Everyone and their mother's second cousin has done a Budapest story so I figured I might as well, too. It's sort of a rite of passage, right?
Anyway, this was largely prompted by Geckoholic in be_compromised 2015 promptathon: "A plan never survives contact with the enemy" - aka, how about mission fic gone violently south?
Anyway, this was largely prompted by Geckoholic in be_compromised 2015 promptathon: "A plan never survives contact with the enemy" - aka, how about mission fic gone violently south?
Warnings: movie type violence of the machine-gun-explosion variety, a smidge of language, and some description of injuries
A Cave Where Fires Burned
Edvard Kazka put his wide, heavy hand on Natasha's bare thigh, under the slit of her evening gown, and squeezed it beneath the table, hidden from the eyes of the many drug lords, Mafia bosses and underbosses, racketeers and gangsters circling the conference table.
She tolerated him with a coquettish smile and a nearly imperceptible flutter of her eyelashes. Natasha was arm candy tonight, low-cut black evening gown, diamonds hanging from her ears, red waves at their most luscious, falling over her shoulders and back in a rivulets. Kazka had had his hands on her all night, entwined in her fingers, brushing against her hips, lying on the small of her back, giving the rest of the thugs no doubt that his was the most beautiful prize.
Several of the other crime lords had brought escorts, girls with blond updos and red lipstick, slinky dressed and stilettos – who were looking at Natasha glumly across the table.
Budapest, Hungary – the desirable tourist destination of the year with its vivid, sweeping gardens, spas, high-end shopping on Vaci utca and WestEnd City Center, one of (if not the) largest malls in the world, and magnificent, old-world architecture – also had its shady side. No less elegant then the part of the city open to the public, it was also home to the international epicenter of crime group leaders.
Mafias belonging to Russia, Japan, Italy, Albania and more, all of them come to negotiate, forge business contacts, swap stories on the latest assassination attempts, and generally display to all the others just how much more powerful they were then them.
The Andrassy conference room, in the very bowels of the Gresham Palace – practically on the banks of the Danube – was an elegant affair, crystal chandeliers and polished wood paneling inlaid into the walls. Several exits at either end of the room, no windows. Doors guarded on both sides, interior, exterior, eighteen guards total, plus more mulling about in the lobby – making sure no one got in or out without a proper invitation or else with improper accessories hanging in holsters hidden by jackets, pant legs, or socks.
Natasha had been frisked herself – quite thoroughly – be guard Number Six, who had a mustache and dark gray eyes much too inclined to stray down Natasha's cleavage which, she had assured him before being dragged away by a put-out Kazka, hid no small derringer or pocket knife.
The guard's efforts were not to say, however, that everyone had come into the room unarmed. Rather, Natasha would be very surprised if not everyone in the room held at least two weapons somewhere on their bodies, small, retractable blades, pistols sewn into the lining of their tuxedos, sharpened lenses detachable from false spectacles. Natasha, herself, had twin blades hidden in the heels of her shoes, not to mention the hooks of her earrings could be used in a pinch. The possibilities were endless.
In fact, the conference room was possibly the most dangerous room in all the world – certainly housing all the most dangerous men – and Natasha was sitting right in the middle of it, currently toying with the little magnetic charm hidden in plain sight on her right middle finger that could trigger the bomb under the table and blow them all to pieces in a mere blink of an eye.
All she was waiting for was a word from Barton, who was currently outside in the dark, flitting through the shadows and acting as her own phantom bodyguard by clearing a safe exit path for her retreat.
"As soon as I get back," Clint's voice panted in Natasha's ear. He sounded physically exerted like perhaps he was climbing up the side of a building, "I'm going to ask Fury for a pay raise. We don't get paid – nearly – as much – as – we're worth –" Each word was punctuated by a gasp for breath.
Natasha stifled her impulse to retort that perhaps if Barton would spend less energy on talking and more on the job he'd find it less exhausting. He had been keeping up a seemingly endless stream of single-sided dialog since Natasha had been getting dressed that night, an annoying drone in the back of her head like the buzzing of a fly.
"Good, I've got a much better view from up here," Clint said. Natasha heard the faint twang of Clint's bow. "There we go – whoops – better take out his friend before he realizes something's wrong. Alright, Natasha, side door's clear. Phil – what do you say?" Clint directed his last to Coulson, who had been overseeing the operation not-on-the-premises and indulging Clint's monologue with the occasional long-suffering sigh or wry chuckle.
"No better time than the present," Coulson's voice came through clearly in Natasha's ear.
"That's a go, Nat," Clint added, "Meet you on the bridge in T minus seven minutes."
Natasha barely contained her smile and turned it into a sly look at Kazka, who responded with another squeeze of her thigh.
She unobtrusively brought her right hand up beneath the table until she touched the familiar cold corners of the two-by-four-inch rectangle that held enough explosive power to punch through a steel wall.
The magnetic stone inside her ring would trip the fuse and begin the countdown. She had five minutes to excuse herself to use the powder room, sashay past the guards with her heels clicking of the hardwood floor, and get as far as possible from the conference table before the bomb detonated. Poor Edvard, being closest to the explosive, he would be the one to experience the brunt of the force. At least Natasha didn't have to worry about being called in to make a positive identification on his corpse. That job would be left to his wife.
She leaned her head into Kazka's shoulder, hissing into his ear the way he liked, her hot breath fluttering the hairs on his neck, "I'll be right back, honey. Gotta go powder my nose."
Natasha stood and gracefully exited the room, flashing a brief smirk at guard Number Six, who ogled her.
Her heart was beginning to throb with the familiar flare of adrenaline, nearer to excitement than nervousness. She ran her hands over the smooth material of her black dress and bypassed the restrooms on her left, walking down the long corridor toward the glass doors that lead to the lobby, guarded by two more thugs in dinner jackets.
Natasha flashed each of them a dazzling smile, fishing in her small black clutch for a packet of cigarettes. Going out for a smoke. Horribly stuffy in here, don't you think? But neither of the guards asked her where she was going, and held the door open for her as she swept into the lobby.
Natasha whirled around at the sound of the voice and heavy footsteps on the floor behind her.
"Edvard!" Chirpy, delighted he followed her. "Going out for a smoke," flutter her eyelashes, tug out a cigarette and nibble on the end, red lipstick smearing the white paper, "care to join me?"
"Nat? Nat, what's wrong?" Clint's voice, urgent in her ear.
"Why, what a lovely idea," Kazka's warm hand on the bare skin of her back, under her hair, taking a right in the lobby, toward the front doors, more guards, Clint hadn't cleared this way, don't panic, improvise. "I could so use a breath of fresh air, myself."
The lobby was airy, a domed glass ceiling arching above them. A bellboy hurried to open the front doors for them. A man in a dark suit turned as they came through the doors but ignored them after a curt word from Kazka in Hungarian.
The doors opened to a sweeping flight of stairs that lead down to the sidewalk and street below. Cars and taxis rumbled by on the pavement. Beyond the road was the dark green expanse of Szechenyi Square, speckled with lamplight and strolling couples, arm in arm. Kazka pulled Natasha over to the side of the steps, out of the way of the doors, and offered to light her cigarette for her.
"It's a beautiful night, Edvard," she said around her cigarette, blowing out a puff of smoke. She never smoked when she wasn't on an op. She hated the taste of ash in her mouth, the roughness of her tongue and the grit on her teeth. "Why don't we take a walk across the Square?"
"The Square?" Clint's voice crackled in her ear, "What are you doing over there? Wait…hang on…recalculating." Clint's breathing turned sharp and ragged in her ear again, no doubt he was making his way across the roof so he could find her.
The Gresham Palace was, perhaps, even more of an impressive spectacle at night, lighted with hundreds of electric torches and spotlights, making it look as though the white stone of its walls glowed from within. It loomed above them like a castle forgotten in the times of King Arthur.
"I would love to, Édesem, but you know I am expected back. I cannot be gone for long from the conference."
"Sorry folks, you're on your own here." Coulson said.
"Thanks, Phil, that's real helpful," said Clint dryly. ""Alright, you're in my sights, Nat. Thugs number one and two on either side of the doors. On the count of five I'll take 'em out. Make your move then. Cough if you acknowledge me."
Natasha pulled out her cigarette out of her lips and coughed as she breathed in the smoke.
"Okay then, one –"
Natasha flicked off the ashy tip off her cigarette, dropped it on the ground and snuffed it out with her shoe.
"Hold me up while I fix my shoe, be a darling, Edvard."
Kazka held her elbow as Natasha fiddled with the straps of her shoe. She moved her fingers down to the heel, delicately unscrewing the tip.
Natasha detached the blade from her heel. Nifty design, that. She'd have to get a pair for everyday use.
Natasha brought her arm up sharply. If Kazka ever suspected something was amiss he didn't show it, but only let out a gurgling gasp as Natasha's blade buried itself into his chest, right through the left-handed breast pocket. He toppled over backward at the same time as two muffled thumps sounded behind her in quick succession and the two guards at the doors fell over on the steps with arrows buried in the tops of their heads.
"Well done, Romanoff," said Clint in her earpiece. "I'll be right down. Meet you at the bridge."
Natasha briefly considered retrieving Clint's arrows for him – she knew how much he disliked leaving them behind – but she noticed a young woman in a red dress just getting out of a taxi at the base of the steps whose eyes were round circles looking at Natasha and Kazka splayed at her feet and Natasha decided she had better cut her losses and just make a run for it.
She left the heel of her shoe buried in Kazka's chest, kicked off her shoes, and darted down the stairs, padding across the pavement in her bare feet, skirt of her dress flapping around her legs. There was a shout behind her. Natasha didn't know if it was only in the discovery of the bodies or directed at her, but she didn't pause to consider her situation, sprinting between traffic across the road and onto the soft lawn of the Szechenyi Square.
She could smell the damp of the River Danube up ahead, hear the screech of traffic on all sides of the Square. Behind her she thought she heard the muffled thump of an explosion deep inside the Gresham Palace, followed by several piercing screams and shouts of alarm. Natasha was thankful for the disturbance, hoping her retreat would be lost in the ensuing chaos.
"Clint, two minutes and I'll be there. Status?"
"I'll be waiting with the car," Coulson said, "about time you two."
The extraction plan was simple, rendezvous at the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, cross over it holding hands – just another nondescript couple enjoying the sights of the city at night – and then get picked up by Coulson where he was waiting on the western bank in Buda.
"Clint – status?" Natasha said again, slowing her pace to a walk, passing couples sitting side by side on benches in the darkness, disturbed by the commotion coming from the hotel. She fought the urge to look over her shoulder and check for any signs of pursuit.
"You haven't kept your mouth shut all night, Agent Barton," said Coulson, "now is not a good time to stop."
"Clint?" Nothing. Damn.
"Natasha, stick to the plan." Sirens began to keen in the distance.
"Phil – I'm not just leaving him. The police will be here any minute."
"Keep walking, Natasha. That's an order. Fury doesn't need both his top agents lost on one mission."
"Shut up, Coulson."
"Natasha, I mean it. The council –"
Natasha had heard enough. She spun back around on her heel. "Tell the council they can go to hell."
Coulson sighed, but then his voice burbled through Natasha's earpiece, "With pleasure, Agent Romanoff."
Natasha sprinted back toward the hotel. She didn't have any other weapons with her. She felt exposed and helpless without the familiar weight of her Glocks on her hips. She wished she hadn't been foolish enough to dispose of her shoes. Oh well, too late for second thoughts now. A crowd had gathered around the three corpses left on the dais.
Unexpectedly the rattling of a machine gun split the air, echoing off the surrounding buildings. Several pedestrians screamed and ducked, arms thrown over their heads. Natasha kept running, not bothering to seek cover. She had been around urban fighting long enough to be able to gage the distance of the shots. They were coming from the roof – the same place Clint had been when he'd last made contact.
Natasha's legs pumped with a crucial speed, stomach rising and falling rapidly with each gasping breath. She darted around the side of the hotel, scanning the expanse of buckled white stone and windows, trying to look for a way up. Dammit, Clint, how did he do it? Dammit, what ever happened to good-old fire escapes?
The sirens grew closer, reverberating off the sides of buildings, growing so loud they were almost deafening. Suddenly a line of speeding police cars rounded the corner down the street and whirled past the sidewalk where Natasha's stood, turning the corner of the hotel and skidding to a stop in the front street.
Natasha raced up the sidewalk to the side door, where a bellboy was standing, staring dumbstruck at the passing police cars and hardly acknowledging Natasha as she pushed passed the doors and into the building. Smoke clogged the hallway. Fire alarms screamed in her ears. She had almost forgotten about the bomb. She darted down the hallway and ducked quickly into a flight of stairs. Frantic hotel guests were clattering down the stairs, woman crying, men using their shoulders to shove through the crowd. Machine guns still clattered from the floors above.
Natasha gritted her teeth in irritation and plunged into the crowd, ducking under arms and squeezing passed panicked bystanders, all jabbering in dozens of different languages. She pounded up the stairs, calves straining, breathing hard, until she reached the top flight and a door marked in German, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, French, and English Authorized Personnel Only: Not an Exit.
Natasha shouldered it open, jogged up the small flight of steps to another door, and then broke onto the gently sloping roof that overlooked the rest of the city, sparkling with electric lights in the darkness.
Natasha obeyed Clint's shout of warning instinctively, tucking herself into a tight ball and summersaulting across the roof just as the awning above the door exploded in a shower of splintered wood and plaster as it was assaulted by a rain of bullets.
Natasha tossed herself behind an upturned vent and collided with Clint's shoulder. He was lying on his stomach, propped up by his elbows and holding his bow at a ready.
"Hey," said Clint, calmly knocking an arrow. "Nice dress."
"Thanks," Natasha said. Rolling onto her own stomach and peaking over the top of the vent, just as another flurry of bullets rattled off the top of the vent with metallic echoes.
"Got the jump on me," Clint explained. Natasha noticed his right ear, the one facing her and that had held his communicator, was trailing a line of blood. "Bashed me on the side of the head pretty good but I taught him a thing or two." Natasha's eyes fell on a slumped body lying in a heap on the roof between them and the invisible machine gunner. "But he brought a friend."
Police strobe lights bounced off the roof from below. "I have a feeling in a minute it's going to be a whole lot more crowded up here," Natasha said.
"Tell that to him!" Barton shouted after another bombardment of deafening bullets.
Natasha shouted and leapt into action before Clint had time enough to yell, "Dammit, Nat!"
She heard the twang of his bow as she dived for the corpse lying in the middle of the roof. Bullets clanged off the roof, throwing fractured shingles into her eyes. She fumbled for the holster on the dead man's leg, snatching up the derringer into her hand. Clint was moving now. She could see him sprinting toward the hidden thug, arrows flying. She leapt to her feet and darted forward, confusing the thug with two targets so that his gunfire flew harmlessly into the roof.
She caught sight of a gleaming eye, half of a face stained red and blue in the flashing police lights, aimed her gun and fired.
The machine gun went silent. Clint skidded to a stop beside her, panting, sweat gleaming on his forehead.
"So I've got to do everything myself around here?" Natasha grinned.
"I covered you!" Clint shot back, bending over to retrieve his arrows.
"Am I to understand you're both still breathing?" Coulson's voice spoke into Natasha's earpiece.
"Safe and sound, Phil," she said.
"Do I need to tell you to get a move on or are you already on your way?"
Natasha sighed, "Moving now, Coulson." She and Clint wordlessly made their way back through the door and into the stairwell. Natasha could hear the sounds of heavy boots thudding on the stairs and voices shouting in Hungarian, undoubtedly the police drawn by their brief firefight.
Natasha pulled Clint through the door to the third floor, erupting into a hallway lined on either side by hotel sweets. Several doors were opened to rooms emptied by a hasty exodus, others held ajar by frightened patrons in pajamas peeking worriedly into the hall. A door slammed shut as Natasha and Clint swept by and Natasha remembered she was still carrying the gun she had procured from the dead man. She didn't have anywhere to stow it in her form-fitting gown.
They sprinted down to the end of the hallway where there was another flight of stairs. They pounded down the three flights before they broke through the door to the lobby. The lobby was surging with a mob of people, hotel personnel, patrons, and policemen. Smoke from the explosion still floated up near the ceiling. People were crying, wailing, and all talking at once in an indecipherable panic.
"Dammit!" Clint said, shaking his head, "I think he ruptured my eardrum. I can't hear a thing out of this ear."
"Act casual, Clint, come on." Natasha began to wade through the babbling throng of hysterical people before she latched onto Clint's hand as a second thought – adopting the indignant socialite wife driven to find answers with her bumbling husband in tow persona – shoving aside patrons without a second glance. With any luck no one would notice her gun or Clint's quiver and they'd be out of there in less than a minute.
Natasha scanned the faces as she pushed through, hoping she wouldn't recognize any of the thugs she had become acquainted with during her brief stay with Kazka.
"Damn," she muttered under her breath. Guard Number Six, the one who hadn't been able to keep his eyes off her, was standing near the wall. He had escaped the explosion with nothing more than a bloody gash on his cheek and a torn jacket sleeve. He hadn't noticed Natasha yet.
"Three o'clock, Clint."
"Thug with the bloody face? Know him?"
"Friend of Kazka's," Natasha hissed out the corner of her mouth, dragging Clint with more insistency through the crowd, approaching the doors at the end of the lobby, swarmed with police officers. "I don't think he'll be very pleased to see me."
She ducked through the crowd, Clint close behind her. Her bare feet padded on the rough artisan rug covering the floor. Natasha reached for the handle of the door –
"Excuse me, please?" said a young policeman, stepping up to Natasha and Clint, "But Madame and Sir must stay within hotel, please. No one allowed out of hotel now."
"Look here, kid," Clint said, with a convincingly irritated drawl, "I'm sick of being told what to do and where to be. I'm gonna get some answers if it kills me. Where's your superior?"
"I apologize, sir," the officer continued patiently, "but I cannot allow –"
Natasha's eyes continued to flicker through the crowd, landing on face to face, feeling Number Six's presence behind her like his body emanated heat. Her gaze fell on a girl speaking urgently to a uniformed policeman. It was the girl in the red dress from the cab, who had seen Natasha take care of Kazka. The girl's eyes latched onto Natasha's face. Her mouth fell open. She pointed at Natasha and Clint. The policeman spun around, grabbing for the gun in his belt.
It was at that exact time that a woman behind Natasha chose to notice the gun held tightly in her hand and let loose an ear-piercing shriek.
Clint plowed his shoulder into the young policeman's chest and threw him backward over the stairs. In perfect synchronization she and Clint tore down the steps. There was a gunshot behind them. A light atop a police car shattered. Natasha turned only briefly to find, sure enough, the shot came from no officer but guard Number Six, scowling as he cocked his gun for another shot.
Natasha dived behind a squad car and rammed a policeman getting out of the door back into the front seat. She dashed across the street, leaping over the hood of a car. She could hear Barton's heavy footsteps beside her. The rough pavement stung the soles of her feet.
Guns were going off behind them but Natasha did not bother to look back, knowing the police had joined in by now. They'd reached the Square, grass already damp with evening dew. She zigzagged across the open Square, hoping it would decrease her chances of anyone getting their sights on her. Bullets flew crazily through the air. Police sirens pummeled her ears, squad cars roaring around the Square to cut off her and Clint's access to the bridge.
Natasha kicked her legs forward, arms pumping at her sides as she sprinted outright to the bridgehead, where one of its two stone lion guardians sat gaping at her with open jaws and lifeless eyes. Clint was right at her side. Cars skidded to a stop as they darted into the road in front of traffic. Police cars screeched to a halt at the base of the bridge, swung open their doors and stepped out with pistols and automatic rifles.
Natasha's heart was thudding in her throat. Clint dived behind a minivan, out of the way of the flying bullets. She followed his lead and took shelter behind a sedan. Clint's bow was loaded but he hadn't let fly any arrows. She knew he was hesitant about firing on law enforcement.
Several black, unmarked cars drove up behind the police cars. Men in black suits with gleaming machine guns stepped out. For a moment Natasha dwelled on the irony that both the mafia and the cops were linked in their general fixation of Clint and her as targets. Natasha saw the man behind the wheel in the minivan dive out of the way as his windshield erupted into a million pieces of glass from the smattering of bullets.
"Too many people, Clint!" Natasha yelled over the noise as she aimed her pistol over the hood of the sedan, looking for gangsters instead of the officers.
"Right," he said curtly from behind the van, "we'd better get off this bridge before someone gets hurt."
"Romanoff, dammit, get out of there!" Coulson's voice thundered in her ear and nearly ruptured her own eardrum. She had half-forgotten Coulson's continued surveillance.
"I'll cover you," Clint shouted and Natasha rolled away, dodging from car to car to keep out of sight of the guns. A man was climbing out of his truck. Natasha shoved him back inside before skirting behind the back wheels.
She paused and fired several shots blindly into the crowd, "Go, Clint!"
Clint leapt after her. The two of them made a mad dash for the pedestrian crossing of the bridge and the low fence that barred them from the water nearly fifty feet below. Natasha pole vaulted over the railing and hung on with her fingertips, legs dangling over the side of the bridge. Bullets passed so near her head she felt them ruffle her hair. Wind whipped her dress around her ankles.
Clint put both palms of the barrier, swung one leg over, but then slumped, look of shock crossing his face.
Natasha had no time to consider what might have happened. She hoisted herself back up the side of the bridge, arms screaming under her weight, latched onto the ledge with her toes, wrapped her arms under Clint's arms and fell backward, allowing her weight to pull them both over the top of the barrier and toward the water below, wind whistling in her ears as they plummeted.
The river hit her hard, like pavement. It swept the air from her lungs. Her limbs were tangled with Clint's and his weight pulled her down rapidly in the frigid water. The water rushed in her ears, bubbles clouded her vision. All she was sure of was the feel of Clint's strong arms under her fingers and the awareness that on the surface the police and mafia were both waiting patiently with guns for her and Clint's emergence.
She wrapped her hands tighter around Clint's forearm and, unaware how severely he was injured, kicked her legs violently to propel them through the water, skirt of her dress getting tangled around her thighs, allowing the current to grab hold of her and sweep her through the water.
Her lungs screamed for air. She felt Clint move beneath her hands. Whether he meant to tear away from her grip to swim on his own or fight to the surface she was unsure. Perhaps he was just thrashing randomly, disoriented by the fall and his injury. Natasha refused to release him, cutting the water with her shoulder, weight of Clint's body dragging against her progress.
Black spots bubbled in the corners of her vision. Her chest was aching from lack of air. Her head felt heavy on her neck. Finally she could take no more and she kicked toward the surface, Clint's body heavy beside her. Just as she felt sure her lungs were going to implode and suck in a stream of cool water in their desperation for air her head broke the surface and mouth flew open, air sweeping into her lungs. She gasped for breath and beside her there was a splash as Clint's head, too, broke the surface. He was coughing and sputtering.
Natasha could still see the bright lights on the bridge. She scanned the shores for any sign of pursuit only briefly before she ducked back under the surface, pulling Clint back with her, unable to waste precious breath to tell him to keep going.
He seemed to be helping her along now, legs kicking behind them, arm she was not still holding onto pulling at the water by his side. She was unsure of how much of it was just adrenaline, kicking in to overcompensate for his injury. That brief moment on the bridge, when he had slumped against the railing, haunted her in the back of her mind. She tried to force it away, concentrating only on swimming, on holding her breath seconds longer to avoid breaking the surface and giving away their position.
Again and again she pulled them up for a breath of air and dived below the water, swimming steadily down the river tangled with reeds and cloudy mud. They passed below two more bridges, the Elizabeth hanging low above them and Liberty glowing greenish blue in the darkness.
Finally they emerged again from the water, air around them dark and impenetrable accept for the lights lining the shores on either side of them. Clint's head bobbed low in the water. She could feel his arm stiff under her fingers, feel the shuddering of his body next to hers.
"Tasha –" a wave of water cut him off, voice gargling as he coughed. She could feel his strength ebb beneath her fingers. His feet kicked futilely to keep his head above water. He was dragging her under.
"Hold on, Clint –" Natasha gasped, feeling the current pull her down the river, shore and boats moored to docks sweeping passed. She swam diagonally with the current, bringing her steadily nearer shore. Her arms were aching with the effort of dragging them both through the water. She twisted Clint with some difficulty until he floated on his back, head resting on her shoulder. He seemed to be losing consciousness. She gritted her teeth, calf catching in a wrenching cramp.
Finally her toes caught on the rocky bottom of the river. She could still hear the distant echoes of police sirens from the bridge behind her, a distant, flickering light in the darkness. She stumbled toward the shore, a gravely landing of what looked like a park, shadowy outlines of bushy trees stretching into the sky. Natasha tugged Clint onto the shore beside her, stumbling to her knees, gasping for breath, immediately shivering as her wet skin was revealed to the biting night air.
She blinked past the water clinging to her eyelashes, scanning the shore rapidly, eyes piercing the shadowy bases of the trees and the illuminated buildings behind them, cars grinding on the pavement beyond the small park. The nearby benches were empty, not a soul appeared to be in sight. Their presence, for now, went undetected.
"Clint." She was at his side, hand on his cold, wet shoulder. His eyes were shut, face pale in the darkness, but mouth opened. She felt the breath evenly enter and leave his body underneath her palm. "Clint, come on, wake up."
They were still on the East bank, in Pest, separated from Buda and Coulson by the gurgling, dark river. She put her hand to her ear, searching for her communicator but found nothing. It must have fallen out during their swim in the river. Natasha stifled a curse on her tongue.
"Clint – listen – you're going to have to stand up. I can't lift you on my own, Clint."
Her eyes frantically scanned his body for any evident injuries. Immediately they zeroed in on his right side, above his ribs the fabric of his uniform was torn, but any darker stain of blood was undetectable in the poor lighting and wetness of his clothes.
Water dripped off Natasha's bangs and she impatiently shoved her hair out of her face.
"Clint, come on." She pushed her hand under his back, trying to hoist him onto his feet. Her heart was hammering inside her chest. She thought she could still hear distant sirens keening in the city. There was no telling how much time they had before the police caught up to them.
Clint groaned. His eyelids fluttered. "My – bow. I…lost my bow."
Natasha almost smiled in relief. She tugged Clint's heavy arm over her shoulder. "Never mind about that now. Come on. Walk."
"Never…mind?" he sounded disbelieving but his jest was cut off by a wet sounding cough. He fell against Natasha but she managed to keep on her feet.
"Come on, Clint." She gritted her teeth, pulling Clint up, at this point uncaring of how much she hurt him if only they kept moving.
Clint dragged his feet forward and together they clumsily made their way across the silent park. Natasha's mind was racing, her wet dress dragging against the grass. She didn't have any money so they couldn't catch a taxi. She didn't know where it would take them, anyway. Clint's shoes shuffled against the ground. He was heavy leaning on her shoulder. Her arm began to shake again from a combination of the exhausting swim and holding him up. She needed somewhere for him to rest, where she could better survey his wounds. Then she could worry about contacting Coulson.
The streets were largely silent, buildings sitting raggedly in the darkness. They passed occasional collections of men smoking cigarettes in alleys, eyes following Natasha and Clint, taking in her soaked dress and the way Clint was half-way collapsed on her shoulder. They probably thought he was drunk. Something warm was soaking into Natasha's dress from Clint's body, probably his blood.
They were clearly in a seedier district of the city. Joseph Town, perhaps, a bipolar section that had, at times, served as both Budapest's mansion district and its worst inner-city slum. Natasha knew at its center now sat the city's major hospitals but Natasha couldn't risk bringing Clint to the hospital, not with all the people now surely searching for them. Granted, Natasha would rather tangle with the police than the mob, because they would be more inclined to take them in for questioning rather than the shoot-on-sight rule of the mafia. But SHIELD had a strict nonintervention policy. If she and Clint were apprehended by the police they would be on their own.
Clint was getting heavier by the minute but Natasha forced them onward. His breathing was coming in short, ragged gasps. She thought uneasily of his injury. She hadn't found an exit wound during her hasty examination, which meant the bullet was still lodged somewhere in his side. Immediately she thought of his lung but she hurriedly squashed this thought. She couldn't panic. She had to keep going. Calm, collected, methodical, don't panic.
A drunken man from an alley catcalled as Natasha passed. She ignored him and peeled off the street, struggling down a side road with Clint. She cast a look over her shoulder. No one was in sight. The street was lined with shabby apartment buildings, graffiti-stained walls, chipped fire hydrants, and sidewalks crumbled and potholed.
"Come on, Clint. Almost there," she whispered into his hair, his head lolling against hers. Her fingers were hot and sticky with his blood, the flesh of her arms raised with gooseflesh from the cold water dripping down her back from her still wet hair.
She stumbled to a stop at random in front of the many apartment complexes. She looked down both ends of the street, silent save for the buzzing of a dying electric lamp by the street. She pressed her finger to the bell, leaving a bloody fingerprint behind.
While she waited for the door to open she rubbed the bell clean with a corner of her wet skirt.
"Almost there. Hang on," she whispered again, more to herself than to Clint.
She heard footsteps within the building before the door opened a crack, one wrinkled eye peeking through the space between the door and doorjamb.
"Mit akarsz?" a voice croaked, a woman's, eye peering suspiciously at Natasha and Clint, rapidly taking in their appearance.
"Kérjük, szükségünk van egy szobában," said Natasha, making her voice as pitiful as she could, blinking tears into her eyes.
The woman pulled the door open a bit more, revealing a creased, weathered face and gray hair like wire. "Van pénzed?"
Money. Did they have money.
"Nincs pénzünk. Holnap mi lesz pénz." No money. Tomorrow they would have money.
The old woman shook her head sharply, "Nem. Megy el." She began to shut the door.
Natasha slid her fingers around the knob to stop her. The woman's eyes went wide with fright but Natasha kept her voice gentle and pleading, "Kérjük, ossza meg velünk belsejében. Van hová menni."
She saw the woman's eyes flicker over Natasha's earlobes. Natasha immediately remembered her earrings. She couldn't believe they were still hanging from her ears and she immediately slipped them out and pressed them into the woman's palm.
"Valódi," Natasha said, assuring her of their authenticity, "valódi gyémánt." The woman's small eyes went wide with wonder before she tossed a look down the hallway behind her to check if anyone had seen the exchange.
She tucked the earrings into her pocket. "Gyere be. Gyorsan," she rasped, stepping aside from the door and Natasha pulled Clint hastily over the threshold. The woman snapped shut the door behind them, first checking the street for any signs of followers. Clearly Natasha and Clint's predicament came through clearly enough to the woman and was making her paranoid.
The woman jerked her head in a this-way gesture and led Natasha and Clint up a flight of rickety stairs in the corner. Getting Clint up the flight was difficult. Natasha pressed against the wall for added support, clearly too slowly for the landlady for the woman impatiently doubled back but at least grabbed Clint's other arm and slung it over her own shoulder to help.
Finally they reached the second landing and the woman lead them down a corridor lined with doors. The hallway smelled like marijuana and urine. Natasha's back ached. Clint seemed almost wholly unconscious now. She could still hear his ragged, laborious breathing in her ear.
The woman unlocked one of the doors with a ring of jingling keys. Natasha pushed passed the door and into the room. It was dark and shabby. She could see the outline of a bed in the corner. The woman flicked on a light behind her. A naked bulb flickered to life in the ceiling. Natasha staggered across the room until her knees hit the bed and she gently tipped Clint as gently as possible on top of the mattress, noting the lack of sheets or blankets.
She straightened out and faced the woman, who was fidgeting in the open doorway, eyes stuck on Clint who now could be more clearly seen under the light. He was pale and trembling. Natasha saw the maroon stain of wet blood over his side, soaking through his black uniform.
"Orvosság?" Natasha asked. Medicine?
The woman shook her head, rapidly, apologized and immediately left, door cracking shut behind her.
Suddenly Natasha realized just how terribly alone she was. Clint groaned on the bed behind her. She immediately whipped back around and was kneeling at his side in a moment, knees on the cool, hard floor.
"Tasha…?" His eyes flickered open, pupils were large and bleary.
"Lie still, Clint, everything's fine," she said. His teeth were chattering. She put a hand to his forehead. He felt clammy. Shock. He was going into shock from loss of blood.
Natasha's heart was thumping in her stomach. She managed to work her hand under Clint's back and found the zipper of his uniform. Slowly, as gently as possible, she worked his shirt off, fabric sticking to his still wet skin. She found a knife in his belt. She tucked it under the bed where she could grab it easily.
His whole right side was stained with blood. Natasha looked around the room, looking for something she could use as a makeshift bandage to stem the bleeding. It was more hotel room than apartment, a single room with a closet sitting empty next to a second door that presumably led to the bathroom. There was a microwave on a table, no stove or refrigerator. A chair sat in the corner.
There weren't any curtains, just blinds. Natasha got to her feet and went to the doorway, pushing it open to find herself in the bathroom. Bathtub, no shower curtain, a sink, and a toilet. Natasha checked the cabinets under the sink and found a faded, shabby rag that might have once been a hand towel but now looked like it was used for the dusting.
Natasha soaked it under the tap – there didn't seem to be any hot water – and returned to Clint's side. Blood had begun to soak over the side of the bed, dripping on the floor with steady, flat drops. She pressed the cloth to the wound in his side. He stirred, head moved on the mattress – no pillow – but didn't open his eyes again.
The washcloth was stained red in minutes but Natasha had seen the wound by now, small bullet hole, almost perfectly circular between his second and third ribs.
The door to the hallway opened behind Natasha. In a flash she was standing, knife firm and cool in her palm.
The landlady dropped the collection of sheets and blankets she'd been carrying on the floor. Her mouth fell open. For a horrible moment Natasha was sure the woman was going to scream.
She hurriedly dropped the knife, raising her hands to shoulder height. "Rendben. Nem fogom bántani."
The woman only shook her head again, frightened eyes running first to Natasha's knife on the floor to Clint on the bed before she shut the door. Natasha could hear her footsteps hurrying away down the hall.
Natasha collected the blankets from the floor and stripped one of the sheets into thin bandages using the knife. She returned to Clint's side and began to wrap his wound, pulling the strips of fabric under and around his back.
He groaned. She wondered if he was in much pain. She looked to his face and found his eyes open and on her face.
"You gonna try for it?" He asked, voice raspy.
"No," Natasha shook her head. "There's no way to tell how deep in it is. It might be in your lung." If she tried to extract the bullet it might cause the lung to collapse, something she wasn't prepared to risk.
Clint shut his eyes and nodded, apparently too weak to speak.
"Clint," she said, hearing firmness in her voice that she didn't feel, "you're going to be alright. I'm going to get you out of this."
He didn't answer her. She didn't like his color. His face was ashy gray, lips open as he gasped for breath through his mouth. He was still trembling, arms vibrating on the bare mattress. She pulled the blankets over him, knowing she had to keep him warm. She brushed his wet bangs away from his forehead.
She examined the bloody mass inside his left ear where the communicator had been mashed into his eardrum. She didn't want to try to extract any of the splintered pieces of metal still in his ear, afraid she might do more damage.
Natasha realized she, herself, was shaking. Her ruined dress clung, wet and cold, to her skin. She left Clint on the bed and went into the bathroom to clean up, splashing cold water from the sink on her face. She ripped the bottom part of her skirt off with the aid of her knife so she could better maneuver.
She needed new clothes. That was the first mission. She couldn't continue to wander the city in her ruined evening gown and no shoes. She needed to be as inconspicuous as possible if she was going to cross the river and search for Coulson. SHIELD had a standard backup extraction plan for agents. Five days at a predesignated meeting place. Coulson would be waiting there. All Natasha had to do was make contact. Then the two of them could worry about getting Clint out.
Natasha turned at the sound of ragged, wet coughs to see Clint being sick over the side of the bed. She realized he probably had a concussion from the knock on his head he had taken back on the roof of the hotel.
She was back by his side in a moment. She didn't know what to do. She wanted to hold him…to, as ridiculously maternal as it sounded, make his pain disappear. She crawled onto the other side of the bed, touching his trembling arm with her fingers. He looked over at her, eyes bleary, and managed a weak smile. "Sorry," he murmured before he vomited over the side of the bed again.
She pulled his hair away from his clammy forehead, "Don't be." She whispered. She stayed with him until it seemed as though he'd fallen into a fitful doze. Then she carefully slipped out of the bed and waded across the room to the doorway –
She almost smiled. She should have known that, even in this weakened state, Clint would have been aware of her movements.
"Don't worry, Clint, I'll just be a minute. I've got to go shopping," she whispered back to him. He turned his head away and shut his eyes, chest moving up and down with each heavy, pained breath. He didn't ask any more questions and Natasha slipped silently through the door and into the hallway.
When she returned she was wearing a pair of baggy cargo pants and a boys' t-shirt covered with a hoody with broken zipper. She was carrying a plastic bag in each hand, one filled with a change of clothes and extra blankets for Clint, the other with food and medical supplies, all discretely liberated from several sporadic locations to ensure Natasha did not leave a trail.
She slipped the door to their room open as quietly as possible but still Clint rocketed upward in bed, eyes slightly wild as they flew to the opening door, hand reaching automatically for the quiver and bow he had forgotten were no longer beside him.
"Easy, easy, Clint," Natasha leapt forward, dropping her bags in the doorway, putting a hand on Clint's shoulder. His face was pale, cheeks a blotchy red. She met his eyes, watery and bloodshot. He winced and groaned as she pushed him gently back onto the bed.
"Natasha…" he said. His breathing was laborious. She put a hand under his neck to find his pulse was thready. Blood pressure was probably low. He was still in shock. His blood flow was reduced, enough oxygen not reaching his vital organs, if his organs went then it was only a matter of –
Natasha shoved these thoughts away. She busied herself with the supplies she had brought it. Putting two plastic bottles of water on the table along with a bag of peanuts, a half-empty container of raisins.
She heard a siren muffled from behind the walls and went to the window, peering through the blinds and to the darkness outside the window. She didn't see any flashing lights.
Then she set to work on Clint, taking off the rest of his soiled uniform and pulling on a pair of drawstring sweatpants. She unwrapped her makeshift bandage to inspect the wound in his side. It had stopped bleeding. The sheet was plastered to his skin with crusty dried blood. She cleaned the injury with antiseptic wipes, watching Clint's fingers contract around the sheets and his shoulders tense, the sharp inhales of breath through his lips from the pain. She then wrapped the wound again with clean gauze she had taken from the medical cabinet of another apartment.
She hadn't been able to find any drugs that could help with shock, no antibiotics in case of infection, only some child's doses of fever reduction meds and mild painkillers. She made Clint take a couple of swallows of water which, for a moment, looked like he was going to vomit back up, but he managed to keep down.
The little clock in the microwave read 5:30 in the morning. Sunlight was beginning to dawn outside the window. Natasha realized she had been awake the whole night. She was aware keeping her own strength up was indispensable, so she downed one of the two bottles of water and a handful of nuts and raisins.
Satisfied with the deep, even breathing coming from Clint she climbed into the bed beside him and closed her eyes, hoping for sleep.
She was woken sometime later by Clint's fitful stirring in the bed beside her. Sunlight was coming through the blinds in shafts, spilling onto the ragged carpet in yellow stripes.
"Natasha?" She didn't know if Clint was conscious, whether or not he was just calling out in his sleep, or delirium.
"I'm right here, Clint."
"I'm here, Clint." She blinked the sleep from her eyes and put a hand on his shoulder. His eyes were open, blood-shot and blurry. They fixed themselves, unfocused, on Natasha's face above him. "I'm right here."
"If I…Natasha…if I don't make it…."
Her throat was suddenly almost too tight to breathe through. She forced her voice up her esophagus. "Quit being melodramatic, Barton. You're not going to die." She blinked hard. Her eyes were hot.
"Natasha…please…" he coughed weakly. Natasha felt her chest constrict painfully. She felt the warmth of his shoulder beneath her fingers. "If I don't…please, take care of them for me. Please –"
He was so close. So close. She could smell the blood on him, the sweat and dried vomit. She put the back of her hand against his forehead. He had a fever. "You're not going to die, Clint. I promise you're not going to die."
"I will, Clint. I promise I will."
"The – the kids and…Laura."
"Don't worry, Clint. I will."
"Yes, Clint." She took his hand, bent low so her face was inches from his own, heat from his fever radiating off his skin. "I'm here. I'm right here."
"I'm here, Clint," Natasha whispered, voice choking her as it scraped up her throat. She wondered if she had been transformed in his eyes, red hair turned brown, eyes softened, features morphed into those of his wife. "Shhh. I'm here."
"Laura…?" His hand untangled itself from her fingers, found her cheek. The beds of his fingers were warm and rough on her cool skin. He pulled her head closer to his face until she could see the gentle wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the speckles of green in his irises.
She kissed him then, his lips chapped against her own. He tasted of acid and fever, hot and smoky, metallic like blood. She felt his heart thumping weakly beneath his skin, chest to chest with her. She thought only fleetingly if, should this be his last kiss, then at least he would remember it as belonging to Laura and Natasha didn't bother to feel guilty.
Natasha managed to open the door to Coulson's car before he noticed she was there and pulled his gun. She slid into the passenger seat. Coulson stuck his gun back into his belt, exhaling out a half-exasperated, half-relieved breath through his nose.
"You're going to have to file one hell of a late report on this one, Agent Romanoff," said Coulson.
"Aw, Phil, if I'm not mistaken it sounds like you were actually concerned," said Natasha, cracking a smile, surprised at how stiff her cheeks were and how nice it felt.
"Where's Clint?" said Coulson, any sign of jest lost from his voice, the familiar faint crease between his eyebrows the only sign of how deeply concerned he had been.
Natasha sighed and dug her fists into her eyes. "Crummy apartment in Joseph Town. Gunshot to left abdomen. Possibly punctured lung. Bullet's still in. He's breathing at least."
Coulson was looking at her. Natasha stared out of the windshield of the sedan, at the dirty alley Coulson was parked in, the soggy cardboard boxes and aluminum garbage bins overflowing with newspapers and foam takeout containers.
"Heard you had quite the scene with the police," Coulson said at last. "No face shots. A grainy phone video of you pulling Clint off the side of the bridge. Fugitives from justice in Hungary. Congratulations. That makes…eighteen countries now?"
"Seventeen," said Natasha, "Turkmenistan doesn't count seeing as being a fugitive from their justice is more like a compliment."
Coulson's colorless lips quirked upward in a movement so imperceptible it could hardly be considered a smile.
"Got an extraction plan?" said Coulson.
"I thought that was your job, Agent Coulson," said Natasha, staring out the windshield again, at the sun glinting off the lid of a garbage can, recalling that afternoon five years ago in Brazil, facing the tip of Clint's arrow in an alley very like this one.
"Just thought I'd ask, figured you'd like to have a part in it," said Coulson.
Natasha looked at him, eyes flickering to his straight, emotionless face and receding hairline. "I think I'll hand this one over to you, Phil."
She saw him cock an eyebrow at her. She was looking at the alley, not seeing anything at all. She felt Coulson's eyes on her, heavy and searching. She knew he was trying to read her silence, knew he wasn't getting much out of it, like trying to understand a language one couldn't speak.
He nodded tersely and opened his car door, stepping out onto the pavement and pulling his phone out of his pocket. She heard his voice speak raptly into the speaker "Agent Coulson –" before his voice was cut off when he shut the car door behind him.
Natasha breathed through her nose. She shut her eyes and wrapped her fingers around the lip of the sea, remembering the sandpaper feel of Clint's lips on hers.