Summary: Phil Coulson is a detective hard at work tracking down Clint Barton, a troubled young man on a killing spree. This is their story.
A/N:I blame Dahmer and Dizmo for this verse, one for inspiring it (partly) and one for encouraging it (always). I'd like to make note that I never considered Clint to be a sociopath or a psychopath in this verse, he is not mentally ill and he is fully cognizant of the consequences of his actions. He is however traumatized. Warnings for trauma, death, murder, and past abuse.
Cross-posted from AO3, written originally all on Tumblr.
Blood drips off of his knuckles and onto the carpet, it's smudged on the pristine white handset of the phone, it'll leave finger prints and he doesn't care. He wants them to know it was him, wants him to know. It's why he calls the number he knows better than his own name.
"Coulson." The voice on the other side sounds tired. Good, good, tired means he's working, tired means he's following his little trail of bloody bread crumbs. Tired is good… for now. Next week, maybe, he'll stop, take a break. Let the trail go cold…
"Hey." He breathes the greeting into the phone and ignores the sudden flurry of activity in the background. They're going to trace the call, they're getting others to listen in, it's not like he cares. He's got Coulson's attention, nothing else matters.
He used to feel this way about his teacher, about Natasha, used to love the way she would breathe in his air when he plunged a knife into a body, the way she would get excited when he was covered in blood and how she would pin him against a wall for a quick, dirty fuck. It was different but he wanted that attention, wanted it so bad. He can remember the day she died, still so pretty, but so very cold, riddled with gunshot wounds from police weaponry, jerking and spasming before she went still.
"Barton." Sounds so good to hear his name from those lips, so good. He licks his lips, tastes blood, salt and copper, the air is heavy with it, so heavy it's almost raining blood. "Where are you?"
"You'll trace the call soon enough." He's not going to close the line, he'll leave it open, let Coulson talk to the bodies in the room. "Find me, Coulson, I'm waiting."
Coulson talks to empty air and the spirits that linger in the room as Clint slips out the window and leaves bloody handprints down the fire escape.
He's been on the Barton case for 5 years now. It seems longer, it seems like a lifetime, it has been several lifetimes. The Barton case used to be the Black Widow case; it is a remnant of that whole affair. They hadn't known about Barton when they shot Widow, hadn't realized she'd been holding him hostage up in her room; her MO was rich guys, sex, their death, and their bank accounts. They hadn't found Barton until they started turning Widow's apartment over. He was a little younger than her usual targets and poor to boot, he was dirty with blood smeared in his hair and over one cheek. Testing it proved that it was from the latest victim.
No one had thought Barton was an accomplice, they'd just figured the Widow had gone a little crazy at the end there, Barton had been locked in even, the window (that looked out on the firefight that had happened below) nailed shut. He'd been quiet too, hadn't talked to any of them until they'd brought in a shrink. Traumatized, the shrink said. They'd done what they could for him…
But he turned himself loose. One day Barton walked out of a room and then out of the city. Coulson didn't even know about it, he hadn't bothered to keep track, he wasn't the kind of guy who dealt with victims. It wasn't until a year later that Barton had turned up again. A nasty homicide had gotten Coulson and his partner dragged halfway across the city. He was still getting used to Rogers but unless he wanted to get promoted like Fury he was going to need to get used to new partners now and then. The apartment had been a bloody mess, it had almost seemed like too much blood for one body. It wasn't a simple smash and grab either, there were no signs of forced entry and no objects obviously missing.
If it hadn't been for Barton standing in the hallway just outside the yellow police tape, Coulson might never have known he was there. It took Coulson a second to place the face of the worried man with two arms full of groceries with the traumatized man they had rescued from the Widow's grasp. He'd helped Barton into his apartment, reassured the shaking man that the Black Widow was dead and wouldn't bother him again, slipped Barton his card in case the man remembered anything and left. There had been bloody handprints on the fire escape. He'd thought it was sloppy of the killer at the time.
Until they ran the prints and found Barton.
His kills were always men, always when they were alone, and always bloody. Clint liked it that way. He could remember a time, before Natasha, when his kills were all done from a distance. The army wasn't so far back for him, although it seemed another lifetime. Some days he wonders what brought Natasha to his doorstep when he had thought he had nothing left to live for, she had showed him there was so much more than he had thought.
The man screamed into his gag. He was around forty, a little chubby with thinning hair but his body showed he attempted to keep in shape. The gag was a dishtowel knotted and shoved into his mouth. Sometimes, Clint let them scream, but only when he knew he could. Sometimes he liked to get a little noisy with his work. Most of the time just the blood was enough.
"Your son…" He finished off the top curve of the B on the man's chest. "He's got these big bruises over his chest. I saw them." He wasn't a pervert to go peeking at a kid but when he picked a target he observed them. The bruises were large, black and blue fading to yellow and green, the mom had a split lip and finger shaped bruises on her arms. "Those were your handy mark." He picks up the knife and starts in on the rest of the B. "And this is mine."
The man screams again, screams and scream and… suddenly stops. Clint frowns at the wide open eyes and the lack of air. He checks for a heartbeat and frowns harder when he finds none.
It had probably been a heart attack, which certainly ruined his fun. He hadn't seen any medication… he always took it slower with those with a risk of heart attacks. "Damn."
Clint stood up and turned on the bathroom sink. The man was inelegantly curled up in the bathroom and now that he was dead there was no reason to rearrange the body, no reason to spill more blood on the floor than was already there. Clint glanced at his hands.
Not enough blood even for his standard handprints. He left a few messy splotches on the bathroom sink before cleaning his hands and splashing his face.
His fun might have been cut off early but that didn't mean he didn't have time for a nice long phone call…
"Phil." Rogers raps his WASP knuckles on Coulson's desk, startling him out of an uncomfortable doze. It was amazing the kind of ways one could fall asleep in, Coulson had once seen a man fall asleep standing up and stay standing. Coulson wasn't the kind of guy to sleep on the job, but a case like the Barton murders had him running low on energy and suffering from a growing immunity to the power of caffeine. Falling asleep with one hand under his chin and his elbow wedged against his desk had been inevitable. "You need to grab a few Zs, go to the break room."
No one would think less of Phil if he grabbed 40 winks in the break room, everyone on the Barton case had rotated in and out and off and on the awful couch that resided against the break room's wall. Coulson didn't want to leave his desk, he didn't want to leave his files but he especially didn't want to leave his phone. The phone calls had been a part of Barton's murder sprees for three years now. Coulson was never sure why Barton had chosen to look up then, he didn't know if it was because he wanted to get internal affairs on Coulson's case and almost get him suspended or if he had just wanted to gloat to someone he knew would listen. Whatever it was, Barton had given him a call on his first murder 'spree'. Three bodies dead and a phone call to Coulson after each one, the next time, six bodies dead and a phone call to Coulson after each one, this time… this time he didn't know. 12 bodies? 9? What was the pattern? He knew the victim type; male, living alone, with a history of abusing others. He knew Barton's method, he liked to cut and bleed and torture, sometimes he changed things up but he always went in close for the kill. But the pattern… he didn't know that.
He did know that Barton was just getting started.
"We all know that." Rogers was a good guy, he had been a scrawny kid who had really bloomed once he hit college and really filled out when he joined the force, he pressed one of those All American hands to Coulson's arm and pushed him a bit. Normally Coulson could have taken Rogers, brawn or not, but today he was not up to it. "C'mon, Phil, let's get you-"
Then Phil's phone rang.
The precinct hushed and everyone's attention was glued to Coulson's phone as that one ring ended, when another began they leapt to action. Recording equipment, tracing equipment, everyone wanting an ear on the conversation, Coulson waited till the third ring, his heart thudding loudly in his chest and his partner's hand doing nothing to slow the flood of adrenaline in his veins before he leaned forward and picked the receiver up.
"Do you get any calls that aren't me?" Barton always manages to sound cheerful over the phone, Phil wonders if it's acting or if he really is. "I like hogging your attention."
"You have my attention, Barton," and half of the country's, "if you want more of it we could talk in person." He'd attended seven seminars on how to talk to a perp and two psychological talks about serial killers, he still wasn't sure if anything he did with Barton was right. Last year they'd brought in an FBI agent to coach him, Barton hadn't liked that.
"I like our phone conversations." Barton sighed. "Coulson, life's really not fair."
It surprised a laugh out of Coulson who was running on too little sleep, too much coffee, and that fluttery feeling in his chest and stomach he got whenever they caught a break. "You're telling me that? I thought you should discuss that with your victims. The ones you kill."
"I didn't kill this one." Was that… was Barton whining? Yes he was. "He died on his own, heart attack… I don't know if I should count him."
If he should… Phil licked his lips. "You made him have the attack, I think it counts, Barton."
"Maybe for half a kill," Barton had set the phone down and turned it on speaker; he was heading for the window again, damn, could he tell how close they were with the trace? Did he time these things? "Or maybe for a whole. I want you to call me Clint, Coulson."
There's an expectant pause, everyone in the room is looking at Coulson, he feels sweat drip down his neck. "…why don't you come in and we'll talk about it."
The chuckle is faint, Barton's too far away. "It's always fun talking to you, detective. Catch me if you can."
He’s hot under the collar and he can admit it, lust is a vice that Clint suffers from almost as much as wrath. For Natasha the two sins mixed, Widow had always seduced her kill. She didn't celebrate the sex (most were lousy lays) but she loved the seduction. Clint’s always loved seduction, but not that way, he can’t view his victims in a sexual light, which meant when felt that itching under the skin that had everything to do with vice and nothing to do with violence he had to find another outlet. The club was hopping, loud, full of bright lights and glittering half-naked bodies. Not his stalking ground and despite the rich and famous bumping uglies with the moderately wealthy but drop dead gorgeous, not Widow's either.
Clint stood at the bar only long enough to be handed a shot of something strong and stinging before he turned to the dance floor. It took a second to down the shot; it took longer to move between the press of grinding bodies and find a good spot. He was not a successful dancer, the fluidity and freeness of expression good dancers had escaped him. He could, however, move his body to the beat. Clint closed his eyes and let the colors of the light show flash over him. He didn’t lose himself to the music but he relaxed into it, relaxed into a role that he hadn’t played in a while, just a faceless man on a dance floor hoping for a night of no strings attached sex.
A body molded to his front, matched his rhythm. Young, female, small firm breasts, light perfume. Clint opened his eyes when he rested his hands on her hips. Slightly older than he’d thought but in good shape with short black hair cut to flatter her face and vibrant dark eyes. Her lips parted, an invitation, and Clint took it willingly enough. She isn’t interested in his name, just his body, and he’s okay with that because that’s all he wants out of her as well.
“My husband.” She breathed into his ear and nodded over his shoulder; Clint followed the line of sight and saw a man with a drink who watched them with hungry eyes. “He likes to watch, is that a problem?”
Clint smiled at her and turned so that the husband had a better view before he kissed her again. “I don’t mind at all.”
The coffee burns his tongue and his throat when he swallows, the pancakes taste delicious, hot and fluffy and just right. He’s liberal in his use of syrup although he is careful when he eats them, the time of ties stained with syrup or soup is long behind him, he has mastered the trick of it now. Sunlight tints the diner a warm yellow and gets into Coulson’s eyes which forces him to squint before he takes another swig of coffee. It’s late enough that the diner is empty of early risers but early enough that they’re still serving breakfast. There’s a small crowd in there, the diner is half full, but Coulson has the booth to himself. Paula, a waitress who has worked at the diner since before Coulson started going there, refills his coffee cup on her next pass.
Coulson has finished off his pancakes and is halfway through his second cup of coffee when the bell above the door rings and Rogers steps through the door.
From what Coulson knows, Steve used to be a small kid, sickly, twiggy, the kind of kid who got bullied for his lunch money and stayed home half the school year with pneumonia. Sometime in college Steve met Peggy, a fitness instructor, and after a lot of protein shakes and a membership bought at Peggy’s gym he’d started to bulk up. Steve was tall too, he almost has to duck when he enters the diner. The muscles and height and good looks (which Steve is woefully unaware of) don’t make him any less sweet, though, and he smiles and nods at the men and women behind the counter and nods and smiles at all of the diner patrons who know his face. The smile is strained, however, and the greetings rushed. Coulson finishes off his coffee and fishes out his wallet, he tucks a tip under the napkin dispenser and stands to meet his partner.
“There’s been a break,” Steve says, almost breathless. Coulson pays his bill and practically runs to the patrol car, then he and Steve head back to the station while Steve fills him in on the scant details he has. The woman had just come in, someone had routed her to their unit immediately once she had flashed the picture she had of Barton. It was taken last night at some club, Barton and the woman had danced and had then gone back to her place for sex. Steve spent several minutes stumbling over describing the sex, that the woman had wanted Barton to have sex with her while her husband watched, that she had been rough with Barton, that the husband had watched but not touched until Barton had offered to help him out.
Coulson didn’t so much grunt as acknowledge the information without bothering to verbalize… he’d known Barton had inclinations. There had been a few calls, now and then, from men who said that they’d slept with Barton but verifying those claims was next to impossible. You would think that with the news coverage of the serial killings that people would realize that the man they were about to sleep with had his face on the evening news instead of realizing the man they had slept with had his face on the morning news. Barton’s sexual exploits had never been connected to his killings, though. It wasn’t the way he worked.
“Why does she think the husband’s in danger?” he asked as they power walked through the station. Steve strode beside Coulson, noticeably trying to slow himself down so that Coulson wasn’t left behind.
“They’re separated.” The disapproval is impossible to miss, Steve has never been good with unconventional relationships. “Because the husband used to hit her.” Or maybe the disapproval was because the wife hadn’t divorced the man yet.
“And Barton found out.” An abuser, which was Barton’s victim type, but nothing else fit. This time… this time the kill was going to be different.
And this time they might be able to stop it.
Coulson spotted the woman by his desk surrounded by police officers, it was not until he got closer that he recognized her. “Mrs. Pym.” Janet Pym managed to summon up a smile from somewhere. She was a gorgeous woman and always had been, even when she had a black eye swelling one eye shut and was clinging tightly to the arm of a young beat cop.
“We have to stop meeting like this.” Janet pushed a few of the officers out of the way and stood up to give Phil a firm, professional handshake but her palms were slightly sweaty and the expression on her face broadcasted her worry. “I’m afraid I need your help again.”
It seemed like ages ago since he was called in on the Pyms' domestic dispute, it had certainly been years. “Tell us what you know.” Phil didn’t waste any time instead getting right down to business. Some people might have thought it cold but Janet smiled at him, thankful.
“He seemed nice enough. I thought I recognized him…” Janet sat back down and smoothed out her skirt. “I thought Hank and I might have brought him back before but he didn’t recognize us, obviously, so I figured it must have been déjà vu. Hank and I don’t sleep together, not anymore.” She lifted her chin into the air, challenging, Coulson nodded and continued to take down notes on what she was saying. “But we like to take home other people. Hank watches, that’s all he ever does, most people aren’t comfortable with more but C… the… what should I even call him?”
“What did you call him last night?” Coulson asks, she’s already given an interview, he has the report, but he asks anyway.
“Clint.” Janet’s eyes are large and dark, a beautiful shade of brown, and she casts them downwards, she’s rumpling the line of her skirt with her hands and she forces herself to stop when she notices. “He told us his name was Clint. We didn’t ask about his last name… he was…” She swallows and looks up at him.
Coulson nods. He doesn’t need to be told about what kinds of things Clint, Janet and Hank did the night before.
“He was nice.” Janet finishes off. “He made it clear that Hank could join in if he wanted, but Hank and I have agreed not to do that. This morning he asked why… and I told him. The look in his eyes…” She shudders. “I was more scared then than I had ever been with Hank. He left. I don’t know if Hank’s in danger but if he is… Hank had already left; he has classes first thing at the college. I couldn’t reach him on his phone, what if he’s already-”
“Your husband is fine, Mrs. Pym.” Steve breaks in before Janet could get too hysterical. “Detective Morse just got off the phone with him. We’re sending a car down to pick him up. It’ll be alright.”
Janet’s shoulders slumped. “I just don’t know what to do…”
Coulson, however, was getting an idea.
Clint rested his head against the window ledge. He knew better than this, knew he should take it slow, take a breath, knew he should leave town altogether. He’d seen this happen to the Widow close to the end, saw her lose ground, saw her get too close, saw her lose control.
‘I promised.’ Hands dripping with blood stroked through his hair, impromptu sickening hair gel. ‘I promised no one would hurt you but me.’ Warm lips pressed to his forehead.
He couldn’t believe himself. How could he have been so stupid? He’d touched… Pym had touched him and Pym was just like the men he put down, men who had hurt others. Like Pym had hurt Janet.
He lifted his head to glance out the window. When had it gotten dark? He was losing time and he knew it, he hadn’t felt this shaken up since Natasha’s death, since he’d watched the shootout in the streets and saw her body crumple. She’d been his touchstone and then she’d been gone.
A soft touch on bruised skin, Clint had flinched away from the touch, from the light.
He wasn’t crazy. He’d thought about it after meeting with the therapist, after Natasha. Much later he’d thought about it again. He knew what he was doing was wrong, he didn’t hear voices, he didn’t see things that weren’t there. But these men… they had to be stopped. They’d hurt people, they’d made people like Clint was, they’d warped the world around them in their own image and it had to stop.
Pym was one more abuser in a world full of abuse but he was different.
Clint couldn’t waste time making Pym suffer. He needed to kill Pym so he could… focus.
He couldn’t focus when he was hurt, he’d never been able to.
Lights turn on in Pym’s apartment. Clint imagined Pym’s path as windows turn yellow and then fade to dark. Entryway first, a dim yellow-brown that barely filters through the shades of the first window. Then a brighter light at the next window, a study or the living room. Clint sees Pym silhouetted by the light before it’s turned off. The light turns on in the bedroom briefly before that too goes dark. Clint let out a deep breath, he stood and pulled up the hood of his jacket and moved. He’d lifted the keys to the building off of another tenant earlier and he’d kept an eye on the apartment since. He could have waited inside of it but he didn’t want to spend any time surrounded by Pym’s things. By Pym.
The sound of his footsteps ricocheted around the stairwell echoing the beat of his heart.
“Who is it?” Pym asked. Clint pasted on his best smile (don’t get your Sunday best dirty) and tipped the hood back so Pym would be able to see him through the peephole.
“Hi, it’s me, from last night?” Clint made sure to keep his smile harmless. “I just want to talk.”
He hears the click of a deadbolt and then the door is pulled open; Pym is not visible on the other side. “Come on in. Do you want anything to drink?”
Clint steps into the apartment and slips his hand behind him to touch the handle of his gun. Why was it so dark?
The door closed, the lights were turned on.
“I never thought you’d use live bait, Detective.”
He had known going after Pym was a bad idea, no wonder it had tasted like Natasha’s last job. Slowly Clint sank to his knees and put his hands behind his head. He let the officers push him around, handcuff him, search him, he listened while they read him his rights.
And incrementally, he relaxed.
For the first time in what felt like years Coulson went home.
He woke up and ate while sunlight was just beginning to inch through his windows.
He dressed in sweats and went for a jog.
He showered, shaved, and went to work.
Life took a turn for the boring, for what many people no doubt considered normal. There was still work to be done about Barton but most of it was out of his hands. His reports are filed, his evidence is signed off on, there’s more than enough to put Barton away for consecutive life sentences.
He is strangely relieved that there is no death penalty in New York.
He attends the arraignment and the trial. Clint pleads guilty.
Coulson goes home, he gets a full night’s sleep, he wakes up and goes for a jog.
He catches murderers. Husbands killing wives, wives killing husbands, sons, sisters, mothers, lovers, strangers. He shakes his head at Fury’s offers, he ignores the look in Rogers’ eyes.
He fills out the Times’ crossword in his free time.
He starts doing Sudoku.
A year after the initial arrest he goes to visit Barton.
“I made you a card.” Clint says, relaxed despite the bruise on his jaw and his slightly swollen eye. “But they wouldn’t let me send it. Happy anniversary, Coulson.”