Clint pushed the last of the dirt over the hole and stepped back, shrugging his thin jacket up around his ears. The wind whistled colder than he'd expected, the way it did in the Afghan mountains when the sun went down. Virginia wind had no business ever feeling that way but it seemed fitting somehow. Clint guessed he couldn't be surprised he'd brought the cold with him.
The wind picked up, blowing dirt in his face; Clint raised one arm to shield his eyes and when his vision cleared there was a woman standing in the center of the crossroads, a dead ringer for a rebellion leader he'd sniped in Croatia four years prior. Clint remembered the wind had been coming from the northeast, about ten miles per hour. He'd been thirty feet up and only had to wait in the nest thirty minutes. Clean headshot. Easy day at the office. "Cute," he said, looking the demon up and down. If this little display was supposed to get a reaction out of him, hell was going to have to try a lot harder.
The demon's eyes shimmered red for a moment before settling into a deep brown. "I knew you'd like it." She stepped out of the crossroad to circle around him. "Her twin," she said, answering his unspoken question. "I thought you might like to see a familiar face."
Clint stared up into the sky, the hunter's moon still hanging low on the horizon. "Can we get on with this?"
She smiled at him the way he imagined spiders smiled at flies. "I understand you have a deal for me."
Clint slid a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket, the front covered with two columns of names written in his neat block printing, over eighty all told. He remembered Natasha teasing him once for writing like a schoolboy. "Take it you know what I did?"
The smile widened. "I know something calling itself a god made you dance like an organ grinder's monkey. If you'd been his puppet any longer you'd be made out of felt."
Clint threw the list down at her feet. "Those are the names of everyone who died because of me."
She made a soft little tsking sound. "Now haven't all your little friends told you it wasn't your fault?"
I need a distraction and an eyeball. That was name number fifty-six. "I gave Loki the intelligence. I let him in. My fault. My debt."
"Oh, I'm not arguing. Most men who did what you did would wake up screaming."
"I made friends with my nightmares years ago." He crossed his arms, impatience getting the better of him, something that didn't happen very often. "So we have a deal, then? My soul, their lives."
The demon crossed her arms, mirroring his posture. "No."
Clint blinked. "Not exactly the answer I was looking for."
"But it's the one you're getting. I'd think you'd be used to being a disappointment by now."
Clint ground his teeth. He'd been trained too well to back away from a mission without gaining his objective. "Have to say, you're not exactly living up to your reputation. You saying you can't or you won't?"
"What I'm saying is that the deal you're proposing isn't exactly very balanced, is it? Trade one soul for over eighty lives? What kind of a business do you think we're running here?" She stepped very close to him, running one manicured fingernail against his lower lip. Her breath smelled like sulfur. "Especially a soul we were likely to get anyway."
Clint held himself very still, forcing himself not to flinch until she finally drew back in disappointment. "Make your counter offer then."
She stepped on the list, grinding her heel against the names. "Choose one. Your soul for one of the names on this list."
One name. The wind blew cold again and Clint felt himself shiver; he glanced down and saw one of the names at the bottom stand out, smudged but still legible. Some names on that list had been harder to write than others.
It wasn't exactly a hard choice. "How long do I get before you take me away?"
"The standard. Ten years of life, then an eternity with us. Assuming you live that long, of course."
"Doesn't seem likely." Sometimes Clint was amazed he'd lived this many years as it was. "Just one name?"
"That's right. And let's be fair, it's a stretch to say you're worth that much."
"Fine. Let's get this over with." She stepped forward and kissed him like a bride on her wedding day and Clint felt something...detach, a piece of his soul slipping from him to her like a stolen wallet.
Clint returned the kiss, pressing close as lightning crashed from the gathering storm clouds. It wasn't like he'd been doing much good with his his soul anyway.
Fury missed his helicarrier. The boys and girls in engineering kept saying it might be six months before he could get his beautiful girl in the air again and threatening there'd be hell to pay if it took a day over two months didn't seem to be having the usual effect. Not that he couldn't be just as effective at SHIELD headquarters, of course, but it was an undeniable come down all the same. He almost wished Stark would finish renovating that ridiculous tower of his.
He was already two hours past his duty shift and was considering calling it a night; the country looked like it was resisting the temptation to tear itself to pieces for one more night and it would be novelty to get more than four hours of sleep.
Just as he was about to stand and give final orders for the night he saw Hill straighten up, her face drawing into a puzzled frown. "Director, there's a call for you on your private line. The internal one."
Well. That was interesting. Only other agents had access to that channel; it was for when his people needed to get a hold of him right now, and only he or Hill could answer it. He knew who he had out in the field and there hadn't been any blow ups he'd been made aware of. "Who is it?"
"It's Agent..." Her eyes went hard around the edges. "Never mind, sir," she said, her voice clipped. "Some joker's hacking into our communication lines, I'll get security on it..."
"Nah, send it through," Fury said, standing and stretching his sore back. He could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen Maria Hill shaken up. The whole thing had just gotten a little more interesting. "Night's been too quiet anyway. But get security on it anyway, just in case."
"Yes, sir," she said, clearly hating everything about the order.
"I'm taking it in my office, let me know if anything decides to explode," Fury said, tapping his earpiece on.
"Yes, sir," Hill said again, a clear, you'll regret this, sir tone in her voice.
He'd almost made it out to the corridor when the call finally clicked over. "Hey, boss."
Fury slowed to a stop, a clip show of disaster scenarios flashing through his mind. He hoped down to the soles of his boots this really was something as mundane as hacking, but he knew that was never his luck. "Agent Coulson," he said, closing the door tight behind him.
"It's good to hear your voice, sir." Fury heard a soft sigh over the line. "And for the record, purple cuttlefish."
Fury sank into his chair. That eliminated some possibilities, at least; all SHIELD agents were taught a confidential code phrase in case of expert impersonation or illusion magic or another shape shifter infestation. "We buried you."
"Yes you did, sir. Pretty deep, too." There was a pause on the line, one long enough for Fury to wonder if this wasn't a particularly vivid stress hallucination. "I guess I should thank you for not cremating me the way I'd asked."
Fury felt a broad grin split across his face. "Cremations are bad for morale." For just this second he could put off why this had happened because he was just so damned happy it had. "You've been absent without leave."
"I hope this won't affect my next performance review."
"I think I can let it slide this once."
"Sir," Coulson said, "the book we recovered from that mission in Dover. Did you follow my recommendation and have it destroyed?"
Oh, shit. Fury added one more possibility to his mental checklist and moved it all the way to the top. "No," he admitted. "I didn't. With all the weird shit going on then I made the call that the pros of keeping it outweighed the cons." And he was going to kill whatever idiot in Archives had let that thing out of their sight.
He could almost hear Coulson nod. "Is Agent Romanov at Headquarters?"
"She's in the field but not far. I'll have her recalled."
"What about Agent Barton?"
Fury didn't miss the new edge to Coulson's voice and swore under his breath. course. He called up the security logs on his computer and swore again when he saw Clint Barton's name, more loudly this time. "He signed out a few hours ago. Left on foot." Fury closed down the program and sagged back in the chair. "Report to duty, Coulson. I've had it up to here with herding all these cats by myself."
"I'd appreciate a ride back to the hq. I had to break into the cemetery administrator's office to find the phone and I don't want to explain how I got here. It might cause a scene."
"Hell, I'll send a damn chopper. Wake up the whole neighborhood."
"I don't think that's necessary, sir."
"The entire time you've known me, have I ever cared about necessary? Get your ass back here, agent. Sounds like we have a fire to put out."
Fury had said Natasha was close but Coulson hadn't realized he meant close enough to almost beat him back to headquarters. Fury had sneaked him through the back door, not sure yet what lie he was going to use to explain his miraculous return from the dead, and he'd been left alone for barely thirty seconds before looking up to see her stalking around the corner.
She pulled up short when she caught sight of him, her weight settling on her back leg. Natasha's tells were subtle but Coulson knew her well enough to catch them: falling into an uncharacteristic, off-balance stance. The way her hand jerked up, like her impulse had been to cover her mouth and she only caught herself at the last second. "You're alive," she said as she stepped toward him, her hand on his arm.
That was a hug coming from Natasha Romanov. "Seems that way."
She looked him up and down, faint lines appearing around her lips as she appraised the situation. "This is terrible."
Coulson let out a relieved breath. Finally, someone who agreed with him. "I'm not thrilled about it either." He pressed his hand over hers for just one instant. "I'm glad you're all right. Fury brought me up to speed on the ride over."
Her lips twitched up. "He owes you some trading cards."
"He actually did mention that. I think he has some poor cadet scouring the internet as we speak." Coulson couldn't put off asking the next question any longer. "Tasha, when was the last time you spoke with Barton?"
Covert agents needed to be able to size up a situation in an instant and Natasha was the best he'd ever known; he saw her eyes widen with horror as the question sank in. "Dover," she said, looking to him for confirmation.
"I think so."
Her hands clenched into tight fists. "I'm going to give him another concussion."
"I don't think that'll help." He sighed, running over one hand over his hair. "Let me talk to him, see what he has to say for himself. Maybe we're all wrong about what happened."
"And if we're not?"
His set his mouth in a grim line. "Then I'll give you a hand with that concussion."
The way he saw Clint stop short when he found Coulson standing next to his bed made his stomach feel full of jagged rocks - there was surprise but not enough of it, accomplishment instead of amazement. That was the look in Barton's eyes when he made an impossible shot, one he knew damn well no one else on the planet could match. Even if he didn't now have incontrovertible proof of what Barton had done that look would have told him everything he'd needed to know. "I saw that you'd mae a report you'd lost your ID card and needed replacement," he said, nodding to the dirty metal box on the center of the bed and unable to keep the edge out of his voice. He thought he might be tempted to sell his own soul right now just to hear he was wrong. "I found it for you."
Clint sat down on the bed and brushed some of the grime from the lid. "Didn't think you'd figure it out before I got back," he said, his lips curling up like they were talking about some minor bet Coulson had won.
"I had them dig up every crossroad within twenty miles. You left on foot so I thought that was a safe distance."
Clint just shrugged, opening the box and sliding the ID card back into his pocket."What do you want me to say?"
Clint looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. "You know the answer to that. I let him in."
"You were mind controlled by an alien artifact. It wasn't your fault."
"I still did it," he snapped. "It was my hands, my...my knowledge, he used all of it. That was all me." He looked away, drumming his fingers against the bedspread. "He grabbed Selvig too, but he was still able to put in that back door. He's just a scientist, a civilian, but he was able to resist it enough to give us a way to close the portal. " Clint shook his head. "I'm trained for counter-interrogation. I should have been able to manage at least that."
"None of what happened was your fault," Coulson said again, softening his voice.
Clint shrugged. "I still did it. On me to fix it." He looked up at Coulson, the satisfied glint back in his eye. "You'd have hated the funeral. Fury made a big thing of it, you know how he is. At least that's what Nat told me, I didn't go. Figured I'd be the last person anyone would want to see."
Coulson watched him for a long time. There was still dirt under his nails. "How long did they give you?"
Clint shrugged again. "Ten years. Seems like their standard deal. Assuming I live that long, obviously."
Coulson nodded, already lining up in his head SHIELD contacts who might be knowledgeable in this area. "At least that gives us some time to get you out of it."
"I tried to bring everyone back," he said, staring off into the distance. "I did. She told me my soul wasn't worth that much and I guess I can't argue. Had to be a fair trade, one for one."
Coulson felt like all the air had gone out of the room. "Why me?"
Clint gave him that oh, come on, look again. "You know the answer to that one, too."
They called themselves the Badoon. They were reptilian, scientifically advanced and if they had attacked before the Chitauri they might even have been impressive, but once giant dragon insects have flown their way past Penn Station it was hard to take lesser threats seriously.
The poorly planned invasion was put down quickly and with a minimum of casualties, but for the rest of his life Coulson found himself found himself sketching out counter measures, researching weaknesses so that if they ever tried it again SHIELD's efficiency level would be at its peak, that thistime there would be no mistakes. It remained a minor obsession for him, even when far more dangerous races revealed themselves, races like the Skrull and the Kree and the Brood.
The Badoon invasion was what slashed Clint Barton's allotted time from ten years to a little over three months.
Natasha saw him fall. Rogers too, but he was pinned down fighting three Badoon warriors who wouldn't accept the battle had already been lost and couldn't raise the alarm in time – and even if he had been able, their communicators had been jammed since the start of the battle. She knew that ninety-nine times out of a hundred someone would have spotted the building Clint had been using for high ground get hit by the Badoon artillery and crumble like wet paper mache. Stark would have seen it and did a last second flyby, or Hulk would make a diving catch. Thor, too, although he hadn't been at the battle. Thor could have done something.
But this was the one time out of a hundred, and Natasha was helpless to do anything but watch as the building buckled like a poorly built toy, to watch him grab for hand holds that crumbled as soon as he found them and finally to follow as he dropped down, down, down. She was too far away to hear if he'd screamed.
Rogers covered her as she rushed over and she'd read enough of his file to understand the flash of horror in his eyes. Every second stretched into an unendurable eternity as she picked her way past debris and choked on airborne bits of pulverized concrete and she was amazed that he was still breathing when she finally reached him.
His legs were crushed under blocks of concrete big enough she thought they would need Hulk to move them and he'd caught a jagged shard of rebar through his chest on the way down; Natasha could hear air whistling in and of the wound each time he breathed (too fast, too shallow, Natasha knew where this all was going and wished she didn't) but when she reached down to attempt first aid he pulled her hand away, shaking his head.
She held his hand instead and knelt beside him, letting the battle wind itself down around them. She smiled despite herself when he managed to whisper, "Well, that sucked." He squeezed her hand. "S'all right. Odds...bound to get me someday. " He tried to laugh but it came out as a cough instead. "Knew ten years was pushing it."
"You shouldn't have done it."
He shook his head. "Had to. Let 'im in, had to...had to fix it," he whispered, panting for air around the words. "Going there anyway, we both...both know that." He squeezed her hand again; his eyes were losing already focus. It would be any second now. "Too much red, Nat.. Drow...drowning in it." He coughed again, bloody froth dripping down from the corner of his mouth. "Don't...you be in a hurry to catch up with me down there. Hear me?"
His eyes suddenly went very wide. "Nat. D'you hear that?"
She shook her head. "Hear what?"
It would be a long, long time before Natasha stopped seeing that look in his eyes every time she closed her own. "Howling."
She wrapped her arm around her knees as his hand slowly cooled in hers. The last remnants of the invasion were still being put down but as far as she was concerned her part in this battle was long over.
Coulson let out a relieved breath when they finally broke through the jamming signal, although he pitied whichever communications officer had let it get jammed in the first place because Fury was
angry enough to burst into flames. "One of my agents in the field, report. Some of you had better still be alive out there."
"This is Romanov."
Coulson felt something about Natasha's tone coil around his spine but when he looked at Fury the Director didn't seem to have noticed. "Tell me what we're looking at," Fury said.
"The Badoon are retreating. Around thirty civilian casualties, but there were three building collapses so the final total's unknown." There was the slightest pause, something else Coulson knew only he had caught. "One SHIELD casualty."
Coulson saw Fury's hand clench on the console he'd commandeered. "Who?"
There was another pause, one that told Coulson everything before she said it. He wondered if she'd done that intentionally, as a warning. "Agent Barton."
Coulson saw Fury's look cut toward him but he didn't say anything. "Understood. I'm sending people down. Take charge of the clean up." The signal fizzled back into static but Coulson didn't notice; the room had become a hive of white noise, confused voices talking over each other. He made very sure to keep his composure, to not draw any attention as he watched the time tick down until an acceptable number of minutes passed.
The moment the thought his absence wouldn't be noted Coulson slipped out the back doorway and into the cool of the corridor (he felt Fury's gaze follow him but that didn't matter, Fury noticed everything.) As junior officer he didn't know rushed by, probably responding to Fury's summons, and Coulson forced himself to hold together until he was finally alone. Then he slammed his fist into the wall as hard he could, hard enough for the vibration to travel up his arm. He leaned against the wall, suddenly not caring that another group of agents had paused on the way to their mission briefing to stare. His hand throbbing but the pain gave him clarity. He couldn't help like this. Now wasn't the time to fall apart, he didn't have the luxury. He needed to adjust his time table, that was all. He'd made some good inroads already, he just had to push at them harder, move some of the riskier plans to the forefront. This was just another mission to plan.
Coulson recalled another botched mission years ago, one where things went bad enough the only way to accomplish the objective was to let Clint be captured and get information from the inside, the kind of job Natasha was so good at. He remembered hearing Clint scream, the sound tinny and distorted through his earpiece, Coulson thousands of miles away and not able to do anything but listen.
If his math was correct, Clint had already been screaming like that more two days now.
Coulson pushed all of that deep down. He knew he was very, very good at what he did, one of the best in the agency although he didn't brag.
Time to go to work.
It was hours later when his phone rang and he heard Fury barking on the other line, "Coulson, I want you in my office" before hanging up. He'd worked for Fury long enough to know "Get your ass in here now" when he heard it and pushed himself back from the tomes and scrolls littering his desk, careful to snuff out the candles he needed to read some of them by. His back ached and there was a throbbing pain in his neck when he turned his head a certain way, but there'd be time to deal with that later. Considering the circumstances, he certainly wasn't going to complain.
"In my office" late after a tough mission meant the bar on the corner SHIELD personnel used to wind down when they were stationed at HQ. Fury saw him coming and slid him a shot before he could even sit down. "I'm on duty, sir."
"So am I, you see that stopping me?" Fury kept up the steady glare until Coulson finally downed the shot, the alcohol burning down his throat. Fury poured him another and handed it to him, his expression softening. "I warned you about fraternizing with the field agents."
"Is this an official reprimand, sir?"
"Hell, no." He shook his head and poured his own shot, knocking it back in one swallow. "You know, I still don't believe how quick everyone just believed I lied about you being dead."
"Agent Hill knowing about the cards did help that along."
"I am working on replacing those." He sighed, looking Coulson up and down. "Why're you still here, Agent Coulson? As of now you're officially off-duty. Go home."
Coulson shook his head. "I can't." He tapped his fingernail against the empty shot glass. "Extraction missions take a lot of planning."
He saw concern creep into Fury's expression. "You're planning an extraction. For Barton."
It was easier if they kept names out of it. "A foreign power is holding one of our agents. Fixing that is part of my job," he said, unable to keep the challenge out of his voice. "Sir."
Fury sat back on his bar stool and studied Coulson for a long, long moment. "This is hell we're talking about, not Afghanistan."
Coulson shook his head. "It doesn't matter what we call it. It's a place. Things come from there, that means things can go there and can come back from there. It's just like any other extraction mission, the hard part is figuring out how to get in and out."
Fury was quiet for a few more moments, then knocked back another shot and leaned forward. "We've worked together a long time. You look me in the eye and tell me you can do this," he said, one hand on Coulson's shoulder. "'Cause if you've gone crazy here I understand but I need to know."
Coulson met his gaze, making sure to keep his own steady. "I can do this." He knew it might have been safer to say I think there's a good chance or I have a few promising leadsbut those would be lies. He was doing this. There was no other answer.
Fury nodded. "All right then. Hell, I'm not even sure this is the strangest thing I've heard this week." He leaned back again, drumming his fingers against the bar. "But leave it for tonight. Go home. I'm not used to seeing you worn ragged."
Coulson shook his head. "I can't. The...dimension we're talking about, if my translation is correct time moves differently there. One month for us equals ten years there, making one day here the approximate of 115 days passing there, adjusting for monthly fluctuations." That math ran through his head on a constant loop, telling him that taking an hour's nap meant damning Clint to over four days of agony. "An agent of Barton's training and psychological profile can realistically be expected to withstand no more than three years of prolonged torture and isolation and still have a...a positive chance of recovery." He pushed the mental images aside; it was a nightmare he didn't have time for. "The mission is extremely time sensitive."
"Tell me what you need."
Coulson let out a soft breath. Having Fury firmly on his side did make things easier. "I need permission to summon a demon onto SHIELD property," he admitted, seeing Fury straighten up in surprise. "And I need use of the portable laser grid."
He could tell Fury didn't know quite what to say to that. "Anything else?"
Coulson sighed. "If that doesn't work, I'll need R&D to finish the communicator they've been working on."
Fury grinned. "Pym's been dragging his feet on that for months, I'll order his ass out of bed right now."
"Thank you. I'd...prefer if this stays a small operation."
"You kidding? The Board gets wind of this and I'll be tossed out so quick it'll be like I grew wings. We'll keep this as quiet as we can. On one condition."
"What is it?"
Fury's grin broadened. "When you summon that thing I damn well better be there to see it."
Coulson knew from his research that demons wore human faces but he still expected something...more than the thing that materialized in the headquarters sub-basement. "And what is this now?" it said, its low voice softened by a British accent. Coulson wondered if all demons were British or if this one was just special.
Fury motioned and the two security agents he'd brought raised their weapons, pulse rifles they'd backward engineered from the Chitauri. The demon only smiled. "Isn't that charming," it said, sizing them up. "To what do I owe this delightful experience?"
Fury nodded at him to take over and Coulson stepped forward, his courage getting a boost when Natasha gave his hand a surreptitious squeeze. Aside from the two security agents Fury had insisted on they were the only ones who knew this was even happening. He was glad he'd included Natasha, not that he'd ever seriously considered not; he'd never met anyone better at reading people and Coulson didn't expect demons to be any exception. He was so angry he didn't trust his ability to handle that himself.
And besides, it wasn't as if she didn't have any stake in all this. "I understand you call yourself Crowley."
The demon cocked his head to the side, his dark eyes studying him, and Coulson reminded himself that whatever it looked like, they were dealing with something very old and very, very smart. "And now I'm at a disadvantage. Exactly where am I?"
"Where you are isn't important. What you are is in SHIELD custody."
Crowley smiled at that, like this was all very amusing. "What is that and why should I care?"
"Either you or people who answer to you are holding one of our agents. We want him back."
The smile widened by a fraction. "If I have one of your...agents, was it? If he's my guest then it's because he was either very naughty or he decided to do business with us. Or both. Either way, I don't like to share my toys. And this doesn't look like a crossroad to me, so clearly you're not here to negotiate." He looked down at the floor and up at the ceiling, as if checking for something. "And I'm not sure how you think I'm in your custody or why I shouldn't kill you all where you stand."
"I did try to be civil about this." Coulson pushed the button on the remote in his hand and heard a split-second hum as the laser grid came to life, forming a pentagram pattern around Crowley's feet. "I believe that's called a devil's trap," he said. "It took a lot of work to set that up. Did we get it right?"
The demon sighed. "And now I'm definitely going to flay all of your skin from your bones."
"Clint Barton. Give him back and you're free to go. Unless you expect us to believe that something that's described as the king of the crossroads doesn't have the power."
"Your information's out of date. I'm the king of hell. All of it."
"I hope you don't expect diplomatic immunity."
Crowley pursed his lips. "I think I actually know who you're talking about. A new arrival, am I right? I understand he's settling in nicely." Coulson didn't want to think about what that might mean. Before he could speak Crowley leaned forward, sniffing the air. "Are you the one he bought?" Coulson hadn't expected that. "You are, aren't you. You've got the stink of Heaven all over you."
Coulson indulged in a tight smile. He could work with that. "You had no right to make the deal in the first place. That makes your claim on Barton's soul null and void."
"And why would that be? Just because I'm curious."
"My soul wasn't under your jurisdiction so you had no right to use it as part of any deal."
Crowley sighed. "That Heaven can't keep track of its things isn't my concern. Take it up with them."
"Believe me, I intend to." Coulson stepped up to the first line of the laser grid. "You don't frighten me. Earth has plenty of tin pot dictators and you're no different. We've dealt with them and we won't have any problems dealing with you. Now, for the last time, we've established that you're illegally holding a SHIELD operative. We want him back. Now."
"Or we have a hostage of our own, don't we?" Coulson circled around the trap. "I know how time works there. Someone's noticed you're missing, and I bet they're not forming a rescue party. How long do power vacuums stay empty in hell? Not very long, I bet." Coulson looked around at the tiny room. "This place is sound proof. Lead lined. We can hold you here long enough for your kingdom to slip through your fingers."
Crowley didn't look like he cared for the sound of that at all. Coulson held his breath for an instant – if this had even a chance of working, it had to be now – but then Crowley smiled. "You've clearly done your homework. Tell me, did any of your research tell you where demons come from?" He stepped up to the grid line, almost within arm's reach of Coulson. "We're made, not born." He scanned the room. "Which of you is 'Nat'?" That was the second time during this interrogation Coulson felt surprise rush through him, two times too many. He didn't turn his head but from the way Crowley gaze slid over her he knew Natasha's expression hadn't so much as flickered. "That's who he calls for. They always call for someone to come save them. It's a little pitiful at first but eventually they all get over it. Would you like to hear? Maybe we'll get lucky."
He was losing control of this and needed to get it back, fast. "You have no power in there."
"Any other demon, yes, you'd be right. That's why I'm king." He closed his eyes and a second later sound filled the room.
What they heard wasn't screaming. Coulson thought he might be able to handle screaming, but this was the sound of someone who'd been screaming so long he physically couldn't any more; he heard Clint let out a series of broken, agonized sobs that cut through him as sharp and hot as Loki's scepter had. There were no words, no begging, Coulson guessed because they'd pushed him beyond that, at least for now. "Oh, too bad," he heard Crowley say, the words muffled like they were coming from miles away. "It sounds like they're taking it easy for the moment. Even demons get tired, after all." He heard Clint groan, a sharp, shuddering sound that made Coulson imagine someone twisting a knife. "I'm sure if we keep listening in they'll start back up in earnest."
Coulson didn't know how long he could listen to this without his composure cracking. And as if to test that Clint started to choke, like someone trying to breathe with a slit throat. An instant before he broke and asked Crowley to turn it off he caught a flash of movement from the corner of his and turned to see Natasha looking down at the floor, her arms crossed over her chest.
Crowley caught the reaction too and Coulson felt a flush of gratitude, because he Natasha had done it to draw the demon's attention away from him. He didn't know what he'd done to deserve these kinds of friends. "Ah," Crowley said, shutting off the hell broadcast. "Are you Nat, then?" He looked back at Coulson. "That must sting."
Coulson stepped in front of Crowley to block Natasha from his field of vision, pretending for the moment that Natasha Romanov would ever need his protection. "We were speaking."
"That we were. Let me explain how hell works. No matter how many pieces your friend Barton gets carved into, each day he springs back good as new and it all happens again. And again. And again. Until it goes on long enough that the next time he finds himself on Earth his eyes look like this." Crowley blinked and his eyes were a empty, featureless black. "Or, if he's a real go-getter, like this." He blinked again and his eyes gleamed red. "So," he said, turning his eyes back to their normal brown, "yes, you're right, keeping me here will be inconvenient. For a while. But I think time is on my side, don't you?"
Coulson raised his head, staring the demon down. "Give us back Clint Barton or we're going to come down there and take him."
"I've been threatened by much worse than you."
Coulson smiled. "That's where you're wrong. We're SHIELD. We don't waste time with threats." He turned around, nodding to Fury. "We're done here. Let this thing rot for a while."
Fury motioned to the guards to train their guns on Crowley as he and Natasha left the room. They managed to turn the corner and get just out of earshot before Natasha stepped away and retched in the corner. Coulson gave her space for a few seconds, then walked over and rubbed her neck as she settled down against the wall. Coulson sat beside her and for a few moments the silence was overwhelming. "I didn't know it could do that. I'm sorry."
"Yes, because that was lovely for you." She shook her head. "I preferred being an atheist."
Coulson watched his hands shake as if they belonged to someone else. "Why are you the one he calls for?" he said, the words just slipping out. He hated how petty they sounded.
She almost looked amused by the question. "Because he knows there's no chance you'll wind up there," she said, nudging his shoulder. He felt heat flush over his face and he had to look at the floor. "Is it true what that thing said? Did you really go to heaven?"
Coulson shrugged. "I guess so."
"What was it like? Because let's be honest, there's every reason to think Clint's right."
Coulson gave her a look but didn't have the energy to argue. "I don't think Heaven's a where. It's more...like a when. It's...the best parts of your life, except they don't end."
"So what does Heaven look like for Philip Coulson?"
He looked away. "Morocco."
She raised her eyebrows. "Heaven is getting captured and interrogated by insurgents? You're a very strange man."
"Not that part," he said, feeling himself blush. "After."
Natasha laced her fingers through his, giving his hand a tight squeeze. "Clint told me once he was about to have to go back to contract work before you were assigned to him. None of the other handlers would work with him."
"Some of them warned me what I was in for," he said, smiling at the memory. "I suppose I don't give up easily."
"He was frantic when we got back to that control room and found it empty," she recalled, her eyes far away. "We weren't supposed to even be in Morocco, after all. Then the government refused permission to stage a rescue. Fury told Clint and I that if we went off on one we were out of SHIELD and on our own."
"I see Fury stuck to that."
"I'm fairly certain he only said it to make sure we went." She looked up at him. "I think that was the first time either of us actually saw you. You were a voice in our earpieces until then."
"Handlers aren't supposed to mix with field agents. Probably to avoid what happened later that night," he allowed.
Natasha smiled. "You had warning the insurgents were coming. You didn't have to just sit there and let them take you."
Coulson shook his head. "The two of you were sweeping a building laced with explosives with the power cut and the only copy of the blueprints were in that room." He remembered talking the two of them through that last room, sweat trailing down his back as the insurgents started breaking down the control room door. "It's my job to get my agents home."
Natasha looked at him, studying him in that way she had. "Can you really do this? Can we really just walk into hell and steal someone back? Is that even possible?"
"It's been done before, from what I understand. Once before."
"How did they manage it?"
Coulson sighed. "Divine intervention." He squeezed her hand. "Getting what we wanted by summoning Crowley was always a long shot. I'm waiting on a call from R&D, hopefully this plan will go better."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then we try something else." He stretched a crick out of his neck; he needed to go back and do more work on plans M through S. "Get some sleep. I'll let you know when the operation is in motion."
"You had better. You'll be useless in hell by yourself."
Coulson nodded. "You're probably right. Let's hope it doesn't take too long before we find out."
Coulson circled around the communicator R&D had finally delivered, although he'd suspected they'd wind up finding a snappier name for it. It was actually more like a platform; he knew the final prototype would have holographic capabilities although he didn't need anything so advanced now.
Coulson pressed the activation button and stepped back, mindful that he'd been warned that there was a "practically nonexistent" chance the whole thing could explode. The platform started to glow, light pulsing from the edges to the center, then after a few minutes there was a short, almost comically out of place pinging sound.
Now or never. "I seek an audience with Thor, son of Odin and prince of all Asgard."
There were a few moments of silence, long enough for Coulson to worry the device hadn't worked after all, then he heard a loud, boisterous burst of laughter. "Philip Coulson, is that you?"
He let out a relieved breath. "Hello, Thor."
"Your voice is coming right from Mjolnir! This is marvelous!"
"We discovered when we were studying it that the hammer emits a frequency. It just took some time to isolate it and use it for communication. It needs some refining but it should let us contact you when needed."
"Midgard science is truly remarkable."
"Is this a good time?"
"For you, my friend? You have all the time I can spare and some I'll steal from the undeserving." Coulson heard a more serious tone creep into his voice. "I sought you in the halls of Valhalla. When I failed to find you there I began to hope that Fury had stretched the truth. I can't express how relieved I am to be deceived."
"I'm afraid this isn't a social call. I need a favor."
"You need only to ask."
Coulson took a deep breath. "I need to talk to your niece."
Thor was quiet for a few long moments. "I wish you would ask me something else."
"Is that something you can't do?"
"No, no, it's certainly within my power. I just... Help me first understand why you would ask such a thing."
Coulson walked him through the Cliff's notes version of the events. When he finished Thor was quiet for a long time. "I think I preferred being deceived," he finally said. He let out a loud sigh. "'Tis a noble quest," he admitted. "Were my father still not so weakened from sending me to Midgard after my brother I would endeavor to join you."
"Can you get me in touch with her?"
"I'll do what I can." His voice softened. "She'll demand a price, you know. Such creatures always do."
Coulson felt that sit sour in his stomach. "I suppose considering her father I can't be too surprised."
"No, for once the blame for this can't be placed on Loki. Hela is as much a puzzle to him as she is to the rest of us. To my shame my niece is a much a stranger to me now as she was the day her mother left her swaddled on the palace steps." He sighed again. "But I will do what you ask, and I dearly hope neither of us regret it."
"Is there anything I need to know before I talk to her?"
"Know that she was given her realm because she is ill suited to dwell amongst the living." The transmission began to break up. "Take care, my friend. I expect to feast with you in the Golden Hall someday but that occasion need not be soon. And inform Barton that I expect to see him by my side come the next battle."
"I will," Coulson said, getting the words out just before the platform lost power. Still, he supposed for an initial test that hadn't gone badly at all.
Coulson sat behind his desk and rubbed his aching eyes. That was part one of this particular plan done. Now there was nothing to do but wait and see if part two went just as well.
Despite his best efforts Coulson fell into an exhausted sleep behind his desk, his mind filling with confused fever images: coming to tied to a chair in Rabat, feeling calloused hands cradle his head. Come on. C'mon, Coulson, talk to me. Say something so I know it's you. The memory lurched as their positions reversed, changing to finding Clint broken and bloody but it's too late, he's not Clint any more, he's a black-eyed thing.
"Your dreams are troubled."
Coulson startled awake, his heart hammering in his chest. He looked around the room but saw nothing but shadow. "Who's there?"
"You sought me, Philip Coulson. Have you forgotten so quickly?"
He stood and finally spotted her as she leaned forward, lounging in one of his office chairs across the room, the shadows clinging to her like a dark shroud. "Hela Lokidottir, is that correct?" he said, clearing his throat.
The temperature of the room dropped ten degrees when she smiled. "Close enough. And I commend you, your accent is exquisite."
"I've practiced. I...didn't expect a personal audience."
"I have no need of the Bifrost the travel to Midgard. And I confess I was curious. My uncle's appeal was urgent and it's been long since my presence was desired by one such as yourself." He moved to stand in front of his desk and she rose from her chair, walking toward him with smooth movements like a snake who'd learned to mimic humanity. Coulson remembered one of the other children the myths credited to Loki, Jormungandr the serpent that would swallow the world, and wondered if all of those old stories were true.
She was tall, the way all the Asgardians were tall, and Coulson had to take a step back to avoid craning his neck to look at her. She was clad in form fitting green armor that covered her from the neck down and gleamed dully under the fluorescent lights and a matching green cape that looked like it was lined with shadow. Her helm was also green, reaching low enough to hide her eyes; it was antlered like her father's, although instead of backward facing hers stretched out horizontally, bending in hard, geometric angles. "There's no need to explain your petition," she said. "Your dreams made it all quite clear." He must have not done a good enough of hiding his alarm at that because she smiled again. "It was expedient. And I think you would agree that time is of the essence, is it not?"
"If you know why I called you then you know what I want to ask you."
"I do know. Mixing cosmologies is messy."
Coulson didn't expect the disappointment to hit him quite so hard. "Are you saying you can't?"
"Oh, I can take you into the realm you call hell. I only said it could be messy. And it would require a price."
"Yes, I was told that. If you're after my soul we're going to have negotiate other terms. There's been too much of that going around."
She tilted her head to the side. "I'm no demon. Your soul will come to me when you die or it won't. I can afford to be patient."
Coulson swallowed, trying and failing to read her. "So what is it you want?"
"Something much more precious. A memory."
Nothing in any lore he'd found had ever mentioned that. "All right," he finally said. "Which one do you want? How do we do this?"
Coulson felt a chill rush through him when she pressed her icy fingers against his temple. "If you get to choose it isn't much of price." Before he could say another word he felt her mind slide into his like a pry bar, tearing him open until she found what she wanted.
Coulson feels a sea breeze lull him awake, the sound of French and Arabic being spoken drifting up from the street below. He opens his eyes and finds himself in a slowly rotting hotel room, a long crack running across the ceiling and a chipped painting of the Hassan Tower decorating the adjacent wall. It takes a few drowsy moments for the previous night to come back, helped along when he looks down and sees Clint stretched out across most of the bed with one arm locked tight around his waist, the sheets pooled around them.
He looks up and sees Natasha perched on the window sill, wearing his shirt and her legs bare, her gun in her lap as she keeps watch. "I've never seen him sleep more than two hours at a time before."
Coulson strokes his fingertips along Clint's hairline, careful not to wake him. "We probably shouldn't have done that."
"We do many things we're not supposed to."
Coulson supposes that's true. He remembers the touch of Clint's lips against the taser burns on his chest, soothing the pain away. He traces the callouses decades of archery had left on Clint's fingers and he begins to stir, his eyes fluttering. "Phil?" he murmurs, his voice sleepy and muffled. "We moving out?"
Clint's never called him by his first name before. He strokes his fingers through Clint's short hair until the other man relaxes against him. "We have time yet. Go back to sleep."
Clint nods, snuggling closer and stealing what's left of the covers. After a few more moments Coulson lets his soft breathing lull him back to sleep, too.
Coulson staggered back, bracing himself against the desk. The new hole in his mind burnedand he couldn't keep back the pained whimper, barely feeling it when Hela tipped his chin up. "You have a tender heart, Philip son of Coul. And steel in your spine to have done this. Most warriors can boast one or the other; to possess both is a rare gift."
"My father's name was Kevin, actually." Every inch of him shook and it took every once of his self control to not burst into tears, something he hadn't done since he was a child.
She nodded, a knowing expression on her face that was almost but not quite human. "You were correct when you told the creature bound below us that he had no claim on your soul. What you aren't aware of is that those above had no claim either." She splayed her hand flat against his chest. "You fell in glorious battle against Loki son of Odin. That earned you a seat in Valhalla and your soul bears my mark. This is my oversight. If only for that alone I owe you my aid." She drew back, letting him regain his composure. "Come, Philip Coulson. Gather your allies. I'm keen to rattle the Daystar's cage. "
Coulson balanced the energy rifle against his shoulder as he walked back into the sub-basement to face Crowley again. It wasn't until Fury pointed it out that he'd realized it was the same gun he'd brought to bear against Loki, proof he needed to get his shattered focus back. He hoped the gun brought him better luck this time.
Crowley smiled when they lined up in front of him again, he and Fury and Natasha. "Did you forget something? Was all that before just a rehearsal? Because I thought you did very well. Very intimidating."
Fury motioned to the guards to exit, leaving the three of them alone in the room against the demon. "One more time," Coulson said. "Release Clint Barton from your custody."
"No. Now what?"
Coulson heard a rustling sound and before he could blink Hela was suddenly therebetween them and Crowley. "Fergus McLeod," she said, and Coulson saw Crowley's expression go sour. "Yes, I know your true name."
Crowley rolled his eyes. "And what are you supposed to be?"
"I am Hela, Loki's daughter, Queen of the dead," she said with a prideful flourish that reminded Coulson very much of her father.
"Am I supposed to be impressed?"
"You will be silent." From the surprised look on Crowley's face Coulson didn't think she was giving him much of a choice in the matter. She walked up to the demon, right through the laser grid trap; Coulson held his breath for a moment but Crowley didn't move. "You are small. You are a ghost wrapped in delusions, created by a being who despises you." She tilted her head to the side. "But you have your uses."
Coulson took a step forward. "What are you going to do?"
"Not kill him, much as I would prefer to." She looked over her shoulder at him, almost a fond expression on her face. "This creature isn't much of a king, but even the most minor monarch has a connection to his realm." She turned back to Crowley, placing one palm against the demon's forehead. "He's going to be our doorway."
Coulson saw a glowing vertical line form down the demon's body, expanding slowly until it enveloped him entirely. He felt a rush of searingly hot air and the stomach churning stench of rot; from beyond the portal came a cacophony of screams and other, lower, darker sounds that he knew were nothing close to human. "Only blood-bound companions may enter," Hela said, raising her voice over the din. "Take only what belongs to you. Your presence will be masked from the demons until then."
Coulson didn't know what she meant by "blood-bound" but he looked to Natasha and she nodded back. As they stepped forward Fury tried to join him and Coulson put out one hand to stop him. "Sir, no. If we don't come back SHIELD needs you."
Fury's jaw tightened – Coulson could almost feel the desire to fight demons in hell coming off him in waves – but he didn't argue the point. "You two don't come back I'm digging you out myself. With my bare hands if I have to."
"Understood, boss. Wish us luck."
"We're SHIELD. We don't need luck."
Coulson nodded as he stepped through the portal, the rifle braced against his shoulder.
He lost his bearings the moment his feet touched the ground. There was red-tinged light but no sun, what passed for a sky close over their heads like a lingering threat. He could already feel the dry heat of the place leech the moisture from him; it had been barely thirty seconds and his mouth already felt stuffed full of cotton. He looked behind him only to see that the portal had closed, leaving nothing but empty space. "Guess we're on our own, then."
"Did you expect anything else?"
"It would be nice for once." He looked around; the landscape was forbidding, Death Valley at dusk, and as he watched landmarks shifted, growing and changing like they were alive. "Guess it's a good thing we're already lost."
They'd barely made it thirty feet before someone spotted them. "Help me."
Coulson spun around; the voice had been faint, behind him and to the right. "Did you hear that?"
He felt Natasha grab his arm. "Don't listen."
He pulled away and went toward the voice anyway, coming around a bend to find a woman tied down to a dissection table with barbed wire and covered in bleeding wounds. "Oh, God," she breathed, her eyes going wide when she saw him. Eye. One eye had been gouged out so recently it was still bleeding and as he came closer he could see that the side of her face was covered by a blistered third degree burn. "I knew I heard voices. Please help me. Before they come back, please."
Coulson nodded, reaching out to start undo the wire when Natasha grabbed him hard enough to spin him around. "We can't."
"I can't just leave her like this."
"You have to. What belongs to us, remember? That's Clint. We need to focus or none of us are leaving here
"But..." He looked behind again only to have her grab his chin and gently turn him to face her.
"This is why I had to come," she said, not letting him break eye contact. "Right?" He swallowed hard and nodded. "Good. Keep your eyes forward. One foot in front of the other."
He nodded again, taking one step forward.
"No!" he heard from behind. "No, please, don't leave me like this. Please, please, you don't know what they're doing, please!"
"Eyes on me," Natasha said, backing away. "Don't look at anything except me. Don't listen to anything except me. One step, then the other."
Coulson tried to shut out the frantic screams (don't leave me here I'm not a bad person I'm not you said you'd help please) and followed Natasha back around the way they'd come, not daring to take his eyes off of her. When they made it back out of sight of the woman Coulson slumped down again wall, his stomach an aching chasm. "How do you do this?" he whispered.
"I don't remember a time when I didn't have to." She reached out a hand, helping him back to his feet. "And don't you ever dare get good at it."
They were still close enough to hear when the screaming started, high, piercing shrieks that made the air so thick Coulson couldn't breathe. Natasha gave him a moment, then she put one hand on his arm, startling him enough to break out of the daze.
Then they continued on.
Coulson quickly lost track of time passing; they could have been down there for hours or even days already, he couldn't even begin to guess which. Despite the heat he didn't feel thirsty (although souls he passed begged for water, the ones still capable of speaking. He'd told Natasha he thought leaving them behind would have begun getting easier, not harder, but all she'd said in response was Good.) which at least gave him hope that they wouldn't starve to death, but every inch of him ached. He couldn't remember ever feeling so tired in his life, not even after he'd dug himself out of his grave; all he wanted to do was lie down and never move again.
Which of course he knew was what the demons would want. They wanted the two of them to give up, to just leave Clint here to slowly rot the way all the other souls they passed had, staked down and left to bake in misery. He wouldn't give in to that. Every damned person they passed just hardened his resolve, not weakened it.
Which did did nothing to kill the ache deep in his bones. "How're we going to find him?" he said, half hoping Natasha actually had an idea and half just to hear a voice that wasn't moaning in agony. "We need a plan. We're wasting too much time, this place is endless. Maybe we should climb up somewhere to get a better look."
For a second Coulson thought she hadn't heard him, then she stopped short, swearing softly under her breath in Russian as she sprinted to the right. Coulson rushed after her and found her looking down into a crevasse they'd passed earlier. "No," she said, and when he stepped next to her he could feel how hard she was shaking. "We should climb down."
The sense of that hit Coulson like a truck. Of course they would have to go down. Clint loved being up above everyone else; he lived for the high ground, for the ability to take in a situation in one sweeping glance.
Of course Clint Barton's hell would include not being able to see the sky.
Coulson strapped his gun securely to his back as Natasha started the descent, finding handholds and footholds for him as she went. Coulson followed down slowly; he wasn't dressed for free climbing and slipped twice, catching himself at the last second. He kept a close eye on Natasha, stepping where she stepped, the unwieldy gun threatening to throw him off balance with each movement; there were more souls chained to the ledges and he felt hands reaching for him as he passed, clutching at his sleeves and leaving bloody handprints on his clothes. When he finally found himself safe on the lower edge beside her it felt like a minor miracle.
They had to climb down two more ledges, thankfully neither of them as steep as the first; the ambient light dimmed until it was barely enough to see by and when they reached the lower level the rocky outcroppings arched over them, creating a claustrophobic tunnel.
Coulson didn't know why, but the moment his feet touched the ground he felt this is it down deep in his bones. He looked to Natasha and saw her hand curled tight around her gun; he nodded to her and she took point, Coulson covering her with the energy rifle.
They had to go slow. Coulson felt the glacial pace spread through him like a swarm of insects but there was nothing to do about it; the narrow, winding path bucked and yawned like a living thing trying to throw them off, one moment erupting in razor sharp spires coming within inches of spearing them to the ceiling, the next breaking open into seemingly endless chasms they had to pick their way around or risk being swallowed down to even lower levels. The entire time Coulson tried to prepare himself for what they would find at the end of their search, tried to picture the other wrecked souls they'd passed with Clint's face.
It didn't work. Coulson didn't even know why he'd tried.
All it took was a moment of hesitation from Natasha for Coulson to know they'd finally found him, the way she paused midstep and off-balance could mean nothing else. He pushed the rifle back over his shoulder and caught up with her, taking a deep breath of sulfuric air before looking up.
Coulson had wondered once or twice what it felt like to be Bruce Banner, not about the genius (he'd met enough of those through SHIELD to know it wasn't something to envy) but the rage. What it felt like to have that kind of anger simmering under your skin, enough to turn you into a monster.
He didn't have to wonder any more. Clint was hanging from chains ten feet above him, hooks skewered through both shoulders, through his elbows, one final, barbed one ripped his side. The skin had been flensed entirely from his right arm, three of the fingers on that hand reduced to bone. Blood dripped down into a slowly growing pool at their feet; his breathing was shallow, his eyes hooded and blank.
It hit Coulson with a sudden, sick lurch that he was looking at Clint's soul hanging there with pieces missing. He didn't know what had pulled the demons away but an ugly part of him he'd never known existed hoped he would get to cut pieces out of them. Or even better, watch Natasha do it for the both of them.
He pushed that deep down; revenge couldn't help anyone now, Clint least of all. Before he could even say a word to her Natasha scaled the wall, balancing on the narrow ledge and pulling a handheld acetylene torch from her belt. He almost wanted to thank God that she'd thought to bring it, he knew it never would have occurred to him, but Coulson wasn't feeling very charitable toward the Almighty at the moment. The moment she touched the first chain Clint startled back to consciousness, a low, wet moan bubbling out of him. She paid it no heed and started cutting, and to Coulson's relief the torch cut through the first link. He had no idea what they would have done if mundane tools didn't work in hell.
Clint groaned again, craning his head toward the source of the pain and the instant he saw Natasha he reared back like a wounded animal, his lips pulled back in a snarl. "Get away from me. Don't touch me."
"It's me," she said, and Coulson had no idea how she could keep her voice so calm. "You know me."
"It's never you." He tried to pull away again and Coulson winced when the hook through his side started to tear a jagged hole through the flesh.
"Agent Barton." He put an edge to his voice he hadn't needed to use with Clint for a long time. Clint's eyes had looked very dark for a moment and Coulson couldn't stop thinking of his dream. "I need you to focus on the mission."
The anger bled from Clint's face, leaving vague confusion. "Phil?"
Coulson's chest went tight. He and Clint had fallen into the habit of using each others' last names; the only other time Clint had called him Phil had been... Coulson felt cold claw through him as he realized he couldn't remember. He wondered if he hadn't given Hela a piece of his soul after all. "That's right," he said, pushing that aside. It wasn't as if he wouldn't pay that price a hundred times over to be standing here now. "You were captured. Tasha and I have been trying to find you for a long time."
"I...no, that's not..." He blinked at Coulson as if he expected him to melt away. "You can't be here." He saw Natasha's eyes widen as the chain gave way before she'd expected and Clint screamedas he swung free from the wall for a second.
"Barton!" He waited until Clint's eyes focused back on him. "Focus on my voice. We're going to get you free, you just need to hold tight until then. Just follow my voice."
"S'what...always do." He whimpered again when she started on the second chain, his eyes starting to roll back.
"What's your name?"
Coulson could see Clint dragging himself back to awareness. "C-Clint Barton."
"What's your rank?"
"Special agent, first class."
Coulson walked him through the rest of the call and response all agents learned to stave off shock, keeping one anxious eye on Natasha. Clint groaned again when the second chain gave way. "Can...y'hurry it up?"
Coulson couldn't keep back the grin; Clint having enough in him to complain was a good, good sign. "We're almost there. I'm going to keep talking you through this, then we're all going to go home."
The third chain was thinner than the rest an it wasn't long before Natasha said, "I'm almost through. The last one isn't going to hold, it's already pulling out of the wall."
Coulson stepped underneath Clint. "Go ahead. I'll catch him."
Natasha made the last cut and Clint fell. Coulson dropped down to one knee under Clint's weight but held him up, closing his eyes as Clint moaned against his shoulder. "Shh. I have you."
Clint nodded, wrapping his less damaged arm around Coulson as if he still couldn't believe he was real. "I lost my bow," he murmured, his voice hazy.
"We'll commission you a new one." He stroked his fingers through Clint's short hair, feeling him shake. It was hard to remember Clint was just a soul, not when he could feel Clint breathing against him. "You should've left that book alone."
Clint shook his head. "Worth it."
Coulson knew they didn't have time to go into all the ways that wasn't true. Natasha scrambled back down and Coulson helped drape Clint's arm over her shoulders as he picked the rifle back up. "How are you so heavy?" she said, settling him more securely in place.
"Missed you too."
Coulson saw the ghost of smile come and go on her lips, and if she had tears in her eyes Coulson certainly wasn't going to mention it. "All right, agents. Let's go home."
"How are we getting out?" she whispered to him over Clint's head.
"How are we getting him up?" Coulson answered, looking up at the steep ledges. "Let's take care of that first, then worry about out."
As soon as the words came out a driving, piercing wail rushed through them like a wind. "I think I'll worry about out now, if that's okay with you."
"On second thought, I think I agree with you."
The wailing came again and this time Clint picked his head up. "Go," he rasped out, his eyes wide. "Both of you, get out."
Instead they closed ranks around him and ignored how he swore at them for it, Natasha crouching over him with her gun drawn and Coulson leveling the energy rifle against his shoulder. Within seconds Coulson saw a solid wall of smoke come rushing toward them, a roiling mass of shadowy faces and pitch black eyes. "Here they come."
The rifle had never been tested for range, at least not while Coulson had been alive to see it, so he found himself having to estimate how close to let the wall of demons come.
Frankly, they were already too close. He pulled the trigger and staggered back as a bolt of plasmic energy ripped out of the rifle and punched a hole through the demonic horde. He turned around and saw Natasha giving him a what the hell was that?look. "Sorry. I'll say duck and cover next time."
Natasha turned back around and sucked in a breath. "They're coming from both sides." She fired her gun but the bullets did nothing; the two of them pulled closer to Clint, Coulson counting the seconds until the gun recharged as the wall of demons reformed and rushed forward.
"It was an honor working with the two of you."
It was strange to smile at a time like this, but he couldn't help it when he heard Natasha's groan of dismay. "I don't believe you said that."
"It's a classic. Someone had to." Coulson closed his eyes; aiming didn't matter so much with this rifle and there were some things he didn't need to see coming. He counted down the seconds until he could pull the trigger one last time.
Suddenly he heard a rustling sound and everything went very quiet. He opened his eyes to find Hela standing in front of him, her shadow lined cape billowing out and everyone else frozen like she'd pressed a universal pause button. She looked over her shoulder at him, a smile playing at her lips that looked like she'd copied it from a skull. "You should have more faith, Philip son of Kevin."
"You did take your time."
The smile widened and Coulson regretted saying anything. "Then allow me to make it up to you." Time unstuck and he saw the demons coiling in their smoke cloud in confusion. "You should tell your comrades to close their eyes and deafen their ears."
He looked behind and saw that Natasha didn't need anymore prompting, squeezing her eyes shut and ducking her head to cover her ears and Clint's as best she could. "Only them?"
Hela nodded. "Your soul carries my mark. You must bear witness."
"Can you take all of them?"
She lifted her chin, that prideful air back around her. "Demons cannot harm a child of Loki." The demons seemed determined to test that, rushing back forward in a wave, and she laughed like someone rattling a jar full of bones. "Come closer, creatures," she said. As Coulson watched the shadows spread from her cloak, forming enormous wings of darkness that stretched the length of the corridor. She lifted her helmet off, dropping it to the floor with one smooth motion and Coulson took a step back as blindingly white light erupted from her eyes. "My father sends his greetings."
Then she opened her mouth and screamed. Coulson heard Natasha cry out behind him but there was nothing he could do; his own ears ached from the sound, a high siren wail that climbed in pitch and volume with each second. The columns of demons disintegrated under the assault, either incinerating in the light or twisting and withering before the sound. Even the landscape couldn't escape, the very rocks melting before her power.
It felt like she screamed for years. Considering where they were, Coulson knew it was entirely possible she had. Finally she stumbled forward, out of breath at last; the whole area around them had transformed into trampled down basin, like they were standing in the center of a nuclear explosion. He checked on Natasha and Clint as she replaced her helmet; they were both unconscious but breathing, frankly the best he could hope for under the circumstances. "I'd never read that Loki cared one way or another about demons."
She was quiet for a moment, as if lost in thought. "Did you know that the one who slew you wasn't the only entity to bear that name?" Before he could even begin to question what that meant Hela knelt beside Clint. "This doesn't mean he lives, you know. Or that this realm's claim on him is erased."
Coulson realized how much he'd been hoping that would be the case. "Can't you..."
She raised on hand, cutting him off. "We bartered for passage, not deliverance."
Coulson stared down at Clint, hearing the echo of him saying this pain had been worth it. "I said I would get him home."
"Not all promises can be kept."
He couldn't leave Clint here. He would almost say he'd trade places, but he knew that would only start the whole cycle again.
And suddenly it seemed so obvious. "You said I carried your mark," he said slowly, the idea coming together as he spoke. "That I have a spot in Asgard."
Hela nodded. "In Valhalla, yes."
Coulson nodded toward Clint. "Transfer it to him. He fell in battle, that's the real requirement, isn't it? If I can't...if I can't bring him back with me, at least he won't be here."
He felt her study him, her expression inscrutable under her helmet. "You would give up your reserved place? There is no guarantee you will earn another."
Coulson shrugged. "I was just doing my job. Either of them deserves it more than I do."
She smiled again. It was like looking into a chasm. "I don't have a reputation for generosity," she mused, as if speaking to herself. "But you have provided me a service this day." She surveyed the destruction around them. "The one called Lucifer stole from me, once. It gives me great pleasure to rob him in his own realm, even a theft as petty as this."
"That's right. Hell is named after you, isn't it."
Hela nodded. "Yes. There is that as well." She stood back over him. "Close your eyes, Philip Coulson," she said, placing her hand against his forehead. "I may not be generous, but I am a queen. And a queen repays her debts. Remember me to my uncle." Coulson felt like he was being hurled through a tunnel. The last words he heard before passing out was a dire promise: "Until we meet again."
Coulson saw the nightmare start, Clint's eyes moving back and forth under his lids, his hands twitching on the bedsheets. Coulson leaned down and whispered, "Barton, you're dreaming." Twice now that had settled him but this time it wasn't enough; Clint's head tossed on the pillow, a soft, strangled moan working its way out of his throat. "It's a nightmare. You're fine." That didn't work either and he put his hand on Clint's forehead. "It's not real. Go back to sleep."
Instead Clint startled awake, his eyes darting around the room like he was looking for threats, then he groaned. "That was fun," he said, sagging back into the pillows.
"You told me once you didn't have nightmares."
"Haven't made friends with these yet." Clint glanced up him then over to Natasha curled up in a chair on the other side of the bed. He ran one hand over his chest, and Coulson guessed he was looking for the scar from the rebar punching through him. None of the injuries from hell had transferred and injuries that had sent him there in the first place were healed, although Coulson saw him roll his shoulder as if he could still feel the hook. "How'm I alive?" he said, as if he wasn't sure he knew the answer.
"I'm not exactly sure what happened back there and I'm not going to look at that gift horse too closely."
Clint stared at him for a few long moments, his eyes wide. "Tell me this isn't a trick."
"This is real. I promise. Do you believe me?"
Clint hesitated for a second, then nodded. "That's one of the things they did. Trick me. Let me think I'd escaped then I'd...then I'd just be right back. Stopped trying after a while," he whispered.
"That's a normal response. That kind of manipulation's a common tactic."
Clint let out a long breath. "It's a pretty effective one." He looked back up at Coulson. "Tell me again this isn't a trick."
"It's not a trick. I'll say it as many times as you need to hear it."
"You'd get bored after a while." He'd seen Clint holding himself together with nothing more than raw willpower enough times not to recognize it now. "If this turned out to be a trick I don't..."
Clint nodded again, visibly burying that fear as deep as he could. His eyes narrowed as he studied Coulson. "You look like crap," he finally said, running one finger along the days worth of stubble on his jaw.
"They kept you sedated for two days. The doctors wanted to make sure you...you know, I don't think they knew what they were testing for. I started to get the feeling they just felt like they should be running tests." Coulson tried to stretch the crick out of his neck; he and Natasha had taken turns sleeping in shifts and he wasn't twenty anymore, sleeping in chairs wasn't something his lower back could handle without rebelling. "Fury had to give the M.E. paid leave when she started raving that death was a lie."
"Guess Fury has a harder time explaining me away than he did with you."
"The damage control has certainly been creative." He stroked his fingertips through Clint's hair. "The rest of the team wants to see you, when you're up to it."
"Surprised you didn't bring them all down there with you."
"We decided that the risks of letting Stark and Banner loose in hell outweighed the rewards."
That got a fleeting smile out of Clint because it was undeniably true. "That was stupid, what the two of you did."
"SHIELD can't have its agents turn into demons. There's too much paperwork."
Clint flexed his right hand, staring at it like he barely recognized it. "They always started on my hands first," he whispered like he was talking to himself. Coulson could hear the horror creeping back into his voice. "Then my eyes. They always told me one day they'd leave me useless like that."
Coulson took his hand, squeezing tight once. "None of that would make you useless." Clint gave him a disbelieving look that Coulson narrowed his eyes at, staring Clint down until he looked away. "Fury's giving the three of us a month's leave," he said, changing the subject.
"Come back from the dead, get a month off. Seems fair." He shifted on the bed, lacing his fingers through Coulson's.
Clint's hand was shaking hard enough that Coulson squeezed just to steady him."I thought we all could go to Morocco," he said softly. "Get away for awhile." The empty hole in his mind ached like a phantom limb. "I have some memories that could use refreshing."
Clint smiled, a true one this time. "Still my favorite debriefing." His eyelids started to flutter. "Why am I so tired if I've been asleep for two days?"
"I'm told trauma does that. Go back to sleep."
"Yeah, 'cause that sounds like something I want to do." He squeezed Coulson's hand. "Slept the best night of my life in Morocco," Clint said, the suggestion unmistakable.
Coulson sighed. "The medical bay is monitored."
"I disabled the camera," Natasha said, still curled up in her chair, her eyes closed.
Coulson hadn't risen as far as he had in SHIELD by fighting losing battles – especially not ones he didn't want to win. He slid into the bed, propping himself up so Clint could lie with his head on his chest. "Better?"
Clint nodded, his hand still locked tight around Coulson's. Gradually his breathing deepened, his weight settling. He didn't think this position was any better for his back than sleeping in the chair had been but he couldn't bring himself to care.
"The jet takes off for Rabat-Sale in two days," Natasha said, her voice soft in the quiet room.
He wondered if Natasha had known that was where he'd want to go before he had. "There's room on the bed," he offered.
"Not very much of it," she said, a teasing lilt to her voice as she finally gave up the pretense that she'd been sleeping during any of that. "It's my turn to keep watch. You need sleep too." She paused for a moment, purely for dramatic effect. "And we both know Clint steals the covers."
"Let him." His eyes were heavy, now that she mentioned it He fell asleep to the soft rhythm of Clint's breathing, secure that no nightmare would dare attack under Natasha's watchful eye.
And if hell decided to try stealing Clint back Coulson dared them to come. This time he would be ready for them.