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I read up on Sunstroke when he escaped from prison, because I was determined to haul his ass back there.

There wasn't much on him. The file said his real name is "Sol Broadstroke." Riiiight. The same database thought I was "Mimi Schwartz" for years, so I'm not buying it. It didn't matter--this was the sort of guy who lived his gimmick. The whole time Sunstroke was incarcerated I don't think I ever saw him without his mask on, let alone using a normal name. He had no past, beyond tangling with the Avengers and the X-Men a time or two. His psych profile was one paragraph; there were ten pages about his power levels.

Under ideal conditions, Sunstroke could absorb enough power from the heat of the sun to incinerate the average person. But "ideal conditions" for him was the Mojave Desert, which was a few thousand miles away from Ryker's Island. So when he escaped he laid low, biding his time for a chance to slip out of New York. And that might have worked, if it wasn't for me.

I'm Melissa Gold, but most people call me Songbird. I was assigned to Ryker's as one of the administrators for the Thunderbolts, a project to rehabilitate superhuman offenders. The program went belly-up when the maximum-maximum security wing was totaled and several dozen bad guys managed to get away. Since then I've made it my business to find every penny-ante supervillain who broke out on my watch. And I'm pretty good at it, because I used to be a penny-ante supervillain.

I know what mistakes these losers will make because I've made them too. You break out of jail and you go right back to doing whatever got you in jail in the first place, because you think you just proved you can get away with it. But the heat's on, so you hole up in the nearest city and try to lay low. Trouble is, eventually something draws you back out of the woodwork. I used to try to contact my mother, and Sunstroke is addicted to tanning.

I don't know if it's vanity or if he just uses the UV rays to fuel his powers. What mattered to me was that he couldn't waltz into a spa during the day, wearing that costume of his. So it was only a matter of time before I found him breaking into the Brazilian Body Shop at 2:30 in the morning.

If I'd been all sneaky and stealthy like Moon Knight, then maybe I could have captured him before he knew I was there. But I'm not--my superpower is to make a lot of noise and turn that into bright pink things. So I burst into the building and screamed at the top of my lungs. I'm not sure Sunstroke recognized who was yelling at him until the sound of it encased him in a pink bubble.

"Songbird!?!" he shouted. Guess I can't blame him, because he couldn't do much else. "Pfah! You're too late, Thunderbolts!"

"There aren't any Thunderbolts," I told him, although I couldn't quite believe it myself, "not anymore. It's just me, and that's still more than you can handle!"

I couldn't read his expression under the mask, but he sounded confident. "We'll see about that!" As his costume began to glow, I started to realize I was too late. He'd already stored up the power he needed--maybe not enough to skip town, but plenty to kick my ass.

As the heat build up inside my sonic bubble, I could feel the air pressure rising, making it harder to maintain the force field. It's hard to describe. If it had been the Hulk in there, pounding away at random spots, I probably could have reinforced the bubble. But with the pressure applied in every direction, the feedback became unbearable, until the whole thing burst like a balloon. The sonic feedback knocked me off my feet and left Sunstroke with a clear path out of the building.

"Another time, female," he gloated like some villain in a pulp novel. As he ran out the door, he spread his arms to unfurl "wings" hanging from his sides. His powers let him create thermal updrafts beneath him, and in no time he was airborne like some giant flying squirrel.

"Right now, jabroni," I muttered as I picked myself up off the floor. I'm not called "Songbird" for nothing. It's tough to sing up a bubble strong enough to hold a supervillain, but wings sturdy enough to hold my weight are pretty easy. With a running start I was in flight, and closing in fast on my quarry.

Sunstroke couldn't match me in maneuverability, but he could generate enough heat to keep me from getting close to him. Of course, the hotter he got the brighter he became, and a big glowy guy in the middle of the night sky was bound to attract more superheroes. If I kept him in a standoff, he'd run out of options, which worried me because he might get desperate and try something stupid.

"I won't go back to prison!" he insisted. "You can't lock me up indoors, away from the sun! I'll kill you if I have to!"

I circled around, boxing him in while keeping my distance. The best he could do now was turn up the heat and try to cook me, but that would only work if he could get close enough. He seemed to realize he wasn't fast enough to catch me if I didn't let him. I tried to keep his attention on me, keep him distracted. "Last I looked, Sunstroke, the worst charges on your record were multiple escape attempts. Maybe it's not worth busting out to lead a life that'll just get you thrown back in..."

"Enough! Enough of your idiotic redemption lectures!" Before I knew it, he realized he had one way to outrun me--he folded up his wings and went into a nosedive.

I sat there in the air for at least a second, wondering how I'd been stupid enough to miss that. As I went after him, the answer came to me--I'm used to being in a team, creating openings for other people, expecting them to have my back. I'd been working that way most of my adult life, and I'd gotten pretty damn good at it. Maybe I'd forgotten how to go solo.

Sunstroke pulled up from his dive about twenty feet above the pavement, and he had to know he couldn't get away from me like that again. If I didn't stop him soon, he was going to start looking for someone to hurt, to give me something more important to worry about. I swooped down towards him as he glided into an intersection, thinking more about catching up to him than what he might try when I got there. So when he let off a flash of light, brighter than anything I've ever seen, I was completely unprepared.

I could hear cars honking and screeching into the curb, but I couldn't see a thing. I kept flying, though, and somehow I managed to collide with Sunstroke. At least, it sounded like him. "Unhand me, woman!" he blustered. In the commotion, he seemed to forget that he could have turned up the heat to get me loose. And that meant I had him.

I've been a superhero for a few years, but I've been a professional wrestler since I was nineteen. I met my trainer in prison, and she taught me every trick in the book. Especially the shoot holds you use when some mark tries to prove you're all fake. So while Sunstroke was telling himself he could easily overpower a woman half his size, I was rolling him over into a joint lock. It's kind of hard to describe--it's easier to do it than to tell you about it.

"Screaming" Mimi Schwartz, they called me. But I wasn't the one doing the screaming. Sunstroke can tell you all about it.

So there we were: Lying in the middle of the street, with me blind and wrapped around his back, and him crying like a three-year-old. I counted about five ways I could have been killed, and when I felt him warming up I thought of a couple more. So I wrenched the hold a little and bluffed him. "Pay real close attention, you son of a bitch! You might be able to fry me loose, but I guarantee you'll need shoulder surgery before that happens!"

He didn't buy it; I didn't expect him to. What little there was in his psych eval said he was pompous and arrogant about his abilities. I suppose if I had all the powers of the sun I wouldn't back down from some girl named after a sparrow. He had to be at least 100 degrees but I just clamped down tighter. "I'm not stupid, Sunstroke," I added. "I know you're good, I know you can kill me. But I'm not some Avenger that's gonna let you go so she go to her mansion and put out an APB on you while you escape. I'm an ex-con, I fight dirty when I have to, and you've pissed me off. You need to ask how far you'll go, because I'll go five steps further."

I started to wonder if I was losing feeling in my skin, but then I realized he was finally cooling down. I relaxed the hold, but I made sure he knew I still had the leverage. I was real quiet after that--no point in rubbing it in his face that he'd submitted, especially since I wasn't sure I could restrain him until the cops showed up.

Turns out I didn't have to wait long. At least, I think so--I lost track of time when my eyes were all screwed up. All I know is that I heard: "NYPD, ma'am. I'm gonna need you to stand down now."

"Lieutenant Stone?" Fortunately I never forget a voice. "Hope you brought Code: Blue, because I've got an arm-load of supervillain right here."

"We can take it from here," he assured me. After I turned Sunstroke loose and heard him being strapped into some sort of techno-restraints, he added, "I'll need you to answer a few questions...'Rogue,' isn't it?"

"Songbird," I corrected. This happens all the time.

"That's right...the Thunderbolts..." I knew he'd remember. After all, this is New York. I saved UN Headquarters from collapsing one time. Of course, before that I also aided and abetted the destruction of Four Freedoms Plaza. But I'm getting better.

"Don't sweat it, Hill Street Blues, I got this." I recognized that voice too, although I didn't know why I was hearing it. "Miss Gold and I have some business to discuss first."

"We do?" I asked.

"See, you don't know," he quipped, "because we haven't discussed it yet." Before I knew it he'd wrapped his arms around my waist, and I could hear the hum of ion engines. "I would let you carry me, but until your vision clears up I think I'd better drive." We were airborne in seconds.

By the time I could see anything, I had a pretty good view of the Manhattan skyline. I assume I was on the balcony of one of Tony Stark's penthouses. My first clue was that Iron Man was pouring me a drink. Except for his helmet, every chunk of that heavy armored suit was in place as he stomped over and carefully handed me a crystal flute that looked like it cost more than the hooch.

"Champagne?" I realized. "I thought you were a recovering alcoholic."

"You're a recovering supervillain," he deadpanned, "but you can walk by a bank without robbing it."

"Fair enough. Why are we--" I noticed he was staring at my scalp, and gave him the stink eye. "Why are we celebrating?"

"Fascinating," he muttered, like he was examining the streaks in my hair follicle by follicle. "No roots. I don't suppose the carpet matches the drapes..."

"Stark..."

"You are celebrating," he said, as if interrupting his own train of thought, "because I'm about to offer you a spot in the Avengers. I am celebrating because you're about to say yes."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Being sure of stuff is my whole deal," he grinned. "It kind of goes with the devil-may-care attitude, the experimental self-performed heart surgery, that sort of thing..."

I was already getting tired of his crap. "Fine, whatever...let's back up. Why are you even making this offer?"

"You're a bottom-line kind of girl," Iron Man smiled. "I want you to know I respect that a lot." He probably thought he looked like an irresistible playboy, and maybe if I was the centerfold he took me for, he might have. But to me he was the guy who sold used cars next door to my parents' trailer park. "Bottom line: Cap and I talked, and we decided the Avengers have to get bigger. To him that means an army and to me that means thinking outside the box. Either way we have to recruit people we never considered before...and people who said 'no' the last time."

"And the Avengers sent you to change my mind?"

"Well, I wanted Cap to handle it, but he didn't think you'd go for it."

"I'm surprised Hawkeye and Luke Cage didn't volunteer," I lied.

"Yeah, well, I don't know how they did things in the Thunderbirds or Thundercats or whatever it was, but in the big leagues things like this are on a need-to-know basis..."

Somehow I knew it. "They're your teammates, Stark, and you don't trust them any more than you trust me."

"Oh..." He sounded more...impressed than insulted. "I see what you did there. That was a ploy.  Cute. But you've got it backwards--I'm their teammate, so they trust me to handle this stuff without bugging them about it."

"Well, I don't trust you," I shot back, and turned to fly away.

"But you trust Baron Zemo, is that it?" Now he sounded insulted. "Zemo and...and the rest. The Beetle. Moonstone.  Really Big "A" Man?  Um...Lion-O. Lady Penelope..."

I was through being polite. "I trusted the Thunderbolts to live up to my expectations--it wasn't a high hurdle, but they cleared it. I expected the Avengers to do better. You asked me to keep an eye on Zemo for you, and you used my intel to make a bad situation worse.  You--"

"You mean that whole 'Cobalt Man' thing, right?" Like it was nothing to him. "That was only a trainwreck because--"

"I'm still talking!" I shouted. "You pulled your registration act gimmick and half the Avengers turned on you. Captain America turned. Hawkeye turned. Luke Cage turned. But they all work in your fancy tower now. I sided with you, let you remake the Thunderbolts in your image. So I get pumped full of electro-nanites and have the Green Goblin frog-marching me around the country until he orders the team to kill me. In the end, no more Thunderbolts, no more job. All I have to show for trusting Tony Stark is Tony Stark talking down to me while he asks for more favors."

"You're--you're missing the point." I was exasperating him. Good. This was the closest he'd come to dropping his smarmy "charm" act and shooting with me. "I'm not asking for anything, I'm doing you a favor. You got your ass burned?  I'm here to kiss it and make it better."

"Excuse me?"

The glare I shot him made him rethink his choice of words. "Look, Candystripe, let's face facts. One: You don't like me. Fine. About two-thirds of the Avengers can't stand me either, but we make it work. Two: You're unemployed, and the only thing you're really good at is being a superhero. And I don't mean the whole Punisher thing where he pretends he isn't one. You wear flashy tights and fly around town clobbering bad guys with your voice--you're a superhero. Three: The only career paths for a superhero are 'join the Avengers, mooch off Stark' or 'whatever Tagak the Leopard Lord is up to these days.'"

"Then maybe I should be talking to him," I said, and climbed up onto the ledge.

"Songbird, wait!" He began to walk towards me, but I stepped further out and he realized I'd fly away immediately if he tried to stop me. "I've seen a lot of people play superhero, and the ones who go it alone usually don't make it. You need a support structure, to back you up with financing and guidance. It's the only way to make it work."

"No, it's the only way to make it work for you," I corrected. I spread out my arms, transformed my voice into wings, and took to the air. Before I left, I couldn't resist one last parting shot. "And Stark, you really need to work on that last part of the pitch, because it reminds me of the last time someone tried to recruit me for the Masters of Evil."

I spent the next hour soaring through Manhattan, feeling pretty good about the whole thing. I hadn't thought about how much I'd blamed Iron Man for all the crap I'd been through lately, and it was good to let it out. I suppose when I was with the T-bolts, I had to play nice with the Avengers, to set a good example for the real malcontents I worked with. I suddenly felt...free. I didn't have the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. hanging over my head, there weren't any Thunderbolts for me to babysit, and I'd even collared the last guy who broke out of prison on my watch. From now on, I could do whatever I wanted.

Then I realized I had no idea what I wanted to do.

 

NEXT: Hawkguy

Chapter Text

There were six Thunderbolts in the begining: me, Mach-V, Atlas, the Fixer, Baron Zemo, and Moonstone. At least, those were the names the others were using the last time I saw each of them. Zemo and Atlas are back in prison. Fixer is dead, or something like that. Moonstone went missing. Mach-V changes his call sign with each new version of his jet-suit, so I just call him "Abe." But he's mostly doing government R&D now, so there haven't been any crazy new upgrades lately.

This isn't the first time I've been the only one left. Last time, the others got sucked into a parallel Earth, and I thought they were all dead for weeks. That's when I realized these people were my family--even if most of them have tried to kill me--and that I would be lost without them. I got through that because of Clint Barton.

Hawkeye thought he understood the Thunderbolts because he'd been an outlaw once himself. He was wrong, but he still helped us a lot. He started out barking orders and making speeches, but eventually he got dirty enough from hanging around us that he began to fit in. Clint was the first superhero who ever treated me like one of his peers--not just proud of me for rising to his level, but humble enough to admit "his level" isn't such hot stuff.

So when I needed superhero advice, he was the man I wanted to see. It turned out he had some things to say to me too. Starting with: "Move your ass!"

I did, and narrowly avoided a tendril of fabric that cracked a brick wall. I was maybe five blocks away from Clint's Bed-Stuy brownstone when I found him fighting the Crimson Cowl out in the street. Well, a Crimson Cowl--it's hard to keep track of who's really under that cloak. Especially when that cloak moves like it's alive, and attacks like a flying octopus.

"Nice to see you, Songbird!" he called as soon as he had a chance. "Just like old times!"

She was already shifting her tactics, dividing her offense between the two of us. I threw up a quick wall of sound to shield myself for a moment while I got more information. "Is it the same Cowl we fought in Symkaria?"

"Beats me!" Hawkeye answered as he rolled away from those weird cape-strikes. He was staying a step ahead of her, but it wasn't buying him time to shoot back. "She's probably the one I ran into at Madripoor..."

He gave me a little nod, and I smiled back. "That'd make it...what? Three Crimson Cowls I've fought?"

"At least five for me, S.B.! And I gotta say, most of 'em couldn't hold a candle to ol' Ultron-5..."

That got her to break her silence. "Pfah! You prattle in vain, Avenger!" Right on cue, she focused her offense all on Hawkeye--I suppose that crack about Ultron hit a nerve. "You won't live long enough to compromise my identity...no one will!"

Let me break kayfabe for a second. Everybody's heard about how superheroes and supervillains talk all the time during battles. Generally the bad guys only do it out of a compulsion to explain their motivations--it's the same craving for attention that makes them commit crimes in wacky costumes. But the good guys...well, some of them are just plain blabbermouths, but the real pros know it can distract an opponent. Hawkeye's the master at it, and I'm no slouch myself. Maybe that's why we get along so well--he's a carny, I'm a worker, and the bad guys are our rubes.

Once the Cowl's attention was on Clint, I launched myself into the air and speared her from behind. As soon as I had a waistlock cinched in, I added insult to injury. "Not so fast, lady! That cape of yours isn't much good in close quarters, is it?"

Actually, it was and I knew it. "Think what you want, fool!" she taunted, just before the cloak fell around me and broke my grip on her. It only took a second or two for her to wrap me up like a burrito, although with a couple of sonic fields pushing outward, I didn't make it easy for her to keep me wrapped up. Not that I was trying to get out, mind you. That wasn't the plan.

The plan was for me to keep the Cowl's entire cape occupied, leaving her wide open for Clint. Now he finally had a chance to pick his gear up off the street, draw an arrow, and take his shot. Of course, he only had a second to take aim, and any shot at the Cowl would risk hitting me. But I wasn't worried--Hawkeye's the best.

I heard a crack, and felt the fabric loosen against my shields. I broke my fall with a sonic cushion, and looked up to see the Crimson Cowl curled up on the pavement, out cold next to a stun arrow.

"So what do you think?" Clint asked as he started tying her up. "Justin Hammer's daughter again?"

"With our luck, there's no way it's that simple." I reached down to pull away her hood, and groaned. "See what I mean?"

He did. "Aw, nuts...who the heck is this?"

"I've met her before. Alice Nugent, some sort of telecommunications expert. She was Doctor Spectrum for a couple of months."

"Was she a good Doctor Spectrum or a bad Doctor Spectrum?" He must have seen the look on my face, because he withdrew the question. "Never mind--with our luck, there's no way it's that simple. Why would she become the Crimson Cowl?"

"No idea," I admitted. "For all we know, she's just a patsy set up to take the fall for the 'real' Cowl somewhere."

"Crap crap crap," Hawkeye muttered. "You know how much paperwork this is gonna be? I wonder if we could just tie her to a lamppost and leave a note for the cops."

"Clint..."

"What? Spider-Man does it all the time. No reports to file, no depositions..."

"I know, he did it to a friend of mine. Walked away with a mistrial."

"Oh."

I constructed a sonic stretcher to transport the prisoner, and then gave him my two cents. "Look, you said you saw the Cowl in Madripoor, right? Then it's an international case--dump it in SHIELD's lap, let Coulson sort it out. They must have a secret base around here someplace..."

"Nah, I got it. I've got a direct line to SHIELD since I joined the Secret Avengers."

"What the hell are the Secret Avengers?"

"It's...y'know..." For a minute I thought I broke his brain. "It's the Avengers. Only it's a secret. To everybody."

"Then why are you telling me?"

"Dammit..."

***

After we wrapped that up, we went back to his place. Which sounds...that doesn't mean what it sounds like.

OK, here's the dirty little secret. I made a pass at Hawkeye one time. It was a mistake and I hated myself almost as soon as I did it. If he'd been a different sort of man, we would have had the Hindenburg of all love affairs. But he handled it like a champ, and he understood. "You had a tough life, kid," he said to me, "been taught there's only one way to relate to a guy." And he was right.

What I didn't know, until I first met the Black Widow, is that he understood because he's the same way with women. He talked me down that night to keep us both out of trouble. Once I realized Clint was maybe as screwed up as I was, that changed everything. Men weren't all white knights and/or slimeballs. They could just be regular messed-up people, who'd watch my back if I'd watch theirs.

So Hawkeye and I are just friends. Friends who both have co-dependency issues, and have travelled up and down the road together, and would probably leap on each other in a second if we weren't trying so damned hard to be just friends. Yeah.

That's the tension Clint was trying to cut when he poured me coffee and started talking shop. "So what happened to your sonic thingamajig? I thought you needed it to use your powers."

I forgot we hadn't seen each other since I stopped using the sonic carapace. "Not anymore," I explained. "It's really just the cybernetics in my larynx that create the sonic fields. I only needed the harness to modulate and direct the frequency, because my parietal implant was damaged."

"Uh-huh," he said, barely pretending to understand. "What happened?"

"I...um..." I wasn't ready to tell the whole story. Not yet. "A mad scientist gave me brain surgery."

"Uh-huh. So...what's next for the ol' T-bolts?"

"Not much," I admitted. "Our federal advisory committee was busted for corruption. The supervillains we were supposed to rehabilitate all escaped. Luke Cage retired. That just leaves me, Abe, and Gunna."

"Gunna?"

"An Asgardian teenager...raised by rock trolls. We caught her during a mission, and she was in sort of a legal limbo after that, so..."

Hawkeye could connect the dots. "One big happy family, huh? Seems like the start of a new team--more like what we had back in Colorado..."

"No," I leveled with him, "it's just not the same. The Thunderbolts can't just exist for the sake of existing. We always needed to do something. First it was 'take over the world' and then it was 'stay out of jail,' and by the time you joined it was more like 'prove we can redeem ourselves.' After we disbanded the first time, Abe started a new team to try to redeem all the other supervillains, but that barely worked until we got government backing. Now there's no backing and nobody to rehabilitate."

"Yeah?" he huffed. "Tell that to the Crimson Cowl, why don'cha?"

"You know what I mean. You can't just stick any bad guy in the T-bolts, hoping they'll be good. They have to be struggling for something, or they just get frustrated and quit. In the last version of the team, everybody was just in it for the prison furloughs, and that only worked until they had a chance to escape."

"So what'll you do now?"

"I don't know. Iron Man asked me to join the Avengers last night, but I..."

"Look, kid..." He reached for my hand and clasped it in his own. "I know you've never seen eye to eye with the Avengers. But what was the point of all that Thunderbolts business if you don't take the next step?"

At this point, I could barely stand to look him in the eye. He's always seen me like the top student from his Thunderbolts days, and it's a lot of pressure to live up to that. But it's also so damned flattering, and part of me--the part that always gets me into trouble--wanted to reach over and kiss him. I wanted him to keep telling me how great I am, and I wanted to give him reasons not to stop. Naked reasons.

But that was the easy way out, and that was the problem. "I know you think that's the next step, Clint, but I've got to find my own way. And that can't just be about belonging on a team, or..." My voice cracked; I was afraid this part would sound too vulnerable, and lead him on. "...or living up to someone else's expectations."

"Well, I..." I was right; he pulled his hand back. "Don't feel like you gotta do anything on my account. But if you're flying solo, then, where does that leave you?"

"That's what I've been trying to figure out. I've been in one team or another since I first went to prison. The Grapplers, the Masters of Evil, the T-bolts...I've never thought much about my goals except staying in those groups or switching to another. Even when I was running the Thunderbolts it was more about mentoring the others than leading them where I wanted to go."

"OK," he said. "So now that you've got 'me time,' what do you want to do?"

It took me way too long to settle on an answer. "Be a superhero, I guess. But what does that even mean? Flying around Manhattan waiting for trouble?"

"Usually. For the ones who can fly, I mean. Me, I just keep my ear to ground."

"Yeah, no, pretty sure I'm better at talking than listening." I took a long sip of coffee and mulled it over in my head. "There must be a less passive way to do it."

"Like what? Scream for all the crooks to meet you in Central Park?"

"I just mean...take last night for instance. I knew Sunstroke was loose, so I tracked him down before he could hurt anyone."

"But any cop coulda done most of that," Clint countered. "They can prevent crimes just fine on their own. They only need our help with that if the perp resists arrest, and that means the crime's already started."

"We have to do more than just put out fires," I argued. "We could combat the root causes of super-crime, or identify future offenders before they get the power to destroy cities."

"No offense, but that sounds more like somethin' Baron Zemo would come up with."

"Yeah, well, Zemo knew how to get stuff done." I had to stop myself from slapping him--he didn't mean anything by it. "I'm sorry if that's too 'Masters of Evil' for you, Clint. But I was a Master of Evil. And I like the idea of taking what worked from those days and using it to do the right thing."

"Then maybe I can't help you," he quipped. He stood up and started to walk away. "I already taught you to be a hero. Unless you wanna take up archery, that's all I got."

"Hey..." I went after him, and pulled him back towards me. "Don't do that. You always help."

He was hanging his head like a scolded puppy. "It's just...you want to change the game, and I'm only good at playing it the way it is. I'm just some schlub just trying to make a difference, the only way he knows how. You don't see it because when I was runnin' the T-bolts I wanted you all to think I was somebody special, someone to look up to."

I'd never seen him like this--so self-effacing and morose. Before I knew it I had my arms around his waist, and my head on his shoulder. "You're special to me, Clint," I insisted. "Do you...do you have any idea how hard it is to come here, and admit I don't want to follow in your footsteps? After everything you've done for us? For me?"

"Aw, geez," he muttered, too proud to admit he needed that. And then our eyes met. And we realized where we were. And each of us knew the other wouldn't stop it if we just...

We both pulled away at the same time. Hawkeye had this expression like he'd accidentally felt up a nun. "Okay," he stammered. "This looks bad..."

"Don't..."

"Hang on, lemme explain..."

"You don't have to..." I rubbed my forehead and tried to summon the words. "Look. I know what you were thinking because I was thinking the same thing."

"Uh, no you weren't..."

"I'm tired, I'm stressed out, and I'd like to get laid," I admitted. "And I know I could coax you into it, and it'd be fun, but that'd be so wrong."

This time I knew I broke his brain. "OK, maybe you were."

"I think you beat yourself up for things everybody does." I mulled it over and amended that. "Well, maybe the Avengers never think with their hormones, but the rest of us do. Maybe you can keep up with gods and super-soldiers and spymasters, Clint, but that doesn't mean you have to live up to their standards. You're only human, like me."

"Okay," he finally muttered. "Okay, I hear you. Maybe that's your true calling--you can go around telling people how not to do anything stupid. So where were we, then?"

"Actually..." I scanned around for the nearest clock. "I should get going. Gunna gets a little fussy if I'm not there when she falls asleep."

"Heh. Tell her Uncle Hawkeye says hi." I was on the window ledge, halfway onto the fire escape, when he added, "Melissa..."

"Yeah?"

"If you decide someday...I mean, if it stopped being so wrong..."

"Good night, Clint." I turned to fly away, as quickly as I could. Because he needed me to be the responsible one, to let him off the hook. But I couldn't be, not for much longer. I wanted him. And I as I flew over the East River, it was all I could do not to turn around, and let myself have him.

NEXT: Naked reasons.

Chapter Text

After I left Hawkeye's place, I should have gone back to my apartment in Manhattan. If I'd known what would happen, I would have.

Instead I flew west, to Abe's house in New Jersey. Actually, I touched down about three blocks away, and went the rest of the way on foot, trying my best to look like a nighttime jogger. I didn't want anyone to notice me, or see where I was going, and it had nothing to do with secret identities or superhero business. I knew I was making a mistake, and I was ashamed of myself.

I climbed over his fence and knocked on the back door. After what felt like three hours, he answered. "Mel?" he said as he opened the door. "What are you doing here?"

The time for subtlety was over--I pushed my way past him and slammed the door behind me. I bit my lip and gave him a look that said everything I didn't want to tell him: I don't want to talk and I don't want to think, because then I might not go through with this.

He hesitated. Hawkeye wouldn't have, and that's why it felt so wrong to take advantage of him. But Abe knew better, so I knew he could take care of himself. And me.

I walked up and kissed him, as brazenly as he kissed me that first time. He pushed away, sort of like I did back then, and maybe he was just as afraid of getting too close. We still loved each other, but so much had changed...we were just friends now. He didn't want to screw that up. I didn't care.

"Melissa," he whispered, "I..."

"Shhh..." I leaned in and kept kissing. "I'll leave if you want. But you'd better tell me now."

Abe locked the door.

I smiled, more to encourage him than because I was happy with myself. I felt miserable, but I knew how to kill the pain. Without another word, I sank to my knees in the middle of his kitchen, and unbuckled his belt...

***

I'm not going to go over what happened next.

Look, I'm no prude. I don't have anything against casual sex, I'm just not very good at it. The "casual" part, that is. When I feel alone, or frightened, or depressed, I climb all over the first guy who'll take care of me. So every time I do that it's a major commitment.

That's how it started with Abe, back when he was Mach-1 and I was scared to death. I was lucky he turned out to be a great guy, but if he'd been a total creep I probably would have latched onto him all the same. We fit into each other's fantasies--I got to have a protector and he got to have a pretty girl inspiring him to become better. After a while we saw past that, and we still loved each other, but it wasn't the same. Our romance made us grow up, but we ended up outgrowing the romance.

I still love Abe, in an "it's complicated" kind of way. But sleeping with him that night wasn't about love, or even just having a good time. It was all about me avoiding my problems, and retreating to an old fantasy where he'd take care of me and all I had to do was be a good girlfriend. I knew better than that, but that night I just couldn't help myself. I had the same problem with smoking. It turns out cigarettes are easier to quit.

***

Around four-thirty in the morning I woke up with that weird feeling when you realize you're not in your own bed, and I couldn't get back to sleep. Abe was out cold (yes, I am that good), and for a while I indulged myself listening to his heart beat. But the longer I laid there, the more time I had with my own thoughts, and all I could think about was how I'd used him. I had to make up for it somehow.

He came to about twenty minutes later, when I was setting a tray down in front of him. "Rise and shine, cutie!" I chirped. "Breakfast is served!"

"Wha...well, hey," he mumbled. "You didn't have to go and do that..."

"No, I kind of did." I climbed back into bed and pulled up my own tray. The handy thing about being able to generate solid-sound fields is that you can serve breakfast in bed from under the covers. "I wanted to do something nice since I can't sleep in. I've got to get back to Manhattan soon."

"Damn, I forgot about Gunna...I'm sorry..."

"Don't worry about it," I said between mouthfuls of hash browns. "I called Doreen ahead of time, and she had no problem staying with her overnight. You don't have anything to be sorry about."

Abe smiled and wrapped his arm around me. "I'm not sure how to feel, really. It's been a long time...and you did drop in out of nowhere."

"But you enjoyed it."

"Of course! It's just...you're special to me, Melissa. I don't want anything to mess that up."

"Then don't worry so much," I told him, but I shouldn't have. He was right, and more importantly he was the only one in the bedroom putting our relationship first. I was just using the relationship to make myself feel better, and I didn't want to deal with the consequences. "You're okay, I'm okay--why ruin it by overanalyzing it?"

Abe nibbled on his toast and thought it over. "Yeah. Yeah, maybe you're right, honey..."

I liked it when he called me that. I never wanted him to stop. "Good. Then maybe next time we should do this at my place..."

Suddenly there was a pounding sound downstairs. It was way too late for a visitor, but it definitely sounded like someone knocking on the front door. It shouldn't have been that upsetting, but after everything we've lived through, Abe and I immediately assumed the worst.

"You'd better answer it," I told him, fetching his bathrobe with a pair of sonic pincers. "Whoever it is thinks you're the only one here. I'll have your back."

Abe nodded and threw the robe around himself as he fumbled out of the room. I decided my Songbird costume was a little too conspicuous, and tried on one of his shirts. I was trying to decide what to do with my hair when I heard Abe opening the door, followed by a familiar voice.

"Mister Jenkins, thank goodness you're home! I didn't know where to find Miss Gold..."

"Doreen?" I came down the stairs before I had a chance to think about how I looked--hair tousled, last night's makeup smudged, and wearing nothing but a man's shirt. I might as well have made a sign saying "Guess Who Just Did Something Stupid Last Night." But I didn't have time to worry about that anymore.

"Miss Gold? Gosh, I wasn't expecting to find you here!" Yeah, that was the idea. "I couldn't reach you anywhere..." Also the idea. "...so I thought I should contact one of your old teammates, but I couldn't remember which of them are good guys and which of them are bad guys..." Tell me about it. "...so I sent my squirrels out to investigate..." Oh lord. "...and Tippy-Toe thought I could trust Mr. Jenkins, so..."

Doreen Green is...um. Look, just google "Squirrel Girl." That'd be easier.

What matters is that she helped take care of Luke Cage's baby when he was in the Avengers and the Thunderbolts, and Luke recommended her when I needed someone to keep an eye on Gunna. Considering the kid is as strong as Thor and as wild as a three-year-old, Doreen has done an amazing job with her. It would take something extremely serious for her to Abe's house before dawn.

"Take it easy," I told her, and led her into the living room. "You can trust Abe, and you found me, so good work. What's wrong? Is Gunna all right?"

"I don't know!" she cried, and collapsed onto the couch. "She was kidnapped! Oh golly, Miss Gold, I swear nothing like this has ever happened--"

My blood ran cold and I wanted to scream. I blamed myself. But Doreen was already killing herself over this, and she needed someone to keep it together. "We'll find her. I promise. Just tell me what happened, from the beginning."

"Well...she was cranky after I told her you weren't coming back last night..." Aaagghhh, shoot me now. "So I ordered a pizza. I thought it was the delivery boy when I answered the door, but...but...he just sprayed me with some kind of gas! And it knocked me out cold! Gosh, I think it must've been knockout gas!"

I tried to help her focus. "So this man must've taken Gunna with him, or at least he's the last one who saw her before she disappeared."

"Do you remember what he looked like?" Abe suggested.

"Let me think... He was definitely bald. And there was this thing on his eye...a glowy red light? Like when Captain Picard turned into a Borg?"

Abe and I immediately stared at one another. We were thinking the same thing, but I had to be sure. I sang, and my bionics shaped the sound into a face. "Did he...did he look like this?"

"That's him!" she exclaimed. "I forgot about the little beard-thing under his lip! Who is he?"

"The Fixer," Abe muttered. "One of the Thunderbolts. But...but we were told he was dead."

I started to tear up, but I refused to cry. Someone had to be tough. Someone had to take charge. "Then we've got two mysteries to solve," I said, stonefaced. "Doreen, go back to my place and wait for us."

"I can't do that, Miss Gold! If you're going to look for Gunna, I have to help! This is...this is all my --"

"No." I knelt down in front of her and looked her straight in the eye. "This was not your fault. You did everything you could have. But if anyone can find the Fixer, it's me and Abe. That means I need you at the apartment, in case Gunna finds her own way back home."

"But..."

"Look, I know that sucks, but I'm counting on you, kiddo."

She seemed awestruck, but she nodded and straightened her shoulders. "Okay...okay, Songbird, if you say so." She started out the door, but turned back one last time. "Just remember to call if you run into any trouble!"

"I promise," I told her, mostly to get her to hurry up and leave.

As soon as she was gone, Abe couldn't help but comment on my big speech. "'Kiddo?'"

"You used to call me that," I shrugged. "Always made me felt like you knew what you were doing. I figured she needed that..."

"Melissa? Are you all ri--"

"Oh, Abe!" I was not all right. I threw myself into his arms and pressed my head against his chest. "If it's really Bert, what's he up to? We can't trust him, can we?"

"I don't know..." he admitted. "I thought I could, those last few months, but..." I felt him stroking my hair, and it just made me want to break down even more. "I'm more worried about what we're dealing with if it's not him..."

He had a point--I could at least guess what the Fixer would be up to, but not a Skrull, or a Replicoid, or an Asgardian sorcerer. That was when it sank in that literally anything could have happened to Gunna, and when I started crying.

"I shouldn't have left her..." I sobbed.

"Mel, you're not to blame any more than Doreen--"

"I SHOULDN'T HAVE LEFT HER!!!"

The glass in the front door cracked. At least two dogs started barking outside. Abe fell on his ass, his hands pressed against his ears.

"No!" I whispered, and frantically knelt down to help him. "Honey, I'm so sorry... Can you hear me? I didn't mean to--"

It felt like ages before he recovered enough to answer me. "I'm...I'm okay, babe. It's all right..." He sat up and saw me trembling beside him. "I mean it, Mel. You mostly just surprised me, that's all."

He reached over to me, and I started to back off--the last thing I wanted to do was hurt him again. But as soon as his hand touched my shoulder I couldn't resist, and I let him pull me into another embrace. "What the hell is wrong with me?" I blubbered. "I could have killed y--Abe, I--"

"Just let it out, kiddo," he said. "Squirrel Girl's not here, and neither are the T-bolts. And you sure don't have to pretend you're invincible around me."

"I--I'm such an idiot," I stammered. "I'm the closest thing Gunna has to...to a parent. I don't have any right to abandon her just because I feel like sleeping with you..."

"You didn't abandon her. This isn't like what your mother did--"

"We don't--we don't have time for this. We have to find her."

He reached into his pocket and showed me a remote control. "I already started pre-flight sequences on the Mach-V armor. I can't suit up for another twenty minutes." He stuck to his guns. "You're not like your mother, Melissa."

"How would you know?" I snapped.

"Because you told me all about it, remember? She went off on some crazy love affair and left you to fend for yourself. Just because she could do that to you doesn't mean you're capable of doing that to Gunna."

"I..." On the bright side, being speechless meant I couldn't blow out Abe's eardrums. But I just couldn't talk about my mother. Not directly. "I believed in...Gunna believes in me. She depends on me. If I let her down she'd never forgive me..."

"We aren't gonna let her down," he assured me. "But I'm just the gadget guy. You're the one with the head for this superhero stuff. What's our first move, boss?"

I smiled in spite of myself, and started wiping away my tears. "We...we suit up, we find Gunna, and we kick somebody's ass." I pulled myself back onto my feet, and summoned up the strength to table my issues. Melissa Gold was still a hot mess, but Songbird was back in business.

"That's the spirit!" Abe replied as I helped him up. "Meet me in the hangar when you're ready."

I watched him stride off to his hangar--okay, okay, his garage, but I don't know anyone else who keeps a jet-suit in their garage. He thought of me as the professional superhero, but in a lot of ways he was my hero. And as I stood there all I could think about was how I would repay him for his help...how much he'd enjoy his reward, and how he'd appreciate me like he did last night.

So yeah, Songbird was back in business, but Melissa Gold was still a very hot mess.

NEXT: The fix is in.

Chapter Text

I was eleven when Mom abandoned me.

If it had gone according to plan, I probably never would have found out what happened. She'd have just been gone, and Dad might have told me she died or something. But she didn't just skip town; she ran off with this guy, and they decided to rob an old man to fund their new life. They got caught, and it became the hot gossip all over Shoshoni. I didn't want to think she was in jail, so I ran away from home to figure out what really happened to her. Instead I found out how easy it is to become a criminal.

I understood why Mom wanted to leave. Dad smacked us around, and looking back she probably took the worst of it. I just couldn't come to grips with the idea that she'd leave me behind. If she had asked me to come with her, I'd have said yes. I'd have done anything to help her. It took me years to accept the truth: I was one of the things she wanted to escape. Maybe not me personally. But she wanted to run off on this "Bonnie & Clyde" romance, and having a daughter in that fantasy was...inconvenient. So she...she just stopped having a daughter.

I couldn't understand how she could do that, until I spent that night with Abe. I'm not Gunna's mother, but she's damn sure my responsibility. I could have been there when she was abducted. It's not like there was a prison riot or a Skrull invasion keeping me busy. There was no good reason for me to be gone. I couldn't even say I had a good excuse to have a night to myself, because I already knew sleeping with Abe was a bad idea. It was selfish, it was stupid, and it was reckless. Years ago my mother felt like scoring with some guy was more important than taking care of her kid. Now I knew what it was like to feel that, and it scared me.

Flying helped clear my head a little. I don't know if it did Abe any good, though. It's a totally different experience for him. Sometimes it hits me how many instruments he's got packed into his Mach-V suit, and that he has to keep track of them all to keep himself airborne. Me, I just make the sonic wings and let the flying part work itself out. He's a plane, I'm a bird.

We were almost to Edison when those instruments of his picked something up. "OK, that's weird."

"Weird?" I asked.

"I haven't been to Bert's place in months," he explained. "We did most of our R&D at Thunderbolts Tower. And Bert hasn't been to the house since..."

"Since he took the tower back in time." We both knew he never returned from that trip; no need to come out and say it. "So?"

"So I can't establish a connection with his security system. It doesn't say my codes are invalid, it just says the facility is 'in use.'"

"What does that mean?"

"It means..." he struggled with how to put it. "Most of the time I was welcome to visit, but you know what a lech he could be. This was his way of leaving a sock on the doorkob."

Oh yeah, I knew what a lech the Fixer could be. He was a brilliant engineer, and a vital asset to any team that recruited him. But it was like he wasn't comfortable around women unless he was constantly reminding them that he was having dirty thoughts about them. I could only imagine what he got up to when he was alone.

So I understood Abe's point. It'd be one thing if someone had broken into the building and changed the locks, but nobody would think to put that "sock on the doorkob" except Norbert Ebersol. Who was dead. At least, that's what we were told.

This is at least the fourth time I've thought the Fixer was gone. The way superheroes joke about this kind of thing, you'd think it would get easier each time. It doesn't--it just means you go through the same grief over and over. Knowing he came back before doesn't make it feel any less final. Not being sure if he'll come back again just makes it worse.

"If it's really him," I asked Abe, "why wouldn't he contact us?"

"I don't know," he said, but I think deep down we could guess. Bert was a Thunderbolt, and he was one of us...but that didn't mean he could be trusted. You could count on him to be true to himself, but if it served his purposes he had no problem betraying or abandoning an ally. If he was really alive, and didn't want to let us know, then it was a safe bet that we wouldn't like whatever he was up to.

When we reached the house, we circled around a couple of times to get the lay of the land, before touching down near his mailbox. By all appearances it was just another two-story building in Jersey, but we knew better. The Fixer had "terraformed" at least a dozen houses like this one across the country--excavating below the foundation and installing futuristic catacombs all the way to the bedrock. Getting inside was going to be like breaking into the SHIELD helicarrier.

We both stood there for a moment, like two kids waiting for the other to lead the way into a haunted house. "What now?" I finally said.

"You tell me. You're the leader."

"Of what? There's no team left!" I groaned. "What am I, the leader of one guy?"

"You were pretty bossy last night..."

"Yeah, but..." I chuckled. Then I just busted out laughing. "Dammit...this...heh...this is serious..."

"Okay, okay...look, I'll go in, you stay here. I'm the only one who's got a shot at unlocking the door anyway."

"You're sure?"

"Not really. But if I need somebody to pull me out of there with a giant sonic hand, I'll feel better knowing you're back here."

He had a point. I watched him trudge across the lawn (the Mach-V suit was much bulkier than the others) standing by to pull him back at the first sign of trouble. My focus was on Abe, so the furthest thing from my mind was Bert's mailbox. If not for my augmented hearing, I might never have noticed it faintly beeping.

I didn't want to yell across the yard, so I transmitted my voice to him via a sonic beam. "Abe, nobody's been delivering mail here, right?"

He knew I could hear him whisper from where I was standing. "Not since I talked to the post office."

"Then I think we must have triggered something."

"Try not to move," he said. "Maybe it'll give up and power down. I'm almost in--aw, crud--"

He needed help, but I was so worried about him that I forgot what we were dealing with. So when I saw a pulse of blue light envelop him in the doorway, I started to run to him, and that's what activated the perimeter defenses.

Some sort of shackle device must have sprung out of the ground and snagged my ankle, because I never saw it until I fell flat on my face. I turned to free myself and saw three more, moving across the lawn like shark fins towards the rest of my limbs. It only took me a few seconds to blast them away with solid sound. These things were designed to stop a prowler or a salesman, not someone like me.

I turned back towards the door and flew for the remaining ten yards. I had no idea what had hit Abe, but he was still standing--I suppose his armor protected him somehow. The problem now was that he was ensnared by metallic tentacles, trying to restrain his limbs just like the manacles I destroyed in the yard. Before I could try anything to free him, he fired his VTOL rockets, trying to use the thrust to shake himself loose. But the tentacles held on like rubber bands, stretching to keep him tethered and threatening to snap back.

"Hang on!" I called to him as I reached the porch. "I've got a clear shot!" But so did that weird blue ray, and when it blasted me I fell ass-over-teakettle.

By the time I shook it off, Mach-V had used up his rockets. All he had left to resist those tentacle things were his jets and whatever sharp turns he could manage, as they pulled him closer and closer to the door. Of course, that's where we wanted to go in the first place, but this wasn't the way we wanted to do it.

I stood up, ready to sing my heart out. Just as I opened my mouth, Abe turned and wrestled his right arm into his line of sight. "On your seven, babe!" he shouted as his gauntlet fired a missile right past my ear.

I turned to watch the missile pass me and hit another one of those shackle things coming out of the ground. I rolled away from the blast, just in case any more of those gizmos showed up. When I had a chance to look back to Mach-V, the tentacles had finally overpowered him--his attempt to help me had left him vulnerable--and he was being pulled into a hatch near the front door.

There was only a second left for me to do something. I could project a sonic field faster than that. But there wasn't enough time to figure out what to do with the field, that would save him without injuring him. I could only watch as he disappeared into the house.

"Abe?" I called out. "Abe?!?" For a moment--just for a moment--I fell to pieces. In the old days I felt helpless without Abe, and I was always terrified of what might happen if he wasn't there to have my back. The fear never really went away. I just learned what to do with it.

I stood up and planted both feet on the ground, put my hands up like I was gathering all that fear and anxiety up in a ball. Then I threw my arms back, as if I had let that ball loose. And I screamed at it.

"No!" I yelled. I didn't have to say anything, but it helped. A blast of pink sonic force torrented from my body. It was more than my voice, more than my volume--it was like funnelling every ounce of energy into a hurricane. "I'm not gonna lose Abe too! I don't care what you're up to, Fixer! You get your ass out here, or I'll tear this whole place down! You hear me, Fixer!"

"Songbird?"

I don't know that I expected a response, but I certainly wasn't expecting it to come from Bert's garage. I could hear a chain drive creaking as the door opened, but the inside looked like something out of Star Trek. And then a car rolled out--some crappy old cream-colored 1980s K-car. I could just picture somebody paying Bert $50 to haul it away from a junkyard. It was harder, though, to believe he redesigned it to say my name in his voice.

"Where the hell are you, Bert?" I felt like an idiot yelling at the empty car, but I figured it might be sending him a visual feed somehow. If he could see me, I wanted him to see how pissed I was.

"I suppose I'm indisposed at the moment," the car answered. The frame started to come apart and unfold, lifting itself up into a more humanoid shape. Duh--it wasn't just a car, it was a Transformer. I probably should have seen that coming. On top of that, I'd been so surprised by Bert's voice that I'd stopped blasting the house with sonic energy. So there I was, standing around like a moron while this jalopy turned into a fifteen-foot robot.

The robot had a head, and it leered at me. A chill ran down my spine, because I recognized that leer. This thing had the same mechanical face that Bert used the last time he'd turned himself into a robot. That wasn't a good sign. Neither was this contraption talking in riddles about its own identity.

"Ah," it said as its optical sensors initialized. "So it is you, Melissa. Interesting. I don't seem to have programmed myself to expect interference from you. Tch, oh well, can't prepare for everything." The robot lifted its arm, and an array of weaponry glowed as it aimed at my head. "Be a dear and stand still, will you?"

I answered him a solid-sound truck.

It was enough to knock the robot off it's...feet?...but I didn't expect it to slow him down for long. I knew that if this was Bert--or one of his creations--it wouldn't matter much if he'd prepared for me or not. He was the one who rebuilt my cybernetic larynx to create sonic fields in the first place. If anyone knew how to build something to withstand that kind of power, it was the Fixer.

"Well, that certainly didn't work," the robot announced. "But I can fix it."

NEXT: Songbird fights a robot