He’d wanted to be the one to break the news to her, but Nick Fury had learned long ago that there was very little when it came to Clint Barton that he could find out first.
“I can’t pull anyone else in right now.” She was like a statue, standing alone on the topmost balcony, looking down on the hive of S.H.I.E.L.D. activity below. All the psychiatrists said that her “connection” to Clint Barton – love, friendship, obligation, however you wanted to label it – was a significantly positive step in her emotional development. They were convinced it made her a better person, which would in turn make her a stronger agent.
Times like this, Fury wasn’t at all sure that was the case. “Agent Romanoff…” he began again, but she finally turned to meet his eyes.
“I heard you, Director. May I ask if a retrieval is going to be authorized?” There was no emotional shift in her voice, no indication of the turmoil she had to be feeling, but Fury saw the skin across her knuckles whiten as she tightened her grip on the guardrail.
“We’re still trying to piece together what’s happened, Natasha,” he said gently. “Information coming out of the Sudan is unreliable at best right now – you know that. I can’t authorize retrieval until I know exactly who has him and why.” He paused, feeling a pang of guilt at what he had to say next. “Until then I need you in South Korea by morning.”
She turned to face him fully then, body at attention. “I understand, Director.” She waited for a moment, and he nodded at her.
She turned smartly on her heel and strode off; Fury stayed where he was and watched her go. Natasha was one of his best, and she was one of his people that thrived under the discipline demanded of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. The problem was that when exercising that discipline went against basic human sympathy and compassion Fury suspected the shadow of her past hung heaviest over both of them.
Natasha headed straight for the hangar deck. Three hours. Based on her own mission parameters, she had three hours to get to Stark Industries Manhattan headquarters, try not to kill the man himself, see Bruce, convince him to help her, and get back. She paused long enough to make sure the duty officer knew her plans – the last thing she or Clint needed was for Fury to think she was defying orders and going rogue.
Where the hell are you? Her eyes started to ache as she ran through pre-flight on the chopper she’d been allowed to take, and Nat blinked angrily against the threat of tears. She wasn’t used to worrying about people or caring what happened to them. That wasn’t part of the plan – Petrovitch had promised her if she survived the Red Room she would never have to deal with the pain of people leaving her again.
Clint - damn him - had changed all that. From the beginning he’d known his own mind; questioning (and ultimately defying) S.H.I.E.L.D.’s kill order on her hadn’t given him a moment’s pause. ”It was the right thing to do,” he’d told her on more than one occasion. He hadn’t joined S.H.I.E.L.D. because he needed the discipline, he’d joined because he wanted to make a difference and Fury’s organization had found a use for his particularly unique skill set.
She managed to shove all thoughts of Barton to the back of her mind long enough to finish her conversations with the ATC officer and get airborne, but once she was in the skies and headed towards her goal they all came flooding back.
If anything, Fury had understated the truth about conditions in the Sudan. Clint had been dispatched with a team to investigate reports that a local warlord had started using orphanages in the area as safe places to stash his weapons and soldiers. It was a fairly common practice around the world, but for some reason neither she nor Barton knew, S.H.I.E.L.D. had felt the need to get involved this time.
“You won’t even miss me,” had been the last words he’d said to her the morning he’d left. He knew about her upcoming mission to South Korea – Fury knew they kept few secrets from each other – and knew that she would likely be in the field several weeks longer than he would. His missions tended to be very combat oriented; heavily armed, fast moving squadrons, with lots of explosions.
Hers were inevitably the opposite. She was Director Fury’s secret weapon – his intelligence gatherer, his problem solver. She went into the shadow realms and stopped the evil lurking there from becoming a real, global threat.
“Stark Industries, this is SHIELD-5094 on approach to the Manhattan helipad. Can you tell me if Dr. Banner is on site?” If she was really lucky, maybe Stark himself would be off on some Caribbean island somewhere and she wouldn’t have to get past him to get to her objective. I really don’t have time for his bullshit.
“Confirmed, SHIELD-5094,” came the response after a moment. “Dr. Banner is in Level Four Research and Development. He and Mr. Stark request that you join them there.”
This was the world of his nightmares, the world where what he saw never quite fit with what he was hearing. Thanks to S.H.I.E.L.D. technology, and the weird soft spot Nick Fury seemed to have for him, most of Hawkeye’s colleagues these days didn’t even know that he was 80% deaf in both ears. He only took his hearing aids out when he absolutely had to, dreading the level of disorientation he suffered when he did.
”I’d almost prefer it if I were closer to completely deaf,” he’d confessed to Natasha once in a weak moment. ”That way I could pretend I was wearing ear plugs or something.” In his current state it took a good deal of his concentration just to stop his brain trying to make out more clearly those things he could hear.
He’d been surprised when she seemed to understand and grateful when she’d offered to train with him to be able to fight without the devices, but somehow something had always gotten in the way of him taking her up on her offer. Now as he struggled to his feet and got his first clear look at his new surroundings, Clint couldn’t stop the crawling realization that he should have found the time.
It was a barn – poorly constructed, probably the work of a local farmer. Wisps of hay littered the floor, and there were no windows. One door, likely bolted from the other side. Barton flexed his arms experimentally, testing the cuffs that bound his wrists together behind his back. High tech. The cuffs fit his wrists closely, almost like a second skin, but the metal was lightweight – a titanium alloy or something similar.
They’d been ambushed just south of the drop zone. Three of his men had fallen in the first barrage of gunfire – Hawkeye had barely had time to loose his first arrow before the gas grenades had struck all around them. He’d gone down hard, the sweetish smell of the gas filling his nostrils and fogging his brain.
The last thing he’d seen before the darkness took him was a masked figure coming through the smoke, calmly executing the rest of his squad with a series of single perfect shots to the head.
Me. They were after me. The thought overwhelmed him; he sagged against the wall, guilt twisting his gut at the idea that an entire squad of agents had lost their lives for him. It was the only explanation that made any sense.
After a long moment he exhaled sharply, forcing himself back upright. “All right,” he muttered, taking his emotions in hand. He couldn’t let what had happened overwhelm him – there was too much standing between him and safety. “All right.” He swallowed reflexively and then winced; his body was already trying to clear what his brain interpreted as an obstruction in his ears.
Stay focused. He tugged on the cuffs again, testing the strength, the fit and the angle at which they were holding his arms. There was a slim possibility he could twist himself enough to bring his hands to the front, but it wouldn’t be a quick process.
The sound of a bolt being pulled back jarred him from his thoughts. Hawkeye stopped pacing, turning towards the door. At last he would get a glimpse at somebody and maybe begin to piece together what was going on – and just who had him so thoroughly pinned down.
The gun that appeared first through the opening was a military sidearm - US Marine issue Clint realized, eyes widening slightly in surprise. The man holding it might have been a marine once upon a time, but even though he wore a close-fitting black t-shirt over black fatigue pants and plenty of military trappings, that part of his life was clearly past.
Pale eyes met his. “Do you read lips?” he asked, speaking slowly and clearly. His pistol was trained on Clint’s forehead, at the kill spot right between his eyes.
Hawkeye grimaced, hating how self-conscious he felt at having his disability called out like this. “I can hear you,” he said, automatically adjusting the feel of his voice to what would approximate his normal speaking volume. “Just face me.” He could read lips well enough, when paired with what little sound he could take in.
His captor nodded. “Good. On your knees.” He gestured with the pistol for emphasis.
Clint’s eyes narrowed – he desperately didn’t want to be in such a subservient position with this man. He wanted to fight, wanted to lash out with every skill he had and take control of the situation back for himself. ”Information is the key, Clint.” Natasha’s voice was suddenly in his head, holding back some of the fear that was still clouding his responses. ”You charge into a situation without knowing as much as you can about your opponent, you’d better be on the level of Thor or the Hulk to be able to power your way back out of it.”
He wasn’t even the level of Cap, and the Nat in his head was absolutely right – he didn’t know nearly enough about what was going on. So even though it galled every fiber of his being, Clint did as he was told.
When he looked up for confirmation that he’d done right, the man nodded once. “Good. You keep being smart, and this will go a lot easier on both of us.” He lowered his weapon, but didn’t put it away.
“My name is Quinn,” he said, crouching down until he was nearly on eye level with Clint, “and as I’m sure you’re already starting to piece together, somebody is paying me a lot of money to bring you to him.”
Level Four Research and Development was the wing of the Stark Industries Manhattan complex Tony Stark typically referred to as “Candyland”. The resources were endless, the equipment was the envy of labs anywhere in the world, and the order of the day was whatever Tony Stark’s whim demanded. The best minds in their fields were constantly lining up for the chance to be invited into his domain and flex their scientific muscles, and only 1% typically hung round long enough to complete whatever project they’d proposed that caught Tony’s eye in the first place.
The department’s most recent invitee looked to be settling in for a long stay. Not only was Dr. Bruce Banner the foremost expert in the world on Gamma radiation, he understood and appreciated Tony’s singularly offbeat sense of humor. He also seemed to bring out the best in Stark – a trait everyone in the company valued and did their best to encourage by whatever means possible.
Natasha was one of the few people that knew Tony half-wanted Bruce to lose control in the lab one day. “The Other Guy”, as Banner preferred to call him, was a source of endless fascination for Stark. He admired Bruce’s control, but more than that he loved the fact that the Hulk was more than just the “huge green rage monster” he’d first assumed.
“Natasha, my love!” he greeted her, speaking perfect Russian. Nat rolled her eyes – it was important to their relationship that she let Stark know as often as possible how unimpressed she was by him.
“I need your help,” she said, focusing her attention entirely on Banner. “Clint…Agent Barton,” she hastily corrected herself, “is missing. We lost contact with his squad right after they touched down in the Sudan.”
Tony whistled, and Nat felt her hand twitch towards the knife in her belt. The sound wasn’t followed up immediately by a sarcastic comment though, so after a moment she relaxed. “Fury doesn’t have a rescue team already lined up?” Bruce asked, drawing her focus again.
“He can’t move without more intel,” she said, trying to stay at least somewhat detached from the boil of her emotions. “And I’m supposed to be in South Korea by dawn.”
“No problem,” Stark said. “We’ll take care of it.”
Nat whirled on him. “No! This can’t be an Avengers thing,” she snapped. Enough of her anger flared out at him that Tony took an involuntary step backwards. Exhaling sharply, she forced herself back under control. “They were going into a very unstable area. That means a light touch, Stark.”
Bruce snorted softly. “And you’re coming to me for that?”
The irony wasn’t lost on any of them. “You’ve lived and worked in some of the poorest regions of the world,” Nat said. She locked eyes with Banner, walking forward until only the lab table separated them. “You also did time in Doctors Without Borders. You can get into the area under the radar and at least have a shot at finding out what happened.”
Bruce didn’t answer her at first. Nat swallowed hard as something dark and dangerous moved behind his eyes. “You stink of fear,” he said softly. “After all this time, you still can’t stand being this close to me.”
Trapped on a deck of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s aerial headquarters…pinned in place by fallen debris…watching helplessly as Bruce Banner transformed into the Hulk mere feet away from her…
“Can you help him?” she asked finally – each word precise and clipped as she struggled to keep her voice from trembling. She laid both hands flat on the table and leaned as far as she dared into his personal space. “Yes or no, Bruce?”
Contrary to popular belief, Tony Stark was capable of restraint. He didn’t see the point most of the time, but now he hung back silently watching the interplay. It bothered Bruce that Natasha Romanoff – a woman who as a rule was frightened of nothing and no one – was so deeply terrified of him.
It bothered Tony too. Banner spent every waking hour doing everything in his power to keep “The Other Guy” in check. A lesser man would have used the accident that had created the Hulk as an excuse to avoid responsibility for the danger he represented. That wasn’t Bruce Banner.
“You know I’m not letting you go alone,” he said once Natasha had left – having gotten Bruce’s promise that he would do everything he could to find the missing Hawkeye.
Banner wouldn’t meet his eyes – he began busying himself straightening up his work area. “She’s not wrong,” he said finally. “If we go in there with flash and noise, not only is nobody going to talk to us, we might convince whoever has Clint to just kill him.”
Stepping in on his friend, Tony reached out and gripped Bruce’s forearm. Banner looked up at him, but while there was the usual blend of emotions in his eyes, Tony saw no hint of “The Other Guy” looking back at him. He controls it so much better than even he knows. “We need resources,” he said firmly. “I have resources.”
“Resources that make you a target.” Bruce’s gaze ticked down – looking significantly at the spot on Tony’s chest where the arc reactor glowed. “K and R isn’t a crime in that part of the world, Tony,” he said – meeting Stark’s eyes again. “It’s good business.”
Tony swallowed. He still had nightmares – he’d never pretended he didn’t, even after all these years. Are you going to be a slave to what happened for the rest of your life? He didn’t want to be, but some of the best therapists in the world agreed that he would likely always carry some psychological damage from his experience.
“I’ll follow your lead,” he said finally. “I’ll be good, I promise.” He exhaled sharply.
“Let me help.”
Crossfire…William Cross… This was very, very bad. Clint shifted in his seat, testing his bonds under the guise of trying to get more comfortable. Quinn had taken him from the farmhouse in a military Humvee with blacked out windows, but not before shackling his feet and connecting the two sets of restraints with a thin cable of twisted metal fibers strung behind his back.
It was frustratingly effective. His years in the circus had taught Clint how to slip most bonds, but Quinn had obviously done his research – none of the usual weaknesses were in play here.
Four million dollars, dead or alive, with a one million dollar bonus if he gets me alive and kicking. Cross was ex CIA – a sadistic bastard with plenty of reasons to hate Hawkeye – but this was beyond anything Clint could have ever imagined being caught up in.
He closed his eyes finally, trying to relax into the seat. Quinn hadn’t told him exactly where they were going, but Clint had a pretty good idea where most of Cross’ bases were. His gut said they were heading to Switzerland, which meant air travel. He didn’t know if Quinn was a pilot, but a plane definitely improved his chances over most other types of transportation.
A low, sharp, heavy vibration rippled through him, jarring him upright with a gasp. The Humvee had stopped moving, and Quinn was twisted around in his seat, looking at Clint. “Whatever you’re planning,” he said, “don’t. I don’t want to lose that bonus, but I will if I have to.”
“You already told me,” Clint retorted. He was heartened to realize that his original unease at being robbed of his hearing aids was starting to wane; even though his circumstances hadn’t really improved at all, he didn’t feel the same sort of crippling helplessness he had when he’d first regained consciousness. “If you’re going to make me read your lips, at least tell me something original.”
Quinn moved. Pain exploded in Clint’s skull, briefly whiting out his vision as a slap rocked his head hard to one side. “Sarcasm’s not your best option here, boy.” Hawkeye tasted blood as his vision cleared, and he was able to see his captor again. “I just have to turn you over alive. That gives me a whole lot more latitude than most people realize.”
It had been personal. Fury wondered why he still wasted time questioning Black Widow’s instincts. Natasha had known this was a kidnapping before they’d gotten anything remotely resembling confirmation.
Three photos in, he reached into his desk for the roll of antacids. It was bad – he’d already scanned the reports showing mention of a knockout gas having been deployed at the site, and Fury knew more than enough forensics on his own to understand that whatever power had ordered this done had made sure an entire squad of his people had been executed while they were helpless.
Whatever power this was, they’d taken Barton away. Logically it made sense that Hawkeye was still alive – but for how long was anybody’s guess.
When he’d finally burned the images deep into his memory, Nick settled back in his chair and allowed himself a small sigh of frustration. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner were already on their way to the site – Natasha had made no secret of the fact that she’d intended to appeal to Banner for help, and Fury had quietly supported her decision.
Now she was on the ground in South Korea – a sensitive assignment that would come completely unraveled if he pulled her out early. “Agent Hill to me,” he said finally, mentally shoving all the pieces into the best possible position and getting to his feet. None of this was a perfect situation; they were just going to have to do the best they could.
“Director?” Maria Hill was standing just inside the open doorway of his office, almost as if she’d materialized there. For all Fury knew, she had.
He passed her his tablet. “Get everything we have on the Sudan mission to Tony Stark immediately. He and Dr. Banner are en route to the drop zone.”
Hill blinked. “Director? Are you sure we should let the Avengers handle this?”
Fury smiled slightly. “It’s not an Avengers mission – at least not officially,” he added. “But Hawkeye is one of their own. How can I deny them the opportunity to try and rescue him?”
It wasn’t the worst area of the world he’d ever been to, but the level of poverty in the village set a fire in Bruce’s gut. Like far too many corners of the globe, the small cluster of huts, barns and attempts at agriculture had been ravaged by armies and warlords concerned only with getting everything they could out of a land that had already given more than was reasonable or fair.
“You’re sure?” he asked the elderly Sudanese woman who had “rented” her barn to a white man shortly after Hawkeye’s squad had gone missing. “He had a prisoner?”
The woman nodded. He’d bought her cooperation the only way he could – food that wouldn’t spoil, and medicine for her grandson. The boy was suffering from the sort of influenza that would be a few days inconvenience in the States – but carried an obscene mortality rate in this sort of poverty.
She’d been so grateful that she’d happily told him about the “soldier” who’d paid her in local currency to use her barn for a little over a day. His prisoner had been unconscious when he’d arrived, but had been awake when the two of them had left that morning heading north. Bruce felt himself relax somewhat on learning that Hawkeye hadn’t been visibly injured, even though based on the woman’s description he’d been very well secured.
Tony was perched on the hood of the jeep they’d bought off a man near the landing zone, checking his phone. “S.H.I.E.L.D.’s finally gotten into the game.” He turned the handset so Bruce could see the pictures. Bodies littered the ground – S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who’d been sacrificed so whoever was behind this operation could walk away with their prize.
Bruce drew a deep, shuddering breath, calming the adrenaline trying to surge through his system and bring on the change. “White man,” he said, tearing his eyes away from the gruesome pictures. “Mercenary most likely. The old woman said that Clint was unconscious when this guy brought him in, but when they left this morning Barton was walking under his own power and looked unharmed.”
“This morning?” Tony’s dark eyebrows went up. “Any idea what direction they were traveling?”
“Nyanath told me there’s a landing strip about four hours due north of here that the smugglers use to bring in weapons and drugs.” He paused, thinking of the old woman’s sick grandson and wondering if they could make time to come back through here once they’d rescued Barton. “They were headed that direction.”
Stark pocketed his phone and slid off his perch, landing lightly on the ground. “Then we’d better see how well this thing off-roads.”
When he had time and space to think about it, Clint would eventually realize that he couldn’t blame Quinn for not anticipating the IED. Looking for a roadside bomb wasn’t exactly second nature if you didn’t have a road.
Unfortunately, in the moment the blast flipped the Humvee, all he could worry about was praying that the harness securing him to the seat would hold. He closed his eyes and willed his body as limp as possible as the vehicle flipped three times, before landing on the driver’s side.
“Son of a bitch!” Any questions Clint had about how his captor had come through the crash were quickly answered. The click of a seat harness being sprung was loud in the sudden stillness – even with his diminished hearing – and he felt the vibration of Quinn’s body collapsing against the door up through his own hip and torso. He tried to move on his own, see if the crash had changed his circumstances at all, but pain shot through his left shoulder as he twisted the wrong way – making him cry out.
“Don’t move!” Quinn appeared over the seat, a ten inch blade in his right hand. He grabbed Clint’s shoulder and in three quick cuts sliced through the seat harness and the tether binding his wrist and ankle shackles. His own weight dropped him the same way Quinn had fallen, but Clint managed to twist himself enough that he landed on his side and rolled onto his back without straining his arms any further.
He tucked his knees to his chest, took a split second to aim, and before Quinn had a chance to react kicked out hard – catching the other man full in the face. Barton didn’t wait to see the results of his attack, immediately contorting his body so that he could maneuver his bound wrists from back to front.
It hurt – a lot more than it should – but Clint pushed on. As long as he didn’t tear anything vital or cripple himself in some way, he could deal with his body’s protests.
His next priority, once his hands were in front of him again, was whatever keys Quinn had on him to undo the cuffs. Clint reached up and grabbed the driver’s side head-rest, pulling himself up into a crouch so he could get over the seat.
Quinn was down against the driver’s side door again. His face was bloody and bruised where Clint had kicked him – and Clint drew up short when he realized that not only were the other man’s eyes open and fixed on him, his gun was out and aimed right between Clint’s eyes.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Quinn said – the words clearly and precisely spoken, so he could be absolutely certain he was understood.
Black Widow’s own contacts in the Sudan came through for her well ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operatives. Surveillance photos showing Clint being moved out of a village in the custody of a well-known mercenary - Jonah Quinn - were on her phone by the time her second target had been subdued and turned over to the South Korean government for their particular brand of justice. She forwarded them immediately to Bruce.
Natasha knew Quinn – had been chased by the man himself on more than one occasion – and knew first hand that his reputation for being at the top of the hired gun food chain was completely legitimate. If Quinn has him, that means there’s a contract, she thought, slipping her phone back into a pocket as she walked briskly back to her hotel. Everyone knew Quinn was ruthless, but he would play absolutely true to the terms of whatever agreement he’d signed. This meant that in order to stop him they would have to either kill him, or get to whoever had taken out the contract on Clint in the first place.
By the time she reached the lobby of the resort she’d checked into – nodding at the staff who thought she was a wealthy Russian ex-patriot – a wild idea had taken hold in her mind.
“Quinn won’t be hiding, unless there’s something in his contract that requires he stay off the grid,” she told Fury, once she was secure in her room.
The director looked doubtful. “I can’t authorize…” he began, but Natasha cut him off.
“Just get me a number, Director,” she said quickly. “Please. I give you my word I won’t compromise Agent Barton’s safety, but I know Quinn will talk to me if I can just reach him.” She couldn’t guarantee he would tell her anything useful, but Fury wasn’t asking for that kind of assurance.
“One second.” Natasha watched, holding her breath, as Fury leaned slightly out of camera range. She heard him speaking in a low voice to somebody else in the room, but couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. After another moment, he settled back in his chair so that they could see each other again. “Quinn’s number will be texted to you as soon as we have it. Agent Romanoff, I trust you to keep Dr. Banner in the loop on this, since it was your decision to put him in the field in the first place.”
“Yes sir,” Natasha answered automatically, accepting the implied rebuke from Fury even though he hadn’t done anything to stop her.
They talked for another five minutes or so, during which time Nat’s phone buzzed with the expected message. She ignored it in favor of giving Fury her full attention – Nick thoroughly debriefed her on her project to date, satisfying himself that she wasn’t ignoring or shirking her duties to S.H.I.E.L.D. so she could help rescue Clint. “Stay focused, Agent Romanoff,” he said to her, once she’d finished reporting and he’d congratulated her on her progress.
“Yes sir, Director.”
When the screen in front of her went dark, Natasha picked up her phone and checked the message. The number was there as promised – her best possible connection to the man who’d taken Clint.
Keep Dr. Banner in the loop on this. Bruce was already on the ground – even if Natasha couldn’t talk Quinn into betraying his contract, she might be able to get a firm lock on his position. Depending on how far he and Tony had traveled from their landing zone, Bruce might not be able to reach them in time…
…but she was pretty sure The Other Guy could.
When Bruce’s phone rang, Tony reached across and lifted it from his shirt pocket. “Eyes on the road,” he warned.” Such as it is. The trail of the Humvee that had taken Barton from the village was easy enough to follow, but as far as Tony was concerned the sand dunes only technically qualified as driveable. “Dr. Banner’s phone.”
”Let me talk to Bruce.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but managed to keep his voice light. “Ah the lovely Agent Romanoff. I am sorry Natasha, my darling, but the good Doctor is busy trying to keep us from becoming one with the local landscape. Can I take a message?”
He sobered immediately, hearing what Natasha had to report. “Absolutely.” He gestured for Bruce to stop the jeep. Sand swirled and eddied around them and the engine idled loudly as he listened to what Nat was proposing.
“That’s good,” he said, once she’d finished. “Our best lead so far has been a little old lady who’s sweet on Brucie-boy. If you can get us anything more solid…”
”Activate the tracking app, and we’ll see what I can make happen. I’m going to try Quinn as soon as I hang up with you – assuming he’s still in country, he should pick up.”
They traded good-byes, and Tony hung up with her. Bruce extended the flask of water he’d been drinking from, but Stark held up a hand; waving him off until he had the tracking app set. “It is fucking hot out here,” he groaned, putting the phone on the dashboard and taking the water from Bruce at last.
“Not too fast,” Bruce remarked. “Your system isn’t going to know what to do with that.”
“It’s not vodka, that’s for certain.” Tony upended the flask and drained it. They still had plenty of water in the back of the jeep, and he had no intention of being in this part of the world any longer than he had to.
Bruce reached across him and picked up the phone. “Agent Romanoff has something I gather?”
Tony tossed the empty flask in the back of the jeep, nodding. “She talked Fury into digging up a number to go with those pictures she sent earlier. Apparently Black Widow is confident she can spin a web strong enough and wide enough to catch our mystery bug.”
“How long do we have to wait?” Bruce asked, setting the phone back on the dashboard. He leaned out the window, checking the horizon. “Weather’s going to turn nasty.”
“You mean nastier, right?” Tony snorted.
Clint exhaled softly, trying to will his screaming muscles to relax. Quinn had forced him from the wreck of the Humvee at gun point, still shackled, and then put him on his knees in the sand next to the overturned vehicle. A pair of handcuffs fastened his bound wrists over his head, stretching his arms far enough that the muscles were already starting to twitch.
“You’re lucky I don’t hold grudges,” Quinn had growled – clearly still pissed at the one good blow Clint had managed to land. He’d pulled out his phone then and stalked several feet away to make the call, far enough that Clint couldn’t hear what he was saying.
Sleep deprivation…temperature extremes… Cross had even resorted to water-boarding at one point, looking for anything in his CIA bag of tricks that might hold the key to breaking Clint – to remaking Hawkeye into little more than a tool to advance his own personal agenda. He’d resisted all of it, which had only served to push Cross further over the edge.
Tiny tremors started in the over-stressed muscles of his arms, shivering their way down across his chest and back, while the sweat that never seemed to stop stung his eyes and blurred his vision. The memories were starting to crowd too close now, and Clint was only just beginning to realize that he was too beaten down by his ordeal to hold them off.
It was almost too much to hope that Cross just intended to kill him. Their history was too long and too bitter for something as simple as that to be where this was going.
“Hey!” Clint twitched in his restraints, dimly realizing that at some point his eyes had drifted shut and his muscles had gone limp. “Hey – come on. Don’t go dark on me yet.” Fingers grabbed his chin, shaking his head until pain forced his eyes open again.
Quinn was crouched in front of him. “Water,” he said, showing Clint a flask. When Barton nodded weakly to show that he understood, Quinn held the container to his lips – supporting his head as he got several swallows of water into his system.
“Better?” he asked after a moment. Clint nodded again, praying his stomach wouldn’t turn on him. The heat had hit him fast, and combined with everything else he felt dizzy and sick.
The other man exhaled softly, relaxing forward onto his knees. “I’ll give you some more in a bit. Cross is sending a helicopter for us.”
Even through the fog of his rising heat sickness, the news made Clint’s insides twist. “How long?”
For the first time since fate had brought them together, he realized that Quinn looked genuinely uncertain. “Half hour – hour…hard to tell.”
Clint started to laugh, realizing as he did that the sound was anything but healthy. “Might as well kill me,” he said. “Bounty’s dead or alive, right? You’d be doing us both a favor.” He swallowed hard against his dry throat and looked significantly at the canteen again. Quinn immediately moved it into position, helping him take in more water.
“Don’t have to hydrate a corpse,” he gasped, licking at the droplets that had escaped down his chin.
He realized then that Quinn still looked uncomfortable. Something in his conversation with Cross had deeply unnerved the man. “About that…” he began. “Cross gave me more details about the bounty. He’s apparently not paying me for you.” He glanced significantly at Clint’s left arm, stretched up over both of them now.
Adrenaline fueled terror lanced through Hawkeye then, helping to push back some of the sickness. He knew suddenly and with perfect conviction what Quinn was going to say before the other man said, “He’s got a surgeon standing by at our destination, with orders to amputate.”
It was barbaric, demented, and so very, very William Cross. Clint wasn’t surprised in the least.
Natasha tried to ignore the hammering of her heartbeat as she dialed and put the phone to her ear. They were closer to Clint than they’d been at any time since he’d been taken; if she could persuade Quinn to abandon his contract in favor of a significantly better deal, this whole thing might be over in minutes.
The smiled that curved her lips was anything but kind or gentle. “This is Black Widow, Quinn. You have something that belongs to me, and I want it back.”
She heard subtle sounds in the background – the sounds of Quinn getting to his feet, walking through the sand away from Clint?. “You need to take better care of your things then,” the mercenary said finally, “because you’re not getting this one back. Now why are you really calling me, Natasha?”
“To offer you a better deal,” she said promptly. “You’ve taken on more than you can handle this time, Quinn. Barton is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent – no payout in the world’s going to be enough to keep you safe if something happens to him.”
Quinn was silent long enough that she began to foolishly hope he was considering her offer. “You know me better than that, Tasha,” he said finally – dragging her back to reality. “I have a contract. I can’t walk away from it; my entire reputation rests on how good my word is to these people.”
“He’s a good man, Quinn. He doesn’t deserve this.”
“He’s five million dollars, Tash – somebody clearly thinks he does.”
Natasha’s gut went cold at the mention of how high the bounty was. Quinn was right – that was major weight, well above what she would have assumed somebody would pay for Clint. “I’ll double it.” The words were out of her mouth before she could fully process what she’d done. Ten million dollars would mean appealing directly to Stark, and while she had little doubt Tony would put up the money that was a deal that wouldn’t end well for either of them.
Before she could argue her case, Quinn chuckled bitterly. “Now you’re getting sloppy. What would Petrovitch say about you showing your hand so easily?”
She cursed Petrovitch’s memory in Russian, which Quinn had no trouble understanding. “Look,” he said finally, “I get it – probably more than you realize – and I wish I could help you.”
Natasha blinked. Either her emotions were completely clouding her judgment now, or she’d heard regret – genuine regret – in Quinn’s tone. “At least tell me who your client is, Quinn. Give me a chance to negotiate with him.”
“You know I can’t do that,” he said. “What you need to do now is get your damn feelings out of the way and think. Who in Barton’s past wants him alive bad enough to pay five million for him? The bounty goes down by a full million if he dies, Tash – I can tell you that.”
He’d given her more than she’d expected; Quinn was one of the honorable ones. His word was above reproach – that was why he was at the top of his profession. Getting him to turn on his client had been a long shot, but if the tracking app had done its job Tony and Bruce would be on the move by now, closing in on Quinn’s position. “Can I talk to him at least?”
She was prepared for him to refuse, but it still hurt to hear Quinn say, “He knows who’s behind this, Natasha – I can’t risk it. I’m really sorry.”
Natasha licked her lips, considering what she was going to say next. Ordinarily she wouldn’t risk threatening somebody like Quinn when Clint was in his power, but he’d already admitted that he had strong reasons for keeping Barton alive. Million dollars would convince anybody. “I’m sorry too,” she said finally, “because I’m coming after him – and you don’t want to be in my way when that happens, Quinn. You really, really don’t.”
The tracking app had done its job, but no technology in the world could overcome the laws of time and space, the fact that they’d started too late, been too slow. Tony saw the helicopter first, and the string of curses he let loose would have been enough to make Bruce blush, had he not been focusing all his energy on convincing their jeep that it really wanted to take one more sand dune.
“How far?” he asked over the noise; trusting that Tony was already crunching the numbers. When Stark didn’t answer immediately, Bruce risked a glance at his friend. Dammit.
Easing off the throttle, he slowed the jeep to a crawl, then stopped it so he could see the circumstances for himself. Minutes. Assuming the chopper only stayed on the ground long enough to load passengers, they would miss intercepting it by minutes. Unless…
Feeling self-conscious, Bruce glanced over at Tony, who for his part was uncharacteristically serious. “It’s the only chance we’ve got.”
Hawkeye’s only chance… Words hadn’t been invented for how little Bruce wanted to do this, but he also knew that he couldn’t let Natasha down. Not when she’d overcome how very deeply afraid of him she was just to ask him to do this for her.
Reaching over the seat, he snagged his pack by feel, and passed it to Tony. “I’ve got places I’d rather not burn,” he said, slipping out of the driver’s seat, onto the roasting hot dessert sand. He thought for half a second about trying to save his shoes, but the heat was already rising around him in terrible, choking waves.
So much senseless death and disease and poverty… It was almost a relief to slip his own inner restraints and let the tidal wave of rage and helplessness he’d been battling all day crash over him and take his human self down. He knew exactly when the “Other Guy” had control, because it didn’t hurt anymore. Nothing hurt anymore.
The helicopter was almost on the ground by the time the Hulk bloomed into full and violent life. Half a dozen leaps – maybe one or two more, and Banner knew he’d be on top of the machine. That just left…
Tony was half in the driver’s seat, when he realized the Hulk was looking at him and grinning. “No,” he said, holding up a hand. “No, no, no, no Bruce – no…” The last ‘no’ ended in a startled yelp, as the Hulk plucked Stark neatly out of the jeep and swung him up on his back.
His leaps were light and fast – his feet barely touching the sand before springing forward again. In no time at all, they were on top of the landing zone. The helicopter was just starting to take off again as they arrived; the Hulk had a split second to take in an overturned Humvee and Clint in the far side passenger seat, before he was setting Tony down on the sand and reaching up to grab the chopper out of the sky.
Clint and another man the Hulk didn’t recognize tumbled out of the helicopter on the far side. He reached around and snatched Clint neatly with his left hand, and dashed the helicopter to the ground with his right.
Intellectually Tony knew the Hulk was trying to be gentle when he set him down, but it didn’t mitigate the bone jarring force that sent him stumbling and rolling in the sand. Powder-fine grit filled his nostrils and caked his eyelids practically shut. Somebody remind me why I agreed to leave my suit behind? he thought as he rolled to a stop.
A roar and the scream of overstressed metal brought him immediately upright, shaking with adrenaline. The Hulk had already turned his attention to the problem of the helicopter; Tony bolted for the wreck of the Humvee as the only available shelter for miles.
He made it with moments to spare. The helicopter passed over his shelter and struck the sand fifty yards away before exploding into a fireball that sent heat and debris washing back in Tony’s direction. Even though he threw up his arms in time to protect his face, his skin was stinging in very short order with a painful array of cuts, bruises, sand and sweat. In the midst of the chaos, he heard the Hulk roar one final time, and then felt him land hard on the packed sand.
He’s going to be changing back. The people who’d tried to make off with Clint were neutralized – Bruce wouldn’t let “The Other Guy” retain control a second longer than necessary. After determining that the area was as safe as it was likely to get, Tony scrambled free of the wreck and scanned the surrounding terrain.
Bruce was down, in the final stages of transitioning back to his human form. Clint was scrambling to his feet, racing away from Tony’s position towards another prone figure who was just starting to move. Priorities, Stark, Tony reminded himself. Under this sun, Bruce would be courting third degree burns in a matter of minutes.
By the time he reached Banner’s side, the man Clint was running towards, was climbing to his feet and had a gun aimed at Barton’s chest. “Ah fuck,” Tony sighed, rolling his friend over on his back. “Come on, Bruce. Come on. Time to get back in the game.”
As he skidded to an unsteady halt in the swirling sand with Quinn’s sidearm once gain aimed at him, Clint realized that his bucket list was now topped with a burning desire to choke the mercenary to death with that very weapon. “You’re done, Quinn – give it up!” he called.
He dimly heard the warning shot, but his reflexes were slowed by his ordeal. The bullet traced a line of fire across his upper arm, throwing him off balance. Before he could recover, Quinn closed with him, reversing the gun with one quick flip and slamming him hard across the face with the grip. Clint went down hard, pain exploding in his head and briefly whitening his vision.
“Those shackles weren’t cheap.” When Barton could see again Quinn was standing over him. Clint was gratified to see that between the explosion, his attempted escape and two crashes, the mercenary was finally starting to show the strain of their shared ordeal.
Clint laughed hoarsely. “You’ll have to talk to the Other Guy.” He didn’t know how Bruce had done it – looking at the Hulk it would have been easier to believe that his hands were only capable of tearing Clint’s arms and legs off – but he’d managed to restrict himself to snapping the lengths of cable that bound Hawkeye’s wrists and ankles together.
“Five million dollars.”
This close, Clint could see the uncertainty in Quinn’s eyes though. Learning the full scope of what Cross had planned for Hawkeye had shaken the other man in ways he hadn’t expected. “Walk away,” Clint said finally. “Those boys back there aren’t going to let you collect.” He didn’t know who had sent Tony and Bruce to him, or how they’d managed to find him, but for the first time since he’d asked Quinn to kill him hours earlier, Barton could actually believe he was going to survive this.
Quinn risked a glance over his shoulder. “They’re a little distracted at the moment. Plus I don’t think your green friend is going to be up to making another appearance anytime soon.”
Clint wouldn’t have bet his life on that assumption; he’d seen Bruce do some amazing things in the short time they’d worked together. He’d also seen the kind of toll the change demanded of Banner, however, and if he was being perfectly honest with himself he didn’t want Quinn dead. He definitely didn’t want to put Bruce through the kind of guilt it would cause.
This one’s mine. Quinn had been knocked enough off his game that even injured and beaten down as he was, Clint was confident he could more than hold his own in a fight between them. “Last chance,” he said, meeting Quinn’s eyes.
He gave him to the count of three, and when the gun didn’t waver even a fraction of an inch, he struck.
The Hulk was arguably the most powerful force on the planet. Intellectually Tony understood this, and he knew that Bruce had been struggling with his “condition” for far longer than Tony had been a part of his life. He’d gotten along just fine without Tony at his shoulder, hovering like some sort of demented combination of a bratty younger sibling and an over protective grandmother.
And all that knowledge couldn’t stop the surge of feelings that overwhelmed him whenever Bruce transitioned back to himself.
At least this time there had been good reason for him to stay with Banner. Somebody had needed to get Bruce into shelter, get him at least mostly dressed and get some fluids in him. The Hulk didn’t need to worry about the things that could put his human form in the hospital.
He was worried about Clint too, but Barton was on his feet, racing after one of his captors like a man with a serious score to settle. Tony didn’t envy whoever was about to be on the receiving end of that kind of rage; he remembered all too well how he’d lashed out at the men who’d kidnapped him and changed his life forever.
“Drink,” he ordered, as soon as he saw that Bruce’s eyes were open, and at least partially focused on him. He held the canteen to his lips, and Bruce dutifully swallowed several mouthfuls of the tepid water.
“’m all right,” he murmured, when Tony made no move to leave his side. “Just need to rest. Go…go get Clint.”
Yeah. Go get Clint. Tony exhaled sharply, leaning as far out of their shelter as he dared. About that. Approximately a hundred yards away, Clint and the mercenary who’d taken him were fighting. Even through the swirling sand Tony could see that the battle had taken on a desperate, brutal edge – two men who’d been through hell and were determined to salvage what little they could out of the experience.
Whoever the other man - Quinn, his brain helpfully supplied from Natasha’s intel – whoever Quinn was, he was more than a match physically for Clint. Neither one had a clear advantage over the other, which meant that Tony entering the fight would definitely tip the odds back in their favor.
“Yeah, having my armor would really be swell right about now,” he muttered as he slid free of the shelter and pushed to his feet.
On his better days the ancient fortress high in the Swiss mountains was a little too “mad scientist” for William Cross’ tastes, but at times like these the gloomy dark atmosphere fit his mood perfectly.
It was all coming apart. He’d been so close – Quinn had gotten Barton on the fucking helicopter. Moments later the bird was crashing, and his men were screaming about the Hulk.
Fucking Avengers. It was the reason he hadn’t been able to recruit any super powered beings for his campaign of revenge against Hawkeye. On his own it was really a simple matter of separating the archer from his bow and arrows, and a couple of things to remind him how he was basically little more than a well-trained circus acrobat.
He had powerful friends, however, and ever since he’d joined the Avengers, nobody with any real power of their own had been willing to touch him. Certainly not for the kind of money Cross could afford to pay.
So he’d turned creative in his thinking, appealing to human guns-for-hire that could be tempted by the promise of a small fortune – who would be lured by the challenge Hawkeye presented. That casting of his net had brought him Quinn. Jonah Quinn was a man at the top of his game; his success rate virtually unmatched, and his reputation above reproach.
And he’d almost done it. Even when Cross finally told him everything, Quinn hadn’t hesitated to get Barton on the chopper. Son of a bitch. His people were still trying to piece together everything that had happened, but Cross suspected his luck just wasn’t good enough this time out for both Barton and Quinn to have died in the crash.
“You should have walked away.”
Startled, he whirled to see that he wasn’t alone anymore. A woman stood just inside the double doors to his office – only her red hair and pale skin made her more than a creature of the shadows. Cross knew her on sight. “He’s been a thorn in my side for too long. I’m entitled to take him out.”
Black Widow stood quietly, hands clasped in front of her. There were persistent rumors about her and Barton. Cross knew she had to be angry about the kidnapping, about what he’d done, but he couldn’t see a trace of it anywhere around her. “You’re the one who made it personal, William,” she said calmly, her voice without inflection. “First when you tried to brainwash him, and now..?”
His heart skipped a beat as it occurred to him that Quinn might have sold him out. The man was known for never rolling on his clients, but few ordinary humans could stand up to something like the Hulk. “I could have had him killed,” he protested, taking a few unsteady steps backwards. “I wasn’t going to. I offered Quinn a hefty bonus to deliver him alive.”
The redhead looked as though she was considering his justification. “Problem is, William,” she said finally, “the only way that works is if you had something worse than death in mind for him.” She began walking forward then, matching him step for step.
Genuine fear washed through him. Quinn had sold him out. She knew. Cross flinched violently as he backed into his desk. “I was going to use one of the best surgeons in the world for the procedure,” he babbled as Black Widow continued to close with him. “I swear – he would have survived. He could have learned to live without it.”
She was close enough by then that he saw the anger as it filled her eyes and knew that he’d been wrong. Quinn hadn’t betrayed him – hadn’t told Nick Fury’s pet assassin what his plans were.
He’d done that…all by himself.
It was a mark of how much emotional damage had been done that Clint didn’t protest being confined to S.H.I.E.L.D. Medical so his physical condition could be properly dealt with.
At least not until the third day. By then all the myriad bruises and fractures he’d collected were starting to sort themselves out. The pain he did feel was nothing compared to the frustration of inactivity and the pressure of being monitored 24/7 by people he didn’t know and who didn’t really know him.
So he protested when they tried to give him more painkillers, and argued with the nurses who counseled him to rest ‘a few more days’. He never resorted to violence, but once he pulled out his own IV in front of the lead doctor on his case, he knew it would only be a matter of time before Fury got personally involved.
“They’re trying to help you.”
Clint felt some of his tension drain away when he looked up and saw Nick Fury standing in the door to his room. “I know,” he admitted, “but I’m fine.”
Fury held out a hand, and Clint passed him his chart. “My shoulder still aches some,” he went on as the Director flipped through the pages, “but that’s from Bruce catching me in mid-air, not anything Quinn did. I’m over the heat sickness. The concussion’s eased – I’m not asking to go right back on active duty Director, but I’ve got to get out of here.”
“Good.” Fury looked up at him then, his good eye shining slightly in the reflective light. “I’ve read your report of what happened, Agent Barton, and I’m glad you recognize that I can’t release you to active duty just yet. You’re going to be spending a good long time in physical rehab, and possibly longer with a psychiatrist. I need to know that this isn’t going to come back and bite us at the wrong moment.”
He realized with a small shiver of fear that Fury knew about the nightmares. Three nights in a row, and only Tony’s assurances that it was understandable after what he’d been through had kept Clint from completely freaking out about them. “I understand, Director,” he said, feeling himself come automatically to attention. It was the kind of thing that could put him out of field work for good – strange as the idea felt about baring his soul to a stranger, Clint knew he would do that and more to keep the life he’d built for himself.
Fury was silent for a long moment, then nodded. “Get your things and return to your quarters. I’ll clear it with Dr. Badgley.”
Quinn sensed he wasn’t alone a fraction of a second after the door closed. “You at least going to give me a fighting chance?” he asked, raising his hands and turning towards the woman who was walking out of the shadows of his bedroom. “Looking good there, Tasha.”
A hint of a smile ghosted across her lips. Quinn had kissed her once on a dare, and she’d nearly broken his jaw for it. “I’m not here to kill you Jonah,” she said. She used his first name deliberately, the same way he always teased her with ‘Tasha’ or ‘Tash’ instead of her preferred ‘Nat’. She crossed her arms over her chest. “I wanted to thank you.”
That surprised him. “You’re welcome, I guess,” he said, lowering his hands again. “Why?”
She shrugged. “Dead or alive, you and I both know you could have done a lot more damage to Clint and still collected your full bounty.” Now she did smile, indicating the still livid bruises on his face with a small jerk of her chin. “You’ve hurt men a lot worse for a lot less.”
Now it was his turn to shrug. “The deal bothered me,” he admitted. “Maybe I should have looked further into it, found out what Cross was really after – I don’t know. Once I’d taken the contract…”
“About that.” She relaxed to the point where she looked to Quinn almost pleased with herself. “Your contract with Cross is void. No black mark against your record, no damage to your reputation.”
Quinn raised an eyebrow at the news, but he supposed he should have expected something like it was going to happen. S.H.I.E.L.D. was trying to undo a lot of the emotional damage the Soviets had done to young Natasha Romanov, and the results tended to manifest themselves in interesting ways. “Thank you for that. I hope it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience?”
She shook her head. “It was my pleasure.”
Black Widow returned to South Korea to complete her mission. Hawkeye settled back into his quarters, and began daily sessions with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top psychiatrist. He let everything go, talking about his fears, his frustrations at being taken so easily, his guilt at the lives of his men who’d been sacrificed, and even his lack of guilt when Fury brought him the news that William Cross had died.
“Heart attack,” the S.H.I.E.L.D. director had said. “Too bad Agent Romanoff was stuck in South Korea – I think she would have liked to have been there.”
The irony of his words wasn’t lost on Clint. And even though he felt a twinge of regret that she’d tapped into her darker self to avenge him, he was grateful for her loyalty and devotion. That night was the first he slept without dreaming since his rescue.
Three days later, he was on one of the taller towers overlooking the S.H.I.E.L.D. compound. He still hadn’t been authorized to return to active duty, but even his psychiatrist had recognized the benefits of him starting to return to his daily routine.
“You’re looking good.”
The words were quiet, barely audible over the winds at this height, but the fact that he could hear them made him smile. He glanced over his shoulder, his heart beating faster as he saw Natasha standing by the door to the stairs. “You just get in?” he asked.
She nodded, coming to join him at the rail. “Been in debriefing.” She leaned into him, lightly bumping their shoulders together. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you. I’m sorry it happened at all.”
He snorted softly. “If you call everything you did ‘not being there for me’,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulders, “we definitely need to have a talk.” He pressed a kiss to her hair, closing his eyes against the tide of emotions that was suddenly threatening to overwhelm him. He was alive. He was safe, and even though other hands might have done some of the work, the woman at his side had made it happen.
“Thank you, Nat,” he whispered, briefly tightening his hold on her. “For everything."