Chapter 1: Marcus
The large ship swayed gently on the slight swell. A few heavy glass weights kept the overlapped layers of maps and logs and letters from sliding off the rough-hewn wood and onto the thickly carpeted floor. It was the only room on the ship that had carpets, but after four years of hard use, they were starting to look a little threadbare. Salt, sand, and sun ground deep and slowly leeching the colours from the fibres.
Two men were bent over the table. Quietly conversing, they didn’t notice the soft movement, long accustomed to the dance of the tides and the pull of time. Most of their things were starting to show the toll of long years at sea without the funds to spare. Captain Marcus Fury stood straight with a groan, one hand pushing into the stiff muscles of his back and other going to his head to try and massage the tension headache away. They weren’t going to find another four crewmembers by breaking their backs over paperwork.
Stalking away from the largest piece of furniture in the room, he stopped at the narrow band of windows that ran the length of the back of the room. Looking out at the pale blue sweep of ocean and the frothy white water marking their trail, he mentally worked through releasing each of his knotted muscles. Starting with his neck and working his way down. The process gave him time to gather his thoughts.
“We’re going to need to go into one of the bigger islands. Maybe even the mainland to plug our holes aren’t we?” He asked the man standing at his back.
Going anywhere close to civilisation was a risk. There were still sizable rewards on all of their heads and the memories were long in the poorer parts of the world. At the moment they were safe, sailing between the outer reaches of the Azores Islands, only dealing with people they knew and trusted. And incidentally a good double handful of them owed his crew their lives.
“Yes.” His first mate agreed. No further explanation; it wasn’t his style to waste words.
The irony of that compared to the man’s partner always amused Marcus. Phillip used the least amount of words possible, while Clinton couldn’t shut up. One of the only good things to come out of that cluster fuck four years ago was the loss of Military Law, and the two men being able to do something about the suffocating sexual tension between them. Everyone else had raised a glass in silent thanks to being free of that burden. Now if only the two idiots would move on from the sickening sweetness of new lovers.
Marcus didn’t want, or need, to know the details of the relationship, he was just happy for his oldest friend. Phillip wasn’t the only one who had benefited on a personal level though. Almost every one of his crew had settled, Marcus himself included. Thoughts of his fiery red head brought a briefly lived smile to his rugged face. The prickly nature, which was sometimes literal, of his lover was one of the things that attracted him to her.
“Chart a course to Vila Do Corvo. We’ll stock up there and then head for Tenerife.” He finally decided.
A friendly port where they could all relax a little would be welcome before venturing into the treacherous waters of the larger island group.
The soft pad of ridged leather soles on the carpet and the creak of the door opening and closing signal the exit of his first mate. Alone, he let the stiff tension release from his shoulders. The exhaustion he kept carefully hidden on full display to an empty room. The years of dodging the Royal Navies of almost every country in Europe and the actual pirates, as much as they call Marcus and his crew pirates he can’t think of them like that, has worn him out. For his people he grins and bares it, buries it until he can almost convince himself that the worry isn’t there. But in those moments of quiet, between one crisis and the next, he allows himself to remember what it is to be human. To be fallible.
Thin, strong arms slipped around his waist. A warm body pressing against his back. “It will be okay Ony.” Natalia whispered into the time-soft linen covering his shoulder blades. “Come, do not shut yourself away in the dark. You should be standing in the light.” Unrelentingly she drew him backwards, one step, and then two. Pulling him back into reality.
Returning the unbending steel to his spine, he acquiesced and followed her out of the cabin. Even after years on this boat, he still grumbled silently to himself at having to duck under the lintel between the corridor that held the doors to his, Phillips, and Doc Simmons’ cabins, and the next section of the ship. The ladder up to the main deck was down, sitting securely in a square of golden sunlight.
The slap of loose canvas, clinking of metal, and calls of his crew filtered down into the dusty darkness. He took a second to draw in a lung full of cool air before hauling himself up. The few people close by snapped him a lazy salute but kept working. He preferred this from the stupid military requirement that they stop and genuflect. It had been the first stupid rule he had gotten rid of after their flight from official service.
“Gentlemen.” He nodded at them but kept moving.
Phillip was up on the quarter deck bent over another table. This time he was joined by the dark head of their navigator, Skye. She was a relatively new addition, joining the crew of the Empire’s Shield in Rabat two years ago. She was young. Too young. But the girl had literally been born on a ship and learnt to read the lines on a map and the stars in the sky before she could read letters on a page. He trusted her more than their last navigator, the illegitimate son of a squire whose daddy had paid for the kid to be shuffled out of sight.
Exchanging quiet words with those he passed, it took twice as long to reach the pair as it should have. But he didn’t mind, staying in touch with the crew and the warm sun on his bald head felt good.
The wood started to tilt under his feet as Phillip spun the large wheel to change their heading. Thick canvas filled with a snap, and the ship bounded eagerly forward, jolting those few who weren’t ready for the change.
“We’re not too far North, should be there by sundown.” Skye’s lightly accented voice greeted him. She sounded like she came from everywhere and nowhere. That wasn’t necessarily wrong.
He acknowledged her with a sharp nod; he respected her, but she was Coulson’s responsibility. He had brought her on board and dealt with her, and most of the crew, much more than Fury did.
Marcus’ job was to figure out where they were going, Phillip’s was to get them there. He left them to it, sweeping up the quarter deck and onto the Stern deck. Fury refused to call it the poop deck ; the look on Barton’s face each time the look out said it was bad enough, he didn’t need to say it himself.
The large expanse of wood was the largest, empty, open air space on the ship; the other three open air decks were filled with bustling people, sails, ropes, wood, and countless other bits and pieces of detritus that kept his old girl running smooth. It offered him the perfect vantage to look down on his little kingdom, able to spot trouble before it began. Turning the thought around on himself, the Stern Deck made him accessible by all of the crew when he was up there. Any concerns or questions could be voiced, letting discord drift away on the wind rather than getting caught up in the confines of his cabin.
Not quite half of his people were up on deck, Phillip and Skye were still on the Quarter deck, but had abandoned their maps for the wheel and a polished sextant. The Doc was curled up on a pile of ropes next to the stairs down onto the Spar Deck, to all appearances asleep but if he was a betting man, he would say she was watching Skye. Her fascination, and more, with the navigator was a poorly kept secret. Natasha had followed him up onto the deck, and was flowing through a fighting dance and throwing occasional insults up at her brother. Looking at her, he couldn’t help but follow her focus high up the Main Mast and into the Crowsnest.
Slightly too long, white blonde hair ruffling in the stronger wind in his high perch, Clinton Barton watched Phillip more than the horizon he was meant to be focused on. In others, the blatant dereliction of duty would have had him hanging off the bowsprit by his ankles. But the man was uncanny. The crew whispered in the dark of night, calling him Ophanim, one of the all seeing protectors of heaven. Marcus called him Argus Panoptes, a too observant pain in his ass. Even with his eyes on Coulson, Barton would still be able to see anything that was coming for them, on or under the water.
The crash of metal against metal, pulled his attention from the highest point of his ship. Snapping his head down, he glared at his bosun. Realising what he was doing, he bit the inside of his lip and tried to dial it back. Fitz had been the best bosun he had ever had. Had been. The kid was still recovering from a bad knock to the head when that asshole Pierce had tried to steal his ship out from under him. One of his arms was still weak and talking to him took a while. But under it all, he was as sharp as he had always been and he was getting better every day.
Better to ignore the accident. The last of his core crew was Maria Hill. She was also the only one not on deck. Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, she was either asleep or terrorising one of the double handful of crew who were off duty.
Arms crossed, he settled against the heavy wooden railing, content to watch the organised chaos of his people.
= + =
A rising tide of voices floated down out of the rigging as the crew sung to keep time in furling the large main sail. If they didn’t furl it properly, it wouldn’t unfurl properly and that would be a problem. The wood shifted under his feet, Phillip at the helm spinning the wheel as fast as he could to swing the ship around and bring it into the small harbour. The change of direction brought them directly into line with the rapidly setting sun. Red light painted the canvas of the foresail blood red.
Fury noted the colour happily. They should be able to stock up and be out with the morning tide. Being too close to dried land, particularly a place that could be linked directly back to them, made his skin itch.
There was barely a bump as the final bit of their momentum was lost against cloth bundles and the dock.
“Davis! Piper! Woo! Triplett! Get those lines secured!” Phillip’s shout had the named quartet jumping into action, Marcus was pleased to see.
The smooth operation of his crew after the turmoil was always a pleasure to see. Without incident or injury and as quick as it was humanly possible, the large ship was moored. The crew scrambled to complete the last bits of their jobs in anticipation of going ashore. As the last rays of daylight disappeared, the mad scramble aboard the Empire’s Shield abated. A handful of the crew were staying on board, as watch or just because they didn’t want to go into town. The rest dispersed into the shadows quickly.
Marcus acknowledged Maria’s two fingered salute; she had control until he or Phillip returned. Business would keep him on land for a few hours, and he had spied Phillip and Barton slipping over board and down the beach, if someone offered the wager, he would say they would be the last ones back on board. Taking the opportunity for some privacy.
It was a thought he might entertain himself with later, once his job was done. Walking the well trodden path, Marcus kept an eye out for his crew among the timber and stone buildings. Fitz’s short, hesitant form was cast into shadow by Vulcan’s fire. The ringing of burning metal on burning metal drowning out any conversation that was going on inside the building. Triplett, Woo, and Davis were heading to the single gambling den in the tiny town. They wouldn’t find much competition there, but from the snatches of conversation he heard, he knew it wasn’t that gold that interested them, but the chance to converse with someone new.
Those towns people who were not at home asleep or in the gambling den were at the tavern, most of them greeting him with a smile as he stepped onto the wide veranda. Tables were scattered between himself and the long wooden bar, a labyrinth of people and furniture that could ensnare even the most cautious of people. It looked like chaos, but was a carefully laid out plan to keep people within the building and drinking for as long as possible. The owner was quiet but knew his trade.
“Bruce.” He called, catching the shorter man’s attention.
Bruce held up a finger, asking for a moment to finish with the customer he was serving. Marcus gave it to him, for all that the patrons drank deeply it was still one of the most well behaved establishments in the whole island chain, all because of the rage the dwelt deep within the owner and only took a small spark to ignite.
“Fury.” His voice was low. Soft and unassuming under the roar of voices and waves on the not so distant beach. “The usual? I also have some good far east tea for your navigator and scotch for yourself.” Skye and the navigator had bonded on first meeting over a taste for the bitter brew that no one else would touch. Few of their ports stocked it, but Bruce always kept some aside for her when he had it in. He still had one of the bottles of fiery alcohol in his cabin from their last stop but it always made good barter and if it was going he would take it.
Bruce, and the rest of the town, might have owed him and his crew their lives, but that didn’t mean he went easy on their negotiations. Making a living so far from civilisation was hard and a single poor deal or harsh season would mean ruin for them all.
“I have a box of al-halkum for the tea. Skye picked it up special. I’ll add a shilling for the scotch.” Fury held out his hand to shake on the offered price. He would be handing over the money now and then Darcy, the bar-maid, would bring down the goods when she had a free moment with the help of any of his crew she could wrangle.
Bruce was shaking his head before Marcus had even finished.
“The al-halkum and the shilling are fine, but the last ship didn’t come in, the cost of salt went up. You need to add another five pence for the salted herring.” Bruce lent away from the counter, arms crossed. He wasn’t going to budge.
Marcus knew this dance, he led it with most of the traders he dealt with. It could go either way with the bar owner, if it was a serious increase because of actual costs he wouldn’t budge. The danger was that if Marcus pushed, he would end up refusing the whole order. On the other hand if it was a fishing expedition, there would be some wriggle room, but any price added would be added to every future order.
“Two.” He cast his dice.
“Three, and a one quarter real .” The addition of a second currency might tempt him, expand his options.
“Five. Or four, and a one quarter real. ”
It was serious then.
He handed over the coins. Unwilling to burn this bridge, his crew didn’t have many left and they had a lot of threads twined into this community.
Perfectly timed, a hand slid across his lower back as Bruce swept the coins into the small bag he kept on his belt.
“Time for a drink before we return?” Natasha asked, her voice low and enticing. Red head leant gently against his shoulder.
His own arm slipped around her shoulders, drawing her in that last little bit.
“We can have two if you want.”
Smiling they found a table in a dark corner to whyle the night away.
The earliest rays of dawn painted his lover’s back pink and gold. He whispered a single finger tip down the length of Clint’s spine, perfectly sculpted muscles twitching at the soft touch. The chances the two men had to be fully, completely alone together were few and always too short. He was loathe to end this interlude, but the tide was turning the Empire’s Shield would sail soon, with or without them because Marcus was a dick like that.
“Wake up love. Back to work.” Phillip whispered into Clint’s ear, lips ghosting against flesh. Under his hand that was resting lightly on the deep curve just above the perfect ass of his perfect heart rose in goosebumps. A shiver running through the other man’s body.
“Mornin’.” Clint murmured into the arm his head was pillowed in.
Turning his head, their eyes met. Cool silver-blue to green-blue, as changeable as the ocean they made their lives on. It was the first thing Phillip had noticed about the other man, not the physique that turned so many heads, but the eyes decades older than the face holding them.
“Good morning.” Pressing a final kiss high onto Clint’s cheek bone, he levered himself off the pile of blankets they kept stashed in one of the sea caves. He bustled around the small cave as Clint struggled his way into full wakefulness.
They had to race to the dock to meet the Empire’s SHIELD before it cast off with the dawn.
“Sorry Sir.” Phillip puffed as they sprinted up the gangway.
As was his want, Marcus glared. It was no less effective for being monocular.
Leaving the Captain behind, the two men split up, Clint to scramble up the main mast to help unfurl the large main sail. From their Phillip knew he would continue up to the very top of the mast to take his post in the crows nest once they were underway. The height turned Phillip’s stomach slightly, but Clint loved it. The unobstructed view to the edges of the world and beyond.
Turning his mind from his lover, Phillip continued toward the stern of the ship, dodging people and coils or rope and stacks of sails and nets waiting to be mended and returned to use. There was a pattern in the chaos. Life in the never ending work.
“Maria.” He nodded at the Night Watch Master.
You are late.” She grouched, handing off the wheel and quickly disappearing into the depths of the ship in search of her bed.
Shrugging he put the sleep deprived rudeness from his mind and focused on the task at hand. Getting out of the harbour at VILLAGE was not hard, but that was no reason to let his attention wander. There weren’t any geological hazards, but there could be faunal. He easily fell into the rhythm of sailing. The uneven rocking of the boat, the call and answer of the crew, the slap of the sails and rigging. His mind drifted on the currents that drew his vessel forward.
= + =
The weather faired them well and two nights later they were rounding the large headland as the final rays of day bounced off the growing waves and seemed to turn the whole world red and orange.
“See here.” Marcus called for attention.
Maria had gathered the few crew from below deck and now every spare scrap of deck was filled with a body.
“You’ve all been through this before. Woo, Percy, Triplett, and Fitz you will be going into town as decoys. I expect all four of you back as soon as possible, you know the drill. Get to it.”
Phil listened to the instructions with half an ear, he knew the drill and his own instructions had been given hours ago.
“Wish I was coming with you?” Clint had appeared next to him at some point. He didn’t bother jumping, it happened too often.
“You don’t sound sure about that.” Phil smiled softly at him.
Clint plastered himself against Phil’s back, forcing him to work against the added weight.
“Not really. People are weird.” Said the man who had been named after a bird and prefered a full longbow on a ship instead of a crossbow or even one of the new flintlock muskets.
“It will just be a quick in and out.”
“That’s what she said.” Clint smirked.
Ignoring that comment, Phil kept an eye on the slowly approaching dock, but dropped a quick kiss on Clint’s stubbled check. Obviously satisfied that he had gotten his fill of Phil’s attention, Clint wandered off again. So close to shore he wasn’t needed. Most likely, he was in the process of wrangling whoever he could for a card game, Maria, Natasha, Jemma, and Skye were his most likely targets.
With the slightest bump, Phil settled the wooden hull against the long wharf. Even so, he grumbled silently to himself. The landing should have been smooth enough that the water in the rain barrels didn’t waver. No one else would complain, he was, or had been, the best helmsman in the Royal Navy and probably one of the top in the world. But that was down to unwavering perfectionism and he wasn’t going to let himself get lax just because he wasn’t wearing a uniform anymore.
“Get to it Coulson.” Marcus spoke from beside him.
Unlike Clint, Phil had known Marcus had been approaching purely from the wave of crew parting like the Red Sea in front of Moses.
“I want to be away on the midnight tide. That only gives you a few hours to find our newest lost puppies.” With a swirl of his weather inappropriate thick black wool coat, the Captain was gone again to terrorise a different knot of crew.
Tying off the helm, he wound his way off the ship, following Percy and Fitz who were loudly discussing which ‘Drinking Establishment’ they were going to visit. Subtle those two were not. By the time he reached the end of the long wharf, Percy was leaning against Fitz’s side, arm threaded through his and whispering sweet nothings into his ear. They were the picture of a young couple in love.
When they turned right into the more affluent quarter, Phil turned left, heading for not quite the slums but the downtrodden little back alleys that seeped poverty that was still clinging on to respectability. They weren’t looking for actual criminals, they had learnt that lesson the hard way with Ward. Instead, they wanted people down on their luck who were looking for a way to turn their fortunes, or at least change their circumstances.
Slipping through shadows and the too few pools of light, he listened. Waiting for the conversation that would tip him off to the people they needed.
“No Buck.” A strong voice cracked through the night as his time was almost up.
“Stevie we have to do something! And you ain’t my boss anymore.” A man slightly taller than Phil and almost as broad as Clint barrelled out of a door lost in the depths of the night. He wasn’t looking where he was going and ran straight into Phil.
“Shit.” The unknown man glared at the scuffed skin and dirt on his hand, and then at Phil as if he was at fault for knocking them both down. “Watch it.”
“Buck! He really is sorry. Here, let me help you. Can we get you anything for that?” The second voice emerged from their room, a head taller than the first man and as light as the other man was dark.
Phil looked at where he was indicating, bright red was seeping out of his palm where he had fallen on a broken bottle.
“Please.” Easily he accepted the offered hand, unwilling to risk whatever else was on the uneven cobbles.
“Come on in, it isn’t much but I can get that cleaned up for you. I’m Steve, and the slightly hostile one is Bucky.” Steve babbled kindly as he waved Phil into the single, cramped room before them.
Two tiny bunks were shoved against two of the walls and a table against the third, the fourth held the door. A single chair sitting lopsided under the table was the only other furniture.
“Sit.” Steve darted around him, knocking against one of the beds and the table before getting the chair out for him. With a bashful smile, he dove to the ground and dug around under the bed he had walked into.
In the doorway, a shadow of death, or just creepy, Bucky loomed. Sharp eyes watching the stranger in his space.
With a victorious yell, Steve extracted himself from the bed, a leather satchel clasped in one large hand. Sitting on the bed, he dug in, pulling skeans of cotton and a bottle of alcohol not fit for human consumption out and dropping them onto the thin matress at his him.
“Give me that.” Bucky lunged across the room as Steve struggled with the cap on the bottle.
The smile Steve threw at Phil suggested Bucky was doing exactly what Steve wanted. The dark man grumbling as he crossed the small room. “Like you would have any idea how to patch someone up… spent all our…. your stupid ass. Here.” More gently than Phil would have expected, Bucky pressed an alcohol damp clump of cotton on his hand. It stung but no more than he knew it would.
After a minute, he peeled the cloth away and then tipped Phil’s hand to the light, looking for glass or dirt. Satisfied, he efficiently wrapped the wound and knotted off the ends.
“There. All better. Now, get out.” He growled.
“Bucky!” Steve yelped.
“I’m sorry for inconveniencing you.” Phil returned, voice too flat for either of the strangers to know the intent behind the words.
Sliding back into the night, he flattened himself in the pool shadow and listened to the two men.
“That was rude.” Steve chastised, the sound of wood scraping against wood undercut him.
Someone snorted, Phil assumed it was the more taciturn of the two.
“Bucky, we have no idea who he is. Think about what he was wearing, there is money there and we need a job.”
“Stevie, no one with money is going to be walking down our street. At least not unless they have every finger in something criminal.” Bucky scoffed patronisingly.
Nothing he had seen suggested these two were… of the unsavoury type… and the conversation he was listening to now re-enforced that impression. The one remaining question was how to offer them a job without being the creep listening at their window.
“Oh, a little spy listening at keyholes.”
Oil slid down Phil’s spine. A voice more openly evil than any he had heard before oozed out of the darkness behind him. Spinning, he reached for the blade at his hip.
“I think not.” A flash of light on a wickedly curved edge was his only warning before white hot pain lanced through his arm.
He could do nothing but scream.
“What the fuck?”
“What was that?”
Noise burst out from the room he had been listening into. A parry and a spark of metal on metal and the burning pain retreated slightly, the unnaturally cold metal withdrawing from the warmth of his shoulder.
Darkness encroached on his vision. His hearing came in and out of focus as if he was swimming, breaching the surface and then ducking under a rough sea again.
“We can’t….. Ste… Help…” A voice growled.
“Bu… wh..i…” Someone else insisted.
“Empire...s….Shie….” He managed to slur before giving up the last of his grip on reality, sinking into an ocean that didn’t want to let him go.
Chapter 3: Clint
Sharp eyes watched Phil saunter into town, a chill of foreboding racing down Clint’s spine. He didn’t like any of the crew being out in a hostile town, or at least not friendly, without someone watching their back. But on this moonless night he thought it was more. Something was hiding in the shadows that he couldn’t see.
From his perch in the crows nest, he watched Phil until he was lost in the maze of streets and buildings that could be sheltering any number of monsters. Leaning back against the mast he turned his eyes up. At even his lowest point the stars had been there for him, unchanging watchmen guiding him home. His small platform was the only true privacy he found on the large ship, even in Phil’s cabin Clint was acutely aware of the Captain on one side and the Doc’s across the very small corridor. Up here, all he could hear was the sigh of the breeze through the rigging, the flap of material at rest and metal clinking together from where someone hadn’t properly tied off a line.
It was peace and freedom and safety.
He lost himself in the slow dance of the stars. Smiling softly as they winked at him from untold distances.
“Who goes there?” Maria’s call was faint, almost lost on the growing breeze.
Someone answered but their words were twisted into highs and lows that only barely resembled words.
“Get Simmons! Davis, Piper, Lincoln. Help them. CLINT!” A note he had never heard in the night master’s voice before had him scrambling down the rigging at more of a controlled fall than an uncontrolled climb. He hadn’t even looked to see what was happening but the chill from earlier in the night was back and spreading, freezing his insides.
It was Phil and it was bad.
The deck was awash in light when his feet landed on the wood with a dull thump. Two men he didn’t know had Phil’s limp form slung over their shoulders. Maria and Marcus facing off against them.
“Move.” He shoved his way through the crowd, dispensing elbows and kicks were needed to get the crew to disperse. Making room for himself and the tiny doctor who had popped out of the hatch at the same time he had landed.
“Oh god. Phil.” He ignored his Captain, racing forward to lay a gentle hand on his lover’s cheek, the other hand looking for and finding a pulse. “What happened?”
“Clint?” The blonde giant under one arm asked.
“Hu? Yeah. What happened!” He demanded again, a hair’s breadth from violence.
“Some Sumasshedshiy jumped him in the dark.” The shorter of the two giants spoke for the first time.
“Crazy.” Nat translated.
“Let’s get him down into my cabin. This is more than blood loss. Tell me exactly what happened? Where was he hit and how many times? Did you stop to patch him up? ” Jemma thundered.
“Cast off,” Fury called, spurring the crew into action.
“Hey, wait a minute. We gotta get off.” The shorter giant protested, pulling Phil and the taller giant to an abrupt halt.
Triplett tripped over them as he rushed for the mizzen mast.
Everything was happening too fast and not fast enough. Every second, Phil was losing the little bit of colour he had left and his skin was chilled and clammy under his hand.
“Then give him here and get off.” Clint tried to push his way between Phil and the blonde.
“We got two bunks going spare. Want them?” Fury asked at the same time.
“Are you recruiting right now?” He gave up trying to force Big and Blonde away from Phil and got into the Captain’s face. “Are you fucking recruiting when Phil is...Phil is… Fuck!”
The brunette let him take his portion of Phil’s weight without comment. Triplett taking the other side. In lockstep, they carried the unconscious first-mate down into the gloomy belly of their home. Awkward in the small space, they followed the diminutive doctor.
“Lay him down. Let’s have a look at what we are dealing with. Bring that light closer.” She ordered them around her little kingdom. Efficiently shuffling them out of the way and set to work.
Clint had to hold himself still and remind himself that he trusted Jemma when she palmed a blade and began cutting away Phil’s clothes. Exposing the wound, she drew the lamp closer.
“It’s still bleeding. Should have clotted by now, at least a little. Okay. I need to sew this…..” She muttered to herself as she worked.
When she thrust her knife into the flame and it set it against Phil’s skin, Clint couldn’t hold himself back anymore.
Trip grabbed him before he could reach her. The three of them swayed with the movement of the ship as the slight breeze caught in at least one of the sails high above them. They were underway.
It barely made a dent in Clint’s awareness, too focused on Jemma and the fact she was cutting into Phil.
“Aren’t you meant to be fixing him?”
“I need to sew him but, which means I need to get to the wound. A vein is cut I think. HA! There.” With economical movements, she plunged a needle and thread into Phil’s shoulder, one, two, three, four times.
Quickly she closed up the cut she had made and waved Trip over.
“Hold him up.” She ordered and then wrapped long lines of cotton around her work and under Phil’s other arm, swathing his chest in white.
“He can go back to his cabin. But keep an eye on him. If he wakes, get him to drink as much as he can and some bread soaked in milk if possible.”
With Trip’s help, Clint was able to get Phil across the way and into their little room. Easing him onto the mattress he sat to watch and wait. Trip returned at some point with a pitcher of beer and the milk and bread.
= + =
Twice through the long night and into the early morning Phil jerked awake and Clint was able to dribble a few drops of water and crumbs of bread down his throat. In fits and starts, he snatched sleep where he could. Waking after a few minutes to check that Phil’s chest was still rising.
“Clint?” Skye’s whisper startled him.
He hadn’t heard the door creak when she entered.
“Bàoqiàn. Sorry. It’s your watch.” She slipped into his seat.
Phil had been the one to offer her a new home, safety after the streets of Morocco. After stealing to feed herself. The cross on her hand marking her for life. After himself, she was the one he would most trust with Phil’s life. The first mate was almost paternal when it came to the too young navigator.
Silently he left the sickroom. Ignoring the people that tried to talk to him on his way up. Until Phil was back up and around there wasn’t anything they could say to make him feel better and he didn’t feel up to assuaging their worry if he couldn’t be.
Squinting at the glare of the sun he continued to dodge people, and then was able to leave them all behind. Scrambling easily up the swaying rigging, getting higher and higher until he was on top of the world.
Mount nodded at him in greeting and was then threw himself off the other side of the small platform. He would be looking for his bed after a long night and morning of watching over their people.
Clint returned the nod and twisted his hands in a quick ‘sleep well’. Mount’s eyes weren’t as good as Clint’s but his ears were better and he was able to hear changes in the weather before others could see them. Not being able to talk to the rest of the crew from their high perch suited him, a stoppered bell was their method of warning the ship, different patterns meaning different things.
Wrapping a thick, waxed blanket around his shoulders as protection against the damp chill that never abated no matter how close to the equator they sailed. Settling into the depths of his own mind he let his thoughts drift. Watching the world fly past below him, not truly conscious but aware of every slight change.
A dark smudge on the horizon pulled from back to alertness. Straining his eyes to their limits he saw tiny lightning flash under deep purple clouds. The blanket dropped to the wooden platform as he lunged for the bell. Dropping the leather stopped on top of the blanket he swing the rope on the end of the bronze clapper. Tolling three long times and then twice sharply, he let the crew on the deck know there was a storm coming. Checking the sky he tolls again, one long ring and then two sharp, North West the direction they were going. A final flick of his wrist rang five short blasts, five nautical miles out.
They would know it was an estimate, but they trusted his eyes and his ability to judge how far something was. Glancing over the short railing, Clint watched as the deck burst into activity, a kicked ants nest. Satisfied that he had been heard, he went about his own duties. Wet weather gear came out of the small chest bolted to the mast, a coat and wide-brimmed hat. Tying them on, he then lashed himself to the mast with well-practised knots. His blanket replaced the coat and hat in the chest. Rather than stoppering the bell, he stuck his hand in the mouth. While he was still up high, he would need to be able to ring it without delay and once he quit his post no one would hear it tolling over the storm.
Over the next, not quite an hour, he rang the bell four more times. Updating the distance as the crew worked to turn them away. The edge of the storm hit suddenly, an almost perfect line down the sky split the world into sun and sheets of rain. In a breath, the water had soaked him from the outer layer to innermost.
Now was the do or die moment. Stay and ride it out, hoping that the main mast made it through, with him attached. Or cut the ropes and get down. They were skating along the edge at the moment, if he had spotted it fast enough and the storm wasn’t too wide, he would be fine to stay… Eyeing the small, sharp knife in his boot, he left it there. Hunkering down for the duration.
Even in the biggest squalls at the top of a violently swaying pole, Clint didn’t feel even slightly sick. He was born to the height and the waves. Phil joked that his boyhood nickname of Hawkeye was more apt than his brother could have guessed. Given for his eyes, he was also more comfortable up high looking down on the rest of the world.
Salt stung his eyes and burnt on wind and cold chapped lips. The ocean reached up to touch him where no one else could. He couldn’t see them, but he knew the crew were still working. Tied to their own ropes and struggling against the drag of waves and wind and rain to keep the ship moving.
Deep into the night the wood groaned and salt-encrusted every edge turning the ship white. A ghost ship in a storm that felt like it wouldn’t end to Clint, worry about the crew, about himself, about Phil down below injured and unconscious.
Just before dawn, the waves lessened and the rain turned from an impenetrable sheet to a drizzle and then tapered off to nothing. He could see beyond the bow and stern of the ship again but all there was, was unending slate water, clouds and water the same colour. With ice-cold fingers he struggled to get his knife out of his boot, the ropes too swollen with water to undo.
Sawing through the strands he freed himself. Slipping and sliding down ropes that he could barely feel, he stumbled when he hit the deck. It took him an embarrassing two steps to gain his balance. Mount patted his shoulder on his way past. Technically, Clint should have waited until the other man met him up top, but he couldn’t wait any more. Even in his desperation to check on Phil, he couldn’t bring himself to walk past his friends. His family.
Exchanging a few words, checking that no one had gone overboard, although they would have lit the warning lantern if someone had, and that the ship had come through unscathed. Reassured that all was in as good order as possible, he tripped his way down the steep stairs and into the corridor that was no less gloomy than up on deck had been.
“How’s he been?” He asked Skye as he sat next to her.
“Woke up a few times. Drank a little. No fever.” The lover of a doctor, she knew what was important.
“Thanks. You?” The dark hid but didn’t erase the dark circles under her eyes and the crease between her brows. He slung an arm around her shoulders, pulled her in close for a hug.
She didn’t answer, but lent in closer, seeking warmth and comfort from the embrace.
He didn’t think he would fall asleep but the long shift and rough seas had worn him out. At some point Skye had left him to it, even dropping the spare blanket over his legs before she went.
“Hello.” Phil croaked at him from the bunk, bright aware eyes watched him as he blinked away.
“Phil.” They stared at each other for a long second until Phil started coughing. “Shit. Here.” Lunging for the wooden water cup, he knocked over the small stack of books they kept, replacing volumes as they could. “Shit.” He left them on the floor, holding out the drink for Phil instead.
“Thanks.” Phil whispered, the water soothing the roughness of his throat.
“How ya feeling?” Clint smoothed the sweat-damp hair away from his face, letting his hand rest against his cool cheek.
“Cold.” Phil lent into the touch.
“Move over.” Clint draped his own blanket on top of the three already covering Phil, including one he recognised as Jemma’s rag quilt. Flipping up the edge, he swung himself onto the platform, wedging Phil between him and the wall.
The press of Phil’s cold feet against his sent shivers through his body and drew an undignified yelp from Clint.
“Cruel, cruel man.” Clint lightly kissed him and then shuffled them both horizontal. “Sleep.”
Chapter 4: Maria
Maria stalked through her people, watching as they set the ship to rights. Working under the weak sunlight of midmorning after a storm, she had to glare more than usual, her eyes more used to deep night than the bright day. Everything was topsy-turvy though. Her crew was in the daylight, Phil was too weak to get out of bed, and Skye was glaring at her maps and instruments in turn trying to work out where they were.
Assured that everything was slowly being put back into its place, she went to check on the navigator. Even eighteen months after she had joined them, Maria wasn’t sold on her. Three people on board a ship should have training and qualification, the doctor, the captain, and the navigator. The loss of their last navigator in the mess with the Royal Navy still hurt. Melinda had been her closest friend from childhood, she had understood Maria when no one else in their village had. The outcasts amongst outcasts, they had run away together.
“Where are we?” She demanded.
Getting a good look at the girl, Maria almost felt bad about startling her. Dark circles under exhausted eyes reminded her that no matter what she thought of the girl, she had been through just a rough a night as the rest of them.
“About 20 miles south of I don’t fucking know.” She shoved at the layers of maps and weights and chalk sticks off the raised slab of decking that acted as her table.
Maria had to skip back a step to avoid a bouncing ball of heavy glass that threatened to break her foot. She scowled at the young woman until she muttered a petulant apology and started gathering up the precious charts.
Dumping the armful on the table, she dropped herself onto a thick coil of ropes, boneless across her makeshift seat. Looking up at Maria, Skye started talking again.
“The prevailing winds during the storm was South-West.” She wavered a hand in the air. “Guessing, I reckon we are somewhere North-East of Madeira. We have a few options, sail in circles till I can calculate where we are, sail directly East and figure out our latitude from which section of coast we hit first, or sail West and hope I’m not completely off on where I think we are and that we are close enough to be able to see one of the Canaries.” Dropping her hand, she shrugged awkwardly and settled in.
Making the decision wasn’t her role, she just needed to let them know they had options. It was up to Maria, Marcus, or Phil to decide. Nodding stiffly she turned away. Phil was out of action and Marcus had only just given over the crew, she was loath to wake him for this. Gazing out over the choppy, grey waves thinking it through. She wasn’t going to sail aimlessly into the sunset, the chances of them being further off-course than Skye thought was too great and without Clint in his nest they might miss the tiny specks of land. Heading East toward the mainland was risky as well. Too far North and they would not find any friends, too far south they would hit uninhabited Desert which looked like any other patch of uninhabited Desert and they would be no better off. In fact, they would be days worth of food and water worse off.
As much as she believed Skye needed another decade added to her age to be in the role she had, Maria wasn’t so blind that she couldn’t see how good she was at her job. Turning, she saw that Skye hadn’t been sitting unoccupied while Maria had been turning over the choices. The charts and maps were spread as close to neatly as ever across the table, paperweights of scraps of metal and glass chunks and a single shiny rock sat at the corners of the papers.
Lent over the papers, she was scribbling on the slate she kept for her calculations. Her notes unreadable to anyone else on the ship, the strokes of chalk the signs and symbols of her home. Maria wasn’t sure if she was amused or annoyed that Skye had pre-empted her decision.
“I don’t know what you are going to do.” Skye said, not looking up from her scratches. “But only one choice actually needs me to do anything, so figured I would get on with it.”
“Keep at it.” Maria confirmed the order.
“Yes boss.” Skye saluted lazily, a smirk completely ruining the effect.
She glared a little bit more before stalking off, Triplet was being a little too loud up at the bow where he was meant to be working. The piles of sail and rope and timber allowed her to get close to the laughing man.
“...he stumbled out the door right? Directly into the woman. She was knocked down and started yelling, then he was yelling, and then the guy with her was yelling. By which point the whole fucking street had stopped to watch right.”
Davis has started to chortle as Trip talked. That is until he met Maria’s eye, the mirth instantly drained from his face. Triplet was too caught up in his story to notice. Gesturing widely as he reached the climax of his story.
“And which were you?” Maria asked, getting immense satisfaction from the almost foot of height Trip gained as he startled at her voice. “The guy stumbling out of the door, the guy yelling, or one of the idiot bystanders?”
He eyed her wearily. Did she actually want a response or was she being facetious. Blandly staring back she didn’t give him any help in working it out. She could play either as the wrong choice and enjoy watching him squirm.
“None?” He asked.
“Are you asking or telling?”
“Telling? Telling.” Stumbling over the simple word, he managed to get it out definitively the second time.
“And why are you telling?”
“Because you… you asked?” Trip knew he had walked himself into something, he just wasn’t sure what or when it was going to bite him on the ass.
The tolling of the warning bell interrupted them. A single long and a single short ripped through the air. Great, just what they needed. An English Navy ship, another short, coming from the East, and three short. They must have just come over the horizon.
“ACTION STATIONS!” She bellowed.
The bells on the deck took up a warning toll. Long peals of brass echoing between the forest of masts. Already busier than usual, as the crew worked to right the storm damage, the deck went from busy to swarming. People pouring out of the hatches. Squad captains diving for the sealed barrels of arms.
It was busy but organised. She could see dark circles under a few people’s eyes. Fighting through the crowd, she inched her way back to the helm. Passing the hatch closest to the helm, she exchanged quick nods with Clint as he scrambled up the ladder on the heel of Elmsworth, bow and quiver over his shoulder. She didn’t see him go, but knew he was getting one of the best long arms off Koenig to complete his armament and then climbing up to join Mount and use the high ground to pick off officers if they weren’t able to outrun the other ship.
All of the original crew preferred to leave at least the English Navy well enough alone if they could. A mixed-up sense of still being beholden to their home, and not wanting to make themselves any more of a target than they already were. Although, Maria thought that if any of them had any sense, they would have set sail for the Americas and chosen themselves little patched of terra firma to farm and live quiet, unassuming lives. Luckily she had as little sense as the rest of the crew.
A shark’ grin bared her teeth as she thought about the coming chase and possible battle.
“That’s discomforting,” Marcus informed her as she finally managed to free herself from the scrum of people and join him. Unsurprisingly he had beat her to the deck. The crew were wary of her, they were downright scared of him and no one on the crew except Phillip held their respect in the same way.
“Yes sir.” She agreed easily.
His own grin matched hers. “Close haul the sails!” He bellowed.
Leaving her on the upper deck, he bulled down into the scrambling crowd, pushing and pulling people to get them moving in the right direction. The wood jumped under her feet as the wind, still gusting from the storm, filled and caught the sails, billowing them out to full. Immense swathes of grey canvas stretched to its limited as it made the ‘SHIELD fly. As she moved past, Skye handed her a telescope. Murmuring a thanks, Maria brought the glass to her eye, cold brass tightening the skin of her face. The ship that Mount had seen looked to have gained on them slightly. It was impossible to tell yet which way the chase would go, but their sails were at full and they had turned to start playing cat.
With their own sails set, the crew at the ready to manage the thousand minute changes that were required to walk the razorblade that would save them there was nothing left to do but wait.
= + =
The thin frisson of tension and fear that accompanied the minutes, and hours of waiting for something to change, for violence to burst into surreal life or the white sails of danger to disappear behind the loving blue curve of the ocean wound the threads of memories to the surface.
They had been in port at Tenerife. The island had been gifted to the British crown when King George had married a Spanish Princess. Maria wasn’t interested in court intrigue, it was one of the reasons she had left her family property and name to join the Royal Navy, but her sister told her the marriage was not a happy one and if the Queen left to return to Spain, the island would probably go with her. For now though, it was a useful port.
A need for fresh supplies had pulled them off the water. Maybe twelve hours on land and then they would be back out to sea, their route was meant to send them far North and then to sing East over the top of Scotland.
Maria was lounging at the stern watching the dock workers loading up the nets attached to the SHIELD’s pulley system. It would take them the better part of three hours to haul everything on board, but then they wouldn’t have to come in to shore for months. Most of the crew was off exploring the town, more than a few of them probably partaking of the… local sights. It wasn’t something she was interested in for herself, or even in thinking about. Instead she was quite happy to continue sitting there soaking up the warm morning sunlight. The calls of the workers and the squalling of gulls lulling her into a doze.
Her first indication that not all was a calm as it seemed was Marcus thumping his way back up the gangway, the deep timber of his voice booming through the very wood of the vessel. Snapping out of her nap, she was moving before her eyes were open. Phillip had appeared from the far corner of the ship where he, Barton and Romanov had been playing cards, and Pierce had popped out of the hatch closest to the officer’s quarters. Maria didn’t like the older man, but he was the officer she reported to during the nightwatch and she would do her duty.
“There were orders waiting.” He growled to the three of them.
Only something catastrophic could put that look on his face. Maria wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
“Phillip, get into town and round up the crew, we’re sailing the second we can pull up the gangway. Pierce, go and get the dock workers moving, we will leave behind any supplies that aren’t aboard and they can explain it to the harbourmaster. Hill, get whoever is still aboard to get us ready to sail.
Everyone moved quickly, Phillip collecting up Barton and Romanoff, the three of them quickly disappearing into the maze of streets. She could hear Pierce and Whitehall yelling instructions, insults and threats at the men loading their food which Maria thought was a bad idea. Marcus was leant over the maps with Smithson plotting their course to whatever disaster awaited them. She didn’t actually have to do much, the crew were well enough trained and relatively rested after two months of sailing between the Canaries and the uncivilised Kong Empire on the West coast of Africa.
For twenty minutes they swirled, a well choreographed dance that had them sailing out of the large harbour before the hour was over with ninety percent of their stores and a hundred percent of their crew, although Triplett was running it close to be back aboard.
Expecting to start swinging north soon after leaving the harbour, Maria glanced back at Smithson and Marcus when they just continued heading straight East. For an hour they sailed out until the harbour was well over the horizon and it would be two days sail until the African coast came into view.
“Drop anchor. Gather the whole crew on deck.” Fury bellowed over the low-level hum of conversation and hisses and thumps of a ship at full sail.
The crew jumped too. They worked with the exacting efficiency that the Royal Navy required, no slackers kept on board here. Maria was one of them. Sliding down the ladder into the bowels of the ship were her people were trying to catch a few minutes of shut-eye before dusk and their shift. A few of them grumbled as they tipped themselves out of their hammocks and stuffed feet into boots. It didn’t last long. A few well placed words and a reminder of the chain of command had them moving past her silently.
Under the glare of the summer sun reaching its zenith, the crew of the Empire’s Shield filled every inch of free deck space.
“We received orders from the ambassador this morning. The Spanish Governor asked for assistance and his request was granted.” Fury started.
So far, it wasn’t anything Maria found alarming, or needing a hundred men and women to be cramped and sweating in the sun.
“I disagree with the orders as given.”
A wave of murmurs and questions broke over the crew.
“The town of Tabaiba has reported a single case of Plague, we have been ordered to burn it out. I will not kill innocents!” Fury thundered.
The wave turned into a tsunami. People yelling and shouting. In the chaos, Maria could hear some arguing for and others against.
“No.” Stevenson called. His voice booming over everyone else. A bell toll of destiny. “We do our duty.” The Navigator had always been unbending and Maria didn’t see this as being any different.
“I’m not gonna be part of killing a bunch of people.” Clint Barton, the crew’s newest member spoke. Normally he kept to himself, spending his down time playing poker with the weapon’s master and Coulson. The few times he had spoken, people had seemed to listen.
“This isn’t a democracy. We are a Ship of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. We have a duty and we will carry it out.” Stevenson bit back.
“You’re right, this isn’t a democracy. And I’m in charge.” Fury shut them both down. “We are going to Tabaiba, evaccing the population. Anyone who doesn’t like it can stay behind.”
= + =
Nothing had been the same. A full third of the crew had been left on the white sands of Tabaiba at sunset and a hundred villagers with the few belongings they could stuff into bags in a hour were crowded below deck, and on deck, and in every spare bit of space they could find. It had taken them days to figure out where to take them, but finally a tract of land on the edge of the world has seen the beginning of a hundred new lives.
In a few days, Maria’s whole life had changed, but it wasn’t a change she regretted.
“I think we are gaining some breathing room.” Sky spoke from beside her, jolting her from her thoughts. Looking around, Maria saw she had been joined by the new Navigator and Jemma.
Searching the horizon for a sail, she smiled down at the two younger women. “I think you’re right.”