“What am I supposed to do with this?” Phil asked, holding with no amount of disgust the membership card for the Lonely Hearts Link.
“Surely you've had the bees and flowers talk by now, Agent Agent,” Stark said and disappeared as abruptly as he'd come.
“And this is a restricted area!” Phil shouted.
He didn't know why he even bothered. Stark's laugher echoed back in answer, and that was that, as usual. He was as infuriating as he was brilliant, but his heart was in the right place he supposed. More or less. Phil sighed and sat back at his desk. Opening the drawer of his desk where his stashed all the other ridiculous gifts. He wondered, not for the first time, if everyone had a competition going at his expense, what with the unicorn-shaped dildo, the fuzzy pink handcuffs, bullet proof underwear, a pretty good drawing of him and Captain America… doing things that were better left unsaid… Stark signing him up on a dating site was just another box to tick in the “ridiculous birthday gifts received” category. Before he could stash the card in his drawer of shame, the login info caught his attention. His pseudonym in particular.
Phil had to wonder if Stark even knew the meaning of confidential. Now, instead of going home after a long day's work, he was going to have to go through the bother of logging in to this useless website, only to delete all traces of himself. The Lonely Hearts Link web page was as nauseous in all its gaudy pink colour as he had feared, but Phil held strong and smashed in the keys to enter the stupid password: needstogetlaid.
Funny. Real funny. But it got worse: Stark had put a picture of him. And a good one too. Very recognizable. Phil gritted his teeth, then saw his profile had been fully filled in excruciating and absolutely correct details as well: how he liked to take his coffee, what he was reading at the moment, his favourite movie, colour, dish, season…
“Fucking hell, Stark!”
No way had Ironass done this himself. He would have abandoned halfway through out of sheer boredom and filled it in with made up information worthy of a four year old. Phil snapped his fingers in realization: Stark must have sicced his damn AI on him. He was going to have words with that snooty, incorporeal voice, just he wait. Stark was a lost cause, but maybe Jarvis could still be reasoned with.
What was more surprising, and a little horrifying, was the sheer number of messages he got in his inbox. Just out of curiosity, he opened it. Yep. Crazy people, as expected. And dick-pics. So many godamn dick-pics. Phil methodically erased every piece of information that had been entered on his profile, leaving only blank spaces behind. He had to wait forty eight hours to delete the account itself however, so, out of frustration, he deleted the whole inbox, feeling slightly less dirty as he did so.
A shudder ran through him as the realization sank in that Stark had effectively just pimped him out, on a virtual level. Phil was going to make him pay for that. He didn't know how yet, but he would. That night, before he went to sleep, he set a mental alarm to remind him to delete that abomination in forty hours.
Phil had finished early for once. Clint had actually handed in his mission report and hadn't even been wounded. He had checked. Natasha was still infiltrating Stark Industries and Stark himself was not dying or making an ass of himself. Evil itself had taken a day off, it seemed, so it was barely even dark out when Phil opened the door to his flat. He was a bit at a loss of what to do with himself, so he decided “nothing” actually sounded like a good idea. The couch greeted him in its overstuffed cushions and a sigh escaped him as he closed his eyes.
Some time later, he was startled awake. On his feet, gun in hand, searching for danger, Phil recalled it was only his mental alarm reminding him to delete The Abomination that was his Lonely Hearts account. Worth getting up for, he thought as he turned on his laptop and went to the kitchen while it hummed to life. He needed coffee. Or whisky.
In the end, Phil settled for an Irish Coffee. He was glad to see all his profile information had remained blank. He had half-expected Jarvis to refill it before he could delete his account. His inbox, on the other hand, boasted a new message.
Really? he thought as he clicked on the pink envelope. How desperate do you have to be to send a dick-pic to a blank profile?
There was a message from Nightowl that read: Are you safe?
That had to be Stark.
The message then repeated in a pink chat box that popped up in the middle of the screen like an obnoxious person screaming in your face. Yeah, that had to be Stark.
Nightowl: Are you safe?
AgentAgent: What are you playing at now?
Three little dots then danced on his screen. “Nightowl” was replying, but it took him a full minute to do so. Strange. Stark was many things, but slow or hesitant weren't amongst them. Intrigued, Phil waited. He had nothing better to do for once.
Nightowl: Your profile presented an anomaly. I am only verifying everything is alright with you.
Phil hummed. His instincts were telling him something was not quite right. Intriguing. He might not have to resort to watching inane TV shows tonight as distraction.
AgentAgent: Do you work for Lonely Hearts?
Nightowl: Not as such, no.
Ha. Guessed as much. It was easy enough to verify, which might be why Nightowl had not tried to lie to him. What he did not know was who this person was and what he was after.
AgentAgent: Outside consultant?
Nightowl: In a manner of speaking.
AgentAgent: So not in an official capacity.
The pause was longer this time. This person was cautious. Smart and educated, judging by the way they expressed themself. Maybe he could recruit him, if he wasn't an unrepentant criminal or a raving lunatic of course. SHIELD had standards.
AgentAgent: Do you work for the Bureau?
AgentAgent: I just assumed that you worked for the FBI since that is where the cybercrime division is located. But I can now see I was mistaken, which leaves me with so many more questions.
Nightowl: I should bid you goodnight. You're obviously not the person I was looking for.
Phil stared at his screen. No dancing dots. Nightowl had left. Not wanting to leave it at that, he clicked on his profile, only to find it as bare as his own.
“This just keeps getting more and more mysterious. It's like you want me to follow you down the rabbit hole, Mr Nightowl,” he mused to his empty apartment.
Now, he wasn't bad at hacking, per say, but it would take him days to track down someone like Nightowl. Good thing he knew a certain someone with an overzealous AI who owed him for displaying his life in minute detail to a bunch of strangers in the first place. Confident he would get to the bottom of this, Phil slept like a rock that night.
“Agent Agent, what a disturbing sight to be greeted by so early in the morning.”
Obviously, he lacked both sleep and caffeine. Dark smudges under his eyes, his goatee not as neat as usual and clothes so rumpled Phil wondered if he should intervene and drug him to sleep, once he got what he came for.
“Likewise, Mr Stark. I came to thank you for your birthday gift.”
So much doubt packed in such a short word.
“Yes. Nice little puzzle.”
“Yeah, I don't think you're using that gift correctly, Agent. Or are the rumours true and you really are a robot. And if you are, I'm kind of jealous and really behind on my homework,” Stark said as he poked him in the chest with a finger covered in dark grease.
Phil pretended it didn't annoying the shit out of him.
“I need to find a person who contacted me via the website.’
“Aha! Stalking. My kind of man. Jarvis?”
“Please assist my good friend Agent Agent in finding his soulmate, and then forward my most sincere apologies to them. I, in the meanwhile, need to go crash somewhere and I mean that literally. Testing out the new repulsors, you see. I just know I'm going to crash. It's going to be awesome.”
“Of course, sir.”
Phil watched Stark go with a frown of worry. The man wasn't even walking straight for crying out loud. Letting him fly a weaponized armor over a densely populated area seemed more than a little hazardous.
“Jarvis, are you sure you should-”
“It's taken care of, sir. Dummy is setting fire to the new prototype as we speak.”
Shouts echoed up from the stairs Stark had just disappeared down before a siren blared loudly and smoke drifted up. Then the shouting resumed, Stark threatening to take Dummy apart to repair the damage he caused with his spare parts.
“He's not really going to, is he?”
“It is highly unlikely. Sir has made similar threats to Dummy 457 times, and Dummy has yet to lose a single screw.”
“Tell Dummy he's a good bot for me, won't you?”
“Of course, sir. May I enquire about your search?”
Phil wished he could hire Jarvis. Now he would make a perfect desk agent.
“Could you find me the identity of the user named Nightowl on that website you signed me up on, the Lonely Hearts Link. We were in contact last night via chat messages if it helps.”
“Of course. One moment please.”
It literally took just a moment. Phil hadn't even had time to blink.
“The information given is fabricated, and the money trail comes to a dead end at a bank called Gringotts. However, Nightowl is currently logged on and I have traced the location down to a library in central New York. Would you like me to hack into the webcam?”
“Please,” Phil replied and looked at the nearest screen as it turned itself on.
The pale face that filled the screen wasn't the sort of person Phil had expected to see. It was a woman, not that he had dismissed the possibility, but it was statistically less probable. But more importantly, she looked too… normal. The sort of person you could easily overlook, which he knew himself came in very handy.
“You're positive this is Nightowl?”
“It is the person currently logged in as Nightowl, yes. Would you like me to give you the coordinates?”
“No, thank you, Jarvis. I know where she is.”
There was only one library close by, and he could be there in less than fifteen minutes.
His heart pounded as he entered the building, certain he would miss her for some reason, but she was still there, clicking away on her keyboard and muttering now and then, which drew stares from the other library goers that she, in turn, completely ignored.
Amused, Phil casually walked up to her to read over her shoulder. She was logged on to Lonely Hearts, that particular shade of pink unmistakable, and she was insulting half a dozen people while interrogating a couple more. Her spine suddenly went ramrod straight and she whirled around to face him, causing her old chair to creak in protest.
“Piss off,” she snapped after giving him a once over. “Whatever you're selling, I'm not interested.”
Phil chuckled. He'd always thought the British were more subtle and phlegmatic, but Nightowl seemed to have fresh run out of patience.
“Is that any way to greet a friend?”
“Friend?” she scoffed. “I don't know you. Now, if you don't mind, I'm busy.”
“Ah yes. Still investigating those Lonely Hearts profiles, I see. What interest do the British have in our poor citizens in search of love, I wonder?”
Her sharp eyes narrowed. Phil could almost see the cogwheels turning behind those shrewd eyes, until she stiffened almost imperceptibly.
“A pleasure to meet you in person, Nightowl.”
“You often stalk people you meet online? I seem to have underestimated your level of dangerosity, but I had assumed you were an officer of the law.”
Phil hummed noncommittally at what he didn't want to admit just yet before answering.
“Only those people who pique my interest.”
“And I have that dubious honour?”
Phil smiled blandly at her, wondering how she would react. Nightowl turned towards her screen again, and he thought at first she was just going to ignore him, which wouldn't work, but she closed all the open tabs, then the computer, and stood to look up at him, not disturbed in the least that he towered over her.
“I don't appreciate being followed or spied on. Leave me alone.”
She walked away but Phil was right behind her. Did she really think it would be that easy?
“Go away,” she hissed over her shoulder.
Phil smirked. He was actually having fun. It was rare for him not to have a clue about a person's intentions, but he couldn't get a good read on this woman, which is why he decided follow her. To father intel. But then, in his experience, plans rarely went without a hitch, and he hit a major one when she somehow managed to lose him. Him. Senior agent of SHIELD. Fury's fucking right-arm man.
“Well I'll be damned,” he said, turning on himself to inspect his surroundings once more, but there was no trace of her.
One minute Nightowl was walking a couple of steps ahead of him, then someone tripped between them. Phil had only looked away for five seconds and she was gone. Vanished into thin air.
Definitely interesting. He was so recruiting her to SHIELD. Even if he had to drag her in kicking and screaming. It wouldn't be the first time.
Back at the office, he quickly dispatched orders, agents and paperwork to maximum efficiency before using the vast resources at the tips of his fingers to find Nightowl and what she was up to. The security cameras on the street where she had given him the slip did not help. She was there, then she wasn't, as if she had literally disappeared, like… she had become invisible. She could be a mutant or an enhanced human. He seemed to stumble on them more and more these days. Neat power to have for one of their spies. He could already picture her in a SHIELD uniform.
Phil cleared his throat, shaking off the daydream, then logged into Lonely Hearts. He couldn't believe he hadn't deleted the thing yet, but it was now his only link to Nightowl, so it was serving its purpose, in a way. Her profile indicated she was logged on, so he imagined she had gone straight to another library or coffee shop to continue her investigation.
AgentAgent: Well done. It's rare for anyone to give me the slip.
Nightowl: You're a stubborn one. What do you want? I'm not doing anything illegal.
AgentAgent: Debatable. You appear to be a British agent gone rogue on US soil. I could have you arrested on grounds of suspicious activity.
Phil bit his lip when she didn't answer immediately. Maybe he'd come on a bit too strong there. He didn't want to scare her so badly she ran off.
Nightowl: Don't you have better things to do with your time?
So he had merely pissed her off. Impressive. She wasn't your Average Joe for sure.
AgentAgent: Just doing my job.
He could picture her fuming from across his screen, holding herself back not to hit it with her keyboard as she tried, and failed, to get rid of him at every turn.
Nightowl: I don't have time for your games.
She logged off. Phil sat back in his chair then swiveled around when he heard familiar footsteps approaching his office, just in time to come under the scrutiny of one dark eye.
“You look… chipper, today. Stop it. It's annoying the shit out of me.”
“Good morning to you too, director. How may I help you?”
Fury never came himself to his office if it wasn't to ask for a favour. For anything else, Phil was summoned.
“He's suing us for copyright infringement. Make him stop.”
“Shame. Have you tried Miss Potts?”
“She agrees with Stark.”
“That's a first.”
Fury only grunted in agreement.
“Fine, fine. I'll…find a way,” Phil agreed, not that he really had the option not to. One did not simply say no to Fury unless one was suicidal. Or a genius billionaire with more lawyers than a dog had fleas. Unfortunately, Phil was neither, so he would have to be sneaky.
“You again? I have a policy against adopting strays, just so you know.”
Phil tried very hard not to roll his eyes at Stark as it would not serve his purpose. Being blunt on the other hand…
“You're suing SHIELD.’
“And rightly so. You have no business using my repulsor technology, you vultures. Reverse engineering is still stealing.”
“Fury is not happy.”
“Good. Is that why you're here? He sent you to parlay?”
“Yes, but I can see it's a pointless endeavour. However, since I'm here, I'd like to use Jarvis to track someone down.”
“Bird got away? Now that's interesting. I know for a fact you're like a dog with a bone when you're babysitting. Jarvis?”
“I will update the whereabouts of Nightowl on your phone whenever she logs in, Agent Coulson, if you don't mind my taking the liberty.”
“It's fine. Thank you, Jarvis.”
“So what's she like?”
Phil raised an inquisitive brow at him.
“What? I can't help but be curious to know what sort of woman catches the interest of someone like you. Call it morbid curiosity, if you will.”
“My interest is purely professional.”
“You met her on a dating site.”
“My point stands. But, if you must know, she's as mysterious as she is rude.”
“Mysterious, eh? What did she do? Use a paper clip instead of the government-issued staplers? You should arrest that monster!”
“No, but I suspect she can make herself invisible.”
Phil knew he had him, hook, line and sinker.
“Invisible… as in… invisible? See through or chameleon? Tangible? How fast is the transition?”
Phil shrugged. He really had no idea and he might even be wrong about her turning invisible.
“I need to meet her! I've been trying to make something like that work for ages .”
“Yes, well, I need you to stop suing SHIELD but that's never going to happen.”
“I'm sure we can come to a mutually beneficial understanding,” Phil said with a smile.
They did, after much arguing. Fury wouldn't be too happy about the terms but Phil was sure it would work out for the best in the end. His only problem now was to find Nightowl and get her to meet Stark at least once. With Jarvis's assistance, it shouldn't be too difficult. The new coordinates he had given him lead to a coffeehouse, as he suspected, so he headed straight for it. Unfortunately, she spotted him almost immediately when he looked through the window. She bolted for the back door. Phil made for the back alley directly instead of chasing after her, hoping to cut her off, but once more she had vanished.
He should have been more cautious as he approached, but he had imagined she would be just as engrossed by her screen as the last time. Rookie mistake. He would get her next time.
It was a couple of hours before he got an update from Jarvis, which was an excellent excuse to dump Fury who was in a fouler mood than usual after he'd explained the deal he'd struck with Stark. Honestly, the man was never satisfied.
Nightowl had been sneakier this time and “borrowed” a computer in an unused classroom of a highschool. Phil had to pull all the tricks in the book to be able to get close enough to her without her noticing and when she did, it was too late. He was too close and blocking the only exit.
Tension ran through Nightowl as clear as day, as well as hesitation. The way her right hand twitched as if she was going to reach for a gun… it was a possibility, so Phil reacted on instinct, twisting her arm behind her back as he pulled her against him.
“We meet again,” he said, keeping his voice level even as his prisoner tried to twist away.
“Let. Me. Go. I haven't done anything.”
“I've just caught you red-handed trespassing on state property. I'm taking you into custody.”
“You've got to be bloody kidding me! This is harassment, plain and simple!”
“We'll see about that.”
Phil was quite amused as he walked her out in handcuffs. He could almost feel her hatred burn him where he kept a grip on her arm. He had one of their cars pick them up and take them to a nondescript office space they owned. He wasn't about to take her to headquarters when he knew next to nothing about her. After patting her down for a gun, and finding none, he cuffed her to the table in the interrogation room and sat in front of her.
“This is a waste of time,” she muttered.
Phil smiled and waited while a clock ticked loudly behind him.
“Who are you anyway?”
He flashed his teeth. Finally .
“Glad you asked. I'm Agent Phil Coulson with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.”
Phil nodded, glad someone was not mocking the name for once.
“Sounds very official and all, even if it doesn't mean squat to me, but maybe that was the point? Why am I here, Agent Coulson?”
“Wouldn’t it be more polite for you to introduce yourself first?”
“I doubt that will give me answers, only more questions.”
“Alright. The alternative is sitting here in silence until one of us cracks, and I never do.”
Phil sat back in his chair, crossing his ankles, completely at ease. He only had to wait six minutes and thirty seven seconds during which he had a perfect opportunity to observe Nightowl in minute detail under the harsh neon light. She was rather small and underfed, not taking care to eat or sleep properly if he had to guess. Her clothes were sensible, a bit out of fashion, her cardigan hand-knitted with, he only now noticed, owl patterns in a neat row all around her neckline and cuffs. Nightowl indeed. Dark curly hair, dark brown eyes, very pale skin, pouty lips and a smattering of freckles across her nose. Nothing stood out, but the combined effect was quite appealing in his opinion. A subtle beauty, like the morning fog, and just as mysterious.
“You have to let me go,” she finally pleaded, her shoulders dropping from confrontation to defeat. “Please.”
“Why? What is going on with the Lonely Hearts?”
She stared at him, trying to read him he guessed, and she might have succeeded because she nodded to herself. Phil was suddenly very afraid he had just let a mind reader ransack his brain.
“A murderer. A serial killer, as you Americans would call him. British originally, but he migrated here a couple of weeks ago and I have to stop him.”
Phil blinked at her. How did she always manage to surprise him?
“His second victim was a friend. A very dear friend. I promised myself to make him pay.”
“How do you know he's in the States now?”
“You already have one of his victims, not that you would know what to look for, but I do because he's still using the same M.O. He lures his victims on the Lonely Hearts dating site using the profile from his previous victim. Or he did. He didn't think I would follow him here so he had to give up the last profile, but I know he will just steal another and continue. I'm looking for him. I know him. The way he communicates, hooks his targets… I'll find him.”
“And kill him?”
She had the audacity to shrug. It was clearly a yes, and a very nonchalant one at that. It wasn't even bravado. She had killed before.
“Who do you work for?”
“No one. I resigned.”
“So you're pursuing a serial killer on your own? Is this a hobby of yours?”
Her face froze and then, unexpectedly, she burst out laughing. It changed her whole face, suited her better than the grim expression she usually wore. Maybe she had been happy once upon a time.
“Yes, you could say that I suppose. Now will you let me go before he kills again? Because if he does while I'm locked up here, that blood is on your hands.”
Phil hummed in thought for a couple of seconds.
“No?” she repeated with outrage.
“I’ll offer you a deal that will benefit us both. You let me help you catch your killer and I'll even close my eyes if you're still set on disposing of him. Believe me, with the resources at my disposal you will have him at your mercy in no time.”
“And in exchange?” she sounded cautious but not as opposed to the idea as he had expected.
“Your name. And you simply must meet a friend of mine.”
The sound of stunned disbelief was like music to his ears. She agreed of course, but the name she gave was obviously a fake one.
“You expect me to call you Jane? Or Miss Doe?”
She shrugged, as if her name was of little consequence, but he rather thought it was the exact opposite and she was fiercely protective of her identity. Phil even tried to trip her up by having her sign a contract of their agreement but her signature was an illegible mess of loops. As he tried to decipher it, he could have sworn the documents flashed gold for just an instant but it might just have been the neon light playing tricks on the paper.
“Coffee,” he told her as he finally uncuffed her and put his cuffs back in his pocket.
“I'm in dire need of coffee and I'm positive you are too.”
She nodded cautiously, as if expecting a trap, but when he merely held the door open for her to leave the SHIELD office for the busy street of New York, she let her guard down. Perfect. He took her to the nearest Starbucks and ordered his usual while she seemed flustered by all the people and choice, so he told her her he would wait for her outside. Testing the waters, amongst other things. If she willingly came back, he wouldn't have to keep such a short leash on her. Metaphorically speaking of course. But, as most of his ploys, he has others reasons…
“Hermione,” he read off her cup when she returned, quite willingly, with her steaming cup in hand. “Pretty name, quite unusual.”
Hermione scowled at him.
“Is that why- Urgh! You're infuriating!” she said and stalked off.
“Hermione!” he called, enjoying the sound of her name as it rolled off his tongue over the hustle and bustle of the street. “It's this way actually!”
She stopped and turned around with flushed cheeks, walking back over to him.
“I’m starting to regret signing that contract. Go on then, show the way. The sooner we finish this, the sooner I'll be rid of you.”
Phil took her straight to Stark's place. That way, he sealed the deal he had made with the mad scientist and Jarvis could help her find her target. Two birds, one stone. Stark must have been on the lookout for him because he let them in himself.
“Found your bird?”
“Hermione, this is Mr Stark, the person I wanted you to meet. Stark, this is Hermione Nightowl.”
She scowled at him.
“I am not calling you Jane Doe,” Phil deadpanned.
It was morbid and didn't suit her at all.
“Wait,” Hermione said, turning back to look at Stark. “Stark? Tony Stark? The Ironman?”
“In the flesh, princess. So, is it true you turn invisible? Show me your tech. It is tech, right? You're not a half-chameleon mutant or something?”
“How do you even know about that?”
“Agent Agent told me. So?”
“People really call you that?” she asked Phil instead of showing Stark her invisibility trick.
“Only him. The Lonely Hearts was his idea of a prank birthday gift.”
“No prank. I finally found you a woman. You should be thanking me. No, worshipping me. Actually, I expect you two to name your firstborn after me.”
“What?” Hermione squawked.
Phil coughed to hide his unease.
“As I said, his idea of a practical joke. You get used to his special brand of humour after a while, or so I'm told.”
“Can we get back to this invisibility business?” Stark insisted, all but vibrating with impatience
“I can't-” Hermione winced, then doubled over in pain, her next words garbled beyond recognition, twisted out of her into a sound of deep rooted pain he knew only too well.
Without a second thought, Phil slipped his arms around her so she wouldn't fall to the floor, but she quickly recovered, batting him away as if he was an annoying mosquito. He insisted she sit anyway, the goosebump her unexpected cry of pain had caused only starting to recede. Surprisingly, Stark reappeared with a glass of fresh water that Hermione accepted with a thanks.
“You alright?” Phil asked with concern. She had seemed fine up till then. “Do you need anything?”
“No… thanks. It was just a side effect of the contract.”
Phil's eyebrows rose in surprise.
“The contract I made you sign? How can a piece of paper do that to you?”
“Contracts are magically binding for me. I knew I should have read the small prints, but I'm seriously running out of time because of you.”
“Whoa, pact with the devil much? SHIELD is really turning evil, isn't it?” Stark cackled.
“It's nothing to do with us,” Phil snapped back, because there was a place and time for poor humour and now wasn't it. But Phil might have missed a memo about hypnotic or soul-binding contracts, or something of the sort. There were so many memos, but there was a slight possibility.
“Right?” he asked Hermione, just to be on the safe side.
“I didn't just have to meet this friend of yours, did I?”
“No. He wants to study how you turn invisible. I saw it on the security footage when you escaped from the library.”
“Alright, since I don't have a choice.”
Hermione took out a length of polished wood that should not have been able to fit in the pocket of her cardigan, not to mention he'd patted her down in that exact area and not felt it. She tapped the tip of it on her own head then vanished from the head down. It took a few seconds, but with everyone focused on the distraction in the street the other day, no one had noticed, and the crowd had hidden the rest of her from the scrutiny of the cameras.
Stark went berserk over the feat, taking readings of all sort and poking her here and there, making her laugh. Ticklish, he added to his ever growing file on Nightowl. Those two were soon getting along like a house on fire, chatting and laughing, much to his chagrin. He wasn't as insufferable as Stark at his best, so he wondered what it was about him that rubbed Hermione the wrong way.
“You’re friends with Tony Stark?” she asked him when Stark had finally released her to go play in his lab with his new data.
Phil made a mental note that Stark might be invisible the next time they met. Life was about to get much more difficult for him. It had been hard enough keeping and eye on the man before, and next to impossible to keep him out of SHIELD's restricted areas, but he only had himself to blame for that he supposed. With any luck, Stark's technology and Hermione's… he wanted to say magic all the while feeling ridiculous for thinking so, but there were mutants and they hadn't yet been able to prove fairies didn't exist… but with any hope, those two wouldn't mix well.
“I would have come if you'd only told me that's who you wanted me to meet. No need for all this cloak and dagger business.”
“I had no idea you were one of his groupies,” Phil replied stiffly.
“I wouldn't say groupie, but the man is a bloody genius. It's incredible what he can do. The arc reactor alone is leagues beyond any other-”
She babbled on for a few minutes about Stark's brains, so at least her interest was purely academical.
“I'll introduce you to another piece of his brilliance then. Jarvis?”
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Nightowl.”
Hermione looked up at the ceiling and then checked her surroundings, before looking back at him with a puzzled expression..
“Jarvis is Mr Stark's A.I. He doesn't have a corporeal form.”
“Oh. He's like a talking computer?”
“A bit more than that. Jarvis has been the one who helped me track you down. He can do the same for the person you're after.”
“It will be my pleasure, Miss Nightowl. And may I extend my deepest apologies from Mr Stark.”
Phil rolled his eyes, knowing what was to come. He'd thought Jarvis would have more sense than that, but he supposed it had been a direct order from his creator.
“For helping Mr Coulson find his soulmate,” Jarvis deadpanned. “My apologies, sir.”
“We’re not- Why would he- You know what? Never mind.”
Hermione then gave Jarvis all of her information on the person she was after: his preferred profiles to hide behind, those he contacted, his writing pattern, common misspellings, when he logged on and when he usually set up his murder-dates. It was frighteningly detailed. She was a formidable intelligence gatherer. Phil wanted her. On his team, that is. He wanted her on his team. Under him. Under his orders. Damnit. What was wrong with him? He blamed Stark for putting ideas in his head.
“There are currently four profiles logged on and matching your specifications,” Jarvis stated and four faces appeared on the large screen in front of them.
“That's him!” Hermione exclaimed, pointing an accusing finger at a man who looked the very image of innocence with his curly blond hair and baby blue eyes.
Phil didn't need to ask if she was sure. One glance at the hatred burning in her eyes was enough to confirm.
“Where is he?” Hermione demanded, but a second after, his image cut off.
“He was in a building complex in East Village, but if I may, his last exchange convened of a meeting with another user tonight.”
“He's going to do it. Tonight.”
Jarvis gave them the information and they had a couple of hours to kill, no pun intended, before the murder-date.
“How are you going to go about it?” Phil asked her once they were back in the drab hotel she was staying at in Hell's Kitchen. She had been so wrapped up in her anger she hadn't even protested him following her.
“I wanted to hurt him at first,” she said as she buried herself gathering her belongings. “Make him feel the pain he caused a hundredfold, make him beg for mercy, make him feel sorry for ever being born… I could. I know how. I could do it.”
“But,” Phil prompted.
“She wouldn't have wanted that for me. She was a beautiful soul, Luna. Too good for this world. I-”
Her voice broke and a tear rolled down her cheek. Oh god, she was going to cry. Phil looked around the dismal room for a handkerchief, grateful when he spotted a tissue box on the nightstand, just in time to hand it to her when she began to sniffle. He had never been good with crying women, or even men. There was no training to deal with such situations and he usually managed to avoid them, but here, it was only him and Hermione.
“I'm the one who… who signed her up. On Lonely Hearts. She- It's my fault she died.”
Oh. He understood why she was devoting her life to this mission now, why she wasn't even taking care of herself, why she did everything with such single-minded focus. It wasn't good, of course. Not healthy for either body or mind, and cracks were finally starting to appear.
Hermione just stood there shaking and sniffling while tears rolled down her face. It took him no amount of courage to squeeze her shoulder in silent support of what she was going through, when he suddenly had an armful of her. Phil tentatively closed his arms around her while she wept against his chest. His suit was going to be a mess, but he didn't mind, not if it helped. She did not push him away this time either, so Phil adjusted his awkward embrace into a more comforting hug.
“It's not your fault,” he told her in a soothing voice. “You couldn't have known. Your friend, Luna, she would tell you the same, I'm sure.”
Phil didn't rush her. They had time before they needed to head out to stop a serial killer. He wondered if she had ever let herself cry before, or if she had gone straight into revenge overdrive and never looked back. Even so, fifteen minutes later, she shifted in his arms before stepping back to look up at him with reddened eyes and nose and splotchy by cheeks. In any other circumstances, he would have laughed at the sight. When she looked at the lapels of his suit she was still clinging to, her expression shifted from sheepish to horrified.
Phil looked down at himself. It looked as bad as the snotty handkerchief crumpled in her fist.
“It's quite alright.”
“No, it's not,” she chuckled, the sound more sad than amused. “Why are you always so… proper? It's damn annoying, even for me.”
Before Phil could reply, she let her hands wander down his messy shirt and suit. It might have provoked another reaction entirely if he hadn't been so stunned at seeing his clothes return to their pristine condition. Not just powers of invisibility… Maybe she had a whole array of powers. A fairy, then? Bit tall for a fairy, but what did he know?
“ Are you a fairy?” he asked, not realising he'd asked out loud before the words had tumbled out of his mouth.
“A fairy?” she repeated, then laughed.
Well, at least she wasn't crying anymore. Lesson learned.
“No, no. Not a fairy.” She beckoned him closer and he leaned over like a moth to a flame until he was close enough that she could whisper in his ear. “I'm a witch.”
The words sent tingles down his spine. She stepped back, looking at him with a smug expression, then began packing her room more earnestly, things flying all around the place at the beck and call of her wooden wand, before they disappeared into a tiny beaded bag that she slung over her shoulder. A witch! That certainly explained why he found himself so bewitched by her.
“Let's go kill that sack of dragon dung.”
That is how Phil found himself in a restaurant having a date with no one, because Hermione was invisible so as not to attract their target's attention, and he looked like an utter moron talking to the empty chair in front of him.
“His date is at your six,” Phil muttered under his breath.
The woman he had spotted looked somewhat like her profile picture, if you squinted, and she kept glancing between her watch and the door, while the other potential victim had just been joined by a man who looked nothing like the killer.
“That's… not really his type,” Hermione whispered after a beat, the conversations around them drowning the fact there was no one visible to whisper in the first place. “Are you sure?”
“People lie all the time on these dating sites. She probably used an old picture of herself.”
“From a decade ago?”
“People do stupid things for love.”
An invisible hand on his own made him flinch in surprise. He wasn't used to people touching him and he usually had time to see it coming.
“He's here, looking in through the window,” she said.
Phil glanced up as casually as possible, catching a glimpse of blond curls.
“I see him. Wait… he's leaving.”
“Wanker,” she muttered and tugged his hand, urging him to follow her.
They were moving fast out of the restaurant, ignoring their waitress’ protest, and out into the street where they easily caught up to their target. He stopped suddenly, in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing people to move around him like a river around a rock. Phil wasn't sure what was going on, but his gun was at the ready if need be. Only in case of an emergency, mind, because he knew Hermione needed to deal with this on her own. He was only her back-up, her support, and he almost laughed at the fact he had already become her handler when he hadn't yet managed to put her in a SHIELD uniform.
She had won, in the end. She had him wrapped around her little finger without much effort on her part, or protests on his.
When their target moved again, his movements were choppy and unnatural. He left the busy streets for a deserted alleyway where he turned around to face them but didn't say a word. It was very strange. Hermione reappeared next to him and still, the man didn't react.
“What's wrong with him?” Phil asked.
“I'm controlling him, his mind, but he's fighting me. I want him to be aware of the next part anyway,” she said and pointed her magic wand at him. “Expelliarmus.” Another wand flew from his jacket into Hermione’s outstretched hand. “Petrificus corpus. Hello Justin.”
The man's face morphed from utter apathy to rage in an instant, but he didn't move a finger against them. Phil had a sneaking suspicion he couldn't. All the things Hermione could do were amazing and quite frankly, terrifying.
“You can't do this to me, Granger. Let me go. Let me go or everyone will know you killed me.”
“Whyever do you think anyone will learn of your passing? There won't be anything left of you to find and everyone will forget you ever existed.”
“Avada kedavra,” Hermione snarled and a green light shot out from her wand, enveloping the target who crumpled on the ground as if his strings had suddenly been cut. It was a lacklustre death, to say the least. Then, Hermione transformed him into a pebble that she easily picked up.
“All I need now is a volcano,” she muttered as she put it in her pocket
Phil wanted to pinch himself. Everything about this was beyond weird, and his brain was taking longer than usual accepting the facts.
“We have to leave. People will come investigating the dark magic soon,” she announced and put her arms around his waist before the world tried to squeeze him to death.
It didn't last long, thank God, and he was now on the other side of New York, looking at the calm waters of Brighton Beach under the moon. So… teleportation too.
“Is there anything you can't do?” he asked her.
“Well, I can't surprise you, for one.”
Oh, how very wrong she was. He just had exceptional control of his facial muscles.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
She had just killed someone. It was only polite to ask. Hermione nodded and disentangled her arms from him before looking over the vast ocean before them.
“It's done. I can start… living again. I know I'm going to sound like a terrible person, but I'm relieved.”
“You would make a good agent.”
“Are you trying to recruit me Agent Agent?”
She sounded playful now, even if her smile was a bit forced. He would love to recruit her. That had been his aim all along, but now… he wasn't so sure. He had no idea how Fury would deal with a witch, even more so because it appeared there were others, and now he knew he was fucked because Fury and SHIELD had always been his top priority and here he was letting this woman bewitch him so completely.
“Did you use magic on me?”
He had to ask. If he was compromised, he had to know. He only hoped he would be able to tell if she lied. Hermione looked puzzled. If she was acting, she was good, better than Romanov herself.
“Oh! You mean the apparition?”
“Teleportation? Yes, but apart from that. To my mind, like you did to the target.”
“No! I would never- I know it's hard to believe, with what you've seen, but I'm a good witch.”
“I believe you.”
“You do? Just like that?”
“Just like that,” he said with a smile.
He'd figure this out. All in good time. He looked down at her when he felt her hand touch his cheek, wondering what she was up to now. On her toes, she stretched to kiss him on the cheek.
“Thank you, Phil. No one has believed in me in a very long time.”
“That's the first time you've called me by my name.”
“You've earned it. But I'm curious. Why would you think I messed with your mind?”
Ah. He had no ready answer for that. And the answers he had, well… he looked away. It was dark. There was no way she would see he was flustered. Phil Coulson did not do flustered.
She'd made a spell out of his name. And this time, when he looked at her with a poorly crafted excuse at the tip of his tongue, he felt her lips on his, the lightest of touches before she backed off.
“Sorry,” she said. “I thought-”
Phil stopped her retreat, stopped her from apologizing when there was no reason to, because she had thought correctly and he couldn't let her think otherwise. He couldn't let this chance at happiness escape him without a good reason, and he had no good reason. So he closed the distance between them, pulled her closer until she was flush against him and he could swear he felt her heartbeat against him, racing against his own. Her face felt so warm, he would bet his card collection she was bright red and all because of him. Dipping his head, he captured her lips. Pouty, he'd called them when he observed her in the interrogation room, but they were enthusiastically kissing him back now and that was a heady feeling he hadn't experienced in a very long time.
As romantic as a first kiss on the beach under the full moon was, Phil realized he had to break it off, just for now.
“What's wrong?” Hermione asked, sounding just breathless enough to make him feel smug.
“As much as I would love to take this further, my dear little witch, you do have a dead body in your pocket. You mentioned needing a volcano?”