It’s the photo that gets Clint.
James B. Barnes in all his shiny, newly-recruited glory. He’s gotta be all of eighteen years old, the definition of fresh-faced and handsome even with the ugly buzzcut. An army sergeant, decorated, captured in the line, missing the last six months. Clint’s expecting a no-man-left-behind body recovery, so he’s a little surprised when he sees the guy is, apparently, still alive.
“Why’s he matter?” Clint asks, flashing the picture at his handler slash CO slash babysitter for this month.
Sitwell looks up, and then a frown crosses his face. “You shouldn’t have that.” He reaches out a hand to take the file, but Clint shifts it back out of his reach.
“It was in my briefing packet,” Clint says, “Sir.”
“It must have been a mistake. Barnes isn’t a SHIELD concern.”
Clint flips through the pages. “Says the guy is being held locally. Seems like it’s not that much trouble to pull him out. We’re just sitting on our asses here.”
“Speak for yourself, Hawkeye,” Rollins mutters. Tough life, being a STRIKE grunt: Clint wouldn’t know, but the STRIKE boys complain enough he feels like he does.
“No one asked you to go,” Clint tells him, tilting back in his chair. Coulson would slap him across the back of the head for it, but Coulson isn’t here right now.
“No one is going. Orders from up high,” Sitwell says, “As for the-”
“‘Up high’?” Clint asks.
The look Sitwell gives him is bordering on dirty. “Colonel Fury.”
“Huh,” Clint says, giving the photo another glance, then the map beneath it. They’re surrounded by hostile territory here, on a patch of nearly-safe ground which is only nearly safe because of the secrecy. SHIELD’s job isn’t peacekeeping, it’s intelligence - that’s the party line, anyway. There’s the profile of the grunt leading the army extraction team, too: a Captain Rogers. “Is the army recruiting out of preschool these days? Jesus.”
“Drop it, Hawkeye,” Sitwell says, in his stern means-business tone.
That tone doesn’t do much for Clint, but he still sits back in his chair and says, “Yessir.”
He does keep the file, though.
Clint, unlike every other person in the world, actually likes nightwatch. He gets to sit up high, weapons close to hand, and sink into the steady watchfulness that gave him his codename in the first place.
It’s not usually interesting. Tonight, though, there’s movement under the cover of the moonless dark, distant yet but creeping steadily closer.
It’s been about fifteen minutes of it by the time his comm clicks to life. “Hawkeye, we’ve got movement inside the perimeter.”
“Yep,” Clint confirms. He’s got his rifle ready to go - Sitwell’s a stickler for using ‘real weapons’ at this range during the night, because he’s a doubter - but he’s not watching through the scope. His gut is quiet. Whatever is out there, he doesn’t think it’s a threat.
“Can you confirm what it is?”
“My vision ain’t that good,” Clint drawls. “But it’s heading straight this way. Give it another couple of minutes.”
There’s a brief moment of silence, and then, “Command says to use a flare.”
Clint strangles the ‘really?’ that nearly comes out of his mouth. “Then we’ll see what it is, and so will everyone else nearby.”
“That’s orders,” comes the reply. Jesus, Clint doesn’t know who’s at the other end watching the sensors tonight, but he already hates them.
“Confirmed,” Clint says, and makes sure the rifle is secure before he reaches for his bow and quiver behind him. Flares are fine, but flare-arrows are better: shorter burn time, more precise aim.
He puts the arrow to the string, sighting it before the flare starts to burn and wrecks his night vision. There’s always a pause between drawing and firing where he’s blind in conditions like these, but it doesn’t matter. He never misses.
Case in point: the arrow zips low and easy, burning brighter as it goes, passing over empty ground, empty ground, empty ground - and then the lumbering metal bodies of good ol’ fashioned American Humvees, travelling slow under the cover of darkness.
“Looks like they’re ours,” Clint says. “Try hailing them, get some credentials. And get Sitwell up.”
“Confirmed,” comes the hurried reply, and then nothing.
To his surprise, it’s Sitwell himself next on the line. “Hawkeye. Can you confirm that those vehicles are American?”
Clint frowns. “Confirmed.”
“Stay on them,” he says, like he thinks Clint’s up here sunning himself in his bikini at 2AM. “We’re trying to confirm who the unit leader is.”
“Let ‘em drive in,” Clint recommends. “Park up in the forecourt. If they’re not legit, we can deal with them there.”
“And if they’re rigged to blow?”
“They’re ours .” Christ. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll shoot ‘em before they get a chance to detonate.”
There’s silence. At this point, Clint can hear the engines clear as day. He says, “Hurry up and call it before we run out of time to make a choice.”
“Gates are opening. Prepare for potential hostiles,” Sitwell says, and his tone says he’s going to blame Clint in his report if someone has hijacked multiple US vehicles just to send them to bomb the shit out of a secret SHIELD installation in the middle of nowhere.
Clint’s job is technically to watch the outside of the walls, but once the Humvees have rolled inside and the gates are closed behind them, he figures he’s better off looking down on them instead. Bow still in hand, he slips through into the inside of the facility, blinking a little at the light.
Below the gantry he’s emerged onto, black-suited STRIKE agents have encircled the vehicles, weapons drawn. As he watches, Rumlow calls out, “Step out of the vehicles. Hands up.”
The passenger door of the frontmost vehicle swings open first, and someone in fatigues climbs out. He’s not wearing a helmet, his hands clasped over the bright blond of his hair.
“Identify yourself,” Rumlow barks.
“Captain Steve Rogers,” the man replies calmly.
Well. SHIELD wouldn’t go to the extraction team, but it looks like the extraction team has come to them.
Clint misses the drama afterwards because he’s still on duty, but he hears about it later from Agent Jacks, the guy unlucky enough to be bunkmates with Clint. Jacks looks nothing like a high ranking elite agent, being approximately 5’6” and weighing less than Natasha does, but that doesn’t mean much when it comes to SHIELD. They have the same clearance level, so Clint feels absolutely zero guilt indulging in gossip with the guy.
“Rogers says that they had to come this way because of enemy activity in the area. Command is spitting fire trying to figure out who leaked our coordinates to him, and Rogers isn’t saying anything - he’s claiming that they’ll move on within twenty-four hours, so what does it matter,” Jacks says from where he’s cross-legged on his bunk. Clint woke him up coming in, which is unfortunate because it’s only 0430. “Sitwell reckons he’s here to poach agents, seeing as SHIELD turned him down for reinforcements.”
“Sitwell’s paranoid,” Clint replies, peeling his boots off. “And I wouldn’t blame the guy, if that’s why. They don’t know shit about this area.”
“They know where we are,” Jacks points out.
“Yeah, because someone told him. Doubt whoever it was also told him how to not get his Humvees blown sky-high through the Valleys.” That’s what some poet called the roads north of here, which are liberally scattered with IEDs and often strafed by sniper fire from the hills above. “Aren’t you out of here at 0600?”
“Thanks for the reminder,” Jacks replies, though good-naturedly. “Hey, when you talk to Rogers, congratulate him on having the biggest set of brass balls in America for me. Driving a convoy through dark and radio silence to a secret military installment in disputed territory? Fucking badass.”
“‘When’?” Clint asks, dropping into his bunk.
“Yeah, ‘when’,” Jacks says, doing the same. “I’d appeal to your ego because you’re a fancy specialist who will definitely get to meet the captain before a lowly field agent like me, but we both know you’re just a nosey fuck who won’t be able to resist.”
Clint snorts. “Sure, man. Hit the lights, would you?”
Clint’s a nosey fuck who can’t resist. The thing is, it’s so easy . He gets up to grab some grub from the mess, and Rogers is right there in all his shiny blond glory. Apparently he’s grown some since the photo Clint got with his file.
Clint gathers a cup of predictably shitty coffee and a plate of food, and is considering whether he should go subtle - sitting at a table near Rogers and striking up gentle conversation - or full-frontal assault by just sitting straight across from him when Rogers looks up and gives him the most intensely scrutinising look Clint has possibly ever experienced. And he works for Nick Fury .
“You’re the one from last night,” he says. “The watchman over the gate. You fired that flare.”
Clint carries his plate straight over and sits down. “Maybe.”
“What kind of weapon?”
“Classified,” Clint says with great relish. He sticks his hand over the table. “Clint Barton.”
“Steve Rogers. Though I bet you already know that,” Rogers says, shaking it. His grip is firm and precise.
“News travels fast here,” Clint says. “Not much interesting happens in the desert. A blacked-out convoy arriving at o-fuck-thirty in the morning is pretty exciting for us.”
“Yeah, you looked really excited,” Rogers replies, dry as the aforementioned desert, “Hawkeye.”
Clint doesn’t twitch, forking a piece of shitty pasta into his mouth. Lunch for breakfast, delicious. “Guess I’m not that easily excited.”
So, Captain Steve Rogers already knows who he is. That narrows the list of people who gave him the base coordinates to about two. And Clint already knows Natasha wouldn’t tell this blond, blue-eyed piece of American muscle Clint’s first name, never mind his deeply-classified codename.
“This prisoner you’re looking for,” Clint says, “He important?”
“He’s a sergeant-”
“Not what I was asking,” Clint interrupts. “Is he important ?”
Rogers shrugs, and says, “He’s my best friend. Has been forever.”
Clint rocks back in his chair, balancing it on its back legs. Not really what he was going for, but, “Okay.”
“You have a best friend,” Rogers says. The words are an electric shock. “You’d do anything for her, huh?”
“Anything,” Clint says. “Including die.”
They stare into each other’s eyes for a long, long moment. Clint has had less intense eye contact on dates. He’s probably had less eye contact in general with people he’s fucked.
Clint lets his chair drop back onto four legs with a softened thunk. “So, hey. When do you leave?”
They don’t talk about it. It’s safer not to. In fact, they don’t talk at all until Dugan says, “We appear to have a stowaway, Cap.”
“I noticed,” Rogers calls from the front of the Humvee, “seeing as I can count, and all.”
Clint pulls his helmet off. “Figured this was the easiest way. Also, hi.”
“No,” Dugan replies, deeply unamused. “Cap-”
“He’s here as a guide,” Rogers replies, and then throws a look over his shoulder at Clint. “So, that classified weapon…”
Clint taps at the grip of his bow where it’s slung across his chest. “Don’t even worry about it, Captain.”
“Cap’s never worried about a thing in his life. That’s my job,” Dugan says. He looks genuinely kind of pissed. Clint hopes it’s not a masculinity thing. Fighting over manliness has always seemed like a waste of energy to him.
“You don’t have to worry about little ol’ me,” Clint says, trying his most charming grin out. “You’ll hardly even notice I’m here.”
Dugan looks him up and down, and then snorts through his mustache. “I’ll believe it when I see it, kiddo.”
“Fair enough,” Clint says. “So, anyone here got a map?”
There’s a lot of grumbling, but eventually a paper map is procured and handed to him. “We’re usually more technologically advanced, but we’ve been forty days and nights in the desert,” says someone with an impressive British accent. He draws an x over their target, which is perched on a relative high point amongst the flat lands further out.
The inviting, obvious path takes them directly through a deep gorge, the walls rising high either side of it. The Valleys. It looks nice enough on the map, but Clint knows the area well: it’s a killbox. Snipers up high, factions with anti-tank weaponry where the snipers aren’t, and all the flat ground is littered with IEDs.
“How do you guys feel about walking?” Clint asks, drawing their path out.
Rogers’ team is fit . Clint, who probably has horse blood way back in a distant branch of his family tree, has never had any issue with long-distance marches, but every member of the team keeps up with him admirably. Even Dugan, huffing away at the back, keeps a cracking pace.
It’s a clear night, the sliver of the moon above just enough to light their way over the treacherously uneven ground. It’s steep going, and a misstep would result in a bone-breaking fall. Clint, who is leading them along, lectured them about walking in his footsteps long enough to make them all roll their eyes, but he figures they wouldn’t have if they knew the stats on lost limbs and lives in the area.
They’re quiet, but every noise has Clint’s teeth on edge while he strains his eyes for any flicker of movement around them. There’s nothing, but he can’t rely on that lasting. He’ll have to save the sigh of relief for when they make it back to base, Barnes in hand.
Rogers, who is right behind him in the line and just as on edge as Clint, murmurs, “How’d you sneak out?” Apparently he can multitask. Or he just likes to crack wise on missions.
“Plausible deniability, Captain,” Clint replies, though he picks up the ‘one adrenaline junkie to another’ tone Rogers is laying down. Trust Nat to hook him up with another dude just as bad as him. “Just in case you’re tempted to rat me out later.”
“That would be hypocritical,” Rogers replies, “Seeing as I’m not supposed to be here either.”
“Kind of figured,” Clint says, and then comes to a halt, bow instantly in his hand and arrow to the string.
Rogers just barely misses walking into him. He draws in breath like he’s going to ask what Clint noticed only for his teeth to snap shut as there’s a rustling ahead of them to compliment the movement Clint just saw.
“Eeeh!” The yelp is loud enough to echo across the slopes, followed by the rush of feet on stone.
Clint swings his bow up, ready to fire - and then stops.
“Meeehh,” the figure says, panicked, resolving into one of the brown-patched hill goats that roam the area in flocks. It scatters away from them and then turns back to give them an affronted look.
“Fuc-” someone starts to stay, no doubt a half-relieved fucking goat, but Rogers interrupts with a low and carrying, “ Get down. ”
They drop, right as a sniper-round from the opposite side of the valley drills into the hillside above them.
Clint, bow still drawn taut, spins on his knees and fires.
There’s a barely-audible cry that cuts off into silence. The faint glint off glass from a sight shifts as though the rifle has been pushed off target by a body slumping over it.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” Dugan mutters into the quiet. They all wait a breathless moment for more movement, more noise, more gunfire, but there’s nothing.
Clint slings his bow back over his chest and says, “Let’s move. Quick as we can.” There’s only so fast anyone can move out here, but if the sniper has got reinforcements - which they definitely will - Clint has no intention of waiting for them. “Stay below the ridgeline.”
He doesn’t wait for a response. If Rogers’ crew won’t follow him after that, then they’re welcome to make their own way out. However, it’s gratifying to hear footsteps start up straight away behind him.
Maybe SHIELD is shady, and maybe Clint’s one of the worst, especially compared with these shiny-sharp be-medalled army boys. But they do, at least, seem to respect effectiveness. And effectiveness Clint can supply by the tonne.
Case in point: after another two hours of rapid hiking, they come into view of what Clint has been leading them to. It’s hard to make out from here, protected by the darkness and its low-lying architecture. Clint is willing to bet it’s mostly underground, which is unpleasant but unsurprising.
He already walked the others through the defenses of the facility on the drive - the ones he knows, anyway. Anything else - well, they’re probably good enough to improvise.
“Fall in,” Rogers says, clapping Clint on the shoulder, and then begins to rally his team like someone who was absolutely done this kind of bunker-busting work before.
It’s a beautiful thing to watch. Clint’s never been great at working alone - he’s too good at fucking up and fucking himself over if left to his own devices - but he’s always been with small teams, pairs or triads, out of the necessity of his work. Rogers’ fifteen men work like a finely tuned machine as they soundlessly make a hole in the security and then scale the exterior walls, sweeping Clint along with them.
Once they’re in, it’s just a matter of finding an out-of-the-way door and forcing it. Then they’re inside the ground floor level of the facility, in an empty hallway with flickering fluorescent lights and a distinct yellowing tint all over.
“Have you got any intel on the interior for us?” Rogers asks under his breath, suddenly at Clint’s side.
“Nope,” Clint replies, “But if I had to guess I’d say start at the bottom and work up.” Because if you’ve got prisoners, you want to make it as hard as possible for them to escape.
“Got it,” Rogers replies, and then splits them into four groups, one for each cardinal direction, and sends the other three away. His, Clint included, finds a stairwell and goes down as far as they can.
Unless they’re setting off silent alarms with each door they go through, the security seems pretty light. On the other hand, the entire staff seems pretty light - it’s not a sociable hour, but they only meet and subdue a single pair of roaming guards on the stairs. The place is also bigger than it looks - the stairwell bottoms out on the fifth floor below ground.
This door is different to the vaguely-institutional-but-normal-enough ones above. It’s steel, inset with a small barred window beyond which is just blackness. It also has a heavy locking mechanism with a number pad and fingerprint lock on it.
Rogers waves up Jones, who pulls out a thimble-sized blob of plastic explosive and a timer. He puts it in place, then waves them back.
“Thus ends the quiet portion of our mission,” he says with a grin. “Three - two -”
Clint flips his hearing aids off and covers his eyes, waiting for the telltale localised shudder of the ground and the even-audible-to-him clunk of the door. When he looks up, it’s open, with a smoking hole where the lock used to be.
The light of the stairwell, weak though it is, penetrates the dark beyond the door frame. The first thing Clint sees is bars, a metallic sheen in the pitch blackness. Then, he smells the unmistakable stench of humanity at its most base.
“Bingo,” someone says, and then they’re rolling in, moving faster now, flicking torches on as they go.
It’s like a horror movie: they’re only a couple of metres inside when a beam of light falls across a figure beyond the bars, skin and rags, hollows and bones. Clint, far from superstitious, jerks with the thought: that’s a dead man .
Then, the figure moves, resolving into something not-quite-dead, but far too close for any kind of comfort. The mouth opens and whispers, in a voice straight from the grave, and in a distinctly American accent, “ Help us .”
“Fuck,” someone says from behind Clint. Clint concurs wholeheartedly.
Rogers says, “Get these doors open.”
“Cap,” Dugan says, half-hearted. Rogers doesn’t seem to hear him, focussing on scanning the people in the cages in the light of his flashlight as he mutters commands into his earpiece.
None of them are in any better condition than the first. And, as they reach the end of the row of cages, none of them are Barnes.
“Fuck,” Rogers mutters, moving like he’s going to turn back and look again, like he might have missed Barnes the first time around. Clint pauses and crouches down across from a woman who is sitting against the bars in the last cell along. She watches him with ageless dark eyes, and with her skin pulled so tight with starvation Clint has no idea whether she’s a teenager or an old woman.
“We’re going to help you,” he says, and then fumbles at his belt for one of the emergency ration bars he keeps. Inside, he’s thinking that Dugan, however reluctant, was a lone practical voice of protest. It was hard getting here - getting out, with these people tagging along, and with people chasing them, is going to be impossible.
The woman reaches through with bony fingers and snatches the bar from him. Then Clint pulls out his lockpicks and opens the cell in a few quick movements.
“Can you walk?” he asks.
“No English,” the woman replies, heavily accented. She’s holding the food to her chest in both hands, not eating it.
“Can you walk?” Clint tries again in Farsi.
Her expression changes, eyes twitching wider. She shuffles herself to her knees, peering up at him. “Yes.”
“Good,” he says, and offers a hand down.
He wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d taken a chunk from him. Instead, she takes it, and he pulls her gently to her feet.
“The hospital,” she says once she’s upright, gesturing outside her cell. Clint frowns. “They took the others there.”
“Where’s the hospital?” Clint asks. Maybe it’s up a floor.
“Through the wall,” the woman replies, and for a second Clint is sure that he’s mistranslated that. Then, once he’s ensured she won’t fall and helped her out of the cell into the arms of her closest neighbour, he looks at the wall that seems to mark the extent of this underground bunker.
It looks like an ordinary wall. Clint runs the sensitive pads of his fingers over it, searching, and then - finds it. A whisper of cool air, alien in this overly-warm pit.
“Captain,” he calls, and then digs his nails into the crack he can just barely feel and pulls .
It doesn’t want to move, but he feels it twitch under his weight. There’s a moment where he leans into it and goes nowhere, and then hands mirror his below him and, between the two of them, he and Rogers roll the false wall aside.
It’s dark on the other side, too, but not the same cave-dark quality of the cells. Clint, blinking, takes a moment to recognise the glow of screen lights before the lights come on overhead.
It’s a laboratory - stainless steel benches with fairly benign-looking equipment on top, slick laminated floors, white walls and another heavy door at the far end of the room. Clint says, “She called this the hospital.”
“Who did?” Rogers asks. He moves panther-slow through the room, gun in hand.
Clint waves a hand behind them. “One of the prisoners. Where are the other teams?” Unlike the others, he doesn’t have radio contact with the others because his ears don’t like the gear these army boys are carrying.
“South and East rendezvoused and are on their way to our position to help us get these people out,” Rogers replies. Half of their West team are filtering into the lab behind them, the others presumably waiting with the released prisoners. “You think they’re doing human experiments?”
“I think if this was a real hospital, their prisoners wouldn’t look like they do,” Clint replies, matter-of-fact. They’re coming up on the far door, which looks far more foreboding now. “On three?”
Rogers nods his agreement, so Clint slides his back to the door while Rogers prepares to shoot anyone on the other side when it opens. Clint mouths three-two-one and then shoves the door open, letting Rogers through and then following.
There’s no gunshots, no immediate rush to clear a room of hostiles - just light, and quiet. Not the good kind of quiet: the waiting kind, expectant, the kind with signals something terrible behind it. Clint feels that, swallows it, and looks anyway.
It’s a nightmare belonging to someone with a vivid imagination, or perhaps just extremely unenviable life experiences. Clint’s gonna have some dreams about this later, for sure. The guy in the middle of it? He’s going to be in therapy for years.
“ Bucky ,” Rogers says, breathless like he’s gutshot.
There’s a clatter from further into the room that has all of them tensing besides Rogers, who is already at the side of the table. Clint takes just enough time to note the mess of Barnes’ left arm before he’s moving again.
“I’ve got it,” he says, waving the others off. Bow drawn, he slides past the row of machines encircling Barnes and into the darker space beyond.
It looks like a mad scientist’s lab - there’s stuff in here that Clint couldn’t identify if he had a gun held to his head, all of it gleaming and sleek and far less innocuous that the things in the first room. It surely can’t all be for taking people apart. It seems like overkill - Clint’s never needed more than his hands and a good sharp knife.
What it really is, is a maze. Clint thinks he’s the cat here, but there’s a good chance he could be made the mouse in a moment. He walks soft, slipping between shadows, wishing he was Nat’s size and not his own.
The mouse isn’t as careful, or not as well trained. Clint keeps hearing the squeak of a shoe on the floor, the brush of clothing against metal. The sounds of Rogers’ team fades as he gets further away, leaving Clint room to concentrate as he closes in. And he is closing in, inexorably.
Sure, his hearing ain’t that flash, but he’s a damn good operative - he can tell where whoever it is is hiding, like he’s sensing a disturbance in the force or some shit. He’s careful as he approaches though - no good to find the guy only to get shot by him.
Keeping his own handgun drawn, he peers around the edge of a tall clawed-arm-machine - and stops in his tracks.
“ Zola ?” he asks.
“Barton!” Zola replies, voice heavy with relief. He’s crouched in the shadow of a filing cabinet. “Thank God.”
“The hell are you doing here?” Clint demands, looking around. He doesn’t really know Arnim Zola - doctors are pretty far from his chosen social group - but he swears he would have heard if the guy had been captured -
- and that’s when the electricity flattens him, every muscle seizing. He hits the ground, helpless, and wonders for a moment whether this is how he fucking dies, at the hands of a little rat traitor. Cat, meet mouse.
Instead, Zola bolts, skirting Clint like he didn’t just fry him with a definitely-not-street-legal amount of volts, like he thinks Clint is going to grab him. Coward. And all Clint can do is watch as he dashes for a half-concealed door and slips out of it.
He must have made some noise, falling, because he doesn’t have to wait long before there’s movement heading in his direction.
“Barton!” There’s the clatter of boots, and then Dernier there is rolling him onto his back.
“Scientist,” Clint grunts through his chattering teeth. No matter how many times he gets tased, it’s still shitty. “Door. Go .”
Dernier doesn’t pause, straightening and taking off for the door. Hopefully he avoids the taser. Hopefully he shoots Zola, that bastard. Clint doesn’t have the full story yet, but anyone here with Barnes looking like that and willing to hurt what is clearly a good-guy rescue party is not on their side.
Clint, still tingling, forces his body to move, pushing himself onto his knees. An arm hooks under his armpit and hauls him up, holds him through his legs agreeing, tentatively, to hold him.
“Dernier’s chasing,” he tells Dugan, and the others behind him. “Guy in a white coat.”
“Cap’s started moving out his strays,” Dugan says, letting Clint shrug him off once he’s tested his body and found the results passable. “North found a truck to get them out. East and South are facing some resistance on the upper floors.”
“We make sure there’s no one else to rescue. While we’re here and all.” Dugan sounds bemused but not surprised.
Clint looks around at the computer bank against one of the walls. “Any data collection?”
“That’s your job, not ours,” Dugan says with a shrug. “Jones, Morita, check the rest of this room for any more doors. The rest of you...”
He pauses, listening on his earpiece, and then looks to Clint. “Dernier has your scientist.”
The door Zola slipped out of before leads to the morgue.
“Fuckin’ charming,” Dugan mutters under his moustache, stomping over to a cursory look into the metal drawers on the far wall. “Horror house of a fuckin’ rat maze.”
“At least bodies don’t shoot back,” Clint replies, though he keeps his bow out at they search the room for any more secret doors or hiding nooks. Just because they’ve got their hands on one scientist doesn’t mean more aren’t laying low in here.
He suspects these are the remains of the ‘others’ than the woman mentioned before. Awful as it is, at least their suffering is done.
They find a singular secondary exit, which leads into another vaguely institutional hall. The writing on the outside of the door, when Clint looks back, is Russian. He files that away for later consideration.
“He caught him on the stairs,” Dugan says, leading them down the hall, through what looks like an interrogation room from a cop procedural, complete with one-way mirror, another hall, and then into a stairwell on what must be the far side of the complex from the one they entered.
When they swing the stairwell door open, Dernier’s cheerful helmeted head appears over the banister above. “Here.”
“Bring him down,” Dugan says.
“Just let him roll,” Clint recommends. He’s ignored.
Zola, when he’s lead down, wrists ziptied behind his back, looks mostly impassive with a hint of fear. Clint can’t tell how much of it’s an act. Either way, he doesn’t attempt to act friendly with Clint again, giving him a lizard-like look of consideration instead.
He tries to remember where they’ve met before - at the Triskelion in DC, maybe, or in a briefing that involved a scientist. The guy doesn’t exactly leave a strong impression on first meeting.
“They’ve even got an interrogation room set up here,” Clint says, “How lucky are we?”
“Here?” Zola asks, in his elegant accent. “You want to ask me questions here? There’s fighting upstairs.” He says ‘fighting’ like a proper noncombatant, distaste like the word is alien and dirty in his mouth.
“We could try the lab back there, if you prefer,” Clint offers, smiling. “Barnes probably warmed the chair up real nice for you.”
Zola looks from face to face. “You’re Americans. You aren’t going to hurt me.”
Clint doesn’t bother doing the same to test how his current army buddies feel about torture. He doesn’t need to - he’s not going to push them that far. Of course, Zola doesn’t need to know that.
“You see a flag on me?” Clint asks, gesturing to his chest. Then he grabs Zola’s restrained forearm and jerks him around, on the cusp of rough. Behind the guy’s back, he gives the others a wink.
He steers Zola out of the stairwell and into the aforementioned interrogation room, dropping him into one of the metal-framed chairs in there. He’s unsurprised when the others follow, leaning against the walls like they’re preparing to watch a show.
“So. What were you doing to them?” Clint asks, keeping his tone conversational. “Those prisoners. What kinda fancy science were you using on them?”
Natasha trained him in interrogation because she’s the best there is, all smiling velvet and cold steel, impossible to keep the truth from. Clint, whose method was less intellectual and more break-them-until-the-truth-comes-out, learned and learned well from her. But something he learned long before they ever met is that smart people love the opportunity to feel smart in front of people who they believe to be stupid.
Hawkeye: playing dumb for professional and personal gain since ages ago.
True to form, Zola bites back a sneer. “I’m not telling you that.”
“It’s not just torture,” Clint says like he’s thinking out loud. “An army sergeant probably doesn’t know anything worth the effort. But POWs gotta make for pretty convenient lab rats, right?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, they’re there and tied up. What’s a few syringes of weird shit between scientist and helpless starving person?”
“Bodies had their skulls dissected,” Dugan volunteers.
Clint taps his index finger against his jaw. “Weird brain shit, then. What’s a nice scientist like you doing fucking with people’s heads?”
“Don’t be crass,” Zola replies, and it looks like he really does disapprove of cursing. The irony. “We’ve done beautiful things to the human brain.”
“Beautiful things? You bein’ literal here?”
Zola actually glares at him. “Of course not. Do you know the limits of our understanding of the brain? The things we’ve done here will shape the future in every respect.”
“How?” Clint asks, and then gestures about himself. “If you were hoping to publish a paper, I think you’re gonna get some questions on your practice.”
“Oh, no. The purposes are many, and far beyond the scope of simple publishing. Imagine, Mister Barton: an army of men who don’t hesitate to follow orders, and who don’t feel pain. Who are the peak of endurance and physical ability. Commanding officers with photographic memories and the ability to construct strategy that wins wars.”
“Soldiers,” Dugan interrupts. “You’re makin’ soldiers.”
Dernier gestures at himself, then Jones and Dugan. “We’re not good enough for you, Mister Scientist?”
“You will be replaced,” Zola replies, and his tone implies the fact that he doesn’t care exactly how that happens. “You will be obsolete .”
“So you succeeded?” Clint asks. “Because I saw a lot of bodies, and not a lot of unkillable soldiers.”
“What use would we have for soldiers here?”
“They might have stopped us from getting in and busting you, to start with,” Clint suggests. “So you’re selling them, huh? Who’s paying - China? Russia?”
“Everyone you can think of, and probably more than a few that you can’t.” Zola smiles up at him. Clint doesn’t like it at all.
Clint has been keeping SHIELD’s secrets for years. So even though it’s on the tip of his tongue to ask if Zola is a real traitor or if SHIELD is one of the keen investors in human trafficking and experimentation, he doesn’t ask.
He tries to imagine Coulson taking order on a bunch of living robots, but his imagination fails him. When he thinks of someone like Sitwell signing off on it, it gets a little easier.
“Do you understand yet, Hawkeye?” Zola asks, and his eyes gleam with the light of a zealot.
“Think I’m starting to,” Clint replies, grim.
From somewhere in the distance, there’s a floor-shaking boom.
Dugan says, “They’ve got reinforcements incoming.”
“Cool,” Clint replies. No wonder Zola has been so free with the information. He thinks they’re all about to be killed.
The door at the far end of the room rattles, and then bursts open, which is how Morita nearly gets an arrow in the throat. To his credit, he does duck. Thankfully Clint doesn’t fire, or it would be Barnes getting shot, and he’s probably been through enough.
“Oh,” Barnes slurs. “It’s that asshole.”
Rogers, who has his hastily patched-up buddy half-standing and half-held up by his good arm slung over Rogers’ shoulders, looks around the room. Then he says, “We need to move. We need to create a diversion so the others can get out.”
“Cool,” Clint repeats, and then turns back to Zola and shoots him between the eyes.
It’s not pretty. He doesn’t exactly feel bad about it though, especially when Barnes mumbles, “Yay.”
“Right,” Rogers says, in a tone that says they’ll be discussing Clint’s methods later. More fool him.
“You should get out now,” Clint says, taking out another arrow and examining it. It’s SHIELD made, probably by someone a bit like Zola. Clint never bothered to ask, actually. “I can provide that diversion.”
“Don’t sound so dubious,” Clint says. “Come on now. You’ve got your friend back, and people to save. I’ve got some information to find, and a longing for some explosions. Seems like a match made in heaven.”
“You’re looking for information? That’s not our mission,” Rogers says, frowning.
“That’s not,” Clint corrects, “ Your mission.”
It’s been a while since Clint made his own missions, picked his own targets. This is a pretty good time to return to it, he thinks.
“We really don’t have time to talk it out,” Clint says. “Drive out nor-nor-west until you hit the border. There’s a minor airforce installation out that way where they’ll be able to help you.”
“We’re not leaving you here alone,” Rogers says, which is sweet, really.
“Rogers,” Clint says, “I mean this in the nicest possible way, but if you don’t get out of here, I’m going to bring this whole place down around your ears.”
“Hawkeye,” Rogers says, “I can’t let you do that.”
It’s a real nice idea. Only this guy could say it and mean ‘because it would do terrible things to your immortal soul’ and not ‘I’m going to drag you up before a shadowy defense council and have you weighed and inevitably found wanting, if they don’t just throw you in a blacked out prison first’.
“You got what you came here for,” Clint tells him. “Think of it this way. You don’t have to worry about running those prisoners to death if there’s no one chasing you.” Then, he smiles.
“Y’know,” a drawling voice interrupts, “I think I gotta side with the angel here.”
Clint looks under Rogers’ shoulder and into Barnes’ bright eyes. The guy’s pupils are pinpricks. Clint had thought he’d been unconscious standing up. Reluctantly amused, he asks, “Angel?”
“Maybe I’m just hallucinating this whole thing,” Barnes says, sounding pretty relaxed about it, “But.” He mimes pulling back a bowstring with his bad arm, or at least tries to.
Of course, the movement unbalances him terribly so that he rocks almost onto his face, impossible for Rogers to wrangle properly. Clint takes a hasty step forwards and ends up with Barnes leaning heavy into his chest, still entangled in Rogers’ arm.
“Huh,” Barnes says, and pats Clint’s pec absently. “Oh, yeah. Blow them to hell, baby.”
“ Buck .” Rogers sounds aghast, and Clint’s not sure whether it’s the sexual harassment or the casual condonement of killing.
“I like you,” Clint tells Barnes, who tilts his head up so he can grin into Clint’s face. He’s gaunt and scruffy and pallid as a corpse, but Clint is charmed anyway. He never did have good taste.
Rogers strongarms Barnes off of Clint. “Bucky-”
“You should listen to your friend,” Clint says. “Also, you should get him the hell out of here. He’s not exactly fit for the frontline.”
Barnes, clearly forgetting their new friendship, levels a glare at Clint. “I go with Steve. T’ the end of the line.”
Rogers, meanwhile, rolls his eyes a little bit. It’s fucking cute. It’s also wasting Clint’s time.
“Get out,” he recommends, shouldering his bow in favour of the handgun holstered on his thigh. He thinks he’s about to see some close-range fighting. “I’ll make the biggest distraction I can as far from the vehicles as I can. If you waste the opportunity, that’s on you.”
“It’s been real, Captain. Glad you got your pal back.” He salutes, and then turns to leave.
To their credit, no one tries to stop him. Clint can’t make them go, but he hopes like hell they do it anyway.
The desert is great for views. Clint watches the facility burn bright and ferocious against the endless dark for long enough to confirm that no one else is coming.
Working as a lone operative against dozens of mercenaries willing to kill him? That’s his speciality. Planting explosives and sinking the entire building into its prison basement is just another skill. The truck that pulled away from the compound and out into the quiet dark while Clint worked? Icing.
The information he grabbed on his way out isn’t much, by comparison, but he hopes it’ll be a good first step.
Do you understand yet, Hawkeye?
What he has is a lot of questions, a very short list of people he can trust, and the intimate understanding that he can’t go home again. And he doesn’t mean the room he shares with Jacks, either.
It’s not the first time, and, going by his experiences so far, it probably won’t be his last.
He can’t stick around out here forever, though. Eventually he gets up, brushes his pants off, and then starts the long hike east for the border. He’s not quite paranoid enough to keep caches, but he can procure most of the things he needs, and the others will be at the safehouses he keeps that SHIELD doesn’t know about.
He doesn’t breathe a sigh of relief until he lets himself into one of them in northern Italy and finds it untouched. It probably won’t stay that way for long, but he’s got his papers and some money, and enough computer processing power to move onto step two.
Also - weapons to replace the ones he had to ditch.
He searches. He finds. Then, he plans.
The last thing he does, before he goes, is leave a message for Natasha, carefully encoded: see you on the other side.