An Avengers fan fiction by xahra99
The first thing that Clint Barton thinks when SHIELD sends them to Tibet is that they shouldn't have chosen a white guy. But it's January, and with his face wrapped in scarves to protect him from the freezing cold, he could've been an Eskimo and nobody would've known the difference.
The air temperature is minus fourteen and the forecast is set for more snow. Clint rolls a fen between his fingers to stop his hands freezing. It nearly works. The tips of his fingers sting as if he's dipped them in ice water, but his hands remain flexible enough to pull a bowstring, and that's what matters.
Below him pilgrims continue their ceaseless clockwise circle around the Jokhang temple. The bulk of the Potala palace looms like a great white iceberg at his back. He keeps low, huddling in his parka against the icy wind. There are Chinese agents on the roofs overlooking the square, but they're paying no attention to anything except the bludgeoning cold. Clint picked up a tail as soon as they left the hotel, but he dealt with the man before climbing to the rooftops.
He's been there long enough that a layer of snow has covered his footsteps. But he knows how to wait.
The dark silhouette of a Chinese paramilitary appears on the roof opposite. Clint lines up the perfect shot. He aims for the tip of the man's nose for a quick and silent kill, but the man looks vacantly across the roofs before turning his attention to the Tibetans down below. Clint's focus spirals out again, although he keeps the arrow aimed. The Chinese are not the real threat here, just a minor irritation. It's true that SHIELD aren't supposed to be in Lhasa, but if Clint and Natasha don't do their job right then the Chinese authorities will be the least of their worries.
Below him the crowds flow like water, breaking off into little knots of conversation or slowing past the stalls of religious relics and prayer flags. Just for fun, Clint tags the people he suspects are Chinese forces in disguise. It's not hard. The men all wear black parkas and walk like they've got sticks rammed up their asses. The Tibetan pilgrims give them a wide berth, creating pretty swirls in the flow of humanity.
There are hundreds of people in the square, and every one of them will die before tomorrow if Natasha and Clint don't get this exactly right.
The threat is some Tibetan idol with serious doomsday powers. Its dossier is blank save for a few bloodstains and a single handwritten line that warns against touching the artefact with bare hands. Whatever it is, it can't be that important, because Hawkeye and Black Widow are the only two SHIELD agents in Lhasa.
It's only the end of the world again.
Clint squints over his shoulder. There's nothing there but ice. The sky is milky white and low enough it looks like an arrow would stick in the clouds if he shot it hard enough. SHIELD hasn't even assigned them a spotter. He's never needed anybody to tell him where to aim, but it would be nice to have somebody to watch his back.
He returns his gaze to the never-ending mandala of pilgrims. Monks in saffron robes and felt boots mingle with women in striped aprons with braided black hair. There is no sign of Natasha. The white walls of the temple make the trampled snow look grubby.
Seems like there's always a disaster happening, somewhere in the world.
If it hadn't been Tibet it would have been Iraq; if not Iraq, then Lagos; if not Lagos, then Antarctica. Despite the freezing cold Clint decides he would have preferred Antarctica. There's less potential for collateral damage in Antarctica. Unless, that is, you count penguins as collateral. Which he doesn't.
He runs his fingers over the raised Chinese characters embossed on the surface of the fen, checking for sensation. The coin is icy cold, but at least he can feel it. That's good. It's cold enough that his breath freezes on the scarves pulled over his face. The wind cuts through his jacket like a knife. He makes a mental note to speak to Supplies.
His ear mike hisses with quiet static. "Barton? We're on."
He scans the crowds for Natasha and picks her out within seconds. Clint has spent far too much time watching Nat through the scope of a sniper rifle or down the shaft of an arrow-first as target, then as ally-to mistake her for anyone else.
There's a painted pole in the centre of the square. It's hung with faded prayer flags and tufts of yak hair, reminding Clint of a pastel Christmas tree and it's where Nat meets the men. The mission statement labelled them as Georgian thugs from the Caucasus. They certainly look the part; sporting thick black parkas and matching porn star moustaches. The awkward set of their shoulders tells him that they're almost certainly carrying handguns. Clint adjusts his aim. He lines up the perfect shot again and again and again. The arrow never leaves his fingers.
Natasha's voice buzzes in his mike. She's speaking Russian. The thugs close in around her. She steps casually aside, moving out of the shadow of the pole to allow Clint a clear shot. He nocks an arrow and draws back the bowstring between three fingers, takes four breaths in, and four breaths out. The arrow never wavers.
Genuine superheroes like Tony Stark are too valuable to risk losing over anything but A-list threats. Natasha and Clint are strictly B-list. They get the crooks, the Mafioso, and the occasional small-time super villain. You don't have to have a costume to be a threat to humanity. A bunch of thugs and a talent for cruelty is enough for that.
One of the men carries a nylon backpack slung over one shoulder. He takes it off and points inside. Nat bends and peers in the bag. What she sees seems to satisfy her. She nods and they all leave the square together, sauntering off along the narrow streets.
Clint tracks the movements of several Chinese tourists as they turn and follow Nat and the Georgians along the road. There's a short man with a red bobble-hat, and a girl wearing a fur-trimmed parka who twirls a scarf between her fingers as she walks along. A pair of stocky men with dark scarves pulled over their faces complete the Chinese team.
Nat leads her group deeper into the Tibetan quarter before she pauses. Clint drops down behind the Chinese police group with black scarves and follows.
He takes them out one by one, clean as wiping down a window. The black-scarved men go down together, brought down by short-shafted arrows that barely show above their layers of clothing. He shoots the girl with a silenced handgun at close range, clasping her tightly as she falls and lowering her sagging body to the ground in what could pass for a lover's embrace. The man with the red bobble-hat falls to a long-range arrow once Clint's regained the roof. The scarlet wool almost hides the pool of blood.
None of the Tibetans hurrying past seem to care, or even notice. Clint touches his mike. "Lost your tail, Nat."
He sees the fractional nod of her head even from a distance. She pauses to draw the Georgians close. Then she pulls out a plastic carrier bag from her parka and offers them the money.
The Georgians glance at the money, then at Nat. Clint guesses what they're planning a moment before the nearest man reaches out and grabs Natasha by the throat. She stumbles and calls "Nyet!" loudly enough that the comm in Clint's ear shorts out temporarily.
The thugs take her shout for a protest. Clint recognises a command.
He murmurs, "Stand by."
One of the thugs snatches the plastic bag from Nat's hand. Another claps a hand over her mouth. They drag her under the striped awing of a Tibetan shop. She lets them tug her through the blue and white door hangings. He is already moving by the time the curtains swing closed.
The street is not a good place for a fire-fight. There are far too many civilians, and a pitched battle will only attract the attention of the Chinese authorities. It's much easier for them to let the Georgians take the fight indoors. Natasha can take them down and Clint can pick them off.
It's how they work. Nat is the fine focus. He's the wide shot. Together they see the whole picture. They work-have always worked- in perfect harmony. He never has to check that Natasha's n the right place. She just knows. Nick Fury also knows which is why Clint's currently freezing his ass off on a Tibetan rooftop.
He slings his bow across his back and slinks across the rooftops towards the shop with the striped awnings. The snow's already a couple of inches deep, but it makes good cover and he's grateful. His combat boots crunch in the ice. It's already starting to snow again.
The snow is already an inch deeper by the time he's ghosted across the rooftops to the shop. The building is a rough square with a courtyard in the centre. An ancient well is choked with rubbish. He's heard nothing through his headset. If Natasha's up to something, she's keeping quiet about it. Maybe the cold has shorted out their communications. It won't be the first time that's happened. Clint isn't worried. He's seen Natasha take on anything, up to and including a small army.
A man stumbles out into the square.
Clint lets him get nearly to the well before he shoots him through the throat. The Georgian drops without a sound to the floor and makes a bloodstained snow angel. Clint has already nocked a second arrow by the time the dead man's skull hits the ground. The second man to walk out sees the body. He freezes for a second to stare disbelievingly at the corpse and Clint shoots him through the nape of his neck. The icy wind masks the soft hiss of his arrows perfectly.
The moment one arrow leaves his fingers he's already drawing the next.
The third man doesn't waste time staring at dead bodies. He comes out fast. Clint can guess why. He doesn't loose. Snow gathers on his bowstring, on the black fletching of his arrow, works its way inside the hood of his parka. Clint doesn't move.
Natasha darts into the square a second later. Her footprints are light on the snow. She doesn't slip once. She gets up close, fast, bobbing a little on the balls of her feet. There's a gun in each of her hands and she's smiling.
Clint smiles himself as the Georgian backs away, intimidated by the obvious confidence of a woman less than half his size. He knows he's going to lose, and so does she. The fight's over before she even closes. That's Natasha's secret.
She takes him down fast with a quick blow to the throat. Clint admires her fluid movements and the way her body curves even through several layers of thick clothing. He admires her professionalism even more. He loves seeing Nat fight. The few times they've hooked up have been more about physical and emotional need than anything else. They don't have much to say to each other-when you see each other every day you run out of casual conversation really fast-but they rarely have to talk.
A face appears at a second-storey window across the courtyard. Natasha tucks and rolls, coming up behind the low wall of the well. It's perfect cover. Clint confirms that the silhouette is the last of the Georgian thugs. He reads the wind speed from a thin wisp of smoke rising above the rooftops to the south, adjusts for slowing of the arrow in the fierce cold, and looses. It all takes him less than a second. The razor edged arrow takes the thug in the face. He slumps and vanishes from the window. Clint's already taken another arrow for his quiver. He scans the rooftops but sees nobody. The Georgians are gone.
Natasha rolls out from behind the wall. She takes the backpack from one of the fallen thugs, unzips it and pulls out a small dagger the size of a service revolver. It looks like a tiny butter knife. Clint has no idea exactly what it does. Neither, he knows, does Natasha. She handles it gently, as if it might explode at any moment. The brass gleams dully in the dim light. Finally she nods and tucks it back into the backpack. She raises her index finger to her left ear and speaks into the mike. Clint can't hear what she says into the earpiece, but he reads her lips easily. We're done.
He waits until she has left the square until he rises to shake off the snow. He wraps the bowstring over his shoulder behind his back so that the bow shaft rests easily over his shoulder. The bow isn't easy to carry, but it's no more difficult than a sniper rifle and it's much, much cheaper. SHIELD tolerates his preference because he's just so damn good with it, but then SHIELD has agents that work with far stranger weapons.
As he turns and sees the shape standing in the snow right behind him, Clint thinks it's a damn pity that it's so useless at short range. He doesn't waste time trying to unsling his bow. His hand goes right for the gun at his belt.
He almost makes it.
He wakes up sprawled in the dust, shivering, and fighting the inevitable and unpleasant complications of a blow to the head.
His vision's blurry, like smearing grease across a camera. He can't hear that well and there's a tightness across his chest that could be altitude or just bruising. His muscles don't respond as quickly as he's used to, though he's not sure if that last one is concussion or not. His co-ordination's shot all to hell. He hopes it isn't permanent.
There are three men silhouetted against the light. They're saying something in what Clint thinks is Tibetan. It sounds like a radio slightly out of focus. The structure of the sentences is recognisable, but the language just doesn't make any sense.
One of them steps forwards and says something in mangled but recognisable English. Clint just blinks at him. The man repeats it again, as if teaching a lesson to a particularly stupid child. This time Clint understands what he's saying. It's a simple question.
"Why are you here?"
Clint doesn't say anything. His vision clears enough for him to make out the details of the three figures. They're a motley group. Two of them wear robes the same dark red as the walls and felt boots with curved toes that remind Clint vaguely of Aladdin. The third, the younger man who's asking the questions and presumably the only one who speaks English, is dressed more casually in jeans and a down jacket. The air smells strongly of incense.
The translator casts a nervous glance at his two companions. He repeats "Do you want to tell us why you're here?"
Clint ignores him. The English-speaker is unarmed, young and skinny. He isn't screaming at Clint or shoving a loaded gun in his face. He can afford to ignore him. Instead he looks around at the room. It's brightly coloured and narrow with a low ceiling and a row of pillars which run down the centre of the hall. Clint's tied to the base of one pillar. The pillars are elaborately carved and painted, and the carvings dig uncomfortably into his back. He stretches and twists at the ropes with numb hands.
"Is this a temple?" he asks. "That's some serious bad karma, right there."
"For you, perhaps," the young man says. It doesn't sound like a translation.
"Or what?" It's not the first or fortieth time that he's been in this situation. He knows how it goes. "Let me guess. You'll threaten me. It won't work. So you'll beat me up, 'til I tell you everything you want to know."
The youth looks taken aback. He says something to one of the monks, who looks shocked and says something that sounds like a question. The kid replies immediately, voice barely more than a mumble, his whole posture radiating deference. The pair of monks break into another fractured stream of conversation. One of them gestures to Clint and speaks gently. The kid looks back down at Clint.
"The Rinpoche says that I am to apologise for this misunderstanding," he says to Clint.
Clint waits for him to untie the ropes, but it becomes clear that nobody is going to. He takes a second look at the two monks. The taller one looks faintly nervous, while the impassive face of the shorter man reminds Clint of Coulson. There is a look in his eyes that says he's seen too much. Their outfits are old-fashioned, but Clint guesses that they know exactly what's going on.
The young translator continues. "He says to tell you that we have a saying in Tibet that you don't turn good iron into nails, and you don't make good men into soldiers. He apologises again, most humbly. He says that you are a violent man, and this is a peaceful place. That it is his job to ensure you hurt nobody here."
Clint doesn't reply. He thinks the ropes around his wrists are loosening, but there's not enough feeling in his hands for him to be certain.
The monks confer with the young man. There is a rapid exchange of words in Tibetan. Finally the young man turns to him. "My name is Pen," he says and points to the taller, edgier monk. "This is Lama Gyantso, from whom you stole the phurba." He gestures to Coulson's Tibetan alter ego. "This is Tenzin Rinpoche, who has come from Lhasa to assist us. They need to know what you have done with it. Please tell us where it is."
Clint wonders whether or not his confusion is a result of being hit on the head. "The what?"
The translator Pen shoots the lamas a worried glance. "The phurba. The ritual dagger." He makes a gesture with his hands that looks vaguely obscene. "The precious object that you stole from this temple."
Clint says nothing. This is Nat's job, not his. She actively gets herself into these sorts of situations to that she can interrogate the interrogators. Clint prefers to keep his enemies at an arrow's length. It's a shame that isn't always possible.
Pen looks from Clint to the lamas and back to Clint. The silence spins out. Clint uses the time to wonder how long he can keep this up before they start asking more insistently. The translator is already getting antsy, but there's no sign of violence. The monks look like they could stand right where they are until the temple crumbles around them.
To his surprise, the Rinpoche breaks the stalemate. He says a few words and nods at Clint. Pen bows deeply and turns to him. He hunkers down in the dust beside him, as if he thinks Clint might be ignoring him simply because he is not close enough. "He asks if you are working with the Russians."
It's a question that Clint feels he can answer. "No," he says, feeling vaguely insulted. It took the pair of them less than five minutes to put down every one of the Georgian thugs. Clint and Nat know what they're doing when it comes to murder. The Georgians were amateurs.
Pen relays this information to the monk. He makes a gesture with his hands that Clint is not familiar with, but that he is sure is vaguely insulting. "You Injee all look the same, American. Where is the woman?"
Clint rolls his eyes. He has no intention of betraying either Natasha or SHIELD.
The translator sighs. "Where is the phurba?"
Clint doesn't answer. The monks tuck their hands into their robes and regard Clint with the same cool gaze they turn on the walls, the lamps, and each other.
"What will you do with it?" Pen asks.
Clint doesn't answer that, either. He works at the ropes and tries to work out where they're going with this. The dossier he read said nothing about a third party. He isn't worried for himself. None of the men look like fighters. It's possible they could have a hitherto unrevealed knowledge of kung fu, because this is SHIELD after all, but against projectile weapons kung fu tends to be nothing more than a visually interesting way to lose. There are many ways this could end. Most of them end with the monks dead and the monastery in flames. It won't be the worst thing that he's ever done.
The shorter monk steps forwards and begins to speak. It's a long speech, although Clint begins to zone out after the first few sentences. The translator stands with his back straight and his hands loosely clasped as if he's taking instruction. When the monk is finished he turns to Clint and begins to speak in turn.
"These are the words of Tenzin Rinpoche. He says if you will not talk to us then he will speak to you. He wants to tell you about us and the phurba. He hopes that you will understand us then." He glares at Clint."You are lucky, Injee. Pilgrims come from hundreds of miles around just to hear the Rinpoche speak."
Clint gets the feeling that this is a rather loosely worded translation. He listens as Pen continues. "The phurba, the knife, has rested in our temple for generations. It is as hard as diamond, and it strikes with the force of a thunderbolt."
Clint can see why SHIELD would want the artefact. The organisation has long subscribed to the Pokémon theory of accumulating magical objects. Better to have them uselessly locked in SHIELD'S subterranean lead-lined vaults than used by evil men.
"Long ago a demon whose name you could not pronounce terrorised this land," Pen says. "He could not be harmed by any weapon made of metal or wood. Only a weapon made from the bones of the mighty sage Sonam could kill him. The kings of Tibet visited Sonam and begged him to give up his bones. The sage fashioned the phurba from his spine and the king used the knife to split the demon into seven pieces. Peace returned to the land and the demons vanished." He swallows."Some say that they will return one day and there will be a great war. But if ever a demon arises that men are unable to kill, then we shall have the phurba."
"Had," Clint corrects.
Pen looks startled, as if Clint is criticising his translation. "What?"
"Had. You don't have it any more."
The translator laughs nervously. Clint grins right back and wonders where the Tibetans' sacred knife really came from. It didn't look like bone, but if he's learned one thing from SHIELD and Nat it's that you can't judge people by appearances.
The Tibetans pause. The Rinpoche says something sharp that sounds vaguely familiar, like the germs of words. Pen clears his throat. The words that come out are the first thing he's said that's really surprised Clint.
"The Rinpoche," Pen says, "says that he knows about your Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. He says, far better for the phurba to stay in Tibet than be used to serve America. It belongs here. This is our homeland."
Clint just stares at him. "You know about SHIELD," he says flatly.
The monk peers at him and nods vigorously.
Clint wishes it surprised him. For a secret organisation, SHIELD seems suspiciously well-known. He supposes that that is sort of the point. A secret organisation can't threaten anybody if nobody knows who they are in the first place.
He tries to decide what to do, and opts for good old government-issue rhetoric. "When you're fighting the sort of guys we are, the world is our homeland," he says. It doesn't seem to convince them. It barely even convinces Clint. He wishes, not for the first time, that he was a real superhero and not just some guy who happens to be good at hitting targets. Superheroes don't need strategy-they just punch people as hard as they can and trust in their strength to get the job done. Hawkeye and Black Widow don't have superpowers. They have to plan.
This time it's his turn to break the silence. "Look," he says. I'm not sure how much you know. But SHIELD doesn't come where we're not asked. Someone wanted that thing out of Georgian hands. That means you know it's dangerous. If it's as dangerous as I think it is, then SHIELD is the best place for it." He thinks of a certain Norse deity. " We have people who specialise in that sort of thing."
The Rinpoche nods and runs one hand through his silvery peach-fuzz hair. He says something to Pen, who speaks to Clint. "Tenzin Rinpoche wants to know what you will do with the phurba."
Clint shrugs. It's his job to deliver the artefact to SHIELD. What they do with it afterwards is their business. "We'll keep it safe."
"It is safe here." Pen says.
.Clint nearly laughs. "Yeah. Right. If the Georgians took that thing then your security is even weaker than I thought. I could shoot through it like a paper bag. If they found it, then there will be men coming. Men much worse than SHIELD. Much worse than me."
He rolls his fingers and the knots in the rope slip open. Clint's hands tingle as the blood rushes back into them. He tries to move as little as possible, careful to give nothing away. His co-ordination is still not what it should be. It's close enough for now.
He wonders how just long it will take for Nat to show up. Other agents might wonder whether or not their backup might show, but Clint has faith in his partner the way other men believe in God.
"Listen," he says, trying to reason. "You're monks, right? You help protect your congregation." Jesus, it's been years since he was anywhere near a church. He's floundering. "SHIELD protects everyone, everywhere, from threats you can't imagine exist."
"The Rinpoche says that they can imagine a great number of threats," the translator says.
Clint shrugs. "Nobody has that good an imagination."
The Rinpoche and the translator just stare at him like he's a three-headed calf at a fair. Gyantso has already lost interest. He leaves the small group and hunkers down by the wall to Clint's left. He picks something up and turns it over. Clint snaps to attention as he recognises his bow.
The monk lifts the bow and draws it at much less than its full forty pounds. The string creaks as he sights down an imaginary arrow. Gyantso releases the string with a snap and looks down, his eye caught by something on the ground. He puts down the bow and picks up the hi-tech looking black cylinder that is Clint's quiver.
Clint raises his voice. "Hey buddy. You don't want to do that-"
The quiver clicks.
The monk looks down at it in surprise, but doesn't let go. It clicks again. Clint recognises the sound. An arrow pops out of the top of the quiver. Gyantso picks it up and stands there with it in his hands.
Clint swears under his breath. "Drop it!" he shouts. The monk only stares at him and he remembers too late that neither one of the older monks understand English. "Put it down!" He leaps to his feet and nearly falls right back down; wobbly from adrenaline, altitude and the after-effects of a concussion. The room lurches alarmingly around him.
Pen moves in front of Rinpoche as if to protect him, a gesture that Clint would find faintly amusing if he had time for it. He reaches Gyantso in two strides and rips the quiver from his hands. There isn't time to get his bow, so he takes aim and throws the arrow out of the window as far as he possibly can. It sticks in a tuft of snow covered grass and misses a grazing yak by inches.
"What-" Pen begins.
The arrow explodes.
When the smoke clears the yak and a large part of the grass have both vanished. Natasha stands in the doorway. She holds a short knife to the translator's throat. Her sudden appearance surprises everyone but Clint. Natasha is a master at taking advantage of any diversion.
He inclines his head. "Nat."
She nods. "Clint. Care to tell me what in hell's name's going on?"
He decides to keep it short. "That artefact. The Georgians we were after stole it from these guys. I think they're trying hard to decide if they want it back or if they'll let us keep it. They haven't done anything. Play nice."
She snorts and takes a firmer grip upon Pen's jaw. "This is nice."
The Rinpoche speaks sharply. Pen's voice is muffled by the palm of Natasha's leather glove. "He says that you have proved yourself a righteous man. He says that you-" He breaks off as Nat's grip tightens.
"Let him go," Clint tells her.
- Natasha rolls her eyes, but she releases Pen. The translator stumbles a few steps away from Natasha and rubs his jaw. He looks her up and down and smiles.
Natasha bares her teeth in reply. Pen seems to take this as a smile back, and his grin widens. One of the monks laughs. Nat replaces her knife in her belt sheath. Pen seems to find this even more reassuring than her smile, although Clint knows she's got at least a dozen other weapons tucked away in her suit. "I thought it was your job to cover me," she says lightly.
"I've always got you covered." Clint replies. He looks around at the monks. Gyantso has backed away against the wall, as far away from Clint's arrows as he can manage. The Rinpoche waits with his hands in his sleeves and his face as serene as ever. He says something to the translator, who laughs again and stares at Nat. "The Rinpoche says that you can keep the phurba."
Clint blinks. "So we can take it?" He doesn't even attempt to pronounce phurba. Natasha will just snicker. He's going to have to field enough kidnapped-by –the-Dalai-lama jokes as it is.
Rinpoche nods and says something in Tibetan. The translator echoes the gesture. "The Rinpoche thinks that our phurba knows where it needs to be right now, "he says."If not, it will make its own way home. He says to tell you khorje du ngel gyi gyamtso. "
Clint frowns. "You know that I don't speak Tibetan."
The translator's smile widens. "Samsara, Injee. What will happen, will happen. And you and all your plans will not alter it."
"We can try," Clint says.
"The Rinpoche says that you are good people," Pen tells him."You saved Gyantso's life when you could have let him die."
Clint rubs his neck. His headache is returning with a vengeance. "Yeah, him and me and everything inside this room."
He crosses to the pile of weapons, checks his bow and slings it and his quiver across his shoulders. His knife and service revolver return to his belt where they belong. He feels properly dressed at last. The Rinpoche watches him with the same cool glance when he's armed and dangerous as he did when he was weaponless and tied to a pillar. Clint suddenly needs to say something, anything, to make his calm crack. "The only reason I answered your questions," he says to Rinpoche, "was because I knew that I could kill you easily if I needed to, and you couldn't do a thing about it."
"True," the Rinpoche replies through Pen's mouth. "Yet you did not."
"I'd be more careful in future."
The monk bows. His eyes crinkle slightly at the corners. He speaks a single phrase.
"The Rinpoche thanks you for your concern." Pen says.
Clint shakes his head in reply. He doesn't doubt the monk's done what he thinks was right, but he's killed many, many men who thought they were doing the right thing. Nat senses his disquiet and takes charge effortlessly. She bows and speaks in flawless Tibetan. "Tashi delek, Tenzin Rinpoche."
The Rinpoche bows to Nat, and then to Clint, and then he turns and walks away.
Pen shakes his head. "Tashi delek, Injee. And if I ever see you again, then it will be far too soon." He turns away. Lama Gyantso edges past, gives them a nervous bow, and follows.
Clint and Nat push the door curtain aside. They step out into the sun. Nat shades her eyes with one hand. Clint blinks. Prayer flags flutter in bright arcs above their head. It all looks like a scene from the Middle Ages. High snow topped mountains jut up like the fangs of some great monster. The sky is a bright, impossible blue.
Nobody stops them as they make their way out of the monastery.
"What was that about?" Nat asks him.
Clint isn't too sure himself. "It was all a test," he tells Natasha, testing his theory for weight. "I think the monks called SHIELD themselves when the Georgians stole the knife. They knew it was getting too dangerous for them to keep it. They wanted to see what we'd do. "
Natasha cocks her head at him. Her hair is like fire against the snow. "What did you do?"
Clint shrugs. "Not much. But he told me we could keep it."
Natasha reaches into her pocket and brings out the phurba. She holds it up to the light. Bronze lotus petals sparkle in the sun. "We would have kept it anyway."
"That's not the point," he says.
She smiles. "What do you think?"
"I think he was wrong," Clint says. He changes the subject abruptly. "Do you ever wonder what SHIELD do with all this crap? They must have a warehouse full by now."
She shrugs. "That's not our problem."
As they walk down the track and the monastery dwindles into the distance behind them. A couple of yaks look up curiously as they pass. Nat returns the phurba to her pocket. Clint's glad. Magical artefacts have always made him deeply uneasy.
Clint turns his face into the wind. It's blowing from the south and it's as cold as ice. He shivers. He should've got his jacket back. But SHIELD will be here soon, and they can afford to replace a few jackets.
"Maybe nothing we do makes any difference," he says aloud. "But I still think it's worth a try."