Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
Author notes: I can't thank the fabulous madjm enough for sticking with me through this whole thing. I literally had the first idea for this fic on June 17th and it's been driving me insane ever since. I swear, I'm not going to write anything with a plot for the rest of 2012.
She stands in the open doorway of the helicopter and looks down at the trees below. They’re a blur of green shot through with brown and the occasional meandering creek bed. Behind her, Lake clears his throat and shouts over the wind and the rotors: “Miss… I wish you’d be more careful.”
Natasha sighs and steps back. Her skirts whip wildly around her ankles as she sits down across from Lake and his partner, Nguyen, who’s been grinning stupidly at her since they picked her up.
The white skirt with the embroidered hem, the blue blouse, and the sensible shoes all once belonged to Emilia Flores, a maid in the home of Rafael Calderón Lopez, who had recently made the very bad decision to traffic in stolen documents. Lopez is now in custody and the documents are gone, except for the copy folded into a pocket of Natasha’s skirt.
Emilia had been a quiet, easily-intimidated little thing, someone who might have been receptive to Nguyen’s advances, might have smiled back. Unfortunately for him, Emilia doesn’t exist anymore, and Natasha Romanoff, who hasn’t had good vodka in more than two weeks, is close to justifying Lake’s fears by pushing his partner out the chopper door.
She’s irritable. She might say that she’s homesick, but that’s stupid. You need a home to be homesick for. You can’t be homesick for a feeling. You can’t be homesick for a person.
Lake tries to make conversation over the roar of the wind, Natasha ignores him, and suddenly the chopper drops. Natasha grabs at a hanging safety strap as they tilt wildly to the left, and Nguyen almost does fall out, except Natasha catches him by the back of his jacket and Lake grabs his arm and they pull him back in. She twists in her seat and shouts at the pilot, “What happened?”
“I don’t know!” the guy yells back, and the trees are still a blur of green and brown but not nearly as far away as they were a moment ago, and then they hit.
She wakes to the sound of gunshots.
Natasha sleeps. I watch out the window for a few minutes, the gun in my hand, and then move back to the computer. The Institute seems very far away right now, but their existence presses against my mind like a physical weight, like gravity doubled and then tripled.
This would be easier if it weren’t for the trigger. The fail-safe. The threat of a complete dump, of nothingness, of – essentially – brain death. She’s an asset and the Institute doesn’t want to lose her, but they’d rather she be lost than fall into enemy hands.
The trust between us is a fragile thing, easily fractured. My lies are mounting, and time is simultaneously ticking down and spooling out in front of us like an endless road. She doesn’t understand who I am, what I am, and she can’t. Not if she wants to go home.
Steve has been waiting for the next clue, another breadcrumb that will lead them to a second exotic location (although how they’re going to get there, he hasn’t quite figured out). He’s out of his depth, and he thinks this is exactly why I didn’t really want to get out in the world in the first place, but in a strange way he feels more useful here than he could have been in Oslo or as Fury’s errand boy.
“I don’t know what to do next,” says Barton, which is worrisome because this is his thing: secret apartments and tiny computer drives and unspoken orders. He slouches against the wall next to the narrow window, posture defeated, expression blank but somehow also as open and raw as Steve has ever seen it.
Steve takes out the phone, wills it to ring. It refuses. There’s still about ten minutes until Bradach is released; when that time is up, he tells himself, he’s going to call Stark back, angry Norwegians or no.
He finds himself talking just to take up time, just to fill up space. “Is it true, what Agent Romanoff said? About how you met?” Barton looks up, still with that same exhausted disconsolation, so he prompts, “What… what she told Loki.”
The shutters come down with an almost audible snap. “I don’t know what she said to him,” Barton says shortly.
“Oh.” Steve squirms. “I’m sorry… I thought you might have seen the footage...”
“Can’t say I felt the need to watch that.”
Steve thinks that maybe this is for the best. He decides to push his luck. “She said that SHIELD sent you to kill her, but you… disobeyed orders.” Silence. “That true?”
Barton doesn’t answer right away. Instead he crosses the small room, sits back at the computer, and opens its lid. When the monitor flickers on he begins to type; boxes open and text scrolls across the screen too fast for Steve to follow. Just as he decides he’s been forgotten or dismissed Barton says, a little bitterly, “More or less. She couldn’t get too creative, could she? For all she knew I’d already told Loki every scandalous detail.”
“Did you?” Sometimes words just come out of his mouth without his permission.
Barton just chuckles bleakly. “No. But only because he didn’t ask. He asked about other things, though,” he adds quietly. “About her. Her fears. Her weaknesses.”
“I didn’t know she had any weaknesses,” Steve admits. He stands, looking down over Barton’s shoulder. “Should I even ask what that is?”
“A dropbox,” says Barton, leaning back in the chair. The sudden energy is gone; he looks drained again. “We’ve used it before to exchange information if radio communication isn’t possible. I just remembered, but…” He gestures at the empty screen.
Steve checks the phone again. Five minutes.
“Germany,” says Barton unexpectedly, swiveling his wrist to read his watch. “Frankfurt. Her target was a doctor and his fiancé. Her bosses at the time wanted him to work for them. They were into biological weapons, psychological warfare and manipulation… all the fun stuff. Illegal, of course, at least after people started dying during their experiments. They’d already approached the doctor and he’d told them to go to hell.”
“So she was supposed to kill him,” Steve guesses.
“No. He was still too valuable. She was supposed to kidnap the fiancé,” Barton says, staring at the computer screen. “Her name was Sloane. Young, pretty, very smart. Nat was supposed to make it messy… lots of blood at the scene, that kind of thing. And then the bosses were going to come out of the woodwork and tell the good doctor that he could either take them up on their job offer, or the Black Widow would send Sloane back to him, one piece at a time.”
Steve flinches. “Would she have done it?”
Barton shrugs. “Luckily the doctor was already on SHIELD’s radar by then. So was Natasha. Fury had actually wanted to recruit her for a couple of years at that point. All the profilers said she was obviously psychotic, but she was also good. Very good. You don’t just wipe out a potential asset like that unless it’s your only option. Unfortunately, every time someone got close…” He shakes his head minutely. “Well, Fury’d run out of patience, and he knew I didn’t need to get close.”
“And…” Barton rubs a hand across his mouth. “I’m a man, aren’t I? I got her in my sights and I saw this pretty young woman –a girl, really – and it didn’t seem like she could possibly be as dangerous as everyone said. I underestimated her. I thought I would be different, the one to bring her in, so I went in close and it almost killed me. She could have killed me, but she hesitated and… well, you’ve seen her. She doesn’t hesitate.” He smiles faintly. “She told me later than the ‘bow and arrow thing’ threw her off. Said she thought she was hallucinating.”
Steve smiles as well, despite himself. He wonders if these are the kinds of stories SHIELD agents tell, retell, laugh over, when they get older. If they get older. Remember the time I almost killed you?
He glances at the phone – time’s up – and looks up at the computer screen, and freezes.
Something is there that wasn’t before.
The phone rings.
Rogers answers the phone; Clint clicks the link. His heart is pounding, his hands are shaking again with the expectation of discovery, and if this is just junk mail he’s going to have a coronary.
The link sends him to a website. His heart sinks until he realizes it’s a forum for birdwatchers and he almost laughs out loud. There’s a chat room with one anonymous visitor, and he forces himself to breathe steadily as he logs in as a guest.
He remembers Natasha the way he first saw her, close up, in a Frankfurt alleyway. She had been young and gorgeous and, ultimately, terrifying. He’d put an arrow against the string but he hadn’t pulled it; she’d raised her gun and he had waited to die but he didn’t.
He’d said, “There’s another way, you know. You don’t have to live like this,” because he’d been following her for the last six hours and he’d seen the way she looked at people like they were aliens, or maybe museum mannequins behind glass. She had watched a pub full of sports fans cheer for their soccer team, watched a woman run out in front of a car to grab a stranger’s child, watched a man propose to his girlfriend in the middle of Nizza Park, and he had watched her. He had recognized the contempt that masked confusion, the envy behind her cool disdain, because he had felt those same feelings himself, once.
The cursor blinks.
Where are you now? asks Guest534.
He hesitates. Is this her? Is it a test? Best to stick with the truth, as she had with Loki. Apartment twenty-eight.
He waits. Rogers is still talking on the phone but it’s as though the sound is coming through water. Clint can’t make out a word of the conversation.
Guest534: Agent Romanoff is alive and safe.
Clint feels a sharp pain in his chest, wonders if he really is having a heart attack, and types back as quickly as his unsteady hands can manage. Where is she?
Guest534: I can’t tell you that. She has been compromised.
The last word stares up at him like a beacon, like a warning. He remembers Tasha’s leg, warm against his own, and her voice. ‘I’ve been compromised.’ He’d never asked her what she meant. He hadn’t really wanted to know.
Guest534: You need to follow my instructions.
Who are you? Clint sends back immediately.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Guest534: A friend. If you were to try and retrieve Agent Romanoff now, she would die. This is not a threat. It is simply a fact. In order to safely recover her, you must be in possession of a particular drug.
Clint closes his eyes briefly. A hostage situation? What did they always say about hostage situations? They say, ‘don’t make deals, don’t get sucked into their game’, that’s what they say, Clint. Behind him, Rogers says, “Thanks, good-bye,” and hangs up the phone.
Clint types his reply slowly, waiting for something brilliant to pop into his mind. Nothing pops. And then we make a swap.
No, replies Guest534. You will need to inject Agent Romanoff with the drug.
Clint laughs out loud, a harsh and frightened sound. Rogers comes up behind him, asking, “What’s going on?” but Clint ignores him. He types back, almost pounding down on the keys. You have got to be kidding me.
There is a long wait this time, the longest yet, but Rogers doesn’t speak and Clint doesn’t move. Maybe he doesn’t even breathe. He expects Guest534 to leave, and then he expects he’s going to quietly freak out, but he doesn’t expect what happens next.
Guest534: Agent Barton, she does not remember you. She has been wiped and reset with no memory of joining SHIELD. Any sustained attempt to restore these memories by either of us will trip a programmed trigger and lead to total memory loss. Perhaps brain death. I doubt that you want to risk that any more than I do. You’ll need the drug to dissolve the trigger. It is located in a facility south of Bogota, Colombia known as the Institute for Rehabilitative Therapy. I will send the coordinates to your dropbox.
Clint rereads the message, than reads it once more for good measure. Lost memories. Possible brain death. It’s insane and ridiculous but it makes more sense than the idea of Natasha betraying him, walking off with their enemies and not looking back.
He meets Rogers’ eyes. “It’s your call,” the captain says quietly, and Clint isn’t sure if he’s thankful for the trust or annoyed that Rogers and Fury and the universe in general are leaving all of this – Natasha’s mind, maybe her life – in his hands. Just his.
He breathes slowly and carefully types his reply. You’re asking for a lot on faith. I don’t even know who you are.
The cursor blinks for a moment. Then: I told you. I’m a friend. You can call me Aten.
And then he is alone in the chat room, Rogers is still staring at him, and Clint thinks he might have that freak-out right now after all, but Rogers says, “That was Banner on the phone. Bradach talked. Said that he lied about everything. Someone paid him to put the chopper down where he did. Two men came out of the trees and killed the State Department men, and when they left they took Agent Romanoff with them.” He takes a deep breath. “She was unconscious.”
A weak, watery feeling of relief goes through Clint’s muscles, and he thinks how strange it is that he’s actually happy to hear this news, although happy is the wrong word for it. He’s just glad that he’s already sitting down. “Unconscious,” he echoes.
“We can go back to Fury with this, can’t we?” Rogers presses. “Is this what he wanted you to find?”
Clint shakes his head. The motion makes him a little dizzy. “Nothing’s really changed. All somebody would need to say is that Bradach lied because he was terrified of Banner… Hulking out. No one’s going to blame him for that. And all we have are some pictures and a chat room conversation with someone named Aten. It’s not enough.” He blinks his vision clear; for a moment, everything had appeared to swim before his eyes. “Did Banner tell you anything else?”
“Yeah,” Rogers says, his expression severe. “Bradach says he was first approached about this by someone who already knew he worked for SHIELD. At the time he was on an assignment. In Colombia.”
Natasha opens her eyes to discover it is early morning. Her headache is gone but she feels unrested (or maybe too rested) and she tells Aten, “You should have woken me before now. You need to sleep too.”
Aten smiles. She has a pretty smile; Natasha wonders if she used to smile at people before she killed them. “I rested on the plane. But I’ll take a nap now if you don’t mind.”
Natasha nods at the computer. “Any news?”
“Yes. The Institute has confirmed that Witten will be in the area tomorrow night. There was a delay on his flight, some kind of mechanical issue, but he’s rescheduled the meeting with his contact.”
“Two days,” says Natasha unhappily. “What are we supposed to do until then? Go sight-seeing?”
Aten shrugs. She doesn’t seem particularly put-out by this development, but then she’s with the Institute for the long haul. A couple of days won’t matter to her; she’ll get paid all the same. Natasha already feels claustrophobic in this densely-packed city, however; she wants to be somewhere else, alone, untracked and untraceable. Two days feels like an eternity.
The moment Aten is asleep, Natasha is out the door. It’s early and the streets are full of crazed commuters behind the wheel and pedestrians walking in a sort of fugue and bicyclists weaving heedlessly between men and machines.
She heads south towards Market, the busy thoroughfare that cuts diagonally across the city. Monstrous glass skyscrapers stand side-by-side with smaller, ornate structures from the turn of the century, interspersed with the odd fountain, statue, or piece of modern art.
The trademarks of American capitalism are everywhere, from the lurid storefronts to the towering advertisements splashed across billboards and concrete walls alike. There are movie posters on buses and clothing ads on the backs of defunct payphones. There are ‘bargain stores’ and seedy ’gentlemen’s parlors’ and also many closed and shuttered storefronts, dark windows staring out into traffic like blinded eyes.
One shop doing brisk business caters to the mania surrounding ‘the Avengers’, and Natasha pauses for a moment, peering in through the windows at the plastic shields and foam hammers and cheaply-painted action figures. She can’t remember where she was when she had heard about the attack in New York, about this weird little group popping up out of nowhere drive the aggressors back, but she knows she’s seen the footage. Everyone’s seen it. It was an alien invasion, for Christ’s sake.
Children run around the inside of the shop, knocking over merchandise and firing pretend lasers at each other. They grin. We were invaded by aliens, isn’t it awesome?
A television just visible through the window shows video from that day, mostly-blurry mayhem shot through with concrete dust and lasers, interspersed with pictures of Tony Stark waving at cameras and brief flashes of the others: a tall blond man and…
Natasha looks away, feeling a little nauseous, but the sensation fades quickly and she decides that she’s only hungry. She decides to get breakfast for herself and Aten and take it back to the apartment.
It’s going to be a long couple of days.
Steve gets back on the phone as Barton hails a taxi. “We need transport to Bogota, Colombia.”
“Yeah? And I need some better lawyers.” Stark sounds tired and frustrated; Steve figures that dealing with problems the legal way is far less satisfying than settling them as Iron Man. “You know, I feel like I only hear from you guys when you want something.”
“And that makes us different than you how?”
“Yeah, fine. Touché.”
A cab rolls to a stop, the driver looking on with a bored expression as Steve and Barton climb into the back seat. “Aeroport Bruxelles,” says Barton, handing up his SHIELD credit. They’re both reluctant to use it (Steve’s already learned from TV that credit cards are frequently used to track someone’s location and activity and they don’t know who might be keeping tabs on them) but all he has in his wallet are American dollars, no euros.
The driver takes the card with a skeptical sniff and muttered “Merde,” and swipes it through a slot on his dashboard. It must meet with his approval, though, because he hands it back to Barton and pulls away from the curb.
“What’s in Colombia?” asks Stark. “Did you find Romanoff?”
“No,” says Steve, holding the phone out so Barton can follow the conversation. “But we may have found the people responsible.” He glances up at the driver, who is ignoring them. “We got a message from someone calling themselves Aten--”
“What’s that, Egyptian?”
“--claiming Agent Romanoff has had her memory modified.”
“Modified? Well. Wouldn’t be the first time for her, right?” quips Stark, causing Barton to look away in disgust. “How modified are we talking about?”
“According to this informant?” asks Steve. “Pre-SHIELD.”
“Hmm.” Stark digests this as the taxi picks up speed, merging onto the highway. “So… you figure Witten’s Institute has got to be involved, right?”
Barton’s head whips back around. “What?”
“They’re based out of this little town southeast of Bogota. Right now they’re a big name in ‘rehabilitative therapy’… and I’m using air quotes, by the way. Basically it’s chemically-enhanced behavior modification. Fury’s even sent them some of SHIELD’s most wanted over the years – you know, the ones he doesn’t want to study – to see if Witten can reprogram their twisted little minds. But being in Colombia, I’m sure they get plenty of, ah, ‘volunteers’. Air quotes, again, if you couldn’t tell.”
Steve frowns. He could ask how Stark knows all this, but… nope. No point, really.
“Witten,” says Barton, staring intently at the phone. “Bruno Witten?”
“Yeah, he’s the big cheese.”
Steve looks at Barton. “What is it?”
Barton sits back, running a hand over his face. He looks dog-tired but also strangely rejuvenated. “Bruno Witten was the doctor in Frankfurt.” He leans back towards the phone. “Stark, what about his fiancé? Sloane Fisher?”
“Yeah, let me Google that for you, champ,” says Stark. “Gimme a sec.”
There’s a clatter of silverware in the background and Steve raises his eyebrows, even though Stark can’t see him. “Are you at… lunch?” He’s not even sure what time it is.
“Dinner. Multitasking,” Stark reminds them. “Okay, Dr. Sloane Fisher, Witten’s wife. She works at the Institute too.”
“That’s got to be the connection,” says Barton, almost smiling, and then his expression sharpens as he looks up and sees the driver watching them in the rearview mirror. “Hey!” He thumps a hand against the back of the empty passenger’s seat. “Eyes on the road.”
The driver grunts and looks forward.
“Do you think Agent Romanoff’s going to go after Fisher again?” asks Steve softly. “If this Aten person is right, if everything since she joined SHIELD has been erased…”
“I don’t know,” says Barton. “If Witten’s people did this to her in the first place… where is Witten now?”
“At this very moment? Not sure,” says Stark around a mouthful of something. “But in two days he’s supposed to be at a conference for mad scientists in the San Francisco area.”
“Well, he’s down for a plus-one, but I doubt it’s her. I’m reading some of his emails right now and… the guy’s kind of a horn dog.”
“Yeah,” Barton snorts, elaborating when Steve raise his eyebrows questioningly. “The night Natasha was supposed to grab Fisher, Witten was out drinking and picking up prostitutes.”
“German prostitutes,” Stark says dryly, as though this is only additional proof of the man’s depravity. “I… no, Pepper, that wasn’t a suggestion…”
Steve rubs his neck. “If Witten’s going to be back in the U.S., isn’t that where we should be headed? Even if he’s not directly involved, he still has access to this drug.”
“And if he is involved?” Barton asks. “He’s going to tell us to go to hell, probably move Natasha from wherever he’s got her stashed, and in the meantime what we need is still in Colombia.”
All three of them fall silent. The taxi driver is watching them in the mirror again with open curiosity and almost misses the highway exit.
Steve can see the conflict in Barton’s face as he struggles with what he wants to do versus what he knows he needs to do. “I’ll go to Colombia,” Steve offers at last. “You go to San Francisco.”
There’s a flicker of appreciation in Barton’s shadowed eyes – maybe because he wants to get his hands on Witten, maybe because he suspects, as Steve does, that Romanoff could be the doctor’s plus-one – but it’s quickly replaced by grim pragmatism. “And do what? Sit on my ass, waiting for him to show up? And what are you going to do in Colombia, knock on the door and ask for a cup of sugar?”
“Barton’s right,” says Stark before Steve can decide if he should be insulted or not. “We’re going to need to be sneaky about this. The Institute’s security is too good. Not as good as mine, but good enough, and it’s not networked which leaves out hacking in remotely. What kind of drugs are we talking about here, anyway? Nothing fun, I’m assuming.”
Barton gives Stark the abridged version while Steve hides a smile, wondering if Stark even noticed when ‘you’ first became ‘we’. The guy means well; Steve knows that, even if he makes cracks about Stark being a money-hungry, attention-seeking reprobate. Stark is a money-hungry, attention-seeking reprobate, but his heart, pardon the pun, is generally in the right place.
“Okay, so here’s what I’m thinking,” says Stark when Barton is done, and then there’s an enormous rush of sound from the phone, more sound than Steve ever thought could come out of such tiny speakers. The noise seems to fill up the whole cab; the taxi driver yells something in incomprehensible French and almost drives them into a ditch. The wheels stutter, something knocks against the undercarriage; Steve drops the phone but Barton grabs it.
“That was an explosion,” he says breathlessly, bracing one arm against the side of the cab and glaring at the driver. “Stark, what happened?”
There’s a clanging, clattering sound on the other end of the line, Steve pictures falling rubble and licking flames, and then somebody groans.
“Stark?” demands Barton again.
Static answers, and far-away voices raised in alarm, and Stark’s voice from a distance: “Pepper? Pepper?” Something makes a disturbing thud - Steve meets Barton’s eyes in mounting horror - but then they can hear Stark again: “Jesus, Pepper, you scared me.” More static, scrabbling, heavy breathing. “Guys… I think… someone… just shot a rocket at me.”
“While I was at dinner!”
He makes a variety of coughing, grunting sounds. “I’m fine. Gotta get Pepper out of here. Listen, I bought you a jet, okay? Pier B, Gate 39.”
Steve stares. “Tony…”
“Yeah, I’m your sugar daddy.” Stark coughs again. “Go get ‘em, tiger. Try not to get yourself killed.”