CLINT

Okay, this looks . . . well it might not be bad, but it certainly isn't good.

"Tasha d'you read me?" I say as I peel out from the dock. My head spins like a disco as the colors of the island fly away from me and a thousand shades of blue take over. It's like that tunnel in Willy Wonka. Is it raining, is it snowing, is a HYDRA boat a-blowin'? Up, that is.

"What's the plan Natasha?" I repeat. The blue of the water dulls out to a kind of slate gray and I notice for the first time how the dark the cabin of the boat is. The windows are tinted and the monitor and panels are glowing green on the dash. My head pounds even harder, and I feel like I want to throw up. Did I mention that? Well I do.

I open the throttle up a little higher, chasing after the little blip on the radar that I know is Natasha's boat. I touch the monitor and it springs up into a S.H.I.E.L.D.-style holodisplay showing the two boats racing across the water. This thing's kind of sweet actually. It'd be a lot cooler if, you know, I wasn't drugged up, delirious, motion-sick and in excruciating pain. I stand there for a second watching the projections race along and . . . yup, nope, 'scuse me a sec.

"Clint, you hanging in there?" comes Natasha's voice over the radio as I lose my lunch over the side of the boat.

"Fine," I say as I stumble back inside the cabin. "The laser light show in here didn't agree with me."

"Sorry. It took me a second to set up a secure channel."

"What's the play, Nat?"

"Same as before: call it in."

"Can't do that," I say.

"Do it Clint! The longer you wait the more suspicious this looks," Natasha's voice hisses over the radio. I can hear her breathing hard. Whatever she's working on, she's working as fast as she can.

"The second I pick up that radio, HYDRA's going to train all their satellites on us, and there'll be choppers over our heads in ninety seconds." At least I think I'm following her plan correctly. "If they see you jump ship they'll know we faked it, and they'll blow us up before we come close to shore."

"If we don't follow protocol," she responds, "they'll blow both of these boats up just in case. Channel 6. Do it now!"

Why do you do these things to me Natasha? I think as my hand reaches for the radio console. My fingers pause over the dial, both because they're shaking uncontrollably, and because I really don't want to do this. We're backed into a corner and we're making a desperate play. In that second that I hesitate, I hope a better one will pop into my head. Unfortunately, the only things popping into my head is a confetti of brightly colored little splotches at the edges of my vision, so here goes nothing.

"This is Six Alpha Charlie," I say, reading the letters off the ID badge of my unconscious buddy on the floor. "The targets made a run on the docks. They've stolen a craft and we are in pursuit. I repeat, the fugitives are in a boat and we are in pursuit. We have men down. Request immediate backup."

I dial back to Nat's encrypted channel. "Ok, it's done. We've got probably twenty seconds before HYDRA Island hears the news and scrambles the choppers."

No response. Why are things always difficult?

"Natasha?"

There's a grunt and a bang on the other end of the line before she mumbles through clamped teeth "Un 'econd."

Something clatters and then comes the splash of something heavy being thrown in the water.

"I'm here," she says, her mouth now free of whatever wiring I assume she was biting. "I had to remove all external transmitters from the console. The first thing HYDRA will do is try to shut down this boat remotely. Or blow it up. Hopefully they won't succeed in either. They have no reason to think we fugitives are in range of anyone we might want to communicate with, so they have no need to jam the radios."

"Right, 'cuz we're lucky like that."

Annnd . . . I spoke to soon. Three more little boats just appeared on the edge of my radar.

"We've got company. Three in pursuit. They aren't within visual range but they will be soon."

And then it sort of hits me. Like one of Natasha's punches: one second you're fine, the next you're on the floor.

"Slow down," I say into the radio.

"Not an option Barton."

"Trust me, I've got a plan. Slow your boat down enough that I can catch up with you, but don't make it too obvious. Once I back away, jump clear and I'll circle back for you."

There's silence on the other end of the line.

"I know, I know," I continue, " 'I've got a plan,' famous last works right. That and 'this looks bad,' but Nat, I think this'll —"

"Barton!" she snaps, and I jump when I see the image of a speedboat growing larger and larger on the holo-display. The collision sensors on my dash pulse red as I almost slam into Natasha's boat. On second thought . . .

"What are you doing?" Natasha says as I tap the back of her boat with the nose of mine. I can hear her shuffling back to her feet.

"I'm making it look convincing!" I reply, "And I'm buying you some time!"

I ram the boat again and this time I can hear her sigh, but she doesn't say anything.

"Speaking of time . . ." I start.

"I'm working," she snorts, "as fast a I can."

A second later the unmistakable sound on bullets ricocheting off metal echoes through the cabin.

"Are you SHOOTING AT ME?" I shout.

"I'm making it look convincing," she replies, and I can hear the smirk on her face through the radio.

"Natasha . . . this won't fool them for much —"

"Done!" she shouts. "Tap the boat one more time, then call it in."

Man I hope this works. I give Natasha's boat another little nudge, and I watch a little green blip fly away from the opposite side as Natasha jumps clear into the water, then I dial up my new HYDRA buddies again. Whatever Nat did to the controls of her boat, it worked, because as soon as she's clear, it throttles up as darts away, banking away from me, and as far away from the direction of HYDRA island as possible. A pretty convincing escape route, actually.

I pick up the radio and dial up the HYDRA frequency. "This is Six Alpha Charlie. Fugitives cannot be subdued and are making a break for it."

"We see you Alpha Charlie," says a new voice. "We're coming up on your tail. Fischer said he saw a fugitive jump ship, can you confirm?"

"I can confirm that one of my guys is a complete idiot. Tried to board them and missed. If he's alive I'll circle back later. In the mean time, do I have permission for a kill strike?"

There's a quite disturbing pause on the other end of the radio. I'm not convinced I'm breathing anymore.

"Of course there's a kill order," the voice says somewhat suspiciously. "We were all sent to the island with that directive."

Think quickly. Think quickly.

"I know, I know. I'm just checking one last time that the Barron didn't change his mind and want to do the honors himself. I've been a little busy if you haven't noticed."

"The Barron's orders stand. He wants them dispatched as soon as possible."

"In that case, let's light 'em up shall we?" I say.

"Very well. Short range missiles operational. Target acquired."

"Ditto," I say, hoping that I'm pressing the right controls. Lucky for me, the big red "Fire" button doesn't leave much to chance.

"Three . . .two . . . one . . ." says my new best friend.

Here goes nothing. As my hand hovers over the red button, two thoughts go through my head. One is the immense relief that we're plenty far away from Natasha at this point. We're moving so fast she's probably miles behind us, clear of all the HYDRA boats and their missiles, the explosion, the shrapnel and all of it. The second is the fear I just can't seem to shake the Radiohead here has targeted me instead. It'd be easy, if they didn't buy my leaky paper boat of a cover story. They target me, I target the other boat and and on three we all go BOOM. All enemies neutralized and Barron Zemo pours himself a congratulatory glass of wine — I'm under the impression he's a white wine guy. I can't explain that, it's just a theory — sleeps like a baby, and HYDRA marches on toward world domination. The possibility makes my blood boil, but then I'm able to breath again when I return to my first thought: at least Natasha's far enough away. She'll still be here to save the world. And she'll be safe.

"Fire!"

I close my eyes and slam the button. I can feet the hull lurch back beneath me as the torpedoes fire. The seconds prickle by and the air feels solid, like time has turned to molasses. And then it's over. The bright yellow tones of an explosion filter through my eyelids, and I know that the first ship's been destroyed, but I'm still here. I open my eyes in time to see the smoke cloud dissipating. What remains of the charred metal hull slip beneath the waves and the few flaming bits of wreckage fizzling out on the choppy gray waves are all that's left.

"Target destroyed," I say into the radio, trying to keep the confidence out of my voice. "Six Alpha Charlie confirming."

"Bravo Zulu leader acknowledges. Units 3 and 5 return to target island to retrieve troops. All others return to base."

"With all do respect Johnny Bravo, I'm gonna do fish my guy out of the water."

"Collateral damage. Let him drown."

"Will all due respect sir, I'd prefer to kill him myself."

"If you must. I await a full report upon your return."

The rest of HYDRA's freaky little fleet banks left and speeds away to HYDRA island. I loop around and start retracing my path, marked on the green holomap with a bright dashed line. Like a treasure map. X marks Natasha.

It takes me a few minutes to wind my way back to the coordinates where she jumped ship. I don't want to go so fast that I miss her. Soon enough, a little red-headed blip appears on my radar. I'm just kidding the software doesn't know that. Though now that I think about it, I am seeing spots of all various colors all over my vision.

I kill the engine and let the boat drift up beside her. When I leave the cabin, Natasha is already swimming toward me with a sort of yellow plastic buoy strapped to one of her wrists. I drop a little rope ladder over the side and reach my hand out as Natasha climbs up. She takes it, more I think to steady me than help herself.

"Have a nice swim?"

"It was lovely," she says, wringing her hair out over the rail. "Blow up a HYDRA ship?"

"As a matter of fact I did," I say, and we start to move inside.

I sway again and Natasha steadies my with a hand on my bicep. You know you like that.

"You don't look so good," she says.

" R'you kidding, I look faaabulous," I mumble, kissing my big beefy bicep. That's right. I'm delerious and maybe still a little high right now, remember?

"Lay down," she says strictly. From the tone of her voice, it doesn't sound optional. In fact, from the way the cabin is spinning around me to the disco strobe I doubt is actually installed on this boat, in might not be optional at all.

Yup there go my knees.

Nat catches me and eases me down to the rubbery floor. She shoves our HYDRA captive out of the way gently lays me down on the ground.

"Your natural adrenaline from the chase is wearing off," she explains. "Quickly. Each of these ships has an extensive first aid kit. I'll give you a shot of it before we land."

"I," I tell her even as her face is blurring in and out of focus, "am fiiiiine."

"If they make us, I need you ready to fight. At the very least, I need you to be able to walk straight."

"I can totally walk straight, Officer. I'll prove it."

Her hand comes down on my shoulder before I even really try to move.

"Rest." Again, not optional.

"Yes ma'am," I say. "S'okay, you brought me presents." My eyes flick over to the blur I think is that yellow buoy she was holding on to. "What did the Easter bunny bring me?"

"Dry HYDRA uniforms courtesy of my shipmates. Hold still," and she starts going for one on my boots.

"Firsssst thing of all . . . I can total'y put my own pants on."

"That's a jacket."

"Right. But also. . . I gotta be tha' guy," — I gesture to the bound and gagged unconscious guy leaning weirdly half tipped over against the wall — "I gave 'em his number. I'm him. Tony is Ironman. I am that guy."

She starts stripping me, shoes first, and like what can I do about it but lay there like a lazy puppy? It's not that I mind specifically — we change together all the time. We have a surprising lack of boundaries in some areas, and a surprising surplus of them in others. If we make it out of this, we should really work on that. Its more that I hate how helpless I am. As entertaining frustrating as Natasha can be in Mama Bear mode, I hate that I need her to be. This whole mission has been my mess: my assignment, my capture, my rescue. All she's done is pull me out. And now she's pulling new pants on me, and really I just feel bad.

As if she can read my mind (and I'm only 76% convinced that she can't), Nat says, "That was a good plan."

" 'Was jus' makin' it up."

"It was clever. It worked." She pauses now before she tackles putting a jacket over my busted arm. "You might play dumb Clint Barton, but I'm onto you."

"For h'w long?"

"Since I met you," she smiles. I assume she smiles. It sounds like she's smiling. It's her smiling voice. My eyes are kinda fluttering shut all sleepy style. She gives me a little kiss on the forehead then goes over and does smart things with the control panel.

"I'm setting us on a GPS course back to the HYDRA Island. I shouldn't need to touch the controls again until we land," she explains as the boat jerks back into motion. Nat busies herself with her own HYDRA uniform, then with putting the extra one on the unconscious guy, who is only slightly less cooperative than I was. She dipped his new uniform in the water first, making sure he was the one soaking wet. She's smart like that.

A few minutes go by and I drift between watching the reflection of the waves outside and the glow from the control panel bounce off the ceiling and full out going to Lala Land.

"Y'never answered my question," I mumble after a while, and I can feel Natasha jump the tiniest bit. I guess she thought I'd fallen asleep.

"Since we met. I told you that."

"Not that question. My other question. Or maybe I was just thinking about it. The Nightmare Machine, Dark Morpheus, whatever the hell you wanna call it. Why were you involved? And when?"

"Oh," she says with a pause that tells me she was not expecting this, or hoping I'd forgotten about it. "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s final phase of testing on the DM took place not long after you brought me in. All those interviews and analyses they took me away for? All the tests and trials they put me through? Well a couple of them involved strapping me into a DM chair and seeing what would happen. Maybe they wanted to read my mind if they could, I don't know. But basically they were collecting severe cases of PTSD to test the DM on — remember, it was designed as therapy. Nothing much happened when I was in the chair, and by the time things went really bad for the program Nick had realized how valuable an asset I was and pulled me out."

"So you were Nick's lab rat."

"I've been worse for worse people. The stupidest thing was . . . I wanted it to work. Some part of me hoped that maybe since I'd joined the "good guys," they'd be able to fix me. Take the pain away and finally let me heal. But nothing's that easy."

I weirdly can't help but give her a stupid smile.

The holomap starts flashing on the dashboard and projecting the words "APPROACHING DESTINATION."

Here we are. HYDRA Island, back again.

"No," I groan. "Nothing's ever easy."