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The Difference Between a Tool and a Monster

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Maybe Ward owes his life to his older brother. Without him, he would never have learned to kick the weakest spot and keep kicking till whatever in front of you is a wounded creature with no chance of rising to fight again. He woudln't have learned how to hit, wouldn't have pumped iron, wouldn't have learned how to do anything to be the biggest, the bravest, and the strongest. And then he would never have been useful to SHIELD, and he might have lived his whole life as an army private. He might have come home to be a washed-up drunk in their dusty town, reminiscing about his glory days as the quarterback of the team. Maybe he would have had a wife; maybe he would have beaten her. Forget his brother. He would have been the monster in the dark.

Those thoughts fuel him through SHIELD's training camp. Some of the other recruits cry in the night, but Ward doesn't need to; he learned how to take a hit a long time ago. Crying only makes it worse. But SHIELD wants more than stoicisim. They want teamwork, which their psychiatrist says requires trust. Ward doesn't know how to do that. He can't even fake it. Two weeks in, it's clear he's about to wash out of his only place in the universe.

That's when he meets John Garrett. The guy looks like the sidekick in a buddy cop movie, the one who's just a little too rugged to be good looking and has to rely on his sense of humor instead. When they shake hands, Garrett claps him on the shoulder and offers him a white-toothed grin. Ward tenses without knowing why.

"I was in the army too. Nicaragua. Now that was some fucked up shit," Garrett says, flashing the grin again.

His brother had had a smile like that. When it was directed at him, he'd feel like he was the center of the universe. Are you still mad about last time? his brother would say, and Ward would realize that he wasn't anymore. He'd give him a second chance, a third one, a fourth one... Later, he'd figured out that the smile nnever reached his brother's eyes. Garrett's smile is the same, and Ward knows he's a dangerous man, even if no one else sees it.

"Your file says you're not much for conversation," Garrett says, and Ward realizes how long he's been sitting silent. Knowing how to respond to people has always been hard for him, although he's learned how to cover it with fighting skills and handsome mystique.

"I can't dispute that," Ward offers. It's the best he can do.

Garrett grins again, although Ward doesn't see what's amusing. "The brass says you're not much for teamwork either."

"I've always felt I worked better alone." It's why he's not in the Army anymore. He hadn't quite managed an honorable discharge.

"A lot of people around here don't like that about you," Garrett says.

Something inside Ward snaps, and he clenches his hands into fists under the table. He wishes he had it in him to walk out. "If I'm getting kicked out, just tell me. Sir."

At that, Garrett actually guffaws. "You're not getting kicked out of anywhere, son. You're my new specialist, and I'm your new SO."

***

Ward was right; John Garrett isn't a nice man. At SHIELD, there's no suchh thing as fighting dirty, even when you're just sparring. You take whatever advantage you can get, and you press it as hard as you can. But Garrett hits harder than he has to. Recruits get injuries that aren't quite accidents. They hobble to the infirmary with Garrett's arm around their shoulders, and come back with stories to tell. Ward's the only one who sees.

One of their recruits is weak. Too weak for SHIELD. The right thing is to discharge him and move on, but Garrett pounds him black and blue, day after day. The kid is lying on the floor, Garrett's toe poised to kick him in the ribs, when Ward steps in and says, "My turn."

His kick catches Garrett off guard. His head snaps back and slams into the mirror behind him. The glass cracks, and when Garrett stands up, shaking his head, he leaves a streak of blood behind.

Ward's opens his mouth and closes again. He'd thought Garrett was ready; he hadn't meant to hurt him, at least, not like that.

But Garrett's eyes look wild and alive, even as he pulls a shard of glass from his scalp. "That was a good one," he says, clapping Ward on the shoulder. "You know, you're the only person in this whole damn building I can't ever hit. Why is that, Agent Ward?"

"It's the look you get in your eyes, sir. It's just like my brother." That's how he knows John Garrett is not a good man.

***

That's the last Ward hears about the incident until he's due to become a full Specialist, and he thinks the matter's been forgotten. Garrett shows up at his quarters the night before the commissioning ceremony, and says, "What say you and I go for a beer?"

Ward hesitates. He doesn't do beer with the boys. Garrett, of course, flashes him an affable smile and says, "Come on now, can't be anti-social every night."

The bar is loud enough to make him twitchy even though he's picked out an easily defensible corner table with a window exit. He listens politely as Garrett regales him with stories about Buchovina and Heraklion. But when he starts talking about Nam, Ward shakes his head.

"You're not old enough to have fought in that war," he says.

Garrett smiles, but it's not his usual afffable grin. His lips are thin and tight, and he says, "You're a shrewd man, Agent Ward. You don't take shit from anybody, even me. I like that about you. I think."

Ward shrugs. "It doesn't actually matter whether you like it or not, sir. It's not going to change." He'd tried to change before, to be someone his brother would like or his father would notice. It hadn't worked.

Garrett takes a sip of his beer. "Be careful what you notice around here, Ward. Not everyone likes it when you spot their secrets." Ward's about to ask whether that's a threat, but Garrett waves an idle hand, as if he knows what Ward is thinking. "You know, there's really just one thing that bothers me about you. I can't figure out why you would give a shit if I beat up on some recruit who's about to wash out anyway."

"I don't like unnecessary suffering," Ward says. He makes himself drink some of his beer. Maybe he does think of every conversation as a confrontation, but he's learning it doesn't pay to act like he does.

"Interesting word choice," Garrett says. "Do you think there's such a thing as necessary suffering?"

"I think there's such a think as deserved suffering," Ward answers, and surprises himself by being interested in the conversation. These are things he can't usually admit to others. "I went to Somalia with the Army. We handed out food, knowing enemy soldiers were taking it at gunpoint a block away. I would have shot them if I could, but I would've preferred a knife."

Garrett drains his glass and sets it on the table with a dull thud. "Hell, son, you think those soliders were any different from the people you were feeding? They were all starving kids. A few 'em just figured out guns would keep 'em alive better than begging."

Ward doesn't have an answer to that, and Garrett leans across the table. "I need you to tell me something for real. Did you join SHIELD to save people?"

Ward knows there's a wrong answer to this question and wonders if he would lie to avoid giving it. He doesn't want to want a home or a father or whatever Garrett represents, but he'd do a lot to keep Garrett's approval. Luckily, the true answer is also the right answer.

"I joined SHIELD because violence doesn't bother me. I'm good at it. I'd rather be a tool than a monster, that's all."

He stays for another beer with Garrett. He might even enjoy it. Maybe Garrett's not a good man, but Ward isn't sure he is one either. At least he knows he and Garrett are on the same side.

***

A year in, he pulls another specialist out of a torture chamber in Tehran. He'd gotten the full treatment: electric cords on the feet, an iron on the back, splinters under the fingernails. There are two interrogators in the cell when Ward drops in, and he kills them both with quick chops to the throat. The agent, some guy Ward has never even seen, collapses against him in relief and doesn't let go till they've fought their way out the front door.

Ward should feel triumphant, but instead he can't sleep. Garrett finds him staring out the window of their plane, an untouched drink in his hand.

"What's the matter?" he asks. "And before you say 'nothing,' remember that I'm a decent enough spy to spot an obvious lie."

Garrett's eyes actually do look kind, and that gives Ward pause for a moment. But then, whatever else Garrett had done to other people, he'd never hurt Ward -- and anyway, there's no point lying when he's already caught.

"The interrogators in the prison, sir. They were monsters, but they probabbly thought they were just doing their jobs." Ward doesn't need to add like me

Garrett slides into the seat beside him. "Haven't I told you the world's not as black and white as all that? We're all just people, trying to survive as best we know how." He pulls the drink from Ward's hand and swallows it in one gulp. "No point letting good whiskey go to waste. Listen, kid, I've seen some specialists go off the deep end, learn to love causing pain. You're not one of 'em. You don't hurt people if you can help it."

"You do," Ward says. "It wasn't an accident, when you hurt people in training."

Garrett's smile is just this side of a smirk. "Different men draw the line in different places. You call it hurting people, I call it finding out what they're made of. The point is, the line is there."

Garrett slides out of the seat, and Ward thinks he's going to bed, but instead he comes back with a second glass and a full bottle.

"I think it's time we talk about your brother," he says, and snickers when Ward starts. "Son, you really oughta stop thinking there's anything SHIELD doesn't know about you. I know your family history. You're carrying a lot of guilt because you couldn't save your little brother, or because you could have and you didn't. Either way, you did the right thing. You kept yourself out of harm's way."

Ward wishes to hell he didn't need to hear that, or that it didn't make him want to talk about his feelings. "The man we rescued today -- he was a specialist, the same as me. And they caught him anyway. He couldn't get out. They would have tortured him to death if we hadn't come."

Garrett nods. "That's why I want you to listen to me carefully. A sensible man does what he needs to do to protect himself. I know you've always been a sensible man."

***

At first, Ward thinks it was a pep talk: don't let guilt interfere with your work, keep your wits about you, stay safe. But it's not a coincidence that Garrett's been careless with his flash drives, or that he talks loudly enough on the secure line for Ward to overhear him. The pattern isn't hard to detect: when Garrett gets a call on a certain channel, the mission always goes pear-shaped. Targets only escape when Garrett's on the ground. Their vehicles get raided and thier guns go missing when Garrett's the one who stays behind for mission control.

Ward isn't blind, and he isn't an idiot. He is, as Garrett said, a sensible man. What's happening isn't the work of a rogue agent; it's a conpsiracy that goes all the way to the highest levels of SHIELD. When the battle comes, it's not hard to see who's going to win.

Swearing allegiance to HYDRA is such a non-event it's almost disappointing. There's no ritual, no dark mark, no octopus stamped on his ass. Most of his job is simple: keep working for SHIELD, arouse no suspicions, wait for the signal to come. Occasionally, he works missions for them, which just proves HYDRA's common sense. Nobody's loyal unless they're tainted, so he proves he's willing to get his hands dirty now and again. The truth is, the work is indistinguishable from what he does for SHIELD.

Years pass, and he almost forgets who he really works for. HYDRA is a back-up plan he'll probably never need, because it seems like the signal is never coming.

***

Transferring to Coulson's team is a HYDRA order. At first, Ward refuses -- he doesn't do teamwork, after all -- but Garrett says, "I'm touched by your loyalty, son, but we've got to think where you're really needed."

The day before his transfer, Garrett shows up with a six-pack of shitty beer and says, "This is going to be harder work than you've done before. I need you to get to know these people, be part of their team. When the battle comes, Coulson's going to be in our way, and it'll take someone who knows his vulnerabilities to bring him down."

Ward shakes his head. "I can't do that, sir. I'm a specialist. You need someone to take Coulson down in a fight, I'm your man. But I don't know how to...infiltrate."

Garrett's eyes go flat. "Well then, you'll learn. Sensible men do what they'e told."

***

If they weren't all so vulnerable, it wouldn't have been a problem. FitzSimmons should never have been in the field. Skye has no combat training but thinks she's invincible. May doesn't fight anymore, so it's down to him to protect them -- and he does, because how can he infiltrate a team if he lets them all die? What he hadn't counted on was their acceptance. At first, he'd thought it was a quid pro quo thing: he saves their lives, and in return, they're nice to him. But then it becomes clear that May will protect them too, that Skye can extricate herself from trouble, and even Fitz isn't bad in a pinch. And they're still nice to him, like they don't notice his rough edges, surly silences, and propensity for violence.

It's like he's stumbled into some kind of alternate reality to the one he'd grown up in and the one Garrett had painted for him: these were sensible people, but they all looked out for each other, and they were all still alive. Coulson didn't just risk his life for his crew; he risked his career and his good name, which as near as Ward could tell, was damn near all he had. His smile always reached his eyes, and his eyes were always kind. He was a good man, and because of that, the director of SHIELD had risked a lot to save him.

He trains Skye because she's the best leverage over Coulson he'll ever have, but also because it seems fair that she should have a chance to defend herself. He fucks May because it's his only shot at finding her vulnerabilities, and because at least one person in his life ought to treat him like the tool that he is. Until the Clairvoyant shows up, he doesn't realize he's followed his orders a little too well. He's in with the team alright. The problem is, he's not sure he wants out.

It's not something he can hide from Garrett, no matter how hard he tries.

"I was just telling Skye how much you've changed," Garrett says, all good-ole boy smiles, but Ward's stomach twists at the look in his eyes. It's the same sick feeling he used to get when his brother's eys slid over him and he'd think, better anyone than me. But that feeling isn't half as bad as knowing he'd almost helped to kill Skye.

Shooting the fake Clairvoyant isn't actually part of the plan. Vegetables don't tell stories, after all. Ward intends it as a threat, and he looks straight at Garrett when he pulls the trigger: you hurt Skye, and I take you down.

For the first time, he doesn't let Garrett's dead eyes frighten him. "I'm still on your team," he says. "But Skye is a line you don't cross."

***

The day the shit hits the fan, he doesn't mean to babble to Skye about having a drink and shooting an innocent man and whether he could ever be the kind of man she wants him to be. It's awkward and vulnerable and every bit as horrible as he ever thought human intimacy could be, but he has to know exactly what he's turning his back on today. He expects her to say that men like him -- men who've sold their souls to save their bodies, men who can pull a trigger without thinking twice -- have no place in her life. Instead she says yes, and then she kisses him. That's the worst part.

For a shining moment, he thinks he can get away with this. He can turn the key that puts John Garrett in jail, and no one will ever know the truth. Maybe HYDRA would accuse him, but Coulson would want to believe him, Skye would defend him, and then he would be free.

His mistake is sitting across from Garrett,where can can see the contempt in his eyes.

Do you think Skye could ever love a man like you?

Do you think any of them could ever really call you a friend?

Do you really believe they'd never find out?

Ward clenches his fingers and draws a shaky breath. Whatever he'd like to believe, one fact remains: SHIELD was going to drum him out of training camp. John Garrett was the one who'd given him a home.

HYDRA is the place for men like him.

When the time comes, he knows where to aim.