I'll Never Tell How Close I Came
"The greatest hazard in life, loosing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all." - Søren Kierkegaard
The sudden hand on his shoulder almost had him jumping out of his skin, as it was he flinched so hard that he nearly toppled into the pit beside him, but the hand that clenched around his bicep steadied him.
"Hey, hey. You alright?"
Damn. He must be more exhausted than he thought.
Phil was grasping his arm and staring at him. Worry growing in his eyes the longer Clint remained silent.
"I'm fine." Clint shrugged him off before looking down back into the creator. The woman was nowhere to be seen. He even went as far as to lean over the creator further, scope the remaining ruins more clearly, but he couldn't catch a glint of fiery red hair.
"I thought I saw-" He looked back to Phil and the words died on his lips. Damn he was tired. And Phil could see it. He didn't need to give the man any more reason to think he was loosing it. "Never mind. I found this," he held up the case in his arms, if only to make Phil's gaze drop from his own eyes. "Was buried among the rubble, looks locked though."
"We'll take it back with us. Get someone to pry it open, but it's probably nothing. This was a Consulate. They would have had plenty of important documents in locked cases."
"Yeah. Probably." Clint couldn't help himself, he threw another look around him in search of the woman. He could almost feel her watching him for some reason. And his gut was rarely wrong.
"You sure you saw nothing else?" Damn Phil could read him like a book these days, and the man's concerned eyes made it even harder to lie to him.
Thankfully, he didn't have to try.
"What's going on here? What have you found?"
If it were possible for a voice could ooze bureaucracy and privilege, this one would have been chocking on it. A dumpy man with gelled hair and a suit that Clint was willing to bet cost more than the contents of his rucksack – before it became putrid – came stumbling down the side of the creator to meet them. Other agents, who had finally made their way over, followed the man at a distance.
As he got closer Clint could make out his scrunched face and pink tinge as he spoke. He couldn't tell, however, if that was merely due to the stress of the situation and the dim fire light or if it was merely the man's natural complexion.
The quiet, frustrated sigh that Phil let slip as he turned to face the man wearily was enough to set Clint's teeth on edge. Any man that brought out frustration in Phil was someone he was willing to bet his bow on that he'd dislike.
"Mr Lenz-" Phil began pacifyingly, only to be rudely cut off.
"What is that?" He asked at once, nodding towards the brief case in Clint's hands. "Did you find that here? Is it linked to what happened?"
"Considering we haven't opened it yet, I'm not sure." Phil said.
"If it's documents that belong to the Consulate you have no business opening it. You will have to hand it over to the German Governme-"
"What part of we haven't opened it was difficult part?" Clint asked dryly. "We don't know if it's official documents, terrorist secrets or a Phil's vintage Captain America card set." He pushed the case into Phil's arms, smirking at the frown and matching hint of embarrassment on his handlers face. "Admit it, you keep them in a locked case just like it, don't you?"
Phil ignored him.
"Mr Lenz, until every possible piece of evidence from the scene is examined S.H.E.I.L.D will not be handing over anything. If the case is indeed harmless, Consulate documents, then they willed be returned to the correct party." Clint didn't miss the tightening of the man's – Lenz – face as Phil spoke. He clearly wasn't used to receiving orders.
And it was even clearer how little he enjoyed it.
"Now, if you would please remove yourself from the premises – it is an active crime scene and therefore restricted to only necessary personnel – I will schedule an appointment with you later in the day to discuss where we stand and where S.H.E.I.L.D will head from here-" The man opened his mouth to argue again, growing redder with anger by the second – Clint was beginning to suspect it wasn't the fire's light, just the man's unfortunate complexion – but this time Phil cut him off before he could get a word out. "-Agent Mitchel will escort you out." Phil nodded at a nearby agent who moved forwards and all but dragged Lenz away, copping an earful as he did so.
Clint thought back to Fury's reaction to the continuous phone calls. How the frustration in his eye had almost rivalled the times he argued with Clint, who would openly admit that he could be an annoying little bastard when irritated.
"I get it now." He said, watching Lenz be pulled out off the scene.
"Thought you might."
"This is Arkady Yozhikov."
Phil stood at the front of the briefing room, pointing to an image of Yozhikov on the large screen behind him as agents flocked about and Clint watched from his perch in the darkest corner of the room. As out of sight as possible in the hopes that if the Berlin superiors couldn't see him they would ask him for another update. It would be the forth one in three hours.
And he hadn't even left the base yet.
Clint had discovered in the last few days that the Berlin S.H.E.I.L.D base was almost identical to the New York base on the inside. A couple of times he had forgotten that he was here at all and started to head for his own room before he remembered.
But all S.H.E.I.L.D bases tended to be like that.
And his vagueness was probably just the result of the sleep deprivation that had only gotten worse since they arrived.
"Footage of him entering the Consulate was discovered late last night, and as he is neither on the fatality list or accounted for, and had no business in the Consulate to begin with, he is now one of our top suspects." Phil continued. "He is – as far as we can prove – a Russian business man with contacts all throughout Europe, but S.H.E.I.L.D has been keeping a close eye on his for some time. Suspicions of his connection with certain Russian syndicates have kept him on our watch lists. Lets find out if he belongs there. I want to know everything about him by the end of the day, and most of all I want to know where he is." Various nods throughout the room met Phil's words. "Dismissed."
After handing out various folders and speaking privately with multiple troop leaders, Phil headed in Clint's direction, eyes scanning the crowd for a hint of him.
"Nice motivational speech." Clint called out quietly just as Phil was about to pass his dark corner by, causing the older man to spin wildly for a moment before his eyes landed on Clint's smirk.
"Damn. I almost didn't see you there."
"I know. Must be a bulb out or something." Clint grinned. "Couldn't help myself."
"Of course not." Phil replied dryly but with an affectionate glance in Clint's direction as the agent scanned the room. Dark corners were just so Clint.
Phil too scanned the quickly emptying room before his eyes landed on the image of Yozhikov that was still occupying the large screen. Truth was they still had nothing to go on. Yozhikov was the only puzzle piece even remotely out of place, and to be honest there was a large chance that that was a coincidence. Yozhikov was a shady businessman without a doubt, but he'd never resorted to anything even close to explosives. And that was what was doing Phil's head in.
There was not a single person in, or around, the consulate with a reason to bomb it. Not to mention the security that would have made it close to impossible.
Clint, as he so often did, seemed to read Phil's thoughts. "Something's off with this one." He murmured as they both stared at the image of Yozhikov, and Phil nodded.
They were both silent for a moment, as if by just staring at the small amount of evidence they had managed to gather they might solve whatever it was that was bothering the both of them about the explosion.
Unfortunately, however, several minutes of silence later the only thing they had discovered was a new level of frustration.
"Hunting time?" Clint proposed with one last scowl at the screen.
"This wasn't exactly what I had in mind."
Clint had been perched on his stomach, looking through the scope of his riffle, on the roof of the building across from the bombsite for almost five hours.
And not even the dust had moved.
"I know, but honestly there isn't much else we can do right now." Phil's voice replied through his earpiece, his frustration evident. "The Base is handling Yozhikov, and as of yet we have nothing else."
There was a moment of silence before Clint replied. "Oh, I wouldn't say nothing."
"You have something." Phil's tone lost its sluggish edge as eagerness took hold.
"Yeah." Another longer paused followed. "A cramp. Everywhere."
Clint could almost sense the irritated eye-roll despite the 10 miles between them. "Duly noted, Hawkeye." That frustration was back. "Do you have anything to report about the bombsite?"
"Honestly what are you expecting to find, the bomber stumbling about in the ruins proclaiming his evil-ness? That only happens in movies, Over-watch. Bad ones."
"I'm aware, but right now we have nothing-"
"-Else to go on, yeah, yeah." Clint finished for him with an eye roll of his own. "Does that mean we can swap places for a while, and I can lounge about in the safe-house while you freeze your ass off up here? Even your abysmal marksmanship will be able to handle the dust that almost moved just then." Clint snickered, scratching an itch on the side of his face with the scope of his riffle and flexing his numbing fingers. It just had to be November. Was it too much to ask for terrorists to blow things up, and be mischievous, during the summer months? July or August maybe? Then at least he could enjoy the sunshine while he lay on a rooftop for hours on end staring at dust.
He almost told Phil this before realizing that his handler had never responded to his last jib. Usually the man humoured Clint's bored ramblings for as long as Clint could continue to ramble, answering each playful jab with an appropriate amount of dry sarcasm and insinuated eye rolls.
But he had fallen silent.
"Overwatch?" Clint called into his comm.
There was no reply.
Clint's heart found its way into his throat fasting than he thought possible. He pulled away from the riffle that was leant against the ledge of the roof, facing the ruins of the Consulate across the street, to rest on his toes with one hand against his comm.
"Overwatch?!" He called more urgently, fear beginning to grip him. "Answer me!" He could still hear the almost indistinguishable buzzing sound that the small devices made, meaning that they had not shorted or been broken in any way. Phil was just not answering him. And Phil always answered him.
Unless he couldn't.
"OVERWATCH!" Clint tried one last time, reaching back towards his riffle, ready to dismantle it and run. Run all the way back to the safe house if he had too, but before he could even unscrew the scope from the barrel Phil's voice filled his ears.
"It wasn't Yozhikov."
Clint dropped his head in relief to the concrete roof with a thud, his heart rate returning to normal while adrenaline still coursed through his veins like wildfire.
"-sorry I just had to check something." Phil spoke hastily, and Clint could hear that sound of him rustling through files agitatedly. "And I was right. It wasn't Yozhikov." He repeated.
"What the hell do you mean?"
"I was going through footage of him in the Consulate," Phil began, a new edge to his voice. "Watching him, when I found the footage of him actually entering."
"So? How is that important? We already knew he was inside when he wasn't meant to be?" Clint said, his frustration growing.
"We did, but that's not what's important. It's how he entered-"
"Spit it out, Overwatch!" Clint demanded.
"He was paranoid."
That caught Clint off-guard, and rendered him if possible even more confused. "What?"
"When he came into the Consulate, he was paranoid. He was throwing looks over his shoulder and agitated." Phil explained.
"I'd be paranoid too if I were going to set off a bomb in a consulate." Clint reasoned.
"That's the strange part. There is footage of him at a café not even three blocks away, minutes before he entered the consulate, and he looks completely at ease. Not a care in the world." Phil argued, the rustling continuing in the background. "I think he was being followed. I don't think he was the bomber, I think he was-"
"-the target." Clint finished.
"Exactly.""Strange way to kill someone though?" Clint deliberated, returning somewhat reluctantly to his position on the roof, looking down the range of his scope at the ruins. "Blow up the building they just happen to run into. If it was an assassination, it was a pretty dodgy one. He lived."
There was another pause while the rustling continued at a new level, and Clint could hear Phil muttering to himself, until everything halted and there was silence for a few moments.
"I'm sending you something." Phil said just as Clint's phone buzzed lightly in his recently purchased combat pants. "Yozhikov has a brief case in the footage of him entering the consulate, but he didn't come out of the building with one, and he didn't report one missing. I need to know if it's the same one you found last night?"
"Might be hard to tell," Clint said as he pulled the phone from his pocket. "It looked like a pretty ordinary brief-case to me. Like you said last night, there were probably hundreds of them in the building when it got blown to hell."
"You can't remember anything defining about it?"
"Silver and locked."
"Very useful." The dry sarcasm was back. "Still once we get it opened we should be able to tell if it was his. Consulate files would all be marked with consulate seals, so if it is his-"
"It is his." Clint cut him off, staring at the photo of Yozhikov entering the Consulate on his screen. "That's the brief case."
"What?!" It was Phil's turn to be completely lost. "Are you sure? How can you tell-"
"-there's blood on the corner." And then was. A tiny speck of it that Clint himself had almost missed while examining the photo. "There was dried blood on the case I found too, in exactly the same place. I had just assumed it was from the explosion." And to be honest he had been a little distracted when he first found it. Arrogant diplomats and mysterious redheads taking up too much of his attention. "But if there was blood on it before he got to the consulate then he must have been in a fight before hand."
"And whoever attacked him probably followed him inside." Phil continued, and the sound of vigorous typing could be heard over the comm. "Trouble is there are hundreds of people in that foyer. It could be any of them. I can run all the faces through the data-bank but there's no guarantee that whoever it was is even in the data-bank. And if not then-"
"-Is there a redhead?"
That silenced Phil for a moment. "What?"
"A redhead." Clint repeated eerily calmly. "Woman. About 5'3"." He continued, before adding as an afterthought, "Attractive."
The furious typing continued before Phil's apprehensive voice echoed in his ear. "Yes." He said cautiously. "She came in about two minutes after Yozhikov. How did you-"
"I'm staring at her."
And he was.
There she was again, rumbling through the ruins, just as she had been last night when Clint spotted her. She hadn't even changed her clothes. In fact, Clint realized as he stared at her through his scope, she appeared even more bloody than she had the night before. Still she moved so gracefully and quickly that, if not for her startling hair, Clint's eyes might have missed her altogether. As it was he could barely make her out amongst the rubble. She knew how to hide herself well, but now that he had caught sight of her he managed to follow her progress through the ruins. Watch her stop every now and again before moving on.
She was searching for something.
And Clint had a feeling he knew what it was.
"-HAWKEYE!" Phil was yelling across the comms, his voice taking on the panic that had seized Clint earlier.
"She's looking for something." Clint said hurriedly, still tracking her progress. "And she looks bad, Overwatch. A couple of fights and an explosion victim, bad."
"You think she's looking for the case?"
"If she followed Yozhikov in for it then it would make sense that she would come back for it. Especially if she's just a gun for hire and the case was her prize." Clint reasoned, barely able to keep track of her as she disappeared behind large pieces of rubble, and reappeared in different places faster than he though possible.
"She looks like a gun for hire." He told Phil, unable to keep the admiration from seeping into his voice. "She's good. I can barely keep track of her."
"Finally met your match huh," Phil rubbed playfully, "Someone faster than even your eyes."
"I said barely keep track of her." He defended himself haughtily. "She's not going anywhere, Overwatch."
"Send through a photo," Phil said, the sound of vigorous typing filling the comms once more. "If she's that good chances are she's in the data-bank."
It took a few moments to put the scope into camera mode, and several more waiting for her to reappear from behind a particularly large pile of stone that had once been the lobby before he had his shot. It wasn't going to win him any photography prizes but he did manage to snap a slightly blurred picture of her face as she flitted in and out of his sight again.
"She looks young." Clint commented as he waited for Phil to search the photo and the mystery girl to reappear. "Too young almost. We might be wrong. I doubt she's even my age, though I suppose that doesn't mean anything. I was awesome at before I was even legal so-"
"Get out." The order was as clear as it was sharp.
The banter was done.
He'd found something.
"Why? What is it?" Clint questioned even as he began to disassemble his riffle at record speed. He knew that something seemed off with her. Even watching her from across the street the hair on the back of his neck had prickled nervously, and that had only happened around very few people in his life.
None of them good.
"Don't worry about that now, just get out. I have a tac-team on rout and they're going to take her in. Meet them on Köbisstraße street, just behind we you are." Phil's tactical voice was in full force, and again he wondered who the hell she could be to spark that voice so quickly. Phil, the poster-boy for eerie calmness, almost seemed nervous. "Trust me," He went on. "They're going to need you."
He almost replied, having packed away his riffle and started towards the door that would lead inside until the sight of a red-head not even three feet from him rendered him – for the first time in his twenty one years – absolutely speechless.
He had dropped the riffle case and reached for the Desert Eagle tucked into the back of his cargo pants in less than a second, but she was already on him, hand wrapping around his own that was reaching for the gun and twisting it in such a way that he had no choice but to follow it, tumbling to the ground in a front salt, to avoid her snapping the bone into several pieces.
He righted himself immediately, swinging a controlled fist behind him and using the momentum to spin himself to face her, but she dodged him as if he were a fly before swatting him the an open palm hard enough to make him to see stars. At the same time her other hand then went to his throat, colliding with his vocal cords and tacking the breath from him in one swift stroke. With one final twirl she hooked an arm under his shoulder while he fought to take in air and flipped him onto the ledge of the roof so that his legs, and majority of his torso, dangled dangerously over the six hundred foot drop to the concrete sidewalk.
The entire attack took less time than it had taken him to even reach for his gun.
Jesus she was fast.
"Where is it?" She demanded in flawless German. "The case. Where is it?"
"Don't know what you're talking about, love." He panted with a half-assed grin. He had never been one to take death threats and torture too seriously, much to Phil's constant chagrin. Or at least show he took them seriously. His anti-interrogation technique had always been his sarcasm. "I'm just up here for the view."
Actually, sarcasm and heated glares where about all that made up his social skills.
It probably wasn't a good technique. He found it usually made his captors want to hit him for the mere satisfaction of hitting him, rather than just information gathering.
Still, he hadn't been killed because of it yet, and in his book that meant it was as successful as any other technique.
Though he had a feeling whoever Miss Murderous-Redhead was, might just end that streak with a six hundred foot drop.
Her grip on him slackened, and for a moment he fell.
Slid between her fingers until only his shoulders remained at roof level and the rest of him hung over the edge. Her unbelievably strong hands caught him just as he was about to fall from the roof top altogether – seizing one of his shoulders with one hand and a handful of his hair with another."I saw you last night." She went on calmly, in perfect English this time. "You had the case. You gave it to the man beside you. Where did he take it?"
"Oh, him." Clint replied lamely, all too aware that he was still slowly slipping through her fingers. "Ugh, who knows? Bit of a wild card he is. Always gallivanting about, with hookers and booze. You know the type. Could be passed out anywhere in the city by now." He choked out 'gallivanting' – Phil and his personal distress word – with perhaps a little too much vigor, but he was suddenly finding it hard to breath and the cement of the roof's edge cut into his shoulders and pushed against his lungs.
"I can hear you Clint," Phil's voice came over the comm quietly, the anxiety in it at a level that Clint hadn't heard in a while. Not even when he got shot. "We're coming for you. Just hang on. I'm almost there. Don't engage. Stall her."
That was easier said than done. The woman seemed to be swallowing none of his usual diversion attempts, and he continued to slip through her grasp until the roof's edge was cutting base of his neck and he was staring straight down at the fall below him.
"Last time." She warned evenly. "Or I let you go. Where is it?"
"I don't know."
It wasn't a lie exactly. He had no idea where they had taken it once he handed it over.
He braced himself for his inevitable release. If he could land just right have a chance. There was the smallest of ledges just a floor below him and if he could catch himself on it –
It took a moment before he noticed that he hadn't fallen. She hadn't let go.
But neither did she ask him again.
He inched his head upwards, just enough to catch sight on her face above him and noticed that she was no longer concentrating on him. In fact, her brilliantly green eyes were focus on something beyond the rooftop. Watching it with empty eyes.
Had the tac-team arrived?
He opened his mouth but before he could even think of something to distract her he was wrenched upwards, back onto the safety of the roof, and dump unceremoniously on its concrete floor.
He didn't even make it to his knees before something cold, and shaped very similarly to the butt of his own Desert Eagle, collided with the side of his skull.
And then there was nothing.
Phil was sure his heart rate had not yet returned to its normal rhythm.
It had been slamming against his ribs faster than he though possible since he first heard the strange woman's voice over Clint's comm. And almost burst from his chest when he sprinted onto the roof where an unresponsive Clint lay with a pool of blood spreading about his head.
Even now, back in the safe house with Clint patched up, sleeping and within reaching distance he still couldn't quite get his heart to stop thundering.
That had been too close.
The few minutes between discovering who exactly was a mere street away from Clint and bursting onto that roof had been a blur of terror that overshadowed any he had felt before.
God, she could have killed him.
The thought had been echoing through his skull since he found Clint. Since he realized that, in fact, she hadn't. Realized that his world hadn't been destroyed then and there.
Because the kid was his world now. He was all Phil had.
Both a brother and a son in every way.
And Phil almost sent him to that rooftop to be slaughtered.
Never once in the time since he had known Clint, trained Clint, had he thought the kid incapable of beating anyone. Not one coach. Not one agent. Clint was a prodigy in almost every way, and Phil knew this perhaps more surely than anyone else in the world. But as soon as his search on the redheaded girl proved fruitful his gut had sunk in a way that it never had before. The knowledge that his agent was nothing more than a twenty one year old that had been forced to grow up too quickly hit him with the force of a bulldozer.
He'd known Clint was going to loose.
The sun had set hours ago while Phil pondered over his files, one eye on his work and another on Clint. The medics had assured Phil that the head wound was nothing more than a pretty nasty concussion, but Phil couldn't help himself.
He should have been dead after all. She should have killed him. And for the life of him Phil couldn't figure out why she hadn't.
And the nagging question only made his already shot-to-hell nerves worse.
With a sigh he swept his fingers through his tasseled hair for the hundredth time that hour and returned to his file only to throw it away without a thought when a loud groan came from Clint's cot.
"Clint?" He called, kneeling beside the cot, knowing better than to reach out. "Clint? Can you hear me?"
"No." The groggy response triggered a chuckle of relief to escape from Phil's lips as he placed a hand on Clint's shoulder, giving it a gentle shake.
"Come on, I need you to wake up." He ordered calmly.
With several more huffs and an even louder grown Clint's blue eyes emerged from behind their lids and he stared up at Phil – blinking several before he managed to focus on his handler.
"-hat 'appened?" He slurred, struggling to sit up for a moment before Phil reached out and pulled him up gently.
"You don't remember?"
"I remember that I was about to becoming painfully equated with the sidewalk, but after that no." Clint reached up and tentatively touched his left temple only to flinch away when he found the now stitched wound. Phil reached across the grab an ice pack in the med-kit he had left beside the cot and pressing it against Clint's head before he could pull away.
If there was one thing in the world that Clint hated above all others, it was being coddled. And in his mind any kind of medical assistance or routine checkups counted as coddling.
The kid was too self-sufficient for his own good sometimes, outright refusing help from even Phil when he needed it, and usually ending up in a worse state because of it.
Tonight, however, luck was on Phil's side. Clint didn't pull away from the ice pack. Instead he raised a hand so that he could hold it against his skull himself andactually leaned into it.
He was definitely concussed.
"You had a face to face with our newest suspect and lost." Phil explained, moving back to the med-kit in search of some pain relief – already preparing for Clint's inevitable refusal of it and the argument that would incur.
Clint was nodding, although somewhat dizzily. "Pretty redhead." He responded and Phil's brow rose.
"Oh, shut up. I'm concussed."
"You sure are," Phil agreed having found the pills and sitting back on the cot, "Take these-" He said, handing them over before continuing at the sight of Clint's annoyance. "No arguments."
For once Clint didn't even bother. His head must really ache.
"So what happened?" Clint went on. "You get her?"
"Nope," Phil sighed. "She clocked you and then took off."
That caused Clint to blink furiously for several more minutes. "She took off? Why the hell didn't she just kill me then?"
After hours of asking himself the same question Phil didn't have an answer to give, so he said nothing.
Clint shook his head, confused and more than a little aggravated.
"Who the hell was she, Phil?"
Phil reached across to his own cot to gather up the files that he had been looking over before Clint woke and handed them over.
"Her name is Natalia Romanova." Phil said as Clint struggled to focus his eyes on the page before him.
"Never heard of her." Clint frowned.
"Oh, I doubt that." Phil argued tonelessly, causing Clint to look up from Romanova's small file in confusion. "You don't hear her real name too often, the title moves from girl to girl too quickly. Most people just call her the Black Widow."