Clint raised an eyebrow in surprise and backed away from his usual sparring partner. Steve and Bucky pause in setting down there gear and share a look. The continued silence is broken by a muffled snicker from Toney as he sees the slightly worried look on Sam’s face.
Sam, for his part, eyes Natasha trying to figure out just why she had singled him out. She stared back at him, expression impassive and unreadable. She’d tell him when she was ready, maybe. The corner of his mouth twitches as he nodded his consent. Only faint tightening of her lips shows how pleased Natasha is.
They both continue their normal warm up in silence, completely ignoring the other’s curious glances.
“Umph,” the sound was quiet and yet it froze everyone in the training area. Bucky paused mid-swing as he snapped his head to see Natasha gracefully pick herself off the mat. Bucky swallowed and straightened, he was unaware that he had started to drift towards the two individuals squaring off again. Steve, entranced himself, followed his beau’s lead and unashamedly joined his other team-mates as they watched Sam and Natasha spar—no dance. Although, he had never seen a dance as deadly as the one those two were displaying now.
Natasha flowed like water striking in, down, up and around like the tide set on decimating a cliff side. And then there was Sam—gentle, always smiling, laughing, singing Sam moving like the avian hunter he was named for. He moved with and against Natasha’s attacks like a bird of prey on the wind hunting its next meal.
They had been sparring for almost fifteen minutes at this point and paused by silent, mutual agreement to get water and wipe the sweat off. Sam was mid-swallow when Natasha appeared at his side, and he jumped slightly. She canted her weight to one side as she considered him. Sam waited in silence.
“Stop holding back. I want to know; I want to see. Show me.” Her voice was quiet, but firm.
Stark, who had heard the remark about holding back, choked and started coughing. He and Clint hadn’t even bothered to pretend to be training, they had been watching the two. He had known that Natasha had been holding back. He hadn’t thought Sam had been though. Clint smirked at the sputtering, but didn’t take his eyes off the two still in the ring. He too was curious to see just what their jovial teammate was capable of.
Sam slowly lowered the sports bottle and cocked his head to the side. He’d kinda been expecting this since the Red Thai Dragon. He was surprised she had waited so long, two weeks anyway. He considered her a moment, then drew in a breath and huffed it out in a rough sigh, “I can’t—not fully.” He waived his hand vaguely, “What was done was made permanent.”
She nodded slowly not breaking eye contact and smirked mockingly, “Wouldn’t want you to Snap, Wilson.”
Sam stared hard at her for a moment, wondering just how much she knew and how she knew. Natasha’s smirk melted into a smile and half-shrug as she let her arms lightly swing by her side. “Don’t worry, I can take ‘im”. They ignored the baffled looks they were getting.
Sam decided to just go with it.
Clint, Steve, and Bucky froze and straightened when Sam grinned, razor like, and his posture shifted. The movement was subtle, but the amount of controlled violence now emanating from their friend was almost palpable. It was surprising. And worrying.
The match begun anew and the following ten minutes were stunning to those watching. If their previous match had been a graceful dance this was like watching a white squall on the open sea: sudden, fast moving, and deadly. Every movement was used with the purpose of causing pain. It ended with Sam on his belly, head and left shoulder pinned and almost smothered by Natasha’s right thigh. His right arm was held at a painful angle behind his back. She held the position for a moment then gracefully flowed to her feet, thunking Sam’s head onto the mat. She bent down and held out a hand as Sam laughed and allowed her to help him to his feet.
Sam, Sam was back to normal.
The four spectators shared another look and the two ignored them as they compared notes on their way to the showers. Before the two parted Natasha lightly touched Sam’s arm, the kind of touch she had not given him since she had learned of Xander, “I see what he sees in you…even if you did hold back.” Then she winked and slipped into the women’s locker room. Sam smiled, happy that all was right in the world again, and exited the gym.
“Sooo…does anyone want to explain what just happened?” asked Tony as he stared at the two doors his teammates just disappeared into.
Clint looked at the other three and shrugged, “They’ll tell us when they’re ready.” Steve and Bucky nodded in agreement and moved to continue their spar.
Five hours after their respective work-outs the team mates sat down for a family style dinner at the Avengers Tower. Pepper had insisted. Sam sat across from Natasha and sat beside Bucky. He was absentmindedly listening to the bickering between Tony and Steve and planning his return trip to DC when his vacation was over. His thoughts were derailed when he felt the steady stare of Bucky on him. He looked at his friend and raised an inquiring eyebrow.
“How did you meet him?”
Sam didn’t need to ask who the “him” in question was. His teammates had apparently taken great interest in his love life. Sam tilted his head back as he thought and then smiled.
“I met him at work.” Sam notices that the other conversations at the table had ceased. “Alright, it’s like this…”
Xander knelt next to the still panting Slayer and rubbed her arms soothingly to try and help calm her down. She’d had another anxiety attack. He quietly coached her into matching her breathing with his and unclenching her hands. When she felt better she stood and stiffly walked out the foyer and into the belly of the dormitory. She wanted to be alone.
He stayed on the ground and stared where she had been. It was getting worse after the last patrol, a few of the girls had been ambushed. None of them had been killed but their injuries and trauma they had sustained was significant. Xander was at a loss on how he could help them, he’d tried to talk with them; they weren’t ready. But, he was confident they would talk when they were. He sighed, placed his hand against the wall and slowly stood.
“They need help, you know that right?”
The voice came from behind him and originated from a one Slayer Sonia Jayne, formerly SSG Jayne. Xander nodded slowly as he turned his body and head so he could see her completely. He grimaced, “I know. They know they know my door is always open, they’re not ready to talk yet.”
She stepped closer and nodded as she smiled fondly at him, “I know your door is always open. But, you’re not always here. Nor can you be at multiple locations at once. They need help, all of us need help.” She made a motion at here her sister-slayer had been, “I’ve seen that, Xander, when I came back home. I’ve been where they are now and it’s not going to get better on its own. And, if it gets any worse we both know how it could end. How many slayers have tried committing suicide or succeeded since The Calling?”
He heaved a sigh dropped his chin to rest on his chest as he rubbed the skin over his eye. He looked so tired right then, “Too many.”
She stepped forward and touched his arm. “Look, when I redeployed I was a mess. But I got help. I have an idea where maybe we can get help too.” Xander looked at her, head cocked to the side, expression asking her to continue.
She pursed her lips, “I go to group sessions at the VA.” Xander raised an eyebrow, “Yes, I still go. Anyway. Last time I went I sensed others there, non-hostile, and I think they sensed me too. And…nothing happened; the session continued like always.”
Xander slowly nodded, well aware of the prevalence of mixed-breeds in the military. For some reason it tended to draw those with mixed human-demonic heritage.
She shrugged, “That was last month anyway, I haven’t been back.” Xander made an inquiring noise in the back of this throat, “Oh, my usual group leader has been on vacation. Forced-leave you know, he never took days off. I tried the substitute, Mr. Wilson, he was good but, it was different—I’d rather wait.”
There was a pause in the conversation as she gathered her thoughts and refocused them on the current problem at hand. There was no use getting upset about the change, her group leader was supposed to be back this week.
After a while she continued, “What I’m trying to say is that maybe, maybe, if we can find someone in the know we can… …” she trailed off and waived both her hands to encompass the dormitories.
Xander nodded again, understanding what she was struggling to put into words. “Next time you go to your group session, I will go with you. See if we can get something started locally and perhaps…expand it if it goes well.”
Sonia, bobbed her head in agreement. “The sessions are every Thursday at seven.”
He raised an eyebrow and smiled, “So tomorrow.”
“Yep.” She popped the p as she smirked.
The next day Sonia and Xander entered a large room inside the local VA office. There were metal chairs placed side by side facing a plain brown podium and white wall. There were five others in the room who briefly looked up from their phone or conversation. Jason Lou, Sonia’s Case Manager and group leader, stood near the podium and smiled in greeting. His smile froze however when he saw Xander and his eyes shot back at Sonia again and his eye flickered, pupils briefly turning into slits.
Both Sonia and Xander paused at his reaction. Sonia shrugged off the disquiet and continued towards Jason with an outstretched hand in her normal greeting. Jason relaxed and shook her hand. Sonia released his hand and gestured to Xander, “Jason, this is Xander Harris, he’s here for moral support.”
Jason and Xander exchanged handshakes and Sonia continued, “This week’s been…rough, with my other job.” She fidgeted a as Jason frowned as he listened, “And, I know I can get help here but I’m not the only one that needs help… …my sisters…” she trailed off.
Xander kept quiet, but he placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. She flashed him a grateful smile. The last attack had affected her a lot more than she had let on.
Jason studied the two in front of him and seemed to come to a decision, “Ok. Would you be more comfortable if we spoke one on one after the session? We’ll talk about what can be done for you and your sisters.” Jason turned his attention to Xander, “Will you be joining us tonight, Knight?”
Xander looked a Jason. He’d noted how Jason had tensed slightly when he addressed Xander. He also noted that at least three new-comers into the room had been eyeing him uncomfortably. They were more at ease with Sonia.
“Ah—no. This is your territory and I think my presence would get in the way of the healing here, don’t you think? I’ll stay in the hallway. But, thank you for the invitation.”
Jason relaxed slightly and gave rueful smile. While the Knight did not have the volatile reputation of the Last Slayer or the Red Witch he had a reputation of being unpredictable…and ruthless. Nevertheless he had not looked forward to him being in the audience.
Xander, with one last look at Sonia, turned and made his way into the hallway where he sat on a wooden bench to wait.
Sonia watched him go with a slight frown. She looked at Jason and said in a low voice, “He needs help too, you know. Probably more than any of us. He’s the one we go to, plus, he has his own demons.” She grimaced at her choice of words but Jason didn’t take offence. He looked thoughtfully at the double door the Knight had disappeared through, he sighed lightly and then motioned for Sonia to take a seat. It was time to begin.
Xander let the smooth wood cradle his body as he tilted his head back and closed his eye. He breathed deeply and tried to let built up tension drain from his body as he waited.
He hated waiting.
Soft and even treading on the tile whispered closer to him. Xander slowly opened his eye and met two concerned, chocolate eyes. The tall African-American male gestured at the open seat asking permission to sit down. Xander nodded briefly and summoned his normal smile, but it felt off. He wasn’t sure why Jason’s reaction to him sat heavy in his thoughts, but they did. And he was tired.
“You look like a man that needs to get something off his chest.” The man sat, canted slightly to face Xander. He gestured to the double door across the hall from them, “we do have groups for that.” He paused a beat, “You a Vet?”
Xander looked at the male again and shook his head, he attempted another smile, “Moral support.” He straitened and held out his hand, “Xander Harris.”
His had was taken in a strong grip, “Sam Wilson.” Sam took in a quick breath, “You know, it’s not uncommon for ‘moral supporters’ to need help themselves.” Xander could hear the quote marks, and he watched the man’s head bob in a slight nod as he leaned forward conspiringly. “We have groups for that too.” Sam’s voice was lightly teasing.
Xander let out a half-breath in a laugh. He raised an eyebrow and this time his smile came easier, “Yeah? I might have to take you up on that.”
“That’s it?” Tony asked incredulously, “You meet once and then you’re bumping uglies?”
Sam grimaced at the interruption, “One, do you really have room to talk? I remember reading quite a few choice article on your dating habits. No offense Pepper. And two, no. We saw each other a few times at the VA but we didn’t actually start dating until later.”
Bruce, who had said nothing up to this point asked from the other side of Steve, “What changed?”
Sam squirmed slightly, “I saw him flying.” At the confused looks, “Not literally. I was running at the park—” Sam ignored Steve’s snort, “—when I saw him and a half-dozen girls racing full-tilt. At first I thought something was wrong and then they started… …man, I’ve never seen so many off the wall stunts, literally.”
He smiled in remembered fondness, “Parkour. They were doing parkour and he was just… …” he trailed off with a besotted smile. He waived away the moment after a pause, “He sees me and decides it would be funny to pass me doing backflips and cartwheels.” He ignored Steve’s laughter.
“Anyway, at the end of my circuit he and a few of the girls are waiting for me with these shit-eating grins.”
“—that’s when he asked you out?” interrupted Tony.
Sam smirked, “No. That’s when I called him out and challenged him to a race. Length of the park to the reflection pool, extra points for style.” Natasha raised an eyebrow and he shrugged, “The girls got to be the judges.”
“Who won?” Natasha question with a knowing smirk.
“No one. We came at a tie and scheduled a rematch. And yes Tony, that’s how we started seeing each other.”
Tony huffed, “Rude.” Pepper smiled lightly at his direction and shook her head fondly as the others snickered at Tony’s pout.
Clint leaned forward, his eye narrowed slightly. “You said something was made permanent. What does that have to do with Xander?”
Sam’s eyebrows shot up, surprised by Clint’s question. He was silent for a moment and then studied Clint. His eyes tracked the space between Clint and Natasha and the other occupants of the table grew silent. They waited on his answer.
Finally, Sam said, “It doesn’t. Not really. At least, not when we first met.” Sam cocked his head to the side, “You actually have more of a connection to what happened with me than he did initially.” Sam looked significantly at Natasha and then back at Clint.
It was Clint’s turn to real back a bit. He too looked at Natasha, only his eyes was met by her steady, curious gaze. He drew in a slow breath and looked back at Sam.
“Hallie. You were one of hers.”
Sam solemnly nodded as Clint paused. “But—how does that relate to you going all Fight Club in there? I mean, I made a wish, she appeared, and things got better.”
Sam sighed deeply, “She told me that she could fix the wrong but that certain things had to remain the same. For me, her help came at a price; remembrance of what could have been balanced by what was. Said that was the only way to keep the ripples small.”
Clint nodded thoughtfully, his gaze floated to settle on Natasha, “Ripples.”
By this time Natasha, Pepper, Tony, and Bucky are exchanging confused looks. Steve was sitting ram-rod straight and staring down at his plate. He started humming a lullaby, one that made both Clint and Sam stare at him.
When he noticed their stare Steve smiled uncomfortably, “She was one of the nurses at the hospital.” He grimaced, “No one could figure out how I survived as long as I had. I guess—I guess that answers that question.”
“She used to hum that what I was child. She was one of my father’s assistance that would look after me when my father was—away.” The soft statement came from Bruce.
“That’s nice, but would someone like to explain who this Hallie is?” Tony asked somewhat exasperated.
“And what she has to do with me and Clint?” Natasha added, still staring at the side of Clint’s head.
Sam cleared his throat a bit, “Hallie is the Patron Saint of Lost Childhoods. She is… was a vengeance demon.” He wasn’t touching Natasha’s question.
There was an awkward pause after Sam’s statement. Tony stared in open mouth amazement at Sam, Clint, Steve, and Bruce; eyes flickering to and from each face.
Pepper leaned forward, curious, “Vengeance Daemons?”
Sam hummed in in response but didn’t elaborate, neither did Bruce or Steve. Clint opened his mouth to respond, reconsidered, and sat back in his chair.
The silence was getting awkward when finally Clint decided to give explaining another try.
“Vengeance Daemons, well them call themselves ‘Justice Daemons’ like to right the wrongs, often in the most painful and possibly the most way possible. With magic. Generally. Some are like Hallie and some…aren’t. Leave it at that.” He was ignoring Natasha’s continued stare. He felt sweat start to trickle down his hairline and onto his vest collar.
Sam glanced at the air between Clint and Natasha. Yeah, he wasn’t going to touch that either.
Finally, Natasha got tired of waiting. She let a coy smile grace her lips and she leaned forward onto one elbow. “Tell me about the Ripples and what it has to do with me.” She was looking at Clint, but she was clearly talking to both Sam and Clint.
Steve, Bucky, and Bruce—the cowards, stood from their seats and quickly vacated the area. Tony tried to motion to Pepper that they should leave too, but he was ignored. He settled back in his seat, rolling his eyes childishly and huffing. He was ignored.
Sam’s eyes widened and he stared at Clint who started back at him. He cleared his throat, “Ripples. Ripples…um, do you watch Dr. Who?” Everyone looked at him. “Wah? It’s a great show! See, the 10th Doctor, in the episode about Pompeii, he explained that there are certain things that have to happen for whatever reasons. Well…apparently me remembering who I was, was one of those. But, that’s just me, I don’ know about you Nat. Clint?”
Natasha turned her gaze to Clint who took a fortifying breath, “Alright. You remember the first time we met? My mission was to kill you, not bring you in—you already know that. But I never told you why I brought you in.”
Natasha cocked her head to the side, listening.
“I was about to take the shot when she appeared. She told me that you were one of her’s that she had been forbidden to help. But, I could help you now. I remembered her, you know?” He shrugged, and flopped his hand in the air, “the rest you know.”
There was silence afterwards.
“So how does Xander fit in with this?” Tony, of course it was Tony, that asked.
Sam sighed, “Man, that’s a story for another time.”