Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
There is a place beyond panic, beyond fear, and Natasha goes there as Witten and Fisher move around her, checking readouts and measurements and talking about her as though she’s just another machine: something they can reprogram, or turn on and off with the flick of a switch.
The room is cold. Her bare feet feel like ice, and the straps are like bands of metal across her body. She focuses on the camera in the corner of the room, knowing that they will likely watch this later. She wants them to see that she was not afraid.
But she is.
She is not afraid of pain or even death. She is afraid of the unmaking.
“Well, Ms. Romanoff, are we ready to get started?” Fisher asks, perched on a stool by her knees, and Natasha says, “Screw you.”
She holds on as well as she can, but she can feel it slipping away. Replaced by… nothing. She feels herself becoming less than who she is. She knows they want to make her who she was before.
That was a nightmare of hers for a while after she came to work for SHIELD. She would dream and in the dream she would wake up and she would be alone. Alone, except for the contracts she took. Alone, except for the marks that were chosen for her. She wasn’t happy or sad, she wasn’t satisfied or discontent, she simply moved through life one job at a time, trying to reclaim her own existence, trying to build something that belonged to her and leaving nothing but destruction in her wake.
Then she would wake, really wake, and she would be at a SHIELD facility and she would hear voices thrumming through the walls, or footsteps vibrating through the floors, and the knowledge that she was surrounded by metal and stone and armed men would make her skin crawl. At times like those she would get up and dress and walk outside, just to breathe the cold night air, just to prove she could, just to show that she was free.
Sometimes Clint would join her – although he was still Hawkeye to her then, or maybe Barton if she was feeling friendly – and she would know that he’d already been awake, that he’d watched her from some aerial perch and come down to walk beside her. They’d play cards or drink coffee, and sometimes they would talk but mostly they were silent, and the silence was comfortable with him because he was at home in it.
Fisher’s face floats before her now and she thinks ‘you sorry bitch, he’s going to come looking for me’ because he will, she knows he will, because she went looking for him even when people said ‘we’re focusing on Loki’ and ‘a handful of loses are considered acceptable’ and ‘he could be anywhere in the world, we don’t have time.’ She knows because she knows him. She knows because she loves him.
The realization should surprise her. It doesn’t.
She thinks she feels his name on her lips, at the end.
I felt his name on my lips, at the beginning.
Clint can’t quite believe it.
A Quinjet is in the Institute’s parking lot and Maria Hill is in the lobby, hands on her hips as she watches one agent cuff the receptionist and a few more jog down the hall. Clint stares at her, briefly frozen to the spot, and she stares back, looking about as pleased with the situation as he is.
“Oh,” says Rogers, flushing guiltily. “I… might have called Director Fury.”
“You did what?”
Hill strides forward, arms crossed and eyes fixed determinedly on Rogers. “Captain,” she says tersely, ignoring Clint. “The Director’s taking your word on this one. We’re both hoping it doesn’t end up being some kind of wild goose chase. That would be… embarrassing.”
“No geese, ma’am,” says Rogers. “Dr. Fisher’s running a scam here, taking SHIELD criminals and turning them into her own private brainwashed army.” Clint starts at the exaggeration (or is it an exaggeration? He has few doubts that this was exactly Fisher’s aim) but says nothing.
“Fisher?” asks Hill. “The wife? Where’s Witten?”
“Back in the U.S.,” says Rogers vaguely. “Fisher and two of her people attacked us. The doctor is locked up in a room in a back lab. The other two should be unconscious, I don’t know for how much longer. This young woman gave us a tremendous amount of help, at great risk to herself,” he adds, reaching over and ushering Saja towards Hill. The younger woman looks apprehensive but lets herself be pulled forward. “Her name is Saja. We have reason to believe that Fisher was experimenting on her, as well as on other patients.”
Hill frowns at Saja. “Is that true?”
Saja nods, meeting Hill’s eyes boldly.
“She… she can’t talk,” Rogers explains. “But there’s a closet full of drugs in a back room and I think one of them could help her…”
Hill’s eyes flicker to the metal box in Rogers’ hands, and then she looks directly at Clint. “I’m supposed to pretend that you don’t exist,” she says dryly. “Off the record… do you know where Romanoff is?”
“And you can bring her back in?”
Hill hesitates, perhaps wrestling with the spirit of her orders against the letter of them, or perhaps with what she knows is right, and then she turns away from him with a frustrated sigh. “We’ll take custody of the patients, including Saja here…” Rogers opens his mouth to speak but Hill cuts him off. “I promise, Captain, we’ll do everything we can for her,” adding, pragmatically, “She can’t tell us much about the operation if she can’t talk.”
Rogers looks at Saja and she nods, even smiles slightly, making a shooing motion with her hands and then pointing to her wrist. Clint knows what she means.
Time is running out.
Once they’re back in the jet, while the pilot files his flight plans, Clint checks the dropbox via Rogers’ phone. He’s not surprised to see a new message there, he’s even relieved, but he still grits his teeth as he opens it, expecting another directive, another thinly-veiled threat.
She will be at a dinner reception for The Association for Transformative Neuroscience tonight at 8pm. It will take place on Eucalyptus Drive in Mill Valley, just north of Marin. Bruno Witten is her target. As near as I can tell it will be safe for you to approach her, as her memories of you appear to be completely wiped. She may recognize others, however, so it would be wise for you to come alone. If possible, isolate her before injecting the 13A-10R, as I’m not certain what reaction it may cause. Remember that the drug will not restore her memory. It will only annul the fail-safe trigger. After that, SHIELD may have some idea of how her memories can be recovered, if it is possible.
Clint presses the back of his hand against his mouth, stifling what he’s sure would be a slightly hysterical laugh. No demands, no threats, not in so many words, but it feels as though Aten has given him another impossible task. Go alone. Get her by herself. Inject her with some unknown substance without her killing you. And, by the way, even then she won’t know who you are.
As for going to SHIELD… right. Because they’ve been so helpful so far.
Little bits and pieces come back to him, buffering against him like the tide. I have a lot of friends… one of them is on the World Security Council… the sight of Natasha, strapped down and staring bleakly into the camera… I’m supposed to pretend that you don’t exist… Her memories of you appear to be completely wiped… I was going to show you something else… what he does to all the girls…
He drops his forehead into the palm of his hand and closes his eyes, swallowing past the tightness in his throat and the panic in his chest, listening as Steve talks with the pilot, listening as the door closes and the wheels begin to move.
He’s as close as he ever has been to finding Natasha, saving her the way she saved him, and at the same time he feels as though she’s still impossibly far away.
Things in the cabin are very quiet after takeoff. Quiet and more than a little uncomfortable.
Barton is in his chair trying to dismantle one of the tranquilizer darts he’d taken off Manesh, in the hope that it can be used as a delivery system for the Institute’s drug. Steve comes back from putting the metal box in the cabin’s tiny refrigerator and sits across from him, feeling awkward and empty-handed.
Finally the silence gets to be too much. Maybe Barton can tune it out, sink into his own little world, but Steve can’t. “I wasn’t being a SHIELD stooge,” he says, and he can hear the defensiveness in his voice. “I thought that backup might come in handy.”
Barton just shakes his head mulishly, focusing on the dart. “If that Quinjet had shown up before we’d neutralized Fisher and Manesh, they might have had time to destroy all the evidence. We might not have gotten into that lab until it was too late. If we’d been in communication with Hill the whole time, maybe…”
“And what if I hadn’t?” asks Steve, his hands tightening on the box. “What about Saja--”
“She would have come with us.”
“—And the other people in those rooms? Fisher might still have decided to destroy the evidence. All of the evidence. She could have killed her patients and been gone before the local authorities showed up. Assuming the local authorities would even want to touch the Institute with a ten-foot pole.”
Barton fumbles with the dart, cursing under his breath. Steve hopes he doesn’t stick himself with it, since there’s no telling how long that sedative is supposed to last. He waits for Barton to argue, but the archer lapses back into sullen silence instead.
Eventually Steve stands, walking to the other end of the cabin with his cell phone in hand. He waits for Barton to lob an insult, an accusation, but he now appears obsessively fixated on the dart.
Steve dials Stark’s number.
The other line picks up almost immediately, but at first all Steve can hear is static, heavy breathing, some grunting, a muttered ‘shit’, and he almost hangs up. Then Stark’s voice barks out, “Kinda busy here, Cap.”
Steve presses the phone more closely to his ear. “What’s going on?”
“Some Serbians are trying to knock me out of the sky, that’s what’s going on.”
He must have misheard. “Serbians? I thought you were in Oslo.”
Stark curses again. “I was. Am. Or nearby.” He gives a long-suffering sigh. “The Serbians bought weapons. Weapons with my name on them. Weapons that blew up in their faces. Now they’re a little miffed. They heard I was in the area. Is that enough of a Cliffnotes version for you? JARVIS, divert power to the thrusters. Well, more power.”
Steve doesn’t even know what to say. “I… okay. Sorry. I just…”
“No, it’s fine…” Stark sighs. “I think I’m out of range. For now. Pepper, you still there? I’m going to go in low, circle back around to the city. Make sure your bags are packed. No, I don’t care about the lawyers, we’ll leave them here if they’re not ready. There’s always more where they came from. Steve?”
“Still here,” says Steve dumbly.
“You survived Colombia?”
He decides the question is rhetorical. “We’re headed for San Francisco. Apparently… Fisher programmed Agent Romanoff to kill Dr. Witten.”
Stark makes a humphing sound. “Makes as much sense as anything, I guess. The guy was cheating on her when they were engaged… no reason to think he would have stopped since. Women have tried to off their husbands for far less than that, let me tell you.”
Steve shakes his head even though he knows Stark can’t see him. “I don’t think it’s just that. She even said she could have killed him some other way. I think she wanted Agent Romanoff, particularly. I think… she may have wanted to implicate SHIELD.”
Stark is quiet for so long that Steve starts to worry that maybe he wasn’t out of the Serbians’ range after all, but it’s a thinking-quiet, not a blown up-quiet, so he waits and eventually Stark says, “Okay. Okay. That fits. She gets rid of her slimeball husband and makes SHIELD take the fall. If she’s been up to no good she might want Fury’s monkey off her back anyway.”
“Fisher’s in SHIELD custody,” Steve says, “But Witten’s still in danger. We need to get to him before Romanoff does.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Steve narrows his eyes. “What does that mean?”
“What it means is that it kind of sounds like this guy had it coming. He’s up to his neck in the whole brainwashing scheme as much as Fisher. Who knows where he’s been getting his ‘volunteers’ from. Maybe they’re all kidnappees. Besides, you save him, you might be pushing him right into SHIELD’s arms. Is that really what we want? Is that even what Agent Romanoff would want? SHIELD with the ability to custom-order their very own Black Widows?”
Steve sits heavily in the nearest chair. Barton looks up, brow furrowed. “We can’t just let her kill him,” Steve hisses.
“Yeah. I guess,” says Stark regretfully. “What’s the plan then?”
Steve takes a deep breath. “We need to get into that dinner, get Witten out of there, grab Agent Romanoff and administer this… antidote our informant told us about. Otherwise even trying to shake some memories loose could kill her.”
“So… let me get this straight. You called me, while I was being shot at ten thousand feet above Norway, for party tickets?”
Steve considers this. “Essentially… yes.”
“Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, remember?” Steve says dryly.
Stark sighs again, but now it almost sounds like a laugh. “You buy a guy one private jet… fine. Anything else, since no one’s actively trying to kill me at the moment?”
He sits back down across from Barton. “Stark got us into the dinner.”
Barton doesn’t look at him. “Just like that?”
Steve shrugs, leaning back. “He’s Tony Stark. He owns part of a company that makes brain implants… something about hormones…” He shrugs. “They agreed to keep their guys at home, and we’ll go in under their names.”
“Aten’s message said Natasha might recognize you,” says Barton, hissing between his teeth as the dart finally comes apart in his hands, the ampul of sedative snapping free from its plastic housing. “Fisher must’ve figured she might run into your pictures at some point, what with you being celebrities and all. She sees you, she’s going to guess something’s up.”
Steve grunts, acknowledging this; he doesn’t exactly have a well-known affinity for transformative neuroscience that would explain his presence, and even out of uniform… well, he’s more recognizable, even in this century, than he ever thought he would be. “I’m not letting you go in there on your own.”
“She’ll be there early,” Barton continues. He puts the sedative aside, examining the dart’s housing more closely. “She’ll stake out a spot, wait for him to come to her. I’ll go in. You wait outside and grab Witten when he shows up. Big man like him, he’ll want to come in late, make an entrance.”
“And then what?”
Barton snorts. “Captain, I’m surprised I’ve gotten this far. I’ll figure out the next part when we get there.” He glances up. “Should I plan on SHIELD crashing this party?” he asks, an edge in his voice.
“No,” says Steve honestly. “My guess is that if anything was going to set off the trigger it would be the sight of a bunch of SHIELD agents arriving on the premises. The whole point of it seems to be keeping them from reacquiring her.” He pauses. “But I still think I did the right thing in Bogota.”
Barton finally puts the dart aside. “I think you did, too,” he admits, and Steve sits back, surprised. “I just wish you would have told me. I can’t…” A shadow passes over his face. “I can’t do this if I don’t have someone I can trust. For a long time that person’s been Natasha, and now…”
A long moment passes while Steve struggles to find the right words and finally realizes that maybe the right words just don’t exist. “I know what it’s like to lose someone,” he says at last, looking down at his hands.
“I understand.” Barton rolls the sedative ampul between his fingers. A muscle twitches him his jaw. “But I haven’t lost her yet.”
Bruno Witten watches in the mirror as Christiane daubs some concealer onto his cheekbone, using her fingertips to blend it in. The ugly yellowish remnant of the bruise fades away and she smiles encouragingly at his reflection. “See? You can’t even tell.”
He grunts acknowledgement and walks back into the bathroom, leaving the woman to finish her own preparations.
His face is still tender where Romanoff hit him, although more than three days has passed. The swelling had forced him to skip a symposium – Humane Alternatives to Imprisonment in the 21st Century – that had been held in the city earlier in the week, something he is still rather bitter about. It would have been poor optics, however, to give a speech lauding his patients’ newfound commitments to nonviolence and altruism while sporting a contusion the side of a golf ball.
Of course, Bruno could have gone and taken the opportunity to throw Sloane under the bus. It was her fault anyway, her ridiculous Modified Expunction experiments, and what would the academic community say if they learned what, precisely, she’s been wasting her time on? It would be almost worth it to hear the condemnations from bastards like Hunsinger and Sanzone (men who were not at his level, intellectually, but still influential voices in the field of neurotherapy) after spending so much time and effort spent pointing out the foolishness of her pursuit.
But Bruno knows how things work in the scientific community. They’re backstabbers and thieves, the lot of them, and they would hold up Sloane’s imprudent trials as evidence of his failings, his inability to control his company and his wife. It has taken so long for the CEE procedure to be even tacitly accepted by smaller minds; Sloane’s work would be labeled overzealous, manipulative, even power-hungry, and then it would be laid squarely at his feet.
Bruno won’t take the fall for Sloane. But he has decided that things will change after this weekend. He is done delaying, done explaining himself, done waiting for Sloane to realize that the Modified procedure’s risks outweigh its potential rewards. There is too little known about the efficacy of the trigger or the pass-phrase, too many opportunities for bits and pieces of memory and personality to squirrel themselves away.
He will return to Colombia. He will put an end to Sloane’s project. He will thoroughly wipe all of her little lab rats, including the brute Ajax.
Then he will deal with Romanoff.
She is a special case; Bruno can’t deny that. He will do what he should have insisted on in the first place: regress her back to the days under her original creators.
Pharmaceuticals may have improved since the days when the KGB operated with impunity, and medical technology in general has come a long way, but the Red Room had been about so much more than simple physiology. Bruno already knows how to change a brain from the inside out, but they were masters of altering minds from the outside in. The combined knowledge would put him head and shoulders above even his most enterprising colleagues.
The only comparable prize, in his estimation, would be one of the SHIELD employees who’d been reprogrammed by the man called Loki. MRIs and EEGs are all well and good, and he’s prouder of his CEE medications than anything he’s ever done, but to be able to direct a mind, a will, through touch alone… well, if neurotherapy could be said to have a Holy Grail, that would be it.
Some day, he promises himself. Some day.
But one thing at a time. He will go to the dinner tonight and the conference this weekend. He will make sure Christiane earns her pay. Then he will go home and deal with the problems waiting for him there.
The limousine comes to a stop on Eucalyptus Drive just after eight-thirty. The fragrant trees along the road are festooned with twinkling white lights, but the gate to Meckland’s property is pushed back a good twenty yards from the street. This means no other guests are loitering around, waiting to be admitted and therefore available to witness his arrival.
Bruno sighs discontentedly as he exits the limo, straightening the cuffs of his jacket and looking around as the driver helps Christiane alight. He can just glimpse the bright lights and large white tents beyond the gate at the end of the path, where a passel of brusque looking men in suits seem to be checking names and chivying guests through a metal detector.
Christiane takes his proffered arm as the limo drives away, and they silently start down the path between the spangled trees. He has explicitly told her not to speak unless absolutely necessary; he has chosen her for her beauty, not her intelligence, although of course if asked he will explain that she is a colleague from Colombia who was gracious enough to join him when Sloane was unable to get away.
Many of Bruno’s colleagues are aware of the arrangement he has with his wife, although he knows not all of them understand it, and it’s best not to parade his polyamory in front of them.
They’ve just reached the gate, forced to wait as a woman in a ridiculous studded dress holds up things at the metal detector, when another man approaches them from the direction of the woods. Bruno raises an eyebrow, wondering if perhaps the man’s limo let him off on the wrong end of Eucalyptus, leaving him to wander through acres of those same trees. Meckland’s property is surrounded by a good deal of public land, and Bruno thinks it would be easy for someone to become disoriented and lost, especially in the darkness.
But this man does not look lost. He approaches Bruno with confidence, actually sketching a little bow to Christiane before addressing him. “Dr. Witten?”
“Yes?” Bruno squints up at the gentleman: he is large, blond, dressed in a light gray Valentino suit and also somehow familiar. Possibly they’ve met at another function.
“I need to speak to you,” says the man rather urgently.
Bruno’s gaze falls to the fellow’s right shoulder seam. It isn’t tailored quite right for his rather muscular physique. Bought off the rack? Bruno represses a shudder and pastes a bland smile on his face. “I’ll be happy to, once we’re inside,” he lies, gesturing to the gate where the path to the metal detector has finally been cleared.
“That’s the problem,” says the stranger. “There’s someone inside the party who’s waiting to kill you.”
Bruno feels Christiane start and drop his arm. “Kill me?” he echoes, trying to laugh and not quite succeeding. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Not what, who: Natasha Romanoff,” says the man, and it clicks into place where Bruno’s seen him before. He should have realized… it’s just that you never expect to see Steven Rogers – Captain America –standing in the middle of a eucalyptus grove in an ill-fitting Valentino suit. “Your wife sent her to kill you.”
Christiane gives a little shriek, clasping one hand over her mouth, and a guard at the gate calls out, “Is everything all right over there?”
Bruno waves him away impatiently, grabbing Christiane’s wrist and giving it a warning squeeze. “This is madness,” he hisses, remembering every piece of footage on Rogers that he has ever seen. The man could probably pick him up and toss him bodily into the nearest tree.
“It’s the truth,” says Rogers frankly. “I was in Villavicencio this morning. I know what the two of you have been up to. I heard Dr. Fisher say that she wants you dead.” He nods towards the gate. “And I’m pretty sure Agent Romanoff already in there, waiting for you to arrive.”
Bruno swallows thickly, peeking at the tents. He can hear voices and soft music and suddenly it doesn’t seem like madness at all that Sloane’s new pet could be lurking in there amidst the sparkling lights and fine clothes. It seems perfectly reasonable, in fact, that his wife would arrange to have him murdered. Hadn’t he just been thinking about shutting her down? He’s always known that Sloane is fantastically ambitious, and rather clever to boot. “You’re here to rescue me, then?” he asks shakily. “You know about Romanoff and you don’t want me dead yourself?”
Christiane cries out again and he realizes that he’s been squeezing her wrist more tightly than he had intended. A second later there’s a sharp pain in his own wrist and he lets her go, wincing, massaging his hand and glaring dolefully at Christiane as she sidles up next to her rescuer. “Honestly?” asks Rogers darkly. “I don’t know that you deserve to live. But that’s not my decision to make. Come on.”
He strides off the path without another word. Christiane is hot on his heels, and after a moment Bruno plunges into the woods in their wake.
Only the trees just along the road and path have been draped with lights; the park is much darker past this perimeter and he stumbles a little, grimacing as he thinks of the damage being done to his Allen Edmonds wingtips. “Where are we going?”
“We need to get you out of sight,” Rogers calls back; Bruno can just make out his broad-shouldered form, a large splotch of darkness against the twilight. Christiane is stumbling in her high heels. “When you don’t arrive she might come looking for you.”
“But you could stop her,” Bruno insists, shouldering past Christiane who has paused against a tree to kick off her pumps. “I’ve seen you… well, I’ve seen videos.”
“I don’t want to hurt her if I don’t have to,” Rogers says curtly. He reaches out for Christiane’s hand, helps her over a heap of deadwood, notices her bare feet and simply swings her up into his arms. “I parked on the access road just through here. I thought it would be less conspicuous than--”
But Bruno never learns what it would be less conspicuous than. He doesn’t hear the shot that takes him in the chest, doesn’t even feel the pain. There is only a strange, warm sensation spreading across his middle, and the scent of earth beneath his cheek, and the disquieting thought that on top of the Allen Edmonds shoes he has now ruined a thousand-dollar Armani suit besides.