they’ve become quite the paradox. shield, unironically, and spear; unstoppable force and immovable object. two incompatible premises with an uncanny ability to piss each other off.
the intel that had fallen into ward’s lap two weeks prior would have been inconsequential to anyone else. it was an easy connection to make: one of sunil bakshi’s close associates, a low - ranking member of old hydra, apprehended by SHIELD agents during a routine sweep of a former base of operations. ward harbored no delusions as far as allegiance went; what he’d done to bakshi was enough incentive for anyone to flip. no coincidence that this follows so closely on the heels of roman briggs’ jailbreak. coulson needed the excuse, and ward’s schedule happened to have an opening.
a change in the very air between them as soon as they’re alone. charged; alive, like the air before a storm.
alone. curious, ward notes, that coulson doesn’t hide behind deathlok this time.
he holds up a photograph, a full - color freeze - frame printed off the footage from a surveillance camera. not an accident: a challenge.
“nice glamour shot,” he says dryly.
ward smiles. “should’ve had it framed. not my best angle, but —”
“c’mon, ward.” what curves the line of coulson’s mouth isn’t amusement. “let’s skip the pleasantries. we both know you’re not that modest. you wanted my attention? congrats. you got it. now tell me what you want with briggs.”
“it’s funny,” ward muses, disregarding the second half entirely, “you say that like i ever lost your attention in the first place. and here i thought you had bigger fish.”
“it’s a wide net.”
“you exposed yourself to break him out of a secure facility crawling with agents, most of whom would kill to see you back in a cage. why?”
again, the question is ignored. “you tried that. didn’t work out so well.”
“you wanna know what i think?”
another tiny, humorless uptick. coulson leans forward on the table, wary, measured where ward is relaxed.
“i think you might be just deranged enough to believe you’re actually doing him some sort of favor. that in your own backwards, twisted way, you’re setting him free, when all you’ve really done is take away his only chance at starting over.”
deranged. deluded. same song, ward thinks disinterestedly; different verse, albeit only by a key or two, if that. his brow arcs.
“right. a clean break, no more looking over his shoulder — sounds familiar. it’s a good speech. almost had me fooled the first time around. second time, not so much. don’t patronize me, coulson. SHIELD was neutralizing a threat, nothing more, nothing less.”
“and you took it upon yourself to willfully unleash that threat,” coulson says. “so i’ll ask again — why? i’m sure you did your homework. roman briggs is an unknown variable, a powder keg ready to go off. some might say he’s a liability. i know you, ward. you’re way too calculated to bet on that kind of horse.”
“see, that’s the difference between us.” ward cants his head a fraction of an inch to one side, arm poised, elbow bent, along the back of his chair. “where you saw a wild animal that needed breaking, all i saw was potential. an opportunity.”
“an opportunity for what? don’t tell me loyal henchmen are in such short supply these days that hydra’s resorted to bargain - hunting from SHIELD holding cells. oh, speaking of —”
“henchmen, or shopping trips? sounds like a date.”
“loyalty. you’re already slipping. how do you think i managed to track you down?”
“educated guess — ? bakshi’s guy folded like a cheap suit the moment you promised him protection. how’s he enjoying SHIELD custody so far?”
“and you’re predictable. you didn’t just come here to talk about briggs, and you definitely didn’t come without backup.”
a grim smile, peppered with skepticism. “but i’m supposed to believe you did?”
“well — yes and no.” something almost metallic flickers behind ward’s eyes, a hollow - point spark. slow pull to draw a cellphone from his pocket, his opposite palm mildly raised at the spasm of movement across from him: coulson, on reflex, twitching toward a weapon. ward regards him with another scant raise of brows and connects the call with the successive press of two buttons, then a third to put it on speaker. still watching coulson, he says, to the receiving end, “how are we looking?”
roman’s voice. calm, steady. “target secured. ready to move on your signal.”
coulson boomerangs his focus; ward, down to the phone, up again to ward.
“good. hold position and wait for the green light.” the way his mouth curves at each corner isn’t a smile, not even the facsimile of one. it’s a quiet taunt, preceding the ghost of something thoughtful that falls short of sincere. “you know, SHIELD still has a surprising number of active safe houses, and most of them really aren’t that hard to find. couldn’t have been fury, he was too cloak - and - dagger for that. so it must’ve been your call, huh? pretty careless, director. seems you’re already slipping.”
a muscle tic. the flare of both nostrils. otherwise, coulson is composed; ward will give him that. “quit screwing around, ward — what did you do?”
“yeah, i don’t screw around, you of all people should know that. and i haven’t done anything, at least — not yet. if he doesn’t hear from me in the next fifteen minutes, though,” he gestures with each hand, a blown out breath, mimicking an explosion. “different story. you’ll be down half a dozen agents, just like that. good people, too. i checked. so, the question is, are you willing to make that sacrifice just to take me in? you know you won’t be able to hold me. you never could.”
“like i was bluffing with may’s ex - hubby? c’mon, coulson. maybe it’s been a while since we’ve exchanged christmas cards, but things haven’t changed that much.”
no. they’re past that.
“okay.” aside from the shadow that crosses his gaze and the barely perceptible curl of his lip, coulson maintains neutrality. or what passes for it. "then answer me one thing.”
a beat. ward waits, unmoved.
“what’s randall prescott have to do with any of this? what was so important that you and briggs went all the way to portugal to murder a guy who’s been off the radar for years? i’ve seen briggs’ file — they were in the same orphanage, back in the day, but after that, it’s quiet. no connections, or none that left a paper trail. so what is it about him? what’s the significance of executing a defected hydra agent and his wife in cold blood? on their anniversary, no less, but you probably knew that.”
“they had a falling out.” in deference to coulson’s look, he elaborates, “prescott and briggs. wanted to reconnect, dig right down into the roots of their true feelings. i’m not a shrink, but i really think they made some progress.”
“ah — so that’s what this is.” the look shifts from uneasily perplexed to comprehending, disparaging. “a revenge kick, just like you manipulated agent 33 into. figures. i mean, after you shot her to death, you were a clyde without his bonnie. should’ve known it was only a matter of time before you found yourself a replacement.”
the first slip of emotion — visceral, raw, but securely contained, effectively distilled — comes out in the brusque undercurrent of a scathing tone. “and what about you, coulson? you find your replacement yet, or can you still not shake the memory of rosalind bleeding out in your arms?”
a mirrored response. “i’m not the one who slaughtered her, you sick son of a bitch.”
“but she’d be alive if it weren’t for you. let’s skip the pleasantries.” ward’s jaw works at the curve, hard and sharp. the hint of a sneer. “as for what happens next, you have two choices. i get up, and i walk out, and you tell your reinforcements to stand down — or, six SHIELD agents pay the price. they’ll die quick, which is more than i can say for you. so what’ll it be? we’ve got about,” he tips his wrist, checks his watch, “nine minutes left. and trust me when i say, he isn’t the ‘no news is good news’ type.”
“you’re not walking out of here, ward. i won’t make that mistake again. it’s over.”
“shoot me, then,” ward invites, arms spread as he rises to a stand. “end it, right here, right now. you’ll still lose some of your people, but ...”
“i’m never gonna stop,” coulson levels out, as he, too, gets to his feet; levels, although emphasis catches on every word like his tongue is serrated, “you do know that, don’t you? that for the rest of your short, miserable life — no matter what you do, ward. no matter where you go, or how far you run, i will always be right behind you.”
“and that’s just it, coulson.” ward lowers his arms and smiles. no warmth reaches his eyes, nor the deep well of shadow around them. “you’ll never be able to catch up.”
he moves, and almost anticipates coulson to follow.
he moves, and almost expects an icer to the back. maybe a real bullet. maybe they’re past that, too.
he moves, and coulson stays.
at the door, he pauses to catch coulson’s eye one last time.
“give my best to the team,” he says. “you know — for old time’s sake. i’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again soon.”
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