Sometimes big brother has to compromise for the sake of the people he loves. Sometimes he does something that haunts him for the rest of his life for the sake of the ones who live in his nightmares.
It's what happens, they tell you. It's what happens when you grow up more like a feral dog than a human. It's what happens when the only family you've ever known leaves you to die. Or maybe it's not about what happened, it's just that to survive you did things no one should ever have to do.
When Garrett found Grant Ward, he was fourteen. Fourteen and a warrior. A survivor. And Garrett had never been able to pass survivors by.
They didn't tell him the mission was going to be this kid. The kid he had trained in the woods for nearly five years. They didn't tell him much at S.H.I.E.L.D., not until the latest possible moment.
And it was beginning to drive Agent Garrett more than a little crazy.
The boy flinches, his hands tighten around his knife.
"I'm not here to hurt you." Softly.
The boy barks out a laugh, and turns, clutching his knife. "The hell you're not. You left me here. Are you really S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or is it the CIA or the KGB or"-
"What century are you living in, kid? The KGB is dead."
"Don't play games," the boy says coldly, looking Garrett in the face. "None of them ever die. You kill one, another takes its place."
Garrett laughs, and the boy squints at him. "You seem to know a lot for a nineteen year old kid."
"You think I'm nineteen?"
Garrett hesitates. He's actually starting to like this kid—no denial, no confirmation, just questions. It would throw most people. "I have your file, kid. We have your file, ever since you were in juvie."
"Who's we this time?"
"This time? What does that mean, son?"
"You have the file, you tell me," the boy says sharply, taking the smallest of steps back. His wrist curves slightly, and Garrett's finger tenses on the trigger of his gun. "And I'm nobody's son."
"Kid, you could change the world," Garrett says abruptly. "Don't make me put a bullet through your eye."
The boy only smiles, and once again, Garrett is impressed. And maybe just a little terrified, too, that a kid could smirk in the face of death; that he has so obviously done so many times before.
"I'm serious," Garrett says. "They sent me here to kill you or recruit you, and I want you on my team, kid."
"I'm not exactly a team player."
"I wouldn't say that."
"Re-read that file, Agent. You might want to think again." He flips the knife casually in his hand, the look in his eyes fierce. Desperate.
"I could kill you, and you really don't care."
"I could kill you, Agent. Is it S.H.I.E.L.D. this time?"
"S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Garrett had never said the name of the organization aloud, that he knew, and now the kid had said it twice.
"Don't play dumb, Agent. Everyone in the intelligence community knows about S.H.I.E.L.D."
"Do you want in?"
"I want to be left alone."
"That's not gonna happen, kid," Garrett shakes his head. "They know about you. Like you said, the CIA, the KGB"—
"And S.H.I.E.L.D. But kid, they're never gonna stop coming for you. You're too good. You see too much. You know too much. And we can protect you."
"I'm doing pretty well on my own," the boy says arrogantly, that same dead, focused look in his eyes.
"I can see that," Garrett nods. "You're good now. I can make you unstoppable."
"S.H.I.E.L.D. can fall."
Garrett smiles wryly. "They already have."
The boy cocks his head, looking at Garrett suspiciously.
Garrett pulls out his gun slowly, and the boy holds up his knife. "I can bury this in your throat."
"I know." Garrett pulls another gun from his hip and lowers both to the ground. "So do it, kid, or come with me."
The boy doesn't lower his knife, but he doesn't throw it, either. "What do I get out of it? S.H.I.E.L.D. is weak."
Garrett hesitates. "S.H.E.I.L.D. is dying."
"Is that what all your recruiters say?" the boy asks sardonically.
"I'm not a S.H.I.E.L.D. recruiter," Garrett says, holding out his hand for the boy to shake. "I'm your S.O."
"Are you really S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
"S.H.E.I.L.D. isn't really S.H.I.E.L.D."
"Then what the hell are you trying to sign me up for?"
Garrett leans forward, and when the boy doesn't flinch, he whispers into his ear, "Hydra."
The boy looks up sharply, then a smile spreads slowly across his face. "It never died?"
"They never die," Garrett says. "You said so yourself."
Slowly, the boy reaches out and shakes his hand.