of money to Steve who was still outraged that five cents couldn't buy anything.
He took the sticks and held onto Steve's arm to reach the gym room, which echoed to his footsteps cavernously as they entered. Steve brought him across the concrete floor and then stopped. "Okay, this is the middle. Do your thing."
John clicked his sticks together to see the outlines of the gym room - it was as open and high as it had sounded, with a few supports off to the side that he'd have to watch, and what looked like high windows in the rafters to above ground level.
"You see it?" Steve asked.
"Good, now turn around and do it again so you can see me."
So John did and to his surprise saw that Steve was standing there with a pair of sticks of his own, upraised. Then Steve tapped his together, and the vision renewed itself. "Hold it as long as you can, and fight."
He lunged at John, who parried reflexively. The clash flared the image and it persisted as Steve struck again. He swung slowly enough that no one was in danger-- even if John had missed, Steve wasn't actually going to strike him. But John crossed both sticks to parry the stroke.
The impact parry sent a shock up his arm. Deliberately holding back or not, Steve was damn strong. John launched an attack, not even needing sight for that, when his body knew the moves. He only needed to see the response, and the clash of their weapons was enough to show him that.
"You have it! See, I told you this would work," Steve told him, proud and enthusiastic, but somehow holding back from being too smug.
John attacked again, forcing Steve to give ground with an urgent step and parry, quick and uncontrolled. "Wow, you're good at this."
John remembered Natasha's warning about letting Steve into close-quarters combat and inwardly grinned. She might have a point in a real fight, but in a sparring match, this was fun.
The sounds of their weapons kept the sight of them gleaming like silver behind his eyes, the image clarifying, and it was strangely beautiful to see. There was no color, but light and shadow moving in a kind of dance.
Steve disengaged and stepped away, and all too soon the image faded. "That's probably enough. Grace told me you have to be careful not to induce a headache. Nobody wants you to collapse in a stroke."
John lowered his sticks and then focusing on Steve's voice, which was giving him a watery ghostlike blob, he threw his stick underhand, whipping it from his hand like throwing a knife.
"Hey!" Steve's exclamation was also enough to see the result, as he ducked out of the way and used one of his rattan sticks to knock John's aside. Then he straightened, and his voice was a little wary, "Are you done? Or are you going to throw the other one at me?"
"All done. I wanted to see if I could still throw." They gathered their things, including John's fallen stick, and went back upstairs. At Steve's door, John removed his wallet and the stack of twenties he'd gotten from Grace as his personal funds, holding one out wordlessly.
"Told you so," Steve said, as he took the money. And this time there was definitely smugness in his voice.
"You're right." John took back his sticks and swung them at his sides, relishing the notion that he could still fight. Maybe he couldn't be an agent like Natasha and Clint anymore, infiltrating the bad guys, and maybe HALO jumping and long-distance sniper shooting was no longer in his skillset, but he still could fight and he could defend himself.
And if he got really good at his vision, he might be able to shoot again, because he was already missing guns. But maybe the handles of these sticks were all he needed in his hands, and the chances of killing someone by accident were lower.
"So we train you," Steve declared. "You teach me modern life, and I teach you how to fight all over again. Deal?"
They shook hands. "Deal."
John got a knock on the door and since it was unlocked, he shouted, "Come in." He lowered the volume on the television and waited.
The door clicked and someone entered with a heavy deliberate tread. John didn't even have to 'look' to know who it was. The helicopter earlier and the scurrying around of everyone else in the building was a hint that something important was happening. "Director Fury. Welcome."
"Agent Reese." There was a pause as Fury probably looked around the nearly empty apartment. And since Fury wasn't much for chit-chat, he said, "I have a situation. You've been training with Captain Rogers to develop your ability. Are you at combat readiness?"
John didn't have to consider that too long. He shook his head once. "No. And to be clear, while my ability gives me some of my vision back, it's still not what it was."
"I know that," Fury said, but sounded annoyed by it, as if John's disruption of his plans was a deliberate attack on him. "But I need all my fighters. Damn it." Then he said with a near growl of frustration. "All right. Be aware that Agent Barton's been compromised. Do not under any circumstances engage him until you get the all-clear from SHIELD," he warned.
John sat up, alarmed. "What? He's been- how? What?"
"You don't need to know that. Also, Captain Rogers will be leaving with me to assist. Keep your head down, Agent Reese, until this is over."
John clenched his jaw as Fury let himself out. Don't need to know, bullshit. He needed to know. Fury couldn't just drop that on him and walk out. "compromised" how? Why? What the hell did that mean in this case? He'd been having a quiet babysitting job and now this?
Steve knocked on the door a few minutes later, and John met him at the door. "Fury came to you, too?" Steve asked.
"Yeah. Though he didn't tell me anything."
"He didn't tell me much either. Enough, though. Something of Red Skull's still lingering and I gotta go clean it up."
"Watch your back," John told him.
"I'll remember what you said," Steve promised him. "See you on the flipside."
When the door closed and Steve was gone, John wandered back to his living room and the couch. He turned up the television to find the news, but there was nothing. Whatever was going on, SHIELD was keeping it quiet for now.
It made him surly and annoyed that he was stuck in the apartment with no way to help. He knew something was wrong, but he was kept in the dark about what, even if he couldn't help.
His phone played the tone he'd associated with Natasha and he plucked it out of his pocket. "Nat?"
"John. I'm on a plane to India."
"India?" he tried to come up with a reason for India, but came up empty. "This part of the mysterious thing that pulled Steve out of the building and something happened to Barton? Fury wouldn't tell me shit."
"Not over an open line, but it's bad. I have to get him back."
"Whatever it takes. I understand."
Her voice warmed. "I know you do."
He wondered what to say - he didn't want to sound condescending or that he didn't think she was competent, and he didn't want to sound falsely hopeful when he didn't understand what the hell was going on except it was bad, but then he told her, "When it's all done and the bad guys are down, I'll be here. I got a nice wine for a housewarming gift. Or at least that's what somebody told me - it could be 2 Buck Chuck for all I can read of it."
"I want to see your place."
"There's nothing in it," he warned.
"If there's you and a bed, that's all I want," she answered with soft honesty. "Once this is over."
"Kick a bad guy in the face for me, and I'll see you soon, I hope. Clint'll come back, Nat."
"He better. Gotta go."
They hung up and he stretched out on the couch, idly listening to the news on low volume, glad that even if he wasn't in the fight, at least he could be something for Natasha to look forward to.
* * *
Agent Peltson came in his apartment, in a rush. "John, John, there's something happening above the city. I'm getting reports of wild energy readings and it's swirling like a hurricane. SHIELD is calling for people to get indoors."
"Luckily I'm already inside," he said dryly. He wanted to go look at whatever it was, but there was no point. His ability wouldn't reach that far, if it was above the skyline.
She hesitated and then said, "It's a portal to another dimension. The Carrier thinks it's a prelude to invasion."
"Coming out of the sky?"
He stood up. "Then what are we waiting for, Agent Peltson? Let's go to where the action is."
"I - I don't think - "
"If aliens are invading the city, I want to be there."
"But - But civilians are supposed to stay indoors-"
"I'm still an agent, too."
"But you're --"
"Blind? If I can hit them, I will." He left his jacket and grabbed his sticks. "Bring your gun."
"I don't know if this is a good idea," she muttered as she followed, but he noticed she didn't call it in or try to stop him.
Outside, she hailed a cab and put a hand on his head as he bent, somewhat like a cop putting a perp in the car, to make sure he didn't hit his head. "Toward Stark Tower," she ordered the driver.
The driver took them downtown, grumbling the whole time about the weirdness in the sky. When when the road was blocked by military trucks coming in, and they were stopped, John reached for the door and let himself out, hitting the side of the car with a stick to find the curb much to the cabbie's annoyance.
Behind him he heard Peltson and the cabbie haggling on the price, until she slammed the door. "What now?"
"Look up, tell me what you see."
For a moment there was silence then she said, "Holy crap. There are things flying out of that swirling hurricane, and a bright beam of light between the tower and the sky."
"Well, we can't do anything about that, but we can sure as hell take care of aliens coming our way. Let's find some high ground, and you shoot the hell out of them, and I'll keep them off your back."
"Sounds fair," she said, and finally sounded like she was smiling. She took his hand around her arm as a guide, and they hurried into the nearest office building. She held out her badge at the security guard. "Keep everyone inside away from the windows. Roof access?"
Soon enough they were climbing the stairs to get out to the roof. The wind was strong and he could hear a strange high whine above the sounds of traffic and honking. It was already making his head ache behind his eyes, but the pitch appeared to be excellent for activating his sense.
Everywhere he turned he could see the outlines of the edge of the building, the air conditioning unit, the vaguer imprecise outlines behind it of another building, and Peltson ready with her sidearm. "They're flying!" she yelled and fired.
Gun fire was also excellent for echolocation, when he was trying, and he had a great view of the alien as it tumbled off its flying sled right onto the roof behind Pelton. It had some sort of weapon in its hands but John hit it first, smacking the weapon out of its grip. It was armored, but his sticks were strong and he didn't hold back at all, hitting it as hard as he could.
Then he hit the thing on its head and it collapsed like it was dead. Then an energy blast came out of nowhere to slam into it, and he whirled around, sticks ready.
"It's me!" Peltson said, "I grabbed its gun. You want it?"
"I thought you might."
They rejoined the fight and as the things tried to attack them. Luckily they only seemed to hit in pairs. "I'm out," she yelled as her gun clicked on empty.
"What? No, you should go inside, and I should take that - "
"It's losing charge," he told her and turned away, to take out another of the invaders. The ache behind his eyes was growing, but as long as he could still use his own ability and whatever power remained in the alien gun he was going to; he could hear screaming of people in trouble, and he could at least take care of a few of the enemy.
The outlines renewed every moment, and he could now pick out the shapes and movement of anything that got close. He couldn't shoot anything speeding past, they were too quick for him to glimpse until they were gone, but if any of them peeled off to attack, he picked them off.
Until one jumped off its flying sled and the alien weapon responded with a sputter. Its did not, firing at him. He dove toward and under, as the blast tore up the roof, and he pulled the sticks as he rolled.
He got the sticks between its legs and managed to knock it off balance, kicking it in the knee, and as it fell kicking it again in the head. It was growling or cursing his ancestry or something, but as he hit it, he could see it, as he brought both sticks down again until it was limp.
Then a tremendously loud noise rattled the ground and the building, and he lifted his head. "What the --" But he couldn't see it - he could only hear it, it was still too far away.
"John, down!" Peltson yelled from behind him, and he threw himself down flat on the roof.
The roar of some monstrous flying creature passed next to his ear, making the building shake violently, and debris of cement and roof tiles rained onto him.
Then beneath him the floor tilted, breaking apart beneath him, and he scrambled trying to find a solid edge. But just as he found one, he realized he was on the corner and it was going to fall.
He looked and there, on the opposite building. He couldn't make its roof because he was too low, but the fire escape was possible.
He launched himself off the roof, yelling to keep himself on target, and realized it was farther than he'd thought. Shit, he wasn't going to make it.
The fall was nightmarish, until he slammed into the metal of the fire escape, all sharp points and hard edges that he grabbed at frantically for purchase, feet dangling, fingers trying to hold on and slipping.
But his descent stopped and his feet swung, and he gritted his teeth holding on. Refusing to fall. If you fucking die here, think what a waste it's all been. Die a killer, die a monster. Live so you can make it right. Live so you can touch her again. Just don't fucking let go, John Matthew Murdock.
His fingers throbbed, but held, and he carefully tried to move them, one by one, and get a better grip. Once he had a better grip he could pull himself up.
The metal shuddered, nearly throwing him off, and there was some other horrible noise of one of those alien blasters. The fuckers were shooting at him.
And he was hanging there like a target. Shit. He tried to lift his feet, make himself smaller, and that risked dumping him off.
The iron shuddered again and stung with current running through it. His fingers spasmed and loosened. A yell slipped out as he fell, and his hands flung out, frantically trying to grab something - anything - on his way down.
Then there was another roar, a different one.
And he slammed into something softer, not the ground, not an alien attack sled, maybe a different alien? And he tried to wriggle free, and beat at it, but it had a huge arm around him and it was like trying to hit a giant tree that held him.
Belatedly, John recognized that roar from what felt like forever ago from that recording Natasha had played.
The Hulk landed in the street with a horrible jarring thump, breaking asphalt beneath him, and dropped John to the ground. Then with another roar he was gone.
Stunned, John stood there for a moment. His head was throbbing urgently, but he knew he had to find shelter. He took a breath and a step toward the sidewalk, but his leg folded beneath him, flaring with sudden sharp pain in his thigh and sending him down to one knee.
"Sir, sir," a young voice exclaimed and John had a brief flash of a National Guardsman rushing up to him, grabbing him at the shoulder to help him up. "Sir, you need to get off the street…"
Light-headed, John corrected, "Not "sir", "Sergeant." I need to get Peltson, up there - I can help - combat tours --" he couldn't gather his thoughts, as they spun apart. "Was that the Hulk?"
"Yes, sir - Sarge, I mean. Oh my God, there's a lot of blood -- you need a medic--"
But John didn't hear the rest. There was not much transition, just the feeling that he was falling again, and then, nothing.
To the conclusion: Chapter Eleven