“It’s freezing up here,” Clint complained as he waited in place on the roof top.
“Indeed,” said Coulson blandly in his ear. “Did you want me to ask them to turn the thermostat up.”
“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” Clint growled bitterly. “I hope you’re enjoying your stay at that Roach Motel and that you get bitten by a rat.”
“That’s just mean.”
“A huge brown chittering rat with black beady eyes. God I hate rats. Why are we here again? Our guy’s a hacker, shouldn’t we be recruiting him instead of putting him down? Those guys usually sit up and beg if you wave new and shiny under their noses.”
“He turned us down, several times. Apparently he’d rather burn in hell.”
Clint snorted, then fell silent as a guy walked into the lab he had under surveillance. He didn’t look like a typical AIM goon, he was wearing a scruffy hoody and ratty jeans, his hair was all over the place and he shuffled along with the air of a man in desperate need of coffee.
When he turned to the window Clint saw he was wearing a Penguin Liberation t-shirt, he wasn’t sure what was up with that but Clint liked penguins, they were tough little shits, if they needed liberating they had his vote. Shifting his head so he could squint down his scope, he checked out the guy’s face.
It was nice face, tired as fuck, but nice. Big brown eyes, skin tan under the whiteness of exhaustion and a dapper little goatee beard. Clint hoped he wasn’t the target, it would be a waste of an attractive guy to black-bag him.
Unfortunately the man sat down at the computer, rubbed and flexed his hands a couple of times, then started to type.
Reluctantly Clint spoke into the mike,
“Action at this end. Is it our guy?”
“Checking now,” said Coulson and then more faintly Clint heard him ordering the techs to find out if their target was online.
While Clint waited, he went back to watching the guy. The guy ran his hands through his hair and slumped lower over the computer. One hand made a groping gesture across the table, sadly no cup of coffee magically appeared.
Clint was starting to have moral qualms about shooting a guy before he had his coffee, that shit wasn’t right.
The guy’s head turned sharply and Clint shifted to try and spot what had caught his attention. A little robot, maybe three foot tall, trundled across the lab floor, a mug caught in its clawed hands. It bumped repeatedly into the guy until he reached down, taking the mug and patting the little robot on the head. The robot lit up with pleasure and the guy laughed.
He had a nice smile, Clint noted in passing.
The guy took a sip of the drink and did the most amazing spit-take, splerting it across his keyboard and collapsing into a vicious coughing jag. The robot whirred into action, bumping against the guy’s leg and tugging at his hoody until he finally patted it again, arm curling around the little machine as if in hug.
The guy was speaking fast and rapid, Clint wasn’t sure what but it didn’t look like he was swearing. Then, inexplicably, he very gingerly picked up the mug again and – Clint had to resort to the scope again to be sure his eyes weren’t fooling him – pretended to sip the drink.
The little robot lit up, claws whirling in celebration.
“Looking good from our end,” said Coulson, “we’re going to release the package. Standby to check his reaction.”
It took Clint a moment to parse that before he realized Coulson’s good was because they’d probably found their guy, not because this wasn’t their guy and Clint could pack up his rifle and leave the guy and his little robot to be adorable in peace.
“Mark,” Clint warned, cursing mentally, as the guy sat up, stared at his computer screen and then started typing rapidly. Whatever virus Tech had unleashed was obviously having an effect.
“Target confirmed,” said Coulson, “Barton, do you have a shot?”
“I have a shot,” Clint agreed, because he did. He had a textbook shot straight to the forehead. The brown eyes would just have time to go wide with shock when the window shattered before the bullet tunneled through the lightning-quick brain that had been giving Tech fits for weeks. The exploding brain pan would spatter the little robot with blood and bone fragments.
“Take the shot,” said Coulson.
At the other end of the rifle scope, the guy was typing frantically, breaking off only long enough to pass the little robot a ball which it tried and failed to bounce, then chased merrily across the lab.
“Take the shot,” said Coulson again, sounding a bit confused that Clint wasn’t already reporting mission complete.
“No,” said Clint, surprising himself and presumably Coulson. “No, fuck this. Plan M is a stupid plan. I do not like Plan M. Going to Plan P.”
Clint snorted, he’d never heard his unfazeable handler sound so phased, not even that time in Sofia which was not Clint’s fault at all.
“P for Penguin,” said Clint. Then pulled off his earpiece, dropped his rifle, grabbed his bow, and started running.
“What the fuck?” demanded Nick as he glared at Phil.
“I honestly have no idea, sir,” said Phil. He’d been dragged back to SHIELD under heavy guard and just short of in irons.
“No seriously, what the fuckity fuck?”
“Sorry sir.” Phil wasn’t too worried for himself, if Nick was going to do anything drastic he’d have done it by now rather than flounce around his office calling Phil names, he was worried for Barton. He had no idea what had happened but Barton was his asset and it was Phil’s job to have his back.
Nick threw his hands up in the air in exasperation when Phil refused to throw Barton under a bus and stand well back.
“Okay,” said Nick finally. “Explain it to me again?”
“Barton said he didn’t like the plan and was going to try one of his own.”
“Plan M to be exact,” said Nick. “Barton did not like Plan M.”
“We do not use letters to designate our plans. I would accept Plan B as a colloquialism but not Plan M. Did you in fact at any point refer to the mission as Plan M?”
“And Plan P for penguin.”
“Agent Barton likes penguins, sir.”
“He likes penguins?”
“Yessir. Toughest bird on the planet, sir. He has a whole powerpoint presentation.”
“And this is connected to the Penguin Liberation Front, how?”
“There’s no such thing as the Penguin Liberation Front.”
“Now see the analysts I’ve scrambled in the last three hours would’ve agreed with you, hell I would’ve agreed with you, but amplification of Barton’s comm recording reveals that he clearly named the Penguin Liberation Front. That would have been approximately ten minutes before he went off comms and thirty minutes before the AIM laboratory suddenly became a smoking crater.”
“I did not hear that sir.” Phil hadn’t had a clue anything was amiss until the whole thing had gone south and Barton was swinging in the wind.
“Phil I want to help you here, but I can’t do that unless you level with me. Who are the Penguin Liberation Front and how did they get their hooks into Barton?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Then tell me what you do know. And for fuck’s sake stop sirring me like a Plebe, you’re giving me hives.”
Nick threw his paperweight at him. Phil caught it and lobbed it back. Nick replaced it on his desk with a sigh,
“Help me out here, Cheese.”
“I,” Phil began with no real idea how to explain that he’d been so appalling negligent that his asset had run off to join a group of insurgents nobody had ever heard of before. To his eternal relief he was cut off by the cacophony as Nick’s office door swung open and a struggling mass of techs and security slowly fell into the room.
“What the hell?” demanded Nick. Phil just stared, because what the hell?
One of the techs managed to wriggle free and fling himself towards them.
“They said you’re sending Barton after the Penguin Liberation Front?”
“You know who they are?”
“You’re not getting a thing out of me,” said the tech fiercely and threw himself at Nick with the despairing air of chihuahua taking on a mastiff. Nick caught his punching arm, twisted it around and slammed him into the desk. Then he glanced around the wreck of his office.
“Everybody quiet!” Nick yelled at the top of his not inconsiderable lungs.
Everybody went quiet. All that could be heard was the tech gasping for breath at the bottom of the heap. He sounded vaguely apologetic about it.
“Alright, let’s try and act a little more like a top secret agency and a little less like an episode of the stooges.”
As they all sheepishly straightened up, Phil spotted a t-shirt one of the techs was wearing. He blinked twice but the image didn’t change. He nudged Nick with his elbow,
Nick followed his line of sight to the t-shirt of the cartoon penguin with a machine gun.
“Is that a Penguin Liberation t-shirt? Are you telling me it’s some geek thing?”
One of the techs straightened up with the stiff dignity of the mortally offended, “It is a project to ensure the free source code community can continue to operate…” his voice dwindled under Nick’s aggressive disinterest, and he finally gave up, “Yes sir, it’s some geek thing.”
Nick rolled out the creative swearing he saved for such emergencies. “And I suppose you’ll be telling me Plan M is too?”
Most of the techs looked blank, but one woman waved her hand nervously, “Uh, the hacker dies in Plan M, sir.” She pushed her glasses back up her nose. “Barton was after a hacker right, sir?”
“Yes,” said Phil when Nick seemed beyond words.
“He was probably wearing a PLF t-shirt,” she offered helpfully.
Nick clawed at the air for patience, “So you’re telling me Barton decided not to take out the target because he liked his t-shirt?”
“That does seem unlikely, sir,” Phil admitted, but sadly, knowing Barton, not completely beyond the bounds of possibility.