Maybe it was because of the increased perimeter through the city, maybe it was because they'd just forgotten and realized they had to launch something to keep to their tight schedule—whatever the reason, the Advent Gang struck next in the middle of the night.
The blasting, urgent ring of Natasha's phone woke her, startling her upright. She had the phone snatched up off the bedside table before she'd fully processed what was happening. Before she had time to wonder at sleeping deeply enough to be startled.
"Romanoff," she said.
In bed next to her, Melinda stirred. Natasha stroked the wild mess of hair tangled around her head, trying to soothe her back to sleep.
"We've got Advent Gang activity," Hill said in her ear. "Sending coordinates. Get down there ASAP."
"What do I need to be prepared for?" Natasha asked, sliding out of bed and looking around for the underwear she'd discarded on the floor hours before.
By the time she found them, Melinda was sitting up in bed, blankets pooled around her nude torso, frowning at her through the dimness of the room. Natasha gave her a tight smile.
"I've got a big bonfire. Fire department's en route to extinguish it. Just get down there, do the legwork you can. Bring 'em in."
Natasha was starting to believe that was easier said than done. "Copy."
The line went dead.
"I'll come with you," Melinda said, voice sluggish with sleep. She turned her head side-to-side before shifting over and turning the bedside light on.
"Go back to sleep," Natasha said, haphazardly pulling her clothes on. "I'll call you when I get a chance. You don't need to go down there."
Melinda’s expression suggested she thought Natasha was being overprotective. Natasha gave her a tight smile. She might've been, a little—being overprotective, that was—but the Advent Gang's activities had drawn Melinda more into the mess of things than she wanted anyway. She didn't need Natasha to be dragging her along into the field, even if the field was less than twenty minutes away.
“Really,” she said. “Hill would’ve called you if she wanted you down there, too.”
Natasha glanced at the display on her phone: 3:08 am.
She leaned in, cupping Melinda’s jaw, and gave her a long kiss. “Sleep,” she said again.
“Be careful,” Melinda said. She trailed her fingers through Natasha’s hair as they broke apart.
“Always,” Natasha said. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but Melinda frowned like it was anyway.
Bonfire was right.
The Advent Gang had somehow lugged a great mess of timber into the pit of a new condo development and set the whole damn thing on fire. It popped and crackled and sent great plumes of black smoke billowing up into the air, visible in the dark by how much it blacked out the street lights and neon signs lighting up the area.
Not a small job, but they knew from the tiara theft that there were at least three involved. Natasha bumped that number up to five, with one of them with some training in heavy machinery.
That particular conclusion she drew from the picture the bonfire made, when one looked way up, at the crane in the centre of the development and the great, slowly browning object hanging from its arm.
It looked like a marshmallow, if marshmallows were twenty feet long and ten feet high. A marshmallow roasting over a great bonfire, in a condo pit in the middle of New York City.
Someone was going to write an article trying to claim it was performance art. She could practically see the headline now: Shady government agency stamps down freedom of art expression.
Or something. Nothing much surprised her anymore.
The crane arm started moving and Natasha jumped into action, grabbing her phone from her pocket as she did. She wished she'd had her field gear at Melinda's--at least her gauntlets. They synced right in with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s feeds, she didn't have to mess with phone numbers and public lines.
"Hill," she barked when Maria answered. "I've still got someone one site. Climbing the crane."
"You're climbing the crane?" Hill asked.
Natasha flipped the phone onto speaker and grabbed onto the first rung of the encaged ladder. The elevator was at the top, which would've been a dead giveaway there was still someone up there if she'd been able to tell in the dark.
"I'm sending a chopper in," buzzed from her pocket.
Like that would get here in time.
Wishing for her gauntlets again, and the grappling hook in them that would make this go so much faster, Natasha kept climbing. Her dressy leather gloves were getting ruined by the rust and oil on the rungs, boots probably scuffed to hell, and her leather jacket wasn't warm enough for being three stories up without any sort of barrier from the wind.
She was ten feet from the cab when the metal of the tower shrieked and the elevator started moving downward.
Natasha eyed the tiny cabin as it creaked downward, counting down in her head until it came parallel with her. Three, two...
She launched herself from the ladder onto the top of the elevator, landing hard on her knees and clinging to the ring that the cable connected to.
Something big and white fell past in her peripheral vision and Natasha twisted to look.
The giant marshmallow, whatever it was made of, was starting to melt. The bonfire sizzled when the white goop smacked down into it.
"Talk to me, Romanoff." She'd forgotten Hill was still on speakerphone.
"Get me agents at the base of the crane. Someone who can make an arrest. And a cleanup crew for the pit. A good one," she said into the rushing of the wind.
Natasha leaned over the edge of the elevator, looking down at the approaching ground and watching, waiting for the swarm of S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel to appear.
She eased her gun from the holster on her thigh when the elevator reached within five feet of the ground with no backup in sight.
The elevator stopped moving with a jerk that had her bracing herself against the top of the elevator again. She regained her balance in time for the door to open.
A man stepped out from the box, timid and looking upward, and Natasha dropped down on him, riding his shoulders down until he knelt on the ground.
The man trilled a desperate stream of words she couldn't make out, flailing his hands around and shaking his shoulders and trying to throw her off.
Natasha pressed him down, her free hand on the back of his head and forcing it into the muddy, unfinished construction pit.
Heat from the fire washed over them, and the air was alternately damp and humid from the cannons of water hitting it, trying to extinguish it on the other side.
"I'm not moving, I'm not moving!"
The man had his hands stretched out prone in front of him, as high above his head as he could get them when he was all but face-planted into the dirt.
Five people in S.H.I.E.L.D. tac gear ran up as Natasha started easing herself up from the man.
"We've got it from here, Agent Romanoff," said the foremost. "Orders are to take him straight to Commander Hill."
Natasha nodded, stepping away quickly and brushing her clothes off as best she could with her ruined gloves. A few brushes that left rust deposits instead of removing dirt, and she sighed and left it alone.
She didn't think Hill would get much out of someone who had clearly been abandoned as a plant—why leave him at the top of the tower otherwise?—but he was better than the nothing they'd been working with so far.
Picking her way up the compacted dirt truck ramp that lead down into the development pit, Natasha glanced up at the still-melting marshmallow hanging high above the fire. The elevator had started ascending, probably with someone from S.H.I.E.L.D. dispatched to try and get it down before the wind caught one of the great melting globs and sent it flying out of the control area.
Natasha shook her head.
There was nothing particularly festive about this. Maybe if it had been a giant piece of holly.
At the top of the ramp, she pulled her phone out and scrolled down through her contacts.
Melinda answered on the first ring.
"Thought I told you to go back to sleep."
"Your orders hold no sway over me, Romanoff." She sounded tired, though, and Natasha hoped she hadn’t been up the entire time.
"I'm sure I can prove you wrong on that."
"Don't push it, dear."
Natasha rolled her eyes, the endearment making her stomach feel warm, and laughed softly all the way back to her car.