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Hiding The Forest In The Trees

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“Ladies and Gentlemen, Children of all ages … Carson’s Carnival of Traveling Wonders invites you witness our Grande Finale of Magick and Marksmanship featuring The Amazing Hawkeye and Mayhem.”

Pale horses galloped around three rings, colorful silks unfurled from the Big Top frame. Red bursts of energy carried targets through the air as a man in a purple hood released arrow after arrow … Never missing. A masked red-haired woman appeared out of the forest of colors engaging the archer in mock battle, moving between the vivid strands and the backs of the cantering horses. A streak of silver flashed around the perimeters of the battle catching knives and arrows before they delivered injury to their spellbound audience.

The archer dodged, tumbled, and climbed out of the path of knives as bursts of fiery energy attempted to knock the hooded man off his horse or perches. The speedy sprite would appear for a mere second to put retrieved arrows back in a quiver or return knives to their rightful owner. The crowd roared as the red fire burst from the hands of the dark haired woman hidden behind the red feathered mask caught the blur of silver as he slid down the silks.

The crowd gifted them with an ovation of their approval as the four performers took their bows from the backs of their faithful steeds. Slipping off the horses to release them to their grooms, the four leaned on each other as they headed for the costume truck.

It was their last show of the season. Carson’s Carnival of Traveling Wonders would be heading to winter quarters in Florida as soon as the last tent peg and food trailer was packed. The archer finally got his crew back to their fifth-wheel travel trailer that served as their home while the circus traveled across the country.

Stepping out of the shower, he felt every performance of every day of the season. Today was his own personal Grande Finale. Except for the six years he spent in the military, Clinton Francis Barton had been with Carson’s since he was eight years old. At 36, he was more than ready to retire The Amazing Hawkeye from the Big Top. By the time he got all the loose ends tied up, he’d know whether the rest of his hodgepodge family would be staying with him or if they would be going their separate ways.

Cutting off those thoughts, he noticed the smells of Pietro’s cooking filling the trailer. Pulling on jeans and a t-shirt he padded barefoot to front of the camper.

“Hey old man, ‘bout time. You know how the ladies can pack it away after a show.” The silver haired speedster teased.

“Yeah, I know. Don’t need much tonight. There’s a lot to do before we pull out in the morning.”

“Clint?”

“Not deciding anything until we get everything wrapped up in Florida. I hope you’ve been thinking about what’s next.”

“Lady Hawk isn’t talking, and Wanda’s just as bad. I know we’re twins, but telepathy was not something we got from all the shit HYDRA pumped in us.”

“Don’t strain yourself. We have time … Not like we’re hurting for money.” Clint gave the speedster a side glance. “Wouldn’t let Tasha hear you call her that. I don’t care how fast you are, you have to sleep sometime.”

Pietro shivered.

“There is that. You know there’ll be shopping before we go anywhere.”

“Isn’t there always?” Clint chuckled as he finished his dinner, and helped Pietro set the kitchen area to rights.

By bedtime, the outside of the camper trailer was secured so all they needed to do was hook up to their hauler to begin their journey to Carson’s winter quarters.

~}}}~~~>

Pulling into the campground near Carson’s Ranch outside Ellenton, Florida, Clint rested his head on the steering wheel to relax the strain on his shoulders from handling the big trailer in the west Florida wind. They needed to get unhooked and attach all the hook-ups before the storm, the tall thunderheads promised, became a reality.

Watching the rain, thunder and lightning outside the trailer’s kitchen window, Clint was glad he was no longer a roustabout or groom. He’d done his time caring for animals and equipment in all types of weather. The chili for dinner was simmering while cornbread baked in the oven. A small hand rested on his back drawing his attention back into the kitchen.

”Malen'kiy Pauk? (Little Spider)” 

“You were very far away, Yastreb.” 

“Just remembering days like this when I was the one working in the rain.” He answered quietly. 

“Regretting not renewing your contract with Marcy.” She leaned against his muscled frame. 

The Amazing Hawkeye has officially retired from Carson’s Carnival of Traveling Wonders.” 

“Does that mean we will be seeing more of Ronin?” 

“It means I can work when I want, where I want, and for who I want. You and the Twins can stay with me, the circus, or go off on your own.” 

“What do you want?”  

“I want everyone happy.” She snorted softly.  

“I know … I know.” He smiled softly at her. Always the cynic was his Spider. 

Three days later, Clint was out of time. He’d returned the travel trailer to the leasing company, and was on his way to their hotel in Bradenton when his phone rang. 

“Hey Catman, how’s the jungle?” Clint asked his old friend. 

“I have grave news, Protector. Your king has need of your services.” The Crown Prince of the small African country of Wakanda answered. 

“I can be on my way to you as soon as I get the jet ready.” 

“I will alert the airport and have a car waiting. Will your compatriots be traveling with you?” 

“I don’t know. It will be my first topic of conversation when I get to the hotel to pack. I will see you soon, my Prince.” 

“Clear skies, my Brother.” 

Dropping the phone in the console cup holder, Clint thought about his friendship with the royal family of Wakanda. Every king of the African country had been imbued with the powers of the spirit of the Black Panther until 2010. 

Flashback

Carson’s Carnival of Traveling Wonders had been invited by the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to give a command performance for the heads of state attending a commodities conference to be held in the capital city. It was to be their last performance of the 2010 season, and Clint intended on doing some traveling before returning to the United States. In his six years as a Spec Ops soldier, he’d been all around the world, but never as a tourist. Even his alter ego, Ronin, the assassin with a moral compass, never took the time for leisurely journeys anywhere.  

Clint had just finished the last show of the night. He was on his way to peel out of his costume, which he swore they got tighter every year, and it wasn’t because he’d gained weight either. He heard the explosion of flashbang grenades coming from the front of the Big Top. Never stopping to consider he was taking a bow and arrows to a gunfight, he ran toward the commotion.

The security detail for the Royal Family of Wakanda were either dead or incapacitated. King T’Chaka had called upon the Panther spirit, but he was badly outnumbered. Clint put arrows through the eyes and throats of the men trying to overpower the king. Crown Prince T’Challa was just as busy protecting his sister, Shuri from the men wanting to kill him and kidnap her. With Clint’s help, The Wakandan Royal Family survived until the Saudi Royal Guard got to the scene and subdued the kidnappers.

When the battle was over, the medics found King T'Chaka’s leg had been shattered by an attacker’s bullet. He would live on as King, but had to pass the heritage of the Black Panther on to his son, T’Challa, when they returned to Wakanda. The Royals insisted Clint travel with them to their African home, and on the day T’Challa became The Black Panther, Clinton Francis Barton was declared the Royal Champion of Wakanda. 

With the blessings of his new friends, Clint purchased a home near the royal residence and was allowed access to Wakanda’s greatest treasure, Vibranium. With the help of Wakandan metallurgists, Clint engineered several multi-purpose bows, arrowheads, katanas, knives, and integrated the metal into his Ronin costume using the Black Panther battle suit as a model. He removed the gold accents and tabard. Instead of a full face mask, that blocked his incredible field of vision, he went with a tactical hood, close fitting, but still obscured his identity. Nothing was left loose for opponents to grab as a handhold. The final suit was form fitting, kept his quiver and katana strapped tightly to his body, his knives, asp, and gun all within easy reach, but didn’t hinder his acrobatic movements. 

End Flashback 

Arriving at the hotel, pulled Clint’s full attention to his driving and away from that first wondrous winter season in Wakanda. He loved training with his team … Natasha, as a former Red Room assassin, was always a challenge. He’d met her as Ronin when they were working the same mark. Natasha had seduced the target to obtain information that would blackmail the arms dealer into the Soviet fold, but as soon as the hotel room door closed behind the spy, Clint had put an arrow in his eye. The same magnetic system that worked with Captain America’s shield, returned the arrow to the archer’s hand. Natasha had met him as he exited his perch with arctic glare.  

“I could have let you keep him, but I made a different choice. You did your job … I did mine, we both get paid. Buy you dinner?” With a huff, the red head stormed away, but not before Clint slipped a business card into her coat pocket.     

 Call me if you want a job. 

The rest, as they say, is history … A very profitable, and for them, the beginning of a competitor that turned into a friend, that turned love story. The Twins were a different story ... They needed a lot of training that involved a lot of bruises for everyone involved. Pietro still relied too much on his super speed, and Wanda too much on her magics. He missed battling with T’Challa and his Royal Guard of female warriors … As strange as it seemed to the gypsy in his soul, Clint missed the mists of Africa. He had safe houses all around the world, but his home was in Wakanda. 

~}}}~~~>

 All eyes turned to him when he entered their suite. Clint huffed out a breath at the look of anticipation from the Twins and pretended nonchalance from Natasha.  

“T’Challa called.” That was all he got to say before Natasha interrupted.

“When do we leave?” 

“As soon as I can get a flight plan filed.” 

“Call tonight, get the jet serviced, and your flight plan filed. We’ll leave early tomorrow … That way we’re all rested for trip.” 

Clint glared at his voice of reason, but even his Global 6000 couldn’t make the trip non-stop. They’d have to take on fuel in Madrid before the final leg to Wakanda. 

“Fine, but I’m out of here at first light. You ain’t up, you’re going commercial.” He growled as he headed to his room.

Snatching up his phone, he called the manager at the private airfield that housed their jet. Though he’d picked up the jet from a company that needed cash worse than another corporate jet ... It spoke to the money Clint commanded as Ronin ... Master assassin and retrieval specialist, that he could afford to buy and maintain the jet. It always made his day when he could steal the assets of his targets, especially HYDRA, who was number one with a bullet on his personal hit parade.  

It was HYDRA in conjunction with the dark side of the KGB, known as the Red Room, that experimented on and brainwashed his Natasha until the infamous Black Widow kicked off her traces and partnered with Ronin. T’Challa had found them one of the foremost experts on deprogramming and psychological triggers. He brought Dr. Iona Hyland to Wakanda where she worked with the former Natalia Romanova until she chose to become Natasha Romanoff.

It was HYDRA that had taken a special set of twins and experimented on them trying to augment their natural abilities. Clint found them as he spread mayhem throughout a HYDRA base in Sokovia. The files he’d stolen, along with twins, read like a science fiction novel, and scared Clint to the bottom of his soul. Their researchers had been working on what they called The Ultimate AI. It was meant to take over any computer system in the world. There were notations in the files about Tony Stark’s JARVIS AI being the model for the Ultimate AI.  

Clint hated the Stark name. The elder Stark had done human experimentation during the Super Soldier program, and sold weapons of mass destruction around the world. The younger ... A drunken genius continuing in daddy dearest footsteps until he ‘privatized world peace’, and insisted only he was smart enough to have oversight on people with abilities … For every cache of weapons with the Stark name in the hands of terrorists and tinpot dictators that his team destroyed ... For the many of missions to clean up messes made with something that came from the Stark Industries brain trust. Arrogant prick.

He was pulled from his mental meanderings when Ellis Colter answered his phone. By the time he finalized plans for their morning flight, the room service Natasha and the Twins ordered had arrived. All he could do now was wait until morning. 

~}}}~~~>

By the time they arrived in Wakanda, they’d been traveling for 24 hours. Clint and Natasha had taken turns sleeping and flying while Wanda and Pietro kept everyone fed and hydrated. They were all looking forward to a hot shower and real food. Clint dropped the Twins at the house. T’Challa had thoughtfully sent his staff to air out the house and stock the cupboards, leaving him and Natasha free to continue on to the palace. The head of the King’s royal guard met them at the door and ushered them into the palace’s ‘war room’. T’Challa looked up from the computer screen where he and a blond haired man were discussing whatever they'd been reading. 

“Clint! Natasha! It is good to see you looking so well.” T’Challa greeted his friends with smiles and hugs. 

“Your Highness … Steve …” They greeted the two men. “As opposed to Natasha and I looking like refugees of the apocalypse when we stole Steve and that pretty blue rock from under everyone’s noses?” Clint teased as he embraced the two men.  

“We haven’t heard any whispers about the recovery of the plane. Have your people garnered any intelligence in reference to the discovery of the Valkyrie.” Natasha asked. 

“We have not. But HYDRA and SHIELD have been skulking around thinking they’re superior to our bureaucrats, but we’ve sent them home disappointed.” 

“I shudder to imagine what a weapons manufacturer like Stark, a shadow spy agency like SHIELD or HYDRA could do with the power of an Infinity gem, they’re pretty ugly pictures.” Steve confirmed. 

“So what is it that has your royal robes in a knot?” Natasha asked. 

“Word has come from the northern tribes of people with military equipment coming from a compound left behind by the French when they tried to expand their influence into Wakanda prior to World War 2. My great grandfather drove out the French and sealed the bunker.” 

“You wish us to investigate?” Natasha asked.  

“Yes. You and Clint excel at information gathering. Once we have an idea of what is occurring, we can form a plan of action.” The King offered. 

“You have supplies ready?” Clint asked. T’Challa nodded. “Nat and I will gear up and head north first thing in the morning. When we get what we need, we'll come back for the Twins and Steve.” 

“Fetch Wanda and Pietro, and return for dinner. You can load one of the Land Rovers tonight.” 

“We’d be delighted, Your Majesty.”  Natasha gave a deep curtsy before she and Clint sauntered chuckling out of the room. 

~}}}~~~>

By the next afternoon, they had hidden the Land Rover a couple miles from the bunker, and hiked in to the edge of the clearing around the bunker. None of the trees were tall enough to give clear lines of sight, but the building was butted up against a heavily shadowed cliff. Clint worked his way through the trees into the crags of the cliff face.  

A click on her earbud let Natasha know Clint was in place, freeing her to begin poking at their defenses on the ground. Clint used the camera in the scope of his sniper rifle to photograph the bunker, guards, vehicles, and anything else that seemed important. For 24 hours, the pair surveilled the area from all angles before heading back to the Land Rover. They switched between napping and driving to make the best time back to the palace.  

They stopped at the house long enough to shower, change and grab the Twins before heading to the palace. Clint sent one of the footman to find Steve and send him to the ‘war room’. He and Natasha began uploading their photos onto the computers. Wanda and Pietro began sorting by the time stamps for guard changes, vehicles entering or leaving. By the time Steve and T’Challa arrived, they had a layout of the area in pictures. They placed the pictures over the projection of the palace archives' original blueprints of the bunker. 

“What have we got?” Steve asked as he came through the door. 

“Looks like they’ve already nested and getting ready for the housewarming party.” Clint quipped.

“There’s not a lot of movement outside since there’s limited entrances. Guards work in teams, except at the main gate where there’s four.” Natasha added. 

“The roof has unguarded hatches here and here.” Clint pointed to the pictures and then to the blueprints. “Nat and I can slip in the roof vents … Get a head count and take a peek under the covers. Once we know what we’re facing, we’ll bring in you guys.” 

“So are we doing this in jeans and t-shirts?” Pietro asked. 

“If you would follow me, Clint and I have been working with our people to create some more appropriate attire than ‘jeans and t-shirts’.” T’Challa grinned at the silver haired youngster. “We thought to earmark your ascension into adulthood.” The Crown Prince intoned seriously as Clint grinned at his kids.  

“We even came up with a little something for our good Captain.” Clint added with a grin. “We can take a day to get acquainted with our new toys then go do a little bunker busting.” 

They looked like ducklings following the Crown Prince down into the labs under the palace. The dungeons, with their thick walls and multiple chambers were ready made for workrooms and labs. Thumb and retinal print later, the door opened into Clint’s workshop. Along the far wall hung four uniforms. Clint and T’Challa stood back as Natasha, Wanda, Pietro and Steve continued, each to their particular uniform. Clint rushed forward to catch the Super Soldier as his knees gave way at the sight of the unadorned shield leaning against the wall by a similarly unadorned Captain America uniform. 

“We didn’t mark anything since we’re not in the States, and no one seems to know you’re not still a Captain America frozen entree. We left everything plain until you could decide what you want to do after this mission.” Clint said as he helped Steve back to his feet. 

Steve stared at the uniform and shield while the others were changing and checking for anything that needed adjustment. At his announcement, frozen Steve turned his attention back to Clint. 

“No one? I thought that’s why all those different groups you talk about kept trying to breech Wakanda’s security.” 

“Nope. Apparently they’re fishing for information on terrorists and Vibranium. Probably think someone in Africa wouldn’t have a clue about a lost plane in the Arctic. We left everything in the plane except you and the Tesseract. We hid both of you in Wakanda specifically because they’re closed mouthed and have closed borders.” 

“Why are you keeping it a secret?” Steve asked. 

“Because everyone from HYDRA to SHIELD to AIM, and every alphabet agency in every country would want to make you either their guinea pig or poster boy. People would want to experiment on how you lived for 70 years under ice, or like they did with Natasha and her sisters … Try to make more Super Soldiers.” 

“Surely there are protections in place …” Steve looked between the people who had rescued him. 

“I know T’Challa, Shuri and the royal tutors have brought you up to speed on the 21st century … What do you think?” Clint sounded cynical. 

“The press is no longer objective in their reporting. The victor writes the history books, but surely Howard’s boy isn’t as bad as the media make him out to be.” 

“There are always going to be those who fear or want control of someone or something that is different or more powerful. Things haven’t changed much since Carter and Stark controlled every move of their Super Soldier. The Red Room was the same without bothering to paint on a pretty face for public consumption. Howard Stark’s SSR merely changed its name to SHIELD, and gets it funding from the governments of the ‘free world’. Same vehicle … Different paint job.”  Natasha shrugged as if to say that is the way of the world.

Steve stared at the blank shield for several seconds letting the last of his naiveté slip away. If he believed what Clint and Natasha said, there was no working for the greater good … Only fulfilling someone’s agenda. If some good was accomplished at the same time … That was a cherry on the sundae. 

“Perhaps I will simply be The Captain.” Steve said. 

“Try it on, and we’ll go out and throw the old shield around, and see if you still got IT.”  Clint teased as he turned his attention to Natasha as she strapped on her streamlined Widow’s Bites, and the Twins finished changing. 

“Okay. Let’s head out to the range and make some mayhem.” Clint led the way out of the dungeons, back into the bright African sun. For once he was feeling good about his world. 

~}}}~~~>

Steve laid flat on his back blinking at the fluffy white clouds that would soon become a refreshing evening shower. Was he so out of shape that a regular human could kick his ass? He’d been smugly confident when he suggested he could take on Clint’s team by himself. The Super Soldier discounted Wanda and Pietro because of their youth, and he discounted what Natasha said about the Red Room. Now he had paid for his arrogance.

“What’s the matter, Grandpa?” Pietro taunted. “Big bad Captain taken down by a little bitty spider.”

Dragging himself to his feet, Steve’s face flamed in embarrassment from having Natasha’s thighs wrapped around his head. His distraction and embarrassment was what led to him staring at the sky while the others laughed.

“You know, Pietro, it’s been a while since you and I sparred.” Natasha’s smile was more a baring of her teeth than a sign of humor.

“It's all good, Tetka (Aunt).” He stuttered. “Starac (Old Man) does a noble job of providing bruises, thank you very much.”

“But it gets stale, and you need to be good against all styles of fighting. You cannot always depend on your speed especially in small spaces.”

Thinking her brother and Natasha were distracted by their bickering, Wanda produced a small red ball of hex magic and launched it at the pair. Natasha ducked so the energy hit Pietro knocking him into Steve, sending the men into a nearby acacia bush. Lucky for them, their Vibranium lined suits protected tender body parts from the worst of their spines.

“Okay, Kids.” Clint called for their attention. “Steve, have you been beat up enough, or do you need a couple more rounds before you’re not afraid to hit a girl?”

Steve’s cheeks pinked at Clint’s question, but he firmed his jaw stubbornly.

“I’m good.”

“Let’s call it a day. I’ve got supper in the crock pot and fresh bread from the market.”

“Dibs on the first shower!” Pietro shouted as his super speed left only dust in his wake.

With a grin, Clint offered his arm to Natasha.

“Escort you to dinner, Milady Widow?”

“Certainly, Gospodin Yastreb (Mister Hawk).” She gave him a coy smile.

Steve offered his arm to Wanda … Who giggled as they walked back to the house.

~}}}~~~>

Everyone was relaxed as they loaded their gear in the Land Rovers, and headed back to the bunker. Once the interlopers were cleared out, King T’Chaka had plans to set up a border outpost to stop any other unwanted neighbors setting up shop.

By mid-afternoon, everyone was in place. Being Sunday, the team hoped the people in and around the bunker would be relaxed and inattentive. Reminding everyone to use their call signs, Clint had Steve and the Twins hide near the main gate while he and Natasha worked their way around to the cliff face.

A piton arrow anchored a line to the roof. Anchoring the other end into the cliff face, it was a quick ride down the zip line to the roof, and slipping into an unsecured ventilation shaft.

Pietro was beginning to fidget when Natasha’s voice came over their ear buds. She directed them to the side of the building where they had taken down the guards and cut the fence. Clint sent Steve and Pietro to clear the outside of the building then to gather the survivors in a central location for the Royal Guard. He sent Wanda and Natasha one way while he went the other with a plan to meet on the lowest floor. They would collect files and computers after they disabled everybody.

Clint traveled to the lowest level thinking there would be little to find but storage for supplies and equipment. What he found caused his stomach to flip as he remembered stories Natasha told about the Red Room conducting experiments in conjunction with HYDRA. A desk full of monitors sat in front of a semi-circle of cryogenic tanks. Only one was in use, but the archer recognized the man from several jobs where they had thwarted the assassin’s plan for their clients. The last time ended with Natasha taking a knife in the side.

Clint downed the man and woman at the desk with tranquilizer arrows. He used zip ties to restrained them before he began reading through the information spread across the desk. He found where the tanks had been recently delivered to the bunker. The notebook outlined what the scientists needed to do to prepare the assassin for his next mission. He tapped his earbud to get everyone’s attention.

“You need to get to bottom floor as soon as possible. I think I’ve found why they set up on the border of Wakanda.”

It seemed like he’d just turned back to the notebook when the others ran into the room. They had met with little resistance once they got past the first two floors.

“What’s up, Old Man?” Pietro stopped behind Clint to read over his shoulder.

Steve and Natasha stood in front of the cryotube in stunned silence.

“Bucky …” Steve whispered.

“Zima Soldat (Winter Soldier).” Natasha’s voice was just as soft.

Wanda looked back and forth between her friends.

“What’s up with the ice cube, Ronin?” She asked.

“Meet James ‘Bucky’ Barnes, supposedly KIA sniper of the Howling Commandos, aka The Winter Soldier, product of the HYDRA version of the Super Soldier program and good ol’ fashioned brainwashing.”

“The guy that stabbed Widow on that one job?” Pietro asked.

“Yeah. According to what I’ve read, they brought him here to prep him to assassinate the King and the Crown Prince. Then use the Crown Princess to take control of Wakanda.”

“What do you mean prep?” Steve almost whispered.

Clint exchanged a look with Natasha.

“When we get home, I’ll tell you what I know of the Winter Soldiers.” Natasha threw the original Super Soldier a bone. “We have to find his Book if we’re to have any chance of helping him.”

Clint turned to Pietro and Wanda.

“Quicksilver, get in touch with T’Challa. We’re going to need a couple of five tons to get everything and everyone back to the capital.”

The speedster took off for the surface.

“Witch, help Widow get in the computers … I’ll take these. You go through the ones in the rest of the bunker. Anything that lets us know what else they were planning besides killing the royal family.”

“Got it.”

Clint’s attention was already back on the books and manuals. Pulling out his tablet, he accessed several dark websites used by high dollar bounty hunters. A sneaking suspicion about the man he’d tranqed had him checking to see if what he suspected was true. Pietro’s return distracted him from his reading materials. Steve still stood with his hand resting on Barnes’ tube.

“They’re already halfway here. I guess something was making Catman’s whiskers twitch.”

Clint rolled his eyes at the youngster.

“Take The Captain and haul all our friendly neighborhood HYDRA agents topside so we can get them on their way to prison while we work on getting Barnes moved without waking or killing him.”

“You got it, Old Man.” He skittered over to Steve. “Let’s go, Grandpa. Grunt work to do.”

The archer ducked his head to hide his smile as Pietro cajoled the man who was really only a few years older than himself, into the elevator.

By the time T’Challa and his guards, along with several trucks arrived, Clint felt confident he could keep Barnes alive until they got things in place to defrost him. His website search had also borne fruit … Big fat juicy fruit worth a lot of money. Colonel Vasily Karpov, the Soviet officer partially responsible for the Winter Soldier program. Tucking that information away with his tablet, he got the frozen assassin ready for transport.

~}}}~~~>

The smells wafting out onto the veranda woke the couple dozing in the gently swaying hammock. The red head went from sleep to alert in a blink of green eyes. She relaxed as she realized it was dinner preparations that had disturbed her nap. Careful not to jostle Clint’s ribs, Natasha eased out of the hammock. She dropped a kiss on his forehead before slipping into the kitchen.

“Clint still sleeping?” Steve asked.

Natasha gave him an absent-minded nod as she poked through his dinner preparations. Satisfied, she turned to her handsome friend.

“Not your fault, Steve. They don’t call him the Amazing Hawkeye for no reason. He came away with bruised ribs … You would have ended up with caved in skull.”

“Still …”

“Give it a rest, Punk. You’re not all seeing. That’s why we’re a team.” Bucky Barnes said through the towel he was using to dry his hair. “We got the job done and earned a fat payday. Now we’re taking a nice vacation while we wait for the kids to come home from their travels.”

Knowing they wouldn’t let him wallow in his guilt at Clint’s injuries, Steve let his guilt go with a deep sigh. He turned around to see the sleepy eyed archer grinning at him.

“Time to eat? I’m starved.”

The kitchen filled with chuckles.

“Soon as Natasha sets the table.” Steve grinned at the petite woman.

An arched eyebrow promised retaliation at their next sparring session as she grabbed plates and silverware.

While they ate, they discussed Wanda and Pietro arriving the next day after six months in the States. Wanda had spent the time studying under Doctor Steven Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, to advance her magical abilities.

Not wanting to be separated from his twin, but needing something to keep him occupied, Clint had called one of his oldest friends, Jimmy Howlett to take Pietro under his tutelage until the Twins were ready to return to Wakanda. They had expressed an interest in rejoining The Chaos Factor, the legal face of Clint’s jobs as Ronin.

With everyone pitching in, it didn’t take long before the kitchen was set to rights. Enjoying the last few weeks of the dry season, the four grabbed their beverage of choice, and retired to the wide veranda that surrounded the house. In the middle of the companionable silence, Bucky quietly announced Dr. Hyland had concluded her deprogramming treatments.

After congratulatory hugs and back slaps, Clint surprised everyone by asking him if he wanted to stay with them.

“You trust me?”

“Yes … If there’s something else you want to do, go for it, or if you just hang out. You don’t have to do anything out of a sense of obligation. Everyone here has red in their ledger … Except Steve … You know what I mean.” Clint huffed in exasperation.

“With a team of six, we can expand the scope of our targets.” Natasha’s smile made the three men glad they were not her target.

Watching another glorious Wakandan sunset, they pulled out tablets and began looking for their next target.

~}}}~~~>

The Director of SHIELD, Nicholas Fury and Assistant Director, Maria Hill, sat with their attention riveted to the large computer monitor. They watched a man dressed as a ninja and man wearing a cowl and a half mask pulled a known human trafficker out of a black cargo van. Two men and two women wearing the same half masks climbed back in the van. The only thing distinguishing was one woman had red hair and one of the men was silver haired.

The video was grainy due to the late hour and inclement weather as they watched the two men lead their prisoner into the Paris Interpol office. The video from inside was clear, but the men never showed their faces in view of the camera. The video ended when the men climbed back in the van and disappeared into the Paris night.

“In the past year, these people have brought in six high dollar targets that we know about. We’ve had a few of our own top targets turn up dead or in jail. I want to know who these people are.” The Director ordered. Noticing how still his Assistant had become, he laid a hand on her shoulder. “Hill?”

“There’s something familiar about the uniform the taller man was wearing, Director.” She started the video again, and paused when the men were under a street light. She touched the screen on her tablet. “Johnson, what’s the status on the search for Captain Rogers?”

“We received aerial confirmation on the plane three days ago. The ground team reported in an hour ago. The plane was empty. It showed signs of having been opened from the outside some time ago.”

“I expect a full report ten minutes ago.” Fury demanded.

“Of course, Sir.”

“What are you thinking?”

“The uniform the taller man was wearing looks like an unmarked Captain America uniform.”

“I want video from the areas of every bounty, rumor, and target that was crossed off our most wanted list in the past year. If that is Captain America, I want to know who got to him before we did.”

The next day found them back at the conference table.

“What have we found?” Fury asked Hill.

“Payments were made to a company out of Wakanda called The Chaos Factor. We could get no further information.

“Wakanda? The only place we can’t get inside, and can’t set up a listening post because of the Vibranium?”

“The one and the same.” Maria confirmed as she cued a compilation video she’d made. “Here is the best of what I found on the few videos still available. Seems like cameras malfunction a lot around this bunch.”

They gasped as an unmarked shield flew through the air along with arrows and bursts red energy as six people in tactical suits battled members of a drug cartel in Mexico. A petite red head wrapped her legs around a cartel members head snapping his neck.

The watchers gasped as she jumped on another sending jolts of electricity into his neck.

A man with an artificial arm protected the woman creating the red energy blasts. A blur and a cloud of dust stopped in front of the camera before the recording stopped.

“The rest of the video is more of the same.” Maria commented.

“The man with a bow and sword … There’s been rumors for years of an assassin … Ronin. Only hits the worst of the worst, rarely uses guns. Always sounded like an urban legend to me. He paused, rubbing his chin. “We have any leads on houses, offices, spouses, kids, anything? Any way we can get one or all of them to have a little chat.”  

“If that actually is Steve Rogers, Black Widow, and Winter Soldier, then who are the other two? Watching them fight, I would say capturing any of them would bring the wrath of the others on us like the apocalypse, and really piss off the Wakanda government.”

Maria put a new set of pictures on the monitor.

“A couple years ago there was a Soviet officer and known associate of HYDRA ...” She trailed off as she checked her tablet. “Colonel Vasily Karpov, rumored to have been there at the start of the Winter Soldier program. He was brought in for a big bounty by … The Chaos Factor. There were reports of a Winter Soldier with a cybernetic arm that would have made Tony Stark orgasmic.”

“So this … This Chaos Factor found Steve Rogers and The Winter Soldier, and they’re all living happily ever after in Wakanda … A country that won’t give us the time of day?!”

“That pretty well sums it up, Sir.”

“Damn.”

~ Fini ~