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Parting Shot 1/2

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Nov. 11th, 2014 | 09:13 pm
mood: stressedstressed

Title: Parting Shot
Summary: Two years after the events of New York, Clint Barton is deep undercover in Bulgaria. When the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier reveal his identity to the organised crime syndicate he's infiltrated, he finds himself stranded in Varna with no allies and no resources. Moreover, the local mafia are about to enact a plan that could put the entire region at risk. With Hydra hot on his heels, Clint must rely on his wits and a few local friends to put an end to the plot and get out alive.
Written for the marvel_bang. I was lucky enough to be picked by the lovely and talented branquignole, who made a fantastic playlist that can be found here.
Characters: Clint Barton, OCs, brief appearances by Natasha Romanov and Phil Coulson
Wordcount: 20, 682
Rating: R
Spoilers: Everything up to and including CA:TWS
Warnings: Lots and lots of violence, blood, fire, gore. Nothing worse than you'd find in a typical MCU film.
Neurotic Author's Note #1: My undying thanks and gratitude and a giant bouquet of flowers to branquignole, who was extraordinarily patient with my while my life blew up in my face this year. I moved, got eye surgery, had a million veterinary emergencies, and generally was a giant pain in the ass for my long-suffering artist. She is fantastic, y'all, and I hope you will go listen to the brilliant playist she made for this story! Here is the link again: Just Like Captain America (Not Quite)
Neurotic Author's Note #2: I also owe a ton of chocolate to sirona_gs, who was my go-to reference for all things Bulgarian in this story. Any resemblance to Varna and how things work over in Bulgaria is thanks to her, as is the use of actual Bulgarian in this story. I also googled and took liberties, so any and all mistakes are mine alone. She was a hero and a godsend, and walked me through geography, grammar, sociological factors, and everything in between, and without her this story wouldn't be half as good as it is.
Neurotic Author's Note #3: And a huge heartfelt thank you, last but not least, to my two intrepid betas, who rescued me from bad characterisation, weird punctuation, and some serious abuse of the English language in this. rainylemons and geckoholic, you are rock stars and deserve to have your praises sung forever and a day!


Okay, Clint concedes to himself as he stares down the barrels of what feels like all too many PSS special pistols pointed directly at his head. This looks bad.

There's only three pistols, but realistically that's three more than Clint feels comfortable having pointed at him at any given time. Since he's currently stark naked with nothing but a thin bedsheet to shield him from the bullets, this feels like a worse time than usual. He only knows one of the three guys standing in the tiny one-room apartment, but it's obvious they're all part of TIM, and that in about thirty seconds he's going to die if he doesn't do something about it.

He lifts one hand in the universal gesture of "don't shoot," the other tugging at the sheet to protect what's left of his modesty.

"Hey, uh, zdraveite, momcheta," he says, hoping he's managed to sound casual. "K'vo stava? What's with the hardware? Actually," he tilts his head toward the bedside table, where his hearing aids are sitting in their drying box, "you mind if I, uh, grab those real quick?"

Dimitar--the only one Clint's recognized, nods. "Go ahead," he says. Or, at least, Clint is pretty sure that those are the words he just formed. Lip-reading is well and good, but foreign accents are a bitch. Although he supposes that Dimitar isn't the foreigner in this room.

Clint reaches over slowly, pops open the case, puts on the hearing aids with a practiced hand, his eyes trained the whole time on the guns trained on him. He frowns when the left hearing aid whistles a little then goes silent. Damn. Living in a port town means the moisture is hell on the sensitive little pieces of tech.

There's a very quick argument in Bulgarian among the three men, most of which he misses, but Dimitar snaps at the other two guys, and that appears to shut them up. The only word he catches in there is "Stoyan," which tells him that he's in a shitload of trouble. If they were sent here by Stoyan himself to kill Clint, then there's no doubt Clint's cover has been blown sky-high. Okay, Barton, play dumb. You're just one of the guys, you have no idea what's going on or why they're here. Which isn't really all that much of a stretch, since he's totally in the dark about what went wrong.

"Dimi, what's going on?"

Dimitar is a friend, of sorts. He's also Stoyan's right-hand man, though, which means he's got a conflict of interests when it comes to Clint.

"Get dressed," he says curtly, and motions with the barrel of his gun towards Clint's closet. "Stoyan wants us to take you to him."

"And he sent an armed escort? Seems like overkill."

He might be overdoing it a little. This isn't exactly the time to be joking, but it's serving to get his heart to stop hammering in his chest. His hearing aid seems to be working a little better now, at least. There's another argument in Bulgarian behind him as he's forced to turn his back on the three men to get clothes out of his cupboard, and then Dimitar barks at the other two to speak English, for which Clint decides to be very very grateful.

"We do Stoyan a favour, and kill him now, I say," says one guy. He's short and stocky, with hair that's beginning to thin on top and recede at the temples. Clint wonders sometimes where Stoyan gets his guys. Of course, he probably wasn't hired for his hairstyle.

"Shut up," Dimitar snaps, but the third man appears to concur with the short guy. Since he's the tallest of the three, Clint decides to call him Bullwinkle, and the short guy Rocky.

"Stoyan wants him brought back, but he didn't say dead or alive. You are a spy, Amerikanets."

"A spy?" Clint sputters, injecting as much indignation into the words as possible. "You're fucking joking. How the hell would I be a spy? Hell, if I were that, I'd demand a raise. They could at least spring for a better apartment than this," he adds, gesturing to the tiny room. "No cats."

That gets a laugh out of Dimitar, which isn't really surprising. He's always had a good sense of humour, and Clint's apartment has always been a source of amusement to him. "This is small even by local standards," he'd once said to Clint. "You cannot... what is it you say in English?"

"Swing a cat around by its tail?" Clint had suggested, which had made Dimi laugh so hard tears had streamed down his face and into his blond beard. Humour was such a subjective thing, he supposed.

The fact that he'd purposely picked a small place and failed to furnish it with more than a bed, a chair and a table is sort of working against him now, though. There's nowhere to hide, no furniture to duck behind. It's a problem. Clint yanks on a pair of pants, doesn't bother with socks--he can never get them to match, anyway--and jams his feet into his shoes without tying the laces. He barely has time to pull a t-shirt over his head before Rocky gets impatient and yells at him to get moving. Well, Clint supposes that's what he yells, anyway, since it's in Bulgarian and, in spite of having lived here for nearly two years, Clint's grasp of the language is still tenuous at best. He can order food, ask where the bathroom is, and mostly not make a complete ass of himself in public, but languages have never been his strong suit. Besides, his new handler never really insisted that he learn the language properly, so long as it didn't interfere with his cover. Coulson would have been furious, if he'd known. He'd always been a stickler for details on missions, although he never ran long operations like this one. Phil was the team lead you sent in to clean up giant alien messes, not the handler of long-term undercover assets. Not unless you counted Natasha, and even she didn't do more than a few weeks in most circumstances. There was Budapest, of course, but that had been the exception, rather than the rule. If Phil were here now, he'd be reading Clint the riot act about not learning Bulgarian properly. And then he'd be talking him through an escape route.

Okay, Clint, think, he tells himself sternly.

There aren't too many ways out of here. There's the front door, but that has the distinct disadvantage of not being in his bedroom. The way to it involves getting through the bedroom door, currently guarded by Dimitar and Rocky and Bullwinkle, all of whom are at close enough range that it wouldn't matter if they were all terrible shots, which he's betting they're not. He's got a gun, of course, but it's in his nightstand, and there's no way of getting to it without getting himself very permanently shot. Not that there's a way to get impermanently shot, but whatever, that's not the point, here. The point is that, no matter what he tries, it's probably going to hurt. A lot.

"You guys sure we can't just settle this with a phone call? I mean, it was a late night for everyone yesterday, and I don't know about you, but I'm still pretty hungover..."

He goes for Door Number Three, which looks like the best candidate for not immediately dying. He keeps his hands in front of him at all times in a very obvious display of non-violence, and edges carefully away from the closet and around the foot of the bed. Sweat trickles down his back as he glances through the window and down at the street below. There's a balcony directly under him, then another ten-foot drop to the street. He can make it. He's done much harder things in his time. Much harder. He shuffles forward a little bit more. He wishes, not for the first time, that he still had his bow and quiver. It would make this so much easier. Well, beggars can't be choosers. He left that life behind, long ago. You made your bed, Clint, so now you get to lie in it.

"Because I could just grab my cell phone, or you could call on you cell phone, honestly, I'm not that picky, and we could have this whole misunderstanding straightened out in minutes. I explain that I'm not whatever it is you think I am, and..."

He whirls around, catching them by surprise, knocks the guns from Rocky and Bullwinkle's hands with a precisely timed kick. Before they can recover from their shock he's coiled himself as low to the floor as possible, pushes off as hard as he can with both legs, and throws himself directly through the window, shielding his face with his arms as best he can. He feels the glass shatter around his head, the wood splintering under the impact. Dimitar's gun goes off a moment later, but between the silencer and his malfunctioning left hearing aid, Clint barely makes out the sound of the report. There's a sudden burning pain in his side, eclipsed a moment later when it feels like his whole body is about to explode when he collides with the balcony below. He lies there, stunned, for what feels like an eternity, the world swimming strangely around him, until another bullet ricochets off the balustrade. He shakes his head, trying to clear it, then scrambles to his feet, performs a leap-frog jump over the balcony and twists at the last moment to catch himself with his fingers by the wooden bars of the balustrade. He hangs in midair for a moment, legs dangling wildly, the muscles in his arms protesting the strain, his right side burning with renewed pain, then he lets himself drop the remaining few feet to the street.

His right leg buckles on impact, and he can't bite back a cry as pain shoots through his right side again. Looking down, he sees a tear in his shirt, the white fabric already turning red. It doesn't look deep, at least, though blood oozes between his fingers when he clamps a hand over the wound. Another bullet pings off the sidewalk at his feet, reminding him that now is definitely not the time to pause and take stock.

Clint takes off at a run, and doesn't look back.

~*~

It takes forever to find a pay phone.

Clint ducks into the closest alleyway he can find, and runs until his lungs are burning and his blood is pounding in his ears. He can't risk sticking to the streets just yet, because even the block or two he ended up running at first attracted far too much attention. A half-dressed man bleeding profusely from his side is bound to get noticed, especially in this area of town. He runs until the pain in his side is too much to bear, then slumps against a wall and tries to get his bearings as he catches his breath. He's run further than he normally goes in this neighbourhood, but he's pretty sure he can still find his way around if he has to. He edges along the wall back toward the street, looking for a phone booth. If he's been burned, then there's no choice now but to call this in, get ahold of Martin, and get himself extracted.

"Shit!"

He'd been close, too. He'd gotten in deep enough with TIM, the local crime syndicate that enjoyed pretending it was a legitimate operation, that they'd let him see their seedier underbelly with almost no qualms. Hell, even Stoyan hadn't suspected a damned thing up until, well, yesterday it seems. He can't figure out what went wrong, what gave him away. Nothing special happened that he can think of. So it can't be anything he did, the information had to come from an outside source. Either way, he's screwed.

He spots the sign for a phone booth outside the door of a small shop, and hurries toward it. He's attracting stares, but there's nothing he can do about that. He ducks inside the booth, leaving crimson smears on the plexiglass, and huddles inside against the far wall before taking the phone off the hook. He swears again as he realises that he doesn't have any money on him. Not so much as a coin or a bill to his name. His wallet is still on his nightstand, along with his fake ID and all the cash he has in the world.

"Good job, Clint," he tells himself, clenching his teeth against the pain in his side. His right knee is starting to throb too, no doubt the result of his jump off the balcony earlier. "Next time, you should try escaping barefoot, too, make it a real challenge!"

He wedges the receiver between his right ear--the only one with a working hearing aid right now--and his shoulder, and dials for the operator. He gives the impatient-sounding woman Martin's number, and hopes to God that his terrible Bulgarian won't get him into any more trouble than he's already in. A moment later, though, and Martin's clipped tone comes over the line, accepting the charges. Clint breathes a sigh of relief, slumping even further down in the booth.

"Marty, thank God. It's Clint. I dunno what happened, but I've been burned. They came at me with guns, surrounded me. I got out, but it's bad, I don't have anywhere to go, I've got nothing on me, no cash, nothing. I don't know how they found out, but I swear it wasn't anything I did, I didn't say anything, nothing happened that I can think of--"

"Barton!" Martin snaps. "Be quiet!"

Clint shuts his mouth so hard he feels his teeth click together. Martin Baranyi, for all that he's not anywhere near Phil Coulson's league, is still a damned good handler. If anyone can get him out of this, it's Marty. "Sorry."

"Now, you've been compromised, you say?"

"Yeah. I don't know how, though."

"We can deal with that later. For now, the important part is getting you to safety. Are you injured?"

He swallows. "Yeah, I had to go through a window, and Dimitar shot me. Doesn't look too bad, more like a flesh wound, but it's bleeding like crazy. Shit, I'm so sorry about this. We were so damned close..."

"Never mind that. Do you know where the secondary safehouse is?"

Clint racks his brain, trying to remember the protocol he memorised nearly two years ago. "Uh, I think so. The one on boulevard Slivnitsa, right? The one that's sort of near the cemetery?"

"That's the one. How quickly can you get there?"

He glances around the street. No one seems to be paying him any notice right now, given that he's in a pretty busy area, but there's no guarantee he can keep that up. "I'm not sure. On a good day, I could make it in less than thirty minutes. Today?"

"All right," Martin's tone turns brisk. "I'll head over there directly and start making arrangements. Get there as quickly as you can manage, and I'll be waiting. And for God's sake, Barton, try not to get yourself spotted on the way there!"

The line goes dead. Clint sticks out his tongue at the receiver, hangs up quietly instead of slamming it back on the cradle the way he wants to. Phil would have had someone come get him, he thinks bitterly. But maybe Marty just doesn't have the resources at his disposal that Phil would. After all, they're running a long-con here, as operations go, and it's not like S.H.IE.L.D. can have someone on standby 24/7 to pull Clint Barton's incompetent ass out of the fire. His one job was to not get caught and give the correct intel on one of the biggest arms deals in recent history, and right now it looks like he's fucked up both those objectives without even knowing how.

He looks down at his t-shirt, decides that the spreading ring of crimson on the otherwise pristine white shirt really isn't all that noticeable, and casually steps out of the phone booth. He glances both ways before crossing the street--getting hit by a car now would be the height of ignominy, not to mention that Dimi and the other two goons have had ample time to recover and come after him. Of course, finding a single man on the streets in Varna is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but in this case it's a bleeding foreign needle in a very gossipy haystack, so he can't afford to take too many chances.

There aren't nearly enough back alleys between him and Central Varna Cemetery, he decides after a lot of walking and ducking and weaving behind buildings and garbage dumpsters. He wishes he still had his car, even if it was a piece of shit Volkswagen that barely ran even on a good day. Volkswagens are pretty dependable, even when they are shitboxes. But that would have meant sneaking back to his apartment and either trying to retrieve the key (along with his wallet) or else hotwiring his own car, and both those propositions are way too risky to even contemplate. There's no way Dimitar wouldn't have left someone to watch the place and his car, for precisely that reason.

Clint has to stop several times to catch his breath, hand pressed against his side, which feels like someone has lit it on fire. The bleeding seems to have slowed to an ooze, which is a mercy. If he were to stop moving entirely now he's sure that the wound would be able to clot on its own without too much outside help, but he doesn't have much of a choice. Martin's waiting for him, and the longer it takes him to get there, the less likely he is to be extracted back to a safe zone. His right knee is throbbing in time with his pulse, and he's pretty sure it's starting to swell up in spite of his attempts to keep moving.

If I stop now, I'm screwed.

The sun is high above his head by the time he makes it to the cemetery. He takes a furtive look around, crosses the pedestrian footpath and ducks into the trees lining the roadway, grateful that winter has long since come and gone, and the leaves have come out enough to offer a semblance of camouflage. There's no way he can stay either on the street or even on the footpath without attracting undue attention. The grass, even though it's well kept, is uneven enough under his feet that he finds the going difficult. Natasha would be laughing at him through the comms, if she were here (and if he had his receiver in, which he doesn't, because undercover operatives don't need receivers except under very specific circumstances), and Phil would likely be telling her to keep the comms chatter professional, if you please, Agent Romanov. But Phil's gone and Natasha's not here, and all Clint has are ghost voices, wafting through time, to get him through today.

By the time he's arrived at the safehouse he's completely winded, his shirt soaked through with sweat as well as blood. It's an ugly grey building, all grimy windows and filthy white garage doors, but he's pretty sure he's never been happier to see a building in his life. He lets himself half-collapse against the door frame once he gets to the side entrance, hands shaking so hard he can barely punch in the security code that will let him inside to safety. The door opens with a click that he can feel through the palm of his hands, and he wonders if it was as loud as he thinks it was.

He shuts the door behind him and leans his back on it for just a moment. "Marty?" he calls out tentatively. "You here?"

"Of course."

He swivels just quickly enough to see Martin advance on him, his mouth a grim line, taser at the ready in his hand. Before Clint can so much as bring a hand up in his own defence there's a stinging pain in his neck like a hundred hornets just got unleashed on the same spot. Every muscle in his body seizes up and he crumples gracelessly to the floor.

~*~

Clint has a great view of the linoleum flooring from his position. There's a small smear of blood on the floor just by his left eye, which means he must have cut his face at some point--probably when he threw himself out that window. His hands and legs are still twitching, the aftereffects of being tased, he decides after a moment. He's only had it happen once before in his life, during training, and that was one time too many. At least he didn't lose control of his bladder, which is a small mercy, considering. He can feel his throat working, making a high-pitched moaning noise, but there's nothing he can do to stop any of it as Martin swiftly zip-ties both his hands and feet and hauls him upright to sit in a rolling desk chair.

Martin sighs as he puts away the taser in a small brown briefcase, shaking his head. "You know, Barton, I'd really hoped you were one of us."

Clint makes a vague strangling noise he hopes will convey his confusion. His head hurts, joining in with his sprained knee and the bullet hole in his side.

"Given that you have no idea what I'm talking about, I can only conclude that you're not," Martin continues. He's wearing the same stupid brown suit and pink shirt that he always wears, though at least this time he's lost the brown tie he likes to pair up with it. "One of us, that is. It's a pity, you would have been a great asset. I suppose, as one last professional courtesy, I should let you know that S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, as of last night. Technically it was yesterday afternoon, in the U.S., but that doesn't change much for us, does it?"

Clint swallows, finds he's regained the use of his tongue somewhat. "Marty, what're you talking about?"

Martin backhands him, hard. He shakes out his fingers with a smirk. "I've been wanting to do that for nearly two years. You have no idea... I hate that nickname, and I've told you before not to use it. But you're not much of one for respecting others if it doesn't suit you, are you, Barton?"

It would probably be disingenuous to apologise now, but Clint tries it anyway. "I didn't think you meant it, Mart--uh, Martin. What do you mean about S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

He's stalling a little bit, but he's also genuinely curious. His neck has gone weirdly stiff, and he rolls his head a little, trying to work out the kinks in his muscles. The safehouse, if it ever was one, has been stripped almost completely bare. There's no furniture save for the chair he's sitting on, a crappy little desk, and what looks like an empty kitchen off to his left.

"Your little whore friend spilled all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets onto the internet last night. The government has declared all of you a terrorist organisation. There is no S.H.I.E.L.D. any longer."

Clint's jaw drops. He had thought that was something that only happened in books or movies, but apparently it's totally a real thing that's happening to him right now. He blinks, forces his mouth closed again, and swallows.

"I don't..."

"No, you never did understand, did you Barton? Not the sharpest tool in the shed. It's why I advised against sending you in for this assignment to begin with. You've always lacked intelligence, but you're fantastic as a blunt instrument. Or, I suppose, a pointy instrument. Point Barton at the target, destroy the target. At least you're not completely useless in the field. Well, you weren't before. Now..." Martin grins, but there's no humour in it.

"You've been working with TIM this whole time."

It's all starting to click into place. If Natasha gave away S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets, then she must have had good reason, but it would mean giving away the identities of all the agents out there, not just Clint's and Martin's. Clint's stomach roils at the thought of all the intel he's been slipping back to Martin for the past two years.

"You never once sent my reports back to S.H.I.E.L.D., did you?"

Martin laughs. From this close up, Clint can see the silver fillings in his back molars. "Oh, you are precious. Of course I sent back reports! Otherwise they would have suspected. You really are as stupid as I thought. I will confess to heavily editing your reports to suit our ends, however. That way I stayed in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s good graces, since they never suspected a thing, and Stoyan thought I was the best ally ever."

"So he knew all along who I was?"

Martin shrugs. "No. I thought it better he believe you were one of us. Stoyan Nikolov Gavrilov, for all his many uses, is not a man to be crossed lightly. If he'd known you were a proper spy with allegiances to someone other than him, then he would simply have executed you on the spot, and I needed someone deep in there whom he wouldn't suspect."

"You're making my head hurt," Clint complains.

"Of course, now that your involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. has been revealed, I told him what I could, of course. No sense in having him kill the both of us when you will suffice. After all, I'm supposed to be getting a rather important cut from the profits of next week's arms deal."

Martin makes a show of checking his watch. "Well, I have a plane to catch. I don't plan to be anywhere near here when he arrives to execute you himself. Not afraid of getting his hands dirty, which is something I can admire... from a distance."

"Treacherous bastard!" Clint spits. "I get free, I'm going to make you wish you'd never been born! And don't think I won't get free. You think I got this far in life without learning how to survive?"

Martin just rolls his eyes. "If it comforts you to make empty threats, go right ahead. In any event, I need to make sure you don't get away before I have time to direct Stoyan to your whereabouts." He pulls out a pistol, and Clint's a little too dazed right now to make out the make or model. It looks like a nine-millimetre, anyway, but no matter which way you put it, it's still a gun. "I'd apologise, but I think we both know I wouldn't mean it."

"I thought you wanted him to kill me?" Clint tries to goad him, but it falls on deaf ears. No pun intended. He's going to survive this, no matter what.

"I do. But this is still the best instrument I have to hand," Martin says calmly, then leans forward to whisper conspiratorially in Clint's ear: "Hail Hydra."

Clint's eyes go wide, just as Martin deals him a vicious blow to the temple with the butt of the gun.

For what feels like a long time, Clint floats in the dark. Images occasionally swim through his mind, diffuse and sometimes haunting, but the dark is all but overwhelming. When he comes to, blinking painfully in the pale light filtering in through the window shades, he's completely alone. He raises his head, regretting it as soon as the movement makes him feel as though his brain is about to leak out through his eye sockets, then looks around, trying to take stock.

Martin is long gone, but he was expecting that. He can taste copper on his lips, can smell it faintly in the air, and that and the slightly tacky sensation where his shirt is clinging to his neck tells him he's probably bleeding. Or was bleeding up until recently. Head wounds are a bitch. There's no clock anywhere to tell him how long he's been unconscious, but he thinks it must not have been all that long. He's always had a hard head, or so everyone keeps telling him. It's probably been less than an hour, but more than thirty minutes, which means he doesn't have all that much time before Stoyan gets here, presumably backed by his crew. Knowing Martin, he'll want to put as much distance between him and the TIM crime boss as possible before making that one final phone call, just to ensure the safety of his own hide, but that doesn't mean Clint has any time to waste. His side is still burning, and his right knee has swelled so much that it's stretching the fabric of his pants a little grotesquely. It's going to be an utter bitch to try to get free.

At least the chair is on wheels. Clint shifts a little in his seat, the movement putting pressure on his bound hands and making the plastic zip-ties dig painfully into his flesh. No sense putting off the inevitable. He sighs, lifts his eyes heavenward in a silent plea for strength, then slides to the floor with a painful jolt. He brings up his knees with a quiet moan of pain as the injured joint protests, contorts his arms and shoulders until he's able to slip his hands past his feet and bring them up in front of him. Step one. With his hands in front of him, it's easier--though not actually easy--to make short work of the zipties around his ankles. He's kind of amazed that Martin didn't do a better job of securing him, but then, Martin's training would have been to handle operatives in the field, not interrogation or even guard duty. If S.H.I.E.L.D. weren't history, Clint would be making a mental note to make sure to mention that in his next report. Cross-training is something that only agents like him and Natasha got, probably a budget thing, but it was exactly this sort of situation that showed where there were gaping holes in the supposed security net.

Getting the ziptie off his wrists is another ballgame. When trying a pressure break doesn't get him much traction other than making the bullet wound in his side hurt even more, Clint limps over to the kitchen. His knee is completely stiff now, and walking on the leg is excruciating. There's no way he's going to get far on foot like this. First things first, though, and that means getting his hands loose. The drawers are mostly empty, but a thorough search turns up a slightly rusty screw that's come loose at the back of one of the cabinets, and that will do the trick just as well, even if it's not ideal. He has to brace himself against the counter so as not to fall over while he's working. It's slow, painstaking work, screws not being designed to work as shims. By the time he's done his hands have gone slightly numb, and the tips of his fingers are raw from chafing against the rusty metal. Still, with a sharp flexing of the wrists he's able to free himself from the thin plastic like it's nothing, and spends the next precious few seconds rubbing at his wrists, trying to restore the circulation there.

There's no telling how soon Stoyan, or anyone else from TIM, is going to get here. Or Hydra. Fucking hell, what've I got myself into? He wishes Coulson were here, to give him some kind of reassurance, to let him know there was a plan, that Clint just had to trust in him and wait.

"Well," he says to the empty room, "no one ever said it would be easy."

~*~

The safe house has been stripped bare. There's not even so much as a roll of toilet paper Clint can use to clean himself up a bit. He runs water from the tap over his head, wincing and drawing in a hissing breath as it comes into contact with the new laceration in his scalp. He lifts his t-shirt, grimaces at the deep crease the bullet left in his side, and decides to count himself lucky that it didn't penetrate any deeper than that. It'll need stitches, but even if he can't get those, at worst he'll have a really ugly scar to add to his already impressive collection.

He slips out the side door, keeping his eyes open for any kind of movement to alert him to the presence of TIM thugs, but there's nothing so far. At least his remaining hearing aid doesn't appear to have objected too much to his being tasered. The left one is down for the count, which is going to be a serious drawback, but he's not completely deaf, so he'll take the win for now.

There's only one place he can think of that might be safe, at least for a few hours. His friend Miro might be a member of TIM, but he and Clint go way back, and Clint has helped him out of more than one jam in the past. If he plays his cards right, Miro might just be willing to let him hide out for a bit, just long enough to get his bearings and figure out a new plan. So that's where he heads, cutting across the cemetery and then keeping as much to the backstreets as he can without making a spectacle of himself. He's only ever driven there before, although there was that one time he took the bus, and he gets himself turned around more than once before he's able to make his way to the shabby little apartment building where his friend Miro lives with his girlfriend.

Okay, Clint, you've got one shot at this. The minute someone in this place full of busybodies sees you, you're done for, so make like you're a shadow in the night.

The pep talk gets him through the front door of the building--unseen, he hopes, but there's no way of telling until people either show up behind him demanding to know why he's there, or don't. He has to grab the stair railing with both hands in order to pull himself up the steps, leaving tiny smears of drying blood behind that he can only hope are small enough to go unnoticed for now. He drags himself up two flights of stairs, glad that Miro doesn't live too much higher, and raps quietly on the door.

Nothing but silence meets his knock, and his heart sinks into his stomach. Stupid, Clint, stupid. Of course they're not home. Why would they be home? It's not like they don't have lives that don't revolve around helping their actually-a-traitor friend who was stupid enough to get himself caught and--

The door opens a crack, and then a little wider when Lyobomir Ivanov Avramov, better known to his friends as Miro, catches sight of him.

Clint tries for an endearing smile, but he thinks the effect might be a little off, considering the look on Miro's tanned face. "Heya, Miro. I hate to drop in on you like this, but, uh, I kind of got myself into a jam. Help a brother out?"

Miro flings the door wide, but before he can say anything the world goes a little swimmy, and the next thing Clint knows his knees are buckling and everything goes dark for a few seconds. Strong hands catch him under the armpits, and even though the pressure on his side makes him whimper a little, at least he hasn't fallen over completely. He's barely aware of someone calling out, of the muffled sound of the door slamming behind him.

"Come with me, you sit," Miro says, slinging one of Clint's arms over his broad shoulders.

He's a bit shorter than Clint, which makes it an uncomfortable proposition, but a moment later Clint feels himself being dropped carefully to sit onto a soft surface--the worn but very comfortable sofa in Miro's living room. He forces his eyes open again, even though he can't quite get the world to come properly into focus again, and leans forward, trying to keep from bleeding right onto their only sofa. Blood is a bitch to get out of upholstery.

"You're not calling anyone, are you?" he mumbles, and he thinks that gets him a funny look.

"You are in trouble?"

Miro, bless him, doesn't beat around the bush. Clint thinks he hears someone or something moving in the other room, but it's on his bad side, so he's not really sure. He decides to go with the truth, or a simplified version of it, and see where that gets him. If nothing else, he'd rather go at the hands of a friend, but he's betting on the fact that he knows Miro's not a stone cold killer. Stoyan uses him more as muscle, as the occasional fixer and clean-up man, rather than as an executioner.

"Stoyan's trying to kill me."

Miro lifts an eyebrow at him, but that's as far as his reaction of surprise goes. "Katya," he calls out, and the rest is lost on Clint because it's over his shoulder and entirely in rapid-fire Bulgarian. He turns back to Clint. "Okay. First we get you cleaned up, then you tell me why Stoyan tries to kill you. After that, we make a plan."

Clint laughs. "You're a pal, Miro."

Miro just rolls his eyes, then steps aside as his girlfriend makes an appearance. Katya isn't what you'd call supermodel beautiful, but she has a really nice face, with thick eyebrows and eyes so dark you can lose yourself in them. She also happens to be a nurse, which comes in really handy in their line of work. Not that she has much patience for anything involving TIM, but she loves Miro and that seems to be enough for now. She stifles a small gasp, then turns to Miro and rattles something at him in Bulgarian, which once again goes right over Clint's head.

"She want to know what happen to you."

Clint laughs again, and the laugh turns into a cough. "Good question. Uh, I got shot, and then I jumped through a window, and then I got tasered, and then I got knocked out," he ticks each item off on the fingers of his left hand.

Miro translates, and Katya snorts. She does understand more English than Clint understands Bulgarian, but she doesn't like to speak it unless she has to. She gives what sounds like a series of instructions to Miro, then comes to crouch by his side. She's wearing her hospital scrubs, but by the looks of them she's coming home from a shift, not leaving, which is a mercy.

"I cut shirt," she informs him, and he nods.

"Sure, no problem. I hate this shirt anyway. Way too white."

If she gets the humour, she shows no sign of it. Instead she gets up, goes to rummage in a drawer, and comes back with a pen light, which she shines in his eyes. He blinks and tries to pull away, right up until she grabs his head a little roughly in a practised hand. "Be still, please. I check for head..." she stops, obviously not knowing the word she needs.

"Concussion," he supplies. "Yeah, pretty sure I have one of those."

"You sick?"

"Uh, not yet," he admits. His stomach is feeling none too pleased with the day's events so far, but it's not like he had time to eat, so there'd be precious little to throw up anyway.

Miro returns with a plastic bucket filled with what looks like a cobbled-together first aid kit and several towels, and Katya thanks him absently over her shoulder. He plants a kiss on her head, right where her thick dark hair is parted, and that makes her smile. She tucks two of the towels under Clint's back, and belatedly he thinks he should apologise, just in case he got blood on their sofa. She pulls out a pair of scissors and takes hold of the hem of Clint's shirt before cutting it away from the wound in his side. She bites her lip, shakes her head.

"I not sew that," she tells him. "No thread. No needle."

"Okay."

It hurts like hell when she cleans it out, with Miro's strong hands holding him down by the shoulders so he won't writhe as much and make her job that much harder. When she's done she does a creditable job of taping up the laceration with seri-strips, packing gauze over it and then binding the whole thing with a bandage. She looks down at where his knee has swollen to the point of stretching out his pants, and frowns.

"Don't cut my pants, please. Not as easy to replace," he manages. He's bathed in sweat, can feel it trickling down his face along his hairline, and dripping down his back past the waistband of his pants.

She nods, pulls off his shoes, then says something to Miro Bulgarian. Miro shrugs and turns to Clint. "I will help with pants, but it will hurt. You don't yell, okay? You bite on this," he sticks a rolled-up elastic bandage in Clint's mouth as a makeshift gag, "and you are very, very quiet. Got it?"

Clint manages what he hopes sounds like agreement around the soft fabric. He undoes his belt and unzips the fly of his pants, lifts his hips enough to push them down as far as he can get them, and then concentrates very hard on not screaming in agony when Katya and Miro each grab a pant leg and yank them free. At a word from Katya, Miro disappears into their tiny kitchen and comes back a few moments later with a sack of frozen peas and a stained tea towel.

"We need to get the swelling down before she can wrap it," Miro tells him, which sounds about right. "Put your leg up on sofa, like so," he lifts Clint up so he's lying almost full-length on the sofa, then carefully wraps the peas in the tea towel before tucking it right behind Clint's knee. "You hold very still, while Katya cleans your head, all right?"

He's given another ice pack for his head, and Katya flashes him the first smile since he got there, right before applying a band-aid to the bridge of his nose. Fantastic.

"I can't tell you much I appreciate this," Clint starts, even as Katya clucks her tongue at him when his head movement impedes her work.

Miro puts a hand on his uninjured knee. "My friend, you know you have but to ask. You think we forget how you helped with Maria when her good-for-nothing husband tries to take her boy away?"

A lump forms in Clint's throat at that. He'd almost forgotten the incident, when Katya's sister's husband had showed up at the door, drunk and screaming and waving a gun. He'd threatened to shoot anyone who got in his way, forced his way past Katya in spite of her attempts to beat him back. They'd gotten the door reinforced after that, but at the time he'd simply battered it until it gave way. Clint, never one to appreciate men who beat on their wives and kids, had stepped up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, and knocked him senseless with an elbow to the face. Then he, Miro, and a couple of other guys from TIM had taken him down to a secluded spot by the docks, and given him several very good reasons never to come near Maria or her little boy ever again.

"Hey, I never liked bullies, you know."

"Just like Captain America."

Clint barks a laugh. "Not quite, but I'll take the compliment. You're a good man, Miro my friend. You know Stoyan's going to hold a grudge about this, right?" he tries to sit up, only to get pushed back against the sofa cushions by Katya, who accompanies the gesture with a hard look.

"Still!" she orders sternly, and he subsides, trying to look meek.

"We deal with that when it comes. Maybe it's time I do as Katya wants, and start over, do something else. Eh, Katya?" Clint assumes that what follows is a repetition of the same sentiment, only in Bulgarian, because Katya smiles and nods. She leans over him.

"You help?"

Clint wants to point out that he's half-naked, concussed and bleeding on their sofa without a penny to his name, but she looks so hopeful, so damned earnest that he can't bring himself to burst her bubble of optimism. "Sure, I'll help. I get out of this, I have some contacts who can get us out." I hope, he adds silently. Aloud, he says: "Can I use your phone? I gotta make a call."

Phil is gone, S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, but Natasha is still there, and she'll come for him, if he asks. He doesn't know about any of the other Avengers, but he doesn't need to. Natasha's been working with Rogers, but the others are scattered all over the place, and they mostly know him as the guy who got his mind fucked six ways to Sunday by Loki. Sure, he was cleared of all wrongdoing--alien gods with superior mind-bending powers aren't something the average human can defend against--but that doesn't mean he couldn't interpret the looks he was getting from everyone. Everyone except Tasha, that is.

Miro hands him his cell phone, and he holds it gingerly up to his one good ear after dialling Natasha's number. It goes directly to voicemail, and he feels his blood run cold. "Tasha, it's me. I mean, it's Clint. I don't know what the hell just happened, but everything's gone south, and they said S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone. Martin's gone, too. Left me twisting in the wind. I'm with friends for now, but it's all falling apart and we're not going to be safe for long. Call me back when you get this, please. And Tasha, be safe."

Miro takes the phone away again, and pushes him to lie down even further on the sofa. Katya is putting away the first aid supplies, her back to them, while Miro pulls a thick woollen blanket over his bare legs and stomach. "You sleep for a while. When it's dark, we find somewhere safe for you to go. Here is okay for now, but Stoyan will come looking. First, sleep."

Clint starts to protest, but the blanket is heavy and warm, and his eyelids are already drooping. "Yeah, okay. Thank you."

"You're welcome, my friend."

~*~

Clint wakens with a start to the unmistakable sound of a gunshot right outside the front door, accompanied by screaming. Utterly disoriented, heart thudding dully in his chest, and blood roaring in his ears, he scrabbles to sit up, only to have the whole room lurch sickeningly, as though he were sitting on the deck of a ship in the middle of a huge storm. He gropes for his pants, forces them on past his injured knee--which someone wrapped while he was sleeping, he notes, which is a little disturbing, given that he never once noticed. There's a clean t-shirt that's at least a size too big folded near the sofa (Miro might be shorter, but he's considerably broader in the shoulders and more muscular than Clint), and he yanks it over his head before shoving his feet back into his shoes. This time he pauses long enough to tie the laces. He's already had to run in unlaced shoes once today--is it still the same day? It's dark outside, but that doesn't mean he's been out for all that long--and that was more than enough.

Miro is braced by the door, pistol in hand, and he motions to Clint with his free hand to take refuge in the bedroom. Clint opens his mouth to protest, but Katya comes up from behind and places her finger over his lips.

"Shh," she instructs. "No one hurt. Miro talk, they go away. All right?"

It makes more sense than trying to run or shoot his way out. At least this way, if Miro manages to convince Stoyan and his men that there's no one here, that Clint never came by, then there might not be any more casualties, and it will buy Clint a few more hours at least. Not to mention that if Stoyan buys Miro's story, he won't come after either Miro or Katya.

Katya pulls him into the bedroom, tugs open the closet door, and presses hard against the wooden back, revealing a hidden door on a spring. "Shh," she says again. "You quiet."

The secret compartment is horribly cramped. Clint has to crouch until he's almost bent double at the waist before he'll fit. The position puts more pressure on his knee and side, and he shoves his hand into his mouth in order not to moan in pain. It's pitch-black, stifling, and he has to force himself to slow his breathing. Easy, Clint, you're fine. It's not too small, there's plenty of air. He breathes in slowly through his nose, exhales softly through his mouth, around the tender flesh of his hand. He can't hear what's being said, can only make out the faintest sound of voices raised in argument. He hopes that it's just the closet that's well sound-proofed and not an indication that something's going wrong with his hearing aid. The last thing he needs now is for the world to go completely silent.

It's only a liability if you let it become one, Phil was fond of telling him. Well, Phil isn't here now, but if he were, Clint would be forcing him to eat those words with extreme prejudice. Stupid holier-than-thou bullshit. Let's see how well Phil coped with being injured and all but incapable of hearing if there was danger right around the next corner. Bet he wouldn't be so smug then. But then, Phil's dead, and there's no changing that. Clint bites down harder on his hand, and tears form in his eyes and spill down his cheeks, and he tells himself it's all from the pain in his knee and side.

His stomach flip-flops, protesting the all the upheaval, and his mouth fills with saliva. Oh God, no. Not now, not now, not now, please. He can't be sick in here, there's no way. It will alert everyone to him in seconds. He swallows convulsively, breathes even more slowly. He can almost hear Coulson's voice in his mind, coaching him through. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Easy, Barton, that's it. Slow, deep breaths. You're fine. You're fine, everything's fine.

"I know you are in there, Barton!" Stoyan's voice filters in to him, distorted through the walls. "If you will not come out on your own, I will smoke you out!"

He can't move, can't so much as twist himself to check the time... even if he had a watch, which, of course, he doesn't. Gotta keep an eye on that, Barton. You're slipping a lot today. You don't have a watch, you don't have money, you don't have anything. He crouches in the dark, and starts counting off the seconds. One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. He reaches forty-five before the closet door scrapes open, and Katya comes to pull him out.

"You come. Come quick!" she yells. "Fire!"

There's no mistaking that word in any language, and she doesn't give him time to get the pins and needles out of his legs before she's chivvying him ahead of her back into the living room and toward the front door. There's already smoke billowing under the gap in the door, and heat blasts through when she pulls it open. Miro is waiting for them on the other side, his shirt pulled up over his nose and mouth. He lowers it long enough to yell.

"Downstairs! They set fire to building! No exit. They block!"

Shit. Shit-shit-shit. The word repeats on loop in his mind, like a particularly scatological mantra. Clint looks up at the stairs leading toward the floors above them, already ablaze in patches. It looks like Stoyan's boys poured gasoline down the entire flight of stairs and lit a match before getting out. The message is clear: this is what you get for helping our enemies. They have to get out of here, the sooner the better. He can make out the crackling of the flames, loud popping noises as more and more of the wooden building catches alight. From somewhere above his head, someone, a child, starts to scream, and Clint's stomach churns again. Reason dictates he should just run for it, get the hell out of there. The building is already lost, and anyone above him is likely a lost cause too. No sense getting himself killed along with everyone else. The child screams again, and Clint squeezes his eyes shut as hard as he can, and tries to force himself to ignore the sound.

He balks as Katya tries to push him toward the stairs, toward the area still clear of flames. "No. Miro, your neighbours... we can't... there are children."

Miro's face softens at that. "Da," he relents. "All right." He turns to Katya, and there's a flurry of arguing in Bulgarian, but at the end she, too, gives in. She looks over at Clint, gives him a nod.

"You keep Miro safe. You promise."

He holds up his right hand. "I swear on my grave."

They waste precious time running back into Miro's apartment, but there's no choice. Miro starts pulling towels from the linen closet as Clint runs water in the bathtub. Within moments the towels are soaked through, and Clint wraps one around his nose and mouth, helps Miro to do the same. Carrying an armful of towels, Clint charges up the stairs as fast as he can manage, adrenaline lending him a strength and speed he didn't know he possessed. It's not a large building, but it feels like it's at least fifty stories tall by the time he gets to the top landing, already engulfed in white-hot flames and smoke. The doors to the apartments are all open, people milling about in panic, and they all throw themselves at him and Miro as they appear.

He leaves it to Miro to get them going down the stairs, to distribute wet towels among them as best he can. Clint wouldn't be able to make himself understood, nor can he understand them amidst the screaming and the chaos, but he can still hear that one piercing shriek that got his attention before. He grabs the nearest person, an older man with a soot-blackened face.

"The child!" he yells, aware that he's probably being too loud even now when the man flinches. "Where's the child?" He racks his brain, trying to remember the right words. "Kude e deteto?"

Wordlessly, the man points to the furthest apartment on the landing, the door ajar but almost invisible behind a wall of flame. Clint shakes his head to clear it, doesn't give himself time to think before he's sprinting down the hallway, bent over at the waist so as to avoid the worst of the smoke. He finds the child--a little girl no more than eight or nine, dressed in nothing but a thin blue nightgown--huddled just behind the doorway, tears streaming down her face. She screams when she sees him and backs away, and he curses but doesn't try to lunge after her. Instead he smiles.

"Hey, sweetpea, I'm a friend." He bites his lip, tries to think of a way to reassure her. "Spokoino, az sum ot dobrite, okay?" His Bulgarian is terrible, way too stilted and probably wrong, but her expression changes from terrified to merely worried, and she stares at him, biting her lip. "Doveri mi se. Ela s men."

He holds out his hand, and with another sharp cry she throws herself into his arms, sobbing convulsively. He doesn't bother making her walk, just scoops her up in his arms and runs for all he's worth, even as he feels a wall of heat rise up behind him.

Miro is waiting for him at the top of the stairs, and scoops the girl out of his arms before sprinting down ahead of him, the other residents all running down as fast as they can manage. Clint follows close on his heels, trying desperately to keep up with them but lagging further and further behind. Now that he's been relieved of his burden, Clint is forcefully reminded of just how badly his leg is still hurt when his knee gives way and sends him sprawling to the side. He only just saves himself from tumbling down the entire flight of stairs by catching the smouldering railing with one hand, and feels the heat sear into the flesh of his palm. Something stretches and pops in his shoulder as he falls, and he lets out a yell of pain. By the time he's able to get to his feet, it's already too late: the stairs are completely ablaze above and below him.

"Fuck!"

He can make it to the next landing, but Katya said that Stoyan had all the fire exits covered. Or, rather, he's pretty sure that's what she meant. I'll just have to chance it. He uses his good leg to push off the stairs, landing in a painful roll at the bottom, but he avoids the worst of the flames and ducks into the nearest open door he can find. The apartment is dark, but the flickering light of the fire lets him make out where the windows are, and he stumbles toward the furthest one, where he thinks the fire escape must be. He pushes the window open, doesn't so much as bother to check what's below it before climbing out head and shoulders first. He lands awkwardly on the metal fire escape, only to feel something ricochet off the metal directly to his right.

"Shit!"

He ducks, rolls to the side, trying to work out if there are stairs or a ladder he can use, cursing himself for never quite working out how the fire escapes worked in this building before. Standard reconnaissance, Clint. Phil would read you the riot act during debrief after this. You got sloppy, working without him. Another bullet pings off the escape as he finds a ladder, and he pauses to look around, trying to pinpoint the source of the gunfire. It's coming from nearby, that much he's sure of. The shooter isn't using a silencer, but if Clint can hear the faint report, it must mean the guy is nearby. Eventually he spots him, standing on the balcony of the next apartment. Behind him, the room is a light show of whites and yellows and oranges, too damned hot for him to get out. As Clint watches, the guy, barely more than a silhouette, raises his gun to fire again, just as the heat makes the glass in the windows explode outward. There's a horrible shriek of pain, and the gun goes skittering along the balcony and falls the three remaining stories to the ground.

Clint lets out an incredulous laugh, hardly believing his luck. The man's sleeve is on fire, and he's shrieking even louder than the little girl before him. For a moment Clint is tempted to just let him burn--t's no more than he deserves--but only for a moment. He shakes his head, mutters another obscenity under his breath, then finds what purchase he can along the wall of the building and carefully edges his way across to him, praying that the whole damned building won't collapse before he gets there.

His erstwhile assailant isn't still on fire when he gets there, shrieking and batting ineffectually at his arm with his other hand, right up until Clint tackles him and forces them both to the floor, using their combined body weight to smother the flames, though not before he feels the heat sear into the palms of his hands. Up close he recognises the man as one of Stoyan's bodyguards, though they've never exchanged more than a dozen words before.

"Petar, it's me. You want to live? You stick with me, got it?"

Petar nods, his eyes so wide that Clint can see the whites all the way around the irises. His pupils are huge, even in the bright light from the fire. Clint grabs hold of both his shoulders, and pulls until they're both back on their feet.

"Okay, follow me. You try anything, I'm leaving you here to burn."

~*~


Part 2

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