She’d been in deep cover for six weeks. It hadn’t been hard, infiltrating a Czech rebel group. Not for her, anyway, when she did this sort of thing for a living, had been doing it for a living her whole life. Andreyev had connections to other black market weapons dealers. Natasha was milking those connections for all they were worth. SHIELD knew something big was coming down the pipeline. Something potentially earth-shattering, and all SHIELD knew was that Andreyev could connect them to the men who were running it. He was their only open connection. She had been sent in to find out all that she could and to make sure those connections couldn’t break before she had them wrapped around her fingers.
Admittedly, it was slower than she would have liked. It had taken her two weeks to get anywhere near Andreyev, before she was invited to be some low-level muscle on the farm he and his best men were hiding on. There were plenty of other people with stories about how their fathers or mothers or sons were killed by various governments. It wasn’t hard to fit in, but it was harder to convince him of her loyalty.
Her first week, she had had to go on two missions to prove heself. The first had been to infiltrate a Slovenian embassy, and setting up homemade bombs in the basement. She had been able to send warning to the officials in time, making her radio call sound like a security guard who noticed the Andreyev’s disguised vans were off their timetables.
The second time, they had set up a bomb in a busy train station.
She had gotten word to SHIELD, only to get the message back to maintain her cover under any circumstances. She’d tried, but Natasha hadn’t been able to save 45 people, in order to keep her cover.
But it had worked. She had shown her potential and was now that much closer to Andreyev’s inner circle. After that, she was doing grunt jobs, accompanying them on exchanges. Andreyev used the terrorist group as a front. INTERPOL was so busy looking for terrorists, they missed the black market weapons deals he did in their backyards.
Natasha saw weapons-grade plutonium pass under her nose, along with biochemicals she knew SHIELD was aching to get their hands on, and even some outdated Stark tech. She had let it slide, only reporting that it was on the market. SHIELD would do what they could to intercept. And she stayed with Andreyev.
She was in one of the upstairs rooms with a grungy-looking man named Kadlec. He was building bombs out of household chemicals, while she poured over maps. It was mostly busy-work; they were making a plan for the grunts in the organization. The actual group she was with would go on to bigger things. Kadlec would look over at her occasionally, give a grunt, and then look back at his own munitions. It was obvious he didn’t trust her to find the right routes. Little did he know that she had more experience than she let on.
She heard doors slamming downstairs, and raised voices. She looked up, on alert. It was rare for multiple people to come to the farm unannounced; they usually went everywhere as a unit. She tilted her head slightly, listening to the sound of combat boots thumping hollowly along the old wooden floor, pushing aside wisps of memories the sound brought. “What do you think is going on?” she asked Kladvec in Czech.
He shrugged, giving another non-committal grunt. She stilled, listening again and hearing the doors slam once more in finality. The voices had moved outside. “They’re going to the barn,” she observed. Kladvec peered at her from under a heavy brow. “I’m going to see what’s going on.”
“Keep your nose out of trouble, girl.”
She got up, looking at him once, but he was already focused again on his task. She moved down the stairs and left the house.
The night air was chilly as she crossed the dewy grass towards the barn. She pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders. Light seeped through the cracks, making narrow streaks along the grass that she followed. As she approached, three people with assault rifles stood outside. She recognized Skala, the only other woman on the farm. The other two were new, and gave her narrow looks as she approached. She ignored them, turning to Skala. “What’s going on?”
She shrugged. “We have a guest. You can go in and see, if you want.”
“Skala,” one of the other men growled.
“You sexist prick, she can do what she likes,” Skala snapped back. “Go on,” she urged. Natasha nodded. It hadn’t been difficult to appeal to Skala’s misguided feminism the first few days she had been on the farm. The other woman often rewarded her with giving Natasha information she shouldn’t have.
She heard the sound of flesh hitting flesh, followed by a grunt and the slink of chains. Hay rustled under her feet as she shifted closer. A group of about seven men, only half of whom she recognized, stood around someone hanging from the chains. One laughed gleefully. She moved around behind another one, getting a good look at the person hanging from the chains.
It was Tony Stark.
Her breath caught in her throat, but she maintained composure as a few of the men turned around to see who had come in. Upon seeing the girl, they sneered, turning back around. She ignored them.
Stark’s shirt hung open, exposing his reactor. She could see cuts and bruises littering his skin underneath. Chains wrapped completely around his forearms, suspending him from a rafter. He grinned savagely, despite having one eye completely swollen and dark hair matted to his head. Natasha ducked back behind another man, blocking his view of her. If Stark saw her, he gave no indication.
“You know, pal,” Tony said, his voice strained. “You’re not the first...group of people to try and get weapons out of me.”
Andreyev, who had been crouching on the floor, rose slowly. She couldn’t see his face, but she heard his amused chuckle.
“I dunno if you heard...what happened to the last guys,” Tony panted. To his credit, Natasha didn’t hear an ounce of fear in his voice. “Things didn’t pan...out so well.”
Natasha saw Andreyev draw his fist back, before slamming it into the side of Stark’s head. He let out a loud “unf!” and she thought she saw blood fly.
She tried not to let her fingers curl into fists. That idiot. She understood why he deliberately antagonized people, friends and foes alike. He was trying to stave off pain and fear, but also get Andreyev to make a mistake. She wasn’t so sure he would.
The man who had laughed earlier laughed again. Dusek, her mind supplied. Sick sonofabitch.
Stark swung back on the chains, shaking his head. “I told you!” he shouted. “You! Are! Doing! It! Wrong!” Natahsha could admire his tactics. For a civilian, he could be awfully manipulative. But also as a civilian, he shouldn’t be here. At all.
Andreyev wasn’t laughing anymore. He nodded to Dusek, who moved forward. Tony just gave a grin, blood bright red against his teeth, and running slowly down his chin over a darker red that had caked there hours earlier.. “Oh man, so...so predictable. Are you two friends from prison? Bunk up together and so forth?” His voice had been getting faster, trying to distract them. But Natasha knew Dusek. One of those kinds of men that took pleasure in others’ pain. He gripped Stark’s shoulder with both hands, pulling savagely.
Natasha couldn’t stop herself from flinching when Stark cried out, trying to pull back on his chains and failing miserably. Dusek let go of his arm, leaving its wait to pull on the chains that still suspended it. At this angle, it was clearly dislocated. He panted loudly, trying to gain his composure. “Now you’re...gettin’ it...” Natasha clenched her jaw so hard, it ached. She almost wanted to punch Stark for his stupid bravado, for making it worse for himself. Andreyev gave a grunt, before moving forward once more to punch Stark across the face again. He gave a small cry of pain, before he collapsed forward, unconscious.
Turning to Dusek, he said “Let me know when he wakes up. The rest of you, with me.” As they filed out, Natasha stood her ground. “What are you doing here?” Andreyev asked as he brushed by her.
“Who is he?” Natasha asked instead. He shot her a glance over his shoulder before continuing on.
“Our new bomb maker.” The other men didn’t look at her as they followed Andreyev. She took one last look at her teammate, the blood and bruises standing out harshly against his far too pale skin, before following.
“He won’t be able to make anything if you beat him to hell,” Natasha pointed out.
“It won’t be our problem for long. We’re selling him to Hydra tomorrow.”
Natasha inwardly cursed. SHIELD had suspected Andreyev had connections to the organization but had been unable to prove it. If Hydra was filling his wallet, things just got a lot more serious than a black market weapons operation.
“So unless you want to end up in the gutter, you should mind your own business and go back to what you were doing.” Andreyev stared her down with a piercing eye, and she pretended to look away.
“Yes, sir.” He peered at her again, before moving back to the house with his cronies.
“Prick,” she heard Skala mumble behind her. She found a cigarette in her hand a moment later. She let Skala light it for her, as they stood in silence. Natasha took a few drags, before dropping it to the ground and stomping it out.
“I’m going to sleep,” she told Skala. The other woman just nodded, slinking back over to the barn entrance where the other two guards were waiting. Natasha moved back towards the house, ducking around the side, before making sure no one was watching. Seeing the coast was clear, she jogged into the woods.
About half a mile away, she had hidden a moped. It wasn’t the fastest way to get into town, but as long as she drove it on the road it was the quietest.
There was no way she could keep a cellphone on her here. She had to make all her calls to SHIELD from a payphone in town in the dead of night, and only very, very occasionally. She supposed this seemed like a good time to break cover.
30 minutes later, she was in a small town that only had a few stores and one petrol station. The petrol station had a payphone, eerily lit up by one of the few working street lamps in the whole town. It always made her feel conspicuous, but so far she had only encountered a few drunks here, stumbling home.
She dialed a long number, and then hit a nine digit passcode.
“Bunting’s Gun Supply,” a thick, southern accent answered.
She rattled off another 14-digit number.
“Agent Romanoff. You’re not scheduled to report for another week,” the Southern twang sounded concerned.
“Something’s come up. Andreyev has Stark.”
A pause, then a disbelieving “Tony Stark?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Tony Stark. What happened? Why is he here?”
“I’m...I’m not sure...” the voice trailed off, followed by mumbling and typing, before she heard the audible click of a microphone changing hands.
“Agent Romanoff, report.” Maria Hill’s voice now, cool and direct.
“About an hour ago, Andreyev’s men brought Tony Stark to the farm. He’s alive, but currently captive. He’s also been beaten.”
A pause on the other end of the line. “He’s been missing for four days.”
“What?! You lost one of the most high-profile men in the world and hadn’t been able to trace him for four days?” Natasha was seething.
“We didn’t lose him. His people did.” Even though she said it, Natasha could hear the faint traces of guilt in her voice.
“You ARE his people!” Natasha might have hit Hill in the face if she could see her. “I’m pulling him out.”
“Romanov, we’ve worked too hard on this. YOU’VE worked too hard to be compromised. We can have a team out there in eight hours to extract him.”
“In eight hours, he’s going to be on a Hydra ship and long gone.”
“HYDRA? You’re sure?”
“Straight from Andreyev’s mouth. He’s got direct ties to them.”
There was another pause on the other end of the line, before Hill’s concerned voice spoke up again. “If that’s the case...you need to maintain cover until we can find someone to replace you. We just uncovered HYDRA intel yesterday that they’re planning a massive bio-chemical weapons attack on New York. Natasha...I don’t need to tell you how important it is we maintain our connections.”
She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. “No.”
“I can have Stark out of there in eight hours. In the meantime, maintain his safety as best you can, and when bullets start flying, protect yourself. You’ll be putting both your lives in more danger than they already are if you move.”
Natasha heard the plastic receiver crack minutely as she squeezed it in her hand. “Understood.”
“Be careful out there. Hill out.”
She slammed the receiver back on the hook.
By the time she got back to the farm, it was almost 4 AM. She made her way back towards the house, glancing again in the direction of the barn as she did. She paused, looking around for people. She heard some laughter and talking from the house, but it seemed no one missed her.
She didn’t doubt the integrity of most SHIELD teams, but she wasn’t sure if they’d be fast enough. Worry began to gnaw at her slowly, and she hesitated. She put the mission first. She always put the mission first, since she had joined SHIELD. She trusted SHIELD.
But she also trusted Stark. She wasn’t sure when it had happened, but it had. Maybe it was when she saw the brutal honesty in a dying man’s eyes. Maybe it was when despite his seemingly selfish attitude, he had shown up in a heartbeat to deal with a global threat.
Maybe it was when he rode a goddamn nuclear missile into another dimension.
No, damn them all, she thought, as she pictured a disappointed-looking Rogers, not understanding why she made the call she did. An empty chair at the kitchen table where Banner should be. Thor confused and angry at Midgardian war tactics. Clint’s understanding and pretending not to care.
She made her way towards the barn, her senses automatically flipping to high alert when she didn’t see any guards outside. Strange. They should have been guarding-
She heard a muffled cry, and automatically her feet quickened their pace. Fear rose like a fog around her mind, even as she tried to push it away. She rarely felt fear like this. She rarely felt fear for anything. Her nose was immediately assaulted with the coppery smell of blood, more than there had been when she first came in here.
Only a single, bare light bulb was on, flickering gently, making the shadows in the barn harden then fade. Harsh wheezing assaulted her ears. They were the breaths of a man trying to hide his pain. Trying, not succeeding.
Her eyes took in everything in a second. Dusek, standing in front of Stark who was still hanging by his wrists (and a dislocated shoulder), brandishing a bloody pipe. Stark’s bloody and bruised torso shaking, his bare toes pushing feebly against the ground as his body struggled to curl in on itself.
Natasha didn’t think. She didn’t have time to think. She only found herself walking briskly forward, taking the knife off her thigh as she did so. Smoothly, from years of practice, she wrapped one hand firmly around Dusek’s forehead before bringing the knife up and slicing his throat neatly in one stroke.
Dusek made a gurgling sound, before falling in a clump to the ground, blood spurting from his neck over the yellow hay and his twitching body making soft rustling noises. He was dead before he could even come close to comprehending what was happening.
She breathed deeply, before realizing her mistake.
Too late now.
Cursing under her breath, she moved to Tony, who had his chin sunken uncharacteristically against his chest. She touched his chin and he flinched harshly, bringing another moan of pain to his lips. “Tony,” she said gently. “It’s me.”
He looked at her with the unswollen eye. “Thoug I sssawyou,” he slurred. “Didn thing you c...cared.”
And that, that hurt her more than she cared to admit. She didn’t meet his eyes, instead, focusing on trying to untangle his arms from the chains.
“Of course I care,” she said quietly.
He bit off a moan as she moved to his injured arm. “You...had...other res...pons...” she caught him as he sagged forward, unable to take any of his own weight. “m not...SHIELDs problem.”
She turned her head disbelievingly at him. He was forgiving her, forgiving her for not rescuing him immediately, because he thought her bosses didn’t give two shits about him.
“Well, I think Fury would say you’re a problem,” she tried to joke, sitting him down on the ground. He grinned at her like an idiot, the dark red blood in his mouth contrasting highly with pearly-white teeth. “But you’re our problem.” She gently took his injured arm. “This is gonna hurt.”
“Thanks, I’m aware.” he bit out, the blood flow back into his wrists making him more alert..
“Good.” She pulled savagely, pulling the limb back into place against muscles that had locked up from hours of disuse. Tony puffed air through his cheeks, only a few whines ripping from his throat, albeit softly. With one last tug, she felt the shoulder pop into place, ignoring the tremors of pain that shook it.
A rustle caught her attention and she looked up just in time to see one of the guys who had brought Stark in step around the edge of the wall. He froze for a moment, eyes taking in Dusek’s body and Natasha on the ground with a freed industrialist. “Wha-”
Natasha’s knife buried itself in his forehead before he could complete the word.
“Can you stand? We need to move.” Tony nodded shakily, trying to climb to his feet. Natasha had to pull him up most of the way, and her concern for both their safeties intensified with how much he was struggling. Almost all of his weight was on her. She hobbled over to the second dead man, pulling the knife out of his skull before wiping it on her pants and sheathing it. She leaned down again, pulling his gun from its shoulder holster and handing the pistol to Stark who took it with a shaking hand. “Just...hit what you can,” she said.
Together, they hobbled out into the greyness that marked the coming of dawn.