Karen Hartford-Coulson has a suitcase in one hand and her four year old son’s hand in the other. There are fresh welts on the boy’s back, under his shirt, and his free arm is encased in a cast. There is a fading bruise on Karen’s cheekbone and a diamond hard glint in her eyes as she glares at her husband. James Coulson’s face is flushed red with rage and whiskey, his voice is harsh and hoarse.
“You stupid cunt,” he sneers. “Who would take you? You’re worthless without me! You and the little shit, you got nothin’ without me!”
Karen Coulson’s spine is plated with steel as she draws herself up to her full height, all of five feet tall, but she feels like a giant. For the first time in her life she feels strong.
“You’re the worthless one, James,” she snaps back. “You come near us, you touch my son again,” she steps forward, menacing and righteous. “And I will kill you.”
A shiver runs down James Coulson’s spine. Through the haze of whiskey and anger he knows she means it. And then he is angrier than ever. How dare she? He’s the one who feeds them, pays for this house, for the clothes on their backs, what right does she have to berate him for how he disciplines his kid? He shoves her back.
And she falls. Her grip on her son’s hand loosens as she staggers back, tripping over the suitcase and crashing down the apartment steps to land in a broken heap at the bottom of the stairs.
“Oh shit, Karen!” James shoves past the child in his rush, cold horror piercing the hot haze of anger. “I didn’t mean it, baby, I swear I didn’t!”
Death stands at the top of the stairs, Karen at her side. Death is watching James as he shakes the corpse’s limp shoulders, head lolling boneless on a snapped neck. Karen is kneeling in front of her son, her hands pass through his shoulders as she tries to take him in her arms.
“Sorry ‘bout this,” Death says, resigned as she turns her attention to the dead woman. “But it’s time to go.”
“But Phil--,” Karen protests. “I can’t leave him like this, with him...”
“You don’t have much choice, I’m afraid. If it helps, he has a long life a head of him.”
Karen stands reluctantly, not looking away from the little dark haired boy with his plastic Captain America shield. “That’s all you can tell me?” she asks, looking at Death with pleading eyes.
Death shrugs, her ankh glinting in the light. “That’s all I can see. My brother could tell you more, but he’s not big on the sharing thing.”
Karen sighs and steps back. Phil sits against the wall with tear-filled hazel eyes on the scene at the bottom of the stairs, knees drawn up to his chest as he cries, confused and scared and somehow knowing that Mommy won’t be getting up again.
Death lifts the squirming, crying infant into her arms, eyeing the scene before her with resignation on her face. A wild-eyed Beatrice Brown-Coulson is sobbing out apologies as she cradles a tiny, lifeless body in her arms.
“I didn’t mean to, oh god, please, baby-girl open your eyes, I didn’t mean to!”
Death turns her attention to the baby in her arms with a soft smile. The baby grasps at the ankh around her neck and promptly shoves it into her mouth. Death giggles and tugs it free, replacing it with her own pale fingers.
“Oh no, sweetie,” she croons. “That’s not a chew toy.” She walks through the tiny apartment into the hall of the complex.
There is a young, dark-haired boy there, sitting on the floor with a little dark-haired girl on his lap. There is a telephone on the floor beside them and in the distance Death can hear the whine of approaching sirens. He holds a brand new Captain America comic open in front of them, voice just loud enough to drown out the screaming from inside the apartment as he reads the dialogue out loud. His voice hitches when the little girl leans back against his chest, bruised ribs sending spikes of pain through his body.
“I wanna be Agent Carter!” the little girl interrupts, with all the seriousness a five year old can muster.
“OK,” the older boy says, his face is serious, but Death can see the faint shine of amusement in his solemn eyes. “Who am I, then?”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re Captain America, Phil, duh.”
Phil shakes his head. “Nah, Cap’s blonde. I’ll be Bucky, how’s that?”
“No way, Bucky’s always getting kidnapped and stuff. You gotta be Cap!”
Death doesn’t hear the rest of the argument, shifts the baby in her arms as she walks away.
Death watches as the boy, young man really, sits carefully on the edge of the little girl’s bed. She’s sound asleep, and doesn’t stir when he brushes a stray hair back from her round face. The air in the room is hot and stifling, even with the fan blowing, so the little girl sleeps in just her shorts, sheet kicked away sometime in the night. There are vivid red welts criss-crossing her back, fresh bruises stark and vicious on her arms, and dried tear tracks on her cheeks.
The young man has matching red stripes on his own back, hidden under a faded CCR t-shirt. He leans over to press a gentle kiss to the girl’s temple. When he straightens, Death recognizes the diamond hard glint in his eyes.
She follows him as he makes his way through the apartment. He goes to the kitchen first and retrieves his father’s illegal revolver from the cutlery drawer. He loads a single bullet into the cylinder, his expression cool and resolute. Death can’t help but feel a shiver of anticipation as she follows the young man into the living room where his father is sitting sprawled, unconscious, on the sofa, head back and snoring loudly. There is a baseball game playing, and the spectators roar and cheer as someone hits a home run.
The young man removes the safety and uses his father’s shirt to wipe away his fingerprints, keeping a careful grip on the weapon through the fabric as he places it in his father’s limp hand. He carefully pulls his father’s head upright and puts the barrel of the gun to his head. His smaller hand around his father’s broad, calloused one holds the gun steady, his finger covering his dad’s on the trigger.
His expression doesn’t change as he fires. The shot is almost deafening from so close, and his only reaction is to blink. He steps back, letting the body slump against the sofa, brains and blood oozing from the exit wound.
“That little fucker!”
Death looks over at the dead man beside her, his face twisted in rage and horror as he watches his son walk away from his corpse. He lunges after the boy and passes right through him. In the from down the hall, Death hears the little girl shout for her brother.
“I’ll fucking kill the little shit!” James Coulson roars. “After everything I did for him--!”
Death shakes her head, amused and disgusted. “It’s too late for that, James. Time for you to move on.”
He whirls to her, fear bleeding over the rage. “Move on?! My little bastard of a son just shot me in the fucking head, and you think I should move on?!”
Death shrugs and moves past him into the apartment. Phil has masked his calm with wide eyes and a shaking hand as he picks up the phone and dials 911. The little girl is pressed close to his side, face buried in his stomach. He brushes a hand through her hair, and holds her close. The operator on the other end of the line picks up.
“H-hi,” he stutters, voice hoarse and high with adrenaline and shock. “I-I think my dad killed himself.”
“Killed my-? You ungrateful little--!” James lunges again, and again passes ineffectually through the young man.
Death takes him by the arm and steers him away while he shouts obscenities back at his children. She glances back, just once, and gives the young man an assessing look. She can see the true shock on his features, but there is no regret in his solemn eyes as he looks down at the little girl clinging to him, and the vivid red welts standing out against her pale skin.
Death stands off to the side watching with professional interest as the assassin creeps up on the sniper and slips the garrote around his throat. The assassin is taller, wider, and yanks the wire tight as he drags the young man away from his rifle. The young man makes a strangled sound and thrashes in the big man’s grip, fingers grasping at the wire cutting into his throat and kicking ineffectually as his face flushes red, blue eyes wide with panic. A tinny voice shouts through his dropped communication device.
“-arton, what’s happening up there!?”
The young man’s struggles start to weaken and a victorious smirk crosses the assassin’s masked face. He doesn’t hear the soft whisper of rushed footsteps behind him, doesn’t notice the arrival of the third man until a knife is driven through his spine and twisted. The assassin goes limp, eyes wide in surprise before he collapses on the rooftop. The sniper falls to his knees, sucking in frantic breathes as the garrote falls away.
The new arrival is familiar to Death, she would know those solemn hazel eyes with the diamond hard glint anywhere. His hairline is starting to recede now, and he is dressed in an expensive suit that he wears like armor. She can read the concern on his calm face in the faintest furrowing of his brows as he kneels next to the sniper, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Nice timing, Coulson,” the younger man manages to gasp, giving the older man a sharp grin. “Cutting it a little close, don’t you think?"
“Shut up, Barton,” is the flat retort. Phil’s fingers are gentle as he nudges Barton’s chin up to exam the ligature mark on the young man’s throat. “Can you still take the shot?”
The young man rolls his eyes and smirks.
Death looks over at the dead man beside her. He’s shoved the mask away from his face and looks from his corpse to the two agents with a rueful expression on his face. He glances at her, incredulous and chagrined.
“I didn’t even hear him,” he says. “Sneaky bastard.”
Death chuckles, hooks a hand around his elbow and turns him away. “There’s always someone better, right?”
“Pretty much,” the assassin agrees. “You know, I always figured it’d be a lot more dramatic when I finally died. I didn’t even get to put up a fight, for fuck’s sake!”
“I don’t think it would have made a difference,” she replies.
“Probably not,” he says with a nod. “But I’d feel better about it.”
It’s cold enough that even Death can feel the chill on her bare arms. There are seven dead mafia enforcers sprawled on the concrete floor and Agent Coulson pinches the bridge of his nose to fend off a tension migraine.
“Barton, you better have a very good explanation for this,” he says, shooting a glare at the blonde man sitting slumped against the wall of the warehouse. There is a red haired woman, younger than both of them, standing beside him, her eyes are hard and cold, her hand tense around the hilt of her knife as Phil crosses the room to the downed agent’s side.
“You know me, sir,” Barton jokes, his voice low and tight with pain, blood and bruises mottle his face and bare torso. “I’m a sucker for a pretty face.”
“If I thought that were true I’d’ve shot you both,” Phil retorts, yanking off his down coat and wrapping it around the shivering young man, after assuring himself that none of the blood is his. He glances up at the red headed woman with a politely professional mask concealing his concern.
“Ms. Romanova, if you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand with this idiot?”
She eyes him warily, her hand tightens on the knife, gaze piercing through him, assessing, before she gives a short nod. She sheathes the knife and stoops to help him lift Barton from the cold concrete.
“Are all of your agents as crazy as this one?” she asks.
Coulson shakes his head. “Just him. He’s a special case.”
“I’m his favorite,” Barton says with a bloody grin.
“You’re concussed,” Coulson dead pans.
Barton nods. “Only a little.”
The seven mafia enforcers exchange puzzled looks and turn to Death. “We are dead, then?” one of them asks.
Death smiles. “ ‘fraid so.”
Another sighs with a resigned expression. “It’s the Black Widow,” he says. “What did we expect?”
“But she didn’t kill me,” one of them protests. “The American did!”
Death starts to walk away and the dead men follow her, still talking. “I would not brag about that,” another tells him. “Killed by a yankee in a pretty suit? Embarassing!”
“You’re one to talk,” someone else snorts. “Killed by a yankee with a bow and arrow, that’s much more embarassing.”
“Shut up, punk. The Widow killed you with her thighs, you don’t have anything to brag about either!”
The helicarrier is in shambles, and Death has already sent forty-seven people on their way to the next realm. She walks one step behind the one-eyed man in the long black coat as he comes to the containment unit. There is a balding man in a suit slumped against the wall, blood drips from the corner of his mouth and the hole in his chest is partially obscured by his suit jacket.
Death can still feel the cold, blue pulse of power lingering around the dying man, fluttering around the gaping wound. She frowns, contemplative, and taps her ankh. “Well now,” she muses. “This is interesting.”
She looks to Phil, standing to her left. He’s watching her with a puzzled look on his face. “But what’s interesting?” He carefully avoids looking down at the scene before them, with the director stepping back from his body while two EMTs rush to his side.
Death smiles at him. “Looks like you’ve got a few options here, Phil. And that just doesn’t happen in my line of work, you know? People are either dead, or they're not. You seem to be somewhere in the middle.”
Phil looks puzzled, then suspicious. “What kind of options?” he asks.
“Walk with me, I’ve got other people to collect and I’ll tell you on the way.”
Phil hesitates, looks over to where Director Fury is talking into his comm and the EMTs stepping back from his lifeless corpse. He sighs, resigned, and follows after Death.
“The tesseract is a wild card,” she tells him. “And Loki’s scepter resonates with it. There’s energy lingering in your chest and it's waiting for someone to do something with it. Now I can either disperse it, and you move on. Or I can activate it, and heal that sucking chest wound so you can get back in your body.”
Phil stares at her with a skeptical frown. “You can do that?”
His expression turns thoughtful, brow furrowed in contemplation as she sends two more agents on their way. She lets him think in peace as she goes about her duties.
“May I check on someone?” he asks suddenly.
She glances back at him.
“I’m sure you’re very busy,” he goes on, his voice soft and polite. “But before I make my decision, I need to see someone first.”
“Your sniper, right?” she says gently.
Death thinks a moment before shrugging. “Sure, why not?” She reaches out, feeling for Clint Barton with her mind and finds him. A soft jolt and the two of them are standing in a secured cell in the bowels of the carrier.
The red headed woman is sitting at the bedside, watching over the sniper. Death can feel the pulse of blue power draining from the man on the bed, dispersing into the ether as his mind becomes his own again.
Phil steps forward, and she can see the tension in his shoulders as he watches the sniper’s face, eyes clenched shut and face twisted in a grimace of pain. Barton’s eyes open and Death sees the tension drain from Coulson’s shoulders all at once. The sniper’s eyes are bloodshot with exhaustion, but the irises are a dark, natural sky blue. The icy electric blue is completely gone.
“So,” Death drawls with a knowing smile. “What’s the verdict, Phil?”
He turns to her with a smile of his own. “We’d better get to my body before they start the autopsy.”