Implosion: 444

June 23, 2018:

Flashback. 1993, Failaka Island, Kuwait. Phil Coulson is a 29-year old field agent rising quickly through the ranks. He and his partner, Benjamin Palmer, investigate an 0-8-4 in a mission that goes rapidly sideways. Betrayal and blood mark the night.

Failaka Island, Kuwait

It would be pretty if it weren't full of MURDER.

Characters

NPCs: Benjamin Palmer and assorted, emitted by Peggy Carter

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Failaka Island, Kuwait, 1993

Strange readings and activity has reached SHIELD's ears about this island off the coast of Kuwait City in the Persian Gulf. The island is little populated, but is rich in archeology and history. There are few remaining residents after the Iraqi Invasion, but the island still is viewed a special place by the Kuwaitis. Due to the delicate balance in the region and the chatter that there has been unidentified, but clearly military, aircraft and ships in the area, a small team of SHIELD agents have been dispatched to quietly see what might be happening on the island. It's an important, but otherwise low ranking mission for SHIELD: information gathering only, do not engage.

The team is led by Agent Laura Petronoff, a veteran of the agency and known to get the job done. Agents Phil Coulson, Benjamin Palmer and Tara King are there to assist.

After crossing the Gulf at night and landing on the rough, rocky beach, a small camp has been set up. The air is thick, the sound of the gulf crashing against the rocks is rather loud and meant to block any sound they may make while establishing a foothold and a plan. In the middle of the night, however, during Coulson's watch there are bright lights on the horizon. They don't quite look like explosions, they look almost like flood lights turning on and off in a pattern that might almost be morse code.

*

Phil grabs pen and paper first and foremost. He starts jotting down the pattern without trying to translate it yet. If it's Morse it will be a fast translation. If it's not, he'll miss something trying to assume it is. He touches his communicator, murmuring protocol words to wake the rest of his team, to let them know something is going on…but it's absent. He's already absorbed in the pattern.

At 29 years old, Phil Coulson has already given up on his hairline. He's buzzed it short to make up for the fact that he seems doomed to watch it recede even before he hits his thirtieth year. He has already mastered the Cheshire Cat smile that eventually becomes his trademark. He's just four years off the mission in Romania that saw him transferred from analyst to field agent, and sometimes there are signs he's not entirely sure of himself. Signs for the seasoned eye, anyway. A way he holds himself here, a slight bit of deference there. The leader he will someday become expresses itself only in fits and starts in these still-early days of his career.

But here's where he is confident, both inwardly and outwardly: doing something just like this. Where everything clicks into place. Coulson is at his happiest when his keen mind is working to the goal of helping others. He's at his second-happiest when he can use his words and his gentle nature to de-escalate a conflict, rather than guns and fists…though by now he's been so thoroughly trained in the latter that they're certainly comfortable enough to him. Kicking down doors on behalf of SHIELD, and even shooting things, still counts as third-happiest. Despite his myriads of uncertainties at this stage of his life, the pattern that has him so devoted to SHIELD that he has chosen it for good as his only real family is already set and firm, his loyalty absolute, his dedication and integrity unquestioned.

*

The first one out of the tents is Agent Palmer. Though slightly rumpled and in tactical gear, he still looks rather put together. It must be a British thing. Quietly and securing his gear into place, he crouches next to Coulson. There are sounds of the others starting to make their ways out of the tent. However, Palmer asks with a smirk, "What's the word, my bird?" The pair have worked a handful of cases together. Generally, Palmer thinks far too highly of himself and his work to be quickly promoted. He tends to be a showoff, to try and do what he wants rather than what may be best for the team. However, he has also been a very important asset multiple times. He has stayed behind once or twice to ensure his team's safe extraction. While lower level than Coulson, he doesn't tend to act like it.

The night bursts with that light again, this time a bit closer. Then, it seems to die down for a little while. Palmer is stunned silent by the light, waiting for word on what it might be that has brought them all out.

It's only moments after the last light has burst in the sky that Petronoff steps out of the second tent with King in tow. "Coulson, report."

*

"I'm not sure," Coulson admits. Despite Palmer's ego, he enjoys the man's company. Palmer's flashiness and confidence plays well with Phil's more mellow personality, and there's a rumor that Phil Coulson doesn't even know what rank he is for all he pays attention to it with anyone he outranks.

His pencil keeps flying, and he frowns at it.

"Some sort of communication signal, Agent Petronoff," Coulson says, frowning down at it. "Some sort of code."

He pulls over a prototype computer small enough for the field. SHIELD agents get those cutting-edge laptops first, don't you know. He starts running the pattern through a computer program, fingers flying as he starts cross-referencing it against known codes and languages. "Let's see if I can get it deciphered."

Granted, they might just want to go racing in there, but…unless told otherwise, he's all for the slow, steady, info-gathering version of the response.

*

Petronoff nods once as she listens to Coulson's assessment. The laptop is out and she doesn't seem to mind at all that he is doing his due diligence.

Palmer, however, taps his fingers on his leg and looks between everyone. "Are we just going to sit here? There are flashing lights in the sky. This could be aliens for all we know. We've been picking up random 0-8-4s for years and now we might actually lay our eyes on one and we're just sitting here? Come ON, Agent Petronoff. Let's at least get a little closer while our lovely nerd crunches the numbers."

Petranoff gives Palmer a withering look, not quite as forgiving of his peacocking as Coulson may be. "We play this by the book, Palmer."

Frustrated, he gestures at the sky. "We haven't seen a flash since we haven't started talking. Whatever might be causing people to come here may be moving. For all we know it's random war games and we're losing the trail." He looks to Coulson. "You're the one that saw it. What do you think? We should at least get closer for a good look, right?"

*

Coulson's lips twitch as he is described as their lovely nerd. He doesn't dispute it. He may even wear it as a badge of pride. "I'm just trying to keep your pretty face from getting melted off, Palmer," he says mildly, hazel eyes twinkling.

But before long he's shaking his head in frustration, and looks to Agent Petronoff. "That being said, he could be right. The program can't find a human language to attach it to. It could just be a code so complex that my known algorithms can't handle it. Or it could be a language no human has ever encountered. In either case, I don't think we'll learn much more here at camp. I do recommend a—"

Here he glances at Palmer, lips quirking again— "Cautious. Approach. For surveillance purposes."

*

Palmer smirks back at Coulson before looking to Petronoff with a cat ate the canary smile. However, as the minutes stretch on and there are no more bright flashes of light and Coulson says nothing, the smirk fades into a more serious and anxious expression. "We're letting this get away." His tone is annoyed, exasperated.

Finally, the analysis is done and Coulson gives his assessment. While Petronoff frowns, she gives a curt nod. Everyone here is there for a reason. "Alright. Palmer, Coulson, you two scout ahead. King and I will stay at base. Stay within radio range, do not engage. Remember our mission: observe only."

Grinning, Palmer gives a British salute to Petronoff, winks at Coulson and then starts off across the rocky beach, picking out his footing very carefully.

*

Palmer is doing Coulson A Concern.

Even though that meme isn't out yet.

Even though memes aren't really out yet.

The possibility that Palmer is going to break ranks and try to engage is hovering right at the forefront of Phil Coulson's mind as he starts off next to his friend and fellow agent. Which means he's already strategizing on how to stop him from doing that, whether by words or a well-placed knock to the back of the hothead's noggin.

But for now, let off his leash, Palmer's following ordres, and Coulson does the same. He squints ahead as they close the distance, eyes and ears alert for far more than misbehavior on the part of his partner. Every sense is tuned towards their destination. He pulls out a device meant to enhance hearing, popping it into his left ear. He doesn't turn it on yet, but he has it ready to go.

*

Moving forward, the pair head toward where the last burst of light was seen.

While Coulson may be worried, Palmer does not rush ahead of him. He remains within both ear and eyeshot, constantly checking to ensure that Coulson is nearby.

Eventually, they make their way to what almost certainly is the place they saw with the lights. They reach an archaeological site that is half excavated. Old walls jut out from dark sand while others are only half visible.

In the darkness, voices can be heard, speaking a language other than English, though at the moment they're still hidden in shadow and perhaps behind a few walls. Two male, one female. As Palmer and Coulson approach, the man - without even thinking - starts to translate for Coulson:

"They're arguing," he says without prompting, perhaps arrogantly assuming Coulson does not speak the language. "The woman doesn't believe that the lights were larger than one of the other men have done before. The other man is telling them that he thinks they're being reckless. That they'll be caught."

*

Coulson doesn't let on either way. He listens patiently to the translation and nods thoughtfully. "Well," he murmurs. "So that tells us they weren't the source of them."

Caught by who, though, begs the question. They shouldn't know SHIELD is here, so who are they worried about?

This is the time where he turns up the volume on that earbud, tries to stretch his senses beyond the arguing individuals to see whom else they can hear, even as he uses those ancient walls for cover.

Is it possible someone activated something by mistake? That would perhaps track with what he's seeing down there. He leans up and over briefly, just to see. Are they soldiers? Archaeologists?

*

Palmer shakes his head, tilting his head a bit. "I don't think that's exactly true. She's comparing what just happened to what one of them already can do. That doesn't preclude that they are not involved in any way. I think they have a hand in what has been going on."

The earbud as it is turned up hears a lot of static. However, the pitch is higher. And every now and again is shrieks in his ear in a way that is very unlike it has ever been before. It's like there is strange interference there.

As Coulson peers over the ledge, he sees three shapes. It is dark here and there is little light other than what appears to be a flashlight that illuminates the three. It is in front of them, casting only silhouettes to Coulson and Palmer. They're about three walls away as they talk. While they seem to be trying to ensure no one around, they are not whispering. They are talking in normal voices - both believing and not believing anyone is around to find them.

It is hard to tell, but the seem to be wearing some form of tactical outfit. No weapons are immediately visible, but they move as if they have training.

*

Coulson frowns as Palmer clarifies his understanding of the conversation. Despite the fact that he is not as reckless as Palmer, he murmurs, "Let's get closer. I'm not sure what to make of this."

And he's not. People making lights? Why? How? Coulson supposes he could make a light too, with a really good maglite, but that's not what's going on here. Is it possible the light pattern doesn't even mean anything? There are too many blanks to fill in here, and he feels like he really doesn't know much more than they knew when they were making their jaunt up the beach.

So he tries to close some distance while keeping them well-concealed.

*

The fact that Coulson is seeming to go along with Palmer's own methodology get Palmer's actual surprised face for a moment. "You got it, boss."

Pulling out his gun, he keeps the safety on, but starts to keep toward the archeological structure. Instead of dropping down into the structure, he skirts. Using the spars trees and ground cover, he heads toward the side of the group. Once clearing a proper path, he gestures Coulson down. They should be able to take a few turns and then be practically behind the three people they can still hear talking.

At first, through their movement the sounds are muffled. However as they grow closer, they can make out more words. The language Palmer was translating was Arabic, which he does not do so now, due to worry about alerting those nearest them to a surveillance team.

However, before there can be a plot or a statement or even a plan. There's a flash against the moon. A figure jumps so high into the sky that he becomes a shadow and then lands right in between the pair. With a startled shout, he sees them and leaps backward, impossibly high.

*

Just because it's Palmer's methodology doesn't mean it's always the wrong call. Palmer just over-relies on the strategy.

Then again, Phil Coulson has this moment. Where he has no idea if he just foobar'd everything or did the thing where they definitely saw what they needed to see. The guy leaps and Coulson mutters to Palmer, "Time to go. Don't shoot that thing if you don't have to. We try and move and get the info back to base while they're still scrambling. We fight only if they refuse to let us leave."

Still following orders. He puts steel into his tone; it's one of the few times when he's going to pull rank. He then starts moving fast, sprinting back towards the exit of the dig; there is always the chance, after all, that the startled leaper will let them go. He's also dodging and weaving for cover though, because there's a real good chance they won't.

He'd rather not see it become a bloodbath.

But he's prepared for either eventuality.

*

Unfortunately for Coulson, even as he is telling Palmer to not shoot and that it's time to go, that is not exactly what happens. By the time the figure is careening back into the sky, the gun Palmer already pulled out has its safety flicked off. Even as Coulson is telling him that it is time to go a shot is fired off.

Against the almost otherwise silent night, even with a silencer, it is quite a loud and abrupt sound. The shot misses the leaping figure and then, Palmer looks to Coulson with a worried and apologetic look. "Instinct!" he hisses at the other man.

"Let's just go, let's go." He quickly starts to follow after Coulson, but the shot certainly alerted the others. Suddenly, there is a commotion and bright light illuminates the ruins and the field. It's not as bright as the orbs Coulson could have seen from the shoreline, but they are certainly there. Words are shouted in Arabic.

*

"It's fine, it happens," Coulson says, and he means it.

He wastes no time either on recriminations or worry. He pulls a series of smoke grenades out and uncaps them. He throws them strategically, behind them and to the sides, giving them a clear escape route out, or so he hopes. Between the lights and the leaping they may be screwed with a capital S. But the more he hears the more he's sure fleeing is the right decision.

They stay and fight, they end up captured or dead. They might anyway, if this ploy doesn't work. It's just buying time at this point, buying them a way back to camp, where he gets to tell his superior officer how he managed to flub this. Because the decision to get closer was what turned this sideways, and that is on him.

*

Palmer frowns and nods at Coulson's assessment, quickly following behind him.

However, even as they go, the lights grow slightly brighter. Then, a wave of water - impossible from this far inland - crashes upward and pulls them back toward the archaeological site. The water deposits them backward, covering them in mud and crushing much of the grass and landscape around them to give them little cover.

The smoke from the smoke bombs continues upward, but the pair's escape route seems cut off. A loud shout is given in Arabic.

"They're demanding to know who we are," Palmer translates quickly, coughing through an inhale of water. "Why we're here."

*

Ow.

Coulson takes a moment to just appreciate the number of impossible things he's being asked to believe in the pre-dawn hours before breakfast. Lights, leaping, and sudden tidal waves. He recovers quickly, as he often does.

He reaches up to rub gently at his ear. The thing's tucked deep inside. He doesn't think it's been fried.

He slips the thing into the palm of his hand. Even as he does, he smiles and says in easygoing fashion, and a flawless British accent, "Well don't keep them in suspense. It's not like being a pair of intrepid professors of archaeology and history from Oxford University, trying to get a grip on our publish or perish problem, is a state secret or anything. Do convey how terribly sorry I am about the misunderstanding. It's so frightening out here, we rather did thought to stay prepared you know. Americans with their military surplus stores, very quaint, our Texan colleague wasn't kidding about the kinds of things he could procure for us now was he?"

Just rambling with that Cheshire Cat smile, the way an idiot academic civilian might. Even as he thumbs a dial on the earpiece. Trying to get the feedback on the thing reversed. If he can manage it without getting shot, the idea is to create a painful SHRIEK that might buy him thirty seconds to, well. Draw Palmer's spare sidepiece, since he can go for that faster right now than he can go for his own, given their sprawl, so that he can start taking a cool series of attempted head shots. Whomever they are, they're out here playing with alien technology, they are probably not friendlies or SHIELD would have this intelligence already, and whatever they're playing with needs to go back to headquarters. Meanwhile, he's certainly not interested on waiting around for his bluffing skills to do the trick, not when the best story he can come up with are clueless Oxford guys with too much Army Surplus from America. Not that there was a good story that had them out here, armed, in the wee hours of morning, firing guns and throwing smoke grenades. As well he's not really relying on his gift of gab.

Not for this one.

Not today.

*

Palmer gives Coulson a bit of a look and a raised eyebrow. Quickly, he leans into the bumbling, excitable professor state of mind. Wriggling this way and that, he starts to translate. His words are halting, startled. Even to Coulson, who doesn't speak the language might be able to tell that the man is rattled and attempting to convey apologies.

As he speaks and Coulson goes to make his move, Palmer attempts to help. Shifting this way and then that, pretending to bumble his way to a standing position, he moves his leg into an easier place for Coulson to grab his spare gun.

Coulson's thumb causes quite a feedback squall. The high pitched noise catches even Palmer by surprise and he raises a hand up quickly to clap on the ear that was closest to the noise. However, he's quick to recover. As Coulson sits up and starts firing, Palmer is only a few moments behind.

The three seem to listen to Palmer's story. In silhouette, one rubs at his wrists and then reaches out to grab another's hand. They stay like that until the loud burst of sound. Then, they scatter. Two quickly drops into the ruins. Another runs forward, preternaturally fast and leaps upward toward them. His jump is high, but not like before. He careens downward attempting to attack Coulson and Palmer, but Coulson's ready shots hit him, not in the head, but center mass. With a wheeze of pain, the man drops to the ground and remains still.

Palmer, untangled, moves forward. Alert, he toes at him, gun ready to fire should this be a ploy. However, as he slowly turns the man over, there is no protest. Crouching down, he quickly grabs a wrist to check a pulse. "Dead," he announces to Coulson in a whisper. "The others scattered."

As he says this, orbs flash in the field right in front of them with the intensity of floodlights.

*

Phil Coulson squints at the orbs. He pauses to search the body of the man whose life he just ended, and to close his eyes as a reflexive gesture. It's possible, of course, that what they're exhibiting are inborn abilities. But it's also possible something else is going on, and it would be the height of negligence not to check while Palmer is covering him.

He's thorough, but quick. And then he mutters, "Come on." He's got concerns about the lights. They could be a long range attack. They could be a back up signal. Either way, he judges it is time to go, time make another attempt to escape from these ruins. He'll see them all dead if he has to, but none of this is going as it was supposed to.

He offers Palmer his side arm back and takes up his own primary weapon, hazel eyes hawklike as he attempts to pick them a path that might get them where they need to go.

*

Coulson's search comes up with little. The man has no weapons on him, nor any sort of phone. In his jacket pocket, now wet with blood is a thin book. Palmer, swearing, shoots twice toward the ruins in a precautionary, if reckless manner. "I can't see shit, Coulson, these lights are messing with my night vision."

Even as he says that, Coulson's concerns come home to roost. The lights start to swirl and strobe. They circle Coulson, Palmer and the dead man now. Things are hectic and it's hard to tell where they came from, let alone where the people they came to investigate may have gone.

One careens toward the back of Palmer as he attempts to swing one way to find a way out from their array.

*

Coulson pockets the book, and then…

And then shit!

He tries to knock Palmer to the ground. And decides they are now officially in too much trouble to go it alone.

He whips out his communicator and radios back to the base. "This is forward team requesting emergency extraction. I repeat, forward team requests immediate extraction, situation has gone sideways, do you read?"

He fires a few times into the direction he thought he saw their opponents run himself, for good measure, because cover fire is as good as it gets sometimes. He tries to shield Palmer while he does it, with his own body; if they're going to get hit with something he's going to get hit first.

*

As Palmer swings one way, he finds himself knocked to the ground in an unceremonious manner. The gun swings as he tries, thinking one of the hostiles did this. However, an incredibly bright light passes just above them, grazing Coulson over the shoulder as it does.

The pair can definitely feel the warmth of that orb as it passes by. It's not just emitting light, there is quite a bit of heat as well. Coulson's jacket starts to smoke and burns. While it's not enough yet to cause any sort of burns, it is uncomfortable. A direct hit would hurt and burn quite a it more. "Holy shit, what are they?" Palmer asks.

Over Coulson's com, the crackling voice of a calm Petronoff replies to the radio'd distress signal. "Copy, Agent Coulson. Extraction incoming."

As Palmer's covered by Coulson, he gives a wry smile - apparently finding some humor in their dire situation. "My hero." However, he doesn't let Coulson cover him like that for very long. Instead, he rolls and attempts to get onto one knee. "We need to head back to to our cover. We're sitting ducks out here. Come on." He offers a hand to help the other man up.

Like an angry swarm, more orbs start to circle and swoop toward them.

*

"Damnit," Coulson hisses, ripping his jacket away and beating it out. He ignores Palmer's joking in favor of rolling to one knee himself. He nods; Palmer makes good sense, and he lets the man lead them.

Experimentally, he tries shooting an orb. If it's full of light and heat, does it also have substance? Some sort of core? If he can shoot the orbs down they might have more of a chance. It's certainly better than simply running and hoping not to be fried.

*

As Palmer leads the way, he doesn't bother with shooting the orbs as he runs. Instead, he tries to catch a glimpse of their attackers from their bunker. Firing off a shot or two, he pauses for only a moment to pull out the gun that Coulson returned to him.

Coulson's shot to the orb hits rather resoundingly. The orb is pushed backward and the bullet is absorbed into it in a bright flash of light and heat. It flickers for a moment, but the orb remains. There is certainly substance there, though what it is made of or how it can do what it does remains a mystery.

"Coulson!" Palmer shouts as another orb careens right for the senior agent's head. He reaches out to try and yank him the other way even as they run to keep him from being injured. Quid pro quo and all that.

*

Coulson allows himself to be yanked. He appreciates not having his head fried.

And if this is a moment of supreme irony that will only become evident many years later, well. Today it is much appreciated.

"I think I hate these guys," he comments mildly. Are they at cover yet?

He decides Palmer has the right of it. Shoot the assailants and the attacks stop. He is definitely going to run and shoot at the same time, but he switches off his pistol. He's kind of had it. For this kind of work he's got an assault rifle on him, and he clicks the safety off, spins as he runs, and fires a rain of bullets into the general direction of the people who are pursuing them with their…Doom Orbs.

He's totally calling them those in the report, too.

*

With a leap, they are over the wall and into cover. Behind them, the orbs follow and then suddenly wink out all at once. In front of them - in the direction of their camp - they can hear the crashing through the rocks and unfriendly terrain that marks the approach of Petronoff and King coming to help extract them from this attack.

Suddenly, there is a burst of gunfire and then silence.

Catching his breath, Palmer, checks his ammo and looks to Coulson. "Uh, boss, that can't be good."

In the few moments that follow, there's only silence.

*

"No, it can't."

It is rare for one of Coulson's missions to go this badly sideways. It truly is.

And all he can do is shut off his emotions, even his analysis of why, in favor of trying to figure out their next move.

Someone doubled back and shot their extract team, or Petronoff and King froze because of the shot. Coulson counts down from thirty. Thirty seconds to see if they hear them again.

As he does, he gets a good, long look at the terrain, because he may need to pick them an alternate route out of here. Ideally, he'd go check on their extraction team, make sure they're not dead. Or gather their IDs if they are, at least. He can't get their bodies out of here.

*

The terrain seems still, now. There are no more lights, no more sound. The crashing of their rescuers has stopped, the attacks of their pursuers has as well. Now, this just seems like an old ruin, badly in need of repair.

Thirty seconds pass and there is no sound, nothing coms on over the coms. Either King and Petronoff have gone dark, or they have been killed by the people that they came here to investigate, though it should be noted there were no large flashes of light, only gunfire.

With a few hand signals, the pair move toward where they last heard the shots. There, a body lays still, outlined by the moonlight but still hard to make out anything of the features. It could be one of theirs. It could be one of the enemies. Nothing stands out at the moment. After the bright lights that almost burned them to death, the night is now still and dark. It's disconcerting.

*

Phil Coulson kneels down. He carefully hits the light on his watch and shields it with his hand to see whose face he is looking at, whose body he is looking at. On a hunch, he checks the time.

Did time freeze? Are they perceiving everything suddenly going dark? Or did something stop time for a moment, and now they are dealing with the consequences of things that happened in the intervening hours, leaving them to catch up?

It would be a crazy thought if this weren't so often a feature of alien activity. He hasn't run into it himself, but he's certainly read the reports.

And right now anything seems possible.

*

The watch illuminates the time. It's been fifteen minutes since they left the camp. Time is not exactly standing still, but it may seem like only moments or entire days have passed when it has truly been only fifteen minutes.

The light also casts a faint glow to see the paling face of Tara King - eyes staring upward and a look of concentration forever etched on her face. Blood smears the front of her jacket. It seems like she was shot from the front. A gun is clenched in her hand and from the smell of it, she also took a few shots before dying.

From behind them and in front of them, rustling. "Agent Coulson." The voice of Petronoff, rigid as always. She's impossible to see, but from a shaggy brush, her voice sounds. It's soft, but commanding. "Step back. Palmer, back."

"Now."

*

One of two things is happening.

Shot from the front could mean that Petronoff shot her. That Petronoff betrayed them. That she knows exactly what is going on here, and she wants something out of this scenario.

Or it could mean that someone has Coulson and Palmer's head in their sights right now.

Either way, stepping back is wise. Coulson takes a step back, though, playing it cool. As of right now she is still his superior officer, even if he now has his suspicions. Thus, he follows orders. He's just ready to move if this means she is about to turn on them. "Agent Petronoff?"

*

Palmer steps back as he's told, confusion evident on his face as he keeps his gun sighted toward the front, where their assailants were last seen.

As Coulson steps back, no action happens. Instead, there is more silence. There are no further instructions for Petronoff at the moment. Even Coulson's question is met with silence.

Then, a gun shot, right from where Petronoff's voice came from. The bullet passes right by Palmer's head and he turns, shooting right at the bush, three quick bursts of fire.

"Fuck!" he gasps, startled. Petranoff just shot at him! Petranoff tried to kill him!

Then, though, their surroundings light up, buzzing with angry and glowing orbs. They encircle Coulson and Palmer, leaving them no escape.

A cry of outrage and pain follows it. A woman stands up from her hiding spot. She points at them accusingly, shouting in Arabic.

Quickly, Palmer translates for Coulson. "She says we killed them. That this is our fault. They were just testing out the bracelets." Giving Coulson a look, he steps back so that he's close against him and away from the lights that can burn them. "Maybe we should incapacitate her to figure out what she means about those bracelets," he tells Coulson softly. "Though, you know, between me and her getting out alive, I'd prefer me.

*

Coulson loves the talking route. The negotiation route. It's what he prefers. But the evening has escalated too far off of that. The ship has sailed.

He doesn't even hesitate. He raises his pistol and tries to shoot the woman with her bracelets in the head. Tries to put an end to her life. They weren't going to let her keep this technology anyway, and there's still Petronoff, who might be lining up a shot on them both.

His face is closed down, as it often is when making the hard calls. The calls he won't be proud of in the morning.

*

The evening really has turned out quite differently than they were expecting. Ships have sailed, things have happened.

The lights brighten and tighten around them. The warmth becomes exponentially hotter. Things are certainly coming to a head. The woman still yells at them in Arabic, but Palmer has stopped translating.

In a moment, Coulson makes a decision and raises his gun. The lights are bright, in his eyes. There is sweat that starts to form across his forehead. However, his team is in trouble and this woman is tightening the light cage she has on them. The silhouette is easily picked out, as is the direction of her voice. A breath in and out, the squeeze of a trigger and the there is a shot.

It seems like minutes, but suddenly, in the loud ring of the gun firing, the lights waver for a moment. Then, there is a bright explosion. It is not physically painful, but it whites out Palmer and Coulson's vision. Then, there is only darkness and silence.

Rubbing at his eyes, Palmer blinks multiple times. "Fuck, shit. Coulson, you okay? Did you shoot her? We could have questioned her! Figured out what she meant! How she got them!"

*

"Petronoff is still out there," Coulson says, in a hard voice. "She may have a bead on us right now."

She was wearing a bracelet, this woman? Phil Coulson steps forward and tries to pry it off her wrist. Because this is the key to catching Petronoff alive.

But he's furious. Few things push Phil Coulson's buttons like betrayal. Of him personally, and of the organization he loves. This is a family member betraying family. And his hazel eyes darken as he thinks on it.

"Cover me," he orders, and there's nothing in his tone of warmth, or affection, or camraderie now. This is a commanding officer taking control of a mission, here and now. This is a man who no longer blames himself for how badly it has all gone sideways.

*

Eyes finally coming into focus, Palmer grabs at Coulson before he can try to grab at the bracelet on the woman's wrist that he just shot. He doesn't want him to touch it just yet. However, at Coulson's darkened eyes, the sudden shift of tone, he backs off. "Look, just maybe don't touch what may be an 0-8-4 until we know what it does."

While Palmer is unable to dissuade him from taking the bracelet, Coulson finds the roughly hammered bracelet around the dead girl's wrist. Her body is still warm to the touch, though it is quickly cooling in the night. Her eyes are still open, the blood pooling about her. As Coulson pries the bracelets from around both her wrists, he can see they are old - very old. There are tarnished stones inset on what looks to be hammered brass.

As he touches them, a strange sensation fills him. It's energy. It's like drinking five coffees. Suddenly, the night gets brighter. His shoulder suddenly flames in what seems to be additional pain.

With this new perspective, he can see that from the bushes, Petronoff was injured by Palmer's shots, but there is a blood trail that starts to lead back to the camp.

*

The sharpness of his senses is intense, and incredible. And a relief. Because if he can just use this, maybe he doesn't have to play with the dangerous lights.

"Right now, I know it gets us our traitor of a CO. Dead or alive," he says in hard tones. "Come on."

He puts another clip in his sidearm and starts running down the trail just as silently as he can, ready to track her down. Trusting Palmer to follow. Palmer, at least, is a good man who can be trusted to have his back. A good friend.

He's right, of course, that it's a bad idea to touch alien tech without study or training, but to Coulson? Tonight? Just a calculated risk.

*

As Coulson grabs the bracelets, Palmer grimaces. This against his express wishes. "Coulson," he warns. "Coulson" his words sharper as the man puts the bracelets on and starts to charge down the path toward their CO.

Coulson is certainly right that Palmer is right behind him, gun drawn and raised. "For all we know Petronoff is dead. I fired off three shots at her! Those things are dangerous. Put them down."

However, he keeps after Coulson. As Coulson runs, he easily outpaces Palmer. He doesn't even feel winded as he follows the blood trail all the way back to their camp. Palmer is left behind him, a distant voice as he calls out "Coulson! What the hell!"

The trail is easily followed with his enhanced vision. Petronoff has quite a head start, but she's injured. By the time he reaches her, she is in her tent, packing things and also trying to destroy a laptop.

*

Coulson can't hear him right now. He wants to. Some part of him deeply wants to.

But he can't. The anger is too deep. However quiet his anger can be, however hard, however understated, it is intense when it finally ignites. Palmer probably couldn't name the last time Coulson lost his temper on the job. Nobody could. And yet here he is, caught in the grips of it.

He raises his gun and says, "Hands up, Petronoff, on the ground, or I will shoot."

Not Agent Petronoff. Not ever again.

The younger agent's face is grim, but nothing in his eyes suggests that he is bluffing or lying. That he will try to equivocate or spare her. He will kill her if she does not comply.

*

Palmer has been long been left in the dust at this point. In this tent, it is only Petronoff and Coulson.

Petronoff has the laptop in her hands, still raised, trying to destroy it completely. She looks to Coulson. The expression is calm and still very much the well respected agent many think her to be. "You?" she asks him. She looks at the bracelets, then looks up at him.

Anger crosses her features. "No." It's strange, it's the first time Coulson can imagine Petronoff putting emotion into a mission. That anger translates. The laptop in her hands is moved and then crashed down over a rock that has jutted up against the tent they have set up. Sparks crash upward, plastic breaks. The laptop is broken into pieces.

*

She didn't comply. She destroyed evidence, though that's not enough, Coulson knows distantly, to get everything off the harddrives.

There is zero hesitation.

None.

He pulls that trigger without a second though, coldly executing justice as Petronoff resists his arrest.

Oddly in the nights to come the death of the Arabic woman will haunt him. But this death won't. For this death he feels nothing, save for what a man feels when he's defending his home and family. Utter vindication.

*

Petronoff has no way to defend herself. The laptop is utterly destroyed as she smashes it on the rock. However, the bullet from Coulson is true. It smashes against his CO and she crumples, pieces of the hardware still clamped into her hands.

After a few moments, Palmer finally catches up. Taking a few moments to look on the scene, he blinks a few times at the scene in front of him. "Bloody hell," he tells Coulson. Reaching forward, he gingerly tries to pry the gun from him. "Mate, I gotta take this."

The gun is taken from Coulson and then set to the side. Once that is taken care of, he starts to gingerly move Coulson to a large rock on the beach to sit on. "This has been quite a lot, okay? We'll get you through this, okay?"

As he says this, he starts to pry the bracelets off of Coulson's wrists. There is no resistance from Coulson, but there is a slight shift of momentum that the man can feel as soon as they are separated. The wold becomes darker, his senses are no longer as sharp.

As soon as Palmer has them, he takes a deep breath, an inhale and exhale. "Wow. This is…" then, he looks around him. "Just wow."

On a radio in Tara's tent, a distant voice sounds, "Closing in on your vector. Need confirmation on extraction, over." In the distance, a helicopter can be heard.

*

Coulson does indeed let Palmer take the gun, and the bracelets. He trusts Palmer to secure them better than he trusts himself right now. He knows what comes next— a thorough investigation into his own actions— so he retrieves the several more weapons he's got, disarms them, and then sets them gently on the ground.

He is in a daze, and he only nods vaguely to the other agent. He even trusts Palmer to handle the confirmation of extraction, because right now he can't decide if that's friend or foe. He'd called Petronoff for the extraction, to extract him and Palmer back to camp, not SHIELD HQ. It could be anyone coming, or it could be Tara did the right thing and called for back-up.

Once he disarms himself, he just sits, the smell of blood thick in his nostrils.

*

Once things are taken from Coulson, Palmer takes over. He keeps a firm hold on the bracelets and then directs the team in. "Confirmation given, over. Extraction a go, over."

There are quite a few things to be studied here. However, Palmer goes back to Coulson and puts a hand over his. "You did the right thing, Coulson. Any of us should have done the same." He reaches forward to grip Coulson's hands firmly.

As they talk, a helicopter arrives to extract them all. This was not on the docket but now it is there to pick them up.

Those from SHIELD filter in and Palmer hands off the bracelets, explaining what he can of them. And what they might do without any laboratory testing. The scientist nods absently and packages them up into a crate. "Okay, we'll slingshot this. Label it crate 444."

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