Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
He jumps down into the alley, swathed in the shadows but still visible, and she knows that he is the one.
She has felt eyes on her all day, and now she realizes they must have been his eyes. Her brain processes what she is seeing even as she raises her gun, spins, prepares for the headshot: a distinctive shape in his hands: a bow, an arrow. He is a sniper then, albeit an unconventional one. Her finger prepares to tighten on the trigger but it does not; she thinks about shooting but she does not shoot.
And neither does he.
Of course not: he could have shot her from the roof if that was really what he wanted. He’d had five separate opportunities today to take her out, by her count. She had wandered through Frankfurt, trailing the target, waiting for the go-ahead, feeling the itch between her shoulder blades that told her she was being tailed.
Not just tailed. Watched.
She had wandered through Frankfurt, trailing the target, knowing that eventually he would take his shot. Maybe he was waiting for his own orders. Maybe he wanted her alone, where her sudden, violent death wouldn’t cause an outright panic. But time passed, and chances passed, and she didn’t die.
Now she raises the gun. Her finger twitches against the trigger. But she does not fire.
Every sense is heightened in anticipation. She hears the murmur of a television from the target’s room, faint strains of music from the other side of the alley. She smells baking sweetbread from one apartment and honeysuckle spilling from the window box of another and the faint ozone scent of an approaching storm.
He holds the arrow to the bowstring but does not pull it back. He steps forward, into a rectangle of light cast by the target’s window, and she understands who he is. His employers have sent others to sweet-talk her. She hasn’t killed any of them because she doesn’t want to put an even bigger target on herself, but there’s a first time for everything.
He says, “There’s another way, you know. You don’t have to live like this,” and lowers his arms, the arrow now pointing at the ground between them. His voice is pitched low; the target sits, watching television, only a few feet away.
“There’s no other way,” she says, surprised to hear herself speak.
The man moves closer, and does not die.
“I know you’re not happy,” he says.
She smiles thinly. “Is that what you know?”
He doesn’t react to the scorn in her voice. “Yes,” he says simply. He is unmasked, unhelmeted, the same as she. He is not handsome in the conventional sense, but there is something about his face that is striking. “I was there, once.”
The painted-on smile becomes a genuine frown. “Where?”
He nods at her, at the gun in her hand, at the ugliness in her head. “Where you are. On the wrong side.”
“Right and wrong,” she snorts. “Is that what they teach you?”
He shakes his head minutely. “I don’t think it’s something that can be taught.”
Her arms are burning from the strain of holding the gun steady, but she ignores the pain as wholly as he seems to be ignoring the barrel pointed at his head. Words slip from her mouth again, unbidden, unplanned. “Zhizn' prozhit' — ne pole pereyti.” Living life is not like crossing a meadow. An old proverb. She can’t remember where she learned it.
“Maybe not,” says the archer. “But it can be better than this.”
Before she can react the phone tucked into her back pocket vibrates. There is no need to check for a message; it is a prearranged signal with her employers. Her sign to move. ‘Grab the woman. Not quietly. Not bloodlessly. We want Witten shaken when he comes back. We want it to be a taste of what is to come.’
She still has the headshot lined up. His bow is held loosely in one gloved hand, the arrow dangling between his fingers. She wonders if he has a death wish.
Like she does.
She had wandered through Frankfurt, trailing the target, waiting to die, and she had been angry when she had lived. But she knows she can stand here all night, breathing in bread and honeysuckle and ozone, and he will not kill her. Not unless he must.
She could force his hand. She could end this.
Instead, she lowers the gun.
“Dolg platezhom krasen,” she says caustically, hoping he will not notice the way her arm shakes, not with fatigue but with fear. She has never not completed a mission before. Debt is beautiful only after it has been repaid.
“We’ll call it even,” says the archer, a wry smile finally touching his lips. “You don’t owe me anything.”
But she does.
Natasha perches on the edge of the fountain, nursing a glass of white wine and watching as guests join the reception. They come around a corner from the guarded gate on a flagstone path, usually in pairs but sometimes in small, chattering groups, and there is the occasional unaccompanied man. These are the most likely to notice Natasha immediately, and I watch as one older fellow in a pinstriped suit actually takes three eager steps in her direction before seeing something in her expression that turns him aside.
The only man she’s interested in tonight is the one I’m supposed to be identifying.
It’s impossible for her to escape notice. The Donna Karan dress, with its long sleeves and knee-length hem, is not particularly provocative, but the violet fabric is eye-catching, both in its color and the way it hugs her body. Her blonde hair pulled back in a loose chignon, her legs crossed demurely, and the fingers of her free hand trailing through the water in the fountain’s basin, she looks relaxed, even bored, and unapproachable.
And then I see him, coming in on the fringes of a group that seems not to be giving him much notice, his charcoal gray suit and black shirt stark against the brilliantly white tents, and my stomach gives a funny lurch.
“What is it?” Natasha asks brusquely.
I raise the wine glass to my mouth, not to drink but to mask the movement of my lips. “I just overheard one of the servers talking to Meckland,” I lie, strangely breathless. “She said that Witten isn’t coming, that he’s ill.”
Natasha scowls. She’s retrieved her weapon from the planter, strapping it into her thigh holster; she’s ready, in the right place at the right time, and Witten is still making things difficult. I feel a rush of anger and frustration, as though her emotions are bleeding into mine, and then a flicker of alarm as she murmurs, “Fine, we’ll abort and…”
“No.” I stand and begin walking around the far side of the fountain. It’s circular, with a granite plinth in the center supporting a representation of Narcissus. The abstracted figure, also in granite, leans out over the edge of the plinth as though to admire his reflection in the basin; water pours from his eye sockets and open mouth, trickling musically over his outstretched hands. We’re far enough removed from the main tents that I doubt our conversation will be overheard, but I feel better here in the shadows of the large brick-and-ivy conference hall. “Someone just came in, someone I recognized.”
“No.” I clutch my wine glass, hoping I’m not making a terrible mistake. “The man in the gray suit, next to the agapanthus…” The group he entered with has wandered off towards the tents, laughing and gesticulating, but he has loitered in the garden and I’m sure that he has noticed Natasha, even if his eyes have yet to glance in our direction. “I think… he works at the Institute.”
She seems puzzled by my excitement. “So?”
“Fisher would have told us if someone else from the Institute was coming,” I insist. “What if she didn’t send him? What if Witten did? He might be here to meet with Witten’s contact…”
“Or to take the contact to Witten,” Natasha finishes thoughtfully.
She sets her wine glass on the lip of the fountain, picks up her black handbag, and begins to walk towards the man, who is now in conversation with one of the white-suited servers. I wait for the moment when he notices her approach, when their eyes will meet…
But before she can cross the garden the music stops, and a man’s voice rings out announcing that dinner is about to be served and won’t everyone please find their seats? Natasha smoothly changes tack, walking into the main tent as though that had been her destination all along, and the man in the charcoal suit follows close behind.
Two sharp metallic snaps punctuate the night, each with its own soft pop, the kind that Steve associates with a bullet leaving the barrel of a suppressed gun.
Witten’s companion, a woman with short black hair wearing a short black dress, slithers out of Steve’s grasp and drops instantly to the loamy ground, cursing fluently in a fervent whisper more suited to prayer. Steve flattens himself against the nearest tree, hoping it’s wide enough to block him from sight, hoping he was right in his guess about where the shots came from. His right arm is stinging, burning, and the woman hisses, “Jesus… oh Goddamn it,” and he thinks she must be frightened by the sight of blood even though he was only grazed, and then he sees where she’s looking.
Witten is lying on the ground, white dress shirt stained red, eyes open and sightless. He’s only a few feet away; Steve goes into a squat, still peering around the tree for the source of the shots, and feels for a pulse at Witten’s carotid artery. Nothing.
Steve feels a sudden flush of relief swallowed swiftly by shame, decides that he can work all that out later, and pulls the handgun from his waistband. It’s the one he’d taken off the Institute guard, a Glock G17, and its weight in his hand is reassuring – he’s spent time with this model on the range – although his wounded shoulder aches and he’s still regretting leaving his shield on the Carrier. If he’d had any idea he was going to be involved in a pitched gun battle…
He looks towards the woman, whose manicured nails are dug into the underbrush. “Move to your left,” he says quietly. “Stay low. There’s a fallen tree… get behind that.”
She nods silently and begins to wriggle in that direction. Steve remains in his squat, looking around the trunk of his own tree, eyes straining through the darkness and ears pricked for any small clue: a misplaced footstep, the crisp sound of a full magazine being snapped into place. There’s no noise, no movement, only the sense that someone else is still out there, engaged in their own waiting game.
Is it Romanoff? Steve feels ill at the thought, not just because it would mean they’d been fed lies by their informant, or because it means Barton is back there at the party waiting for a guest who will never arrive, or even because their miscalculation led to Witten’s death. No, what really makes him sick is the thought that he might be forced to use this gun against Romanoff.
Not to save himself. He would take his chances if it were just the two of them. But Witten’s companion introduces an entirely new element.
His right arm is starting to go a bit numb so he switches the G17 to his left. The Glock doesn’t have a sound suppresser, like his adversary’s weapon must. If it is Romanoff, if he’s forced to fire on her, Barton and the other guests will hear the shots.
If I kill her, Steve realizes, he’s going to kill me.
He waits. Witten’s companion is hunkered down against the fallen tree, no longer cursing; the only sound from her direction is the occasional sniffle. He listens, his nose full of the menthol scent of eucalyptus, and hears only the rustle of wind-stirred branches far overheard and the faint, almost imperceptible strains of music from the reception.
And then he hears a voice, a woman’s voice, far too close for comfort.
Clint is discovering whole new levels of self-restraint. Levels he didn’t even know he possessed.
He’s run through a whole gamut of emotions in the last fifteen minutes, beginning, of course, with a dull sense of impending doom as he’d given his name and title – Doctor Gabe Bishop from the Atlanta Clinic for Neurologic Restoration - to the guards at the front gate, who’d walked him through a metal detector and given him a perfunctory pat-down. He’d expected one of the men to denounce him as a fraud, maybe declare I know Gabe Bishop and you, sir, are no Gabe Bishop – but he’d been let through without comment just in front of a large, ebullient group. None of them paid him the slightest bit of attention.
Then he’d walked around the corner and glimpsed Natasha.
The urge to drop all pretense and go to her immediately had been almost overwhelming. The sight of her sitting alone on the edge of a dark stone fountain, a glass of wine cradled in her hands, looking safe and healthy and deceptively normal had made him momentarily lightheaded and also slightly bewildered, as an overpowering flood of relief had pushed every other thought and feeling from his mind.
The group he had come in with had wandered off towards the tents, but Clint had remained in the garden as though he’d taken root in the well-manicured lawn, pretending to admire the plants while straining every sense towards the woman at the fountain. She was quiet, watchful, gorgeous: blonde hair pulled back, makeup immaculate, wearing a long-sleeved dress (rather similar in color to the mizingi suit, oddly enough) and he had thought suddenly of walking with her in Paris, half a world away and, seemingly, part of someone else’s life.
She was waiting, he had realized.
Then a server had sidled up, informing him that dinner would be served soon, and then a man’s voice rang out announcing the same thing, and he had watched Natasha walk past him, into the main tent, as though he was a stranger.
The circular tables are arranged throughout the tent, covered in white linen, delicate china, sparkling silver and spotless glass, and each place is marked with a nametag. An officious-looking young man leads him to Gabe Bishop’s seat before hurrying away to usher another guest, but Clint only has eyes for the blonde woman in the violet dress. She is about three tables away, her face turned in profile; one of her neighbors, a thin-faced man with a neat goatee, is already chatting her up quite animatedly. She smiles politely and says something that makes him laugh.
Clint’s tablemates take their seats and he looks away from Natasha long enough to feel vaguely panicked. He has never been at ease in these formal settings, doesn’t even like wearing a suit, and isn’t sure what he’s going to say if someone starts talking to him about brain implants and hormone treatments. But the other guests – five men, three women – are too eager to talk about themselves to give him more than the most fleeting glance.
In fact, as drinks are poured and salads presented, only his right-hand neighbor, a florid-faced gentleman in his seventies, attempts to engage him in conversation. “I see we’re missing someone else,” he says, nodding to the empty chair on Clint’s left. The little card reads Dr. Hugh Crinchlow, which is Rogers’ alias.
“Someone else?” Clint forces a smile, palming his own card, worried that the name Gabe Bishop might mean something to his peers. According to Rogers, who’d been quoting Stark, the Atlanta Clinic for Neurologic Restoration is new and mostly unknown, but he doesn’t want to take any chances.
“Well, Witten’s a no-show again, isn’t he?” says the man with a caustic laugh. The laugh becomes a stifled cough and his face flushes even more brilliantly.
“Was he supposed to be one of the speakers?” Clint asks.
The man laughs again. “Oh, I’m sure he’d planned on doing more than his fair share of speaking,” he says wryly, then turns to the woman on his right and begins complaining about the vintage of wine they’ve been served.
Clint looks back at Natasha’s table and has the strange impression that he has quite nearly just caught her looking at him.
She isn’t going to wait forever for Witten to show up, Clint thinks, trusting that Rogers’ and Witten’s continued absence is a good sign. Either I follow her when she leaves, or…
As salads are whisked away and main courses brought out, guests begin to take turns behind the little podium at the front of the tent. They speak eloquently of helping those who can no longer help themselves, and finding the humanity that resides in even the lowliest of creatures, and of course of making a difference, but they are all most eager to laud their own work, their own labs and theories and therapies. This is all just a commercial, one big session of verbal one-upmanship. Clint’s never been to a high school reunion but he imagines that they’re a little something like this, with each attendee trying to outdo the others behind a poor mask of simpering modesty.
He wonders what Witten might have planned on saying and decides that the doctor probably would have left out the whole bit about strapping down unwilling victims and erasing any inconvenient memories…
The red-faced man nudges his elbow. “You all right, son? You’re looking a bit peaked.”
There is a flash of violet at the edge of his vision. Clint hastily wipes his mouth, although he’s hardly touched any of the food put before him, mutters something about needing some air, and follows Natasha back out into the garden.
Kamala is pleased but not surprised by how easily Bruno Witten had died.
She knows that he has been a marked man for almost a week now; he was destined to fall the moment Dr. Fisher gave the order. The method was not important, nor the hand that held the gun, only the outcome. It should have been me all along, she thinks with a satisfied smile.
She is also pleased by Rogers’ shock at the sound of her voice. She cannot see his face, or indeed any part of him, but she can feel the surprise and confusion emanating from his direction, as sharp and distinct as the pungent scent of the trees around them, as familiar as the smell of hot metal and blood. Kolar to Bangalore to Brasilia; these are smells that she knows.
Kamala doesn’t particularly want to kill Rogers, or the unknown woman behind the tree. The only murder she intended has already been carried out. But if Rogers is here then Barton is most likely at the reception, and she still hasn’t forgiven him for toying with her emotions, turning his back on fate, this morning in Villavicencio.
“How did you know?” she asks, once she’s sure the fact of her existence has penetrated Rogers’ thick skull. “About the Institute? The A-10 protocol? How did you know to come here? Saja couldn’t have told you.”
There is a long stretch of silence and she worries, momentarily, that he has been able to move, to flank her position. But when he speaks his voice comes from where she expected. “You tell me something first.”
“Of course,” Kamala says pleasantly. She suspects he’s still armed, and the sound of gunfire will alert the guests at the reception that something is wrong. She’s just stalling, happy to give Barton all the time he needs to get his hands on Romanoff.
Even with the drug in hand, Kamala suspects that Barton won’t be able to restrain himself. He’ll be wary of injecting Romanoff with some unknown substance and loath to get in close against someone who’s an expert in hand-to-hand. He’ll try to jog her memory first, and while Kamala doesn’t think his face or even his name will be enough to trigger a full wipe, any sustained attempt should do the trick quite nicely.
She wants him to see her die. She wants him to know that this is the way it has to be. Maybe then he’ll be more willing to listen.
“How are you here?” Rogers’ words are clipped and angry.
Blaming himself for Witten’s death? It was inevitable, but Kamala doesn’t expect someone like him to understand that. She’s happy for him to wallow in guilt or regret. “I flew, the same as you,” Kamala says, night-adjusted eyes roving over the unknown woman’s hiding place. If she can get her hands on a hostage, she can hold Rogers off indefinitely. “Did you think I was going to wait around for SHIELD to arrest me?”
Truth be told, the effects of the sedative had taken a good part of the flight to shake off. Even after finding a stimulant in the cabinet – ignoring Fisher’s muffled encouragement, then her pleas, then her shouted invective – it had still taken most of the mile-long walk to the airfield before she’d even felt close to normal.
She’d been relieved to discover that Barton and Rogers’ plane was no longer on the premises, and almost thankful that the Institute’s Gulfstream had not been impounded by SHIELD agents, before reminding herself that emotions such as relief and thankfulness were unbecoming in one who had embraced the certainty of fate.
She’d called the Institute’s pilot – a former CEE-patient who had taken to flying almost as though he remembered his previous life as an aviator for the cartels – and although it had taken him almost half an hour to arrive, what with SHIELD’s roadblocks and roving patrols, they had made good time on the flight north, into the States.
They’d landed at a private airport up the coast from Mill Valley, money had passed through the appropriate hands, and by seven-thirty local time she had secured a car, a weapon, and a suitable outfit.
Still, she’d cut it close. It had taken time to locate the right stretch of road, and then there had been too many onlookers as guests arrived for the party – many arriving in limos but a good number simply parking along the unpaved shoulder – so she’d been forced to leave her car on a narrow access road.
But once again fate had intervened; she had arrived just behind Rogers in his rented sedan, looking patently ridiculous in an off-the-rack suit and tie, and it had been easy enough to tail him through the eucalyptus grove.
Ultimately he had brought Witten right to her. Fate.
“Why kill him?” Rogers asks. “The Institute… it was finished anyway.”
“Maybe,” says Kamala placidly, for even with Fisher arrested and Witten dead, there will always be those who wish to continue their research… some, in fact, existing within SHIELD itself. The call of power, of control, is too great, its lure too strong for many to resist.
And why bother resisting at all? Kolar to Bangalore to Brasillia to Villavicencio; she has always known that they were only stops along a path. “Even if they’re finished,” she adds, “I’m not.”
It’s something of a risk, leaving her target in a tent peppered with beautiful women, any one who might catch his eye, but Natasha trusts her instincts. She knows how to read a mark.
He follows her.
He is not handsome in the conventional sense, but there is something about his face that is striking, and his body beneath the gray suit is solid and trim. She stands by the fountain, which with the onset of full darkness is now cleverly illuminated by well lights set into the well-kept grass, and he approaches her openly, without affecting surprise or shyness, as though this is a planned meeting.
She flashes a wry smile, sitting on the fountain’s edge. “There’s only so much of that you can take before it starts to ruin your appetite,” she notes, nodding towards the main tent, where another round of sanctimonious speechifying has begun.
He sits beside her – close, but not inappropriately so – and smiles back, although the expression is odd, a little tremulous, as if he’s not sure what to make of her. “Should I take it you’re not in the neurological trade, then?”
Natasha opens her mouth to reply and then hesitates, distracted by a strange confluence of scents on the air. She smells honeysuckle (not strange, considering she’s in a garden, only she hadn’t noticed any of the trailing vines in daylight) but also the distinctive aroma of baking sweetbread… It makes her think of a little German café where she once met an informant, but also of a dark alley, and her temples begin to pound…
She blinks and smiles automatically, rattled by how completely an odd smell has ruined her focus. “No, I’m not,” she says quickly, in answer to his question, and she extends her hand. The headache fades almost immediately. “Hanna Karpenka.”
His grip is strong, his skin warm, his fingers callused in an unfamiliar way, and she’s disappointed when he doesn’t linger over the handshake. “Russian?” he asks.
“The name?” She shakes her head. “Ukrainian. Well, my parents were. I’m from Denver.” She raises her eyebrows expectantly.
“Oh, me? Gabe Bishop. Atlanta.”
“Atlanta?” she echoes, feigning puzzlement. “I thought… well, a friend of mine said she recognized you, but she thought you worked out of some place in South America…”
“Villavicencio?” he asks, quietly and with some reluctance. When she nods, he shrugs and looks towards the center of the fountain. “I used to. Hanna?”
“Yes?” She glances around for Aten, eager to give some subtle signal that their suspicion is confirmed, but the other woman must still be in the tent.
“Why is this person vomiting?”
Surprised, she glances back at the dark granite figure and laughs in genuine amusement. “He isn’t vomiting. It’s Narcissus, staring at his reflection.”
Bishop looks skeptical; Natasha takes the opportunity to move closer and point at the sculpture’s face: the gaping mouth, the tortured eyes. “You know the story, right? He was a hunter in ancient Greek legend. There are a few different versions, of course, but in all of them he was incredibly vain. Men and women threw themselves at him and he broke all of their hearts.” The granite figure is an abstraction, impossibly thin with long, curving joints, its skull narrow and its face gaunt. “The first time he saw his own reflection he couldn’t look away, he just lay there on the rocks, staring at himself, in love for the first time in his life. He couldn’t do anything about it, though. He couldn’t touch his reflection, but he couldn’t leave it either. He just lay there, staring, wasting away until he died...”
She looks away from the figure and finds Bishop staring, not at Narcissus but at her, his eyes – startlingly blue up close – flickering over her face. She feels his breath light against her skin, smelling of honeysuckle and sweetbread, as she leans in and presses her lips against his.