A month before he leaves the Army, Phil Coulson frowns at the employment opportunities bulletin board. The paper is near the bottom and mostly covered by other brightly colored pages, but he notices it because of the picture of Captain America. Of course he would notice a sign like that.
Do you want to save the world? a resolute-looking Cap asks.
That’s all Phil has ever wanted.
Two years later the dream of saving the world hasn’t completely died, but it’s dimmed a little under the reality of reports, meetings, and the combination of monotonous grunt work and gut clenching terror.
Phil sits on his heels next to a dead body. Nick wanders over and stand towering above, blocking out the summer sun.
“I suspect foul play. Maybe even…” Phil pauses dramatically before whipping off his sunglasses for the benefit imaginary television cameras. “…murder.”
Nick doesn’t even bother throwing him a sour look; his entire demeanor is a sour look this early in the morning. “See, you think you’re funny.”
“I think the Bartons may have done it.” Phil nods toward the purple and green arrows protruding from the dead man’s eye sockets. “That’s just a working theory, mind you. I commit to nothing.”
“But nobody else thinks that you're funny.” Nick’s diatribes always cycle the same way. “People think you’re an alien. Or a robot with a programmed fetish for Robert’s Rules of Order. Or maybe you’re just a bowl of mashed potatoes that gained sentience.”
Phil presses the corpse’s finger to a scanner, and the name 'David Brooke' pops up immediately, followed by a list of crimes both large and small. “That potatoes one was almost funny.”
SHIELD has a habit of pairing newer agents with older, experienced ones, and Phil isn’t quite sure who he had imagined his partner would be—someone wise and silver haired maybe, with an English accent and acerbic wit—but it certainly was not a foul mouthed thirty-something with a permanent glare. With studious care to largely ignore the ramblings of the other, they've managed to get along well in spite of their initial mutual disappointment.
Nick glares at the corpse with distaste. “Arrows in eyeballs. Goddamn.”
The Barton brothers weren't even on SHIELD’s radar, favoring neat gunshot wounds and low level crime lords, only to abruptly break that pattern in the last few months, the arrows becoming their new trademark as they wind their vengeful way through their former circus. The first victims all died immediately with a single arrow to the chest, and Phil wonders at the escalation in violence, at what it might mean.
The Bartons are fast.
When Phil and Nick finally catch up to them they don’t even get a good look before the brothers take off immediately in opposite directions, one sprinting down an alley with astonishing speed while the other scales a fire escape in a matter of seconds.
“Get the kid!” Nick yells before taking off after the older brother, Charles. The chase, the hunt and all of the potential violence is Nick’s natural element; there’s never been a fleeing suspect that he hasn’t run straight into the ground.
It’s also the right call; Central Intelligence insists that the younger Barton, Clint, is almost certain to turn on his older brother with a little bit of persuasion. There are no pictures and limited files, but Clint is projected to be around twenty years old. Definitely undereducated, almost certainly hearing impaired, probably mute.
Unafraid of heights Phil adds mentally to the list as he climbs yet another fire escape, wishing he’d worn sneakers instead of dress shoes, his teeth rattling with each footfall on metal steps. Agile. Quick. Phil is slowing down gradually but inevitably while Clint keeps running and climbing as though weightless and powered by a perpetual motion machine.
At last the kid reaches the roof of the building and Phil sighs with relief, thinking this is it, that the verbal confrontation will have to begin at last, and that’s where he shines, where he excels. He’s just warming up his best stern-yet-tender expression when the kid makes a mad dash for the ledge, not pausing or glancing back before leaping across the narrow alley. Phil reaches out to catch him instinctively, his heart in his throat, his fingers catching nothing but air as the kid lands silently on the neighboring roof.
Circus, Phil reminds himself, exhaling in horrified relief, hands braced over his knees. Circus folk. He eyes the ledge and gives his sidearm a fleeting thought before acknowledging that he’s been outmaneuvered.
Clint Barton seems to sense the lack of pursuit and pauses long enough to turn back, the streetlights illuminating an extended middle finger.
“Fuck you, G-Man!”
Nick shows up at the car about a half hour later, covered in dirt and sweat and angrier than Phil has ever seen him. He glares through the driver’s window until Phil drags himself gracelessly over the middle console and into the passenger seat. Nick gets behind the wheel, muttering a string of half-formed curses while Phil reaches back to dig around the back seat floorboard for their ever-present bag of candy.
“So…does Big Brother climb like a monkey, too?”
“He’s so fast. He’s gotta be a mutant. Fucking freak.” Nick grits his teeth and glares fixedly out the windshield as Phil dutifully picks through a sea of yellows and oranges and hands over one of the few remaining red Starbursts. Usually Nick is a strict my-body-is-my-temple healthy eating kind of guy; sugar after high stress situations is his one vice.
“Intel was wrong. Little Brother isn’t mute.” Phil unwraps a piece of his own and folds the tiny wrapper into an even tinier square.
“Well, bully for him.” Nick pops a second Starburst in his mouth, then a third and fourth. The way his cheek bulges would be comical if not for the murderous look still in his eyes. “You shoulda heard the mouth on the older one. Made me blush.”
“I found a mermaid!”
The little boy is still crowing with delight, but his older sister isn’t quite as triumphant. She clings to their mother’s hand and alternates between staring fixedly at her feet and darting quick, unhappy looks at the crumpled form in front of them, covered carefully with a large tarp.
“That sure is a big ol’ fish, isn’t it?” Sitwell says cheerfully, crouching down beside the kids. His dangling tie dances in the wind, which has just enough bite to be uncomfortable. “Did you guys ever see that movie ‘Free Willy’? This fish isn’t even half as big as Willy was.”
They all have their roles here. The technicians mill about, eager to get started on collecting evidence but committed to feigning bored nonchalance until the family is dismissed. While Sitwell pulls off his folksy gosh golly gee charm to distract the kids, Nick works the father, conveying the importance of keeping this whole thing quiet. Nick excels at speaking the brow-furrowed language of the blowhard, of blustering men who nod knowingly and pretend to understand everything. Phil, on the other hand, is a smoother of rough edges, a soother of the upset. He keeps the unhappy mother caught up in a looping conversation, not ready to release her until the proper moment, until she’s so irritated that she’ll flee and take her family with her, desperate to forget her son's ugly discovery.
“A dugong,” Phil says again, hoping he’s pronouncing the word right. He's only ever read it, seen it a book that still resides in his childhood bedroom. “In the same family as the manatee, but manatees typically live in freshwater and dugongs—”
The mother sighs again, glancing enviously up the beach at the other families still enjoying the late season swimming. Phil then follows her eyes to her husband, who’s clapping Nick heartily on the shoulder. Nick nods sagely and claps back. The father nods and claps again, and Nick glances away just long enough for Phil to read the amused contempt in his expression.
“—and it’s so unfortunate that mankind has desecrated the oceans with trash," Phil drones on, undeterred, "and so many beautiful creatures, like turtles and rays and dolphins and whales…and dugongs, of course—”
It’s been a reprieve from chasing the Barton brothers across North America, but not much of one. Nick and Phil were close enough to be pulled into an assault on a nearby laboratory. It was an ugly scene, and the cleanup will take weeks, with SHIELD sorting through the evidence back at headquarters long after. Not that Phil needs to worry about that; he just needs to get through these next few days and then move back to his real assignment. This is temporary. A series of unpleasant interludes.
“—and then they get tangled up in nets and wash up here on the beach and I can see how the little one thought that—"
Sitwell is handing out “Junior Oceanographer” stickers to the kids, printed up by Logistics alongside Phil’s own Oceanic Life Institute ID and business card. Logistics has always been great at covering every contingency, and crowd management is one of their specialties. Well meaning, curious lookie-loos are more likely to blow an op than the lawbreakers SHIELD actually pursues.
"—and it'd be ever so helpful if you'd write your congressman, and have your neighbors write their congressmen, and tell them that—"
“We really need to be going,” the mother interrupts at last, frustration overtaking the wearied politeness. She casts her husband a meaningful glare and grabs her childrens’ hands, their stickers fluttering to the ground.
Nick exchanges one last manly nod with the father as the bored technicians spring to life, finally getting to unroll the biohazard tape and cordon the area off. The family makes its way hastily up the beach, the boy’s petulant “But it was a mermaid!” barely audible over the sound of the waves.
It isn’t a mermaid. Not really. The final holdouts at the lab had attempted to burn it to the ground, a last-ditch effort at burying evidence, and somehow this sad, partially clothed creature had escaped in the confusion of gunfire and flames and made a bid for freedom. It has fins and scales and gills and died of exertion only feet from the water, not meant to live on land and too fragile to get to the sea.
Phil stands there with his shoulders hunched, hands pushed deep into jacket pockets. He’s been talking nonstop for most of an hour and now finds himself suddenly wordless, at the very moment he feels like he say something—something pithy or profound to sum up the horror and tragedy of it all. About the evil of men and the perversion of nature, about the inability of good people to do anything but gape in horror and clean up afterward, and about how Phil Coulson is beginning to suspect that it’s all been a lie, that he’s never going to actually get to save anyone.
Nick is also quiet, watching the waves and the technicians, the silhouette of the retreating family. He tugs at the edge of the tarp, which the wind has kicked up to reveal an outstretched, very human-looking hand.
“It’s an ugly goddamned world,” he declares, and, really, that just about covers everything.
The next dead body is Buck Chisholm's, and he has arrows through his eyes and feathers pouring from his gaping mouth, apparently shoved down his throat while he was still alive.
Nick scowls at Phil as if the whole thing is somehow his fault. “This is some sick shit.”
“I read somewhere that white feathers represent cowardice.” Phil brushes at his hems of his trousers. "Or maybe he said something. Or didn't say something."
“All I know is—ugh!" Nick makes a sound of disgust and takes an ungraceful step backward, trying to shake bloody feathers from his shoe. "This better not be voodoo. I’ll retrieve alien artifacts or hunt Big Foot all the livelong day, but I absolutely hate the witchy stuff.”
They catch up to the Barton brothers in a cavernous warehouse a few miles away. Nick disappears behind Charles into the bowels of the basement levels while Phil grits his teeth and edges along catwalks, where Clint climbs with feline grace until he’s high in the rafters above.
Phil’s already gone higher than he’s comfortable with. “Come down,” he warns, drawing his weapon.
He’ll go for a leg shot if necessary. SHIELD just wants Clint to testify against Charles; he doesn’t need functioning legs to do that.
“Go ahead and shoot,” comes the easy taunt, his voice sounding far younger than Phil expected. Clint reaches out with a sneakered foot to send an ancient light swinging lazily on its tether before drawing his limbs in, skinny enough that the beam shields him completely . “I’ll rain blood down all over you and still won’t come down. Won’t fall, either. I’ll die laughing just to spite you, G-Man.”
Phil grits his teeth, resigned to a hell of a climb. He pulls himself up onto the railing, determinedly not looking down as he reaches for the nearest beam. There’s a low scuffling and a shower of dust from above as Clint rolls onto his stomach, watching Phil’s slow ascent.
“I wouldn’t step there,” comes sharply, and whether it’s a legitimate warning or a cruel misdirect, they’re like magic words, and Phil’s shoe skids sideways for a few heartstopping inches. “Told you,” Clint singsongs.
Phil swears under his breath and firms his grip, sliding his foot forward again for shaky purchase when “COULSON!” booms suddenly in his ear, making him flinch bodily in surprise.
Nick sounds out of breath and angrier than usual. “You got that little asshole? Tell me you got him.”
“We’re in the main warehouse, up in the rafters,” Phil mutters, and there’s another rustle and shift of obvious interest from above. Phil frowns at the shadowy form above him, just able to make out the shape of Clint’s ear and jawline. “What’s the status of Big Brother?”
“I lost him.” Nick’s panting heavily. “Running around. Around and around in a fucking loop and I still lost him.”
Phil heaves a sigh that turns immediate disbelief as the figure above springs to life, climbing up and up and up like a spider, finding more of those impossible handholds. Clint kicks out an attic vent and slips through it and into the night sky.
“You’re gonna die of diabetes if we don’t get the Bartons soon.”
Phil wouldn’t have thought that ‘eating apple pie violently’ was something that was possible, but Nick Fury is doing just that—chopping, scraping, stabbing. Nick pauses the assault long enough to glare balefully at his partner.
Nick points with his fork. “Don’t start with me, Phil.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“You got your puzzles and your trash TV and I’ve got this. Okay?” Nick’s anger vanishes abruptly as he beams at the waitress who comes bearing more coffee. “This is excellent, Miss; I’d love another piece just like it.” He keeps smiling until she disappears to the kitchen and turns back to hiss, “Okay, motherfucker?”
“Think you’re so smart,” Nick grumbles. He smashes his fork into pie crumbs, attempting to construct one last bite. “You’re not smart. What you are is a walking cure for insomnia. You’re so boring that when you talk all I hear is the color beige.”
"At least they weren't witches," Phil points out, and there's no greater victory than timing a comment so perfectly that Nick can’t respond, their matching smiles blooming immediately as the waitress returns with more apple pie
When the trail goes cold they have to concede temporary defeat and return to headquarters. With as little information as they have, if the Bartons have gone to ground there’s nothing to do until they resurface.
Nick calls it a day at seven o’clock, inviting Phil to dinner in the half-hearted, grudging way that speaks to being under the direct orders from Maggie.
“I’ve got plans,” Phil tells him, and it’s not exactly a lie.
It’s always strange, being apart after spending weeks in close proximity, crammed into cars, snoring in hotel rooms, lingering in diners across America. Nick has an apartment, an aging cat, and girlfriend—a somewhat shy woman named Maggie—and returns to them all with inexplicable ease. Phil can’t do the same, his own apartment feeling stale and foreign. The potted plant he had attempted to keep died quickly, as did the cactus that followed. Of all the things and Nick have talked about during stakeouts and other boring interludes Phil can’t bring himself to ask the thing he needs to know—how it’s done, how it’s balanced, how to keep the work from consuming him completely.
Nick snorts. “Uh-huh. I can just imagine what kind of plans you make. You probably sit up all night washing, drying, and sorting Ziploc bags. Or go to a concert two hours early because your idea of excitement is watching people set up chairs.”
“That all sounds wonderful,” Phil says solemnly.
Nick’s expression deepens into one of muted, unhappy suspicion as he winds a too-long scarf around his neck two, three times. As impatient and aggravated as Nick gets, he can also be eerily perceptive, and he narrows his eyes at his partner, trying to read beyond the bland facade. “Don’t stay too long. Go home, Phil.”
Phil flaps a dismissive hand at him that doubles as a wave, waiting till the elevator chimes in the hallway before pulling on his own coat.
Nick wouldn’t understand. He would call it a waste of time, or a flight of earnest, misdirected fancy.
Phil has pored over pictures and articles and the scraps that Intel has pieced together on the surviving members of Carson’s circus, attempting to marry faces to the whimsical names that crop up—The Mighty Manipolo. Shrinking Violet. The Amazing Hawkeye. The Swordsman. The Flying Cabas. Many of them are as transient now as they were in the circus days and are impossible to find, but after hours of cross referencing Phil has found one.
It’s such a little word, one. Such a little concept, such a little idea. But he’s come to think that maybe this life might be worth it if he can save someone. If he can save just one of them.
He expected the tarot cards, the crystal ball, the sign with firm declaration that personal checks were not accepted. He expected the narrow watchfulness of Madame Zora Destiny—real name Cora Tuck—and the way her face immediately shuttered at the mention of Carson’s Carnival of Wonders, her mild interest in the deaths of her former co-workers. What Phil did not expect is the way she laughs when he suggests that she, too, could be in danger.
“Barney and Clint comin’ to kill me.” The Russian accent she’d had at their greeting drops away to reveal pure Minnesota beneath. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
Phil frowns. There’s no known accomplice, no third brother. Barney must be Charles; a nickname probably, a less fanciful cousin of the colorful circus names.
“You can’t be sure—”
“I can be sure.” She giggles again, the sound high and girlish, and Phil suddenly realizes that her wizened appearance is as invented as her accent and name. “They killed Davey, you said? Then Trick?” She rolls her eyes good-naturedly at Phil’s questioning look and clarifies, “Buck Chisholm went by Trickshot back then.”
“Chisholm was the most recent death.”
“Then Jacques Duquesne will be next,” Cora says with certainty. “And Carson will be last." She looks positively giddy at the prospect, even more years falling from her face. "And after accounts are squared with those two, I don’t imagine you’ll have any trouble with the Barton boys again.”
They try to locate Duquesne, but the Barton brothers find him first.
The body has the standard arrows-through-the-eyes, but also more than a few missing body parts, the snow around him looks saturated with more blood than a human body can believably hold. The gruesome sight does nothing to slow the rate Nick plows through a one pound package of M & Ms.
“Those boys sure do hate the circus.” Nick offers the bag to Phil, who takes an obedient handful.
“So, I was doing some reading—” Phil begins, and Nick rolls his eyes.
“Oh great. Here it comes.”
“—witness statements mostly, old police reports from the areas the circus went through—”
“Philip’s got a theory,” Nick says conspiratorially to Duquesne's corpse, nudging it a little with his foot. “He’s always got a theory.”
“And while it was a legitimate circus, with acts and animals and all, it also seems like it was mostly a cover for some low level burglary—”
“Whoopty shit!” Nick throws his hands up to heaven in a see-what-I-must-endure gesture. "Who cares about—"
“—and a human trafficking ring.”
That takes the wind out of Nick’s sails, but only for a moment, the senior agent going serious all at once.
“Don’t.” He jabs Phil in the chest with one finger. “Don’t do it. Don’t romanticize it. Don’t turn them into righteous vigilantes or whatever you’re thinking. Don't. Do not.”
“Intel says the Bartons were runaways when they joined the circus. They were children, Nick.”
“Okay, that’s very fucking sad. But now they're all grown up and shoot people for money. And they shoot their old circus buddies in between paying jobs, and I don’t care what fucking reason they think, or you think, they have for doing so. They are criminals.”
“I’m just saying—”
“And I’m saying don’t.”
Phil looks down at the man on the ground, the arrows, the blood. “—is that maybe he deserved it.”
The drive back to the hotel is silent, Nick’s face a impenetrable stony mask.
Phil stares at the people on sidewalks, bundled up in big coats and laden with packages, doing their holiday shopping. He watches them and envies their ignorance, a world full of people happy that they never saw a Captain America poster, that never decided they wanted to save the world.
They’re showered and parked in their respective motel beds, separated only by a nightstand and lamp. Nick never cares what reality shows Phil watches as long as the television is left on constantly and he's allowed a sarcastic running commentary. His observations are often punctuated by long slow blinks or soft snores but he somehow never loses track of the plot. Phil ignores Nick and keeps one eye on the television and the other on his logic puzzle.
Remy’s house number is 7 and he does not like cats.
He pores over clues and manipulates them, working them like recalcitrant suspects, marking what he already knows, filing away what he doesn’t understand yet. There is a subtle delight in the rows of uniform Os and Xs, all the same size and marching in neat lines, perfect script soldiers.
Gustavo lives in between the red and green houses and has a pet that is a mammal.
Phil marks two careful Xs on the page.
He’d gotten hooked on puzzle books in high school and has never given the habit up—being able to solve something, to tie up a problem neatly and perfectly is a thing he doesn’t often get to enjoy in daily life. The low drone and flickering light of the television woven together with the constant muttering of Nick makes Phil Coulson about as tranquil as he ever gets.
Clint and Charles like archery and do not have a house.
It happens sometimes, the work creeping into his leisure, bits of information refusing to lie quiet, begging to be sorted and catalogued along with everything else. Phil has learned that it’s useless to try to push it away, that it's best to let it happen, to let it just play out.
Franklin’s house is a primary color and he lives beside Walter.
Phil marks out three boxes, confirms a previous clue. Someone on the television is shouting drunkenly. Nick is snoring.
Clint climbs high but does not go very far.
Phil’s pencil pauses and his eyes move to the television, not seeing anything.
Charles stays low and runs.
Around and around in a fucking loop, Nick said.
Charles running, but constantly circling back. Exhausting Nick, waiting him out. Clint climbing higher and higher until Phil refused to follow. Waiting.
Both of them waiting.
The man rouses so fully and abruptly that it’s tempting to think he'd been awake all along, if not for all the snoring. “Huh.”
“We only need to chase one brother.”
No one has to look for George Carson—the Director leaks the murders of Chisholm and Duquesne to the press and Carson turns himself in.
He’s assigned five SHIELD agents and left in his home, all the bait needed to lure the Bartons in.
It goes the way it’s always gone, just the way Phil expects.
The Bartons catch wind of SHIELD and take off in opposite directions, Clint quickly going high while Charles disappears into a sewer drain, burrowing into the small town as easily as a much bigger city.
But this time Phil brings Denson and Siglioff from the accompanying STRIKE team—experienced, measured agents that can adapt on the fly without losing sight of the overall plan—and while the kid is still freakishly fast the three men work in tandem to herd him to the outskirts of town, to an inactive radio antenna tower that Clint immediately climbs.
Just as Phil knew he would.
The tower is easily four hundred feet high, but Clint stops around twenty, suddenly seeming to realize that he’s been painted into corner, that his options are to climb higher, the slight sway of the tower in the whipping wind more exaggerated by every foot, or to drop down and take his chances with the men on the ground. For a few moments he wavers, reaching up to resume the climb only to immediately draw the hand back. Clint scans the ground below, frantically focusing on the STRIKE team prowling the small perimeter, guns in their hands. They grin up at him with the dark predatory look that is always brought out by the chase and cornered prey, and Phil wonders if that same bloodthirsty expression is on his own face, or if he looks as sick as he suddenly feels.
Because for the first time he’s close enough to really see Clint Barton, and Intel was wrong about more than being mute or how easily Clint would turn on his brother. Intel put him somewhere around twenty years old, but looking at those wide, panicked eyes Phil realizes that he’s younger. Much younger.
Please, Phil pleads silently, holstering his weapon. Please let that kid be a short seventeen year old instead of something horrible, like a tall thirteen year old. Please, God, don’t let me have chased a child around the city with a loaded gun.
“Go on and catch up with the others.” If the STRIKE operatives are disappointed to be sent away they don’t show it. “Tell Agent Fury that everything’s right on target.”
The structure sways again and Clint threads his arms and legs more securely through the metal crossbeams in response. He shoots Phil a glare of bright dislike before leaning his head back and screaming, “Barney!” The wind all but whips the words away. “Barney, I’m caught!”
Phil touches his earpiece, one of the old ones that stick noticeably from his ear, chosen especially for this mission, and Clint’s eyes sharpen immediately. “What’s the status of Big Brother?” Phil cocks his head, pausing, pretending to listen. “Uh huh. Okay. Roger that.” He sighs and shrugs at Clint. “They have him.”
“Liar.” There’s venom and disbelief laced through the word, but a note of terror also. “Barney!” Clint’s screams again, scanning the horizon desperately, but there’s no one but Coulson and the rapidly disappearing forms of Siglioff and Denson.
“Charles never gets caught, does he?” Phil says, then scolds himself. Barney. They call him Barney. “But you do. Don’t you, Clint?” It’s cruel and intended to be, a little barbed needling better than waiting for the elements to drive the kid down. “You get caught and Char—Barney has to come bail you out. You hide out somewhere safe and Barney leads the danger away, then he comes back for you. And it works. It’s worked for a long time, hasn’t it?”
The silence is answer enough, Clint shifting his handholds uneasily, eyes still frantically scanning the field and the quiet buildings beyond.
“Barney isn’t coming this time.”
But he is, if all goes to plan. And it will, because it’s all going just the way Phil knew it would, Clint following his instincts straight into a trap, and Charles about to be trapped by his own pattern when he comes to gather up his younger sibling the moment Nick pulls back the pressure. Barney will come and they'll both be caught neatly in Phil Coulson's trap.
“I’ll wait you out if I have to.” Phil shrugs with a calm he absolutely does not feel. It’s a child up there. All his machinations hadn’t planned for a child. “But it’d be easier if you came down.”
Clint bares his teeth in a feral snarl before clambering up another few feet with jerky, almost involuntary movements. “Screw you, G-Man!”
Phil folds to the ground and leans back on his hands, feigning nonchalance. The kid watches with an unreadable expression before tugging the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head and tucks his hands as far as he can up into his sleeves. He clings to the metal antenna with one hand and sticks the other under his armpit to warm for a few moments before alternating, glaring all the while. Phil stares back neutrally before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a pair of gloves, working them onto his fingers with exaggerated movements.
"Come down, Clint."
Of all the things he’s done for SHIELD this is somehow the worst—taunting a freezing kid that has no coat.
The minutes pass silently, first ten, then twenty, and Phil wonders how long this will go on, how long he’s willing to let it go on. He’s shivering a little himself, the wind biting through his pant legs, and can’t imagine how cold it is twenty feet higher, how cold those bars must feel to bare fingers.
All Phil had ever wanted was to save the world.
He watches the kid shiver harder and harder, something metal, a knife maybe, on his waistband hitting the metal bars with a constant ting ting ting. Clint buries his face in his arms in an attempt to escape the wind, curling into the crossbars, his body shaking, crying perhaps, from fear and over the brother he doesn’t think is coming, the brother he thinks has been caught.
Phil watches him shakes and thinks about creatures not meant for land or sea, dead in the no man’s land of the beach. About young women that pretend to be old, about the circus and its hierarchy of guilt. Thinks about Charles and Clint, about Nick and himself, all caught up and intersecting in a pattern of chase and defeat, all spinning in different directions and somehow all ending up facing the same way.
Phil takes off his gloves.
And his coat.
“I thought I could save the world,” Phil calls to Clint, who peers up over his arm. “And if not the world, maybe just someone. One person. Just one.”
Nick still hasn’t said anything, and he’s on his fifth donut.
He grasps it with clawed fingers and takes large bites; no one can chew with implied violence quite like Nicholas Fury. Phil shakes his bottle of iced tea and waits for the shoe to drop.
Finally Nick leans back into the driver’s seat with hands across his stomach, his face smoothed into the friendly, calm mask he uses on traumatized witnesses and dismayed superiors.
“You let them go.”
“I did.” Phil takes the last donut; he knows how this game plays out, and figures might as well fortify himself with a little sugar.
“You let them go.” The note in Nick’s voice could almost be taken for one of amusement.
“You let them go.” The words are louder this time, a bite to them as the good humor melts away.
Phil pops his fingertips into his mouth. “That was a good donut. I wish we had another box.”
“You let them fucking go!”
There it is. Nick has never needed a partner in interrogations—he’s his own good cop/bad cop one-man-band.
“Charles was going back for the kid, just like you said he would. It was all going to plan, but then you decided to let the brat go and we lost them both. Why? Tell me why!”
“Because he’s a kid, Nick. An actual child.”
“Bullshit,” Nick spits, glowering at Phil’s shrug. “He played you. He sold you the image of a poor little broken boy and his big brother with a heart of gold. You saw a—a—” he gestures choppily, uncharacteristically flustered, "a little bird with a broken wing."
“Nope. I saw myself with a gun, chasing a frightened kid up a radio tower.”
“That kid’s fingerprints were all over those arrows, Phil. Charles may be the big fish right now, guess who’s nipping right at his heels? You let a kid go today, but he’s the one we’ll be chasing tomorrow, when he’s all grown up and this is the only life he knows.”
“Then I’ll chase him tomorrow.”
Nick fumes silently and chews his lip, working away some of the sugar still glistening there, mulling it over, shaking his head now and then, glaring out the windshield.
Phil waits. He lets Nick think and watches the people file in and out of the gas station, focused on their lives and the getting of convenient things. People that have no concept of the awful things that lie beneath the reality of their world, of drowned mermaids and shivering assassins, of the hardened men and women that protect them from knowing.
Finally Nick sighs, his usual frown returning to settle his brow and mouth back into familiar lines. He turns in his seat to scrutinize Phil, still highly irritated but with something a little like fondness in his eyes. “You gave him your coat.”
“I did.” Phil brushes crumbs from his shirt.
Phil grins, recognizing the small absolution for what it is. “And I gave him all my cash, too. Well, minus the five dollars I kept back for apology donuts.”
“Should’ve saved ten dollars, asshole!”
Nick starts the car, flipping the turn signal too hard, heavy footed on the gas and brake. “Have a partner, they said. It’ll be great, they said,” he mutters. “Instead I get Mr. Morality, Mr. Shades of Gray, a guy who thinks he's Captain America. A guy that's as much fun to interact with as a rudimentary face carved into a block of cheese.”
Phil fiddles with the air vent, directing the warming air to his frozen fingers. “That was a good one,” he says approvingly, and Nick almost smiles back.
“Thanks. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”