One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for Silver
Six for Gold
Seven for a Secret
Never to be told…
The speed with which things have gone to hell in the last couple of hours is unusual, even for Kaliningrad.
The Kaliningrad Oblast is a geographical and political hiccup by anyone’s standard. Cut off from Mama Russia and labeled a “Free Economic Zone” (a fancy-ass way of saying free-for-all) it basically runs on corruption and organized crime. Throw in a port that was once home to the Soviet Baltic Fleet – complete with nuclear subs - and proximity to some of the largest weapons stockpiles on the planet, and the whole thing is an arms dealer’s wet dream.
None of that matters to Clint Barton right now, though, busy as he is, sprinting for his life through the docks, dodging bullets and trying to avoid the potholes in ashfold that hasn’t been fixed since the days of Stalin and Khrushchev. A turned ankle can bring you down as fast (and just as ingloriously) as a ricochet from one of the metal containers, something he learned the hard way.
One thought he does allow himself, though: What the hell happened with Peterson? One moment he’d been giving him cover, the next …
The STRIKE team, under Clint’s command, had been deployed by Sitwell to blow up Igor Lubishchenko’s shipment of Russian-made missiles, supposedly earmarked for the fanatic-of-the-month club in Iraq or Syria. But judging by Peterson’s antics, the target has suddenly shifted, and is now none other than Clinton Francis Barton himself.
Question: On whose orders?
Clint is still trying to wrap his mind around the moment he’d heard the pop-pop over the comm, then turned to seen Gupta topple over - good guy, relatively new, but with potential - while Peterson was training his gun on him. It was only thanks to years of training that Clint had short-circuited the what-the-fuck delay that Peterson was counting on, and managed to roll and fire off an arrow at the same time. Exit Peterson, his erstwhile backup, taking all sorts of answers with him.
Almost immediately, the bullets had started flying again – all apparently SHIELD issue, from the STRIKE team Clint was supposedly the boss of. Not a Lubishchenko goon in sight.
So, seriously: What. The. Fuck?
And what about Kumar Gupta? Promising recruit, sent to K-grad on a supposed milk run to learn from the best. Not to be killed by a guy they’d had breakfast with that morning.
The comm yields nothing but static, and Clint does a quick tally. So far, everyone who’s actively tried to kill him has been from Rumlow’s cohort. Gupta had been one of Hand’s trainees, as had Gomez, who’d been tasked with guarding the rear. Best to assume Gomez is a goner, too, and that the whole shebang is compromised. Wholesale paranoia never hurt anyone, if people are actively out to get you.
Clint rips the comms clip off his ear, careful not to dislodge his hearing aid, and stomps on it. Track this, fuckers.
He turns and heads for the nearest building in a loping gait, but is stopped by a hail of bullets – two shooters, minimum. He presses himself into the flank of a rusty crane and reaches for his quiver.
With the op obviously blown to rat shit there’s no more need for subtlety. Clint nocks one of his explosive arrows, aims high, and draws at half-strength. Who says you always have to hit straight on target? Sometimes it’s good to respect the classics, and go for the old-fashioned Agincourt lob.
The arrow flies up and curves in the air, falling behind the towers of containers his teammates-turned-pricks are using for shelter. The resulting explosion causes a good part of the stack to topple in slow motion. If the explosion didn’t get them, those forty-foot boxes will…
Clint decides to make a dash for it, and here’s hoping that Lubishchenko’s gang doesn’t decide to get in on the act. If there even is a Lubishchenko – maybe the whole thing was a frame job? Well, there probably is an arms dealer or two in this neck of the woods, but they’re going to live and fuel conflicts for another day. As are Petzold, Thompson, and Jones, and the other members of the STRIKE team. Can’t be helped.
At the far end of the dock there’s a boat, one of those things port workers use to move between docks. It looks like a real prize even in the barely-there light of a waning moon, but beggars can’t be choosers. Clint undoes the fastening and jumps.
There’s a guy asleep in the thing, his head on a pile of ropes.
“Sorry, mate,” Clint huffs as he unceremoniously heaves the man overboard and starts the outboard motor with a couple of quick pulls. “Nothing personal.”
The man curses in Russian but seems otherwise okay, smartly heading for the dock already. Judging by the eau de vodka-and-vomit smell in the boat, it’s probably not the first time he’s taken an unexpected swim.
The silhouettes of two figures emerge at the top of the dock, and Clint briefly abandons the rudder to nock a pair of arrows. Bullets whip up the black waters of the Baltic Sea and there’s an unmistakable dull pain as one of them grazes his right arm.
Fuckfuckfuck. At least it’s not a major artery, or the bottom of the boat.
He lets fly through the pain, two arrows at once, and the two shooters disappear from view. Turning his attention back to matters of navigation, Clint points the small boat straight out to sea.
Sometimes, life comes down to a few very simple goals: get out of bullet range, tie a rag around his throbbing arm, and hope there’s enough gas in the boat to get to Poland. (Assuming, of course, Poland is still somewhere to the left and hasn’t suddenly shifted position like everything else.)
And then, somewhere down the line, he really needs to figure out what the hell is going on.
Clint’s arm is throbbing rather nastily by the time he gets to shore halfway up the Vistula lagoon, hotwires a car - Polish license plates, yay! - and gets himself to Gdansk. Mercifully, the car he’s swiped is an automatic, so no need to operate the clutch.
Poland, now happily ensconced within NATO and the EU, remains a useful way station in a neighbourhood still rife with the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union. There’s a safe house in the city where he and Natasha had once holed up for three days after some flap in Belarus. Clint thinks he can remember where it is, somewhere near the main square - beside a bakery that sells decent croissants, if memory serves.
Of course, when he recognizes the building, there are lights in the window. Someone’s home, and chances are they’re not his kind of people.
Clint glances at the newspaper he’d picked up in a gas station. Splashed across the front page is a photograph of two helicarriers – new design, but definitely S.H.I.E.L.D. hardware – hovering over a smoking Triskelion, with a third face-forward in the Potomac. For good measure there’s even a sidebar photo of Steve Rogers. Even without him being able to read the caption, the photos tell Clint that the Kaliningrad op isn’t the only thing that’s gone to shit. It doesn’t take a trained analyst to figure out that there’s something seriously wrong with S.H.I.E.L.D.
What about Natasha? Fury? Hill? Something tells him that they, like him, would have been at the receiving rather than the giving end of recent developments; contacting them directly may not do any of them any favours.
For now, flying solo is the best option.
Priority: Arm. Right now being Barton is all he’s got and, to be Hawkeye, he needs two arms. The wound needs looking after, but that’ll cost money. The safe house will have an emergency stash of cash, plus surgical tape to hold things together if he can’t find a doctor.
So, lights or not – he’ll have to go in.
Climbing in over the roof is not an option. Clint can ignore pain with the best of them, but he’s not an idiot and does know how to factor his own weakness(es) into a tactical assessment. Lifting and drawing a bow will be hard enough, without adding in a round of parkour.
He rings the doorbell, a single arrow in his left hand.
The guy who opens the door is someone he’s vaguely familiar with, Pulanski or Podinski or something. The series of looks racing across the guy’s face when he realizes who’s standing before him includes neither pleasure nor relief, and he reaches for his gun before even saying ‘hello’. Clint wastes no time sticking an arrow into the man’s throat. Ounce of prevention and all that.
Pulanski or Podinski gives a quick gargle and drops, Clint slowing his fall with his uninjured hand just enough to avoid a major thud. He slings his bow off his shoulder, nocks an arrow with a grimace and steps over the body, which makes a rather useful doorstop.
“Who is it?” A voice he doesn’t recognize – coming from the little sitting area to the right.
“Your basic nightmare,” Clint snarls, steps into the apartment and lets fly.
He makes a quick security assessment of the joint before stashing the bodies on the balcony. Looking at corpses isn’t fun at the best of times, and this sure isn’t the best of times. Besides, it’s cold for this time of year, so they’ll keep for a couple days. Finally, in a gesture that smells of idiotic defiance even to himself, Clint puts on a pot of coffee before tackling his wounded arm.
There’s a med kit in the kitchen, helpfully marked with a red cross and the words “First Aid” in English; a mostly full bottle of Polish vodka on the coffee table in the sitting room is an added bonus. Clint takes a deep sip of his coffee and takes off his shirt, carefully peeling away the sleeve where drying blood has stuck the fabric to his wound.
Fuck, that hurts. He’d intended the vodka as a disinfectant, but the fresh blood surely merits a swig?
Luckily, on a spectrum of battle injuries that includes ‘possessed by a god’ at the upper end and a paper cut at the other, it’s not too bad: the proverbial flesh wound. Clint debrides and cleans the deep scrape - there’s actually real disinfectant in the kit, in the form of sterile wipes - and proceeds to stitch it up, missing Natasha’s clever hands with every pull of the thread. But, eh. No sense in dwelling, best just to get on with it.
“Good enough,” he mutters as he inspects his handiwork, before bandaging the whole thing up. He experimentally stretches and bends the arm and yeah, it hurts, but what with the tensor band over the stitches at least it shouldn’t open up again. Clint grabs a couple of pills that look like Advil and washes them down with another swig of vodka - reward for a job well done.
The TV in the apartment is one of those bulky box things from the Early Jurassic, but it gets CNN, BBC, and a bunch of middle-European stations. Those helicarriers (all in the Potomac now, together with much of the Triskelion by the looks of it) get wall-to-wall coverage, including the full pundit treatment in a cacophony of languages: “Secretive government organizations and security? A recipe for disaster!” “Aren’t these the same people that set up the invasion of New York?” “Unknown, uncontrollable, unaccountable power – who watches the watchers?”
But even though Clint knows enough to discount two-thirds of the hysterical shouting as speculation, disingenuous ‘it-has-been-reported-that…’ hearsay or deliberately planted misinformation, it’s pretty clear that the world he has known for the last decade and a half has ceased to exist.
And it’s just as clear that the fewer people know where Clint Barton is currently holed up, the better.
A sudden noise on the balcony startles him, and he lunges for his gun before he recognizes the hoarse cry for what it is. Not another Hydra operative, but a big, black bird – a crow. Carrion eater; how appropriate. The golden ring of the bird’s left eye fixates on him for a moment before it loses interest and flaps off with a lazy stroke of its wings.
Clint eyes his S.H.I.E.L.D. satellite phone as you would a four-days-dead piece of herring. Calling Stark is a possible answer - both to get real information and exfil (JARVIS knows everything and Stark has his own planes) - but the phone is probably infected with whatever bug brought down S.H.I.E.L.D. Maybe even a tracker – should have ditched the thing much sooner. Damn.
He opens it up, takes out the battery and simcard, runs a pot full of water, and brings the whole shebang to a boil. Watching the battery pop and leak acid into the water is oddly satisfying, even if it stinks a little.
Time to grab some shuteye; it’s been an eventful day and a half. Good thing there’s vodka; he takes the bottle into the bedroom. Thankfully, the assholes who stayed there don’t appear to have used the beds yet; Clint hates getting into used bedding almost as much as he hates changing sheets.
Despite the exhaustion, the meds and the booze, he spends an unproductive half hour scanning the ceiling for answers. He finds only images of Natasha, crushed under a downed battleship, until sleep finally takes him.
Morning comes with grey skies, a fine mist of rain, and no further answers.
At least the closet has a decent selection of clothes in a variety of sizes, including the one Natasha always insists he should buy. He rips open a package of underwear, and picks out a clean-looking pair of jeans and a grey Henley shirt that covers his field dressing nicely.
Once he’s gotten inside a set of clean clothes, and outside of a fresh pot of coffee and some croissants from the baker next door, Clint feels human enough to contemplate next steps. None of which, obviously, include contacting anyone in S.H.I.E.L.D.
Time for another scan of the news. According to increasingly informed news reports, things seem to have turned a corner into a mirror universe. Alexander Pierce is reportedly dead - no loss there, Clint never could stand that arrogant son-of-a-bitch. But so, reportedly, is Nick Fury. Clint decides to suppress the sudden constriction in his chest, pending first-hand confirmation, but spends an unpleasant couple of minutes nonetheless.
Fuck you, Fury.
Politicians who only last week were eager to lounge under the umbrella of S.H.I.E.L.D. protection, are now enthusiastically declaring it a ‘terrorist group’. Covert intelligence, it seems, is increasingly regarded as a threat not a solution, and the braying for accountability is deafening – at least as long as it brings in the votes.
One thing stands out to Clint above anything else: The name being mentioned in the same breath as S.H.I.E.L.D. is a familiar one: Hydra.
Twenty-four hours of laying low and a nasty exchange of gunfire later – seems like Thing One and Thing Two missed a check-in call with Momma Snake, or else that sat phone really did have a tracker - and Clint has made it to Warsaw.
He is standing in front of the Embassy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Maybe not the smartest move, but he’s fresh out of options, needs some kind of passport and really, really wants to know what the fuck is going on. And don’t the good folks of MI-6 owe him a favour or three by now?
Clint takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders and presents himself to the security guard. The guy is a local, which complicates matters, because it means that Clint needs to swaddle what he wants in layers of diplomacy, pretending there’s no such thing as an intelligence station in that nice, genteel office building. But thanks to repeated episodes of involuntary immersion, he speaks the language of obfuscation almost as well as Natasha.
“Hi, I’d like to talk to the head of your political section,” he says to the receptionist with his biggest, most innocent smile and a serviceable Scottish accent. “I don’t have an appointment, but it will only take a few minutes of his or her time. It’s about those helicarriers in the Potomac.”
Unknown visitors apparently do not merit the head of the section, even if they claim to know something about the latest news. Especially if they claim to know something about the latest news. But ever since 9/11 it’s become awkward for governments to be seen to ignore information, and so Clint is given his five minutes.
From the second secretary to meeting the Station Chief takes a lot longer and far more words than Clint likes to waste, but still, he can’t really blame the Brits for not welcoming him with open arms. These are trying times in the intelligence world, and who the hell would trust some random guy who’s walking in off the street, even if he does know how to use words like “Five Eyes”?
Eventually he does get through to some person whose business card just says “attaché”, the general euphemism for we-can’t-really-tell-you-what-that-one-actually-does-but-let’s-both-pretend–he’s-a-diplomat-so-our-spooks-can-do-business-with-your-spooks. The guy is all business though, and resolutely refuses to let Clint into the secure area of the embassy.
Clint knows his time is limited; every word counts, so he gets straight to the point, discarding the Scottish accent in the process.
“US colleague. I need to call in a solid from MI-6,” he says to the guy, who wears his pinstripe suit like someone who’s never been out in the field.
“And from whom, specifically, may I ask?” the man asks blandly, with a strong undercurrent of ‘Say the wrong thing and there’s the door, my dear chap.’
Clint has had enough time to think of a useful answer to that question, what between looking after his injury and driving around rural Poland. Invoking M’s name would get attention, but not necessarily the right kind. Silly moniker aside, the head of MI-6 is a known quantity; thirty seconds on Google will get you a hundred photographs, transcripts of committee appearances, dozens of photographs, and endless articles about the time when that nut bar blew up her office.
Bond? Chances are he’s out saving the world somewhere in Outer Slobovia, under an assumed name, with some deadly dame by his side and in no position to take phone calls.
No, there is only one person in MI-6 in whose availability Clint has the utmost confidence and who should be at her desk at times like this. Plus, invoking her name has the added advantage that no con artist would know about her existence – instant cred.
“Moneypenny,” he says, looking the guy straight in the eye. “Eve Moneypenny. In the Director’s Office. Tell her … tell her Circus Guy could use a safety net.”