He’d been following the scent for days: a flash of news here, a splash of intel there, but never enough to qualify for a flush. It was all he could do to keep from taking in the quarry early, since he could see just how to do it, but he had to wait. He stayed to his perch, watching, wary, his eyes following the slight, uninteresting man with the plain black coat who had done such horrible things, and unable to do anything but stay out of sight and listen for the call.
When it came, when his austringer made the flush, the quarry took to the streets, his footsteps sodden on the mushy spring Moscow pavement. This was his moment, his flight, the rush he lived for and had been trained for. One arrow, fitted with precision against the string, steadied, and released. The quarry dropped. His work was done.
Arriving at the nest for the night, he curled up on the cot in the corner, his thin jacket still damp from the rain. The sofabed would have been more comfortable, but the sofabed was for his austringer. His was the mews, where the hunter slept. He knew some austringers worked more like handlers, treated their birds like pets, let them sleep warm and fed and comfortable, but his wasn’t one of those. He was kept lean and needful, on the edge of desperate, knowing that only the hand that fed him could keep him alive, and that if he didn’t return to the nest, he was on his own, lost in a world he understood but could never be a part of.
He’d nearly drifted off when the door opened, snapping against its hinges. Chisholm, his austringer, stood there, droplets seeping from his clothing on to the worn floors.
“Barton, he’d already delivered the package! You said he hadn’t, that he still had it. Now he’s dead, and we can’t even question him. What kind of fucking loser manages to miss a delivery and takes out the quarry flat dead?”
The hit came hard and fast across his face, the strap of leather stinging. He could almost feel the welt rise as the second hit came down, crossing the first and snapping the edge of his jaw. He could fight back, he was the stronger of the two and his arrows were within reach, but he’d been broken in by this man as a passage, a youth too young to make it on his own. He couldn’t fight back, not against the man who had claimed him, made him, and owned him.
He had but faint memories of his mother, warm and loving but weak against his father’s beatings, and of Barney, too stubborn to take the hits himself. Chisholm had taken him away from that, from the streets where he and Barney had fled, had lured him in with a warm meal and soft words and he’d woken up blinded by a leather hood over his head and tethered to a bed by leather straps just strong enough to keep him down.
All the memories from his training period were muted, faded by the hunger and the pain and the darkness of his hood and his sunless mews. He took his food from Chisholm’s hands, ate when he was told to, slept where and when he was told to, and grew to hate and love the man the Agency called their Trick Shot in equal parts. The loathing might grow stronger some days, and today was one of those days, but the love would return, if only because if he did not love this man, who would he love?
The beating stopped. He knew his face and neck would be covered with cross-hatched lines, and he thought a few of the hits had drawn blood. He could taste the copper-iron burning on his lips when he wet them, but he knew if it was bad enough that Chisholm would tend to the cuts, if only just enough. The pain carried him up higher than any rooftop he’d perched on, floating through red-tinged clouds that blurred his vision with a sort of free-form bliss even before the hood descended.
His hands and feet bound while his austringer stripped off his wet clothing, there was nothing more to do except run through all the things he’d done wrong. The moments he’d glanced away during which the quarry had obviously slipped his package of documents to someone else, or how he hadn’t noticed that the quarry’s jacket was considerably lighter than it had been before, or the fact he had taken out the quarry instead of incapacitating him. But that last he was not sorry about, even if he should have been: the man was pure evil, had so many deaths on his head and in so many uniquely horrific ways that he didn’t even deserve the agony he knew Chisholm and his ilk would bring. He deserved death, quick and sure, lest he ever sweet-talk his way into jail, or worse, freedom. He couldn’t trust those above him to not deliver the shot the way he could, he’d seen it happen time and time again.
Chisholm’s voice was cold even with the undercurrent of heat that he knew would be laced there. “Do you understand what you did wrong, and why you had to be punished? Do you understand that you are simply the hawk, the weapon, the body I use to carry out my missions, that you, alone, are nothing, and without me you would be nothing more than a pest on the street, eager for whatever new hand would feed you?”
“Good. Now open, and if you so much as move I’ll cover your ass with my belt.”
Sometimes it was food, scraps when he’d failed but hadn’t botched things too badly, bits of steak when he’d done well. When he failed as miserably as he had today, however, it was never food that slid over his tongue and down his throat. At least Chisholm wasn’t too big, not that he’d ever risk saying that to him. It was over quickly, the beating having roused him, and having his hawk gone for several days on the city rooftops while he followed on the ground below made for enforced chastity, something Chisholm was never fond of. The fingers stroking his throat, pressing even over the welts, brought him to swallow.
“At least you can do one thing right. Now sleep. We’re headed back to headquarters tomorrow, and I want you alert while we’re traveling.”
He nodded, trying to force his mind to blank out despite the gnawing hunger in his belly.
Footsteps, steady and sure, echoed down the hallway towards the briefing room where Chisholm and his hawk sat, still hooded from the plane flight. The door squeaked open, all the doors in headquarters squeaked - for a group of spies, it made for a very un-stealthy work environment he’d always thought.
“Austringer Chisholm, my name is Austringer Coulson. I’m here to take Hawk Barton to the barracks mews while you’re debriefed. I know you’re used to keeping him with you, but the Director wants to speak with you alone. Please follow Ms. Lewis, she’ll take you to the meeting room, and you can return to the barracks afterwards to collect your bird.”
“I don’t leave him with anyone, never have. They know that here, it’s in the notes.” Chisholm’s voice was unsteady, tipped off-kilter. It was a new sound.
“I’m sorry, those are my orders. They’re waiting for you upstairs.” Austringer Coulson’s voice was soothing, as steady as his footsteps, and the fear at being taken off away from his own austringer lessened.
Chisholm’s footsteps had died away, quick and self-sure, before the hood was untied and slowly lifted. Even as he sat blinking against the bright room, anger and pain were visible in the stranger’s eyes before a bland expression settled over his face.
“I only have one question for you for right now, Hawk Barton, and after that I’ll guide you to your mews and you can eat and rest. But I need honesty, full and total honesty. Do you understand?”
“Alright, good. Did your austringer beat you because he said you failed the mission?”
Honesty. He’d wanted honesty. Honesty would lead to rest, to a meal. A deep breath in, and out, and then he felt he could reply. “Yes. I let the quarry deliver his package, and then took him out, not allowing for him to be questioned.”
“I wasn’t asking if you failed the mission, Barton. I was asking if you were beaten because Austringer Chisholm said you failed the mission and deserved punishment?”
“Oh.” He thought for a moment, trying to think of a way that this could be a trick question, since the wording seemed so important. “Yes. That’s what he said, that’s why he did it. I did deserve it though.”
Austringer Coulson’s mask of disinterest slipped again, and the look that appeared there for a moment was a dangerous one.
“We thought so.” His voice caught for a moment as he fought to pull back his composure. “You will not see your prior austringer again. You are being reassigned. He is being brought into custody for working both sides, as well as mis-handling of his bird. Either charge would get him imprisoned, but together... He will be dealt with, I promise you that. For now, you are safe and will be taken proper care of. I will personally take you to the barracks mews, and oversee your treatment and feeding until such time as you are deemed ready for the field again. You have been treated in a way no hawk, no human, should ever be treated, and I will not let it happen again.”
There were too many thoughts swirling in his head to allow for a response. Fear was blossoming at the forced separation from his austringer, joy at the idea of people caring for him. He caught himself before he could fall forward against this as-of-yet unknown austringer, as his body’s need for food and proper rest melded with his emotional overload, but he closed his eyes, almost wanting his hood back.
“Shhhh, shhhh, it’s alright,” Austringer Coulson whispered, his fingertips brushing through the thick mussed hair, since to touch any of the available skin would be to brush a welt. “I’ve got you, you’re safe, I promise you’ll be safe. I’m your new austringer, Clint, and I promise that you are safe.”