He could not see the window from where he sat. The back of his chair was high, and blocked the sight. But Coulson knew that the view would be unchanged. There was a polished table in front of him, and a whitewashed wall beyond. Both were drenched in the colours of the hidden sky. Violet and green, yellow and blue – a jester’s motley. More than a week, now, since day or night had visited the Earth.
A door by the unseen window opened, closed. A plate and a napkin slid onto the table before him. The savour of Armagnac and roasted flesh rose to his nostrils.
“Good evening, Philip.”
He watched as she carried another laden plate around to the other side of the table and took her seat.
“Ortolan”, she replied, unfurling a napkin. “It’s…”
“I know what Ortolan is. A bird from France, force-fed and drowned in brandy.”
“Yes. Illegal, of course, but so delectable. Do eat, Philip. You need your strength.”
Delectable. The first words he had heard from those lips had been Hey. What up? He blinked it away.
“Tournedos Rossini for the main course.” She lifted the bird to her lips, and waited until he followed suit. “I’ve cut yours into bite-sized portions in advance. Sorry to be Mother,” she fixed him with a look of mild reproof, “but we both know that you can’t be trusted with cutlery.”
She finished off the Ortolan quickly, and watched him eat.
“Agent Ward and Ms. Cooper made another escape attempt this morning,” she said, as she wiped her fingers on her napkin. “I really must commend their perseverance. Plucky indomitability of the human spirit, and all that. But if they try it again, I’m afraid that I’ll have to feed them to Agent May.”
He wiped his mouth, and looked up again. “So, you still haven’t been able to find Harkness.”
She frowned. “Why would you think that?”
“Because if you had, that’s the first thing you’d have told me.”
“True enough.” She lounged back in her chair. “Blowing himself out of that airlock once he realized that he had come too late to warn you about the pendant was, I felt, unnecessarily histrionic.”
“It got him out, and away from you. Immortality must save him a fortune on parachutes.”
“I suppose so. But I can’t say that the thought of him at large is giving me sleepless nights. Ultimately, Captain Jack Harkness will do what he always does, like his diastematic tagalong downstairs: billow in at the twelfth hour, and screw things up.” She inspected her nails. “Not that he is entirely without his talents, of course. If the Torchwood Institute had sent him to sort out that Chinese village in 1989, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today. I gather that the Massacre of the Innocents is his party-piece.”
“Jack Harkness isn’t your only problem.”
“Who else is going to stop me? Your ‘Avengers’? I know no spectacle so harmlessly diverting as humanity playing at toy super-soldiers. Your sad Captains. Your incy wincy spiders. It’s adorable.” She sighed, looking distant. “The wetware I installed in Leela towards the end made Skaro weep – though not for long. That was, after all, the point.”
“They have a Hulk.”
“Then I’ll have an army. Of Hulks. After all, I whipped one up before. We called it the Horde of Travesties. “
“Oh, Philip, don’t you see? Hagar the Horrible and his self-important little pantheon have tried to help already. Why is there no sky now?”
The leg-restraints bit into his thighs as he tensed. “Because you took her body.”
“Ah. An understandable error on your part. I meant, in fact, the sky of Earth. Common nouns as names are rife with the potential for such misapprehension. Not that I can cast the first stone there, of course. What do you think has happened to the heavens?”
He moistened his lips. “I see. Asgard tried to use the Bifrost.”
“Exactly. And when they did, I hacked it. Deus ex machina doesn’t work when someone else is running the machine. I’ve locked your planet in a rainbow cage. If they try to switch it off, Asgard and Midgard alike perish in flame, and from the Nine Worlds, we are seven. It’s also convenient that the technology interacts very badly with transcendental engineering. If an old friend of mine with a certain irrational distaste for the advance of science were to attempt to land his TARDIS in this Bifrostbitten backwater right now, it wouldn’t just be Yggdrasil that burned.”
“You can still walk away from this. If there’s any of Skye left in there, you will.”
She snorted. “Don’t be obtuse. Skye was the imposture, not I. I can still feel her dangling in my cortex like a rear view mirror ornament in that grotty little van. Hopes of a life in service and a name on a wall; so desperate to make her Daddy proud. That was your Skye, Philip Coulson. A short tale, dully told.”
He held her gaze. “Like I said. You can walk away.”
“There’s no earthly reason why I should. You can’t beat me, Agent Coulson, because I’m not a villain. I’m a scientist.”
“Melinda May would say otherwise. If you had left her the power of speech.”
“That’s a very limited perspective, Philip. The modified Cheetah virus I used to infect your precious Cavalry simply peeled back the woman to show the beast that she already knew she was. It’s just experiments. No more, no less. Your little Dr. Simmons would agree. She really is a rather delightful creature. I’m almost tempted to unplug her from the mainframe she’s helping to power for a chat.”
“Simmons and Fitz are slaved to your computers. May hunts down and rips apart your foes. Having Ward alive puts pressure on S.H.I.E.L.D.; having Cooper alive puts pressure on Torchwood. That leaves one question. Why do you need me?”
The smile was so much like Skye’s that he could not quite contain a wince. “You honestly don’t know?”
“Because you’re a thing of beauty, Philip Coulson. A walking compendium of vivisection. I look at you, and I see every operation, every procedure they performed on you. You’re the Vesalian Anatomy; you’re Wound Man. I could no more mar you than I could put the Jabberwock in my poison jar. Do we understand each other now?”
He smiled back at her, as he ordered resources in his mind. May, with the dimension-jumping powers of the Cheetah Virus (UNIT had shared, long ago, the file on the Perivale Incident). Pray that the will that could wield the Berserker Staff could somehow manage to master that, as well. Ward and Cooper in the cells below; the Whole Solution, and the mumsiest mass-murderer he had ever met. Harkness unkillable and in the wind. And finally (he remembered that smile, and his stomach clenched), a bullet, or an arrow, dipped in salicylic acid.
“Yes, Rani,” he said. “I believe we do.”