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From Fire by Fire

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PART THIRTEEN

"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?”

- T.S. Eliot

 

(After)

I am twenty-nine, and I hold my father’s hand.

The doctors and nurses come and go, other patients and their visitors pass at the open door, but I don’t have eyes for anyone else. I tell him about Prague, about the man who died by my hand five months ago, and his expression hardens. “I wanted you to have a normal life,” he says, pained.

“What’s normal?” I ask, laughing humorlessly. “I promised that I was going to kill him. I told him to his face. You wouldn’t want me to be a liar, would you?”

He’s silent for a long time. Finally: “Why now?”

I look at my father. He is in his sixties and they say sixty is the new forty, but he has traveled a harder road than most. “It really started after Sasha was born,” I admit. “I couldn’t stop thinking about people coming for her, people like him, because of who she was.” The nightmares were always the same: the house burning, my sister in the arms of a gray-eyed monster. “When I found out about Marisol,” I continue, putting my free hand on my stomach, “it was like I was… possessed. I thought, what if she’s like me. What if they find out about her?”

His fingers tighten around mine. “Artemiev wasn’t a threat. Not anymore.”

“No,” I admit. “But there are others. There’s always others. I wanted to send them a message.”

There’s movement at the door, and Howie pokes his head into the room. His familiar dark eyes and freckled face are comforting. “Your mom’s here,” he tells me quietly.

Dad’s eyes brighten. “What about your girlfriend?”

“Uh…” Howie runs a hand over his face, trying to hide the inevitable blush. We’ve all been pretending not to know about him and Sasha – the family connections made it a little awkward – but the time for feigned ignorance is past. “I think she’s working… you know how bad she is about keeping her phone on…”

“Did you try Kate’s?”

Now it’s my turn to look surprised. “You know?” I blurt.

“Of course I know,” Dad says, sounding both amused and annoyed.

A voice on the PA pages Dr. Stark, and Howie is so relieved at the interruption that he breaks into a grin. “Saved by the bell,” he quips, vanishing, leaving my father and me staring at each other in an empty room.

“She made me promise not to tell,” I say. “She thought you’d worry.”

“I’d worry if the two of you were accountants or school teachers or dentists. It’s my job,” he says gently, squeezing my hand one more time as he stands. “Angel’s probably wearing a hole in the waiting room floor. I’ll go get him.”

He kisses my cheek and leaves, and I fold both hands across my belly. Any time now, I think, feeling the start of another contraction. I’m scared as hell, mostly, but a small part of me is unspeakably relieved that I’ll be bringing my daughter into a world with no Christopher Artemiev in it.

 

(48)

They leave the BMW in a casino parking lot and walk back to the cache. There are a few other pedestrians sharing the sidewalk with them; tourists getting an early start – although most of them are headed east, towards the Strip – as well as bleary-eyed gamblers who haven’t yet seen their beds and long-suffering Vegas natives just trying to get to work. Clint knows there aren’t as many surveillance cameras here, away from the main veins and arteries of the bustling cities, but he avoids walking in front of ATMs and through busy intersections whenever possible. Sometimes he tells Julie to walk ahead of him, especially when she can insinuate herself into a group of children.

The cell phone weighs heavily in his pocket, a loadstone dragging him down. He wants it to ring, and yet he’s terrified of who might be on the other end. He knows he should call Stark or Steve or someone, but the uncertainty – of their reaction, of his, of what he might learn – keeps him from doing what he knows he should. Not yet. Not yet. Wait until we’re off the street.

At any moment he expects a police car to roll to a stop alongside them. He tries to plan ahead, to think through his options, but the truth is that they’re nearly nonexistent. If the authorities are looking for Julie, they’ll stop him, search him, and take him into custody. They’ll find his weapons and other gear. They’ll link him to the fire in the desert and the dead bodies, charge him with murder and arson and God knows what else, and in the meantime Julie will disappear into the system. It’d be the next-best thing to handing her up to their enemies on a silver platter.

We should never have left the storage unit, he thinks, watching the faces of passersby for undue interest. I should have gone out alone and got what we needed and made her stay there, out of sight, until I’d figured out what to do. I wasn’t thinking straight. But who would have thought the cops would get involved so quickly?

The storage center is on a quiet side-street. The front office is flanked by four long two-story windowless buildings, all painted the same desert-beige, with barrel-tile roofs in need of repair, hunkered in the shadow of a three-floor medical diagnostic center to the east. The storage office won’t be manned until nine, but customers are given a code to operate the front gate and the entry doors after-hours… a must-have for Clint when he’d been shopping around for a place a decade ago.

The stairwell of Building C is cool, with a musty smell that brings back faded memories of the night before: stumbling up these steps, barely conscious, with a pajama-clad Julie in his wake. Not his finest moment, really. If Julie’s thoughts run along the same lines, she’s circumspect enough – for once – not to mention it.

Each unit features a rolling metal door, painted a garish orange, with an electronic lock. “Déjà vu,” says Julie, looking up at the door. “Now what?”

Clint hesitates. If that really was Natasha he’d talked to a few hours ago, if she’s okay, then she’ll know where to find them. But that’s two too-many ‘ifs’ for his liking, and if it comes down to choosing either the Avengers or the ‘proper authorities’ to look after the girl, there’s really no contest. Stark’s fame and money will keep Lycaon away, and the other guys seem like maybe they’d be good with kids, given a chance…

“You’re going to go inside,” he tells Julie, setting down his bag. “You’re going to stay away from the guns and… well, just try not to touch anything for five minutes.”

Her eyes narrow. “Where are you going?”

“Just the roof,” he assures her. “Just to make a phone call. To the other Avengers. You know, the ones with superpowers.”

He tries to smile. She doesn’t buy it. He expects her to ask why didn’t you call them last night and if he’s honest he’ll have to say because I wasn’t sure if I could trust them and if she asks so what changed all he’ll be able to tell her is things are more desperate now than they were eight hours ago. But she doesn’t say anything, as though they’ve already had this conversation without his knowing it, as though she’d extracted the truth from his mind. He crouches down. “Listen, kid, the thing is… I thought I could do this on my own. I thought I had to.  It’s been… it’s been a rough couple of days for me, too,” he confesses. “But I’m out of my element here, and we need to trust someone.”

She looks back at him levelly, watching him with those cool gray eyes. Maybe most kids would be beside themselves at the prospect of meeting Iron Man or Captain America, but she understands what he isn’t saying. There are no guarantees. He’s promised to take care of her, but he’s only one man. He can’t even control lightning or turn himself green.

“I trust you,” she says finally. “Do what you think is right.”

He feels an unexpected surge of gratitude as he rises to his feet, a complicated tangle of emotion that tightens in his throat as he punches in the code, reaches down, turns the lock and pulls up the door. It rattles loudly in its frame, and it’s only at its apex, in the sudden silence, that Clint hears it: the muffled echo of footfalls in the stairwell behind them.

“Go,” he tells Julie sharply, and she scampers inside without a word, into that nest of weapons and old clothes and fake IDs that’s the best safety he can offer her. He yanks down on the door; he sees her turn to watch as that bright orange barrier falls between them: a flash of auburn hair, a clenched fist, one sneakered toe.

He engages the lock, straightens, resets the keypad, turns, reaches for his gun, and something hard and hot punches through his shoulder. He falls hard back against the rolling door, as though pinned to it like an insect, and feels the handgun tumble from his nerveless fingers.

 

(49)

The moment Stark ends his call with Cap, JARVIS chimes in with his own news. He’s traced Clint’s cell phone to a motel in Vegas, but the cops are already there and Clint and the girl have disappeared. Stark mutters something dark and uncomplimentary about pain in the ass small-town detectives but Natasha shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, feeling hopeful for the first time in days. “I think I know where he is.”

*

The storage is quiet and still, shaded from the rising sun by a taller building. No pedestrians. Just a few passing cars. No police.

They park on the street, and Stark hesitates before opening the door. Natasha can see him thinking about his suit, folded neatly away in the backseat, and of how much attention it would attract. “Do you want to stay in the car?” she asks sweetly, and he shoots her a nasty look.

An electronic metal gate sits a few yards from the sidewalk, plastered with warnings about trespassing and cameras and unauthorized personnel. Under different circumstances, Natasha might have enjoyed scaling the fence, leaving Stark behind to hack the lock – it doesn’t hurt to occasionally remind the guy that he’s human, after all – but her impatience to get inside overrides her desire to teach lessons in humility. She punches in the code and the gate swings open.

They pass the dark and shuttered front office, an open Dumpster, a forklift and a stack of pallets – all silent, all motionless, and yet somehow also vaguely threatening. Every empty space is a hideaway, every piece of equipment a potential weapon. Natasha draws her firearm; Stark grimaces, but remains silent as she raises three fingers with her free hand and points. The third building.

She doesn’t have to tell him to stay behind her.

Lanes separate each of the four long structures, each wide enough to accommodate trucks as well as a variety of moving equipment. Every block of units has elevators with which to access the second floor, but Natasha moves towards a side door marked STAIRS.

She pulls the door open, steps in fast and low with weapon drawn, and by the fitfully-flickering light of a florescent panel she spots the Sig Sauer. The 40-cal lies on the floor, not far from the booted toe of a man dressed all in black, who sees her through the eye holes in his balaclava. He gasps something unintelligible – maybe an exclamation of surprise, maybe a whole-hearted plea for help – and then his eyes dim as he slips into unconsciousness.

The second man, dressed in a dark but dusty suit, releases his chokehold – the masked victim tumbles to the ground with a graceless thud – and looks up into the barrel of Natasha’s Glock.

White male, late-forties, hazel eyes, sandy hair, tanned skin, a five-o-clock shadow at six in the morning: Natasha shuffles through the pictures in her mind, decides this man is a stranger… and yet it seems somehow that she should know him. And it definitely seems, as he raises his empty hands, palms toward her, that there is a flicker of recognition in his eyes – recognition, wariness, and something else she can’t put her finger on.

“Agent Bernhardt,” drawls Stark, joining the strange tableau in the stairwell and closing the door behind them. “Fancy meeting you here.”

A wry half-smile tilts up one corner of the suited man’s mouth. “Mr. Stark. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Agent Bernhardt?” demands Natasha. “You’re SHIELD?”

“FBI,” says Bernhardt. “I have my identification in my pocket, if you’d…” he wriggles his fingers.

Natasha shakes her head, motioning that Bernhardt should move towards the other side of the stairwell, and covers him while Stark checks on the man in the balaclava. “Alive. I think. No ID.” He scoops up the Sig and strips off the stranger’s mask. “Anyone you know?”

“No,” says Natasha, turning back to Bernhardt. “You’re looking for the girl, aren’t you?”

“I didn’t know anything about a girl until Detective Avraham issued that BOLO,” the man replies, which is a total non-answer.

“You told me you were looking for Fisher,” says Stark. He looks a little ill at ease with the Sig in his hand, as though he’d give anything to trade it for a repulsor beam. “She’s dead, and you’re here. Without backup, apparently. It’s kind of weird, Chuck, I’ve gotta tell you.”

Bernhardt clenches his jaw and lets his hands drop to his sides. “You really want to stand here discussing this?” He gestures rudely to the unconscious man. “Do you have any idea who he’s working for?”

“Yes,” says Natasha coolly, thinking about her conversation with Steve, Agent Hill… and Agent Park. “We do.”

 

(50)

At first, in the haze of pain, the voices around him don’t even seem to be speaking English.

I really hate getting shot.

Clint’s on the ground. His temple throbs where it hit… something. The wall, or the floor, or someone’s boot, or all three. His left shoulder is on fire and his arm is like lead, a heavy, numb thing lying by his side, and the smell of blood is heavy on the air. Rough hands brusquely pat him down, roll him onto his side, let him fall back. He cracks one eyelid and the panels of florescent lights overhead sear his vision.

He knows he could be on his feet in a few seconds, but he’d be unsteady and unarmed, and the forest of booted feet and black legs that surrounds him argues for staying where he is and feigning unconsciousness. He’s alive, and right now alive is the only way he can be of any use to the girl on the other side of that rolling door.

Unless, of course, they intend to try and torture the code out of him.

But no, he’s forgotten he’s living in the twenty-first century now, and if he’d been able to fool a high-security lab’s super-advanced retinal scanner while under Loki’s control, these guys will be able to bypass a simple electronic lock in no time flat.

Should’ve shot up the keypad.

Words filter through his pounding skull. English words, distorted by pain and by accents. Dispose. Cameras. Airport. Paid. They make sense in isolation if not in context. He hears find again and again, until he’s not sure it isn’t just an echo in his head. Find find find.

He dares another peek. Masked faces stare down at him, and eyes meet his through the holes in a mask. Lips and tongue and teeth move, issue a command. Something crashes into the side of his head, and he blacks out for real this time.

*

“…led us here… distraction…”

He’s vertical now. Kind of. Propped up against a wall. Hands tied behind his back, blood slippery on his fingers, and his shoulder burns like the muscles are ripping apart. Nothing compares to his skull, though. He didn’t even feel this bad after Nat beat the shit out of him on the Carrier. He’s afraid to open his eyes, afraid to lift his head, afraid the light and motion will make him puke all over himself like a freshman at a frat house.

Ought to have listened to the doc about wearing that helmet.

One eye. One eye should be safe. Left eye. Right won’t open anyway. Swollen shut. Caked with blood.

He’s inside the unit, leaning against the back wall. Still wearing his jacket, which is a good sign; they’d been careless while frisking him. The big rolling door’s still up, and a guy in combat gear – P90 on a strap, Sig in his hands, face covered – is standing guard in the threshold.

Two other men are inside the unit, their masks rolled up onto their foreheads, dressed for combat in black tac gear and high-collared ballistic vests. One of the guys is white, maybe European, with the type of big-nosed profile they used to stamp on coins. The other man is black, older, grimmer.

I know you…

Around them, the place is trashed. Cabinet doors ajar, contents spilling out: first aid kit, meal bars, bottled water. Trunk overturned, clothes strewn haphazardly, but the weapons, the vest, anything with tactical significance has been carefully stacked up on the other side of the unit.

No sign of Julie.

“…haven’t heard from DeGrasse… contact with Fisher…”

Clint looks up and feels an insane burble of laughter building up in his throat. For a moment he thinks its going to come along with a chaser of vomit, but he swallows back the nausea. “Fisher,” he murmurs. His own voice is like a full-on brass band playing the 1812 Overture between his ears, but at least he can still talk.

The two men walk up to him. The black guy looks pissed, but it’s the other one who bends down and jams the barrel of a pistol beneath Clint’s chin. It’s still warm from the last time it was fired. “Where’s the kid, shithead?”

Clint can barely swallow with the gun pressed into his larynx, but he can still laugh again. So he does. “Doesn’t matter if you find her,” he says thickly, ignoring the boom-boom-boom of his heartbeat in his temples. “Fisher’s dead.”

There’s a moment of silence, as though these two full-grown men need some time to analyze the complexity of those words. Then Big Nose lets loose with a string of epithets, digs the barrel in one last time, and stands, turning to scowl at his buddy. The older man hardly seems to see him – his eyes are both hard and thoughtful, examining Clint as though considering the likelihood that he’s just having his chain yanked – finally pulling a cell out of his pocket and tossing it to Big Nose. “Go outside, call DeGrasse. Tell him where we are.” His voice is accented. British? No, not exactly…

“Maybe he did it,” offers Clint. He wants their eyes and their attention on him, not thinking about where the girl could be, not looking around the room. His lower lip is fat, his words slurred, but the important thing is to keep talking. “DeGrasse. Maybe he killed her ‘n split town. She’s not ’n easy person t’deal with. I speak from experience. But you know, right, Keyes? It is Keyes, isn’t it?”

But the bodyguard – or whatever he really is – doesn’t respond. He watches as Big Nose walks out of the unit, phone in hand, and stands in the middle of the unit with his arms crossed. He appears deep in thought, or perhaps trying to regain a sense of calm and control. Finally he speaks, his voice heavy with what might be genuine regret. “Fisher was problematic. But her research could have saved many lives.”

“Think you mean destroyed. She was a psychotic bitch and you know it.”

“Which was exactly why she needed to be on a short leash,” says Keyes, in a tone that implies he doesn’t disagree. “I can keep people like her and Artemiev under control. I can focus their talents towards the greater good.”

Clint snorts. It makes his face hurt. “Greater good? Really? That’s what you’re going with?”

“Nick Fury and his allies are obsessed with the unknowable,” Keyes continues. “Cosmic cubes and roads to other worlds and alien overlords. And yet he’s as aware as I that the means to humanity’s destruction have been in humanity’s hands for a very long time. When I was imprisoned I felt sure that was the end of it, that the world would collapse in on itself long before I ever breathed free air again. But I was reprieved, because there are others who understand.”

Now Clint elects to hold his silence. If this guy really wants to monologue, he can do so in the strictest sense of the word.

“They understand what the Soviets understood,” says Keyes, “that the threat is already here, that it is all around us, that we must secure our own shores before foolishly opening unknown doors onto the universe at large.” He pulls his Sig from its leg holster; dangling near Clint’s eye-level, through a haze of pain and adrenaline, the barrel looks as big as a God-damned cannon. “It’s a waste, if you’re telling the truth, if Fisher’s dead, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. There are others who can train the girl, and those who will come after. It won’t be the same, but it will be a start.”

“You’re not getting your hands on her,” says Clint. “What’s Plan B?”

Gunfire seems to erupt all around him, and for an instant Clint knows that Plan B must involve him dying, even though they still don’t have the kid, but almost simultaneously he realizes that it’s only a trick of concrete acoustics, because the armored man standing guard in the doorway drops like a sack of potatoes. As the last echoes of the shot die away, as the masked guard’s weapon falls from his lifeless hands, a voice rings out. “FBI!”

 

(51)

The man called Keyes, called John, known by a dozen monikers by assets in a dozen nations, once named Johan Sleutels but born Janos Roeske in a hospital in Pretoria more than fifty years ago, is not afraid of the FBI. He does not fear any legitimate authority, because he knows from hard experience how easily the power of authority can be mired in bureaucracy. His identification will proclaim that he has diplomatic immunity, his allies will come to his aid, and – should he be taken into custody – he will be a free man before the end of this day. An annoyance, an inconvenience, but ultimately not fatal to the mission.

What concerns Janos is that, according to his naive contact at the NSA, the FBI has yet to assign an agent to the matter of either the missing child or the erstwhile Fisher Institute. Something about agencies squabbling over jurisdiction. Bureaucracy.

So the man who shouts “FBI!” can not be from the FBI at all, and that is enough to give Janos pause. The Sig in his hand feels comforting, but also heavier than it ought.

Did the voice come from the direction of the stairs, or the elevators? Either way, the intruder should never have made it this far, should have encountered either Pryor or Kozel covering the entrances, and considering the distances involved in either direction certainly should not have been able to take out Davis with a single headshot. The presence of the uncanny, even in such limited quantities, turns his stomach, makes him think Avengers, but the Avengers are all lights and bluster and brute force. Sound and fury signifying… well, not nothing, but nothing like this.

The man calls again. “Step out of the unit with your hands on your head!”

It’s been some time since Janos has been really, properly in the field, but he thinks he’s pegged the direction of the voice. From the left. The stairs. So Pryor has been neutralized.

Lazarri would have taken the elevator down to make his phone call, but eventually he will return, and power will shift again. He needs only to stall the unknown interloper. He steps behind an especially large cabinet on the left side of the room, where he can keep out of sight from anyone who approaches the unit from that direction while also maintaining visual contact with Barton. The bastard is, unfortunately, still their best chance of finding the girl.

“This is the FBI! We know you’re in there, Roeske!”

Surprise catches Janos before the fear can set in, surprise and fear at the sound of his name spoken so casually, a name that has not been his own since his betrayal by the Council. It is a name the FBI could not possibly know…

“I am here!” he bellows back, his body flushing with anger, sweat beading beneath the protective layers of jacket and vest. “But I don’t think I’ll come out just yet! I’ve got company, you understand!”

A pause. Janos imagines a hurried, whispered conference in the hallway. Could he make the doorway, swing around, shoot them while they remain frozen in indecision? The plan seems to have merit, but it’s been too long since he was in the field, too long, and the chance passes while he dithers. “Send the girl out. Then we can talk.”

Janos considers playing along. In a moment Lazarri will finish his phone call with DeGrasse; he will return by the elevator, the doors will open… if he is not prepared to engage the faux-FBI, at least he will provide the distraction Janos requires. Real agents might balk at the idea of storming around a blind corner into a concrete box where a child might be present in the line of fire, but Janos’s instincts tell him that, whoever this man is, he has no connection to the federal government. “I don’t have any girls at the moment, I’m afraid. I do have a man, though. He’s been wounded. We can barter for him, if you like.”

 

(52)

Stark, covering the stairwell door at their backs with the purloined Sig and looking entirely out of his element doing it, says, “You know, I could go downstairs, get the suit, be back in two minutes, tops…”

Natasha responds by stepping down hard on his right instep; Stark grits his teeth and mutters something that sounds like practically naked and prehensile suit but then, thankfully, shuts up.

Yes, in retrospect Iron Man might have come in handy in this situation, but there’s no time to reset the board.

The open door is nearly twenty yards from where they stand, hunkered down in a perfect concrete kill-box. She can see the black-clad body sprawled on the ground, and she’s not sure what’s more surprising: that this supposed federal agent was so happy to shoot first and identify himself later, or that he’d been able to drop the armored hostile with a single headshot. Men like him were supposed to be trained to go for center mass.

Bernhardt calls out “FBI!” and the creep shouts back, but there is no rush of triumph at having him cornered. There is a stairwell door at their backs and another at the far end of the hallway, and somewhere in between the door to an elevator that at any moment could open to admit a swarm of men in black with deadly weaponry and no qualms about using it.

“I do have a man, though. He’s been wounded. We can barter for him, if you like.”

Bernhardt glances at her – does he look alarmed? – and Natasha makes her move. Silently down the hallway, each foot precisely placed, no scuff or scrape of shoe leather, no movement that is not strictly necessary, her Glock a cool weight in her hands, her heart pounding in anticipation of what she might find.

At the edge of the open doorway she stops. She can only see a fraction of the storage unit from this angle – an open trunk, scattered clothing – and the hostile will be on the other side, waiting for her to step out, to expose herself as an easy target. If she had all of her gear, she’d have a modified flash-bang or smoke grenade or some other trick up her sleeve, but at the moment all she has is her gun and her wits.

So she goes in low and she goes in fast, sidestepping the dead man on the ground, watching for movement, waiting for the kiss of hot metal, dropping her shoulder in a controlled tumble to foil her enemy’s aim, but the expected shot does not come.

She looks into the unit and sees why.

Roeske – or Keyes, or whatever he’s calling himself – is half-hidden behind a large metal cabinet. She can see part of his face, his shoulder, his arm in the harsh florescent light, and she can see the gun that is pointed at Clint.

He’s on the ground, arms wrenched behind his back, blood dripping sullenly from one jacketed elbow, legs splayed out as though he’s forgotten exactly how they work. His lip is split and one eye nearly swollen shut, caked with blood, but the other eye is alert and watchful. He sees her and his body convulses in a brief, full-body spasm, as though he has touched a live wire, and she wonders if the madness is taking over him again, if he’s already forgetting who the real enemy is.

Keep it together, Clint.

“You,” says Roeske, his visible eye bright with interest, one half of his mouth twitching into a wry smile. She knows Bernhardt and Stark are approaching but doesn’t dare look away, doesn’t dare. “You know, if I’d had you, so much of this would have been unnecessary.”

Natasha suppresses a shudder. She doesn’t know this man, but she knows that look, that tone. She saw it in the eyes of the doctors and the generals: that avarice, that grasping claim of ownership that goes beyond carnal desire, and she has no doubt that she is speaking to Lycaon. “You told Fisher and Witten where to find me.” The trees are a green and brown blur as the chopper falls, falls…

The gun-hand does not waver, and the half-seen smile is fixed. “It was a show of good faith. A demonstration of my influence. She wanted revenge. He wanted… well.” Roeske shrugs as though to say what every man wants. “I thought it would be interesting to see if they could improve upon perfection.” He shakes his head. “Obviously, they couldn’t.”

Natasha has met those enamored of the Red Room, but few of them were ever in positions of power and influence. Knowing that this cretin had once sat on the Council – where the decision to fire a nuke at Manhattan could be made in one moment and, in the next, all responsibility for that decision evaded, all evidence erased – leaves her both sickened and incensed. “So you decided to start abducting little girls?”

“Soldiers are fine for muscle, but their ways are set. Their minds are closed.” He gestures dismissively at Clint as he says it, as a rich child might regard a broken toy. “Children are our future, Natasha. Great minds have always said as much.”

He’s stalling. She doesn’t know what he’s waiting for, but it’s nothing good, nothing she wants to hang around to see.

Options are limited. One entrance. No windows, no passable ventilation. She could shoot his exposed arm, but she fears missing that narrow target, fears the inevitable ricochet, fears leaving him another hand with which to pull the trigger. Or she could shoot him through the cabinet, trusting that the bullet, after punching through a few thin layers of metal – and whatever Clint might have squirreled away inside – would still carry enough force to, upon meeting with his vest, foul up his aim.

She chances another look at Clint, wondering if he’s ready to move, wondering if he’s able to move, wondering if he’s already lost it and is about to start ranting about Aten. He looks back at her, bloody and bruised, and he shakes his head, as though to say I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no.

As in, no, don’t come any closer, foul temptress? Or, no, don’t shoot the guy who’s pointing a gun at my chest?

Both possibilities raise their own set of issues.

Bernhardt has sidled up to the other side of the doorway. At her nod, he risks a quick glimpse into the unit; he can’t have seen Roeske from that vantage point, but his face seems to go gray beneath his tan. Stark is still facing back towards the stairwell door, casting worried looks over his shoulder at regular intervals and probably biting the inside of his mouth bloody to keep silent.

Surprisingly, the next person to speak is Clint. His voice is rough with pain and slightly slurred. “Hey… you ever hear what Fisher’s nickname was for you?”

“Lycaon?” Roeske asks, chuckling. There’s more than a little relief in that half-hearted laugh, which only confirms Natasha’s suspicion. He wants to keep us talking. “Yes, I heard about that. Sloane thought herself quite the Greek scholar. The Lycaon of myth… he thought to test the divinity of the gods, you know.”

“He was a sick son of a bitch and a child-killer,” says Clint. “And Zeus kicked his ass.”

And with those words he thrusts his shoulders back against the wall and pushes himself to his feet—

- and from the corner of her eye Natasha sees Bernhardt raise his weapon towards her

- but she’s moving again, low and fast and over the threshold; Roeske’s widening eyes are on Clint, who stumbles forward: handcuffed, bloody, and unarmed –

- Bernhardt’s gun goes off, and the echoes in this concrete tomb make it sound like an artillery barrage, but Natasha doesn’t feel the impact or the pain –

- and now Roeske knows he’s erred, knows that they’ve been jarred out of stasis, knows that from this angle Natasha can make the headshot –

- and she does, and the bastard is knocked back into the wall with a brain full of lead –

- but not before he empties his own clip into Clint’s chest.