AUTHOR'S NOTE:

This story is based on a prompt in be_compromised's Valentine's Day Promptathon. Anuna81 provided this evocative line: "That is the problem with people today. They've lost faith, and in that loss they don't know who they should fear any more." But I couldn't get the Valentine's angle, like, at all, and almost abandoned the thing. Except … that line kept niggling at my brain.

Now of course Valentine's is long past and irrelevant, and I was listening to Dylan when suddenly the creative process kicked in again. Isn't it amazing what a change in title can do? (Of course using Dylan for inspiration isn't new - see Framling's stunning Hard Rain Tesserae; Workerbee73 & Bob5Fic's The Equilibrists; or even my own ST: Voyager story, The Andorian Incident. The man should have his own tag, honestly.)

Trigger warning: There are themes of sexual exploitation - nothing graphic though, I can't read about that sort of thing myself, let alone write it. But I have been told one scene in Chapter 3 is disturbing to some readers. More specific warnings in that chapter.

Disclaimers: This story is not intended as a comment on the inherent nature or merit of religious belief of any kind. The cover icon is by the ever-generous LadyMorgan. Finally, I own nothing relating to the Avengers, although my comics collection has now grown to five, which is starting to worry me a little.


HIGHWAY OF DIAMONDS

By Alpha Flyer


Part I

1. Sound of a Thunder

Coulson watches them enter side by side, as has become their habit. Twenty-six missions, and regardless of where on the helicarrier they may have started out, the members of Strike Team Delta get to the briefing room at the same time. He isn't sure whether it's uncanny coincidence, a game of punctuality one-upmanship, or the oddest manifestation of telepathy he's ever heard of – but he is glad that the door is wide enough to admit them both; the thought of Barton pulling the gentlemanly stunt of letting Romanoff go in first is as hilarious as the outcome would be ugly.

After twenty-six missions, Phil also knows what will happen next: Romanoff will pull out a chair and sit down without any noise whatsoever, not even the scrape of a chair leg on the metal floor as she glides into the seat. Barton will either sit down and kick back his chair so far that it's balanced on two legs (it will be one if he gets bored), or he'll grab the chair, turn it around and straddle it, elbows on the back as he laser-eyes everyone around the table.

Today is a straddle-and-glare day. He must have read the heading on the first slide of the power point as they walked in, and doesn't wait for an introduction.

"The Prophet? Our target is a prophet? Are you fucking serious?"

The archer's voice, which can sound like crunching gravel at the best of times, is laced with contempt and dipped in acid.

"That's what he calls himself. Or what his followers call him. His real name is Jacob Malone."

Hill hates being pre-empted but Coulson jumps in before she can get a scowl on. His patient explanation isn't helping though; Barton does not take kindly to people who claim an authority he doesn't think they're entitled to.

"Hell, even the Turkmenbashi was too modest to let himself be called 'Prophet', and he had his own bible, named January after himself and had his own Eau de Cologne."

Romanoff snorts; like Coulson, she probably remembers that aborted mission in Ashgabat, a city of white marble at the edge of the Karakum desert built to the greater glory of its (now happily deceased) leader, Sapamurat Niyazov The Eternally Great. Their mission to get a dissident out of Turkmenistan had collapsed when the man confessed to his alleged sins on state TV, and disappeared into its dungeons without a trace. The archer's response to that "totalitarian Disneyland with one cartoon character" had been to shoot arrows into the Turkmenbashi's eye socket on every poster visible from the exfil chopper. Clint Barton is not big on personality cults.

"Well, this guy doesn't have a secret police, so he probably needs bigger words to hang on to his flock," Coulson ventures, shooting a look at Hill, who's staying quiet. Some help here?

Hill does that thing with her eyes where she makes it clear she is talking to a roomful of morons, which is not helping matters one bit however much her explanation is on the level.

"Malone runs a cult of three or four thousand adherents throughout the US, with a hard core of about five hundred who live on the compound in Montana. He claims to be the conduit for the voice of extra-terrestrial spirits who want to bring true bliss to Earthlings deprived of love. The title comes with the territory."

"Yeah, but what is it with people that they'd follow someone like that?"

The man whose image now appears on the screen looks to be in his early forties, big bushy beard and wild-looking dark eyes. Could use a haircut, too. Romanoff just looks him over, face impassive as usual, while Barton is palpably unimpressed.

He puts his elbows on the back of his chair, supports his chin with both hands and kicks the whole thing forward at roughly a forty-five degree angle as he studies the picture on the screen in the briefing room. Coulson takes note of this new variation on the briefing room balancing act without raising an eyebrow. Barton probably isn't even aware of what he's doing, or else he is deliberately trying to rile his superiors. Luckily, Phil is about six years past being fazed.

"I mean, just look at him. Looks like Charles fucking Manson, the guy does. I mean, come on. He practically oozes nutball serial killer."

"Well, based on what little information we have, that may not be so far off. Which is where you come in, Agents."

Hill's tone is clipped and bland now, strictly just-the-facts, minus the obvious disdain. Better.

"People, and in particular women, have been disappearing into that part of Montana for four years now, ever since he set up The Loving Church of Galactic Peace."

Barton suppresses a snort at the name, and exchanges glances with Romanov. Phil has worked with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s top assets ever since Barton brought the Russian in, and has watched over the last two years as they developed a silent language of their own. It serves them well both in the field and in the briefing room. Romanoff picks up the ball.

"And local law enforcement is where, exactly?"

Hill tries for something approximating sympathy for the plight of fellow agencies; it comes out as contempt.

"Understaffed, overmatched and in no position to go chasing rumours. It doesn't help that the Governor ran on a campaign platform of religious freedom, and that the FBI doesn't want to have another Waco on their hands."

Phil spells it out. "Unless Malone does something overtly illegal or gets caught red-handed in dragging someone off the street who isn't willing to go, there will be no intervention."

"Still, this still seems a little … odd for S.H.I.E.L.D. to get involved," Romanoff insists; Barton nods his silent approval.

Hill gives her a measured look, while Coulson gets ready to ignore Barton's reaction to the explanation that he knows will follow. One of those girls who disappeared on the road to spiritual enlightenment happens to be the niece of a US Senator, who in turn happens to be a college roommate of one of the Council members.

"Ah," Barton says. "Funny, how that works."

Phil doesn't even bother to sound defensive.

"That just gave us the green light. We have an additional interest, though," he says. "We suspect that Malone is using his degree in behavioural psychology to brainwash and train his followers. Why or for what, we're not sure. So we need you to go in and find out what he does and how he does it, before he perfects his technique, or decides to branch out."

Coulson casts a quick glance at Romanoff. She gives no overt reaction to the words brainwash and train; motionless and utterly contained, she is a statue to professionalism.

Natasha is the world's most private person, closed off to the point where most of her fellow agents remain convinced that she is an automaton that requires only activation to turn into a killing machine. Phil knows better, and suspects that the absence of expression on her face is not a blank slate, but a full one – like when you combine all the colours of a prism, you get white.

He looks to Barton for confirmation, and while the archer hasn't moved a muscle, his grey-green eyes have shifted and are fixed on his partner. A few seconds pass and Romanoff glances over at him. Phil can't tell for sure, but some sort of unspoken message seems to pass between the two; Romanoff's shoulders relax a little, and Barton's eyes lose their intense stare.

It never ceases to amaze Phil to what extent, after initial growing pains, that particular partnership has evolved into an odd form of symbiosis over the last couple of years. At times, Barton and Romanoff seem in synch to the point of telepathy; other times, they snark at each other with enough firepower to set off sparks. Either way, their yin-and-yang has held them together through some very tough spots, and has yielded results that are second to none in the agency.

Barton has apparently decided to break the slightly awkward silence; he's kicked his chair into the upright position and looks almost interested. Briefings are, after all, there for the assets to get information, ask questions, and seek directions. And if Barton is to dive into the world of Jacob Malone, there are things he will want to know – like an actor, searching for his character's motivation. The archer doesn't like roleplaying much, but when asked to do it, he generally makes it count.

"So what would drive what I presume are ordinary people into the arms of some home-made Messiah? Why don't they see the crazy?"

Phil takes the question, as Barton must have known he would, looking at him the way he does. Unlike Hill, who excels in logistics and cold, hard facts, Phil is the one who can and will talk about how someone thinks, and why.

"That's the problem with people today. They've lost faith, and in that loss they don't know whom they should fear any more. And that includes Jacob 'Manson' Malone here. For the truly lost, people like him are the salvation, not the problem. Their highway to the glittering heavens. He has a sizable following on the internet, too. That's actually how we became aware of him."

Barton digests that for a moment, then shakes his head.

"When I need spiritual enlightenment, I go for a hike in the woods, not cruise the web for the latest incarnation of the Messiah."

Romanoff, who apparently has regained her equilibrium (if she ever lost it), raises an eyebrow at that and Barton opts for anticipatory self-defence.

"Well, I do. Go out into nature I mean. Central Park, anyway."

Phil retakes the floor before the Black Widow can hit this one over the fence and the meeting derails. The mission is pretty clear and simple, as these things go: Go in, pose as a couple in search of the Meaning of Life, learn what you can, get out.

Oh, and … no killing: American citizens, constitutional rights, no clear and present danger. At least none that S.H.I.E.L.D. knows of. Strictly an information-gathering op, the kind of thing Romanoff excels at, especially with Barton to have her back.

"Self-defence?"

Barton's voice is neutral and inflection-free, as if he were asking about whether he could have some milk or sugar in his coffee. Both Coulson and Hill know exactly what he is after, though, and the latter answers with an icy glare that neatly conveys the expected displeasure of the Council in the face of an un-mediagenic mess.

"Self-defence, yes. But reasonable and proportionate force only, Agent."

Hill and Coulson play tag team for the rest of the briefing. It's simple enough: Malone's idea of religion focuses on … well, himself, as The One who knows when the heavens will open, and form a portal to a better life on the other side of the Galaxy. Earth's Ambassador to Outer Space, at your service.

Phil is glad of the years he spent perfecting the deadpan look; Barton's resting face is grim intensity, but he can't suppress an incredulous cackle.

"Did you say, a portal to outer space?"

He looks to Romanoff, who is back to cool disinterest.

"Christ, what's next? A rift in the Q continuum, leaking omnipotence all over us lesser beings? Reminds me of those idiots in the Nineties, who tried to ride the tail of that comet."

Hill glares at him again – she's never been one for Star Trek trivia - and continues. Malone's disciples appear to be disproportionately female, although some couples have joined; single males have been routinely denied entrance. No one has ever reported seeing anything other than starry-eyed disciples, convinced they were headed for paradise.

"Institutional sexism?"

Coulson shoots Romanoff an amused look. The fact that even a pseudo-prophet in the hinterlands might consider males more of a threat to his security would piss her off on principle. They go through this every year during recruitment season, when Romanoff, Carter and a couple of others spend a delightful few days teaching the new crop of male wannabe-agents the dangers of underestimating women.

"Perhaps. Could also be that in the Prophet just prefers women followers. Read their propaganda materials. Women outnumber men by a rate of five to one in the photos. But none of the men who have apparently gone into the compound with female partners are known to have left the group, or else they haven't said anything to anyone. Nor has there been any contact with relatives on the outside, or even traceable internet use from inside the compound. The only outgoing communication comes from the main website, and that seems to be routed through a number of anonymous re-mailers, with a dead end in the Philippines."

"Typical cult scenario," Hill declares in her flat voice. "Complete solidarity from the inside, few defections, no one talks. Possible suppression of dissent. We don't know. Make sure you don't get yourself kicked out before you can learn anything, Barton, so try and keep your big mouth shut for once."

With the substance of the mission briefing done, Hill pushes the comms button and calls in the ID specialists, there to present Delta Team with their covers for the mission. They do not need to know the parameters of a given mission in order to create solid identities, with records traceable all the way back to kindergarden.

"I just hope I can fake devotion and delusion," Barton mutters when they're done. They arise from the table, new passports in hand - the newly anointed Mr. and Mrs. Paul (Lucy) Edwards from New Jersey.

"Just fake devotion to me," Romanoff sighs. "You're my loving, somewhat skeptical, occasionally dense husband, who is doing this for the good of our relationship. Our anniversary is coming up, and you're trying to give me internal peace instead of chocolates and marriage counseling."

"Internal peace? Or eternal peace?" It looks like Barton might want to say more, but Hill closes her file with an audible snap.

"Excellent, agents," she says, with just a little bit of an edge to her voice. "You're already starting to think."

2. Twelve Misty Mountains

Black Creek County is not large, as administrative regions go in that part of the country, but it's pretty remote and sparsely populated – it would likely number under 5,000 souls even if you could get everyone to submit to a government census. Its best-known feature is a non-descript lake created in the Fifties by a hydro-electric damming project, heralded as bringing a prosperity that never came. The lake is ringed by mountains that are neither as mind-blowingly beautiful as those found elsewhere in the state, nor suitable for revenue-generating ski runs.

Right now, those mountains are shrouded in mist; low-lying rain clouds give the place a slightly otherworldly quality that does nothing to improve Clint's mood.

Recreational Opportunities Galore! the local chamber of commerce propaganda promises, but that's pretty much a load of bullshit unless you're into ice fishing, which has to be one of the most idiotic sports ever invented (unless you're Canadian and used to freezing your ass off for the better part of the year). In the summer, hunting seems to be it – at least that makes for a good excuse if someone were to find the bow he's stashed away underneath the car.

Clint gives a running commentary on all of this to Natasha, investing all the stuff worth knowing with his own perspective as they are driving on roads still wet from an earlier drizzling rain. Whoever thinks that Hawkeye is the taciturn type has obviously never encountered him in full-on upload mode. Natasha, who is used to the Barton Approach to Digesting Briefing Notes, is half listening and half scanning the landscape for signs of human civilization - or the coming apocalypse, whichever comes first.

"There," she says, stabbing her index finger at the windshield. "Temple of The Loving Church of Galactic Peace. At least they're not hiding."

"Can't get charitable status if you don't advertise," Clint grunts, but Natasha notes with approval that he is already schooling his features from cynical resentment into wide-eyed curiosity.

Well, maybe not quite yet.

"Look, honey, we've arrived at Kingdom Come," he purrs as the car drives through a wrought iron gate decorated with moons and stars; she rolls her eyes and smacks him in the arm.

"Behave, Barton. Think Stanislavski. Don't act like Paul - be Paul, filled with anticipation and readiness to be inspired. Cynicism is so Nineties."

To his credit and her surprise, Clint doesn't snark back. Instead, he just nods; she can watch his lips move as he repeats to himself: Paul Edwards. Paul Edwards. Paul Edwards.

Natasha is keenly aware that this whole role-playing thing is far more her metier than Clint's; her partner has made it abundantly clear that 'playing pretend' weakens his focus on what he considers more important, such as spotting danger or grabbing a paddle when a mission heads up shit creek. She can only hope that immersing himself in a world of unquestioning worship – a world that is anathema to his hard-earned, wary cynicism - won't prove too much of a challenge.

The long road leading into the Divine Compound is essentially dirt, hardened by steady in-and-out traffic, and presently coated with a film of mud thanks to the recent rain. Half a dozen or so cars, vans and pick-ups in varying states of repair are parked in a courtyard in front of the main house. Some of the pick-ups have gun racks in the back; Clint notes that the only thing missing is moose antlers on the hoods and bumper stickers endorsing Sarah Palin.

"Looks like all local folks," Natasha muses, practicing the voice she will be using for Lucy, all breathless excitement with a tinge of I-was-hoping-for-more disappointment. (All Clint has to do is to keep the snark out of his voice, and he'll be a new person in a New York minute.) "Wonder what they're doing here?

"Don't these places usually run vegan restaurants or herbal pantries, or shit like that?"

Clearly, Clint isn't quite in character yet. Natasha/Lucy sighs, and gives her husband a fond but exasperated look.

"I doubt there's much call for that in rural Montana, honey," she chirps at him.

Clint/Paul rolls his eyes but gets the message, and his "You're probably right, sweetie," earns him a peck on the cheek from his loving wife.

Natasha takes a good luck around while Clint removes their bags from the trunk. The prevailing ambience seems to be a blend of rustic logs and corrugated metal; the place sure won't win any awards from Architectural Digest. The main concession to the compound's status as a galactic outpost seems to be a number of metal stars that have been hammered into a few strategic locations, and used to top weather vanes on each of the gables. Two wings of what looks like dorms – à la Midwestern motel – go off on either side, and there's a big barn with an extra-big five-pointed star that presumably is the main place of worship, as well as several smaller outbuildings whose use is not immediately apparent.

In the stillness of the late afternoon their approach has not gone unnoticed. They're expected, of course – telephone calls and e-mails announcing the impending arrival of Paul and Lucy Edwards of Albany, NY on their journey towards spiritual bliss had started well before Clint and Natasha had ever heard of their new alter egos.

And, of course, there had been that Western Union transfer of $25,000 from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s "contingency fund" (Bribes'R'Us, in Clint-speak). Salvation seems to always come with a price tag, especially when promised by a saviour who preaches that Earthly possessions will be a burden in a future where souls will gambol among the stars. Someone has to pay for the candles to put in the window, for when the aliens come to take everyone home.

However the grace of their welcome was achieved, it oozes warmth. Dominated by words like "Brother," "Sister," "true love" and "spiritual path," the blessing spoken as they cross the threshold is laced with references to The Prophet and The Word and The Truth. Both Clint and Natasha's faces start to ache from smiling, a mere two minutes into their new lives.

The first surprise comes when they're shown to separate quarters.

"The desires of the flesh interfere with the True Path," the beatific disciple informs Clint, with just the right note of superciliousness to make him want to staple the guy's ears to the back of his head.

"The Others will not be able to hear us, if we sully our calls to them with base wants."

He can't help himself, he has to ask – but it's such an obvious question that he figures Paul would, too.

"But on the Prophet's website, there's a lot of talking about love, and pleasing. All those pictures of beautiful women …"

The disciple's smile widens.

"Yes, of course. Pleasing the prophet is the keenest desire of our sisters."

But didn't you just say that desires of the Flesh … Clint decides not to argue the point for now; last thing they need, is for him to be kicked out before he's even had the chance to set down his duffle bag. Besides, the guy seems keen to elaborate.

"All our desires are focused on the Prophet, to give him wings and the power to show us the way. The desire of our sisters to please him and him alone, and his acceptance of their offerings, serves to fuel his quest."

Clint nods his understanding and refrains from further questions, lest he betray the mixture of disgust and incredulous amusement the man's words have triggered. Fucking your way to the stars – not a bad job, really, if you can convince someone to give it to you. And, apparently, he'll be expected to give up his 'wife' into the bargain, although so far that part's been left a bit opaque.

Natasha will no doubt be thrilled to hear of her intended role as a steppingstone to Paradise. For a brief moment, Clint considers what she might do if she were asked to 'serve' before their fact-finding mission is at an end, but the sting of his finger nails in the palm of his hand tells him that this isn't a fruitful line of thought and he lets it go – for now. At least he's learned something useful already: a likely cause for the reported small number of single males that make it into the compound. But what about other couples that may have come here?

His quarters consist of a single, windowless room with a narrow bed and a tiny, triangular sink in one corner. It's smaller than his room on the helicarrier and there's no closet, so it's a good thing they'd been encouraged by the literature to leave worldly goods behind as you enter the Simple Paradise that is The Prophet's Dominion on Earth. Communal toilets and showers are down the hall. Clint has been in worse accommodations – try sharing a circus car with three other guys – but a picture is already emerging, and he wonders what Natasha's accommodations are like.

Indoctrination 101 is next – two hours that Clint knows he'll never get back, educating the newcomers on The Prophet's path to trans-galactic harmony in excruciating detail. An hour or so is spent on extolling the beauty of The Eternal Female, and the role it (she, whatever) will be playing in the Final Celebration – the vessel for the Prophet's Ascension, and the Key to the Gate. Or something.

Clint casts a look at Natasha across the room; the twitch in her eyebrow that she gives him is almost unnoticeable, but it tells him with all the clarity in the world that this portion of the doctrine will become a fixture of future arguments over the comm. He suppresses a grin and focuses on his devotion.

As far as Clint is concerned the Prophet's Teachings are pretty ludicrous and lacking in anything resembling internal logic, but the two other newcomers, both female, are eating it up. One of them looks like a runaway fresh off the streets, scrawny and with a fading bruise on her cheek that accentuates huge brown eyes; the other is a slightly chubby librarian type with thick glasses, a crocheted twinset, and lines of discontent that have started to carve their mark into an otherwise pretty mouth. Clint has the distinct impression that both of them would consider a trip to outer space in the arms of the Prophet as a vast improvement over a life of silent screams and disappointments. He's been there himself, and worse, and it's not for the first time that he counts his lucky stars that it was Phil Coulson who found him when he was staring down the abyss.

Grace, Clint Barton has learned, can take many forms.

Hawkeye is used to observing, spotting patterns, taking note. And so he doesn't miss the fact that, while Lucy Edwards is being eyed up and down by the "Enlightened" - the small handful of men and women whom he has loosely classified as Malone's Minions – Paul is being treated as little more than a self-propelled piece of furniture.

Now, while Clint is generally quite content to fade into the background, the tea trolley treatment here seems vaguely sinister, as if he wasn't worth the investment of the time or attention that it would take to turn him into a proper disciple. The concern that he might be kicked out as having insufficient promise for salvation is like a weight in his gut, as he looks over at Natasha again. He'd be lying if he claimed that he hadn't been alarmed by the way she had instinctively recoiled, at the mention of possible brainwashing techniques being deployed by Malone's group.

And so it comes almost as a relief when he is told that given Paul Edward's evident fitness, he will be 'invited' to help with the construction of a new outbuilding tomorrow. Hard work of the body, after all, is another path to perpetual bliss, according to the sect's propaganda materials; besides, it keeps the men's minds off the fact that apparently only one of them gets to use that body for other things. Clever, really – but more importantly, it buys a day in which he can remain close to his partner.

The first time they catch a glimpse of Malone is at suppertime in the communal dining area, a neon-lit room with a décor heavy on Formica and wax tablecloths with quaint moon and star patterns. A sudden rapt silence accompanies his entrance but is quickly pierced by a couple of small, hysterical sobs, which in turn are followed by the rhythmic chanting of "Prophet! Prophet!"

Clint and Natasha follow the example presented by the others and join the chant with the appropriate mixture of deference and enthusiasm; the rapt attention everyone lavishes on Malone provides an excellent opportunity to observe the man close up.

The Prophet is not particularly tall, sort of Clint's own height, but without any noticeable musculature under a layer of fat that jiggles a little as he walks. Obviously, the cleansing benefits of manual labour are not something the man feels compelled to indulge in very often, but there is little softness about him in any other respect. There's a calculation in Malone's flinty gaze, even as his mouth smiles beatifically at his flock; it's a look that Clint has seen far too often, usually over the sightlines of his bow.

Maybe Phil is correct, and the lost souls drawn to this place in the mountains have forgotten how to see, forgotten how to fear. But the Hawk is a predator - if not born, then bred - and he knows beyond certainty that he is in the presence of another.

Malone's eyes scan the faithful, arresting on the newcomers, but it is on Natasha that he focuses his gaze. It's hard to tell, but Clint could swear that the man's tongue darts out briefly as he takes in the red hair and shapely form of his partner. She gives no indication that she has noticed anything amiss, but then, Lucy Edwards never would.

Loving Church my ass, the archer thinks, as he curves his mouth into a brilliant, vacant smile.