"You don't understand. Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Take you out and stuff something else in? You know what it's like to be unmade? "
"You know that I do."
Clint leaned his arms across his knees as the sun came up over the horizon. The signal tower overlooking the target range was the best perch on the entire campus; from up there he had a sweeping view of HQ from end to end, from the target range on the west side to the first of the test labs lined up along the eastern edge. It settled Clint to come up here at night when the rest of the day shift was sleeping, only the night guards patrolling and the scientists from R&D milling around waiting for their experiments to run through. He'd spotted two attempted AIM infiltrations up this same perch, and Clint didn't mean that as any criticism of the guards on duty those nights. Clint knew he'd earned his place at SHIELD by seeing things others missed, even more than his aim with his bow.
Sometimes, when the night was quiet and the building was secure Clint could almost convince himself this was what he'd been created for. The faint blasphemy of the thought kept him warm on cold nights.
"Don't you sleep?"
Clint looked down to see Coulson staring up at him, and considering it was only just past dawn and Coulson was already at the base Clint thought he could ask him the same. "Never before a mission."
Coulson scoffed at that. "It's not a mission, it's a training exercise. Although I can't fault your attempt to get it over with as quickly as possible."
"About that – was there something in my last performance review I should know about? I didn't think I was that in need of training."
"Everyone is required to undergo 100 hours of supervised training per quarter," Coulson countered, a clear I'm no happier about it than you are tone in his voice Clint couldn't help grinning at. "You know that. And don't even try to skip out again or I will send the tracking dogs after you."
"You were never a scout, Barton. I've read your file once or twice."
"Damn. You caught me, sir." If there was anything good about having to spend the whole day in mandatory training at least it gave him the chance to catch Coulson before his first cup of coffee. He only indulged his talent for dry banter when he was too tired and early-morning cranky to stop himself. "I'll have to work on my excuses."
"I'll add that category to your next review."
Clint thought he probably would, too. "You're putting off going in and sitting through that briefing, aren't you." Coulson's silence all but confirmed it. "If you take off now I'll cover for you. Should give you a good twenty minute head start."
He watched Coulson sigh, his shoulders dropping into an exaggerated slump. "Director Fury already knows I'm here."
"And if he can't leave, you can't leave, right?"
"You always did have a gift for sizing up a situation." He looked back toward the HQ front entrance. "Don't stay up there too long past first shift. You make the support staff nervous and I don't want to start getting memos again."
"I'll be down in a few. Although you should be more worried about making sure Nat doesn't climb out any windows when she remembers what today is anyway." Coulson nodded up at him and made his way back inside, giving Clint some privacy to take in the last of the sunrise.
But Coulson was right, the first shift staff were due to start reporting in less than an hour and Clint had things he needed to check on before that happened. He climbed down and made his way back to the perimeter, waving to the agents stationed in the guard towers. Clint made this walk every day he was at HQ and at this point it would have been more suspicious if they hadn't seen him.
He stopped just past the guards' visual range, following the map in his head to the first landmark, a flat rock that looked like Abe Lincoln. He crouched down and brushed the first layer of dirt away, stopping when he found a thin filigree of metal buried there in the dirt, silver and iron blended together. He pressed his fingertips against the unnaturally warm metal and closed his eyes, tapping just the smallest bit of the power he kept coiled and hidden inside himself until he could see the entire design of the warding sigil surrounding HQ. It had taken months to construct, handfuls of metal smuggled out each day and woven together under the cover of moonlight. Granted, unnatural strength and just the right magic words had made the actual construction a lot easier, but what a pain in the ass that had been. Risky, too, the entire time he'd been making it he'd expected someone to pick up on it and drag his deserting carcass back upstairs but there'd been no way around it, not when he could feel the Horsemen riding like an itch under his skin. He couldn't keep War from SHIELD, that was the nature of the beast, and Death came for everyone eventually no matter what he did, but the other two would touch SHIELD over his dead body.
Besides, the ward kept out a lot of the lower level pests too, demons, werewolves and the like. The last thing SHIELD needed was another shifter infestation, after all.
The design was delicate though, and needed maintaining. He'd been in the field for six weeks a few months back and had come back to find holes in two places, forcing him to make a panicked sweep of the whole campus. Fortunately the only problem had been a low-level demon he'd been able to exorcise without a problem, and considering the crap R&D handled on a daily basis possession was almost an expected hazard for that group.
Everything looked good today though, and Clint stood back up, resisting the urge to stretch out his wings before heading back to prep for the exercise. Just because the guards couldn't see him didn't mean some satellite wouldn't pick up the shadows and that was not a debriefing he wanted to sit through.
And anyway, Nat was due at base any second and Clint wanted to be right there to see her face when Coulson reminded her what the plan was today.
"I had the strangest dream last night."
Clint shot two arrows into the eye stalk of the drone shooting at them and rolled out of the way of the covering fire of the one behind it. "Yeah? You should've commed me."
"Not a bad dream so much, just strange." She tumbled between two drones, forcing them to fire on each other and prompting three more to come rolling out of a hatch at the left side of the room. "We never did any missions in a town called Carthage, did we?"
"Don't think so." Clint took an extra split-second to aim and shot two arrows at once, bullseyeing two more through the eye stalks. He stepped back when they started sparking and spinning around. "Fire in the hole," he warned, just in time for Nat to duck out of the way as the damaged two shorted out all the way, the mini-explosion taking out the third. "Who the hell designed these things?"
"Based on the DVDs he keeps offering to lend me whenever we're both stuck in the same elevator, I'd bet on Pym."
"Yeah, well he's not allowed to design the next set." He shot at the hatch itself, jamming the door closed before any more screeching monstrosities could come out. "So anyway, Carthage?"
"Right," she said, pushing herself off the wall and spin kicking the last drone over onto its side. "In the dream I was in this little town in Missouri. Or Minnesota, somewhere in the Midwest like that." She hit the control panel, signaling that they'd cleared the room. "I was waiting for something. Someone."
The doors split open and Clint just managed to catch himself before walking right into a maze of glowing red lines. "Lasers!" he said, backing away to let Nat take the lead.
"You're always such a baby about the laser grid," she said, flashing him a smile over her shoulder as she made the first tumbling pass into the room.
"You ever noticed that here's the only place we've ever had to deal with a laser grid? The rest of the world's moved on from killing Bond already." Clint took up a position by the door, squinting and sailing an arrow through the grid to smash a small mouse drone scurrying around on the floor.
"I can't shake it," she said, pausing to adjust her position mid-handstand. "Dreams never stick with me like this one." She pushed herself up into a back flip and really, as tedious as Clint always found this part of the course he never got tired of watching her do that. "I remember someone talking to me. Someone I met when I was little."
"You knew a lot of creepy weird people when you were little." Two more mini-drones came out, snaking around the grid line and Clint took one out, nocking another arrow against his bow as he waited for the second to come into position. Nat's head swiveled toward him, confusion on her face, and Clint saw she had no idea about the drone coming up behind her. "Nat, your six," he said, loosing the arrow to stop it just in time. She whirled back around, almost going off-balance into the grid before catching herself. "The hell was that?"
"You called me."
"No I didn't."
She glared at him, like she thought he was messing with her, then she tumbled through the last few feet and hit the shut off panel. He walked up to join her, kicking one of the damaged drones on the way over. He tapped on his earpiece, reporting, "We're clear."
"You two have the new record," he heard Coulson say, then he heard a muffled explosion and a cut-off shriek. "I'll save the in-depth review for when the other teams are through. Tasha, watch your focus." Something else exploded and Coulson sighed before breaking the connection.
"Someone's gonna get a hell of a performance review later," he joked to Nat, his smile fading when he saw her looking over her shoulder again, that same quizzical look on her face. "You okay?" he said, touching her arm.
"I'm fine," she said, jerking back in a way that meant the exact opposite. "I thought I heard..." She shook her head. "Nothing. I'm fine."
"You sure? You've been spacey all day."
She didn't answer for a few long seconds, her eyes unfocused. "Azazel," she murmured, barely audible even to Clint's ears.
The last time Clint felt fear snake through him like this was when he'd decided to go on the run from the armies of Heaven. "Nat," he said, putting his hands on her shoulders and watching her startle out of the daze. "Nat, how do you know that name?"
"What name?" The fear must have been written all over his face because she took one look and backed away a few steps, her eyes bright with panic. Clint had never seen Natasha Romanoff panic about anything before. "Did I say something?"
"You said the name Azazel, where did you hear that?"
"In my dream. No, no, I met him when I was being trained, he...he said he would see me again. All of us there," she said, and Clint knew she meant the Red Room. "He had strange eyes. He..." She looked up at Clint, something visibly clicking into place. "In the dream. He told me to wake up." She backed away further, like she was intentionally putting distance between them. "Don't let me hurt anyone," she whispered, the raw plea in her voice cutting through him like one of his brothers' swords.
Before he could even say a word he watched her seize up, her head jerking back – then when she looked back at him her eyes were an empty, featureless black. "That is so much better," she said, a wide smile curling her lips and a trace of the accent she was always so careful to keep hidden coloring her words.
Clint was so busy telling himself that's not possible that he didn't brace for impact when she kicked him in the face and wasn't even with it enough to remember how to roll with the impact like a human. She recovered her balance, her head cocked to the side as she looked him up and down. "And what exactly are yousupposed to be?" she purred, the voice, the posture, all of it foreign and wrong. She didn't wait for an answer, making a standing jump Clint was damn sure she hadn't been capable of a few minutes ago up to the air vent and scrambling inside.
That was enough to get Clint's scattered wits under control. "Coulson!" he said, tapping his earpiece back on. "Emergency report, copy."
When Coulson answered he sounded annoyed. "Barton, why am I getting a security report from the vent system stemming from your location?"
"Something's up with Nat, I don't..." He didn't know how to translate this into SHIELD-speak. "We were talking and there was a memory trigger. She tried to break my jaw and went up into the vents."
Clint did not like hearing panic in the voices of the two people he most counted on to be steady, especially not in the same handful of seconds. "Not trauma. The implanted memory kind, a phrase."
The second lag before Coulson answered was the longest of Clint's life, and he'd lived much, much longer than his official file would indicate. "You mean like a sleeper program."
He supposed that was one way to put it. "Something like that, yeah."
That was the first time since meeting the man Clint had ever heard Phil Coulson swear. "This is an open channel. All agents above clearance level four, Protocol 403 is in effect. We are on complete lock down. If target is spotted, report before engaging." Clint heard the subtle shift of the comm channel going from open to private. "Barton, report directly to me, conference room four. I'll debrief you there."
"What the hell is Protocol 403? My clearance is five, why haven't I heard of it?"
"Barton, report. I'm not doing a debrief over the comm."
"You know I'm the only one who can run her down, why aren't..."
"Barton. Report. That's an order."
Clint felt himself snap to attention, the tone touching untold centuries of conditioning. "Yes, sir."
He glanced up at the vent opening before he left, then closed his eyes and reached out for Nat's soul, something that should have been as simple as breathing.
He tried to force down his own panic when nothing answered back.
Clint found Coulson in full Boss Of You mode once he got to the conference room, monitoring three screens at once and giving orders to half a dozen teams. He nodded at Clint when he entered and put everything on dark and mute, which Clint had never, ever seen before.
So that had to mean this was pretty damn bad. "What's Protocol 403?"
Coulson glanced at him, the faintest trace of guilt in his eyes. "The Red Room implanting sleeper personalities is a contingency SHIELD's planned for."
Clint didn't at all like what that translated to. "You sent kill squads after her."
"If she gives them the shot. She knows too much compromising information, this has to be contained." Clint saw the icy composure crack just the faintest bit. "You know she'd expect nothing less. Barton, don't make this any harder."
"Give me a squad. I'll bring her back, I have the best chance..."
"You'll be confined to quarters until this is contained."
The order hit like a hard slap across the face. "With all due respect, sir, that's a waste of my skills."
"You couldn't pull the trigger the first time, I can't send you out with that objective again, you know that." And that was SHIELD protocol, Clint knew that reg well but there was just the faintest break in Coulson's voice, one Clint thought was more than just frustration.
It was the only chance he'd get. "Sir," he said again, wiping the anger from his voice. "Before Nat flipped she said a name, a name I recognized." Coulson tried to put his attention back to the monitors and Clint stepped in front of him. "I still have contacts. Contacts from before I joined SHIELD, the kind you don't talk about in briefings." He saw hope flare in Coulson's eyes before he could bury it down and kept pushing. "Give me time. I can find the reverse trigger."
"You don't know there is one."
"I'll find it. I'll turn her back." Because he had to. There was no other way, he couldn't wrap his mind around the world still spinning if he couldn't.
Coulson stared at him for the space of a few heartbeats, his cold SHIELD mask cracking. "Tell me you can reach her," he said, his voice pitched so low Clint barely made out the words.
He heard the unspoken Promise me. Clint wished those siblings of his that disdained humans so much could ever feel the power of this much raw faith. "Yes, sir."
"Protocol 403's already in progress. There's no procedure to stop it," he said, back in a normal speaking voice as he reactivated the monitors. "You should probably hit me now," he whispered, his eyes glancing up to remind Clint that the room was being monitored.
Oh. Right.He play acted frustration for the camera and made like he was about to leave as Coulson turned his back. Then he turned on his heel, grabbed Coulson by the shoulder and spun him around. "Try not to break anything," Coulson murmured, too low for the cameras to pick up. Clint took the split-second to measure his strength, then landed one solid, straight punch right to his face. He felt Coulson go limp and forced himself to let him drop, trying to angle it so his head didn't bounce on the floor.
That had been a harder punch then he'd intended, even with taking the extra care but when he listened Coulson's heart beat was strong and steady. Good enough.
He headed out the door without a backward glance. He had a demon to summon and no time to waste.
Coulson felt someone's hand on his shoulder shaking him awake. "I don't think I authorized any nap time, Agent Coulson."
Director Fury's voice yanked him back to full consciousness so quickly he felt his stomach try to crawl up through his throat. "Sorry, boss," he said, forcing his eyes open to find Fury crouching over him. "Been that kind of day."
"I've gathered." He helped Coulson back to his feet, leaning him against the wall. "That is going to look real pretty in the morning," Fury said, running one finger under the already tender bruise on his cheek.
Coulson winced, flinching away. "Barton wasn't happy about Protocol 403," he said, bracing himself against the monitor bank.
"That looks like a broken cheekbone amount of unhappy to me."
Coulson had to agree. He hoped Clint really had at least tried. "He didn't tell me his plan," he said, which at least was true. "Considering his training I'd say it would take at least 48 hours to track him down again." He looked up at Fury, hoping his true meaning was clear enough without having to say it.
Fury drew back, giving him a long, steady look. "I suppose if he's going to ground that will give us enough time to strategize how to flush him out," he said, glancing up at the cameras. Coulson saw him reach into his pocket, then a second later all of the monitors went black. He showed Coulson a pen sized remote control before palming it again, shaking his head. "Pocket EMP. Never know when you're going to need a little privacy." Fury crossed his arms, looking like he was coming down with a raging migraine. "What exactly are you doing?"
And honestly, Coulson wasn't sure himself. "Sir, remember when I was trying to recruit Barton and you called me into your office to demand why?"
He saw chagrin cross Fury's face; he wasn't wrong often and like most people didn't appreciate being reminded of lost arguments. "Vaguely."
"I just said you had to trust me. I need that favor again." He didn't add pleasebut he thought it came through loud and clear anyway.
Fury let out a small sigh; Coulson knew he'd cultivated an image as an unreasonable hard ass, as Clint would put it, but Coulson had known him too long and poured too much blood and sweat into SHIELD right beside him. There was no one on Earth who wanted to believe in the impossible like Nicholas Fury. "We'll both hang for this if you're wrong."
"I'm not." Clint Barton was one of the most difficult people he'd ever worked with, certainly the most difficult agent he'd handled, but at the same time Clint had never made him a promise and failed to follow through. "And only one of us will hang, boss."
Fury gave him a sideways look, as if he didn't like the sound of that at all, but before he could say anything else the monitors began to flicker and he heard the comm signal crackle back to life. "...anyone copy?"
"I read you, Simmons," Coulson said. "We had some interference here."
"Target has been spotted near the front entrance. Which teams should move to intercept?"
Coulson glanced up at Fury, who rolled his eyes in an Oh, of course expression. He looked at the monitors and the obvious solution leapt out at him. "I'm closer than any of the teams, I'll intercept."
"Sir, I'm not sure..."
"We don't have time," he said, shutting that down immediately. The comm went dead again, the monitors blinking back off and Coulson looked back toward Fury. "You really like that new toy."
"You can't imagine how many times a day I use this thing. What are you doing?"
"Someone has to intercept or it's obvious we're letting her go. Barton needs time to maneuver and I can't give it to him if one of the sharp shooter teams gets there first. It's the only solution."
Fury shook his head. "This is the stupidest thing you've ever made me agree to. All right, let's..."
"No. Sir, I'm sorry, but you need to direct the rest of the teams. In case."
Fury looked like it was taking all of his self control to not punch Coulson back into unconsciousness, this time for his own good. "You are aware that Natasha Romanoff's known kill count is higher than the population of some small towns in the country?"
And that was just the known count. "Forty-eight hours, sir." Before Fury could talk him out of it Coulson hurried out to confront one of the most efficient assassins he'd ever met.
To his shock, he managed to beat Natasha to the door – or whatever it was this sleeper was calling itself, because as soon as she dropped down from the ceiling he could tell at a glance someone else was in control. He'd worked with her to create over half a dozen fully fleshed out identities over the years and no matter how good the agent, and Natasha Romanoff was one of the best, there were always carryovers – the unconscious swing of the hips when off balance, for example, or the quick way of dissembling when surprised.
There was none of that here. The woman faced him with pure scorn, her expression open in a way Natasha's never was, her dull black eyes looking at him like he was a particularly tasty lunch. "I was expecting more of a going away party."
"I think you know I can't let you leave," he said, pointing his gun at her center of mass.
That made her pause for a fraction of a second, then her lips curled back up into that obscene smile. "You're not going to shoot me."
Well, she did have him there. "You're right," he said. There was visual monitoring here but not audio. He needed the plausible deniability. "Tasha, whatever happens here, it's not your fault. I want you to understand that."
"Aw, that's cute but I know what I'm doing."
"I am talking to my friend, not to you." He locked eyes with those empty black ones, looking for the woman he'd worked with these past few years. The one who stayed up late planning missions, as big a perfectionist as he was himself. The one who'd taken a bullet for him barely months after being recruited, back when virtually everyone still treated her like a Russian spy and who he'd returned the favor for less than a year later. He lowered the gun; his back was to the camera so no one could tell what he was saying. Let anyone watching believe she'd fooled him. "Barton has a plan. He's going to bring you back, you can count on that."
"I don't think so." She moved like a panther, like something whose every cell was honed for hunting and killing. "And even if he does, pity about what he'll find when he gets back."
Coulson actually thought he acquitted himself fairly well; his performance reviews consistently put him in one of the top percentiles for hand to hand combat but part of his strategy was always misdirection. He didn't just like opponents to underestimate him, he expected it and he knew he'd get no such bonus here. He'd sparred with Natasha hundreds of times and she knew every trick he had, the way he led, how he thought. In all that time he knew he'd managed to put her down a grand total of five times. And he strongly suspected one of those times was a present for his birthday.
And like every other sleeper he'd ever encountered, what the primary personality knew, so did the sleeper. He managed to land three quick blows, the momentum dropping her briefly down to one knee, but that was the only chance he got; she backhanded him so hard his teeth rattled, driving him off his feet. She hauled him up by his tie and this did surprise Coulson; Natasha fought with leverage and speed, there was no way she should be this strong. She slammed him against the wall, forcing his wind out of him before wrapping both hands around his throat. Strangulation was an inefficient method of killing, not as quick and not even as quiet as movies would have one believe. It was the method of a killer who wanted the victim to suffer, one who wanted to feel their target die.
Even at her worst that had ever been the M.O. of Natasha Romanoff. "This is not your fault," he whispered again, his vision starting to go dark and blurry around the edges. He knew this was Natasha's nightmare, the Red Room reaching back across the ocean to turn her back into a weapon and the pure surge of hate kept him conscious for a few more seconds. "It's not."
"Shut up." She punched him again, breaking his nose. Still, his last thought before the lights all went out wasn't that he'd lost the fight: he'd rattled her.
It looked like Clint had been right about something still being in there to reach after all.
It took Clint longer to pull his supplies together than he'd expected; he needed to keep everything hidden to avoid being asked some really uncomfortable questions about why he had hundred year old herbs and blessed chalk and vials of three different kinds of blood squirreled away in his quarters. That required sneaking around the facility and dodging the search teams; he didn't know if they'd been given shoot on sight orders for him yet and didn't feel the need to find out. Not that the bullets could kill him of course, but that was a whole other line of uncomfortable questions he didn't feel like answering. Just when he'd pulled everything together he felt pain rush through him, or the echo of pain anyway, pain and fear and resignation and a really weird sense of accomplishment. He recognized the touch of Coulson's soul, a reflexive reaching out that was inaudible to any human but as loud as a scream to Clint. Clint opened his wings and flew to the summons without consciously intending to, the distress call from his commander acting on him like a hook.
He found himself standing in the facility's side entrance way, the door standing open and Coulson lying crumpled and still off to the side, like he'd been kicked there. Clint realized he'd been too late by seconds.
For an instant the sudden surge of fear pinned Clint down to the floor, but then it passed and Clint realized he could hear a heartbeat and the distress he'd felt from Coulson's soul had faded. Clint couldn't hold back the sigh of relief as he crouched beside him, expending just the tiniest bit of Grace to bring him back around and take the edge off the injuries. Even Phil Coulson could only have his brains scrambled so many times in one day. "Coulson?" he said, fishing a handkerchief out of Coulson's pocket and pressing it to his face to stem the bleeding from the broken nose. "Up and at 'em."
Coulson groaned, one of the more beautiful sounds Clint had ever heard. "Twice today," he said. "Great." He looked up at Clint and smiled. "She didn't kill me."
Clint felt hope flare through him. "No, sir."
Coulson pushed himself up against the wall, waving Clint back. "You were right. I'll cover things here, Barton. Bring her back."
Clint stepped back from the summoning circle, checking out his handiwork. Any idiot could summon a demon and, frankly, did so all the time but summoning the right demon, especially as you moved higher up the food chain, that took a little more prep work. Summoning Azazel himself wasn't an option and Clint was almost relieved about that; he'd never been in the presence of the thing personally but by reputation he was cagey and oldand followed Lucifer with the zeal of a true fanatic. Of course, he was also very dead, which solved one problem while creating some others.
Fortunately, family businesses in Hell tended to work just the way they did on Earth.
The ritual was shorter than the ones humans use, in a language Clint hadn't spoken aloud for more than a decade. He closed his eyes as he said the last word and felt the rush of energy; if any of his siblings were still pissed off enough to be on his trail he'd just given himself away.
But for the first time that day something went his way – when he opened his eyes all he saw was a woman's form in the summoning circle, young and petite and dark-haired. She turned around and Clint felt his stomach twist when he saw the distortion from the possession, her true face superimposed over her stolen human one like a mirage. Humans couldn't see it and Clint wished he couldn't either. "You call yourself Meg?"
The demon's brows drew together in confusion. "Maybe. Who are you supposed to be?"
"You're Azazel's brat?"
Her expression changed into a mix of surprise and...Clint didn't know. Like she appreciated his nerve."What's it to you?" she said, moving toward him.
"Go to sleep."
She froze in place, her eyes wide with surprise, and she dropped to the ground. Clint grinned as he walked around her, taking his time to be sure she wasn't playing possum. "Yeah," he said to himself, slinging her over his shoulder. "Still got it."
SHIELD had two remote holding locations within a few hours' walk of HQ, just in case they detained someone who needed super-max security. Clint laid down a false trail to one and then got busy setting up for the interrogation in the other, drawing devil's traps over the ceiling and across the floor, salting the door and keeping the holy water handy. If the rest of SHIELD did catch up with him whoever did clean up for this place was going to write a hell of an incident report.
Meg finally came to in the chair across the interrogation table, her eyes blinking open to see the devil's trap over her head. "Oh, great," she said, rolling her eyes at him. "You know, there are better ways to get a girl on a first date." The way she carried herself reminded him so much of Nat. It was the same confidence, that sense she'd be interrogating you if you didn't watch your step. "What are you supposed to be? This isn't the usual hunter foreplay."
Clint didn't answer, not in words; this was the first time in he didn't know when he didn't have a handler watching over his shoulder or a surveillance camera to dodge. He let out a deep breath and let the power usually pushed down deep rise to the surface. He heard wind buffet the building, the walls shaking as lightning struck. He saw her eyes widen as he unfurled his wings, looking past him to the shadows he knew were spread across the walls. "Okay, okay, I get the message," she said, the quaver in her voice ruining the bravado. "Can't swing a dead coed without hitting one of you lately." Clint toned down the display and she shifted around in the chair. "Look, if you're looking for your idiot brother I haven't seen him since Carthage. And considering that he set me on fireif I did know I'd tell you in gruesome detail.
Okay, that wasn't where Clint had expected this to go. "I'm not...what?"
"Castiel? Blue eyes, bad fashion sense, angel powers flying at half mast? I thought all of you self-righteous feather dusters were after him."
That was the last name Clint had ever expected to hear again. Maybe this was old sins coming back on him after all. "Well, I'm not. Although you can tell me what exactly did happen at Carthage."
"You really don't know." She chuckled at that and Clint felt the interrogation sliding away from him. "You must be the only angel out there who doesn't know Death rose to take his place in Lucifer's service. That's what happened in Carthage, by the way." She leaned her elbows on the table, propping her chin on her hands like a teenager. "When I mentioned your idiot brother you looked like you'd seen a ghost. Like a human who'd seen a ghost, anyway. What is your story?"
"I'm not the one being interrogated."
"Ooh. Kinky. You should have warned me, I could have worn my sexy prisoner costume."
Clint just did not have time for this. "I will compel you to talk if I have to."
Meg rolled her eyes, slouching in the chair. "Fine, take all the fun out of this. But it's true, that's what happened in Carthage. Well, some other fun things too, but that was the main event."
Clint leaned back in his own chair, drumming his fingers on the table. He actually thought she was telling the truth. "Okay. Then tell me everything you know about the Red Room."
She leaned back herself, mirroring his pose, and gave him an appraising look. "One of my father's side projects. Why do you care?" He didn't answer and a delighted smile crawled across her face. "Did we trigger that? I can't believeit, I knew about all of that but never how to set it off. I should have known there'd be something already in place."
"What is it? I know possession when I see it, that's not what's going on here."
"No, not really." She shrugged, crossing her arms over her chest. "Sure, I'll talk. Can't exactly hurt anything now."
"Why was the Red Room created? The real story, not the cover." Clint tried to brace himself for what he was about to hear, because the Red Room's cover story was plenty bad enough.
"The Red Room was intended to create an elite force of shock troops skilled in both combat and infiltration. Ones programmed to insert themselves into all of the most sensitive corners of society until we needed them, they'd turn on and poof. Instant chaos. All the demons upsides, none of the exorcism and devil trap weaknesses."
Clint had already guessed that much; he'd trapped a good portion of HQ over the years, including the vents, but Nat had been able to maneuver with no problem. "But still with the black eyes. There's still a demon in there."
"Technically. But no possession."
"How? Where does the demon come from?"
"It's grown. Brand new baby demon with all the memories and experiences of the host."
"That doesn't make any sense, a demon's not its own thing, you have to corrupt a soul into one..." The horrific implications of that reached deep inside his Grace and twisted like a corkscrew. "She's not a demon."
"Oh, it is 'she.' I'd wondered." She smiled again, clearly enjoying the spectacle of watching him hang. "And no 'she' probably isn't. Yet, anyway. That was the first draft and they came out too unstable. It's more like...you know how sometimes one twin will eat the other in the womb? Like that. The baby demon wakes up and starts eating the soul. Like a tater tot."
It was strange, watching his hands tremble like this. "How long?"
She shrugged. "Like I know? Like I said before, I didn't even know what the wake up call was."
"What's the reverse trigger? How do I get it to sleep again?" He needed time. If they could get it to sleep, get it to stop...he couldn't fight down the image of that thing eating away at her soul, like a parasitic wasp eating a caterpillar from the inside out. But if he could manage to buy time he could find an exorcism that worked, pull the demon out.
"There isn't one," she said, crushing the hope before Clint could even really start believing in it. "C'mon, give us some credit. Why go through all this trouble and then install an easy fix-it?"
He couldn't fault the logic. Clint drummed his fingers against the table for a few more seconds, trying to build up his nerve. "I need to have a chat with your boss."
Meg's mouth hung open for a full second. "You serious?"
"Sounds like we got a lot to talk about."
"You are serious," she said with a low whistle. "You tired of living?"
"Hey, we're family, right? Be like old times."
"Yeah. Yeah, I bet. Why do you think he'd help you?"
Clint stared at the trap covering the ceiling. He felt as pinned into place as the demon across from him. "Just tell me how to get in touch. Let me worry about it."
She tapped one finger against her chin. "Let's have some story time from you first."
"I don't confess to demons."
"Ooh, now I know you have something to confess."
Clint sighed. If it could help Nat he couldn't say no. "Think you remember the Siege."
Meg scowled. "I was lucky enough not to be home, but yeah."
"I...see better than my brothers do. Differently. If I tried I could see the Righteous Man in the deepest part of the Pit." He gave her a grin as that sank in. "The first thirty years were out of our hands but the search didn't need to go ten years. It didn't need to go ten seconds, not if I'd been there to point out the way."
She was looking at him like this was the most fantastic thing she'd ever heard. "So you...what? Didn't feel like it?"
Clint ground his teeth. "I disagreed with the mission and recused myself."
"You ran for the hills and hid with the humans."
He just shrugged. "To-may-to, to-mah-to."
"And now you take orders from them." She waved away his attempt to protest. "This set up is way too military and you're way too comfortable with it. Whoever 'she' is, her programming would point her toward a classified set up and if you're this concerned you're deep in that too." When he didn't argue she raised her eyebrows. "You had better hope Lucifer wins all this. If by some miracle Michael does pull it out you're gonna have so much hurt ahead of you."
Like he'd never had that thought since the Apocalypse hit full swing. "My problem, not yours. You got what you want, now set up the meeting."
"A deal's a deal," she said. "You have something for me to write on?" Clint pulled a pen and some scrap paper out of his pocket, pushing it across the table. She scribbled for a few seconds, then passed it back; when he picked it up he saw a latitude and longitude scrawled across its length. "Go there. Remember, if it goes bad it's not on me." She glanced up at the ceiling, then back at Clint. "I can't set it up if I'm stuck here."
Clint stood and broke the lines of the trap above them and then scuffed the one on the floor before he could convince himself that killing her was a better idea. It physically hurt to have a demon in his grasp and let it go but indulging that impulse wouldn't help Nat. Demons were a dime a dozen and he'd be damned himself before he let her add to that number.
Meg was gone before he could blink. He stared down at the coordinates in his hands, feeling dread begin to coil around him.
He didn't have time to dwell on it. Clint could only hope that despite his reputation Lucifer wasn't the type to hold grudges.
When Clint got to the promised coordinates all he found waiting for him was an ornate golden goblet and a very sharp knife. He supposed it had been too much to hope for that Lucifer would have picked up a cell phone at some point after breaking out of the Cage.
He sat on the ground and twirled the knife in one hand before sticking it back in the dirt. He rested his arms on his updrawn knees and closed his eyes, his heart pounding against his ribs like a drummer on a last-chance audition. He pictured Nat, the way she smiled when she wiped everyone else out on poker nights. The way he knew her for two years before finding out she could sing, and only because it was part of a cover and how she was so shy about it when off the clock that it took a solid week of following her around making pest of himself to get her to show off. Her inexplicable fascination with horrible American reality TV and that Russian soap opera she recorded that was always the first thing she watched when coming back from a mission. He held on to all of that and every other good memory he had since the first and only time he'd outright disobeyed an order to bring Natasha Romanoff to SHIELD and reached.
And this time he felt a very, very faint echo reach back. "There you are," he whispered to himself. He followed that echo like a thread through a maze until her sleeping soul was close enough to touch; he opened his eyes and saw her sitting beside him, her arms wrapped around her legs and her face pressed against her knees. "Hey, Nat."
She looked up at him, dream logic letting her accept that he was sitting there. She looked younger than she should and Clint wondered how much of her was left. "Hey yourself."
"I need a pep talk."
Her brows furrowed as she tipped her head to the side, her familiar You've finally gone crazylook. "I'm terrible at pep talks."
"I could really use one anyway." He let out a deep breath, looking around at the flat, sparse plain that had replaced the park he'd been sitting in a few moments earlier. "Where the hell are we?"
She looked around, a smile curling her lips. "When I was younger we did a survival training. I was taken north and released with half a canteen of water and told to find my way back. I'm told the expected return ratio was 50/50 but I did it three times." She wrapped her arms back around her knees. "I actually looked forward to it. It was a very quiet two weeks. Very peaceful. I use that memory to center myself during difficult missions."
"Nat, your happy place is Siberia. I just want to point that out."
"I've led an interesting life." She looked over to him, flicking her hair out of her eyes. "What about yours?"
He shook his head. "It's not a place."
She looked away and stared back at the horizon. "What happened to me? I know something's wrong. It's like when you're drugged and know it but can't do anything about it."
"You're not you right now."
She gave him a very sharp look. "They triggered a sleeper personality."
"Got it in one."
He never wanted to see Nat look this scared ever again. "You have to kill me."
"You know I'm not gonna do that."
And she actually rolled her eyes at that, like he was the one being unreasonable. "Did Phil institute Protocol 403?"
"Did everyoneknow about that except me? How are you okay with that?"
"You're joking, right? I helped him write it. We always knew it was a possibility that the Red Room might use sleepers. Wishful thinking doesn't help anyone."
Clint thought it was actually a toss-up which of them were more pragmatic about horrible things, Nat or Coulson. No wonder they worked together so well. "Why did the protocol ice me?"
"Be reasonable, Clint. He's not going to ask you to kill me twice."
It was nice, just sitting with Nat like this. Clint thought they should do it more often. "I'm gonna pull you back."
She shook her head. "There's no reverse trigger. They wouldn't be that careless."
"Getting real tired of hearing that." He put one hand on her shoulder. "I need you to fight it, Nat. Okay? I'm working on it, I..."
"You're shaking. What are you doing?"
"I need you to have a little faith here. Please."
She laughed at that, running one hand through her hair. "Do you know how ridiculous that would have sounded to me a few years ago?"
"You should've seen me a few years before we met. SHIELD's good at giving that back." He looked back at her, shifting a lock of hair behind her ear. "You believe I can do this?"
She looked at him for a long time, like she needed to make up her mind. "I do."
Clint leaned over and kissed her temple. "You just make sure you're still here when I'm done, okay?"
Clint opened his eyes and found himself back in the park, clutching the knife so tightly he'd worn grooves in his hand. He picked up the goblet and examined it; the usual procedure would be to find a proxy but Clint knew that wasn't an option. Nat wouldn't want it and he'd never be able to look Coulson in the eye again if he hurt someone to make this happen, that just wasn't how things were done. It was almost funny sometimes, the lines he drew for himself slumming as a human that he wouldn't so much as blinked at in his old life.
But Nat was counting on him. And if he didn't pull this out she wasn't the only one he'd fail; any rookie investigator would be able to see Coulson had let him go. He'd be drummed out of SHIELD at a minimum, maybe even get hit with treason charges depending on how damaging they judged the classified information Nat knew was to national security. The two of them were counting on him to make this right.
Clint reached out to touch that faith for a few seconds because he really, really needed it. Time to stop stalling; he let out a deep breath and knelt over the goblet, the knife tight in his fist. He took a deep breath, holding the air in his borrowed lungs, then he drove the point of the knife into his throat. He pulled the blade across in a single slash before letting the knife drop from his fingers; Clint positioned the goblet under the wound to catch the blood flow, his hands shaking so hard he had to set it back on the ground in seconds. He'd done the cut fast enough that it hadn't hurt but he was feeling the pain now, waves of it whiting out his vision. Blood filled his mouth as he started to choke; normally he only breathed for show, he'd worked hard to make it a habit, but he was lightheaded from lack of air now. Light bled from the wound, bright white pulses of it that ripped out of him as sharp as shrapnel. A mundane knife shouldn't have been able to hurt him like this but he'd never heard of this working without the wound being lethal.
Clint heard himself whimper and fought the urge to pass out. He just needed a few more seconds for the blood to get up to the right level. Staying awake was the only important thing in the world, staying awake and keeping the goblet level.
He coughed twice, blood spattering against the side of the cup, then whispered the word Lucifer into the pool of blood. Clint collapsed to the ground, the goblet tipping over and spilling the blood onto the ground. Clint had just enough time to think that maybe trusting a demon wasn't the best idea he'd ever had before passing out.
Clint woke to burning heat and bright, flickering light. He opened his eyes and found himself in a circle of fire, way too close to one of the borders; he scrambled back to the center, one hand flying up to his throat to find the wound healed.
"You really wanted to talk to me."
Clint looked up and felt everything in him flinch. Standing outside the circle was a tall man with blond hair, someone who'd probably be considered good-looking without the lesions over his face and extending down his neck. The stench of rot was overpowering, like stumbling on a crime scene where a body had been left for days.
And yet despite all that Clint couldn't look away. Being in Lucifer's presence was like the handful of times he'd shadowed Coulson to Stark's press conferences, only with the volume turned all the way up, that overwhelming presence pushing everything else out of the room, no air to breathe. It took two tries before Clint could manage to speak. "Been a while." He looked around at the flames. "I called you. We really need the special effects?"
"I wasn't sure why you wanted to talk to me." He crouched down, studying Clint through the flames. "Michael is going to be very upset with you, Paschar."
It had been a long time since Clint had heard that name. "My name's Barton."
Lucifer smiled. "No, that's your meat suit's name. How long have you been here that you've forgotten that?"
Clint forced himself to stand, to look Lucifer in the eye. It wasn't the first time Clint had stood in front of him and he could remember a time when Lucifer was the brightest star in Heaven. He remembered being much younger and much, much more naïve and aiming an arrow at that star. "You've looked better."
Lucifer rubbed his face and gave Clint a little, Hey, what can you do? look. "It's temporary. I'll upgrade soon enough. And let's be honest, I wasn't at my best the last time we met either." Lucifer sighed, studying Clint like he was a fascinating bug. "What do you want, little brother?"
"I want you to call off the Red Room operation." Lucifer frowned, as if it took a few seconds to remember what Clint was talking about. "You have enough big guns now, you don't need shock troops. You don't need spies, that's demon stuff." Play to his vanity; if Lucifer had a flaw besides being out of his mind insane it was that.
Lucifer narrowed his eyes. Vain, but also very smart. "Why do you care so much?"
Clint tried to find an argument he would accept. "The humans don't need to be involved. We're better than that."
"No. No one slits their own throat out of a misplaced sense of justice." He reached over the flames and put one hand against Clint's forehead; he barely had time to breathe before he felt Lucifer push. He felt Lucifer's presence snake around his skull, reaching into him and squeezing until every memory, every experience was wrung out and ripped away. After what felt like several lifetimes Lucifer let him go and Clint dropped to the ground like he'd never be able to stand again. He curled up in the dirt and shook for a few seconds, staring up to see Lucifer looking down at him. "It seems I'm surroundedby curious things." He crossed his arms, his head tilted to the side as he watched Clint in the dust. "What are you offering me for this human of yours?"
"I'll serve you." He couldn't look at Lucifer as he said it. "If you win your slap-fight with Michael, I'll serve you."
Lucifer rolled his eyes. "That's not a bargain. Everyone will serve me then-"
"You thought that the first time and you see how that worked out." He pushed himself back to a sitting position. "Even if you win Michael's going to have loyalists. They'll keep fighting you until the end of time, you know that. And that assumes Raphael falls in line, and Gabriel. I can make that easier on you."
Lucifer smiled, the curve of his lips obscene. "You would actually do that? You would be my hound?"
"With conditions. You fix what's happening with Nat. And you don't touch SHIELD, none of your people do. Anyone wears a SHIELD badge, you act like they don't exist." When Lucifer started to protest that Clint said, "I'm worth more than a handful of humans and you know it."
"You don't believe that, why should I?" Lucifer crouched down again, rubbing his chin. "Swear to me. Bind yourself unquestionably to my service and I'll throw you your bone. Michael's right hand working for me is something worth bargaining for, if only to see the look on his face. Especially at these prices."
"You don't get anything from me until the fight happens."
"Details." He smiled again. "You're making me a lot of promises."
"I was good enough to run you down, wasn't I?" Back in Heaven Michael was the general but Clint did the grunt work. The truth was Clint had always been someone's hound.
Lucifer seemed to like that answer. "You used a bow, didn't you? Not a sword?" Clint narrowed his eyes and didn't bother to answer; Lucifer knew damn well what weapon he used, arrows to the eye tended to be memorable even for archangels. And Lucifer didn't press him for one; he stared at Clint for another second, then backed away, shaking his head. He pressed his hands together and murmured a few words in Enochian, light springing to life between his palms. Clint watched him pull his hands apart and saw a silver arrow form from that bright light, then Lucifer handed it to him over the flames. "If you miss your shot, that's not my fault. Your offer's still binding. You understand?"
Clint stood and reached for the arrow. "Yes."
"Yes, what?" Lucifer said, holding it just up out of Clint's reach.
Clint snatched it from his grasp. "You haven't won yet."
"Like I said. Details."
Before Clint could blink he found himself back in that park holding that arrow. He dropped to his knees and retched all over the grass, the first time he'd ever felt that kind of sick nausea in his life. He'd never been so happy that he couldn't have nightmares.
He didn't have time to dwell on it; he straightened back up and focused for a second, smiling as a silver bow came to life in his hands. It hadbeen a long time since he'd been able to shoot his bow; it was a recurve like his favorite one at SHIELD, perfect balance, perfect size.
Clint hoped like hell that after today he never had to shoot this particular bow again.
He closed his eyes and reached for Nat's soul again; he needed a different kind of vision to make this shot. He finally found her a little over a hundred miles away, a tiny, tiny spark, like aiming at a candle flame from across a football field. He'd made longer shots but not in a vessel, not on Earth; he took his time aiming, adjusting for wind and obstacles and anything else that could block the shot. He'd only get one chance at this.
For the first time all day Clint felt no anxiety. He realized with the certainty of scripture that thiswas what he'd been created to do.
He loosed the arrow and felt it fly, ripping through space like silver missile. It felt like years before he knew whether the arrow hit the target, then he felt something change, a rush of energy like the aftershock of a powerful exorcism. Clint didn't even think about it; he flew right to her, catching Nat as she fell. There was no wound to heal and only seconds to wait before her eyes blinked open, clear and blue and human. "Hey, Nat," he said, his voice shaking.
"Hey, yourself," she said, blinking up at him. "I had the strangest dream."
"We've both had a pretty bad day." He set her back on the ground and knelt next to her. "You remember anything?"
"I...no, I don't..." Her eyes went wide. "They triggered a sleeper." Clint nodded, encouraging her along. "I escaped from HQ, I..." She started to shake, horror filling her eyes now and Clint reached out to steady her. "Phil tried to stop me, did I...?"
"No. No, he's fine. Y'know, roughed up some, but fine. That's how we knew for sure you were still in there."
She buried her face in her hands and Clint gave her some space for a few seconds. "How did you find the reverse trigger?" she asked.
Clint shrugged. "Eh, you know. Deals with the devil, all that fun stuff." He pressed a quick kiss to her forehead. "You ready to go home? 'Cause I'm really ready to go home." She nodded and Clint tapped on his earpiece. "Barton to base."
He'd never been so happy to hear Phil Coulson's voice. "Give me good news."
"Objective cleared. We're headed back to the nest now."
The sigh of pure relief made everything worth it. "Make it quick."
Clint smiled. "Yes, sir."
"Agent Coulson, don't you sleep?"
Coulson looked up from his desk to see Fury leaning in his doorway, the deja vu from the morning almost overwhelming. "I need to finish these reports." It sounded better than saying that he was afraid to go to sleep only to wake up and find the happy ending had all been a dream.
Fury just nodded. "Take a break. I want to show you something."
Coulson followed him down through Fury's office and through a hidden door, leading to a bare room with only a desk and a computer terminal. He tapped a button on the keyboard and Coulson saw SHIELD satellite footage of Clint timestamped from earlier that day, shortly before he'd reported in. He was holding a silver bow Coulson had never seen before, one that wasn't SHIELD issue. "Where did he get that?"
"Keep watching, gets even more interesting."
Coulson followed the suggestion and watched Clint aim the strange bow, but before he could ask what he should be looking for the feed began to warp, like it had been hit by some massive interference. Through the broken feed Coulson could just make out strange shadows extending behind Clint.
Shadows that looked like two enormous wings.
The feed jumped ahead a few seconds and Clint was gone, the signal suddenly clear again. Fury paused the recording, looking at Coulson like he was expecting him to report back. "The next communication from Agent Barton came less than five minutes later, from almost one hundred miles away."
"I don't understand."
"I'm not sure I do, either, but I think I have a theory. Would you like to hear it?" Coulson nodded and Fury sat in the chair. "Do you remember that serial murder case you were investigating, the one we thought might have some superhuman involvement?"
Coulson nodded, feeling his expression turn sour. "The Seraphim killings," he said, using the code phrase. "Where the killer left the wing impressions under the bodies. You pulled me off of it."
"I know, I'm sorry. It turned out to be above your security clearance."
Coulson blinked at that. "Who's above my clearance?"
"Me. But that's about to change." He shook his head. "Are you aware we're in the middle of the Apocalypse? And before you ask, I am speaking very Biblically."
"There is no such thing."
Fury smiled. "I told you the day I recruited you, being in SHIELD mean you never get to say those words again." He stood back up, running his hand over his head. "Let's take a trip behind the curtain, Agent Coulson. You have a lot to catching up to do."