“The search for survivors in the wreckage of Washington was called off today, eighteen hours after the last living soul was recovered. Efforts are still underway to…”
Tony drags his attention away from the television screen dominating the penthouse wall and back to the tablet he’s been using to calculate Stark Industries’ contributions to the SHIELD helicarrier project - the one that literally crashed and burned with the carnage now all over the news. Or rather the Hydra would-be mass murder project that, if it had worked, would have meant the end of Tony Stark as the world knows and loves him. Plus lots of other people of course.
It’s one of many Hydra murder projects that were contracted out to an oblivious S.H.I.E.L.D. over the years, if the results of the research so far on the files Black Widow released to the world are accurate. And who knows how many of those have his company’s fingerprints on them? Making weapons of mass destruction for your country is one thing, but making them for a bunch of Nazis? Even on his worst days he’d never knowingly have sunk that low.
Only apparently even on his best days it turns out he’s unknowingly been helping the Nazis after all.
“...accusations of an underground organisation known as Hydra…”
“JARVIS, mute that. And tell me you’re done sorting through the Romanoff dump.”
Tony rolls his eyes up towards the ceiling, waiting for an answer.
“I am sorry, sir, but there are several trillion terabytes of data and separating legitimate S.H.I.E.L.D. missions from surreptitious Hydra activities is not as easy as it might appear.”
Tony huffs in exasperation. Why is appeasing your conscience so goddamn difficult?
He abandons the tablet on the coffee table and stretches, rubbing the back of his neck and wincing at how many aches hunching over a screen for hours nets him these days.
“Fine. I’ll narrow things down for you. Limit the search to Barton and Romanoff for now. List all field missions and correlate with news reports indicating negative impacts on world security. Let’s find out what our master assassins have been up to in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. Or the new fascist state, as the case may be.”
He pours himself a Scotch, while JARVIS counts magical beans, and swirls the golden liquid in his mouth. A minute or two pass. Bored, he heads to the window and takes in the view of midtown Manhattan. The streets are rivers of light, alternating white and red, with only the avenues a mixture of both. Pretty - but so easily turned to chaos. All it takes is an alien narcissist with daddy issues and delusions of grandeur.
“Sir?” JARVIS does the AI version of a polite cough.
“Agents Romanoff and Barton have carried out a total of one-hundred-and-eighty-nine recorded missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. Of those, eighty-seven have resulted in the arrest or death of major transnational crime figures; fifty-nine in the deposition or death of politicians believed to have been responsible for serious human rights violations or atrocity crimes; and forty-three in the disappearance or death of business personalities linked to trafficking in arms, conflict diamonds, or human beings.”
Interesting. Did the Hydra part of S.H.I.E.L.D. keep Fury’s favourite team off the sticky files because they’re too smart and would have asked questions? The fact that neither added to the Hydra chaos efficient doesn’t bring Tony any closer to his goal of sorting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s lies from Hydra’s.
At least Romanoff will be pleased. She’s been moping ever since her Fury-built house of cards crumbled. Thinking you’ve gone over to the good guys only to realise they’re still the bad guys, okay, maybe Tony can relate a little. Accountability is a bitch. But still, whatever side she’s been on she’s always been an assassin and if you’re bothered about killing the wrong people maybe don’t kill people?
Her definition of ‘good guys’ is somewhat different to his in any event.
Which reminds him. Basic, old-fashioned, idle curiosity rears its head.
“What about Budapest? Is that on the mission list?”
“Yes, Budapest. The one in Hungary. Not the one in Missouri.”
The answer should be good for a free Starbucks from Rogers. JARVIS is silent for a moment as he goes through his quantum rolodex.
“I’m afraid there is no record of a mission located in Budapest, sir.”
Damn. Tony sets the whisky glass down, hard. So close...
“Perhaps it is related to the remaining file, sir. That one appears to be a an anomaly.”
“Anomaly? You have my attention, JARVIS.”
“As stated, there are one-hundred-and-eighty-nine missions, but one of them does not fit into any of the categories previously cited. The file is labelled The Bowling Green Massacre. I am unable to find any matching news events.”
“Really,” Tony drawls. “Imagine that. Nothing in the media at all?”
“Negative, sir. SHIELD has their own policy of monitoring and responding to news items and media interest in its activities,” JARVIS states. “However, the ‘comms strategy’ subsection of The Bowling Green Massacre simply says ‘FN’.”
“FN.” He reaches for the whisky decanter again as he muses. “Fox News?”
JARVIS, ever the drama queen, pauses for a moment.
“I believe it may stand for ‘fake news’.”
“You’ll be pleased to know that according to JARVIS’ superior research skills, none of your field missions screwed up world security,” Tony announces. “Much relief, clean conscience, big celebration.”
“Go us,” Clint says from his spot lounging on a sofa in the most popular room for off duty Avengers, with its winning combination of comfy seating, large HD television, and a Nespresso machine.
He hadn’t been to the Tower that often before, not until every idiot with a cellphone started trying to snap pictures of Natasha. The pair of them finally gave in to Tony’s barrage about the benefits of team cohabitation because of the Tower’s security and privacy, but Clint can’t say he isn’t enjoying the fancy surroundings.
Natasha merely raises one eyebrow at Tony as she delicately stirs her tea.
“Just one problematic file,” Tony continues, pulling it up on his phone and transferring it to the television screen on the wall with a flick of his fingers. “This one isn’t corroborated by anything I could find. As a matter of fact, in February of 2012 Bowling Green was as blissfully quiet as any small town in a red state can be. People would surely have noticed a massacre; at the very least gun sales would have shot up.”
“I assume you checked WalMart sales statistics?”
Tony folds his arms, the lines bracketing his eyes and mouth crinkling in frustration even as he admits nothing. It’s the height of entertainment for Clint, watching people get to Stark like this. Even better when he’s the cause.
“According to the media, the only exciting thing that happened that day in the whole of the U.S. of A. was something to do with that Occupy Wall Street lot vandalizing the Bull statue and getting stopped by local law enforcement. So, what the hell happened in Bowling Green?”
Clint tilts his head back and grins.
“You want to know what Hill thinks happened, what Sitwell thought happened, what Fury would like you to think happened, or what the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. believed happened?”
Natasha wanders over to perch on the arm of the sofa, her side pressed warm against his shoulder.
“Or maybe you should look into the Wall Street story. Assuming, of course, you trust the news.”
“Stop. Just – stop,” Tony snaps at the pair of them.
Clint closes his eyes, still smiling, while Natasha sips her tea.
“Strictly need to know,” says Clint. “And you? Don’t.”
On a clear day Battery Park is a place like no other in New York. On the horizon you can see the Statue of Liberty, holding out her welcoming torch across the waters. There are the boats full of happy tourists making their way to Ellis Island, where America once welcomed people from all over the world, and the late afternoon sun gives the stone of Castle Clinton a warm, red glow. In between the warp and weft of history are the joggers, people walking their dogs, the Falun Gong protesters, and kids on skateboards avoiding pensioners out for an afternoon stroll.
Yes, on a good day Battery Park is a serene and wonderful place.
But this is a pitch-dark evening in mid-February and national history and the pursuit of happiness are the furthest thing from Clint Barton’s mind. In fact, the only thing he’s thinking about as he dodges another bullet is that having Natasha try to seduce the head of the Brooklyn mafia at a restaurant called Gigino’s had not been one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s brightest ideas.
The meeting itself had been fine; at least they now have confirmation that Luigi Pescarini is the driving force behind the illegal workers pouring into the Manhattan construction scene. Half of them aren’t getting paid properly and there’s no way for them to complain about unsafe job conditions that have injured and killed dozens. Modern-day slavery in mid-town - Clint is more than on board with S.H.I.E.L.D. wanting to root that out.
But he really could have done without Luigi’s minion coming in, waving a gun in the air and hollering something about ‘Black Widow’ and ‘trap’ with an accent straight out of Moscow. Who knew the Italian and Russian mafias were on friendly terms these days? Apparently no one at S.H.I.E.L.D.
He’d been forced to abandon his perfectly grilled bistecca, with considerable regret. At least the steak knife had come in handy for shutting the guy up - faster than getting the bow out of the gym bag at his feet. In the meantime Natasha had produced a Glock from wherever she’d managed to stash it under her fancy evening clothes and disposed of her dining partner.
“Let’s get out of here, Barton,” she’d said unnecessarily as she got to her feet and they’d cleared out before the other patrons’ cell phones could make an appearance. Because paperwork is a bitch and ‘S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives disrupt fine dining experience’ is not a headline Fury would relish.
Of course, that was the point a van came to a screeching halt on Battery Place, ejecting a platoon of armed goons whose boots barely touched dirt before they started shooting. Natasha had taken out three in the time it took Clint to nock an arrow. He’d let it fly on the run.
Just where the hell had that Russian guy gotten his tip? As far as Clint knows, Natasha hasn’t had any dealings with the pond scum in Little Odessa in any of her previous lives and no one’s ever mentioned any links between them and the KGB, or whatever it’s called these days.
Well, that’s a mystery for the nerds in Analysis to sort out. Later.
There’s a loud noise and blast of heat from Clint’s right and swearing from a number of goons behind him as Strike Team Delta swerves into Battery Park. Clint doesn't stop running or look behind him, because he's not an amateur.
“What was that?” he manages in between breathing and ducking bullets. “Some idiot bring grenades to a gunfight?”
“That was one less statue of toga-wearing people,” Natasha answers as she ducks behind a tree. She taps her ear. “Under fire at Battery Park, moving towards the Netherlands monument.”
The pop-pop-pop coming from some twenty meters away should be audible over the comms, making her point for her. Sitwell’s voice sounds in Clint’s ear as he responds on the open channel.
“Hold tight. We’re trying to get you back-up, but the roads around you are a parking lot all the way up to Wall Street and Trump Tower.”
A fresh hail of bullets causes tree bark to fly in every direction. Clint follows Natasha’s lead as she zigzags between the trees. When Natasha speaks again her voice is a pleasant shade of lethal.
“Have you ever heard of choppers, Sitwell? You know, those things that fly? There’s a lovely landing place right beside us.”
Sitwell’s voice is all business. The answer, unfortunately, is supremely unhelpful.
“Restricted airspace, sorry. The President is hosting a Valentine’s reception at the National Archives. I’m afraid you’ll have to manage on your own, Agents. We have full confidence in you.”
Great. Just … great.
“And no one thought to mention Presidential proximity when we set up this op?”
Clint knows his question will be considered rhetorical and he doesn’t really expect an answer. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing, never mind the dirty paws of other agencies. Sure enough, State and Broadway are roped off and there’s a row of black, official-looking cars and vans along the side of the Archives, all with flashing lights. A dozen or so large guys with wires coming out of their ears are already looking in their direction. Armed, alert, and definitely interested in the sound of gunfire headed their way.
“Hang left!” he shouts to Natasha. They’re not going to be known as the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents who brought the mafia to a Presidential party, not if Clint can help it. So the right is out, but the left... to the left there’s a possible exit plan.
“Hey, Sitwell, we’re headed for Bowling Green Park. On foot. ETA two minutes. More if those fuckers keep shooting at us, possibly less if the Secret Service gets involved. Barton out."
Clint still can't believe Sitwell's latest bureaucracy fart: radioing your whereabouts into HQ every few minutes. It’s not like they ever get back-up, or extraction, or anything else useful, so what’s the point? That leaves… trust issues. When's the Council going to believe that Natasha won't change sides mid-mission, cut his throat, and toast S.H.I.E.L.D.'s enemies with a drink from his skull?
"Bowling Green?" Sitwell's voice in Clint's ear sounds annoyed. "Why not approach the Secret Service? They’re on our side.”
Natasha cuts him off.
"It's a bit late for that. At least Bowling Green metro will get us out of the open. More cover and from there we can make it to the Stock Exchange for evac.”
Clint adds, “The Presidential Guard won’t give a shit who’s coming at them with a gun. They shoot first, check corpses for badges later. Plus, you know how much Hill hates interagency turf wars."
Natasha fires a round in the direction of their pursuers - Clint hears a satisfying gurgle - and rips her ear plug out.
"And I don't really have time to live-blog a gun fight. Does everything in America have to turn into a reality show?"
Clint grins in appreciation.
Three of the Secret Service dudes are now heading their way, no doubt having decided it’s better to meet potential threats head on than to circle the wagons around POTUS and the Archives. They look pretty determined - clearly it’s not the time to try shouting ‘friendly’ and patiently waiting in the line of fire to see if they listen.
There's a hiss as a bullet comes too close to Clint’s head; getting underground is beginning to sound better and better. He dials up his tranquilizer tips to deal with the Service; dudes are after all just doing their job for the country. Natasha can deal with Luigi’s minions on a more permanent basis. He nocks an arrow, making sure that she sees the tip, and she nods briefly; it’s a thing of beauty having a partner you don’t have to spend an age explaining shit to.
A stretch of open ground yawns before them, but thankfully the Falun Gong folks are keeping their posters and torture dioramas on display all night to entertain unsuspecting late strollers. Protests sure have their uses in a free and democratic society, no matter how loony; cover is cover.
Clint nocks an arrow and takes out the closest of the Service guys. The tip will make a hole of course, but that can’t be helped. He’ll be back at work in a few weeks with a purple heart or something.
“Agent Barton, tell me you’re not firing at the Secret Service,” Sitwell demands in his ear.
“Not with live ammo, relax.”
A second later the next goes down, followed by the third. Natasha squeezes off a couple of rounds at their mafia pursuers to useful effect and they’re ready to make a run for the metro station, in the brief lull before the next wave of attack comes.
Of course, best laid plans and all that...
Closed Saturday October 8 (Expected Demonstrations), says the sign by the entrance, as if the barred doors weren't enough to give it away. Fuck. The Occupy Wall Street protestors must be planning to branch out from Liberty Plaza, deeper into the financial district. Never a dull moment in this town.
“The metro is not an option,” Clint, ever the professional, curtly informs those listening in on the comms.
Add to that the sound of approaching sirens, suggesting the NYPD have gotten some calls from concerned citizens. Just what this situation needs: more people with guns.
He spins around, searching for cover, and there’s Bowling Green Park but it’s smaller than he’d thought with only a handful of scattered trees and a fountain. On the plus side the old-fashioned fencing has also been surrounded by steel barricades, meaning a little extra to slow down anyone following after them - bad for people wanting to use the area to protest, good for SHIELD Agents on the run.
“Through the park - we can use the fences,” he suggests.
Meanwhile Natasha has been conducting her own assessment, her back pressed against his as they scan the area.
“Then down Beaver Street and towards the Stock Exchange,” she says. “Gets us away from the area covered by the President’s boys. Luigi’s people are blocking the way back to Battery Park.”
Clint relays the plan to an increasingly annoyed Sitwell as she fires off another round and quickly reloads, then replies, “Good. I am done with fucking shrubbery. Nature gives me hives.”
“Oh, you poor baby,” Natasha says drily and even in the middle of a firefight she can make him laugh.
The ranks of Luigi’s minions that have been following them from Battery Place has been thinned considerably thanks to Natasha’s culling technique, but the Secret Service has stepped up their engagement from the direction of the archives and the police sirens are almost on top of them. Clint covers his partner as she clears the barrier and fence around Bowling Green Park, and she returns the favour as he less gracefully follows suit. Then it’s more running - which he’d prefer considerably less of, thanks all the same - before he gets to clamber over the fence and barrier once again so they can turn onto Beaver Street. But this time when he switches to cover Natasha, she’s not there.
“Barton, status,” Sitwell orders.
But Clint doesn’t have time for that, not when he’s already spotted Natasha still racing through the park towards the far end where it comes to a point and reunites the two branches of Broadway.
He shouts after her, but all he gets back is, “Civilian!”
Back the way they’ve come, the mafia goons have made it over the fence and Clint knows he won’t be able to get back into the park again in time to head them off. He switches arrow tips for something with more firepower and takes aim.
The men inside the park perimeter are taken out with a satisfactory boom, along with a section of historical fencing and a chunk of the fountain.
Park clear, Clint doesn’t bother climbing back into it, instead running along the fence line in the same direction as his partner. And, as it turns out, towards the reinforcements that have just turned up right where the Wall Street Bull sculpture sits. Whose reinforcements they are isn’t entirely clear, but they’re not in any kind of uniform so at an educated guess it’s more of the mafia.
Glorious symbol of capitalism at its self-congratulatory best, the Wall Street Bull is currently surrounded by barricades, presumably to protect it against the evil tent-dwelling socialists about to swarm down from Zuccotti Park up the road.
The protection against The People has turned the Bull into the perfect forward base for whoever is after them now. Just how many henchpeople does this Luigi guy have? And what the hell are they doing with MANPADs, instead of normal, all-American small arms?
And how did this army know just where to set up shop? It’s almost like someone radioed ahead.
“Are these guys squatting on our comms system?” Natasha shouts once Clint is close enough to hear, proving that great minds do think alike, even as a small grenade reduces a nearby oak tree to splinters. “They must have known we were headed this way!”
“Oh God,” moans the guy she helps over the park fence, over and over like a broken record as she herds him to the relative shelter of the statue and pushes his head down. His jeans, scruffy trainers, bright red parka, and an obviously - terribly - handmade, orange-striped woollen hat spell unlucky average Joe in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Clint doesn’t manage to catch up to them before gunfire erupts again. He dives to the right and into the recessed entrance of a HSBC bank.
“Barton!” Sitwell’s voice joins the racket.
“Providing civilian aid,” Clint reports. Fuck SHIELD’s trust issues, he’s got problems of his own. “Comms possibly compromised,” he adds before yanking out his earpiece and tossing it aside.
He sticks his head out long enough to establish the situation: his partner and the civilian have conquered yet another barrier and are crouching beneath the privates of a giant bronze bull. On the other side the mafia reinforcements are massing, although Natasha’s shots between the statue’s legs are causing them difficulties. At the other end of Bowling Green Park shots are being fired from and between the Secret Service and their original pursuers - tenacious dicks, those - and a swarm of police cars is forming ranks by the metro station.
What this calls for is the classic arrow.
He shoots out at least two tires per NYPD vehicle first, encouraging them to stay put and keep their heads down. Next up is the legs of the few of Luigi’s men who’ve braved the bullets from the Service to edge into the park, skirting the blast zone of Clint’s earlier explosive. Their friends hesitate to follow and leave them where they fall, arrows sticking out of their appendages, probably deciding it’s beyond time for their reinforcements to take over.
Speaking of, there’s two trying to sidle around the side of the bull and its barriers to reach Natasha. It’s like maybe they don’t think Clint’s a threat where he’s positioned.
He smiles as he draws back his bow.
One, two arrows hit the statue’s flank and are deflected off, burying themselves in his targets.
“Got your right,” he calls out to Natasha, whose acknowledgement is to start firing around the left side of the bull.
Woolly Hat Man, to his credit, belly-crawls the few feet to one of the downed mafia goons Clint took out and liberates a gun for himself. He’s not a great shot, but at this point every little helps.
“This shit is fucked up,” he yells. “We got a right to peaceful protest!”
It’s kind of funny that he would believe the guys with guns and grenades are in any way associated with the ones who put up barriers around a bit of a grass and a statue, but also kind of sad that the state of the country is such that he thinks that’s even a possibility.
The sound of a chopper cuts through the wail of sirens and gunfire. Clint looks up. The thing is still far away, but it looks like standard S.H.I.E.L.D. issue, minus the markings.
“Whaddya know. We’re getting evac!”
Of course, nothing is ever easy. The latest platoon of goons is now firmly ensconced behind the barricaded bull, making the only possible landing pad for the chopper about as safe as Omaha Beach - for Clint and Natasha as well as for the incoming cavalry.
“Clint! Clear it!” Natasha grabs the civilian by the back of his coat and drags him away from the bull as Clint obediently dials up Hell’s Fury from his quiver.
The next few seconds are a blur as he breaks cover to get the best shot, Natasha’s bullets cutting in front of him like a shield as he fires into the centre of the barricades where the bull’s ass and tail are sticking up. Adrenaline being a wonderful thing, he doesn’t feel the bullet grazing his right shoulder; all he sees and feels is the power of the explosion, bodies being flung in the air and glass windows of the surrounding buildings bursting inwards.
He hits the deck and Natasha, already down, crawls to meet him. She eyes the melted piece of metal, so far beyond recognition it’s a whole new piece of modern art.
“I think it’s dead,” she tells him.
“You’re not upset, right?” Clint says, reaching out to check her for injuries, starting with where there’s blood on her face. “I’m pretty sure as a communist you’re supposed to hate symbols of capitalism.”
“Yes, I’m thrilled that you did this for me,” Natasha says sarcastically. She rolls her eyes and grabs his wrists, holding him still. “Stop it, you idiot, you’re the one that’s been shot.”
He looks up at her, mouth twisting into a grin, and tries, “Happy Valentine’s Day?”
“Really,” Natasha says flatly. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Um, you can have my hat if you like,” her civilian offers, holding it out. Close up, he only looks young. “To stop the bleeding?”
Clint most definitely does not want a woolly hat that’s been god knows where getting lint in his shoulder wound. Thankfully the moment is interrupted by the descending helicopter.
“Get in,” he hears Hill’s voice over the roar of the blades; she doesn’t have to ask twice.
Natasha pushes the guy towards the Agent leaning out, hand outstretched, and then helps Clint on board.
As the chopper lifts up with the door still open and him and Natasha barely hanging on, Clint can see a group of Secret Service agents trying to figure out where and what the enemy is - even as the remains of the Wall Street bull lurches over on its side and collapses into a heap of congealed scrap metal.
“All agents accounted for and on board,” Maria Hill reports, “accompanied by male civilian. GSW to Agent Barton, patient stable. Hill out.”
“But what about - ”
Maria cuts Sitwell off, flipping the external comms to silent. She looks at the pilot meaningfully and he nods once in acknowledgement before focussing on his job in a manner that proves he knows when to play deaf.
In the bay Romanoff has got the doors shut and Khatri is done seeing to Barton - the white field dressings stark against his dark, filthy clothing - and is now checking over their wide-eyed tag-along. Maria places him in his mid-twenties, if that, and judging by the smell he’s been sleeping rough without access to a shower for a while. He looks a bit confused, but happy that he’s no longer being shot at.
She waits until Khatri looks up and registers the patient as fine then tells her to close her ears for a bit.
“Ignorance is bliss.”
Khatri rolls her eyes, but she ensures the civilian is strapped in securely before removing her headset, clipping it to her belt, and busying herself with tidying the medical kit.
Romanoff has a headset on already - funny when she’d been so quick to lose her earpiece. She sits down next to Barton, where he’s slumped down on one of the row of side seats with his eyes closed, and settles an additional pair over his ears.
Hill turns to their civilian problem, who looks up at her with wide eyes from beneath his ridiculous woollen hat and the chopper headset that he’s jammed over the top.
“Just a quick question,” she assures him, then goes in for the kill. “What do you think being whisked off by government agents in a black helicopter will do to your street cred?”
Mr Wool Hat pales a little.
“Emm...” he manages.
“What I thought.” Hill nods. “So let’s keep this evening’s adventures just between us, shall we?”
He nods eagerly, mirroring her, but then appears to reconsider.
“That bull, though,” he says. “Can I tell my friends about the bull?”
Maria glares at him sternly.
"You want to tell people that you’re an accessory to the destruction of what's been called 'one of the most recognizable images of New York' and a 'Wall Street icon'?"
"We are the ninety-nine percent," Barton chimes in cheerfully, giving the civilian an encouraging thumbs up.
Maria very carefully does not react, but Romanoff huffs in amusement.
“I suppose you can tell your friends in Zuccotti Park that it’s gone,” she says, after a moment’s consideration. “Let the news spread from there.”
If the Occupy movement wants to implicate themselves, far be it for her to stop them.
Maria removes the protester’s headset, accidentally taking his hat with it, and ignores him when he opens his mouth to complain. He’s lucky to be alive and already believes the Government is evil. And besides, it’s only for a moment - a moment in which Barton and Romanoff are the recipients of her undivided attention.
“Would someone like to explain how you were made and how this mission became such a fiasco?”
“Alternatively,” Romanoff says, “we were set up from the beginning by someone wanting to take us out. It was almost like someone was listening to our every move.”
“You have facts to support that?” Maria checks.
Romanoff crosses one leg over the other and smiles as if she was taking afternoon tea in a stately home, not taking part in a quick and dirty debrief on a chopper.
“We provide facts, someone else provides alternative facts, add a dose of paranoia… The truth isn't all things to all people all of the time."
Maria wants to argue that facts and truth aren't the same thing, but she knows how the Black Widow can twist things and she has the sneaking suspicion that if she goes down that rabbit hole she'll end up on Romanoff's side of the argument. No, better not to get into any kind of debate.
“You have the comms records.” Barton lists towards Romanoff and sighs. “You can figure it out from there.”
“According to Sitwell’s report, you removed your ear pieces.”
“Faulty equipment - ” Romanoff starts.
“Distracting? To life endangering degrees?” Barton suggest.
“- was disposed of.”
Maria pinches the bridge of her nose and closes her eyes, just for a brief moment.
“We’ll fill out the forms,” Barton adds helpfully. “ML-54, loss of government property in the line of duty? I know all about that one.”
Maria shoves the civilian’s hat and borrowed headpiece back at him and walks away, returning to the cockpit to give the pilot instructions to make a stop-off in Central Park. The civilian can walk home to his tent people from there; S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a taxi service.
They’ve just taken off again when the external comms light starts flashing an angry red, signalling a priority call from the Director’s office.
“I just got off the phone with the head of the goddamn Secret Service,” he barks down the line. “Something about a major gunfight while the President was munching on canapes. During which someone apparently killed the Wall Street Bull. They want to know if we know anything. Tell me we don’t know anything, Hill.”
The force of his voice would be enough to melt whatever remains of the bull into a puddle, but Maria prides herself on being made of sterner stuff.
“Sir, the problem is that the presence of two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents at the site of the incident is on the record, thanks to Sitwell’s idea that a running commentary from Clint Barton would somehow be a gift to humanity.”
It could have been worse, of course. Sitwell could have asked Barton and Romanoff to liveblog the whole mission on Twitter. Small mercies and all that.
The gravel in Fury’s voice flattens to asphalt.
"Make it go away, Hill. I don't care how or what you do. Just make sure that whatever record there is, the Council won’t be able to claim that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top agents triggered a recession by melting down some tacky bronze cow."
Maria makes a few quick calculations. If there's one thing she's always excelled at it’s thinking on her feet.
“No, sir. They won’t. I have it on good authority that the Occupy movement were planning a demonstration in Bowling Green park; the MTA closed down the Metro station as a precaution. Things escalated when the Secret Service started shooting. At civilians, sir. Ask your contact whether they want that to be front page news tomorrow.”
She pauses for breath and takes Fury’s silence as encouragement.
“We can’t say just how the bull got destroyed, sir, but if we were to tip off the New York Post, I’m sure they’ll find victory celebrations in Zuccotti Park.”
“I looked it up,” Tony announces to the main rec room few days later, after letting enough time lapse that the assassin twins won’t think they’d gotten to him with their Bowling Green mindfuckery. At least not enough that he’d rushed to research the Wall Street news straight away.
“Did you use the Google?” Steve says from the kitchen area, where Natasha is apparently educating him in the use of the Nespresso machine.
Tony side-eyes him. The good Captain is wearing his Angelic Face Of Innocence, but Tony knows he’s being fucked with. By the guy currently being taught how to make coffee. Who is still wearing the bruises from the last time he didn’t know what was going on.
Clint also knows, if the snickering from where he’s once again lounging on the sofa is anything to go by.
Tony flicks Cap the bird and stalks over to Clint.
"What did you do to Wall Street? Do you have a thing against people with money? Because I hate to break it to you, but this is the lap of luxury you're living in right now. The very heart of free enterprise."
Tony waves a lazy hand around the room, taking in the expensive - and tasteful, Pepper assures him - surroundings.
“And I’m enjoying occupying it immensely,” says Clint, the little shit.
Tony moves to stand directly in front of him, blocking his view of the television - which is playing, God, is that a Robin Hood movie?
“The ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ file refers to ‘fake news’, but the only news is about Occupy protesters destroying that damn bull. Which I checked,” he says, hands on his hips. “They put it behind barricades for three years so no one could get at the thing, but then they took them down and it’s still there.”
Clint stretches his legs out, crossing them at the ankle, tucks his hands behind his head, and grins up at him.
“Fascinating. Do continue.”
Tony glares at him, ignoring the laughter from the kitchen area.
“The Bowling Green in New York, that's bullshit. As in, no bulls were destroyed in the making of this story. What’re you covering up with that bit of fake news? A real, secret carnage in Bowling Green, Kentucky? What?”
“Fake news?” Steve pipes up, ignoring the rest of Tony’s impassioned speech, because of course.
“News that's not genuine,” Natasha tells him, finishing making herself a cup of tea now that Steve has achieved coffee. “An imitation or counterfeit, a hoax.”
“Yes, thank you Merriam-Webster,” Tony says, rolling his eyes.
Steve taste tests the result of his Nespresso machine adventure and smiles, looking the happiest Tony has seen him since his release from the hospital.
Then, proving that however much he smiles, however fast his bruises heal, Captain America still can't escape his war, he adds, “You mean like propaganda? The Nazis were really good at that. You think maybe Hydra …?”
Clint sits up abruptly, as if something has just occurred to him. He looks over at Natasha, an unreadable expression on his face, and says, “Well, Sitwell was in charge of that Op.”
Tony follows his line of sight only to see Natasha giving a small nod in response and then returning to serenely drinking her tea. To his great irritation Steve also shakes his head and sighs, like he's in on it.
“What?” Tony demands. He hates it when they use nothing but shorthand and facial expressions. “Speak English, not assassin.”
Maria Hill clears her throat. How long she’s been standing in the doorway, Tony has no idea; spies are sneaky people. He’s still not quite sure how or why he agreed to her joining Stark Industries, but here she is.
“Fallaces sunt rerum species et hominum spes fallunt,” she says. “‘The appearances of things are deceptive and the hopes of men are deceived’. Seneca. Let it go, Stark. We live in a post-factual world.”
Tony throws his hands up in the air.
“English, I said, not Latin. And are you quoting Romanoff now, or is that some kind of S.H.I.E.L.D. mantra? Have you - ”
“I think what she means,” Steve interrupts him with a frown, “is that there are facts, and then there are things that appear to be facts but aren't. Which isn’t anything new.”
He looks into the depths of his coffee like it might reveal the answers to everything if only he stares hard enough.
“People have been lying for a long time and some of them are very good at it. Maybe one day the rest of us will get better at spotting it and doing something about it.”
“Like tearing down an agency so you can start over,” Clint says flippantly, earning the attention of everyone in the room. He holds his hands up. “What? Someone had to say it.”
Natasha glares at him, but Steve just smiles ruefully.
Tony looks from one of his so-called teammates to the other. How are you supposed to live and work with people if you don’t know their lies?
One day he’ll find out about that stupid bull. He shrugs, not in defeat but in defiance.
He collapses onto the sofa next to Clint and plonks his feet on the coffee table, red and gold patterned socks right next to Clint’s Archers Do It With A Recurve mug.
“So. What the hell happened in Budapest?”