Day Five - Strategy and People
"You've been avoiding me."
Clint turned from watching Natasha and Steve spar to see Eric Selvig standing behind him, arms crossed. His expression became closed and guarded. "Not avoiding you. I just don't have much to say," he said curtly.
"Then just listen to me," Selvig said. He fidgeted for a few seconds, visibly gathering his courage. "Loki tainted the best in both of us. My studies of the tesseract could have been the crowning achievement of my career. Instead, Loki made my work directly instrumental in allowing a deadly race of aliens access to our world. Of all your skills as an agent, it is your talent with your bow that stands out the most and makes you unique in your field. Loki used that talent to kill civilians and fellow agents, and almost destroy SHIELD's ability to respond to a global menace." He paused for a minute, face bitter with memory. "When I look back on things, I have no idea how long Loki was whispering in my mind. I still listen sometimes to make sure he isn't there."
"Fury has offered me the opportunity to continue my work analyzing the data collected from the Tesseract. He did stipulate that if he ever saw my eyes glow blue that he wouldn't hesitate to shoot me dead." He shrugged. "Considering the hazards, it seems fair. It's reassuring to know that no matter the cost, he won't let it happen again."
Clint said nothing.
Selvig nodded and turned to leave. He paused, looking back over his shoulder. "If you use your bow again, I'm sure he'll do the same for you."
Clint turned back to the sparring but didn't see it, deep in thought.
"So, the universal code word for emergency is...?"
"Pineapple." Darcy was strangely insistent on it.
"Okay," Steve said hesitantly. "I don't really understand why, but okay." He looked questioningly at Natasha and Clint, who both shrugged.
"It's not weird or hard to remember. It's an everyday word that isn't used all the time," she explained. "If it's good enough for the Buy More, it's good enough for us."
"Technically, General Ross isn't a criminal," Clint explained, with an apologetic glance towards Bruce.
"He does, however, have an interest in Dr. Banner," Natasha continued. "He wants to replicate the accident that created the Hulk, and has been known to use both his military resources and less...savory methods to try to achieve his goals." She carefully didn't look at Bruce. "The most notable example of this is the case of Emil Blonsky, now called the Abomination. Blonsky is currently in a high security holding cell - beyond that, no one knows what to do with him."
Jane winced at one of the photos. "Ross did that?"
Darcy did a double take. "There's not enough botox in the world to help that."
Thor frowned. "Worse than a mountain troll."
Bruce was carefully bland and noncommittal. They could easily have been talking about the weather for all the reaction he showed.
"Currently, he's somewhat disgraced, but he has a lot of friends and sympathizers." Steve looked mildly disgusted. "Director Fury has recommended that we avoid any contact with Ross or his staff for now."
Tony smirked. "Sorry, bit late for that."
"What do you mean?" Natasha asked apprehensively.
"I met with the man. In a bar. After that business in Harlem," Tony shrugged.
"What. Happened?" she asked.
"I was asked to approach him concerning the Avengers Initiative." His face was innocent, as only Tony could be before chaos was unleashed. "We couldn't come to an agreement. He was rather drunk, I believe, and since we were in his favorite bar, he thought he could have me thrown out."
"Tony, what did you do?" Pepper asked, full of dread.
"I, ah, bought the place. And had it demolished."
Not only did the entire group get to witness the Black Widow facepalm for the second time in less than a week, they also saw Bruce Banner howl with laughter.
"So Hydra and AIM are both secret international organizations," Jane Foster concluded.
"Yes," Natasha said. "They are both large, well-organized, have branches in almost every nation on earth, large scientific research capabilities and very few scruples when it comes to how they gain that knowledge or how the knowledge is used."
"You say they're secret," Darcy asked with a skeptical expression, "But they dress like that? I mean, seriously, one looks like a bunch of neon beekeepers, the other - well, I'm not sure what the hell they look like, but they most definitely don't blend."
"Usually they only wear the outfits while on base, or if they need protection during a delivery. There are rare times they will wear full uniforms for meetings, but to the best of anyone's knowledge that's very seldom."
"So, how do we identify them?" Pepper asked thoughtfully.
Natasha tapped the laptop in front of her, then turned it to show them. "This is the emblem for Hydra - most of the time, their people will have it tattooed on them somewhere. AIM personnel usually have an implanted tracer, and often other devices implanted for easy access - you usually need special sensors to detect them, but they will sometimes cause interference with other instruments."
"So Latveria isn't just an odd little nation that dislikes the rest of the world - it really is the base for a super villain who wears armor?" Bruce asked, scanning down the list. "And his name is Dr. Doom? Seriously? Isn't that kind of... I don't know, cliche overkill?"
"I'm serious Dr. Banner," Natasha said. "He's one of the most intelligent scientific minds on the planet, and not someone to trifle with."
"These are the big guys out there," Clint added helpfully. "There's lots of other smaller groups - they aren't as large or as well organized as these three. And then there's the lone operators - they sometimes will work for themselves, and sometimes for hire."
"Swell." Darcy looked at the rest of the list that the agents hadn't covered yet. It was extensive. "Is there anyone on this planet besides my Aunt Bertha who doesn't want to kill us?"
"I want to thank all of you for participating," Fury said, his gaze taking all of them in. "I realize that this has been an imposition, but I firmly believe it was necessary for all of you to have at least some rudimentary training, be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and maybe try to continue to learn. While I hope you won't need some of the skills we covered with you, I also think the lessons learned this week will save lives." His expression shifted to a scowl. "There is one of you who I do not believe is performing to the best of his abilities - that person will not be allowed back out into the field until I am persuaded otherwise."
"Agent Barton, step forward." The agent stepped forward warily, expression guarded. "You were cleared for active duty two weeks ago - the operation you took part in during that time was simple and straightforward, but you refused to exercise your abilities to their full capacity."
"Sir?" Confusion replaced Barton's neutral mask.
Fury turned to the Black Widow. "Agent Romanoff, please bring me the case in the hallway." As she left the range to retrieve said case, he turned back to the puzzled agent. "You are one of my best agents, and are proficient with a wide range of weapons. You are at your best with your bow." His expression remained hard as Clint flinched in surprise, pain flicking across his face before the neutral mask slipped back into place. "You haven't touched your bow for over two months." Since Loki - the unspoken words all but echoed in the air.
The Widow returned with his bow case and quiver. Setting them on a counter, she opened the case, pulled out the bow and held it out to him.
He turned to Fury, drawing breath to speak, but the protest died unspoken. There was a glint of compassion and understanding on the director's face as he crossed his arms across his chest. To the uneducated, it was confrontational - agents knew the posture also allowed easy access to the shoulder holster under his coat.
Natasha didn't budge as she held the bow out to him. Her face was expressionless, eyes cold - only he saw the hint of warmth and trust under the cold. He also noticed that she had put on her bracelets, and her weight was carefully balanced on the balls of her feet. Hesitantly, he reached out but didn't quite touch the bow.
The sound of a pistol being cocked sounded loud in the silence. They all turned to see Erik Selvig holding a pistol, not quite pointing it at the agent as he stepped closer.
"Erik, what are you doing?" Jane's shocked voice cued an avalanche of voices until one cut through with certain authority.
"Everyone, shut up." It was a shock to see Bruce Banner step forward with rare authority. He narrowed his eyes and held his hand up for silence as Tony started to speak. "Just - let this go." He stepped up to Selvig's side and nodded to Clint, with a brief flash of understanding and envy.
The expressionless mask dropped from the agent's face, revealing profound relief. He hesitantly grasped the bow, checked the string. In one fluid motion, he pulled an arrow from the quiver, set it to string and sighted the target. He paused, eyes closed, listening for a whisper, analyzing...
"Мы поймать вас, если вы падаете, моя ястреб,"* Natasha said softly.
A faint smile crossed his face and he released the arrow. It sank into the centre of the target, quivering. The smile grew as he reached for another arrow to shoot, followed by another.
"Agent Barton." They all turned to see a rare, slight smile flash across Fury's face. "You and Agent Romanoff are to report to my office tomorrow morning at 08:00." His gazed flicked around to the rest of the group. "The rest of you - well done."
As he turned to leave, Stark was stepping forward with an arrow in his hand. Fury heard him say, "I have a new stick for your arsenal, Legolas. It's a variation on a missile I developed - I call it the baby Jericho. This one in my hand is a miniature of that for indoor range use - call it the infant Jericho..." Shaking his head, Fury started to walk down the hall.
He only got about ten feet away from the range before the base shook from an explosion. Heart pounding, he raced back to see the range in shambles and the entire group in assorted sprawled positions on the floor, liberally coated in soot.
Hawkeye, flat on his back, blinked. "Wow."
"I may have miscalculated the size of that infant," Stark wheezed.
"No shit," Darcy groaned. "You're so replacing this shirt."
Fury checked - they were all moving, and Banner wasn't turning green. He turned and left without a word - anything that everyone walked away from was a win in his book.
*"We'll catch you if you fall, my hawk"