"Does she know?" Clint asked as he closed the folder and held it on his lap. He'd skimmed it when Hill had handed it to him, enough to get a solid overview of what was going on, but he'd read it in depth later on his own because the devil was in the details.
"Not yet," Hill replied with a frown. "But she's still pretty shocky and a little scatter-brained because of it. She's asked about her parents, but it's probably only a matter of time before she gets around to the rest of her family. We'll tell her then."
It had been two weeks since they'd brought Operative Baker, SHIELD's most successful mole withing HYDRA, in from the cold. Clint had been part of the rescue op and had figured on being brought back in to act on some of the intel she was providing, but it was a little early for that unless she'd given them something really good right off the bat.
She might have, but that wasn't why Clint was sitting in Hill's office this morning.
"Any odds on the race between us and HYDRA?"
Baker had been inserted into HYDRA through China, moving to Xi'an from the US for a job offer that turned out not to exist and then letting herself get recruited into HYDRA along with a passel of other young Chinese frustrated with their opportunities. She had told HYDRA that she'd been turned on to the group by some disaffected cousins from more rural Shaanxi and that her prospects in either China or the US were poor at best. It was a common story among interested recruits and HYDRA hadn't questioned it.
According to the file in Clint's lap, the complication had come four months later, when two of her cousins actually did join HYDRA. She had seen them among the new recruits brought to Guinea-Bissau as she had been, but they hadn't seen her -- she was sure of it. And since she'd had access to personnel records and some authority over training camp assignments, she'd gotten them quickly sent away. But the fact remained that there were at least two people within HYDRA who knew who Li Minglai of Tongchuan really was Tung Mingmei of Weinan, who'd become Miranda Tung at the age of seven when she'd moved to Greensboro, North Carolina with her parents. What they did with the information, what HYDRA did with the information, was why Clint was here.
"We have no chatter, which doesn't mean much because our SIGINT's shit," Hill replied with a shrug. "But we've had people in Greensboro since her beacon lit up and there's no sign of activity, which I trust a little more than our analysts assuring me everything's peachy because the intercepts say nothing. That still doesn't mean it's not a problem."
"And I'm the solution," Clint said with a touch of asperity in his voice, which earned him a raised eyebrow from Hill.
"You developing qualms, Agent Barton?" Hill asked, half-joking and half really not. There was a shelf life for killers, at least the sane ones, and it wasn't the skill set that deteriorated first. For some people, it got easier to pull the trigger time and again, for others, it got harder. Letting the first go on too long would make you a danger to others, too much of the second would get you killed, and it was the wise operator who knew where they fell. Clint had understood before he'd even switched over from the Army to SHIELD that he was in the former category; Natasha had defected from the Russians when she'd realized she was in the latter. Fury and Hill (and Coulson, when he'd been alive) knew where their agents had landed on the spectrum, which was why both Clint and Natasha had started getting a steady diet of assignments that weren't just assassinations and why they'd been put in the Avengers in the first place. And why Hill's question hadn't been an idle one.
"No more qualms than I had before we picked her up," he told her, meeting her eyes so that she'd know it was true. He could do the work just fine and come home in one piece, at least mentally. His problem with the assignment was what he'd said it was: he wasn't a fan of fucking up Miranda Tung's life any more than SHIELD -- ably and willingly assisted by Natasha -- already had. Miranda hadn't been a SHIELD agent, hadn't even heard of SHIELD before Natasha had swooped in and sold her on being Jane Bond while undoubtedly underselling just how horribly HYDRA would react if they found out who she was. Which they would and they had. SHIELD had gotten to her first, thank God, but he didn't think Natasha's Welcome to Espionage message had included a warning that getting rescued by Captain America wasn't the end of Miranda's life in the shadows. Or that the true cost of saving her life might be to end the lives of people she knew and loved.
Hill made a noise that wasn't quite dismissive. "Our priority remains to get them out and/or get them turned," she said. "But if we have to do this, then I'm going to sleep just fine knowing HYDRA's down two true believers and that Operative Baker and the rest of her family and friends are safe. We didn't make that promise to her out loud, but it's there nonetheless. You got a problem with that, you let me know. Otherwise, get ready to saddle up."
Clint didn't have to do more than read updates and reports for the first phase of the project, which didn't take him out of the rotation for other missions in his AO and was how he found himself in the Souk El Birka in Tunis tracking a sapphire dealer who was turning online donations to the Islamist cause into a more locally useful commodity than bitcoins.
He didn't get all the way back to New York afterward, getting stopped in Madrid and turned right back around because they'd gotten a lead on the Tung cousins, who weren't actually named Tung. Miranda had sent them to the training camp in Niger because that had been to be the first boat out, but that turned out to make them harder to find down the line because the Niger camp fed into camps in neighboring Chad, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Eritrea, the locations of which SHIELD did not all have. Miranda had been extracted before her cousins had finished in Niger, but someone had been able to rule out Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt and Clint was being punted over to Benghazi because HYDRA's trail would be easiest to pick up there. To his utter lack of surprise because Barqa had long been the Maghreb's incubator of chaos.
Finding HYDRA in Benghazi was as easy as promised, but Clint wasn't about to take on the local HYDRA presence as well as the local Islamist presence while also dodging the attention of the official representatives of the native dictator, so he stayed under the radar and kept to his usual haunts and hit up his usual contacts -- at least the ones who were still alive. He'd have been willing to bet all the dinars in his pocket that the camp they needed was somewhere in Fezzan, but he left Libya before having to find out. Next stop: Ranya, Iraqi Kurdistan. Or Kurdish Iraq, depending on who was talking.
"How the fuck did they get this?" Clint asked as he made a slow circle around a fully restored WWII-era HYDRA tank. The main weapon had been swapped out for a more modern blaster that was, apparently, quite functional. "And is it the only one they have?"
HYDRA was here in Iraq, same as they were everywhere else they'd smelled the opportunity of a weak government or an oppressed people, and had been for generations. But for all of the shows of force HYDRA had performed since they'd made their presence in the present known, none of it had been with old tech. They had very carefully, very consciously, and at phenomenal expense outfitted themselves with materiel that had no direct connections to their Nazi pasts.
SHIELD had spent time and manpower keeping track of the HYDRA materiel marketplace since long before they'd re-emerged -- it had been one of the reasons Fury had been so very fucking pissed off at the intelligence failure -- and Clint had been sent on at least a dozen interdiction missions over the years. But he hadn't seen a main battle tank outside of a museum ever. Most of them hadn't survived the end of the war, either getting destroyed in action or blown up by the surviving Commandos (led by Peggy Carter) after Cap and Schmidt had gone into the ice. There hadn't been a spotting in the wild since the 1970s. There was no way this was something that could be laughed off.
"I sure as shit hope it's the only one they have," Gomer replied with a sigh. Gomer (real name, Marcellus Davenport; permanent nickname acquired because of the confluence of his southern accent and an NCO with a sense of irony and a knowledge of 1960s television) had met him in Erbil and they'd caught up on the drive east; they'd gone through Q School together back in the stone age. "But it's probably not. And we don't know where it came from, which is why we called your unlisted number to find out. And also to get it off our hands before the Turks find out because they are going to flip their shit when they find out the Kurds can get themselves a fucking blaster tank."
The Turks would carpet bomb all of northern Iraq if they found out the Kurds had a tank.
"The HYDRA bases in the Kurdish areas used to be the strongest ones," Gomer went on after Clint grunted acknowledgement of the problem. "Especially after Saddam gassed everyone. But after we fucked things up after the invasion, they mostly moved their strength south. The big base was outside Ramadi for years until we blew it up thinking it was AQ. What's left up here is mostly vestigial. And none of them have the capacity to cough up a tank for the Kurds without us knowing."
It was possible that the tank had come north from some HYDRA base in a Sunni pocket, but not likely.
"Any chance they got it off the Iranians?" he asked, mostly for thoroughness. If Tehran had a working Nazi tank, they'd probably be sending video of it in action to Tel Aviv. But after that, handing it over to someone who could destabilize the weak central government in Baghdad wasn't a bad second choice. Tehran didn't like the Kurds much more than the Turks did, but they'd gotten into stranger beds to fuck with their enemies.
"Not being ruled out," Gomer admitted, "but our best guess is that they got it from somewhere outside the region because we hadn't heard shit about this and while our intel sucks, it doesn't suck that much."
Which made sense -- and also punted the football right back into SHIELD's hands, which was exactly what CENTCOM wanted.
Bringing in a SHIELD transport was as good as sending up a flare that something of interest was happening, so Clint had to wait for a general-issue Globemaster to free up enough hold space to store a well-wrapped HYDRA tank, which took four days because the Air Force fucked with people for fun. He spent most of it getting introduced to the local clan leaders (and in a few case, re-introduced) and drinking a ton of tea and hoping for something that might give him an idea where to start looking for the tank's point of origin. He didn't get anything useful on that front, but he did pick up some tidbits that might serve him well elsewhere.
He got to sleep in his own bed for the first time in almost two months, at the cost of spending three days in meetings with relevant analysts and then with Fury, who was very curious about the tank. And then it was back out in the field.
Singapore felt like an alien world after where he'd been, modern and urban and full of glass and neon and crowded in a completely different way than any souk or city he usually spent his time in. He was met by local SHIELD agents, who got him to his spotlessly clean hotel and handed over the material he'd need for what he'd come here to do. Well, almost all of it; he'd brought his own weapons.
The Tung cousins had been found and been deemed "irreconcilable." With SHIELD, with their cousin, with a moral code that didn't involve burning down the world to put it together in a more pleasing fashion, with whatever the standard had been that they'd failed. That had brought Clint here to make sure that they were the only ones to suffer for their beliefs. He hadn't been given the full version of what had been done and how and he might've had a little bit of an issue trusting someone else's competence to assess whether two young men should live or die when they didn't have to pull the trigger.
If they deserved it, then fine. Hill had been right -- he'd sleep fine if these were two assholes with only evil in their hearts. But he didn't want to terminate two kids -- and they were kids -- because some junior agent hadn't worked hard enough to sway two idealistic idiots off of the path toward destruction. It was the hardest part of what he did, taking a kill order on faith. It happened more with SHIELD than it had back in the Army, where most of the time he or his unit had been a target of his target before he'd gotten to turn the tables. But SHIELD had a different mission and a different method and the first time Clint saw most of his targets was through the scope of his rifle when it was time to take the shot. Coulson had always given him details, more than needed to do the job, because he'd understood what he was asking Clint to do and what kind of cost it came with. His handlers since had tended to be younger, hadn't come from either the armed services or SHIELD's field division, and Clint had occasionally felt like they thought that they were playing a video game for all that they understood about the price of taking a life. And that in turn had made him feel like the weapon instead of the one wielding it, which made it easier to pull the trigger, but harder to keep the faith in the mission and with himself. The Hawkeye who ran on full automatic wasn't someone he especially wanted to be around.
Here and now, he still wasn't sure whether he was being aimed or being asked. The agents of Singapore Station were young and eager; it was a busy station but not a major one and they all wanted to be somewhere higher profile. Saving a clandestine operative from exposure and reprisal would get them wherever they wanted; confirming that said agent was not at substantial risk would get them a pat on the head and the remainder of their tour on station.
As such, according to the notes in the file Agent Tan had given him, the risk of exposure for Operative Baker was extremely high and the fact that she hadn't been identified already was mostly attributable to a combination of Miranda's own actions and HYDRA's desire to keep their mole hunt quiet. The question was how much of this was hyperbole, how much of it was laziness or incompetence, and how much was he willing to risk the lives of Miranda Tung's family if the answer was 'none of the above'?
There was evidence that the urgency of the report spoke to more than junior agents' desire for promotion. While Miranda had punted her cousins to Niger, all of the other Shaanxi recruits from that catch had been shipped over to Suriname, which was a base SHIELD could monitor, so they knew that that was where the questions had been asked. Nobody in HYDRA had apparently realized that there were two more candidates to be interrogated, but whether they would was not a risk worth taking. The cousins were happy and committed members of HYDRA and, in the words of the agent who'd interviewed them, would have gladly swum to Suriname from Kelantan if they'd known that's where they were needed.
Which was why there were ferry tickets over to Malaysia in Clint's packet along with egress routes, fallback plans, and who to call if it all went to shit. "First prize if you fuck it up is a week in Madripoor," he mused to himself. "Second prize is two weeks in Madripoor."
The kiddies at Singapore Station had apparently been around long enough to not even wonder why there was no HYDRA presence on Madripoor. Which was more than could be said for half of the Southeast Asia Desk analysts back at the Helicarrier.
Tucked into the file was a note from Hill. While he'd been out gallivanting around in deserts and hiding tanks, Miranda had finally been asked about her cousins, although it was unclear to Clint whether she really understood why those questions had come. Nobody had straight-up asked her they needed to be killed and the actual direction of the conversation had probably been so oblique as to avoid that even being a logical conclusion. It would lead to a faulty assessment if Miranda had thought she'd had to argue for their lives. But she was a smart cookie and maybe she'd figure it out. He personally hoped she never did.
Getting to Malaysia was just a ferry ride in nondescript clothes, getting to Kelantan was a two-day moped ride in the dark, and finding a hide site was just making the best of his local environment and not wading into any rice paddies. These were all the easy parts of the job. Getting into position, lying in wait in the heat and humidity and the bugs and the filth, this, too, was no challenge. Waiting for an opportunity to kill young men building a schoolhouse, that was where it started to get hard because it was, in fact, as easy as everything else.
HYDRA's presence in this part of Kelantan was an open secret, a benign-seeming legacy of Malaysia's more turbulent past. They operated under the modesty shield of a humanitarian-focused NGO, going around improving access to medicine and education and clean water, binding the population to it without even the slightest show of force. The HYDRA cadres were uniformed, polite, and respectful of local traditions and charmed the elders by trying to learn the local dialect of Malay. It was a beneficial arrangement all around and if Putrajaya chose not to notice the more military-oriented activities in some of the more remote camps, who could blame them?
Clint watched the work team assigned to the school construction for a few hours through his rifle sight, coming up with various ideas and ranking them by likely success. His priorities were twofold: eliminate the Tung cousins without making it obvious that he'd eliminated the Tung cousins; if he failed, HYDRA wouldn't need a map to go from them to their missing mole. He'd discussed this with Hill, who had discussed it with Fury, and the most obvious form of misdirection was also the most appalling: hide the intended victims among the collateral damage.
The face blindness -- the work crew were all young Chinese men in identical uniforms with identical haircuts -- was half the reason he'd spent so much time watching before he committed to action. But when the time came to pull the trigger, there was no doubt and no hesitation. Five dead, shot down while taking a water break, none requiring the kind of marksmanship that would identify the shooter as an elite sniper. He packed up and drove off, dropping sanitized rifle parts every few kilometers until he hit the Thai border, where he presented an Irish passport and a camera full of photographs of scenic locations around Malaysia and Singapore, taken by some SHIELD agent for the purpose.
Three days later, he was back in New York. One of Malaysia's Islamist groups had taken credit for the killings, which might have come as a surprise to them, but it fit the narrative of HYDRA versus violent religious extremism so well that denial would have been a lost cause if they'd bothered.
Between the time change, the exhaustion of running nonstop for a week, and the unshakeable funk that came with the bone-deep acceptance that you'd just killed five people, three of them entirely because of proximity, Clint was in no shape to announce his presence back in New York to his friends. Natasha knew he was back anyway and left a message for him, but he deleted it without listening to it in full. He wasn't mad at her per se, except he kind of was. This all went back to her choice to recruit Miranda Tung -- and it had been Natasha's choice -- and while there was no possible way to pin what happened afterward on her, he wasn't in the mood to rehash that argument. Or, worse, to have Natasha tell him to stop being such a soft touch when they lived in such a hard world. It was the only time she ever really got patronizing and he was just not up for that. So he stayed in, watched Dog Cops and cartoons, drank a little too much, and failed to sleep through the night for reasons that didn't entirely boil down to jet lag.
Thursday, Fury called him in and he showed up, but then he had to wait around because apparently Shit Had Happened while he'd been halfway around the world and the Helicarrier was buzzing with rumors about Captain America finding the Red Skull. Which would be funny if it were true because Steve had been mumbling about Johann Schmidt for months and something had apparently happened to make Fury stop telling him to be quiet and not live in the past.
Steve himself was pretty calm about the prospect when Clint found him in one of his usual bolt-holes aboard the Helicarrier and Clint found that more of a balm that he would probably want to admit. Steve clearly saw that he was less than a hundred percent, probed gently, and stopped probing when Clint indicated he should stop. (Which was not always the end of things with Steve, but it usually worked.) So instead they talked about Steve's news, which was indeed about finding the Red Skull -- except not quite -- and maybe Stark and Banner trepanning probationary agents downstairs. Which was also on the list of things that wouldn't surprise Clint too much if true.
At Steve's request, Clint verified that Banner and Stark were not actually doing anything to the probies (which was different from aspiring to do things to the probies) and then, very much not at Steve's request, got the rest of the story about the Red Skull. None of Clint, Stark, or Banner were at all surprised that Steve had seen what Natasha and the analysts and interrogators had not; Steve was a much sharper man and much deeper thinker than SHIELD tended to give him credit for being. Nor were they all that surprised that Steve was underplaying the importance of it, which was different from Steve not thinking it was important and actually part of the reason SHIELD tended to underestimate him.
"He's got to be the only person in Fury's bubble of a world who doesn't try to be the first and the loudest," Stark mused, the expression on his face very clearly indicating that he was very aware of his own behavior. "You two are usually swimming against the current by intent, but out of the people who aren't... God, how that must annoy Nick. Especially because he's got to have figured out by now that it's because Steve doesn't care."
Which wasn't precisely true because Steve did care what Fury thought of him, but not enough to curry favor or good regard. And Clint thought that Stark was right, that it was an anomaly in Fury's world that probably annoyed the hell out of him because Steve had enough real political power on his own to make it a problem if he chose to.
But Steve wasn't really choosing to do so here and, in fact, rarely if ever chose to do so. He wasn't Stark; he didn't set off firecrackers just to remind everyone he was in the area. Fury knew that, too.
Fury also knew everything about what had gone down in Malaysia, so when Clint finally got in to see him, they got to skip the repetition, for which Clint was grateful.
"Good work," was the opening comment before Fury asked a few questions about things that hadn't gotten into the report. Once upon a time, Fury had been a first-rate asset controller and Clint could admit that there were times when he missed working directly under him instead of with layers of organizational bureaucracy between then. "Baker's being shipped out to Camp Carter. You're finishing your AAR and then nothing."
Which was more or less what he expected on both accounts. Miranda couldn't go back to her old life, not now and possibly not ever, and it was completely like SHIELD to make her work for them instead of putting her in WitSec or giving her enough of a cover that a civilian life was possible somewhere else. Let her pick a new name and go be a doctor or a teacher or whatever she'd maybe thought to do before Natasha had gone down to Greensboro. As for himself...
"'Nothing' as in vacation or 'nothing' as in stand-down?" Because there was a very big difference as far as that went. Vacation meant he was actually free to be Clint Barton, real live human being, for a couple of days (weeks). Stand-down meant he had to stay ready for the moment when Fury or Hill decided they wanted him to do something.
"Nothing as in go out to Nebraska and watch corn grow or whatever it is you do out there," Fury replied with a frown, although he had to know why Clint had asked.
"I'm renting the place out," Clint said. He'd bought the place a couple of years ago with the intent of it being a forever home, his first real one after an itinerant life of carnivals and army posts and wandering around for SHIELD, which was probably all classifiable as "circus life." And, for a while, it had been. But after the Battle of New York, SHIELD had come out of the shadows and the Helicarrier had been parked in the Harbor and Fury had expected his favorite agents to be within arm's reach. "Didn't seem worth the effort of keeping it up if I only got out there twice a year."
Which was a dig at Fury and he took it as one, but then shrugged it off. "I'm sure you'll find somewhere else to hang your hat for a few weeks."
He would, too. Someplace outside of his AO and, after the last mission, nothing too tropical. Maybe Argentina. He'd never been there.
Finishing his write-up of Malaysia took a while, mostly because in the middle he got sent down to Fort Bragg to be on a panel for a discussion at SWCS about the effects of the first Gulf War on the Middle East. He hadn't been there at the time, but he'd spent the better part of the next twenty years in the region and nearby and he hadn't spent those years doing theoretical studies or glad-handing politicians. He hadn't spent the entire time racking up a body count, either. But even if he had, he was an expert on the area and he was a former operator for the Army and this wasn't the first time he'd been called back to talk about what he knew. These weren't the kind of academic conferences Coulson had used to send him to once every once in a while; they were more practical, less politically correct, and a helluva lot more fun. Maybe that's why Fury had agreed to send him. Being back at Bragg, running into the odd ex-teammate or ex-unitmate, being among soldiers again, was comforting in a way being among the business-casual-clad army of analysts on the Helicarrier was not. These were still his people, even if a fair number of them were officers who needed to have their noses wiped by the nearest NCOs.
He returned to New York refreshed, if hung over, and with a list of recommendations for what to do in Peru, which was apparently a better destination than Argentina if he wanted to do something other than get laid. (He was okay with getting laid, but that wasn't all he wanted to do on vacation.) He finished his paperwork on Malaysia and went out to Brooklyn to have dinner with Steve and Natasha.
"I have restaurant suggestions for Lima," she offered as they sat around Steve's kitchen island with their cocktails watching Steve do something possibly impolite to a fish. Natasha was on an amaro kick right now, so she'd brought a bottle of Cynar and then spent twenty minutes explaining to Steve why it didn't taste like artichoke. "It's a good time of year for down there."
Natasha didn't mention that he'd never returned her call; she would have figured out why. His resentment had faded with his exhaustion and they weren't awkward now, even during the discussion of Miranda, whom Natasha had taken out a few times just so she could get outdoors and off the Helicarrier.
"She's smart and she's capable and if they could have put her back in the field in any capacity, she'd be good at it," Natasha answered when Steve asked what she thought of Miranda's future within SHIELD. "She showed remarkable instincts. But as it is, she's going to be stuck behind a desk for the next few years or until we shut down HYDRA for good. She'll be happier at the China Desk than in Archives or wherever the hell Hill wanted to stick her."
Clint still thought Miranda would have had a much happier and brighter future away from SHIELD entirely, but that was his own view and, he'd admit, his entire assessment of her personality came from second-hand reports and sitting next to her on the flight away from Guinea-Bissau. And possibly some projecting, which he'd prefer neither of his dinner partners mention.
During said dinner, they talked of Steve's plans for his trip down to Philly, taking Peggy Carter out to the Longwood Gardens and an in-costume visit to CHOP, and more about Peru. Natasha had been there a few times, had a lot of nice things to say about Lima, and assured them that Machu Picchu was nothing like Uxmal, where they'd gone last year on an op. It was a good evening, and, in light of what came after, maybe a necessary one.
A week later, Clint had finalized his plans for Peru and was spending his last night in New York out to dinner with an old battle buddy from his Ranger days who'd come to New York with his family for vacation. His bags were packed, his fridge was empty, and his alarm was set so he could walk over to Penn Station to take New Jersey Transit out to Newark Airport in the morning.
He never made the flight. At four-thirty in the morning, his phone rang. Not his phone-phone, the one SHIELD called him on, the one his friends called him on. The other one, the one that only five people in the world had the number for and none of them were Nick Fury or Maria Hill.
"I need your help," Natasha said, sounding as worried as he'd ever heard her.
Anywhere else in the world, he'd understand her concern. But here in New York, a ten minute chopper flight to the Helicarrier, a few minutes' run from Stark Tower, he wouldn't expect Natasha to sound so close to panic.
"What and where?"
What she needed was help getting out of Manhattan because she'd been burned by SHIELD, which made no fucking sense even as she started to explain once he'd caught up to her in Morningside Park, which was as unlikely a rally point as any other and safer because of it.
"They didn't even ask me to explain," she said as she transferred cash and passports and jewels to the backpack he'd brought her that contained a few other necessities for getting the hell out of anywhere. "They just sent a Direct Action team to bring me in like a drug dealer."
Or a traitor, which was what Fury apparently believed her to be. Natasha was accused of stuff like that all the time; he was pretty sure Internal Affairs had a drinking game built around all of the BS they got fed about the Black Widow. Most of it was dismissed out of hand, some of it was at least cursorily investigated, and for the rest Natasha was occasionally asked for a plausible explanation. Clint had never seen anything more than that, had never heard of anything more than that, and he was sure Natasha would've told him if it had ever happened.
"So how do we want to play this?" Clint asked as he shouldered his own bag again. He'd brought his go-bag because while he was probably not going anywhere too far with Natasha, there was a chance of his having to go on his own for a while. He'd spotted the SHIELD surveillance team outside of his apartment immediately -- that disappointed him a little, as if he were some kind of amateur who wouldn't notice a tail. He was going to be Natasha's first resort and everyone knew he was going to be Natasha's first resort, but he was Natasha's first resort because he was goddamned good at his job. He'd lost the tail with practiced ease because he'd had a lot of practice in more challenging locations than his own block. "Obvious egress points are out. They sealed the bridges and tunnels and transit hubs before they knocked on your door. We can get to Stark--"
"No," Natasha cut him off. "It's probably a miracle that Iron Man's not flying recon overhead already. After Natalie Rushman, do you think he's going to side with me over Fury if it's gone this far? Steve doesn't know, but I'm willing to bet Tony does."
Fair point, although Clint thought that in any other circumstance, Stark -- and Pepper -- had largely forgiven Natasha for the Natalie business. He'd taken it as a given that Steve didn't know; Fury would either have had him leading the take-down team or he'd have cut him out entirely and apparently he'd gone with the latter.
"We could probably still use Stark resources even without their help." JARVIS was a wonder, but they were good at their jobs and Natasha had an awful lot of inside intel. It would need to be a last resort, though, and would require more time than they probably had. And, besides, he had a better idea. "You feel like swimming the Harlem River?"
They were already in Harlem, whatever pretensions Columbia had to renaming the area, and getting over to the east side was nothing. A short (but not easy) swim over to Randall's Island, then hop over to the Bronx that way and they'd be clear. It'd be fucking cold in this weather, but it was probably the quickest and least problematic way out of Manhattan. The subway and commuter rail tunnels were undoubtedly being manned or at least watched; it was still early enough that the MTA could pretend there was a fire somewhere and shut the entire system down for an hour or two without the entire city rising up in revolution and the papers doing investigative reports.
Natasha gave him a smile that was more grateful than conspiratorial and he hated it, hated that she felt that vulnerable.
"Come on," he said, heading east out of the park. They'd both feel better if they were moving. "Let's go."
Even with air and ground counter-surveillance actions and having to wait for a pair of NYPD helicopters with floodlights to inch past over the FDR, it took them an hour to climb up the bank of Randall's Island, shivering from the wet and the cold but with their gear dry. After that, getting over to the Bronx and finding a car to boost was child's play.
"You find a way to let me know you're okay, yeah?" he prompted once they'd selected a not-too-recent model Nissan. They could go farther together before separating and if he'd thought he was in the same amount of trouble as she was in, they would have. But if Fury had thought he'd been Natasha's conspirator, the DA team on Clint's doorstep would have had orders to bring him in and not watch him from afar. He'd have had to run if they'd encountered a capture team because then he'd have positively done something against SHIELD, but right now, however, all he'd done was help a friend and all Fury could probably do was yell at him a lot and maybe turn that vacation into a suspension.
Natasha nodded, then paused. "You know I didn't do this, right?"
He did know and not because of any silly sentimental reason like faith or human nature or insight into the beauty of Natasha's soul or her commitment to redemption for what she'd done for the Russians. He did want to have that kind of faith and belief and, to an extent, he did. But his actual reason was simple pragmatism because he was a realist: Natasha hadn't killed him. If she were innocent, he'd have been the first person she'd have turned to, as she had. If she were guilty, he'd have been the first person she'd have killed because he'd have become her greatest threat. He wasn't half the spy she was and she knew that, but he knew her better than anyone alive and that gave him insight he could pass along to the spies who were better than he was. She would have killed him by now if she was going to and she hadn't.
"Did I lead you into the loving embrace of the Direct Action Service?" he asked in response, since Natasha probably knew his real reason. "Go and be safe, Natochka."
She gave him a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek and then started walking away, one last counter-surveillance loop so that he could get away. He went over to the subway, which was running, and took the 6 back down into Manhattan, drawing some but not too much attention for being wet on the train because New Yorkers were harder to shock than that. It was the earliest part of the rush hour and there were enough people around to make surveillance complicated but not impossible. He wanted to be seen but not easily caught; let SHIELD think he and Natasha were still in Manhattan and that he was running a distraction to let her get off the island. He knew he was spotted at 125th, when he made a last-minute dash to switch to a downtown 5, and that they'd be waiting for him at 59th, if not at 86th. But 86th would be crowded, the Lexington Line was always overcrowded and worst during the rush, and he could slip out of the system there. Over to Second Avenue, which was an urban war zone because of the surface mess that went with finally turning the tunnels underneath into the mythical Second Avenue line. He knew where to get in there and walked the tunnels down to 63rd and the cut-out to merge with the F, climbing up on to the platform there without anyone in the waiting crowd blinking because he was dressed like he could be on a construction team.
He continued like this for another three hours, popping on and off the radar in a way that could conceivably be over-analyzed into a pattern by the agents in Fury's war room. He got himself lunch at one of the halal carts and finally ended the chase by going back to his apartment building, where there was a team waiting because even if Fury's analysts were reading intent into his actions that wasn't there, the man himself had probably figured out that Clint was just fucking with him by now.
He was treated not-too-kindly by the DA team that took him in, which was either an indicator of how pissed Fury was or how badly Clint had underestimated Natasha's trouble. He still didn't know the answer by the time he got strip-searched and thrown in the brig aboard the Helicarrier, but he was starting to think it was the latter by the time Fury himself showed up. He wasn't going to get answers, that much was quickly evident, and he wasn't inclined to provide any, either, because Fury wasn't in the mood to listen to anything other than proof of Natasha's guilt.
Steve turned up a few hours later, rage radiating off of him like a sun, and that's when Clint got his answers and when he gave them. Because Steve was deeply hurt, but he wanted to know why; Fury just wanted facts that agreed with what he thought he already knew. Clint didn't think he'd improved his own situation with their little talk in Battery Park, but he'd said what he needed to say to the only person who would listen and that was all he could do.
Two days later, an Army major showed up informing him that he was being transferred to Department of Defense custody because the Army, remembering that it had never quite gotten around to actually discharging him, had gotten its oar in. "Fury let them because, and I quote, 'the Army still shoots traitors,'" Major Prieto informed him. "He's hoping that that will encourage you to speak freely. I'm here to make sure they don't actually progress to a firing squad."
The actual transfer to Leavenworth for pre-trial confinement would take a couple of days because of paperwork, but this was very clearly a warning to Clint about how much trouble he was in. And, presumably, a last chance to do his duty and reveal the extent of Natasha's treachery and what part, if any, he'd had in it. He wasn't taking it.
That Natasha apparently had implanted data storage in her belly was both unbelievably fucked up and totally plausible if you understood that Natasha really was exactly that fucked up. He didn't think Fury was so blind as to not realize, but he didn't know if Fury was so protective of SHIELD, his pride and his power base, that he'd sacrifice Natasha -- and Clint -- to protect it. SHIELD was going to take a hit in the credibility department, the US was going to take a hit, and Fury was going to have to talk fast and loose to keep his job and his agency intact. There would be a price paid for that miracle and Clint had been around long enough to accept that it might be him and Natasha, possibly in that order. He was a clandestine agent; he knew what 'disavowal' really meant. There had been missions where if he'd been caught, Fury would not have sent anyone to help him. This might be another one. And if it was, then all Clint had left to himself was his dignity and his honor, no matter what the court martial found.
The morning of his transfer, they gave him Army togs to put on instead of the SHIELD jumpsuit. He hadn't yet been cuffed, at least, as he sat in his cell waiting for Prieto to show up along with the MPs, so he played cards and was halfway through his millionth game of solitaire when he heard motion at the end of the hallway.
It wasn't Prieto or the MPs or Fury.
"Hi," Miranda Tung said, shy and nervous and brittle in a way she hadn't been even after her rescue. She was in 'SHIELD casual,' training pants and a long-sleeved shirt with the agency logo, and her hands were bunching up the cuffs of her sleeves. She wasn't a very big girl to start with, but her fear made her smaller and Clint's heart sank a little when she jumped back when he stood up, as if he could get her through the bars of his cell. As if he would try.
"Hi," he replied, trying for casual and failing because this was just too weird of a situation to pretend. "They're not trying to tie you into this, are they?"
Because in the middle of a witch hunt, where everyone had lost their collective minds, that Miranda could be part of the conspiracy because she'd been Natasha's recruit was entirely plausible. And that they'd use her, threaten her with exposure to HYDRA unless she did whatever they wanted... Also entirely plausible. Especially with the poor girl looking so terrified.
She shrugged. "They asked a lot of questions," she admitted, her voice soft. "I don't think I'm a good enough spy to do any of that."
Which Clint interpreted to mean that they had indeed accused her of being an accomplice and that made him so angry that he turned away so that she wouldn't see it on his face and get even more afraid. More unintended consequences of Natasha's recruitment and that pissed him off more than his own trouble. He'd walked into it with open eyes and a clear heart, no matter how badly he'd misjudged his own position. Miranda didn't have a clue and she didn't have an ally, either, to protect her from this bullshit.
"You are," he said, since he had to say something. "That's why they're asking."
He turned back to her once he could school his own expression. "I can't help you off of the hook they've put you on. I would if I could."
She nodded jerkily, but whether she believed him or whether she just accepted that he could but wouldn't, he didn't know. "They wanted me to try," she said, giving him a wry smile. But then she shook her head and he could see tears starting to form and she used her balled-up sleeves to wipe them away.
"Hey, hey," he called to her, waiting for her to look up at him. "Don't let them get to you. Don't let them be the bad guys they're pretending to be. They won't hurt you. They won't hurt your family. And they won't let anyone else do it, either."
He emphasized the last with all the sureness of a man who'd killed five men to protect her secret and he thought she heard that. Not the detail of it, obviously, but the conviction behind it. She sniffled once and looked at him with more focus than she had earlier.
"Natasha didn't sell you out," he told her. "You are her responsibility just like I am her responsibility. She can't protect us from all of this, but she did not bring it on in the first place. I know you've got no reason to believe me and less reason to believe in her, but it's the truth. And I am apparently willing to go on trial for my life to stand by it."
He'd heard it a dozen times already, at least, from Fury, from the SHIELD interrogators, from Prieto, from any of the guards who wanted to get a shot in. He'd understood it from the start. But he'd never said it aloud before now and he might've been almost as surprised as Miranda for doing so.
"Don't let the bastards get you down," he said and she coughed out a laugh. He smiled, too. This he could do, make sure that Miranda didn't wind up another casualty of this endless war. It had already been his mission twice before. "They're just trying to scare you, but you've got nothing to fear from them. Or from Natasha."
Miranda nodded and he hoped she believed him. But he didn't get a chance to ask, let alone reinforce the point because Fury and whoever else had been listening in had definitely believed him. Or at least that he wasn't going to give her what they wanted to because the brig door opened at the end of the hall and Prieto and the MPs showed up with the manacles and the paperwork.
"I'd get going unless you want to see the perp walk," he told her wryly and her eyes widened in response before she nodded.
"Thank you," she said and turned to go. He watched her walk, less unsteady than how she'd arrived, and he took that as a positive sign.
"Master Sergeant Barton, please stand with your arms outstretched."
He closed his eyes as he complied, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, centering himself for the next fight. He opened his eyes and smiled. "Let's get this show on the road."