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06 December 2012 @ 04:18 pm
Holding the Light - Chapter One  

Holding the Light

Chapter One

So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
And I will hold on with all of my might
Just promise me that we'll be alright…

-- "Ghosts that we knew" Mumford and Sons

Phil Coulson looked up at the plain façade of the Eighth Precinct station. "If he comes out, follow him," he ordered the two agents with him, who nodded sharply.

Then he mounted the steps and went into the station. A little muttering about 'his client' was all it took, and they were leading him back to the interview area. Coulson first saw four young guys cooling their heels in one of the holding cells. They looked a bit worse for wear, but none were his quarry. But when Coulson turned and looked through the window into the interrogation room, he was there, just as the facial-recognition alert had suggested.

The alert hadn't mentioned that he looked like a homeless guy, though, with layers of ratty, dirty clothes and an even rattier, dirty beard. His eyes were closed and he sat on the chair as if he might be dozing, but Coulson wasn’t entirely fooled by that, not after seeing the file. But still, it was a little shocking to walk in expecting sleek lethality, and find someone in need of help.

"That's him."

The cop looked at him askance, but shrugged. "He's not charged, so feel free."

"Charged? He was the victim," Coulson pointed out.

"Victim? You should look at the video. He took all four of them out without a scratch, like some kind of ninja. But yeah, pretty clear self-defense against those punks. But tell him to take his meds, so he doesn't kill someone by accident next time he gets carried away."

Coulson thought, I sincerely doubt he's ever killed anyone by accident, Sergeant.

"Leave your card in case there's follow up."

"Sure." Coulson picked from the stack of business cards in his pocket and handed over the attorney card.

The sergeant opened the door and announced, "Okay, your lawyer's here. You're free to go."

Nothing in his posture changed, but John's eyes flickered with surprise and suspicion, as he frowned at Coulson. But he didn't object to having a mystery 'attorney' he didn't ask for, only got to his feet.

"Let's go," Coulson said. "Let's get you out of here."

John followed him out of the police station and down the steps. He saw the other two agents and hesitated, glancing at Coulson, and back to the station as if considering going back in there.

"You're not a lawyer," John said. His voice was low and flat, as if he didn't actually care that his supposed lawyer was not a lawyer at all.

"No. My boss wants to talk to you."

John's gaze flicked back to him. "Not interested. Thanks for springing me but I'm on my own."

He started to walk away and when the other agents started after him, Coulson raised a hand to stop them. He called after John, "I'm not them, but your former employers are going to know you're still alive now, John."

John stopped at the sound of his name, but didn't turn around.

"We can protect you."

"And if I don't want protection?" John responded.

"You should. You and I both know what they do with loose ends like you. Now that you're back on the radar, they'll start looking. I can offer something else. How about a job? Meaningful important work. Something a man with your skills--"

That got his attention and he turned. Between the beard and dirty hair, his eyes burned. "I've heard that before. And it turned into putting bullets into children."

Coulson couldn't actually refute that one, because he'd read the file. Shameful what some black ops missions became. "It's not like that. We're not like that. I'm not a front for mercenaries, and our mandate is protective. Please, just hear us out."

He wondered if this was going to work and worried it wouldn't. Recruitment had seemed a slam dunk, but he'd expected someone more put together than John's attempt to drink himself into an anonymous grave.

John thought about it. "Fine. Talk."

"Not here, talk to my boss. He's waiting." Coulson indicated the town car idling at the curb, and after another hesitation, John got in.

As they pulled into traffic, he saw a woman in business wear rush out of the station and look urgently up and down the street, holding a business card she had probably just discovered was fake. Maybe she'd also discovered that her crime victim's fingerprints led to a dead man. Coulson felt a little sorry for her, but John was no longer in her jurisdiction.

In the car, he tried not to wrinkle his nose at the odor. John had been on the streets for awhile.

John rested his head against the back of the seat and shut his eyes during the drive, as if he didn't care where they were going. And yet, he had gotten in the car. So maybe he was curious to see what this was about. Or, he was hungover and needed a ride.

They arrived at the park, and the car pulled onto the gravel and came to a stop.

"We're here," Coulson said and opened the door. "My boss is waiting for you."

The view of the bridge and the city beyond the water was quite remarkable, as Coulson got out and held the car door. John climbed out, and headed for Director Fury, who was waiting by the park bench alone.

Coulson started to follow, but held back at a hand gesture from Fury, who waited patiently for his recruit. John stopped a few meters back from Fury, as if he suspected there was a sniper protecting the director. Of course, John had once been one of those snipers protecting dignitaries, so he might think that about everyone.

Fury greeted him, "John. You've been using the last name Reese, I believe. I'm glad you agreed to meet with me."

"I wasn't aware I had a lot of choice in the matter," John returned dryly.

Fury almost smiled. "True. Do you know who I am?"

"No idea."

Fury snorted. "Oh, come now, Mister Reese, you've been off the grid for awhile, but not that long. You know who I am and what I represent."

John's bluff caught, he answered, "You're Nick Fury, Director of that UN project with the unfortunate name, which is supposedly a ten million a year division, but has black box funding of six billion dollars a year."

Coulson bit his lip on a smile at the 'unfortunate name' dig. John Reese had a bit of a sarcastic sense of humor, after all.

"More than that actually," Fury said, with a nod. "That's what we let our colleagues in the Agency know about. So you've heard of us. But do you know what we do?"


Coulson couldn't tell if that was another lie, or not, but this time Fury didn't call him on it, if it was.

"It's a changing world, John. Science is changing humanity, and sometimes not in a direction the rest may be comfortable with. For instance, Harlem. You heard of that, I assume, the fight between the creatures the press have dubbed the Hulk and the Abomination that destroyed four blocks of Harlem? SHIELD was there, to contain and move the Abomination to a secure facility. And while they're the largest of the threats, they're not the only one. SHIELD exists to stop these threats. To do that, I need skilled agents, who are good thinkers, and yet share our belief that our skills should only be used to protect those who can't protect themselves from these new threats."

John didn't reply immediately. "Which sounds like law enforcement, and yet you lead an organization so secret it makes the CIA look like the public library. So what are you: cops or spies?"

Fury frowned a little. "Spies," he answered, "for now. We do much of our work abroad unofficially. But eventually, yes, we'll take it into the light. We'll have to. But that question shows me I was right about you. Come work for SHIELD, John. We need your skills."

John hesitated and his eyes turned toward the city. "My skills are mostly killing people, and I don't want to do that anymore."

"And if I promised you wouldn't have to?"

"I'd call you a liar."

"You have other skills."

John shrugged beneath his heavy coat. "Same skills any other ordinary ex-soldier has. Find one of those. I'm not interested."

Fury chuckled. "Do you think I recruit the 'ordinary'? I don't. I have your full record, John. I know all of it, about the experiments."

Coulson glanced at Fury in surprise, having no idea what Fury was talking about. Something hadn't made it into John's file, after all.

But that was nothing compared to the reaction from John. He took a step back, shoulders flinching and his hands tightening into fists. "You know nothing," he snapped in deep anger and he turned to go, only to find Coulson and the other two blocking his path.

His pale eyes darted, trapped, and Coulson knew he was about to attack. But John held himself still, unwilling to make the first move even when he seemed to desperately want out of there. Coulson held his breath and kept his hand away from his gun, having been around enough people like this that any attempt to go for his weapon would provoke the exact reaction he was trying to prevent.

"I'm sorry," Fury said, sounding actually regretful. "I needed you to know that I know. You have gifts, John. But there are people who have similar and even more powerful gifts but they're not like you. They aren't troubled by conscience. SHIELD exists to stop them. And it takes the extraordinary to stop the extraordinary."

John's eyes shut for a moment, pained, and then he answered, "You got the wrong guy. Sorry. I can't help you."

Behind his back, Coulson's gaze met Fury's, and the director nodded. Aloud, the director said heavily, as if giving up, "All right. If that's what you want. Agent Coulson, take him back."

"Yes, sir."

In the car Coulson didn't ask what Fury had meant, and John kept quiet, staring out the window. He knew the city though, and asked, "Where are we going?"

"I want to show you something first, before I drop you off."

John didn't protest, but he must have figured it out as they made the turn toward Harlem. The streets were clear, but one building was a shattered ruin, and three others were also red-tagged for demolition, too damaged to fix. A few others were damaged but still habitable, and a group were scorched by the fire that had run through here after the gas main had broken and exploded.

"The Hulk," Coulson said softly. "And Abomination. They're not alien creatures, Mister Reese. The Hulk is a human, a scientist, most of the time, but sometimes, because of a laboratory accident, he becomes the Hulk when frightened or angry. The Hulk has no fear and is pure rage. As far as I know, he is unstoppable."

John was silent for a moment, face unreadable, as he looked out at the destruction. "So how'd you stop him?"

Coulson leaned forward to tap on the glass and have the car continue on. "We didn't. Hulk stopped Abomination and then left. He's… being monitored, but we leave him alone."

John only hummed a little in response, but Coulson thought he sensed some approval.

"As Director Fury said, the Hulk is the most dangerous, but he's not the only…" he hesitated, intending to say 'lab accident', but then recalling what Fury had said about John being subject to experiments, decided that was a word he should skip, "dangerously powerful individual out there. And not all of them have Hulk's innocence. SHIELD has the technology and the personnel to stop and contain these superhuman threats, whether they originate on Earth, or elsewhere. That's our mandate."

John glanced at him askance. "Aliens?"

"They're out there, Mister Reese."

John snorted skeptically, but fell silent. In lower Manhattan they pulled over and Coulson let him out. "I hope you change your mind. In the meantime, let me, um, compensate you for your time." Coulson pulled out all his cash and held it out. "I.. uh, here. You served our country with honor, and you deserve better than this. Get yourself cleaned up and into some help, John, at least."

John nodded once, and his gaze met Coulson's for a moment, the broken edges softening for just a moment at the appreciation and he took the money. "Thanks."

He walked away, visible for a while in the crowd because of his height. Coulson tapped his ear piece. "Begin surveillance. Don't lose him."

He worried that John would try to avoid the surveillance, but as the afternoon deepened it seemed he didn't notice he was being watched. He slipped them once, apparently by accident, but the team picked up the trail from the tracker Coulson had put on the back of his coat.

Coulson was pleased that the money was used for more than alcohol, though he bought that too. He got himself new clothes from a second hand shop, toiletry items and eventually a room at the LaGrange hotel.

As their subject seemed to settle for the night and two teams got into position to monitor him, Coulson returned to Ops, to find Fury waiting there.

"Are you sure about this, boss?" Coulson asked quietly, coming to stand next to the director. "He just wants to be left alone. Maybe we should let him be."

Fury shook his head once and tapped the console with a gloved fist. "We leave him alone, he dies. Whether he does it himself or some black ops clean up squad does it, doesn't matter."

"He's one person," Coulson objected. He didn't mean it entirely, but he was curious about what Fury would say. "Why the special interest in saving him?"

Fury glanced at him and then at the monitors. "I don't throw away resources, Coulson. Not if I can help it."

"Yes, boss." He touched his ear piece and activated the channel. "Okay, you have a go, Agent Romanoff."

Natasha's voice came back, professional and cool. "On it."

Coulson reported it and then asked Fury, "What was that about experiments? You didn't give that to me."

"No." Fury replied and at first Coulson thought that was all he was going to get, but the director went on. "In the seventies a geneticist, Doctor Nathaniel Essex, attempted to recreate the supersoldier serum on his own. No one knew about it until 1987, when several teenagers died of an unknown disease. CDC discovered they had all been at the doctor's reformatory school in New Mexico, where they had all been subject to injections, genetic manipulation, shock treatments and brutal training. Our friend out there is the only one known to survive to adulthood."

"That's awful. But it seems like John should've gotten more out of it," Coulson said, thinking of the rest of John's file which was full of marksmanship and combat awards, but nothing especially superhuman. "What happened to the scientist? In lockdown someplace?"

Fury shook his head. "Police found Essex's body. He'd been stabbed twelve times and his neck broken. Probably it happened when the kids escaped, but officially John denied knowing anything about it."

"Someone wanted to make sure the monster wasn't coming back," Coulson murmured, impressed by the overkill but not surprised, and shook his head. "Damn." He knew the rest of the story, more or less, including John's military and CIA background. "You really think we're gonna get him onboard, boss?"

"I know Agent Romanoff will do her best. And her best is very good, so yes."

John awoke slowly, head pounding from the fifth of cheap whiskey he'd had to drink.

Then he heard the screaming. There was a woman screaming in terror nearby.

He jerked to alertness, finding to his shock that he had one hand zip-tied to the headboard. No, it was worse than that: he was zip-tied to the headboard of a bed that was in a different room than the one he'd fallen asleep in.

But he shoved aside the why and how of his situation and looked around for a way to free himself. He yanked on the tie, wondering if he could break it or the wooden beam of the headboard, but both seemed strong. He needed a tool. Stretching his free hand he grabbed the lamp on the bedside table, ripped off the shade, and then smashed the bulb against the wall. Snatching the biggest shard of glass, he cut at the tie, using his feet to put it under a strain that nearly dislocated his wrist.

The screaming continued from next door of someone in terrible danger. He rolled off the bed, kicked the connecting door down and rushed into the next room, glass shards in his hand ready to throw.

But his feet stumbled to stop, recognizing there was no threat before his brain processed it entirely.

The room was empty. There was a recorder and a set of speakers on a low table between two arm chairs. That was where the sound was coming from.

Then a hand reached from one of the arm chairs and turned off the audio, and he realized the room wasn't actually empty.

A woman's voice said coolly, "That was recorded on a cell phone when the Hulk and Abomination tore through Harlem." She stood up - red headed, beautiful, lithe, and deadly, even if she was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. He recognized her, too, with a sense of astonishment at her appearance here.


She smiled faintly at him. "John."

He inhaled a breath and let it out, trying to get rid of the adrenaline, and set down the bulb shards on the table. He rubbed at his sore wrist and, even with his headache, it took only a moment to figure out what was going on. "You work for SHIELD now?" he asked.

She nodded. "For the past year. Fury offered me a new chance. He's offering it to you, too."

"I told him I don't want it."

"I'd say nearly cutting off your hand to get there in time to save someone makes that a lie."

He shut his eyes, wishing for a drink to bury it all, and he shook his head.

"You could be there for the next one," Natasha said. "You could help them."

Help. It was tempting. After so much death and destruction, so many lives ruined and destroyed, if he could change things… do good…

It made him want to laugh bitterly at himself. "Do good." Hopelessly naïve was what that was. There was no good, not after everything. He'd once thought he was doing good, only to find the evil of his past continued, and every spark of light drowned in the inky black of good intentions turned to selfish and terrible ends.

She added more quietly, "You know me. You know what I've done. But we don't have to do that-- we don't have to be that anymore."

"And if we don't know how to be anything else?" he asked, glancing at the shards of glass he'd been prepared to use to kill.

"If I can learn, so can you. We're not that different." She took a step closer and her voice softened. "You saved me, John."

He shook his head again and echoed what he'd always said in debrief about the mission and the failed killshot. "There was a wind gust. I missed."

She snorted. "You had the shot. You missed deliberately. I saw. I always wanted to ask why, after all that I'd done."

"We knew each other. I couldn't do it." It was true that they'd been acquainted, over a few years of crossing each other's paths, but it wasn't true that the acquaintance had spared her. It wouldn't have, except he had accessed her whole file when he'd received the mission to kill her. He'd learned about her childhood training and it had reminded him of the hell he'd lived. She became akin to the brothers and sisters he'd lost and in her, he'd seen what they might have lived to become. So in a brief moment of sentiment, he'd pulled his shot, hitting her in the shoulder and letting her escape.

She smiled a little, not believing him, but let it go. "You saved my life. Let me save yours, John. Join us. Join SHIELD. We can save other people."

He looked at the speakers and thought back to the ruins Coulson had shown him. Hulk wasn't the only one, he knew that, too. There were others being created and altered into something more than human.

"You're persuasive," he said heavily, wondering if this was going to be a terrible mistake.

"You'll do it." It wasn't a question; she already knew he'd decided.

"I'll do it. But if it turns into more of the same, I'm gone. And I'm burning it down behind me," he promised, meaning every word. No more. Not again.

Not ever.

She returned his gaze steadily. "If that happens, I'll help you. Welcome to SHIELD." She touched her earpiece and said aloud, "He's in."

John had been on aircraft carriers a few times before, but the SHIELD helicarrier was a different beast. From the helicopter as they came in, he could see the massive size of it.

But more impressively, it was flying.

He wanted to laugh. Good luck getting to me now, Mark. Can't clean it up if you can't fly.

He stood on the deck, next to Natasha, looking around, automatically cataloging the exits (few at this altitude with the craft chained down, but three visible hatches, two ventilation ducts, and the elevator to the hangar deck) and weapons (many).

"Come on," she said and led him toward the main hatch into the control tower.

He buttoned his suit jacket to keep it from flapping in the wind and followed her. Inside, the military environs seemed familiar, and he passed other soldiers and guards on the way. For a moment, he wanted that uniform - any uniform, really - back, along with the feeling as if he belonged to something again and be one of many, not only one.

But those days were long gone.

Natasha led him to a large control room. It had an large window taking up the entire forward wall, people looking at screens in lowered areas and a command level, and then an observation area above. It was good for visibility and terrible for security. With one clip and a grenade, he could do some damage, and with double the arms, he could take it alone.

His eyes met Natasha's, who returned the glance with a knowing look of agreement and the faintest nod, and then she led him toward where Fury was standing with a woman in a sharp blue uniform.

"Ah, Agent Reese," Fury greeted, beckoning him nearer. "Welcome aboard."

John looked around the expansive room. "I'd wondered what six billion dollars a year would buy."

"You like my toy?" Fury asked.

"It's impressive."

"That it is." Fury noticed John's glance at the woman next to him, and introduced, "John Reese, this is Agent Maria Hill, XO of this boat."

"Agent Hill." He nodded and she held out her hand to shake his.

"Agent Reese." She glanced at Fury. "The Director mentioned he'd recruited you. Welcome aboard." Her expression held a little confusion and he assumed Fury had recruited him without her knowledge - it had been a bit rushed, he presumed, with the Agency no doubt also alerted to his surfacing.

No, it hadn't been surfacing - that implied intent, not the impulsive, drunken stupidity of his move on the subway. He should've just let the punks take his bottle, but the rage had rushed up from somewhere deep inside, unstoppable, and he'd taken them all down. Now here he was. Joining SHIELD. This was probably just as foolish and impulsive.

Yet he remembered Natasha's recording and her words, and wondered whether maybe he could help. Maybe it was true. Maybe he could stop the monsters before they became monsters.

It was enough to get him to follow Natasha into another room where Coulson was waiting. "Ah, you are here," John observed.

"I am. Thank you, Agent Romanoff," he said to her in dismissal.

She nodded and glanced at John. "See you later." It was almost a flat statement, but her lips smiled a little and she gave a little nod of promise that she meant it, before she slipped out the door.

Coulson gestured him to take a chair at the large conference table, and when John picked a seat, Coulson sat beside him and put down a large folder and a pen. "I have documents. Nothing you didn't see at the Agency."

John opened the folder - employment contract, non-disclosure agreement, health questionnaire, even a 401K election form. He glanced up. "Seriously?"

"We have a very competitive benefits package. Agent Romanoff didn't mention that in her recruitment pitch?" Coulson asked, a little dryly. John thought they were going to get along.

"Funny, no, she didn't mention paperwork as a draw." John picked up the pen and then stopped, frowning. "What name do you want me to use?"

Coulson shrugged. "Whatever you want. We'll set up the identity if you'd like something new."

It was tempting. Choose something new, become someone else. Leave everything behind. But he'd already tried that, more than once, and it never worked. Maybe this time he should do the opposite. So he put John Matthew Reese on all the forms and signed his name. It wasn't the last name he'd joined the Army under, since that name was dead, and it wasn't his true family name, because that one he held to himself. There was a touch of defiance in using the same last name the Agency had given him.

He left the address and contact information empty and in the previous employment section, he wrote "classified" in big letters, with a bit of a smile. The beneficiary space gave him pause. A man who didn't exist had no beneficiary. No family. No friends. Nothing. No one to inherit anything. No one to mourn him when he was dead.

His hand tightened until the pen snapped with a crack, that made them both jump. "Sorry," he muttered.

"You can, uh, change it whenever you like," Coulson told him and slipped the papers into the folder. "Follow me. Now that you're an employee we'll go to requisitions and then I'll show you where you'll bunk."

John opened his mouth to say how he was going to repay Coulson for his generosity yesterday, that had let him buy new clothes and, more importantly, reminded him of who he'd been long enough to want to clean up. Maybe not enough to get sober last night, but at least shave and cut his hair and remember to care about being human again.

But he didn't say it. Once he had a pay check -- and he really should have looked at that contract to notice what his pay would be, but it didn't matter all that much -- he'd pay Coulson back every penny. Glancing at his … handler… since that's really what Coulson was, he knew that Coulson knew that already.

At requisitions, which worked like any base PX John had ever been to, with the added complication that John wasn't in the system yet, but after Coulson vouched for him and signed some forms, he was able to get underclothes, BDUs in blue and olive, and a toiletry kit.

Then to his surprise, Coulson laid a jacket on the pile in John's arms. It was navy blue, casual like a windbreaker but soft, with SHIELD patches on the shoulders. "My division doesn't wear the uniform, like Agent Hill's does," he explained, "but I thought you might like some team colors to wear."

Which he would, and he managed a bit of a smile at Coulson. "Thanks."

Coulson nodded. "Your quarters are this way."

The room turned out to be private with a bed along one wall, sink, desk and closet. "Really?" he asked, having expected a bunk room.

"We try to take care of our agents when they're home," Coulson explained. "It's tiny, but it's yours."


John wanted to feel disdainful about the whole idea of this carrier being a home, but he couldn't. He knew what a home was, even though he'd never really had one. Even though he'd let it go and then he'd let it die. But this place was a job; the closest thing he'd had to home lately had been the homeless camp on 48th.

He had to turn away from Coulson to put away his new belongings, and wait until the shaking in his hands had subsided before he turned back. "Ready."

It was mostly true.

John crept out on to the deck, feeling the cold wind on his face, and avoided two guards to find a seat at the base of the forward radar array. He tipped his head back against the metal, wondering what the hell he was doing.

"You should probably be inside. They'll think you're up to no good, sneaking around." Natasha's voice said suddenly to his left. His hand tightened as if to grab a sidearm and his shoulders twitched with surprise. She moved up next to him.

He shrugged and stayed where he was. He'd wanted air and the stars, and gotten both. It was chilly but not anything he couldn't ignore for a little while. "Couldn't sleep."

She lowered her voice. "You okay?"

"Needed air." Actually what he needed was a drink, but he didn't say it. Natasha seemed to know what he meant anyway.

"You want to spar?" she offered. "That'll help clear it out faster."

It would get rid of the alcohol, true enough, and maybe a hard enough fight would let him sleep without it. Every time he closed his eyes he saw their faces: Jessica of course, but the others too. All those he had failed to save. Alcohol washed away the stench of death that followed him around.

"Come," she urged. "I have so few good sparring partners."

He shook his head, amused, but climbed to his feet. "You want to kick my ass."

"It is not my fault you've been drinking yourself into a coma since, what? February? You're out of practice."

She led him to a large open space with a padded floor and one wall of mirrors. He hung his jacket on a hook in the wall and they both took off their footwear. Then he went to the center of the floor and inhaled a deep breath. "Okay."

He didn't even manage to get a hit on her, before she had him on the floor. She looked down with a smile. "You're not trying, John."

"It's not connecting." He climbed to his feet and shook his head. "I feel sluggish."

She beckoned him in. "You attack, I'll defend. Move."

He still felt stiff as he attacked, and she blocked him easily, dancing backward. "This is not the skill you used against me before. I thought I was exaggerating the comment about drinking yourself into a coma," she said, frowning at him.

"You moved me without waking me up," he pointed out.

"That was a narcotic," she admitted. "But yes, you were drunk enough you let me stick you with a needle. I could have killed you."

"Glad you didn't."

"Well, that's a start." She returned to the middle of the floor. "Again. Harder. Come at me."

He attacked again, feeling a little better, but figuring he deserved it when she got impatient and kicked him in the stomach. "Again."

The fourth time through, he was sweating but he felt smoother and quicker, a bit more like his old self. His strikes had authority and precision, and even though she was still faster, it was closer and mixing up his style momentarily caught her off balance, prompting her into attack mode.

He threw an elbow, she spun out of the way, and then he had to duck the foot she had up at his head, but she was too quick and took him to the floor with her other leg. They both rolled clear, and she flipped to her feet with enviable flexibility.

"Much better! That's closer to the John I remember. Again." Her eyes were alight with the joy of the combat, and he had to admit he was getting into it, too.

"Phil," Maria's voice murmured and he stirred from the cot and groped tiredly for the intercom. "Are you awake?"

"Maria?" he asked sleepily.

"They're sparring. Turn on your terminal, I'll send you the feed."

There was only one 'they' that Maria would wake him up about: Natasha and the new guy. He hurried to the terminal in the corner of the room, and turned it on. The monitor blinked and booted up, switching to a feed of one of the workout rooms.

Phil was always impressed when he saw Natasha fight. She was athletic and graceful, and deadly. He'd never seen John fight, but he knew as former special ops John would have had very thorough hand-to-hand training and he'd had that childhood training as well. He didn't move as much as she did, with a fighting style that required a little more defense in hard blocks but for a large man, he didn't lack for speed. They struck at each other, blocked and attacked, settling into a fast rhythm, that they both tried to break at the same moment, launching attacks. He lunged into her to throw her, while her feet hooked around his neck and flipped him. They both ended up on the floor.

John's chest was heaving for breath as he lay flat on his back with no apparent inclination to rise again. "Damn, I don't think I've done that for years."

She lay next to him, breathing a bit hard herself with a sheen of sweat on her face. "You're still holding back."

He shook his head negative. "I'm out of practice."

"Yes, you are, but you're also holding back." She twisted around and sat up next to him. "You hesitated. Pulled your strikes."

"I … wasn't trying to," he protested.

"I know," she said. "And I won't take it as an insult because I know it's nothing to do with me. But we have to train you through it because any decent fighter will exploit it."

He didn't answer right away, closing his eyes in weariness, and when he did speak, the microphone almost didn't pick up his soft voice, "I'm so tired of killing."

She looked at him, and after a moment she lay down at his side on the mat again. "Me, too."

Phil flicked off the monitor, leaving them their privacy. He wasn't quite sure what he had done to deserve handling the reformed assassins and spies, but at least he had the consolation of knowing they were good people at heart, no matter their pasts. Though come to think of it, they all handled each other: Barton had been the first, and he'd brought Natasha in, and now it seemed she was passing it on to John. Hopefully Hawkeye and John would get along; both seemed calm enough they would likely work together fine. And it might be good for Clint to have some competition in the marksmanship department.

He would recall Hawkeye in a few days, after John had settled in a bit more, and see how it went.

For his first night on the Helicarrier, after his sparring with Natasha, John lay wakeful in bed. His body was physically tired after the fight and all that happened yesterday, but his mind was wakeful.

His hand reached reflexively for the bottle on the bedside table, but it wasn't there. He folded his hands under his head and stared at the dim reaches of the ceiling until they blurred.

Tomorrow I start the job. Tomorrow I find out if Natasha's right or this will be more of the same self-serving bullshit. And when did I start taking the word of a known contract assassin anyway? Because I like her? Because she has a pretty face? Because she said words I wanted to hear? I shouldn't be that gullible when a secret organization with the capability to build this ship in secret is involved.

Keep your eyes open, learn what you can, and don't take what they say as the truth. There's always more to it. Always.

He rolled over onto his side, punching the pillow restlessly. He'd once had the skill to nap anywhere. Spying and military missions involved a lot of airplane flights in dismal corners of the world, surveillance, and waiting around. But sleep was elusive still.

Space aliens. Genetic freaks. Altered humans. And, be honest, people like you. You know what that psycho Essex did to you. It failed mostly, but that doesn't mean it didn't work better on others. You know what you can do, and you know what you did when you were on the wrong person's leash. You know what too much power in the wrong hands leads to, and you know those people need to be stopped. That was never the problem.

He tried to push the thoughts away and clear his mind. But that led to indulging in memories of being happy, of love. Sea breezes and her smile. Sand in the bed, and the salty taste of her lips.

But he couldn't stay in those memories as sleep pulled him down.

He walked the dark, empty hall of Jessica's house, and all the photos in the frames were of her face mutely accusing him for his failure. But they warped into other images, of the other children from the past. The deeper he walked into the house the hall changed and lengthened, grew dark.

Somewhere far away, there was screaming as one of the boys took another 'treatment.' He passed a room and looked inside the open door. He knew what he would see: eight children in there, in identical white shirts and shorts, sparring. He saw himself, the tallest there, fighting a smaller boy.

Essex was there, overseeing. "You must at all times be vigilant. Only the best survive."

Even as adult John stared at Essex and young John, another Essex, tall and slim with red eyes like a demon, took hold of John's arm in the hall. "Time for treatment, John."

But it wasn't him in the chair, it was a young boy with big dark eyes - he'd been in the wrong house on the wrong end of John's gun in a raid and they'd said to kill everyone in the compound - and it was John pulling the lever that would make the kid scream.

John woke with a gasp, eyes flying open to search for proof that he wasn't back there. He sat up, running hands through his sweat-dampened hair, and took deep breaths to calm down.

That was more than twenty years ago. Get a fucking grip.

When he glanced at the clock it was 0520. There was no point in trying to sleep, so he rolled off the bed to the floor to do push-ups and crunches, and start getting himself back in shape again.

At least he could work on the physical, and mental would just have to follow along.

Chapter Two