A Path Forward

February 10, 2018:

After a series of SHIELD staging warehouses are raided for supplies, Phil Coulson stakes out the likely next target, and thereby meets a certain notorious pair.

SHIELD Staging Warehouse, NJ


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Lorna Dane, Magneto

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

SHIELD being first and foremost an international peacekeeping organization, most people think of weapons and arms when they think of what materiel might most concern such a group. They would be correct, to a degree… but what most people overlook is that SHIELD also does significant relief work around the globe in the war-torn areas to which it so often deploys.

There is one significant war-torn area, however, which has yet to really see that assistance.

That fact may not immediately be relatable to the fact that there have been a few scattered raids on SHIELD staging warehouses, as of late. There've been no more than a handful, so far, and they are fairly spaced out timewise, but the MO seems a little similar to anyone with a discerning eye for pattern analysis. The people pulling off the raids are good— obviously, good enough not to get caught, though admittedly guards are minimal around these areas when in-between shipments— but they don't smell professional.

If anything, they almost seem to have the gloss of a gang. What surveillance is able to catch (the recordings, for some reason, are sparse and spotty) makes note of groups of young people in civilian clothes, moving with tribal and not military cohesion.

Cut to tonight, and this particular staging warehouse not far from Edison, New Jersey. It's been maybe a week since the last hit on a warehouse, and that one was farther north than this. There's nothing to indicate that this one might be next, except for intuition and the fact it would be next on the list if one were going south.

The area is serene for now. Serene save for a vague flickering blue light that just barely tints the warehouse's few, high-set windows.

Gathering a big team of individuals to guard the next likely target is a good way to ensure his targets rabbit. These people are carefully choosing places with a minimal guard presence, therefore, a minimal guard presence will remain.

Phil Coulson has been watching it for a bit now, from the warmth of a tinted window car that is a little banged up and parked on the street, indistinguishable from any other car in this area. He's watching that light, trying to decide where it's coming from. Is it some light from inside their warehouse? Is it some light from down the street hitting those windows funny? Or is it an indication that he's already missed what he needs to see, and someone is in there?

Intuition tells him to ready his ICER and to slip carefully into an employee entrance. He's seen the outside, now he'd best take a look at the interior.

No sign of forced entry. No tampering of the doorway in or damage to its state-of-the-art badge-chip scanner. But as Coulson makes his back way in and toward the main holding where SHIELD keeps this week's intake of supplies —

There are voices.

"Same routes as before?" asks a woman's voice.

A man answers: "No. Too hot. Distribute within twenty-four hours."

Blue light wreaths a halo glow out from the main storehouse. The first quick glimpse in will quickly reveal its source.

A portal, vast and shimmering, reality swimming and swirling in its pooling center, opens eight feet tall and five feet wide near one corner of the storehuse, and four shuffling figures are carrying the last of boxes through: BIN labels are familiar and striking. SHIELD weapons.

Though wearing rudimentary masks, they're striking sights: one of them has pink skin. The other is hairless and scaled like a serpent. One rearranges his arms like living clay to hoist an unnatural weight alone. Mutants. They disappear through.

There are two left behind, overseeing, a man and a woman who, at the profile, could not look more different. Him, tall and lean and pale. Her, small and dark and shadowy.

It is the woman who speaks, letting go a sigh as that portal fades away, deactivated by its mutant maestro from the other side. Wanda looks already bored. "I suppose we should uphold our end of the bargain. Find out which of these is for war relief?"

If Wanda looks bored, Pietro looks like he's been at the end of his rope for hours already. His sharp features are drawn in clear irritation and thought alike, as he watches the last few boxes through. They have not taken all the stores in the warehouse, not by far — just enough to make a difference, but not enough that the tampering would be readily noticed until someone took more than a cursory look at inventory.

That portal, at the least, seems to answer the question of how they all got in to do their quiet work, without approaching the building in a way which Phil Coulson would have noticed.

I suppose we should uphold our end of the bargain, Wanda says. Pietro snorts, leaning his hip against the railing and folding his arms. "Yeah, I guess. We'll do an accounting of what should go where when we get back. She explicitly doesn't want any weapons. Makes it easier on us."

His eyes track over to the few guards that were posted. Still sleeping, courtesy of his sister. "So we'll separate out the relief supplies. Send most of it on, keep the rest. At least the pressure on M-Town is less ever since those 'charity groups' came through." If he suspects where the infusion of money came from, he doesn't say.

If he could see a mechanism to shoot, Phil Coulson would start by trying to shoot the portal closed. But he suspects it may be a mutant power in action instead.

His mouth makes a grim, tight line. He raises his ICER. Maybe if he lines up a shot on the male of the pair, he can take out the female of the pair. Then again, maybe half a dozen mutants come swarming through the portal and kick his ass.

His brow furrows. Taking them in is a priority, but by the time he radios for backup or receives it they'll be long gone. There may be a better weapon at his disposal than that.

His ability to build bridges.

They live in a world where today's enemy is tomorrow's asset is the day after tomorrow's ally sometimes. With no other option, opening a dialogue seems to make the most sense. With his decision made, he holsters the weapon and lets his hands show, stepping into the light. He projects his voice a little bit. "Mind if I ask what you want to use those for?"

Once the reinforcements disappear through the portal, taking SHIELD arms along with them —

— that stiff-backed, rigid professionalism seems to ghost out of Wanda like a lost breath. Believing herself alone, save one, she elongates herself into a deep stretch and turns a sidelong glance on the other with her.

He snorts in response to her words, and she listens to him in turn, amusement curling up the corners of her blue eyes.

And then, just like that, she twirls on heel and pretends to swoon, falling back into Pietro with full, implicit belief he will catch her. Wanda lets go an exaggerated sigh. "Such a lofty existence," she declares dramatically, "to perpetually live on the higher ground. I think I feel overwhelmed with vertigo, looking down on the filth below."

Just a frivolous moment between serial criminals, thieves of SHIELD property, laughing with each other with seamless familiarity —

And then enter Phil Coulson.

When he steps out into view, into existence, asking his question, Wanda rivets her eyes and goes still. Their irises switch from blue to red. She says nothing, transparently surprised.

Catch her, he does. Pietro hooks Wanda's swooning form in his arms, amused, the austere ferocity of his public face gone into a rare playfulness. They don't look quite so much the notorious mutant terrorists now, in these moments. They look a loving pair, self-contained and self-sufficient, twins against the world who need no one else.

"It's a hard life," Pietro mourns, "I agree. But someone has to suffer the burden of sitting on high." With a smirk, he leans down.

And then, Phil Coulson.

Never let it be said Agent Coulson doesn't have some serious balls, as he disarms himself and steps out in full view of twin mutants who have somehow managed, together, to not only evade capture, but to infiltrate and agitate some of the most powerful echelons of society. Wanda's eyes go immediately red in defensive reflex, surprised.

Pietro, swift as ever, suffers no such hesitation. Instantly straightening up and protectively interposing himself between Coulson and his sister, he appraises the veteran SHIELD agent with cold blue eyes. All that previous playfulness is gone, and in the half-light of the warehouse, his features seem carved from stone. He looks the image of his notorious father in miniature, decades younger.

"Our people are suffering," he eventually says. "It is as simple as that."

"Yes, they are. And I know you want to help them. You both do."

Phil sees them. As people. That's something he's always been able to do. Under the masks a lot of terrorists are just scared children or grieving parents. He may not hesitate to put a bullet between the eyes of certain individuals if he has to, but he'll see them as people while he does it.

"And the effects of the work you've been doing…is that going the way you want? Angry scared people babbling about registration?"

He raises his hands a little, lifting his eyebrows as well. "I'm just here to talk," he adds. "I'm just a human, I know it probably seems like I'm your enemy, but I just— want to talk. I'm Phil."

That brief, playful window between the twin terrorists falls to ash among their feet.

Straighting up, it's the brother who asserts himself forward, taking a physical, dominating role between the two. The sister lingers back, deferring immediately to his body language, and never dares attempt to interpose her way past him.

Wanda merely remains as she is, guarded and watchful, her eyes as red as blood, and one small hand lifted up unconsciously to touch on the crook of Pietro's arm. As he speaks, she holds a very deliberate silence, careful, watchful, taking in every gesture, every shift in his weight, every nuance, every word that comes out of Phil Coulson's mouth.

There is little aggression immediately about her, but it's usually the cornered animals that bite the quickest, and sometimes the hardest.

But in opposition to two trespassers helping themselves to SHIELD weapons and supplies, Coulson only has to offer the most understanding — almost kind of words.

"No one ever just wants to talk," Wanda speaks softly, cautiously. Her head tilts, those red eyes of hers focused on Coulson —

He will feel a pressure in his mind, not painful, but absolutely palpable — trying to invite herself in to sense his intent.

There is a brief moment, while the twins are yet unaware of him, where Coulson is able to glimpse in past the fearsome imagery and the terrorist iconography, and see — just this. Just a boy and a girl, brother and sister, alone and momentarily able to be themselves with one another. Siblings temporarily without a care.

It falls away instantly once they realize he is there, of course. But it informs how he chooses to approach the situation.

Pietro listens in silence. His eyes are a matching scarlet with his sister's, an apparent indication of an active link between them, though presently — for whatever reason — the color lapses, letting his natural color show through. His eyes are a startling blue, and they appraise Phil and all his words.

"I know who you are, Agent Coulson," he eventually says. "And I don't particularly want to kill you. Contrary to popular belief, I don't hate all your kind. Only the ones who hated us first."

At his side, Wanda begins to insinuate forward, searching out the truth. "Now, let's see what you want."

He has felt this before, has Phil Coulson. This pressure that Wanda is offering. From Emma Frost.

SHIELD agents all get rudimentary training on resisting psychic interference. And for him, part of that is keeping secrets in orderly locked file cabinets in his mind. Facts and figures and redacted items others should not see.

But he lowers those defenses, paltry though they may be. He keeps the secrets hidden as best he can, though he's aware if he had to truly keep her away from those he'd be in a bad way. But emotions? Intent? He lays them bare.

He does want to talk. He's not thrilled these supplies are being stolen. But he also sees them with real compassion, and is willing to let the issue of the thefts drop for the moment. He doesn't even entirely judge what they've done. It's too close to what he's done for his own causes. They disagree on how to protect people, and on which people should be protected, but at the end, he thinks they maybe see themselves like he sees himself.

They have people to defend, as does he.

At his heart, he's a man who looks for common ground. He wants to see the violence end. The violence to everyone. As he allows Wanda to probe his mind, he fixes his own hazel eyes on Pietro's piercing blue ones.

His is a good question. A fair one.

"I'm not here to make demands," he says at last. His outward words echo his inward sentiments. "I want to find a path forward to end the suffering you're fighting to end without further violence. Can I ask why you started the attacks when you did? What sparked all of this off? Most of the anti-meta sentiment in America seemed to be at an all-time low. What happened?"

Fortunately, this mental scan is not a deep one: in the end, no more than fingers passing over the topmost papers in an opened folder. Wanda Maximoff acts on a supposed limited timeframe.

She wants to know intent: right here, right now. Is this some holding pattern? Some diversion as SHIELD reinforcements assemble themselves outside? Is this one brave fool to dare the lead of a hundred pointed guns ready to follow? Are they already surrounded? Is this a fight disguised as some peace talk? There are few things in the world Pietro can outrun —

But as someone whose entire ability is assessing and calculating risk, Wanda likes to avoid the unnecessary ones. It's usually those that end up surprising her.

In the end, she finds nothing egregious: finds nothing more than a man who permits her easier entry, when the natural instinct of most minds, feeling her intrusion, is to tighten and struggle and try to fight her out.

Through her mental link to Pietro, Wanda routes everything she's gleaned, taking it with little change to her vacant, pensive expression and glowing red eyes.

But Coulson's mind does do something to her; it gentles her slightly, eased out of that tense defence, finding a more curious footing — and looking on the agent who has decided to confront them here, all alone, and without even his gun drawn. It's fascinating. Is he not afraid?

"It's never been at a low, Phil," speaks Wanda, gentle, "but merely in hiding."

Her eyes cross to Pietro. She defers the rest of their words solely to him.

It is not hard to see that the gentling of one twin gentles the other.

Wanda feeds her brother what she gleans, and the hard suspicion in Pietro's blue eyes relents slightly, replaced by a look of narrow-eyed puzzlement. He looks at Phil Coulson as if he has never seen a human like him before. It is likely he has not. He and his sister have always ever received only the worst humanity had to offer.

Why isn't this man afraid?

Instead of fear, instead of anger at what they are doing here, there is only compassion, peace, and a search for commonality. A search for answers, as well. Pietro considers Phil's questions, even as his sister makes her initial answer. Her voice is both gentle and final.

"It seemed low to you because you do not live it. We don't see what doesn't hurt us directly," Pietro says, taking up the conversational thread seamlessly as his sister defers. "But it never went away, whether you see it or not. It is always there. Humans merely forgot it temporarily in favor of other things — their flavor of the month fears."

He reaches for his sister's hand, twining his fingers with hers, plainly wanting to lead her away. "They always come back to it, in the end. This time we are tired of hiding and accepting our abuse."

Pietro pauses. His eyes turn to Coulson. "If you can find that nonviolent path," he says, his voice dry, "then we will stop. But I doubt there is one. Change is an inherently violent thing…"

Phil Coulson makes no move to stop them. "Is it?" he asks mildly. "I can think of a few times when change happened the opposite way."

He is indeed not afraid, taking in their gentle replies, their hurt rebuttals. "But you're right, I can't know exactly how things are for you. Perhaps we shall have other times to speak. Someday I'd like to hear exactly what you'd like to see changed, especially given you don't hate all humans. That you only hate the ones that hated you first."

He dips his head towards the supplies. "Perhaps later a discussion could be entertained about who needs relief supplies, and why, and who might obtain them a little bit more legitimately at a later date." People are hungry and hurting; that is what the supplies are for. Phil can't exactly just offer them up to a pair wanted by every agency in the United States, and several beyond, but that doesn't mean the people they're trying to help should go without. The stolen weapons are huge problem, but again they are an issue he is willing to table for the moment.

Six degrees of separation means there's someone in their network who can perhaps come to him, make some arrangements, do things the proper way. And perhaps that will open up a bit more common ground.

"I appreciate you entertaining the conversation, at any rate." They certainly had the power to take his life, had they wanted, and did not. "Perhaps we shall speak again someday."

He tilts his chin to them in farewell, making no move to lower his hands until they've made their departure. He has on his person dozens of nasty tricks that he could, were he so inclined, were he doing his job as most of the world would see it, go for. He doesn't care to even so much as give the impression that he thinks that's the way forward.

The truth is, he's pretty sure it isn't. There is a cycle here that must be broken, and it can't be broken by thinking in terms, entirely, of who must be punished for what, who must be strung up to make the public feel 'safe.'

Granted. He'd very much like to know who 'she' is.

"We hate their system," answers Wanda, low and quiet, her eyes on Coulson, her ond hand slipping down her twin's arm to twine her fingers with his. The action brings her closer to him, her chin near his shoulder. Her red eyes shine bright and watchful. "We hate their laws. We hate their apathy. We hate their holding pattern."

Her eyebrows draw down. "Because isn't that what it is? We're not the first of our kind to rise up. Magneto first forged the path. Others too. The Brotherhood has waxed and waned a hundred phases. We've lit so many fires, and yet the darkness comes back. You want to know what we want? No —" more.

No more, Wanda wants to say, tasting the words too-sweet on her top palate, but she holds them back in time. The anger burns too hot in her blood. Emotion, always the unsteady seat that undoes her careful self-control. Words are powerful things, and even more so to her. She must be careful.

Her red eyes turn up on her brother, relaying a silent question. Something she wants said, but is too uncertain now to say it herself.

Pietro tenses visibly at the name Magneto, his eyes narrowing and jaw tightening. It is a telling physical tic, especially when it appears on a face so similar to Magneto's own. He could be a copy of the man as he was decades ago. There are a wealth of assumptions that can be drawn from a young man who looks so much like Magneto, who seems to be taking his own sort of control within the Brotherhood which Magneto left behind, and who seems so personally afflicted at the mere mention of the man's name —

But, not really the time or place.

"You and other humans have opposed the registration laws," Pietro muses. "Yes, there are those of your kind who will defend us. But we're not content for a world where we're expected to sit tamely and let humans fight it out over our fate. We have our own lines in the sand to draw. Your opposition to the laws is the reason we won't kill you. But empty statements and future promises do nothing to help those of us who suffer and die today."

He falls silent, and lets his sister speak to what they think of discussions, and legitimate channels, and proper ways. "We will discuss nothing, Agent," he concludes politely, at the end. "We will take what we need, when it is needed, from wherever it can be obtained. We have had enough of waiting in your soup lines for the red tape to clear."

No — Wanda begins, and Pietro's hand tightens warningly on hers. His gaze turns to her, his head shaking a slight no. Control, Wanda.

She looks up at him, asking a silent question. Pietro's eyelashes flicker slightly with thought, before his gaze turns back to Phil. "Have SHIELD take an actual stand on these matters. Then, perhaps, there will be something to discuss." His hand tightens again on his sister's, in silent request.

Phil listens. He listens to Wanda carefully.

Invoking Magneto, whose younger clone stands hand-in-hand with her. He tries to put himself in her shoes.

What would it feel like, to feel his fate was in the hands of people who neither understood nor truly cared about his predicament? Who stand and treat your entire existence as if it's a political football to toss around?

Pietro's point about not sitting around while they debate their fate drives it home.

But even as he seems to close the door, the young man cracks open a window. Coulson cants his head in a nod; he has heard them.

He makes no promises. But he has heard and understood.

He is not supposed to negotiate with terrorists, but there is always room for building bridges with people. He can't claim every action SHIELD ever took didn't put some innocents in the crossfire. He's too old and has seen too much.

Of course. He's going to have some calls to make and some orders to snap the moment they leave.

Getting the contents of all their warehouses moved and classified will be one ultra-fun project.

And. He's going to have to hop a Quinjet to the last place he wants to go.


Control, Wanda.

Her brother's hand swallows hers, and tightens like a pulling restraint. Wanda yields, letting go of her passionate words and the fire in her blood, both dangerous things for her to possess for too long or too fiercely.

Sometimes she has spoken things in anger or malice or bitterness, and did not mean to — did not mean any bit of the world warping around her to obey her subcnscious command. She must be careful of herself, and her words in particular. A witch's power comes from her words, and so they must be chosen carefully.

That metaphorical pull on her lead gentles the sister for the rest of the conversation, submissive to her brother, and only daring as much of her original furor as to bring her red eyes back up on Coulson. Pietro speaks and she holds her tongue, though with a glance, her twin devoutly relays her own thoughts forward.

To all that? Phil Coulson says nothing, and perhaps for both sides, it is best that way. She senses well a man listening, perhaps even willing to understand, and such a thing is rare in itself. Even if it may not yield results —

Which is why the Maximoffs continue on with what they're doing. No more waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Time to push it forward.

Pietro's direction calls Wanda into motion. She lifts her free hand, fingers curling with a flare of red light — the same red as is reflected in her eyes —

And the Maximoffs are gone. No grand display. Local reality forgets them within the blink of an eye, and the rest goes on its way.

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