Clint Barton was exhausted, his body aching even as he relaxed further and further into the plastic chair he’d taken at the table, his injured leg propped up on Natasha’s seat, where his sister in everything but blood had scooted over just enough to accommodate him, silently understanding that it must have really been bothering him if he was willing to keep it elevated. She knew him, knew he would have been denying any sort of discomfort unless it was bad. Clint was pretty sure he’d torn something in his knee, but would have it checked once they got back to the helicarrier.
The battle had taken it out of all of them. New York was going to take a long time to recover, but it could have been so much worse if they hadn’t come together as a team in the end. Clint chewed tiredly, wanting nothing more than to lie down somewhere…which was most likely going to be Medical once their meal was done. Stark had suggested shawarma, and so that was what they had, the billionaire having bought out the entire shop for their use. Clint was pretty sure he’d also thrown enough money at the owner to have the place repaired, although it had been far enough from the action that there wasn’t all that much damage done. There were small pieces of rubble piled up on the floor where someone had been sweeping it up before they arrived; it looked to be mostly cosmetic, with some ceiling tiles fallen and a couple of the tables broken.
Of them all, Hawkeye was probably the worst off, but that wasn’t all due to physical injury. Loki hadn’t much cared if his slaves ate or slept, and Clint was now working on about three days with very minimal rest. Still, he’d jumped right into battle because he’d been needed. He liked to think his presence had made a difference, and at least to make up for some of his actions under the mad bastard’s control.
It was all he could do not to lean over and rest his head on Natasha’s shoulder and close his eyes. He knew she wouldn’t mind, but he didn’t want to fall asleep yet, and that would be the result of that sort of action. He did need to eat, and so he dug in, although he wasn’t eating his body weight in food like Thor and Rogers were. He was famished, it all tasted fantastic, and all he would be likely to get in Medical was an IV and strawberry jello. He hated strawberry; he much preferred lime, but Medical never seemed to have it.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” Rogers finally spoke up, breaking the silence that had fallen over the table, broken only by the sounds of chewing.
Clint blinked, and then nodded. Sure, he’d been mind-fucked by Loki, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be at least sympathetic on the outside. Inside, not so much, even though he knew all about asshole brothers and how they could dick you over at the drop of a hat. He’d had his own, after all.
Thor sighed, his eyes sad. “I thank you for that, Captain. However, he should never have gone against the Son of Coul the way he had. With such powerful protectors, the agent was never going to be such an easy victory.”
Clint blinked again, setting down whatever he’d been about to shove into his mouth. He’d known Phil had survived and that Loki had been killed, but he’d thought Phil had blasted Loki with that big-ass gun he’d seen him with just before Clint had left the Helicarrier with Nat and Rogers. “What do you mean?” he found himself asking. Had there been other SHIELD agents there? A lot of people genuinely liked and respected Phil, so he could see his handler and lover having back-up when he’d gone to face down Loki. Phil wouldn’t have gone up against Loki by himself.
The Asgardian settled back in his chair, it creaking somewhat alarmingly under the shifting of his weight. “There are many things in this world that are beyond human ken, and the Mara are one of those things.”
Clint frowned. What was Thor even talking about?
He must have said that out loud, because the Asgardian answered, “You would know them as the Fae, and they are as old as the world itself. Although how the Son of Coul managed to get on the good side of those capricious beings… he would have had to have once been a Chosen One, a child that the Mara had wanted to come to them in the Lost Lands where they dwell. My brother’s death was foretold from the moment he attempted so vilely to murder the Son of Coul in cold blood.”
Bread falling from nerveless fingers, Clint felt as if his heart was going to seize up in his chest, Natasha’s sharp and knowing gaze on him. No, that wasn’t possible. Not Phil, no way, he would have said something. The archer was aware of Phil’s family life, and it had been good, even if he’d lost his father at an early age. The Fae only went after neglected or abused children, and that had never been Phil Coulson.
Not like it had been with Clint himself…
The first time Clint ever saw the fairies had been when he’d just turned eight, and he’d been hiding from his father’s latest rampage.
Barney had gotten him out of the way fairly quickly, and Clint had fled, he had no choice. When Dad got like that, someone was going to get hurt, and all that drunken anger had been aimed right in Clint’s direction even though the boy had done absolutely nothing wrong.
Clint climbed the tallest tree just behind the house, tucking his small body into one of the forks formed by the trunk and a large branch, high enough up in the old oak to be invisible from the ground. He kept completely still, even too afraid to wipe away the tears and the snot from his silent weeping, listening to the shouting and crashing coming from inside the small house, Dad bellowing in rage.
It was supposed to have been a birthday party; not much, just a cake that Mom had made for him. Chocolate, his favorite. But Dad had come home, roaring drunk, and had turned furious at what he’d seen as a waste of money on a “no-good brat” who didn’t deserve any sort of celebration. The cake had been tossed against the wall, making a mess that Mom would have to clean up, and Barney had practically thrown Clint out of the house and out of the way of Dad’s fury.
At first, Clint thought the golden glow was a firefly, but it was the wrong season for them. It floated toward him, joined by four others, dancing in front of his wondering eyes. His eyesight – which had always been sharp – could make out the figures within the glow; they looked like tiny people, only with insect-like wings that fluttered almost too fast to see.
His jaw dropped in awe. He’d never seen anything so wonderful before.
“Oh human child,” the voice chimed like bells, “why do you weep?”
Clint thought they must already know, but he said, “My Dad came home and ruined my birthday cake and now he’s fighting with my Mom and my brother, and he’s looking for me but he can’t find me.” He wiped a sleeve over his eyes, trying to get rid of the tears. Big boys didn’t cry, so he shouldn’t be, that was what Dad said all the time.
One of the tiny creatures sat on the tree limb next to his hand, staring up at him with dark eyes that were filled with sympathy and mischief in equal measure. “You did not deserve that.”
Clint had to agree, but to hear it from this glowing thing…it was like a validation of his own feelings. “It’s my birthday,” he repeated, sniffling. He really shouldn’t have expected it to be a good one.
Another creature alighted on his shoulder; it had no weight at all, as if it didn’t exist in the real world, and it reached out and stroked his hair; it had gotten too long, and Dad was bound to complain about that at some point, too. “Then we shall have the party with you.”
The boy couldn’t help but smile at the suggestion. “I’d like that.”
And so, Clint spent the rest of the night in the tree, long after the house had grown quiet, and his new friends had shown him that they did indeed care that it was his birthday, singing to him and dancing for his dazzled eyes to enjoy.
Throughout the summer Clint spent every moment he could with his new friends. They told him all about themselves, the Fae, and describing to him the Lost Lands where they lived, where everyone lived forever and no one got sick or hurt. The boy found himself wishing he could go there and, when he said something about it, the Fae told him that he could, he could come away with them, all he had to do was ask. They explained that he was a Chosen One, told him what that meant, and that he would always have a home with them. They could celebrate his birthday every day, and he could watch as time flowed both backward and forward and not be bound by human frailties anymore. He could live up to his full potential as one of the fairies.
As much as Clint wanted to go, to leave his Dad, he couldn’t just abandon his Mom and Barney to Dad’s spite. There was no telling what Dad would do if he suddenly went missing. Would he hurt his mother and brother, in his sheer fury at Clint disappearing? Would he think the boy had run away and come searching for him? No, he couldn’t risk any of that happening, even though the fairies reassured him that Dad would never be able to find them once they were in the Lost Lands.
The Fae did seem to understand his reluctance, although they kept urging him to follow them for his own safety and happiness.
That fall, things came to a head with Dad.
Clint would always remember that night. It would haunt him for the rest of his life.
It had started off calmly enough. For once, it seemed like Dad wasn’t so drunk that his temper flared like it usually did. They all sat down for dinner, and for once it felt to Clint like they were an actual family instead of a group of victims gathered together for safety. Dad had even laughed at something Barney had said, making his brother grin in pleasure.
Things went quickly downhill.
And it had been Clint’s fault, but he hadn’t meant for it to happen.
Dinner ended in disaster, with Clint bolting from the house with a black eye and sprained wrist, which made clambering up into his favorite tree hard, but he managed, crouching on a broad limb and nursing his wrist gingerly, trying hard not to cry as he watched Dad drag Mom from the house and practically toss her into the car, screaming that he was going to find Clint and make him pay for breaking the casserole dish Mom had made dinner in.
“He has hurt you!”
Clint wiped his hand across his nose, eyes dazzled a little by the sudden burst of light from one of his friends. The Fae sounded outraged as it danced in front of his face, its body tight with righteous anger. “I’ll be okay,” he mumbled.
To be honest, ever since he’d discovered his friends, the beatings had practically stopped, but that was more because he was hardly in the house anymore rather than his father getting any better at controlling his fists. Barney had taken a lot of it, as had Mom, and Clint felt really guilty about that, but he just couldn’t stay in the house, not when he had people that really cared about him outside.
“You are ours,” the fairy snarled. “He had not the right!”
At that pronouncement, the Fae beat its wings once, then twice, and changed, its body growing until it was about Clint’s size, the glow vanishing, replaced by a creature with green skin and sharp teeth, pointed ears and large eyes, feral and hissing its anger into the wind that suddenly sprung up, whipping the leaves about Clint’s refuge even though it seemed as if it didn’t actually touch the cowering boy in his perch.
This was one of his friends? They’d explained to him that they had other forms, but this was a shock. It still hovered on filmy wings, but this wasn’t anything like the tiny, bright creatures who’d played with him over the summer.
“You are our Chosen!” It was the same voice as before, which clinched it that this being was the same as his small friend. “No one may injure a Chosen!”
And then it vanished as quickly as it had appeared, in a swirling burst of flower petals, leaving Clint alone in his tree.
It wasn’t until later, when the police had arrived to tell the two abandoned boys that their parents were dead, that Clint realized that his fairy friends were somehow responsible. Barney told him, one dark night in the orphanage they’d been in before they’d run away, that Dad had driven the car into a tree, and that the accident had taken Mom too. The police had said as much when they’d come to collect the two boys, so it wasn’t news to Clint.
Clint didn’t mention seeing his fairy friend. That was his secret.
He didn’t see or speak to them for years after that.
When the Helicarrier was attacked, Phil knew immediately that they’d go after Loki, to release him from his cell.
When he saw one of the many video feeds showing the intruders, and one of them was Clint, his anger was so white-hot he actually became utterly and completely calm, in a way that had his thoughts crystal clear and focused on what he needed to do.
And then he went to the armory to collect the Destroyer weapon, because he was going to blast Loki into a million pieces if the Asgardian so much as twitched.
He really hoped Loki twitched.
Loki had taken Clint. And Clint was Phil’s. Oh, perhaps he was being a little possessive, but he couldn’t help it. Phil had known Clint for at least a decade, they’d bled together and saved each other’s lives and had eventually become lovers. They’d shared secrets with each other that only one other person knew, and that was Natasha. They’d even shared Natasha once, but that hadn’t worked out, and they’d all come to the mutual conclusion that they were better as friends…however, Natasha had pushed the two men together when they would have stepped away from each other in order to spare her feelings. Phil still could see the eye rolling and snorting and her clear disapproval of that notion. She hadn’t even had to say a word.
Natasha would also be going for Clint, to get him back. Any agent that had been so deeply compromised as Clint was usually killed as a matter of course, but this was different. This was mind control. Clint hadn’t joined Loki out of free will. And, if anyone could break that control, it was Natasha. Phil trusted her completely to do the right thing, to get Clint back, and to let nothing stand in her way. If anyone could find a way to release him from Loki’s control, it was Natasha Romanov.
When he arrived down at the cell where they’d been keeping Loki – a cell designed for the Hulk, which Phil had thought a terrible idea in the first place – the agent had found that the Asgardian had already escaped, and that Thor was now trapped within the cell with Loki standing by the controls that would cause the cage to drop to the ground far below. Phil wasn’t at all sure even Thor would survive that sort of fall, so he needed to act immediately to stop Loki from deactivating the heavy-duty bolts that held the cage in place.
He easily took out the black-clad mercenary who was standing guard by the door.
As the man fell to the deck, Phil stepped forward, raising the gun and aiming it at Loki, center mass. “Step away please,” he ordered pleasantly.
Loki, looking startled, raised his hands slightly and moved back from the controls. Out of the corner of his eye, Phil could see Thor moving within the clear walls of the cage, hammer gripped tightly in one hand.
He jerked the gun up a little. “You like this?” he inquired.
Loki was looking very wary as he moved even farther away from the controls, not saying anything.
“We started working on the prototype after you sent the Destroyer,” Phil went on, just like he was describing the weather even as he was raging internally. This bastard had stolen Clint away, and the agent wasn’t about to let that stand.
He took several steps forward, even as Loki backed up. “Even I don’t know what it does.” Although he had a fairly good idea. He’d overseen some of the testing, after all. He thumbed on the control, and the weapon hummed rather ominously even as the barrel began to glow. “Want to find out?”
There was a sudden, sharp cry, and a loud clattering behind him. As Phil whirled on his heel, bringing the Destroyer gun to bear, in his peripheral vision Loki faded into nothingness, and he would have spun around to search for the Asgardian if he hadn’t seen the man behind him, a green creature with wings slamming into Loki’s chest and knocking him to the ground, the scepter that he’d been holding already on the desk against the wall, where it had fallen.
As Phil watched, the strange being shoved a hand down Loki’s throat.
Loki began to choke, his hands clawing at the being ineffectively along its sides. It didn’t seem to even notice, but it did withdraw that spindly arm, and as it did so rose petals followed.
Within moments, Loki was dead, choked to death by a lungful of roses.
It made him immediately think of the story that Clint had told him, about the Fae and how that was their modus operandi of those who hurt their Chosen Ones. And Phil knew that this fairy had just performed an act of justice against Loki for stealing Clint away and taking control over him.
The overly sweet smell of roses hung in the air, making Phil almost nauseous. He was never going to buy roses for anyone ever again, not after this.
The creature – the Fae – turned to face Phil, who had lowered the Destroyer gun the moment he’d realized what he was dealing with. Pale eyes regarded him and, in a blink, three others had appeared, these the more familiar fairies that he’d read about in stories, all golden and tiny and hovering in the air with tiny darting movements like dragonflies. One of them landed on his shoulder, and Phil wouldn’t have known it if he hadn’t seen it do so, it was so light.
There was a fierce pounding, and Phil’s head turned in the direction of the noise. Thor was thumping on the clear wall of the cage, his face stricken as he tried to get himself out, but to no avail. Phil had no doubt that, if he used the hammer, he would have eventually broken through the clear reinforced cell wall, but he hadn’t resorted to that as yet.
The agent hastened over to the controls, the gun resting on the shoulder not holding a fairy. He quickly had the cell door open, and Thor stepped out, practically running to his brother’s side, kneeling and checking for a pulse.
With a sigh, he stood, his head down, not looking at anyone but Loki’s pale face which, to Phil’s eyes was turning blue with odd scarring in jagged lines down the cheeks. The Fae stood there, crouched a little, staring at the Asgardian warily.
“This is our justice,” the creature hissed. “Understand this: this is our justice for what the Jotun has done.”
Thor nodded sadly. “I understand, and I accept the Mara’s justice.” He finally glanced up, meeting those pale eyes squarely. Then, he turned toward Phil. “You have mighty allies, Son of Coul.”
Phil had no idea what he’d done to earn those allies, but he nodded once in acknowledgment.
“The battle is not over,” the Fae continued. “Loki did not control the Mind Stone; he was but holding it for a time, using it for his master’s cause. His death will not stop what is going to happen. Only the heroes of this world will do that.”
The Mind Stone. Well, that didn’t sound at all ominous.
“The Mind Stone shall remain in Phillip J. Coulson’s custody. We of the Fae will only trust him with it.”
Phil felt his eyes widen a little at that proclamation. While he was honored by their faith, he really wanted to know what it was about him that made the Fae trust him like that, let alone save his life. There was no doubt in his mind that Loki had been about to kill him, to stab him in the back with the scepter that lay on the deck, that stone glowing blue in the handle. It made him shiver a little, knowing that it was what had mind-controlled Clint and others so easily. That sort of power shouldn’t be in anyone’s hands.
“Until the object you call the Tesseract is stopped, things will continue on the course Loki has set. Beware; it is the Space Stone, brother to the gemstone within the scepter, and together their power will only grow. They will need to be separated.”
“Thank you for the warning,” Phil said sincerely. He wasn’t sure why the Fae was being to open with information, but he wasn’t about to look a semi-mythical creature in the mouth.
“I shall go and find the others,” Thor replied. “Our duty is not yet done, as you have said. We will find the Tesseract and stop the plan that my brother has put into motion.” He bowed deeply toward the Fae and then strode from the room, looking every inch a prince and not looking back at the body of his brother, laying there in a pile of blood-red petals.
Once Thor was gone, the larger Fae turned back to toward Phil. “Phillip J. Coulson, you are the beloved of our Chosen One. This is why we have saved you; it would have caused our Chosen much pain if you were killed.”
That explained that. “Thank you,” he answered solemnly, his chest warm at the Fae’s assertion that Clint loved him. He’d suspected that his archer felt the same way Phil did, but they’d never said it aloud. To have it confirmed was like a wish come true.
“Know this.” The Fae stepped closer, pale eyes looking at him seriously. “There are traitors in your midst. We have seen it. They are named for the great beast, the multi-headed serpent that will regain two heads for every one that is removed from its body.”
Hydra. It was telling him that Hydra was still out there and, if he was interpreting the Fae correctly, they were among them. In SHIELD. It seemed impossible, but there was something about the warning that had him trusting it implicitly.
Phil shivered. He and Fury were going to have to have a conversation when this was all over.
“Wait.” A thought came to him. “Why didn’t you save Clint instead of me?”
The Fae growled. “The Mind Stone blurs our Chosen’s presence from us. Until his mind is free, we cannot see or feel him.”
“Then we need to find him and break the scepter’s control.” Bending over carefully so as not to dislodge the fairy still on the shoulder not supporting the Destroyer gun, Phil gingerly picked up the item that had become the bane of his existence… and had nearly taken his life at Loki’s hands. The metal shaft was cold to the touch, and he couldn’t help shivering once again.
The Fae cocked its grotesque head to one side. “It appears that the one who is our Chosen’s adopted sister has removed him from the Mind Stone’s control, although she was hardly gentle about it.” The being sounded amused.
Phil immediately wanted to find Natasha and Clint, to check on his lover and see how he was. However, he had one final question. “Everything I’ve heard about your people state that, once a Chosen One has made their decision to stay in this world, you leave them alone. What makes Clint so different?”
The Fae blinked once. “Because he has yet to Choose.”
By the time Clint and Barney had made it to the circus, he’d pretty much convinced himself that the fairies had been a figment of his childhood imagination.
It had only been a couple of years since Dad had wrapped the car around a telephone pole with Mom inside as well, but he and Barney had been through a lot. Two orphanages and three foster homes, all of them some level of dire, but at least there hadn’t been any sort of physical violence. Being ignored was moderately better than getting beat on.
However, Barney had gotten it into his head that he could take care of both of them and, since Clint idolized his older brother, would have willingly followed him anywhere. Which he had, the moment Barney had suggested getting a job with the circus that had been passing through. Clint didn’t even question the fact that his brother wasn’t really old enough to look after himself, let alone a punk kid who could barely read and write. All that mattered was that they were together, when that hadn’t been all that certain in the last home they’d been placed in, who’d wanted to keep Clint and let Barney go back into the system. Barney hadn’t been about to let them be parted like that, and so they’d left together.
Still, they’d gotten in. And, for Clint, it turned out to be wonderful. He’d been first assigned to help with the animals, and he’d loved it.
But the day they put a bow in his hand…that was the day he’d found his calling.
Before that, though, he’d caught the attention of Miss Essie.
Her stage name was Madame Esmeralda, but everyone in the circus called her Miss Essie. She was what Clint imagined what a grandmother would look like; she was short, although she was still taller than he was – until he hit his growth spurt at fourteen, that was – and she was soft. Miss Essie was the first person ever that Clint wanted to hug forever. She had jet black hair and brilliant green eyes, and she laughed all the time. Every time the boy was near her, he couldn’t help but laugh as well. She took him under her wing, teaching him to read better than when he’d first arrived, giving him a love of tacky romance novels…he wasn’t ashamed to admit that was how he learned about sex, was those books, even if Miss Essie had had to correct a few of his misconceptions.
Miss Essie was the circus’ fortune teller. And everyone at Carson’s believed fully in her abilities, even when she held back for the rubes, never telling them the bad things she saw. Once Clint had seen her looking so down, quite unlike how she usually was, and she’d admitted that the young couple she’d told their fortune to would have such a tragic life, but she’d had to hide it from them. It never would be a good thing to tell the truth in those circumstances, she’d confided. No one wanted to hear the bad stuff, only the good.
But that was after they’d met for the first time.
Clint could recall that first meeting vividly; not even time managed to corrupt that particular memory.
It had been three days after he and Barney had arrived at Carson’s, and were still finding their feet, the boy amazed that they’d been accepted so easily despite them both being minors. Sure, Barney looked older than he was, because he was so much bigger than Clint, but there was no way he would have passed for the eighteen he’d claimed to be. Still, they had a roof over their heads – even if it was a tiny camper trailer that didn’t even have a bathroom – and Barney had gotten a job that seemed to change at any given moment.
It was good money, Barney told him, and soon he’d get a permanent place…
They’d stopped somewhere in Missouri; Clint didn’t know where, but then he hadn’t exactly been paying that much attention. All he knew was that they were traveling, and he and his brother were together. So, when he jumped out of the truck he’d been riding in, to start his duties, he was a little surprised when someone grabbed him by the sleeve and tugged him into the shadow between two of the travel trailers.
The woman was dressed in jeans and a colorful blouse in shades of green and blue, her black hair pulled back by a brilliant red scarf wrapped around her head. She was chubby featured and she smiled as Clint stood there, gawking at her. Oh, he’d seen her, knew who she was, but he had no idea why she’d be wanting to grab him like that.
“You and me need to have a little talk,” she said, her accent broadly Southern.
Clint blinked. “I have to get about my chores –”
“I know, boy. But after the show tonight. Come to my trailer. It’s the silver one with the red stripes.” She leaned forward, her faint perfume pleasant in his nose. “They’ve touched you. The Fae.”
How had she known?
Clint was about to deny it. After all, he’d pretty much convinced himself that it hadn’t happened, that he hadn’t had friends who’d celebrated his birthday when it had been wrecked by his asshole of a father. That they hadn’t told him stories of a place where he’d never be touched roughly, and in fact he’d have the power to punish those who’d hurt others. How they’d wanted him to come with them, and how Clint had wanted to, but hadn’t wanted to leave his Mom and brother.
But she knew. She knew about the fairies. He didn’t know how she did, or how she knew he’d seen them, but Clint suddenly wanted to ask so badly he was almost willing to give up trying to make the good impression that Barney said they needed to in order to stay.
“Get on with your chores,” Miss Essie commanded lightly. “Tonight, after the show. My trailer. And we’ll have that little talk.”
With that, she gave his shoulder a squeeze and then left him alone. Clint stood there for a few seconds until he could get past his shock and start moving again, wishing it was after the show so he could speak with the woman.
He managed to get through the show, being kept busy by running for various props and stuff that the performers needed. Clint couldn’t help his thoughts from running around just as much as his body did, thinking about what Miss Essie was going to tell him. He’d only heard about the fairies from the fairies themselves, and he’d become jaded about stuff that sounded perfect. The boy understood that he could thank Barney for that, his brother telling him over and over that if something sounded too good, chances were it was, and that people who talked up something couldn’t be trusted. Barney’s cynicism was one of the reasons Clint had pretty much convinced himself that the fairies were just a figment of his imagination, wishing for something that was better than what he’d had.
But they’d been real. And this near stranger knew about them, knew about them coming to him when he’d been younger.
Clint rushed through the nightly chores after the show, finding himself at Miss Essie’s door at close to midnight, hand hovering over the metal panel in a sudden attack of nerves. What if she told him something bad? Did he really want to know that badly, since the fairies are gone now?
The door opened, and Miss Essie was looking at him, amused. “Ya’ll gonna stand out there all night, boy?”
“Maybe,” he muttered.
The woman laughed, ushering him inside. “You look about as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
Clint had never heard it put quite that way before, but he understood exactly what she meant, so he let her motion him into the trailer.
The interior was lived-in; clean, but a little cluttered. One side was a bench-like seat, the other a narrow bed covered in all sorts of quilts, a black cat blinking up at him from the middle of one of the thick pillows that lay on top of the covers. There was a tiny kitchen, as well as a closed door that Clint was sure led to an equally tiny bathroom. Built-in cabinets lined the overhead areas, most likely holding all of the older woman’s possessions. A bookshelf was at the head of the bed, filled almost to bursting by novels and magazines.
Miss Essie bustled about the kitchen, getting mugs down from one of the cabinets, pouring something that had been simmering in a saucepan on the two burner stove. Clint saw it was hot chocolate, and answered yes when she asked if he wanted marshmallows.
“Have a seat,” she invited, handing him one of the mugs, three fat marshmallows floating in the dark liquid and nearly obscuring the chocolate underneath.
Clint settled onto the couch, while Miss Essie curled up on the bed, her own mug held firmly as the mattress dipped a little. The cat got up from its pillow, stretched, then jumped down, coming to check out Clint. It had short fur, and yellow eyes, and it leaped up beside him. Clint reached out and let it sniff his fingers; obviously accepting that he was okay, it head-bumped his hand, demanding attention. Its fur was soft, and it started rumbling on the second downstroke of his hand.
“Shadow seems to like you,” Miss Essie said approvingly. “She knows good people.”
Clint wasn’t so sure he was good people, but he didn’t say anything, instead sucking one of the marshmallows into his mouth. He’d have to clear one of them out before he could take an actual drink.
“You need to imagine my surprise,” the woman began, “when I saw that you’d been touched by the Fae. I think I’ve only seen one other like you before in my entire life.”
“How did you know?” Clint blurted around his mouthful of marshmallow.
Miss Essie laughed. “I’m a fortune teller, boy. It’s what I do.” Her eyes turned serious. “Did they come to you when you were younger?”
Clint nodded, deciding to be honest with her. “It was my eighth birthday. Dad got drunk and ruined my cake.”
She nodded knowingly. “The Fae go to the forgotten ones, the marginalized, and the abused. They know when someone needs them, and they appear.”
Well, he didn’t know what ‘marginalized’ meant, and Dad never really forgot about him unless he was so blindingly drunk he couldn’t even remember his own name, but that last part… “They had a party for me, told me that I didn’t deserve what Dad was doing.”
“Ah, child,” Miss Essie murmured sadly, “I daresay they were right.”
Clint thought about that. There were times when he thought he deserved his Dad’s fury, because he’d done something stupid. But other times…no, he hadn’t, not really.
“They asked me to come with them,” he admitted. He explained what they’d said about the Lost Lands, about how they could teach him to be strong so he could help others like him. And how no one would ever hurt him again.
Miss Essie was nodding along with that. “The Fae take away the unwanted children, and those children become more of the Fae.”
He thought about the glowing bright dancing creatures who’d kept him company, and then compared them to the one who’d changed in front of his eyes, to the green monster who’d been so very angry at Dad for hurting Clint. He asked about that, and the fortune teller nodded.
“They have two forms,” she nodded. “The ones like fireflies, all dancing and laughter; and the second, the warrior form, which they use when someone has hurt one of their Chosen and are gonna do something about it. The Fae take protecting their Chosen Ones very seriously.”
That made sense. It would have been hard for the little ones to do much, after all.
“When did you see the second form, boy?”
“Dad managed to get a hold of me one night,” Clint answered somewhat shyly. “I’d messed up, and I deserved it, but the fairy went nuts when I showed up with bruises and a hurt wrist.”
Something flashed in her eyes, but Clint didn’t know what it was. “I very much doubt you deserved getting a beating, Clint,” she scolded, although he could tell it wasn’t aimed at him. “What happened after the Fae saw that?”
“It left. I don’t know why.”
But, Clint thought he did. The fairy had been furious, and if Miss Essie was right about them protecting their Chosen Ones, and Clint had been one…
He really hadn’t asked about what happened to Mom and Dad. Sure, he knew what Barney and the police had said, that Dad got drunk and ended up slamming their car into a phone pole, but had there been something more than that?
“Just how do they protect their Chosen Ones?” he asked, timidly.
Honestly, Clint didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to face the truth that the fairies might have been responsible for killing both his parents. His Dad, he could certainly understand…but Mom? She’d never hurt him; in fact, she’d done everything she could to protect him and Barney from Dad’s rages. In fact, she’d often put herself in the way of Dad’s flying fists. So, they couldn’t have done anything to them…could they?
“The Fae are of the Earth, and Fire and Water and Air,” the woman explained, “and they use the flowers of the Earth to choke their enemies, as well as other punishments.”
Clint felt himself relaxing a little. Certainly, if Dad had been choked to death by flowers, the cops would have said something? Still, maybe he’d ask Barney about it…in a roundabout way, of course. Talking about seeing fairies would be the quick path to being called crazy. As much as Clint loved his older brother, Barney didn’t really have all that much imagination.
“Can you tell me more about them?” Clint sipped at his hot chocolate, and it was honestly the best he’d ever had.
“I’ll be happy to.” Miss Essie settled back against the wall, her legs stretched out in front of her, her own mug held in both hands. Shadow left Clint’s side and rejoined her, laying against her thighs but keeping her eyes on Clint.
“The Fae have been here since the beginning of the world,” Mis Essie began, “and they’ll be here long after mankind’s left this planet behind. They’re part myth, part of the spirit world that most people can’t see, but also part of our reality, all jumbled together. There’s said to be old memories and unknown moments mixed in, but who knows? The Fae are mysterious, living alongside humans but totally unseen except for those rare few they approach, their Chosen Ones.”
Clint sat, entranced. If he hadn’t met the fairies himself, he doubted he’d have understood a word she was saying. But there was something primal within him, something that being touched by the Fae had opened up, that was drinking in the story she was telling and recognizing it as the truth.
“They control the very elements,” she went on, “Earth and Air, Fire and Water. They cannot be contained, and can be a deadly threat…but only if one of their Chosen were endangered. They could bring down storms and wrath upon the world, but that’s only if their Chosen One is prevented from coming with them. They can only take a Chosen if that child decides to go with them; if they do not, then the Fae will leave them be.”
Had he said no to them? Clint honestly couldn’t remember. Things had happened so fast after his parents had died, and he hadn’t seen the fairies again after that. He must have, because wouldn’t they have come to him again afterward, to ask him again? He’d been not so sure about it before the accident, because while he’d have loved to escape his Dad’s anger, he hadn’t wanted to leave Mom and Barney alone with him. Clint had had no idea just what Dad would have done if he’d just disappeared, and he hadn’t wanted to risk it.
“The Fae are also timeless.” Miss Essie’s voice seemed almost to be singing the story now. “The Lost Lands exist in all times and all places, connected to this world by magic. They can travel between the Lost Lands and our world easily, and can appear at any time they wish. They are also immortal, although that could just be because time has no hold on them, and so they appear to be ageless and forever.”
Clint hung on her every word. What would it be like, to live forever? To see times he could only dream of? It…would be amazing, was the only way he could think of it.
“The Fae can only be seen by those they choose to show themselves to; to others, if they were ever noticed, it would be out of the corner of your eye, a shadow that might move differently from the person casting it, or be felt as a presence at your shoulder. It is only to the Chosen Ones they show themselves willingly. They are full of mischief and spite, and are capricious in their actions.”
Clint was confused by the word, capricious, and so he asked her what it meant.
“Unpredictable. You will never know what they’re gonna do until they’ve done it. It makes it so no one will ever know what they have planned, or if they even plan anything at all. They could decide to show themselves to someone not their Chosen One and then disappear just as soon as they appeared. You cannot take their pictures unless they will it, and it’s just another form of mischief for them to do so. You just never know what they are going to do.”
Learning all of this was fascinating. Clint had gotten only a glimpse of just what the fairies could do, and now he was being told just what had decided that he might want to go home with them. He was beginning to wish he had, but he couldn’t regret staying with Barney. It had gotten them here, to Carson’s, and now he knew a lot more than he did before.
He stayed in Miss Essie’s trailer for a couple of hours, just listening to the stories she told him about the fairies, but also about other things, like her gift to be able to see what others couldn’t. There were a few things he didn’t understand, but figured he would when he got older and learned more. She eventually kicked him out, although it was gently done, saying they both needed to get some sleep if they were going to put on another show tomorrow…or later on today, she commented, and she wasn’t getting any younger and needed her beauty sleep. Clint had protested that she was pretty, and that had earned him his first ever hug from her.
It had been wonderful. Even if he’d stiffened at first, not used to that sort of physical contact. Miss Essie pretended not to notice.
“But how did you know?” he asked as she was opening the door for him. “How did you know all that?”
She gave him a bright smile. “I learned much through my own visions and studying what I could find, but Clint…one Chosen will always know another.”
That…made sense. And he had to hug her for it. She huffed a laugh into his hair, then shooed him off to bed.
Clint managed to sneak back into his and Barney’s own trailer without waking up his brother. They only had the one bed, so Clint had taken to sleeping on the floor, which wasn’t all that bad.
Still, Barney kicked him awake in the morning, and Clint had grumbled a bit before getting up himself. “And what time did you get back last night?” his brother demanded as the younger boy picked up his blankets from the nest he’d made.
“Not sure,” Clint grumbled, folding them, and tucking them out of the way under the bed Barney had claimed for himself. He didn’t want to tell him anything about last night, because that would mean admitting the existence of the fairies and they were something he wanted to keep for himself. Oh, Miss Essie was fine knowing, because she’d told him so much more than he’s already known, and it was nice sharing that sort of thing with someone who understood. She was like him, a former Chosen One, and there was no way he was going to betray that to anyone, not even his own brother.
Barney hmphed. “Just don’t go running off. We’ve got a good thing going here, and I don’t want to wreck it.”
“I won’t.” Clint took a deep breath, then asked, “Did the cops say anything to you about how Mom and Dad died?” He had to know. Know if the fairies had done it.
Barney blinked in surprise. “Only what I told you. Why are you so curious now?”
Clint shrugged, not answering. He wasn’t about to admit that he was asking because he was wondering if his friends, the ones who’d looked after him and had wanted him to be a part of their family, had arranged it because Dad had hurt him.
“Did they…check for anything wrong with Dad?” Clint pressed. “I mean, his heart, or his lungs, or maybe his brain?”
Barney sighed. “His blood alcohol was through the roof. There wasn’t a reason for any other sort of tests. There were actual empty beer bottles in the wreckage and the cops claimed they could smell the booze from all the way outside the car. I don’t know what you want me to tell you, kid.”
The relief that went through him would have had Clint falling to his knees except he couldn’t show that sort of weakness in front of Barney, because his brother would be wanting to know more, and he couldn’t risk it. “I just wanted to ask, that’s all. I guess…if there was something else wrong, then it wouldn’t have been so bad.”
He thought it was a horrible lie, but Barney seemed to buy it. He reached out and ruffled Clint’s hair. “Okay, yeah. I get that. But sorry…it was just that bad. I mean, the cop who talked to me thought the old man must have been trying to make it up to Mom because of all the rose petals in the car. He figured an entire bouquet got trashed or something, but then the car was totaled, so… Are you okay?”
Clint could feel the blood draining from his face. He shook his head, ashamed that he’d reacted like that, but roses…Miss Essie had said that the fairies killed by choking people with flowers, and Dad would never have spent that sort of money on roses. He was a cheap bastard, and Clint knew that better than anyone after the birthday cake disaster. He wondered why Barney was buying that explanation…
But then, Barney had no knowledge of the Fae so he wouldn’t have known that they kill that way.
“Fine,” he tried to smile, but it didn’t feel right on his face. “Just didn’t sleep well last night after I got in.”
Barney laughed. “Well, that’ll teach you to stay out so late. Come on, get dressed. We’ve got work to do.”
Nodding, Clint went to do as Barney said. But he couldn’t stop thinking about it, the roses and the crash and Mom being…what was it called? Collateral damage? Yes, he thought that was right. She’d been in the car when the fairies attacked, and she’d been killed as a consequence. He didn’t want to think his childhood friends were capable of murdering an innocent person like that. Sure, he could see them doing that with his father, but Mom was just as much a victim as he and Barney had been.
He was suddenly glad that they’d left him. Clint wasn’t so sure he could deal with that information anytime soon.
Four years later, as he was bleeding out from a gut wound that his own damn brother had given him because Clint hadn’t agreed with robbing Old Man Carson, water from the ditch he’d been tossed in seeping into his thin t-shirt, he wondered if the Fae had left him after all; the heavy scent of roses was redolent in the air, tickling his nose. And the thought he could hear someone choking not that far away as darkness closed in around him.
Budapest changed everything.
Up until that debacle, Phil had been the handler for Strike Team Delta. Clint and Natasha had been his agents, but they’d also been friends, and he’d often taken them up on activities outside the office, seeing that such things acted as team bonding, and it made Delta a more effective team when it came down to trusting each other in the field.
Up until that point, Phil had had a low-grade crush on Clint. It had been inevitable; the man pushed every single button Phil had. He was sexy, and smart, and driven. In the field, he was professional and competent, cocky and confident. In his free time and around people his trusted, he was goofy and a total klutz who loved dogs and could be almost painfully shy at times. It was a dichotomy that Phil was intrigued by, and had managed to keep his feelings to himself for the two years he’d known Clint and had come to realize his attraction.
But then, the shitshow that was Budapest had happened.
Phil had had to go in after his agents when they hadn’t checked in for two days. Yes, it wasn’t unusual for Strike Team Delta to miss a check-in or two, if they were in a place they couldn’t risk any sort of communication from being overheard, but two days…no, that wasn’t Clint and Natasha. Not at all.
And so, Phil had taken the first Quinjet he’d been able to commandeer, piloted by a terribly young yet very competent agent named Antoine Triplett, and had gone in after them.
It had taken him another two days to follow their trail of destruction through the city, terrified out of his mind and yet managing to hide it from the junior agent waiting for him back at the landing point, several miles out past the city limits. Agent Triplett had tried to insist on Phil letting him come and backing him up, but Phil had pointed out that they would need someone at the Quinjet in case they needs a fast getaway. In the end, Triplett had stayed with the jet, leaving Phil to go and attempt to find the agents who were his best friends outside of Nick Fury.
Eventually, Phil managed to locate his two agents, in a rundown warehouse and in the middle of a standoff with ten well-armed gunrunners from a local gang that shouldn’t have been involved in the mission at all. He’d get the debrief later, but for now…
Phil went in with guns blazing.
He managed to take four out before Natasha and Clint had burst from hiding, helping him finish off the rest. Both agents were banged up and bleeding, and looked to be on their last legs, so Phil called Triplett and had him come in for a quick extraction.
Agent Triplett was there in three minutes, which Phil thought had to have set some sort of record. He was definitely putting at least three commendations into the young agent’s file and keeping him in mind if Strike Team Delta ever needed a pilot who could think quickly and handle the stress of a mission gone FUBAR.
As he patched both of them up in the rear compartment of the Quinjet, Phil had a sudden and intense revelation, that he didn’t want to lose these two from his life. That he cared for these two assholes more than he had his own family. Oh, he knew he liked them as friends, but this was completely different, and it really hit home for him just how much he’d miss them if they were gone, and what lengths he’d go to, to get them back.
So, when Clint made a joking comment about being dragged home and grounded, Phil murmured, “I will always come for you.” He met first Clint’s eyes, then Natasha’s, needing them to see how serious he was about it, how much he meant his words.
He could see, in that moment, that they felt the same about him. Good, he was glad they were all on the same page, and knew it wouldn’t be a problem with any of them.
It was a long flight back to the States, and Phil watched out for the two while they slept off several days of near-sleeplessness and of being on the run. Once back at the Triskelion, he bustled them into Medical, then went to discuss with Fury what just went wrong.
Fury, taking one look at him, sent him home with a few growled epithets about ‘crazy assholes’ and ‘motherfuckers gotta mother’ before practically throwing him out of his office.
Phil found his clearance locked out when he tried to go back to his own office in order to start his reports.
He couldn’t even get back down to Medical to check on Clint and Natasha, which pissed him off.
Sighing, he had no choice. He headed back to the small apartment he kept in Arlington for when he had downtime.
The place was warm and clean when he got in. Agent Services at work, he knew; they would have cleaned out his refrigerator and restocked it once Nick had gotten word that they were on their way back in, so his friend had planned on kicking him out from the get-go. That was just like Nick. Phil should have expected it, to be honest, and he would have if he hadn’t been so tired and stressed.
By the time he’d showered and changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt, he actually had his second wind. And he’d managed to get his emotions under control, because they’d been a pretty bad mess ever since his epiphany on the Quinjet.
He had no idea what was going to happen. They’d seen, both of them, that he cared about them. That he’d worried and would have walked through hell in order to get them back. He really hoped they would be fine with it. Phil would never have done that under normal circumstances, because he was their handler, and they had to trust him in the field. He’d managed to wrestle his deeper feelings under control, but this had been different.
They would need to talk about it at some point. He would need to make sure they still trusted him.
He was about to see what was in the kitchen to eat when there was a knock on his door, in a familiar pattern that told him who it was.
Shaking his head and completely unsurprised, Phil went to answer it. “Did you sneak out of Medical?” he asked blandly, raising an eyebrow at the pair on his doorstep.
Both Clint and Natasha looked better than they had. Clint had a cut on his brow held together with butterfly bandages, while Natasha looked remarkably undamaged except for a bruise that had formed on her cheek. The agent knew what they were hiding under their clothes, though, since he’d been the one to do triage on the jet and he’d been a little surprised that Clint only had a bullet crease in his shoulder and Natasha a knife scrape along her ribs, both injuries very much non-life-threatening. He’d been really surprised it hadn’t been worse, but then these two were the best at what they did, and understood that the enemy had been a lot less fortunate.
“Nope,” Clint answered, grinning. “We were duly released and ordered to go home.”
“So here we are,” Natasha finished the thought.
Phil’s chest felt warm, that they thought of this place as their home as well. They certainly spent enough time there between missions. “Well, come in then,” he sighed, pretending to be put-upon by their presence.
Both his agents entered, removing their shoes because Phil had rules about that sort of thing.
“Have a seat,” he invited. “I was about to get dinner. You hungry?” Without looking behind him, Phil headed into his tiny kitchen, waiting to see if either of them wanted anything.
“Phil,” Clint murmured from his shoulder, startling Phil despite knowing the archer could move silently, especially in his stocking feet.
He turned. Both Clint and Natasha had moved closed, and he could read the intention in their eyes.
That was the first and only time the three of them had sex together. The next morning, each of them had realized that Natasha, while loving them both, didn’t love them in that way. She was quite frank about it as they sat around the living room, eating the eggs and bacon that Clint had cooked for them, and discussed what had happened between them.
Phil was glad, because while he’d enjoyed himself, there had been a vague uncomfortableness in touching Natasha like that. It wasn’t that he was against women; Phil was quite definitely bisexual, as was Clint, so it wasn’t because of that. But sleeping together had crystallized his emotions toward her.
Clint had come to the same conclusion.
“I love you, Tash,” the archer said, “but not like that.”
Natasha laughed. “Boys, you are my only family, and that’s the way I want to keep it.”
“Oh, thank God,” Phil sighed in relief. “I feel the same way.”
The thing was, if last night had made clear his feelings toward Natasha, it had done the same with how he felt about Clint. And that had been something different entirely, even though he’d long acknowledged the crush that he’d been carrying around for years. No, what he felt toward Clint wasn’t just a crush…he was in love with the man, and he hadn’t even figured it out.
As someone who took pride in understanding his own mind, Phil felt quite stupid about the whole situation.
“However,” she went on, “I do hope it’s made you two idiots realize you’re in love with each other.”
Clint, who’d been in the middle of sipping his coffee, did a pitch-perfect spit-take.
Handing him a paper towel, Phil snorted with laughter. “There’s no worry about that,” he assured her, not at all surprised that she’d figured it out before he had. Natasha saw things others missed, and the agent had a feeling she’d been silently rooting for them for years.
“What?” Clint spluttered, staring at Phil with wide eyes.
He shrugged. “What can I say? She’s right.”
“Oh my God,” the archer laughed. “Tash has been on my case for years about asking you out.”
“She hadn’t said anything to me about it.” Phil turned to regard her, raising an eyebrow.
She gave him an eyebrow in return. “Because you’re our handler. Technically, you’re two levels above us. Which means you’d never say anything because you’d be afraid of taking advantage, which is something you would never do, not with Clint’s history. So, speaking to you about it wouldn’t get it out in the open. It had to be Clint.”
Once again, Natasha Romanov had surprised him. She was exactly correct in her summation. Phil had hidden his crush for that reason…well, there’d been others, but that one had been the most important one. He never would have approached Clint, and it had only been a moment of weakness on the Quinjet that he’d telegraphed his feelings so baldly. Still, he never would have followed up on it if these two hadn’t approached him first.
“You’ll let us know if it ever makes you uncomfortable, and we’ll step back,” Phil told her seriously.
“Agreed,” Clint added. “We’re not gonna lose you, Tash. We can control ourselves.”
She rolled her eyes in sheer disdain, but didn’t say anything. But then, she really didn’t need to. It was obvious that she thought they were being stupid.
That day, things changed between them, but it was for the better. Natasha and Clint practically moved in, which had led them to getting a much bigger place so she would have an actual bedroom to stay in. Clint stayed with Phil, slept in his bed, and it was like heaven, having him there, going to sleep with him in his arms and waking up with him still being there. Alright, it did take some getting used to; they all had their own foibles, and it was adapting and compromising and dealing with being in each other’s back pockets all the time, but they managed it.
And Strike Team Delta improved, which Phil had thought impossible.
However, it was a night, three months after moving into their new home, that Clint sat them both down and told them about the fairies.
And they believed him.
It was like coming down from the most addictive drug ever.
Clint’s body shivered and shook, the loss of the control that had taken over his mind so suddenly gone he was having a hard time coping. There was a small voice in his head that was saying it wanted that control back, to not have to deal with thoughts and decisions and to have that crystal clear purpose back. He felt as if Loki had unmade him and put him back together and, during his near-incoherence, he’d asked Natasha if that had ever happened to her.
When she answered in the affirmative, he felt guilty for bringing it up.
“How am I back?” he gasped. “How did you get him out?” Because the last thing he remembered was them fighting. Which was something he never would have done if he’d been in his right mind.
“Cognitive recalibration,” she answered, sitting on the side of the bed he was on. It was now registering that he was in one of the containment cells in the infirmary, which made sense. There would have been no solid guarantee Loki’s control had been broken. “I hit you really hard on the head.” The smile she gave him was tiny, but Clint basked in it for a second.
“Thanks.” It was all he could say. God, he loved her. She was more a sibling than Barney had ever been.
She leaned over, unbuckling the straps that were holding him down. Another solid precaution.
“How many?” his whispered. “How many agents…?”
“Don’t.” It came out a little harshly. “Don’t do that to yourself, Clint. This was Loki.” There was pain in her eyes. “This…this was gods and monsters and nothing we were ever trained for.”
Well, maybe not her, but Clint himself had had monsters in his life before, although nothing at all like what he’d just been through. It made him wish, for the first time in decades, that he’d taken the fairies’ offer, to join them in the Lost Lands.
Because Loki had somehow noticed something about him, and he’d asked Clint to explain. So he had, he’d shared the one thing he’d only ever shared with two others, about once being a Chosen One and how for one bright, shining summer, he’d been wanted. Loki had laughed, had told him that the only time he had ever been wanted was by him, and Clint had believed it because Loki was all he’d ever need.
“Loki, did he get away?”
Clint hadn’t even heard the door open, but it had, and Phil was there, a huge gun draped over one shoulder and a long metal case in his free hand, his tie loosened and a smile on his tired face.
He was the most beautiful thing Clint had ever seen.
“Loki’s dead,” Phil went on, “but it seems his plan is still in motion. This,” he held up the case, and Clint understood immediately that it held the scepter, the thing that had controlled him, “wasn’t under Loki’s actual control. He was only using it on behalf of someone else, but I don’t know who.” He stepped fully into the room. “Clint, did he say anything to you, or in your presence, about what his plans were?”
Clint thought about that for a minute. He couldn’t come up with much. “I don’t know, but I do know it’s today. Selvig has something to do with it, and the Tesseract.”
“I think we might have an idea.” With that, Steve Rogers stepped into the room.
Clint had seen Captain America, but he hadn’t really talked to him. He was aware of the instances of his being found; he’d laughed at Phil’s obvious hero-worship when he’d been assigned to the base that was responsible for thawing Rogers out of the ice. His lover had been so cute, and he hadn’t felt any sort of jealousy at all over Phil’s excitement. Clint was well aware of how Phil felt about Captain America, and it wasn’t a patch on what he felt about Clint himself. There had been a time when he might have felt uncertain about it, but that was long past, back in those first heady days of the three of them living together and he’d been so certain Phil would find someone better. That hadn’t happened and, in fact, Phil had shown up every day just how much Clint is loved, so there wasn’t anything that he was worried about.
“Captain,” Phil greeted him, his eyes going a little unfocused in awe.
Damn, that was adorable. If Clint’s head wasn’t aching and he wasn’t so tired and upset, he would have laughed. In anyone else, he would have said that Phil had a hard-on for Captain America, but that would have been so very wrong in this case. Good old-fashioned hero-worship like Phil’s was very rare in this day and age.
Rogers gave a little double-take, but he seemed to take Phil’s excitement in stride. “Stark thinks the plan is still to use the Tesseract to open a rift,” he explained, “and he thinks the best power source there is for that is the arc reactor at Stark Tower. He and Thor are already on the way. Can any of you pilot one of those jets?”
“I can.” Clint stood. He was exhausted and hurting but there was no way he was going to stay out of this fight. After all, part of it was his fault, in a way…after all, if he’d moved fast enough, he might have stopped Loki from taking him over.
“Clint…” Phil said softly, obviously very worried.
“I’ll be fine, Phil.” He did the only thing he could…he walked right up into Phil’s personal space and kissed him, not caring that they had an audience, one of that audience was Captain America, a man from the 1940’s who most likely has never seen two guys kissing before.
Unfortunately, with his hands full, Phil couldn’t touch him back, like Clint was doing with both hands cupping Phil’s face. Still, the kiss was wonderful, like he’d been drowning and his lover’s lips were the sweetest nectar…oh, Miss Essie would have been proud of that metaphor.
He didn’t let it last too long, pulling away reluctantly. “Sorry, I haven’t been able to brush my teeth in three days…”
“It’s fine,” Phil whispered back. “Now, suit up. You have a disaster to help avert.”
Clint grinned. “Yes, Sir.”
Phil strode onto the bridge of the helicarrier, taking in the flurry of movement of the agents on duty, aiming right at his boss, who was standing at his station, watching the monitors with intense concentration. Although, he was pretty sure Fury had known the moment Phil had entered.
He’d stopped off at the armory and dropped off the Destroyer gun, since it would only get in his way, with one hand occupied with carrying the secure case that held Loki’s scepter. He was going to take the fairy’s trust seriously; they were elemental beings, and to be honest Phil didn’t want to risk their wrath if he didn’t watch that scepter like a hawk.
No pun intended.
When Clint had first told him and Natasha about what had occurred when he’d been a little boy, Phil had done his research. He was pretty sure a lot of what he’d read was apocryphal. Yes, he knew that Clint had explained about what the Fae were and what they did, but in his experience there was always more to learn. A lot of what he’d discovered had confirmed everything that Clint had said, but he’d also managed to start a database of missing children that all fit the parameters that his lover had set out: the abused, the disenfranchised, the forgotten. He was pretty certain not every Chosen One was on it, due to that last factor, and that every missing child he’d found had been taken, but if even half the kids he’d tracked had…the Fae had been at work for decades, even hundreds of years. Phil was absolutely certain it went much farther back than that, but that was as far as computerized records could tell.
Clint had claimed that the fairies had been around since the beginning of time. Phil believed that wasn’t an exaggeration.
Clint had also claimed that the fairies would never be around anymore. Phil seriously doubted that his lover knew that they were still watching, still waiting for him to make his decision.
Fury hadn’t even turned around. Phil mentally gave himself a pat on the back.
“We have a portal opening over Stark Tower. I want you coordinating with our agents on the ground, local law enforcement, and the Avengers on this. The National Guard and the Army has also been called in, so you’ll handle that as well.” The he turned. “Is that…?”
Fury’s one eye narrowed. “You planning on carting that thing around with you?”
Phil couldn’t explain about the fairy putting the scepter into his hands for safekeeping, because no one had told the director about what had happened to Clint as a child. He had to have seen the closed circuit cameras in the cage room, though, and Phil knew he’d been answering a lot of questions in the future.
There was only one answer he could give. “Yes, I do.”
Fury nodded once. “It’s in your hands, Agent.”
Nick Fury didn’t trust a lot of people. However, Phil Coulson was one of those, and the director would hold onto that trust until such time as Phil proved to be untrustworthy.
Phil wasn’t planning on that anytime in the near future.
Without saying another word, he made his way toward the station that was usually his when he had duty on the helicarrier. Fury putting him in charge of coordinating everything wasn’t a surprise, since this was what he did. He was a tactician, and a handler, and he was very good at his job. It was one of the reasons he was Level Eight, and right below Fury and Hill in the SHIELD hierarchy.
The agent who was manning the station hastened to get out of Phil’s way. He gave the younger woman a single nod, then slid into the seat, setting a comm unit into his ear and bringing up the bank of monitors, tuning into satellite data as well as connecting to every single CCTV and traffic camera in the city.
Whatever the creatures coming through the rift in the sky were, there were a lot of them, and Phil was willing to bet there were even more on the other side, waiting to emerge. When the first of the whale-like things appeared, Phil actually drew a sharp breath; they seemed unbeatable, until he had a ringside seat of the Hulk punching one. He barely resisted the urge to cheer, glad that Banner had come back after the Hulk had left the helicarrier during the attack.
He lost track of time, directing various people and groups to the areas they were needed. He even spoke to Clint a couple of times, telling Hawkeye about movements of the invaders that the archer couldn’t quite see from his position on one of the taller buildings. It made him remember the last time he’d seen Clint, looking pale and exhausted yet willing to leap right back into the fighting. Phil understood that a lot of it was guilt for having led the attack on the helicarrier, even though it hadn’t been his fault. His foot nudged the case that he’d set at his feet, knowing that the scepter was in his possession and wasn’t going to leave it willingly, and that Loki had died with a throat full of rose petals. There was no one going to control Clint ever again, not with the scepter, and Phil vowed to keep it that way.
On the whole, he let Captain Rogers lead the Avengers, only giving the man any intel that he needed in order to do his job. Phil had known that Captain America had also been a tactician, and a leader, and it was a pleasure to work with him. His tactics were off the cuff and brilliant, and the agent sincerely hoped he’d get to work with Captain Rogers again the future.
There was a double click in his ear, and Phil dialed into the private channel that was signaling for his attention. “Coulson,” he acknowledged.
“Widow,” Natasha’s voice came in loud and clear. She sounded out of breath. “I’ve managed to free Dr. Selvig from the scepter’s control. He tells me there’s a failsafe built into this rift machine, and we’ll need the scepter to get the Tesseract to shut down.”
He knew from reports that Selvig had constructed something on the roof of Stark Tower, hooking into the building’s power source. Natasha had gone up there to either shut it down or destroy it, so they could keep any of the other creatures from coming through and attacking New York. So, he knew exactly where he needed to go.
“On my way.” He waved Jasper over from where his friend was at his own station, standing up and grabbing the case holding the scepter. Jasper, without a word, changed positions; Jasper was good, and Phil trusted him to keep things under control while he was gone.
He turned to tell Fury where he was going, but the Director just waved him away. “Go shut that thing down.”
Of course, he’d been monitoring. Not a surprise.
With that permission, Phil was heading off the bridge, nodding to Hill on the way. He’d noticed that she looked pretty banged up, but she nodded in return, wishing him luck as he passed.
Once away from the controlled chaos of the bridge, Phil changed the channel on his ear comm once more. “Agent Triplett.” He hoped the younger man hadn’t been hurt in the original attack on the helicarrier.
Antoine Triplett, after that mission to Budapest, had become Strike Team Delta’s preferred pilot when Clint himself couldn’t do it. The entire team had sort of adopted him, Natasha becoming his unofficial supervisory officer…if her taking the young man to the mats twice a week and beating the crap out of him counted. Clint had also given him marksmanship lessons and, because of it, Triplett had risen into the top one percent of all of SHIELD. Phil wasn’t at all ashamed to admit that Triplett was better than him with firearms, although Phil also ranked within that one percent. He was also an amazing pilot; he’d been good back then, but he’d only gotten better over the years.
And, Phil was willing to admit, if he couldn’t have Melinda May piloting them – and that would have been impossible, since her voluntary exile to a cubicle in Administration back at the Triskelion – then Antoine Triplett was his choice.
Well, there was Clint, but even the archer admitted that Triplett was better than he was.
At one point, John Garrett had tried to poach Triplett for himself, when he’d seen just how good the young agent was, but Phil had put his foot down, telling his old friend that Triplett was already taken. Garrett had taken it in stride, but Phil could tell he hadn’t been pleased to be shot down. Triplett had even told him that Garrett had approached him, but he’d turned the older agent down, telling Garrett that he was happy where he was. Phil had been glad to hear that. He quite liked the agent, and that was beyond the fact that his grandfather had been a Howling Commando.
He wondered if he would tell Captain Rogers. Phil would think about it. Maybe if he managed to get Triplett assigned as the official pilot for the Avengers Initiative…
“Agent Coulson,” came the reply almost immediately.
Phil was glad to hear from him. “I need a Quinjet ready to leave in five minutes. You up to flying me into Manhattan?”
“Dodging an alien invasion on the way? You know I am, sir.”
Another reason he liked Triplett…he was just as much an adrenaline junkie as the rest of Strike Team Delta. “I’m on my way to the flight deck now. I’ll meet you there.”
Phil knew that getting a Quinjet in the middle of a fight, after much of the helicarrier had been wrecked by both Clint and the Hulk was going to be difficult, but he had faith in Triplett to get it done. Once the agent would mention it was for Agent Coulson, there shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
He thought about going back and getting the Destroyer gun, but decided not to. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need it, and would have someone watching his back while he did whatever it was he needed to do with the scepter. It would be hard using both, so he would have to trust Natasha and Triplett to cover him.
When he arrived on the flight deck – with the helicarrier damaged, they were flying lower than usual so he didn’t need any sort of oxygen gear – he found Triplett standing on the lowered hatch of a Quinjet, staring down the flight deck coordinator who looked furious enough to chew nails. Triplett himself was in his SHIELD uniform, a pair of guns at his waist, and he was actually grinning at the grizzled veteran as the man waved both hands in the air as he yelled.
Phil couldn’t hear what he was saying until he got closer, since the wind was blowing quite fiercely across the deck. “We need every jet for rescue operations,” the man was snapping. “You aren’t authorized to take one!”
“Is there a problem?” Phil asked calmly once he was near enough.
The controller spun on his heel, mouth open and ready to give someone else a piece of his mind, but instead his jaw snapped shut as he noticed who was approaching.
“I was just explaining to the agent that you’d requisitioned this Quinjet for official business,” Triplett commented. There was a nasty scrape on his cheek, just over the line of his neatly trimmed beard, but otherwise he looked unhurt. “He was choosing not to believe me.”
“I would think he’d realize it was for me, since you were asking.” It wasn’t any sort of secret that Triplett flew Strike Team Delta around.
“You would think,” Triplett drawled, not even bothering to hide his pleasure at seeing the controller at such a loss for words.
“Are we ready, agent?” Phil asked, walking past the controller and into the back of the Quinjet.
“As soon as I get our destination.”
Triplett climbed into the pilot seat, beginning to flick switches, while Phil stowed his case in one of the cargo nets against the wall. As he joined his agent in the cockpit, the engines roaring smoothly into life, and the Quinjet lifted from the helicarrier’s deck.
“We’re heading for Stark Tower,” Phil told him, strapping himself in. Usually he didn’t bother, since Triplett was as smooth a pilot as Phil had ever ridden with, but he knew there was bound to be some bouncing and sharp maneuvers before they got to where they needed to be.
Triplett whistled. “Right under that big hole in the sky?”
That hole in the sky was obvious even from as far out as they currently were. It was a mass of roiling cloud and blue light, like an enormous bruise in the atmosphere. Aliens were still coming from it, and it would be only a matter of time before the defenders would be overwhelmed. They needed to get that rift sealed, and fast.
“We’re going to close it,” Phil explained, “and I have the tool to do just that.”
“Whatever it is, it’s in that case.” It wasn’t a question. “Let me guess…it’s that spear/scepter thing of Loki’s.”
Another reason Phil liked having Triplett around…he made leaps of logic that were often correct. “It is.”
“Then let’s get you there before we get more of our asses kicked.”
And then proceeded the craziest flight Phil had ever had the displeasure of being on.
It proved what a fantastic pilot Triplett was. Dodging around the flying sleds the aliens had, avoiding being too damaged by the firing of whatever guns they were using, and then hiding behind one of the armored space whale things in order to remain unseen…yes, Phil was putting the agent in for a commendation when it was all said and done, because they really shouldn’t have gotten to Stark Tower without being shot out of the sky. At one point, Stark’s voice came over the comm and made an awed yet sarcastic comment on the brand of aerial acrobatics being done, offering that “Idiot pilot a job for life flying Pepper around the world at five times their current pay,” which had Triplett laughing like a loon as he did a barrel roll that put them directly beside the blue beam of light that was shooting off the roof of the tower.
From his seat, Phil could see Natasha on the roof, Eric Selvig cowering down behind at tall metal vent nearby, the Widow giving them a thumbs’ up as Triplett toggled open the ramp. “You’re gonna need to jump, sir,” he said apologetically. “I don’t dare put this bird down until we have a safe place to park.”
“Noted.” Phil quickly unbuckled himself, not wanting to make the Quinjet a sitting target for longer than was necessary. “Once we get the rift closed, set down on the pad where Stark puts his armor on.”
With that, Phil was up and, practically tearing the case from the webbing where he’d stored it, racing through the back of the Quinjet, marveling at the fact that Triplett was keeping the jet so steady amid the firefight going on. The roof wasn’t that far, so Phil jumped, dropping the case beside Natasha as he tucked and rolled to avoid hurting himself. Once he was clear, the jet was up and away, breaking apart a clump of alien flyers as Triplett took the Quinjet out of the battle zone.
Phil was on his feet instantly. “What do I need to do?” he demanded.
Natasha held the case in both arms, the better for him to release the locks with his DNA and open it, to reveal the scepter in all its horrible glory, blue stone in the cradle between the two arcing sections of it glowing balefully. It felt cold in his grasp, and it was all he could do not to shudder at just how wrong the sensation of it against his skin was.
He met his friend’s eyes. Natasha was bloodied and bruised, but her eyes were defiant, and she looked tired but ready to continue the fight if she had to. They needed to stop this, close the rift and take out the rest of the aliens who’d decided that invading the Earth was a really good idea.
It made him wonder just who’d been behind Loki. Phil figured they might never know, unless whoever it was tried again.
He hoped they wouldn’t try again.
Selvig stood. “I built a backdoor into it,” he explained. “The scepter is the only way to get past the forcefield around the device.”
The device, as the scientist called it, was a monstrosity, tall and metallic and glowing with power. The Tesseract sat in the middle of it, somehow being held in place without any single part of the device touching it, like a malevolent thing that didn’t belong in the world. Around the machine the air crackled, and Phil could feel the heat of this forcefield that Selvig had mentioned, protecting the machine from any exterior threats.
The sooner it was shut down, the better.
“Coulson’s here with the scepter,” Natasha said over the comm, her voice echoing not only through Phil’s own communication earwig but because she was standing next to him.
Selvig had a laptop open on a stand next to the machine. “Just there,” he pointed at the base of the device, just under the Tesseract himself.
Phil, the scepter held tightly in both hands, aimed the thing right where Selvig told him to.
The scepter penetrated the forcefield.
It was like pushing a butter knife through a particularly viscous gel. Phil had to put all his strength behind it, leaning his weight into it. The energy from the field sent sparks down the length of the scepter, like tiny electrical shocks that stung his palms. He didn’t let go, however; this was too damned important.
He felt it the moment the tip of the scepter pressed against the section Selvig said to. “I can close it,” he gritted, hoping his voice could be heard over the rattling of his teeth.
“Do it,” came Captain America’s implacable voice.
It was Stark and he sounded completely stressed.
“Stark, we still have those things coming through,” Rogers snapped.
Phil raised his eyes. He hadn’t looked up into the rift over his head, focused as he’d been about shutting the machine down. Through it, he could see stars, as well as a dark thing that blotted out those stars, and he gripped the scepter more tightly because he couldn’t allow that to come through.
“And I have a nuke coming in,” Stark retorted. “It’s gonna blow in less than a minute.”
A nuke? Where the hell had a nuclear missile come from? Phil was certain Stark didn’t have any such thing; they were now against his religion, so to speak. There was only one place it could have come from, and he was certain Fury wouldn’t have aimed one of SHIELD’s stockpile in their direction, knowing they were able to close the hole in the sky.
Besides, Nick Fury was many things, but he wasn’t a mass murderer. And a nuclear device going off over New York would have been tantamount to murder.
“I know just where to put it,” Stark added.
Phil glanced upward again.
That would work perfectly.
Clint had wanted to see Phil before he’d gone back to the helicarrier, but his lover had left almost immediately after the aliens had all died, apparently from Stark tossing a nuclear warhead through the portal that they’d all come through in the first place.
The battle had been long, and he was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to go back to the helicarrier, get his knee checked out by Medical, and then corner Phil in his office and kiss him senseless. Instead, Stark had talked them all into going out for shawarma and, if he had to admit it, he was starving. Loki hadn’t provided much in the way of food, so it had been days since Clint had had anything even vaguely solid to eat, so shawarma sounded pretty good.
They’d all congregated back to Stark’s place, while Iron Man got rid of the damaged armor and changed clothes. The entire team had been offered a place to clean up. Clint had accepted… and Natasha had been there to support him as he limped toward the bathroom, where he was hoping to at least get the blood and dust off his face and uniform. Going through a glass window hadn’t done him any good, but at least his uniform had protected most of his body from getting cut up.
“How are you holding up?” Natasha murmured as Clint dried off his now-clean face. In the mirror, he was pale and drawn, with dark circles under his eyes and small scratches from that glass window along his cheeks and neck. Well, it could have been worse…he could have fallen to his death from that building. If he’d done that, Phil would have raised him from the dead just to yell at him for doing any such thing. They’d had discussions about Clint flinging himself off tall places before, so he was well aware of his lover’s opinions on the subject.
“I’ll admit, eating sounds like a wonderful idea,” he confessed. “Then I’ll let you drag me to Medical and have them check out my knee.”
His best friend gave him a bright smile; it was so unlike the Black Widow, and Clint was so very glad he was one of the few who got to see this side of Natasha. “Good. And I’ll have Phil come and sit on you.”
“That’s not the way to get me to stay in Medical, Tash,” he quipped, smirking.
She smacked him playfully on the arm. It was playful in the fact that it wouldn’t even leave a single bruise.
The others were waiting for them when they emerged from the bathroom. Stark had put on one of his ubiquitous band t-shirts, while someone had found Banner some clothes to wear. The others were still in their uniforms, but Thor had brushed out his cloak and someone had given Rogers a leather jacket, the better to hide the bloody tears in his shirt. They all looked as if they were going to collapse at any moment, and maybe they were, but right now Clint wanted food.
Just as they were heading for the elevator, more than Clint limping, the doors opened and out stepped Strike Team Alpha, acting as if they owned the place.
Clint disliked Brock Rumlow and Strike Team Alpha on principle. They were the sledgehammer to Delta’s feather. If Alpha got involved, people got dead. It happened every single time. Oh, he could see their usefulness, but if he couldn’t get out of a situation on his own he was sure gonna trust Phil and Natasha more than Rumlow and his merry band of assholes to pull him out.
“Excuse me,” Stark spoke up, “no intruders in the tower. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Rumlow tried to look bland about it, but Clint could tell he was barely managing to keep from rolling his eyes at Stark’s antics. Not that the billionaire didn’t have a point. Rumlow and his team hadn’t announced they were coming, and after everything that had happened today he wouldn’t have blamed Stark if he called the cops on the trespassers, even though the SHIELD logo was prominently displayed on their tactical gear.
Rogers had been around SHIELD HQ enough to have recognized Alpha Strike, and he didn’t look all that happy either. But then, Rogers didn’t care for bullies, so there was that. “What brings you gentlemen here?” he inquired, attempting at politeness and mostly succeeding.
“We have orders from the Director,” Rumlow answered, “to take the scepter and the Tesseract into custody and remove them to a safe place.”
“What?” Stark echoed Clint’s surprise.
The leader of Alpha Strike was trying to be reasonable, and was honestly succeeding in a lot of ways. “Just hand them over, and we’ll make sure they’re taken care of.”
That had the other Avengers glancing at each other, in various degrees of surprise. If Rumlow was from Fury, then how did he not know where the two alien artifacts were?
Trust Natasha to speak out loud their confusion…only she wasn’t confused. She was amused, which had Clint tensing a little. When his partner was like that, all hell could break loose at any moment.
“You were sent by Director Fury?” she confirmed.
It was obvious that the asshole bit off whatever reply he was going to make and went with, “We have our orders.”
“That’s very strange,” she mused, slinking toward Strike Team Alpha with intention. As she’d beaten each and every one of them on the mats in the SHIELD training room, they were showing various shades of intimidation.
All but Rumlow. But then, he’d always been a cagey bastard. Only Clint had gotten pretty good at reading him, over those self-same training mats when he’d been egging on one of his men who’d thought it was a good idea to challenge Natasha Romanov to a bout. He was a superior sort of asshole, thinking he was better than anyone else, and it was just one more reason why Clint hated his guts.
“What’s so strange about it?” Rumlow countered. “The scepter and the Tesseract are dangerous. They need to be locked away so no one else can use them.”
“It’s strange that Director Fury sent you,” she answered. “Because he knows exactly where both of them are…and they aren’t here.”
Rumlow frowned. A couple of his men shifted in confusion. Huh. They’d fully expected the Tesseract and Loki’s scepter to be there. But they had to know that Phil would have them, since he was the one to have brought the scepter out to them in the first place.
They were up to something. Clint didn’t know what, but it was damned suspicious. But what could a SHIELD strike team want with them? What sort of motivation would they have to act without easily verifiable orders? Had they expected they’d just hand them over?
Of course they had. Because they were SHIELD. The good guys.
Rogers was glaring at Rumlow, who seemed nonplused at the lack of powerful artifacts for him to take with him, and of Natasha’s comment. “What do you mean?” he growled.
“Just what I said.” She moved a little closer; Clint leaned against the wall, an interested spectator even as he surreptitiously pulled an arrow from his quiver and shifted his bow into an easy drawing position. Something was seriously wrong, and he wanted to be prepared.
“Jesus,” Stark snorted, not bothering to hide the eye rolling. “I had no idea SHIELD was a real-world version of the Keystone Cops.”
Banner snorted at that, but Clint thought it wasn’t funny at all, because this was a crazy situation. Strike Team Alpha should not be there. Fury would never have sent them.
“Coulson is probably back at the helicarrier with the cube and the glowstick by now,” Stark continued. “He showed up, helped save the day, then bunked off, taking Selvig with him, so it seems to me one hand doesn’t know what the other foot is doing.”
In that moment, Clint could see Rumlow lose his temper. It wasn’t in his face, which was actually sliding into a rather friendly mask that looked completely out of place. It was his eyes, fiery with rage, that whatever plan he’d had had been thwarted.
“Coulson has them?” Oh, he was trying so hard to sound pleasant.
But even Thor could tell something was up. “Do you impugn the Son of Coul’s honor?” he rumbled menacingly, gripping his hammer tightly as if he was about to swing it at the nearest jerk’s face.
Rumlow held his hands up. “Whoa. Take it easy.”
Clint noticed that Rumlow didn’t answer the question, though.
So did Thor, if the glare was any indication.
Rumlow hadn’t made himself any friends within the Avengers, that was for sure.
“Let’s eat,” Stark interrupted. “I’m starving. Almost dying does that to me.”
“And you would know, Stark,” Clint couldn’t help snarking.
That earned him a sly smile. “Yes, I would. Now, I have a black Amex that’s just waiting to buy us our bodyweights in delicious food. We’re leaving now.”
He moved to push past Rumlow, and there really wasn’t anything Alpha Strike could do but let them all go. For a split second, Clint thought they were going to grab him and haul his ass back up to the helicarrier for leading the raid under Loki’s orders, but nothing like that happened.
Stark turned once they were at the elevator. “Oh, by the way…you’re leaving, too. And you’ll take the stairs. I don’t want you lot stinking up my elevators. As much muscle and weaponry you’re packing, you’d put us over the weight limit anyway.”
“You heard the man,” Rogers loomed. He was quite good at looming, even when he was almost out of uniform.
“The stairs are that way.” Stark pointed down the hallway. “Have fun going down all one hundred flights… give or take a few.”
They stood and waited, watching as Rumlow and his bully boys stomped down to the door for the stairs. Once it was closed behind them, Stark lifted his head a little. “JARVIS, make sure they leave. And you need to warn a guy when you’re gonna let just anyone in here.”
“I apologize.” JARVIS actually sounded sorry. Clint of course knew about Stark’s AI, but it was the first time he’d heard it talk, and the cultured British voice was a surprise. “I have sustained severe damage in battle, and some of my systems are not operative.”
“I’ll contact Happy and have him get some security in here until you’re back up to one hundred percent,” he promised. He pulled out a phone from his jeans pocket, all clear screen and fancy tech. “Let’s head out and I’ll make the call on the way down.”
“Your phone works in an elevator?” Clint was impressed.
“It’s Stark tech. It works everywhere.”
The elevator doors opened, and Clint let himself be escorted in by Natasha, who had a finger up to her comm and was obviously speaking to Fury. Reporting Rumlow and his strike team.
Good for her. Fury would get to the bottom of things, even though that didn’t stop Clint from being concerned.
For now, though, he wanted to eat. Then he could get back to the helicarrier, and to Phil.
Fury wasn’t in his office when Phil got back to the helicarrier, but Hill was, sitting in one of the guest chairs with a cut crystal tumbler half-filled with what had to have been Fury’s good bourbon.
“He’s giving the WSC hell for ordering a nuclear missile fired on Manhattan,” she explained without him having to ask.
“I’d wondered where it had come from.” He set the pair of carrying cases down in the corner; one for the scepter, and one for the Tesseract. Stark had provided the one for the cube, which was a good thing. Phil hadn’t considered the idea of bringing it back with him, and he should have.
There was a quiet little ‘thrp’ and Goose, who was usually to be found in the office – when he wasn’t wandering whatever headquarters Fury happened to be in at the time, terrorizing junior agents by leaping out at them from the shadows – jumped down from where he’d been sitting on one of the bookshelves bolted to the wall, and went over to sniff the two cases. The Flerken did a very feline movement, scent-marking both, before slinking over and greeting Phil by circling his legs and threatening to trip the agent. It was only because Phil was used to that sort of thing that Goose hadn’t surprised him.
He leaned down and gave the Flerken the attention he was demanding then headed over to the filing cabinet that doubted as Fury’s liquor store. He was a little surprised that anything had survived the knocking around the helicarrier had taken, but then the drawer was pretty well padded to protect all the alcohol. Phil helped himself to the bourbon as well, figuring he deserved it.
“That was some good work you did,” Hill commented as Goose leaped into her lap. She absently petted him; only agents Level Six and above knew that Goose wasn’t a real cat. There were some pretty good rumors about the Flerken’s long life, most of them put about by Clint and Jasper, who could tag-team the best stories about the fact that Nick Fury was apparently a closeted crazy cat lady.
Phil took the other seat, sipping his drink. God, he really had needed that. “Do you mean wrangling two different law enforcement agencies, the military, and the Avengers, making them work together when usually they would have all descended into fights about dominance and jurisdiction?”
Hill laughed. The cut on her head had been cleaned and bandaged, but it still looked painful. Still, that was Maria Hill. She was one of the toughest people he knew. “Yeah, that. I’m pretty sure Fury’s going to offer you the Avengers because of it.”
Well, he’d suspected that would happen ever since the Avengers started coming together. Hell, Phil had been there from the very beginning, after Carol Danvers had upended their world with the notion that there were still superheroes out there and that aliens liked to get other worlds involved in their messes. He might have been a rookie at that point, but he’d been able to see the need for such a team.
Garrett, of course, had laughed at the notion, thinking both of them were being ridiculous. But then, Garrett was a cynic who only believed in the stories he was overly fond of embellishing. Phil wondered how Agent Ward, as straight-laced and humorless as he was, was able to put up with it all. Thank goodness he’d managed to save Triplett from Garrett’s bragging.
Still Garrett was a friend, but that didn’t mean Phil didn’t recognize the man’s faults.
At that moment, the office door opened and Fury strode in, slamming it behind him. No one was startled by the noise. Not even Goose, who could be as nervy as his Earth lookalikes, but then the Flerken had known Fury longer than Phil had and recognized when the Director was in a major strop.
“Those motherfuckers,” he snarled, pouring himself quite a liberal glass of bourbon and dropping down so hard in the chair behind his desk that it protested the action. “Firing off a god-damned nuke in the middle of one of the largest cities in the country just because they got spooked.”
“Went well, then,” Phil deadpanned. Well, if Fury’s day was bad so far, just wait until he broke the news about Hydra…
The agent really hadn’t had time to consider the fairy’s words. He was going to have to, in the upcoming months, but he needed to inform his boss first. Then they could plan.
“Coulson,” Fury sighed, “are you gonna explain what happened down in the cage? What the hell was all that shit? Well, the shit we could see, because there was a lot going on that apparently didn’t show up on the expensive camera system we have.”
Phil took another sip, weighing his words. So, the Fae must have chosen not to let itself be recorded. “There’s a lot I can’t really explain, because it was told to me in confidence and I won’t break that. However, I can tell you what I found out after the fact, as it were.”
In the following hour, he told Fury and Hill about the Fae, the fairies, what they were and what they did. When he told them about the sorts of children they approached, Fury got a considering look in his eye, and Phil knew he was putting the pieces together and would come up with Clint Barton. While Clint’s family life wasn’t common knowledge, there were a few who did know quite a lot of what happened with his abusive father. They didn’t know it all; Phil suspected the only ones who did were himself and Natasha, because Clint just didn’t share that sort of pain with anyone. He knew Natasha felt honored to have been told.
So did Phil.
Judging from Hill’s expression, she was doing the math as well.
“So,” Hill said, “these Fae saved you from Loki. I assume it’s because of Barton.”
Phil nodded, knowing that denying it wouldn’t work with these two. “Loki took him, and the mind control of the scepter hid him from them. They’d been waiting their chance and, when Loki tried to backstab me, they took it.”
“The doctor examining the Asgardian bastard says his lung were stuffed with rose petals.” Fury shuddered. “I will never look at red roses the same way again.”
Phil didn’t add that he felt the same way. “Then the Fae put the scepter in my care. I wasn’t about to argue.”
“Good on their part.” The Director leaned back in his chair, holding his now mostly empty glass against his temple. “We got any idea where we’re gonna keep them until we can figure out how to either destroy them or bury them so deep no one will ever be able to find them?”
Surprised that Fury was even saying that, although Phase Two had been a debacle, Phil considered. “Honestly? Because you might not like the answer to that.”
“Please don’t say Tony Stark,” Hill pleaded.
“I think we can trust him to come up with containment where only a few people have access.” Stark was, after all, a genius, and he would have his own reasons for making sure the scepter and the cube never saw the light of day. “And I think one of those people should be Captain Rogers. After all, he has a vested interest in the Tesseract. He’s seen what it can do. You know he’s not going to want to risk that sort of power getting into the wrong hands.”
Fury nodded thoughtfully. “His reaction to Phase Two was enough to point that out. He likened the guns to what Hydra had had back in the day.”
“He would know,” Hill agreed.
Phil had never really been all that sure about Phase Two. Certainly, he understood the need to be prepared, but he also knew the history of the Tesseract better than most, what HYDRA had tried to do with it.
And considering Hydra…
“I’ve got something else you need to know, and you’re not going to like it, Boss.”
He went on to explain what other little bombshell the Fae had dropped on him, about Hydra being entrenched within SHIELD. When he was done, Hill was cursing; that woman could swear like a sailor when she was really riled up. Phil couldn’t blame her; if he was the type, he would have done the same thing.
Fury, though…Fury looked lost in thought, as if the news wasn’t all that much of a surprise, or if it was just one more piece of a puzzle that he’d had in his head, a missing piece that explained something that had confused him. While that went on, Phil stood and raided the liquor cabinet again, refilling all their glasses, knowing that if he needed a drink, the others did as well.
Hill was looking at Fury expectantly; this was obviously something she hadn’t known. Phil didn’t feel like he was so much in the dark, not if Maria Hill wasn’t aware of something. SHIELD had secrets and, while he was in the upper tier of agents, there were still things that the Director and Assistant Director knew that he didn’t, and he was fine with that. Phil was a creature of the system, had been Fury’s protégé, and understood that secrets had secrets and he wasn’t always privy to everything. He’d wait and see if Fury deigned to explain.
“Romanov reported something as I was coming out of my shouting match with the World Security Council,” the Director finally said. “It appears that Strike Team Alpha showed up at Stark Tower, claiming that I’d sent them to secure the scepter and the cube.”
Phil blinked once in surprise. “That’s a bit blatant of an attempt, isn’t it?” Fury had known that Phil was coming back to the helicarrier with both artifacts, so there would have been no way he’d have sent someone else to fetch them. Rumlow and his team had to have arrived after Phil, Selvig, and Triplett had left, since he hadn’t seen them.
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Brock Rumlow and at least part of his team were Hydra.
He wondered if Goose had somehow picked up on it. The Flerken had always hated Rumlow, from almost the moment the man had walked into the Director’s office the first time. Phil had been present when Goose had tried to actually eat Rumlow; luckily, the man’s back had been turned when Goose had made the attempt, and had only gotten two of his mouth tentacles out before Fury had stepped in and prevented it. To this day, Rumlow didn’t know just how close he’d come to being a Flerken’s dinner.
Hill was practically grinding her teeth, judging from the muscles jumping in her jaw. “They had to have known at least Romanov would have reported back about that.”
“You’d think.” Fury took a sip of his freshened drink. “Makes you wonder just who really sent them, doesn’t it?”
It didn’t need to be said aloud that it had to have been a higher-up in Hydra. It was too blatantly obvious. “We’ve got rats, Boss.”
“You’re not kidding, Coulson.” He didn’t sound sarcastic, only resigned. “We’re going to have to do a lot to clean up around here. And keeping those,” he pointed toward the containment cases in the corner, “anywhere near SHIELD right now is too dangerous to even contemplate. We don’t know who we can trust at this point.”
“I know at least a dozen agents who’d be trustworthy,” Hill replied. She snorted. “Hydra’s always held pretty close to the Nazi ideal; anyone not a white male would pretty much be counted out as a member.”
She had a point. “We’re going to need to vet almost every single SHIELD agent, though. It’s going to be quite the job.”
“You leave that to Hill and me,” Fury said. “I’m putting you in as liaison to the Avengers. They’ll be your responsibility from now on.” His lip curled upward in a smirk. “And we can see if anyone tries to approach you about getting in good with the Avengers. I’d think Hydra would want to get someone in on the inside of that particular operation.”
“But Hydra would also know that recruiting me wouldn’t work.” Phil was a company man, plain and simple. He was also bisexual and, while the rumors were pretty rampant about himself and Clint, they were basically correct…if a little overblown. “I’m about as far from the Hydra ideal as you could get and not be a person of color.”
“This is true.” Fury waggled a finger at him. “But I doubt that would stop them from trying to infiltrate somewhere in the command structure that had a hand in with the Initiative. You’d be the one they’d talk to about that.”
He did have a valid point. “Then I want Triplett assigned to me permanently. I can trust him, and he can be not only my assistant but my personal pilot.”
“And you can watch him freak out when he meets Captain Rogers,” Hill laughed.
About the only three who knew who Triplett was related to sat in this room. Fury had never let the agent’s famous relative color what he observed about the younger agent and, in return, Triplett didn’t actually know that Fury was aware that his grandfather had been a Howling Commando. Although how he’d expected to hide that from the head of an intelligence gathering organization was beyond Phil.
Or perhaps Triplett knew, and because he wasn’t getting any sort of special treatment he was ignoring it. That made the most sense.
“And Barton can rein in your own fanboy tendencies,” Fury added, chuckling.
“I think I’m past that now,” Phil said primly, sitting up a little farther in his chair. He really wasn’t, but he could control himself.
“Just keep telling yourself that, Coulson.” Fury was smiling widely.
He was opening his mouth to rebut the slanderous statement when the comm in his ear chirped. Phil reached up and activated it. “Coulson.”
“Sir,” the voice said, “Agents Barton and Romanov have arrived on the helicarrier and are asking for you.”
That wasn’t a surprise. Clint was most likely using the excuse of checking on him to avoid Medical. “Please have them wait in my office.”
“Yes, sir.” The agent on the other end of the line disconnected, and Phil removed the earwig and placed it in his pocket, now that things seemed to be calming down.
“Barton and Romanov are here,” he told them.
“Go and check on your boy,” Fury teased. “You can leave them here for the time being,” he waved toward the cases, “and Goose can guard them for a bit. Can’t you, Goosey?”
Hearing Nick Fury baby-talking a cat-like creature would never stop being hilarious, especially when he made those kissy faces at the Flerken.
Goose stood and stretched, balancing himself easily on Hill’s thighs, then jumped down and stalked toward the containment cases, meowing in what was obviously agreement. Goose might not speak any sort of Earth language, but he was very easily understood by those who’d known him for as long as Coulson had.
The Flerken leapt up onto the thicker case holding the Tesseract, curling up on it alertly. Phil could still vividly recall when Goose had vomited up the Tesseract the first time; he’d been the one to find cube, the slime that had come up with it having dried and stuck the glowing object on Fury’s desk blotter. It had been really gross and Fury had made him clean it up.
Phil trusted Goose to eat anyone who would come after the objects. He just hoped they wouldn’t be hacked up like hairballs later on. He really hated cleaning that shit up.
Standing, he slammed back the rest of his bourbon, setting the glass down on the desk. Phil nodded to both to them and then headed out, a spring in his step at knowing his friends were waiting for him. He’d seen them both back at the tower after the battle, and both had been banged up; Clint had been favoring his left knee, and Phil fully intended on getting his lover down to Medical as soon as they checked in. And maybe Phil could scare up some lime jello…
His office on the helicarrier was a lot smaller than the one he had at the Triskelion, but then he was hardly here anyway, preferring to work from the bridge where it was easier to run missions. There was a plain metal desk bolted to the deck, a chair that had obviously shifted during the attack and was leaning against the wall, and several filing cabinets that were also anchored to the decking. One of the drawers had opened, spilling files everywhere, and when he entered he found Natasha carefully picking them up and putting them back where they belonged.
Clint was seated in the only other chair, the visitor chair that either hadn’t moved or had been picked up, his left leg extended with his foot resting on the desk. They’d both cleaned up a little, the tiny cuts from where Clint had gone through a window while leaping from an exploding building a little less obvious with all the blood gone.
They both looked up as he opened the door, Clint on his feet so fast Phil thought he must have teleported out of the chair, his lover’s pale eyes wide and disbelieving. “Why didn’t you say anything?” Clint blurted. There was a tone of hurt in his voice.
Phil stopped mid-step, surprised at the outburst. Then, he finished coming into the office, closing and locking the door behind him. “Say anything about what?”
“About the fairies, Phil.” Now he was almost accusatory.
Oh, of course. He hadn’t had time to explain about what had happened to Loki, and Thor must have said something when they’d gone out to eat. “I was going to tell you as soon as I saw you both,” he explained, fetching his own chair and rolling it around to the front of the desk. He didn’t want anything to come between him and Clint, and he needed to get his lover off that leg until it could be looked at by a doctor.
“But why didn’t you say anything sooner?” Clint asked plaintively as Phil got his ass back in the chair. “I told you all about my history with them, but you never said a word!”
Phil had to think that over for about a second, and then he could see why Clint was feeling so hurt. He honestly thought Phil had had a past with the Fae, which was why they’d saved him.
“Clint,” Phil reached over and laced his fingers through Clint’s, “I can truthfully say I’d never met the Fae before today.”
Natasha came to stand at Clint’s shoulder, tapping it lightly. “See? I told you he would have said something earlier if he’d been one of the Chosen Ones as well.” Her eyes met Phil’s. “He was ranting about it on the flight here, and I tried to get him to listen…but you know how he is.” She then cuffed Clint on the back of the head. “You should have listened to me.”
“Ow, Tasha,” Clint complained, rubbing the spot with his free hand. “Yes, I should have, and I’m sorry I didn’t.” His eyes met Phil’s. “But they saved you. Why would they do that if you weren’t a Chosen One?”
“Because,” Phil said softly, “they saved me since they knew it would hurt you if I was killed.” He didn’t add that they were mad at Loki as well, but he really didn’t think that needed to be said.
His lover actually gaped at that. “But, why?” he asked plaintively. “I turned them down.”
“Apparently, you didn’t. Clint, it told me you never really chose. They’ve been waiting for decades for you to make your final choice.”
Natasha snorted. “That is such a very Clint thing to do, leaving immortal creatures hanging for an answer he never knew he hadn’t given.”
Clint’s expression turned fierce. “Then I’m glad I didn’t officially choose. You went up against Loki and he would have killed you, Phil. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d…” He squeezed Phil’s fingers.
Phil didn’t want to add that he was glad as well. Not because of dying…well, yes, he was glad he wasn’t dead. He was aware of the lengths Nick Fury could go to, and he’d had Project TAHITI shut down for very good reasons.
No, it was because at least they now knew about Hydra. And that could be fixed, although it would take time. If they hadn’t had that advance information, there was no telling what damage would have been done. Would Hydra have remained in hiding? Or, would it have emerged at some point to create chaos all over the world? It really didn’t bear considering.
He was going to have to explain to these two what was going on, as well as the other Avengers, especially Captain Rogers. But, for now…
“You’re going to have to decide,” he said gently. “You can’t keep leaving the Fae hanging like that. They deserve to know if you’re going with them… or staying with us.”
“I don’t know why they’d made themselves known again,” Clint said fretfully. “They haven’t been around since I was eight…” He shuddered, and Phil knew he was thinking about his parents.
What Clint didn’t know, was that Phil had gone looking for deaths that had the Fae’s unique signature to it, when he’d been doing his research into the beings. And he’d found several with connections to a certain Clint Barton.
Including Clint’s own brother, Barney.
No, Phil was never going to put that on Clint’s conscience. He would keep that to himself, let Clint keep thinking that his brother was out there, surviving. Let him have that little delusion, and keep the fairy’s part in things a secret.
He didn’t want to think if Clint chose to leave. That would…well, it would destroy Phil as surely as if Loki had managed to thrust that scepter through his back. He didn’t want to even consider the possibility. But he needed to give Clint that chance, to make his peace with whatever he decided to do. In the end, Clint could only make that choice, and no one could do it for him.
The Fae would make sure of that, if anyone stood in the Chosen One’s way.
The tree was still there, even if the old house was long gone.
Clint stood at the base of the tree, looking out over the land where he’d lived until his parents had died. In his mind, he could still hear his Dad screaming, his Mom crying, and Barney shouting, while Clint had hidden from all the drama. That tree had been his sanctuary, the only place around where he’d felt safe, and coming back was a mixture of happiness and sorrow.
He was pretty certain he hadn’t needed to come all this way. After all, the fairies had appeared to Phil on the helicarrier, and Thor had seen them as well…even if they hadn’t actually showed up on camera at the time, which had confused a lot of people when Loki had mysteriously keeled over and Phil and Thor had been seen talking to thin air.
But being here…this was where it all began, and it was only right that this was where it would end as well.
The wind rustled the leaves of the old oak, and Clint took his homecoming that much closer to the actual events by climbing that tree, pulling himself hand over hand until he was seated back in that familiar crook, settling his back against the trunk and stretching his legs out along the branch, glad that he’d waited until his knee had healed before deciding to come back. From his perch, the leaves hid him from view, and it was like being cut off from the rest of the world, a safe place he could come when Dad got so drunk he hadn’t cared who he’d hit.
Clint didn’t know how long he sat there, just thinking about the past. About how the fairies had come to him, had celebrated his birthday with him, had told him stories of the Lost Lands and how Clint would never ben weak again if he chose to come with them. It had been as close to idyllic as he could ever have gotten, and it had only been the thought of leaving Barney that had kept him from finally leaving to be with the only beings who’d ever cared for him.
Well, he knew exactly how that had all turned out, with Barney betraying him and nearly killing him in the process.
But it hadn’t all been bad. Eventually, he’d met Phil, and then Natasha, had become an agent of SHIELD and a member of Strike Team Delta, had gained a family and friends and a lover who would do anything for Clint. It would have seemed impossible those decades ago when he’d been hiding from his bastard father. He’d been a child, with no sense of the future. All he’d seen was the hell his own family life had been.
He sat there until the sun began to set, casting shadows on the undersides of the leaves, dappling the bark in stripes of light and dark. The dancing light that approached had Clint actually relaxing a little, understanding what was coming, knowing the fairies as old friends despite everything Miss Essie had told him and the research he’d been able to do on his own once he’d had the resources to know where to look.
“Greetings, oh human child,” the fairy said, once it was close enough. It sat on a twig near Clint’s face, the tiny wings flickering as they beat. “Have you made your decision?”
Clint had known the moment Phil had told him that the fairies were still around, watching out for him. That they’d protected Phil from Loki because they understood that he cared for the man, loved him more than he’d ever loved anyone outside of Natasha, which was a different sort of love altogether. He had a true home, and a team, and a purpose.
“I have a question, though, if you don’t mind.”
“You may ask it.”
“I was told that, once I was a certain age, I wouldn’t be a Chosen One any longer. If that’s true, then why have you hung around this long?”
He’d been doing more research, now that he understood that the fairies had never truly left him alone. Clint had discovered the autopsy reports for Barney and Trick, and had seen how they’d died; the fairies must have come for them after they’d attempted to murder Clint for not wanting to follow them into a life a crime. There had also been a trail of deaths that closely followed Clint’s path through the underworld, of those who’d tried to take him out of the picture as Ronin – and later, Hawkeye – had torn his way through the evilness of the world until SHIELD had taken him down and subsequently recruited him. There were twenty corpses out there that the fairies were responsible for, as they’d looked after him and waited for his final decision, and Clint hadn’t even realized it.
Now he knew. And he wasn’t sure he was completely buying the notion of the fairies watching over him until he could decide whether he was going to come with them or not.
The fairy laughed like tinkling bells and screeching metal against metal. “Human child, you have a destiny. We knew this when we came to you, when that destiny was balanced on the edge of a knife. However, if you had chosen back then, we could not have done what we have done in order to protect that destiny. Now, you must decide whether we will continue to watch over you and yours, or if we will retreat back into the Lost Lands and leave you in peace.”
Clint considered the creature’s words. From what Miss Essie had told him, the fairies existed throughout time, and could see the past and the future. And they’d seen something in him, something that had brought them to him. If he was reading between the lines of that last statement, then the fairies had set themselves up to break that destiny by trying to convince him to come with them, and now they were stuck unless Clint released them. They’d been protecting him all this time because of this destiny as he’d moved on past them.
It was a sobering thought, the notion that they’d tried to get him to leave what he was meant to do behind and when they’d failed, had been trapped into watching over him. They’d been pretty much hoist by their own petard.
But then, Clint had no doubt that they’d known that would happen if he hadn’t made that official choice.
Maybe it was time to go and visit Miss Essie. He’d once managed to track her down to an assisted living facility in Palm Beach, Florida. Clint had the feeling she’d enjoy hearing how everything had turned out.
The fairy was waiting for his answer.
Did he really want to release them? After all, they’d saved Phil when Loki had attempted to murder him. That sort of invisible protection would be useful, what with the sort of threats the Avengers dealt with, and with SHIELD busily rooting out Hydra from their midst.
And yet, Clint knew he was adult enough to take on the duty of being the protector for himself and his loved ones.
He gave the tiny creature his answer.
The fairy laughed, then flew away, the golden light of its form fading into the distance.
Clint smiled. He climbed down from the tree and, leaving his lost home behind for the final time, began to walk toward where the Quinjet had been parked, Phil and Natasha waiting, Trip at the controls ready to fly them all back to their current home.
Back to New York.
Back to the Avengers.
To his destiny.