Somewhere in Afghanistan, July 28, 2002
Agent Phil Coulson waited until the disgruntled Air Force Major left the corner office of the operations tent before opening the dossier on Captain John Sheppard. He had read the information on the tediously long plane ride from the United States, but it gave him the appearance of being occupied while he waited.
He wasn't sure what he hoped to get from this interview. Anything he learned here would only complicate the decision he had to make: Would he have to put a bullet through the Black Widow?
Clint Barton, damn him, had made his opinion on Natasha Romanova clear: the value of her skills to SHIELD was higher than the risk of letting her live.
Now Coulson had to figure out if Barton was right.
Gruff voices sounded in the outer part of the tent, the Major bitching about the situation being over his pay grade, and the responding query from another voice. Coulson sat still, waiting, wondering what this day would bring him.
His life would be so much easier if he could justify the execution of the Black Widow.
But there was a storm outside, sand scouring the Afghan landscape, and Coulson had a feeling deep in his bones that everything was about to become much more complex.
A tall man in pilot's gear brushed into the small office space. Early thirties, good health, spent a substantial amount of time in the pilot's chair, Coulson deduced without effort.
"Captain Sheppard," Coulson said mildly, as if this meeting was simply a matter of protocol and thus unimportant. He remained seated as he held out his hand.
Looking at Coulson warily, the Captain wiped his palm on his fatigues before reaching out to shake Coulson's hand.
"I'm Agent Coulson," Coulson said, watching the other man's face with apparent disinterest. "May we speak?"
The run of emotions across Sheppard's face (annoyance, boredom, bone-deep tiredness, slight unease) was very subtle, but in the way a poker player tried to hide his tells. If it was the act of a well-trained operative, it was very good indeed.
"Might as well," Sheppard was saying, slouching his way into the chair on the other side of the Major's desk. "You pulled me off my assigned flight, so it's not like I have anything else do to."
Coulson smiled faintly. "Something has come up that we need your assistance on."
He didn't state which agency he was with, wondering when Sheppard would ask. But the man just shrugged, the corner of his mouth twitching in subtle suspicion. "On what?"
"An important matter."
Sheppard barely held in a sigh as he sank lower in his chair. He must have been very uncomfortable, leading Coulson to believe that the posture was an outward pose Sheppard put on when he wanted to bluff his opponent to believe he wasn't paying attention.
Coulson didn't buy it for a moment, but he had to admit that the man was good.
"Look, Agent," Sheppard drawled, "I'm on the tail-end of a forty-hour shift, so can you just tell me what you want to know so I can go nap 'til I have to go back to work?"
"Very well," Coulson said. He folded his hands on top of the dossier. "Do you know a woman named Natasha Romanova?"
Sheppard paused, let his eyes drift around the room for a moment before coming back to meet Coulson's gaze. "Don't think so," he said. His pupils didn't change size, his breathing remained even, no micro-expressions crossed his face.
Coulson was ninety-percent certain the man wasn't lying. And yet...
"Are you familiar with an operative named the Black Widow?"
A spark of recognition passed through Sheppard's eyes. "Yeah, wasn't she some former KGB operative? I heard she was operating in the Eastern Bloc in the nineties, something like that."
"She was," Coulson said agreeably. "May I ask how you came by that knowledge?"
The Captain let out a tired sigh. "I was in Serbia in '99 and one of the locals kept saying she was in the area. He made her sound like Kaiser Sozhe or something; he was pretty freaked out."
"Have you met the Black Widow?" Agent Coulson asked, paying close attention to Sheppard's reactions.
"No, I haven't met the Black Widow," Sheppard snapped. "What does it matter? All intel we've got from out there," and Sheppard jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the rest of Afghanistan, "Hasn't shown any KGB activity in the surrounding provinces."
Coulson calmed himself, ready to play his hand and knowing this moment was key to the entire interrogation. He opened the dossier and handed the top photograph to John. "Do you recognize this woman?"
Sheppard leaned forward with an air of irritation, taking the photo. He swung the paper around to show the right-way-up, and in a split second, everything about John Sheppard changed. His expression went sharp, his pupils tightening, his body drew taught like a bow.
In that moment, Coulson learned much about John Sheppard.
"Where did you get this?" Sheppard demanded.
Coulson shifted back in his chair ten degrees, appearing bored, even as his heart rate sped up slightly. "Do you know the woman in that photograph?"
"Know who it is? Of course I know who it is," Sheppard exclaimed, words on the tip of his tongue. But he swallowed the name, forcing himself back in his chair. After a heartbeat, the tensions bled out of his posture and he was once again the bored Air Force Captain.
He was good, Coulson acknowledged. The facade of indifferent pilot must have served John Sheppard well over the years, in both his official postings and the black ops missions that Coulson had pried out of the bowels of the Pentagon in preparation for this operation.
The John Sheppard who sat across from him was a mask. Only, Coulson wondered, what lay beneath? More specifically, who?
Sheppard looked down at the photograph again, his eyes examining every detail. Coulson wondered what conclusions the man was drawing. The photograph was a surveillance shot of the Black Widow taken the year before, in the early stages of Operation Black Swan. The focus of the photograph was the Widow, dressed in the year's fashions on a busy Parisian street, her focus of attention on an object just out of frame.
Clint Barton had been tasked with the early surveillance for the operation, something Coulson had been regretting ever since the man dragged a bruised but very much alive Natasha Romanova into SHIELD headquarters the previous month.
Sheppard let the photograph fall on the desk's surface. He swallowed a little harder than necessary, but that could have been chalked up to the dry air. "Is this who you're talking about?" he asked finally. "Natasha Romanova?"
His voice didn't hesitate on the name, and Coulson knew the man would be unlikely to give much else away. Fine, Coulson had plenty of experience handling such interrogations.
"Yes," Coulson said. "This is Natasha Romanova, former Soviet agent who operated under the name Black Widow."
Sheppard glanced back at the photograph. Coulson wondered what the man had heard of the Black Widow during his time in special ops. Most of the background circulating on the Widow at the time had seemed over the top. Not many people believed one woman could cause so much death and destruction. The name had been attached to covert operations and assassinations since the early sixties, and most people speculated that the title was passed on to subsequent agents, much like the Brits did with MI-6 and the 007 agents.
After the Soviet Union fell, there had been rumors the Black Widow was freelancing as an assassin-for-hire, but most people disregarded that as a story to scare the new guys.
And yet, no one spoke up too loudly, for fear of bringing the Widow down upon their heads.
All these stories, Coulson was sure Sheppard had heard and believed.
Sheppard pressed his lips together as he dragged his attention back to up Coulson.
"How do you know the woman in the photograph?"
Taking a shallow breath, Sheppard answered, "Given the fact that you're here in the middle of an Afghan sandstorm to ask me these questions, you know damn well how I know the woman in the photograph."
Coulson was unperturbed. He lifted a second photograph from the folder and handed it to Sheppard. This was a faded picture Coulson had retrieved from Sheppard's personal file; a posed family Christmas shot from 1972, with two-year-old John, his father, and his mother standing in the living room of the family house in Connecticut.
"Can you identify the woman in this photograph?" Coulson asked.
"You know that's Natalie Sheppard," Sheppard said, his voice flat. "My mother."
Coulson gave an approving nod, as if Sheppard had passed a test. Sheppard's eye twitched at the condescension, as Coulson suspected he would. "When was the last time you saw your mother?"
"Why now?" Sheppard shot back.
"Why now what?" Coulson repeated.
"Why did you fly halfway across the planet to a place described in Zagat's as an 'unlaced boil on Satan's backside' to ask me these questions now?"
Coulson stared at John for a long moment, then reached to the bottom of the folder and removed a third photograph. He tossed it across the desk. "Because now Agent Romanova is in our custody."
The woman in the photograph stared at the camera with blank, dead eyes. She had a bruise darkening her jaw line and a knife wound on her throat, skin ice-white in the stark light from the photograph.
She looked as if she were moments away from murder.
Since the photograph was taken moments after SHIELD Director Nick Fury finished her interrogation, the expression was likely accurate.
It occurred to Coulson that the most extraordinary thing of the interview so far was that Sheppard hadn't even considered that the woman in these photographs, taken nearly thirty years after his mother had died, might simply resemble Natalie Sheppard.
Shepard crossed his arms over his chest. "What are you going to do with her?"
"That depends," Coulson said.
"On the results of my investigation."
"So what the hell do you want from me?"
"I have a few questions about your interactions with Natasha Romanova."
"You honestly think you're going to get anything useful?" Sheppard snapped. "She died when I was three."
Coulson didn't blink as he said, "While Natalie Sheppard's car went into a tree in 1973, please don't imagine that I came all this way on a whim."
Sheppard let his shoulder drop, less of a tell than not moving at all, but Coulson was an expert in reading people like him. Sheppard was definitely worried.
"After Agent Romanova was taken into custody, her possessions from various safe houses were seized. She didn't have a lot of personal belongings; in fact, the only thing we couldn't identify as being from one of her recent jobs was this."
Coulson reached into an inner pocket to pull out a small New Testament. He laid it on the desk, opened it to the back cover, and gently separated the paper from the faux leather.
Between the pages lay a faded photograph of John Sheppard as a young teenager.
From Sheppard's utter lack of reaction, Coulson knew he hadn't been expecting that.
"You will make my job a lot easier if you stop pretending you don't know anything about her," Coulson said. He left the new testament where it was, but Sheppard didn't reach for it.
"I want to see her," Sheppard said abruptly. "You come in here with a bunch of photos and want me to tell you anything? I'm not telling you a damn thing until I see your security clearance documentation and," he finished, poking a finger at the photo of the captured Black Widow, "I see her. In person."
"That's not possible," Coulson said, making himself appear irritated while internally smiling as his pieces lined up, only a few moves away from checkmate.
Sheppard leaned back in his chair. "In person, and I get to talk to her."
"What part of 'no' isn't resonating with you, Captain?"
Agent Coulson stared back.
"Look, all I've got going on is a land war in Asia to get back to," Sheppard said finally. "Sounds like you've got a tighter timeline than I do."
Coulson cleared his throat. "The helicopter leaves in fifteen minutes." He stood and began gathering his photographs. "Either you're on it or you're not."
Sheppard perked up. "I'll drive."
"No, you won't," Coulson called over his shoulder.
As soon as Coulson cleared the door, he heard Sheppard scramble to his feet and beat a retreat to the barracks. Coulson was very careful to not smile as he made his way over to the battalion's commanding officer to inform him that Captain Sheppard's services were required elsewhere for a few days.
Coulson spent most of the fifteen-hour flight back to the States watching John Sheppard pretend to sleep, and wondering what he was going to do.
Director Fury himself had signed off on the execution order. Natasha Romanova had been dangerous when she was working for the Soviet government, but since the fall of the Union, she had been freelancing with disturbingly high efficiency. She had gotten to the point where SHIELD had no choice but to shut her down.
But she wasn't a normal mercenary, not at all. It was said the Black Widow had assassinated world leaders, unimportant clerks, soldiers and housewives, all for a purpose. They said the Black Widow was the best assassin the world had ever seen. Some said she had lived and breathed for the Motherland. Others said she brought down regimes without regret, including her own.
In the end, Coulson had made the kill order. But the one agent who had followed Romanova around for a year, gathering evidence, building the profile, had made a different call. Hawkeye had gone after the Widow, ruined her operation, had nearly been killed in the process and instead of obeying orders, had offered her a job working with the enemy.
Instead of breaking Barton's neck, Romanova had laid down arms and said yes.
In any other agent, Coulson would have assumed that the Widow had worked her wiles on the man. But this was Clint Barton, who he saw things no one else did. He'd lived and breathed Operation Black Swan for months, and Coulson could not dismiss Barton's call so easily.
Director Fury had been, well, livid, but he threw the decision back at Coulson. "She's your problem now," he'd said as he stormed out of the interrogation in a whirl of black leather.
And problem she was.
As the plane entered American air space, Coulson cleared his throat. "Captain Sheppard."
Sheppard opened his eyes slowly. "What?"
"We're nearly there. You'll need to belt in for the descent."
Sheppard swung his legs off the bench and sat up, stretching out the kinks in his spine. "You sure you don't want me to land it for you?"
"That won't be necessary." Coulson took a seat, reaching for his chair's restraints.
The landing was bumpy as they flew through the turbulence of a northern Californian squall. Sheppard looked merely bored.
Once out of the plane and walking across the tarmac in a rainstorm, Sheppard appeared to wake up for the first time since Afghanistan. "Nice weather," he said to Coulson as he turned his face towards the clouds. "You guys get stuff like this often?"
Coulson didn't answer. Across the tarmac, perched nearly unseen on a corner of the roof, was Clint Barton. Coulson made a small hand gesture, very close to smoothing his tie down in the rain. Once Hawkeye vanished from the rooftop, Coulson went back to watching the puddles.
Inside the SHIELD building, Coulson led Sheppard through the corridors, twisting and turning and going through four security gates before finally coming to a halt outside an anonymous grey door. "After you," Coulson said blandly. He was half a step behind Sheppard, so he had a perfect view of the room's sole occupant as the door opened.
Natasha Romanova, bruises healing but that dead expression still in her eyes, looked up. When she saw John Sheppard standing there in rain-soaked battle fatigues, everything changed. Animation came back into her expression, warmth and threat in her eyes, and she even appeared to breathe again.
In that moment, Coulson learned all he needed to know about Natasha Romanova.
She glanced past Sheppard to Coulson, her eyes filled with anger. She clenched her jaw, sitting still, ready to spring. Coulson had no doubt that if he made a move towards John, she would attack, regardless of the consequences.
Then her attention was back on John, and Coulson realized that the man hadn't moved. Sheppard took a deep breath and visibly steeled himself to walk into the room.
As soon as Sheppard was clear of the door, Coulson closed it, putting the grey steel between himself and the occupants of the room. He turned on his heel and made his way toward the surveillance room, his earpiece already tuned into the audio between Natasha and Sheppard.
On the line, Sheppard made a huffing sound. "Nice guy," he said. "What's up with that?"
A long pause, then Natasha said, "John."
A longer pause, then the scraping of chair legs over the concrete floor. "I'd call you something, but I wouldn't be sure what name to use," Sheppard said, and his voice was icy.
Coulson sidled into the observation room, stepping in front of Clint Barton crouched on one of the tables. At Sheppard's statement, Natasha bowed her head slightly.
"I suppose I deserved that," she said, her voice going lifeless again.
There was more going on here than just a mother returned from the dead after thirty years. Coulson watched as Sheppard winced at Natasha's words, his expression stricken.
The dynamics between mothers and sons never ceased to fascinate Coulson.
Sheppard leaned forward, reaching across the space between them. Coulson deliberately had excluded a table from the interrogation room; he'd seen the footage of the many ways the Black Widow could kill with a table. Sheppard's outstretched fingers touched the back of Natasha's wrist.
Natasha looked at Sheppard with wide eyes, her face expressionless save for a tightening around her mouth.
"Are you okay?" Sheppard asked.
Natasha nodded, and Sheppard reluctantly sat back. He looked at her for a long minute, before forcing a wry smile onto his features.
"Your buddy out there sure is annoying," he said, stretching before collapsing back into the chair. "Persistent, too."
"I'm starting to think that's a common thread around here," Natasha said. She was staring at John with her complete attention now, eyes very green in her pale face.
Sheppard shrugged. "It got me out of flying in hundred-degree heat, so I'm sorta glad for the rain."
Natasha nodded once. "Seven months in Afghanistan can do that to a person."
Sheppard narrowed his eyes, for the briefest of moments, then the tell was gone.
Clint leaned in against Coulson's shoulder. "It's sweet that she knows so much about him after all this time," he whispered.
"Did you have any indication that she was following his movements?" Coulson asked without turning around.
Coulson felt rather than saw Clint's shrug. "There were a couple of contact points she had just after Christmas about Afghanistan. We weren't able to track the content of the messages."
Back in the room, Sheppard was running his hands through his hair. Natasha kept watching him.
"So," Sheppard said, letting his hands drop. "You're the Black Widow."
Natasha's fingers tightened around each other, her only visible reaction. "Yes," she said without hesitation.
Coulson wondered what it cost her for such honesty.
Sheppard nodded. "Was that what Oklahoma was? Just another Soviet operation?"
Coulson went on alert. The entire file on Natasha Romanova, and there had been no notes whatsoever about Oklahoma. Beside him, Clint hummed low under his breath.
"That wasn't it, John," Natasha said. She wasn't pleading or begging. It might have been better if she had, in Coulson's mind.
"Then what was it?" A hint of defensiveness crept into Sheppard's posture.
Natasha straightened her back. "Even in Russia, we had vacations."
Sheppard bit his lower lip. After a moment, he got to his feet. Natasha watched his every move. After making a circuit of the room, Sheppard leaned against the wall "I don't know why I'm here," he said, looking directly at the observation window. "I suppose your buddy wants us to have a heart-to-heart. For a minute I thought he was going to suggest a slumber party."
Natasha raised one eyebrow. "Just be careful if he offers to braid your hair and make smores."
Sheppard smiled at that, while beside Coulson, Clint snorted.
"When was the last time you offered to braid my hair?" Clint muttered.
Back in the interrogation room, Sheppard was tapping his fingernails against the wall. "What are they going to do with you when this is all over?" he asked.
The corners of Natasha's mouth turned down a fraction. "Best case scenario I've heard, I get a paycheck."
"Worst case, they lock you up in Guantanamo and throw away the key?" Sheppard hazarded.
There was no change in Natasha's expression as she corrected him, "That's the middle case scenario."
She didn't need to lay out the worst case scenario. That had been blatantly clear since John had stepped into the room.
With a brief nod, Sheppard pushed off the wall, as if they weren't discussing his mother's impending execution. "Any idea of what your buddy Coulson wants to know?"
"No," she replied. "I wasn't aware that he would be bringing you in on this."
And there was that hint of anger, the most emotion Coulson had heard from her in the weeks she'd been in SHIELD custody. Not anger that Sheppard knew about her identity, but that Coulson had dragged Sheppard into this in the first place.
"What should I tell him?" Sheppard asked, making some serious eye contact with Natasha.
Natasha met his gaze, and smiled faintly. "Tell him everything. Tell him what he wants to know."
Not, what he wants to hear, which Coulson had expected. It was an interesting turn of phrase, as there were a great many things Coulson wanted to know about John Sheppard.
Coulson spoke into his communications device, "Security team Delta, please escort Agent Romanova to room 17-D." He glanced at Barton. "And you, out."
Clint leaned back into his perch on the table. "I'm on my union coffee break right now, didn't anyone tell you? I don't have to listen to orders for another twelve minutes."
In the interrogation room, the door opened, and the five-man security team made its presence known in the doorway. Natasha ignored them completely, although Coulson would bet his life that has she felt like it, she could have laid the whole team out on the floor in under thirty seconds. "It's good to see you again, John," she said as she stood.
Sheppard took a step towards her. "Just..."
"Yes?" she prompted when John didn't continue.
The man took a deep breath and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Um, the accident."
Natasha went stone-still.
"Was I in the car when it went into the tree?" Sheppard asked in a rush, and this was important and Coulson didn't know why.
He'd seen the police report on Natalie Sheppard's fatal accident, had seen the autopsy report on the body charred beyond all recognition. The report on the wreckage identified that when the car ran into a tree at fifty miles an hour, the automobile's other occupant, John Sheppard, age three, had been thrown clear through the windshield with only a concussion and superficial lacerations to show from it.
No one had ever questioned the fact that John Sheppard had been in the car with his mother.
For a long time, Natasha and John looked at each other, then Natasha moved across the room. Sheppard was nearly a foot taller than she was, so she had to go up on tip-toe to wrap her arms around the man's shoulders.
Automatically, Sheppard bent down and put his arms around Natasha's back. The embrace was awkward at first, but then Sheppard tightened his grip and pressed his forehead against Natasha's shoulder.
She whispered something into John's ear that the monitors didn't pick up, then she was moving back into the phalanx of the security officers. She raised her hand in a wave as they swept her out of the room.
"Sir, I didn't get what she said," the frantic tech told Coulson. "She was too quiet and her mouth was facing away from the cameras."
"It doesn't matter," Coulson said, watching John Sheppard trying to piece himself back together as Natasha disappeared. "I know what she said."
"What?" Clint asked.
On the other side of the glass, John Sheppard sat back down in his chair, rested his elbows on his knees, and let his head drop.
Coulson straightened his jacket automatically. "John Sheppard wasn't in the car when Natasha drove it into the tree to fake her own death."
"What does that mean?" Clint pressed.
Coulson glanced at Barton. He looked unhappy. Of course, he had only seen the first part of the equitation, the part where Natasha had caused little Johnny's injuries.
He didn't see deeper.
"It means you made the right call, Agent."
With that, Coulson left the observation room.
He had two junior agents carry a table into the room, waiting until they left before seating himself in the chair recently occupied by Natasha.
"Captain Sheppard, I have some questions," Coulson said.
"Am I surprised?" Sheppard snapped.
"Can we just fucking get on with it?"
This time, Coulson didn't use papers or photographs as props. He merely folded his hands on the table and said, "It would be helpful if we had a timeline of Natalie Sheppard's movements before her death in 1973."
"Why not ask her?" Sheppard asked, jerking his head in the direction of the door.
"Because I'm asking you."
Sheppard let his head drop back, then straightened up. "Not sure what you want to know. My dad always said he met my mom when she was performing in the New England Ballet company. They got married in '69."
Coulson made a mental note. They didn't have a date of birth for the Black Widow; best estimates were that she was born just before World War II ended; putting her in her mid-twenties when she became Natalie Sheppard.
"You were born in 1970."
"And she 'died'," Sheppard said with sarcastic finger quotes, "In 1973."
"What do you remember about her?"
Sheppard took a deep breath. "What do you remember about your mother when you were three?" he retorted.
"This isn't about my mother," Coulson reminded Sheppard.
Sheppard glared at Coulson, obviously uncomfortable, but Colson knew Natasha's words were running through his head: Tell him what he wants to know.
"What's there to say?" Sheppard finally said. "There wasn't a nanny, so she was home a lot. I remember she did a lot of ballet and gymnastics practice in the basement."
Keeping in top physical form while undercover, Coulson filled in the blanks.
"I was probably the only kid in church to be able to do a handstand and a back flip by my third birthday," Sheppard said with a false smile, but at least he was talking so Coulson let it go.
"Do you remember any of her friends?"
Sheppard stared. "Are you kidding me?" When Coulson didn't respond, Sheppard went on, "There were like a million ladies from church and Dad's country club, they'd come over for tea or whatever ladies called drinking martinis at two in the afternoon."
"You remember them?"
"I remember that I wasn't allowed to be loud when they were around," Sheppard said. "I was only allowed to come in to say hi before I had to go sit in the kitchen with the cook."
"That must have been frustrating."
Sheppard shrugged. "I was three. And it was okay because I got to eat cookies and after those stupid tea parties we always went for a walk in the woods out back. Mom said I needed to stretch my legs. But..."
Coulson waited him out.
"I dunno. She seemed... She didn't seem like herself after those stupid social events. At the time I just liked it because I got to run around in the woods after dark and at the end mom always seemed like mom again."
"After dark," Coulson repeated, putting a hint of disapproval in the words.
"So?" Sheppard asked, going on the defensive as Coulson knew he would. "It was New England in the seventies, what the hell could go wrong?"
"Did you ever meet anyone when you went on these long walks?" Coulson could spot the signs of an intel handover a mile away, and "the woods after dark" had been a classic back when Coulson was in short pants.
Coulson let it go. "Do you remember any of your mother's other friends?"
Sheppard leaned his chair back so it was balanced on two legs, slumping with the sort of insolence that couldn't have been good for his military career. "I want to point out that I was three at the time."
"And so it probably didn't happen."
"A child's imagination is a wondrous thing," Coulson agreed.
Sheppard hesitated. "The week before she died, there was this guy at the park. I was..." He frowned in concentration. "I was on the swings and mom was on the bench working on her crochet."
Coulson put a pin in the fact he'd just been told the Black Widow did crochet.
"This guy came over and started talking to me on the swings. Black leather jacket, jeans. Mom spotted him and was over in a flash. Only... I think she knew him."
"Was she happy to see him?"
At the time, neighborhood gossip would likely have circled around a lover, not a possible Soviet handler. But then, given that Natalie Sheppard had died the same week, who else could this man be besides her handler?
John's eyes unfocused for a moment. "Yes," he said, drawing out the syllable. "He kissed her on both cheeks, like she did to me sometimes, and he patted my head and gave me a buck for the ice cream truck. When I got back, he was gone and she was happy."
Coulson shifted in his chair, and that focused Sheppard's attention completely on him.
"That wasn't it."
"What wasn't?" Coulson asked.
"Whatever happened, she wasn't happy she was going to have to disappear and leave me behind."
It was the sort of bluster Coulson would have expected from a teenager, not a man of Sheppard's years. "And yet the circumstances..."
"Fuck the circumstances," Sheppard said flatly. "It didn't fill her with elation and good cheer that she had to leave."
"And you know this how?"
Sheppard let his chair crash back to the floor. "Because a couple of years after she died, she came back."
It took a lot to surprise Coulson. John Sheppard had just done so.
Sheppard drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "I got sick, pneumonia or whooping cough or some shit. I kept waking up at night and one night she was there, in my room."
Coulson raised his eyebrows. The likelihood that Natasha Romanova would risk blowing the cover her faked death had given her, just to see her sick son, was infinitesimal.
"I wasn't hallucinating," Sheppard said. "She was there."
"And what did she say?"
"That she was sorry she had to go away, and she loved me." Sheppard's ears had gone pink, the sort of faint embarrassment sons held for their childhood memories of their mothers. "And she sang me songs in Russian, so I know I wasn't hallucinating."
"Your mother had taught you Russian?"
Sheppard's gaze focused again. "I didn't know it was Russian at the time. She told me it was a secret language."
In his mind's eye, Coulson could picture Natasha Romanova whispering Russian into her baby son's ear; and understood what a stupid mistake it had been. At the height of the Cold War, it would have given her away instantly as something other than corn-fed Midwesterner with a talent for ballet, married to an up-and-coming utilities mogul.
Natasha could have been no more than twenty-five when she started the operation in New England; what other mistakes might she have made?
And this couldn't have been her first operation, Coulson realized, feeling a little cold. In the backgrounder on Natalie Sheppard, she appeared to be perfect; her English was accent-free, she had known American customs as if she'd been born to them.
Even the most dangerous operative had to have been a child, once.
Coulson glanced around the room to cover his momentary hesitation. He had no idea if this was honesty on Sheppard's behalf, or manipulation designed to make him identify emotionally with the Widow.
Back to Natasha's mistake. "When did you realize it wasn't a make-believe language?"
Sheppard shrugged. "When there was some news broadcast I saw and I knew what the Russian guy was saying. I was like ten or something. Whatever, isn't there anything else you want to ask?"
"Do you have somewhere to be, Captain Sheppard?"
"Like I said, land war in Asia. And if I don't log more hours this month, there's an absolute prick by the name of Ableson who's going to steal my promotion to Major."
Coulson shifted away from the language issue. "When was the next time you saw your mother?"
Sheppard looked unhappy. "You know kids, they think they see what they want to see."
"We, um, were in DC. Like, 1978? My brother Dave was being a shitty little brat and Dad was pissed off and I wanted to be back home. And I... I thought I saw her, across the street. Her hair was blonde."
Sheppard clearly thought he was mistaken, but Coulson was mentally reaching into the Widow's file and extracting possible scenarios.
"In mid-September, 1978?"
Because on Sept. 17, 1978, SHIELD's predecessor had been notified that the Black Widow was in Washington, and the frantic chatter had indicated that there was intense Russian interest in the signing of the Camp David Accords.
On Sept. 19, the bodies of four foreign extremists known to have been opposed to the peace talks had been found in a Maryland motel, garroted in their beds.
Coulson let out a calm breath that was absolutely not a reaction to the tangle of threads. "Did she see you?"
"Yeah," Sheppard said quietly.
"Did she acknowledge you?"
Something lit up in Sheppard's eyes, something uncomfortable. "Across a street, after five years, and she does this." He brought his finger up to his lips and mimed shushing someone.
Natasha had been in her mid to late thirties. She should have pretended that she didn't see her son. She should have known better. It was a stupid mistake in the waning years of the Cold War.
"That must have been pretty upsetting."
It was the wrong thing to say. Sheppard withdrew, and Coulson knew he wouldn't get any more out of the man around the DC incident.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Coulson offered.
The glare Sheppard threw his way was all the answer he got.
"Then perhaps you can tell me about Oklahoma?"
"Oklahoma is a musical based in--"
"Captain." Coulson didn't shout, didn't change the tone of his voice in any way, but Sheppard subsided.
"Fine. So, in case you hadn't pried this gem out of our little conversation yet, dad and I don't get along. Didn't when I was a kid, don't now. When I was fifteen, he got in my face about going to business school in college."
"Fifteen is a bit young for the college talk, isn't it?"
"Not when you are the firstborn son of Patrick Sheppard," Shepard said. "He basically told me I had to go to Yale so I could take over the family business. I told him to go screw himself, I wasn't going to do anything like that."
"You ended up at Stanford for a degree in applied mathematics."
"Palo Alto had the best surfing."
"This influenced you at fifteen?"
"Hell no, I just didn't want to go to Yale. The old man whipped my ass so I ran away and joined the circus."
Coulson blinked. "You joined the circus."
"Yup," Sheppard said with a grin. "Hitchhiked and rode the rails 'til my luck ran out, then I joined some podunk circus in Oklahoma to make enough money to eat."
Coulson was starting to feel a warning pain behind his left eye. "Lion taming?" he hazarded.
"This outfit could only afford a Doberman with a fake mane," Sheppard said. "It was more like, clowns and acrobats and shit."
Ah. "And Natasha Romanova was the acrobat."
"Ana Soldatova," Shepard corrected. "And yeah, it was her. I mean, I knew it was her but it didn't make any sense, so."
"Did she let you know who she was?" Coulson asked, curious, because a quick slip on a DC street was one thing, but breaking cover so blatantly...
"Nope." Sheppard was back to his blustery, care-free self, and Coulson could imagine what this concentration was costing him, dragging out memories half-forgotten, all to put a human face on the Black Widow.
Because Sheppard knew his failure would cost the Widow her life.
"I spent half the summer freaking out about how much this tiny black-haired Romanian acrobat looked like my mother, while I'm selling tickets and cleaning up after the donkeys, and then the jack-wipe in charge decides that the acrobatic act needs another person."
Coulson took in Sheppard's bluster, imagined what he would have been like at fifteen years old. Just starting to notice girls, and he got thrown in with his dead mother pretending to be an acrobat.
His very beautiful dead mother. Who would have appeared to be in her early twenties.
The pain behind Coulson's eye was starting to get stabby.
Something of Coulson's thought process must have shown on his face, for Sheppard pulled a face. "She treated me like all my friend's mothers did," he snapped. "And do you know how humiliating it is to get verbally dressed down by a tiny Romanian baba in front of a crew of carnies?" Sheppard sat up straight in his chair. "No, is not correct!" he snapped in a perfect Romania accent. "You hold arms like weak noodle! Now do it correct!" He rolled the last 'R' for a beat.
"She never broke cover?" Coulson asked. This was more the behavior of a seasoned agent, although what the woman was doing in Oklahoma in 1985 was a mystery. Maybe she really was on vacation.
"Not for a moment. Right up until the day she realized I had to start school in a week, then she grabbed my ear and marched me to the station and threw me on a bus east. I never saw Ana again."
"Your father didn't notice you were gone for the summer?" Coulson asked.
"He noticed, just had board meetings or something, whatever." Sheppard clenched his jaw and that was all Coulson needed to know.
"You never told your father about the times you thought you saw your mother?"
Some of the false humor bled off Sheppard's face. "Sure did. I was a sick five year old who told him that my mother came back from the dead to sing me to sleep. He whapped me and told me to stop making things up to hurt my stepmother. Never brought it up again."
"And you never saw Agent Romanova after the events in Oklahoma?"
"Nope. I suppose if she is this Black Widow character everyone says she is, then we were in some pretty close quarters in Eastern Europe in the nineties." Sheppard shrugged. "But what are you going to do?"
Coulson had all he needed from John Sheppard. Now all he needed to do was a quick deflection to end the conversation on the correct note, then dump Sheppard on a plane back to Afghanistan. He had enough to worry about with the Widow.
"In all your time in the Air Force and in Europe, were you ever approached by agents from the other side?" Coulson asked, framing it delicately.
Sheppard went still. "What are you asking?" he demanded, voice ice-cold.
Coulson blinked mildly.
"Are you questioning my loyalty?" Sheppard demanded. "You know what? Fuck you. I have never been approached by anyone to change sides, and I would never do anything to betray my men or the mission."
Men and the mission, in that order. There was a large gap in that, which Coulson didn't think Sheppard even realized. But Coulson didn't care at all about where John Sheppard's loyalties lay. Nothing, no part of his character or history had ever indicated he would betray his country, and if he did, well, it was the Air Force's problem.
"Thank you for your time," Coulson said, standing and smoothing down his tie. "The plane has been refueled to take you back to your post."
Sheppard glared at Coulson for long enough to be insubordinate. "So that's it."
"Yes, it is."
Sheppard slowly stood. "I'd like to see Nat-- Agent Romanova again."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," Coulson said with finality.
Sheppard and Coulson stared at each other for a long moment. Then Sheppard smiled, wide enough to show teeth. "Can you pass on a message for me?"
"That can be arranged."
"Tell Agent Romanova I look forward to hearing from her. You know, in a couple of weeks when she's settled in."
The unsaid words were loud enough to echo. If I don't hear from her, I'm coming back.
"I'll tell her."
Coulson waited until a junior agent appeared to guide Sheppard from the room, waited fifteen minutes for the plane to be in the sky for Afghanistan. Only then did he walk back into the observation room labeled 17-D.
Natasha Romanova stood at attention, staring through the observation glass into the now-empty interrogation room. Barton hovered in the shadows, taking up less space than a normal man.
With a nod, Coulson dismissed the security team and the monitoring techs. Once the room was clear, he closed the door and turned off the recording equipment.
"I liked the part where he called you baba," Clint said from the back of the room. "Doesn't that mean great-grandmother or something?"
They ignored him. "What was the point of that?" Natasha asked, her voice steady. "Is his plane going to crash into the Pacific on the way back?"
Coulson filed away her tone of voice for future reference; it wasn't steady, it was homicidal.
"Your son will be perfectly safe while he is in SHIELD custody," Coulson said, leaning against the observation glass so he could better see her expression. "We didn't do this to demonstrate SHIELD superiority over your family."
He used the words deliberately, watched as her expression cleared to nothing, so much like a bruised porcelain doll. He wondered how often in the last thirty years she had allowed herself the luxury of thinking about her son.
"I needed to know something."
"What about John could have been so important?" Natasha asked, eyes still fixed on the room.
"Not about him," Coulson corrected. "You."
Finally, Natasha glanced at him. Her eyes were intensely green, disconcertingly like her son's.
"Why were you in New England in the first place?" he asked, giving in to curiously at last. He needed to know what started all this.
Natasha ran her tongue over her split lip. "Patrick Sheppard came from a rich family that controlled a lot of energy interests on the East Coast. My mission was to determine the extent and weaknesses of the grid."
In 1968, when Patrick had met Natalie, that information would have been very interesting information to the Russians indeed.
The woman finally blinked. "A child was culturally expected, given the socio-economic status of the family."
She was bullshitting him with a great deal of prejudice, but Coulson would give her this one because he'd have years in which to unpack Natasha Romanova's issues.
"Tell me about the car crash," Coulson said quietly. Behind Natasha, Clint shifted, a whisper of fabric over the table.
She swallowed hard, her gaze never leaving Coulson's face. "I had completed the most important stage of my mission, which involved schematics to the East Coat power grid. I'd passed them along to my handler in the first part of July, 1973."
"Was that the man John saw in the park?" Coulson asked.
"No, that was somebody else," Natasha said. "It's not relevant."
Coulson suspected she was lying, but let it go for now.
"After I passed on the schematics, I was informed that I needed to burn my cover. Only," and she hesitated for the briefest of moments, "That included Johnny."
Clint let out an unhappy breath. Natasha didn't flinch. "What did you do?" he asked.
Natasha turned around to face him. "I was supposed to put Johnny in the car with the body and run it into a tree. Patrick would have been so devastated by the loss of his family that no one would think it strange when the power grid ran into problems, they'd say it was management problems."
"But what did you do?" Clint pressed.
Coulson stayed motionless, letting this play out. If Clint wanted to work with Natasha, they needed to get this out in the open up front.
"I drugged him before we left the church social that night," Natasha said. "Something in his milk, just enough to keep him unconscious. When I stopped the car to put the body in the front seat, I smashed the window from the inside to make it look like he had been thrown from the car."
"And you hit him in the head to make it look more authentic," Clint said.
Coulson couldn't see Natasha's face, but he decided that the conversation needed a little push. "What would have happened if your handlers suspected that you disobeyed orders and let your son live?"
Natasha cleared her throat. "When I was growing up, someone once told me that love was for children and the Motherland," she said. "They would have killed him. And me," she added as an afterthought. "They'd done it before with another agent. I couldn't let John die as collateral damage."
The tension on Clint's face started to ease as he worked through the scenario.
But Coulson had one final card to play. "When did you realize that it was a test?" he asked.
Natasha glanced at Coulson over her shoulder. "Four years later."
"What kind of test?" Clint asked.
When Natasha remained silent, Coulson answered for her. "A loyalty test. An agent who would kill their own child may be loyal to the state, but would be a psychological liability to the program."
A smile ghosted across Natasha's lips. "Department X wasn't HYDRA; we didn't actively recruit sociopaths. They tended to cause... personnel issues."
"Were there other agents who had been in similar situations who made a different call?" Clint asked.
Natasha nodded. "A few."
"What happened to them?"
Natasha didn't answer. She didn't need to.
Clint let out a low whistle. "That's some kind of fucked up shit."
"Language, Barton," Coulson said serenely.
"That's some kinda fucked up shit, sir?"
"What about this loyalty test?" Natasha asked Coulson. He was conscious of the fact that he was within her arms-reach, close enough for her to try to kill him if she chose; knowing she wouldn't.
Because at the end of the day, it was all about choices.
"Agent Barton will brief you about his upcoming operation in Hungary," Coulson said. "You’ll will be providing backup. Consider yourself on probation, Agent Romanova." He headed for the door. "And if you could, please contact your son before you leave; I have no desire to deal with another incident with the U.S. Military this month."
"I had nothing to do with that," Clint interjected. "That explosion was an accident. Could have happened to anyone."
Coulson gave Barton the measured glance he deserved. Then he shifted his attention to Natasha, who was staring at Coulson with something resembling hope in her eyes. "Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Romanova." He smiled. "Have fun in Budapest."