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.
They check into the Carlyle a little after noon. The place is huge, every room bigger than most of the places he’s lived, and everywhere he looks he sees designer furniture, shimmering cloth, shining surfaces: glass, brass, marble and tile.
The walls are bright and white and shining, topped by crown molding, accented by opulent drapes. No one’s bolted the phone to the nightstand or put the television remote on a chain. Fresh flowers bloom on side tables below framed art that looks like it belongs in a museum instead of a neighborhood garage sale. Clint has seen places like this before, but usually only from across the street or through a skylight.
Natasha is less fazed, of course; she glances around, checks the windows and doors and, because after all this Tony Stark they’re talking about, they do a quick sweep for surveillance devices. Nothing comes up. Not that that really means anything.
“Clint, go get some sleep,” Natasha says the third time she catches him yawning, and he’s surprised to discover that for the first time since this all started he wants to sleep, thinks maybe he even can sleep. When she adds, gently, “I’m not going anywhere,” he feels relieved (even though half an hour ago he was telling himself that he just wanted to be alone) and suddenly so exhausted that it’s all he can do to drag himself to the bedroom, kick off his boots, and collapse face-first atop the lilac-scented sheets.
When he wakes he’s briefly confused by the smell, the smooth cloth beneath his cheek, the darkness. But then he hears music coming from the other room, soft and unobtrusive: Mumford & Sons, since indie-folk is one of the few genres they see eye-to-eye on.
Clint rolls onto his back and listens for a while, to the music, the familiar lyrics (‘…lend me your hand and we'll conquer them all…’) and to the sounds of Natasha moving through the suite. She can move silently when she wants to, and sometimes she does so without conscious thought, so these little noises are for his benefit alone.
Eventually he rises and stumbles into the adjoining bathroom. There is complimentary shampoo and conditioner, complimentary toothbrush and paste, complimentary soap and deodorant. There is no complimentary aspirin, but he’d be surprised if Natasha hadn’t put some in the bag she packed on the Helicarrier.
After cleaning up he feels a little more human, although various parts of his body remind him that he is only human, protesting against their recent rough treatment: his head, his shoulders, his right side, his left leg. It’s only pain, though. He can deal with pain.
She pretends not to notice when he opens the bedroom door and stands in the threshold for a moment, just looking. The living room is still grand and sparkling, but somehow Natasha’s been able to make it a little less intimidating: there is a half-unwrapped chocolate bar on a lacquered side table, her jacket is thrown over a piece of abstract art on the sideboard, and the glass and marble surfaces don’t shine so glaringly with most of the lights turned off.
At first he can’t see much of Nat herself – she’s sitting on the sofa which has its high back to his doorway – but then she stands and turns to him with a smile that makes all of his aches and pains stop hurting, at least for a second, because damn it, he’s never seen her smile at anyone like that before. Unguardedly, unironically, not because she’s trying to look foolish or flirty or seductive but because she’s genuinely pleased. She’s wearing black sweatpants and a black tank top and no makeup and she’s probably the most gorgeous thing he’s ever seen.
Little warning bells start going off in the back of his head.
“You look better,” she tells him.
“I do?” asks Clint, feeling suddenly awkward. “’Cause I feel like death warmed over, to be honest.”
Her lips curve into another smile, this one holding the promise of mischief. “Well, you do look like death warmed over, but earlier you looked like room-temperature death, so this is actually an improvement.”
He joins her on the sofa and she hands him the hotel’s room-service menu. They debate for a while what to order and finally decide on everything. Natasha calls the front desk and has to swear several times that no, she’s not kidding, bring it all. The food arrives shockingly quickly on a series of silver carts pushed by men in stiff hotel uniforms who look exhausted and a little shocked to see it’s only the two of them in the suite.
They eat a little of everything. There are Waygu beef burgers with black truffles and brie, a spicy chicken salad with ginger and cashews, pepperoni pizza, chicken fettuccini, Atlantic salmon in a basil tomato sauce, a turkey and cranberry sandwich on sourdough… She drinks a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and he has Sam Adams. Then afterward there’s freshly brewed coffee and chocolate cake, peanut butter cheesecake, a roasted apple crisp with vanilla bean ice cream… If this is how Stark lives all the time, Clint doesn’t know how the guy still fits in his fancy suit.
Even after only taking a mouthful of this, a forkful of that, it’s not long before they’re sated, not stuffed but pleasantly full. Clint leans back against the cushions and Natasha gives a contented sigh, sliding down until her head is on his shoulder. He can’t hear the warning bells anymore, between the haze of an impending food coma and the music, which has cycled through the entire album during their hedonistic feast (‘…sigh no more, no more… one foot in sea, one on shore…’)
His mind wanders. How do you go back to living your life after something like this? After an alien god opens a door from another world and then opens a door in your mind and makes you his bitch? After he forces you to kill and maim and destroy, after he whispers without voice the things he’ll do to you, the things he’ll make you do, because fear is his lifeblood and he craves power like a dying man craves water?
How do you pick up where you left off when you’ve helped reduce half of Manhattan to rubble in saving the other half, when you’ve gone up against creatures from another world that look like something out of a movie, except that any self-respecting Hollywood director would have taken one look at the Chitauri and said ‘no way audiences are going to believe that, too weird, come up with something else.’
Clint doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know anything. But he thinks that maybe a nap and a good meal and nodding off in the middle of an exquisite hotel suite with Natasha Romanoff’s cheek warm against your shoulder is a pretty good start.
I wake as Natasha enters the studio. I’m scared and my fear makes me angry. “You didn’t tell me you were going to leave!”
She raises an eyebrow and holds up a plastic bag that smells of warm bread and cinnamon. “We need to eat,” she says placidly. “I can take care of myself. I suspect you can too. I left you the gun.”
I laugh at this, but it’s a hollow sound. “You could have been seen.”
“Seen by whom?” she asks doubtfully. “Witten isn’t in the city yet.”
“His contacts could be,” I point out, stifling a growing sense of panic. I should have known better than to think I could keep her hidden away until help arrived, but I thought I could manage for longer than a few damn hours.
It’s taxing, though. I hadn’t expected that. It feels like if I push too hard I’ll lose my grip completely. That’s not acceptable.
Natasha sits on the edge of the mattress and rummages through the plastic bag, pulling out some sourdough bagels, a tub of fruit spread, a carton of orange juice. “Who are his contacts? The Institute must have some idea of who’s trying to replicate their research.”
She frowns. “I need to know if I’m going to do my job. You’re here to identify Witten, you’re not my handler. Tell me what you know or I’ll get on the phone and contact the Institute myself.”
There is a place beyond panic, beyond fear, a place of calm and calculation. I find my mind settling into the old ruts of subterfuge and deceit, and I realize I need to give her more truth or she’ll start picking apart the lies. “They’re not positive, but they think it’s someone who once worked for the Institute. You know that he used to be in charge, right? It was his money and his ideas that created the Institute in the first place.”
Natasha hesitates, opens the orange juice, and nods. I can’t tell if this is new information or not. I’m not sure how much she was told – truthfully or otherwise – before I returned.
“But then he screwed up,” I tell her. “He’s a classic megalomaniac. He didn’t think he could do anything wrong so he just did whatever he wanted without consulting his partners. No business sense, no business ethics… he made deals with other organizations that hurt the company, limited what they could accomplish. No medical ethics either,” I add shortly. “He has a habit of… coming on to his female patients post-wipe, when they’re still empty and confused and don’t know how to say no.”
Natasha freezes with the bagel halfway to her lips. “Did he…”
“He hurt women,” I interrupt her, eager to avoid this line of questioning, to delve into the lies with the momentum of the truth behind me. “The Institute realized that he was out of control, that he couldn’t be trusted anymore. He did some… very bad things that I’m not at liberty to go into. When he realized that his money couldn’t solve all of his problems anymore, that the authorities were onto him, he ran. The police in Bogota caught up to him but…” I shrug.
“He paid them off,” Natasha guesses.
“We’re not sure when he was formally approached by his new friends, but it must’ve been before he had his surgery done in Caracas. We intercepted an email where he told them that he wouldn’t give them any information until they gave him a new life and got him back into the U.S.”
She eats silently for a few minutes and I wait, thinking back through the obvious holes in my story and trying to ignore the pain in my stomach. But all she does is nod once, apparently accepting what I’ve told her, and I’m just beginning to relax when she asks me, “What do you know about the attack in New York?”
“W-what?” I stammer.
“You know,” she says, gesturing with her bagel. “A few months ago. Big hole in the sky. Aliens on flying mopeds. Some weirdoes in costumes calling themselves ‘the Avengers’. I was walking down Market and I saw a video… and I know I’ve seen it before but I can’t remember where.”
I feel a chill. “I… I think it happened right after I was wiped… I don’t really remember. You said you saw a video. You saw their faces?”
If my question seems odd she doesn’t comment, but stares a little vacantly at her breakfast and finally nods. “Stark. Tony Stark. And the one in the blue leotard. Rogers, right? I can’t… I can’t really think of who the others were…”
“Right,” I say a little weakly, searching for any sign of distress, but Natasha seems fine, only a little confused. It’s possible that the trigger isn’t as strong as I assumed, either because Fisher suspected she might come across references to the Avengers during the mission or because she’s tougher than they expected. “I think I remember… reading something about those two.”
She goes back to eating. “It’s strange. The last thing I heard Stark was still making a fortune helping third-world peasants blow the shit out of each other. Now he’s risking his life trying to save people? I find that hard to believe. What would make someone change like that?”
It’s a good question, I think; she shrugs, dusting off her hands as she walks to the bathroom. I’m left simultaneously shaken and relieved, counting down the time, and wondering where Clint Barton is right now.
Barton finally gets some sleep after they’re in the air, and Steve goes to the other end of the cabin to make a few calls.
He doesn’t call Stark back, figuring the man doesn’t need any extra distractions right now. He does get in touch with Banner on his way back to Miami, to catch him up on what little he knows about the Oslo situation. “Do you think I should head out there?” Banner asks nervously.
“If Stark needs help he’ll ask for it,” Steve says, without any idea of whether that’s true or not. He glances at Barton, sprawled comatose in a reclining chair, and thinks about what die-hard individualists these people are, used to solving their own problems their own way, resisting anything that smacks of dependency on another human being. They’ll need to get over that if they’re ever going to work together. “Thanks again for San Salvador,” he adds.
“Oh, that? That was nothing,” says Banner, sounding embarrassed. “I mean, Bradach was a pretty easy nut to crack, as nuts go. Didn’t have to knock down the hospital or anything. He just needed the money. He didn’t even know anyone was going to die. It’s… wrong, you know, but it’s still… understandable.”
“I suppose so,” says Steve doubtfully. “Listen, I don’t want to say too much, in case someone’s listening…”
“Of course someone’s listening. Someone’s always listening.”
“I… yeah.” Steve sighs, looking out a window at the piercingly blue sky. He’s done the math, knows that it’ll be nighttime when they arrive in Colombia. They’ll need to wait until morning to approach the Institute, and that means cutting things very close. “Look after yourself, Doctor Banner.”
“Same to you, Captain.”
Steve hangs up the phone and walks around the cabin for a few minutes. He can’t get over how quiet the jet is, how smooth the flight. Barton hasn’t stirred but Steve has the feeling that the archer could sleep through an artillery barrage if he needed to.
Steve eats some shrink-wrapped sandwiches that had been laid out for the previous owner of the jet. He keeps an eye on his phone – he’s supposed to get an alert if another message shows up in Barton’s ‘dropbox’ – but mostly he just sits and chews and thinks.
He thinks about some of the usual things: Erskine asking him to promise to stay who you are, a good man. Bucky falling. The sound of Peggy’s voice over the crackling radio. But he also thinks about Fury asking him to help save the world, about Phil – people might just need a little old-fashioned – and about the things he’s seen since being defrosted. He thinks, although he doesn’t come to any conclusions.
When he’s done eating, he calls Fury.
Natasha wants to do recon, but Aten convinces her to wait until the morning of the following day. “They won’t even have the event space set up,” the other woman says. “Sight lines and exits could be completely different tomorrow.” Natasha has to admit that she has a point.
They stay in most of the morning and afternoon, going over information that the Institute has sent along. Witten is supposed to be meeting with his contacts during a medical conference across the bridge in Marin County. Natasha figures that this will be good cover, since his conspirators no doubt dabble in the same field. The conference itself will be on Sunday; tomorrow night will be a dinner reception. They’re on the guest list. They have the gun.
“We need something to wear,” Aten reminds her.
So they go out and Natasha buys the violet Donna Karan cocktail dress that had caught her eye the day before. Aten is doubtful, afraid that it will attract too much attention, but Natasha waves aside her concerns. “It’s not the amount of attention that matters, it’s the kind of attention,” she explains, leading the way to the shoe department.
They have dinner in the mall food court and Natasha watches the people move around her in chattering, careless waves. She watches a woman cut up a small boy’s hamburger into quarters; she watches an old man shamble along with the help of a walker.
People. She can pretend to be one of them, she can put on a dress or a pair of jeans like a wolf in sheepskin and move around among them, but it’s a lie. People like her don’t have little boys. They don’t live long enough to need walkers. She’s not even certain that she’ll be alive a decade or a year or a month from now.
She needs to be perfect every time. Her enemies only need to be perfect once.
Sloane Fisher is a patient woman.
She’d been patient when she’d met Bruno Witten and decided that she was going to marry him. He hadn’t had any intention of getting married at the time: too young, too handsome, too rich. But she’d played her cards right, and she’d molded herself into the perfect girlfriend, and she’d waited. He’d gone down on one knee, ring in hand, three years later and it had felt like a victory until she realized that it was just another way of putting her off.
The attempted hit in Germany had actually helped. She’d never been in any real danger, but the idea that someone had been hired to kidnap her, mutilate her, maybe even murder her… it had made Bruno angry. Protective. Possessive. He didn’t like the idea of someone taking something that belonged to him. They had wed three months later, and she’d been able to savor that victory at last.
She’d been patient about starting the Institute. Bruno had resisted the idea at first; he was a narcissist and a snob but not particularly ambitious. He didn’t want to administrate, he didn’t want to become a bureaucrat or an entrepreneur. He worked for other men for a long time, until she was able to convince him that his superiors were all stealing his ideas and passing them off as their own, shutting him down so he wouldn’t get the credit he deserved. Half a year later, the Institute for Rehabilitative Therapy was born.
She’d been patient when Bruno made the deal with SHIELD without consulting her. He hadn’t realized – he still didn’t – how much having someone looking over their shoulder would hamper them when it came time to push the envelope with new treatments, new methods.
Yes, at first it had been an advantage, legitimizing what they did in the eyes of many world leaders, giving them access to information that otherwise would have been far beyond their reach, but now the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Certain prospective clients – unpopular but well-connected clients –refuse to do business with them because of their link to the largest intelligence organization on the globe. They know, even if Bruno refuses to admit it, that information flows both ways.
Sloane has especially been patient with Bruno himself. She’s known from the first that he isn’t like other men. He is intelligent (although not nearly as smart as he thinks he is) and although he’s no longer young he is still handsome and rich and obsessed with control. He once told Sloane that of course he loved her but that no one woman could ever be enough for him, and she’d accepted that.
Maybe he does love her; the feeling isn’t mutual. She’d never wanted him because she was in love with him. She’d never even been that interested in his money. She’d wanted what she’d known he’d able to able to do for her.
And she’d been right. He’d done it. The Institute is her project, not his, even if no one else knows it. In the past year he’s surrendered to his narcissism completely, putting himself on the conference circuit where he can be lauded by his peers and entertained by gorgeous bimbos, returning to Colombia only for a particularly risky or exciting treatment, or when the patient in question is a particularly beautiful woman.
He still thinks that Romanoff was his idea. Even after more than five years he is still annoyed about Frankfurt; more than that, however, he is fascinated with the old Soviet ‘Red Room’ project and their last great success, the Black Widow.
He’d wanted to study her. He’d wanted to improve her. He’d wanted to own her, because Bruno Witten enjoys owning beautiful things.
He has honed his own murder weapon, and he won’t know it until the end.
Sloane arrives late Saturday morning. Most of the staff has the weekend off, but there are certain ongoing projects that require careful monitoring. This will be an important weekend for the Institute. The Fisher Institute, she thinks, smiling.
Kamala is already in the office, and Ajax walks in a few minutes after ten because Sloane doesn’t want anyone to see them arriving together.
On the books Kamala Manesh is a secretary; in reality she is much more. Initially Bruno hadn’t wanted to hire her, going on about her personality profile indicating a likelihood of ‘a fatalistic worldview, plus manipulative and sadistic tendencies.’ As in all things Sloane had been patient, and she had eventually gotten her way. (Besides, sadism and the work done at the Institute are not mutually exclusive.)
Ajax is just a lab rat, but he’s one of Sloane’s favorites. ‘Ajax’ is not his birth name, or even the moniker he gave himself when he was working as an enforcer for the cartels, but it is the only name he knows now. He was her first solo project, the first patient to undergo a Modified Engramatic Expunction as opposed to Bruno’s comprehensive treatment.
Ajax doesn’t know much about his past, but he remembers how to hurt people. He remembers that he likes it. But because of the trigger, who he can hurt – and when – is completely up to her. If he doesn’t do what she wants his neurons will fry like the filaments in a light bulb, something she reminds him often when they’re in bed.
Luckily for him, she’s not yet told him to do anything he didn’t already want to do.
Sloane sits at the head of the table and waits while Saja brings them breakfast. The young woman, a former political dissident, one of their first test subjects with the trigger protocol, has an injunction that prevents her from speaking. Despite this – or maybe because of it – she’s also one of Bruno’s favorites when he’s in residence, but Sloane tries not to resent her for this. He’ll be gone soon, she wants to tell Saja. He’ll never hurt you again.
“Have we heard back from Romanoff?” Sloane asks Kamala once coffee and pastries have arrived.
“No, Dr. Fisher, but she’s received our communiqués, and yesterday she used the credit card in San Francisco.” Kamala is sleek and sloe-eyed with a dark, predatory watchfulness that Sloane can’t help but admire. “But I’m concerned about the delay. This all should have been over by now. If you don’t mind my saying so, we should have sent somebody with her. To make sure she stays on-mission.”
“You could have sent me,” says Ajax, his mouth full of bear claw. “Except that I might’ve accidentally killed the bitch.”
Sloane hides a smile behind her coffee mug. She may have mentioned to Ajax that Natasha Romanoff was the one to take him down when SHIELD raided his employer’s headquarters last year, that she is the reason he has that big ugly scar that bisects his face, puckering his lip. It’s not the truth, but it’s close enough.
“She wouldn’t have tolerated a babysitter,” Sloane reminds Kamala. “I left large portions of her memory and her personality intact for a reason. Bruno cancelling the luncheon… well, we should have foreseen that, all things considered. But Romanoff knows how to adapt. And she’s controllable.”
“She’s a variable,” insists Kamala peevishly. “There are other operatives who could have handled this job, Doctor.”
“None that work for SHIELD,” says Sloane, selecting a blueberry muffin from the platter. “Imagine the scandal, SHIELD taking out one of their own contractors. They’ll disavow her, of course, if they haven’t already, but the damage will be done. No one will believe she made the hit on her own. We’ll be well within our rights to cut all ties to their organization, and our prospective clients will be that much more impressed with our capabilities.”
“And what then?” sneers Ajax, selecting a croissant. “You decide what you’re going to do with her after?”
Sloane smiles indulgently at him. “Ajax, dear, I’m going to do the same thing to her that I am to you. I’m going to use her until she isn’t useful anymore, and then I’m going to open up her brain and see what’s left.”
Ajax chokes on his croissant.
Kamala smirks at him. “You have that much faith in her, Doctor?”
“No,” says Sloane. “I have faith in the process. Romanoff will kill Bruno, and we’ll be free of both him and SHIELD. Then, if we decide to utilize her in her current state, or reprogram her completely…” She shrugs. “Now,” she continues, nodding at the tablet in Kamala’s hands. “The other matter. Bradach.”
“He was released from the hospital yesterday,” says Kamala. “Sadly, about an hour later he was readmitted with severe head trauma and a fractured spine. The police are calling it a mugging gone wrong.” She shrugs. “It’s doubtful he’ll survive.”
“Good. Have you located Barton?”
“He’s back on the surface…”
“In a cell, I hope.”
Kamala shakes her head and Ajax, still coughing up bits of croissant, says angrily, “Fury was supposed to arrest him.”
Kamala shrugs. “Barton made a scene and Director Fury had him kicked off their flying clubhouse,” she says dryly. “I told you he wouldn’t play ball, Doctor.”
I told Lycaon the same thing, thinks Sloane. “Did Fury at least put a tail on him?”
“According to our sources, he arrived in Belgium a few hours later in the company of one Steven Rogers,” says Kamala, her voice dripping scorn.
“Rogers?” Sloane raises an eyebrow. “I have to give Fury credit… Captain America is an unlikely mole. What’s in Belgium?”
“Waffles,” offers Ajax.
Kamala shakes her head. “We don’t know.”
“Barton won’t let this go,” Sloane reminds them both. “We need to keep tabs on him or he’s likely to cause trouble, with or without Fury’s help. Where is he now?”
Before Kamala can respond there is a chime from her tablet. The woman taps it, reads the message that appears, and then a slow smile spreads across her crimson lips. “He’s here.”
“Here in Colombia?” asks Ajax, surprised.
Kamala raises her eyes to Sloane’s. “Here,” she says again, the smile widening. “In our lobby.”