They tell him rumors, little whispers that only hide part of the greater truth. He knows that it's the little reoccurring snippets, the small details that always remain the same, that will allow him to bring their team home. Coulson works tirelessly, tracking down legend and lies to find the smallest kernel of truth.
“No name," he tells Fury gruffly. "But I do have a location and motive. Supposedly it's a trophy collector, one that likes drugged, docile targets." he bares his teeth in a grimace, but Fury remains silent. Coulson understands; they don't need a name, they just need their team back.
“Permission to send a team for retrieval requested, Director Fury."
"Denied. Agent Coulson. Officially, we are under orders not to act. Unofficially, you know what to do."
Yeah, quite frankly, he does.
The building is ridiculously easy to break into. Coulson briefly wonders how the Avengers hadn't managed to escape yet, and then he remembers the rumors of drugging with a snort. They'd need to improve resistance training, because it seemed like their standards of resistance had been flagging as of late.
Coulson's footsteps echoed down the almost deserted hallway as he absentmindedly wished that all of their enemies were as half-assed as these ones. Sure, they'd stolen, drugged, and hid away his team, but it had happened before and this time they weren't being tortured for it to the best of his knowledge. He wonders if there's a point to this madness. It seems like the team thrives on getting into sticky situations, but when all of them were gone, it called into question little, important things like "what the fuck do we do now?"
He remains silent, following the crowd of drugged, senseless looking people. Trophies, all of them, he reflects as he slips into the door. He's sure that if he pauses to glance at the faces he can see, he'll recognize some of them.
But he doesn't need to recognize some of them. He's only here for six. His eyes constantly rove the area, looking for the ones he knows best while his senses scour all those he passes for danger.
He climbs the first set of stairs he sees, wading through milling crowds of drugged people. They part easily, so he sees no need to shove past them. Instead he drifts, inviting no attention beyond his purposeful walk.
It's strange that no guards have assembled, but Coulson remembers the major earthquake and resulting fires of the area. It was likely there had been an evacuation, and the men had planned to return later. He'd only encountered two on the way in, and he hasn't seen any tell-tale signs of security cameras watching his every move.
It's just the way he likes his enemies - sloppy and careless.
He isn't one to nitpick over his blessings.
As usual, he hears Stark before he sees him. Actually, he hears both Stark and Banner at the same time.
Crashes echo from down a supposedly deserted hallway, and Coulson picks up the pace.
When he reaches there, the issue has clearly been resolved. A naked, unconscious Banner lies on the ground, and a dazed looking Tony Stark crouches beside him.
"I haven't been bad," Stark cried instantly, but he protectively keeps his body between the approaching Coulson and defenseless Banner. "We've both been good."
Coulson takes in the swaying frame, the fading black eye, and Banner's too-thin body.
"I know," he tells Tony gently, quietly as he approaches the man. "Come on, Mr. Stark. It's time for both of you to go home."
If Tony's expression clears, it's only a little bit, but the man manages to getting his feet without much struggle. He refuses to let Coulson touch Banner, and the agent waits patiently while the strangely-vulnerable Stark rouses his friend. At last Banner's on his feet, then they set off.
After his initial success, things get much harder. Coulson wanders the building without any luck, occasionally asking the more clear eyed wanderers things like, "Have you seen a man in a skintight red, white, and blue uniform?" Other times he's more general, asking if they've seen a newcomer in the form of a lithe woman.
No answer comes, but he isn't expecting much. Sometimes it's just a matter of asking the right questions. "Archer" gets him nothing but an old man in the basement, and "shield" get him even less. But then he says "Trouble" and the stranger's eyes light up.
She leads him to a dark hallway that reeks of blood, and retreats. Coulson's left to pace forward alone, but that doesn't bother him. He's used to it. He thanks her with a nod, and slips down the hallway, his flashlight beaming over the walls.
There's a cell at the end of the hallway, and in that cell is a cot, and on that cot are two bodies.
Their resident lone wolves are curled up together - not in a romantic way, but in a protective fashion. Coulson snorts - he knows Barton and Romanoff would practically trip over each other in their haste to protect their companion, so the positioning isn't much of a surprise. It's part of the reason the Avengers are both fragile and strong.
He takes only a few brief seconds to get the door open and he steps through, Tony following closely at his heels like a stray whose trust has been won over.
"This is the bad place," Tony whispers quietly, his voice innocent from whatever he has been dosed with. Coulson feels a prickle of anger that he forces away with a small shiver. It's strange to see Tony, who normally conceals his emotions inside a steel high-security vault with walls ten feet thick, opening up so easily. He sounds almost... vulnerable.
"I know," he tells the consultant, honestly ringing in his tones. "That's why we're getting them out of here."
Tony remains mercifully silent and Coulson tries to work out the best way to transport the two. He knows Tony won't be able to carry another, and it's a miracle he's managed to haul Banner this far.
But he doesn't need to because the second he takes another step forward, Natasha's eyes fly open as if he's violated a no-fly zone. She snarls at him and he realizes that perhaps they dosed her with something different than the others. He reflects that she must have been lying in wait, because she springs at him without hesitation, nails raking into the flesh immediately below his chin. He shoves her away just as Clint utters a low groan.
Natasha skitters backward, her stance protective as she crouches between the bed and the agent. She doesn't move, her entire body is locked in place as she stares down Coulson.
He doesn't have time for her nonsense. He steps forward and this time he's prepared for the savage but uncoordinated attack. Swiftly he snatches her hands in midair, gripping them harshly as he knocks her to the floor.
"Agent Romanoff," he says, voice flat. "Calm yourself."
"Can I slap her?" Tony asks quickly, his voice still remarkably devoid of fear. Natasha jerks against Coulson's hold, but still can't shake him loose.
"Go ahead," Coulson says, almost smiling because he's more than a little amused. Stark jumps forward to smack his palm against Natasha's face. The Widow snarls, then snaps her head forward and catches Stark's hand in her teeth. He howls, and Coulson sighs.
"Agent Romanoff, drop it," Coulson snaps like he would snap at a dog or small child. Natasha flinches and slowly, to his ever-lasting amazement, opens her mouth to release Tony. Stark scrambles back, cuddling his hand against his chest, eyes cleared slightly as pain and adrenaline shake loose some of the drug. Coulson grumbles with annoyance as Stark childishly nudges the seemingly-comatose Banner with a foot.
He returns his gaze back to Natasha and realizes that she's still scarily silent and still, eyes narrowed to take in his movements.
"Are you listening to me?" he asks and is gratified to see her nod in reply. "I'm taking you home." His words are a soft, encouraging croon, and relief flickers in her eyes as her body marginally relaxes. He wonders if it's the tone of voice or some part of her recognizing Coulson that causes it. "Can you carry Clint?" he adds, crouching down to look at her.
A nod is all the answer he gets, all the answer he needs. The Black Widow keeps her body between Clint and the others, but follows the group down the hall. Coulson finds one side of his mouth turning up in a smirk as he tries to imagine how to describe this in his mission report. Director Fury, we proceeded down the hall and played a game of follow-the-leader... No, that wouldn't quite work. Maybe 'in a strange parade, I led the others down the hall to find Captain Rogers and Thor' would go over better
Neither of the two sounds quite right, so he continues to try to formulate his report as they silently creep through the complex. As he takes a random turn, they encounter a pair of guards. Coulson doesn't hesitate - he leaves one in the ground and has the other one pinned against the wall with a knife slashing across his throat before Natasha can even begin to dart forward.
He sets off again without a word, leaving the others to trail behind him.
"Tasha... what?" Clint slurs at one point and Coulson hears a whisper of Russian from Natasha in response. The archer relaxes and goes still once again, leaving Coulson to try to think of where Steve and Thor could possibly be.
The answer dawns on him after a few moments and then he leads them outside and to the small outbuilding he'd spotted earlier. It hadn't seemed important at the time - it was nondescript, the windows were barred, and it probably was guards' barracks back before they'd all fled.
Coulson kicks a log blocking the doorway out of the way and raps on the wood.
He frowns and pushes on the door. It only budges a few inches, just enough for him to poke an eye through the crack and yank his head back seconds later.
"Captain Rogers!" he calls as something thuds into the door and the wood narrowly misses snapping shut on his hand. "Odinson!"
No answer, and he scowls.
It's time to get creative.
Coulson points at Widow, who tenses, and then he points to the door. He's not sure this will work, but it's worth a shot.
"You want to do the honors?" he asks cautiously.
She needs no more encouragement then that. Her fast lunge surprises even him, and then her body is crashing through the wood and sending it flying open. She lands in a crouch, and dodges a mug hurled at her. She darts forward, and there's the sound of heavy crashing.
Why couldn't the Avengers ever get through a mission without destroying a building?
Coulson places two fingers in his mouth and blows. The shrill whistle echoes through the air, and he raises an eyebrow as even Clint, who had been placed on the ground by Natasha moments prior, jerks into semi-awareness.
It's the signal they'd all learned, the signal that always means, Coulson's pissed.
The room quiets and he clears his throat. Natasha slips back toward him, an annoyed look on her face as she returns to Barton's side. Coulson traces her footsteps into the other side of the room, where his gait falters.
Thor is fine - he's the one that's been lobbing things at them left and right. It's Captain Rogers who suffered the most, he realizes.
The man's tied to the ground, but that's easily not the worst thing. The Captain's had wire cords strung through his hands, tangling in and out of his flesh for a purpose Coulson isn't immediately aware of. Even as Coulson watches, he can see the wires shifting ever so slightly in his hands, probably moved around by Steve's gradual healing. They drove the metal into his skin just so they could watch his body try to heal around the foreign body. It probably gave them some sort of sadistic pleasure that the doctors were going to need to cut the wires out before Steve could start healing all over again. Coulson's gaze flickers to Thor's blood-stained hands, and he winces as he realizes what Thor must have tried to do. The Captain's face is white - from blood loss or pain, Coulson doesn't know.
He doesn't care either.
All he cares about is getting them the hell out of here.
"Stark, are you coherent?" Coulson asks as he glances back at Tony. The man's still reeling, but his gaze turns to Coulson after a moment. Most of the fog has been pushed away, but he's still obviously having issues focusing.
"...Mostly?" the man asks, and it sounds like a question. It's enough for Coulson.
"Help me get him loose," Coulson says as he points to the shackle fastened around Rogers' ankle. Stark moves forward, ignoring Thor who's startlingly docile. Whether it's drugs, recognition, or the fact that Natasha's licking her lips and staring at him, obviously spoiling for a fight, Coulson doesn't care to know.
They get Steve free, and then Coulson leads his band across the field, feeling like a teacher retrieving wayward students after a field trip. He knows Steve isn't going to bleed out - the man's body is trying to compensate for the scabs that keep ripping open every time he twitches one of his hands - but he still takes the time to pull off Barton's shirt and begin to bind the Captain's hands before he turns back to Hawkeye. It's then that he notices the deep, circular cut on the man's stomach, and he barely resists the urge to groan.
One piece. That's all he's asking. For the entire fucking team to be in one piece next time he retrieves them.
Coulson makes sure everyone's ready to go, then he leads them to the helicarrier and in just a few minutes they're flying back to HQ.
Later Coulson sits back at his desk and looks at the simple report on the desk in front of him.
Team home and recovering. All safe.
He signs his name with little flourish, clicks off the lights, and heads out.