Chapter 1: Bomb in a Birdcage
The thermonuclear blast wouldn’t kill you immediately, not unless you were in the epicenter of the weapon’s target. For most nuclear weapons, the 3km radius around the blast site would be nearly leveled and everything dead. Houses would be blown down, roads obliterated, bridges just rubble. Within the 5km ring around the detonation, you have roughly a forty percent chance of surviving, but you will wish you didn’t. You will die, just not immediately. It’ll take a few hours, maybe a day or two at tops. You are likely blinded or badly injured or burned from the blast, collapsing buildings, and the brightness of the blast. None of your electronic equipment works, your water and food would be considered contaminated. You will die of your injuries or burns sooner than later, and if later, likely of acute radiation poisoning. There are likely widespread fires caused by the heat blast. Within the 8km ring, your chances of surviving the initial blast are much higher as long as you aren’t hurt by damaged buildings and the panicked crowds. You will also die of radiation poisoning most likely. Within the 11km ring, you are more likely to be injured than dead. But don’t worry, that’s coming soon.
What will makes nuclear weapons so deadly is the fallout. Over the next seven days, the people in a 50km tract from the target site in whatever direction the wind is blowing will die of severe, acute radiation poisoning. They will begin to die as soon as exposure is reached as the cloud of fallout begins to move in their direction. The fallout will poison their land for up to fifteen years before it becomes livable again. The lethal stretch of fallout continues for 144 km from the explosion. Death will occur within a few days if you’re lucky. If you are unlucky, you will die, painfully, and slowly, over a period of two weeks. Up to 250kms from the detonation along the wind patterns, you will experience severe damage. Your immune system will never recover and your digestive system will be tortured. It won’t be the radiation that kills you directly, but you will die of bacterial infection or the common cold, things that shouldn’t kill you. Over 400 km away from the blast site, you will have mild nerve damage and your immune system will be damaged, though it’s likely to be temporary as long as you limit further exposure. At 400km, the environment is still unsafe for living for another two years.
These are facts that Clint Barton carries with him. He has never seen a nuclear weapon explode and he’s glad for it. He’s worked against nuclear war and if he could abolish nuclear weapons, he would do so in a heartbeat. If you get him started, he will tell you how they’re imprecise weapons in a world that requires precision. He will tell you that they lack proportional response and they are no longer strategic weapons unless you want everyone to die, people who couldn’t possibly be involved in your conflict.
But Clint Barton was a fan of a metaphor and he understood a metaphor when he saw it when he wakes up, alone, in Sofia, Bulgaria. He sat up in bed, rubbing his forehead and staring at the dented pillow and rumpled sheets next to him with a growing sense that things had gone unbelievably wrong.
“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. He slid out of bed without giving it a backwards glance. He didn’t need to call for her. He knew that she wasn’t there. He started the shower and stepped into it before the water heated up. Felt like punishment in the cold water but it helped to clear his head and who’s to say he didn’t deserve cold water right then?
The mission had gone well on paper. He had covered her, sitting on top of the catherdral a few blocks away, sighting her down a rifle because it was too long of a distance for his bow and arrow and sometimes, he didn’t want people to know his signature. This was one of those ops. She had gone into the opera house precisely at 6:30. The curtains went up on the ballet at 7pm and she sat through the entire thing. He enjoyed the music through the mike disgusted as jewelry around her neck and Coulson enjoyed the ballet through the video that was sent back stateside. Afterwards, Natasha slipped into the afterparty and bought a drink for a soloist with the ballet, a beautiful girl with cheekbones that went on like her legs. She was the daughter of an Iranian nuclear physicist. The soloist knew that someone would be making contact with her regarding her father’s work and Natasha gave her the payment in exchange for a flashdrive with her father’s testimony recorded on it. If it was useful, then SHIELD’s second payment would be to extract him from Iran and put him into protective custody. That was not part of their job.
Natasha’s job was to sweeten the deal for the girl who was nervous as hell and was jabbering like a parakeet at the party. Clint listened to Natasha play the girl, soothing her and speaking ballet like she knew something about her. Back at the girl’s hotel room across from the opera house, still where Clint could watch them through the scope, the girl made the trade. Natasha tucked the flash drive into her bra and thanked the girl. She promised that she had not been tracked and the girl shyly asked if Natasha wanted to stay. It should have been surprising – their intel on Raina told them that she was straighter than one of Clint’s arrows—but it was Natasha and if someone was going switch sides for a night, he supposed she had the right idea: go big or go home. Natasha made her excuses, slipped onto the street, and Clint made sure she was well clear of the opera house before taking down his equipment, packing up, and meeting her back at their hotel room.
Clint Barton loved himself a clean mission. They’d be on a flight back to the US in the morning and not a single shot had been fired. People thought that he as a sniper was more violent, more prone to taking the shot because, they said, “it was easy, you’re really far away, you don’t have to watch them die.” It was a lie: he always watched them die if he had time. It was like a vigil and it kept his ledger balanced. And secondly, being a sniper was one hundred percent about being thrifty with his shots. He only took the shot when he knew he was going to make it and when it was absolutely necessary. And Natasha was learning to like missions that didn’t involve her sleeping with anyone, undressing in any way shape or form, or killing anyone with any type of weapon including her thighs.
He barely got the words, “That went perfectly!” out of his mouth as he shut the door behind him before she had him pinned to the door. His instincts would have kicked in—eventually, right?—except before he could take the breath he needed to dump his stuff, reach his gun, elbow her, and whatever else he could do, her mouth closed against his and he stood there, dumbly, only vaguely aware that it was Natasha’s body pressed against him, that it was Natasha’s mouth that tasted like tangerine chapstick, lipstick, and it was Natasha, his Natasha. He didn’t ask questions at the time. He had rolled with it. She had pulled his shirt over his head and he had returned the favor. They had stumbled backwards, barely making it to the bed. She had wanted him and he would have to be a corpse not to want her and they fucked, less than gently, on a stiff mattress in the same city where he had made a different call.
He should have known, in retrospect, because the closest he had gotten to touching her in two years was slinging an arm around her shoulder and stitching up her forehead after she was cut once. Zero to sixty was hard to think about in the heat of the moment but he wishes, suddenly, that he had used his brain at all the night before.
Clint dressed quickly, armed himself lightly, and stood at the window to call Coulson. “Hi. We are going to take a few days here.”
“Anything I should know about?” asked Coulson without a note of worry.
“Nope, just need a few days,” Clint lied through his teeth, peeking through the curtains. His eyes scanned the busy streets. He did not see her. “We’ll make our way back. Our credit cards authorized for that purchase?”
“Touch base when you’re coming back in. You’re good to go. Don’t spend too much money.”
Clint had no intention in maxing out his company credit card, but depending on how far Natasha ran, he wondered if Coulson would be pissed if Clint spent the next few days globetrotting after his gunshy partner. He snorted slightly at his own mistake in calling Natasha gunshy. He went back to her side of the room, to the bed she did not sleep in last night, and rooted through her belongings. He told himself it was important for him to know what she took. He was not surprised, and not thrilled, to find that she took her passport, her gun, her wallet with her false papers in it, and her jacket.
He looked at himself in the mirror as he straightened. He told himself, “You’re an idiot, Barton. An idiot.”
He locked the motel room behind him. He informed the front desk that they would extend their stay. The receptionist was delighted and gave him a map of everything he could do in Sofia. He thanked her, smiled, and asked if she knows when his friend left. She gave him a sassy smile and a wink, but replied that she did not see Natasha leaving, she only started her shift thirty minutes ago. Clint allowed Natasha one moment of admiration that she had slipped out more than thirty minutes prior without waking him, and then he pushed open the door of the hotel. He went into the bright sunlight looking for her.
He was not the epicenter of this bomb. But he felt the fallout.