Monster

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“Have you ever asked yourself, do monsters make war, or does war make monsters?” -Laini Taylor

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10. Ten

The buzzing of a cell phone brought me out of my daze. I was still sitting on the kitchen floor rubbing my collarbone and thinking about cleaning up the trickle of blood he’d left behind. It was late, and I wasn’t expecting anyone to call, so the loud noise brought my attention back into sharper focus. I stood and found the phone on the counter. My sister’s name was flashing across the screen, so I accepted the call and brought it to my ear.

“Hello?” I asked, clearing my throat and trying to find my voice.

“Is he still there? Short answers. No details,” Tony replied.

“No.”

“Did he hurt you?” My collarbone ached and my chest burned. I hesitated to tell him the truth.

“No.”

“You think he’ll be back tonight? Should I call Rhodey? He’s on standby.”

“No. It’s fine.”

“Do you need any help? Anything at all?”

“No.”

“Alright—let me know if you need me.”

“I will.”

“Goodnight. Keep safe.”

“You too.”

I hung up and set the phone back down on the counter. My fingers weren’t shaking anymore, and now that the adrenaline had run its course, I was exhausted. But I had to get rid of the blood before it dried and stuck to the floor. So I went through the robotic motions of finding supplies. Then I sat down on the floor to wipe the blood away. But it left behind a smear of violent red on the floor. I had to shut my eyes and take a deep breath.

My commanding officer, Russell, used to make me count to four like I was imagining my heart beating along. It was how he kept me grounded when he thought I needed it. He reminded me to do it when we stood in an alleyway listening to the sound of gunfire, just moments before I watched a friend die right before my eyes.

“One, two. Three, four,” I whispered, imagining my heart beating along.

Blood never used to bother me so much. It didn’t seem to be a problem when I was putting sutures in Barnes’ arm, but now that it was smeared on the floor, my stomach felt queasy. I swore I could smell the sickly metallic scent hanging in the air. It reminded me of that day. With Tran’s blood still splattered on my face and a little girl bleeding out over my hands.

It was all in my head, I reminded myself. I couldn’t actually smell the blood. There wasn’t enough of it. I took another deep breath and counted all the things I could smell. Bleach, shampoo, and antiseptic cleansing wipes. No blood. I opened my eyes again, counting heartbeats, and washed it away.

I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw blood and felt my fingers digging into flesh in search of a slippery artery. Even though I hardly knew Steve, my house was more welcoming when he was there. So I paced back and forth in my bedroom, watching the shadows on the walls. It was a windless night, but the old house still creaked and groaned. Every sound made my heart jump into my throat. Romanoff called him a ghost, and my room was full of shadows.

I was too lost in my own thoughts to notice the rumble of a motorcycle engine. I jumped when the front door closed, but then remembered Barnes hadn’t made a sound at all. He’d slipped in and out of my house without me noticing. It had to be Steve. I could hear him do a quick check of the house like always. Romanoff said he was supposed to appear relaxed and comfortable, but it was in his nature to check. And Barnes probably would have found it suspicious if he didn’t. I heard him on the stairs and resumed pacing. I didn’t want him to catch me standing by the window, clutching my sweater around my shoulders like a timid deer.

“Hey, I thought you’d be asleep by now,” he said, opening the door and stepping into the room. He was casual. Stark must not have told him. He crossed the room, closer to me, and draped his jacket over the chair under the window. His shield came to rest beside it.

“Couldn’t sleep,” I said. He glanced around the room and then focused on my clutched hands. I was holding the sweater to myself, breathing too quickly. His eyes found mine, and they went from friendly to stern in half a second.

“The kitchen smells like bleach,” he whispered. Then Steve, the pretend boyfriend, disappeared and I saw Steve the Avenger. He moved his hand out to pull my clenched fist from my sweater to reveal my shoulders. There were scars on one side and the marks Barnes’ fingers left on the other. He looked at me again.

“Why didn’t you call me?” he asked.

“I thought Stark would have,” I admitted.

“Stark never tells me anything. Why does the kitchen smell like bleach?”

“He was injured. It was minor. At least what he let me see. I had to reset a broken wrist, and I managed to stitch most of a cut before he panicked and left.” I took a deep breath. “I don’t think he was ready to see you. He was—paranoid. Wouldn’t hold eye contact for long. Uncomfortable and agitated.”

“What was he afraid of?”

“I think he’s still under the impression that he has to kill you. Like he failed. And he gets physical when he’s overwhelmed.”

“He hurt you.”

“I’ve had worse, honestly. It’s nothing.”

His eyes flicked to my other shoulder, where the scars from a bullet wound were thick and visible in the darkness. He stepped away so I could pull the sweater back up over my shoulders. I went to the bed to pull the sheets back. I hated admitting how much safer I felt with Steve in the house. It was natural to be afraid of Barnes. If it had been any other intruder, I wouldn’t have felt so nervous. But most intruders weren’t trained killers with above-average strength and skill. If I didn’t have anything more powerful than a bracelet and a sparkly pink knife, at least I felt safer with another person. With equally powerful strength and skill.

He reached for the pillow I’d picked up, tossing it aside to pile on all the unnecessary bed decorations Romanoff’s team brought.

“You should have told me,” he whispered. “Regardless of what Stark said or did.” I turned to face him. He was tense, but I felt relaxed now that he was there.

“Steve,” I said, just as quiet, but with more sternness in my tone. “I don’t think he’s ready to talk yet. I can handle it. I don’t think he meant to hurt me. He let me go as soon as I pointed it out. But he’s obviously still got some bugs that aren’t going to go away overnight. I can tell you one thing, though. He’s trying. I could see it. And right now, that’s all that matters.”

“And you think you can fix him?”

“You can’t fix people, Steve. But he came to me for a reason. He still wants to kill you, but he’s capable of knowing that he shouldn’t. He’s piecing things together, and he’s very confused. He needed help, and he chose to come to me because I’m exactly what you and Romanoff wanted. Safe. He’ll reach out to you when he’s ready.” His lips were pinched shut, but he kept his blue eyes on mine. Then he nodded once.

“Just promise me I can trust you. He’s all I have left, Jo.” He wasn’t afraid that I’d hurt Barnes, but that I’d turn him over.

“You chose me for a reason too. Or Romanoff did. I don’t know, but I know I can do this. I won’t let anything happen to him if I can help it.”

“If he gets physical again—you need to press that button. I’ll be here as fast as I can.”

“I know. I will.” I turned back to bed and climbed in.

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