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i do now own any of the Marvelous men contained within this fic. nor do i own anything recognizable from the comics or movie. those are all owned by Marvel and whoever the hell else owns them. i'm only borrowing them for the purposes of entertaining myself and others. i'm not making any money off this, either. cos if i was, i'd still be flat broke. so please don't sue me.

Miri belongs to Dazzledfirestar and is only being used by permission. Alex is mine. you do not want her. trust me on this.

also, the concept of the Mary Sue Virus belongs to Dazzledfirestar, as well, and is being used with, say it with me here... her permission.
 
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Chapter 1 of 1
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"Agent Grant!" Hill called out, dragging Miri's attention her way. The woman looked battered and worn, but based on the way the bridge of the helicarrier looked, she had good reason. Miri wasn't that much better off herself, having battled with Loki's goons on one of the lower decks during the invasion. Clean up had followed after that. She was absolutely wiped and wanted nothing more than to find her quarters, shower, and sleep for a month. "Director Fury wants to speak to you in his office."

Miri nodded and rose from the seat she'd taken. She marked the exhaustion in Hill's voice. It echoed the expression that had come to rest on her face. The entire day had been hell and Miri knew that Hill had been in the middle of it all. She let her gaze slide to the side, toward the seat Alex had taken. Her best friend gave the appearance that she was calm and in control, but Miri knew better. She could see it in the tightness around Alex's eyes, in the blank expression. In the way Alex's hand lay clenched in a fist in her lap. Miri knew that there was a small piece off of one of Clint's arrows clutched in her fingers. And she knew that Alex was wondering. Worrying. Afraid.

"Quinn. Your presence is requested, too," Hill ordered. Alex jerked, as if she hadn't been expecting anyone to talk to her, and turned to give Hill a confused look. Maria jerked her head toward Miri. Alex blinked a couple of times, then nodded and rose. Her movements were slow and measured. Precise. As if she didn't trust herself to not fall or spasm or do something else to give herself away. Miri watched Alex come, watched how she placed her feet with intent. She was teetering, had been ever since Loki had shown up and taken the Tesseract. Had taken Clint.

Maria watched Alex move across the bridge, her gaze soft with understanding as it followed the other woman's progress. She, like Miri, knew that Alex had been having a hard time holding it together. Ever since this whole mess had started. When her friend reached her, she let her gaze slide past Alex to where Maria stood. Hill nodded at her, then turned and began issuing orders to the helm. Miri followed Alex out into the hallway.

"What do you think Fury wants?" Alex asked, her voice empty and hollow.

Miri shrugged. She knew that tone of voice well enough. It was the voice Alex used when she was asking a question to which she didn't really want the answer. But she couldn't help herself. It was the urge to question everything that helped make her a good agent. In this instance, Miri was sure she knew what Alex was thinking. And what she was asking. They both knew that the Avengers had fought Loki's alien army to save New York and the world. "I don't know, Alex. I'm sure he's okay, though. You know he's that damn good."

Alex glanced at her, green eyes filled with appreciation. "Thanks, Miri." She bumped her shoulder against Miri's and fell silent, leaving Miri to her own thoughts. She couldn't imagine why Fury was calling them to his office unless he had some kind of news to share. Alex's fears took root and crept through her. If Fury had bad news for one of them, he'd no doubt want the other of them there as a shoulder to lean on. Miri had missed most of the action that had taken place in the city, but she had no illusions that it had been dangerous. And she worried that Fury was calling them down so that he could tell Alex that something had happened to Clint and Miri could catch her friend when she fell.

The silence built between them, thick and heavy and oppressive. It was a hint of things to come. She was sure of that. And it made her wonder just what kind of news awaited them in Fury's office.

When they arrived, they glanced at each other. Miri could see the emotions clouding her friend's green gaze, could read them easily. She was sure that the same emotions filled her own eyes, darkening the lavender to deep purple. Alex shrugged her shoulders before reaching out to rap solidly on the door with a loose fist. Fury's voice called out from the other side of the closed portal, short and terse and empty. "Enter!"

Miri reached for the knob and turned it, pushing the door open wide. Alex motioned her in with a hand, let Miri step in before her, then pulled the door closed behind her as she entered Fury's office. The director sat behind his desk, a group of files spread out before him. One hand held a pen and he scribbled furiously across the surface of one sheet while the other hand rested on the paper, keeping it in place so that his writing would be smooth and steady.

They both knew that Fury would speak to them when ready. There was no pushing the man when he didn't want to be pushed. Miri fell into parade rest, hands clasped behind her back. Alex stood with her arms loose at her sides, a deceptively relaxed position that she'd seen the other woman use only moments before going for her guns and taking an enemy down with a single shot to the forehead. She wasn't any more at ease than Miri was, obviously trying to prepare herself for the worst.

Silence stretched thin and taut, an ominous cloud hanging over their heads. Something had to be seriously wrong because it wasn't like Fury to call them into his office like this. They usually reported to Maria. Or Phil. And there was something decidedly unhappy about the way Fury held himself. She could see it in the tension that pulled his shoulders tight, in the lines that bracketed his mouth and eyes. Something really bad had happened.

The sound of his pen hitting the surface of the desk was loud in the room. Fury rose from his chair and looked them both over, then headed toward a flat screen television mounted on the wall. "I want to thank both of you for coming so quickly," he told them, his voice even and flat. Empty. That definitely meant bad news. Miri was sure of it. There was always some kind of emotion living in Fury's words. Something really, really bad had happened. He leveled his gaze on them, his one good eye sharp and intent as it took them both in. Then he motioned to the screen. "Before I explain why I've called you here, I want you both to see something."

One finger hit a button and the television screen flickered to life with color and action and sound.

Someone had managed to capture raw footage on their phone or a video camera that was being alternated with footage shot by television and security cameras. Fury remained silent as they watched the Chitauri drop from the portal opened in the sky over Stark Tower and fan out across the city. They watched as Thor summoned lightning to strike the aliens down. They watched as Hulk leapt from building to building, catching hold of the enemy and slamming it into concrete walls or into the ground. They watched as Stark, brilliant in his suit of red and gold armor, zipped through the air and used blasts from his repulsors to knock the Chitauri out of the sky, as he fired miniature missiles and other things. They watched as Captain Rogers battled the foe that ended up on the ground, his shield a spinning disc of freedom and vengeance as it whipped around a pre-determined circle and took down any enemy stupid enough to get in its way. They watched as Natasha stood tall and fired her guns at the aliens, as she used their own weapons against them, her red hair burning like flames despite the dust in the air. They watched as some of the alien craft exploded far up in the sky when no one was near it.

The city was in ruins. Buildings were crumbling to dust, large chunks of walls scattered on the ground like boulders. Slabs of the road had been sent flying, as if a child had thrown a tantrum and tossed their toys down. Some cars had been crushed under the falling debris or the giant alien corpses that had fallen from the sky. Some cars were burning brightly, flames licking at their bodies hungrily while others still smoldered and smoked after the flames had died away. Glass was sprinkled on the sidewalks and the streets, glittering like shattered gems left out in the sun. Vehicles were left scattered in all directions on the roads, some of them upside down or on their sides. There was destruction everywhere.

It was in the faces of the police and military. It was in the faces of the firemen and the EMTs. It was in the faces of the survivors, who could do nothing more than stand and stare at what was left of their homes and businesses and lives. Alien bodies and technology, broken and beaten down, were limp rag dolls and useless weapons. The city was a war zone and the streets were a cemetery.

The television went off and Fury gave them his full attention. Miri could feel the weight of his stare resting on her before it shifted away. "You were both aware that we had Loki here under lock and key."

It wasn't a question, yet they both nodded in response. "Yes, sir," Miri added for good measure.

"The attack that took out the number three engine was a carefully crafted plan designed to see us broken apart." He moved to retake his seat, settling in the chair and resting his elbows on the desk so he could steeple his hands in front of him, before he continued on. "Agent Barton led that attack."

Miri felt Alex tense beside her, felt her struggle not to make a comment or a sound. It had to be hell because she'd been worried for days about Clint. To find that he'd been instrumental in all of the chaos and destruction must have been more than she'd expected. "Agent Romanova was able to knock some sense into him. By doing so, she released him from Loki's hold. As far as I'm concerned, Barton's part in the attacks was done under duress. Loki was in his head and forced him to act against his friends and colleagues. Naturally he's going to have to sit through some psych evals until we can be sure there are no lasting effects. But after seeing what he did against Loki's army, I have no plans on doing anything to him."

Miri heard Alex sigh. "Thank you, sir."

Fury looked at them both for a few moments before he heaved his own sigh and began shifting the papers on his desk around. "During the attack, some of Loki's people were able to free him from the cage we had him in. Agent Coulson attempted to stop him from leaving."

There was so much heaviness in those words that Miri felt her heart stop beating and her stomach dropped to her feet. "Sir?" she asked, careful to keep her voice steady.

"I'm sorry, Agent Grant. There's no easy way to say this. Agent Coulson is dead. Loki stabbed him in the back."

Miri blinked, sure she'd just heard him wrong. "I'm sorry, sir. I don't think I heard you correctly. You must be mistaken. Phil can't be..." her voice trailed off, her mind utterly incapable of even thinking the word, much less making it come out of her mouth.

She had the vague impression that Alex had moved closer to her, though it was only an abstract sense of heat to her left. Her friend was there to offer her support, but she hadn't yet physically touched her. It was something Miri was grateful for because she felt that she'd lose all control if Alex put a hand on her in sympathy.

"While everyone was busy fighting off Loki's minions," Fury began, one hand lifting toward the television as if he was going to turn it on again. His eye glanced her way and the arm lowered, as if he'd decided it was a good idea to simply speak and not show. "Coulson headed to the armory and armed himself. Then he proceeded to the containment cell where we had Loki and faced him down."

"He went up against Loki?" She made sure her voice was soft and calm. If she gave in to hysterics or emotional outbursts right now, she was afraid she wasn't going to stop. Alex moved closer but still didn't touch her.

"He had orders, Agent Grant. Just like you and everyone else on this boat. He was following them. It was unfortunate that Loki doesn't play by the same rules as everyone else." Fury's voice hardened down just a little, allowing some of his impatience to leak through.

"Orders. He was down there on orders?"

Fury regarded her quietly with his one eye, his face impassive. "I needed someone down there to try and keep Loki contained."

"You sent one man down there to keep a fucking god contained? Really? Did we learn nothing about him after the New Mexico incident? How the hell did you expect Phil to keep Loki contained? Thor's brother is batshit insane and we already knew he doesn't play by the same rules we do."

"Agent Coulson was armed with the prototype built based on Destroyer's technology. He was well capable of--" Fury began, only to be interrupted by Miri when she slammed her fist down on the edge of his desk.

"You let him take untested weaponry up against Loki? And you let him go alone? Pardon me, sir, but is your eye patch on too tight? I think its cutting off circulation your brain. Because I could swear it sounds like you're admitting that you set him up to fail."

Fury drew himself up to his full height and glared at her. Any other time, Miri would have taken it for the warning sign it was meant to be. But not now. Not when she was hanging on to her sanity by a thread. The only thing she could do was lash out and hope she hurt him with her words as much as he'd hurt her. "I'm going to let your insubordination go because I know you're in shock and grieving, Agent Grant. But I suggest that you don't push your luck. You won't like it when I push back."

"You haven't seen anything yet, sir," she snapped off, making sure to put a touch of sarcastic bite into his title. Fury scowled, letting her know she'd hit home with her barb.

"Agent Quinn. Get your partner out of my office before I have her thrown in the brig for insubordination." The tone of his voice saw Miri lunging for him. but Alex's hand on her arm drew her up short. She turned to shoot a glare at Alex, only to find that her friend wasn't looking at her. She was staring at Fury, green eyes spitting sparks as anger simmered in them.

"We're going, sir. And just so you know, this was the dickiest thing you've ever done, sir. Agent Coulson might be a badass, but he deserves back up as much as anyone else. Sending him after Loki alone was wrong and I really hope I'm there when Miri puts you on your ass." Before he could say anything, Alex was tugging Miri toward the door. She shoved Miri through roughly, then made sure to slam the metal door as hard as she was able.

"You shouldn't have stopped me, Alex," Miri snarled, but she turned and started up the corridor. Alex fell in behind her.

"There'll be a better time, Miri. He was expecting it. You want him off kilter when you punch him." Alex paused, giving her time to think her words over. After a few minutes, she spoke again. This time, there was a hint of a snarl to her words. "And I really want to see you put that man on his ass, Miri. Its no less than he deserves."

It was too quiet in the hall, Fury's words echoing loudly in Miri's head. She swallowed hard and gave Alex a look. "Get me the hell out of here. I don't care where we go. Just get me out of here."

~*~*~*~*~

Alex stared at the television, watched the never ending cycle of images being played and replayed on every major news media channel. She'd long ago turned down the sound, but she couldn't quite force herself to turn off the picture. The beer in her hands had gone warm long ago, but she still drank from the bottle in an attempt to make her brain shut off. To put an end to the words that circled mercilessly around her head. "I'm sorry, Agent Grant. Agent Coulson is dead.

It just couldn't be.

She lifted the bottle to her lips, took a deep pull off of it, made a face as the piss warm liquid slid down her throat. Fury was an asshole. A giant fucking asshole and she couldn't repress the urge to return to the helicarrier with her wrench in hand. Assaulting him would see her ass landed in the brig, but it would feel really fucking good to whack the mother fucker upside the head. Because she really hated him right now. Hated him for putting Coulson's life on the line the way he had. Hated him for putting that lost look on Miri's face.

Fuck. Miri. She should be sitting with her friend right now, not sitting at home on her couch, watching the news and waiting for the sound of keys in the door. Miri needed her. And she'd been fully prepared to go home with her friend, to hold her and cry with her and help her deal with the pain of loss. But Miri had closed herself off and told Alex to more or less fuck off when she'd offered her friend a shoulder. So she'd been forced to leave Miri alone and she hated that. She hated that she couldn't help her friend cope with the loss and the grief and the rage. She hated feeling fucking useless.

She went to take another drink and found the bottle empty. Fuck. Why weren't these things bottomless? Rising to her feet, she shuffled to the kitchen and dragged another long neck out of the fridge. The action brought to her attention, yet again, that she was still in a standard issue S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuit, still covered in dirt and grease and maybe even some blood. She should go shower and clean up. But she just didn't have the energy. Truth was, she was still on edge, still waiting. Clint would be home soon and she wanted to be waiting for him when he showed up.

That made her feel guilty all over again and, without meaning to, her thoughts turned once again to Miri.

Fuck it. She brought the remainder of the six pack from the fridge, carrying it with her in that cheap ass cardboard carrier back to the living room. The beer thunked satisfyingly when she set it down on the wooden coffee table. Taking her seat once more, she popped the top off her beer and took a long drink off of it. Her eyes glued themselves to the screen once more and she continued to watch the same thing over and over again. Continued to drink. Continued to try and keep her thoughts at bay. Continued waiting for the sound of keys in the door.

~*~

She was half asleep, half waking, when she thought she heard the metallic jangle of keys in the lock. Alex dragged her eyes open to find that the news was still reporting on the alien invasion in New York, on the Avengers' daring battle against the alien forces. The same images flashed again and again, ones she'd seen a thousand times before. One hand went searching blindly for the remote, which she never found, while her other lifted the bottle she still held in her fingers. There was a slosh of beer at the bottom that told her she hadn't finished it. Naturally she rectified that immediately, before the memories of the day could settle in.

"Why are you watching this shit, Lexi?" Clint's voice was rough and drawn. The sound of his keys landing in the dish near the door brought her head around to see him standing there, blue eyes studying her intently. Watching her carefully. She let her gaze slide over him, took note of the raw patches of skin showing through on his arms and the way his hair haloed his head haphazardly. He was in a t-shirt and jeans, jacket hanging from one hand.

"Nothing else on," she replied before setting the empty bottle down on the table. It took its place up next to the other five empties. Clint's eyes followed her motions and he frowned to see the drained six pack.

"Lexi." His tone was filled with displeasure.

"I thought I'd lost you," she replied quietly, gaze sliding back to the television. It was an actual live shot, the sky behind the reporter dark. Fires still burned and lights burned brightly to show every last scrap of rubble that cluttered the fractured street. "When Fury told me that Loki'd taken you... I thought I'd lost you. I thought you were gone for good. I've been teetering on the razor's edge ever since. The higher the body count got, the more I worried that you'd never come back. Even if we got you back. I was afraid I'd lost you." She whispered the last so that her voice was barely audible in the room.

"I'm here, Lexi. I'm not leaving again," he promised. A stupid promise, because they both knew it could all go to hell tomorrow or the next day or the next. But she accepted it and held it close to her heart. The emotions she'd worked so hard to keep locked behind iron walls burst forth in a spate of tears that left her hiccupping and sobbing almost immediately. She rose from her seat and stumbled across the room to him, let him pull her tight into his embrace and hold her close.

"I thought I'd lost you," she repeated, over and over again until he was left with no recourse but to cover her mouth with his own. Until he kissed her fears away and left her knees weak with relief. She clung to him and sobbed into his t-shirt and felt the guilt eat her up even more.

"Its okay, Lexi. I swear I won't let you go," he whispered, the words spoken right beside her ear. His hands stroked her back. His fingers tangled in the length of her hair. He was solid and real and there, holding her tight to his body. She thought of the conversation with Fury from earlier. She thought of Miri's blank stare, of her friend's disbelief and shock. She thought of Miri left alone and how it must have hurt to learn that Clint was coming back and Coulson wasn't. The dam broke and she shook with the force of her tears.

Clint forced her back and away, forced her to look up at him. His hands held her face, palms rough against her cheeks, while his thumbs reached up to wipe the tears away. "Shhhh. Lexi. Its okay. I'm right here. I'm not going to leave you again. I promise. Please don't cry, sweetheart. I hate it when you cry."

"Miri," she managed to get out before the tears spilled over again. "C- Coulson..."

"I know, baby," he whispered and tugged her into his embrace again, hugged her tight to his chest again. "I am so sorry. I can't imagine what Miri's feeling right now. I half expected you to be with her."

"She didn't want me around," Alex admitted, still stung by Miri's refusal of her company.

"She's got a lot to absorb. She needs time, Alex. She'll come to you when she needs you." She nodded her head against his chest, unwilling to let him go just yet. Clint stroked his hands down her back and dropped a kiss on her head. She nodded and clutched at him even harder.

"Have you eaten?" he asked her quietly.

"No. I haven't had much of an appetite lately. I probably wouldn't have eaten at all while you were gone if not for Miri and Phil..." her words trailed off a moment before she started crying again. She felt him sigh.

"Shower first, followed by food. And then bed," he told her, using the tone of voice he'd always used with her whenever she'd been in need of someone to play the adult with her. Pulling back from his soaked, snotty t-shirt, she looked up at him to find that he was watching her with concern. She tried a smile, but it wouldn't come.

"Shower with me, baby," she pleaded. His gaze slid over her face, taking in the dirty, disheveled mess that was her hair, before moving on to the smudges that marred her clothes. The frown that came when he saw dried blood here and there made her wonder what he was really seeing. She lifted both hands to his face, forced him to look up at her. "Please, Clint. Shower with me. Hold me. I'll hold you. We'll figure everything else later."

He nodded and stepped back, took her hand in his, and tugged her after him toward the bathroom. It was a long damn time before they left the shower and, when they did, they skipped food to curl up in the bed. Clint held her close and slowly stroked her hair with one hand. She fell asleep with the heat of his body against hers and the clear, gorgeous sound of his voice singing in her ear.

~*~*~*~*~

"Hey. You wanna go get some lunch?" Alex asked, head poked into Miri's office because talking to her face to face seemed to be the only way to get an answer out of her these days. Her friend looked up from the paperwork on the desk before her and gave Alex a blank stare. Alex held back the frown and tried to put a smile on her face. It was a hard sell because she'd watched Miri withdraw from her more and more with each passing day.

"I've got a lot of work to do, Alex. Thanks, though. Maybe next time," Miri replied, voice dull and flat, utterly lifeless. It had been this way ever since Fury had given them the news and nothing Alex did seemed to help. She sighed and tried to come up with an excuse to drag Miri away from her desk, something that would actually work. But nothing came to mind and, even worse, Miri wasn't even paying her any attention anymore. Alex heaved a soft sigh and pulled out of the door, tugging the door shut after her.

Fuck. She was losing her best friend. This called for some serious thinking on her part.

The gym was empty when she stepped in, having stopped long enough to change into her work out clothes. She pondered grabbing the portable stereo, but decided against it. She'd only have to turn it off if someone came in. Besides, she needed to be able to hear her thoughts. Taking on the heavy bag with Godsmack or Metallica playing in the background didn't necessarily guarantee such a thing.

She took a minute or two to fit her sparring gloves in place, then headed over to the corner where the heavy bag hung waiting for her. She took a few minutes to warm up, jabbing at the bag with slow, steady strikes that stretched her muscles out for more a strenuous work out. When she was warm and loose, she went after the bag with intent, her fists thudding sharp and hard so that the force of the blow vibrated all the way up her arms.

It hadn't been long since the helicarrier had nearly been destroyed and the subsequent fight on the streets and in the skies of New York City. Just thinking about those events made her heart pound in fear. She lived with the secret fear that someone would demand Clint be made to pay for his part in Loki's assault. If he was taken away from her again, she didn't know what she'd do.

Alex shoved those thoughts aside and turned her attention back to her main focus. Miri. And how Miri was dealing with the loss of Coulson. Or rather, how she wasn't dealing. In the first few days after Fury had told them, Alex had watched as Miri had remained numb and silent, had hoped that it was nothing more than a phase as she dealt with her grief. It had been acceptable and expected at the memorial and funeral services that had been held for Coulson. But as the days between then and now had passed, she'd only withdrawn further. From everything.

The silences had stretched and grown longer until she almost never talked anymore. The numbness seemed to spread until she wasn't even the same person as she once had been. Alex had tried to reach her but Miri had kept pushing her away. Phone calls went unanswered and voice mail unreturned. When she wasn't working, she locked herself away in the apartment she and Phil had shared. It wasn't healthy. Not at all. Alex didn't know what to do.

Frustration at not being able to give Miri the support she so obviously needed rose to the surface. Alex's jabs and punches came faster and stronger, her fists hitting the heavy bag harder than before. Sweat had broken out on her skin, dripped down her cheeks and ran off her nose. Trickled between her breasts and trailed down her spine. She pounded the bag until her knuckles ached and her nails felt as if they were cutting through the material of the glove to score her palms. She welcomed the pain and kept up the punishing pace.

She hated this. She hated the fact that she couldn't do a god damned thing to help her friend. She hated that Miri was pulling away from her. Even her mother had noticed and asked some awkward questions that Alex hadn't known how to answer. She felt helpless. Useless. Unwanted. Not needed. Fucking Loki. She wished they'd let Clint end it. Or Hulk. Fuck. Any of them. It was only a fraction of what the arrogant mother fucker deserved for the lives he'd destroyed and the mess he'd made. She'd love to take her wrench to his weasely face and really fuck him up.

Her arms kept swinging, fists connecting with the heavy bag despite the fact that her muscles trembled with fatigue. She could tell by the sticky feel of her knuckles that they'd split and were bleeding. The gloves had only protected her so far. Her shoulders were tight and ached and the breath sawed in and out of her lungs like a bellow working. Sweat stung her eyes and blurred her vision. But she didn't stop. Couldn't stop. Because the anger still bubbled and boiled in her chest. She had to end it somehow.

"Come on, Lexi. That's enough punishment," Clint's voice hit her ears only a second or two after one of his hands curled around her shoulder. Alex was lost in the moment, her mind set to react to any threat. The touch of a hand on her shoulder when she was in this state was always a threat, no matter who put his hand on her. She spun, wrenching herself out of his hold while bringing a foot up. It was aimed for his mid-section, but it never impacted. Instead, his arms were there to block the kick while one of his own legs lashed out to kick her other foot out from under her.

She went down and immediately rolled up into a crouch, hands ready to strike. Clint sighed heavily and advanced on her, body loose and ready for anything. He didn't crowd her and he didn't rush at her, simply bounced on his feet and waited for her to come at him. Had she been thinking, she would have realized that they'd played this game before, several times. And Clint always won when they did. But she wasn't thinking and, even if she was, she wouldn't have given a shit anyway. She just needed to hurt someone.

Alex launched herself at him, fists flying in a complex series of blows. Naturally he blocked each and every one of them, his arms absorbing the abuse she tried to rain down on him. He gave her five minutes to tire herself out before he caught hold of one arm and twisted it, pulling her into his body at the same time. Before she could attempt to stomp on his foot or crack his nose with the back of her skull, her feet were taken out from under her again and she found herself face down on the floor, her arm still grasped in his hold and one knee pressing into her spine. "Enough, baby. Quit punishing yourself."

"Fuck you," she spat. But she didn't try to fight her way clear of his hold. Too much movement would see her shoulder wrenched from its socket. Instead, she willed the tension to leave her body and did her best to shove the anger and the rage back down. Clint didn't let go of her until she'd been limp and still for nearly five minutes. And he only released his hold on her so that he could pull her to her feet and into his arms. She went without complaint.

"What's got you all pissed off?" he asked softly, turning them so that they were heading for the locker room.

"I thought you were in a briefing. What are you doing here?" she asked, blatantly ignoring his question.

"I saw junior agents running from the gym in screaming fear," he grinned, his voice teasing. She punched him none too gently in the side, satisfied to hear the air run out of him. "Seriously, sweetheart. Tasha came and found me. She said you were in here abusing the crap out of yourself. She might have taken care of it herself, but you would likely have ended up in medical with a concussion. So what's going on?"

"Just trying to sort out my thoughts," she replied. She could feel his gaze heavy on her face, letting her know he didn't believe her for a second. But he said nothing, simply kept his arm around her as he steered her into the women's locker room.

"Shower. Get cleaned up. I'll give you fifteen minutes. If you're not out by then, I'll assume you're trying to drown yourself and I'll come in to get you." There was a leer in his voice and, when she looked up into his face properly, he waggled his eyebrows at her. Alex chuckled softly at his blatant innuendo before reaching up to tug him down into a quick kiss.

"I still need to spar. By all means. Come in and interrupt me. We'll see how that goes."

"Get cleaned up and out in the hallway in fifteen minutes and I will treat you to dinner." He gave an extra eye waggle.

Alex rolled her eyes and jabbed a finger into his belly none too gently. "You always treat me to dinner. I can't cook, remember?" 

"How can I forget? The last time you attempted to cook, you gave everyone food poisoning," he reminded her. She shot him a smile that quickly faded when she recalled that the dinner he was speaking of had been one to which she'd invited Miri and Coulson. "Alex?"

"Rain check, babe. I have something I need to do before I can eat. I'll meet you at home, okay?"

"If I find out that this something you have to do before you eat is punish your hands further, I will let Tasha beat the ever loving shit out of you," he warned. The concern in his words warmed her heart. She gave him a soft smile and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him close to her. There was tension in his body, the same tension that was always there now after everything that had happened with Loki. The same tension that she felt every time they had some sort of disagreement. Like he expected her to walk out on him. Like he expected her to blame him for all of it. Didn't he know that she'd never laid blame for anything at his feet?

Didn't he know that he was her heart? The air she breathed? Didn't he know that she couldn't, didn't want to, live without him? Didn't he know that she loved him more than she loved life itself?

"I have no plans to further abuse my hands, baby. I just... I need to go talk to Miri. I feel like I'm losing her. I'm losing my best friend and I don't know how to help her. I have to try and fix things or..." she trailed off, looking up at him with eyes that she knew were far to big. Clint sighed and closed the distance between them, resting his forehead against her own.

"Lexi. Sweetheart. There's nothing to fix there. Nothing that you can fix, anyway," he told her and she could hear in his voice the blame that he'd already laid on his own head for all that had happened that day. "You didn't do anything wrong." Its my fault that Phil is dead. He didn't say it, but she heard it there anyway. She drew free of his hold and glared at him.

"It isn't your fault. Stop blaming yourself for something you didn't do."

"Baby, I was the one who--" She didn't let him finish the words, just swung her fist and caught him unaware. Her hand screamed at her for the action, but she ignored it. Simply stood there and watched him stare down at her with a vaguely shocked expression on his face.

"You say that again one more time, Clint Barton, and I will end you. It isn't your fault!" she snapped. Then she whirled away and headed into the women's locker room. She'd deal with him when she got home. But first, she had to go deal with Miri.

~*~

Alex gave up after the third knock and went for the keys in her pocket. She'd been standing out in the hallway for the better part of ten minutes, waiting for Miri to answer the door. She knew Miri was here, had sat in her car and stared up at the apartment's windows looking for lights and movement just to be sure. It bothered her that Miri hadn't let her in yet, sent fingers of dread climbing down her spine. She made sure to rattle the keys loudly so as not to startle her friend, but she felt no guilt about sliding the key into the lock and turning it. She felt no guilt what so ever about letting herself in.

The apartment was dimly lit, littered with crumpled up pieces of paper and empty beer bottles. There was a slew of file folders spread across the coffee table and Miri's laptop sat open. Even from where she stood, Alex could see the flickering light of the screen. What she didn't see was dirtied plates, crumpled food wrappers, take out cartons, and abandoned drink cups. The worry and concern clutching tightly to her heart ramped up a notch and left her breathless.

She also didn't see any sign of her friend. "Miri?"

"Go away, Alex." Miri's voice came from the direction of the bedroom. Alex turned to find the other woman standing in the doorway, body illuminated from behind by the dim light of a bedside lamp. Alex crossed her arms over her chest and leaned up against the wall behind her.

"Not a chance. Not until we talk."

"There's nothing to talk about," Miri replied evenly. Tonelessly. Alex frowned and shook her head.

"There's plenty to talk about. Like how you're obviously not eating. And how you're obviously not coping. And how you're pulling away from me and Clint and everyone. You can talk to me, Miri. You can share your pain with me. I can help you with-- "

"There's nothing to help me with, Alex. There's nothing to talk about. There's nothing you can do! There. Is. Nothing!" Miri snapped, bringing Alex's words to an abrupt end. "Just get out. Get out and leave me alone. I'm fine."

The lack of emotion in the other woman's voice hurt Alex's heart. She pushed off the wall and crossed toward Miri. The closer she got, the more frightened she became. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, living in her eyes. It was like looking into the glassy stare of a corpse. "You're not fine, Miri. You won't talk to me. You won't let me offer you my support. You do nothing beyond work. My mother is asking after you and I can't tell her you're falling apart because I can't tell her the whole story. You're my best fucking friend, more like my sister, and you won't let me in to help you."

"I told you. There's nothing to help me with. I don't need your shoulder or your sympathy or your support. I'm just fucking fine. Now run along and go home to Clint. I'm sure he's worried about you." There was a spark of something in her words. Alex couldn't figure out what it was. Jealousy or hurt or anger. But it was there for a fleeting moment and it never touched her eyes.

"Clint knows where I am," she replied shortly. "I'm worried about you, Miri. Please. Just... Just talk to me."

"Go home, Alex. There is nothing to talk about. Nothing. I don't need your help and I don't need your fucking sympathy."

"You need to talk about this, Miri. I can see how its eating you up from the inside. I-- " she began, only to have her words come to a screeching halt when Miri threw herself into Alex and shoved her up against the wall. Put the muzzle of her Glock dead center against Alex's forehead. Alex swallowed hard and kept her gaze locked on the other woman's face. "Miri. Please. It doesn't have to be like this. Just talk to me. Please."

"I will only tell you this one more time, Alex," Miri ground out between clenched teeth. The barrel of the gun dug in. Just a little. "There is nothing to talk about. Nothing! You can't help me. You can't do anything for me. You can't fucking help. So leave me. The fuck. Alone! Get out of here now and go home. Do not come back. Just go. Because if you don't... I swear to god, Alex." Miri cocked the hammer back to drive her point home. The metallic click was loud in the silence of the apartment.

Alex swallowed hard again and lifted her hands in an 'I surrender' kind of gesture. Miri backed up, pulled her gun away from Alex's skull, but she didn't lower the weapon. It remained leveled dead center of Alex's forehead, ready to put a hole there if the need arose. Alex paced backward, back toward the hallway that would take her to the door. She didn't break eye contact the entire time, let Miri see the hurt and the betrayal on her face. She wanted to say something. Anything. But she couldn't find the words.

In the end, there was nothing to say at all.

~*~*~*~*~

The fact that he didn't have to dodge gunfire when he picked the lock on her door was sign number one to him that no matter what Alex had said, he was right. He'd seen this woman take down a dozen HYDRA goons with a pocket knife and a broken ankle. There was no way she didn't know he was there.

He'd decided to see for himself what was going on after Alex had come home and refused steadfastly to talk about what had happened with Miri. All Alex had been willing to tell him was that the other woman had no need for compassion or companionship or anything else at all. Then she'd polished off the rest of the six pack in the fridge and had started muttering to herself about what she'd seen in Miri's apartment. All of it had sounded a touch odd to Clint, had started him thinking about what was really going on. Especially when Alex had let it slip that Miri had put a gun to her head.

He didn't like the picture he'd come up with because it was absolutely fucking suicidal. And it was exactly what he wanted to do himself.

"Miri?"

Her voice was soft, just loud enough to hear and barely enough to track her to where she was sitting in her living room. "Get out."

He took paused at the end of the hall and took in the scene. Gone was the mess Alex had described. It had been replaced with a new one. Most times, he'd say she'd been keeping busy. Looked like half her personal gun safe was cleared out and laid out on the table, all freshly cleaned and ready for use. Several blades sat amongst the guns, as well, and the sharp glint of the street light from the window of the blade in her hand told him there was something different about that one. He really didn't like what he was seeing. "No."

"I said, get. Out." Her tone didn't change, not really. He sighed to himself. Sign number two that he was right in what he was thinking. He knew how she operated. And Alex had said a thousand times that she never got worried if Miri yelled or showed how pissed off she was. It was when she was like this, controlled, quiet. That was when she was dangerous. And he thought he knew where that danger was going to get aimed. "Now, Clint."

"No, Miri." He picked up the Glock resting on the corner of the table where she'd left it. It wasn't loaded. Yet. It looked like the end of the muzzle matched up to the faint bruise Miri had left on Alex's forehead. He flicked his gaze her way. "Looks like you've got something in the works."

"Go home to Alex."

"No." He cocked the gun, inspected it for a minute before turning his attention to the knife in her hand. "Taking S.H.I.E.L.D.'s toys with you? That's not steel."

"No. Its not." She lifted her head and glared at him. "And its not S.H.I.E.L.D.'s. Its mine."

"Yours?" That was curious. Clint sat down on the far end of the couch and he was very, very aware of how intently her eyes followed his every move. His eyes skimmed over the blade again. He'd seen that metal before and there was no way in hell that it was any kind of steel. "Come on, Grant. Unless I'm wrong, that's-- "

Miri cut him off with curt response. "It is."

He blinked at her. "Where the fuck would you get-- "

"It was a gift." Her eyes dropped back down to the blade in her hand, but he didn't miss a beat.

"A gift. Who the f-- " His words trailed off because even before the phrase had fully left his mouth, it sunk in. "Oh."

"Yes."

"Jesus, Miri. I'm-- "

"If you say you're sorry, I'll bury this between your eyes, Barton. I swear to God," she snarled, adjusted her grip on the knife

Clint put his hands up and inched back on the couch to let her know he'd meant no harm. "Okay. Okay. Just relax."

Miri watched him for a few moments before she shifted the knife back around. The blade moved in her hand like it was part of her and he breathed a little easier when she didn't have it in immediate attack position. Not a lot easier. but a little. "How did--"

She stared at him for so long that he thought she wouldn't answer. Then she sighed and ran her thumb along the super sharp edge of the blade, careful not to slice her skin open on it. "We... did a mission to Wakanda. The king was so damn impressed with him that he gave us these... It was a matched set, actually." There was nothing in her voice to give away what she might be feeling about it. Clint's suspicions only solidified further with it. He was sure she was planning something. And he was sure that he knew what that something was.

"I didn't know about you two until Alex told me," he admitted softly, careful to keep any pity he felt out of his voice. He didn't want to set her off if he could help it.

"Nobody did." She let out a dry laugh, shook her head. Clint was sure that she didn't find any of this funny. "Well... Fury did. Alex did. I'm pretty sure Natasha had it mostly figured out."

"Stark said something about a cellist..." Clint told her, watched her carefully for any signs and just managed to catch the blush on her cheeks before she spoke again.

"What did he say?"

"That there was a cellist in Portland. That he wanted to track her down, let her know what happened..." Clint trailed off when something in Miri's gaze softened. Just for a second or two. Then it was gone and her stare went back to being hard. Impenetrable. Empty.

"It was me." He stared at her in morbid curiosity, not quite able to help himself. Miri shrugged and glanced down at her hands. "It was part of the cover. I... We were on this mission, deep undercover about six months ago."

He nodded. "I remember."

"He... That's when we kind of... figured all of this out. That it wasn't just--" Her words faltered only a moment before she squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. He knew what that meant, could see the signs as plain as day even though she was doing her best to hide it. Hadn't see seen it before, on another face? Miri had loved Coulson and, if Clint felt like placing a bet in that moment, he'd put money on the fact that Coulson had loved her right back. This whole fucking mess had to be killing her and it couldn't help that he was in her face, alive and breathing after being taken by Loki. He was alive and Coulson was dead. Anger he'd tried hard to quash in the weeks since the attack started boiling under his skin. It took Miri's words to pull him back from the abyss that he seemed to be teetering on. "I was posing as a cellist. I'd played through school and... Well, it seemed like a nice way to hid what was really going on."

"And Portland?" he asked, voice soft and gentle.

"I was born there." She shrugged like it was no big deal, twirling the glittering knife in her hand once again. Clint's eyes dropped to it and watched it for a few seconds. "It was easy to remember. Technically, I am a cellist from Portland..."

"Hiding in plain sight. What better way than to disguise the truth than by using the truth?" That sounded like something Coulson would have come up with. It was definitely his style. They lapsed into silence, which seemed odd given the fact that Miri had been trying to get him out of her apartment since he'd walked in. Maybe she'd listen to him. He glanced down at his hands, hanging limply between his splayed knees, remembered the bow in his hand as he'd destroyed life after life because it was what Loki had wanted of him. Then his gaze went distant and he stared at the far wall, at a blank spot. "Alex is worried."

"I told Alex I was fine. I meant it. I'm fine. If she sent you here to check up on me, you can get right the fuck out," Miri snarled at him. Clint shook his head and lifted a hand to run it through his hair absently.

"I meant about me. Of course she's worried about you and nothing you say is going to change that. She's more like her mother than she's willing to admit. The Catholic in her can't let it go," he replied. Shook his head and chuffed out laughter that held no mirth in it. "But I see it in her eyes when she thinks I'm not looking. She's worried that I'm going to snap or something after... everything."

Miri was silent for a good long time, absorbing what he'd said to her. She shifted slightly, returning the knife to the table with the rest of her weapons. He wasn't fool enough to think that she still didn't have something on her with which to inflict pain. He had no plans to find out what it was, either. "You were under Loki's control. You can't be held responsible for what you did." He was heartened by the certainty he heard in her voice.

"I hold myself responsible. Loki's control or not, I did those things. I have to live with that, Miri. And it fucking kills me every time I think about it. Every time I close my eyes, I see myself pulling back the bowstring and... " His voice choked as he trailed off and his hands fisted until his nails bit into his palms. He shook his head and turned to look at her. "I'm teetering on the edge, Miri. There's so much rage and hatred building up inside of me. And not a god damn thing I try will take it away."

She looked at him, didn't draw her gaze away from his. Good. He wanted her to see what he was thinking and feeling. He wanted her to understand that he got it, that he understood. "I keep thinking that maybe, if I put an arrow through the fucker's eye, it'll end all of the guilt and hate and self-loathing that I feel. But then I stop myself before I actually make any plans. Because I think about what would happen to Alex if I went off half-cocked and did something foolish. I think of how she'd feel, how she'd react, if something happened to me. If I died. Who the hell would take care of her if that happened? Worse, what if she decided to go off and do something insane? What would I do without her?"

Miri stared for a moment. When her answer came, it was soft and almost inaudible. "You'd go on."

He nodded. "It'd hurt like hell, but I would." She said nothing more. Clint rose to his feet, indicating with one hand that he was going to leave. "I know it hurts like hell, Miri. And I know you figure there's nothing left for you. But Alex loves you. She'd never be the same if something happened to you. Promise me you'll think about that before you consider doing anything rash. Please."

He didn't expect an answer and he didn't get one. Nor did he get a blade or bullet to the back. In fact, he didn't hear anything from her as he let himself out of the apartment. And that was far more worrisome than any other response she could have given him

~*~*~*~*~

It was the beeping drone of a high-pitched, computerized sound that brought Miri out of a light sleep that had, thankfully, not been plagued with dreams. She took a few seconds to get her bearings, then glanced at her laptop. A bright green dot was blinking on the screen, on a global map that was tied to the program she'd installed to track the unique frequencies given off by Asgardian magic. Or rather, in this case, by Jotun magic. She snarled and threw herself from the bed, already moving to put on clean clothes.

Fucking Loki. She'd known it was too good to be true when Thor had taken his sick as fuck brother back to Asgard. The fucker was slippery as a snake. She'd expected him back sooner or later, had started working on the program to track his magical signature almost from day one. And now... Now she was going to go treat him to the same kind of hell he'd put her through. She was going to corner the son of a bitch and pay him back for Phil.

If she didn't come back from it, so what? It wasn't like she had anyone waiting for her when she came in the door anymore.

For a few moments, she heard Clint's voice in her head, low and rough and filled with the emotion he'd never share with anyone else. If anyone in the world understood what she was feeling, it was Clint. Loki had taken from the man, just like he'd taken from Miri. She heard him asking her, not pleading or begging, but asking her to reconsider doing anything stupid. Maybe it should have mattered, what her taking on Loki by herself would mean to Clint and Alex and Mary Magdelaine. It didn't. It didn't make a shitting  bit of difference in the long run. Phil was gone and Loki had to answer for that.

Everything she put on was black, right down to her underwear. She didn't want him to see her coming until it was too late. She wanted him to look at her and see Death. His death. Black t-shirt and fatigues. Her old combat boots. Black nylon holster for her guns and knives. A black knit hat to cover the bright spot that was her hair. At least until she was face to face with him. Then she'd tug the hat off and she'd let him see blood and death.

The green dot still blinked in the same place it had when she'd come awake. It didn't look like it had moved. Miri sat down on her couch and began typing, the keys clacking softly under her fingers. The coordinates that marked the spot where the dot blinked came up. She copied them down, then opened up a separate program that translated the coordinates into a physical address. When she saw where he was, she smiled an evil smile. "Got you, you fuck."

She took a few moments to collect her weapons, even though she knew logically that they probably wouldn't work well against the demi-god. He was fucking magical, after all. But she had to make the effort. For Phil.

For a brief moment, she heard his voice in her head, telling her that she was effectively committing suicide, that Loki would gun her down without batting an eyelash. She heard him tell her that she needed a better plan, that she needed the proper tools and equipment. That she needed someone to go along and back her up. She needed a team and partners. Miri shoved that away and tried to focus instead on what she would have to do before it was all said and done.

"I have to do this, Phil. I have to avenge you. He can't get away with what he did to you. He can't," Miri murmured into the empty apartment.

"I'm worried about you, Miri. Please. Just... Just talk to me." Alex's voice followed after Phil's. words heavily laden with concern and fear. Miri hated that she'd turned her best friend away from her the way she had, but she knew Alex too well. If she'd known that Miri had been planning this, she'd have done one of two things. She'd have either told Fury or someone and Miri would have been locked up faster than a stray cat at the pound. Or she'd have decided to go with Miri and help bring down Loki. And Miri wasn't going to be responsible for anyone getting hurt because she had fucked up priorities.

"I'm sorry, Alex. I wish I could have told you. But I won't risk you."

Not surprisingly, Clint came after Alex, his words laden with all of the emotions that he knew she'd understand. "I know it hurts like hell, Miri. And I know you figure there's nothing left for you. But Alex loves you. She'd never be the same if something happened to you. Promise me you'll think about that before you consider doing anything rash. Please." And she had thought about it. For a few minutes after he'd left. But she couldn't not do it. Loki had to fucking pay.

"Take care of Alex for me, Clint. You have no idea just how much she needs you to take care of her."

Miri let her gaze fall on a picture that rested on her bookshelf, breaking up a line of paperbacks. It was one that had been taken a long time ago, on a mission to somewhere in South America. Back before they'd been couples. There were honest smiles and laughter on her face, on Alex's face, on Clint's face. There'd been a faint smirk on Phil's. It had been taken in a club where they'd ended up dancing to help keep their cover and further their mission. Some passing photographer trying to make a few bucks had snapped it. Alex had one just like it at home in her bedroom. Somewhere. "I'm sorry, guys. I wish things had been different. I really do."

Miri scooped up her keys, her cell phone, and the bag with the rest of her weapons and headed out the door. She had a meeting to keep.

~*~*~*~*~

Nick looked up from the stack of papers before him as a sharp knock resounded on his door. He sighed and sat back in his chair, careful to close the files and tuck them at the bottom of a pile resting on the right hand side of his desk. Exhaustion ate at him, but he pushed it back, rubbed his hands over his face and told himself that there was no going back. Only forward. There were times when he really hated this fucking job. Every time he had to tell a family that their loved one wasn't coming home, it took a little more of his heart. Every time he had to tell a person that their friend had gone over the wall, it ate a little more of his soul. "Enter!" he barked.

The door opened to show him the blank faces of Agents Quinn and Barton. He waved a hand at them, silently ordering them to step into his office and close the door. They came in, Barton pushing the door closed behind them, and moved to take a seat when he motioned toward the chairs waiting for them before his desk. He wasn't surprised when Barton more or less threw himself into a chair while Quinn remained standing, body in a deceptively limp stance that he'd seen before, only seconds before she'd thrown herself at a trio of HYDRA agents.

He shot her a raised brow, watched as she refused to be intimidated by him, and fought back a smile. "I'm sure you're both wondering why I've called you in here so early in the morning."

"The thought had crossed my mind, sir," Barton replied before Quinn could. No doubt she had a few choice words for him. Nick could live with that, so long as she remembered who he was and who she was and who gave her the orders.

"Loki has escaped from Asgard. We have it on good authority that he's back here on Earth."

"He's back, sir?" This from Quinn, who was still maintaining a blank look despite the fire burning in her eyes.

"He's back. We got confirmation of his arrival last night." Nick let his gaze shift to where Barton sat. The sniper wasn't pretending to hide how he felt about the news. There was a mix of emotions shining in his eyes and his mouth was downturned with displeasure. The tension in the man's shoulders suggested he was expecting the worst.

Well, he'd get it. Just not in the manner he expected.

"We also have confirmation that Agent Grant has gone to intercept Loki. Its highly likely that she plans on attempting an assassination."

Quinn broke, troubled eyes focusing on him. Her hands clenched into fists at her side, but not before Nick saw the slight tremor in them. "She's going to get herself killed."

"That's no doubt what she intends," Barton replied, voice soft. Nick looked at him and saw that the other man had seen this coming for some time because he sure as fuck wasn't as surprised by it as Quinn was. Then again, maybe it wasn't so surprising, given everything Barton had gone through. "If I may speak freely, sir?"

"When have I ever been able to stop you, Barton?" Nick asked. The other man flashed him a quick smile that was gone as quickly as it came. Then his eyes turned serious and he shot an apologetic look toward Quinn.

"I spoke with Agent Grant a few days ago, sir. I... may have seen this coming. She was engaged in cleaning every single weapon she owns. And may I say, it is quite impressive."

"You dick!" Quinn snapped, fist flying out to hit right in the meat of the man's arm. Barton looked up at her and took hold of the offending hand. "You went to see Miri and you didn't tell me?"

"You were so concerned about her. And everything you told me suggested that there was something going on. So I went over to check up on her. I was right. She was planning even then to go after Loki if she got the chance. She pushed you away because she didn't want you involved," Barton told the woman. She frowned and tugged her hand free of his hold.

"You should have told me that you suspected something was going on!" she insisted.

"Why? So that you could stop her? Or so you could join her in her lunacy? She was protecting you because she knew if she told you, you'd insist on going along with her. Then you'd both get yourself killed and where would that leave me?"

"You had no right to keep this from me. I've a good mind to go home and cook for you because that's how much of a shit you're being," she snarled. Barton's face slipped into lines of distress. Nick felt sorry for him because he'd heard just how horrible Quinn's cooking abilities were.

"Children. I think that's enough for the day," he said, rising from his seat to walk around the desk. Both of his agents fell silent, watching him as he moved to stand in front of his desk. He propped his ass against the edge and stretched his legs out in front of them. Crossed his arms over his chest. Drew their full attention his way. "Very good. Now that we've got that out of our system, maybe you'll both shut the fuck up and let me talk."

Quinn stepped away from Barton and resumed her deceptively casual pose. "Yes, sir," she nodded.

He let his gaze slip between them, eye dark with warning while checking to make sure this wasn't going to be a problem. He was well aware how volatile Quinn and Barton's relationship could be. He was also aware how quickly they made up. There wasn't anything that happened within his agency that he didn't know about. "Can I continue?"

"Please," Barton nodded.

Nick pointed his hand at the large flat screen and clicked a button on the remote in his hand. The screen came to life with bright color, a satellite map of the tri-state area. There was a blinking green dot on the screen, located directly in the middle of New York City. "Immediately after receiving the news about Agent Coulson, Agent Grant began putting together a program that she could use to track the unique qualities of our Asgardian visitor's magic. Her program is based on one I had our tech guys start working on shortly after the New Mexico incident. Up until recently, we haven't needed it. After the attack on New York, we were able to get the technology working correctly. So I had the tech boys set it up. Agent Grant borrowed some of it for her program."

"How do you know?" Quinn asked, voice all business.

"Because I've been keeping my eye on her. Ever since I delivered the news."

Quinn opened her mouth, likely to make a comment that could see her landed in hot water. Nick shot her a look that quelled any sense of rebellion in her. She closed her mouth and turned her attention back to the screen. "That's Loki's location?" she asked quietly.

"Yes. He's been there for roughly an hour." He stared at them both for a few moments before continuing. "Agent Grant left for his location only moments ago. I have men covering her and his location. Reports indicate that she hasn't arrived yet. But she will get there soon. And she's going to need back up. I'm sending you two after her. I'd like to have my agent back. And I'd like to have Loki in custody. That son of a bitch needs to answer for the things he's done."

"You're sending Hawkeye and I in against Loki?" Quinn asked. And though there was nothing in her voice that would give away what she was thinking, Nick could tell it was there. Quinn was worried about what would happen if Barton got anywhere near Loki again. Before he could answer her, though, the door to his office opened without warning and a member of the medical staff just barged right into his office.

"Director Fury, sir," the woman breathed out his name, suggesting she'd run up to his office from the medical wing.

"Excuse the hell out of you! Can't you see that I'm in the middle of a meeting? Did my secretary not tell you that I wasn't to be disturbed? What the hell is so important that you have to interrupt my meeting?" he snapped at the woman. She gave him wild eyes before her gaze took in both Agents Barton and Quinn.

"I'm sorry, sir. But its important. I was told to-- "

"You tell whoever told you to come disturb me that I will personally chew their ass out after I get done here. Now get out of my office before I throw you out," he ordered.

"But Director! Agent Coulson is awake and is demanding to speak to you. Right now," the woman blurted out before turning and fast stepping out of his office. The door had barely closed behind her when both Barton and Quinn turned to look at him. While Barton looked less inclined to commit murder, Nick was kind of glad that Quinn didn't have a wrench in her hand.

"What did she mean, Agent Coulson is awake?" Quinn asked, voice low and laced with a fine, trembling edge of danger. "What the hell is going on here, sir?" She paused for all of two seconds before she spoke again. This time, her voice was a little heavier. A little firmer. A little deadlier. "Are you telling me that Agent Coulson is alive and you lied to me? You lied to Miri about his death? You looked her in the eye and told her that the man she's over the moon for is dead? What the ever loving fuck were you thinking?"

"Agent Quinn!" he snapped with enough force to see her blinking up at him. "I'll thank you to remember just who you're speaking to. I made a judgement call and I do not have to justify my actions to you."

"You don't? Tell me that when I bring Miri's body back. Because she sees this as a suicide mission, sir. She went to get herself killed."

"She won't get herself killed if you stop trying to chew my ass and go back her up!" he retorted.

"Yes, sir!" Quinn snarled, snapping off a salute that held all the sarcasm she could put into an action.

"Stop by R&D. There are a few supplies you're going to need. I'll call down and tell them to have everything ready for you. Now get your ass out of my office." He made sure to shoot her a disgusted look. It didn't phase her.

"You can bet your ass that you and I will sure as shit be talking about this when I get back. Sir." Quinn turned and stomped from his office without another word. Barton stood and looked at him, then turned and followed the other agent out. The door closed quietly behind him, leaving Fury alone in his office.

Nick sagged against the edge of his desk and heaved a sigh. Well, shit. Wasn't that a conversation he could live without?

~*~*~*~*~

Miri stared at Thor's brother and waited for the anger to take her. Waited for the rage to fill her veins. Waited for something to spark inside of her and make her feel something, anything, again. But there was nothing. Not even in the face of Loki's mocking smile and his shrewd eyes as they raked over her frame. "I should be offended that you are the only one who has come to put a stop to my nefarious plans," he grinned at her. All she heard were the words of a mad man.

She shrugged, not bothering to respond. He didn't need to know that there wasn't anyone else coming, that she was the only one who knew that he was there. He didn't need to know that she didn't care what his nefarious plans were.

Loki stood in one place, center of the floor of a large and sprawling abandoned warehouse. The gates were chained shut, as were the doors. She'd had to use bolt cutters to get inside. The black bag with all of her weapons rested beside her feet, the length of her trench coat hiding the weapons she'd strapped to her person before leaving the apartment. She watched as he studied her, his gaze seemingly seeing straight through her. "You're not the first one to attempt to capture me. The last one who tried found himself impaled on my sceptre. What makes you more capable than him?"

Her fingers curled into her palms, hands fisting at her sides. He spotted it, his smile growing when he did. "Did he die? He was pathetic. A mouse of man. Did he pass from this world into the next? Do you come to avenge his death?"

"You aren't allowed to talk about him," she snarled quietly. One hand inched closer to her holster and the butt of the Glock that rested there.

"I would suggest you stop the movement of your hands unless you wish to feel the bite of my magic," Loki warned, eyes fixed on her hand.

"You can suggest all you like. That doesn't mean I'll listen." She hadn't even finished her sentence when the Glock rested heavy and secure in her hand.

"I see. You have come to avenge the little man. Who was he to you? Friend? Colleague? Lover?" Her hand tightened on the grip with the last word, bringing a knowing smile to his face. "Ah. So he was a lover. Tell me, mortal. How does it feel to know that he died for nothing? That his sacrifice was made in vain because I will destroy you and I will take this puny planet as my own."

"One more comment about him and I'll see to it that you have an eye in the center of your forehead," she whispered, voice tight and thick. Loki's smile grew until it looked as if his head would split in two.

"How very unfortunate for you because I have no intention of allowing you to put an end to my plans. So allow me to make this easy on you. Throw down your weapon and I'll kill you quickly. Then you'll be able to be with your little man again. If you believe that such a thing is possible."

"Enough of this, Loki. It all ends here. Now." Miri lifted the gun and aimed. Fired. The bullet flew straight and true, but Loki moved. Miri growled a few expletives and fired again. And again. And again. She pulled the trigger until the gun clicked empty. Loki stopped moving and laughed at her before launching a magical attack her way. She dodged, rolled across the dirty concrete floor, and came up with a second Glock on her hand.

"Poor, deluded child. Do you really think your simple weapons are a match for me? Even your pathetic little man had a weapon built from magic and it failed to harm me. But it amuses me to watch you try."

Miri ignored his latest batch of taunting and took aim. Almost as soon as the round left the chamber, Loki was firing his magic off at her again. She had to duck and roll and seek out hiding places in the empty warehouse. No matter how fast she moved, he moved faster. And she never hit him. At least she hadn't created any doubles for her to deal with. If he'd done that, this would have been over before it had even gotten started.

Loki kept her on the move, kept moving himself so she could never hit him. He kept spewing his filth, calling Phil pathetic and weak. Saying he deserved to die. Claiming that she'd never deserved Phil because she was a lousy shot and a poor agent. She knew he was trying to make her mad so that she'd slip up. And she did her best to let it roll off her back. But he wouldn't stop, kept throwing out his horrible vitriol. Eventually, it was more than she could stand.

The tight control she had on her emotions broke and she threw herself at him, pulled the trigger until her gun was empty before going for the next. And the next. And the next. He laughed her off, untouched and unharmed while her heart broke in her chest again. After a certain point, she ditched the effort to shoot him and launched herself at the ass.

He let her catch him, let her wrap a hand into the cloth of his garment and draw her other hand back to throw a punch. But before she could swing at him, he wrapped one hand around her throat and lifted her until her feet dangled above the floor by a good six inches. She had no choice but to wrap her hands around his wrist to keep him from choking her. Not that she didn't want to die. She just wanted to take him out with her. Her lungs squeezed down in an effort to find more air. but there was none. Her chest went tight and burned with the need to breathe.

"Stupid mortal. Did you really think you would be able to stop me on your own?" he snarled, the madness she'd heard in his voice shining in his eyes. "You're nothing to me. A gnat to be swatted and flicked aside. Forgotten. You can't kill me. I'm a god!"

"You're a fucking lunatic," she snarled and brought a booted foot out. It caught him dead in the groin. Loki made some kind of noise, but she didn't have time to decipher what it was because in the next heart beat, she was sailing across the room. Miri's hand found the knives strapped to her sides and pulled one of her blades. She didn't even have time to line it up properly. but it didn't matter. It was flying end over end toward its target when she slammed into a pile of old boxed. They collapsed beneath her weight and saw her crashing to the ground.

The impact knocked the breath from her and left her unable to move. Loki's laughter poured across the warehouse, slithering into her ears like deadly vines. "That was such a pathetic attempt, mortal! Come, surely you can offer me a better fight than this!" he snarled. "Let us see what you can accomplish when I take away your weapons hand."

There was a soft whirring noise only a moment before the blade of her own knife sank deep into her shoulder. It left her dominant hand useless, her arm numb from shoulder to finger tips. She bit down on her lip to stifle the scream that rose up her throat, but it still flowed out of her in a long whimper. She reached up with her other hand and wrapped her fingers around the grip, gave an experimental tug to see how deeply it was embedded. Pain radiated out from entry point, letting her know that removal would require lots of drugs and several other pairs of hands.

When she looked up, Loki was looming over her, He was leering, his eyes burning so brightly with his madness. "Can you do no more, little mortal? Is this the end of your fight? Will you die here, lying on your back and skewered by your own weapon? Will you die before you can seek vengeance for your fallen lover?"

"Suck this, mother fucker!" Miri snarled and rose up, her free hand curled around the grip of the blade she'd gotten in Wakanda. She ignored the shaft of pain and the way the blade in her shoulder shifted against her bones, ignored the way she wanted to just sink into the darkness and never come out. She screamed out her rage and frustration and hate and pain and sorrow as she buried the blade she'd pulled when he'd been sneering at her deep in his thigh. The hum of the blade vibrated up her arm, the song of the vibranium a soothing tune as it reacted to his magic and carved through it, as it parted flesh and bone to leave him screaming inarticulately in pain.

"Heartless bitch! You'll die for attacking my person!" he snarled, voice heavy with the agony of the knife in his leg. One hand reached under the layers of his clothing and armor to come away with a blade that would be big enough to end her life if he chose to drive it into her throat. She stared at him defiantly and waited for him to strike.

"Brother!" The roar echoed loudly through the empty warehouse. Loki's head jerked up and he stared toward the door. A moment later, there was a pulse of power and a wave of something washed over them. Loki staggered back, his eyes going wide. The knife fell from his hands and his gaze lowered to take them in. They trembled ever so slightly. "This madness is over!"

She glanced to her left to find that Thor stood only a handful of feet away. Alex and Clint were with him. She had an odd looking gun pointed at him and it was almost as big as she was. Loki must have looked at her because she grinned wickedly and tightened her grip on the trigger ever so slightly. "Remember this, big boy? I bet you do. Coulson used this to put your ass through a wall. Shall we see if we can recreate that?"

Clint was at Alex's side. Instead of his bow and arrow, he was holding  a moderately sized weapon. The end of the short barrel glowed with pale blue light. It was pointed at Loki. And Clint was grinning. "Like that? This is something else we developed from Destroyer after your first visit. It just fucked up all of your magic. Guess that means you aren't saying goodbye to us just yet, doesn't it? Man, I owe the guys in R&D because this thing is fucking sweet. Maybe another blast will make you completely fucking normal. What would you do without your magic? Want to find out?"

Miri ignored her friends and dragged herself up to her feet, hand reaching out to grab hold of a nearby support pillar. When she thought she was steady on her feet, she reached up and grasped the handle of the blade buried in her shoulder. And pulled. It slid out with a scrape of metal on bone and an aborted shout of pain. Her head was swimming and she wanted nothing more than to collapse face first on the floor. But she had a mission to carry out first. Raising the blade, she took a lumbering step toward Loki. He was paying absolutely no intention what so ever, so he didn't see her coming for him.

"Miri, no!" Alex called. She tuned the woman out, tuned out the sound of Clint's voice. Of Thor's. Tuned them all out and made a lunge for Loki with the bloodied blade in her hand. She had a shot while his magic was down and she was going to take it.

"Agent Grant!" The voice crackled across the line of an old fashioned walkie talkie and it brought her up short. Miri blinked and turned to look over her shoulder. Clint had the squawk box in his hand. "Stand down! That's an order!"

Oh, god. She was going insane. She was hearing voices. Because that sure as hell sounded like Phil's voice. But Phil was dead and Loki was responsible. She couldn't let herself believe. She couldn't. It would hurt too much. "Sir. I don't think she believed you."

"Agent Grant! I order you to stand down now. Do not make me tell you again."

"I don't know who the fuck you think you are, but when I'm done with this waste of air, you're fucking next!" she snapped at the disembodied voice and turned to Loki one more time.

"Miri, our first date was the night of one of the infamous S.H.I.E.L.D. Christmas parties. Alex left with Clint, leaving you stranded. I offered you a ride home via a cup of coffee at Joe's Diner across the river in Jersey. Our waitress was named Dorothy."

Miri froze and turned to look back at Alex and Clint. Thor moved past her to take possession of his brother. He ignored her completely, escorting Loki a few feet away to leave the three of them more or less alone. "Phil?"

"Its me, Miriam." And it was him. She could hear it in the steady, pleasant tone he used. There was also a hint of pain and slurring from the drugs that couldn't be faked. "Come back to base so we can talk. I'm so sorry about all of this."

"Oh, god," she moaned, the realization of what it all meant slamming into her and forcing her to her knees. The blade slipped from numb fingers and clattered loudly to the floor. "Oh, god."

And then the room was a whirl of activity as Alex shoved the weapon she held into Clint's hands. "Medic! Get the fucking medical team in here right fucking now! She's bleeding!" In an instant, Alex was at her side, slowly lowering her toward the floor. One hand guided her while the other pressed tight against her shoulder. Her eyes were wide, but there was no panic in them. Not yet. Miri tried not to flinch when she was finally on her back and Alex pressed the other hand over the stab wound. "You are out of your fucking mind and when this is all over and you're healthy again, I'm going to kick your fucking ass!"

Miri chuckled faintly, her body screaming at her for the unwanted pain, and reached up to settle one hand over Alex's. "You do that, if you think you can."

And then medical was there and there were good drugs and the whole world went away in a wash of white. But the sound of Phil's voice chased her down into the void and so did the pressure of Alex's hand curled around hers.

~*~*~*~*~

"You're an asshole for going along with this stupid shit," Clint told him, voice steady despite the emotion laying thick in the words. Phil glanced up from his hospital bed and studied the other man intently. Even though it had been two weeks since the near destruction of the helicarrier and the battle over Manhattan, he could tell that Barton was still carrying a heavy load of guilt. Phil might have tried to convince him that speaking to a superior was not in his best interests, but the man was still dealing with his own demons and it was better such things were said to Phil instead of Fury or Hill. He knew Clint was taking refuge in snark because the guilt and fear were doing their best to eat him alive. "Do you know what you've put the team through in the past two weeks? Hell, do you know what Miri's been through the past two weeks?"

"I didn't go along with anything, Agent Barton. The director made that call. I was unconscious at the time. Had I known he was going to announce to everyone that I'd died as a result of my injuries, I would have tried to stay awake longer," Phil replied levelly. Barton snorted and continued to give him a dark glare. Phil had yet to see the official reports that went along with the two incidents because Fury had sent out a memo to every single agent left in the organization that anyone caught sharing that information with Phil before his doctors cleared him for light duty, they'd personally have to fight both Fury and the Black Widow in hand to hand combat. In front of the rest of the staff. No one wanted to be caught between that rock and hard place.

Phil was sure that Barton was harboring his own sense of guilt in what had happened, laid blame for all of the deaths and injuries solely at his own feet. And that included Phil's death, yet not quite death. He wished he could find a way to tell the man it was okay without actually having to bring it all up. Sighing, his thoughts turned to Miri and he wondered just how badly she'd suffered. If her going after Loki was any indication, she'd suffered plenty. "And I can't imagine how difficult this has been for anyone. But there are other people we should focus our attentions on. As I don't happen to be dead, you can stop blaming yourself for that."

"I was the one who gave Loki-- " Barton's words were cut off abruptly at the sound of a knock on his room's door. Barton tensed, as if he expected Thor's brother to come through the door and finish the job. Phil looked up at him, shot him a look of reassurance, and nodded his head. The man's shoulders loosened slightly, but the tension didn't completely leak out of him.

"Come in," Phil called out pleasantly.

The door opened slowly, giving Phil a glimpse of Miri in a wheel chair, clad in a hospital gown and robe. One arm was up in a sling and she looked mad as hell. There was an extended pole rising up from the back of the chair, a bag of fluids hung from it. He had to wonder just how badly she'd been injured. When he'd asked Clint, the other man had shrugged and remarked that such information was off limits. Alex had one hand on the chair and one on the door, trying to keep the panel open while pushing the chair into the room. "Clint, I know you're in here. I can smell you. Open the fucking door for me like a gentleman and I might not cook dinner for you tonight," she snapped testily.

Clint grinned at Phil. "How can I resist an offer like that?" he asked cheerfully.

"Keep that up and I'll change my mind," she replied. Clint moved to the door and put one hand on it. Despite her surly nature, Alex flashed him a grateful smile and maneuvered the chair into the room. Phil noticed that Alex flicked her gaze toward Clint, her expression filled with warmth and love. It was a vast difference from the Alex Quinn he'd been working with for the past ten years. Except for that short span of time when she'd been dating Stevenson. A look at Clint showed him that the relationship seemed to have benefited both of them because some of the guilt and self-loathing had fled his gaze.

Then his eyes were on Miri and the other two people in the room faded into the background. Up until that moment, he'd never really put stock in the old adage 'a sight for sore eyes' but that's exactly what Miri was. She looked pale, though whether that was due to blood loss or what he assumed to have been her slow decline into suicidal madness wasn't something he could say. Even with the hospital issue gown and robe, he could see the thick padding at her shoulder and there were bruises on her legs. But the smile on her face made those things less important. He couldn't help the tender look he gave her. "You look like hell, Miri. What were you thinking, going after Loki on your own?"

"You were dead. He had to pay for that," she replied, as if it was really that simple. Likely it had been in her head.

"As you can see, I'm not quite dead."

"I noticed," her jaw hardened and a dark look passed through her eyes. "Fury has a lot to answer for."

"In his defense, I did actually die. Twice. Once before the medics arrived. And once on the operating room table. So he wasn't completely lying." Phil tried to make it light and joking, but she was having none of it. In fact, the news seemed to bring tears to her eyes. "I'm sorry, Miri. Please don't cry."

"I thought I'd lost you, Phil. What was I supposed to do?" she whispered.

"I'm sorry you had to go through this, Miri. I really am," he offered quietly. She reached out with her left hand, the good one, and took hold of his right. His good one. Her fingers squeezed his gently.

"You will be," she sniffed. "When you're cleared for duty, I am totally going to kick your ass for scaring ten years off my life."

Phil chuckled softly. "I look forward to it, Miri."

"Wow. Are those tears, Grant? Because I'd swear you had your tear ducts surgically removed when you joined S.H.I.E.L.D. Are you actually crying?" Clint asked. Phil heard a dull thud and the man 'oofed' out loud, letting Phil know that Quinn had likely slapped him in the chest. He'd heard from several sources that she had some serious upper body strength. Had to be that damned wrench she liked to drag around with her.

"One more word, Barton, and Alex will have to find a new boy toy because you'll be a eunuch," Miri told him without looking away from Phil.

"Then I'll have to kill my best friend because I like you as a not eunuch. Let's keep you intact. Say goodnight, Gracie." Alex didn't even bother to wait for Barton to speak. She just grabbed hold of his arm and physically dragged him toward the door. After pulling the panel open, she shoved him out into the hall before her and turned to wink at them over her shoulder. "Don't you two do anything I wouldn't do."

She was gone before the door even swung shut to give them their privacy.

"Remind me to send her something nice," Phil commented, watching as Miri shut the valve on her IV, then unscrewed the tube from the lead taped into her arm. He didn't know what she was doing until she climbed up onto the mattress and crawled forward on one hand and two knees. She settled down next to him, laying on her side so that she could rest her head on his good shoulder.

"I was really afraid I'd never see you again, Phil," Miri told him, tears sliding quietly from the corners of her eyes.

"I'm right here, Miri. I'm not going to leave you." He wrapped his good arm around her and tugged her closer. The two of them shifted around carefully until she was able to brush her lips against his. She tasted of tears and mint and welcome memories. "I love you, Miriam."

"I love you, too, Phil." she whispered. He pulled her in closer and gave her a real kiss this time, one that was all heat and tongue and languid lips. He would never grow tired of kissing her because she tasted so good.

She tasted like home.

 
Chapter 1 of 1
 
The Story TraeSE 0.19.0 created by Echtrae Cuinn ©2007-2019
 

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