The end of the tunnel was collapsed, wet, and muddy, but there was one big boulder that, once removed, made the rest fall. Water misted over them as they crawled out, not exactly behind the falls but close enough to be soaked as they picked their way along a very narrow path. Far too slow for Philip's liking, they negotiated around to where the shore of the pool met the cliff face.
*Clint. I'm coming.* He hoped Clint was safe in the forest, looking for another way in.
"There's a path up just along the south side of the cliff face," Rodriguez said. "I can show you."
Heat bloomed on Philip's skin, Clint's marks flaring, drawing energy. Natasha stopped and looked at her wrist, the skin reddening. Static flared between Philip's fingers and danced along the edge of the shield Natasha was still carrying.
"Trust the bond," the blonde said. "Together, you can fly."
He was running before he realized what he was doing, sprinting along the slippery path to get a better vantage point. Stomach churned as he kept seeing the image from his dream; magic trailed behind him and he didn't have to look to know the others were following close on his heels. As he got to where the stream took off from the pool down the slope, he stopped and turned, shading his eyes with his hand and straining to see the top of the atoll. Colors bled over the edge, clashing and circling each other, purple and green and red and yellow. The wind carried the sound of distant voices, rocks skittered down the side of the cliff face then Clint jumped off the edge, spread his arms and began to fall.
Fear squeezed Philip's chest; he had only seconds to act as Clint plummeted towards the rock. Eyes firmly fixed on Clint, he lifted his hands up, palms towards the sky, and pushed. Power rushed out like wind, catching Clint and slowing his fall, buying them time. Planting his feet firmly, Philip opened all the doors, dropped every barrier and reached out. He could hear Clint's thoughts, faint on the edges of his mind, so he pressed onward.
A hand touched his shoulder and pushed him a little closer to Clint. Then another and another and another and another, each on building Philip up until he slipped inside Clint's mind, their souls joining into a seamless whole. The entirety of Clint's experiences flashed before him as Philip's did for Clint in only a heartbeat and then they were hovering, closer to the ground than was comfortable.
*Loki's up there* Clint warned. *I need to get back.*
*I don't know if I can …* Philip began, but a blue surge flowed through the connection, wrapping around them and suddenly Clint laughed out loud. They were flying, up and over the lip of the cliff where an astonished trio watched with open mouths.
"What the …" The Red Knight shouted. Tarleton had gotten up and he drew his weapon. A bolt of energy flew their way; Clint hummed a series of notes and Philip filled them with protection. The bolt fizzled short of reaching them.
"Fine." Tarleton took two steps and aimed at the people below. Before Clint or Philip could shout a warning, the Lord fired a series of bolts. But Natasha was already standing in front of Philip's body, shield held high, the others behind her. The blasts bounced off the silver circle; with a flick, she threw it and it flew true, hitting Tarleton's wrist, knocking the weapon from his hand. The metal contraption tumbled out and down to the ground. The Red Knight's arrows fell short and he cursed, face red with his anger. Loki, however, stayed mounted, watching the proceedings.
"We have a message for you," Clint said. "There is no way you can succeed. Even if you bring your armies and they might defeat the peoples of the Midlands, you won't win."
"You are nothing," the Red Knight shouted. "A handful of oddities cannot stop us."
"If we can't, we'll damn well avenge this world." As Clint spoke, Philip called the power and let it spin above his palm. "And we'll be coming for you … unless your master takes care of you first. Now, go away. We have things to do."
He tossed the glowing sphere like it was a child's ball; it grew until it engulfed the three figures and flashed and then the Red Knight and Tarleton were gone. Loki however was still there, a shimmer of green around him. He began to clap.
"Excellent! You have far exceeded my expectations. Full integration so soon after bonding. The strongest mage in ages, just as I predicted. And your motley band is coming along nicely," he drawled.
"What is your angle?" Clint asked; Philip was just as confused by the Prince's action.
"Why, to get the best for myself, of course. Mark my words, I will get what I want." He smiled at them both as if they were the best of friends. "Please send Sleipnir home with my brother. I do miss her companionship." He turned and rode back into the woods at a leisurely pace, ignoring them.
*He is crazier than a bag of cats,* Clint opined. Philip completely agreed; he was feeling the drain of maintaining the spell, so Clint flew down and landed next to the others. With a jolt, Philip was back in his body; only Clint's strong arms kept him from sinking into a heap on the ground.
"We need to find Jessica and Kevin," was the first thing Clint said. "He's hurt."
"They're not far," Rodriquez said, pointing to the east. "But there are wargs between them and us, four or so."
A silence followed that pronouncement then Carol said, "Later. I know. Big Brawny here and I can handle them. The caves on the cliff face are defensible; wait there for us to come back."
"Brawny?" Clint asked, looking over at Bruce.
"Not Bruce," the Berserker answered then he winked at Carol. "Let's go. I can handle this, but the Captain is welcome to tag along."
Philip watched them go, surprised once again by the Berserker. "I assumed he wouldn't speak, much less have a sense of humor," he said to Clint.
"That," Clint said, "was flirting."
"Maybe he's more than just Bruce's anger?" Natasha suggested. She was beginning to flag, the signs clear of her waning energy.
"Let's get up the path and into the main cavern," Clint said. "Then we can talk. Carol's right; there could be more revenants and wargs around, assuming the spell is still in effect. Or the terrible trio could come back."
Without a being told, Rodriquez offered an arm to Philip, letting Clint follow behind Natasha, knowing that the red head would resist any help. Clint wouldn't bother to ask if she needed a hand; he'd just do it and Natasha would accept it. Despite the exhaustion sapping his strength, Philip made it up on his own steam, entering the small complex of rooms. Clint called a halt in what was obviously the biggest space. They took two bed rolls and made a comfortable spot against the wall near the rough fire pit. Philip didn't argue, sliding down the wall and extending his legs out on the blanket, taking the jerky Clint pressed into his hands and sips of water from the canteen. It was a different matter to get Natasha to admit her tiredness.
"You fell, broke your arm, fought a living legend, caught another's shield, and then used magic to protect everyone. Sit down before you fall down," Philip ordered.
She blinked at him and Philip thought he'd pushed too far, but her shoulders fell and she took the other bedroll, reaching out her arm towards him as she settled. "Pushy. Been taking lessons from Clint, haven't you?" Her voice was a little shaky from the encroaching exhaustion, and her eyes showed her worry.
"There's some supplies back in one of the small caves," Rodriquez said, jerking her head towards the way they'd come. She was smart enough to see that Natasha needed time to process what had happened. "I'll see what I can scavenge and keep an eye for Carol and the others. And when we're all back, can we talk about what's happening and why I know where people and things are?"
"We are definitely having that conversation," Clint promised her.
Once Ada left the room, Clint sat beside Philip, close enough so he could lean into Clint's touch. Clint's hand on his thigh did more to calm him than anything else. Philip took the hand Natasha offered – tiny pulses of red and purple passed through their palms – and turned to look at the red marks on her wrist. The impression of fingers was vivid against her pale skin.
"Does it hurt?" Clint asked. Sharing their memories while joined made explanations unnecessary.
"Not now. It burned when it happened, but it was excruciating when Barnes touched the shield and then when I did. While you were flying together … and that's a very strange sentence I'd never thought I'd say … it was a low level ache." Her emerald eyes turned up to Philip, looking for guidance. "What does it mean?"
"I think …" Could it really be true? Philip wasn't sure, but there was no way to hide the possibility. "I think it's a bonding mark."
"With Barnes?" Clint was incredulous, but Natasha seemed resigned. She'd already figured it out.
"He was taken aback when it happened, but there's no other explanation. Even that one defies the stories," Philip said.
"He's dead, though, right, and under a spell?" Clint asked.
"No, he's not." Natasha sounded sure of herself. "I think I woke him up, me and the shield. He felt … cloudy? All covered in gauze that hid his true self, if that makes any sense."
"You sensed him?" Philip thought about that. "Maybe there's magic at work keeping him from remembering who he is."
"Excuse me, but thousands of years here. How could he be alive?" Clint covered both Philip's and Natasha's hand with his own and warmth flooded up Philip's arm. Natasha visibly relaxed. "We're talking about a character from tales and legends surviving centuries. But it does make sense that Nat would hold out for one of the best fighters in history."
The humor lightened the mood further, and Natasha winkled her nose Clint's way. "Well, of course. No one around now who's worth my time since you preferred men and then snapped up Philip."
"The Sleeper. That's what they called him. If he were put to sleep for years at a time …" Philip was really just thinking out loud rather than offering answers. "He said he'd done things for his new master. Maybe he woke him when the occasion called for it, kept him obedient through the geas and used his skill."
"And now whoever this mystery sorcerer is has Loki, the Red Knight, Lord Tarleton, and Barnes working for him?" Clint asked. "He'd have to be tremendously powerful, wouldn't he? And have been around for centuries, biding his time."
"Or she," Natasha injected, pulling her hand away and stretching out on the blanket. She shrugged out of her vest and doubled it up to use as a pillow, her eyelids starting to droop.
"What?" Clint replied, confused.
"Could be a woman. Don't assume the mastermind's male. Peggy Carter was a powerful mage in her own right, remember?" Natasha stopped talking to yawn. "You two should know that by now."
Indeed they should; they were surrounded by strong women capable of anything. "Very true," Philip agreed.
"Male or female, I'll give you that point. But my question is how can Natasha be bonded to Barnes? He's already bonded to Rogers, isn't he? I've never heard of a bonded having another after his first one dies." Clint's words chilled Philip because he was right; bondeds rarely out lived each other and the assumption was that a bond was not just for life, but exclusive even beyond. Thus the fable of Orpheus and Eurydice.
"Neither you nor I believe Rogers is dead, not exactly." There. Philip had said it out loud, the crazy notion that he'd been keeping to himself. "I believe if we find the five items, then we'll find Rogers. He wants us to find him. Why else does keep appearing to me, telling me what to do?"
"If this master sorcerer can keep Barnes asleep, why couldn't someone be keeping Rogers on ice somewhere? Hell, it's insane to think, but less than three months ago I'd have said flying and lifting rocks with bare hands and berserkers were nothing but stories." Clint said. He was warm and Philip found himself relaxing against his husband, his need to talk being overtaken by a lethargy in his bones.
"Don't tell anyone else," Natasha said, her voice nothing more than a whisper. "About the invisibility. Better if few know. It will be more useful that way. I'll tell Carol and Jessica. And Bruce … or the Berserker … already knows. What are we going to call him? Never mind, Carol will come up with something …" Eyes closed then opened then closed again.
"Do you think it's the Red Sorcerer?" Clint gave voice to one of Philip's nightmare scenarios. "If Rogers and Barnes are around …"
"… maybe he is too?" If true, that was one of the most terrifying realities Philip could imagine. The Red Sorcerer was the villain of all villains in the legends, nigh on unstoppable; only the combined might of all the heroes of that age managed to bring his plans to a halt. And then, the costs were high. Philip shuddered at the very idea; all but a handful of those earlier warriors and mages … real people he had to remember … had died tragic and violent deaths. Was that what they were letting themselves in for now? "I don't know. I just don't know."
Clint's fingers were tracing a pattern on Philip's sleeve; somehow Clint's arm was around him, holding him tight. "We'll find all of Rogers' armor, find the others who are out there. We'll figure it out. You can rest now. I've got you."
Bitter wind tore at his clothes and he shuddered as he looked out across the expanse of white ice, snow blowing across the surface of the frozen lake.
"I tried. He doesn't think he's worthy of you anymore."
The blonde was wearing a blue tunic, white star in the middle of his chest, unperturbed by the cold.
"I know. We'll change that. Trust the bond."
The cavern was lit by torches but no warmer than the mountains. Atop a marble pedestal lay James Barnes, strands of brilliant white crisscrossing over him.
"How?" Philip asked the sleeping figure. "How does this work?"
Blue eyes open and stared up at him, so much pain that Philip wanted to scream, his voice echoing off the curving roof.
"She anchors me and thaws him."
The horses wound through the pass, hooves crunching across newly fallen snow, small dots far beneath Philip. Astride the lead horse, a man, red cape flapping behind him, hammer on his hip, looked up and saw.
"Do you know who you're fighting?" the man asked, loud voice booming up, cutting through the wind.
Banking, wings fully extended, Philip saw the Midlands spread beneath him like one of his maps, sparks of energy little beacons of light in infinite colors.
"We are so having a discussion when I get there, Philip Coulson-Barton," Darcy said, her arms around his waist, pressed up against him. Her dark hair flowed free and she laughed as they swooped down towards Tarian Castle. "You need to trust yourself more. And Clint? That man is hot. That is all I have to say. You deserve it. Does he have a brother? A friend?"
The cave was so high that nothing could reach it, sheer craigs around it. They landed on the lip of the opening in a backwash of air.
"If this is the Red Sorcerer …" Philip whispered to the wind.
The voice that answered was deep and laced with humor.
"It isn't," said the red dragon. "Trust me on that one."
Clint spent the waiting time helping Rodriguez go through the supplies left from the bandits. It had been awhile, but there were still food stuffs that weren't spoiled and some pots and pans. If they risked a fire, there could be hoe cakes for dinner and some dried vegetables to add to the jerky for stew. They had plenty of fresh water; really this would be an excellent place to rest up while they decided what to do next if the very people after them didn't already know about it.
Jessica came in first, supporting Johnson who was bandaged and still very much alive. Behind them, Carol was carrying a sleeping Bruce; he'd changed on the way back and promptly fallen unconscious. Being a Berserker drained him to the point of passing out; Bruce soon had his own place near Natasha and Philip. Rodriguez insisted there was no one else nearby, and Carol confirmed that the wargs had gone back to being their animal selves, still dangerous but as likely to run as fight, so Clint agreed they could use a little of the fire wood to make some dinner and warm the hall. Hell, he thought, it wasn't as if Loki didn't know where they were. Carol took the first watch, as always, insisting she was fine despite the growing dark circles under her eyes. The others ate in a smaller room, talking about what had happened in hushed tones; Clint filled them in and was happy to hear that the arrow had just missed Johnson's lung. The wound hurt and would keep him from fighting as he couldn't raise his arm all the way, but he would live to take apart the time piece that had miraculously survived intact. Rodriguez told the story of Carol and Bruce … the Berserker … fighting in the tunnel, the one piece that Clint was missing of the whole adventure.
After two hours, he ordered Carol to rest with the others, taking his turn in the cave's mouth. Rodriquez stayed with him since that was the only way Carol would willingly go. Despite everything, Clint had been the one on the receiving end of everyone's energy and he was still wide awake. As night fell, he noticed that the auras he'd been seeing had faded, Philip's spelling running its course, probably ending when he fell asleep earlier. He and Ada sat in companionable silence, watching the ground below for movement, eyes adjusting to the moonlight. As he gazed out across the tree tops, he focused on the south and the east, towards Barton Manor and the people who waited for news. Nothing but the sounds of forest around them, the wind making the branches sway, a lulling whisper of leaves, a hint of music echoing in harmony.
Philip was hovering just outside of Clint's conscious mind, awareness stronger since their joining. Worry, even in sleep, brain not completely shut down, Philip was dreaming; Clint wondered if he'd dream next, the twilight connection of images and future events that was becoming familiar. Faint but nearby, he sensed the others: Natasha's determination, Carol's strength, Jessica's loyalty, and Bruce's quiet intelligence tinged with anger. Still more threads tugged on him if he thought about it, tiny tickles of others out there, so small he couldn't recognize any of them. The bond drew others in, it seemed, and allowed them to share talents; it was Carol who'd given him the ability to fly briefly, a fact he learned when she landed on the path, a passed out Bruce in her arms. Almost too much to take in, Clint let the new reality of his life fade into the background. His strategy had always been to live for today and it had saved him time and time again. Tomorrow's problems would be there in the morning; right now needed his attention more.
He lost track of how long he sat there, running various scenarios of what happens next. Get everyone rested, that was the most important item on the agenda, but he knew Philip wouldn't want to leave those books and other items in the caverns alone for too long, plus there was the very shiny, very powerful shield that was currently leaned up against the wall between Philip and Natasha's bedrolls to consider. It had an affinity for Nat – bonded with Barnes? Long term problem. Put it away – and Philip had called it, but none of that would stop Loki and the others from trying to take it back. Anywhere they put it would be at risk; the Manor or a cave or Singer's place would become a target. Which brought an immediate concern: getting back to Singer's to get their horses and start the process of returning home.
Jessica woke first, insisting that both of them get some rest; Clint was actually starting to feel like he could close his eyes for a few minutes, so he found Philip lying on his back, still deep asleep, and crawled under the blanket, slipping off his boots first, sliding his leg between Philip's and curling up along his side. As Clint's head rested in his favorite spot just beneath Philip's half-turned chin, Philip's arm snaked around Clint's waist, his fingers finding the sliver of skin where Clint's shirt was untucked. Despite all the thoughts bumping around in his mind, Clint was asleep within minutes.
The deck of the ship rocked beneath his feet, the salty smell of seawater in his nostrils.
"I have no idea what I'm doing. I could just be making things worse, putting good people in harm's way."
The man chuckled, bracing a boot on the railing. His dark hair whipped in the wind as the storm approached, lightning dancing from dark clouds to choppy water.
"Ah, mon ami, you've never known. Just muddlin' through, that's what we're all doing. Life's a gamble, but is the pot worth winning?"
He dashed through the doorway just as the first drops hit the ground, the thunder arriving after him.
"Is it the right thing to do?" he asked.
Annamarie put her hands on her hips, that familiar exasperation on her face.
"Of course it is. This is bigger than all of us, Clint Barton. And, heavens above if you ever tell anyone I said this I'll beat you within an inch of your life, you are the leader they need. Now get your muddy boots out of my clean hallway!"
The rain pounded down on the new slate roof, and the hall stayed warm and dry. Clint sat in his chair and watched the benches fill as the smell of Dak's spicy beef wafted out from the kitchen; beside him, a man with regal bearing and long blonde hair reached for his glass of dark red wine.
"The battle, while glorious, is not our purpose; companionship, loyalty, love … those are worth fighting for."
Pieces of metal were strewn around the room, piles and piles of trinkets and do-dads that he had no idea what they were. Bigger things, covered by canvas tarps, stood around the room like bulky sculptures with little form. Perched on a stool, head down on the table, pillowed by his arms, a man slept.
"What is all this?" Clint asked. "What does it mean?"
Dark eyes blinked as the man jerked up, his black hair askew and crumbs in his goatee. Metal tools clattered to the floor as he swept his arm out.
"Mean, how the hell do I know what this means? Usually my nightly visitors give me some cryptic message then pop off. Jarvis! I'm dreaming again!"
The string vibrated across his fingers, a deep thrum that matched the hum in his chest. Fletching brushed his cheek as he held ready, sighting down the line of the magical shaft. Red flashed among the black clouds as winds whipped Clint's cloak, water running down his neck and along the line of his spine.
"We're waiting for you." The little girl had the darkest hair, her olive skinned face turned up towards him.
"Don't be too long," her brother said, hair plastered to his head as he slipped beneath the surface of the water.
Around him, the storm raged, the worst of its power displayed. Trees bent beneath the gale as limbs lashed at Clint's face as he forced his way through the forest.
"A new age is coming," the hooded figure stood on the path, unperturbed amidst the tempest. "Finally, the time has arrived."
"We defeated you once. We'll defeat you again." Clint planted his feet and drew his sword.
"Oh, dear boy, you think the Red Sorcerer is back?" A rainbow of light oozed out of edges of the black sleeves as a chuckle emerged from deep inside. "You have much to learn."
Warm blanket, quiet room, flickering fire light, and Clint's slow easy breaths brushing over the shell of his ear … Philip was loathe to move, content and more than a little aroused by Clint's hand that was resting lightly on his right hip, fingers only inches around from his half-aroused cock. Opening his eyes, he saw Bruce asleep on the other side of the fireplace, his back to them. Voices filtered in from the next rooms along with the smell of coffee.
Clint shifted, nudging his leg more firmly between Philip's, bringing their hips closer; the hard ridge of his erection now snug against the small of Philip's back. Fingers twitched then dipped further, brushing along the line of Philip's own shaft.
"Here?" Philip asked with the softest whisper.
"Bruce is fast asleep, and everyone else is already up." Lips nibbled at his ear as Clint's palm ran along the ridge of his cock. "All you have to do is stay quiet and not cause a storm or anything."
"You're the loud one." Philip sucked in a breath as Clint's fingers untied his laces. Rolling onto his back, he looked up into those blue-grey eyes. "Clint?"
"Phil." Clint made his name an invocation. Lips paid homage to Philip with a sweet kiss. It was like being worshiped; Philip couldn't help but slide one arm underneath Clint to brush the skin at the small of his back as his other hand grazed along Clint's arm and up his neck. Slowly, the kiss deepened, but they kept silent, just an occasional sigh as they explored with their hands and lips. Philip's knee fell to the side, opening him up to Clint's questing hand. Clint tilted over, his hips hiding their movements from anyone who might come through the doorway.
Two of them under the blanket and yet they were slowly becoming one, merging their souls, joining songs and magic. An intimate union that took no effect on either of their parts, they shared the pleasures they created with their hands and mouths, the way their bodies worked together to build to ecstasy. In his head, Philip could feel what Clint felt, the slow strokes, heat of their bonding marks like phantom hands, the way his cock jumped in Clint's hands. It was Clint who had to bite back his moan as Philip freed Clint's cock and matched the same rhythm. He buried his head in the crook of Philip's neck and covered the skin there with kisses and pants of breath.
Philip couldn't tell who came first, not that it really mattered; both orgasms rolled through him, one right after the other, exponential bursts of pleasure. But he was learning to control the energy, banking it by sharing with Clint and leaking it out in smaller dribbles towards the others, not enough to overwhelm them or even be noticed. Only the two closest packs lifted off the floor and Philip lowered them with a thought, sitting them down gently.
"Hey," Clint murmured, lifting his head to look at Philip's face.
"Hey," Philip answered, a little drunk on the swirl of emotions and power.
A clatter came from the other room, metal on stone, followed by some quickly hushed cursing.
"We should get up." Clint glanced over at Bruce who was shifting, starting to come awake. "Lots of decisions to make. Things to do. Places to be. Villains to send packing."
Philip couldn't help the goofy smile that spread over his face. "Books to transport."
"Okay. But then we're taking some time to ourselves," Clint agreed. "Hot spring. Hunting lodge. No clothes. You and me."
"Done," Philip promised.
"I thought we agreed, no working?"
Clint stood in the doorway, his leather pants unlaced and hanging loose on his hips. Philip couldn't get over the smooth expanse of chest on display, free from all the scars and remembrances of Clint's past. The bonding ritual had wiped their bodies clean except for the handprints that sometimes showed in the heat of emotion. He leaned against the jamb and raised an eyebrow at the books Philip had spread out in front of him on the rug.
"You were working," Philip protested. Clint had gone out to resupply the wood for the fireplaces, putting on his coat and boots for the first time since they'd gotten back in yesterday from the hot spring.
Clint grinned at him. "Brodan brought up a basket of food from his mother. We've got shepherd's pie and fresh bread for dinner. I thought we'd have some of the scones with clotted cream with the tea once the kettle boils."
He'd married a man who could cook over an open fire and didn't mind carting firewood. How did that happen? "Sounds perfect. Then you can help go through these? Maybe a fresh set of eyes will make a difference?"
"As much as I hate to admit it, I might need a little rest myself." He winked as the kettle whistled from the kitchen space of the small lodge. In just a few minutes, he had the tea steeping and brought in a covered basket and small clay dish, placing the tray on the floor. He added two more logs to the fire burning beneath the big stone mantelpiece. Sitting on the rug next to Philip, Clint situated his back against the side of the big bed, feet towards the heat, and patted the space between his open legs. Without a word, Philip scooted over, leaning back along Clint's chest, bringing the books with him. Warm and cozy, the skin to skin focused Philip's mind; the spices of the tea and the hint of cinnamon from the scone were stronger in his nose, mingling with the tang of the first snow that clung to Clint.
"What are we looking for?" Clint reached around Philip and picked up one of the books, laying it over their legs and opening it carefully.
"I'm changing tacks." Philip moved some papers to find the one he wanted. "This is Katherine's rhyme; I thought I'd start from this direction and look for any mentions of these names. Working on the location of other items isn't getting us anywhere."
Absently, he took the tea leaves out and poured the dark fragrant liquid into the two mugs Clint had brought. The hunting lodge didn't have tea cups or glasses, just solid serviceable dishes which worked just fine for them. It wasn't as small as Philip had imagined, but then he knew Lords that called twenty room mansions lodges simply because that was where they went to hunt. Built into the side of a mountain, the house had four rooms including a living area large enough for a series of comfortable chairs and a trestle table in the corner near the entrance to the bare bones kitchen. The bedroom back wall was dug into the earth of the hillside; it was big enough for a large bed, a cabinet that housed bedding material and space for a few changes of clothes, a small table and two chairs. The fourth room was an indoor bathing room or antechamber, just of size to put a tub. At the center of the square was a circular stone fireplace with openings in each of the rooms and a shared chimney. It dominated the space and kept the whole lodge warm with an economy of space. A series of little doors opened between rooms into wood storage bins, helping to insulate the whole house. Clint could shut the outer door, filling the bin from outside before he opened any of the doors inside.
"We decided the first verse didn't we?" Clint took the cup and sipped. "Ah, this is the closest Dax has gotten to the flavor of the island tea."
Cardamom and cinnamon wafted up with the steam. Philip took a tentative sip; it was dark and flavorful. "Interesting," he agreed. It would take time to get used to it. "You're right. The dead are the revenants, the Hawk is you, the Sleeper Barnes and the Mage me. The Soldier could be any number of people. Carol as Captain of the Guard, although she could be the Captain mentioned later, but also Maria Hill or Fury himself. He served in the King's Army during the last series of skirmishes with the Red Knight. From there it gets more muddled. Spider is plural suggesting more than one, but Wasp? Ant? The Stones singing makes sense now, but who or what is the Voice? Bruce is convinced the Beast is him, but he could be the Scholar. Two becomes three could be marriage and a baby, which lets us out of that equation. Is the Prince Loki? He did flee. From there, I've few ideas to work from."
"I know a gambler," Clint offered, "but I can't imagine him this far north. Man would freeze to death and he's not really the kind who suffers discomfort if he doesn't have to."
"We're all gambling our future." Philip shook his head at the enormity of what they were trying to do. "There are too many Lords to hazard a guess."
In the two weeks since they'd found the shield, they'd been so busy that simple conversations were few and far between. Philip had spent most of that time underground, overseeing the removal of the books from their special rooms along with Bobby Singer's aid. The question of what to do with the shield was solved by the shield itself. No matter where it was left when they went to bed, it would appear next to either Natasha or Philip in the morning. It definitely had an affinity for the red head over everyone else; Clint claimed it hummed when she was in the room and Philip had seen energy spark from it to her. Burying it or leaving it in a vault was out of the question. Not to mention that Natasha's friend Missouri's talent was boosted by proximity to the metal round; she was hard at work with maps, both old and new, narrowing the search parameters for the other parts of the armor.
"Natasha's one of the spiders, I'd bet." Clint offered Philip a bit of his scone, spread with the cream. "She used to go by the name Black Widow when we first met."
He almost choked on the bite as he tried to swallow and talk at the same time. "She's the Black Widow?"
"You've heard of her, I see?" Clint asked with fake innocence but eyes full of mischief.
"She's legendary at court. Rumor has it she assassinated King Cayman's royal vizier, not that I disapprove of getting rid of that weasel, he was doing a lot of damage to the country, but he was supposedly impossible to get to." Philip watched for Clint's reaction, hoping to gauge whether he was joking or not. All he got was a single uptick of the edges of Clint's mouth. "Holy gods above, Clint."
"She does bite, I'm afraid." Clint casually broke off another bite. "There's a lot you don't know about us, about me."
"You'll just have to fill me in then," Philip said then flushed as he realized the implications of his words. "I mean, you can teach me … tell me ... ah, hell."
Clint laughed, a low and lovely sound that did things to Philip's cock still even after three very earth shattering rounds of sex already. "Anytime, Phil. Anytime. Want to trade information for sex? There's a pole right over there you could tie me up to. I'll beg pretty for your cock in my mouth."
"Clint," Philip couldn't help but breathe out as Clint wiggled his cock up along Philip's ass. "You are nothing but temptation, do you know that?"
"Isn't that my job? To loosen you up until I can slide right in? And yours is to tie me down and make me finish what I start?" Clint's breath tickled his ear and Philip shivered as his body responded to the images Clint provided.
"I thought you needed a rest," Philip protested. He was beginning to understand Clint's desire to go without clothes; the room was already warm before Clint's hands started wandering over his skin, brushing his nipples until they were hard.
"Doesn't mean I can't touch." Clint brushed his lips along the line of Philip's neck. "There's always room for dessert."
"Ah, so this is a distraction?" As long as they were playing, Philip knew this game. Thing was, he'd found that letting Clint have his way often led to breakthroughs. He might not admit it, but Clint had a point about loosening Philip up.
"This is a honeymoon. I'm thinking we finish these scones, toss on our coats and go out for another dip before we come back and heat up some dinner. We break open the bottle of red wine, and I'll tell you the true story of how I ended up playing cards with a pirate named Gambit to buy Natasha time to escape." Clint closed the book and eased it onto the floor. "We can take three days because there are good people we trust to watch our backs. They'll handle everything."
"I know. It's just … this isn't over, not by any stroke of the imagination." That chilled Philip, the worry and fear about what was next, but Clint's fiery trails he wove with his fingers chased it away.
"This is a lull before the storm," Clint agreed. "We're stronger when we take the time to gather our strength, to remember what connects us."
He was right; Philip relaxed into Clint's arms, head falling onto Clint's shoulder. "I could do with another long soak. And you said something about begging?"
"Indeed, I did, my love. Indeed I did."
"It's good to know that your Thane has things in hand up North, Nicholas." King Donaldson waved his empty goblet and a page jumped to fill it from a fresh wineskin. "Too bad that your Philip was already promised to Barton; Loki seemed quite taken with him. But what's done is done and I can count on you to keep the peace up that way now, so there's an unseen benefit."
Yes, Fury thought, that was a less than subtle reminder that he was being held responsible now for a larger area … and would be blamed for any problems that arose. "Coulson is happy with his new husband and doing quite a job of restoring the damage left from the attack two years ago." Nick needled the King with his own reminder of the failure to aide his thanes. "From what Maria tells me, the two are well matched and very much in lust with each other. That's a good beginning for a union."
"Lust is good. Many a marriage is made on much less." Donaldson tilted his head, his eye following a familiar head of black hair that towered above the other guests in his green royal robes. "And speaking of that … there's still the offer on the table for an alliance. The Prince has been very gracious in the loss of his first choice; I do not think it would be wise to anger him again, however."
A cold ball settled in the pit of Nick's stomach. "And who do you suggest we offer?"
Donaldson smiled that fake smile Nick hated, the one that told him this was all politics and he was going to hate the answer. A pudgy hand with three golden rings landed on Nick's shoulder.
"Why your Darcy, of course. Such a lively and lovely young woman. She'll blossom at the Asgardian court."
~~End Part One~~
Part Two Coming Soon …
"Bonds of Old II: A Voice in the Wilderness"