Predator and Prey
She watched impassively as the needle and thread slid through the skin on the back of her left hand. The doctor had used a topical anesthetic to dull the pain - he had offered to use something stronger, but she’d refused.
She couldn’t afford to have her senses dulled, even a little, first, because she wasn’t sure how long it would take Clint to follow her trail, and secondly, because she didn’t trust the doctor treating her now.
She’d surprised him in the small clinic where he worked, just as he’d been closing for the evening, and promised that she would spare his life in exchange for his cooperation and silence. After all, if he returned to work the next day, no one would ever be the wiser. If he disappeared, and his body was found, there was a chance, however small, that the Red Room would connect it to her. Dead men, she knew, did sometimes tell tales.
Still, despite her promise to the doctor, she’d kept her knife in her good hand, and every few minutes she saw the doctor’s eyes dart towards it nervously. His stitches were good, though, his fingers quick and steady. Steadier than hers would have been, if only because she would have had the use of just one hand to accomplish the task.
It was the reason she had decided to risk approaching the doctor in the first place. If the injury scarred obviously, it might very well serve as an identifying mark the Red Room would search for, since she had no doubt that Clint would relay the specifics of the fight to his superiors.
His name came easily to her now - as though she’d never forgotten it in the first place. But she did not remember learning it, didn’t even truly remember who he had been to her, or how they had met, except that it had been inside the Red Room.
Nonetheless, small glimpses…flashes of him had remained with her. She had hidden them away with the few memories she had of before - memories of a woman’s voice, a scream, and smoke - and somehow, she had always found them waiting for her when her mind was her own.
Clearly, Clint did not remember her in the same way - or perhaps, if he did, he did not care about whatever connection they may have had in the past.
That, she knew, was the smarter course to take. Sentimentality could get her killed…and it still might, because she hadn’t pressed the advantage when she’d had it. She’d run instead.
She could excuse it as a tactical decision. She’d had no way of knowing if Clint was working alone or if others had been with him, and a quick withdrawal might very well have been critical for her survival. Moreover, even if Clint was working as a solo operative, his death would have provided only a short delay because the Red Room would simply send someone else in his place. The benefit to her would have been negligible at best.
In the end, however, she knew that such excuses were weak.
Clint had been trying to kill her. Had nearly done so. Every instinct, all of her training, demanded that she neutralize the threat he posed.
"We can fight them.”
In all likelihood, the Clint who had spoken those words was gone; the Red Room wouldn’t have allowed him to live, even if they planned to keep his heart beating. But she remembered that Clint all the same.
She would not kill him unless she absolutely had to.
“It’s done,” the doctor told her in accented English.
She looked down at her hand, now marked by a long, neat row of black stitches. She moved her fingers experimentally, tightening her hand into a fist, testing her range of movement. The stitches pulled at her skin, but they held.
Satisfied, she nodded at the doctor and stood. He moved away instinctively, eyes wide, and she followed until she was directly in front of him, her knife poised just inches from his jugular.
“I was never here,” she said simply.
He nodded as adamantly as the knife at his throat would allow, and she watched him for a long moment, seeing nothing but terrified sincerity in his expression. She withdrew the knife, and bent to replace it in the sheath strapped to her calf.
Then she walked away without a backward glance.
She’d left Ecuador as quickly as she could. She’d made her way across the continent, stealing cars when necessary or taking the bus when traveling in a crowd provided better cover. When she’d reached Barinas, Venezuela, she’d checked into a motel, hoping that the change in tactics might give her an advantage, however small.
The motel sat the end of a small side street, in a neighborhood that had obviously seen better days. But, it was the tallest building in the immediate area, no security cameras monitored the hallways, and the clerk at the front desk had barely looked up before taking her money and giving her a key. The latter was especially important, given that she hadn’t yet had a chance to replenish her wardrobe, so the blue t-shirt she wore now was a size too large and the tattered jeans she’d found had too many holes in them to pass as stylish.
She’d asked the clerk for a room on the second floor, one with a good view of the street and the surrounding structures below, and he had answered the request with the same careless nonchalance he’d shown when she’d arrived.
A day had passed in relative quiet. She’d begun replacing the supplies she’d been forced to leave behind in Ecuador, and even acquired another gun - one taken from a petty thief who’d picked her out as an easy target. As evening had approached, she’d thought about going out again, but she had slept, at best, a handful of hours in the last week, and such a pace was impossible to maintain long-term. Better that she rest while she was reasonably secure. After all, there was no way of knowing when she’d have another chance.
Not bothering to undress or remove her shoes, she stretched out on top of the cheap floral bedspread, freed one of the pillows from beneath the blanket and slid her knife under it. Then, hiding the handgun in the holster at her back, she set the alarm clock to wake her in five hours, and closed her eyes.
Some time later, it was instinct and not the alarm that woke her, followed by the sound of a boot on the carpet, a soft footstep, barely audible.
She stayed still, keeping her eyes closed, her breathing deep and even.
There were more soft footsteps, coming from the direction of the door, but still, she didn’t move. If her attacker hadn’t acted yet, then chances were, he wanted to kill her up close. His mistake.
Soon, she felt a presence looming over her, heard the quiet rustle of clothing, and beneath her pillow, her hand gripped the hilt of her knife.
She sensed, rather than saw, the tightening of a trigger, and surged up from the bed, kicking out with both legs, sending her attacker into the wall behind him before she rolled backwards across the mattress and landed on the other side, knife raised.
The room was mostly dark now that the sun had set - she had kept the curtains closed, and very little light filtered through them. But she could see enough to be certain that her attacker wasn’t Clint; this man was taller, broader…and his movements were slower because of his size. Slow enough, in fact, that he hadn’t gotten to his feet yet when she sensed another presence behind her, by the window. She spun, using one leg to sweep a second attacker off their feet. This one was female, judging by the smaller, slimmer build and the distinctly feminine grunt she gave when she landed on the floor.
The woman was faster than her male partner though, and jumped back up a moment later, gun still in hand. A strike to the woman’s forearm pushed the gun away, and the shot went wide, shattering the TV screen across the room.
Seizing her advantage, she kicked out again, forcing the gun from the woman’s hand as her foot connected with it. She spun and brought down her knife, stabbing it into the woman’s thigh, then drew her gun with her other hand, aimed, and fired. The woman fell with a pained cry, and there was a dull thud as the bullet hit, the muffled kind she had come to associate with body armor. Still, even if the armor assured that it wasn’t a fatal wound, she knew that her bullet had stuck the woman center mass - that, combined with the wound to her thigh, would be painful enough to keep her down for now. That was all that mattered, because the man was on his feet again, his gun aimed at her head.
Leaving the knife in the woman’s thigh, she rolled once more, pressing low to the floor, three bullets hitting the wall behind her. The shots themselves were quiet - her attackers had silencers, though she didn’t, and someone had likely heard her own gunshot, not to mention the sound of the impacts from the crossfire. If the police weren’t already on their way, they soon would be.
She needed to end this quickly.
Holstering her own gun again, she sprang up onto her hands and did two front flips, the movement carrying her quickly across the room until she reached the man. Flipping upside-down again, she wrapped her legs around the arm that held the gun and twisted backwards. She heard a snap in his wrist and he released the gun. She landed on her feet, caught the gun as it fell, then turned it in her hand and brought it hard across his face.
He stumbled backwards as blood welled from what was most likely a broken nose, and she spun again, kicking out, her boot connecting with the side of his head. He fell to his knees, then crumpled to the floor and didn’t move.
She glanced at the gun she’d taken, then quickly released the clip and ejected the remaining bullets, tossing the empty gun aside. She knew better to than to bring it with her. These two were not from the Red Room - their fighting styles had proven that much - but if they were well-supplied, then it was possible that their weapons had, at the very least, some sort of tracking device attached to them.
She was certain she’d made the right call when she opened the door of her room, and light spilled in from the hallway, illuminating the man’s prone form. There was a white, stylized eagle on the sleeve of his uniform.
She’d known that the Red Room might not be the only agency to take an interest in her once the news had spread that she’d gone rogue. There were numerous groups who would want her for the intel she could provide, and others who would want to recruit her for her skills. She would have put S.H.I.E.L.D. in the former category, though, perhaps they knew enough about the Red Room to realize that she had relatively little intel to offer. By and large, her knowledge of Red Room operations was limited to her current mission only. Her superiors had made sure of that. Apparently, S.H.I.E.L.D. had decided they were better off eliminating her before she had a chance to sell her skills to the highest bidder.
She heard the female agent stirring and immediately sprinted down the hall, taking the stairs two at a time.
The clerk at the front desk had on a pair of old headphones and was bobbing his head to music, but he looked up as she ran past, his eyes widening almost comically as she kicked open the lobby door, the wood splintering beneath her boot.
The second she was outside, bullets filled the air around her and she dove for the sidewalk, rolling behind a parked car. The window shattered just above her head, and she ducked down even more.
She reached behind her back to draw her own gun just as another round of bullets struck the car, but they weren’t a high enough caliber to pierce the metal. She quickly turned, raised herself in a crouch, aimed through the car’s broken windows, and fired at the building across from her.
The light outside was mostly limited to a few nearby streetlamps, and she could only guess where S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sniper was hidden, but she must have been close to her mark because her shots weren’t answered immediately, a sure sign that the sniper had been forced to take cover as well. It didn’t last, however - she didn’t have any extra clips for the handgun she’d taken from that thief, and already the rounds in it were nearly spent. She needed to conserve as many bullets as possible.
Spitting a curse in her mind, she ducked down again and let her gaze sweep the surrounding street as another round of shots impacted the car. She saw a few people fleeing to avoid the gunfire, but gave them very little consideration; S.H.I.E.L.D. had a reputation for trying to prevent civilian casualties, but hostage situations were almost always messy and drawn-out, and she preferred to avoid them if possible.
A shot struck the car’s rearview mirror above her, and she grimaced as small, sharp fragments rained down.
That was when she heard it - it was difficult to discern beneath the gunfire, but it was there, and getting louder: the low rumble of an engine.
Her eyes found the truck a moment later, a large, white box truck with shining headlights that was coming swiftly up the road on her side of the street, traveling west to east. She wasn’t sure why the driver hadn’t heard the gun shots, but maybe the noise of the engine was loud enough in the cab to conceal them. In the end, it didn’t matter, because the S.H.I.E.L.D. sniper had clearly noticed the truck at the same time, and like she’d hoped, he stopped shooting long enough to allow it to pass.
She holstered her gun, waited until the truck was almost directly in front of her, then jumped up, slid across the roof of the car, and launched herself into the air, catching the rungs of a ladder mounted on the side of the truck. The vehicle was moving fast enough that her shoulders took a hard jolt, and her still-healing hand gave a sharp throb. But she grit her teeth and held on, pulling herself flat against the metal, staying low so that the body of the truck hid her from the sniper’s view.
It wouldn’t take S.H.I.E.L.D. long to figure out where she had gone, but at this point, any distance was better than none.
Two blocks passed, then another and another as she clung to the truck, the wind whipping her short hair around her face, her muscles straining.
Without warning, the truck suddenly veered to the left, and she tightened her grip, thinking for a moment that the truck was taking the turn up ahead. But when the truck kept going, aimed straight for one of the parked cars along the edge of the road, her eyes widened and she pushed herself away from the ladder as hard as she could.
Her momentum carried her to the car’s roof before the truck could crush her against it. The truck scraped along the side of the car and then veered away again, but she barely heard the impact; she landed on the car’s roof with a crunch, and rolled down the back window, over the trunk and into the street, tumbling a few more feet before she finally came to a stop.
Her vision went hazy for a moment, and she blinked rapidly, trying to clear it; she was laying on the asphalt on her stomach, one arm trapped beneath her. She wanted to move, but her body wasn’t obeying her mind’s commands, and when she tried to draw in a breath, her chest refused to expand.
She heard rather than saw the truck screeching to a stop and redoubled her efforts to stand, finally pulling in a ragged lungful of air and lurching to her feet. Her legs were barely holding her weight, but she knew that if she didn’t keep going, she was dead, and she managed something like a stilted run to the side of the road, this time taking cover behind a van.
Her whole left side throbbed sharply from landing on the car’s roof, though her shoulder and ribs seemed to have taken the worst of it. She shifted slightly, grateful not to feel the grinding sensation that usually indicated badly broken bones, though fractures were always a possibility. Pushing the pain aside, she reached for the gun at her back, surprised to find that her leap from the truck hadn’t dislodged it, and leaned against the van’s back door, pausing when she felt it give a little behind her.
She tried the handle and the door opened with a faint creak; deciding not to question her luck, she slipped inside before closing it again. The van had a long, empty compartment with only the driver and the passenger seat in the front. In the dim light, she could see that a few scattered cables of some sort rested on the floor, but otherwise the van was empty. She crept forwards, staying low, until she reached the seats where she peered over the headrests and dashboard, through the windshield, to the now-idling truck beyond.
The truck had come to a stop at an angle, giving her a clear view of the cab; the driver’s side door was open, but the driver was no where to be seen.
She tensed, her eyes scanning the side of the road.
There. A small flash of movement in the rearview mirror on one of the parked cars ahead of her. Quick as it was, it was enough for her to see who had been inside the truck.
He’d found her.
He must have been watching her, though for how long she wasn’t certain, but he’d obviously seen his chance when S.H.I.E.L.D. had chased her outside of the motel.
There was another flash of movement, and her hand tightened on the gun she held, her eyes narrowing. Clint was making his way along the sidewalk, using the cars as shields, and she didn’t have a clear shot. If she missed, she’d have wasted a bullet, and she had too few left to take that chance. And if she didn’t miss, she might very well kill him.
She’d have to wait until he got closer.
She had one advantage: he didn’t seem to be targeting the van directly, so in all likelihood, he didn’t know where she was. He must have lost sight of her long enough that he could only guess where the crash had taken her. He was heading in her direction, however, and she wouldn’t have time to hot-wire the van before he reached her.
She ducked down again, then winced as the movement brought the pain of her injuries back to the forefront. But, it wasn’t as intense as it had been initially, and pushing it aside once more, she returned to the back of the vehicle. Reaching for the door’s handle, she eased it open a fraction, keeping her gun at the ready.
The doors had large windows, offering a view of the sidewalk outside, and the moment a dark shape appeared behind the van, she swung the door open, using it as a battering ram.
It struck Clint with enough force to send him back a few feet. He had his bow in his hands, like she’d known he would, but he hung onto it, even as he stumbled. Keeping most of her body behind the door, she stepped out of the van, raised her gun, and fired over the hinge, aiming for Clint’s shoulder.
He dropped before her finger tightened on the trigger, and rolled forward, the bullet streaking over his head. When he came to his feet again, he swung the hard edge of his bow into the door’s window. Glass exploded around her, and she had to turn her face away to avoid being hit by it.
Clint took advantage of the distraction, grabbing her wrists with his free hand and yanking them down, over the hinge, forcing the weapon from her grip; it dropped onto the pavement where Clint kicked it, sending it across the asphalt, under the van.
Wrenching her hands free from his hold, she bent her knees and jumped, somersaulting over the door, and landing behind Clint. Ignoring the pain the movement sent through her injured side, she struck out with her elbow, hitting Clint in the back before she spun and kicked, aiming for his head.
But he ducked and turned, grabbing an arrow from his quiver and bringing up his bow in one smooth motion, so when he was facing her, he was already firing.
She heard the arrow cutting through the air and did a back-handspring to avoid it. She landed in a crouch and swept out with one leg, but Clint jumped up, easily avoiding the strike, then reached for his quiver again, ready to draw another arrow.
She surged to her feet and hit the open van door hard with both hands, throwing her weight behind it. It swung closed, and Clint was near enough that the door caught his bow as it went, trapping the top of it in the space between the now-nearly-shut doors.
Face to face with him, she found herself looking directly into his eyes.
It was foolish to try again, she knew. But his name slipped from her lips anyway.
Clint didn’t blink. Didn’t react. It was as though she hadn’t spoken at all.
That was startling somehow, wrong in a way she couldn’t explain, and somewhere in her mind, a memory stirred…
Clint was moving again, releasing his grip on his bow but reaching for his quiver, drawing an arrow and using it like a dagger. She caught his arms just as the arrow descended towards her face. She was barely aware of the sound of the bow clattering to the pavement as the pressure on the door disappeared.
She couldn’t stop looking at Clint’s eyes, at the hardness in them, so like the hardness she knew to be in her own, and yet, somehow different.
Wrong, she thought again. Something was wrong.
But there was no time to think of it further because the arrow was pressing ever-closer to her face, and she knew that in a contest of sheer muscle, he would win.
She dropped suddenly, pulling Clint to the ground with her. Then, kicking up with her legs, she hit him in the stomach with both feet as she rolled backwards, sending him over her head. He landed on the sidewalk on his back, and the arrow he’d held was now in her hands.
But, just as quickly as he’d fallen, Clint did a kip, jumping upright, and charged.
His fist flew at her head, but she ducked, catching his arm with her free hand, and kicking out with her right leg, her knee connecting with his stomach once more. He doubled over and stumbled back, in the direction of the road this time.
He was just starting forward again when a low rumble echoed down the street, and they both paused, turning toward the source of the noise: a group of military humvees coming swiftly up the road. Straining her ears further, she thought she could make out the sound of a helicopter in the distance as well.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Clearly, they had called for reinforcements this time, perhaps even a full squad.
Clint must have had the same thought because he stepped away from her abruptly and slipped across the street, disappearing into the shadows as though he’d never been there in the first place.
She stared after him for a moment, the arrow still clutched in her hand, her fingers tightening around it unconsciously. Then, turning in the opposite direction, for the second time that night, she took off at a run.