“Enjoying yourself, Barton?”
Fury’s words cut through the wind, crackling in Clint’s ear. Crouched upon a spire with no protection from the elements, Clint was at the mercy of the wind, with the ice and snow slowly blinding him as it accumulated in his goggles.
“You have no idea,” he replied, shielding himself from the wind with his arm. “Though I still don’t understand why you need me here at all.”
“Neither do I,” Fury said. “In all honesty Agent Rumlow was my first choice but Agent Hill was adamant that we give you a test run.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, chief,” Clint replied. “Means a lot.”
“Mind that sass, Barton.” Maria Hill, the Director’s second-in-command. She’d started around the same time as Clint, but no one in SHIELD could deny she was eyeing for Fury’s job.
“Yes ma’am. Sorry ma’am,” Clint responded, hiding a chuckle under his breath. “Concentrating on the mission at hand.”
“Good. Oh, and Clint?”
“None of your theatrics please. Just get in, kill Cross and get out. Keep it simple, if you can help it.”
“I can’t promise anything,” Clint smirked.
“Good luck. Hill out.” Clint heard the static in his ear cut out. He flipped his mask up and leapt from his spot, swinging from the tower and landing silently beside a snow-capped gargoyle. Clint slid his visor back into place and focused on the building across from him. From his position, he had a clear view of William Cross’ office. Just a single explosive arrow could end the job quickly right here and now without the need to get any closer. But Clint Barton worked for SHIELD, and the last thing SHIELD needed was an investigation after half the Latverian intelligence building went up in flames. No, Clint was an assassin, not a terrorist. Nothing was ever that simple.
Clint loosed his first arrow, watching it trail gracefully across the skyline before securing on the far building. With it, a black, near invisible wire extended across the gap. Clint looped the wire round a gargoyle’s neck and tested the strength with his palm. Once he was convinced it would hold, he holstered his bow and looped his leg over the cable. The line followed a slight downward angle and Clint found himself sliding with little effort for the best part of the journey across. Upon reaching the other side, he acted swiftly, slicing the wire with the ridge of his bow and retrieving his arrow. So far, so good, he thought.
William Cross had once been SHIELD’s most respected interrogator. Clint had never known him well, but from what he’d picked up from Agent Hill, Cross had been SHIELD’s poster boy before disappearing two years ago during a mission in deepest Russia. Declared dead by the council, Cross’ position had been filled and his desk cleared out. It wasn’t until last month that Cross reappeared on SHIELD’s radar, acting as a personal advisor to the leader of an organization that SHIELD believed to be the beginning of “certain doom” for the western world. While their leader remained unknown and untouchable, Fury was certain that by taking out Cross, the real enemy would appear. Clint couldn’t say he agreed, but after eight years of training and several failed excursions, he wasn’t prepared to let personal doubt jeopardize his first proper mission.
The door to the roof took just a single kick to break down. Clint was curious as to how such a high-security building could have such a blinding weakness, but didn’t question it further. All that mattered was the task at hand. All that mattered was Cross.
Clint kept to the shadows, his bow drawn, taking each silent step slowly. If his sense of direction was reliable, Cross’ office was just two doors down the hall. Checking to see if his path was clear, Clint rolled from the corner and sprinted for the door, slowing as he neared his destination. A kick would alert the entire building of his presence, so Clint opted for a quieter shove in an attempt to break the door down. He forced his shoulder into the door, grunting as it opened with ease. He flew forward, tripping over himself and tumbled to the ground, crashing into the office. The door had been unlocked. Someone else is here, Clint realized, and they’ve been watching me. He hitched an arrow and swung around, correcting his posture. The office was empty, the desk neat and with no sign of anyone other than Cross ever having entered. More importantly, Cross was absent. Why would Cross leave his office unlocked? Clint thought. He lowered his bow and checked the corridor to confirm he was clear. He stepped out of the room and the world went black.
Clint awoke seconds later on the floor, his head throbbing. Beside him, a young, red haired woman in black crouched, a gun in her hand aimed at his head.
“You aren’t my target,” she whispered to Clint with the faintest remnant of a Russian accent. “But if you keep following me, don’t think I won’t go out of my way to put you down.” She stood up and began to walk away, leaving Clint panting on the ground, clutching his head.
“Clint, your vitals are all over the place,” Hill said in his ear, her voice wavering slightly. “What happened?” Clint shook the stars from his head and put his hand to his ear.
“Not quite sure,” Clint said, picking up his bow from the ground. “Another assassin perhaps?”
“Not a Latverian agent?”
“If she was I’d be dead by now. She’s definitely something different.”
“Well whoever she was, try and keep your distance. Bow wielding assassins aren’t exactly common and I’d hate to have to replace you.”
“Good to know I’m needed.”
“Actually I just can’t be bothered to fill out all that paperwork. Do you realize how much of an inconvenience you’d be if you died?”
“You know, for a second there you had me convinced,” Clint said, smiling to himself. “Don’t worry, Hill. Five minutes and I’ll be on my way back.”
“You’d better be.”
Clint sprinted down the corridor, keeping his steps light and avoiding the security cameras dotted along the ceiling. Fury’s report had confirmed Cross was still in the building, but if he was no longer in his office, Clint had no clue where to begin searching. The presence of a second assassin was another factor Clint had to take into account, but for now, all that mattered was finding Cross. The red-haired woman could wait.
Clint began to retrace his steps, passing the empty office again. Nothing had changed. He continued along the hallway, noting any changes to the environment. It wasn’t until he rounded the last corner that he spotted the final door, hanging slightly ajar. No noise came from within. Hitching a fresh arrow, Clint approached the door cautiously, balancing on his toes to minimize the sound of his footsteps. He nudged the door open with the point of his arrow. Across the room, William Cross stood facing away from the door, looking down at something hidden by his desk. He held a small pistol in his right hand. Clint took one look at his target and his reflexes kicked in. He loosed the arrow, feeling time slow as it whistled through the air and pierced Cross’ thigh. A spray of red spread up Cross’ leg and the man screamed, swiveling to face Clint. Cross raised his gun, but Clint was too fast. Another arrow embedded itself in Cross’ ribcage before the man had the chance to pull the trigger. He fell to the ground, blood staining his white shirt. Clint holstered his bow and walked over to his target.
“Thank you,” – Clint yanked the arrow from Cross chest – “very much,” he said. Cross screamed again, his face whitening as the blood drained from his wound. Clint notched another arrow, its purple point just inches from Cross’ skull. As he did, Clint took in his surroundings. A single bullet hole adorned the ground just where Cross had been standing. A bullet sat crushed beside it. A smoking bullet. Clint wasn’t alone.
Before he could react, an all too familiar boot made contact with Clint’s neck, throwing him across the room. The red haired woman dropped from the ceiling, landing gracefully and silently beside the moaning Cross.
“You stole my kill,” she remarked, glancing at Cross. “Nobody steals my kill.” She charged at Clint, two pistols raised. Clint had no time to draw as a pair of bullets ricocheted off the wall behind him, missing his head by a hair’s width. Clint kicked away from the wall, launching himself at his opponent. He swung his bow like an axe, slicing through air as the woman ducked below the attack, taking out Clint’s legs from below him. Clint again found himself on the floor. The woman stood over him, guns poised. Clint’s bow was in his hand; a loose arrow lay on the floor just within reach. Had it been anyone else, he could have easily overpowered them, but this woman, she was something different. Her speed; her reflexes. They were other-worldly. No amount of training could perfect such skills, especially for someone of such a young age. This woman was a weapon in human form. She was unstoppable. She was about to kill him.
Clint swung his leg up, catching the woman by surprise and gaining enough time to slide behind her as her fingers squeezed around the triggers. Before he could reach for his arrow, the woman’s fist impacted with his jaw, lifting him upward. She was too fast. Clint recovered quickly and lunged for the arrow, but his opponent foresaw his move. She lifted her leg and brought it up towards Clint’s chest, but this time, Clint was ready. He grabbed her leg as she came up and twisted, sending the woman flying across the room. He heard a sickly crunch as she collided with the wall, slumping to the ground. A deep shade of red emanated from a cut in her head, seeping into her hair. Clint looked down on her, crouching beside the dying body of their mutual target. From here she didn’t look like an assassin; she looked like a girl, barely into her twenties with bloody hair and a split lip. Clint didn’t want to fight her. As she stood, Clint saw anger welling in her eyes. She stepped towards him, raising her gun, before letting out a stifled scream and dropping to her knees.
William Cross, barely breathing, slid the blade from the woman’s calf and began to stand. Ignoring Clint, he raised the blade slowly above the woman’s head, clearly weakened by his injury. Clint watched in horror as Cross swung the blade, almost falling from the movement. Clint thought quickly. He notched his first arrow and loosed it, piercing Cross’ hand and impaling him against the far wall. Cross didn’t have time to scream before a second arrow found his neck. He stood, dead on his feet, stuck to the wall like an Egyptian hieroglyph with a hand out in front. The girl, clutching her leg, looked up at Clint. The anger in her eyes had faded, replaced with awe.
“You saved me?” she said. “Why?”
“Because you couldn’t kill me first,” Clint replied, offering her a hand up. “You gave it your best shot though.” The girl forced a smile, though it was clear she was in pain.
“What will you do with me?” she asked, leaning on Clint for support. “I cannot go with you. Not after this.”
“Honestly, after this, I’ll be lucky if I’ve got somewhere to take you,” Clint replied. He glanced around the room. “What a mess.” The woman was standing in a puddle of blood, looking up at him.
“Do all you Americans dress so…exotically?” she asked, motioning to Clint’s purple mask and vest.
“Trust me,” Clint replied, “This is nothing. You should see some of the other guys we get passing through.” The woman chuckled, but her laugh was cut short by a sharp wince. Clint examined her leg. The knife had cut deep into the tissue and she was bleeding heavily.
“That doesn’t look good,” he said. “What’s your name?” The girl hesitated, glaring at Clint. She clearly didn’t trust him, but at that moment she needed him. “You know what, never mind,” Clint finished. “I get it. Secret identity and all that.” He began to limp towards the door, carrying the woman on his shoulder. “I’m Clint by the way. Clint Barton.”
“Natasha,” she replied. “Natasha Romanoff.”
“Barton, we lost all contact. Is everything okay? Is Cross dead? Did you find the other assassin?” Maria Hill crackled into life in Clint’s ear. She sounded calm although Clint could hear the panic hidden behind her façade.
“Uh yes, yes and yes,” Clint replied, "although we may need a change of plan.”
“What have you done?”
“No, no, nothing. It’s just I may have acquired some baggage along the way.”
“Excuse me?” Natasha said, shifting her weight and causing Clint to stumble.
“Is that her?” Hill asked. “You do realize there is no way you can bring an unauthorized, potentially volatile assassin onto a SHIELD helicarrier?”
“I’m well aware, Agent Hill,” Clint replied, “But she’s bleeding pretty heavily and if she doesn’t see medical attention soon I can’t guarantee she’s going to make it.” He heard a sigh from the other end of the call.
“You know, Fury wouldn’t have allowed this, not in a million years, but there is a way I can help you. We’ve recently set up a new medical center in Hungary with all the facilities up here with half the security. I don’t know if it’ll be enough to save her, but it’s not too far from your position and by the time you get there we’ll have found this woman’s file and sorted out what happens next. It’s not going to be easy but it’s the best I can offer.”
“Hill, you’re a life saver, quite literally.”
“You owe me one, Barton. I’ll send a shuttle as soon as I can.”
“Clint.” Natasha’s voice sounded frail and distant. “You can’t take me with you. Just leave me. I don’t deserve this.”
“I’m afraid not,” Clint replied. “My people have managed to find a way to stitch you up and help you, and I’m not prepared to watch you die in there with Cross.”
“No,” she replied, “You don’t understand. When my organization discovers that I’ve left with you, they’ll come for me, killing anyone that stands in their way. They can’t risk having me out in the open.”
“Well then,” Clint said, “We’ll have to take them together. Don’t think you’re getting away that easily.” Natasha smiled briefly.
“Well if that’s the case, where are we going?”
“My people have set up a medical facility a couple of hours away. We can keep you stable during the journey and then hopefully stitch you up and send you on your way once we’re there. It should be clear skies from here on out.”
“Where is this facility?” Natasha asked. Through the office window, Clint spotted a dim light as their shuttle broke through the cloud line.
“Budapest,” he replied, as he and Natasha stepped out of the room.