Piotr looked over at Clint, who was fiddling with his clip-on sunglasses with one hand and his knit cap with the other. It was a rhetorical question and Piotr took it as such, nodding acquiescence instead of affirmation.
They cleared security at the Triskelion's Manhattan tube entrance and headed northeast. Piotr had known something was up the moment Clint had guided them away from the Brooklyn tube, but he hadn't said anything and neither had Clint.
The afternoon sun was still high enough to create shadows and the wind was much stronger than he'd guessed from looking out the windows of Fury's office and watching the waves in the harbor. He pulled out his own gloves and tucked in the edge of his scarf.
They wound up on Broadway, walking briskly through the crowds. It was a Friday afternoon and the streets were full of government workers, low-level financiers and stock types, and the odd grouping of German tourists congregating on corners and taking pictures, their ruddy faces and Teutonic blond blandness making them stand out even more than the brightly colored winterwear against the black and muted darks that New Yorkers preferred.
They were headed for the Brooklyn Bridge, Piotr assumed. He had been in earshot when Clint had promised Laura that he'd bring Piotr and be home in time for dinner. It was too far to walk all the way home, but they could pick up the subway easily enough once in Brooklyn.
Once they hit City Hall and Park Row, Clint steered them into J&R Music World's camera store and went over to a display of digital cameras with powerful zoom lenses. As SHIELD's plus ultra special ops team, they had a healthy discretionary budget for supplies, although most of their professional needs were ably met by SHIELD's internal engineers and designers. Clint, however, was always on the lookout for commercially available equipment and scoured websites to see what other nations' militaries and agencies used. Partially it was to see what the rest of the world was playing with, but mostly it was because SHIELD's tech department had a necessarily limited imagination and Clint liked proof when he insisted that there was no good reason that they couldn't build him something to his specifications.
They went through digital cameras at a depressingly high rate. Occasionally it was because a camera just wasn't doing the job, but mostly they broke them. Usually it was a complete destruction, either from being dropped or from being smashed by falls or bullets or other high-impact collisions. Sometimes they got water-damaged, once in a while they froze, and a few times they'd wrecked them with sand or other particulate matter. They tried different brands and makes and models; Piotr's big hands couldn't easily work the tiny cameras Natasha favored and Clint was always taking pictures through rifle scopes and otherwise from great distances. Natasha seemed to do the best with finding a happy compromise between durability and features, but Piotr had yet to find a camera he would re-order and Clint's search was bordering on the quixotic.
"We should have gone to B&H," Piotr said, trying not to sound like he was repeating the commercial for the store, which he was. J&R was good, very good, and had a lot of stuff, but B&H was a camera marketplace and had more of that instead of hundreds of square feet dedicated to DVDs and home computers.
"It's Friday in December," Clint replied, not looking up from the Olympus he was examining. "They're run by Orthodox Jews. The place'll be closing in half an hour, if it's not closed already. We can go on Sunday."
Left unsaid was that it was still up in the air whether they'd be in the country on Sunday and whether they'd be free. Or, really, whether Piotr would be free. In the week that had passed since they'd told Fury about Magneto, Piotr had hardly seen daylight, trapped all day in the gloomy, fluorescent rabbit warren that was Intel's corner of the Triskelion. It reminded him all too much of his initial arrival at the place, back when the twins had deposited him on the doorstep. Right down to the lingering suspicion and barely-disguised annoyance.
Clint spent fifteen minutes talking to the clerk about cameras, dismissing each suggested model in turn as one he'd already tried and rejected. He finally bought a Canon he'd been tinkering with, pulling out the credit card linked to the SHIELD account and not bothering with buying extra warranty coverage. The SHIELD beancounters griped, saying that they could at least recycle the cameras for lower-risk operatives, but the fact was that when the cameras broke, they were usually not in a position to be retrieved and returned for repairs.
The purchasing process was a bit byzantine, as per usual at J&R, and Clint waited until they were outside before pulling out his knife and prying open the plastic clamshell packaging. He saved the receipt, handed Piotr the bag of discarded plastic, and brought the camera to his eye, aiming it at City Hall without slowing down his stride or bumping into pedestrians.
"Picks up detail pretty quickly," Clint murmured approvingly. "And it's got a decent wide-angle."
"Does it have a 28mm setting?"
"Ayup," Clint affirmed, taking a picture one-handed and bringing the camera down from his face. He looked at the viewscreen and held it up for Piotr to see. The sun was making it impossible to get a good look, so he waved it off. He'd have a chance later to play with it.
Clint took back the bag and dumped it in the nearest garbage can as they crossed the street to follow the path that would lead them on to the bridge.
With the sun at their backs, the walk was pleasant and, because of the weather, not too crowded. The wind had died down and there was enough space around them that Piotr was sure that whatever Clint wanted to talk to him about would start there. It did.
"I'm not going to ask if you've got any more secrets," Clint started before they hit the first observation point. "Because you do and you should. If you've learned anything from me and 'Tasha in the last year, I hope it's been a little bit of skepticism and some self-preservation. The best way to survive is to always know the difference between what you want to see and what you are seeing."
Piotr could have said something about how he'd learned so much more from Clint and Natasha than simply the art of survival, but it would have been trite and Clint knew the truth of it. So he said nothing.
"All I'm going to ask is that you take stock of what you have left in that big cookie jar of secrets and pick out what you're keeping because you can and what you're keeping because you should." They hit the observation point and Clint took out the camera again, aiming it north toward the bridges there. The Manhattan Bridge and the Williamsburgh Bridge; Piotr wasn't sure which one was further south. "Fury's probably putting it in terms of what you're keeping that's dangerous and what isn't, but that's not it. It's all dangerous. What you keep will be dangerous to us, what you tell will be dangerous to them. And it's all on you."
Fury had indeed been exerting heavy pressure on Piotr to tell everything, to prove his loyalty, to repay their trust, to do the right thing. How much Fury actually expected to get out of that kind of salesmanship, Piotr didn't know, nor did he know how much Fury actually believed what he was saying when he did swing that cudgel of a sales pitch.
"I trust you, Pete," Clint said as they started to walk again. "I trust you with my life in the field, with my family out of it. I trust you with Natasha and no matter how well she can take care of herself, that's not something I give lightly, either. You have the same power over me and mine as you do over Xavier and his. I have faith that you'll do the right thing. Don't let me down."
"I'd never want to do that." Piotr looked away as he spoke, the moment too immediate and intense to bear eye contact. He knew that this was Clint's pitch, his angle. Reminding Piotr of what he'd given him, what he'd granted him without hesitation. Until now.
"I know," Clint replied. "It's why you're still on my team."
Left dangling was whether Piotr would still be on on Clint's team if he did not produce something else. Natasha was content to roll with the flow, to accept the new information and proceed on because that game was over and a new game was starting. Clint was not like that; he was a builder, a man who checked his foundations before moving on because he knew he'd return. Clint wanted to know where Piotr stood, how reliable he really was, how able he was to do what Clint wanted when Clint needed it to be done.
They spent the rest of the mile walk over the bridge in silence, Clint taking pictures and Piotr taking stock.
There was, in truth, very little of immediate value in what Piotr had left in his reserve of secrets and insights into the world of mutant power politics. He'd never mentioned Shinobi Shaw, but he'd have been very surprised if Fury had no knowledge of him considering that Shaw was in league with the twins. It would be like Wanda and Pietro to drop such a tidbit before Fury, either as bait or as warning, and the Hellfire Club was not to be ignored under any circumstances. The rest of what he knew about Xavier and his ties to Erik Lehnsherr had been handed over during the last week's interrogations, but that, too, was less novel than noteworthy and mostly for the twists and kinks it threw into the relationship between Xavier and the twins. What was left was mostly about the X-Men themselves, their details and his own evaluations of their belief in and adherence to Xavier's cause.
The only remaining secret there, really, was Alex. SHIELD did not know that Alex Summers was a mutant, that he'd been kidnapped by Xavier and the X-Men, or that he was alive and well and living in England.
It had boggled Piotr at first, this ignorance. How had the X-Men, a group of rank amateurs, pulled off a heist like that practically right under SHIELD's nose? How had they continued the ruse, especially after Weapon X when it became clear that SHIELD was at least tangentially keeping an eye on them? Alex took precautions, but how devious could even someone as paranoid as Alex be to avoid detection when he was living under his own name? SHIELD had known that Alex was Scott's brother and that he had been with the Friends of Humanity, but they'd closed his file after his 'death' more than three years ago.
But if a year with SHIELD had resolved some of that confusion, the last week had certainly resolved the rest. Xavier had gotten away with so much because Fury -- and by extension SHIELD -- had so completely underestimated him that they were simply unable to conceive of the sort of work he could do, the damage he could inflict. Despite the X-Men's high-profile successes and failtures, it wouldn't have crossed SHIELD's collective genius minds that Xavier and the X-Men were capable of creating and maintaining an invisible subculture. SHIELD was used to the average civilian mutant, cowed by fear and the threat of Sentinels into obedience of the law and adherence to social norms. Places like the club in Lille were not on their radar. It was why Fury would never truly have a handle on the twins and the Brotherhood, why Xavier could get away with so much -- including hiding alpha-level mutant Alex Summers in plain sight. And Piotr wasn't sure if he should be the one to point out those blind spots because that ignorance protected far more than Xavier or Wanda or Alex or Jean. He hadn't grown up among the crumbling rubble of the Soviet empire to not learn that trusting the government was generally a bad idea. The Sentinels were inactive now, but that could change on a whim or in response to any sort of threat, real or imagined. Fury -- and Clint and Natasha -- may have the fate of the world in their best interests, but they were not operating in a vacuum and they could not control what happened to the information they had once it got out. Clint wanted Piotr to prove his mettle and do the right thing, but that right thing may not be what Clint hoped it would be. And Piotr felt a little sick thinking of what the consequences of that might be.
It put a bit of a damper on the rest of the afternoon. They picked up the subway at Borough Hall and made it back to the Barton residence in time for a spirited game of backyard touch football with the kids before sunset, an unverbalized reminder of what Piotr had gained and what he could still lose.