Okay, Clint concedes to himself as he stares down the barrels of what feels like all too many PSS special pistols pointed directly at his head. This looks bad.
There's only three pistols, but realistically that's three more than Clint feels comfortable having pointed at him at any given time. Since he's currently stark naked with nothing but a thin bedsheet to shield him from the bullets, this feels like a worse time than usual. He only knows one of the three guys standing in the tiny one-room apartment, but it's obvious they're all part of TIM, and that in about thirty seconds he's going to die if he doesn't do something about it.
He lifts one hand in the universal gesture of "don't shoot," the other tugging at the sheet to protect what's left of his modesty.
"Hey, uh, zdraveite, momcheta," he says, hoping he's managed to sound casual. "K'vo stava? What's with the hardware? Actually," he tilts his head toward the bedside table, where his hearing aids are sitting in their drying box, "you mind if I, uh, grab those real quick?"
Dimitar--the only one Clint's recognized, nods. "Go ahead," he says. Or, at least, Clint is pretty sure that those are the words he just formed. Lip-reading is well and good, but foreign accents are a bitch. Although he supposes that Dimitar isn't the foreigner in this room.
Clint reaches over slowly, pops open the case, puts on the hearing aids with a practiced hand, his eyes trained the whole time on the guns trained on him. He frowns when the left hearing aid whistles a little then goes silent. Damn. Living in a port town means the moisture is hell on the sensitive little pieces of tech.
There's a very quick argument in Bulgarian among the three men, most of which he misses, but Dimitar snaps at the other two guys, and that appears to shut them up. The only word he catches in there is "Stoyan," which tells him that he's in a shitload of trouble. If they were sent here by Stoyan himself to kill Clint, then there's no doubt Clint's cover has been blown sky-high. Okay, Barton, play dumb. You're just one of the guys, you have no idea what's going on or why they're here. Which isn't really all that much of a stretch, since he's totally in the dark about what went wrong.
"Dimi, what's going on?"
Dimitar is a friend, of sorts. He's also Stoyan's right-hand man, though, which means he's got a conflict of interests when it comes to Clint.
"Get dressed," he says curtly, and motions with the barrel of his gun towards Clint's closet. "Stoyan wants us to take you to him."
"And he sent an armed escort? Seems like overkill."
He might be overdoing it a little. This isn't exactly the time to be joking, but it's serving to get his heart to stop hammering in his chest. His hearing aid seems to be working a little better now, at least. There's another argument in Bulgarian behind him as he's forced to turn his back on the three men to get clothes out of his cupboard, and then Dimitar barks at the other two to speak English, for which Clint decides to be very very grateful.
"We do Stoyan a favour, and kill him now, I say," says one guy. He's short and stocky, with hair that's beginning to thin on top and recede at the temples. Clint wonders sometimes where Stoyan gets his guys. Of course, he probably wasn't hired for his hairstyle.
"Shut up," Dimitar snaps, but the third man appears to concur with the short guy. Since he's the tallest of the three, Clint decides to call him Bullwinkle, and the short guy Rocky.
"Stoyan wants him brought back, but he didn't say dead or alive. You are a spy, Amerikanets."
"A spy?" Clint sputters, injecting as much indignation into the words as possible. "You're fucking joking. How the hell would I be a spy? Hell, if I were that, I'd demand a raise. They could at least spring for a better apartment than this," he adds, gesturing to the tiny room. "No cats."
That gets a laugh out of Dimitar, which isn't really surprising. He's always had a good sense of humour, and Clint's apartment has always been a source of amusement to him. "This is small even by local standards," he'd once said to Clint. "You cannot... what is it you say in English?"
"Swing a cat around by its tail?" Clint had suggested, which had made Dimi laugh so hard tears had streamed down his face and into his blond beard. Humour was such a subjective thing, he supposed.
The fact that he'd purposely picked a small place and failed to furnish it with more than a bed, a chair and a table is sort of working against him now, though. There's nowhere to hide, no furniture to duck behind. It's a problem. Clint yanks on a pair of pants, doesn't bother with socks--he can never get them to match, anyway--and jams his feet into his shoes without tying the laces. He barely has time to pull a t-shirt over his head before Rocky gets impatient and yells at him to get moving. Well, Clint supposes that's what he yells, anyway, since it's in Bulgarian and, in spite of having lived here for nearly two years, Clint's grasp of the language is still tenuous at best. He can order food, ask where the bathroom is, and mostly not make a complete ass of himself in public, but languages have never been his strong suit. Besides, his new handler never really insisted that he learn the language properly, so long as it didn't interfere with his cover. Coulson would have been furious, if he'd known. He'd always been a stickler for details on missions, although he never ran long operations like this one. Phil was the team lead you sent in to clean up giant alien messes, not the handler of long-term undercover assets. Not unless you counted Natasha, and even she didn't do more than a few weeks in most circumstances. There was Budapest, of course, but that had been the exception, rather than the rule. If Phil were here now, he'd be reading Clint the riot act about not learning Bulgarian properly. And then he'd be talking him through an escape route.
Okay, Clint, think, he tells himself sternly.
There aren't too many ways out of here. There's the front door, but that has the distinct disadvantage of not being in his bedroom. The way to it involves getting through the bedroom door, currently guarded by Dimitar and Rocky and Bullwinkle, all of whom are at close enough range that it wouldn't matter if they were all terrible shots, which he's betting they're not. He's got a gun, of course, but it's in his nightstand, and there's no way of getting to it without getting himself very permanently shot. Not that there's a way to get impermanently shot, but whatever, that's not the point, here. The point is that, no matter what he tries, it's probably going to hurt. A lot.
"You guys sure we can't just settle this with a phone call? I mean, it was a late night for everyone yesterday, and I don't know about you, but I'm still pretty hungover..."
He goes for Door Number Three, which looks like the best candidate for not immediately dying. He keeps his hands in front of him at all times in a very obvious display of non-violence, and edges carefully away from the closet and around the foot of the bed. Sweat trickles down his back as he glances through the window and down at the street below. There's a balcony directly under him, then another ten-foot drop to the street. He can make it. He's done much harder things in his time. Much harder. He shuffles forward a little bit more. He wishes, not for the first time, that he still had his bow and quiver. It would make this so much easier. Well, beggars can't be choosers. He left that life behind, long ago. You made your bed, Clint, so now you get to lie in it.
"Because I could just grab my cell phone, or you could call on you cell phone, honestly, I'm not that picky, and we could have this whole misunderstanding straightened out in minutes. I explain that I'm not whatever it is you think I am, and..."
He whirls around, catching them by surprise, knocks the guns from Rocky and Bullwinkle's hands with a precisely timed kick. Before they can recover from their shock he's coiled himself as low to the floor as possible, pushes off as hard as he can with both legs, and throws himself directly through the window, shielding his face with his arms as best he can. He feels the glass shatter around his head, the wood splintering under the impact. Dimitar's gun goes off a moment later, but between the silencer and his malfunctioning left hearing aid, Clint barely makes out the sound of the report. There's a sudden burning pain in his side, eclipsed a moment later when it feels like his whole body is about to explode when he collides with the balcony below. He lies there, stunned, for what feels like an eternity, the world swimming strangely around him, until another bullet ricochets off the balustrade. He shakes his head, trying to clear it, then scrambles to his feet, performs a leap-frog jump over the balcony and twists at the last moment to catch himself with his fingers by the wooden bars of the balustrade. He hangs in midair for a moment, legs dangling wildly, the muscles in his arms protesting the strain, his right side burning with renewed pain, then he lets himself drop the remaining few feet to the street.
His right leg buckles on impact, and he can't bite back a cry as pain shoots through his right side again. Looking down, he sees a tear in his shirt, the white fabric already turning red. It doesn't look deep, at least, though blood oozes between his fingers when he clamps a hand over the wound. Another bullet pings off the sidewalk at his feet, reminding him that now is definitely not the time to pause and take stock.
Clint takes off at a run, and doesn't look back.
It takes forever to find a pay phone.
Clint ducks into the closest alleyway he can find, and runs until his lungs are burning and his blood is pounding in his ears. He can't risk sticking to the streets just yet, because even the block or two he ended up running at first attracted far too much attention. A half-dressed man bleeding profusely from his side is bound to get noticed, especially in this area of town. He runs until the pain in his side is too much to bear, then slumps against a wall and tries to get his bearings as he catches his breath. He's run further than he normally goes in this neighbourhood, but he's pretty sure he can still find his way around if he has to. He edges along the wall back toward the street, looking for a phone booth. If he's been burned, then there's no choice now but to call this in, get ahold of Martin, and get himself extracted.
He'd been close, too. He'd gotten in deep enough with TIM, the local crime syndicate that enjoyed pretending it was a legitimate operation, that they'd let him see their seedier underbelly with almost no qualms. Hell, even Stoyan hadn't suspected a damned thing up until, well, yesterday it seems. He can't figure out what went wrong, what gave him away. Nothing special happened that he can think of. So it can't be anything he did, the information had to come from an outside source. Either way, he's screwed.
He spots the sign for a phone booth outside the door of a small shop, and hurries toward it. He's attracting stares, but there's nothing he can do about that. He ducks inside the booth, leaving crimson smears on the plexiglass, and huddles inside against the far wall before taking the phone off the hook. He swears again as he realises that he doesn't have any money on him. Not so much as a coin or a bill to his name. His wallet is still on his nightstand, along with his fake ID and all the cash he has in the world.
"Good job, Clint," he tells himself, clenching his teeth against the pain in his side. His right knee is starting to throb too, no doubt the result of his jump off the balcony earlier. "Next time, you should try escaping barefoot, too, make it a real challenge!"
He wedges the receiver between his right ear--the only one with a working hearing aid right now--and his shoulder, and dials for the operator. He gives the impatient-sounding woman Martin's number, and hopes to God that his terrible Bulgarian won't get him into any more trouble than he's already in. A moment later, though, and Martin's clipped tone comes over the line, accepting the charges. Clint breathes a sigh of relief, slumping even further down in the booth.
"Marty, thank God. It's Clint. I dunno what happened, but I've been burned. They came at me with guns, surrounded me. I got out, but it's bad, I don't have anywhere to go, I've got nothing on me, no cash, nothing. I don't know how they found out, but I swear it wasn't anything I did, I didn't say anything, nothing happened that I can think of--"
"Barton!" Martin snaps. "Be quiet!"
Clint shuts his mouth so hard he feels his teeth click together. Martin Baranyi, for all that he's not anywhere near Phil Coulson's league, is still a damned good handler. If anyone can get him out of this, it's Marty. "Sorry."
"Now, you've been compromised, you say?"
"Yeah. I don't know how, though."
"We can deal with that later. For now, the important part is getting you to safety. Are you injured?"
He swallows. "Yeah, I had to go through a window, and Dimitar shot me. Doesn't look too bad, more like a flesh wound, but it's bleeding like crazy. Shit, I'm so sorry about this. We were so damned close..."
"Never mind that. Do you know where the secondary safehouse is?"
Clint racks his brain, trying to remember the protocol he memorised nearly two years ago. "Uh, I think so. The one on boulevard Slivnitsa, right? The one that's sort of near the cemetery?"
"That's the one. How quickly can you get there?"
He glances around the street. No one seems to be paying him any notice right now, given that he's in a pretty busy area, but there's no guarantee he can keep that up. "I'm not sure. On a good day, I could make it in less than thirty minutes. Today?"
"All right," Martin's tone turns brisk. "I'll head over there directly and start making arrangements. Get there as quickly as you can manage, and I'll be waiting. And for God's sake, Barton, try not to get yourself spotted on the way there!"
The line goes dead. Clint sticks out his tongue at the receiver, hangs up quietly instead of slamming it back on the cradle the way he wants to. Phil would have had someone come get him, he thinks bitterly. But maybe Marty just doesn't have the resources at his disposal that Phil would. After all, they're running a long-con here, as operations go, and it's not like S.H.IE.L.D. can have someone on standby 24/7 to pull Clint Barton's incompetent ass out of the fire. His one job was to not get caught and give the correct intel on one of the biggest arms deals in recent history, and right now it looks like he's fucked up both those objectives without even knowing how.
He looks down at his t-shirt, decides that the spreading ring of crimson on the otherwise pristine white shirt really isn't all that noticeable, and casually steps out of the phone booth. He glances both ways before crossing the street--getting hit by a car now would be the height of ignominy, not to mention that Dimi and the other two goons have had ample time to recover and come after him. Of course, finding a single man on the streets in Varna is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but in this case it's a bleeding foreign needle in a very gossipy haystack, so he can't afford to take too many chances.
There aren't nearly enough back alleys between him and Central Varna Cemetery, he decides after a lot of walking and ducking and weaving behind buildings and garbage dumpsters. He wishes he still had his car, even if it was a piece of shit Volkswagen that barely ran even on a good day. Volkswagens are pretty dependable, even when they are shitboxes. But that would have meant sneaking back to his apartment and either trying to retrieve the key (along with his wallet) or else hotwiring his own car, and both those propositions are way too risky to even contemplate. There's no way Dimitar wouldn't have left someone to watch the place and his car, for precisely that reason.
Clint has to stop several times to catch his breath, hand pressed against his side, which feels like someone has lit it on fire. The bleeding seems to have slowed to an ooze, which is a mercy. If he were to stop moving entirely now he's sure that the wound would be able to clot on its own without too much outside help, but he doesn't have much of a choice. Martin's waiting for him, and the longer it takes him to get there, the less likely he is to be extracted back to a safe zone. His right knee is throbbing in time with his pulse, and he's pretty sure it's starting to swell up in spite of his attempts to keep moving.
If I stop now, I'm screwed.
The sun is high above his head by the time he makes it to the cemetery. He takes a furtive look around, crosses the pedestrian footpath and ducks into the trees lining the roadway, grateful that winter has long since come and gone, and the leaves have come out enough to offer a semblance of camouflage. There's no way he can stay either on the street or even on the footpath without attracting undue attention. The grass, even though it's well kept, is uneven enough under his feet that he finds the going difficult. Natasha would be laughing at him through the comms, if she were here (and if he had his receiver in, which he doesn't, because undercover operatives don't need receivers except under very specific circumstances), and Phil would likely be telling her to keep the comms chatter professional, if you please, Agent Romanov. But Phil's gone and Natasha's not here, and all Clint has are ghost voices, wafting through time, to get him through today.
By the time he's arrived at the safehouse he's completely winded, his shirt soaked through with sweat as well as blood. It's an ugly grey building, all grimy windows and filthy white garage doors, but he's pretty sure he's never been happier to see a building in his life. He lets himself half-collapse against the door frame once he gets to the side entrance, hands shaking so hard he can barely punch in the security code that will let him inside to safety. The door opens with a click that he can feel through the palm of his hands, and he wonders if it was as loud as he thinks it was.
He shuts the door behind him and leans his back on it for just a moment. "Marty?" he calls out tentatively. "You here?"
He swivels just quickly enough to see Martin advance on him, his mouth a grim line, taser at the ready in his hand. Before Clint can so much as bring a hand up in his own defence there's a stinging pain in his neck like a hundred hornets just got unleashed on the same spot. Every muscle in his body seizes up and he crumples gracelessly to the floor.
Clint has a great view of the linoleum flooring from his position. There's a small smear of blood on the floor just by his left eye, which means he must have cut his face at some point--probably when he threw himself out that window. His hands and legs are still twitching, the aftereffects of being tased, he decides after a moment. He's only had it happen once before in his life, during training, and that was one time too many. At least he didn't lose control of his bladder, which is a small mercy, considering. He can feel his throat working, making a high-pitched moaning noise, but there's nothing he can do to stop any of it as Martin swiftly zip-ties both his hands and feet and hauls him upright to sit in a rolling desk chair.
Martin sighs as he puts away the taser in a small brown briefcase, shaking his head. "You know, Barton, I'd really hoped you were one of us."
Clint makes a vague strangling noise he hopes will convey his confusion. His head hurts, joining in with his sprained knee and the bullet hole in his side.
"Given that you have no idea what I'm talking about, I can only conclude that you're not," Martin continues. He's wearing the same stupid brown suit and pink shirt that he always wears, though at least this time he's lost the brown tie he likes to pair up with it. "One of us, that is. It's a pity, you would have been a great asset. I suppose, as one last professional courtesy, I should let you know that S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, as of last night. Technically it was yesterday afternoon, in the U.S., but that doesn't change much for us, does it?"
Clint swallows, finds he's regained the use of his tongue somewhat. "Marty, what're you talking about?"
Martin backhands him, hard. He shakes out his fingers with a smirk. "I've been wanting to do that for nearly two years. You have no idea... I hate that nickname, and I've told you before not to use it. But you're not much of one for respecting others if it doesn't suit you, are you, Barton?"
It would probably be disingenuous to apologise now, but Clint tries it anyway. "I didn't think you meant it, Mart--uh, Martin. What do you mean about S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
He's stalling a little bit, but he's also genuinely curious. His neck has gone weirdly stiff, and he rolls his head a little, trying to work out the kinks in his muscles. The safehouse, if it ever was one, has been stripped almost completely bare. There's no furniture save for the chair he's sitting on, a crappy little desk, and what looks like an empty kitchen off to his left.
"Your little whore friend spilled all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets onto the internet last night. The government has declared all of you a terrorist organisation. There is no S.H.I.E.L.D. any longer."
Clint's jaw drops. He had thought that was something that only happened in books or movies, but apparently it's totally a real thing that's happening to him right now. He blinks, forces his mouth closed again, and swallows.
"No, you never did understand, did you Barton? Not the sharpest tool in the shed. It's why I advised against sending you in for this assignment to begin with. You've always lacked intelligence, but you're fantastic as a blunt instrument. Or, I suppose, a pointy instrument. Point Barton at the target, destroy the target. At least you're not completely useless in the field. Well, you weren't before. Now..." Martin grins, but there's no humour in it.
"You've been working with TIM this whole time."
It's all starting to click into place. If Natasha gave away S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets, then she must have had good reason, but it would mean giving away the identities of all the agents out there, not just Clint's and Martin's. Clint's stomach roils at the thought of all the intel he's been slipping back to Martin for the past two years.
"You never once sent my reports back to S.H.I.E.L.D., did you?"
Martin laughs. From this close up, Clint can see the silver fillings in his back molars. "Oh, you are precious. Of course I sent back reports! Otherwise they would have suspected. You really are as stupid as I thought. I will confess to heavily editing your reports to suit our ends, however. That way I stayed in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s good graces, since they never suspected a thing, and Stoyan thought I was the best ally ever."
"So he knew all along who I was?"
Martin shrugs. "No. I thought it better he believe you were one of us. Stoyan Nikolov Gavrilov, for all his many uses, is not a man to be crossed lightly. If he'd known you were a proper spy with allegiances to someone other than him, then he would simply have executed you on the spot, and I needed someone deep in there whom he wouldn't suspect."
"You're making my head hurt," Clint complains.
"Of course, now that your involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. has been revealed, I told him what I could, of course. No sense in having him kill the both of us when you will suffice. After all, I'm supposed to be getting a rather important cut from the profits of next week's arms deal."
Martin makes a show of checking his watch. "Well, I have a plane to catch. I don't plan to be anywhere near here when he arrives to execute you himself. Not afraid of getting his hands dirty, which is something I can admire... from a distance."
"Treacherous bastard!" Clint spits. "I get free, I'm going to make you wish you'd never been born! And don't think I won't get free. You think I got this far in life without learning how to survive?"
Martin just rolls his eyes. "If it comforts you to make empty threats, go right ahead. In any event, I need to make sure you don't get away before I have time to direct Stoyan to your whereabouts." He pulls out a pistol, and Clint's a little too dazed right now to make out the make or model. It looks like a nine-millimetre, anyway, but no matter which way you put it, it's still a gun. "I'd apologise, but I think we both know I wouldn't mean it."
"I thought you wanted him to kill me?" Clint tries to goad him, but it falls on deaf ears. No pun intended. He's going to survive this, no matter what.
"I do. But this is still the best instrument I have to hand," Martin says calmly, then leans forward to whisper conspiratorially in Clint's ear: "Hail Hydra."
Clint's eyes go wide, just as Martin deals him a vicious blow to the temple with the butt of the gun.
For what feels like a long time, Clint floats in the dark. Images occasionally swim through his mind, diffuse and sometimes haunting, but the dark is all but overwhelming. When he comes to, blinking painfully in the pale light filtering in through the window shades, he's completely alone. He raises his head, regretting it as soon as the movement makes him feel as though his brain is about to leak out through his eye sockets, then looks around, trying to take stock.
Martin is long gone, but he was expecting that. He can taste copper on his lips, can smell it faintly in the air, and that and the slightly tacky sensation where his shirt is clinging to his neck tells him he's probably bleeding. Or was bleeding up until recently. Head wounds are a bitch. There's no clock anywhere to tell him how long he's been unconscious, but he thinks it must not have been all that long. He's always had a hard head, or so everyone keeps telling him. It's probably been less than an hour, but more than thirty minutes, which means he doesn't have all that much time before Stoyan gets here, presumably backed by his crew. Knowing Martin, he'll want to put as much distance between him and the TIM crime boss as possible before making that one final phone call, just to ensure the safety of his own hide, but that doesn't mean Clint has any time to waste. His side is still burning, and his right knee has swelled so much that it's stretching the fabric of his pants a little grotesquely. It's going to be an utter bitch to try to get free.
At least the chair is on wheels. Clint shifts a little in his seat, the movement putting pressure on his bound hands and making the plastic zip-ties dig painfully into his flesh. No sense putting off the inevitable. He sighs, lifts his eyes heavenward in a silent plea for strength, then slides to the floor with a painful jolt. He brings up his knees with a quiet moan of pain as the injured joint protests, contorts his arms and shoulders until he's able to slip his hands past his feet and bring them up in front of him. Step one. With his hands in front of him, it's easier--though not actually easy--to make short work of the zipties around his ankles. He's kind of amazed that Martin didn't do a better job of securing him, but then, Martin's training would have been to handle operatives in the field, not interrogation or even guard duty. If S.H.I.E.L.D. weren't history, Clint would be making a mental note to make sure to mention that in his next report. Cross-training is something that only agents like him and Natasha got, probably a budget thing, but it was exactly this sort of situation that showed where there were gaping holes in the supposed security net.
Getting the ziptie off his wrists is another ballgame. When trying a pressure break doesn't get him much traction other than making the bullet wound in his side hurt even more, Clint limps over to the kitchen. His knee is completely stiff now, and walking on the leg is excruciating. There's no way he's going to get far on foot like this. First things first, though, and that means getting his hands loose. The drawers are mostly empty, but a thorough search turns up a slightly rusty screw that's come loose at the back of one of the cabinets, and that will do the trick just as well, even if it's not ideal. He has to brace himself against the counter so as not to fall over while he's working. It's slow, painstaking work, screws not being designed to work as shims. By the time he's done his hands have gone slightly numb, and the tips of his fingers are raw from chafing against the rusty metal. Still, with a sharp flexing of the wrists he's able to free himself from the thin plastic like it's nothing, and spends the next precious few seconds rubbing at his wrists, trying to restore the circulation there.
There's no telling how soon Stoyan, or anyone else from TIM, is going to get here. Or Hydra. Fucking hell, what've I got myself into? He wishes Coulson were here, to give him some kind of reassurance, to let him know there was a plan, that Clint just had to trust in him and wait.
"Well," he says to the empty room, "no one ever said it would be easy."
The safe house has been stripped bare. There's not even so much as a roll of toilet paper Clint can use to clean himself up a bit. He runs water from the tap over his head, wincing and drawing in a hissing breath as it comes into contact with the new laceration in his scalp. He lifts his t-shirt, grimaces at the deep crease the bullet left in his side, and decides to count himself lucky that it didn't penetrate any deeper than that. It'll need stitches, but even if he can't get those, at worst he'll have a really ugly scar to add to his already impressive collection.
He slips out the side door, keeping his eyes open for any kind of movement to alert him to the presence of TIM thugs, but there's nothing so far. At least his remaining hearing aid doesn't appear to have objected too much to his being tasered. The left one is down for the count, which is going to be a serious drawback, but he's not completely deaf, so he'll take the win for now.
There's only one place he can think of that might be safe, at least for a few hours. His friend Miro might be a member of TIM, but he and Clint go way back, and Clint has helped him out of more than one jam in the past. If he plays his cards right, Miro might just be willing to let him hide out for a bit, just long enough to get his bearings and figure out a new plan. So that's where he heads, cutting across the cemetery and then keeping as much to the backstreets as he can without making a spectacle of himself. He's only ever driven there before, although there was that one time he took the bus, and he gets himself turned around more than once before he's able to make his way to the shabby little apartment building where his friend Miro lives with his girlfriend.
Okay, Clint, you've got one shot at this. The minute someone in this place full of busybodies sees you, you're done for, so make like you're a shadow in the night.
The pep talk gets him through the front door of the building--unseen, he hopes, but there's no way of telling until people either show up behind him demanding to know why he's there, or don't. He has to grab the stair railing with both hands in order to pull himself up the steps, leaving tiny smears of drying blood behind that he can only hope are small enough to go unnoticed for now. He drags himself up two flights of stairs, glad that Miro doesn't live too much higher, and raps quietly on the door.
Nothing but silence meets his knock, and his heart sinks into his stomach. Stupid, Clint, stupid. Of course they're not home. Why would they be home? It's not like they don't have lives that don't revolve around helping their actually-a-traitor friend who was stupid enough to get himself caught and--
The door opens a crack, and then a little wider when Lyobomir Ivanov Avramov, better known to his friends as Miro, catches sight of him.
Clint tries for an endearing smile, but he thinks the effect might be a little off, considering the look on Miro's tanned face. "Heya, Miro. I hate to drop in on you like this, but, uh, I kind of got myself into a jam. Help a brother out?"
Miro flings the door wide, but before he can say anything the world goes a little swimmy, and the next thing Clint knows his knees are buckling and everything goes dark for a few seconds. Strong hands catch him under the armpits, and even though the pressure on his side makes him whimper a little, at least he hasn't fallen over completely. He's barely aware of someone calling out, of the muffled sound of the door slamming behind him.
"Come with me, you sit," Miro says, slinging one of Clint's arms over his broad shoulders.
He's a bit shorter than Clint, which makes it an uncomfortable proposition, but a moment later Clint feels himself being dropped carefully to sit onto a soft surface--the worn but very comfortable sofa in Miro's living room. He forces his eyes open again, even though he can't quite get the world to come properly into focus again, and leans forward, trying to keep from bleeding right onto their only sofa. Blood is a bitch to get out of upholstery.
"You're not calling anyone, are you?" he mumbles, and he thinks that gets him a funny look.
"You are in trouble?"
Miro, bless him, doesn't beat around the bush. Clint thinks he hears someone or something moving in the other room, but it's on his bad side, so he's not really sure. He decides to go with the truth, or a simplified version of it, and see where that gets him. If nothing else, he'd rather go at the hands of a friend, but he's betting on the fact that he knows Miro's not a stone cold killer. Stoyan uses him more as muscle, as the occasional fixer and clean-up man, rather than as an executioner.
"Stoyan's trying to kill me."
Miro lifts an eyebrow at him, but that's as far as his reaction of surprise goes. "Katya," he calls out, and the rest is lost on Clint because it's over his shoulder and entirely in rapid-fire Bulgarian. He turns back to Clint. "Okay. First we get you cleaned up, then you tell me why Stoyan tries to kill you. After that, we make a plan."
Clint laughs. "You're a pal, Miro."
Miro just rolls his eyes, then steps aside as his girlfriend makes an appearance. Katya isn't what you'd call supermodel beautiful, but she has a really nice face, with thick eyebrows and eyes so dark you can lose yourself in them. She also happens to be a nurse, which comes in really handy in their line of work. Not that she has much patience for anything involving TIM, but she loves Miro and that seems to be enough for now. She stifles a small gasp, then turns to Miro and rattles something at him in Bulgarian, which once again goes right over Clint's head.
"She want to know what happen to you."
Clint laughs again, and the laugh turns into a cough. "Good question. Uh, I got shot, and then I jumped through a window, and then I got tasered, and then I got knocked out," he ticks each item off on the fingers of his left hand.
Miro translates, and Katya snorts. She does understand more English than Clint understands Bulgarian, but she doesn't like to speak it unless she has to. She gives what sounds like a series of instructions to Miro, then comes to crouch by his side. She's wearing her hospital scrubs, but by the looks of them she's coming home from a shift, not leaving, which is a mercy.
"I cut shirt," she informs him, and he nods.
"Sure, no problem. I hate this shirt anyway. Way too white."
If she gets the humour, she shows no sign of it. Instead she gets up, goes to rummage in a drawer, and comes back with a pen light, which she shines in his eyes. He blinks and tries to pull away, right up until she grabs his head a little roughly in a practised hand. "Be still, please. I check for head..." she stops, obviously not knowing the word she needs.
"Concussion," he supplies. "Yeah, pretty sure I have one of those."
"Uh, not yet," he admits. His stomach is feeling none too pleased with the day's events so far, but it's not like he had time to eat, so there'd be precious little to throw up anyway.
Miro returns with a plastic bucket filled with what looks like a cobbled-together first aid kit and several towels, and Katya thanks him absently over her shoulder. He plants a kiss on her head, right where her thick dark hair is parted, and that makes her smile. She tucks two of the towels under Clint's back, and belatedly he thinks he should apologise, just in case he got blood on their sofa. She pulls out a pair of scissors and takes hold of the hem of Clint's shirt before cutting it away from the wound in his side. She bites her lip, shakes her head.
"I not sew that," she tells him. "No thread. No needle."
It hurts like hell when she cleans it out, with Miro's strong hands holding him down by the shoulders so he won't writhe as much and make her job that much harder. When she's done she does a creditable job of taping up the laceration with seri-strips, packing gauze over it and then binding the whole thing with a bandage. She looks down at where his knee has swollen to the point of stretching out his pants, and frowns.
"Don't cut my pants, please. Not as easy to replace," he manages. He's bathed in sweat, can feel it trickling down his face along his hairline, and dripping down his back past the waistband of his pants.
She nods, pulls off his shoes, then says something to Miro Bulgarian. Miro shrugs and turns to Clint. "I will help with pants, but it will hurt. You don't yell, okay? You bite on this," he sticks a rolled-up elastic bandage in Clint's mouth as a makeshift gag, "and you are very, very quiet. Got it?"
Clint manages what he hopes sounds like agreement around the soft fabric. He undoes his belt and unzips the fly of his pants, lifts his hips enough to push them down as far as he can get them, and then concentrates very hard on not screaming in agony when Katya and Miro each grab a pant leg and yank them free. At a word from Katya, Miro disappears into their tiny kitchen and comes back a few moments later with a sack of frozen peas and a stained tea towel.
"We need to get the swelling down before she can wrap it," Miro tells him, which sounds about right. "Put your leg up on sofa, like so," he lifts Clint up so he's lying almost full-length on the sofa, then carefully wraps the peas in the tea towel before tucking it right behind Clint's knee. "You hold very still, while Katya cleans your head, all right?"
He's given another ice pack for his head, and Katya flashes him the first smile since he got there, right before applying a band-aid to the bridge of his nose. Fantastic.
"I can't tell you much I appreciate this," Clint starts, even as Katya clucks her tongue at him when his head movement impedes her work.
Miro puts a hand on his uninjured knee. "My friend, you know you have but to ask. You think we forget how you helped with Maria when her good-for-nothing husband tries to take her boy away?"
A lump forms in Clint's throat at that. He'd almost forgotten the incident, when Katya's sister's husband had showed up at the door, drunk and screaming and waving a gun. He'd threatened to shoot anyone who got in his way, forced his way past Katya in spite of her attempts to beat him back. They'd gotten the door reinforced after that, but at the time he'd simply battered it until it gave way. Clint, never one to appreciate men who beat on their wives and kids, had stepped up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, and knocked him senseless with an elbow to the face. Then he, Miro, and a couple of other guys from TIM had taken him down to a secluded spot by the docks, and given him several very good reasons never to come near Maria or her little boy ever again.
"Hey, I never liked bullies, you know."
"Just like Captain America."
Clint barks a laugh. "Not quite, but I'll take the compliment. You're a good man, Miro my friend. You know Stoyan's going to hold a grudge about this, right?" he tries to sit up, only to get pushed back against the sofa cushions by Katya, who accompanies the gesture with a hard look.
"Still!" she orders sternly, and he subsides, trying to look meek.
"We deal with that when it comes. Maybe it's time I do as Katya wants, and start over, do something else. Eh, Katya?" Clint assumes that what follows is a repetition of the same sentiment, only in Bulgarian, because Katya smiles and nods. She leans over him.
Clint wants to point out that he's half-naked, concussed and bleeding on their sofa without a penny to his name, but she looks so hopeful, so damned earnest that he can't bring himself to burst her bubble of optimism. "Sure, I'll help. I get out of this, I have some contacts who can get us out." I hope, he adds silently. Aloud, he says: "Can I use your phone? I gotta make a call."
Phil is gone, S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, but Natasha is still there, and she'll come for him, if he asks. He doesn't know about any of the other Avengers, but he doesn't need to. Natasha's been working with Rogers, but the others are scattered all over the place, and they mostly know him as the guy who got his mind fucked six ways to Sunday by Loki. Sure, he was cleared of all wrongdoing--alien gods with superior mind-bending powers aren't something the average human can defend against--but that doesn't mean he couldn't interpret the looks he was getting from everyone. Everyone except Tasha, that is.
Miro hands him his cell phone, and he holds it gingerly up to his one good ear after dialling Natasha's number. It goes directly to voicemail, and he feels his blood run cold. "Tasha, it's me. I mean, it's Clint. I don't know what the hell just happened, but everything's gone south, and they said S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone. Martin's gone, too. Left me twisting in the wind. I'm with friends for now, but it's all falling apart and we're not going to be safe for long. Call me back when you get this, please. And Tasha, be safe."
Miro takes the phone away again, and pushes him to lie down even further on the sofa. Katya is putting away the first aid supplies, her back to them, while Miro pulls a thick woollen blanket over his bare legs and stomach. "You sleep for a while. When it's dark, we find somewhere safe for you to go. Here is okay for now, but Stoyan will come looking. First, sleep."
Clint starts to protest, but the blanket is heavy and warm, and his eyelids are already drooping. "Yeah, okay. Thank you."
"You're welcome, my friend."
Clint wakens with a start to the unmistakable sound of a gunshot right outside the front door, accompanied by screaming. Utterly disoriented, heart thudding dully in his chest, and blood roaring in his ears, he scrabbles to sit up, only to have the whole room lurch sickeningly, as though he were sitting on the deck of a ship in the middle of a huge storm. He gropes for his pants, forces them on past his injured knee--which someone wrapped while he was sleeping, he notes, which is a little disturbing, given that he never once noticed. There's a clean t-shirt that's at least a size too big folded near the sofa (Miro might be shorter, but he's considerably broader in the shoulders and more muscular than Clint), and he yanks it over his head before shoving his feet back into his shoes. This time he pauses long enough to tie the laces. He's already had to run in unlaced shoes once today--is it still the same day? It's dark outside, but that doesn't mean he's been out for all that long--and that was more than enough.
Miro is braced by the door, pistol in hand, and he motions to Clint with his free hand to take refuge in the bedroom. Clint opens his mouth to protest, but Katya comes up from behind and places her finger over his lips.
"Shh," she instructs. "No one hurt. Miro talk, they go away. All right?"
It makes more sense than trying to run or shoot his way out. At least this way, if Miro manages to convince Stoyan and his men that there's no one here, that Clint never came by, then there might not be any more casualties, and it will buy Clint a few more hours at least. Not to mention that if Stoyan buys Miro's story, he won't come after either Miro or Katya.
Katya pulls him into the bedroom, tugs open the closet door, and presses hard against the wooden back, revealing a hidden door on a spring. "Shh," she says again. "You quiet."
The secret compartment is horribly cramped. Clint has to crouch until he's almost bent double at the waist before he'll fit. The position puts more pressure on his knee and side, and he shoves his hand into his mouth in order not to moan in pain. It's pitch-black, stifling, and he has to force himself to slow his breathing. Easy, Clint, you're fine. It's not too small, there's plenty of air. He breathes in slowly through his nose, exhales softly through his mouth, around the tender flesh of his hand. He can't hear what's being said, can only make out the faintest sound of voices raised in argument. He hopes that it's just the closet that's well sound-proofed and not an indication that something's going wrong with his hearing aid. The last thing he needs now is for the world to go completely silent.
It's only a liability if you let it become one, Phil was fond of telling him. Well, Phil isn't here now, but if he were, Clint would be forcing him to eat those words with extreme prejudice. Stupid holier-than-thou bullshit. Let's see how well Phil coped with being injured and all but incapable of hearing if there was danger right around the next corner. Bet he wouldn't be so smug then. But then, Phil's dead, and there's no changing that. Clint bites down harder on his hand, and tears form in his eyes and spill down his cheeks, and he tells himself it's all from the pain in his knee and side.
His stomach flip-flops, protesting the all the upheaval, and his mouth fills with saliva. Oh God, no. Not now, not now, not now, please. He can't be sick in here, there's no way. It will alert everyone to him in seconds. He swallows convulsively, breathes even more slowly. He can almost hear Coulson's voice in his mind, coaching him through. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Easy, Barton, that's it. Slow, deep breaths. You're fine. You're fine, everything's fine.
"I know you are in there, Barton!" Stoyan's voice filters in to him, distorted through the walls. "If you will not come out on your own, I will smoke you out!"
He can't move, can't so much as twist himself to check the time... even if he had a watch, which, of course, he doesn't. Gotta keep an eye on that, Barton. You're slipping a lot today. You don't have a watch, you don't have money, you don't have anything. He crouches in the dark, and starts counting off the seconds. One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. He reaches forty-five before the closet door scrapes open, and Katya comes to pull him out.
"You come. Come quick!" she yells. "Fire!"
There's no mistaking that word in any language, and she doesn't give him time to get the pins and needles out of his legs before she's chivvying him ahead of her back into the living room and toward the front door. There's already smoke billowing under the gap in the door, and heat blasts through when she pulls it open. Miro is waiting for them on the other side, his shirt pulled up over his nose and mouth. He lowers it long enough to yell.
"Downstairs! They set fire to building! No exit. They block!"
Shit. Shit-shit-shit. The word repeats on loop in his mind, like a particularly scatological mantra. Clint looks up at the stairs leading toward the floors above them, already ablaze in patches. It looks like Stoyan's boys poured gasoline down the entire flight of stairs and lit a match before getting out. The message is clear: this is what you get for helping our enemies. They have to get out of here, the sooner the better. He can make out the crackling of the flames, loud popping noises as more and more of the wooden building catches alight. From somewhere above his head, someone, a child, starts to scream, and Clint's stomach churns again. Reason dictates he should just run for it, get the hell out of there. The building is already lost, and anyone above him is likely a lost cause too. No sense getting himself killed along with everyone else. The child screams again, and Clint squeezes his eyes shut as hard as he can, and tries to force himself to ignore the sound.
He balks as Katya tries to push him toward the stairs, toward the area still clear of flames. "No. Miro, your neighbours... we can't... there are children."
Miro's face softens at that. "Da," he relents. "All right." He turns to Katya, and there's a flurry of arguing in Bulgarian, but at the end she, too, gives in. She looks over at Clint, gives him a nod.
"You keep Miro safe. You promise."
He holds up his right hand. "I swear on my grave."
They waste precious time running back into Miro's apartment, but there's no choice. Miro starts pulling towels from the linen closet as Clint runs water in the bathtub. Within moments the towels are soaked through, and Clint wraps one around his nose and mouth, helps Miro to do the same. Carrying an armful of towels, Clint charges up the stairs as fast as he can manage, adrenaline lending him a strength and speed he didn't know he possessed. It's not a large building, but it feels like it's at least fifty stories tall by the time he gets to the top landing, already engulfed in white-hot flames and smoke. The doors to the apartments are all open, people milling about in panic, and they all throw themselves at him and Miro as they appear.
He leaves it to Miro to get them going down the stairs, to distribute wet towels among them as best he can. Clint wouldn't be able to make himself understood, nor can he understand them amidst the screaming and the chaos, but he can still hear that one piercing shriek that got his attention before. He grabs the nearest person, an older man with a soot-blackened face.
"The child!" he yells, aware that he's probably being too loud even now when the man flinches. "Where's the child?" He racks his brain, trying to remember the right words. "Kude e deteto?"
Wordlessly, the man points to the furthest apartment on the landing, the door ajar but almost invisible behind a wall of flame. Clint shakes his head to clear it, doesn't give himself time to think before he's sprinting down the hallway, bent over at the waist so as to avoid the worst of the smoke. He finds the child--a little girl no more than eight or nine, dressed in nothing but a thin blue nightgown--huddled just behind the doorway, tears streaming down her face. She screams when she sees him and backs away, and he curses but doesn't try to lunge after her. Instead he smiles.
"Hey, sweetpea, I'm a friend." He bites his lip, tries to think of a way to reassure her. "Spokoino, az sum ot dobrite, okay?" His Bulgarian is terrible, way too stilted and probably wrong, but her expression changes from terrified to merely worried, and she stares at him, biting her lip. "Doveri mi se. Ela s men."
He holds out his hand, and with another sharp cry she throws herself into his arms, sobbing convulsively. He doesn't bother making her walk, just scoops her up in his arms and runs for all he's worth, even as he feels a wall of heat rise up behind him.
Miro is waiting for him at the top of the stairs, and scoops the girl out of his arms before sprinting down ahead of him, the other residents all running down as fast as they can manage. Clint follows close on his heels, trying desperately to keep up with them but lagging further and further behind. Now that he's been relieved of his burden, Clint is forcefully reminded of just how badly his leg is still hurt when his knee gives way and sends him sprawling to the side. He only just saves himself from tumbling down the entire flight of stairs by catching the smouldering railing with one hand, and feels the heat sear into the flesh of his palm. Something stretches and pops in his shoulder as he falls, and he lets out a yell of pain. By the time he's able to get to his feet, it's already too late: the stairs are completely ablaze above and below him.
He can make it to the next landing, but Katya said that Stoyan had all the fire exits covered. Or, rather, he's pretty sure that's what she meant. I'll just have to chance it. He uses his good leg to push off the stairs, landing in a painful roll at the bottom, but he avoids the worst of the flames and ducks into the nearest open door he can find. The apartment is dark, but the flickering light of the fire lets him make out where the windows are, and he stumbles toward the furthest one, where he thinks the fire escape must be. He pushes the window open, doesn't so much as bother to check what's below it before climbing out head and shoulders first. He lands awkwardly on the metal fire escape, only to feel something ricochet off the metal directly to his right.
He ducks, rolls to the side, trying to work out if there are stairs or a ladder he can use, cursing himself for never quite working out how the fire escapes worked in this building before. Standard reconnaissance, Clint. Phil would read you the riot act during debrief after this. You got sloppy, working without him. Another bullet pings off the escape as he finds a ladder, and he pauses to look around, trying to pinpoint the source of the gunfire. It's coming from nearby, that much he's sure of. The shooter isn't using a silencer, but if Clint can hear the faint report, it must mean the guy is nearby. Eventually he spots him, standing on the balcony of the next apartment. Behind him, the room is a light show of whites and yellows and oranges, too damned hot for him to get out. As Clint watches, the guy, barely more than a silhouette, raises his gun to fire again, just as the heat makes the glass in the windows explode outward. There's a horrible shriek of pain, and the gun goes skittering along the balcony and falls the three remaining stories to the ground.
Clint lets out an incredulous laugh, hardly believing his luck. The man's sleeve is on fire, and he's shrieking even louder than the little girl before him. For a moment Clint is tempted to just let him burn--t's no more than he deserves--but only for a moment. He shakes his head, mutters another obscenity under his breath, then finds what purchase he can along the wall of the building and carefully edges his way across to him, praying that the whole damned building won't collapse before he gets there.
His erstwhile assailant isn't still on fire when he gets there, shrieking and batting ineffectually at his arm with his other hand, right up until Clint tackles him and forces them both to the floor, using their combined body weight to smother the flames, though not before he feels the heat sear into the palms of his hands. Up close he recognises the man as one of Stoyan's bodyguards, though they've never exchanged more than a dozen words before.
"Petar, it's me. You want to live? You stick with me, got it?"
Petar nods, his eyes so wide that Clint can see the whites all the way around the irises. His pupils are huge, even in the bright light from the fire. Clint grabs hold of both his shoulders, and pulls until they're both back on their feet.
"Okay, follow me. You try anything, I'm leaving you here to burn."
Clint half-expects to die, riddled with bullets, the moment he sets foot on the steet by the burning building. Already the flames are billowing up into the sky, the windows belching smoke into the chilly evening air. He's got Petar's good arm slung over his shoulders, though at this point it's anyone's best guess as to who is holding up whom. Petar's in better shape than Clint, overall, but he's rattled and his arm is badly burned. Even in the dim light Clint can see where the fabric of his shirt has been seared right into his flesh.
Miro is waiting for him, and with Katya's help pulls both him and Petar along the street until they can take refuge in an alley a block or two further away.
Clint leans heavily against the wall, coughing convulsively to get the remnants of smoke out of his lungs. "Stoyan?" he manages to ask between bouts of coughing, and Miro shrugs.
"I think he has more important thing to do. He's gone, for now."
Clint looks down at Petar's prone form. Stoyan's henchmen is moaning audibly, his injured arm cradled to his chest. It's obvious he needs a hospital, but there's practically no way to get him there without getting all of them killed. Clint glances at Katya, huddled in Miro's arms, and shrugs. Gingerly he kneels next to Petar, and when the pain in his knee makes that position impossible to keep he drops to sit on his ass on the cold concrete.
"Okay, Petar, here's the deal. That burn needs a hospital--not even Stoyan's illegal doctor can patch that up for you. That's supposing Stoyan even lets you see his doctor, because, let's face it, you were left in that building to make sure I never came out alive, am I right? As far as our buddy Stoyan is concerned, you should have let yourself burn before letting me get away. So, best case scenario, you're going to need skin grafts, some sort of advanced treatment. Otherwise it's going to get infected, and you're going to die in a lot of pain, and Stoyan is going to be pissed at you no matter what. You hear me?" Petar doesn't answer, but he nods. "Good, okay. I hate the idea of leaving you to die like an animal--I'm a soft-hearted guy, believe it or not. So we're going to find a way to drop you off at a hospital, but you've gotta help us first. Help us to help you, you get me?" That gets another nod. "Good boy, I knew you'd see reason. So, first, you tell me what Stoyan's got planned. I know something's happening, but you need to tell me what it is."
Petar coughs and moans, and whatever explanation he gives comes out in a jumbled mess of pained Bulgarian. Clint sighs, and turns to Miro, whose face has gone pale, even in the dark of the alley.
"What did he say?"
"He says the arms deal has been moved up. That it is in a few hours. That's why Stoyan left, he has to be at docks on time, and there are preparations. Stoyan worries that, if you are a spy, you will try to stop the shipment. You are spy, Clint?"
Clint gives him a sheepish smile. "That's a really fancy word for what I am. Makes me sound like James Bond. But yeah, I guess. I'm more of a... well, I'm an agent. I used to be, anyway. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. But S.H.I.E.L.D. just imploded, from what I've heard."
Miro looks pained at that, but he shrugs. "Well, so it goes. Petar," he nudges the thug with the toe of his boot, making the man moan with pain again, and starts questioning him in rapid-fire Bulgarian. When he seems satisfied with his answers, he turns back to Clint. "Stoyan hears last night about S.H.I.E.L.D., finds out about you. You are on internet. The arms shipment is tonight, because there is... more weapons? Yes? Also, different weapons. I don't know word in English, but is a kind of bomb, with radiation."
Clint's blood runs cold. "A dirty bomb?"
Miro nods. "Yes, dirty bomb. There is confusion, no international agencies in place to interfere while S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, da? So they make shipment of three, four times normal size. Smuggle weapons that cannot be smuggled."
"Shit, that makes sense. They're using the chaos to cover up what they're doing. Fucking Hydra."
Even Miro, it seems, has heard of them. Then again, if he's a fan of Captain America, that's probably not all that surprising. "Yeah. You know how you thought you were working for TIM? If that wasn't bad enough, you've actually been working for Hydra this whole time. They're the ones who've been Stoyan's financial backers from the start, laundering their money through TIM and all the other crime groups in Eastern Europe. All over the world, knowing them, but TIM's the only one I know about first hand."
Miro swallows hard. Katya's face is unreadable, may as well be made of stone for all the emotion she's showing, and Clint is pretty sure he doesn't want to know what's going through her mind at all right now.
"We need a car," Clint says, before they can get too deeply involved in the problem of which-bad-guy-did-what-when. They can deal with that later. Right now they're stranded next to the burning remains of everything Miro and Katya have in the world. "Petar, you're going to help us. Do you have a car near here?"
Petar moans and shakes his head. "Ne... Stoyan took car."
"Then we need mine. I can't get there on foot, but one of you can. I doubt my apartment's locked, you can get the keys there. I don't know if they'll have left anyone to look for me, but maybe we can distract them."
Miro shakes his head. "No, too much risk. Too far, and what will you do if Stoyan comes back?"
Katya breaks in, speaking quickly in Bulgarian, and Miro nods in apparent agreement.
"We take Katya's car. She goes, we stay here until she comes back."
Clint winces, but he has to concede the point. There's no telling what could happen in the time it would take even a healthy guy like Miro to run back to his apartment, find his keys and bring back the car, even if the place isn't being watched anymore, for which there's no guarantee. "Yeah, okay. Thank you, Katya."
"Za nishto," she says, then takes off at a run as the wailing of sirens in the distance grows louder.
He leans back against the cold wall of the nearest building, feeling his stomach perform another backflip as the last of the adrenaline deserts him, and a moment later he pitches to one side in order to vomit. It's mostly bile, since he still hasn't had the opportunity to eat today, but it still burns like hell coming up. He dry-heaves for what feels like an eternity until the gag reflex finally subsides, leaving him drained and shaking. His head and leg are throbbing in time with his pulse, and although the wound in his side doesn't hurt quite as much as before, the pain hasn't entirely let up, either. Miro crouches next to him and puts a hand carefully on his shoulder.
"You don't look good, my friend."
He manages a ghost of a smile. "I feel worse than I look. I'll be fine, I just need a minute or three to recover a bit."
"You need a hospital."
"No, Petar here needs a hospital. I need a shower, a bed, and maybe a bottle of vodka, not necessarily in that order."
Miro lets out a brittle laugh. "Before tonight, I could offer you all three. You make sure your contact knows we help, yes? When you call him?"
The message is clear. If Clint doesn't see them all through this, Miro and Katya may as well give up now. Their lives are forfeit, as far as Stoyan is concerned anyway, for helping a known spy. He's saved from having to answer by the rumble of a car engine coming up to the end of the alley. A moment later he hears Katya's voice--at least, he hopes it's her--calling to them. "Come now!"
Miro moves to help him up, but Clint waves him off. "Get him! I'm okay," he lies, and uses the wall to push himself to his feet.
Miro grabs the all-but-unconscious Petar by his arms and pulls him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, leaving Clint to limp behind him as best he can. Even slowed down by his burden, Miro reaches the car first and bundles Petar unceremoniously into the back seat before climbing in beside him. Without any prompting Clint drops into the front passenger seat, not bothering to buckle his seat belt before Katya presses on the accelerator and takes off in what he assumes is the direction of the hospital.
She drives slowly, or maybe that's just Clint's perception, but he resists the impulse to tell her to hurry the fuck up, already. For one thing, she's not trained to drive at top speeds, and a speeding car would attract too much attention at a time like this. Better to stick to the speed limit for now and fly under the radar... or drive under the radar, he corrects himself, and laughs at his own joke. Katya shoots him a worried look, and he can't quite find the energy to explain the humour in the situation to her. It's probably not all that funny anyway, he decides.
He loses track of things after that. The city goes by in a blur of white, green and red lights, of cars and muffled horns and anxious voices which he thinks he recognises. The car stops and goes, veers around corners so sharply that he sometimes lists against the car door before he's able to shove himself upright again. He should be paying attention, he thinks muzzily, keeping track of where they're going, counting the turns, but everything feels a little distant and fluid, and he can't quite bring himself to care much anymore. Finally the car lurches to a halt, and he almost breaks his nose on the dashboard. Katya shakes him hard by the shoulder, and he can't quite hold back a moan of pain as the movement jolts all his injuries again.
"Clint! You not sleep. Wake up!"
"'m not sleeping," he protests. "''m fine."
"Like hell you are, my friend," Miro says from just beside him, and Clint starts, because he never heard him get out of the car.
Miro opens the door, grabs him by the arm, and hauls him up without so much as a warning. That's probably a good thing, Clint decides, because otherwise he might have protested at the idea of getting up. The car seat was pretty comfortable. "I call Maria, we stay with her for now, until we have new plan."
Cint nods dazedly. "Yeah, okay. New plan. I'm working on it," he promises, right before his eyes roll back in his head, and the world goes dark again.
There's a weird murmuring sound around him. Clint can't quite make out what it is. Maybe if there weren't that annoying whistling noise in his ear he'd be able to get a better idea of what's happening. He tries to turn his head, get a sense of where he is and what's happening, and immediately regrets it when pain shoots right up into his head like a bolt of lightning. He swallows the cry of pain that threatens to bubble up in his throat, and struggles to sit up.
"Shh," a soft voice urges, just as strong hands pin him back down. "Tiho, Clint."
"You are safe here," another voice adds.
He blinks, opens his mouth, then closes it again, and waits for the world to come back into focus. He's lying on a bed in a small, sparsely furnished room. The only light is coming from a small lamp on a far table, for which he's grateful, because even that feels like it's uncomfortably close to blinding. There's a pretty woman hovering over him, all dark blue eyes and black hair trimmed to a bob that's falling in her face, her expression screwed up with concentration, or maybe worry. The resemblance with Katya is uncanny. He tries to remember how to smile like a normal person. By the looks of it, he doesn't succeed.
"Hi, Maria. Uh, long time no see."
She rolls her eyes, but pats his arm. She doesn't speak a word of English, he remembers belatedly, but he's pretty sure his brain is too scrambled to come up with anything decent in Bulgarian.
"How's Tomas?" He's half-expecting the little boy to come bouncing into the room, but the place is deadly quiet.
"He is with his grandmother, for now," Miro answers. He's sitting in a chair next to the bed, and he holds out a packet of frozen peas--a staple in all households, apparently. "Hold this to your head. You have a bad concussion. I thought you might not wake up."
This time no one tries to stop him when he pushes himself upright and accepts the makeshift ice pack. He winces as it puts pressure on his palm, and glancing down, he notes that both his hands have been bandaged with gauze. "I have a hard head."
"Katya says your hands are not too badly burned. You will have scars, but they will heal."
Clint nods, wishing the world would hold a little more still. Maria rises from where she was perched next to him on the bed, says something he doesn't catch, and steps out of the room.
His hearing aid is still whistling, which likely means nothing good at this point. He puts down the ice pack, carefully removes the aid and holds it up to his face, trying to see if it's been damaged. A moment later he starts when Miro taps him on the leg to get his attention. He turns in time to see Miro's mouth moving, but he can't make out the words, so he holds up a hand in a clear signal to wait.
"I can't understand you."
There isn't any visible damage or dirt, which means either it just got knocked loose during all the excitement, or something inside the electronics is irretrievably damaged. He sighs and inserts it back into his ear, hoping for the former, resigned to the latter.
"What did you say?" The whistling seems better, but everything else is still muffled, which is definitely not a good sign.
"I ask if your..." Miro makes a vague motion with one hand, "device is broken."
He shakes his head. "Not completely. Well, not that one. The other one is kaput, which is a pain in my ass, but this one seems mostly okay."
It's not a secret to anyone that he's deaf. He'd agreed long ago with Martin that pretending he was hearing would be more of a liability if the truth ever came out, than if he played it straight from the beginning. The fewer lies you have to keep track of, the better, especially in this line of work. No one had really seemed to give a damn if he was deaf or not, so long as he got the work done. Not all that different from S.H.I.E.L.D., when it came down to it. The thought isn't a comfortable one.
"How long was I unconscious?"
"Not long," Katya answers from the doorway. "One hour since we get here. Petar is in hospital," she adds, as if he'd just asked about the guy's welfare. Unlikely, since Petar did his best to gun him down not even two hours ago. "He says deal is at two o'clock."
"In the morning?" Clint sits up further, which only makes his head throb more. "Dammit."
Not for the first time, he finds himself wishing Phil Coulson were here. Not only because Coulson was always better at planning and logistics, but because you could always count on him to come through in a pinch. No matter how bad things were, no matter how deep in the shit you were, you could always count on him to come pull you out, to turn that sow's ear into a silk purse against all odds.
"You know how bad I am at plans, Phil," he mutters.
He shakes his head. "It's not important... he's dead now, anyway. Look, Miro, you've done more than I could ever ask of anyone. I gotta see this through, but you and Katya... if you want out, I'll understand. I'll give you my contact right now, and if I don't make it out..."
Miro breaks in before he can so much as finish his sentence. "Amerikanets," he snorts. "You are incredibly stupid sometimes, you know that? You think me and Katya, we turn our backs on you now?" he turns to Katya and asks a question that Clint doesn't really understand, except that he's pretty sure Miro was asking for her agreement. She rolls her eyes, nods, and replies with a long string of rather acid-sounding Bulgarian. Miro looks back at him, grinning. "You see? She thinks you are stupid too."
Clint finds himself grinning back. "I'm glad we've found something we can all agree on, then. Uh, okay," he ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck with a bandaged hand, hoping they won't see him blush. "Like I said, I gotta see this through. You understood Petar better than I did. He tell you where this deal is going down, other than the docks? Because that's a pretty big search area for the three of us."
"I have address. It's a warehouse that belongs to TIM. No one is using it right now, and it is right next to water. Perfect for sending and receiving large shipments, da?"
"Da," Clint agrees. "Okay. In that case, we better get going. You think we can still use your car without getting spotted?"
Katya puts her finger to her lips, then turns to her sister and speaks to her in an urgent undertone before shooing her from the room. When she turns back, she gives a rueful half-shrug. "She not know, she not tell."
Miro gets up from his chair and moves to close the door. "So, we are wounded spy, mechanic with no job, and nurse. We have my car, my cell phone and my pistol. Do you have a good plan?"
"I have a plan. Can't promise it's a good one." Clint grimaces. "We'll need at least a little money, and more weapons than your one gun. Katya, do you even know how to fire a gun?"
She gives him a look that suggests he's not much cleverer than the average bit of pond scum. "I live with Miro for five years. I know how to use gun."
"Okay, then. We need weapons for the three of us, and... I don't know, maybe something to use as a distraction. I work better from a distance, anyway. It's kind of what I did best, before I started the undercover gig. Let me tell you," he adds wistfully, "being a sharpshooter is a much simpler way of life than all this cloak-and-dagger bullshit."
"Sharpshooter?" Miro asks, looking puzzled.
"Like a sniper, sort of," Clint mimes pulling back the string on a bow, and Miro's eyes grow wide.
"Bozhe moi!" he exclaims. "You are Hawkeye!"
Clint winces and flaps a hand at him to keep quiet. "Jesus, Miro, don't yell! And I don't really go by that anymore. Not... not since New York," he says, but Miro is ignoring him entirely now, chattering excitedly away to Katya in Bulgarian. The only words that Clint can make out are 'Hawkeye' and 'Avengers,' and the rest all sounds like a bunch of very enthusiastic but jumbled syllables. "Miro, Miro! Dude, if it's that exciting, I can try to get you Captain America's autograph if we make it out of this mess alive, okay? Can you please focus?"
Miro subsides a bit after that, but his face has lit up like it's Christmas morning, and it kind of makes Clint want to cry, because Miro's looking at him like he's some kind of fucking hero, and Clint is about as far from a hero as you can get without actually being a bad guy.
"We all watch on the television two years ago, in New York. You and Avengers save the city! I did not recognise you, my friend. You were very high up on the roofs. Too far to see. But you defeat Loki and his army. Very exciting!"
Clint squeezes his eyes shut as the world threatens to turn blue again. He takes a deep breath, reminds himself that it was a long time ago, that Loki is long gone, that his mind is his own. No one here but us chickens, he thinks. "Yeah, well. It was a long time ago, and we've got bigger problems on our hands right now. Any thoughts?"
Miro leans forward and claps him on the shoulder. "For Hawkeye, I have perfect thing! You come, we go visit my cousin Georgi. He has electronics shop, but he sells weapons as a side business."
"Of course he does."
Both Katya and Miro have to prop Clint up between them to get him down the stairs from Maria's apartment and back into the car. Neither of them say anything, but he's pretty sure they both have serious doubts about his ability to take down a criminal organisation in his current state. By the time they get outside, though, his muscles have loosened up enough that he's able to walk on his own mostly unassisted, even if his gait leaves something to be desired in the balance department.
It turns out the 'perfect thing' is a longbow. It's an old wooden one, but good quality and kept in impeccable condition by Miro's cousin, who's an old-school archery buff. It's beautifully balanced, and for a few moments Clint allows himself the luxury of going through the motions of shooting, though without actually releasing the string. It has a good heft to it, and the grip has been lovingly carved and maintained. It takes concerted efforts by both Katya and Miro to keep Georgi from alerting the entire damned neighbourhood that they're there once he learns who will be using his longbow. So far they've been lucky, Clint knows. For whatever reason the people in Bulgaria are among the nosiest he's ever met, everyone constantly poking into everyone else's business, and he keeps expecting neighbours to come barging in at any moment, demanding to know who he is and what he's doing there. Thus far, though, they've been left almost completely alone.
Georgi wrings Clint's hand so hard that he yelps and pulls back--even without the burns on his palm he's pretty sure it would have hurt like hell--and that elicits a flood of apologies in rapid-fire Bulgarian. Luckily--or maybe unluckily--Georgi doesn't speak a word of English, and Clint is exhausted enough that he can't summon the concentration to string together a coherent sentence in a foreign language. He carefully offers his hand again to shake, and this time Georgi is a great deal more careful with him.
"Blagodaria," he says, with all the warmth he can muster. "Miro, you tell your cousin I owe him one, okay?"
"He says that the honour is his to help out the greatest archer in the world, and that you and he someday should go shooting," Miro translates the very enthusiastic reply, and Clint smiles wanly. His hand is throbbing, but he can still move all his fingers, so it's a win in his books.
"Sounds great," he manages, even though it's another promise he's probably going to have to break, sooner rather than later. "Okay, let's blow this popsicle stand."
Miro shoots him a slightly puzzled look--he probably doesn't get the idiom--but doesn't hesitate. He puts out a hand to help Clint back to the car, but Clint will be damned if he's going to let himself be carried on his own mission. Coulson would be furious with him for going like this, wounded and with no back-up, but it's not like he has a choice, here. Even Phil would have to agree that it's not like he can just let the terrorists ship a bunch of weapons and a dirty bomb to boot without at least trying to stop them.
"So what is the plan?" Miro asks as he helps Clint to load the considerable arsenal Georgi provided them with from the cellar below his otherwise innocuous-looking shop. They've got enough now to pose a credible threat, if they play their cards right.
Clint pauses, one of the pistols held gently in both hands, his fingers nowhere near the trigger for now, and chooses his words carefully. "We don't have time for a sophisticated plan. We have two things on our side: speed and surprise. We know where they'll be, and when. They, on the other hand, don't know we're coming, and that's to our advantage. So the plan is to get there as fast as possible, beat them to the punch, and lie in wait. Then when the deal goes down I do what I do best, and start picking them off one by one. People like these dealers, they don't like surprises. They spook easily. So the goal is to get them to back off, take their toys and go home."
"We leave them with the weapons?"
Clint lays the gun in the trunk of the car with the rest of the weapons and nods. "I hate to do it, but it's our best play. We're not going to be able to take down the whole gang, not the three of us, and not like this. Best we can hope for is that they delay the shipment, give us enough time to warn the authorities, and have people with better firepower take care of it then."
In spite of Katya's protests he takes the wheel of the car. "We have to go fast," he tells her, trying to meet her gaze so that she doesn't get offended, or anything. "I might be banged up some, but I've got the training for this--you don't."
She relents, but it's obvious she's not happy about it. Come to think of it, he wouldn't be happy to have the concussed guy behind the wheel either, but it's not like they have much of a choice at this point. He takes the first few turns more slowly than he'd like, getting a feel for how the car handles, then jams his foot against the gas pedal as hard as he can and sends up a thought that's halfway between a silent apology to Katya's car and a prayer that the transmission will hold out until he can get them to their destination. Katya, visibly terrified, buries her head in her arms in the passenger seat, and he has to give her props for not screaming. Miro, at least, is a little more used to being in the thick of things. Clint catches glimpses of him in the rearview mirror every so often, busily loading a pistol that he appropriated for himself. The last time Clint looks back at him, Miro grins and gives him a thumbs-up.
"Score one for the good guys, yes?" he says.
Clint opens his mouth to reply, but before the words leave his lips the world explodes in a welter of shattered glass and the shrieking of metal grating against metal. The car spins, lurches, and Clint's head snaps to the side to collide hard with the door frame, and his last conscious thought is to wonder how many times a guy can get hit in the head in the same day before it causes some sort of permanent damage.
Clint figures he should be getting used to his whole body feeling like he's been beaten with several baseball bats. Even without opening his eyes he can tell he's been tied to a chair, for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. At least his wrists are bound with rope this time, easier to get out of, provided he's given enough time to work. His head is hanging at a painful angle--if he ever gets out of this he's going to need an army of chiropractors--but he risks peeking through his eyelashes in order to get a glimpse of his surroundings, hoping that whoever has him tied up this time, they're not watching him too closely.
It's a warehouse. Probably the warehouse, knowing his luck. It's mostly empty, whatever cargo or machinery was stored in here long since dismantled and taken away. It appears to be under construction, though for what purpose he has no idea. There are three men standing just on the edge of his peripheral vision, and he immediately recognises Stoyan and Dimitar, engaged in what looks like a pretty intense conversation. Even from a distance Stoyan is easy to recognise. The man is built like a bulldog, short and stocky, with a shock of steel grey hair that always looks like he's in need of a haircut. Over to the right he spots a large hole dug in the floor next to what looks like a cement mixer, it's huge barrel still rolling slowly in order to keep its contents wet, not that he has a particularly good view of it. He doesn't dare raise his head to look around, get a better view. The only way he stands any chance of getting out of this alive is if he manages to maintain what little element of surprise he has. Not that it's much, what with being tied to a chair without a good idea of how badly he's injured now.
He has to bite back a groan of pain as even the slightest movement makes him feel as though white-hot knives are being jabbed into his spine. He wriggles his toes inside his sneakers, and is relieved when it hurts like a son of a bitch. Whatever happened in the car, it didn't leave him paralysed. It's little comfort, since it's more than likely both Miro and Katya are dead. There aren't any other people here that he can see, no one tied up next to him, which can only mean one thing, in his experience. He swallows, throat threatening to close up on him, eyes stinging. This is all his fault, he knows. He shouldn't have dragged them into his business. He flexes his hands, wriggles his fingers, and even though the slightest movement makes stars dance in front of his eyes. He clamps his teeth down on his tongue until he tastes copper, trying not to make any sound that might be heard above the ambient noise.
In spite of his best efforts to look like he's still unconscious, his acting skills must be rusty, because a moment later Dimitar says something to Stoyan and jerks his head in Clint's direction. Leaving behind the third guy--Clint doesn't recognise him, but that's not altogether surprising in this line of business--they make their way over. Stoyan pulls a pistol from his belt and uses the tip of the barrel to force Clint's chin up.
"You disappoint me," he says by way of introduction. "Martin, he told me that perhaps you were one of us, but I see now we were both wrong."
Clint shifts in his chair, trying to find a more comfortable position now that he doesn't have to play possum anymore, and spits blood onto the ground. "Gotta be a hobby," he says to no one in particular.
"Getting beaten all to hell," he supplies, forcing himself to smile. Judging by the look on Stoyan's face, he doesn't make a good impression. "See, I'm not getting paid for it, but I do it on a regular enough basis that, if I'm not making a living at it, it means it's a hobby. I need a better one. Something safer, like knitting. I could use more scarves in my life."
Stoyan isn't one to waste words when he can use his fists, Clint knows this about him, so he isn't surprised when his former employer smacks him hard across the face. He spits out another mouthful of blood, and pokes gingerly with his tongue at what feels like a loose tooth. Things are starting to make sense, though. At least all of the bad guys he's had to deal with lately seem to have a fondness for monologuing. The good part about human bad guys is that they're limited to guns. No freaky mind-control powers.
"So... you're Hydra too, huh? You guys are freaking everywhere."
"Cut off the head--"
"Two more grow back," Clint rolls his eyes, even though it makes his head hurt more. "I know, I know. Except if you burn the head, that much I remember from my Greek mythology. I don't suppose you'd do me a favour and set yourself on fire? Save me the hassle of having to get free and do it myself?"
Stoyan turns a calculating look on him, and a chill runs down Clint's spine. For a second he let himself get complacent, forgot that Stoyan isn't some mindless goon that he'll be able to take out without a second thought. Stoyan is one of the leaders of TIM, maybe not the top guy, but he's close enough to the top that it means he's earned his way there. And in organisations like this, you don't earn your way to the top by being soft. Stoyan slowly and deliberately uses the barrel of his pistol to lift Clint's chin again.
"You think you are alive now because you are talented? Good at what you do?" he laughs mirthlessly. "You are alive because I want it so. I needed to know who was helping you, and now I do. The only reason I keep you alive now is to make sure there are no more surprises tonight. You got away once, so now I make sure that you don't interfere with my other plans. How does that expression go? If you want something done right, do it yourself. So tonight I take care of business first, take care of you second, and when I am done with that I track down your accomplices and take care of them, too."
It takes all of Clint's self-control not to jerk in surprise. "They got away?"
"They are not important," Stoyan shrugs. "I find them and deal with them later."
If Stoyan isn't gloating about killing Miro and Katya, then it must mean they got away. Clint can't let himself think of that, not now. It could be another ruse, just another of the kinds of mind games Hydra likes to play. Keep everyone off-balance. The car crash was a bad one, the kind that happens only when your car gets deliberately targeted by a much bigger, much heavier vehicle. He can't remember most of it, but he's pretty sure the other vehicle came at them from the driver's side, and he has to clamp down on the little flutter of hope in his chest before he loses control entirely. If Miro and Katya were able to get away, it might be the only good thing to come out of this whole mess.
"Stay put," Stoyan tells him, as though he has any choice in the matter. "When the deal is over, you and I will have a long talk about S.H.I.E.L.D., and what you have been telling them about me all this time. Maybe after that I will kill you, if I am feeling generous. Or maybe I will hand you over to Hydra interrogator, and let them extract all the secrets from your mind in ways that are too terrible for me to even imagine."
Clint shudders in spite of himself, and bites his tongue before he can say anything he'll regret. If you're caught, you stay silent, Barton, Phil used to tell him before every mission. Every time you open your smart-ass mouth you're giving them an opening, showing a weakness they can exploit. They're looking for what makes you react, and sarcasm is a reaction. So you shut up, you sit still, and you don't make eye contact. You sit tight until I work out a way to extract you. Got it?
"Got it," he mumbles under his breath.
Except this time there isn't going to be an extraction. He slumps in his seat, and for a moment he's tempted to sit there, to simply wait until it's all over. His head is throbbing, his whole body aches and burns by turns, and his hands have gone numb where the ropes securing him have cut off his circulation. It would be easier to give up, that much is for certain.
There's a loud metallic clanging as one of the cargo doors opens on the far side of the warehouse. He looks up in time to see a large grey truck trundle inside and come rattling to a halt about twenty yards away. The driver hops out, leaving the engine idling, and four other men clamber out of the back, each more heavily armed than the last. Clint winces, watching as the odds of him getting out of here in one piece dwindle down to less than nothing. This isn't your ordinary weapons sale, that much is obvious. He hasn't seen this much firepower gathered in one place since... well, in a really long time. Two of the men, their weapons slung over their shoulders, are carrying a metal case between the two of them. It doesn't look especially heavy, but given the way they're holding it gingerly, as though it might come alive and bite them at any time, leaves little doubt in Clint's mind as to its contents.
There's the smoking gun, Phil, he thinks. That's what I've got to take care of. The rest isn't all that important.
Stoyan and Dimitar have already moved forward to greet the new arrivals. They're too far away for Clint to be able to make out their faces, not that he's all that good at lip-reading in Bulgarian anyway. His hearing aid is still whistling intermittently, and he still can't feel his fingers, but knowing what's inside that box has banished from his mind any thoughts of giving up. He tugs at the rope binding his wrists, feels it chafe against raw skin on one wrist, but the other hand is too thickly bandaged for him to feel anything. He chews on his lip for a moment. He can't slip free, not with his hand wrapped in bandages, but if he can get the bandage off it might work. It's either that or dislocate the thumb on his uninjured hand, which will leave him even worse off than before. He needs at least one hand to be somewhat functional in order to have a snowball's chance in hell of getting out of this alive.
Katya, bless her soul, is unfortunately really good at what she does. After a few minutes of fruitlessly picking at the edges of the bandages, Clint resigns himself to the inevitable. There's no way he's getting out of these ropes without doing himself some extra damage. Dimly he's aware of some sort of argument between Stoyan and the sellers, but he can't afford to pay too much attention to that now. Even if he could make out what they were saying, there isn't much chance he'd be able to use any of it to his advantage. Coulson might, if he were here, but he's not, and Clint knows enough to play to his own strengths. He takes a breath, steels himself against the oncoming pain, and takes hold of his thumb as best he can, praying he'll have enough leverage to see this through.
Something collides with the heel of his shoes. Startled, he looks down at his feet and sees a knife there, the blade glinting dully in the dim light of the warehouse. For a moment he stares at it incredulously, then looks up and around to try and figure out where the hell it could have come from. A moment later he spots the source: Miro is crouched about a hundred yards away, almost completely hidden from view behind some crates. Clint grins, his heart soaring in spite of himself as his friend gives him an exaggerated thumbs-up sign with both hands.
The odds are still stacked against them both, but suddenly Clint is convinced that, if he needs to, he can damned well grow wings and fly out of here.
It still takes longer than Clint would like to toe off one of his shoes and use his toes to pick up the knife. It hurts like the fires of hell to contort his body enough to shift the knife to his hand, but eventually he manages to get it properly positioned to saw determinedly at the ropes. The blade bites into his skin on more than one occasion, but he grits his teeth and forces himself to keep going, the handle of the knife now slippery with blood.
A moment later and he's free. He's right out in the open, there's no way for him to slip away without anyone seeing him. There's no choice but to abandon any hope of subtlety. All he can do is hope that the element of surprise will be enough to see him to the other side of the warehouse, where there's cover. A glance over at Stoyan and his buddies tells him that his little escape artist act so far has gone unnoticed. He turns to look back at Miro, jerks his head in what he hopes is an obvious indication for him to change positions. Luckily Miro seems to get the message, gives him another thumbs-up, and promptly disappears from view.
This is it, Clint tells himself. He shoves his foot back in his sneaker, tries to discreetly work the kinks out of his muscles, then gathers himself, and takes a deep breath. The graceful leap he was planning from his seat doesn't go exactly as planned. He gets his legs under him, but his wrenched knee promptly buckles and sends him sprawling. His foot catches the leg of the chair on which he was sitting, sending it crashing to the floor. A chorus of yells erupts from off to the side, and his heart leaps into his mouth. He scrambles to his hands and knees, pushes himself back to his feet and forces himself to run, to close the distance between him and the crates on the far side of the warehouse, even as he hears the first bullets whistle by his head. He resists the urge to duck--he knows the bullets are already well past him by the time he hears them, and ducking would only slow him down even more. His leg is screaming at him, but better that than it not hurting at all anymore after he's dead, he supposes. He throws himself at the crates, remembering his old drill instructor's directions--never be afraid to hit your cover; bounce off it if you have to, but never stop before you reach it, otherwise that last-minute hesitation will be your last minute. He hits harder than he intended, ears ringing, but at least for now he's out of the direct line of fire.
Miro, bless him, left him a pistol and the bow and arrows they got from cousin Georgi. He slings the bow and the quiver over his shoulder, ducks around the crates even as he's scooping the pistol up from the ground. He can feel rather than hear more bullets impacting against the wooden crates, mere inches from where he was a few seconds ago. He risks popping up over one of the crates in order to return fire, and sees one of the seller's guys go down, although he's knows it wasn't his bullet that did it. Miro has to have circled around.
Stoyan strides to the middle of the warehouse, and Clint ducks back almost out of view. Clint has to hand it to him, the guy has balls of steel to walk into what's essentially the middle of a firefight with no apparent concern for his own physical well-being. He holds up one hand, and everyone, Clint included, holds their fire.
"Barton! You come out now, and I promise that I will kill you quickly. You keep up your little game, and I will make sure that you die slowly, and not well. This is my only offer!"
The metal container is lying unguarded now, the men who accompanied it having taken up positions behind the truck in order to shield themselves from any bullets that might be coming their way. There's no way he can take them out from where he is, not even with Miro's help. Get to high ground, Clint, he can hear Phil tell him. I want eyes on the whole floor in thirty seconds!
You got it, he promises, and starts scanning the place for a vantage point, an access, anything. He finds it a moment later, a spot where the crates have been piled high enough that, with a little bit of skill and a whole lot of luck, he might be able to swing up to a catwalk. There's a rope and pulley at the other end of the catwalk, and he grins to himself. Access and egress. Easy peasy. He pops up again empties his entire clip in the direction of Stoyan and his men, although they've scattered enough that he knows he won't be able to get more than one or two, and is gratified when he hears a scream of pain loud enough to penetrate the whistling from his hearing aid. He leaps up onto the first crate, then the next, ignoring the burning, tearing sensation in his knee, finds himself flailing as one of the crates teeters under his weight, threatening to send him crashing to the floor. His arms windmill for a few heart-stopping seconds, and at the last moment he makes a desperate lunge as the crate shifts again under him. He catches the edge of the catwalk with his fingers, hoists himself up even as a bullet ricochets against the metal railing a scant few inches from his hands.
He doesn't pause to so much as catch his breath, is up and running seconds later, pulling the bow off his back and nocking an arrow in one fluid motion. Guns still require concentration, but archery is like breathing. He settles into the familiar stance, back straight, hand aligned with his jaw, and feels his spirits soar as the first arrow sails through the air to bury itself in the throat of Stoyan's henchman, the one whose name he never learned. He takes off at a run again, twists as he does so in order to loose another arrow, and watches a man crumple to the ground. A third arrow, a third target collapses. Stoyan is nowhere to be seen, finally gone to ground in order not to get shot like a rat at the bottom of a hole. It's too bad, really. Clint would dearly have liked to put an arrow through him as well. He can see where Miro has taken cover over on the other side of the warehouse, betrayed by the muzzle flash of his pistol, although Clint is pretty sure no one else has spotted him yet. It's only a matter of time before he's caught, though, which means Clint has to act fast.
He sprints along the catwalk, heedless of the shots being fired below him, intent only on the rope and pulley ahead. He slings the bow back over his shoulder, lunges at the rope and tries to keep himself from getting too badly rope burned as he lowers himself to the ground as fast as the pulley mechanism will let him. He lands hard, the impact spilling him onto the floor, but he's still managed to catch them all off-guard. The main advantage of working with Phil Coulson as your handler for years, is that you learned to think outside the box. Anything can be a weapon, anything at all can be used to give you an edge, if you know what you're doing. That's what he taught Clint, and today Clint's life depends on those lessons like it never has before.
The bow falls to one side, the quiver goes rolling across the floor, but there's no time to recover either of them. The impact must have jarred his hearing aid loose, because the only thing he can hear now is a high-pitched whine in his right ear. He keeps his eyes fixed on the grey box, now only a few yards away. Nothing else matters, except getting that box out of play. He can't just destroy it, blow it up the way he would any other bomb. Its contents would contaminate the entire port sector of Varna. Out of the corner of his eye he spots the cement mixer, and a desperate plan half-forms in his mind. He stumbles forward, grabs the box with both hands and nearly drops it. He curses loudly, hugs it to his chest. It's deceptively light, and he almost laughs at how ludicrous it is, that this box he can lift with just two hands could kill hundreds or thousands of people, or even more.
Clint doesn't know how he manages to make it all the way to the cement mixer without getting shot--he decides he probably has Miro to thank for that--but make it he does. There's no time to finesse this. He drops the box into the hole by the cement mixer, winces as the lid comes off and some of the components come spilling out onto the ground. There's nothing for it now but to hope he hasn't fucked everything up completely and keep going. Stay on target, Barton. Phil's voice is in his mind again, egging him on. Stay on target. He climbs up into the control booth, sends up a prayer of gratitude to whatever divinity decided to leave the cement mixer running, and starts tugging at the controls. Cement mixers aren't part of his training, but hell, he's driven every vehicle and flown pretty much every bird S.H.I.E.L.D. dad to offer at some point or another, he figures this thing can't be all that different. His heart is hammering in his ribcage, and he can feel where the bullet wound in his side has reopened, blood seeping warm and wet against his shirt. For all he knows he's already surrounded, seconds away from getting a bullet lodged in his head, but he can't afford to turn around and look to see what's happening. Stay on target. The world is starting to swim in front of his eyes--blood loss, he thinks vaguely, even as he locates the lever that will release all the contents of the barrel down the chute. He can't see the dirty bomb, just has to trust that it worked.
He slumps in the seat, and isn't surprised when, after he presses a hand to his side, it comes away crimson. The whistling in his ear has stopped, replaced by strange, muffled noise that's familiar and all the more maddening because he can't figure out what it is. He should get up, should go help Miro, try to get them all out of this alive, but his legs have different ideas on the matter. His head lolls to the side in time for him to spot one of the arms dealers, a man whose face means nothing to him, coming at him with his gun pointed directly at Clint's face.
"Sorry, Phil," he mumbles. "But hey, on the plus side, we saved everybody."
He lets his eyes close, figuring it doesn't really matter if he doesn't look his death right in the face. He's too tired to care. The mysterious sound gets louder, which makes no sense because he's sure his hearing aid isn't working at all. His last thought before he loses consciousness is that, in the end, it's pretty ludicrous to be hallucinating the sound of a helicopter approaching.
For the first time in recent memory, Clint isn't in pain when he awakens. He opens his eyes and finds himself looking at a set of off-white ceiling panels with pin-prick holes that form no discernible pattern. Even without the metal railing on the bed and the IV snaking out of his arm, the smell alone tells him that he's in a hospital. The world is silent, but he's pretty sure that if he had his hearing aids in, that he'd be able to hear the steady beeping of a heart monitor. He raises one hand to check for his hearing aid only to find the hand swathed in bandages and functionally useless.
Another hand, small and well manicured, catches him by the wrist. His gaze travels up, and he winces a little when he sees the expression on Natasha Romanov's face.
"You changed your hair," is the first thing that comes out of his mouth. "I like it. It suits you."
It's more of a croak than a compliment. His throat is dry, and his mouth tastes like something crawled in there and died. Natasha doesn't say anything, just holds a plastic cup of water with a straw to his lips and waits for him to drink. Barring the tumbler of very expensive scotch that Tony Stark offered him and all the other Avengers after the events of New York two years ago, it's the best thing he's tasted in his entire life. Natasha puts the cup down and glares even harder at him.
You're an idiot, she signs angrily.
He grins at her, now secure in the knowledge he's already been forgiven. "Thank you for coming for me, Tasha."
I am really, really mad at you. You picked up a dirty bomb with your bare hands! Idiot!
He raises his bandaged hand and rubs it in a circle over his chest. "It was in a box. And I didn't die of radiation poisoning, so it all turned out okay. I didn't have a choice. I'm sorry, really."
You're going to make this up to me for the rest of your life.
"My hand to God," he promises. He searches out her gaze and holds it. "Tasha... what the hell happened?"
She looks away, just for a second, but he's known her long enough to know that expression on her face, and his heart skips an uncomfortable beat in his chest. He can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he's seen her look absolutely shattered, and the last time was when Nick Fury told them both that Phil Coulson was dead. Clint braces himself, tells himself to wait until she's had a chance to explain before he starts jumping to conclusions. When she turns back to him, she faces him head on so he can read her lips.
"I didn't have a choice either. I'll explain everything, I promise, but not yet. You need to rest, and it's a very long story. Besides, there are people who want to see you," she adds with a small smile.
Clint feels a grin spread over his own features when the door opens and reveals Miro, pushing Katya in a wheelchair. Her face is bandaged and one leg is encased in a cast to her knee. She's covered in bruises, but she's smiling, and so is Miro. He wheels her all the way up to the bed, starts to speak, but whatever he's saying is lost as he bends over to lock the wheels on Katya's chair.
"I can't hear you, Miro," Clint tries to tell him, fumbling with the button that will let him raise the bed. "I don't have my hearing aids. You have to look at me when you talk. You're okay?"
Miro straightens up and beams at him. "I was saying, it is good to see you awake, my friend! Your colleague, Black Widow, she told us you might not... that your head injuries were very bad. You are feeling better, da?"
He nods, a little more carefully this time, now that the spectre of head injury is looming over him again. "Yeah, I'm guessing they've got me on the good stuff. Feeling no pain at all. How about you? You're looking pretty good."
"Me? I am tough old bird. So is Katya," Miro gives her a fond look, and she rolls her eyes. "As soon as we are able, we will go to America. There is a plane to take us. Some sort of jet, Black Widow says."
Clint reaches out to take Katya's hand between his own bandaged ones, and she lets him. "I'm really glad you're all right. When the car crashed, I thought..."
"We are both fine. Truly," she pats his arm with her free hand. "Don't feel bad."
"There are medical facilities waiting for you there, now that you're out of the woods," Natasha says, making sure he's watching her when she speaks. "You're going to need a lot of rehab. And no skipping out, this time. I'll sit on you if I have to. We didn't come out all this way just to have you die from a subdural haematoma."
"Your boss, he says he has job for me and Katya, when we go to America," Miro says, seemingly out of nowhere. "He is good man, like you. He was very worried you might not wake up."
Natasha moves forward to put a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, Clint. Take it easy."
Clint is pretty sure he's forgotten how to breathe. His chest is burning from the lack of air, and he has to resist the impulse to claw at his hospital shirt, the thin fabric feeling as though it's going to smother him right here in this bed. He feels his mouth working to produce sound, but his throat has closed up, and when his dead former handler steps into the room, looking exactly the same in his familiar black suit as the last time Clint saw him, the whole world starts to swim before his eyes.
Natasha says something, but he can't see well enough to make out her words. She ushers Miro and Katya out of the room, leaving him alone with his former handler.
Clint, Phil signs his name, then clasps him gently by both shoulders for a moment before signing again. Clint, take a breath.
He manages to pull in a thin, wheezing mouthful of air, dizzy with the sudden rush of it all. His eyes are burning, but he's pretty sure Coulson won't hold it against him if he passes out right about now. All the death-defying heroics have probably bought him a little leeway in the falling-apart department.
Phil rubs a fist in a circle over his own chest. I'm sorry. I really enjoy these dramatic reveals too much for my own good. I should have stopped to think... "God," he says aloud, "Natasha's going to kill me." He switches back to ASL for the rest. Forgive me? Before she gets back?
"Christ," Clint chokes down a sob, can't even bring himself to laugh at the obvious joke. "Fuck, Phil. Phil..."
He can't think of anything else to say, but it doesn't seem to matter, because his old handler pulls him into a hug. It's not exactly protocol. He and Phil were friends, but they weren't exactly the hugging, share-your-feelings type of friends, not even when they'd been at their closest. After a moment Phil shifts his weight a little, from one foot to the other. Clint can feel the vibration that tells him Phil is speaking, pulls away slowly so he can focus on his mouth, on the way his lips are moving, scrubbing at the tears that keep streaming down his face.
"... wanted to tell you," Phil is saying, even though it doesn't explain a damned thing. "Everything just moved so fast, and by the time I was able to, you were gone, and the world thought I was dead. We didn't want to compromise your cover."
Clint pulls in another shuddering breath and nods. "I don't care."
"What?" Phil rocks back on his heels, and Clint realises he misunderstood.
"No, I mean, I don't care why. I don't care. I just... you're alive, you're here. I don't care about anything else. Fuck, Phil, I thought you were--" he stumbles on the words. "I thought I'd killed you."
"Never. It was never your fault, I know that. Everyone knows that." The relief is evident on Phil's face. "Okay. We can deal with the rest once we're home again. I'll explain everything, I promise."
"I feel like there's a lot I missed."
"Nothing we can't get you caught up on. If--if you still want to be part of this, I mean. You've been through a lot, and S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't exist anymore, not the way it was. There's just a handful of us left, so if you want out, now's as good a time as any--"
"To hang up my bow?" Clint shifts in his bed and winces as the movement pulls at his side. "Well, I always did want to have my own farm..." he grins at the expression on Phil's face. "Give me a break, Coulson. I wouldn't know what to do with a cow if it bit me."
A small smile tugs at the corner of Phil's lips, the way it always does when he's trying not to let on that he finds Clint's humour too funny. "So, you're with us, then?"
"Always have been, always will be."
This time, Phil smiles in earnest. "Good. Then let's get started."