One of the earliest truths learned by the children of heroes is the simple, universally accepted fact that Thor tells the best stories.
“I wanna hear about Agent Coulson!”
“The Son of Coul has done many great deeds, child. Of which do you wish to hear?”
“The time he pretended to be dead!”
“Yeah! And then he came back to rescue Hawkeye.”
“I don’t like that one. It’s sad.”
“Peace, little ones! I will tell you this tale, for it is one of my favorites as well.
“The people of Midgard know not of Phillip, Son of Coul, the great Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I say to you that his name is known throughout the stars, called out in song in every realm. He is known as Fire-Wielder, Loki’s Bane, He Who Stands Before Gods and Does Not Fear. His deeds are too many to number, each greater than the last, but I shall tell you the most wondrous of all, how Coul’s Son did cheat death itself and leave the halls of Valhalla for the sake of his most beloved warrior.
“It was in the days that Loki Laufeyson, the Crownless Prince who is called Mischief-Maker and Lie-Smith and who was once my brother, did seek to rule great Midgard through tyranny and treachery. Desperate to preserve his world, Fury One-Eye, Master of S.H.I.E.L.D., called upon the mightiest of Earth’s heroes to defeat cruel Loki.
“The champions Fury named were Stephen of Rogers, a noble leader known as Captain of the land America, Anthony the Stark, called the Man of Iron, the wise and learned Bruce Banner who is also the fearsome Hulk, Natalya Romanova, known as Black Widow, as beautiful as she is deadly, and, finally, the stalwart Clinton, called Barton, the greatest marksman of all Midgard, with eyes like the cunning hawk.
“I, Thor Odinson, The Thunderer, Prince of Asgard, did join them in their fight against Loki Once-Brother and was proud to stand beside them, for never had such warriors assembled in common cause.
“But, for all their strength, these champions were as children and did squabble and make enemies of each other. This brought joy to wicked Loki, who used his magic to further divide them. The loyal Son of Coul, whose courage was matched by his wisdom, saw that the six heroes who would avenge the Earth were in need of a hero of their own, that a sacrifice was required to bind them together as they were meant.
“So it was that Phillip Fire-Wielder, though he was but mortal and frail, did lift the largest weapon in all of S.H.I.E.L.D. and went alone to stand against Loki, Sower of Discord.
“But one mortal man is no match for a god, no matter how strong his heart, and Phillip, Son of Coul, fell that day in battle, slain by Loki’s treacherous hand.”
“I don’t like this story. It’s too sad.”
“He’s not really dead, stupid.”
“Don’t call me stupid!”
“Yes, child. Such insults are cruel and unbecoming.”
“Sorry, Uncle Thor.”
“You are forgiven. And do not weep overmuch, little one, for it takes more than one spiteful Asgardian to destroy the Son of Coul. Do you wish to hear of his return?”
There is, of course, a chorus of assent.
“Then keep your peace and be still. I have told you of his courage, now I will tell you of the love that gave him strength enough to defeat death.
“We heroes mourned our brave friend and came together to avenge him, as he had known we would. Loki was defeated, Midgard saved, and justice was wrought in the name of Coul’s brave son.
“But his loss was felt more deeply than we champions could have known, for Phillip God-Defier was beloved of the fair and valiant Barton, the Hawk-Eyed Archer, Clinton Far-Sighted, called Avenger, whose aim and heart are ever true, and who Thor Odinson proudly names brother.
“Their love was forbidden, though no less strong for being hid, and there was no mask in all the realms that could have concealed fair Clinton’s grief. He did attempt, as warriors do, to keep his pain encircled with walls of bravery and mirth, but it did not require the eyes of a hawk to see that there was no joy in his laughter.
“You see, little ones, the Hawk-Eyed warrior had been poisoned by Loki’s magic, and, for a time, his mind had not been his own. So enchanted, he was made to do dreadful things, even to raise his hand against fierce Natasha, who had ever been his dearest friend.”
“I bet she kicked his ass!”
“She did indeed, child, though it pained her much to do it. Now, be silent.
“When mournful Clinton woke from Loki’s spell to find his lover vanquished, his stalwart spirit did shatter beneath the weight of grief unmeasured. Despite the anguish in his soul, Barton the True did not abandon his friends and rose to defend Midgard in her need. Indeed, it was he who held an arrow between the eyes of Loki as the Lie-Smith was brought to justice.
“Still, even the sweet taste of a battle well-fought and won cannot dispel the bitterness of loss, and strong Clinton was overcome with sorrow. The magic’s harm had left a deep mark, and his terrible grief drove him deeper into darkness until his hawk’s eyes could see no light.
“His brothers and sister in arms did all that we could to raise his troubled soul, but our efforts were for naught. Even the jabs and jests of the Man of Iron, who is cleverest of us all, could not bring a true smile to Clinton’s fair face, and he who had leapt heedless from high places and whose arrows had flown ever true did fade into a shadow of himself, becoming ill to the point of death.
“From the vast halls of Valhalla, where only the most valiant warriors dwell in the life beyond, the great Son of Coul looked upon the despair of his beloved and was vexed. What joy was there in paradise when such pain was wrought below? How could the dreams of the Hero’s Sleep be aught but bitter when all that had been sweet in mortal life turned sour with sorrow?
“So Phillip Loki’s Bane called upon Odin All-Father, king of Asgard and Valhalla and the Nine Realms, and did what he had never done before any being in his glorious mortal life. Phillip, Coul’s Son, God-Defier, Fire-Wielder, beloved above all else by Clinton Hawkeye, bowed his head and knelt.
“‘What troubles you, Son of Coul?’ asked the All-Father, who is wise and compassionate.
“‘All-Father, my heart is broken. Even in vast Valhalla, where all should rejoice, I find no peace. Great Odin, I have known one love in all my mortal time: an archer unsurpassed, faithful and fair, whose joy was all my pleasure on Earth. Now my love lies broken. Magic and grief have brought him low, and I fear that he may die of it.’
“This the brave warrior did confess, and he wept as he spoke.”
“No way! Mister Coulson doesn’t cry, and he wouldn’t ever kneel to anybody.”
“And he doesn’t talk like that, either.”
“To weep and be humble out of fear for one’s beloved is no shameful thing. Nay, I say thee that the noblest of all are those with the tenderest hearts. As well, the Son of Coul is wise enough to speak to gods with due respect. Are you?”
“Sorry, Uncle Thor.”
“Please finish the story?”
“I will do my best, but you must listen to hear it.
“Then gentle Odin said to him, ‘All that live must die. You know this, as any soldier does.’
“Coul’s Son looked upon the All-Father with eyes overflowing, in anguish for his love. ‘If he dies in this way, then he may not pass into this land of heroes. If he dies in this way, he will be lost to me forever. Such a death, I could not bear.’
“And Odin thought of his own wife, the lovely Frigga, and was moved. ‘What would you ask of me, Son of Coul?’
“‘Save him,’ begged brave Phillip. ‘Heal him. Cure him of this magic poison and restore his hope.’
“The All-Father was sorrowful. ‘This, I cannot do.’
“‘Then give me leave to return to Midgard and bar me from Valhalla. I would sooner dwell an hour more with him in any hell than play at merry-making until Ragnarok.’
“The bold Son of Coul knew what it was he asked, and wise Odin, who knows men’s hearts, saw that nothing would dissuade him.
“‘You have my leave, then, but be warned. Once the path is undertaken, you may not return. You will end your journey at the side of your beloved or else not at all.’
“For the first time in an age, Coul’s Son did smile and spoke truly, ‘That has always been the way of it.’
“And so did Phillip God-Defier forsake his warrior’s reward and set out from great Valhalla, seeking a way across the stars that would bring him at last to his true home, in the embrace of valiant Clinton, whose far sight had grown so dim.”
“That’s so romantic.”
“Uncle Thor, are you crying?”
“I weep in sorrow at the memory and for joy in what came after.”
“Did Mister Barton cry?”
“No, child. The magic was too strong and his pain too deep for tears to come. He suffered silently, though never alone.
“Fearless Natasha, who loved him best, was many hours beside him after the sickness had taken hold, and she was oft joined by noble Stephen. The learned Stark and Banner spent days and weeks seeking what aid their science might yield, and I, Thor Odinson, scoured the realms for any magic that might soothe my fallen friend.
“Yet while we toiled in vain, Phillip, Son of Coul, Avenger-Brother, last lover of the Hawk-Eyed Archer, made his way through the realms and carried with him the only hope of saving his beloved.”
“How did he get through space without the bifrost or a ship?”
“I know not, Son of Stark. No doubt he was aided in his journey.”
“I know not. Perhaps you should ask the fearsome Coul’s Son, Fire-Wielder, how exactly it was that he departed from the realm of warrior dead and returned to mortal life.”
“He wasn’t really dead, though.”
“Are you certain of this? The Son of Coul is a clever man, honorable indeed but as cunning as Loki. Are you certain he would not find a way to escape the land of death?”
“Well, no, but-”
“Then be silent, and let me tell you of how he at last returned to Earth with the aid of the very heart he sought to heal.
“For in his fitful sleep, fair Clinton dreamed. He dreamed of dreadful things, nightmares too terrible to tell, but also he dreamed of his beloved Phillip, for whose strong hands and kind eyes he did so long. It was in such dreams that Phillip Realm-Walker called to him, and Clinton called in return, his love a beacon among the bright stars.
“But mortals were not meant to walk twice through the living world, and at the very threshold of great Midgard, brave Phillip, Son of Coul, found that his way was barred by Hel, Daughter of Loki, Guardian of the Dead.
“‘Halt, brave soul!’ said wretched Hel. ‘Your time in this realm is ended. You may dwell here no longer.’
“Undaunted, Coul’s Son declared, ‘I have traveled far, sweet goddess, across the stars and the Nine Realms, having departed vast Valhalla by Odin’s leave. My journey has been long and the way fraught with troubles, but now I stand a scarce hand’s breadth from the source of all my joy. My beloved is within my sight, and I will not be turned away.’
“His words were bold, but the cries of mortals beyond number have fallen to no avail upon the ears of Hel, who is ever unmoved.
“‘Your time in this realm has ended. You may dwell here no longer.’
“It was a cruel thing, to have journeyed so far only to be halted here, but the faithful heart of Barton the True called out to him across all distance, so Phillip God-Defier was resolved.
“‘Good and noble Hel, I have known one love in all my mortal life, and he lies dying. If you keep me from him, his valiant soul will pass to a place I cannot follow, and all that was ever sweet and fair will be lost to me. I have forsaken my place in Valhalla and would forsake all that ever was or could be mine, only let me go to him. Let my touch soothe his spirit, and let my lips draw Loki’s poison from him.’
“With such passion did the Son of Coul plead, but Hel has heard all pleas before and did not waver.
“‘Your time in this realm has ended. You may dwell here no longer.’
“Despite her words, Phillip Realm-Walker, last lover of Clinton Far-Sighted, would not be swayed. He told the dour goddess of his beloved, fair and fearless Clinton, called Hawk-Eyed, called Avenger, whose aim and heart are ever true and whose love is like a blade to cut through all despair, fierce and sharp as the finest sword. Coul’s brave son spoke of Clinton’s deeds, both great and small, of his courage and his kindness. He told unmoving Hel of Barton, the unmatched archer, hero of Midgard, and of Clinton, brash and smiling, who is faithful above all things. He spun the tale of their first meeting and of the first touch of trembling lips, of blood spilled and of battles fought with shoulders pressed together. All that was in his broken heart did spill from his tongue, 'til the Son of Coul had offered up all he had ever known of treasured Clinton, to the very color of his eyes at sun’s rising.
“His words were such that even Hel, who has heard all the stories of men, felt herself touched. Even so, her duty and her answer did not change.
“‘Your time in this realm has ended. You may dwell here no longer.’”
“Why is she so mean?”
“She’s just doing her job.”
“Just so, Son of Stark. Hel is not, by nature, cruel. She does as she must to keep the universe in balance, and truly she felt sorrow for bold Phillip and brave Clinton.
“But the Hawk-Eyed Archer was nearing the end of his strength. A terrible agony came upon him, and he shook and cried out. He called the names of those he had loved, as though to summon them in his hour of need. With unshed tears in her steely eyes, fierce Natasha held him close, and the mighty Avengers gather round, helpless to aid their brother.
“All this, Phillip God-Defier did see, and untold rage grew within him. He had forsaken Valhalla and walked the Nine Realms, and he had not suffered thus to watch his lover die within his reach. Weaponless, the Son of Coul raised his hands and attacked Hel, Loki’s Daughter.
“Now, Coul’s Son, called Fire-Wielder and Loki’s Bane, had ever been a formidable warrior, but he had learned once that no mortal may stand alone against a god. The truth of this remained, and solemn Hel beat him back with a touch.
“Seeing he could not best her with strength, cunning Phillip sought to slip past her. But gods see clearer than men, and Hel barred every path that he would take.
“‘You are strong and admirable, mournful mortal,’ she said. ‘But your time in this realm has ended. You may dwell here no longer.’
“In the living world, Clinton Hawkeye thrashed in anguish, as if knowing his beloved was near, and Phillip, who had stood against gods and who feared nothing in all the realms but the loss of fair Clinton, could bear it no longer. In life, his fine speech and honest manner had ever availed him, and his warrior’s skill prevailed where words could not. Now, when he was most in need, both words and war had failed.
“Defeated and desperate, bold Phillip, Son of Coul, fell to the ground and wept. He beat upon his breast and screamed defiance at the stars. In his wild grief, his gaze stayed fixed on his constant archer, and Clinton Far-Sighted, seemed to stare across the distance of death into his eyes. Hel, who has witnessed many lovers rent asunder, saw their reaching eyes and Phillip’s tears and knew this was no common love.
“‘Your time in this realm has ended, o fallen hero. You may dwell here no longer, but I will permit you a moment, here in my land, to bid your beloved farewell.’
“So solemn Hel did lift fair Clinton out of mortal Midgard and brought his sorrowing soul into that place of death that he might stand once more beside his dearest Phillip. Weeping, the two warriors embraced, and Barton the True did shower kisses upon the brow of Coul’s brave son.”
“Why do you wail, child? Does love so disgust you?”
“No, but kissing is gross.”
“It’s not gross. It’s nice.”
“It’s gross and wet and I don’t wanna hear about my dads kissing.”
“You should not dishonor your fathers with such protests. I shall tell my hero-brother Barton of your displeasure.”
“No! Geez, no. Uncle Thor, please don’t tell him I said that.”
“Would you get in trouble?”
“No, you don’t understand. He’d think it was funny.”
“You remember that time with the pinata?”
“Fear not, little one. I shall not speak of this to him, and I am certain your thoughts of kisses will change much when you are grown. Perhaps they shall even be transformed by the ending of this tale, for it was a kiss which changed the warriors’ fate.
“The Son of Coul spoke words of comfort to brave Barton, saying, ‘We have but little time, o ocean at my shore. We ought not waste it weeping.’
“He did speak thusly, though his own eyes were filled with tears. The strength of valiant Clinton had returned in this realm of the dead, but the poison touch of Loki’s magic haunted him still. This could wise Phillip see, and his heart broke a thousand times over for the sake of his beloved.
“‘What time there is shall never be enough,’ said the fair archer. ‘All moments from this to the very last cannot be enough, though I intend to claim every one. Only say how it is that you have come to me, for you should be in far Valhalla, where fallen heroes dwell.’
“‘From Odin’s shining hall, I saw you, who was ever my joy, sick unto the point of death, and I feared you would succumb to grief and enchantment and slip into dark realms where I could not follow. Valhalla held no hope for me if you were not to join me there. By leave of the great All-Father, I did depart that place, never to return, and travelled far across the stars to bring you love and comfort, to cast away your bleak despair that you might yet live an age and do many more deeds for all the worlds to sing of.’
“And Clinton Hawkeye, the valiant archer, whose aim and heart are ever true, could not believe what he heard. For his own worth was unknown to him, even in the eyes of bold and honest Phillip, and he was moved beyond measure to know he was so loved.
“‘You walked the realms and forsook paradise to come to me with words? Nay. Words may please my ear, but they will not warm my bed or ease my furrowed brow.’ The far-sighted warrior then put his strong arms about his beloved and declared, ‘I thought never to see you again in any realm. Now you have returned to my embrace, and no power yet devised will tear you from me. This I do swear upon my soul.’
“Wretched Hel, daughter of Loki, looked upon their grasping and was pained. ‘His time has ended. He may dwell here no longer,’ she told fair Clinton sadly. ‘Your time draws now to a close, but you are bound for another place. It is a cruel fate which keeps you parted, but that is the way of things.’
“Coul’s brave son was distraught and turned away, for he could not bear to have come so far for naught, but Barton Bright-Hearted scoffed. ‘Fate is nothing to me,’ he said. ‘Nor the decrees of feckless gods. All that I believe is here beside me now, and nothing shall divide us ‘til the last of all worlds has spun away into darkness.’
“Then he pressed his lips to his beloved Phillip, Realm-Walker and God-Defier, and they shared a kiss so deep that their two hearts ceased to be single things and were as one. Try as she might, mournful Hel with all the strength of death could not bring them asunder, for they had ever been one soul and had now become one life.
“Vexed, she called upon wise Odin, who saw the lovers entangled and commanded, ‘Let them be, gentle grand-daughter. Return them both to mortal Midgard where their love and loyalty might be a light to all.’
“And so it was that Phillip, Son of Coul, did return from death to live out his span on Earth with Clinton, the Hawk-Eyed Archer, for whom he had given all, and there was much rejoicing among the heroes of Midgard. In the age that followed, the warrior-lovers did many wondrous things, deeds worthy of song, and still defend their realm to this very day.”
“But he was never really dead!”
“No, listen! My dad told me. It was an LMD. Mister Coulson wasn’t really dead. He was just hiding out, and then he came back.”
“Did your father also tell you why it was that the Son of Coul returned?”
“Well, no. I mean, not really.”
“And I say thee, Son of Stark, that it was for the sake of good Barton that bold Phillip shook off the chains of death. Whether his mortal frame did perish or was saved by mechanical tricks makes no matter. It does not alter the cause of his return or diminish the love which drove him. Both you and your noble sire would do well to recall that the veracity of a tale is not what makes it true.”
Neither Thor nor the children notice Phil as he smiles and slips away from his place at the door. Later, he sighs at Clint and says, “I swear that story gets worse every time he tells it.”
Clint, predictably, laughs. “If by ‘worse’ you mean ‘more awesome’. That story makes you sound like fucking Gilgamesh.”
“I don’t really fit the part of an epic hero.” He slides his fingers around Clint’s arm, remembering a time when that warm skin was pale and cold, the veins shot through with poisonous magic.
“Yeah, well.” Clint gives him a bright smile. “You’re my hero.”
Phil rolls his eyes, though he can’t help but smile back. Clint, predictably, laughs and kisses him.