In his time at S.H.I.E.L.D., and specifically attached to the Avenger Initiative even more so, Phil Coulson had seen rather more than his fair share of strange things. In fact, he was almost legendary around headquarters for being able to take that strangeness and handle it efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Barton had joked on more than one occasion that he had probably had his sense of surprise surgically removed. But waking up one morning (well before dawn, as usual, and only a few hours after he'd actually gotten home and slept) only to determine that the darkness surrounding him was not in fact the early morning darkness of his apartment and could better be described as the oppressive encroaching blackness of a near-featureless void, and sitting up to find himself face-to-face with what appeared to be himself... well, that was something that came as near as anything ever had of shattering his normal unflappability.
"Ah, and now, we have reached the point in which this gets fun," came a voice from behind him. A voice that he knew even before he pushed himself standing and turned.
"Loki. I should have guessed." Coulson found himself wishing for his sidearm, not that it would do any good, but any asset aside from the old t-shirt and boxers he routinely slept in would have been a good thing to have. "What are you doing?"
The god smiled an almost serpentine smile. "Why, I should have thought that would be obvious."
"I've found it rather necessary of late to watch the merry band of miscreants my brother has gotten himself entwined with on Midgard. And you, of all people, have caught my attention. It really is an honor. What can I say, I have a fondness for those who manage to pull strings unnoticed to make the world move the way they want. Man after my own heart, I must say." He chuckled. "You amuse me, so I've decided it would be worth it to keep you around. Like a parakeet."
Phil crossed his arms, looking levelly at Loki. "I'm flattered," he said, forcing the words as dry as he could make them.
"You should be. But of course, I have no desire to deprive Thor and his new friends of their keeper, who is, after all, much more important to their little plans to stop me than they even have any idea of. Therefore..." Loki waved a hand languidly back at the doppelganger that was now behind Coulson. The agent glanced back over his shoulder to see his own face, with a bland smile that was nevertheless subtly infused with no small amount of satisfaction. It was an expression he knew, because he wore it often enough. "They'll still have you. Inextricably involved on so many helpful levels."
Focusing on his breathing, keeping himself collected, he glanced back at Loki. "They'll notice."
The look of surprise that was painted on the trickster's face would have been comical under nearly any other circumstance. "They notice you? Interesting." The god waved a hand, and a narrow rectangular portal opened up. He nodded to Phil's double, who walked through.
In a last-ditch effort, Coulson darted after him, only to run up hard against the portal, which had become as smooth as glass. He staggered back a bit and looked through, seeing his duplicate looking back at him through what, if his surroundings were any indication, had to have been his hallway mirror.
"Oh, don't worry," Loki said from behind him. "I wouldn't dare deprive you of the opportunity to watch how your life is going." He chuckled, and it was a low and dangerous sound. "Who knows? It may end up an improvement. Let's see if they do notice the difference."
Phil's expression didn't change. But he knew that his sense of growing foreboding was deserved.
Clint had had a great morning at the range. Of course, he had to admit that all of his mornings at the range were great ones. Still, staying in practice was pretty critical to keeping it that way, and to making sure his equipment was all still working well. Therefore, target practice. Thankfully, his eyesight, equipment, and skill were all still in good working order.
He'd put everything back and was heading through the hallways at headquarters when Coulson's voice emerged from an open door leading to one of the interrogation rooms. "Barton, just who I needed to see. Can I talk to you for a second?"
Walking into the room, he glanced around and grinned, leaning on the door frame. "I'll never confess, I know my rights."
Coulson glanced up from where he was sitting with an open file folder and huffed out an almost amused breath. One of these days, he would make the guy laugh. He would consider it a badge of achievement. Maybe petition to get it added to his file as a commendation. "If I were actually interrogating you, we'd see about that."
"So why the decor? Decided you needed an office where everyone could watch you work from the next room? Given your relationship with paperwork, that seems almost weirdly voyeuristic, Coulson."
The senior agent shook his head. "No, I had just been having a chat with one of our detainees. You walked by while I was finishing up with my notes. But I needed to ask you something."
"See, and most people would have just sent a memo. That's what I like about you. You bring a personal touch to the table."
Coulson wordlessly held up a memo. "Like I said. You were walking by. If you'd rather just have the memo..?" Clint just shook his head, grinning, and the other man continued. "R&D's worked up some new prototypes for you based on some of your feedback. I've taken a quick look at them myself, but I'm obviously not the expert. Are you going to have the time to drop down and look at them today or tomorrow?"
Clint leaned against the wall thoughtfully, crossing his arms. "Damn, not today, much as I love getting new toys. Tomorrow, probably, though. I'll go down and see what they've worked up. No guarantees, though, I'm picky."
"That's what the process is for, Bart. Just whenever you get a moment."
He smirked a bit. "You got it, boss man."
Coulson got his paperwork together, then, and stood up. "That's all I need."
"All right," Clint replied, and then... He frowned and turned to look in the large mirror against the wall at the far end of the room. He just saw himself, and the other man looking blandly at him.
"Is something the matter?"
Shaking his head slowly, Clint answered. "No, sir... Thought I saw... just a trick of the light, I guess."
"Don't go having vision troubles now, Barton. We'd have to come up with a new codename for you," Coulson said, almost smiling, as he left the room.
Clint shook his head slowly. Just for a second, out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn Coulson's reflection looked slightly... off.
Well, given the amount of paperwork even he had left to do, it was probably just an early indicator that it was going to be one of those days. He pushed away from the wall and headed off. Sooner he finished up with what he had to do, the sooner he'd get to play with new stuff. And that was never a bad thing.
Not for the first time since that morning, Phil found himself wanting to slam himself into the viewing portal until it shattered. Also not for the first time, he discarded that idea, knowing pragmatically that there was no way it was going to work. So he stood, and watched, arms folded in front of him. Whatever Loki had done to create the portal, the image always followed his replacement. And, of course, it was one-way only. Barton had actually looked in his direction briefly. He'd wanted to shout, to warn him, to do something but stand there looking stricken, but he may as well have been invisible for all the more junior agent noticed him.
"Fascinating spell, isn't it?" Apparently the god had returned. He'd vanished some time back, with little warning, to do-- something Coulson couldn't even guess at. He didn't even look back at him. "Not that I'd expect you to appreciate the craft it took. Magic is magic is magic to a mortal." Loki drew alongside him, watching the portal as the view shifted. "This particular method is much more useful here on Midgard than it was in centuries past. You have built your world tall and gleaming, and metal and glass. So many reflections to peer through. So helpful when you want to follow someone, don't you think?" He smiled and turned his gaze over to Coulson, who hadn't so much as budged. "Have you been enjoying my little show?"
"I think it's about as contrived as most reality shows," Phil replied, keeping his voice matter-of-fact, refusing to let it be tinged with rage or, he'd admit to himself, at least, fear. He still couldn't make out the shape of what Loki was doing. But he knew that his form and his reputation were going to be game pieces. And he didn't like that at all.
"Ah, but you've still been watching, haven't you?" Loki sounded amused at the little jibe. Phil supposed he should consider himself lucky about that.
"Nothing else on. Besides, I know I'll have a hell of an incident report to write up when I get out of here."
The god actually laughed, then. "That, I think, is awfully presumptuous of you, wouldn't you say, little agent?"
It was. On multiple levels. But focusing on that, regardless, steadied his mind. Keeping it categorized, keeping it organized, keeping this madness quantifiable... if he did get out of this and home somehow. If S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn't been irreparably damaged by what would, to all appearances, be his actions (although if that was Loki's goal, thinking that Phil Coulson's form could make that happen was a bit presumptuous in and of itself-- if not so much as it could be), if he had the chance to write that report... it would help to undo what was being done here. Details were, as always, important. He couldn't forget that. "Maybe," he finally replied. "But I think that's human nature."
"Presumption?" Loki chuckled. "You might be right, and how interesting you are to notice. You may end up even proving more fascinating than I'd given you credit for. Consider yourself lucky. When things amuse me, they don't get thrown away as quickly."
Phil didn't reply. He just stared out through the portal, through his own computer monitor, as 'he' did some routine paperwork. Everything appeared right with the world. And he was the only person who knew it couldn't be more wrong. And that it was entirely likely to get worse before it could get better. Watching, though, was the most helpful thing he could do for now. So he watched.
It was a freak accident. That's all anyone could account for. Clint had taken to the range with the new bow that R&D had come down with. His first few shots had gone off without a hitch. He'd been as surprised as anyone when, on the thirteenth draw (figured), the thing shattered. And it was just his luck that he got a faceful of experimental carbon fiber polymer shards. Thank God the pencilnecks at R&D who'd been observing the test had insisted on safety glasses. But as close as that call had been, the release of all the system's tension when the bow broke had caused a recoil that pulled a jagged chunk of the bow arm back and lacerated his right arm pretty deeply. Injuries happened, that didn't bother him so much as the fact that he knew they'd take him off active duty for this for a while, and medical leave was a gigantic pain in Clint's ass. He only ever took it when he was forced into it. Like he was inevitably going to be. He would be climbing the walls at home. And then dropping by HQ just to climb the walls in new surroundings. To be perfectly honest, he was kind of amazed that after the first time, they were ever willing to repeat the experiment.
At least once he was out on leave, though, he was left on his own recognizance to do the wall-climbing. Being stuck in the medical wing for 'observation' was just as boring, only it had no outlets. He'd gotten cut up a bit, it wasn't like he was on death's door.
He heard footsteps in the hallway. He would have almost thought it was someone else from medical, checking for infections or undetected nerve damage or something for about the fifteen hundredth time, if he weren't very familiar with the walking rhythm of a pissed-off Special Agent Philip Coulson, who came stalking into the room. Most people would have thought he was as placid as normal, but time bred familiarity, and he could tell Coulson was fuming. "This was definitely not my fault this time, Coulson."
"I'm aware." His voice was calm as ever, but there was something in the tone that made the hair on the back of Clint's neck rise. "R&D won't exactly be recovering from my visit any time soon."
Clint frowned. "I really don't know if it was their fault, either." Judging by how apologetic and even panicked they'd been immediately after it happened, he was at least confident that it wasn't their fault on purpose. "Shit happens. Especially in this line of work."
"It shouldn't happen here. Their job is to keep it from happening. I was--" Coulson shook his head. "I was, needless to say, not pleased when I heard. Neither was Director Fury."
"Coulson, it's really not even that bad."
"It could have been. My job is largely considering possibilities and reacting appropriately. You got off more easily than you probably should have."
"Not the first time I was lucky, it won't be the last. I'll be good as new in no time."
Coulson paused for a moment and walked over, lightly and briefly squeezing Clint's left hand. "Just heal up, all right? We're not as good without you as we are with you." He turned on a heel and walked out as seemingly calmly as he walked in, leaving Clint alone and staring at his hand. His reflection in the burnished metal of the medical supply cart almost made it look like it was glowing. He almost wanted to laugh. Almost.
Phil lowered himself to a seated position, thinking. Loki was off doing... God only knew. Whatever it was Loki did when he wasn't taking his time watching Phil watch his double. Which basically, as far as he could tell, was scheming. Not that he had any insight as to what those schemes were amounting to other than what might be entirely too vague hints left when he was being conversational (or could just be red herrings)... and the actions of his doppelganger. He'd been watching as much as anyone possibly could. His double seemed to have adopted Phil's own (admittedly sparse) sleep schedule, so he slept when it did. When he was awake... well, Loki was at least conscientious enough to bring him food, but other than that, there was nothing to do but watch. It suited him, though. But he just couldn't parse the plan. It didn't help that the spell that created the double seemed to allow it to do things that weren't exactly able to be viewed. He was completely sure that the incident with the bow had been his double's doing, but it hadn't really tampered with the bow, it had just dropped by to take a look at it... and touched it. He was fairly sure that it had to have been Loki's magic working through his shape. And that was almost as unsettling as having been replaced in the first place.
But if that were the case, and injuring Barton had been the plan, why stop at superficial wounds? His double had been right. It could easily have been worse. In fact, he'd been watching 'himself' sip coffee and do paperwork when the call (Coulson, you may want to come to Medical at first convenience, Agent Barton's been injured...) had come through, and he'd been certain it had been worse. The hollow roiling in his gut hadn't stopped from the moment he heard those words to the moment the double finally got the official situation report from Medical. And then the relief must have leaked through to his face somehow, because Loki had started to giggle. Barton's wounds had been a bit tricky, but they were largely superficial. He'd be off-duty (and oh, he'd be hating it), but not for terribly long. Why go through the trouble of tampering with a bow, not to mention putting about a third of R&D on suspension pending further investigation, just to get one member of the Initiative off-duty for all of a week? He would have asked at the time but he didn't want to engage the god. There was always the possibility he'd take it as a challenge to really hurt the sniper. What game was he playing?
His double's conversation with Barton hadn't helped settle anything, either. It just wasn't unusual enough, he thought, for the god to have bothered. He'd had dozens of similar bedside conversations with Barton, as well as other agents. He'd on occasion been a bit more evidently annoyed than his double had displayed in this case. He thought maybe he would have in this case, if it had been him standing there, but it was hard to tell if that was just the fact that he knew the root cause talking. Okay, he thought the get-well-soon gesture at the end had been a bit over the top, but it hadn't been enough for Barton to comment on, or possibly even notice. The double really was just... interjecting itself into Phil's life. Even the mundane bits. And it was doing unsettlingly well. The opening salvo had been minor. It might have just been testing the waters. If that were the case, Phil had to, reluctantly, say it was successful. Nobody was even close to suspecting him. But the subtlety indicated that this was either going to be extremely drawn out... or that that test run had just been a sign that something big would happen fast.
He wasn't sure which option worried him more.
He'd been banned from the shooting range. Until he was back on active duty. It was a fate worse than death. His arm was stitched up, he could work around it. But no, apparently Coulson and Fury had been by to say how under no circumstances would Clint Barton be allowed to partake in target practice. At least not on the range. There were other options.
And that's how he found himself standing in the door to Coulson's office just before eleven at night, tossing playing cards into the other man's inbox.
The senior agent didn't even glance up from his reports. "Barton, I'm not rescinding the ban."
"Didn't ask you to, Coulson, just keeping my depth perception sharp."
"You're on medical leave. You should be relaxing."
He couldn't help but smirk. "This is relaxing."
"For you, maybe." Coulson still didn't look up.
Clint just grinned. "Aw, I'm actually distracting you? That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me." His gaze drifted over to the window, the moon a sliver in the sky past the reflection of the back of Coulson's head. He looked back at the other man. "Are you doing all right?"
Coulson paused almost infinitesimally, but still didn't look up at Clint. "I should be the one asking you that, if anything."
He tossed the last card in with the rest of them before sitting down on an empty chair. "I'm stir-crazy. But that's beside the point. I asked first."
Actually looking up for the first time since Clint had shown up, Coulson replied, "Why do you ask?"
He frowned. He actually wasn't entirely sure himself, to be honest. Yes, Coulson would definitely have stretches where he'd basically attempt to work himself into an early grave, but he wasn't in the middle of one. He didn't look particularly tired, or particularly out of the ordinary in any way at all. But something had told him to ask anyway. "Am I not allowed to be concerned?"
Coulson shrugged. "You just have no reason to be. But I'm perfectly fine."
"Perfectly fine. Even with me sitting here and bothering you."
He looked back to his paperwork. "I signed off on the compulsory leave. If I said I didn't know what was coming, I'd be lying."
"You do manage to pull off that prepared-for-anything deal better than almost anyone."
Coulson glanced briefly at whatever he had up on his computer monitor and actually came pretty close to smiling. "I do my best. I'm not infallible."
"Nobody is." He sighed a little. "I really liked that bow up until it shattered, too."
"I'd have them fabricate a new one for you, but the fact that you wouldn't be able to use it more than a dozen times wouldn't make that option particularly cost-effective."
"Hey now. A dozen plus however many test draws they gave it before handing it over to me."
"Thirteen too few."
Clint rolled his eyes. "It's not their fault. I hope you didn't come down on them too hard."
"It's a matter of accountability."
"Coulson, accountability be damned, sometimes it's just no one's fault. You know as well as I do we have so many rounds of testing before things are field-approved so that something like this happens on the range and not when it actually counts. The process-- and me saying this to you is so freaky it might as well be the Twilight Zone-- actually worked on this one."
The older man was silent briefly. "Be that as it may, the hammer had to fall somewhere. Nobody got fired, at least. But we still have to review the steps we take. More checks."
Clint stood up and started collecting his cards from the tray on Coulson's desk. "If it had happened to one of them, would you be having the same reaction? Come on, Coulson. It looked worse than it is, just admit you're overreacting."
"I don't overreact."
"Normally? You're right. If anything, I'd say you underreact. You aren't this time." He looked thoughtfully at the seated agent. His better judgment was telling him that pressing the issue might not be the best course of action, but he was good at ignoring his better judgment when the situation called for it. And this time, it was almost like that moment before releasing an arrow. He liked that feeling. "How come?"
"Just think on it, all right?" He popped the cards in his pocket and headed for the door. "Try not to work too late. Heading home. I'll see you when I get bored." He turned, headed out of Coulson's office, and didn't look back.
Phil wasn't sleeping this time. He knew Loki would have to show up eventually. Through the glass face of his bedside alarm clock, he watched his double sleeping until the hair rising on the back of his neck caused him to turn and see the god, who had arrived once more, a far too pleased smile on his face. "And here I thought you'd be asleep by now, my little agent."
"Your--" He shook his head. Now was not the time. "What are you up to, Loki?"
"Now, really. I think you'll have to be a bit more specific than that."
He gestured behind him at the image of his own sleeping form. "This. What are you doing with this? Okay, injuring Barton--"
"Oh, you caught that. Very clever."
"It's just not going to do much, he's out for a week. And you could be doing things that are much more destructive."
Loki's expression sharpened slightly. "Is that so? Do you have any suggestions, then, agent?" When Phil didn't respond beyond pursing his lips, the god continued. "You're clever to have caught that, yes, but not as clever as you could be. You've missed the purpose. But that's neither here nor there. You seem to have forgotten one thing. What I'm doing with you is hardly the only thing I have in play. Besides, if I want it to remain undetected, which I assure you I do, I can hardly stray too far from what you would do anyway. If I even could with this particular simulacrum."
"What do you mean, if you could?"
The god smiled, and it could almost be called indulgent if it weren't so bitingly sharp. "Rules, agent. I would think as much as you appreciate them in your own life, you can understand that magic has them too. Yes, I could make a figure with your shape that could behave completely out of the ordinary, but it wouldn't last long before all those who know you-- as much as anyone knows you, I suppose-- would realize that something was amiss. No, where this was concerned, I needed to be a bit more thorough. Do you recall the last time you were injured on the job?"
It was somewhat difficult to forget a wall exploding and half falling on you, so Phil nodded. "What does that have to do with anything, though? You weren't actually involved."
"No, I wasn't. But I had already started planning for this. And therefore I was watching you for just such an opportunity." He reached back into his cloak and somehow pulled out a jagged-- and stained-- hunk of concrete. "You bled, agent. Rather readily. But you did not die, though you could have, because your doing so did not suit me that day. But some of your blood came with me, and it now runs in the veins of my little puppet with your face." He grinned almost childishly. "It makes it more like you. Just not so much that it can't do what I need it to. Nevertheless, it is limited, much as you are. However, it, also like you, is so conveniently placed. The incident with the hawkeyed archer was a test. Putting my spell through its early paces. It was a test that bore fruit in more ways than one, but injuring your precious little Avenger was little more than a side benefit."
"Well then what--"
Loki laughed, cutting off the question. "Agent. That would be telling. I'd hate to spoil the show for you so early. It is, after all, a very long one. And you're clever enough that you might even be able to figure out part of the shape if you watch long enough. I'm interested in seeing if that's the case. Not for any purpose, of course, but simply because you amuse me."
Phil turned back to regard his own sleeping form, frowning silently. Before long, the quiet in the room shifted just slightly. He knew Loki was gone again.
It wasn't that Clint didn't enjoy hanging out at the newly-decked-out Avengers' Mansion here and there, it was just that with the double duty he and Natasha had to manage as actual bona fide agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., they didn't necessarily always have time to. But they were both there now, Clint sprawled out on the couch in the den, halfway watching some B movie that the TV happened to have landed on, something with rampaging rabid escaped zoo animals or something, while 'Tasha was perched on a stool, officiating a ping-pong match. (Banner had been dragged out of his lab and was halfheartedly attempting to instruct Thor on how the game was played. Clint considered it an accomplishment that the Asgardian had only broken three paddles so far.)
He'd been free of medical leave for a week, and hadn't seen Coulson once in that time, even in passing. Of course, neither had anyone else, so odds were pretty good he was out on an op of some kind. Odds were pretty great, actually. If he were sick, he still would have dragged himself to work and if he were missing or abducted or something, Fury would be up in arms. So an op. It was a fact of life, especially this life, although he kind of wished the timing in this case had been slightly more convenient. His question to the older man remained up in the air, and he wondered if he was the only one who knew the implications. Given how much he'd had to steel himself even to make that shot... well, the ball was in Coulson's court, now, and he was stuck out on an op.
A ping-pong ball came flying in his direction. Clint reached almost automatically up to grab it, and tossed it back to Thor. "Goal's still to hit it in front of you, Goldilocks." He grinned, flexing the fingers of his left hand. It had been a bit stiff lately. Probably because it hadn't been injured so he hadn't been giving it exactly the same care he had to his right. He was making up for it now, though, so it worked out well enough. He looked back at the TV to see a stampeding elephant stepping on a car via the power of impressively bad CGI. Enough of that. He grabbed the remote and resumed channel-surfing, and then he stopped when he saw a breaking news alert. Huh. Hostage situation in Bangor, Maine, of all places. Looked like a bank robbery gone pear-shaped, from the look of things. Local law enforcement written all over it, though. Still, it was more interesting than Attack of the Rampaging Rabid Escaped Zoo Animals, or whatever it was called. He idly scoped out good locations for sniper nests and, as usual, managed to pick out police snipers at least somewhat close to the ideal location. Except for that one guy. He must have been pretty green.
The anchor working the story cut in with a bit of surprise as a bunch of action happened at once. Apparently one of the hostages had managed to subdue the would-be robber. How was unknown at this point, but the police were moving in. Thirty seconds later, all hell broke loose. A courthouse nearby the scene exploded in a fiery ball straight out of a movie. Another five seconds, and Clint and Natasha's S.H.I.E.L.D.-assigned work phones got hit with text messages. They barely had time to even reach for them, though, as after another five seconds, everyone's pockets suddenly spoke up, with Cap's voice, from the team's own comm system.
That hadn't been precisely how Phil would have handled that particular bank robbery. But it was close enough that he thought that he'd be the only one to know the difference, and in any case, there was no one in the building who would have known any better.
Director Fury had sent his double along with a small team to Maine to investigate some anomalous reports of some fairly strange occurrences. Occurrences which he absolutely knew were being caused by Loki. And when the double walked into a bank to get change, of all things, he had a rather strong feeling something was going to be up. Even more so when Loki showed up to watch along with him shortly thereafter. Once the 'hostage situation' started, Phil could tell, even from the awkward angle from which he was observing the scene, that the would-be robber didn't have his gun loaded properly. If he even attempted to fire, the thing would have come at least close to taking his own hand off. He was the only one in real danger. That would have had some bearing on how he handled what was going on, if he were there, but his double treated it more like a face-value situation. It had to have been half for show.
Phil watched as the doppelganger calmly slipped away from the scene, letting local law enforcement deal with the cleanup, and called HQ to report the incident. Fairly standard until, while he was still on the phone, a nearby building exploded. The robbery had been a diversion, of course. His double called in the Avengers, and he wasn't sure exactly why they'd be needed yet. Loki let out a small huff of laughter. Phil knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this would be anything but good. He glanced over at Loki.
"Oh, keep watching, my little agent. This is the part where it begins to get very interesting." Phil turned back to watch the Quinjet arrive. Of course, right before its arrival, a half-dozen... creatures, he didn't even know exactly how to describe them, but they were at least a couple stories tall, came lumbering into the area. "Fascinating beasts, aren't they? My brother, his friends, and I came across one on an ill-conceived expedition to Jotunheim. However, that one was full-grown. These are just young ones, so I needed to pull in more than just one." Phil blinked. If those things weren't full grown... He made a mental note not to visit Jotunheim. Ever.
His doppelganger had found cover and was relaying orders to his team to arrive on site. Then he tapped into the Avengers' channel to give them what was admittedly a remarkably accurate report of the situation. So at least the plan wasn't to lead them into a trap. If only he knew what the plan was...
Phil didn't have a terrible vantage point on the unfolding fight, really. The portal was looking out from a window in the bank. It was much less awkward that those times he had to look at things from the face of his watch. Thor wasn't far from his double, and was, of course, throwing himself into the fight against the creatures with no small amount of gusto. Of course, from what Loki had said, they weren't new to him. Stark was overhead, blasting at the things from beyond their range, Barton wasn't immediately visible, he'd probably set up a nest on a roof. Arrows would be flying before long, almost certainly. Banner was being kept in reserve, and Romanoff was moving quickly around the edges of the engagement zone, harrying the creatures with quick bursts of fire to distract them before withdrawing.
It was carnage, but the team was staying organized. He was impressed. Enough so that he allowed himself the barest hint of a smile. Loki chuckled again. He knew he should have taken that as a bad sign. "Yes, they're doing rather well, don't you think? A credit to all the hard work that's been done putting them together. Much of which was yours, I believe, yes?" He glanced very quickly over at the god, who had a far-too-pleased smile on his face.
Three of the beasts had been taken out of the fight. As he looked back, the Hulk burst onto the scene to join Stark in engaging one of the three remaining. Thor was fighting a second, although the third was rushing at his back, barrelling in front of Phil's doppelganger.
An arrow flew then towards the beast from the bank rooftop.
Phil continued watching, and just as the creature collided with Thor, shoving him hard through the wall of a building, the arrow embedded itself in his double's back, and the thing slumped forward over a pile of wreckage.
He'd shot Coulson. He'd shot Coulson. He'd shot Coulson and screwed Thor over. He'd had the shot lined up perfectly. Same as ever. And just as he let the arrow fly, his left hand twitched. Barely. But it was enough to throw his shot offline and embed itself in Coulson's back, by his left shoulder. He'd. Shot. Coulson. Coulson went down, and Thor went through a wall. He could hardly remember anything else that happened on site. He never froze. But he came about as close as he ever did. It was only counting his arrows after the fact that even let him know that his instinct had let him continue through his mental haze, firing arrows at the things until Hulk and Iron Man finally took them down, and then he was running. The mad dash for Coulson was also a blur, but he was alive. At least he was still alive. If he'd killed him--
No. Enough of that. He was alive. It was better than it could have been.
And so he was sitting in the lobby of medical. He knew that this was going to end up being the debrief from hell. Even more so because the odds that Coulson was going to be doing it were, needless to say, slim. But he refused to move until there was word. Thor was going to pull through-- the guy was durable if nothing else. No word on Coulson, though. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor for a while before closing his eyes. He just stayed that way for a while.
"Don't beat yourself up too much." Clint almost flinched as he glanced up to see Cap sitting across from him.
He let out a huff of laughter that was far from amused. "Right. Instead of taking out the thing that was blindsiding Thor, I took down one of the best damn things S.H.I.E.L.D. has going for it, and you don't want me to beat myself up over it?"
"Nobody's perfect, you know that."
That was rich, coming from the poster boy over there. "I know I'm not perfect. I know I can be a fucking mess. But when I'm in the field, I don't have room for error. If I miss, people get hurt, and I missed, and people got hurt. So stop telling me not to beat myself up, because I know exactly damn well who to blame, and he's sitting right in this chair."
The other man was silent for a while, just looking at him. "Don't think I've never been where you are right now, Hawkeye. Never think I don't know how it eats you up, how it makes you burn inside. Yes, you missed, but what happened out there was Loki's fault, first and foremost. None of us woulda been out there if it weren't for him. Agent Coulson's a strong guy. He'll make it through. He'll probably be out in the field before anyone thinks he should. But you will too. And you'll be there to help wipe the smile off of Loki's face for even causing you to be in this position in the first place. I swear to you I will help make this happen."
Clint looked back down. "Yeah, whatever."
One of the nurses emerged just then, in a show of some of the eerie timing that happened occasionally when you hung around S.H.I.E.L.D. too often. "Agent Barton?"
He didn't look up. "Hm?"
"Agent Coulson's conscious. And he's alert, and he wants to talk to you."
He was on his feet before he even consciously registered what he'd heard.
Loki hadn't gone anywhere. It was odd. Normally, he left to go do whatever it was evil trickster gods got up to whenever he'd gotten a reaction to whatever he'd been most looking forward to showing him. However, he'd seen his duplicate get skewered by Barton and airlifted to medical, and the god was still there. For what? What on earth could he be waiting for that would be more shocking than that? More to the point, did he want to know?
"Poor pet, when was the last time you ate?" Loki flickered away for a while, leaving Phil to watch his own form lying prone in a bed in medical. He was going to recover, there was no way Loki would take away this particular Trojan horse. Once the dust had settled on site, Barton's reaction as he had run up to his double had fairly well quashed the hopes he'd had that the man had figured out something was wrong. Of course, the fact that his double was still alive probably should have confirmed that first. Barton didn't miss. ... Well, normally didn't.
It was hard to gauge exactly how much time had passed before Loki returned and handed Phil a plate of waffles and some syrup, setting a glass of orange juice nearby. "There you are. You need to keep up your strength, after all."
Usually when Loki brought him food, it was the quick packaged stuff he tended to favor in the office anyway. Ramen noodles and pudding cups and the like. He shot the god a quizzical look at the obviously fresh-made waffles.
Loki just smiled. "It's a special occasion. See?" He waved toward the portal. "You're waking up. Isn't that nice?"
There was more to this than met the eye, but Loki hadn't, to the best of his knowledge, poisoned his food yet, despite more than ample opportunity, so he took a bite, watching his double shift a bit on the bed it was laid up on. Frankly, it was delicious.
A nurse bustled into the room, delighted to see 'Coulson' regain consciousness. After answering the standard battery of questions, his double asked for Barton. Phil's fork froze halfway to his mouth.
Loki let out a noise that was somewhere between amused chuckle and derisive snort. "Oh, stop looking like that, Agent. I can't think of any possible chance you would discipline your little archer too stringently over this, even under the circumstances. You don't hide your soft spot for him nearly as well as you think you do. The simulacrum won't chastise him too much."
Phil didn't reply, but forced himself to continue eating. He didn't have a soft spot for Barton. Not exactly. It was... complicated. However, when the agent walked into the room, he set his plate down. He knew there was no way he could eat any more. It hadn't been more than a few hours since they'd all arrived back in New York, but Clint-- Barton looked as if he hadn't slept in a week. "Sir, I--"
His double held up a hand, cutting short whatever Barton was going to say. It spoke with some effort. "Accidents happen."
Barton ran a hand through his hair. "Sir, I shot you."
"Yes. But if you'd been shooting at me, I'd be dead. I would have been a much easier target than your actual one."
"That doesn't matter, Coulson. You're in here and it's my fault."
The double shook his head, smiling a little. "Not the first time I've been injured on an op. Won't be the last. Not even the first time I've been hit by friendly fire."
Phil's gaze shot over to Loki, startled. "Those records are sealed!"
The god waved a hand. "I had to do my research, didn't I? Watch the show, I guarantee you'll find it more interesting than you find me."
He looked back, missing the first half of whatever it was Barton was saying at 'his' bedside. "--be so calm about this."
Phil's double knitted its eyebrows together in an expression of disbelief. "When am I not calm?"
That actually got Barton to roll his eyes. "Point."
"Barton-- Clint." The younger man's eyebrows flew up in surprise at that. "I've been thinking. I need to.. Can you help me sit up a bit straighter? I'm a bit sore right now."
Right as Barton leaned down to do so, Phil's double rose a bit to kiss him. There was no way to mistake it for an accident or for anything but exactly what it appeared to be. Phil could hardly breathe, just watching as Clint actually kissed him back. He was on his feet and pounding on the portal, completely ineffectually, unable to stop staring at the scene in front of him, and hardly even hearing Loki's laughter behind him.
Clint had absolutely no idea when exactly his life had turned into something in which making out with Phil Coulson on an uncomfortable bed in medical turned into something that was remotely possible. But as soon as he figured it out, he knew he needed to make a mental note to thank that moment from the bottom of his heart. Kissing Coulson wasn't exactly like he'd imagined it, and oh, he'd imagined it. Yet even under the circumstances, with said uncomfortable bed, with Coulson not able to move much due to his injury, with faint but continuous thuds coming from the next room over, with the weird fluorescent lighting, with his own stunned shock over the entire situation still hanging over him, not to mention the somewhat awkward angle he was leaning over the other man at, he'd still count it as a net positive because of who he was kissing.
It seemed like an eternity, but it probably wasn't too long before Coulson let himself slip back down onto his pillow with a soft sigh. "Sorry."
"Okay, what exactly are you apologizing for?"
It was small, but Coulson gave him a genuine smile. "Having to leave it at that for now. Or maybe just for inconveniently timing my epiphanies."
"Don't think I'm complaining, Coulson. Yeah, it might be a little weird to shoot someone and then have them kiss you..." Although, interestingly enough, it was not the first time that had happened to him. Just the best. "But hey, if you want to go off the deep end, more power to you." He leaned over and gave the other man another quick kiss and a smile.
Coulson huffed out a short laugh before carefully working his shoulder and grimacing a bit. It must have hurt like hell. Clint had seen the man shrug off some truly intense injuries as straight-faced as ever, which had honestly been more the despair of medical than his own tendency of trying to duck out of every possible trip there. If it was painful enough to show in Coulson's expression... Clint frowned, focusing on the other man and letting distractions like the noises of the monitoring equipment and the continuing hammering from the next room fall away. He carefully reached out and rested his hand on Coulson's cheek. "I'll make it up to you."
"Clint. You have. Even if you weren't safely ahead before this incident..." He shot Clint a sly smile that sent a jolt down his spine and to all outlying areas. "Once I'm on my feet again, I'll show you exactly how much it doesn't matter to me."
"If I'm still around."
"I will advocate for you if need be. I'm sure Thor will do the same. The paperwork will be sorted out, don't worry. You should know by now that I'm very good at making the paperwork work out."
Clint smirked, just a bit. "You are a ninja master of paperwork, Coulson. Should I be jealous?"
"Do I need to try and sit up again?"
"No, I don't think so." He leaned back down.
When he finally left medical, trying and mostly succeeding to change his facial expression from 'stupidly besotted grin' to 'pleased smile at the recovery of a good comrade and superior', he turned a corner to see Sitwell coming from the other direction. "Good afternoon, Agent Barton."
"Can you come by my office? I need to debrief you about the Bangor incident."
Man. Sitwell was not nearly as good at debriefings as Coulson was. He pondered the best way to get out of it. "Sure, when?"
"Now. There's a lot to go over. Come with me."
"Sure thing." He almost would have said that it wasn't his lucky day, but... well, it was definitely too late for that already, wasn't it?
It wasn't until Barton finally left the room that Phil finally managed to stop pounding futilely on the portal, hands still shaking despite himself. He rested his forehead very briefly on the uncharacteristically cool surface and took a deep breath before whirling around to face the still-chuckling god behind him. "What the hell was that?"
Loki's eyebrows slowly raised in a complete mockery of innocent curiosity. "Well, I thought that much was obvious."
He wanted to hit Loki. Badly. "You're controlling Agent Barton. I figured that out. You had him shoot my double to show me. But why was that necessary? You made your point, you don't have to... you didn't have to have him kissing the thing to-- to show off."
The god's expression shifted. His eyebrows, still high on his forehead, knitted together almost incredulously and his smile widened. "You actually think..." He burst into rather delighted laughter. Phil wanted to hit him even more. "Oh, my little pet, how in the Nine Realms can a man so otherwise intelligent be so incredibly short-sighted?
Phil's fists clenched at his sides, his jaw working back and forth. "You have me. You've got my career and my reputation in the palm of your hand with that fucking puppet you have lying there in medical." He wanted more than anything to wipe the laughter off of the god's face at that moment. More than anything. "Why the hell do you need him too? Whatever fucking plan you have, you don't need to go dragging him into it too, and you certainly didn't need to rub the fact in my face." He tended to pride himself on his composure. His ability to stay calm in the face of next to anything. Well, he'd finally found the limits to that ability. He could feel the warmth of rage burning in his face, and had no doubt he was probably about as red as Stark's suit. "You're acting like a two year old who's kicking things over because he can, laughing all the while. Grow. Up."
Well, with that, in a blink, he succeeded in getting Loki to stop laughing. Of course, the god now had a hand none-too-loosely around Phil's throat, his fingertips digging painfully into the sides of his neck. He leaned in closely and spoke in a low hiss. "As amusing as that was for a moment, you forget your place. If your archer there had been my goal, I would have had him. What you saw was a single very mild spell I had transferred to his hand. To be used once." He smiled thinly. "I'm hardly controlling him, little agent. You have just spent so much of your time drowning in your work that you somehow managed to miss the fact that Clint Barton would have gone along with that ages ago if you'd only given him any indication... that he could pick up on... that you would have liked the chance." The god's hand dropped, he stepped back, and Phil found himself sucking down air, staring up at Loki, anger being replaced by a strange hollow confusion. The god chuckled again, mirthlessly. "Of course, I think you were deluding yourself just as much as you were him, and are only now starting to realize it. I'll be back later. I think I should let you get acquainted with your jealousy. I already know the lengths it can drive someone to. You're obviously just beginning to figure it out. But really, being envious of what is in essence yourself..." His laughter grew a bit lighter. "Well. I suppose I should commend you. It truly did take some rather extraordinary circumstances to cause you to lose sight of your temper."
Phil closed his eyes and took a deep breath, still rubbing his throat. When he opened them, he was alone again.
Sitting in Fury's office was almost never a positive experience. Today was not proving itself any different. Even with one eye, he had managed to perfect the Displeased Unblinking Stare. Hell, he was the Michelangelo of Displeased Unblinking Stares. It was like a targeted laser beam of unhappiness. And of course, it was directed right at Clint. "Agent Barton, there are days when I wonder if you have a bucket list of ways to make my life harder before you die."
It was moments like this that Clint was glad that it was usually Coulson that he was having these talks with. Not that that was actually doable at the moment. Which was why he was in Fury's office anyway. "No, sir. It just comes naturally, I guess."
His expression didn't shift, but Clint could have sworn he was still amused. Although it was possible that was just wishful thinking. "You have had quite the eventful time lately, haven't you, Barton? Got your ass kicked by a test bow, have to sit out for a while, which I know is always just a barrel of laughs for you, and then, no sooner do you get back on duty then you go and shoot Coulson in the back. Coulson who, might I add, in addition to being your superior, is one of the most valuable assets this organization has."
He had to keep his expression steady. He refused to let it be otherwise. "I didn't actually mean to do that, sir."
Ah, and there was the director's what-kind-of-an-idiot-do-you-think-I-am-exactly expression. Right on cue. "Do you honestly think I of all people do not know that? Especially right now?" Clint somehow managed not to close his eyes and grimace. Fury's ability to know everything surpassed even Coulson's. "But it still makes this entire situation difficult. Until we complete the investigation into the Bangor incident, I'm going to have to suspend you from active duty."
"What?" This was ridiculous. "I just got back on active duty!" He paused. "Sir."
"Yeah, and look what happened," Fury shot back. "You obviously needed more recovery time for your injuries in the first place. Listen. I would personally prefer if I didn't have to do this either, but this isn't something that we can just ignore the followup on."
Clint sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Please tell me I can at least use the range, sir. I need to--" Practice. Make sure he would never do that again. Have at least something be normal.
"Don't see why not. As long as you swear to me you will not try and weasel your way out of the psych evaluations that are going to come out of this." Bastard.
"Thank you." He finally looked away from Clint and picked up a file folder. "You're dismissed."
"Yes, sir." Clint stood up, managing not to sigh huffily, as much as he wanted to, and headed for the door.
"Oh, and Agent Barton?"
Clint turned and glanced back. Fury hadn't looked up from his file. "Yes, sir?"
"Coulson's going to go to bat for you on this. I am going to go to bat for you on this. You would not have been added to the Initiative if your skills weren't needed for it. This will be temporary. Just look at it as a vacation."
"Some vacation, sir."
Now Fury really was amused. He was actually smiling as he glanced back up at Clint. Granted, half of the time he smiled, it was just because he knew someone's life was going to be made miserable, so it wasn't actually comforting. "More than some people get. Right. Get on out of here."
Clint nodded and left. He certainly wasn't going to go home right now. So the range it was. He suddenly had some frustration he had every intention of taking out on some unsuspecting practice targets.
Phil was back to work. Well... Phil wasn't back to work. If only. His double was, though. In a sling, on mandated restricted duty, but back. It was no less than he himself would have done. Of course it was no less than he would have done. The duplicate that Loki crafted was too seamless. It had fit itself into his life with nobody being the wiser. It acted just as he would, it hardly did a thing he wouldn't have done himself, and most of those were minor, just matters of different priorities-- probably sinister ones, knowing their origins. And then there was the one noticeable exception to that rule. He wouldn't have-- There was no way in the world he ever would have kissed Clint Barton. There was no way in the world he would have thought about-- no. That was a lie. That was very much a lie. And he was having to watch enough in the way of lies without feeding himself more.
From the first time he'd spoken to Barton, he knew without a doubt two things. That he would be an incredible asset, and that he would be a pain in the ass. He'd been on point in both observations. That in and of itself was fine. S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't in the habit of necessarily recruiting people based on their interpersonal skills, beyond that needed to get the job done and avoid killing one another. The organization worked almost like an elaborate Rube Goldberg device. Nothing in and of itself looked like it should necessarily be functional for what it ended up doing, but when all the pieces were put together just right and the machine was going, there was some twisted poetry to it.
And as good as he was at foreseeing outcomes, one thing Phil had never anticipated was how Barton would manage to worm his way past his rather expansive barriers of duty and his own devotion to his job with his remarkably idiosyncratic blend of absolute focus when needed, restless energy the rest of the time, and an almost pathological desire to get the last word, or at least the last memorable one. Pain in the ass though he often was, he was strangely entertaining, and Phil managed to grow fond of him. Watching him work singlemindedly on the range and in the field... the focus was almost startling in its contrast, and... well, okay, Phil would also have to admit that goddamn he was not blind, and Barton was... well, he was an attractive man.
But it was a moot point. As much as perhaps he would like to in his deepest feverish imaginings, he did not have time to pursue any sort of relationship period, let alone with a subordinate. And there was no way Barton would-- well. He glanced over at the portal, where he could still see his doppelganger working on reports. Where he had seen something else not long ago. Apparently Barton would.
What had his life managed to turn into when he wasn't even the one running it?
His duplicate stood and headed out of his office, walking down the hallways and back to R&D. Knowing what the last impromptu visit there had amounted to, Phil's attention was suddenly completely drawn by what he was watching. The suspensions had barely ended and the department was only just starting to get back to full speed. His double got a few sidelong looks as it entered. Its last visit to the department hadn't exactly been the most diplomatic thing imaginable.
"What can I do for you, Agent Coulson?"
Phil's double nodded at April Matthis, the R&D team lead on duty. "Agent Matthis. I was just getting a status report on your current projects."
She nodded and headed back to her desk, sitting down and looking at her computer. "We've got some body armor improvements that are about ready for fabrication."
"All right. Stark will probably end up trumping us on those, but move forward, just in case."
"We've got the Quinjet upgrade team back on the p--"
"Table it. It's overkill at this point. Move them to the Helicarrier improvements."
"All right." She paused. "We've reworked the bow upgrades Agent Barton was interested in."
Phil sucked in a breath.
"Make sure it's flawless if you have to draw the damn thing ten thousand times."
"Yes sir. We have some new listening devices..."
The rest of the briefing was routine. His double hadn't looked at the bow this time, maybe Loki wasn't pulling the same trick twice.
He was still nervous. Only this time, he actually knew why.
There was one advantage of being removed from active duty. That was that there was absolutely nothing that could pull Clint from the range other than his own decision. And that suited him just fine. Although he wasn't going to deny that the nice hot shower he took after spending over four hours just shooting targets was anything but ridiculously appreciated. After spending a bit longer in the shower than really necessary, he collected his things and went to leave. He almost laughed as, walking down the hallway by the interrogation rooms, Coulson's voice filtered out again, asking him in for a second. It was almost like déjà vu.
He ducked his head in, grinning. "Hey, I'm suspended, you can't make me work."
Stacking up some notes, which he probably made look a lot easier than it was, considering he still had one arm in a sling, Coulson replied, "Wasn't trying to. I think we probably need to talk, though."
Clint's eyebrows rose. "In an interrogation room?" He glanced over at the mirror.
"There's nobody next door. Feel free to check it if you want."
He nodded, not asking exactly how Coulson knew that. If anyone would know, it was him. Hell, if anyone had engineered it that way, it was him. "Right. Should I lock the door?"
"If you'd like."
Clint did so, deciding that no matter how this conversation went, he really didn't want someone walking in in the middle. "Please tell me you're not going to blame the painkillers and tell me that that kiss shouldn't have happened."
Letting out a short amused huff, Coulson stood, leaving his notes in neat stacks and walking over to the mirrored wall. He studied his reflection, smiling a bit. "Not my plan, no."
"I hope your plan involves a lot more of them, then."
"I know, I know. You're you. You're going to say something like 'There has to be a line between work and not work.' And I respect that, don't worry, I really--"
Coulson cut him off. "Barton. Come here."
"Fine, fine..." When Clint approached, Coulson promptly grabbed the front of his t-shirt with his good arm, pushed him up against the mirror and kissed him soundly. He made a surprised little noise in the back of his throat. But he wasn't exactly about to complain. "Wow."
"There has to be a line between work and not work." Before Clint even halfway opened his mouth, Coulson continued. "After today."
"I like the way you think, sir," Clint replied with a grin before kissing Coulson briefly.
The other man took half a step back. "Turn around. I want us both to see your face when I do this."
"Surprisingly kinky, Coulson. Didn't know you had it in you," he retorted as he turned around and shot himself a grin in the mirror. The grin melted into an expression no less pleased, if in a different way, as Coulson's arm snaked around his waist and his fingertips dipped underneath the waistband of Clint's jeans before lifting again to smoothly pop them open. Clint exhaled softly, finding himself getting hard faster than he had in a while. Fuck, it was like half of his most ridiculous fantasies were coming to life and he almost didn't know what to make of it. Almost.
"Just relax, Barton, and let me do all the work," Coulson was suddenly murmuring in his ear, and then goddamn his hand was grasping his cock and there were the rest of his most ridiculous fantasies. And he was slowly stroking him and Clint honest to God did not even know the man was capable of this but he liked it. Then Coulson nipped the side of his neck and he sucked in a breath as the sensation went straight to his dick. "Clint," Coulson muttered again, "Just look at yourself." Clint looked back at his reflection, and his slack expression and flushed tone was straight out of a porno. Only it was one starring him. He liked it and damn, if anyone was in the observation room, he almost envied them. But as many limits as Coulson was already pushing, that was one that he wouldn't touch, Clint knew that much. But the what if definitely added something.
Coulson's hand was moving faster now and Clint's own hands reached up to brace himself against the cool mirror as his legs started feeling a bit weak. "You're good at this, Coulson," he managed, trying to keep his voice sardonic instead of breathy and mostly failing miserably.
"I'm glad you think so." The calm steady rhythm of Coulson's hand on his cock was entirely like him, even if the circumstances weren't.
"Really good at this." Coulson just smiled a little and sped up his hand. Clint just let out a soft moan.
"I know you're used to waiting for my say so to fire, but I won't hold you back this time. Whenever you're ready, agent."
Coulson nipped sharply at his ear and Clint tossed his head backwards as he came with a jolt. The older man chuckled a bit as he let go of Clint's cock, reached in his pocket and emerged with a handkerchief, which he handed to Clint. "I need to get going."
Clint blinked, taking it and leaning over to clean up the splatters on the wall and the mirror, still catching his breath. "Don't you--"
"There'll be plenty of time for that later. I have a meeting I can't be late for, though." He started to collect his paperwork. "Don't worry. Watching that was remarkably pleasing in and of itself."
Chuckling faintly, Clint glanced up to watch Coulson's reflection in the mirror, and froze, whatever smartass remark he was about to say freezing in his throat.
The mirror wasn't showing the room. It was showing nothing but blackness behind glass. And in the middle of it was--
It was Coulson. Coulson in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts, a bit of actual beard growth, and an absolutely stunned expression.
And he was looking right into Clint's eyes.
Sometime between Barton walking in the room and him locking the door, Loki had shown up. Phil should have known something was drastically different when the god didn't take his normal spot for snide commentary behind him. Instead, he walked over and stood next to the portal. What was going on out there wasn't going to be the show. Phil was going to be the show as far as Loki was concerned.
And it really wasn't very long until he found out why. There was absolutely no way even he could remain dispassionate about the scene that unfolded before him, and he could tell that his attempts to at least maintain the appearance of doing so were falling woefully flat. To have to watch this-- to have to see an abomination with his face put his hands on Barton-- it was deeply wrong. It was a reflection of something that he never even thought could be so plausible and so right, taken and twisted in the worst way, all in front of his eyes. He'd stared down larger things, things that were an imminent threat to life and limb, without even blinking. But this? He couldn't do it. And Loki knew that, which is why this time he was the show. As his doppelganger brought Barton off in the middle of an interrogation room, of all things, he wanted to scream, he wanted to rage, or even just to remain composed. He wanted to do anything but be able to stare in blank shock.
But he couldn't, because it almost killed him to watch... to watch the man he cared for that much-- the man he loved be used like that just to further Loki's plans. And that thought skittered to a halt in front of him almost as soon as it came up. He couldn't dismiss it, not even to himself. There was no point in trying. His stare turned less blank, even if his expression didn't shift, and he made himself focus back on the scene in front of him now that the worst was over. And in an almost unfair coincidence, Clint looked to be staring right back at him.
Then, as the other man's face started to shift in confusion, and his gaze didn't move, he realized that it wasn't coincidence. Somehow, somehow, Barton was actually looking through to him. The other man looked back over his shoulder quickly at his double, who was collecting his paperwork. Then he looked back at Phil and started to open his mouth, to say something, who even knew what.
Phil shook his head slowly, trying to seem outwardly shell-shocked and yet still tell Clint to stay quiet. Because Loki was still chuckling at the look on his face. There was no way he could possibly know that the viewing window had lost the one-way aspect it had had the entire time. There was no way Loki would let it. Barton's mouth closed silently again, and Phil didn't take his eyes off of him. Not until, after a perfunctory goodbye, his double picked up his things and left the room, causing the view to shift to looking at the hallway out of the face of his watch. How did that happen? And why then?
"I must admit, my pet," Loki said with no small amount of malicious humor in his tone as he stepped away from his spot beside the portal, "I did not anticipate quite the breadth of reaction from you that I've been getting. You might actually have something approaching a heart after all. How touching." He shrugged diffidently. "Not that it makes much difference, although it does give me a thought."
At that, Phil steeled himself and looked back at the god, forcing his expression to shift to his standard calm and businesslike demeanor. He refused to give any indication of what happened. Anything he knew that Loki didn't had to be an asset at this point. "What would that be?"
Loki just laughed. "Oh, you'll see soon enough. I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise."
Funny, Phil mused as he turned to look back out at the world. I feel the exact same way.
Since joining S.H.I.E.L.D., Clint had gotten used to weird shit happening. In fact, saying as much was an understatement. However, some experiences still managed to be novelties. And staring at his reflection in an interview room mirror and wondering if he was hallucinating a double of his superior, right after said superior had jacked him off in that same interview room was safely far enough outside the bounds of his prior experience to make him wonder just what the fuck was going on.
The Coulson in the mirror had looked... rough. And as soon as the actual Coulson had left the room, the mirror snapped back to a regular reflection again, even though the other Coulson hadn't moved along with the regular one. Clint looked at the mirror for a moment and then frowned and headed out to the hallway. Coulson was gone, having headed off to his meeting. Clint stepped out and ducked into the observation room, curiously. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. He looked through the glass into the room he'd just been in, shaking his head a little.
He didn't know what was going on, but he knew he had to work it out somehow. He wasn't prone to hallucinations, or even just fantastically seeing things (not a good habit for a sniper to get into, after all), and he hadn't come across anything lately that would make him hallucinate, to the best of his knowledge. He highly doubted the breakroom coffee was drugged, because he wasn't the only person who drank it, and there were plenty of people (like Coulson, of course) who drank a lot more of it than he did. So hallucination was out of the picture. Clint was much more about observation than hallucination anyway. He ran down what he knew. Phil hadn't seen the vision of himself in the mirror. Of course, he'd been collecting his stuff, so his back had been to the mirror the entire time, to the best of Clint's knowledge. There hadn't been any indication of any projectors or anything on either side of the glass. Nor did the glass itself seem any different, and he's pretty sure he would have known if it had been replaced lately.
It made him suspect that magic might just be involved somehow. To what end, he had no idea, but as soon as the thought crossed his mind, every instinct he had screamed at him that he was looking at the right target. And he knew better than to disregard his instincts. He was hardly an expert on magic, and if that's what it was, the number of people who could potentially be involved was very low, and mostly disconcerting. Was it specifically targeted or just... freeflowing somehow? Was it somehow reflecting Coulson's actual state of mind? The mirror-Coulson had shaken his head at Clint, just a bit, right when he was about to speak. Was he that conflicted about what was going on? It wasn't out of the question that he wouldn't want to talk about any reservations he was having, but Phil had been doing most of the initiating, and all of it in that room at that moment. Bluster, maybe, but blustering didn't really fit Coulson's M.O. He kept the scenario on the back burner. It was a possibility, but it just didn't seem exactly like the correct one. Unfortunately, he didn't have enough information to form a different one. What he'd seen was real, he had no doubt about it. He needed to talk to someone who could at least help him theorize. And who wouldn't expect he was going insane. And who, given the circumstances, was very good at discretion.
A thought came to him. Even if he wasn't on close terms with any magic users himself, he was on good terms with someone who was. And he figured he could at least beg for the discretion.
He hadn't moved much if at all since the incident. Not much time had passed, in fairness, but Phil remained steadfastly staring out at the world, watching his damned double go through a meeting and do paperwork like nothing in the world was wrong. To be honest, though, it didn't take all that much of his reserves of self-control in this case to outwardly remain blank while his mind whirred. He wasn't sure which part was more shocking. That... that that had happened in the first place, that Barton had apparently seen him, albeit briefly, or that all indications were that Loki didn't know about the latter (as evidenced by his continued smug chatter which Phil was currently emphatically ignoring). Of course, having seen him didn't necessarily mean that Clint figured out the implications of it. In fact, it was almost a certainty that he hadn't, because it was certainly something that would have to be reported, and investigated, and yet his double was continuing unmolested.
That had been the best chance he'd had so far of getting discovered and a possible rescue, and it had blindsided him to such a degree that he couldn't take advantage of it. It was sloppy work, and he expected better from himself of all people. He continued to stare almost vacantly at his doppelganger while he contemplated what to do when and if it happened again. As with most things, the circumstances would almost certainly affect the best course of action, but knowing it was conceivably possible that it could happen again certainly put his ability to plan for it much higher than it had been just a scant few hours previously. If Loki were around again, his range of possibilities dropped drastically. He wouldn't want to let on, after all. Also, he didn't know if his double could see him. Sometimes it seemed that way, but it was entirely possible that the occasional sly smirks towards reflective surfaces were just because said double knew he was watching. So many variables. At least Barton was nothing if not observant. If all else failed, Phil could blink an SOS and hope for the best. Although it still didn't answer the almost oppressively hovering questions of why it happened then, and how to get it to happen again.
"... undoubtedly never would allow yourself to indulge your baser lusts, so I thought it was only fair... and you aren't even listening to me, are you? Tsk tsk." Loki had finally apparently deigned to notice that Phil's mind had been, needless to say, elsewhere, while Loki was lording this latest victory over him. He barely turned his head to give the god a half a glance before looking back at the viewing portal. That didn't last very long before the god was next to him, taking a not-particularly-gentle hold of his jaw, and forcibly pulling Phil's gaze back towards him as he scrutinized him. Phil resigned himself to the manhandling. He'd been through worse. Well, he'd been through worse physically. It's not as if he could directly control what Loki decided to do, not in his current set of circumstances, so he let it happen. The sooner Loki finished with him for the time being, the sooner he'd be left alone to work on contingency plans. He tried not to display how otherwise distracted and inward-facing he was at that particular moment, and he wasn't sure exactly how well he'd succeeded, but whatever Loki had been looking for in his scrutiny, he seemed pleased enough as he let go.
"You know, my pet, for a while, I wasn't sure you could get thrown so off-balance," Loki said. Phil stayed silent. "However, I must say, I'm sincerely glad to see it." His expression was such a mockery of actual sincerity it almost would have made Phil laugh if he wasn't certain that it was no joking matter. "Because it allows me to give you a gift I've been looking forward to being able to give you. And a choice that goes along with it. Then we can see if you truly have the capability to actually surprise me."
Before Phil could even begin to ask what Loki meant by that, the god was gone.
"Hey, Thor, can I talk to you for a second?" Clint asked, managing to collar the large blond god as he emerged into the downstairs hallway after a sparring session with Steve.
Thor's eyebrows rose a bit. "Of course, my friend. What is it you wish to talk about?"
"Not in the hallway. It's kind of... well, not exactly personal, but it's not something I want to talk about where anyone can hear."
The god shrugged. "Of course." He headed upstairs, Clint following behind, and ducked into one of the unused rooms of the mansion, reserved for 'potential future members of the Initiative'. "Will this do?"
Clint locked the door and nodded, leaning against the wall. "First of all, and it's not that I don't trust you, but can you please not tell anyone about this conversation? I don't think it's anything dangerous, but it could lead to some awkward questions."
"I am capable of keeping a secret. What is it you need?"
"Right. So... you say that on Asgard, technology and magic are pretty much the same thing, right?"
"Yes, they are."
Clint nodded. "All right. I need to know something about magic."
"I am hardly an expert, my friend. I do not know how much help I can be."
He shot Thor a grin. It was important not to let on that anything might actually be wrong. He was curious, that was all. "I'm not an expert on technology either, but I still know what a car can do. Don't need you to be an expert, big guy. Just have some general questions."
"And I will answer them to the best of my ability."
Nodding again, Clint jumped right to the point. "Mirrors."
"What of them?"
He had to be careful with this line of questioning. He didn't want to give anything away, and if it was something relatively harmless, he didn't want Coulson to be investigated for it or anything. "Someone who's good at magic, what kinds of things can they do with mirrors?"
"A great deal, actually. Loki would know better than I," Thor's expression grew somber at that, as it usually did when the conversation drifted to his brother, "but of course talking to him is not possible, or necessarily wise at the moment, I know." He paused. "He was always good with mirror tricks. They are often used to make illusions of some kind. From what I understand, they are uniquely suited for the task."
Clint nodded. "Makes sense. Even our illusionists use mirrors a lot. Anything else? Say... I dunno, making up an example, what if you saw someone in a mirror but their reflection looked different for a bit. What could that mean?"
Thor smiled a little. "It could mean you are seeing things." But then he continued. "Or that there was an illusion of some kind cast, either on the person or on the mirror. Or both. It depends on how close you were to the one you saw."
"Physically? It would be different if you were right next to them from when you were across the room?"
"No, it would have more to do on how well you know them, I believe. The nature of your relationship to them. Mirrors can show truths. Especially depending on what's behind them."
Clint frowned. "Like... the material of the wall?"
Shaking his head almost somberly, Thor answered. "Skilled practitioners of magic can access... it is not a Realm, as such, but there is a place that you can get to through mirrors if you know how. And not many do. Once Loki took me there to show me, after he figured out the trick to it. It was a rather dull place, to be truthful. Just darkness surrounding you. But my brother also worked out a way to watch the world outside it without actually traveling back. Useful for spying, certainly, but of course I prefer my battles to be much more straightforward." He shot Clint a grin.
His blood ran cold. "So you can take other people through?"
"Yes, but as I said, it is a very rare thing. A simple illusion would be much more likely with what you described. Especially since no one has gone missing, and there would have to be someone on this side of the mirror for them to reflect in the other. If they were an illusion, they wouldn't last very long without being discovered. We know each other quite well, after all. And cheap tricks like that don't have solid forms."
Clint forced a wry grin, not at all liking what he was hearing. What about the more expensive tricks? "True. Thanks for the help, Goldilocks."
"You always insist on calling me that."
His grin came a bit more easily at that one. "If the shoe fits..."
Thor rolled his eyes just a bit and then looked at Clint seriously. "Everything is all right, is it not? This was just curiosity?"
"Absolutely. Don't worry about it."
He seemed slightly dubious, but nodded anyway. "Very well."
"See you around, big guy." Clint unlocked the door and slipped out, heading towards his own room. His what-ifs were becoming a bit more serious now, and he didn't like it one bit.
"Well, little agent, are you ready for a gift?"
It had been the better part of a couple of days since Phil had seen Loki, and of course the god's first words echoed the parting shot he'd left with, that had left Phil wondering... and nervous. Greeks were not the only gift-givers one had to worry about, obviously. But exactly what kind of Trojan horse the gift in question would be remained to be seen. "If I say no, would that make any difference whatsoever?"
"Well, if you don't want to go home..." Loki's smile had no business even pretending to be innocent.
"There is no way you'd let me go home. Not without a catch."
That smile shifted from faux-innocence to genuine amusement. "Well, I didn't say it would be for very long. But you've been a reasonably good little pet, and I thought you may want to shower, shave, and get dressed."
Something about the offer was just not right, but Loki was completely right on that score. "Why would you risk it?"
And that made Loki laugh. "There's no risk involved, agent. You'll be back here very quickly and no one will be the wiser, despite what I'm sure will be your best efforts." He waved a hand and a second portal appeared beside the first, where Phil's double was still visible, working. In the second, was his hallway. It was the same view he'd first had when he was trapped in this place. "After you, agent."
There was almost zero chance that this little field trip was going to result in anything positive for him. But almost zero wasn't zero. So he walked up to the new portal and through. It was almost like walking under a waterfall of ice water, and he shivered, but he was back in his apartment and despite the circumstances, that was actually comforting. He glanced around. At least nothing here was notably different.
"Well? I presume you know where your own bathroom is. Go, pet." And then his voice shifted. It was more resonant in a way. More absolute. "And don't do anything stupid."
Objecting probably would have counted, so he just nodded and headed down the hallway to take a much-needed hot shower. He stood under the water, washing, and trying to think. There had to be ways he could leave a message that would be found, to let someone know what was going on, even with Loki so nearby. Maybe he could-- could what? He knew he had the capability of thinking of dozens of ways to do this, but every time he even started to attempt to think of one, his train of thought skittered away. Damn Loki, it had to have been magic. No wonder he was so confident about this outing. It was just ultimately another way of showing Phil how powerless he actually was in the situation.
He finished his shower and stepped out. He dried himself off, tied his towel around his waist, and went to the sink. He studied himself from this side of the mirror for the first time in weeks. The experience had definitely taken its toll. But shaving would help. At least he'd feel more like himself. He actually caught himself humming a little under his breath as he got rid of the buildup of facial hair. If the venture was to show how powerless he was, it at least had the benefit of proving to himself that he was still himself. And if he actually got to wear regular clothes, then it would help that much more.
He stepped out of the bathroom and looked around, heading toward his bedroom. Loki wasn't immediately apparent, but one of his suits was laid out on the bed, with a note written in green ink. 'I thought this one would work. You can choose another if you'd rather. Go back to the mirror when you're ready to return.'
The suit was as good as any other, and if Loki had given him free reign to switch, there probably wouldn't be any benefit in it in the first place. He got dressed, and the familiarity of one of his suits almost made it feel like he was decking himself in armor. A quick stubborn streak rose up, though, and he did pick a different tie. And then he went back to his closet to check one more thing. Of course. Well, he didn't figure Loki would have left him his spare sidearm. But it was worth a shot.
He stood up straight, every bit Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and headed back to his hallway and back through the portal into darkness. Loki was standing there with a smile, hands clasped behind his back. "Ah, there's the man we all know and occasionally tolerate. So nice of you not to try anything."
"As if I could have."
The god just grinned. "But you forgot something. Actually, you didn't, but I suppose I just anticipated you." He removed an arm from behind his back. He was holding one of Phil's holsters. Complete with his sidearm. "I believe you'd like this, too?"
"You're giving me a weapon?" But he took it, of course. Gift horses, and all. He shrugged his jacket off to slip it on.
"Well, it's hardly going to hurt me, even if you tried. What's the harm? I'm sure you'll feel better." As Phil was putting his jacket back on, Loki added one word. "Besides..."
He frowned. "Besides what?"
"Remember that choice I said you'd get to make?"
He just nodded. Loki smiled very sharply and gestured back to the original portal. His doppelganger was working on the firing range. Target practice.
"With the blood link involved, your simulacrum can only function as long as you're alive. Just so you know."
Phil's expression fixed. The gun strapped to him had a weight it had never had before. Loki was laughing almost gleefully. Damn him. Damn him.
The reflection in the window of the Quinjet of Coulson working on his laptop was perfectly normal. Natasha was seated in front of Clint, piloting, and Bruce was sitting next to her. The op had gone without a hitch, but the Helicarrier had had to divert to take care of other business, so they were having to fly quite a ways back. Clint really didn't mind it. Not at the moment, anyway. He hadn't really gotten to talk to Coulson since the incident in the interrogation room. (Radio chatter on the job didn't really count. Unless it was one of those torturously long ops when he really had no other option but to wisecrack over the comm while sitting in one place for seventeen hours. That counted.) Under most circumstances, he probably would have by now, but this was one case where he was genuinely glad for the other man's tendency to compartmentalize. It gave him a chance to think.
What if the man sitting next to him, working away like usual, wasn't actually Coulson? He'd have to report it. He'd probably sound insane, because he hadn't been acting at all unlike Coulson, really. Maybe aside from that incident in the interrogation room. Would Fury really do anything based on one quick glimpse in a mirror that he hadn't been able to replicate? And if his suspicions were wrong, and Fury still did do something about it? Taking Coulson off of active duty while chasing down a speculation wasn't good for S.H.I.E.L.D., and it probably wouldn't be good for his own record. Not that he particularly cared about that sort of thing himself, but Phil did. And especially with the timing, who knows how he'd take it if Clint were just seeing things and acted on it?
But then... his instincts were screaming at him that something was seriously wrong, and when had he ever tried to talk himself out of what his instincts were saying? The damage that could be done if it wasn't Coulson and he let it be could be much worse than if it were and he said something. He'd understand that. He'd have to. Once they got back, he'd talk to Fury. And making that decision lifted a weight off his shoulders.
Not that there wasn't still plenty of weight. Because if it wasn't him, and he'd seen the actual Coulson behind the mirror... Well, recovering him would be a trick. Maybe they could get information from the fake on how to pull it off. If Loki-- it had to be Loki-- didn't just turn him off or whatever after he'd been discovered. Or even worse, just kill the real one. Of course, he was sure Fury would take that into account when deciding how to proceed. There was a reason the man was in charge, after all. He knew how to get shit done. So as big a concern as that was, it wasn't even his biggest. His biggest... well, there was no doubt in his mind that the actual Coulson behind the mirror could see him too. Could see what had happened. And if it wasn't him, how long had it not been him? How much of this was a lie, and if-- when they got him back, what would his reaction be to all of it? Not outwardly, of course. Clint knew well enough to know that Coulson would act extremely professional about the whole thing. But even though Clint could usually tell better than most what the man was thinking, he kept a lot below the surface. It was a bridge he'd have to cross when he came to it. And he'd have to trust himself.
His train of thought was brought to a halt when Natasha banked the Quinjet to the left suddenly, and cursed under her breath in Russian.
"What is it?" asked Banner, looking over at her curiously. "Evading something?"
"No," she said, voice tense as she worked at the panel. "I've lost navigational controls. Someone else is flying this thing."
Phil's hands were clenched into fists at his sides as he watched the scene before him. To their credit, the Avengers were doing a very good job at not panicking, given the circumstances. Romanoff had reported in, and they were troubleshooting from the Helicarrier. Banner, thank God, was being calm, and Barton, to his credit, was staying on top of the situation, scouting the horizon just in case an apparent target for the Quinjet showed up. He would say his own double didn't appear to be exacerbating the situation except for one thing. Phil certainly would have closed his laptop by now.
"What are you doing, Loki?"
The god stepped up next to him, smiling blandly. "I wouldn't say that's necessarily the question, now is it?"
"Of course not. What am 'I' doing, then?"
"Operating the vehicle. Wouldn't you say you're fully qualified?"
"I am fully qualified. We both know that's not me, although I don't doubt it's capable."
The god chuckled. "How kind of you to say so."
"Where is it taking them?"
"Oh, nowhere in particular. I just wanted to show I could do it. Do you know how many times I managed to work to delay your little organization's research and development team in order to keep them from pushing through the upgrades to the navigational systems that would have incidentally plugged the backdoor I'm using? And how many of those times I used your face to do it?"
"You were just delaying R&D this whole time?"
"Not just, but I did tell you that injuring the archer was only a convenient side benefit. Why focus on hurting one of the team when I can destroy a full half of them in one smooth stroke?"
Phil turned his head to look evenly at Loki. "There are enough safety backups in those jets that odds are good they'll be able to survive a forced crash. Especially Dr. Banner."
"The plane isn't going to crash, agent. What would be the fun in that? And it wouldn't be nearly as entertaining to have you watch. No, I'm going to give the controls back."
He blinked. "What?"
Loki gestured back at the portal. "This was just a bit of fun, after all. Watch and learn."
Phil looked as his double closed his laptop and the Quinjet lurched a bit once more. "Agent Romanoff," it managed while the techs on the Helicarrier were looking for another workaround. "It probably can't hurt to just try steering again."
Barton's eyes narrowed slightly as he turned his head to look at Phil's double, but Romanoff did so, and, as Loki said, the controls were back. She reported back in.
"That's a relief, Widow," came the report over the communication channel. "I'm going to ask you to make an emergency landing, though. There's a small airfield fifty klicks to the north-northeast. I'm sending the coordinates to you. Land there and disembark. We'll send a tech crew to try to figure out what happened and recover you all."
Romanoff voiced an affirmative and changed the bearing of the jet towards the airfield.
Phil frowned. "Correct me if I'm wrong--"
"Oh, you probably will be, but by all means, continue."
It took every ounce of his not inconsiderable self-control not to roll his eyes at the god. "But I'm pretty sure taking a detour doesn't really count as destruction."
"Of course it doesn't. I never claimed it did."
"And you're not crashing the jet."
"And they'll probably find the security hole and prioritize plugging it."
Loki grinned. "Almost certainly."
"Then where on earth does the destruction part come from?"
The god smiled almost indulgently at him, like he was a six year old who just asked something immensely obvious. "Probably from the part where you have half of the Avengers landing on a very lightly secured facility while tagging along with an armed simulacrum of their implicitly trusted handler who is being controlled by one of their chief adversaries. Wouldn't you say?"
He really couldn't help his eyes widening a bit as Romanoff started the approach. He had just asked something immensely obvious, hadn't he? Damn.
Clint was squinting out over the tarmac from behind his sunglasses as he relaxed on a bench nearish, and facing, the terminal building with Natasha and Bruce. Coulson, or what might be Coulson, had gone inside to coordinate with the sparse staff of the airstrip and planning the arrival of the techs. It wasn't exactly a hot day, but it was sunny and there wasn't a lot of shade around. The three of them were shooting out increasingly outlandish theories as to what exactly had gone wrong, up to and including alien influence and sabotage of the Quinjet via pudding in the engine. It helped keep the mood light, and they weren't going to be the ones to actually have to come up with the real answer anyway. He looked over at their reflections in the mirrored windows of the terminal and smiled a little. Not a bad afternoon, all things considered, really. Could be worse, anyway.
That's when he saw Coulson emerge from the building, carrying something in his right hand. He approached the three, and it resolved itself into one of those cardboard drink caddies. "ETA on the techs is about an hour. Here, guys." He started distributing drinks. "Bottle of water for Dr. Banner, and coffee for the rest of us. It's not bad, but I've had better." Clint and Natasha grabbed their cups and sipped at them. True, the coffee itself was kind of funky, but at least Coulson had put the exact right amount of sugar in his. It was the little things sometimes. If it wasn't actually Coulson, it was certainly a good replica. His gaze wandered back to the team's reflections. Nothing out of the ordinary. He looked back at Coulson, sipping his own coffee, and saw one of his patented almost-smiles playing around the corner of his mouth. He looked sharply back up and out at the reflections as he thought he saw a flicker out of the corner of his eye, but there was nothing. Might have just been the wind shaking the windows.
Coulson finished his coffee, crumpling the cup in his hand. "I'm going to go check out the Quinjet. You guys stay here. Might as well start mentally composing the incident report," he added wryly. At their nods, he walked past them back toward the jet on the tarmac, giving Clint a light clap on the shoulder as he walked by.
After he was out of hearing range, Natasha arched an eyebrow at him. "So?"
"Have you and Coulson finally gotten your acts together?" Bruce even looked over at that one, intrigued, and smiling a little. What, did the team have a betting pool? He wouldn't be surprised, he realized.
Clint blinked a couple times, head almost swimming, glad his eyes were safely obscured behind his sunglasses. "I have no idea what--"
"C'mon, Clint, how long have I known the two of you? And how long have you been dancing around each other? It just seems like you might have finally gotten on the same wavelength."
"I..." Under normal circumstances, he would have frankly copped to it, but these were definitely not most circumstances. "I don't know. Maybe. I'll keep you posted."
"You'd better..." She trailed off, squinting a little.
Clint frowned. "What is--" Wait. Now his head was swimming. He locked gazes with Natasha, and the stunned looks on their faces were probably practically mirror images as they dropped their coffee cups almost simultaneously. Fuck, they'd been drugged.
"What's wrong?" Bruce asked, expression quizzical. His water had obviously been fine.
He had to. He was growing more sluggish by the minute, but he had to say something in time. "Bruce, it's--"
Before he could even finish, though, Bruce let out a yelp and lifted a hand to the back of his neck where a tranquilizer dart had suddenly landed. The three of them stood shakily but didn't get a chance to turn as swinging around in front of them was what Clint now knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, if just a bit too late, was definitely not Coulson. And he was pointing his sidearm at them with a smile.
As he watched his double approach the waiting Avengers with coffee he'd seen it drug, Phil couldn't help but walk up to the portal, pressing his hands flat against it as if being that minuscule amount closer to them could help at all. His arms were trembling a bit, and it had nothing to do with the fact that the surface of the portal was somehow ice cold against his hands. Nothing at all.
Loki drew up next to him, crossing his arms and looking out, a thin smile on his face. "Such a tragedy, wouldn't you say? All that time you and your organization spent putting this team together. And all that time you personally spent working so that they actually worked as a team. And half of them will be gone in one stroke. Including the ones you've known the longest." He chuckled softly. "Better yet, it will be unequivocally your fault."
"That isn't me," he replied, pulling his armor of calm to him. "It never was me, it never will be me, despite what it looks like. This is not my fault, it's yours."
The god's laughter grew a bit at that and he stepped back and paced leisurely behind Phil and to his other side. "Perhaps I started the process, yes. But you certainly can't deny that I've given you both the knowledge and means to stop it if you truly want to that badly, can you."
His double was heading for the Quinjet and Barton and Romanoff were drinking their coffee, none the wiser. "What on earth does it gain you if I die?"
"Absolutely nothing. I lose a remarkably entertaining pet, a scheme I've put a remarkable amount of work into gets tossed to the wayside, and then I just have to come up with something else." Funny, he didn't sound terribly broken up about it. "Well, maybe not absolutely nothing. As I said, it gives you the opportunity to surprise me. Mortals really do not surprise me often. Predictable things, more often than not, and I am very clever. I've been watching you. And I'm hardly saying you're beyond sacrifices, because we both know that isn't the truth. But as much as you try to hide it, you also have a great deal of pride, and I know well how that feels. You'd die to protect your little team, of course. But would you die here in the dark by your own hand and have no one know of the sacrifice you made? That, I highly doubt." He grinned. "So there's another thing I gain. The chance to watch you watch yourself destroy the team you built. Knowing you can stop it, and knowing you don't have the strength to. Do you think that would break you? Or do you think I'd have to work at it a bit more? After all, then I could rebuild you, and having the genuine article working for you is so much better than a copy, no matter how skillfully made that copy is."
Phil didn't reply. The portal grew colder beneath his hands but he barely registered it. He just watched silently for a while. And he somehow managed not to smile. Loki's speech had quite precisely the opposite effect than intended. For all that he'd claimed to watch him, the god just proved how much he didn't understand about him. His double emerged and hit Banner with a tranq. They all rose to their feet. The scene almost appeared to be happening in slow motion. How could Loki have been so fundamentally wrong? He'd die in the dark for any one of the team. Even Stark, really. He didn't work tirelessly for recognition, he worked tirelessly to make the world a better place to be in, and a world with the Avengers in it was a better place. He looked at Loki. "If I do it... you won't stop me?"
The god raised his eyebrows. "Why would I? Your actions in this case are entirely your own. I leave the resolution of this situation entirely in your capable hands. Whatever you do, I swear I will not stop you."
Phil nodded. For the world, he could do this. He looked back at the portal, where his double was leveling his gun directly at Barton's forehead. For Clint, he could do it even more. Funny how, even more than the chance to live longer than this, he wished he'd known how he'd felt in time to tell him.
This would be over soon. Reaching for his gun, he gave the portal one last fierce, almost petulant kick.
So this is how it was going to end. So many years living on the razor edge of death and he was going to go out at the hand of something wearing Coulson's face. The tranquilizer was already making Bruce stumble to the ground. Natasha had to have gotten a hell of a dose because as tough as Clint knew she was, she was losing her footing and rather obviously trying to keep herself from sinking back onto the bench. Clint wanted to himself, but he was damn well not going to give the thing the satisfaction. He reached up with numbing fingers and pulled his sunglasses off, letting them drop to the ground and staring at the gun and the whatever it was holding it. "So," he managed so say. "Loki, huh?"
Not-Coulson arched an eyebrow. "Is it so out of the question that I just might be sick of the Avengers' shadow?"
"Yes. Loki, huh? Made some sort of double?"
"Observant as always, I guess. But this qualifies as a case of too little, too late, wouldn't you say?"
Clint squeezed his eyes closed for a moment to briefly stop the world from spinning before opening them again. "Is he alive?"
"For the moment. Whether he stays that way is another topic entirely."
He exhaled softly. "Don't kill him."
"Loki's not going to kill him. If he dies, this doesn't work anymore."
"Then... why wouldn't he stay that way?"
"Because." Not-Coulson gestured to his face. "He knows that. And you have his gun pointed at your head."
Dammit. Coulson, it's not worth it, don't. Don't. "Then why wouldn't Loki stop him?"
"Loki gets something he wants no matter what his choice is. He's good at that."
"And why aren't you killing us?"
"Giving him time to make his choice. One of you will have to live with his decision."
"So you get to just hang out and monologue? You know, that's more of a sign you're not Coulson than anything. Isn't that covered in Villainy 101?"
Not-Coulson shrugged. "None of you are in any condition to take me out." And that was true enough. Clint's knees were damn close to buckling, but he wasn't going to give Phil's evil twin or Loki the satisfaction. "The only one with the power to stop me is him."
As proof that sometimes the world has a very impressive sense of timing, right at that moment, there was a sharp crack of glass from behind not-Coulson. And then through a shattering terminal window stumbled one actual Phil Coulson, looking very briefly about as bewildered as Clint, and probably everyone in the vicinity, felt. Being Coulson, though, he recovered quickly. His hand was apparently already on his gun, which he drew and proceeded to empty its entire clip into the evil twin, which dropped like a rock in a pool of blood.
Clint's knees did give out, then, and he sank down to the bench, laughing in a mixture of delight and, frankly, hysteria. For all its spinning, the world was back on its axis. He wiped some splattered blood off of his face with the back of his hand and looked down at the body. "Guess you were right, buddy." He looked up at Coulson, who was approaching and looking back at the window every few steps. "Cutting it a little close there, weren't you, Coulson?" He smiled lazily.
Coulson's expression was especially inscrutable, even for him. "Cut the chatter, Barton." He approached his double and dug into his jacket, retrieving his cell phone. "I'm calling this in." He looked up and over at the three partially-lucid Avengers. "I apologize in advance, this is going to end up a hell of a debrief." He stepped away, businesslike as ever despite everything. Clint looked after him a while and then shared a weary smile with Natasha. It would be worth it. It would be so very worth it.
He had no idea how it had happened. He'd kicked the portal, just out of one last bout of frustration. But then it shattered and he almost fell on his face on the other side. To say he was surprised would be something of an understatement, because that had never even been an option that Loki had mentioned. Of course, surprise had to take a backseat when training kicked in. There was a threat, and the threat had to be neutralized. And Phil Coulson was more than happy to unload as many bullets as he had in that damn thing wearing his face, in lieu of being able to do it to Loki. Although, of course, it had to be wearing one of his favorite suits. Figured. But then, it wasn't anywhere near the sacrifice he'd prepared for, so he'd take it as a net win.
Phil walked up to the motionless husk that had been his doppelganger in order to retrieve his personal effects. Barton was chatting as usual, almost as if nothing had happened. He was almost tempted to laugh. Actually, he was tempted to do a lot of things, but there was a time and a place and this was neither. He had a hell of a lot of explaining to do to Director Fury. So he replied, tersely, automatically, and stepped away to call his boss with the status report from hell.
Interestingly enough, that phone call didn't last nearly as long as anticipated. He'd summarized what had just taken place as best he could, and asked for a team from medical to supplement the techs that were already on their way. Of course, Fury wouldn't let it go at that. The conversation, although shorter than he'd suspected it would be, ended exactly as he figured. "Coulson, when you get back, we'll be having a chat, and a full debrief. Understood?"
"Of course, sir. I'll be ready."
"I know you will."
He tucked his phone away, glad to have it back, and took a deep breath, centering himself. To say this day was out of the ordinary was definitely true. Of course, his job being the way it was, out of the ordinary was to be expected. Still, this had a special something.
"I'm impressed, agent," came a voice from beside him. A voice he'd heard far too much of recently. Right. Having this whole thing be over would be entirely too easy.
He looked over at the god next to him, jaw tightening. "You would show up when I'm out of ammunition."
Loki smiled thinly. "Shooting at me wouldn't harm me."
"Maybe not, but it would be wonderful stress relief." He couldn't make that sound as flippant as he would have ideally wanted. "I'm not going back. You'd have to kill me first."
The god shook his head. "I left the endgame in your hands. I challenged you to surprise me. Not only did you rise to that challenge, you exceeded it. You exploited a feature of the spell that I had discounted based on my observations of you."
"Did I? What was that?"
The expression that Phil got leveled at him at that was pretty much a masterclass in flat looks. "I am hardly going to be telling you everything. Suffice to say, you are capable of depths I had not seen as feasible. Congratulations."
"So that's it? I get a medal and go home a winner?"
"You get your life. You get the lives of your team. For now, at least. And I get a bit more information about the denizens of this realm than I had had before. It is a fair enough trade."
It was too good to be true. "I didn't think you were one for fair trades."
Loki chuckled, and lifted a hand, tapping Phil lightly on the center of his forehead, twice, with his index finger. "You place more value on the lives of four mortals than I do. Understandable enough, with one of those lives being yours, but nevertheless. But I'm sure it will settle the books in your head when I say that I'm really only done with you for now. Enjoy the extra time you won yourself. And stop thinking so hard."
"I could say something about pots and kettles right now."
Loki just chuckled and was gone in the time it took Phil to blink. He exhaled and turned to go wait with his team. Because he finally could.
Sometimes, a trip to Medical wasn't the harbinger of all things wrong with the world. Granted, those occasions were few and far between, but Clint figured he'd take 'em when he could get 'em. He and Natasha had already started recovering from the sedative in their coffees by the time the medical team had gotten there-- it apparently wasn't designed or dosed to be particularly long-lasting. The incident was supposed to be over quickly, and... well, it was. So when they actually got back to base, the checkup was quick, and they were cleared. Bruce was going to take a little longer, because his was necessarily a bit more potent.
Of course, then they had to go get debriefed by Sitwell, and that was... Well, at least Coulson would be back soon. For real.
When he was finally free to go, he found that Coulson, having been the one who'd been replaced with a double for who even knew how long, was still meeting with Fury. Made sense, he supposed. Clint promptly pulled up a chair across from the director's office and sat down to wait.
Oh, and wait.
Clint found himself feeling excessively glad that he had never had a debriefing go quite that long. And also glad he had prior experience in marathon sit-and-wait sessions. Sniper training had advantages in things other than sniping, it seemed. It was a few hours before Coulson finally emerged from Fury's office, and he looked like nothing less than a sponge that had been wrung out, left to sit on a sunny window ledge for a few days, tossed into the street, run over by a couple cars, and then dragged in by that metaphorical cat that dragged things in. Well, he looked perfectly fine, for a normal person, but Clint was observant and had spent a lot of time with Coulson. He had very little doubt that Fury had gotten every last inch of information possible out of him. He jumped to his feet. "He cut you loose, then?"
The agent opened his mouth once, closed it again, and just nodded. "Yeah. For now. But I'm off active duty until a lot of stuff gets unraveled."
Which meant he'd have to wait to get back to Coulson debriefings. Sitwell would probably be begging for Coulson to come back within a week. "So you're free now?"
Coulson headed off down the hallway. "For some definitions of free."
"Good. When was the last time you ate?"
"Exactly. You've just been through hell. And before that, you were kidnapped by a psycho mischief god. I'm buying you dinner. Let's go."
Coulson stopped short. And the fact that Clint could practically see all of his familiar walls sliding into place was almost promising. Because it means he thought there was a reason there'd need to be. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea. At least not at the moment."
Clint quite deliberately leaned forward and rested a hand on the other man's shoulder. "Too bad. Because there is no way you can get off saying there isn't a thing or two we need to talk about. And I also know that if I let you leave, we never will. And that could be tragic. Plus you'd sit at home eating ramen noodles, and that's just not healthy."
If he didn't miss his guess, Coulson was calculating the odds of being able to work through or around an extremely stubborn Clint Barton. And although most days he was rather skilled at it, he'd just been through a several-hour-long Fury debrief. He didn't have a chance. "Fine."
"Great. I know just the place. I promise you'll like it. I'm driving, too."
"Fine. Lead the way."
Clint grinned and headed for the door, keeping an eye on Coulson the entire way, just in case of ill-conceived escape attempts. Much to his relief, there weren't any and Coulson climbed into the passenger seat with no further protest.
Phil was fairly certain he had taken a brief leave of his senses when he'd agreed to let Barton drive. Still, he supposed it beat driving while getting directions, because he highly doubted the other man had Denny's and a Moons Over My Hammy in mind. He kept his gaze fixed out the side window. As much as he was completely confident it wasn't going to work, he really did not feel up to talking about what he really did know they would have to be talking about. Funny, how the things you wanted nothing more to say when on the brink of death became the last things you wanted to talk about when it appeared you were going to be alive for the foreseeable future. Maybe he was just tired.
And maybe Barton wasn't going to be accepting any excuses. Funny, that was usually his job. "Hm?"
"You wanna start or should I?"
Sheer instinct made him play it as even-keel as he could. "With what?"
Of course, he was mentally exhausted, and circumstances were against him. He didn't even have to look to know that Barton was rolling his eyes. "The inevitable question and answer session."
"Just had one of those, thanks." Even if he didn't personally indulge very frequently, the director was still masterful at debriefing.
"And yet I have a sneaking suspicion that what I'm planning on covering you managed to avoid bringing up to Fury."
True. "I told the director everything he needed to know." And some things he didn't strictly need to, but should probably know anyway. And some things that may have been completely irrelevant but he'd seemed interested. But there were a few things he knew were none of the above. Even more so since he knew they could be skewed to paint Barton in a very unfavorable light that he didn't deserve in this case. And those he managed to rather deftly keep back. It made the whole process even more taxing than it would have been otherwise.
"Yeah, exactly." Barton paused. "So that one day." He didn't even have to mention which one. Of course he was going right for the jugular. His aim was, as always, impeccable. "Did I actually see you?"
Phil sighed, still not looking over at him. "It seemed that way. I think so."
"You looked really rough at the time."
"Loki let me change the other day." The exact circumstances thereof didn't need to be brought up. Not for this. He'd had to go over that for one debriefing. And even if this didn't technically qualify, it had essentially the same goal.
"How nice of him. So could you see me? The entire time?"
"Only when you were near the double. My view centered around him. I saw quite a bit of you, though."
"No kidding." Barton's voice held a not-unfamiliar sardonic edge, but there was definitely more to it than just that.
"Don't worry about it. I'm hardly going to hold it against you." He didn't know, after all, just how much influence Loki may have had over Clint-- over Barton's state of mind at the time. He was hardly going to press the matter.
In the side view mirror, Phil glimpsed Barton looking over at him. "Like hell I'm not going to worry about it, Coulson."
That answered that. "Eyes on the road, please."
He complied, but still. "Stop derailing the conversation."
"Derailing? I've answered everything you've asked." Diverting would probably be the more accurate term. He didn't want to get to the meat of this conversation. He wasn't ready for the meat of this conversation. He could think of a thousand ways it could end very badly.
"You know what you're doing. But fine. I think I've gotten to know you at least a bit by this point, and I think I know what you might be concerned about. At least if some of your other concerns are what I hope they are." Barton pulled into a spot along the curb near a small Greek restaurant that Phil recalled having passed by a few times but never stopped at. "So I'm going to ask you one question, and it's important. Okay?"
Here it was. "Fine."
"When did the switch happen, exactly?"
All right, that was not the question he'd actually been expecting, and he turned to look at Barton for the first time since he'd gotten in the car, hoping he didn't look nearly as baffled as he felt. "Why?"
Clint was smiling, just a bit. "Just answer."
"Two days before the incident with the bow test. The first time you saw the double would have been when it asked you to visit R&D."
The other man's brow furrowed sharply for just a moment. "That makes a lot more sense than I wish it did." He'd have to ask about that. "But it's a good answer for me. It's a good answer for you, too. At least I hope it is."
"What do you mean by that?"
He got the distinct impression that Clint wanted to laugh. "What do you think I mean by that?"
"I honestly and truly have no idea."
"That's because your emotional constipation is showing. Listen to me, Phil." His eyebrows rose at that. When did Cl-- When did Barton ever use his first name? "It means that when I started to fall for you, it was actually you, and not the replacement. Get it?"
That was. Unexpected. Somehow.
The silence was deafening. The fact that Coulson hadn't had a quick and ready response made the risk Clint had just taken that much more worth it. He looked baffled more than anything, and Clint suspected that if he didn't at least partially think the same thing, he would have calmly and efficiently shot him down. It was anything but a guarantee, though. He was still taking quite a big risk here.
Fortunately, he liked taking risks.
Of course he wasn't done yet. "Of course, that doesn't make me any less pissed the hell off at Loki for tricking me that way. And even more pissed the hell off at him for doing that to you. But I can't think of a single thing I did with your double that I wouldn't -- much more happily-- have done with you."
Coulson still didn't reply. It was time to force the issue. "God knows I have issues with authority. But y'know, you're one of the few people I've legitimately respected from day one. And the time I've spent around you has only made it more so. And I don't know if the last few weeks has just been a whole lot of Loki fucking with me, but... listen, when I think back, I get the impression that you've been feeling the same way and we've just been dancing around the issue for a while."
He still didn't answer, but he was looking somewhat less poleaxed.
"I'm done dancing, Phil. There comes a time when you just have to fire and see where the arrow lands."
"You would use an archery metaphor at a time like this."
Clint grinned. "If the shoe fits. But I still don't know what's going on in that head of yours."
There was another long pause. Clint didn't think he'd have to fill the silence this time, though. Coulson was a much more deliberate guy when he spoke. Whatever he said, he'd want to say it right. Hell, he probably composed and proofread his words in his head like essays.
But then it came. "When Loki had me, I had to watch my life go on without me. It was, needless to say, unsettling. And a lot of what my double did is stuff I would have done anyway. But the variances... I've been having to look at those very closely. While being debriefed if nothing else. A lot of them were just acts of subtle sabotage that the division is going to be picking through for a lot longer than I would have preferred resulting from anything with my name on it, but not all."
He paused, and Clint knew it was his turn to be quiet. "But I was watching, I was always watching, and most of that time, that was it. I couldn't influence anything on this side of things. I was a silent and unnoticed observer. But exceptions are always where things get interesting. And there are two notable ones, and thinking back, I'm not positive there weren't more. There was the time you saw me. And then there was my escape. Loki said something..." He shook his head. "Well, I thought about what they had in common. It was you. The first time I was furious on your behalf, for being used that way. The second time, I was terrified for you. I was willing and ready to lay down my life so that you wouldn't have to. The spell that let me watch had a flaw. Loki didn't anticipate that I... that I had quite that much of an emotional connection. Of course, I didn't anticipate it either, so it's not entirely that surprising."
Clint smiled, just a bit. "So you're saying..."
"I'm saying that as angry as I still am at what happened too, at least the god of lies unwittingly let me figure out at least one truth. And I'm also saying that I'm really annoyed that you had our first kiss without me." And apparently with that, Coulson decided that he'd talked quite enough, because he took a firm hold of Clint's shirt, pulled him close, and kissed him soundly.
Kissing Coulson's double while he thought it was him was pretty satisfying. Kissing the real thing, though, for the very first time, was infinitely better.
He'd make sure to do a lot more of it.