Clint's been putting on a good show around the others, but Natasha is not an idiot. She knows he's clinging to his cool façade as hard as he can, but it can't last forever, and Crowley isn't giving up. His voice is in her head too, day and night, a soothing whisper calling her home.
The king of Hell is trying to rally his forces. She doesn't blame him, of course. It's the smart thing to do in his precarious position, and quite frankly, she's wishing him all the best of luck. She knows who's next in line for the throne if he fails, and if given the choice, she'd rather be forced to serve under him than the she-beast beneath him. Crowley plays the game with skill, and she can at least respect that about him if nothing else. The other is a poisonous snake who only knows how to pile shiny lies on top of each other, and she was trained in the art of torture by the same demon who broke Natasha so long ago. For that reason alone, Natasha wishes the most painful death possible on the little bitch.
Anyway, the politics and machinations of Hell are enough to give anyone a headache, and for Clint, she knows it's worse. He hasn't slept in days, and he's twitchy in ways she hasn't seen since they first escaped the pit together. His usual therapy is to go to the shooting range and practice, but she hasn't seen him shoot his bow even once since it started. They're both strong enough to easily resist Crowley's magicks, but Clint is still breaking apart inside because of it, and she can't watch it anymore. They have enough problems to deal with already, and Natasha lacks the patience to play therapist.
Instead, she does what she should have done days ago and goes to Coulson.
She's been to see him a few times since Clint told him the truth about what they were, and she's been gratified to note that their dealings have remained as they've always been; calm and affable, none of the fear or stiltedness she may have expected if she'd thought a little less of him.
But this is the first time she's gone to him with the intention of talking about Hell, and she isn't sure what to expect. She knows he cares for Clint though, cares for him more deeply than Clint will ever allow himself to believe, and right now, that's enough to reassure her.
"Agent Romanov," he greets when she steps into the office. "What can I do for you?"
She doesn't waste time. "Clint needs your help." While he blinks over that statement, she folds herself into the chair he keeps next to his desk.
"Help with the others?" Coulson asks, regarding her very seriously. "Is one of the team causing problems?" He sounds like he's been waiting for that particular complaint.
"No, nothing like that," she says, mentally tacking on the yet because, well, Steve still won't so much as look at either of them and it's been nearly two weeks. "This is a bit more personal."
He leans back in his chair, waiting for her to continue. She's always respected that about him, his ability to stay silent where others would crowd the room with unnecessary words. Allowing her to speak at her own pace.
"The current ruler of Hell is causing some unexpected problems. He's trying to get as many demons back there as he can, rounding them up like cattle. It's not an easy feat, given how many of us are up here, and a good number, myself and Clint included, are old enough and strong enough to remain mostly unaffected." She pauses.
"I sense there's a 'but' here," Coulson says.
She allows the corner of her mouth to twitch into a half-smile, an acknowledgement. "But, the spell he's using, magick unique to his position, is all in the mind. We hear it like a whisper, a command he's speaking right to our core selves. There's no blocking it, no matter how strong we are. Even if we can resist, we can still hear it, as often as he means us to."
There's the concerned glint in his eyes she's been waiting for. They've both read Clint's reports from last year. They both know how Loki's magic worked.
"I imagine Agent Barton isn't handling it too well," Coulson murmurs.
"No." Natasha watches him, waiting.
"Well." He stands from his desk, taking his jacket from the back of his chair and waving her toward the door. "Lead the way." He doesn't even spare a glance for his half-completed paperwork.
Natasha graces him with a rare, warm smile and does as she's told.
She tells herself that they both know what she is, and if they hadn't wanted her to spy, then they should have found a more secure place to talk. It's a weak justification, but Natasha worries about Clint, and while she trusts Coulson to straighten him out, she can't help but want the comfort of seeing it for herself.
So she spies. She refuses to feel remorseful over it.
"Natasha sent you, didn't she?" is the first thing Clint says when Coulson sits next to him on the edge of the rooftop overlooking the city.
"I'd have come on my own soon enough," Coulson replies, and she knows it's the truth.
"She tell you what's going on?" Clint won't even look at the other man.
"She told me enough." Coulson hesitates for only a fraction of a second before he places a hand on Clint's arm. "It's different, Clint. You're not going to lose yourself this time."
"You don't know that," Clint growls.
"Of course I do." Coulson's voice is even, calm, nothing more or less than a statement of fact. "The only reason it happened the first time is because Loki's magic was too alien for you to defend against. From what I understand, that's not true this time, or you'd already be gone."
Even from her vantage point, Natasha can see the way Clint's jaw clenches. "But what if –"
He's cut short by the voice in his head. She knows because it's in hers as well, a cool voice with a rich accent that whispers, Come home, darling. Come home and you'll be rewarded. Come home. The king of Hell has incredible timing, she'll grant him that. The command slides under her skin, through her veins, settles in her head and her chest and beckons to her. She stands motionless, every muscle locked tight, and waits for silence. Forty feet away, Clint moans, lowers his head to his hands and curses Crowley in five different languages, three of which she taught him herself.
She sees it, when Coulson turns Clint toward him with a gentle touch. She knows what's coming well before she thinks Clint does. When Coulson's fingers drift down his cheek and his lips find Clint's, it's like the whole world goes still, waiting with baited breath for what will happen.
It takes only moments for the awful tension to go out of Clint all in a rush. He makes a sound not unlike a whimper, something she may have to mock him endlessly for later. She sees the way he loses himself in Coulson, the way Coulson instantly becomes his safety net against their would-be puppet-master king.
Crowley will have no power over Clint while Clint has Coulson. Just as she'd suspected, Coulson will keep him grounded, and he won't let Clint fall back to that dark place he'd been for a long time after Loki's hold was broken.
Natasha will be patting herself on the back for this one for a while, she thinks.
She's so caught up in watching them that she doesn't hear the quiet footsteps behind her. It's been a very long time since Natasha was so easily startled, but when the broad hand comes down on her shoulder, she hisses and whips around, eyes flaring demon-dark as she braces for a fight.
Of course it's Steve. The last time she saw him, he'd given her and Clint a thoroughly disgusted (terrified) look and walked (run) away, and they haven't spoken since. Of course the one time she loses control, he's the one to bear witness.
"It's not nice to spy on your friends," he tells her, keeping his voice soft enough that he won't draw Clint or Coulson's attention.
Natasha watches him steadily, willing her heartbeat to settle as she lets the inky blackness seep away from her eyes again. He doesn't seem afraid, but he is reserved.
When she doesn't answer him, he rubs the back of his neck and looks away. "I was hoping we could talk," he tries. "If you think you can forgive me for behaving like a complete jerk before."
She eyes him for another long moment. "That can probably be arranged," she finally allows. She nods toward the door, and doesn't allow herself to smile at the way he lights up with a bright, grateful smile of his own. How anyone can be so…genuine, all the time, is beyond her. It looks like it should be exhausting.
He holds the door open for her, like a proper gentleman, and she wonders how long it would take to train him out of that habit. Then she decides it's probably more trouble then it's worth.
Before she goes in, Natasha lets her gaze drift over to her friend one last time. Clint's eyes are closed, his arms wrapped around Coulson and his face buried in the agent's shoulder. Coulson's eyes find hers, and he gives her a small nod. I'll take care of him, his look promises.
She hopes hers gets across, I'll hold you to that. But secretly, she knows she has nothing to worry about.