We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
M, in “Skyfall”
(Or, if you’re a stickler for these things, Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”)
“For a city that thinks it’s the centre of high snobiety, London sure has a lot of dark alleys.”
Clint’s comment comes as they stare at yet another cavern, under yet another viaduct, where yet another group of homeless people are biding their time in yet another tenement made of cardboard and rags.
“And tell me again why the Brits aren’t chasing this goddamn thing themselves? Right. Never mind. Still licking their wounds and don’t want to hear the show isn’t over yet. Or else they don’t care because so far it’s only been eating in the low-rent district.”
If Natasha were to venture a guess of her own, it’s the latter. Disappearances don’t usually register if no one ever noticed the vanished to begin with.
“Something like that. Just pretend you’re on one of those Jack the Ripper tours in Whitechapel,” she tosses over her shoulder as she steps over the reeking remains of something that may or may not once have been a seagull.
“Hey, not a bad idea, that. We could charge five bucks and sucker some tourists. Probably do better if we had some bait.”
“That’s quid, not bucks,” she corrects him absently. He’s been complaining steadily for quite a while now, more since it’s gotten dark. Natasha has to admit that the urban decay scenario is losing its charm -- their current inspection of a crumbling warehouse has yielded nothing but the stench of stale urine and a rustling of rodents.
“I think our target’s not really a city mouse, or there’d be more sightings. Maybe it lives in the river and comes into town only for snacks."
Natasha shudders a little. Her sense of humour doesn’t really extend to people being eaten by fanged aliens, and that’s twice in the last minute now that he’s gone there. But Clint seems in an arguing mood – so, fine.
“Have you looked at the Thames? And the traffic on it? Based on how big we think that thing is, it would have to be pretty smart to avoid attention.”
“Maybe it is? Smart, I mean?”
She is about to make a retort when a creaky voice comes out from behind a small cardboard fortress.
“Lookin’ for summat?”
Hill’s lecture on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s limited investigative jurisdiction in Britain couldn’t possibly mean they shouldn’t talk to people who strike up a conversation, could it? Natasha heads over to the corner with quick strides, arriving at the same time as Clint who has evidently come to the same conclusion.
“You could say that, yes,” he says. “Big thing, like a lizard, with teeth. You seen anything like that?”
The man’s black, skeletal face and white hair are nearly hidden underneath a filthy woolen cap. In the darkness, almost all that is visible is the white of his eyes – they are clouded with cataracts but still sharp, alert to what matters on the street.
“Y’not coppers, are ya?”
“Nope,” her partner says, “and not Social Services either.”
Under normal circumstances the man might have been content to remain hidden, but the two agents in their tac suits are probably the most interesting thing he’s seen in weeks, especially since Clint has made no effort to conceal his bow and quiver. (“Cosplay,” he’d told a late-night stroller who had catcalled them near London Bridge. “Pretending to be one of those Avenger types.”)
The old man squints up at them from a stained and soiled mattress – his prize possession, judging by the way he clings to it with gnarled hands.
He casts a quick, suspicious glance at Natasha, who is content to look unthreatening and let her partner do the talking. Clint has always had an affinity for those on the margins.
“Not sure. But based on the reports we’ve had, about twice the size of a rhino. Meat eater, fast on its feet. Oh, and my name’s Clint. Clint Barton.”
Clint is smart enough not to mention the CCTV clips that told S.H.I.E.L.D. exactly how big their quarry is; based on his earlier question, their new friend would likely get spooked if he knew they had access to such things. The man keeps his eyes on Clint’s bow as he shakes the offered hand, even as his eyebrows shoot up in surprise at the touch.
Invisible, inaudible, untouchable.
“Tom,” he says, not volunteering a last name. But he has apparently come to a decision about trust.
“Ol’ Ed o’er there,” he points his chin towards a place where a couple of large boxes have been taped together into a crude shelter, “’e says since tha’ mess out east, summat’s been taking street folk. Dunt leave no bones, so the fuzz says ‘e’s makin’ it up. ‘E’s ga-ga, y’see, ol’ Ed.”
His finger does a little circular motion against the side of his head. No need to sift through Cockney speech patterns for that one.
“Maybe he’s not so crazy,” Natasha interjects. “Is Ed home? Can we talk to him?”
Their new acquaintance shrugs.
“’E’s at the mission in Lambeth, I think. Is Friday, innit? They got ‘ot lunch there on Fridays, at St Mary’s, they do. ‘E might bring me a bun and an apple, if ‘e dunt forget. Though it’s gettin’ on. ‘E should ‘ave been back a while now. Prob’ly found hisself a drink.”
Clint nods. Friday, yes.
He doesn’t address how many hours after lunch it’s been, but reaches into his pocket for a hunk of cheese he’d picked up in the afternoon. (Natasha had insisted that since they had to wait until dark, they might as well grab some food at Borough market; Mr. Just Protein, Thanks had headed straight for Neal’s Yard Dairy.) He hands the package to the old man, who stares at it as if he’s just been given a gold bar.
“Here, you look like you could use that more than me. Did Ed say anything else? Like, where those attacks took place?”
The old man rips greedily at the wrapper with his teeth; his response is muffled by half a wedge of Cornish Yarg.
“South Bank, ‘e said. Round the Clink an’ London Bridge -- along the river, mos’ly.” He scowls thoughtfully, his mind skipping ahead a beat. “Been folk try’na move in ‘ere the last couple o’days. Gettin’ away from the river, I guess. Findin’ shelter. Doors is good.”
“The river,” Clint says smugly over his shoulder. “Told ya.”
Natasha rolls her eyes but digs in her own pockets, producing a couple of bills to hand to old Tom.
“Here,” she says as the man’s eyes widen in awe, “buy yourself a decent meal and a beer. And there’s a little extra for someone to hold your spot while you’re gone.”
“But wait until the morning, when it’s light again,” Clint adds.
“Stay safe,” Natasha tosses over her shoulder as they head out the partially unhinged door. The smell of the river is strong on the night wind. She turns to Clint, who claims to be taking the curvature of the Earth into account with each shot he makes and therefore can be assumed to have the better sense of direction.
“So, hot shot. Which way to the river?”
“It’s definitely been here.” Clint squints at the enormous footprint in the sand of the riverbank. “Unless they have any other truck-sized four-footed lizard things on this island, apart from in Loch Ness. Guess no one’s noticed the tracks ‘cause they get washed away by the tide come morning.”
Natasha cocks an eyebrow at her partner, whose nostrils are practically flaring with atavistic glee. If she ever had any doubts that Hawkeye was a hunter right down to the core of his impure heart, they’d be gone now.
“You’re actually enjoying this, aren’t you? And here I thought you might have gotten turned off by that giant turd back there.”
Clint shakes his head with a wolfish grin.
“What’s not to love? That pile we saw earlier was straight out of Jabberwocky. And now we have an idea what that thing smells like.”
“And that is going to help us how?”
Natasha cringes inwardly. If that … scent is what they can expect when they meet the latest inter-dimensional menace in the flesh, she would prefer the pleasure to be indefinitely postponed. Big game hunting isn’t exactly her thing – what exactly had Fury been thinking, sending them both on this mission? Clint, sure. But sending in a spy?
Then again, cleaning up after Asgard seems to be a growth industry for S.H.I.E.L.D. Maybe if she and Clint – not to mention Stark, Cap and Banner -- had been called in on this mess in time, things might have gone more smoothly. (Why was S.H.I.E.L.D. left out of the loop, given the odd events that preceded the latest spatial rift…? Shouldn’t someone in Analysis have clued in?)
Perhaps Fury is hoping they could clean out channels of communication while they’re here. After the hunt.
Clint, his mind on more mundane matters, scratches his chin thoughtfully.
“I think the reason we haven’t found more of this monster shit is that the thing actually does hang out in the river, traffic notwithstanding. I mean, it’s supposedly from one of the cold worlds, right?”
He avoids using the name suggested by Jane Foster, in the official debrief of her inter-dimensional rollercoaster ride: Jotunheim, home of the Frost Giants. Loki’s world.
Clint goes on. “This place must be a lot warmer than the thing is used to; stands to reason it’d stick to the water. Plus, food comes to you. Those rowers they have here? Fast food, almost like a drive-in.”
Clint’s river theory is as good as any, and the low tide in the Thames might just afford them a glimpse of the thing. The downside is that even after a generational cleanup effort, the smell of the water isn’t exactly Eau de Cologne.
“Wonder whether people will still think elves are so cool after this.” Clint muses as they make their way down the bank. “That Malekith dude was a lot more Zombie Apocalypse than Middle Earth.”
He’s been keeping up a pretty steady monologue, an indication that his veins are flooded with adrenaline. For the most part, Natasha ignores his comments and focuses on the task at hand.
“Here’s another footprint,” she points to the indent in the mud. Good thing she’d opted for boots today; that surface is pretty soft. Not to mention … Eww. “And another turd. This one’s still steaming.”
“Not surprising,” Clint says softly, his tone now carrying an undercurrent Natasha recognizes only too well. He points towards the water with his chin. “Two o’clock. Just beside that barge.”
“Just a sec.” Natasha doesn’t question her partner’s superior visual acuity, but her eyes need to adjust to the distance and to the ripples of moonlight on the black water. “Got it.”
They watch for a moment as the bump in the water – which at first had appeared to her to be just another wave, or perhaps a buoy – starts to move.
“Can you make yourself look more like a snack?”
“Excuse me? You’re the one who gave away the cheese.”
Clint snorts, even as he molds himself against a wooden pylon in an effort to become invisible for the moment.
“Just wave your arms, or something. Look alive. I don’t think this one’s a carrion eater.”
“Fine. But next time, Barton, you’re the bait. And don’t think I’m not keeping track.” Natasha heads towards the water’s edge, a Glock in each hand, waving them in the air. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!”
The words have barely left her mouth when the grey water explodes into what from her vantage point looks like a snarling mouth, with teeth the size of her forearm. The creature is propelled by massive grey legs, ending in razor-like claws; a vicious-looking tail, complete with a spiky spinal ridge, lashes the water as it leaps forward.
The only thing slowing it down is the water it needs to displace on its way to the riverbank. It must have been stretched out flat beneath the surface, because what is coming at Natasha now is about as large and as solid as a tank.
Forcefully clamping down on the memories of a different raging monster that still occasionally haunts her nights, Natasha empties both her Glocks into the beast’s chest. The slugs cause black liquid (alien blood?) to bloom on the grey chest, but don’t seem to be slowing it down. Standing her ground is not an option, and she fires off several projectiles from her Widow’s Bite bracelets even as she dekes sideways to get out of immediate trampling range.
More annoyed than injured by the electrical charge, the animal bellows in anger, skids to a stop and rears on its hind legs just as an arrow whizzes over Natasha’s head and embeds itself in its left eye. Another, louder roar, and the giant lizard shakes its head violently, as if trying to rid itself of a troublesome insect.
At least it’s no longer coming for her.
A second arrow follows, finding its target right beside the first. Wait for it, Natasha tells herself as she launches another couple of projectiles – just in case.
One, two ...
The twin explosions she’d been expecting come as dull thuds; the beast’s skull must be hard and deep. But almost immediately bits of -- it doesn’t really matter what it is, it’s organic and she’d rather not think about it too hard – stuff spray high into the grey London sky, landing with a splatter in the water and on the muddy river bank.
The body of the suddenly almost headless lizard staggers forward a couple of steps, as if it refuses to accept the fact of its death. Finally, it falls forward; the huge tail twitches a few more times and stills.
“Man, I love those exploding arrows. New generation, small contained blast. Thank you, Tony Stark.” Clint tries to sound nonchalant, but Natasha recognizes the smug, what-an-excellent-kill undertone he always gets at moments like this. “Although I gotta say, I feel a bit like one of those NRA types who hunt deer with an AK-47.”
“I’m sure the Natural History Museum would have preferred it if you’d kept the skull intact.” Natasha flicks a piece of scaly … something off her leather sleeve. “As would S.H.I.E.L.D.’s clean-up service.”
The sound of approaching sirens pierces the air, and the telltale flash of blue lights is reflecting off the wet stones. Even this far from the South Bank, there are midnight strollers along the river who would call 999 for gunshots. Clint cocks an eyebrow.
“You think they object to discharging explosives in a public place here?”
Natasha squints at the blue flashing lights, now racing towards them along the embankment from two directions. Split and risk pursuit, or stay and risk detention? Clint’s question suggests he knows the answer: The latest S.H.I.E.L.D. directive for interaction with law enforcement in friendly states is full cooperation – thanks to Alexander Pierce and his latest brilliant idea. And the UK, with its permanent seat on the Council, is a Friendly State.
“Given what we’ve just killed, we’ll probably get off eventually. But just in case – you still have the number for James Bond?”