"Fury discovered Clint is missing." Nat stood in the doorway to the converted lab Dr. Strange had chosen for his spell casting. "Sadly, Peters did not survive the encounter." She didn't sound very sorry, in fact, looked pleased by the news.
"Does that mean you'll leave in order to 'search' for your partner?" Coulson asked.
"No. Fury hasn't officially let me know anything. I'm still on stand-down from my last mission." She turned a grim smile in Clint's direction, "If I hadn't taken to vent crawling, myself, I wouldn't have known at all."
"What does that mean for us?" Dr. Bruce locked the cabinets after putting the last of the equipment away, lips pursed.
"We might get an agent or two snooping around in a few days. They'll check the nearby safe houses first, to see if Clint made it to any of them in order to lick his wounds. After that, they'll try all of his regular haunts, before casting the net wider."
"Often enough that it's considered procedure if he goes missing."
Clint tilted his head. "Don't I trust the people I work with?"
"You would have either called Phil, myself, or, lately, one of the other Avengers."
She hadn't actually answered the question. "That would be a 'no,' then."
Dr. Bruce interrupted. "Why haven't they asked the people involved in the op?"
"Peters mentioned that Clint broke off halfway through a sentence. He checked the spot where Clint had set up his gear. Nothing had been touched, but there was no sign of Clint. " She shrugged, but Clint could see the tension and anger in the movement. "After withdrawing for a while, when he decided that he hadn't been compromised, he continued to run surveillance, but didn't mention Clint's disappearance, hoping to profit somehow at later juncture."
"They don't know for sure that the subjects weren't part of a HYDRA cell?" Coulson asked.
"Those who were under surveillance haven't noticed anything, nor have they done anything to indicate they knew of Clint's presence or that they are responsible for his disappearance. It's been two weeks, but SHIELD won't interrupt their op in order to find out for sure." A hint of anger threaded her tone, but she held herself loosely, glancing around the lab in curiosity.
Clint shrugged, not too concerned about it as he watched Dr. Strange draw designs on Phil's forehead, palms, soles of his feet, and over his heart. They'd moved a cot into the room, and Phil lay down, careful not to smudge the designs while the sorcerer knelt to draw further designs in a circle around the bed.
Clint settled himself onto a nest of sleeping bags and blankets in a corner of the room. "Are you going to be alright there?" she asked.
"I went downstairs once, and already had one well-meaning lady ask if I needed help locating my folks. I don't need Child Services called before I'm back to normal. This is one of the most secure rooms in the whole Tower, both Tony and JARVIS swear to it. I'll just stay here until it's my turn."
"He won't be a bother," Dr. Strange assured. "It'll give me someone to talk to since I won't be able to leave the room while the spell is in place."
"The rest of us will be in and out periodically. If you get bored, you can come find any of us two levels up."
He respected the fact that she didn't think he wouldn't be able to handle watching whatever it was that Phil would go through while under the spell.
Steve entered the room, a box of bottled water, granola bars, and packaged snacks in his arms. He looked a bit unhappy with Clint's decision to stay, but respected his right to see things through. He put the box next to Clint's makeshift bed. "So, if Fury shows up?"
"I sure as hell don't want to meet him. Fury kinda sounds like an asshole and I've had enough of them lately."
Tony, who had slid in after Steve, clapped him on the shoulder, his smile bright and manic looking. "Nice to see the snark we all came to know and love was a natural product of upbringing. I'm actually quite surprised we haven't heard more of it recently."
"It's called tact, Tony. You should try it." Steve, now twenty-two, looked at the engineer, disapproval clear in his eyes.
"Tact has nothing to do with it," Nat interjected. "Before, he didn't know you, didn't know what would set you off , and he had no back up plans in case he needed to escape. He's gotten comfortable with you and probably has worked out at least two other options in case this all goes pear-shaped."
Clint tossed a smirk in her direction as she followed the three men out of the room. He caught the tail end of the conversation before the door sealed behind them. "How do you know this?" Tony sounded curious.
"He's followed the same pattern for as long as I've known him. I figured the behavior had to come from somewhere."
"So," Phil began, eyes curious. "Two options, huh?"
The smirk widened. "Possibly three. JARVIS likes me."
"Indeed, Master Clint. I would never let any harm befall a child, and as an adult, you and I engaged in many late night conversations of both a frivolous and serious mien."
Clint blinked, but felt a genuine smile replace the prior smirk. "Cool."
Dr. Strange cleared his throat. "We can begin when you're ready."
Phil locked eyes on Clint, his expression serious. "I don't know what you'll see. If it gets to be too much for you, I want you to know that I won't be offended if you have to leave." Clint opened his mouth to protest, but Phil cut him off. "No. Just remember. It's going to take ten days. You're going to need breaks, and I'm not going to be conscious or cognizant enough to respond to you or even know if you're here. Make sure you take care of yourself since you're going to need all your energy when you go through the spell."
Clint carefully considered the request. Phil wasn't telling him not to be here, but wanted him to take care of himself. He could do that. He nodded his agreement, though, if at all possible, he planned to stay by Phil's side during the ordeal.
Phil nodded solemnly back and let Dr. Strange know he was ready. To Clint, it sounded like a bunch of gobbledygook along with a bunch of mystical hand-waving. The only interesting bit was that the designs on Phil's body and along the floor glowed a faint greenish hue.
The agent's eyes flickered madly beneath his lids. "Is that supposed to happen?" Clint asked.
Dr. Strange smiled kindly, his voice even, if a bit tired sounding. "It's similar to dreaming. His mind is rapidly cataloging all the memories and sensations he's experienced."
Clint considered this. "Does this mean past memories will be clearer?"
"I'm not sure. It's not something that was brought up with past subjects of this particular spell."
"Just how often have you cast it?"
"Three times. One only worked partially for the containment circle was broken before completion."
"The spell can only be used once upon a person. When the circle was broken, it stopped the spell. The person ended up several years younger than they should have been and had to age normally and relearn any skills they'd acquired beyond that age. None of the memories were regained."
Clint eyed the designs nervously. "Tony know that his 'bots aren't allowed to start cleaning in here, right"
"I have reminded Master Stark of that eventuality and have taken the initiative of shutting down all non-vital functions within this room."
"Thank you, JARVIS," Clint sighed in relief.
"You are quite welcome, Master Clint."
Eight hours into the spell with nothing more than a small bruise or two from bumping into things, the first major injury came as a surprise. Clint heard a double 'snap' and a brief expression of pain crossed Phil's face. "What was that," he asked, alarmed.
"Broken bone. Right arm. The second sound was the bone being reset."
"The spell tells you that?" Clint handed the sorcerer one of the bottles of water.
Studying the man, Clint wondered. "Are you getting anything from the spell? You know, like memories or feelings?" His eyes widened in sudden horror. "You're not feeling the pain, too? Are you?"
Dr. Strange crossed one leg over the other while sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs that usually stood in the living room that Tony had brought down and took a sip of water. "No. Nothing like that. It's more like entries in a medical log – broken right ulna. That sort of thing."
If Strange thought that would reassure Clint, he was mistaken. "So, if we had to deal with sexual assault, you'd know that, too?"
Solemn eyes gazed upon him, "Yes. But I will not divulge that information to anyone."
Clint studied the older man intently but couldn't discern any lying or manipulation in his expression or posture. He sank back on his blankets, legs crossed, elbows propped upon his knees, palms cupping his chin, and turned to focus on Phil. He'd have to take the sorcerer's word for it – though it didn't set well with him. He had little reason to trust adults. But Phil trusted him. And apparently – against all odds – so did Loki. Clint would reserve his judgment until later.
Throughout the past nine days, everyone had spent some time daily to sit with Phil and check on the spell's progress, as well as to make sure Clint spent some time taking care of his own needs. Both Dr. Bruce and Steve, who had fully regained all of his memories, were horrified by what had happened; they managed to coax him away from Phil's side a time or two in order to watch a movie. But Clint had felt uneasy and distracted, slipping away to return to the spell room. It's not that he didn't appreciate the concern; he just couldn't explain why he felt the need to stay.
Clint found himself humming tunes he'd heard on the radio, or quietly singing songs – little ditties or folk songs – he'd learned from some of the other circus members. He had a good ear and they'd been pleased to pass on their traditions – so, now, tunes in several languages drifted through the small lab. He didn't know if Phil could hear him or not – he was partially conscious, after all – but it helped soothe him through the long hours as well as calm him when Phil suffered through several severe injuries.
Clint worried his bottom lip as the time passed. Broken bones had announced themselves with a 'snap' or a 'click,' bruises had bloomed over pale skin and faded again. Cuts bled, healed, and at times, scarred. Twice Clint felt the breath catch in his throat as Phil's body shuddered and convulsed briefly. Dr. Strange admitted those were the times where the body trauma had been so great the heart had stopped and been restarted. The first time, Clint judged Phil to be about twenty-three years old and probably was what made him leave the Rangers. The second, Phil had been thirty-one and a full Agent.
"Being a Ranger and then an Agent for SHIELD meant putting yourself on the line," Dr. Strange quietly commented. "Sometimes, those lines got crossed and injuries are accrued. Be steady, though. You already know that despite the severity of the wounds, he survived."
Of the others, Nat and Loki spent the most time sitting with him. Nat didn't say much, though she had joined him in singing in Russian a time or two, had even taught him a few new songs as well. Every now and then, she would flinch at an injury and murmur the name of a city. Clint figured those were either particularly bad ops, or she had witnessed the injury first hand. He'd slipped his hand in hers and she'd given him a watery smile before subsiding back into silence. Loki had occasionally spoken of Asgard, but generally stayed as silent support.
Now, it was the tenth day, and the atmosphere was tense as the moment whern Phil had been run through and 'killed' rapidly approached. Everyone had found a portion of a wall to sit or lean against as they kept vigil within the lab.
Everyone held their breath as Phil's body arched up from the cot while limbs shook and his breath stuttered. A large gaping wound appeared on his torso, the matching wound beneath creating a puddle of blood as the agent practically bled out. For several long minutes, his breathing was nearly non-existent, his skin parchment pale. Clint clamped a hand over his mouth, not even blinking, as if his gaze alone kept Phil from disappearing on them. A blue glow suffused the air around the prone figure.
"What is that?" Clint didn't know who asked the question, but was glad someone had as his own throat felt too tight to allow for speech.
Thor quietly offered, "The tesseract is a powerful artifact. Even having it in our possession for so many centuries, we still don't know all of its capabilities."
Loki had moved to stand close to the cot, examining the aura. "It's keeping Coulson alive. Slowly mending the tissue and replenishing the blood lost." He glanced at the clock. "We'll see if things continue to go well."
"How do you mean?" Dr. Bruce had his hands clenched in fists, but looked calm for the most part.
"Once I started paying attention to Midgard, I kept track of what all of you were doing," Loki admitted, not looking up at the others. "Once I moved to Midgard, checking on you was done in order to stay out of your way. Coulson, though completely healed, was still in a coma. His healers did not know why he would not wake and feared he never would. As he'd been infused with tesseract energy, his body didn't know what to do with it. It couldn't absorb the energy nor rid itself of it and thus kept Coulson under. I simply removed what I could and he woke up."
"How long was he in the coma?" Dr. Strange asked.
"Nearly ten months. Once he woke, it took another two to regain the muscle mass he's lost and relearn to walk from the muscle atrophy he'd suffered." A wide smirk crossed his face. "Oh, he was so angry with your Director when he discovered Fury led everyone to believe he was dead. I've never met anyone who could tear into someone so calmly and precisely. It was truly a work of art. Fury kept him hidden while he regained his strength. Coulson had been making headway in liberating himself and contacting one of you when HYDRA turned their machine on and teleported us all."
The group settled around the room, watching the blue glow warily.
Clint noticed Loki keeping a close eye on the clock and frowning. With a murmured word and an odd hand gesture, the mage pulled the blue glow surrounding Phil's body to himself, absorbing the energy.
"Loki? What did you do?" Thor growled, eyes wide in startled surprise.
Loki kept his gaze on Phil, his own eyes narrowed. "I don't know why, but the tesseract energy had not dissipated as it should have. I removed it, just as I did several months ago, otherwise, Coulson would not have woken at the spell's end."
Dr. Strange nodded his agreement. "There is no explaining why the energy didn't react in a predictable manner. It's something we'll have to evaluate once the spell is completed and keep in mind when casting on the other two."
At the end of the tenth day, the spell's green glow ceased and Phil woke with a groan. He blinked groggily, brow creased as his gaze traveled from face to face, only to clear when he spotted Clint, Loki, and Dr. Strange. "So, not a particularly vivid fever dream, then," came the quiet murmur.
The next few minutes were a blur as everyone tried to speak at once, making sure Phil was alright, that he had regained all his memories, that there were no lasting effects from the tesseract energy, the HYDRA serum, or Dr. Strange's spell. Lots of backslapping, hugs, and welcome backs were given.
In the chaos and confusion, Clint managed to catch Phil's eye, nod, and make his escape from the room that now felt unbearably claustrophobic. He didn't know what was wrong, he felt genuinely happy that Phil was hale and back to normal, but suddenly, he felt very, very alone and exposed. Needing an escape, he instinctively sought the high ground and crawled up into the nearest vent.
The narrow escapes had frightened him, more so than he thought they would. He'd seen people die before, despite what the others may have thought. Had, in fact, been forced to take a life once in defense of his own life and his brother's – it was shortly afterward that Barney started to drift away from him. But watching Phil's body twitch and shudder, knowing it meant that at some point the man's heart had stopped beating, had hit him harder than expected.
Clint found a corner in the ductwork and curled up in a tight ball, shaking. Exhausted, both mentally and physically, he didn't register the air becoming warmer to combat the chill. Soon, he fell asleep, his dreams uneasy.
Loki watched with worried eyes as Clint slipped out of the room during all the confusion following Coulson's successful return. He exchanged swift glances with the Agent – a wealth of information passing between the two in that one look. Loki inclined his head, acknowledging the Agent's concern and vowing to look after the boy while Coulson went through a battery of tests to assure everyone of his well-being.
Leaving the converted lab, Loki's gaze unerringly went to the nearest ventilation shaft entrance. "Did he stay close by?"
"Master Clint remained on this floor, but has ensconced himself in the furthest northwest corner of the building. I took the liberty of increasing the amount of warm air being pumped through as Master Clint appeared cold. Might I suggest taking a blanket, some water, and peanut butter crackers with you? You'll find them in the next room. The crackers are a particular favorite of his and thus you might be able to tempt him into eating."
The mage smiled, "Thank you, JARVIS."
"You are quite welcome, Mr. Laufeyson."
"Tell me, JARVIS. Is my Hawk happy here on this team?" Loki found himself curious as to what the AI would say.
JARVIS stayed silent a moment while Loki maneuvered down the shaft. "It took a while. Master Clint remained unsettled over the actions and aftereffects of what he'd been instrumental in occurring. Only the assurances of Director Fury and Assistant Director Hill that they did not hold him responsible kept him from disappearing off the grid." Another long pause and this one caused the hairs on the back of his neck to rise in apprehension. "I fear going to the funerals of those who died during the attack, and yet, not being given the opportunity to pay his respects to Agent Coulson, caused the most damage. Several close friends of the deceased blamed him. Ms. Romanoff shored him up as much as she could, while grieving herself. Captain Rogers and Master Stark also helped. It was through many late night conversations between myself and Dr. Banner that Master Clint finally began coming to terms with the situation."
By this time, Loki found Clint's hiding place. He unfolded the blanket and tucked it around the small form. Gray blue-green eyes focused on him, but the body beneath his hand did not tense.
"Yes," JARVIS continued. "He is happy."
Loki held Clint's gaze. "It's truly up to you, my Hawk." He rubbed soothing circles along the boy's back feeling the prominent vertebrae and rib bones. "You have good people who like and respect you. A job you are frighteningly good at and enjoy. Once the spell is over, you would easily slip back into your life. On the other hand, the spell will cause significant pain and there is no telling what the tesseract energy will do to change things. You could remain a child; there are many here who would be honored to take you in and raise you as their own, giving you a chance at a normal childhood in a warm, loving environment."
"Including you?" the tone was curious, serious, without even a hint of mockery.
"Would you want me to?"
"Why wouldn't I? You're nice to me and you haven't wanted anything in return except to be friends."
Loki glanced away, brow furrowed, again uncomfortable at the wealth of experience hinted within that statement. "It could all be a trick," he warned. "Everyone will tell you that I'm a liar and a manipulator. That I only look out for myself. I could be friendly simply because it is in my best interest to be."
Clint made a scoffing noise. "That's why most people are friends anyway, 'cause it suits them to be. Nothing wrong with that. Besides, if you really wanted to screw us over you could have done so at any time. Especially since you've had access to all your magic for days now."
Loki snapped his head around, alarmed. He knew he must look ridiculous, eyes wide and mouth agape, but he couldn't help it. "How do you know?" Even Dr. Strange hadn't indicated that he'd noticed anything different.
"Caught you shape changing into your older self."
"What did you think?"
"You're awfully tall."
A bark of laughter escaped at the response. "Only in comparison to some." He ran his hand through the boy's hair.
"Why do you keep doing that?"
He stilled, wondering if he had offended the boy or had made some human faux pas. "Does it bother you?"
A sleepy hum. "Not really. I just wondered why you did it."
"It's very soft and … and soothing," Loki admitted, internally cringing, waiting for the laughter.
Clint merely hummed again, snuggling deeper into the blanket. "Only my mom used to play with my hair." He yawned and closed his eyes. "'Snice."
Loki kept up the motion long after the boy fell back to sleep.
[Day 1 = 14-15 years old]
Both Phil and Loki sat in the corner on the sleeping bag and blankets watching as Dr. Strange painted the symbols on Clint's forehead, palms, soles of his feet, and over his heart. The sorcerer commenced the spell; the designs glowing green.
Phil Coulson, forty-one years old, former Army Ranger, and an Agent of SHIELD for the past seventeen years, felt himself uncharacteristically nervous as Clint's eyes fluttered shut as the spell took hold. Having been Barton's handler for ten years, he had a reasonably good idea as to what the young man would go through injury-wise. He'd either been there himself when the injury was accrued, or helped deal with the aftermath. But he still had no concrete information on ten years. Yes, he had access to all the medical workups, but they didn't go into the details of the whys and wherefores of the numerous injuries Barton had suffered through as a child and young adult. They'd never really discussed them, either. Clint only gave the bare bones if Phil asked, and always with such a look of pain deep in his eyes that Phil rarely asked.
Only ten minutes in – or five days – and Clint already sported a black eye and a large handprint spanning his upper arm where someone had grabbed him in a harsh grip.
"Oh!" Loki exclaimed as another bruise bloomed upon a cheek before the first even had a chance to fade. "How can Midgardians treat children so? On Asgard, we cherish our young. Injuries usually result fromrough play or carelessness, not through callous cruelty. Those rare few who do harm children are put through some of our harshest punishments."
Dr. Strange answered. "Too many people think only of themselves first. They end up having children they are ill-prepared to take care of and these children end up abandoned or abused. They grow up only knowing one way to deal with their anger and perpetuate the cycle unless someone steps in to break that cycle."
Phil turned to the mage. "I heard you offer Clint a choice." Emerald eyes widened, staring at him in shock. "JARVIS played it for me at my request. Why did you?"
Loki sat perfectly still for so long, Phil figured he wouldn't get a response. "He was really shaken by what happened with you. And he already figured out that his would be just as brutal, if not more so. I didn't want him to have to go through all that – not if there was another option." He stared at the small form, wincing as another bruise flared into being, this time accompanied by a broken ankle.
"And yet, here he is."
Loki smirked, though it seemed more sad than arrogant. "He thanked me for the offer, but had already decided to go through with it, regardless. He used humor to deflect, saying that having to go back to school and try to catch up on twenty additional years of history and changes wasn't something he cared to contemplate. He figured this way would be one less problem for some poor teacher."
Phil shook his head and gazed at the boy that would grow into one of the finest men Phil ever had the honor of working with. Had he ever expressed that?
A few hours later, Clint gave a harsh cry and rolled onto his side as a line of lash marks appeared along Clint's back from nape to knee. Phil stared, horrified; these had never been mentioned in any medical file, nor had Clint ever indicated such a situation had occurred.
Fourteen minutes later, or seven days in 'real' time, and the lash marks vanished as if they'd never been. Loki perked up at that. "That was magic."
Dr. Strange nodded in agreement. "Hedge witchcraft. Part of the minor healing arts. Someone exerted quite a lot of energy in that spell in order to completely heal and remove the marks."
Phil tilted his head, a few past behaviors finally settling into place. "He's never scoffed at the idea of magic like other agents have. It makes sense that he had prior experience with it."
"He never mentioned being whipped?" Loki's voice sounded strained.
Phil frowned, wondering what else he hadn't been told. "No. He didn't talk about his time in the circus very often. All I know is that he left the circus at eighteen after an argument with his mentor."
The two stayed silent through the rest of day, watching as bruises and small cuts appeared along Clint's inner arm and fingers from archery, shoulders and hips from acrobatics, eyes and lips from a fight.
[Day 2 = 16-17 years old]
Phil knew that when you trained in archery, knife work, swordplay, and tumbling there were a certain number of inevitable injuries that occurred and Clint had admitted that at first he'd been very clumsy but had been a quick learner. The amount of wounds he now sported, nearing seventeen, were nothing short of abuse.
Phil watched warily as Loki paced the room. The mage focused on the small form lying on the cot, green eyes chips of jade. A snarl curled his lip as another bone snapped, this time a finger on the young man's left hand. "Are you sure we can't stop the spell?"
Dr. Strange shook his head, "Whatever he has experienced, Clint has dealt with everything thrown at him to become the man you know and respect. To stop the spell now would mean trying to deal with a child out of time, one severely abused, who would have no reason to trust you as you would have been the one to trap him in his current age despite knowing his wishes."
Loki cursed loudly and fervently in the musical language of the Asgard. Phil didn't understand the words, but he fully agreed with the sentiment. It hurt to watch what the boy had gone through – and even what they saw wasn't everything Clint experienced as they only saw the physical, not the emotional or mental.
As Clint requested, none of the others were given access to the spell room while he aged; and they wouldn't until the boy reached the age he'd been when he joined SHIELD. Phil was glad he'd gotten the others to promise to abide by his wishes; the last thing Clint needed was to have the others look at him or treat him differently.
Another bruise and Phil had to remind himself that this one was consistent with training. That this was normal for someone in Clint's profession. Dear God.
[Day 3 = 18-19 years old]
Head trauma. Right thighbone broken. Left shinbone broken. Four fingers on the left hand snapped, and his heart stopped twice.
"Argument?" Loki's expression was cold and closed off, his tone frigid. Phil would swear he could see his breath fog from the chill emanating from the mage.
The Agent understood; he felt equally incensed. He mentally went through any conversations he'd had with Clint over the years, hoping the younger man had ever let slip his mentor's name. "It shouldn't be too difficult to get information about his old circus and find out who taught him," he muttered to himself. "There should be some reviews from the towns they stopped in."
"If this 'mentor' isn't already dead, we can both insure he wishes he was."
Phil found himself, for the first time, in full accord with the mage.
This time, no hedge witchery healed Clint and slow progress was made as the limbs grew sound again.
[Day 4 = 20-21 years old]
During the second half of the day, blood oozed from both of Clint's ears; a line of pain showing between both eyes that seemed to take forever to ease. Loki stared, horrified, but Phil merely reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a small box. Dr. Strange raised a brow at the small hearing devices nestled within. "He is deaf?"
Phil nodded, "About eighty percent in both ears. He never said how it happened, but we improved his aides once he joined. He had already learned to compensate for the disability, so it never really became an issue." He handed the box over to the sorcerer.
Stepping carefully over the circle, Dr. Strange checked Clint's ears and gently slid the hearing aids in. "SHIELD willingly employs those with a disability?"
He quirked one side of his mouth in an odd smile. "Not usually. But he had skills we felt we couldn't pass up."
[Day 5 = 22-23 years of age]
"What, exactly, did he do between his time in the circus and joining SHIELD?" Loki asked.
"Don't you know?" Phil looked askance at the trickster. "I thought you learned everything about Agent Barton while you had him under your control." A slight bite had entered his tone. The nine days of not knowing whether they'd get Clint back still grated (longer, actually, since he didn't discover the truth until he woke from his coma – but he didn't know if he could count that or not).
"Not particulars." Loki twisted a lock of dark hair between long fingers, looking almost chagrined. "The tesseract gave me a connection. A sense of the type of person he was. I knew that he'd gone through a lot in his life, had overcome things that would have crushed most; that he was determined, loyal, intelligent, competent, and utterly ruthless when needed; but I didn't get details. For anything specific, I had to ask."
Leaning forward, his elbows braced on his knees, Phil gave the mage a level stare. "What did you ask him?"
"General information about his skills; but I focused mostly on what he knew about the helicarrier and those who might stop me." A smirk appeared. "Did you know that he had gained access to every part of the helicarrier at one point or another, despite security and classifications levels?"
Phil frowned, remembering everything up to passing out from blood loss. Something didn't quite add up. "And what you told Natasha?"
His lips twisted. "Barton told me a couple of things I could use to rattle her if we ever encountered one another, but I lied when I said he'd told me everything. It's not that I didn't have the time – I did. I could have drained every atom of information out of him via the tesseract." A shrug. "It wasn't something I was ordered to do, so..." He thought a moment, long fingers smoothing dark strands of hair from his face. "Your organization underestimates him quite a bit, I think. He really is devilishly clever when he wishes to be. He had a place set up for us almost before I requested one. And once he knew the basics of what I was trying to do, he found the people needed to make it happen. When asked where he found them, he'd said that SHIELD had enemies. As he's known to be an agent, I'm surprised I didn't hear any grumbling from some of the mercenaries about following his orders. Yet they worked well together, as if familiar with each others' style." He thought some more. "Even though he was efficient, I knew he held back."
"We suspected Barton had either become a mercenary or a thief of some sort. He was working mostly out of Europe. Solo. He didn't actually get on our radar until we did a background check on his brother, Bernard "Barney" Barton. Barney was FBI and some odd things kept occurring to the man's cases. Money had gone missing, guns and drugs never made it to their appropriate places of disposal, witnesses either changed their story or conveniently 'disappeared'. One or two had died under mysterious circumstances. We didn't really have anything solid on the man, so, we decided to question Clint concerning his brother."
"I take it things didn't quite go as planned," Loki smirked.
"No. Not quite." He felt a small smile tug at his lips. "First, he evaded us for five months. Ended up leading us on a wild goose chase over most of Europe. Several times, we thought we had him cornered, only to have him slip through our nets. He even used his deafness to his advantage by using an amplifier to subdue a team of agents. He merely strolled out of the building and disappeared into the night while the feedback had the others clutching at their heads until someone was able to turn it off."
"Then what happened?"
"He broke into my hotel room in the middle of the night to ask why we'd been tracking him." His smile widened. "I knew he was about twenty-two, but he seemed both younger and harder than what I expected. When I admitted it was to ask him about his brother he seemed equal parts annoyed and relieved."
"That we chased him over half of Europe to talk about a man he hadn't had any contact with in over seven years. Once he calmed down a bit, he did give me some good intel on his brother's thought process and motivations."
Loki cocked his head. "And the relief?"
"Well, I only pieced that together several years later. Whatever else Baron had been doing in Europe, he'd managed to seriously annoy a human trafficker by stealing his latest 'cargo' and helping them set up lives for themselves out of reach. He probably thought we were part of that man's group or someone similar trying to find out what he'd done with the people."
"So that's when he became part of SHIELD?"
"No. I offered him a job and gave him my card, but he disappeared and no one saw hide or hair of him for nearly a year."
A gunshot wound appeared at Clint's left shoulder and right thigh, closing the conversation for the day.
[Day 6 = 24-25 years of age]
Loki took the sandwich Coulson offered with a smile in thanks. Off in the other corner, Romanoff sat quietly conversing with Dr. Strange, finally allowed to keep her own vigil.
"You mentioned you gave him your card. How did you end up taming our Hawk?" He caught the sidelong look at the phrasing but couldn't bring himself to take it back. He was slowly realizing that this man had helped hone all the qualities that made Clint into the person that had caught his attention.
"I didn't. Not really. I'd offered a place to belong, but I didn't know if he'd ever take me, us, up on it. Then, one day over a year later, I get a call from a woman asking if I'd been serious about the job offer or if I'd just been blowing smoke." A quiet smile crossed his features. "It was a phrase Barton had used. I told her yes and asked who she was."
"The Black Widow," Loki guessed, stealing a glance at the woman in question.
"At some point, for whatever reason, he'd teamed up with her. After being injured while protecting her, he convinced her to give SHIELD a chance and to come in with him. That would have been the injuries he suffered yesterday – the two gunshot wounds. They were bad enough to keep them from successfully running, but not inherently life-threatening." Coulson sat, hands clasped before him, eyes on Clint as he spoke. "Once he was healed, they drove us crazy. Already better trained than all our younger agents, there wasn't much we could teach them other than how to work with a team. Both of them had a problem with authority – Barton moreso than Romanoff."
"Admit it, Phil; we kept you guys on your toes." Romanoff slid onto the blankets beside the older agent.
Coulson shrugged, a fond smirk lightning his face, as he put an arm around her shoulders. "It took a while before you settled in."
She shrugged, tucking herself closer to his side, wrapping her arm about his waist. "It was all new. Clint was the only one I trusted, and despite the fact that it was his idea, he was very skittish at first."
"There were a few times we thought you would bolt." They had practically forgotten he was there as they spoke of things long reconciled, and he listened, as enthralled as by any tale Heimdall used to spin for him.
"We nearly did. But then you'd do or say something and we'd decide to stick it out a little bit longer."
"That surprises me," Loki admitted. "Clint has a very loyal personality. I thought once he joined SHIELD he'd have been fine."
Romanoff glanced over at him. "He is loyal. But, initially, he joined in order to help me. It was my best chance to escape the Red Room. He came for … moral support. It took a long while before I trusted that SHIELD wouldn't screw me over. It was nearly a year and a half later that things finally clicked for Clint."
Coulson frowned, staring at his tightly clenched hands. Romanoff covered them with her own, giving a squeeze, her own mouth drawn tight in remembrance. Coulson sighed, "He got caught in an op. They had him for five days before we could locate him." Loki felt his own skin grow cold as the agent continued. "They didn't even bother trying to question him. They just jumped right into the torture. They started with beatings and a cattle prod. Then they waterboarded him. When that didn't give them the satisfaction they wanted, they pulled out an old cast iron tub and drowned him, then used CPR to bring him back, only to do it again, over and over again." Coulson went silent for a moment, drawing strength from the woman by his side. "He says he doesn't remember the number of times he died, just that after a while he prayed that they'd tire of the game and put him out of his misery."
Widow's voice was quiet, but he heard the pain and rage that laced the tone. "We found him being held head down in the tub. They'd cuffed his hands behind his back and tied his feet together so he couldn't get any leverage to pull himself up. He'd already stopped breathing again when we found him. It took a long time to bring him back."
"We almost didn't," Coulson admitted, his voice catching.
"But we did."
"They'd broken several ribs, and we had to break a few more to get his heart started again. Medical was not happy with us, but they patched him up the best they could, dealt with the pneumonia he'd developed, and then we waited for him to wake up."
"How long did that take?" Loki swallowed thickly, horrified.
"He stayed unconscious for over a week. We didn't know if he'd wake or even if he'd have all his mental facilities considering the length of time he'd gone without oxygen."
Clint shifted on his cot, drawing their attention. With a horrified sense of resignation, the three watched as Clint's body convulsed and shook for the next ten minutes as he relived his time in captivity.
Once the younger man calmed and Dr. Strange indicated that all was well, Loki prodded for more information. "You haven't explained why this is what brought Clint into the fold."
Coulson nodded. "When he finally woke, we feared the worst. He simply stared at us, no recognition in his eyes at all. Then he blinked and said, 'you came for me.'"
"I'd never heard him sound so … shocked, I guess. Definitely surprised and a bit at a loss," Romanoff admitted. She cleared her throat. "I knew he'd been wary of having a partner before, though I didn't know the exact reasons. I'd guess he'd been left behind, before. Often enough to expect it."
"He honestly didn't believe that anyone would come for him. That we did. That I had. Well..." Coulson shifted, clearly uncomfortable with the emotions he was letting show. "You could tell the difference almost immediately. He started cultivating friendships with other agents; associating with them during downtime and giving pointers during time on the range, instead of ghosting around the place. Instead of just ignoring directives given by other handlers, he started explaining why he made changes in the plan, and in turn, they let him have freer rein in picking his own spots. It wasn't long before Fury had me assigned as their primary handler and we quickly clicked as a team."
[Day 7 = 26-27 years of age]
Only periodic bruises consistent with training and some minor injuries appeared on the seventh day. Loki breathed a sigh, thanking the gods above and below that not every year had been peril-filled. This time, Steve Rogers sat cross-legged on the floor. "How often has Clint been captured by the enemy? It's not a usual occurrence, right? I mean, as a sniper, he's usually pretty far away from the main firefight."
"Clint's not just a sniper. He's done undercover work in the past. He's good at it, too. With some of those ops, getting captured was part of the plan." Coulson leaned back against the wall, finger tapping on his knee.
"And when it was not part of the plan?" Loki asked.
"In his ten years working with SHIELD, during his function as a sniper, he's been captured six times." Coulson tossed an unreadable look at Loki. "Two of those times involved you."
Steve cocked his head, "I have to be honest, here. I'm surprised he hasn't been killed."
"Explain," Loki shot a harsh look at Captain America.
"Most soldiers, regardless of country of origin, have a fear and sometimes hatred for snipers. They're in a separate category of their own; part of the team, and yet, not, due to their needing to be so far away from their fellow teammates. When you're being held down due to a sniper that you can't even see, let alone hit, it becomes easy to focus all your hatred on that individual. On the off chance you actually catch them..." he trailed off, but Loki didn't need to hear the rest. It sounded uncomfortably similar to how he, himself, was treated during battle. His use of trickery and illusion meant that he was near impossible to hit or catch while he, in turn, did considerable damage to the enemy. The one time he'd been caught during a battle, he would have died if Thor had not located him when he had. He shuddered.
"Both his first and fourth time in enemy hands, he died, and we feared we wouldn't bring him back." Again came that fond half smile as Coulson glanced up at Clint, "But the man has a knack for surviving the damnedest things."
[Day 8 = 28-29 years of age]
Halfway through the eighth day, Clint once again seized as his body reacted to his heart stopping several times during an incident. Stark stood with his arms crossed over his chest, one hand absently tapping on his arc reactor, face set in grim lines. "I take it this isn't the first time this has happened?"
Both Coulson and Loki shook their heads.
The rest of the day was spent silently, with Stark not once making any snarky comments.
[Day 9 = 30-31 years of age]
"He is small, as warriors go, but there is no doubting his fierce spirit." Thor handed Phil a tankard of mead and sat on the far side of the blankets. He sent a sidelong look over at Loki, his expression a mixture of trepidation and longing, though he made no move to confront him. "He would be underestimated on Asgard, to the detriment of those who would dismiss him."
"Why would they dismiss him?" Phil studied Clint; yes, the man was shorter than the average, but even unconscious, Barton had an aura about him, one that warned to take precautions.
Loki had shifted closer to Clint's cot, studiously trying to ignore his brother. Phil watched as his shoulders twitched, clearly uncomfortable by Thor's proximity, but he refused to be chased out of the spell room. "Most Asgardian warriors are large, they tower over the rest, and they take great delight in announcing their prowess. For our culture, Clint is too subdued in both presence and carriage; no one would think he a warrior until too late." Phil could hear the hint of a satisfied smirk in the mage's voice.
Bruce sat cross-legged a few feet away, picking at the label on his bottle of water. "Would he have been discouraged to become a warrior on Asgard due to his size?" he asked, clearly curious.
The blond thought a moment. "Perhaps initially. Generally, the larger youths are picked for training in the warrior arts. But I have a feeling he would have demanded to be taught. And our instructors enjoy teaching those eager to learn."
"I've met your friends; the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif. They don't appear to be the same as those you described," Phil pointed out.
"They are the rare exceptions," Loki murmured.
Phil caught the look of pleased surprise that flared in Thor's eyes. "The Warriors Three were trained by our private tutor. The Lady Sif...," Thor trailed off, "She has much in common with the Lady Natasha, I believe. Both have struggled to be seen as equals in a position dominated by men. Both have worked hard for their successes, and yet, neither has lost their femininity."
"You've seen how both Natasha and Clint train," Bruce mentioned. "How different is it from the way Asgardians train?"
That garnered a snort from Loki and a low chuckle from Thor. "Extremely. Our teammates have entirely different skills they work on than we do. I have seen some crossover; it surprised me when Clint sparred with me using the blade. He is very good, but his stature is such that speed and dexterity are by necessity emphasized over strength."
"How would they fare against your friends?"
"Though highly unconventional in the ways of the Asgardians, he and the Lady Natasha work well together, and I feel would be able to teach our own warriors many lessons."
Phil felt his lips quirk in satisfaction. "Perhaps when this is over, we can put that to the test."
"We would welcome such an exhibition of skill," Thor proclaimed.
[Day 10 = 32-33 years of age]
As a precaution, Dr. Strange strapped Clint to the cot as the other Avengers began filling the room. Banner made to protest, but the sorcerer negated it. "Mr. Laufeyson had to remove the tesseract energy from Agent Coulson which should have been taken care of by the spell, but was not. If the tesseract is as active now as before, there's no telling what it may do to Agent Barton. Better safe than sorry." His voice brooked no dissent. "As Agent Barton is somewhat aware, I want Mr. Laufeyson to stand here," he pointed at a spot near the head of the cot. "If he looks distressed, you need to tell him to stand down as often as necessary until it passes. He's expecting to hear your voice; if he doesn't, I'm not sure what will happen."
Loki took his position, glancing between Clint and the clock, wondering what would happen. Clint's eyelids flickered open, staring blankly at the ceiling. Suddenly, his eyes darkened, then transformed into a brilliant electrified blue that locked onto his own, completely and utterly lucid, drawing gasps from the others. He struggled against the bonds, hands clenching and unclenching. "Boss?" a multitude of questions lay within that one word.
"Stand down, Agent Barton."
Eyes flickered over the people standing in the room, assessing threat levels and obviously unhappy with the order. "Not sure I like that idea, Boss."
"Never the less, stand down."
Loki shook his head, "No, my Hawk. They are on our side. All is well. Stand down."
The head cocked and Loki felt himself being assessed before a reluctant nod was given. A huff escaped the Agent and though the body ceased struggling, Loki could still see the lines of tension as Barton tried to comply. The slight clank of metal drew Loki's attention; Clint's hands had balled back up into fists, straining against the cuffs.
"Boss?" the barely hidden plea drew a gentle smile from the mage.
"Soon, my Hawk," he promised, laying a hand over one of the cuffs, understanding it was the straps that had the agent so uneasy. Barton didn't like being tied down and even the tesseract could not subjugate that.
"Did he act like that before?" Coulson asked quietly.
"Oh, yes. Barton was very practical and made a habit of commenting on any problems or holes he spotted in whatever plan I came up with." He smirked again, "Of course, now I can see that a few times he ripped new holes in whatever we were doing to make it easier for you to take us down."
"Easier?" blurted Stark.
Widow nodded, "Had he truly wanted us dead, Clint wouldn't have even needed to step foot on the helicarrier at all."
Loki laughed delightedly at the gobsmacked expressions.
"Gonna need a new strategy, Boss."
Loki blinked, startled by the grim tones. Even the others were at a loss. "How do you mean?"
"If the Avengers are on our side … what are you going to do now?"
"I..." he glanced around, genuinely confused. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it's not like you want to win."
Before he could demand an explanation at this revelation, Clint's head snapped to the side as if violently struck. The electric blue faded as Clint slipped back under Dr. Strange's spell.
While the others argued amongst themselves over what Clint had meant, Loki exchanged glances with Coulson. "Even you said I lacked conviction, but how would he have known?"
"He's not known as 'Hawkeye' just for his aim. Most tend to ignore it because he never had a formal education, but he's very good at seeing all the little details and piecing them together into the big picture. If you didn't press your hold over him as much as you could he would have noticed and come up with a plausible theory."
"'Doors open from both sides'?" Loki quoted, one corner of his mouth curled up.
They were quiet for a long moment, letting the others wind down their discussion. At a sharp glance from Romanoff, Dr. Strange removed the restraints. Everyone winced at the swollen and purpled flesh. "What the hell?" Banner sounded furious and had to excuse himself as his eyes flashed dangerously.
Even though Barton had been lucid and reacting in 'real time,' the spell was still in action with every two minutes equaling a full day. For eighteen minutes, Clint had struggled or fidgeted within the cuffs which equated to nine days of near constant friction and stress.
"He didn't break any bones, did he?" Steve asked, absently rubbing at his own wrist in remembered pain.
Dr. Strange shook his head. "I don't know. Nothing registered with the spell. We'll have to see if the spell heals them or not. Technically, the time under the spell counts as time needed to catch up on, so, they may, but until this is over, we can't risk moving him for x-rays or using any additional magic."
"If they aren't healed by the spell, shouldn't we bandage them now?" Selvig suggested. "It would keep him from accidentally damaging them further when he wakes."
Dr. Strange nodded his agreement. Tony pulled out the first aid kid handing it over. The sorcerer motioned Loki closer. "Lift his arm so I can wrap the bandages." The two swiftly secured Clint's writs before edging back out of the circle.
"I'll let Bruce know what happened." Romanoff slipped out of the room.
Nearly an hour later, she returned with the scientist in tow. Banner looked sheepish, but didn't say anything as he handed sandwiches out to everyone. No one mocked him for his lack of control. In fact, Loki had to admire how quickly the man took himself out of range when the transformation became impossible to hold off.
Clint woke to the mother of all headaches, his own pulse too loud, never mind the excited chatter of a room full of people. He swallowed thickly, trying to combat the rising nausea. Brow furrowed with pain, he hid his eyes in the crook of his arm as even the light beyond closed lids proved too strong.
He couldn't suppress the flinch as a hand touched his arm. "Clint?"
He recognized Coulson's voice, and though part of him rejoiced and marveled at being able to hear it once again, a larger part cringed as the sound reverberated through his skull. "Migraine," he managed to grit out, wondering if he made it to his true age only to die from a brain aneurism. He heard Stark quietly mutter to JARVIS and the lights dimmed. Tasha's fingers trailed briefly along the back of his hand in welcome and relief. Then he heard a door open and the careful footfalls of people attempting to sneak away. He stifled a smirk, truly touched that they cared enough to try not to cause further harm, despite the questions and self-assurances he knew they must have.
He sensed three people still in the room. By their breathing, he recognized Coulson and Loki. So, the last person, the one closest to him, was probably... "Hey, doc. Got something for this wicked headache" He would have smiled as the man's gait hesitated a moment, but he honestly felt he would maim someone for some decent painkillers.
"Why maim?" Loki's voice was pitched low, which he appreciated.
Guess he'd said that last part aloud, "Why let them out of their misery when I'm not?" He cautiously moved his arm and blinked to clear the fog from his vision. He squinted a bit, the light more bearable, but still too bright. The lights dimmed even further and he could open his eyes fully. "Thank you, JARVIS," he muttered, careful not to spike the headache with his own voice.
"You're quite welcome, Master Clint," the AI murmured.
He did let a smile escape as Coulson mouthed, "Master Clint?"
"I told you, JARVIS likes me." With a groan he sat up, waving off the other's attempts to help.
Loki, of course, ignored him and climbed up onto the cot behind him. The mage dug his fingers into the tense neck and shoulder muscles, causing him to hiss and wince as he attacked multiple knots, but made no protest as within minutes the migraine started to ease.
"Why did he get a migraine?" Coulson demanded of Dr. Strange. "I didn't." The voice was soft, but Clint could hear the edge of steel.
The sorcerer turned a dark gaze upon the Senior Agent. Clint hid a smile as Coulson didn't even so much as flinch, steadily returning the gaze. "The migraine is a reaction to body shock." Strange turned a contemplative look on Clint who held himself perfectly still to keep his unease from showing. "Each time you stopped breathing or your heart stopped beating, the re-continuance caused your body to convulse. The migraine is in reaction to the number of convulsions you went through."
Clint frowned, barely noticing how Loki's fingers tightened on his shoulders or the sharp intake of breath from Coulson. "This isn't going to cause me to have seizures, is it?"
A faint smile crossed the sorcerer's lips. "No. In fact, once you've rested, you shouldn't have any problems along those lines." For the next few minutes, the sorcerer examined him to insure that the last of the serum had left his system and that the tesseract energy would no longer cause any problems. Satisfied, Dr. Strange wearily rose to his feet. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I think it is time and past that I seek my own bed before I can conduct the ritual on Dr. Selvig."
Clint reached out a hand, "Doc, I really appreciate everything you've done."
Dr. Strange clasped his hand. "It was my pleasure. Good evening," and he left the room.
"How are you feeling?"
Clint shot a side look at Coulson, seeing the worry, and he smiled gently. "I'll be okay. Migraine's almost gone, thanks to the massage." He reached up and patted Loki's hands, getting a mild pinch at the back of his neck in return. "I might have to deal with some nightmares, but I'll settle." Coulson nodded his understanding – reliving twenty years meant a lot of what had been forgotten or faded were much fresher now.
Loki finished and slid around to sit beside Clint. "Anything I can do about the nightmares? I've got a spell that can block them."
"No offense, but I think I've had enough of spells for a while. Thanks anyway. Besides, if I don't deal with them now, they'll catch me when I'm not prepared. Rather just get it over with."
Loki shrugged a shoulder, obviously not understanding, but not willing to argue just yet.
Clint narrowed his eyes. "How come you still look fifteen?" At the guilty look that flashed in his eyes, Clint hazarded a guess. "Afraid if you shapeshift to your actual appearance that Thor might suddenly haul you off to Asgard for an even stricter punishment?"
Loki's mouth dropped open and Coulson chucked. "I told you."
Clint continued, "He already knows you have all your magic back. If he hasn't dragged you back in chains by now, he isn't going to."
"He just doesn't want to disrupt things while everyone's getting set to rights."
"Loki. Your brother loves you, but if he thought you were still a threat, would he have let you stay where you could have caused so much chaos by 'accidentally' smudging a line during either Coulson's ritual or my own? Even if he didn't want to 'disrupt things', if he thought you a threat, would he have left you alone?"
The trickster god went still and Clint stayed silent reveling in finally being pain free as the last of the migraine ebbed away.
Coulson added, "Besides, the Sorcerer Supreme himself claimed you had been taken over by the tesseract yourself and are now free of its influence. Remember?"
A large smile crossed Loki's face as he smoothly shapeshifted into his older appearance, changing his clothing into a pair of dark blue jeans and a jade sweater that matched his eyes. The mage wrinkled his nose. "You need to bathe."
Clint grimaced at the reminder, "And eat." He yawned, "and maybe sleep for a week."
Coulson tugged him to his feet, helping him stay upright as the swayed. "Medical first. I want to make sure everything healed properly. Especially your wrists."
Clint glanced down, noticing the bandages for the first time. "My wrists? What's wrong with my wrists?" He followed Coulson as the man tried to explain.
Selvig's ritual was pleasingly anti-climatic. The scientist had only broken a toe and his left arm in those twenty years. As for the tesseract, Loki didn't have to say much, just let Selvig babble about the possibilities. Everyone rotated in and out to keep vigil over the man, and to converse with Dr. Strange. By the time the sorcerer completed the final spell, firm friendships had been established and each promised to help the other if there were ever a need.
Three days after Selvig's ritual completed, Natasha stalked into the living room, several large duffel bags in hand. Clint, Phil, Loki, Thor, and Steve were crashed out on the couches. "What's wrong, 'Tasha?" Clint asked, lifting his head from the cushion.
"You've been declared KIA and SHIELD has officially called off any and all search parties for you." She set the bags down beside the couch. "I managed to get all your gear before they locked your room down." Though her expression seemed calm, Clint could tell that she was seething. "I even hit R&D and picked up all the tech they were working on for you."
Clint nodded, staring at the bags, then he shrugged and dropped his head back on the cushion. "Thought so. Did you resign?"
She only nodded and climbed up to curl up between him and the back of the couch. He wrapped an arm around her, giving her a kiss on the temple. "Thanks for grabbing my stuff." Coulson, sitting on the other end of the couch, patted both of them on the ankle in commiseration.
Steve looked horrified. "How can you be so calm?"
Clint gave a shrug, but continued staring up at the ceiling. "I'm not stupid, and neither is Fury. 'Tasha's been keeping an ear out. Despite all of Peters' hopes, no one's bragged about having me or killing me. It's been two months. There are no leads."
"But still...," Steve spluttered.
Heaving a sigh, Clint tried to explain. "I disappeared from an op, Steve. For all they know, I either did something stupid that caused me to die in a place where no one will find my body for a while, if ever; or I went rogue and I'll pop up somewhere Fury least expects. That he continued looking for so long actually surprises me. I figured the Council would have considered me expendable and forced him to issue a burn notice and be done with it." At Steve's stricken expression, he softened his tone. "I caused too much damage the first time I went rogue, they would have been well within their right to lock me up after the whole incident."
Natasha nudged him with her elbow, her tone bland. "What do you think is the real reason?"
He shrugged again. "Since he never admitted Phil was alive, my guess is that Fury only kept looking because he hoped I'd found Coulson and had gone to ground with him. This long without word, though, and he probably thinks Coulson's lost for good and he can't legitimately continue searching anymore."
Phil Coulson kept his poker face only through long years of practice, but the sight of Director Nick Fury standing stock still in the doorway and utterly speechless at the tableau before him, made Phil want to collapse in laughter.
Most of team, plus Dr. Selvig and Pepper Potts, were sitting around the kitchen table, playing poker. Instead of regular poker chips, they were using various types of potato chips as wagers.
"Director Fury." Steve glanced up from his cards, but otherwise made no move to acknowledge the man.
"Ah, Fury. Good to see you. Care to join us in a game?" Stark smirked. "We've just opened the pot. Careful though, our Black Widow is actually a Card Shark."
Natasha merely raised an elegant brow, but said nothing.
Pepper smiled, though Phil thought he detected a few too many teeth. "Sour Cream and Onion are ten, Barbeque are five, and Regular Ruffles are one."
Banner reached out, snagged a BBQ chip and popped it in his mouth. "Or you can just watch and kibitz like me."
"I thought those were for playing, not eating. Was I incorrect?" Thor boomed after waving at Fury and pulling his pile of chips closer.
"No. You're right." Selvig scowled. "Banner, stop eating the BBQ chips."
A bag of Fritos sailed through the air to land at Bruce's elbow. "Thank you, Clint."
"Anytime, Doc." He slid past a startled Fury, nodding at the man. "Director. Will you be joining us? I can get you a drink if you'd like." He cocked his head at Fury and Phil admired the calm solicitous behavior when he knew just how angry Clint felt.
"You're still angry," Loki mentioned, watching the younger man standing by the window.
"Yes, but not about the search being called off."
Phil remembered the matter of fact tone Clint had used when admitting he was expendable, it still made his chest ache. "Then what does have you so upset?"
He was taken aback at the blaze of anger within green blue-gray eyes when Clint whirled to face him. "He told us you were dead. A year, Phil. To us, you've been dead for over a year. And I had thought..." His throat worked though no words came and Phil knew that Clint had believed his death to be his fault. Forget about mind control. Forget the fact that it had been Phil's decision to confront Loki without backup. For a year, all Clint knew was that ihis actions had caused Phil's death. "And that son of a bitch knew I felt guilty about it. I had to go to mandatory psyche evals for ages before I got the okay to be back in the field. He had to read all the damn transcripts before agreeing to lift the restrictions. He knew that of everything that happened, that one thing still ate at me. Yet he didn't tell me – us – that you'd survived. And for that I don't I don't think I can forgive him."
"No. Thank you," Fury focused his one eye on the archer. "I'm glad to see you're not dead."
A thin smile appeared on Barton's face before disappearing again. "Thank you. It appears that, like someone else I know, the news of my death was greatly exaggerated." His gaze flickered toward Phil.
He calmly smiled back, "Mark Twain fan?"
Phil heaved a mental sigh of relief as Clint turned partially away from Fury to head for his seat. "Always wanted to be Tom Sawyer."
Tony flicked a card over to him, "Always thought of you as more like Huckleberry Finn, myself."
"Well, yeah." he grinned. "I practically was. That's why I wanted to be Sawyer."
"If anyone at the table is Sawyer, it would be Tony," Steve teased as he discarded two cards.
"Care to white wash my fence? Tony waggled his brows. "It'll be fun."
Pepper smacked his arm, "Enough out of you."
"Guess that makes you Becky Thatcher," Bruce commented with a smile, crunching on his Fritos.
"I was always partial to Pudd'n head Wilson, myself," Selvig tossed three cards, accepting new ones from Tony. A frown crossed his face. "Damn. That's worse than what I had. I fold."
"Coulson..." Fury began.
Phil saw Clint's hand clench then relax, an evil glint entering his eye as he stared at something past Fury.
Phil followed his gaze and nearly choked on his water as Loki walked in with a plate of cookies. "Care for one, Director? They're chocolate chip."
"What the hell is he doing here?" A pistol appeared in his hand, aimed unwaveringly between the mage's eyes.
"Recovering," Clint replied, eyes seemingly focused on his cards, though Phil knew the archer's attention hadn't left Fury for even a moment.
Fury knew it too, a sneer curling his lip. "Recovering from what?"
"Being mind fucked by the tesseract," came the bland reply and the rest of the table stopped pretending to play cards to gauge Fury's reaction.
The sneer had gone, but the disbelief still ran strong. "Want to run that by me again?"
"Being mind fucked by the tesseract," Clint obediently repeated. He lay down his cards and turned in his seat to focus fully on Fury. "There was a … situation with some HYDRA agents and a base in Italy. We've spent the last month and a half dealing with some of the after effects. We had to call in Dr. Stephen Strange to help. In the process, he confirmed that just as Dr. Selvig and I had been overtaken by the tesseract, so had Loki – and for quite a bit longer than us, as well. The Doc cleared out the residual and gave us clean bills of health." A lilt entered his voice and Phil winced at the overly sugary sweet tone. "We were going to wait 'til tomorrow to send the paperwork, but since you're here now..." he gave a large, obviously fake grin, only to drop it quickly.
"We looked for you," Fury offered, his own tone quiet.
Clint's matched his, but Phil could hear the sorrow. "You looked for Phil, but since you couldn't admit to anyone he lived, I was convenient. Well, here he is. Safe and sound. He's agreed to be our liaison as he is the only member of SHIELD we're currently willing to listen to." He turned back to his cards.
"You're still a member of SHIELD," Fury mentioned.
"Contract dissolved when you proclaimed me KIA, Director. You know that."
Fury actually winced at that. "Can I get you to change your mind?"
"Not today. Ask me when I'm not willing to reduce you to your component atoms and then give you to Stark, Banner, and Selvig to play with."
Fury actually took a step back at that and Phil rose from the table, giving Clint's shoulder a squeeze as he passed his chair and motioned for Fury to follow him out into the hallway.
"I really fucked up, didn't I?"
Again, Phil didn't let his surprise show. Fury had never admitted to being wrong in all the time he'd known the man. "Yes."
Fury winced again. "I deserved that. I shouldn't have declared Barton KIA."
"That isn't why he's upset."
Phil gave him his most unimpressed look, rewarded by a sharp nod. Fury sighed, running a hand over his face. "I'll speak with Dr. Strange. In the meantime, will Loki's presence on Earth cause issues with the Asgardians?"
"No." Phil didn't elaborate, because he truly didn't know, but he wasn't going to admit that.
Another sharp nod and Fury turned, then paused. He placed a hand on Phil's shoulder and squeezed; something like regret flashed in his eye before it disappeared behind the fierce expression he normally wore, and he stalked away.
"Will things work out?" Loki asked quietly from the doorway.
Phil took a breath and listened as the rest of his team slowly relaxed once more. "Yes. Yes, I believe they will." He gestured for Loki to accompany him back to the table. "Stark, you had better stop dealing from the bottom of the deck or Natasha is going to cut all your fingers off."
"... and they welcome him at their table as a friend and fellow guardian."
Odin, All-Father listened gravely to Hiemdall's words. Various scenarios ran through his mind as well as all the consequences and repercussions before he decided upon a course of action. "Loki still has those on Asgard who would feel the truth of his current situation does not excuse his behavior from before his fall from the BiFrost. Therefore, Loki shall be banished to Midgard for one full turn of Idun's garden."
"A century?" Heimdale inquired. "And if this 'creature' that had enslaved a Prince of Asgard comes searching for him before that century is through?
Odin smiled, "We are, and forever shall be, family. He need only call upon us for our aid. I'll send a message tomorrow with Hunin and Munin. For tonight, let him bask in the glow of his made family on Midgard."
began writing Oct. 1, 2012
finished typing Nov. 20, 2012
beta read by Aislinn Nov. 22, 2012
edited by Curtis March 9, 2013