"I'm done with this."
The thunk of Natasha's purse hitting the floor accented the snarl in her voice. She was tucking her gun into a waistband holster when Melinda turned to look.
Natasha shook back the cuffs of her leather jacket, flashing her Widow's Bites. She fumbled with a switch on the sides of them and they lit up for a moment before she flipped her sleeves back over them again.
"Nat, what're you doing?"
"I'm putting an end to the Advent Gang," she said. "It's December 23. I am utterly done with them." She practically spat the words, sounding furious.
"You don't know where they are," Melinda pointed out, keeping her voice as mild as possible in the hope of diffusing some of Natasha's ire.
Nat's eyes flashed when she looked up. "I'll find them," she growled, all but baring her teeth. And this wasn't the cool 'I'm going to put a stop to them because I'm the Black Widow and can' determination that had caused Natasha to go AWOL before and bring in two members in the dead of night. This was anger, hot and fiery and personal.
"What happened, ‘Tasha?"
Natasha paused, the nickname drawing her attention and shocking her from her anger for a moment, just as Melinda had hoped that it might.
"Look at this," she said, and pulled something up on her phone before she threw it across the room to Melinda.
A gallery was pulled up and Melinda tapped the thumbnail of the first image, blowing it up across the screen.
A large, gaudy gingerbread man hung across the window of what looked like a skyscraper. Melinda flicked through the rest of the gallery, each frame giving her an uglier ornament than the last.
The very last image pulled back to show off all of them, strung across Stark Tower.
"You woke up to these outside your bedroom window?" she asked. No wonder Natasha was so angry. They'd been outside her window all night and she hadn't even noticed.
"I wasn't there,” Natasha said stiffly. "But the whole damn Tower is covered in them and Stark didn't notice. J.A.R.V.I.S. didn't notice. How did no one fucking notice?"
That explained the outrage. All that Natasha had done in smoothing over the lack of involvement of the Avengers in the case must've drawn the Advent Gang to go after their headquarters. After all, Stark Tower didn't fit into the gang's pattern of Christmas tree points. They'd diverted, and not only had no one detected it at the time, but Natasha was taking it personally because she hadn't seen it coming.
The ornaments were kind of hilarious, though. Like someone had taken an enormous slab of bakeable clay and moulded it into so many shapes.
"Stark has video footage, of course?" Melinda asked.
Natasha shrugged, crossing the room and taking her phone back. "I haven't spoken to him," she said. "I was driving through the city this morning when I saw them. When everyone saw them."
"And you came straight here?” Melinda said.
Natasha tilted her head, looking flustered for a moment by the question. "I was on my way here already," she said, sounding a little perplexed. "I just stopped— Never mind.”
Melina stood, wondering if she could get dressed and ready to leave fast enough to keep pace with Natasha before she took off without her.
"What are you doing?" Natasha asked.
"Coming with you." Melinda looked around, then made a beeline for the closet where her gun was locked away. "There's no reason you should take off after them on your own."
Natasha stepped right in front of the closet before Melinda could get to it. "No."
Protecting her again?
The apartment wasn't that large, and Melinda's pace had taken her toe-to-toe with Nat. They were standing close enough that the temptation to lean in and kiss her was almost greater than anything else, even if she was annoyed that Natasha had decided to be overprotective and try and stop her involvement in the case again.
"I said, no. I don't need your help, and you don't need to be in the field. You know you don't want to be in the field."
She looked concerned beneath her ire, and Melinda took a half a step back.
"I'm not letting you go barrelling off on your own again," she said.
"Then you can go to HQ and be in my ear."
"You need someone to cover your back. Where's Barton?"
Natasha pressed her lips together. "Off for Christmas," she said, without elaborating.
Barton took holidays? Him and everyone else at S.H.I.E.L.D., apparently. Regardless, that meant that Melinda was the only person around familiar enough with the case to go in with Natasha and try to track down the rest of the Advent Gang, if she was dead set on putting a stop to them after this.
"I'll call Rogers,” Natasha said. "If you want someone in the field with me."
"Oh, that won't draw attention to you at all."
She looked so sincere, pleading, that Melinda sighed.
"I can make this decision on my own. I've had enough time to think about it. New York isn’t—“
"Mel." Natasha didn't say neither was Bahrain, because she cared enough not poke at old wounds. Because whatever else she was, whatever she thought of herself, Natasha actually cared enough about her to be open to showing it.
At least, somewhat.
"I can do this," Melinda said. "I'm familiar enough with what might go down, with the Advent Gang, that I know I can do this."
Natasha frowned at her, looking unhappy about it all.
"Are you sure?"
Melinda nodded, and found herself pulled into Natasha's arms. The hug was fast, Natasha released her almost as soon as she'd grabbed her, but Melinda could feel where she'd squeezed her, the pressure lingering in a band across her biceps.
"You have to tell me if it gets too much," Nat said. "Promise."
Melinda smiled at her. "It's not going to get to that point. These are small guys."
Natasha looked her right in the eye, like she was trying to gauge Melinda's sincerity—a walking polygraph. Unfazed, Melinda let her.
"Okay," Natasha said, and raised a shoulder in a nonchalant half-shrug. "Let's go, then."
They went. Natasha drove, winding her Corvette in and out of the last-minute Christmas-shopping traffic, heavy on the gas pedal and with her hand on the horn. Melinda rested her hand atop Natasha's on the gear shift halfway through the drive, and their fingers twined together by the next intersection.
Natasha threw her sideways glances in the car, like she wasn't quite sure she should be letting Melinda get her way.
"Where are we going?" Melinda asked as they sped up Broadway. She could see the ornaments still hanging across the windows of Stark Tower—no one seemed to be dealing with them yet.
"Look at the star ornament," Natasha said, not turning to take her eyes off the road. She hit the horn again, blaring it at a taxi that cut her off.
Melinda peered up through the windshield. The star had been strung to hang directly over the 'A' on the tower, and all Christmas lore said...
"You think it's pointing to their hideout?"
The Advent Gang might be cocky enough and fond enough of their Christmas themed mischief to go that route.
Natasha nodded. "Straight up to somewhere in Central Park," she said. "If we can ever get there." She laid on the horn again, making a sharp right turn to get around the mess of traffic around Times Square.
Natasha ditched the car at the south entrance to the park, pulling it up on a curb, careless of the traffic and other drivers around. That, alone, told Melinda enough about Nat's focus and her state of mind right now—she loved that car, and to ignore it to such an extent, well, that only fit in with how obsessed and angry Nat had been all morning.
Melinda said nothing about the state of her parking as she got out of the car and followed Nat into the park.
She pulled out her phone as they went, pulling up a map and keeping pace without watching Natasha, trusting that Nat had no intention of leaving her behind.
The uppermost tip of the star had been pointing directly forward, north-east, and Melinda plotted its path with a line straight up on the map on her phone. "This way," she prompted, watching the arrow indicating their GPS location when Natasha started following the ploughed path in the park instead of veering off into the snowbank like the map indicated. "It's not going to be fun."
"Sure it will," Natasha said, and ran right into the snowbank. She lost speed and grace immediately, all but tripping over her own feet. She grunted and shook her head, looking back at Melinda with a shrug.
"Pick up your feet," Melinda suggested, following in the tracks Natasha had already laid down. The loose snow swallowed her feet despite her care, the edges of the prints starting to crumble and fall down to fill the holes they created as they stepped through. It was cold on her ankles—the boots she'd chosen weren't made for wading through snow—and the white fluff started falling into her shoes, soaking her socks.
They waded through the snow, passersby staring and shaking their heads at the sight they made.
Melinda's pants were soaked by the time they reached another intersecting path and had a chance to break out onto cleared pavement again.
"We probably could've gone the long way 'round," Natasha commented, brushing snow off from where it seemed to cling to every inch of her from the waist down. She'd worn knee-high boots but her pants still looked as wet as Melinda's where they showed above the tops.
"The long way would've been faster, I'm sure," Melinda said, stomping her feet to try and shake some of the snow from where it clung to her boots. It didn't make much difference.
Natasha nodded to sled marks across the path from them. "Look," she said.
Melinda moved to stand in front of the tracks, holding her map up. Sure enough, the tracks matched up with the line she'd drawn from the star point.
"This is a setup," she said.
Nat nodded, shook back her sleeve and spoke a few codes into the receiver on her gauntlet. 'Backup requested. Suspected activity at transmitted coordinates.'
The sled trail lead them to a car that had been ditched at the bottom of a hill, well off the nearest main pathways. There was no one around, but someone had clearly been living out of the car before the snow had come and all but buried it.
Natasha knocked snow off of part of the windshield and peered inside. "I've got tech," she said. "Cluttered through the front and backseats."
Melinda did a slow walk around the perimeter of the car while Natasha looked. The trailer hitch had a round red ball cover it, like Rudolph's nose. The vanity plate read 'HOHOHO'.
Feeling an ache coming on, Melinda massaged her fingers across her forehead. "I feel like we're looking for Santa."
"More like Krampus," Natasha said. "That's what we should be calling them. Imps of Krampus."
Melinda grimaced. "Doesn't quite have the same ring to it."
Natasha's phone buzzed to life.
"Romanoff. Yes. Yes. I need a retrieval team. One vehicle, impacted by snow, at my coordinates. Four-door sedan. Y—“ Natasha rolled her eyes and gave Melinda a long, bored look when the person on the other end of the line started talking. "Yes, Sir," she said after a minute, then hung up the phone.
"So?" Melinda asked.
Natasha brushed more snow off of the car and leaned back against the side of it. "So, we wait. For either the retrieval team, or to see if the tech here is still being accessed. Whoever shows up first."
So much of being in the field was a waiting game, especially when you were tasked to recon. Melinda watched Natasha while they stood there. She'd pulled into herself, no doubt taking in the scene and playing through scenarios in her head. Every once in a while, though, her gaze would dart over to Melinda and she'd offer a small smile.
Somehow, those little smiles broke through the building cold.
The retrieval team Nat had called for didn't show up before an Advent Gang member.
Footsteps came stomping through the snow from the west, making a din with their shouting at each other as they wandered through the trees. Melinda could make out two distinctive voices long before she saw anything. A S.H.I.E.L.D. team wouldn't have made that kind of noise—and they'd've heard a helicopter or a Quinjet long before they'd heard voices.
Natasha pulled her down to crouch behind the car, and she had her gun out when she crept forward to put herself between Melinda and the oncoming voices.
"I'll get behind them," Melinda said, looking at the tree cover to gauge the best route around.
She'd made it two steps when Natasha's hand fisted in her jacket and pulled her to a stop. Nat didn't speak, but she gave her a long, intense searching look before she let her go. "Be careful," she said.
Natasha didn't look sure, but she turned back to the position she'd been holding against the car.
They might need to have a talk about boundaries when this was over, and about Natasha's apparent mile-wide overprotective streak.
For the moment, though, Melinda refocused on the Advent Gang members coming toward them. She backed up through the trees, taking careful steps and glad the snow was soft and not crunchy. The men, when she spotted them, weren't looking around for anyone traipsing nearby anyway. One had a long dark beard, the other sandy blond hair pulled into a bun on the top of his head. They were arguing about something—the placement of the ornaments on the Tower?—and so busy with their fighting they didn't notice Natasha by their car until they were all but on top of her.
"Don't move!" Nat's voice rang out like a whip through the silence of the snowy park.
The men froze, babbling bewildered noises that weren’t discernible as words.
Melinda planted herself in the way of their retreat as they turned around. She crossed her arms over her chest, not bothering to draw her gun.
"Grinch's gonna kill us."
Melinda had expected to be rushed, or for one or the other to dart out right or left and force them to give chase.
Neither did. Instead, they sunk to their knees with their hands on their heads.
"We were acting alone!" The man with the beard shouted, at the same time as blond bun cried, "It wasn't us!"
Melinda met Natasha's eyes across the men. She had her mouth drawn into a straight, grim line, and her stance, with her gun pointed at the men, didn't waver.
"Just don't move," Natasha said.
Five down. Two to go.