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06 December 2012 @ 10:58 pm
Holding the Light - Chapter Seven  

John's phone woke him in the morning. "Your asset has left the building." Coulson reported to him.

John glanced at the clock. It was barely after six a.m. "Do you have a problem with good morning, Agent Coulson?"

"You're supposed to be babysitting him. Oh, and by the way, babysitting him doesn't include threatening mob bosses."

John lifted his phone away from his ear and looked at the screen, wondering if they had been listening in and that was how Coulson knew. "You wanted me to help him get adjusted. I did."

Coulson hesitated and there was another pause for a sigh. "Were you this much trouble with the Agency?"

"They do want me dead," John reminded him, amused.

Coulson grumbled as if he wasn't sure he disagreed with that decision, then said, "Fine. You want more action. How about a different mob boss? Noon. Be ready on the roof of Rogers' building for extraction. In the meantime, find your asset."

John was still looking at the screen so he wasn't surprised when the line went dead.

It wasn't hard to find Rogers - he was in the café down the street, as a cursory examination of the SHIELD personnel on the street outside immediately showed. So Coulson knew exactly where he was, and he was jerking John's chain.

John's hand tightened around the phone and for a second, he was highly tempted to throw it in the trash and keep walking.

Instead he continued to the café, and to Rogers, who glanced up from the table and his coffee. "Good morning." And he smiled, pleased to see John, and that let the ice thaw a little as John took the bench across from him.

"You escaped I see," he murmured and refused the menu the waitress offered, ordering toast and coffee.

Rogers chuckled but his humor died away as he sipped his coffee. "I know it'll take time," he said heavily. "I know I'll adjust eventually, but I - it's all different. My folks are dead, all the people I knew - they're gone. The city's so changed… "

John nodded. After a moment, he said, "Stranger in a strange land. I didn't travel in time, but I don't think I'm that different. The first two names I've had in my life are officially dead. To anyone who knew those names, I'm dead. No family, no past. Just the work."

"And friends?" Rogers asked, passing him the creamer after the waitress poured John's coffee.

John's first instinct was to say, no friends. But that was the Agency talking, with its betrayals and its secrecy, and deliberate disconnection from anything human for its darkest operatives. So he nodded and smiled a bit. "And friends."

Friends. He and Natasha. Were they friends? And he and Steve Rogers, were they friends? Was this being friends? Comrades in arms, at least, he knew how to do that.

"I'm being recalled at noon. New mission," John said. "Someone heard about our little op last night, and now I get to go take down a different boss."

Rogers seemed disappointed by that, making a face. "Oh, well, I'm sure you're glad to get out of babysitting duty."

"It had its moments," John reassured him. "But it's still early, you want to do anything this morning?"

"Let's go running," Rogers decided. "In the park. I haven't been there yet."

Thanks to the magic of SHIELD eavesdropping, there were sets of clothes to run in when they'd got back to Rogers' apartment.

John felt still out of shape, but Rogers slapped him on the back, when he stopped, panting and sweating. "You can keep up. C'mon, soldier, let's pick up the pace."

They ran on the paths at a pace a bit more than a jog, steady and ground-eating that John could do with a pack if he had to. He noticed they - or really Rogers - got some appreciative looks as they passed, and John backed off a bit to stay less noticed. Or would have, except Rogers kept waiting for him.

Showering at Rogers' place afterward, he dressed back in his suit and then gave Rogers the sticks. "Here, can you keep these for me? Check on the Lemas; let me know if they're in trouble so I can help"

"Sure, no problem." He shook John's hand. "I'm glad you're my babysitter," Rogers joked. "Come back next time mom and dad are out at the movies."

"Will do. Take care of yourself, Captain."

"Steve." Rogers corrected. "And you do the same, John."

Up on the roof, John waited for the helicopter, then had to smile when it didn't actually land, just let down a ladder.

It was less fun than he remembered it being in Ranger training, dangling from a ladder above the city with the blast of rotors in his face, but he managed to climb as the ropes were swinging and found a hand belonging to Barton helping him up. "Welcome aboard, New Guy. We're off to briefing. Nat will meet us," Barton shouted above the noise and John nodded.

Back on the Helicarrier, somewhere in the Atlantic, he and Barton ducked beneath the air blast form the helicopter rotors and headed for the hatch.

"So, Captain America?" Barton asked in the quieter corridor inside. "How was that?"

"He kind of squeaks with goodness," John admitted, and Barton lets out a gruff chuckle of amusement. "But I think he's adjusting. What's the new mission?"

But Barton didn't know and they headed into the briefing room. Natasha and Coulson were already waiting, and she smiled a greeting at them. "So, John, I heard you and Captain Rogers went after a mob boss last night?"

He took the seat beside her. "For a secret agency, this place is a terrible gossip mill," he said, not answering, but her smile widened, and he couldn't help a smile back.

"Agent Barton, Reese," Coulson greeted. "We'll get to business. For the past few days, Agent Romanoff has been in place in Miami, working her way into this man's orbit." A hologram appeared of a man in an expensive suit, on the deck of a yacht. He had the thick dark hair and wide eyes of someone with Eurasian ancestry, and was pretty good looking, John thought; pity he was apparently a bad guy.

"This is Shinobi Shaw, heir to Shaw Industries since he was born, grandson of Sebastian Shaw, late unlamented sociopath and Nazi war criminal who very nearly brought about nuclear war forty years ago," Coulson introduced. "Shaw the younger has been content to spend the money and live the lifestyle until recently, when his accounts started to get overdrawn. Naturally, instead of deciding to live more modestly, he decided to start dealing in heroin and weapons. Which we would normally leave to our friends in other agencies, but he's moving up the chain so rapidly, he must have bigger backers, which latest intel includes Ten Rings."

John grimaced. His unit had gone after a cell of Ten Rings, to paint it for elimination, but it had all gone utterly fubar. They'd been spotted and two of his had gotten killed, though they had managed to call an airstrike. "So he thinks he's a big fish but the big fish will hang him out to dry at the least sign of trouble."

Coulson nodded. "Probably. But if he has intel on Ten Rings or any of his other big time friends, we need it. We found out he's hosting a party at his compound in Miami tomorrow night - Agent Romanoff already procured an invitation, and I want the two of you to go in with her."

"Clint on the outside," Natasha suggested. "John as my date. Or bodyguard. Security will be heavy."

John glanced at Barton, expecting him to complain about the assignment but he shrugged. "Rather be lookout." Then he flashed a smile. "Put my better sniper skills to work at a distance."

"That's not tested," John answered as he looked at the map of the estate on the display. "We should come in by boat," he suggested. "Most security will be set up to deal with arrivals by car. But he's got a dock." He set his finger on the spot in the image where there was a small dock that let into the inlet of the estate.

Coulson nodded approval. "We'll borrow a yacht." He typed something on his pad, and then some other specs came up on the screens that were in front of each of them. "Security plan. Cameras. Window sensors. Some expensive art he's also guarding, looks like. Detached garage and building for the help."


"On staff: three in the house, housekeeper, cook, and driver. Some hired guns for bodyguards and security. Those will be beefed up with outsiders, though. If we'd had a little more time we could've got one of you in with them. Also catering. Flowers, music."

"So, lots of strangers, besides the guests," Natasha observed. John nodded, that was always a lot easier when there were people wandering around.

"Also means he'll lock down anything important. Computer?"

"Agent Romanoff will carry the thumb drive with the worm. All she needs is access to a computer on his network. That'll dump the contents to our receiver," Coulson explained.

They laid their plans and memorized the floorplans. Barton brought him to the armory. There wasn't much point in taking too much, John thought; he'd almost certainly be frisked and the primary weapon taken. So he checked out a Sig Sauer for size, making Barton snicker, as he loaded his quiver. "Really?"

"They're going to take it. Might as well give them something to find."

The carbon fiber M9 was more useful - and a quick look found a forearm sheath for it which would fit under his suit jacket.

Then John found Coulson. "I need a better suit before I do this."

"You have to go shopping?" Coulson asked in disbelief.

"Miami will do. Natasha can go with me. For cover."

"Mission account isn't paying for thousand dollar suits," Coulson declared, and John smiled a little.

"It doesn't have to."

"You have funds?"

"Probably best if you don't ask where it came from. I just need to get to it."

It turned out Natasha was more than willing to play the part in Miami of bored rich Russian model heiress, while he drew his funds out of a branch of Royal Cayman bank, then she went shopping like the fate of the planet was at stake. He played bodyguard and general package carrier as she bought dresses and shoes and makeup and lacy underthings with a mischievous gleam in her eyes, to see if he would squirm in the store. He mostly watched around her as he should, but when she held up a bra and asked what he thought, he couldn't help staring. It started to get a little warm, imagining her wearing that.

She was wearing little enough as it was, a strappy sun dress with heels that made her legs look impossibly long.

No. no, I don't need this, he reminded himself sharply. Mind on the job.

She laughed at him on the way out. "Ah, poor John," she teased whispering in his ear. "Was the store air conditioning not working well enough? What happened to my icy super spy?"

"I have to get my entertainment somewhere, when you're spending my money."

"Yours? I suspect you skimmed it off drug lords and terrorists."

He shrugged. "They didn't need it anymore." Their eyes met, both amused, but amusement faded quickly and she turned away.

"Now we need find something for you," she said, adopting a stronger Russian accent than he was used to, tucking a hand briefly around his arm, knowing better than to tie up his gun hand too long. Even if it was tied up with packages.

"I can't believe this was my idea," he complained.

She laughed, a throaty chuckle, and her hair caught the light streaming through the skylights, gleaming like fire.

In the men's store, she took a firm hand with both him and store clerk to find him just the right suit. After the fourth rejected suit, he was sure she was having fun at his expense, but he went along, enjoying her amusement if not the actual shopping part.

Finally she found one she seemed to like and dismissed the clerk with the wave of her hand. "Very handsome," she said, giving him an assessing look head to toe. Then she cozied up to him, while he held still, and he wished she wasn't quite so good at her job as she brushed a firm hand down his lapel. "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you happy to see me?" she purred.

"Can't I pick both?" he murmured and leaned down - in her tall heels she wasn't much shorter. She let him get close enough to feel her breath on his lips, and then spun away.

"After the Shaw party," she declared.

He nearly missed a step, surprised by the answer, and he glanced at her to confirm what he'd heard, wondering if he was taking her too seriously. Her eyes met his. "After," she said and it sounded like a promise.

John and Clint got ready in their main room of the hotel suite while Natasha readied herself in the adjoining bedroom.

Clint glanced at him as if he wanted to say something, but thought better of it. John didn't prompt him either, because he figured it was something to do with Natasha, but this was pre-mission business and personal issues had no place here. Although John was relieved to see that Clint didn't seem angry - whatever his relationship was with Natasha it wasn't one that made him jealous.

He fastened his cufflinks and tie pin: the pin was a wifi router and was meant to be dropped on the way out to boost the signal on Natasha's thumb drive, and the cufflinks were lockpicks. Next, he checked the arm sheath for the knife and the shoulder holster and the Sig Sauer. He'd be happy to get rid of it, actually, and pick up a smaller sidearm from the other security milling around.

The jacket felt sleek going on and settled well. Barton whistled. "Damn. Planning to audition to be the next Bond?"

"As long as I get the Aston-Martin." The suit fit, but he still felt like he was playing dress up, as he looked into the mirror. It wasn't natural to the orphan kid who'd entered the military to escape the life of living on the edge of nothing. A dress uniform he could accept, but these fancy clothes felt false.

There was a lot of grey in his hair now, more than there'd been before China, that was for sure. But training and a little boost from Essex' experiments kept him fit and fast, and made it his duty to do something good with it. Even wearing the penguin suit.

Barton appeared at his shoulder. "You can take the boy out of the circus, but not the circus out of the boy," he murmured, looking at the reflection of the two of them in their finery. "You?"

"Same. Except the circus part."

Then a deliberate step of high heel on the tile between the two rooms and they turned to see Natasha enter. Her long hair was mostly loose on her bare shoulders, and the emerald gown was gathered in all the right places and cut and stretchy for ease of movement. She'd done something to her eyes to make them luminous and he could barely tear his eyes away from her lips.

Barton whistled. "You do clean up well, Nat."

She gave him a look. "So do you. When you put in a little more effort than that."

He gave back a crooked grin. "I'm just driving the boat. Plus I have my armor underneath."

But John couldn't find the teasing camaraderie, and could barely find his voice. He wanted to tell her she looked beautiful, but he said instead, "We should go."

Natasha nodded, all business, now. "Comms test first."

They put in their earbuds and tested the connections. Then Barton grabbed the gear case that included his bow and they headed to the dock where the sleek boat was waiting.

Shinobi Shaw's estate was an overgrown garden of exotic plants and low buildings set around several courtyards in Spanish villa style, as if he'd been born a century too late. There was a great deal of wrought ironwork around the windows and the patios, and large French doors open to the breeze.

They weren't the only ones to think of arrival by boat as there was another one already tied up at the dock, but as John had suspected, arrivals security was looser, consisting of two hired guards. One checked the invitation list on his phone while the other patted John down casually and took his pistol. "You'll have to leave this in the boat, sir."

He pretended he didn't see how the guard rolled his eyes at the gun. "Of course." John handed it to Clint, who took it between two fingers as if John had handed him a dead rat and he put it down hastily. John didn't smile, but he thought it was an amusing addition to the story they were telling the guards.

Not that it seemed to matter all that much, since the guards were sloppy. They didn't pat him down any further, not finding the knife because they didn't touch beyond his elbows, and didn't pat Natasha at all, figuring there was nowhere she could put a weapon, with her dress leaving so little hiding place.

She ordered Barton in Russian to stay, adding about how they wouldn't be long and the party looked dull. He answered that he'd be ready and sat at the back, taking out his phone like any other bored chauffeur. Security promptly stopped paying him attention at all.

Meanwhile Natasha started toward the house and he followed behind her, checking that their intel matched the actual reality. There were many pretty people, workers, and cameras. There was also an electrified fence around the perimeter, and wires on the windows for a house alarm, which couldn't possibly be turned on when there was this party going on.

He was close behind Natasha going inside the house. She smiled and greeted people as if she knew a few of them, working her way through the crowd. John kept an eye on the crowd, recognizing a few of them. That was the younger Calderon of the Oaxacan cartel, so Shinobi Shaw was definitely keeping bad company.

Natasha made some party talk with some other female guests and refused all the food the servers offered her, letting the time pass.

"I see our host," Natasha murmured. "We should say hello."

They worked their way through the crowd to where Shinobi Shaw was holding court. In person, he was a good looking man with a much better suit than John's, and two women were hanging all over him.

"Natalya Romanova," Natasha introduced herself holding out her hand to be kissed. John kept an eye on those in earshot, wondering if anyone would recognize the name as that of Black Widow. It wasn't exactly unknown in certain circles, and someone might know it here. But no one seemed to pay any extra notice.

Shawi obliged with the hand kissing. "Such beauty. Welcome to my house."

"It is lovely and so … charming," she said.

"Allow me to give you the tour," he appropriated her hand into his arm smoothly, and handed her a champagne flute in the other.

As Natasha kept a somewhat simpering running commentary in his ear about what she was seeing with Shaw, John parted from her to wander the opposite way. He took a champagne flute from a passing waiter but didn't drink it. "Checking the east hall," he reported in a murmur.

Two guards were posted in the hall, and he went up to them to check out what they were guarding. There was a closed door behind them. He asked for the restroom and got turned around to go back the other way. "Two guards on the third door on the north side, I'm going around outside to the window," he murmured for the benefit of his two listeners.

Returning to the patio, he slipped off into the garden. A soft step of someone being stealthy interrupted and John waited, fairly sure who it was but ready in case it wasn't. Clint stepped out, now in his work outfit, and handed John his more usual Glock which he put in the holster.

They moved carefully through the garden working their way to the office window away from the party guests. John pulled out the 'pen' from his breast pocket and flipped it to make a tiny periscope and peek in the window.

"Definitely his office," he murmured. "Empty and locked."

"Moving in," Clint added. "Taking the window. John, stand back."

He got out of the way, as Clint took an arrow out and put a special tip on it, before shooting it at the window. It flew silently and impacted the window with a soft thwack, spreading some sort of sticky filaments across the window. Clint ran up and pulled on the arrow, and everywhere the sticky stuff had touched, the window came out as a weird soft goo, as if it had melted slightly.

"Nice," John said in appreciation. "I need some of that." Then, careful of the suit, he lifted himself into the office. Clint followed. "We're in."

"Is that an actual Renoir?" Natasha breathed in false awe.

"It is," Shaw confirmed. "My grandfather acquired it."

John felt a little sick, sure how his family had obtained it, since his grandfather had been a Nazi war criminal.

He opened the lid of the laptop while Clint stayed back to keep an eye on the outside and the door to the office.

The laptop woke up but was password protected. John poked at it a little, trying some of the more obvious passwords, without success. Then Clint murmured, "John, that bookshelf. It's a door. The floor's worn where it opens."

John turned and had to squint a little, but saw what Clint was seeing. He murmured for Natasha's benefit, "There's a secret room off the office." It had to be small, though- he'd seen the floorplan and the window of the room next door made a space that couldn't be more than seven feet wide.

He looked for the latch - the bookshelf was full of fake books and fake knick-knacks it turned out which made it easy to find the latch because nothing else was touched. A section of the bookshelf popped out like a door and he pulled it, as Natasha was very grateful to Shawi for showing her around and then fended off his unsubtle attempt to get her to sleep with him later.

Then, in a murmur meant for her listeners, she said with a relieved breath, "Thank god. He's insufferable. Heading to you."

Behind the door was not a room. John grimaced; surprises were not his favorite thing. "It's an elevator. It has to go down."

"Shit," Barton muttered, "There could be an entire level we know nothing about."

"Almost there," Natasha said. "Two guards."

John moved to the door. "Got them." He opened it, getting the guards' attention. "Hi there. Is this the bathroom?"

Then Natasha took them down with two quick hits and she and John dragged them into the office and she kicked the door closed behind them. Fishing the USB drive out from her cleavage, she handed it to Clint. "You do the worm. We're going down below."

John fished the guns and clips off the downed guards and slammed the elevator call button. They were on a clock now, lasting however long it would take security to realize those two guards weren't at the door. It could be only minutes, but they needed at least to look at what Shaw had in his secret basement.

The small elevator had only two buttons, up and down, and he pushed down as Natasha joined him. He handed her a gun, then glanced at the camera. "Take it?" She nodded, so he reached up and slammed the lens with the butt of his weapon.

The doors opened and they were ready, aiming weapons, but there was no one there, although the lights came on automatically.

It seemed to be a large storage space underneath the main house, about half the square footage, broken by supports and unfinished look to it with exposed conduits and plumbing for above. But it was the boxes that got his attention - dozens of crates marked with the Ten Rings symbol.

With Natasha watching his back, he pried one open. Nestled in foam were small cylinders marked with death symbols. "Poison gas."

She took her turn ripping open another crate from a different pile. "Surface-to-air missiles. This whole area is weapons. Ten Rings weapons."

"In his house? Is he an idiot? Priceless looted art upstairs and he stores explosives?" John exclaimed.

Natasha snorted. "The Renoir's a glicee fake. He thought I was too stupid to notice."

"On the contrary," a sudden voice said from behind the crates.

Without needing to even look at each other, John went left while she went right to catch Shaw between them. Saw continued, with entirely too much confidence, as he revealed he knew who he was hosting all along. "I thought the notorious Black Widow would know. And your companion, Natalya, he is a spy, too, obviously. Calderon recognized him before he asked me to kill him."

The threat didn't bother John; as long as Shaw kept talking, John knew where he was. In his ear, he heard Clint, "He didn't come through here. Mission complete, but this place is going to be hot real soon."

Which meant it was time to get out, and there was another entrance. But first, business.

Natasha's shoes were on the floor, empty, and she was out of sight as John crept around the crates.

"There's nowhere to go, Natalya," Shaw said.

Then the sound of a scuffle and Shaw slamming into a crate. "Who said I wanted to go anywhere?" she said in a low voice and hit him again.

John rounded the edge of the crate to see Shaw fighting back - so he wasn't all soft dilettante. He'd had training, sufficient to keep her back.

Shaw saw the second person joining the fight, and John's gun. And smiled.

"Calderon says hi," he called.

Somehow he thrust his hand inside the crate beside him. John stared, unsure what he was seeing. How the hell had he done that? What had he done? Was it some sort of trick?

But no, it was not. Shaw withdrew his hand and threw something toward John. John shot him in the head, a second before Natasha's kick hit him in the face and sent him falling.

John whirled and dove, trying to get out of the way. "Nat, run!" he yelled.

The grenade exploded, sending a shockwave over his back and pelting him with a debris, while he covered his head.

It was oddly quiet, he realized, as he lifted his head - he couldn't hear a damn thing. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but it was useless. Concussion deafness. Hopefully it would pass. He hurt, and his skin seemed a little burnt, but it wasn't too bad. It was strange not to hear himself cough as he pushed himself on his arms and turned to look at the situation.

He saw Natasha, her dress ruined, and from the look on her face she was yelling something, beckoning him to come toward her frantically. He turned his head to see what she was so afraid of - there were crates engulfed in flame all around him.

There was a white flash and another concussion blast, throwing him off his feet. And he saw nothing more.

Chapter Eight