Pay It Forward
Episode One: Pilot
Natasha's first impression of Dean Winchester was that it was extremely unlikely that this was the man behind the deaths of three of SHIELD's best field agents. Her very personal grasp of the concept of 'looks can be deceiving' aside, the man was probably the sorriest thing she'd seen in a long time. Edging towards the cell curiously, she tilted her head to the side, arms crossed to project an air of defensiveness.
The Winchester boy was reclining on the cot against the wall, one arm draped dramatically over his eyes. She could see his five-o-clock shadow, the shaking of his hands, and she could smell the booze and muck on him from across the room. She had a hard time picturing him being able to sneak up behind three agents and stab them in the back of their necks. Not without them catching a whiff of him, anyway.
SHIELD had proof, though. Incontrovertible proof - she'd seen the video footage with her own eyes, read all the reports, gotten independent statements herself from the local law enforcement. Coulson, understanding her need to find things out for herself, had even approved her going to New Orleans to check out the crime scene. It all pointed to Dean Winchester.
"So, what's the deal here, Red?" Shifting into a sitting position with the kind of natural grace of a born fighter, Winchester pinned her with sharp (if somewhat red-rimmed) eyes, and suddenly she could see it - she could see the killer. "FBI? CIA? MIB?"
Natasha quirked an eyebrow, but said nothing. She knew she shouldn't be lingering, shouldn't want to hear what the man had to say for himself. Her mission was straightforward - go in, take the target out, leave. But the ice-green eyes that glinted at her stayed her hand. They were old eyes, and they were angry eyes. They were also resigned eyes, speaking of a level of readiness.
Dean Winchester knew she was there to kill him, and he was ready to die.
Natasha had seen eyes like that before. She'd seen it in the mirror for years, especially right before...
Tilting her head the other way, she stepped up to the bars and quirked her lips briefly. "Kind of cocky for a dead-drunk fugitive with nowhere to run."
Snorting, Winchester let his eyes slip shut and dropped his head back against the cell wall with a dull thunk. "Do I look like I'm tryin' to run?"
"No," she admitted. "You look like you're waiting to die."
Those old eyes slipped open again, but he didn't look back at her. His small smirk, however, widened somewhat. "You think so?"
"I know so. Been there."
"Trust me, Red," he huffed, "I don't doubt that you've had some grade-A fucked-up shit in your life. You look the type. But there's no way you've been where I have."
"I wouldn't bet money on that." Carefully, Natasha leaned sideways against the bars, careful to keep her eyes on the prisoner. "I was sent to kill you, you know."
"You don't seem to care."
"Oh...no, no. I care. I'm not really interested in pushing up daisies just yet. But here's the thing, sweetheart," he added, voice lowered into a soft purr as he leaned forward, finally looking at her again, "you're either gonna kill me now, or you aren't, and there's not a whole hell of a lot I can do about it at the moment, so I'm gonna face it like a man, 'cuz the alternative of snivelling like a little bitch isn't really my style."
Natasha shrugged, pushing off the bars. "Suit yourself."
Leaning back, Winchester closed his eyes again. They snapped open in shock, though, when he heard the clunk of a lock springing open and the squeak of the cell door as it swung outward.
She wasn't a fool, of course - she kept her gun trained on his head steadily. But she smiled all the same at his honest confusion. "This is the part where our lives get a lot more parallel."
"How's that?" he asked warily, sitting up straighter, forehead creased as he tried to work out this newest development.
"I'm going to make you an offer. The same offer someone made me a long time ago."
"Oh, yeah?" Winchester mustered up a cheeky grin. "Does it involve whipped cream and handcuffs?"
"Probably handcuffs, but if you want whipped cream, you'll have to go elsewhere."
"This isn't sounding as fun as I was hoping. Don't I get a dying wish?"
"That depends. Accepting my offer comes with a chance to keep breathing."
Winchester's grin slipped. "I'm listening, Red."
"First, I want you to tell me about New Orleans," she insisted.
Winchester's grin widened. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
And he did. He spun probably one of the most outlandish stories she'd ever heard - a Hollywood-worthy story involving voodoo and hoodoo (two different things, according to Winchester), a priestess with a grudge against 'hunters' (how wouldn't explain that one further when she asked him to elaborate), and three agents getting caught in the crossfire when they'd gotten too close to the truth.
It was absolutely insane. Completely.
Except...there had been marks on the agents, bruises shaped like symbols that defied proper explanation. There had been the string of identical murders committed by people who had never met each other. People who had subsequently gone mad. Traces of chemicals in their systems that didn't seem to have any connection to their deaths, chemicals that would easily be left in the bloodstream by the herbs Winchester listed.
Things started to slot into space in Natasha's mind. Things that shouldn't have. Things that shouldn't seem so logical and explicable. And yet, looking at Winchester as he leaned back against the cell door from the outside, making no move to run, not even looking around for an avenue of escape, she couldn't help but notice the confidence with which he spoke.
This mission was going to be a lot more trouble than she'd thought.
"Agent Romanov, explain yourself."
Dean peered over the assassin's shoulder curiously. The man on the other end of the video chat was older - mid-to-late thirties? early forties? - with thinning brown hair and a blank expression. His voice gave away no more than his face did, but his eyes glinted sharply at the woman in vague irritation.
From what Dean had gathered during his and Natasha's recent discussion, this man was a kind of supervisor to her - a "handler", she'd called him, which sounded kind of unpleasant to Dean. She'd spoken of him with something that would have resembled fondness on anyone else, and there was definite respect there. When Dean had finished explaining about the supernatural circumstances being the New Orleans incident, her initial response had been simply, "I have to report to Coulson."
He wasn't sure what it was about this Coulson guy that the femme fatale put so much store in - he seemed like a mild-mannered desk jockey to Dean. Then again, if anyone knew how dangerous it was to judge a book by its cover, it was Dean Winchester. For all he knew, this guy could be Chuck Norris.
"It's possible that events in New Orleans aren't as clear-cut as they appeared at first, sir," Natasha was saying.
Coulson said nothing.
"Winchester's story is somewhat fantastic, but I'm inclined to believe him."
"In spite of the evidence?"
"Because of the evidence."
Coulson's eyebrow twitched upward, the closest thing to an actual expression Dean had seen on the man so far. "New evidence, I take it."
Natasha shrugged. "Pieces that didn't add up before. Incongruities that are not so incongruous with his version of events taken into account. There are aspects of the case that only make sense from his purpoted angle."
"Very well. Bring him in."
"Yeah, about that," Dean piped up, determinedly not flinching away when Coulson's keen eyes flicked towards him, "I'm not really interested in spending the rest of my natural life in an underground bunker with electrodes up my ass, so I appreciate the invitation, but, uh...no thanks."
Before he could turn, though, Natasha's fingers closed around his wrist. It was a tight grip, and it communicated all kinds of 'don't even think about it' to him, but she was nice enough not to twist the bones of his wrist together, which was probably as close as he'd ever get to her promising to keep him alive. Dean sighed.
"We're not suggesting imprisonment, Mr. Winchester," Coulson interrupted blandly. "I think what my agent has in mind will be somewhat more...remunerative. For both parties."
"Beneficial," Coulson explained without a trace of mockery. "We're suggesting that you come on board with us, Mr. Winchester. As an agent."
Laughing, Dean shook his head. "Yeah, sure, man."
"Do I look like I'm joking?"
"I can't picture you actually looking like you're joking," Dean snarked.
He was pleasantly surprised when Coulson cracked the barest of smiles. "Wouldn't want to give up the element of surprise. And the offer is genuine. You would receive training, housing..."
But Dean wasn't listening. "Look, man, thanks. Really. It's...real generous of you. But I don't have time for this, okay? I've got a job already, and it's past time to punch in."
"I'm sure it can wait."
"No, see, it really can't," Dean snapped. "The longer I wait, the more people die."
Coulson paused, his bland expression reforming into something harder and more calculating. Dean had thought the agent's eyes had been analytic before, but now they seemed to be giving him a laser-scan, mapping out his every thought with a single sweep. He flinched away, eyes slipping to Natasha, who was giving him a similar look.
"Is everyone in your super-secret club specially trained to give creepy stares, or is that the sort of natural talent that gets you recruited in the first place?"
"Bit of both," Coulson replied easily. "Agent Romanov, what's your take?"
"Not sure yet, but I think we're good here."
"Then you will accompany Mr. Winchester on his...job, and you will then bring him in and give me a full report. Should anything change, I trust you'll inform me."
There was that creepy laser-stare again. Dean wondered if maybe he should invest in reflective sunglasses or something to combat the unnaturalness. "Agent Romanov is a valuable asset to our division. I would hate to have to take the time to find someone marginally competent enough to replace her. Don't be the reason that happens. It would make me very testy."
He wanted to laugh at the idea of the older man in the monkey suit being a threat. He really did. It was kind of ridiculous.
Instead, he nodded jerkily. "I'll bear that in mind. Uh...sir."
Natasha peered around the motel room curiously as Dean scrubbed the river out of his hair.
"So. I guess you and that Coulson guy are close."
Blinking towards the bathroom door, she shrugged, though she knew the gesture was lost on him. "Agent Coulson is my handler. I'm his asset."
"Yeah, but that parting shot? That wasn't 'I hate the paperwork that goes along with dead assets'. That was 'what are your intentions towards my only daughter and if you say anything other than exactly what I wanna hear I will blow your face off'. Guy was in full-on protective-papa-mode."
She shifted through the papers they'd confiscated from the jailhouse, filing away words like 'demons' and 'chupacabras' and 'vengeful spirits' for later examination as she puzzled out what Dean might be referring to.
Coulson had been her handler from the moment she'd defected to SHIELD. It wasn't really a choice on either of their parts - Clint Barton had been Coulson's asset for a long time, and he'd been the one to bring her in, so Agent Coulson had taken responsibility for her. It had showed a sort of trust in Clint's instincts and opinions that had been so unfamiliar to the Black Widow. Coulson hadn't so much believed in her loyalty as he had believed in Clint's, unwaveringly so. It hadn't been long after that, though, that he'd apparently seen something in her that he believed in, as well.
She'd spoken to Clint about it before. Phil Coulson had that sort of steadfast confidence in people - he saw things in them that others disregarded. Clint had confided once, loopy on pain meds and crashing from an adrenaline high, that Phil Coulson was the first person who'd ever had faith in him. Moreover, it was that faith, given without strings or prerequisites or expectations of it being returned, that made Clint try his hardest. Of all the people in his life that he'd ever tried to impress, Phil was the only person he'd ever needed to prove himself to.
She understood that. It was an uncomfortable sort of feeling, hearing him issuing a not-very-well-veiled threat against Dean to ensure her safety. Sort of warm and satisfying. 'Valuable asset', she knew, did not mean irreplaceable. She wasn't valuable to Coulson because she was an asset. She was valuable because she was Natasha, even though she still had a hard time figuring out who 'Natasha' was. Coulson seemed to know, and that was what he considered irreplaceable. It made Natasha feel like a person, instead of a tool or weapon, and she wasn't sure she liked it all that much.
She just could never bring herself to let Coulson down.
"I mean," Dean continued off her silence, exiting the bathroom in a puff of steam in a pair of faded jeans and a band shirt, rubbing a ragged motel towel over his hair, "it doesn't really track, you know? If you're so important, why would he leave you alone with someone you suspected of murdering three agents in cold blood?"
"I can handle myself," she informed him, leaning back against the dresser. "And he trusts my judgement. I said I believed you. He believes me. That's kind of how it works."
"You people take a lot on trust for shady government stooges."
"Hardly." She held up his father's journal. "I'm not one hundred percent sold on your story, but it fits better than our original theory, and it explains aspects of it that are otherwise inexplicable. Coulson knows I would never just take anything on faith. He knows how I work, and he might not trust you, but he trusts me to make the right call."
"Are all creepy government asset handlers like that?"
"No," she admitted quietly. "Agent Coulson's...rare."
"Huh." Slumping down in the lumpy chair, Dean pinched the bridge of his nose. Hungover, Natasha supposed, which only served him right. "Okay, so...the only unpleasant death I have around Centennial is a chick named Constance Walsh, right? She showed up last night, nearly ran me down, dumb bitch dumped me in a river-"
"Back up," Natasha cut in, frowning slightly. "A dead woman...showed up?"
"Well, her spirit did. You know," he added off her raised eyebrow, "ghosts? Spirits of the restless dead? Ever seen Poltergeist?"
"No. And there's no such thing as ghosts."
"Really?" Leaning back in the chair, Dean smirked. "You don't even bat an eyelash when I tell you those agents were under hoodoo mind control, but ghosts are a stretch for you?"
"There has been plenty of evidence supporting mind control in my line of work, but I've never even heard of ghosts being a possibility."
"Which doesn't mean they aren't real - just means you haven't run into them yet. Or, if you have, you might not have recognized it for what it was." Dean shrugged. "Happens a lot. People naturally explain away things they're not willing or prepared to take as fact. But if you're gonna be tagging along on this job, you're gonna have to start believing, Red."
She searched his face for a moment, but there was no hint of guile, no trace of madness, not even his customary smirk. There was something, though, just behind his eyes. It was savage and scared and howling, beating against him every second. Mad or not, he believed in what he was saying, and for now, she had no choice but to accept that.
"Very well. Constance Walsh. What do we know?"
"You know," Dean said as Natasha sat down in the middle of the floor, fingers twitching nervously around the grip of her handgun, "for a rookie, you did okay. Although, little tip? Shooting a ghost with regular bullets doesn't work. You need rock salt shells or consecrated iron. But, yeah. Good job."
Natasha blinked up at him as he ran his hands over 'Baby', checking for scratches, even though he'd been the one to drive her through the wall. To bring the ghost back home. Where it was met by the ghosts of its murdered children and dragged...well, somewhere unpleasant from the look of things.
She had been doing fine, content to wait, to analyze and reserve judgement on the ghost aspect of Dean's 'job'. It had been fairly easy, too, until Dean had driven through a pale woman in the middle of the road. And then she'd been in the backseat, barely paying Natasha any mind. Controlling the car somehow. Attacking Dean while flickering in and out of sight like a mirage, her face suddenly terrible to witness.
"This was not something I was trained for," she said quietly, stilling her hands and holstering her sidearm. "This is...unusual."
"For you, maybe," the hunter grunted, rubbing a finger over a small chip in the Impala's paintjob with a scowl. "Pretty much a slow day at the office for me."
Natasha snorted. "You were almost killed by a vengeful spirit."
"She had her hand in your chest."
"Yup." Dean left off inspecting Baby to press his palm to his chest with a wince.
"If I hadn't been there, you would have died."
Standing slowly, Natasha approached him with a smirk of her own. "You're kind of shit at your job, then."
"Maybe," he hedged, eyes suddenly refusing to meet hers. "Or maybe I'm not used to doing it by myself."
This brought her up short as she reached for the door handle. Images flickered through her mind - Dean alone in New Orleans, the priestess' mind-controlled lackeys converging on him - Dean sprawled out in a cell, pickled and drained - Dean not arguing against her presence even though she had clearly been unprepared and disbelieving. She peered at him as he circled around to the driver's side and jerked the door open.
"Did they die?"
Dean shrugged. "You want pie? I could go for a slice of pie right about now."
She didn't particularly want pie. She wanted to contact headquarters and report to Coulson, wanted to drag this jagged-and-angry-edged mess in and leave him to someone who was good with that sort of thing, wanted to go home and wash the last twenty-four unreal hours off and pass out in front of an episode of Iron Chef. She wanted to be done with this, not in the least because she was starting to give a shit about whatever was going on with this idiot, and she had enough trouble worrying about the two idiots she already had.
"There's a diner just outside of town that advertised some kind of chocolate thing," she offered, sliding into the Impala and curling her legs up on the seat between them. "I think it was some kind of pie."
Dean grinned. "Point me towards it, Red."
Sighing, Natasha let her head fall back against the seat.
She was so going to regret this.
Dean jerked his head affirmatively, pacing along the walls, trailing his fingers over the steel in a seemingly absent sort of way. Natasha followed him with her eyes from where she sat at the table in the middle of the room. Coulson sat beside her, gaze never cutting away from the paperwork he was filling out in neat letters. Dean wondered if there were specific forms for bringing home a stray supernatural-hunting alcoholic with daddy issues, or if they had to make one just for him.
"Ghosts, voodoo...what else?"
"Think of all the things you don't believe in. If it's nasty and terrifying and lurks in the dark, it's probably real." Turning to lean against the wall, Dean crossed his arms and regarded Coulson, who finally set down his pen and met his gaze.
His initial impression of the man over the video call hadn't been too far off the mark. Coulson seemed about as nondescript and unassuming as it was possible for a person to be, the kind of guy no one really paid much attention to. Mid-priced suits, neat hair, soft-spoken. He probably listened to smooth jazz and watched home improvement shows on the weekends and ate at the same deli every day. Attention to detail and efficiency were probably the only things about the guy that were remarkable.
Blue eyes, keen and penetrating as they had been over the video call, were peering at him with unmasked curiosity. There was a calculating feel to the look, but not in a critical way. It was an evaluation - was whatever Dean had to offer something this SHIELD organization could use? Could Dean hack being a part of the organization? Was it worth the risk to Coulson's credibility to back Dean's inclusion?
Of course, for all Dean knew, the agent could be trying to figure out whether or not he wanted pimento loaf for dinner.
Coulson had been waiting in their motel room a few hundred miles out of Jericho, which hadn't really surprised Dean. He knew Natasha hadn't contacted the agent aside from a brief phone call informing him that their mission had been successful and that she was en route, and he hadn't heard anything that sounded like a coded message, but...well, it's not really code if it's noticeable, he conceded.
What had surprised Dean was that the agent had genuinely come alone. Try as he might, Dean couldn't spot backup, couldn't detect any tails. Granted, he wasn't a government-trained super-spy, but he had a survival instinct a mile wide and two decades worth of practice. Moreover, Coulson had confirmed that he was alone and unarmed. Not that it mattered - Natasha was most definitely armed, and not likely to appreciate any attacks on her boss.
The ride to the chopper had been uncomfortably silent, and the chopper ride itself had been uncomfortably loud. The long walk to his temporary 'quarters' (it was absolutely a holding cell, cot and chair and mini fridge aside, and he didn't know who they thought they were kidding) had actually been pleasant. Sure, there were burly armed people flanking him and office-worker-types gawping at him around corners and through doorways, but he'd had a good time getting to know Armed Guards Numbers One Through Eight. Or, rather, chattering at them until one of them actually spoke, even if it was only a demand for silence.
Natasha and Coulson had been leading the way, and somewhere towards the beginning of his monologue, the older man had glanced back over his shoulder, one eyebrow quirked. He'd said something to Natasha, quiet and unemotional, but whatever it had been had amused the redhead, who had also glanced back at him with a bit of a grin.
He couldn't complain about the treatment. The only person who knew the full story was Natasha, and as much as Coulson apparently trusted her, he didn't seem like the kind of guy that didn't take precautions, especially when it can to his home base. Besides, it had been kind of flattering.
"Mr. Winchester." When Dean had jerked himself back to the present and acknowledged him, Coulson continued. "I'm sure you understand that this seems incredibly unbelievable."
"Oh, I understand. I understand perfectly." Pulling out one of the chairs facing the two agents, Dean slumped into it with an odd sort of slouching grace. "There's a reason people like me operate on the down-low. Well, a couple of reasons, and one of the big ones is that it's hard to kill what needs killing from the padded room at Three Pines Sanitarium."
"That would make things difficult. Not, I suspect, impossible for a man of your talents." Slipping a folder from the bottom of the pile of paperwork, Coulson opened it and slid it over to Dean. His own face stared up at him from the top of the pile of reports. "You're not so invisible as you'd like to think, Mr. Winchester. Up until now, it was assumed that you and your accomplices were psychotics - the grave desecrations and Satanic symbolism you leave in your wake suggests a theistic undercurrent - and the only reason I'm giving your story any credence right now is because Agent Romanov has stated that she has witnessed a supernatural occurrence with her own eyes and outside any possible influence on your part. And I understand that sharing this kind of information goes against your instincts, but if you'd like me to refrain from making a call to Three Pines Sanitarium, I'd suggest you cooperate to the fullest extent of your abilities."
Dean flicked his eyes up to Coulson and snorted. "Trust me, M, this is me cooperating. You don't want to know what I'm like when I'm not cooperating."
"M?" Looking from Coulson to Dean, Natasha's brow furrowed.
Dean rolled his eyes. "You have to start watching more movies."
"I preferred the novels, to be honest," Coulson admitted, leaning back in his seat. "But that's neither here nor there. The offer is as follows, Mr. Winchester. You may choose between two options. Choosing Option A means you will remain under surveillance for a period of no less than six months, during which time you will be assessed and monitored. At this point, we will also be assessing the veracity of your claims that our agents were under the control of mystical forces at the time they were killed. When six months are up, you will be given a handler, who will oversee your training and performance reviews for a probationary period of six additional months - this period will include soft missions to test your ability to perform the duties of a SHIELD agent satisfactorily in the field. At the end of the year, should you perform to our standards, you will be taken off probation, made a junior agent, and sent into the field."
Dean tilted his head. "Okay. And Option B?"
"Option B means we lock you in a maximum security solitary cell built several hundred feet below a sea bed in the frozen north for the rest of your natural life."
"Not really loving my options." Dean clasped his hands behind his head and grinned. "How about I scoot on outta here and neither of us ever hears from the other ever again?"
"That's not an option at all, Mr. Winchester."
"It's the same deal I got, Dean," Natasha murmured.
"Oh, yeah," he sneered, "and I can see how well that's turned out for you, swinging on the end of a leash like a fucking dog, jumping through hoops for a pat on the head from your masters. No thanks. I don't do leashes, and I don't do cages, and I only take orders from one man, and you sure as hell ain't him."
Coulson's expression didn't so much as twitch, but something flickered behind his eyes. He rose, Natasha following, her expression somewhat more expressive - she looked...wistful?
"You have a week to make up your mind," Coulson informed him as the pair left.
Groaning, Dean dragged his hands down over his face, rubbing at his eyes tiredly.
"Wish we could drag Barton back here," Natasha opined as she watched Dean pace the room again and again. Phil had thought, at first, that he was looking for structural weaknesses, or perhaps ensuring that he was always presenting a moving target. After a while, though, it became apparent that, when agitated, Dean simply had trouble sitting still.
Phil leaned back against the terminal where Natasha sat, never glancing up from the security footage. "You think he'd do better?"
"I think they have a lot in common. I don't know what Clint was like when he was first recruited, but I can see a lot of similarities between them now. You said he was like this?"
"In a way." Tilting his head, Phil watched Dean make another circuit around the room. "Clint was still loyal to his mentor when we caught up with him, even though the man had skipped on him. He didn't trust anyone, had no respect for authority. Spent the entire probationary period stepping over every line he could find - testing boundaries, that sort of thing, trying to see where he stood."
"It isn't easy when you've spent your life acting as an extension of someone else," Natasha allowed in a neutral tone.
"No." Pinching the bridge of his nose, Phil thought back to those early months. He'd been the one to bring Clint in, to give him a chance. For a while, all anyone could ever talk about what how Phil Coulson had made a colossal mistake, and there were even a few brief, stressful moments where he'd almost believed it.
All it took in those moments was a reminder of the look in Clint's eyes when he'd been cornered. Out of ammo, weak from hunger, soaked to the bone, bleeding in several places, and pinned against a dead-end wall on the business end of a gun in the hands of a no-doubt pissed-looking government agent, the archer had turned and faced him, folding his hands behind his head with a smirk.
"Hope you're a good shot," he'd rasped, eyes bright with fever and anger and resignation, "'cuz I'd hate to suffer."
Phil had shot him in the leg. He was, after all, and exceptional shot. And there might have been a bit of suffering, but in the coming years as Clint's handler, Phil felt the archer had gotten plenty of his own back.
Phil looked at the screen again. His mind's eye replaced Clint's smirking defiance in the face of death with the image of Dean Winchester, leaning back in his seat, hands clasped the same way, corner of his mouth pulled up in the same sort of smirk, the same wild defiance in his eyes.
He wondered if he was just a fucked-up-smart-ass magnet, or if this was a karmic thing. He wondered where this habit his assets had of 'paying it forward' would end. Would he have a string of mentally unstable recruits stretching all the way down to Mexico by the time he retired?
Mostly, he wondered if it was worth sticking around tonight or if he should leave in time to stop by his favorite deli before it closed.
"Do you like roast beef, Mr. Winchester?"
"You know, you can call me Dean," the man muttered, not taking his eyes off the ceiling as he tipped back in his chair. "I mean, since we're so close and everything."
Smiling a bit, Phil tossed a bag onto the table and pulled out a chair. "I come bearing sandwiches. Best in town, I guarantee it."
"Bribery, Agent Coulson? How underhanded of you." Slamming the chair back on all four legs, Dean reached for the bag regardless. "Roast beef? Got mustard?"
He watched as the younger man unwrapped his sandwich. Clint, when he'd been given food by unfamiliar people, had refused at first, poking and sniffing and studying suspiciously. It had taken a while for him to come to terms with the fact that they really did want him around and that no one was going to poison him on Phil's watch. Dean, it seemed, differed greatly from Clint here. He pulled apart the sandwich, yes, but that seemed to be so he could rearrange its innards. Meat, cheese, tomato, meat, lettuce. Phil wondered what the reasoning there was.
As though reading his mind (though his confusion could well have shown on his face), Dean grinned. "Tastes better this way," he explained, taking an unbelievably large bite. "It's not pie," he said around his mouthful, "but it's a start."
"Not worried we're trying to drug you?"
Dean shrugged. "Gotta eat. 'Sides," he continued, swallowing, "I'm already telling you all the facts. You've got me in your little habitrail, boxed up nice and neat. You have the advantage. Why would you bother drugging me now?"
"Are you giving us all the facts?" Phil unwrapped his own sandwich delicately, reaching into the bag and pulling out two cans of Dr. Pepper. "Because you seem to be hedging around a few details. Hunters, for instance. You've mentioned the word a lot, but you don't seem inclined to elaborate."
"Not my secret to tell," Dean answered, reaching for a soda. "What else you got?"
Dean froze, eyes fixed on a point over Phil's shoulder. The emotions that flit across his face at that moment were fascinating. Fear, concern, pride, determination, betrayal, anger. They were familiar to Phil. He'd seen them before, when talking to Clint about Trickshot.
"I'm going to take a guess here," Phil began gently as Dean cracked open his soda, shaking off the sudden paralysis. "I'm guessing that 'hunter' is what you are. The job you alluded to - you call it hunting. And I'm guessing your father got you into it - reports go back to before you would have been old enough to participate. You had a companion, as well. Another boy. A brother, I'd say. How am I doing so far?"
Dean set down his sandwich, eyes hard but not meeting Phil's.
"I'll take your silence to mean I'm on track. I don't know how one gets into this hunting business, but I'd assume it involves some kind of run-in with the things you're hunting. That, plus the fact that it was only the three of you, would suggest that the run-in involved your mother."
The younger man's face tightened around the eyes, but he stayed silent.
"Now, baby brother was easy enough to track down, tucked away safely at Stanford, living the normal life. And now you're on your own. Agent Romanov told me you said you weren't used to doing the job alone. From the way things went both in New Orleans and in Jericho, I'd say you were caught off guard and unprepared for being on the job by yourself. Unexpected abandonment. My first instinct, given the nature of your lifestyle, would be to assume that your father is dead."
Dean pressed his lips together.
Phil tilted his head, popping his own soda open and taking a sip. "But that's not true, is it?" He set the can down with a clunk. "If it was, you wouldn't be so adamant about refusing our offer. You said you only follow the orders of one man. Follow - present tense. This implies that the man whose orders you follow is alive, and the only man I can think of who would inspire that kind of loyalty in you would be your father. So, if he's not dead...where is he?"
"Fuck you," Dean hissed, pushing back from the table, he paced to the wall, resuming his endless circling. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"If I didn't, you wouldn't have reacted the way you did to what I was saying," Phil pointed out. "And you may not think so, but I understand. Loyalty is important, especially to the man who raised you and looked after you. You wouldn't be the first potential recruit we've had who refused for similar reasons."
"You sound just like him, you know," Phil mused absently, folding his hands in front of his face and regarding Dean curiously.
This got the hunter's attention. He blinked, eyes narrowed in confusion. "Like who?"
"Another recruit of mine. He's deep undercover at the moment, but I hope you get the chance to meet him. I think the two of you would get along...or tear each other's faces off. It's hard to say, knowing him."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I don't really give a fuck about your recruit. Any of your recruits."
"Not even Agent Romanov?" Polishing off his sandwich, Phil balled up the paper and tucked it into the bag. "After she help save your life?"
"I didn't ask her to."
"You didn't have to. You should know that. How many times did the people you'd saved actually ask you to? Or bother to thank you?"
"I bought her pie," was the petulant reply.
"She told me. She gave me their card, since they serve strawberry rhubarb pie. She knows it's my favorite. But then, I'm sure she just did that so her master would put a little extra kibble in her bowl."
Dean cringed at the bite Phil had opted to put into his words, and the agent smiled inwardly. It was as close to a reprimand as he was willing to get this early in Dean's progress, but the knowledge that the younger man was remorseful at all was a positive sign.
"You see, Mr. Winchester, this isn't an obedience school. That's not what we're about here. Admittedly, Natasha seems a bit..."
"If you like. But that's not something we did to her. It's something we're trying to help her undo, if you follow me. And it's clearly working, because you're the first mark she's spared since joining SHIELD, and I'm positive that had this incident taken place in her first few years with us, the outcome would have been much more fatal on your part."
It was the question Phil had been expecting, but he took the time to consider his response, anyway. "I suppose," he said slowly, looking Dean in the eyes, "it's because she saw something in you worth saving."
"Joke's on her," Dean huffed, voice shaking behind the forced bravado. "I'm good for shooting things and bullshitting my way into crime scenes, and that's about it. There's no one you have here that couldn't do that better, faster, and more effectively than I could, and we both know it."
"I didn't say it had to do with your technical skills," Phil pointed out. "I'm sure those are up to par, of course, but it's not about that."
"Then what is it about?"
Phil smiled. "I met a kid once. Young, stubborn, loudmouthed. He was working on the wrong side of the law. Killed a lot of people, pulled a lot of heists. Not his idea, of course - he was following someone else. Someone he looked up to, someone he relied on. Someone he wanted to care about him. So he did a lot of stupid things, things that put him on our radar in a bad way. He was good, too. Way too good for regular law enforcement, so it was down to us to take him out.
"I chased that kid all over hell and gone. That mentor of his? As soon as he caught wind that we were on the kid's trail, he dropped him without so much as a 'so long'. Left him to the wolves, as it were. And when I finally cornered him, sick and tired and not fighting back, I took my sidearm and I shot him."
Dean quirked an eyebrow.
"In the leg. I'd had my orders - he was dead the moment SHIELD noticed him - but sometime during that chase, I'd decided that killing him would have been a waste of potential."
Phil watched as Dean's eyes flicked around the room, shoulders hunched unconsciously as he sat down heavily on his cot. "So, what, I have potential? As what, and agent? A weapon?"
"As a person, Dean. I didn't spare that kid because he was talented or because I thought we could wield him like a blunt instrument. I spared him because I could see him turning out to be a good man in spite of everything, because he was already turning out to be a good man. A little bent and dented and rusted over, maybe, but good nonetheless. And killing him before he'd gotten a real chance to be that would have been a lamentable waste."
Dean rolled his eye. "Well, gosh, that's an adorable bedtime story."
"It's the story of the recruit who reminded me so much of you," Phil admitted. "And he's also the recruit who decided to go against his own kill orders and bring Agent Romanov in to us."
"So this is kind of a habit you guys have? Bringing home strays?"
"Sometimes I suspect we're running a kennel instead of a top-secret international government peace-keeping organization." He paused. "If you're not going to finish your sandwich, you should put it away."
He wasn't expecting an answer, so the double bird he was flipped seemed like a bit of a bonus.
"I'll leave you to your thoughts."
"So, what? He's a demon hunter?"
"Something like that." Natasha lunged, going for Clint's throat with the end of her bo staff. "With an attitude that makes you look positively cooperative."
"Damn." The archer moved through his dodge sideways, sweeping around her to whack her in the small of her back. "Ha! Two to me!"
Rolling her eyes, Natasha spun to face him, sliding back a couple of feet. "And how many to me? Six?"
"So you should talk to him."
Clint blinked at the seeming non-sequitur, and Natasha used the opportunity to jab him in the shoulder with her bo. "Ow! Hey! Not fair!"
"Don't whine, Clint. It's not cute."
"Everything I do is cute."
"Will you talk to him?"
Signalling a time-out, Clint leaned on his staff and peered at his heart-sister.
She'd been out of it ever since he'd come back to find out she'd taken in a stray - much as he had with her, as Coulson had with him. He knew how it was - you held someone's life in your hands, you took responsibility for that life, and all the pain-in-the-ass baggage that came with it. It was terrifying, and exhilarating, and incredibly bewildering. It was made somewhat more difficult by the fact that none of them were particularly good at feelings-related stuff. Which, now he thought of it, was a little strange, considering so much of their lives were nothing but feelings. Uncomfortable, broken, unpleasant feelings, mostly. He would have thought they'd be better equipped to deal with that in others.
Well, Coulson was good at it. He might not always be aware of the reasons behind the things his assets were thinking and feeling, since they weren't exactly big on sharing details, but he seemed uniquely adept at picking up on the feelings themselves. More importantly, he knew how to handle them, what to say, or (and sometimes this was the bit that made Clint even more proud of his handler) what not to say.
"Coulson's not getting anywhere?"
Natasha balanced her own staff across her shoulders, her wrists pressing into the ends as she stretched, cracking her back idly. "I don't know. Possibly. Well...knowing him, probably."
"Then I don't think it'd be a good idea for me to fuck up whatever he's got going. You know him. He's got a plan, and until he tells me it involves me, I'm not gonna stick myself between them."
Sighing, Natasha tossed her bo staff over her head and caught it neatly. "You're right. I don't know what's wrong with me."
Clint shrugged. "He's your recruit. It's like finding a kitten in a gutter - you can't turn away, ya know?"
"You wouldn't say that if you met him."
Grinning, Clint blocked her strike and danced backwards. "Guess I'll have to meet him, then."
"What do you mean, no?"
"I mean," Coulson said pleasantly, not looking up from his computer screen, "no."
Hopping up easily, Clint balanced on the edge of Coulson's desk, folding his arms across his knees. "Yeah, I got that part. What do you mean?"
"I mean no, Barton. No. Just no."
"Nat thinks I could help."
"Not necessary, agent. I have the situation in hand."
"Aw, come on. Do I at least get to say hi?"
Coulson paused, actually glancing up from the screen at his asset. "Why?"
"Oh, come on. Nat brought home a new addition to the family! Nat! Nat defied orders and let a mark live! Why would I not want to go poke him with a metaphorical stick?"
"Because this is the most delicate stage of the recruitment, Agent Barton, and I can't have you stumbling in and stepping all over what I've done."
Clint flinched. True, he wasn't the most delicate of people. He had a tendency to say what he was thinking, and maybe he kinda-sorta stomped on other people's feelings on occasion, but they were never the important people. And when he did accidentally stomp on Coulson's or Nat's feelings, he apologized. Kind of. Half a muffin counted as an apology, right?
Of course it did.
Coulson sensed, once again, that feelings were happening in his general vicinity, and he looked over at Clint properly and sighed.
"I'm sorry, Barton, that was uncalled for. This part is just the one I really hate."
Clint cocked his head, mulling that over. "Because it feels manipulative?"
"Aren't you supposed to be at the range right now, agent? Tormenting the probationaries?"
"Ahh, come on. I can postpone a little probie-poking to make time for my boss' newest project. C'mon, sir," he continued, gentling his tone. "I just wanna help."
Another sigh. "I know. And maybe you can, but I don't want you talking to him just yet. Okay?"
"Sure. What can I do?"
Coulson shut his laptop, which would have sent Clint rocking back on his heels if he hadn't still been teetering comfortably at the edge of his handler's desk.
"I'd like some advice."
Dean looked up at the light rap at his door. "Come in."
He wondered about the knocking as Coulson entered. A bid to give him a sense of privacy? An attempt to make it seem like they afforded him basic human respect? Giving him time to get his pants on?
Not that Dean bothered to put his pants on for company most days.
The agent offered him no explanation when he asked, though, simply tipped his head to the side in an odd sort of nod. "How are you feeling today, Dean?"
"Oh, fine." Dean gestured around the featureless steel room. "I mean, what could I possibly have to bitch about? I get a lumpy cot, a table - hell, I've even got a place to store half a sandwich, if I squish it in real tight. I'm livin' the dream."
"I understand it's not the most comfortable situation-"
"Oh, you do, huh? You know what's really uncomfortable, Double-Oh-Shifty? Being spied on day and night," he answered, jerking a thumb at the blinking red light in the corner.
"That's not where the camera is, actually. It's a dummy, in case the occupant has any ideas about disabling surveillance. The real cameras are better hidden." Sitting in his usual chair, Coulson held out his hands. "And I'm sure someone as clever as you have shown yourself to be can understand why we would want to keep tabs on you. You've neither made a commitment to our organisation, nor proven yourself to be the most cooperative of people."
"Didn't we have this conversation?" Dean sat across from Coulson and kicked his feet up onto the tabletop, nearly bringing his heel down on Coulson's hand. "Trust me, when I'm being uncooperative, you'll know it."
"And if I told you I came bearing a bit of incentive to ensure that you were even more cooperative in the future?"
"Oh, yeah?" Leaning forward, Dean bared his teeth in a grin that he knew to be a bit less than reassuring. "Is this where those electrodes up the ass we talked about come into play?"
"No. This is where I make you a promise."
If Dean hadn't been watching the older man extremely carefully, he might not have noticed the brief flick of his eyes towards the ceiling. The hunter filed that away for future reference and leaned in further. "I don't want a pony for Christmas, if that's what you're thinking. I've heard that promise before. It's all lies. Lies, I tell you."
"I was thinking more along the lines of locating your father for you, but if a pony is what you really want, we can swing that, instead."
The words buzzed in his ears. 'Locating you father'. What did that even mean? Dragging him into the Impossible Missions Foundation, too? Locking him up under the Arctic Circle, like they'd threatened to do to him?
"We're not talking recruitment for him," Coulson was saying softly. "We'd simply get a fix on his location. You could go in, talk to him, see that he's okay. Or not. We could simply help you keep tabs on him. Either way you want it."
Dean shook his head, leaning back and rubbing his eyes. "I don't...he wouldn't like that. He doesn't like feds on his ass."
"Then it's a good thing we're not all that concerned with what he wants," Coulson replied bluntly. "This is about you, Dean. It's been about you from the moment Agent Romanov spared your life. Just you, and what you want."
"Right. Not about what you want at all."
"What I want right now, Dean, is to be at home in my sweats and fuzzy slippers eating Thai food out of cardboard cartons with crap chopsticks watching Mythbusters. That's pretty much it. And I don't get that until I get an answer from you. So, yes, this is maybe a little bit about what I want. But the decision? That's not about me, or about Natasha, or about your father, or about anyone else. This one is on you. Entirely on you. That's why I gave you time to think about it. I was hoping that, instead of taking that time to think about what your father would want, you'd start thinking about what you wanted."
He wanted to scream. He wanted to flip the table over, to throw the chairs across the room. He wanted to punch stupid fucking Coulson's stupid fucking face in. He wanted to get out of that little cereal box of a room and kill something. He wanted to be cruising the highway with Baby, making a study of which of the American diners had the best of which kind of pie.
'Maybe I'm not used to doing it alone.'
He wanted things to be like they were. Dean, Sammy, Dad, roughing it and saving innocent people and answering to no one.
'He trusts me to make the right call.'
He couldn't do that without ruining Sammy's carefully-constructed life. He'd seen him, through the windows of his fancy school, smiling, laughing, surrounded by friends who didn't hog the hot water or save their porn to his hard drive. And there had been a girl - pretty little thing, blonde and sweet, and she smiled at Sammy like he was her personal sun. As much as he missed him, as much as he wished he could just drag him out of that life, he couldn't do that. Sammy's happiness mattered to Dean, more than any of his fucked-up abandonment issues. And Dad had wanted him to look out for Sammy, hadn't he? Well, Dean couldn't do much better than leaving him in his safe little bubble of normal, could he?
'She saw something in you worth saving.'
These people...they wanted Dean. Wanted him, even though they had to know by now that he was fucked-up and incomplete and probably not even fully a person. Dad and Sammy, man, they'd stuck with him. For years, they'd stuck with him, because nothing is more important than family, even when that family is doing nothing but dragging you down and holding you back. He couldn't blame them when they left, Sammy first, for better things, then Dad, for reasons unknown. It made sense, he guessed. They hadn't chosen him, after all - he was what they were saddled with. You can't pick your family, after all.
'If he's not dead, where is he?'
This way...this way, he could check up on Dad. Make sure he was doing okay without Dean. Not that he wouldn't be, the man was the best there was. But just in case. And they'd probably let him check in on Sammy, too. Make sure he was doing good in school, make sure his girl was treating him right (the way she looked at him, Dean suspected she was). Maybe they'd let him out to watch him graduate - that had to be soon, right? It had been a few years...
'This is about you, Dean. Just you, and what you want.'
"No, Dean. This isn't something you can take back. I want you to be sure." Coulson stood up. "I'll come back tomorrow."
"No." Dean stood up, turning to face the wall so Coulson couldn't see the flush of his cheeks or the glint in his eyes. "No, I'm sure. You find my dad, and you promise to let me see my brother's graduation, and I'll sign on for this fantastic voyage."
He couldn't see Coulson's face. He was probably looking smug and satisfied, thinking his mind tricks had been what did it. But as the door clicked shut, Dean braced both hands against the wall, head bent, eye squeezed shut, and Sammy and his lady bloomed behind his eyelids, diplomas in hand, little house, white picket fence, and all. It faded into Dad, on the road, doing the job, content in his solitude without two kids to lug around.
He could have done it. Wandered the country himself, saving people, hunting things. Doing the job Dad had taught him, making sure innocent lives weren't lost. He could have done it, all by himself, without having to drag Sammy out of school, without having to beg Dad to let him back in on the hunt.
He just didn't want to. He just didn't want to be alone anymore.
'Just you, and what you want.'
Clint watched through the ceiling vent as the new guy braced himself against the wall, shaking hands steadied as they splayed against the cool metal, and wondered what he was thinking.
He'd seen what Nat had meant, about the guy having an attitude. And he could see what was behind it, the same knotted up bullshit that was behind the archer's own personality defects. The pink that blossomed across his ridiculously pretty face (really, guys that pretty had no business joining SHIELD - Clint was going to have to fight for his resident-number-one-sex-idol status with this guy), the way his face had crumpled when he'd agreed to join. It was all familiar.
He remembered the feeling. Being wanted. Being singled out and having all your worst wounds poked at and snapping back and being wanted still. Again. Wondering how long it would last this time. Wanting to run before you could get tossed away. Again. That stupid, stupid hope that maybe this time, it would be different, and you wouldn't fuck everything up. That you would be strong enough, smart enough, just plain good enough to be allowed to stay.
He knew what was lying underneath the shiver of Winchester's hands, the hunch of his shoulders, the darting of his eyes. He wondered if Coulson knew.
As he inched back down the duct towards the gym, Clint found himself thinking of Nat, of how desperate he'd been to help her, to give her what Coulson had given him. Thinking that maybe, if he passed a bit of that good faith along, it would prove that he'd become the good person Coulson had always, for reasons unknown, believed Clint to be. He bet that was part of Nat's reasoning, too, and he hoped the new guy would hack it, at least for her sake.
He didn't think on it for too long, though, instead crouching in the duct at his destination. He pulled out a straw and a bag of dried peas.
There were probies to poke.
Natasha didn't answer, watching Dean circle his new room in much the same way he had the old one. This one was darker in color, with a more comfortable bunk, a sturdy desk, a separate bathroom. Best of all, she was sure he felt, was the lack of cameras.
"What rank do I have to be to get a television?"
"Post-probationaries get cable and internet," she replied, easing into the armchair in one corner. "You've got a little ways to go."
"Do I at least get a radio?"
"I'll see what I can do, but don't get your hopes up."
"Jesus," Dean groaned, flopping back on the bed. "This is like punishment."
"You have to earn things in SHIELD, just like in real life. You earn trust, you get a reward."
"Yeah? And how do they earn my trust?"
Natasha raised an eyebrow. "You're not dead yet, are you?"
"Ha ha." Sitting up, Dean pinned her with a contemplative look. "I gotta ask...why?"
"Don't play that shit with me, Red. You know 'why what'."
Curling her feet up under her, Natasha sighed. "I'm not sure. I just...saw something, I guess. Something worth keeping around."
Dean looked away, and the awkward silence stretched.
Leaning back, Natasha stared at the ceiling. She really wished Clint hadn't had to scamper off on another mission so quickly - the bastard could have at least stuck around to meet their new colleague-to-be. And he'd taken Coulson with him, and damned if anyone else wanted to try their luck with the loudmouthed new recruit, which pretty much left her to deal with him on her own.
"So...am I even allowed to go anywhere?"
"With a full agent escorting you, you can visit the mess and the gym during open hours. And you're allowed in your handler's office, when you get one."
Dean groaned. "This sucks."
Allowing a small smile, Natasha threw his only throw pillow at him.
A/N - Augh. AUGH. THIS WAS ONLY SUPPOSED TO BE, LIKE, FIVE PAGES LONG. HOW IS IT ALMOST FIVE TIMES THAT LENGTH. HOW. (Too much rambling...that's it, isn't it? I KNEW IT.)