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The smell in this place is familiar. Even a day after the attack, it lingers, that tang of scorched iron and carbon still hanging in the air like an invisible ominous cloud. Smells like fire. Smells like smoke. Smells like death.

She should know.

Natasha Romanov surveys the wreckage of someone else's works of destruction in thoughtful silence, frowning down at the blackened crater beneath her boots. Her toe rests by a leftover bone fragment, which she nudges carefully with her heel. Rib, she's guessing. Hard to say.

"One of the techs missed a spot," she says, as Maria Hill materializes silently at her elbow. "Sloppy."

Maria peers down at Natasha's feet and sighs. "For fuck's sake," she swears, and touches her ear, activating an earpiece no one can see.

Stark tech. They've got a lot of that these days. Natasha frowns back at the blackened tile and thinks maybe she misses the simplicity of a bullet and her own two hands.

"I want to talk to the techs who cleaned up Site Five," Maria snaps into her invisible earpiece. "Now."

She walks briskly away, leaving Natasha to case the wreckage alone for a few more moments, checking ingress and egress and counting shadowy corners while behind her, Acting SHIELD Director Maria Hill growls unrepentantly at some poor bastard, and Natasha doesn't bother to hide her smirk. Somebody's going to get Deadpool duty over this one.

"Okay," Maria says, stomping back over. "That's done. You've been here for an hour, Romanov, so tell me: in your professional opinion, what the fuck happened here?"

"Apparently," Natasha says, arching an eyebrow, "something that's happened at least four times before."

Maria returns the raised eyebrow. "You're an Avenger now. You think we call you people in for every little explosion? Hell, you're the cause of quite a few of them."

"Don't confuse me with Stark," Natasha says, smirking. "I read Sitwell's report on the way over. One diplomat, now extra crispy, died in his penthouse on the forty-seventh floor of a building with security that might actually make me break a sweat. Definitely give Barton a run for his money."

Maria rolls her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, and the doors of the room were locked from the inside, surveillance picked up no unusual entrants to the building in the last year--"

"The system could have been hacked," Natasha suggests.

"It wasn't," Maria replies flatly, and Natasha shrugs. She doesn't take just anybody's word for things like this, but Maria Hill is a woman after her own heart, and if Maria says it wasn't hacked, it wasn't hacked.

"Okay," Natasha says easily. "Same goes for the tech that continually scanned this room for biochemical weaponry, like, for example, a bomb keyed to a particular person's biorhythms?"

Maria smiles. "That detail wasn't in the report."

"Your techs may be getting sloppy, but I'm not. I know top secret government-issue equipment when I see it," Natasha says, pointing at a fairly innocuous statuette on the desk across the room. "Prototype appeared on the black market ten years ago. As usual, America is behind the spy times."

"I don't disagree," Maria says. "That's why SHIELD's taking this one. And we've seen biobombs before, but a bomb that takes out its target without excessive damage to property and none to other people? We see the impossible frequently in this job, but that's a new one, even for us."

Natasha frowns. "Why not turn this over to Tony and Bruce? You know they're going to want to weigh in."

"They've got their hands full, and we suspect this is going to take a little more...finesse," Maria says tactfully. Natasha doesn't crack a smile, but it's a near thing.

"So. Five bombings, all of high profile targets, all with the same signature, and all impossible," Natasha says. She crosses her arms over her chest. "Director, I think maybe it's time I put that team together."

"Why the hell do you think I called you? You never did tell me who was on that team, by the way," Maria says, and Natasha grins.

"A few good women," she replies. "I'll call you when they're assembled."

+

Her first recruit is hovering two hundred feet above the Chrysler Building when Natasha locates her. There's a flash of red and a blast of energy, and thirty seconds later Natasha steps neatly to her left, avoiding the tentacled carcass of an ex-monster.

"Hey Captain," Natasha says, tapping her earpiece as she rounds the corner of 43rd and Lex. "Think you can bring some of that firepower to street level for a minute? There's a T-rex down here that wants to say hello to you. Think it wants your autograph."

"On it," comes the reply. In a few minutes, Carol Danvers lands neatly beside her; in a few more minutes, the T-rex lands in a heap in the street. "What was that about an autograph?"

"I think it's got your signature all over it," Natasha says, eyeing the marks from Carol's photon blasts. "Nice work."

"Thanks," Carol answers. She looks around at the small heap of monsters nearby. "You're not doing so bad yourself."

"Nah. I'm having an off day: Barton's ahead of me by three," Natasha says, gritting her teeth. Another group of baddies rounds the corner, and she lights up. "Not for long."

Carol grins. "I'll hang back until you catch up with Barton," she says, waving Natasha on ahead.

True to her word, Carol waits until four monsters fall to the pavement before stepping in to assist with the onslaught. These things are like some kind of strange dino-Chitauri hybrid, and Natasha can't wait for this debrief, which is sure to be another thrilling Stark v. Banner scientific debate about the nature of the monsters, while somewhere off to the side, Jane Foster passes around reports with eerily accurate findings pinpointing the exact location of the cosmic origins of the bad guys. It's too bad Jane's speciality has nothing to do with bombs, or she'd ask her to join the team. Natasha likes Bruce, and she has developed a strange fondness for Tony, but it's about damn time SHIELD had an all-lady line-up. The thought of it reminds her: she's got a job to do here that has nothing to do with the monsters-of-the-week.

"Listen," Natasha says to Carol, as she stabs another monster in the neck with some shrapnel, "I've been meaning to come see you."

"You got a thing?" Carol asks, blasting her way through a couple of baddies.

"I've got a thing," Natasha confirms.

They both duck when the Hulk sends a car flying directly over their heads.

"I'm in," Carol says easily. The car lands with a crash and a minor explosion behind them, but they don't turn around.

"You don't even know what it is," Natasha says, pulling a gun from her tool belt.

Carol grins over at her. "Will cars get thrown at my head?"

"Last year we saved the world from an invading army of mechanical aliens," Natasha says, casually emptying a clip. "Anything's possible."

"Like I said," Carol replies. "I'm in."

One down, two to go. And when the last monster falls in front of her feet, she's six up on Clint. All in all, not a bad day at the office.

+

“You know you didn’t have to make an appointment to see me,” Pepper says, offering Natasha a seat and a drink in her opulently efficient office.

“It seemed more polite than just showing up unannounced,” Natasha replies. The cup of tea Pepper hands her is strong and dark and the taste trails away to leave the faintest blush of roses on her tongue.

Pepper smiles. “Well, I’d rather talk to you than the pushy, overdressed windbag I was supposed to meet. I told him there was an urgent matter that needed my immediate attention.” She takes the chair across from Natasha and adds, “Though I’m starting to think that might actually be true.”

“I’m putting together a team,” Natasha confirms. “I’d like you to be on it.”

To her surprise, Pepper laughs. “What is this, a joke? Nat, you’ve already got a team.” She sips at her tea, rolling her eyes. “I should know. Several of them share my kitchen.”

“Toaster’s broken again?”

“The toaster’s always broken.”

“Well, how would you like to get out of the house for a while?” Natasha leans forward, smiling. “I have a job to do, and I need the right people to do it.”

Pepper gives her a skeptical look. “You think I’m the right people?”

“I think you’re one of them,” she says. “And I hear you’ve got a new suit.”

“I do, at that,” Pepper admits, and, slowly, she returns Natasha’s smile. “So, Agent Romanov. Tell me about this team.”

+

The goddess of war, now visiting Midgard for the foreseeable future after the Chitauri wreaked havoc on her own realm, is taking a well-deserved day off, but Natasha knows where to find her. Like Doctor Banner, Sif was never off SHIELD's radar, and even if she had been, it's tough to get lost when Tony Stark is the guy who suggests your vacation destination.

An island resort is as good an excuse as any to slip into a bikini and enjoy the warmth of the sun for a few hours. After all, she doesn't want to attract attention, and if that requires forsaking the tight lines of her usual uniform and admiring the tanned bodies of the people she passes as she strolls along this beach, well, she won't be complaining, and neither will the Director: Natalie Rushman, guest of this five-star resort hotel, can buy expensive swimwear and drink all the umbrellaed cocktails she wants, just as long as the target agrees to suit up and kill bad guys.

She finds this particular target lounging by the waterfront, and Natasha makes a mental note to kick Tony's ass when she gets back to the Tower, because she can think of no other reason why the Asgardian goddess of war would have turned up to a Midgardian beach resort wearing a perfect replica of Princess Leia's gold bikini.

"Natasha," Sif says, smiling up at her. She waves her hand at the empty pool lounger to her right. "I am being summoned?"

"Not until I finish this drink," Natasha replies, settling herself on the chair. She tugs off her sunglasses and squints over at Sif's very Starkesque idea of Midgardian beachwear. "Isn't that thing uncomfortable in the sun?"

"No," Sif says, glancing down at it. "It is of Stark manufacture; the metal does not conduct heat."

"Let me guess," Natasha says. "He told you it was a bikini fit for a princess."

To her surprise, Sif laughs and leans back into her chair. "I knew that what he told me was false, but he seemed so terribly pleased with himself. I thought I might humor him."

"That was generous of you," Natasha says.

"It seemed a fair trade for his part in destroying the monsters that beset my realm not long ago," Sif says, and Natasha can hear the tightness in her voice when she mentions Asgard.

"Well, at least you knew what you were getting into," Natasha says lightly, sipping at her drink.

Sif turns to look at her. "Oh, I know a liar when I see one," she sighs. A shadow crosses her face that has nothing to do with the few clouds that hang in the sky; they both fall silent for a moment. "But my past is not the reason for your presence here, I am certain. What brings you to this place? Aside from the... view?"

At that moment, one of the resort employees politely interrupts them to ask if they would like another complimentary beverage. They both take in the smooth plane of his chest and the perfect curves of the muscles in his arms, and Natasha decides that yes, Natalie Rushman will require another drink. Difficult missions occasionally require extraordinary measures, and Ms. Rushman will just have to take this one for the team.

After he goes, Natasha downs the rest of her first drink in one quick swallow. "I may not be here for the view," she tells Sif, "but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it."

"And why have you come, then?" Sif asks, several drinks later.

"Ran into some trouble," Natasha replies easily. "I need somebody with a good sword arm. Thought you might be interested."

"You offer me monsters to slay," Sif says, smiling. "How can I refuse?"

"I was hoping you'd see it like that," Natasha says. She slips her sunglasses back on and relaxes into the chair. "This is gonna be fun."

+

Natasha isn’t one for self-congratulation, but she can’t help feeling more than a little satisfied as she looks around the conference table. Super powers, super skills, super tech, and not an ounce of testosterone in sight. Steve can keep his boys’ club; she’ll take this line-up, any day.

“You’ve all read the briefing packets,” she begins, without preamble, “so you know what we’re dealing with. SHIELD is working on reverse-engineering the bomb fragments, so we’ll know how it works. Our job is to figure out who made it and, more importantly, who paid for it.”

“I’ve talked to the SHIELD techs,” Pepper says. “Once they have an operating model, they’ll give the data to Jarvis, and he’ll interface with their systems to see if any similar devices have turned up elsewhere.”

Carol is leaning back in her chair, feet crossed on the table. “Any idea what kind of bad guys we’re dealing with? Domestic terrorists? International terrorists? A crazy dude with too much money?”

“Forgive me, but I am unfamiliar with this word. ‘Terrorists’?” Sif asks.

“Bad guys who sneak around and kill people to make a point and make people afraid,” Carol answers.

Sif frowns. “That hardly seems an effective strategy.”

“That depends on what point they’re trying to make,” Natasha says. “And no, we don’t know what kind of threat we’re dealing with, yet, but-”

The conference room door slides open, cutting her off, and Clint strides in. Kate Bishop is with him, though her expression makes it clear that she would rather be anywhere else, and Clint has one hand planted firmly on her shoulder.

“Ladies, sorry to interrupt,” he says cheerfully, at odds with Kate’s rebellious scowl. “I know you’ve got important hero stuff to do. Promise this won’t take long. Nat? Kate’s got something she’d like to say.”

All eyes turn expectantly to Kate, who gives Clint a glare that would drop a lesser man in his tracks and grumbles, “You’re an asshole.”

“Yes, I am,” he agrees, “and you’re not getting out of this.”

She rolls her eyes, sighing. “Natasha-”

“Agent Romanov,” Clint corrects, and Natasha thinks he might want to sleep with one eye open for a while.

Agent Romanov. I’m sorry I spied on your super-secret girl band,” Kate says. “And I’m sorry I hacked into the SHIELD personnel files, even if I only got caught because Hawk-ass here is paranoid.”

“When you have your own arch-enemy, you can talk to me about paranoid,” Clint tells her, and she gives him a look.

“You don’t ha-”

“Whose file did you hack?” Natasha cuts her off sharply. “And what does this have to do with me?”

“Mine,” Clint replies, “and I’ll leave my lovely sidekick to answer for her own actions.”

“Partner,” Kate snaps.

Protégé.” Clint gives her a hard glance, and she doesn’t argue. “Miz Potts, Colonel Danvers, Lady Sif. Nat, happy hunting.” He leaves each of them with a nod and a smile and makes his escape before Kate can protest.

“Kate,” Natasha says, and Kate meets her eye. “Why did you hack Clint’s personnel file?”

The corner of Kate’s mouth twitches, and Natasha knows she’s deciding whether to answer, how to answer. One day, with a little more experience, she’s going to be very very good. One day.

After a moment, Kate says simply, “Wendy Conrad.”

Carol raises an eyebrow. “Who the fuck is Wendy Conrad?”

“Small-time villain, got her start working for William Cross,” Natasha answers. “She goes by the alias Bombshell, and specializes in....”

“Explosives,” Kate finishes. “Small, spherical, custom-designed explosives.”

Pepper immediately calls up a search on her tablet, and Sif looks at Kate curiously. “Young warrior, do you believe this Bombshell is the enemy we seek?”

Kate’s eyes stay fixed on Natasha. “The targets are higher profile than her usual fare, but yeah, it stands to reason.”

Pepper slides the tablet toward Natasha, the screen displaying side-by-side images of the digitally reconstructed explosive and one of Conrad’s little round bombs. “It’s a solid lead,” Natasha agrees. “She's been out of action for a few years, but it's worth looking into to see if she's resurfaced. Good instincts, Kate. You’ve saved us some work.” In a cool voice, she adds, “Next time, please bring your contributions to me instead of illicitly accessing classified documents.”

It’s as clear a dismissal as Natasha’s going to give her, but Kate doesn’t twitch. She folds her arms and stares Natasha down with eyes that have the makings of steel in them. Carol looks between them and laughs.

“I think our young Avenger wants to stay and play ball with the big girls again.”

“Absolutely not,” Natasha says, and she does Kate the courtesy of saying it directly to her. “You’ve had minimal experience and uneven training. You’re impatient, unprofessional, and would be a liability in the field, despite your practical skills.”

Kate narrows her eyes. “Bullshit. I helped out here while you all went off to Asgard, Pepper and Carol can tell you-”

“Yes, you did, and you were an excellent teammate, but you weren't in the field,” Pepper tells her patiently. “Kate, I’m sorry, but you’re a little too young for this kind of thing.”

Kate looks like she has something very particular to say about that, but, to Natasha’s surprise, Sif speaks up. “I felled my first troll when I was yet half her height. Let the child try her hand at making proper war.”

Kate brightens slightly, but Pepper frowns. “I don’t think that-”

“Aw, c’mon. Kid’s got spark,” Carol says, adding to Natasha, “And maybe she hasn't done much field work, but she did help out while you were all gone last month, and she tailed you without getting caught. That counts for something.”

“Yes, I did,” Kate says cheerfully, and Natasha gives her an icy look.

She hates to admit it, but Carol does have a point. Kate plays her skills close to the chest, and Natasha suspects she has much more potential than anyone realizes. It’s everything else about her that makes this a risk.

“We’ll see,” Natasha says finally. She nods to the empty chair beside Carol. “Sit.” Kate smiles and obeys, and, to Natasha’s relief, she does so without another word. If any part of this operation goes smoothly, Natasha thinks, it will be a miracle.

She’s never been one to count on miracles.

+

Pepper has nothing but respect and compassion for the young heroes who fight beside their mentors, who put their lives on the line to protect people, often before they’re even old enough to vote. They have the courage of their youth, and she admires that. Really, she does.

Another paperclip sails through the air and drops into the empty coffee cup beside her, joining its predecessors with a soft clink.

“Kate.”

“What?”

“Could you.... Would you mind running a filter search on that last data set?”

“Jarvis is already doing that.” Yet another paperclip lands in the cup.

Pepper does not rub at her temples; she doesn’t pinch the bridge of her nose. She resolutely does not give in to any outward expression of frustration, though she may briefly entertain the notion of sending Kate back to Clint with a stern note pinned to her shirt. “Right, of course. Well, maybe you could go through the target profiles again?”

“But Jarvis....”

“We can’t leave everything to Jarvis.” Pepper doesn’t snap. Really, she doesn’t. “You’ve got a good eye. You might spot something the computer will miss.”

“Okay,” Kate sighs. “Yeah, I can do that.”

Pepper sends up a silent prayer of thanks and returns to her own work.

The display in front of her shows a three-dimensional rendering of one of the reconstructed bombs. It’s small, hardly bigger than a baseball, and, according to the reports, it detonated with enough force to completely obliterate a human body. She’s seen smaller things do more damage, but not very often and not with this kind of efficient devastation.The victims all had to be identified through DNA samples because there wasn’t enough of anything else left.

Pepper has seen photos of the blast sites. She prefers the digital images Jarvis gives her.

She pauses.

“Jarvis, show me the before and after on site five.”

Right away, Miz Potts,” Jarvis answers as two images appear side by side on her screen.

The first image shows the main area of an opulent penthouse suite, reproduced in perfect detail down to the marble grain on the thousand-dollar end table and the balcony rail glimpsed through a glass wall. A generic male shape stands in for the victim, stalled near a doorway, caught in the moments after he enters the room. There is a small sphere at his feet.

The next image shows the same room, this time with a blackened crater where the man-shape had been. The door he came through is gone, the wall around it blasted away. The floor where he stood is nothing, a hole through which Pepper can see layers of crumbled concrete and bent rebar. The rich furniture is scorched, and a single pane of the great glass wall has shattered outward. Even in the detailed rendering, there is nothing left that is immediately identifiable as having once been human.

Pepper frowns.

“Now the other four, please.”

The pattern is clear: a man in stateroom, an office, a meeting, a hallway; whole in the first image and distinctly, definitely not in the second.

And yet.

“Jarvis, I’d like you to run a simulation for me,” she says. “Recreate the conditions prior to each explosion and show me what happens if an ordinary explosive were to detonate with the same force and origin point of our bombs.”

Of course, Miz Potts. This shall only take a moment.

“Find something?”

Pepper jumps, startled, and turns to find Kate suddenly beside her, studying her screens with interest. She’d put a bell around Kate’s neck if she thought it would do any good.

“Maybe,” Pepper says. “Does anything about this look strange to you?”

Everything about this looks strange to me,” Kate replies, sliding her rolling chair over to sit next to Pepper. “The blasts are contained.”

Pepper nods. “Exactly. That much force should have done more damage. Instead....”

“Instead, we’ve got a big explosion in a tiny space,” Kate finishes. “Which means Natasha was right. The bombs are just going for the one guy.”

The simulations appear on the screen. Sure enough, the rooms are now unrecognizable shells, shattered and blackened by the bomb blasts, nothing like the localized damage in the site photos.

These results are derived from my reconstruction of the explosive devices,” Jarvis explains. “I was unable to recreate the actual explosion patterns using the existing parameters. Might I suggest that there is yet some data that remains to be gathered?

Kate raises an eyebrow. “Big Brother’s got a point.”

“Thank you, Jarvis.” To Kate, Pepper says, frowning, “Is it possible SHIELD missed something when they were collecting pieces?”

“On all five sites?” Kate shakes her head. “SHIELD sucks, but they’re not that sloppy. It’s gotta be something else.”

Pepper sighs. “Well, at least we know what piece we’re missing. Maybe the others are having better luck.”

+

While Pepper and Kate work on running down details on the bombs, Carol goes with Natasha and Sif on a recon mission, searching for intel on who might be behind these bombings. Carol wonders if Kate's hunch will pan out. Might be nice if it did-- Kate's a good kid with a good heart and a lot of fire and drive, and Carol does tend to root for those people. Personal preference and all.

Natasha leads them into the Underground, a dank, filthy network of tunnels and pipes and unused subway tracks underneath the city. Carol understands that this is the best place in the city to get information about subversive criminal activity, really, she does, but this still doesn't exactly sound like her idea of a fun afternoon.

"It's like Lowtown in Madripoor-- without the charm," Natasha says, smirking back at them as she motions for them to follow her into the dark.

Natasha goes first, Sif close behind. Carol brings up the rear, eyes on Sif's back and the point where the silver pommel of her sword peeks up through her ponytail. The Goddess of War is dressed in SHIELD-issue cargo pants and a hoodie for this mission, and Carol can't help but chuckle under her breath as she follows the others. It's still deeply funny to her, seeing Asgardians dressed in clothes that regular folks wear. Last week she saw Thor wandering around the tower in this yellow Hawaiian shirt with Bermuda shorts and flip-flops; she doesn't think she's ever seen Parker laugh that hard.

Sif looks over her shoulder. "Something amuses you?"

Carol clears her throat. "Hmm. Old Midgardian joke. A secret agent, a Kree warrior, and the Goddess of War walk into a bar," Carol quips, ducking underneath a huge metal pipe as she does.

"And then they lay waste to the villains inside?" Sif queries. The tunnel is wider and darker now, and Carol can barely make out the swish of long dark hair that slides over the hilt of Sif's sword as she turns toward her.

"Ha. I've gotta say, I like that ending better," Carol says.

"So do I, but we've gotta cut the chatter now," Nat interrupts. "We've alerted too many people to our presence already."

Carol hasn't seen anybody, but Natasha always knows more than she says, so she shuts her mouth and moves forward as quietly as she can.

The Lady Sif, meanwhile, strides boldly onward ahead of them no matter how many times Natasha has to remind her that she doesn't know the way. Carol can't really blame the lady-- sneaking around, following the leader in the dark, definitely not on her top ten list. But she'll follow somebody she trusts into pretty much anything, and Nat's seen some serious shit, so here she is. She does, however, hate the orders.

"You sure I can't fly to Madripoor instead?" Carol asks, after half an hour with bingo luck.

"Yes," Nat replies curtly, and Carol squares her shoulders.

They come to a wide opening in the tunnel, five separate smaller tunnels branching out from the one they're standing in.

"This is where we split up," Natasha says. Carol feels rather than sees Nat's arm moving up, pointing above their heads. "Each tunnel is marked with the sign of the organization that has claimed the territory beyond it. Two of these organizations are defunct. That leaves three of us and three nests of criminals."

"I trust your wisdom, Natasha, but this is a darkness even my eyes cannot pierce," Sif says. "I cannot see these sigils you speak of."

"Yeah, I'm having a hard time here myself," Carol agrees. "How are you seeing this, boss?"

Something hits her chest, and Carol grabs for it, feeling its shape. "Night vision goggles?"

"Stark tech," Natasha informs them. "They're invisible once on, and they conform to the shape of your face so you don't have to worry about anyone ripping them off in a fight."

Sif makes a skeptical noise, but when Carol presses the strange goggles over her eyes the difference in her sight is both instant and somewhat shocking-- there's so much detail around her, from the signs that Natasha described to the architecture of the tunnels themselves.

"This place is well-constructed," Sif observes, craning her neck to stare up into the darkness of stone above their heads.

"It's no Asgard, but it does the job," Natasha says wryly. "Sif, you're on the far left. Carol, you take the right. Radio if you find anything useful, but otherwise let's keep the chatter to a minimum."

"Are there beasts in these tunnels, Natasha?" Sif asks, stepping toward the lefthand tunnel with her hand on her sword and a particularly vicious smile on her face.

"Not the kind you're used to," Natasha says. "Let's get going. Try not to kill anything if you don't have to; we might need these informants alive later. Rendezvous here in an hour."

"Copy that," Carol says, and the three of them branch out.

It gets darker, if that's even possible. It gets darker, and then Carol finds people to interrogate, and then it gets darker in a different way. She's been doing this Avenging thing for a while now, but she doesn't usually get called in to talk, so this is new. Spy training or no spy training, it's not exactly a picnic to get catcalled by small time criminals. Sure, maybe every so often she gets a little thrill, like the one she gets when some lowlife criminal underling with delusions of grandeur grabs for her in the dark and she is just forced to hand him both sides of his ass, but overall this is not her idea of a good time, and she's not getting anything from it except older and more impatient.

A shuffle in the dark, a grumbling whisper. None of these assholes have any information, just cheap come-ons and bad breath. She closes her eyes and thinks of flight.

Pretty girls like you shouldn't come down here alone.

You're right, I am pretty. Pretty fucking pissed. Lights out, sucker.

Next tunnel. Dim light. Something she doesn't want to think about crunching under her feet. She refuses to look down. Possible informant number two stands in front of her.

Maybe I know something, maybe I don't. Gimme a smile, gorgeous, I'll tell you what I know.

You know what, how 'bout instead you just gimme a break. Your arm will do.

This shit gets old, and fast. She's got no idea how Nat's put up with it all these years, but spy training aside, she knows for sure this isn't her speed. Her speed is literal speed, the glory of flight and the rush of a fall. It sure as hell isn't stalking around quietly in the dark, earning nothing but disgust for her trouble. She hopes the others are having better luck, because she's pretty much finished asking these bottomfeeders for information.

"Widow," she calls over the comm, watching as the latest offending party limps away. He starts to turn back and give her lip, but then Sif appears out of the darkness, hand gripping the hilt of her sword, and the guy audibly gulps and shambles a little faster.

"A pity," Sif says. "I have been too many days without an adversary."

"That one wouldn't have been worth your time," Carol says.

Sif slides her sword fully back into its sheath on her back. "So few are," she says, sighing.

"I hear that," Carol replies. There's a buzzing sound in her ear, and she taps the comm piece. "Widow. You read?"

More static. Carol frowns. "It's almost time for the rendezvous, she wouldn't have gone quiet without a reason."

"It would not be like the Lady Natasha to be taken in by the sort of ruffians I have seen in these tunnels," Sif says grimly. "Shall we go to her aid?"

"Worth a shot," Carol shrugs. "But let's do it quietly. If we interrupt her while she's in the middle of something, she'll never forgive us."

They creep back along the passageway, silently motioning to one another to signal the position of others hidden along the way.

By the time they reach her, they find Natasha surrounded by ten previously armed guards, all of them unconscious and in varying states of disrepair. For her part, Nat is still handcuffed to some old pipes running the length of the far wall, but that clearly hasn't stopped her.

"You missed the party," Natasha says, smiling at them. She nods at the handcuffs. "Sif, I could use your sword."

"Of course," Sif says. There's a crisp swishing noise and then a loud clang as Sif's sword slices through the chains of the handcuffs.

"So," Nat says, brushing the dirt off her hands. "That was helpful. One of these idiots indicated that the target pool for our bomber is more than just diplomats."

"That was before you kicked him in the head, I'm guessing," Carol says, looking down at the KO'd baddies at their feet.

"Obviously. Henchmen aren't what they used to be. Well," she pauses, smirking, "actually they're exactly what they used to be. What did you two get?"

Sif and Carol exchange a look, and Natasha stares them down.

Sif shifts on her feet and crosses her arms over her chest. "I have no new information to impart, but I did smite a fair number of foul-mouthed cretins who cast aspersions on my ability to defend myself in battle," she says. "I believe you would say that they...had it coming."

"Seconded," Carol says. She aims her thumb in Sif's direction. "What she said."

"I can't take you two anywhere," Natasha sighs. She pushes past them, suddenly brusque. "I'm going back to the Tower. Hopefully Pepper and Kate have some more intel for us."

"Hey, Nat, come on, we tried, okay?" Carol says. "We're just-- we're warriors, we're not spies. You point us at the Big Bad and you know we've got the firepower to get the job done. That's what we're here for, right?"

"So you want me to bench you until you've both got something to put your fists through?" Natasha asks. "You do the job that's in front of you, Carol, that's how this works. And right now, this is the job and this is your team. It's up to you. You come the next time I call you and you do what needs to be done, or you don't answer my call."

"Understood," Carol says quietly, and none of them speak again during the long walk back to the surface.

+

Pepper has no idea what Kate’s trying to accomplish, but it’s giving her a headache.

Kate has figured out how to manipulate Jarvis’s three-dimensional projections, and has a digital reconstruction of the bomb spread out over half the room. The imitation components spin around her at dizzying speed, first one direction, then another. Suddenly, Kate pulls all of the pieces back together, palming the shape of the original explosive. She tosses the projection into the air and catches it, like a pitcher testing the weight of a baseball, then she hauls back and gives the thing a hard throw straight at the far wall. The image hits dead center on the eye of a security camera and once again scatters into its hundred pieces.

Pepper closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, trying to focus on her own work and ease the ache building up in the center of her forehead. This has been going on for thirty-seven minutes, and Kate has spent the whole time humming snatches of “Livin’ on a Prayer”.

“Having fun?”

After no company all day but Kate and Jarvis, Natasha’s appearance is a welcome intervention, and Pepper almost sighs in relief. Kate fumbles her hold on the projection and sets the digital pieces spinning at a dizzying pace, the lights flickering across her startled expression.

“About as much fun as you’ve had, probably,” Pepper says. “Any leads?”

Natasha gives her a look that clearly communicates the answer to that question. “Tell me you have some good news.”

“Well, I don’t have any bad news.” Pepper calls up the site reconstructions and shows Natasha the patterns of destruction. “It looks like the bomber-- Conrad?" At Natasha's grim expression, Pepper clears her throat and continues. "I see. Well, it appears the bomber is using some kind of shaped charge to control the explosion, but the device is too small to account for that. Honestly, the device is too small to account for any of this.”

“We already knew the bombs were keyed to the targets’ biorhythms,” Natasha says, but Pepper shakes her head.

“That’s what I’m saying. The kind of tech it takes for that much control over that kind of explosion is too sophisticated to fit in something the size of a baseball.” Pepper indicates a display of a similar device resembling a spare tire, hardly six months out-of-date. “This is the smallest anyone has managed. What we’re looking at is almost less of a bomb and more of a....”

“Bullet with their name on it.”

They turn to Kate, who is still surrounded by the digital clutter and grinning.

“Something to add?” Natasha asks, and Kate’s smile turns sly.

“One of these things is not like the others,” she says. “All these bits look like they go together, like they came from the same place.” She points to a single, small slice of material in the middle of the cloud. “Except that one.”

Pepper follows Natasha closer to investigate, and she feels a stab of shame for dismissing Kate’s work as playing. Sure enough, the differences are subtle, but the component stands out like the corner piece from a different puzzle.

“The rest of them are factory-grade materials, and they’ve got tool marks from where the bomb was put together,” Kate goes on. “This one’s high-end, and there’s no marks.”

“So it came from somewhere else and was added once the bomb was already assembled," Natasha muses. The piece is a thick band of metal, its surface dotted with wire attachments. “What is it?”

Kate shrugs. “The fuck should I know? I don’t do bombs.”

Pepper does not roll her eyes. “Jarvis?”

I am unable to identify the component’s purpose, and no similar technology exists in my database. However, my analysis suggests that this particular piece is Latverian in origin.

Pepper looks to Natasha, startled, and sees her own surprise reflected. “Latveria?”

“Latveria hasn’t exported any kind of technology in decades,” Natasha says. “And smuggling is... discouraged.”

As if on cue, her phone gives a discreet chirp that Pepper has come to associate with SHIELD summoning its assets. Natasha answers with a clipped, “Romanov.”

Whatever she hears on the other end makes her face harden and her stance shift ever so slightly into battle-ready. Pepper tenses.

“Understood.” Natasha slips the phone brusquely back into her pocket, and her expression as she turns to Pepper suggests that the incoming news may not be good.

It isn’t.

+

After Natasha leaves them at the entrance to the Underground, Sif declares her need for some sort of beverage, or possibly a fight, or both, so Carol leads her to an Avengers-friendly bar downtown, a moderately quiet joint where most of the patrons are regulars who aren't overly bothered by superheroes interrupting their evenings.

"I will have your strongest ale," Sif commands.

The bartender, a shorter lady Carol doesn't remember seeing before, looks at Sif strangely, but after a second she gives Sif a slow nod and then raises an eyebrow at Carol. "And you?"

"Sticking with water, thanks," Carol says. She grins. "I'm the designated flyer for the evening."

"Is it not customary on Midgard to share tales of professional misery over several rounds of beer?" Sif asks, frowning curiously at Carol's water glass.

"Oh, it is, but not for this lady," Carol says. "I can't drink alcohol, I break out in handcuffs."

"How curious," Sif says, but she doesn't make any further comments about it, she just tips her glass back when the bartender brings her a thick black ale. It's gone in the space of time it takes the bartender to refill Carol's water glass.

"Asgardian," Carol whispers, and the bartender's eyes go wide for a minute before she reaches for another pint glass.

"On the house," she says, vaguely awed, pushing more beer in Sif's direction. "Never met an alien before."

"My thanks," Sif replies. She frowns. "I seem to recall that you have strange notions of aliens on Midgard."

The bartender smiles. "Yeah, well. If all the aliens on those crappy tv specials looked more like you, I'd relocate to New Mexico for sure."

Someone further down the bar signals for a drink, and the bartender wanders away, looking back more than once at the two of them.

"I think she wants your number," Carol grins, and Sif pauses halfway through her beer.

"I did overhear some of the SHIELD agents referring to me as a ten," Sif says, winking at Carol so slyly that Carol barely even registers the expression before it's gone. "Is that the number you meant?"

"Definitely," Carol says, grinning back.

"Were you supposed to tell her that I am not of your realm? Did we not have some sort of cover to maintain?" Sif asks, looking around. "I was given to understand that was why I would not be wearing my armor for much of this adventure."

Carol looks sideways at Sif. "Six foot gorgeous warrior woman? Honey, there's no kind of cover we could give you that would be convincing. I don't know what Maria was thinking. Probably her idea of a joke, knowing Maria, actually. Nat's the only one who really gets her. Well, maybe Fury. And Coulson."

"Hmm. And how long must we wait for a real battle?" Sif asks. "I have been on this...vacation long enough."

"Hard to say. Hopefully not long. For what it's worth, I'm with you-- I'd much rather be fighting than waiting it out," Carol sighs, and Sif nods. "I've got the training, but I still think I make a pretty terrible spy, Lady Sif."

"I am as well, I fear," Sif sighs. "It was not my intention to make trouble for Natasha, but I am weary of waiting for the battles she promised me."

"Tell me about it, sister," Carol says, with a long-suffering sigh of her own. "I was fighting surprise dinosaurs on 43rd when Nat asked me to sign up for this, and a few months before that, it was this gigantic robot that came out the ocean and started making trouble. I thought this might be a good time, but I'm wondering if maybe Nat made the wrong call with me. Maybe I'm not as good for this as I thought I'd be."

Sif gazes thoughtfully into her drink for a few moments, and they sit in silence, listening to the chatter of the other patrons, their superhuman hearing picking up on even the most hushed conversations between lovers and friends and business associates all over the bar. Carol flattens her hands on the bar countertop, tapping her foot against the stool, impatient as ever to get up, get moving, find a wall that needs busting down, a ceiling that needs a hole punched through it.

"What weapons did you use?" Sif asks suddenly, breaking into her thoughts. "Against these foes you named."

Carol flexes her fingers. "Just these," she says proudly. "And, you know, the superstrength and the whole photon blast thing. That's pretty handy. I fly, too."

"On your own?" Sif asks. "Or with the aid of some Midgardian machine?"

"Both," Carol says, and this, this is okay, because the next best thing to flying or fighting is talking about it, and Sif's got stories of her own to tell and a fierce warrior's pride in the strength of her own hands and the weapons they wield. The bartender throws a funny look in their direction when Sif slips her sword from its sheath and holds it out to Carol, balanced perfectly in her palm, but Carol's not paying attention to much else, just thinking of the next story, the next remembered moment of glory.

From her pocket, Carol's phone buzzes insistently, and she frowns at the interruption as she reaches for it and checks the display.

"Danvers," she says, trying for a cool professional tone that she hopes will convince Nat that she's appropriately apologetic for her mediocre efforts earlier. She listens carefully to Nat's brief situation report, then nods over at Sif, who downs her beer and collects her sword from the bar top. "Got it. See you in five."

"We have a mission?" Sif asks, eyes hopeful as she sheaths her sword and tosses a mostly appropriate amount of money onto the counter.

"Something else blew up," Carol says. "So I'd say so." She holds out her hand to Sif as they step outside the bar. "It's a short walk back to the Tower, but it's a quicker flight. You gonna be offended if I give you a lift?"

"We fight for the same cause," Sif says, stepping closer. "And I would never deny a fellow warrior the chance to display her skills."

"I knew I liked you," Carol grins, and the lights of the city blur around them as she speeds them away.

+

The team arrives in Madripoor as soon as possible after Natasha gets the call about the explosion. Specifically, Natasha sets them all down in Lowtown, on what must have been the former site of the old Princess Bar. From the look of what's left of the tables, somebody had tried to fix it up recently, return it to its former surprisingly classy glory, but now all that progress is gone in a puff of smoke and a pile of cinders. The wreckage is still smoldering from the rain that blew in after the explosion; they pick their way through it carefully.

"I thought these bombs destroyed only their targets, not whole structures as well," Sif says. She kicks at a piece of sheetmetal, then prods at it with the point of her sword. "Are we certain this is the work of the same villain?"

"Yes, we are. And as for the extra destruction, I'd imagine those had something to do with it," Pepper says, pointing to the blackened shells of several propane tanks.

Carol nods slowly. "Good eye, there, Rescue," she says, and Pepper gives her a brisk, efficient smile in return.

"Widow," Kate says quietly, tilting her head ever so slightly to the side, eyes sighting something far off in the distance.

Natasha moves quickly but casually until she's standing next to Kate, then bends down and picks up a useless piece of shrapnel. "Looks like something to send back to the lab," she says, turning to toss it to Pepper, who mercifully understands what's happening and doesn't contradict her, just nods and murmurs quietly to Sif and Carol. As Natasha turns but to Kate, she tracks Kate's line of sight with her own eyes, searching the roofs of the ramshackle buildings for whatever has alerted her teammate. Even with all the years and all the ops she has under her belt, it still takes her two passes to see it: a barely perceptible glint of matte-black metal expertly hidden in the dark corner of a busted window.

The window is in a building that's three city blocks away.

Natasha has to hand it to her: Kate Bishop is really something else. No wonder Clint likes the kid.

Still, she feels that praise is more effective when given sparingly, so all the acknowledgment she gives Kate is a curt, "Good work," before putting her back to the building with the scope, her mouth quirking as she thinks to add, "Hawkeye."

+

To Sif's disappointment, instead of engaging in combat, they only apprehend the man that young Bishop observed spying on them. She understands the importance of gathering information about one's foes, but spywork and interrogation are yet strangers to her, for her fighting style is not unlike the weapons she carries: deadly and unapologetically so, all her considerable strength on display, daring her foes to try to best her. This manner of slyness that Natasha affects was always more Loki's milieu, not hers, and through the pane of glass that separates the others from Natasha and their suspect, Sif watches Natasha stalk around this potential informant with a skeptical but curious fascination. Sif has no cause to wonder why it had been Natasha who had been sent to deceive a deceiver; she cannot imagine that Loki ever saw Natasha coming. She herself has been guilty of underestimating these mortals, but no longer. They have impressed her with their courage and their strength of will, and she is proud to fight beside them-- or she will be, if ever they are able to fight.

"Nice work, Nat," Carol mutters, as the man begins to give Natasha the information she has requested. A string of details emerges as the man spills forth answer after halting answer, interspersed with pleas for this questioning to be at an end.

"Hmm. He gave us a name," Pepper says. She taps it into the small electronic tablet she holds. "It looks like that corporation is a shell company set up by... the cousin of one of the murdered diplomats. Maybe there is a connection here to the bombings."

"I don't know," Kate says, frowning. "Does this not seem weird?"

Pepper looks up from her search. "Do you think he meant to be captured?"

"No," Kate says slowly. "But-- maybe. But no. Something isn't right about this, I know that much. I have a funny feeling."

"You should learn to trust those instincts," Sif says approvingly, for something in the man's manner also troubles her and puts her on her guard. "If you want to be a warrior."

Kate smiles up at her, grateful, and Sif returns the expression. Helping this young woman does not make up for the long road she walked to earn the respect of the Asgardians she has fought beside, but it is still good to give words of encouragement to another hopeful lady who is setting out on that path.

"This bothers you too, huh?" Carol asks. Her arms are crossed over her chest. "I think maybe you're right. Not buying what this guy's selling, connection or no connection."

"Maybe. But I don't think he wanted to be caught," Pepper muses. "I'm willing to believe Natasha can figure it out if he's not giving her the full truth."

"As am I," Sif says, "but I find that I am unwilling to wait for him to get to it."

Before anyone can move, she barges into the room where Natasha is interrogating the subject, sword drawn. Natasha blinks in surprise for only a moment before her face once again portrays nothing but a cool indifference.

"You are lying," Sif says. She holds the point of her sword under the man's chin; the metal glints ominously in the flickering fluorescent light. "It is extremely tedious and I grow weary of it. The truth, or your head. Your choice."

"Sif--" Pepper begins to say, but Natasha holds up her hand, and Pepper falls silent, though her face and posture indicate that she remains uncertain.

"I am not unfamiliar with liars," Sif growls. "And this one is not the master of it he pretends to be."

"You heard the lady," Natasha says. "Who are you working for?"

He looks down the length of Sif's sword, then stares for a moment at each of them.

"Conrad," he coughs, confirming their suspicions. From the room outside, Sif can hear Kate's soft exhalation of joy at her victory, and she has to suppress a smile.

"Wendy Conrad," the man continues. "And that's the truth. But lady, you can have my head along with it, because I'm not crossing her."

At a nod from Natasha, Sif pulls away her sword.

"Keep your head," Natasha tells him. "For now, anyway."

Sif gives the rogue one last glare before following Natasha from the interrogation room to rejoin the others. She cannot help but feel as though this matter is still far from resolved, though she cannot say what troubles her. This lesser criminal is captured and they have the information they seek; soon the villain behind all these horrors will be forced to face them in battle. She should be pleased to have aided her comrades. Why, then, does she feel so uneasy?

+

With Carol taking her turn in the pilot's seat of the jet, Natasha spends the ride back to New York scanning file after file of information on Wendy Conrad and Latveria, looking for connections as she passes tablets around to the others. The henchman they nabbed couldn't-- or wouldn't-- give them any solid leads on Conrad's current whereabouts, and satellite photos of all her last-known haunts are turning up nothing.

"How do we find this Wendy Conrad?" Sif asks, peering at an old surveillance photo of Conrad in her Cross Tech days.

"That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?" Carol sighs from the front of the jet. "Guess this means more recon."

"Maybe it doesn't have to," Pepper suggests. "Should we put a call in to someone more familiar with her movements? Clint, possibly?"

Natasha frowns and glances over at Kate; they share a look of mutual frustration. She had been trying to avoid notifying Clint that anyone connected with Cross had popped up on the radar again. This is her op, and her team can handle it, but Clint won't think about that, if he thinks at all: he'll just charge in. The addition of Kate complicates matters. Clint might be quick to suggest that Kate help babysit the Earth from the relative safety of Stark Tower, but add field work and old enemies to the mix and Natasha's certain he'll be singing a different tune.

"Maybe we can call Bobbi," Kate suggests, and Natasha nods slowly.

"That might work," she says.

"I'll get on the horn and see if we can track her down," Carol says. She glances back at the others. "Or we could always just pay our friend Doom a surprise visit and ask about that tech you found in the bombs. I can have us there in a few hours."

"We're not picking a fight with Doom unless we have something more to go on," Natasha says, shaking her head. "It's not that I don't think we'll win, but SHIELD policy on Latveria is currently--"

"The devil you know," Pepper interrupts, and Natasha nods.

Sif frowns. "I do not take your meaning. If you know who the devil is, then why not best him and be done with it?"

"It's a Midgardian expression," Kate explains. "I think the whole thing is, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. The guy in front of you may be an enemy, but he's a known quantity."

"I do not think I agree, for I think that I would prefer to beat the first devil in battle," Sif says thoughtfully, "and then perhaps the second would think twice before challenging me, though if he did, he would soon be made to regret it."

"That doesn't seem to work with supervillains, sadly," Pepper says, and Sif sighs.

"No," she agrees. "I suppose it does not."

"Hey Nat," Carol says. "I've got a call coming through for you, looks like SHIELD found Morse for you."

"Thank you," Natasha says, making her way to the co-pilot's chair. She settles herself in and grabs a headset as a video monitor pops up from the console, revealing what used to be the base of the World Counter-terrorism Agency, but what now looks like a combat zone. Bobbi stands in front of the chaos, and as the screen resolution clears, Natasha can see familiar figures running around far behind Morse.

"Hey, Bobbi. Is that Wilson and Rogers with you?" Natasha asks.

"Yeah-- we're kind of in the middle of something here," Bobbi says. A loud booming noise punctuates her statement, and the camera shakes. "Nice to see you too, by the way."

"Sorry," Natasha says gruffly. "If you need reinforcements-"

"Negative. Nothing we can't handle," comes the reply, and Natasha gives Bobbi a brisk nod, trusting her to handle her own trouble. "What do you need?"

"Information, if you've got it," Natasha says. She doesn't wait for confirmation before she forges ahead with her questions. "What do you know about Wendy Conrad? I think you know her as Bombshell."

"Ha. Yeah, sure, I know her. She tried to kill me once. I don't usually forget an assassin," Bobbi jokes, and Natasha gives her a sly smile in return. "If she's freelancing again, this is the first I've heard of it. You probably know about as much about that as I do. Everything I can tell you is in the reports I know you've already read."

Natasha nods tightly. She hadn't expected any new intel, but it had been worth a shot. She gives it one more try.

"Any reason to believe she might be involved with a certain Latverian dictator?"

The video feed glitches, but Natasha can still register the look of surprise on Bobbi's face.

"Doom? No-- well, I don't know, maybe," Bobbi says, frowning. "It's a long shot, but six months ago, Interpol intercepted a transport of strange microchips from Eastern Europe. They thought it was tied to an illegal cell phone marketing scam-- somebody trying to get rich selling knockoff iPhones, not really our deal."

"Then why did the WCA pick it up?" Natasha asks.

"One of the guys running the shipment had an alias that got our attention. Used to use it when he worked for one of AIM's million splinter cells. RAID, maybe, but don't hold me to th-- shit, hang on."

Bobbi draws her gun and disappears from frame for a moment, and Natasha waits, turning over this new information. RAID hasn't been an active cell for a few years now, but that doesn't mean it's dead. She drums her fingertips on the arm of the co-pilot's chair. Why would Doom be in an arms trade with an AIM group? And if he isn't, then how did Latverian microchips end up in Wendy Conrad's biobombs?

After some more explosions and the sight of Steve's shield flying across the frame, Bobbi reappears, looking like she's been showered with part of a ceiling tile. "Sorry, it's a little crazy right now. What else do you need to know?"

"What did you find out about those microchips? And where were they intercepted?"

"Our techs had nothing on them, and they're gone now-- they were stored out in the Mojave, and the tesseract ate those for you. But they found them in a warehouse in Baltimore," Bobbi says, and Natasha resists the urge to grin: according to the SHIELD files they've been passing around, one of Wendy Conrad's former haunts was in Baltimore. It's not a sure thing, but it's a solid lead, and it's one more piece of the puzzle. She'll take that over nothing.

There's the unmistakable sound of gunfire, and Bobbi looks over her shoulder before turning back to Natasha.

"That's my cue, I think," she says. "Sorry I can't be more help. And Nat? You're asking about Bombshell, so I have to ask--"

"It's got nothing to do with Barton," Natasha says, answering Bobbi's unspoken question.

"Good," she says, with a quick nod. "Good. Morse out."

"Okay," Natasha says, looking over at Carol. "Captain, I think we need to be in Baltimore."

"Copy that, boss," Carol says, saluting, and Natasha takes off her headset and begins to brief the others.

+

By the time they reach Baltimore, Pepper and Kate have used the SHIELD databases to narrow their search for Wendy Conrad's current base of operations to four locations around the city. Natasha splits up the team, one seasoned hero per location, and Kate with the Lady Sif.

"Can't I go with you?" Kate asks. She holds up her bow and quiver. "C'mon, you know you'll do better with a Hawkeye watching your back. Um. No offense, Lady Sif."

"It is no matter," Sif tells her. "You will learn much from either of us."

Natasha looks at Kate's hopeful face and grinds her teeth. She's not hard-hearted enough not to feel something, but if Kate is going to be an Avenger, she has to learn to listen. "I gave you an order," Natasha says finally. "Move out."

As luck would have it, of course, they all come up empty except Kate and Sif, and when Wendy Conrad wakes up in a stark white room back at SHIELD's New York base, she's sporting a busted lip and a black eye, courtesy, Natasha understands, of the Lady Sif and Kate Bishop, respectively.

That had been something of a surprise-- she hadn't expected that Kate could actually land a punch like that.

"Told you I was lucky," Kate says, when Natasha comes by to tell them that Conrad is awake and that interrogations will begin shortly.

"Luck can change quickly in this business," Natasha tells her. She fixes both Sif and Kate with a steely-eyed glare. "I'm letting you in on this interrogation because you brought her in and I need to see what she knows about you, but no interruptions this time, understood?"

Sif keeps her hand on her sword, but she nods reluctantly. "I trust your wisdom in this matter," she sighs.

Kate holds up her hands. "What the Lady said," she says.

"Good," Natasha says. "Come with me."

Carol and Pepper meet them at the door to the interrogation room.

"We're on our way to the lab," Pepper tells them. "We recovered some computer equipment from her base-- we're attempting to see if there's anything of use on it."

"Let me know as soon as you have something," Natasha says, and they nod. She turns back to Kate and Sif. "Ready?"

At their answering nods, she keys open the door and leads them in.

A lot of people think that an interrogation is about asking the right questions or applying the right amount of pressure to the right spot, and while those tactics have their uses, they've never really been Natasha's preferred method. If she's the one talking, then she's not getting any information; that's valuable time wasted. A successful interrogation means the suspect talks more than you do.

And even gods, she has found, will fuck up when they go on for too long.

So she says nothing upon entering the room, and neither do the others. Natasha settles herself into a chair across the room from Conrad and waits but not for long; fortunately, Wendy Conrad is in a talking mood.

"Well, well, if it isn't Black Widow, in the flesh," Conrad drawls. Her lip is swollen, but she spits in Natasha's direction regardless. Natasha does nothing.

"And the Asgardian," Conrad continues, looking at Sif out of her unbruised eye.

So. Whoever she's working for, they know about the team. Natasha sits very still and waits.

"I'd never made a bomb for an extraterrestrial before," Conrad says. "It's the same process as all the others, as it turns out."

Okay. So now it's highly probable that there are bombs out there with their names on them. Good to know. Natasha scrutinizes Conrad's face, but she gives no sign that she's lying.

"You and your little friend here caught me by surprise," Conrad says, nodding at Kate. "I was a little surprised to see that you've got a junior Robin Hood working for you now. What is it, take-your-baby-avenger-to-work-day around here?"

Kate bristles, but she doesn't say anything. Natasha considers pulling her, but she needs to wait for a good moment.

"I guess it's not a surprise, you on this team, fighting me," Conrad goes on. Natasha fights not to roll her eyes. "I did try pretty hard to kill your best friend Barton a few years back. Hell, my old boss pretty much succeeded, didn't he."

Kate doesn't speak, but this time, she doesn't have to-- both Natasha and Wendy Conrad can tell from the look on her face that this is a weak spot for Kate. Before this can go any further, Natasha stands to lead the other women out, but Conrad, of course, keeps talking as they head for the door.

"Aww. Is that why you're here? Following in Barton's footsteps? Want to be a big hero with just a bow and arrow, no superpowers, just like that old circus freak? It's nice work if you can get it, but take it from me, kid: you don't want to be anybody's number two."

"Thanks, but I don't usually take career advice from murderers," Kate snaps, turning back to face Conrad. Her fingers twitch at her side like they're reaching for an arrow, and Sif lays a hand on her shoulder.

"Murderer! Ooh, check out the beak on this little birdie," Conrad laughs, but then her face grows serious. "What are you trying to say there, Hawkeye? It's not murder if you're wearing a purple jumpsuit?"

Natasha has been a part of a number of interrogations over the years, and she knows precisely when the moment comes to step aside and let someone else handle things.

For Kate, that moment is now.

"Out," Natasha says to Kate, pointing at the door. Kate sets her jaw and glares, but Nat's been at this a lot longer, and there was a week once in Vladivostok when she's pretty sure the look on her face actually caused a few lesser henchmen to drop dead, so even Kate with all her considerable talents is no competition. Still, Natasha catches the fuck you too that she mutters as she slams her way out of the room.

At a nod from Natasha, Sif follows, leaving her alone with their suspect.

"My apologies," Natasha says smoothly. She smiles, one of her more lethal expressions. From the pocket of her jacket, she pulls a reconstructed replica of one of Conrad's bombs. It's non-functional, but Conrad doesn't have to know that. She clicks a trigger on the side, and a red light appears briefly underneath the smooth metal surface of the sphere."Now. Since you were so kind to bring it up: what do you say we chat about these little biobombs of yours? This one's Stark tech," Natasha lies, rolling the fake bomb in Conrad's direction and stepping back to the far side of the room, out of an imaginary blast radius. "And it has your name on it."

+

Sif follows her young teammate from the interrogation room at a distance, silently keeping pace behind Kate until she ducks into an empty, unoccupied room off the main corridor. Sif slips quietly in behind her.

"Dammit," Kate yells, slapping the wall hard with the flat of her palm. She turns back to face Sif with shame in her eyes. "I fucked that up, didn't I?"

Sif shrugs. "I have faith that Natasha can repair any damage that was done," she says.

"Yeah, but what if more people die because of that delay? That's my fault," Kate sighs, slumping against the far wall of the room. Sif lays a careful hand on her shoulder.

"No," she says gently. "That is the fault of the villains who attack them. It is no fault of yours."

They stand together in silence for a time. There are several moments when Kate opens her mouth to speak, but closes it again; Sif passes the time quietly, giving her young friend time to process her thoughts.

"Is she right?" Kate asks at length. "Is it just... are we even any better than her?"

"She is a villain," Sif says, her tone firm.

"Yeah, but--"

"If I have learned one thing in my life, my friend," Sif says, bending down so that her eyes are level with Kate's, "it is that you never listen to the poisonous words of your enemies."

"Okay, well," Kate sighs, looking away, "what if you did, and now you can't get them out of your head?"

"Then a distraction is necessary," Sif says. She pulls her sword from its sheath and grins down at the younger warrior. "What would you say to a little hand-to-hand combat?"

+

Seven hours and no information later, Pepper pulls Natasha out of interrogation.

"What have you got? She's given me a lot, and I know she can't be working alone, but that's all I know right now."

"We may not need her to confess anything," Pepper says. "I found a ghost drive on a tablet she had hidden at her base. It took Jarvis and I several hours, but we have what looks like the hit list."

"And just when I was starting to have fun," Natasha jokes, with a backwards glance at the door of the interrogation room. "How's Kate?"

"Sif talked to her for a while," Pepper says. "I'm not sure if that helped or not. She's been using soda cans for target practice for several hours now."

Natasha shakes her head. "She's got talent, but she's still green," she sighs. "And I think she's taking Conrad's involvement a little too personally. I know she tried to kill Clint, and it isn't like I don't care about that myself, but fighting with people who have tried to kill you or your teammates is an occupational hazard you come to expect when you do this kind of work."

Pepper purses her lips. "I know that's part of it, but I really think Kate just wants to impress her boss," she says, with a pointed look at Natasha, who meets her eyes only briefly. "She looks up to you. Give her a shot."

"Weren't you the one who said she was too young for this operation?"

"Yes," Pepper says. "But she's been very impressive. She has an eye for detail that puts me to shame. I could do with a little less off-key humming of Bon Jovi's greatest hits, but it's not like I'm unused to music in the labs."

"Hmmph," Natasha snorts. "What are you saying?"

Pepper shrugs. "Give her a chance. She'll probably do what she likes regardless, but at least if you're making the call, she has someone to report to, someone she respects to advise her."

"I'm nobody's role model, Pepper," Natasha tells her, uncomfortable at the thought. She really didn't sign on to do personality wrangling with this team. She does not have time for that bullshit.

"I don't think that's a choice you get to make," Pepper says. "I think that's up to Kate."

"I'll think about it," Natasha lies, and Pepper raises her eyebrows, but she doesn't make any further comment, just quietly escorts Natasha to the SHIELD lab where Pepper and Carol have been working to unravel connections between the long list of names on Wendy Conrad's hit list, searching for a common denominator that might lead them to her employer. Sif joins them after a moment; Natasha doesn't wait for Kate to start reviewing the information.

"So essentially, there's only one thing all these people have in common," Natasha says, half an hour later, as they all stare at the digital lines connecting the victims, from the high-profile diplomats to the low-level criminals in Madripoor. "In some way, they've all done some kind of work for Victor von Doom."

"Well, speak of the devil," Carol says.

Pepper swears softly under her breath. "I suppose we're going to Latveria."

"Not all of us. We're going to need someone on the inside, someone undercover," Natasha says.

"Hang on a second, look at us, we're Avengers now," Carol says, gesturing around the room. "Maybe we can sneak around the Underground, but we're gonna be pretty goddamn recognizable to Doom."

"I do not believe that the people of your world are overly familiar with me," Sif interjects. "And I would like an opportunity to redeem my...spywork."

"No offense, Sif, but you don't sound like you're from around here," Carol says.

"That might be an advantage in Latveria," Pepper points out.

They argue, talking over one another; it vaguely reminds Natasha of a similar scenario in the lab of the Helicarrier, but there's no mystical spear to blame this on, just the tension built up between four people who are cruising for a fight that hasn't yet come.

And then suddenly an arrow pierces the conference phone, and all conversation stops immediately as all four Avengers turn to stare at the shooter.

"I volunteer," Kate says, lowering her bow. "When do I leave?"

In the tense silence that follows, Natasha exchanges a look with Pepper, then gives Kate a long, appraising look. When Kate doesn't flinch or look away, Natasha nods slowly.

"Okay, Hawkeye," Natasha says. "Let's see what you've got."

+

Kate doesn’t know how Natasha gets her a cover identity so fast, and she not sure she wants to. She also doesn't know what convinced Natasha to let her do this, though she suspects that Natasha knows that if she'd said no, Kate would have done it anyway.

All she knows is that her new commanding officer doesn’t look twice at the papers identifying Kate, now Katarina Buranek, as a promising new recruit in the elite Latverian castle guard.

Victor von Doom, equal opportunity employer. Who knew?

The communicator in her ear is invisible and, as long as it’s turned off, undetectable to the castle’s tech scanners. She’s under orders - and Natasha made sure to impress that it was, in fact, an order - to check in every twenty-four hours, just a short all-clear unless she has something to report. Otherwise, she’s completely on her own.

On her own in the home of one of the most powerful supervillains on the planet. Awesome.

“Pony up, Hawkeye. You can do this,” she tells herself firmly. Damned if she’s gonna go home to face Natasha - to face any of them - having fucked this up.

The training is rigorous, but it hardly requires her full attention, so Kate spends her first day watching and listening and waiting and beating up provincials who think they’re hot shit. She's suddenly very glad for all the on-the-job training in hand-to-hand she's had recently. She identifies half a dozen languages and understands enough of them to get by, sticking to French and falsely accented English for herself and keeping her ears sharp for any rumors of... well, of anything. There’s a lot of talk about what captain is boning which squad leader, who’s from where and how did they end up in Latveria, and, mostly, what’s for lunch. Not so much evil plans and world domination.

In the small hours, when the barracks have gone dark and quiet, Kate sneaks out into the hallway and switches on her comm.

“This is Hawkeye, checking in. All quiet on the Latverian front,” she says.

To her surprise, it isn’t Natasha who answers, but Carol. “Read you loud and clear, Hawkeye. How’re you holding up?

“Oh, you know,” Kate sighs. “So far, so not getting caught.”

Yeah, let’s keep it that way, alright? I don’t wanna tell your boss we gotta go rescue you from Doom,” Carol replies. “Hang in there, kid. You’re doing great. Captain Marvel, out.

The line closes with a soft beep, and Kate kills her comm, muttering, “Doing great. Sure.”

Day two doesn’t go much better.

There’s some debate as to whether the supreme ruler is even in Latveria, but Kate figures that’s an argument that will outlive Doom himself. She says as much on her check-in call, and Sif snorts.

“This villain’s ways are cowardly and crude,” Sif assures her. “Your courage and cunning will prevail.”

Kate reminds herself of that throughout the mire of frustration and basic training that is day three. In the warm light of a waning afternoon, cool under the castle’s shadow, she plans her next move.

When the lights go down on the third night, Kate creeps out of the silent barracks and into the calm stillness of the castle. She’s going exploring.

Nothing she’s seen so far has been what she expected. She thought the home of SHIELD’s Most Wanted would have an air of menace, of tension, but, as far as she can tell, Latveria is a pretty chill place. The people are happy, protected, and provided for, the royal compound is a picture of comfort and efficiency, and she has yet to see any photos of heroes pinned to dart boards. At first glance, nothing seems amiss.

Kate’s never been one to trust a first glance. First instinct, sure, but her first instinct is usually to take a closer look, which is exactly what she’s doing.

She ducks into the shadow of a doorway as a night patrol passes, just two guards arguing idly in Italian about, she thinks, the World Cup. Their voices fade away down the corridor, and Kate lets out a breath. She skirts wide around the kitchen, knowing there will be someone there, regardless of the hour, and moves deeper into the castle keep.

If I was a clue to an evil plot, where would I be?

She’s not surprised to discover that Castle Doom has a real, honest-to-fuck dungeon, or that there are people in it. There is a strong impulse to find whatever passes for a key on the high-tech cells and lead an impromptu prison break, accompanied by a morbid curiosity to see if any of the prisoners are people she knows, lost heroes locked away to await a rescue that isn’t coming.

She’ll come back for them, Kate tells herself. When this is over, she’ll get these people out, but, for now, she has a mission. As she turns away, looking for another route, she hears the sudden pulse of a forcefield dissipating as one of the cells opens.

A robot guard snaps an order in... Dutch, maybe? Norwegian? Kate can’t follow, but she hears the word doktor, which translates pretty clearly. She peeks around the corner in time to see the guard leading a serious-looking woman away down the hall. The woman is dishevelled, but not much the worse for wear, and Kate ticks “gracious treatment of prisoners” off on the list of things Latveria has going for it.

This little curiosity, though, is the only unusual thing she’s seen in three days, and Kate is absolutely desperate for a mystery.

She straightens her back and strides, smooth and confident, down the row of cells. There is, presumably, video surveillance in this section, and the cameras will capture nothing but a young soldier strolling past the prisoners.

The robot is silent, but the woman’s footsteps sound clearly on the stone floor. Kate keeps close to the soft taps down one corridor after another, following just a corner behind, until the sound is stopped by a closing door. The door is like all the others in the castle: simple, steel, and sealed shut with the kind of technology that would make a professional burglar weep and retire. The difference, though, is that this door doesn’t slide open with a pass of her security badge.

Alone in the quiet hallway, Kate smiles.

+

The dullest part of any adventure is always the waiting one must endure between battles. Sif has tried, in recent years, to enjoy the peace of this part of life instead of waiting impatiently for the next enemy, the next fight. It is difficult, but she is managing. She spars with the others; she learns to navigate the vagaries of Midgardian technology. Sif is aided in this particular quest by Thor, who is also on Midgard, having taken his leave of Asgard along with her, both of them weary in the aftermath of all Loki's failed plots for their home and for this place. Thor is presently elsewhere in this realm, fighting alongside his own new teammates, but they have learned to communicate news of their adventures to one another via the Midgardian means of text message, and she takes advantage of it now as they await another report from young Kate Bishop.

I await our next battle with impatience she tells Thor. What do the mortals do when they have no enemies to fight?

She stares at the window of her room in the Tower until the phone chirps at her, indicating a reply.

I have learned that when bored, the mortals sometimes engage in virtual combat on an electronic gaming apparatus which they call the Wii, the text reads. you must try it! perhaps you can attempt to surpass my score, if you are up to the challenge!

She grins down at the tiny screen in her palm; Thor knows her well. She finds the device in question in a spacious lounge on the seventeenth floor of the tower; when she finds the scores Thor spoke of, she frowns and summons the others.

"Comrades," she says, holding out four of the small white devices that control the system, "we have a challenge we must undertake while we await word from our youngest warrior."

"You want to play video games?" Pepper asks.

"I want the others to return to find that their names have been erased from this machine and replaced by the records of our great victories," Sif says. She winks at her friends. "This is no game, it is clearly a matter of honor."

"Wait, does that say Peter Parker has the highest score?" Carol says, peering around Sif to look at the screen. She grabs for a controller. "No way. Unacceptable. Let me at it."

"And Rogers is number three?" Natasha observes, incredulous. She holds out her hand. "I'm in."

Sif looks at their remaining teammate. "What say you? Will you join us in putting these men to shame?"

"I run Stark Industries, Lady Sif, so I think you've just described my day job," Pepper says, smiling. "But of course I will. I think Tony's been hanging on to that number two spot for far too long."

+

When Kate checks in with what she’s found, Pepper tells her, “Just be careful, Kate. Please.”

Kate resists the impulse to add a “scout’s honor” to the promise that she will.

The next night, she steals away again from the quiet barracks, and this time, when she comes face to face with the mystery door, she’s ready. It’s amazing, really, the amount of mischief that can be accomplished with a smartphone and a screwdriver.

With a soft whir, the door slides softly open to reveal the towering form of Victor von Doom.

Kate steps backward, swallowing a startled gasp. The painting is fully life-sized and so disturbingly realistic that Kate is half-convinced the eyes must be cameras tracking her movements. She shivers and tries to ignore it as she steps into the narrow space.

A light snaps on overhead, illuminating the room’s sinister contents. To her left, a dozen heavy, sleek guns hang neatly in a row, their glossy metal grips glinting brightly, and, to the right, a dozen guardian robots stand at silent attention, waiting to be summoned into action.

Kate lets out a slow breath. “Fuck.”

Doom’s certainly got the killer robot market cornered, but this isn’t what she’s looking for. The door slides closed again behind her as she starts a slow circuit of the arms closet, running her hands along the stone walls, searching for anything even a fraction out of place.

“Robots and guns,” she mutters to herself. “Why is it always robots and guns with these people?”

By the time she’s checked the room, it feels like the painting and the robots are staring at her, and it’s starting to make her skin crawl. She hasn’t found so much as an especially deep seam in the stone, but there has to be something. A hidden lever behind the guns, a pressure trip in the wall, a secret button that....

Kate looks at the painting and seriously considers slapping herself on the face.

She runs her fingers down both sides of the frame, around to the bottom, and.... Yep. There it is. She presses the little button, and the painting slides silently aside, opening onto the most dark and menacing spiral stairwell she’s ever seen.

“Oh my god. Seriously?”

Well, there’s something to be said for traditionalism, anyway.

The air in the stairwell is thick and stale, growing warmer as she descends, and Kate has never in her life felt more like she was walking into somebody’s villainous lair. There are dim lights at intervals along the ceiling that cast small pools of illumination on the stairs, with two or three steps of darkness between them. She moves from one pool to the next like she's skipping through film frames, deeper into the lower reaches of Castle Doom.

She counts the steps in her head, and, around number two hundred and seventeen, she nearly walks past the smooth, grey panel set into the wall. It’s the same color as the stone, and the matte metal casts no reflection in the dull light. All that sets it apart is the slick keypad with its softly glowing numbers, the panel itself nearly invisible in the space between the lights.

One ominous door after another, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading her right into the heart of the mystery.

This one is a bit beyond her breaking and entering skills, so Kate slips down a few steps, melting into a dark space between pools of light, and waits.

It isn’t long before a man in a worker’s uniform comes down the stairs, and Kate watches closely as he keys in the security code. The door opens and closes behind him, and she gives it a count of ten before she follows.

Life with the Avengers has prepared her for a lot - alien hordes, mystical enemies, laundry day at the tower - but the sight in front of her is still enough that, for a moment, all she can do is stand and stare.

The thing is huge, bigger than she can really get her head around, and it fills the cavernous space with endless coils of plated limbs and tentacles. Metal plates overlap across every surface, creating the impression of silver scales, heavy and impenetrable. It’s something out of a chrome and wire nightmare, and Kate would be more amazed if she weren’t also suddenly terrified.

Well, shit.

"Ah, Miss Buranek," a voice says, and she whips around. The woman-- she thinks it's a woman, but the way things are going, it might as well be a robot programmed to sound like a woman-- seems to be standing on a catwalk about twenty feet above her. As Kate peers up through the criss-crossing metal pattern of the catwalk floor, she could swear she catches a glimpse of a bionic eye. The woman continues speaking, pacing above Kate, the thick soles of her boots and the shadows in the room blocking her from view. "Or Hawkeye, I believe. Why are you so far from your nest, little bird?"

Kate would trade a lot of things for the comforting reassurance of her bow and some arrows right now, but even without them, her brain is still spinning out possible shots. The bolts where the catwalk is fixed into the walls. The keypad on the door behind her. The helmets of the bad guys who are almost certainly creeping up to surround her from the shadows.

Okay, this looks bad.

What would Clint do?

Probably not the best question.

What would Natasha do?

That'll work.

"I think you have me at a disadvantage," Kate says warily, hoping that the tremor in her voice from all this adrenaline isn't as audible twenty feet up. "We haven't been properly introduced."

"There will be plenty of time for pleasantries later," the woman says. "You may not, of course, find them so pleasant."

When the woman steps into the light, Kate knows things aren't just bad, they're catastrophic.

Acting on impulse, she activates the hidden trigger to her comm unit, hoping to transmit a distress signal to the team. She doesn't know if the signal can make it through the thick plating and even thicker walls of this hidden fortress, but it's worth a shot in the dark-- she's always been good at those.

She has time to say only a few words into the comm unit before the guards have her, and she hopes, as they propel her menacingly forward to the woman on the catwalk, that help is on the way.

+

Natasha's monitoring the comm when the call comes through, and she only makes one phone call before she goes to tell the team what happened. It is not to Clint, and she tries not to feel guilty about that.

“Bishop’s been compromised,” she says, stepping quickly into the room where the others are waiting. The other three women snap to attention.

“What?” Carol demands. At the same time Pepper asks, “Is she okay?”

Sif is already standing with a hand on her sword. “She is in danger?”

Natasha prides herself on maintaining a certain emotional distance, but Kate is her charge, her responsibility. Whatever happens to her is on Natasha’s head, wherever the true fault lies, and, at this moment, she feels that weight.

“Twenty minutes ago, she activated her distress signal,” Natasha tells them. “Before the transmission was cut off, she said Lucia von Bardas.”

There is a beat of silence, then Carol says simply, “Well, shit. Right country, wrong Latverian. We made a bad call.”

Natasha sighs. “Seems like it. I already called Daisy Johnson, since she's tangled with her before. She's got her own thing going on right now, but wished us good luck with von Bardas. She said we'll need it. With the cybernetic implants she has now, she likely has quite a few new powers.”

“Does it matter who the villain is, or what her strengths may be? Why do we tarry?” Sif asks. “We waste our comrade’s life with idle words.”

“If we fly into Latveria with guns blazing, she won’t have a life left to waste,” Natasha points out. “Look, we know where she is, and we know what we’re up against. Our best chance is to go in quiet, grab Hawkeye, and get out fast. We need a plan.”

“We can plan on the way. Let’s go,” Carol says, standing by Sif.

Pepper, to Natasha’s surprise, stands with her. Catching Natasha’s look, she raises an eyebrow. “If you didn’t come up with a rescue plan the second you sent Kate in there, I quit,” she says. “You can brief us on the way. I promise we’re smart enough to keep up.”

Natasha blinks. “Well, alright then. Ladies, move out.”

It isn’t until they’re in transit and reviewing the mission details that Natasha’s phone buzzes with a text, predictably, from Clint.

why isn’t kate texting me back?

A cold feeling creeps up Natasha’s spine, but she ignores both it and the text. Moments later, her phone buzzes again.

i’ve sent like a hundred messages but she’s not answering. what did you do to my sidekick?

Natasha isn’t sentimental enough to claim that she won’t forgive herself if anything happens to Kate.

nat?

Kate's been on missions before. She's been in dangerous spots with Clint before. This, though, this is different. This is Natasha's team and that makes it Natasha's responsibility, and it is a concrete fact that if Kate is lost on her watch, Clint will never forgive her. Ever.

natasha what’s going on? wheres kate?

If she tells him the truth, he’ll be on a plane in ten minutes. If she doesn’t answer, he’ll be on a plane in five. She loves him like a brother, but she’s never met anyone more prone to getting in the way.

She picks up her phone and texts, black ops.

The response is a little slower, and she has just enough time to wonder if he’s getting on a plane anyway before he replies simply, ok.

A second later, her phone buzzes one last time.

take care of her

Natasha sighs. Clint is going to kill her.

+

There is the usual Doom-generated cloud cover to mask them as they fly over the Carpathian mountains into Latveria, tracking Kate's signal as they go; Natasha doubts they really need the transmitter to tell them that they're headed straight for Doom's fortress-- Doom may not be running the show right now, but von Bardas seems to want everyone to think that he is until it suits her to say otherwise. What her end game is, Natasha can't say: this wouldn't be the first time Lucia von Bardas has tried to take over Latveria. Whatever it is, she knows it will mean a fight, but with this team, that's not a bad thing-- and if von Bardas has made the mistake of hurting Kate, it will be the last mistake she'll ever make.

The signal, predictably, leads to an empty room in Castle Doom.

"Trap?" Sif asks.

"Trap," the others chorus, just as steel plating slides over the only exit to the room.

"On that note," Pepper says, pointing to various spots around the room, "we have a problem."

"Bombs?" Natasha asks.

"Bombs," Pepper confirms.

"Let me guess," Carol says, but Sif interrupts before she can finish.

"One for each of us," Sif says.

"Yes," Pepper acknowledges. She sighs. "It's a fairly predictable diversion."

"Yeah," Carol laughs, "but it'll be a fun diversion."

"You have a strange idea of fun," Natasha says, but there's a smile on her face that she doesn't try to hide. "Are we ready?" Natasha asks, and three affirmative replies echo back. "Just like we planned then, ladies."

She grins. This will be fun.

"Countdown to explosions in...five seconds," Pepper says. Laser light beams out from her suit, pinpointing the four bombs. "Four."

"I am war," Sif says, cleaving hers in two with a swift stroke of her sword. "I do not fear this cowardly device."

"Three," Pepper says, bending to pluck her bomb from where it sits hidden in a bookshelf. The gears of her suit whir and click as she crushes her hand around it. She looks over at Natasha and Carol. "Two."

"I got this, boss," Carol says, stepping in front of Natasha, hands up.

"One," Pepper says, with just a hint of worry in her voice. The explosion is blindingly bright, but it does not last long: Carol absorbs the blast of both bombs.

"One thing you don't want to put into a trap," Carol says, rubbing her hands together, her whole body vibrating with the excess energy she has just absorbed. She smiles at the others. "Us."

"You are correct," Sif says. She brandishes her sword at the plating over the door. "I would like to see a trap that could hold us."

"This one won't," Natasha says. She looks from the door to Carol. "Cap?"

"On it," Carol grins. "That blast was better than one of those five-hour energy things. Better step back."

One exploded doorway later, they pick their way through the rubble back into the stone-walled corridor that leads deeper into the castle.

"Where should we search for our missing comrade?" Sif asks.

"I'm not sure. Pepper?" Natasha says.

"I'm getting a lot of energy readings from much of the castle," Pepper observes. Her suit can't actually frown thoughtfully, but it almost seems like it is. "But there's a dead zone beneath our feet that goes at least a mile down. There should be something, but I can't even bring up pipes for plumbing. It must be heavily shielded."

"Then that's where we go. Move out," Natasha says.

+

When they find her, Kate is bound and glaring daggers at von Bardas, but she looks none the worse for wear, otherwise. Keeping her eyes and aim fixed, Natasha calls out, “How you doing, Hawkeye?”

“Oh, I’m just great,” Kate answers. “Have you met my new friend, Lucy? She’s a peach.”

Von Bardas backhands her across the face, scowling. “Silence, whelp. I will suffer no more of your insolence.”

With a splash of blood on her mouth, Kate turns back to Natasha. “This is what I’ve been putting up with. Who even talks like that? Sif doesn't even talk like that.”

Von Bardas ignores Kate and stares down her nose at Natasha as if studying something stuck to the bottom of her shoe. “Your efforts have been impressive,” she says imperiously. “But you are wasting your breath and my time. The mightiest among you cannot forestall what I have set in motion.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Carol asks. “Blow up some assholes and pin it on Doom? Doesn’t seem like much of a grand plan.”

The look that curls on von Bardas’s face is the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares. “The scope of my vision is beyond your limited understanding. Victor von Doom styles himself a benevolent dictator, but his so-called benevolence has made Latveria a weak nation of simpering peasants and pestilent refugees. The time has long past for the reign of Doom to meet its end, and I have ensured that these crimes will be his demise, even as I have thinned the ranks of Latveria’s enemies. Once, we were a proud country; once we were feared. Under my guidance, we will be feared again. We will r-”

“What are you, a Bond villain?” Kate interrupts. “Seriously. This monologue is putting me to sleep.”

Von Bardas gives her a glare that is pure murder. “You impudent little--”

“Yeah, I’m with Hawkeye,” Carol cuts in. “Less talking, more punching.”

Carol, Sif, and Pepper have taken up attack formation behind Natasha, ready at a word. Natasha smiles. “Well, how can I deny a request like that?”

They move on cue. Pepper fires off a repulsor shot that knocks von Bardas off balance, and Carol follows up with a punch hard enough to turn concrete into ashes. Von Bardas goes flying, and an energy blast from Carol drives her into the ground. Howling as only an Asgardian warrior can, Sif raises her sword and plunges into the fray.

Natasha makes a beeline for Kate, who is already climbing to her feet.

“She’s got a robot tentacle monster,” Kate says quickly, as Natasha goes to work on the contraption around her wrists.

“She’s got a what?”

“Giant robot tentacle monster,” she repeats. “I really wish I was kidding, but it’s further down under the castle and it’s huge.”

“Oh, good. I was starting to think this might get boring.” Natasha finds the control mechanism on the cuffs and zaps it with a Bite. The thing gives a forlorn sputter and releases.

“Yeah, not much chance of that,” Kate remarks, rubbing her wrists.

Natasha swings a small pack off her back and hands it to Kate. “Thought you might need this.”

As the collapsible bow snaps open in her hand, a new expression crosses Kate’s face, and she is, unmistakably, Hawkeye. She grins. “I should go thank my host.”

The others are throwing everything they have at von Bardas, but, now that she’s regained her footing, she swats aside their attacks. Natasha pulls an arrow from the quiver and hands it to Kate.

“Give her the red carpet treatment.”

Kate fires the arrow straight at von Bardas’s feet just as Pepper hits her with both repulsors, and the explosion shakes the castle, rattling in Natasha’s teeth. The ground beneath von Bardas gives way and she plummets through the gaping stone floor, disappearing in a cloud of smoke and dust. Carol sends an extended energy burst straight down after her, just for good measure.

Silence falls, broken only by the soft clatter of stone fragments falling around them.

“Rescue,” Natasha says, and Pepper dives into the shattered opening. Moments later, she reappears, shaking her head.

“The blast went all the way down through the castle foundation. There’s no sign of her.”

Carol descends slowly to the ground, frowning. “No way it was that easy.”

“Aye,” Sif agrees, her sword still raised. “Our strongest blows scarcely touched her. Surely a simple fall would not be her undoing.”

“Is it cliché to say I have a bad feeling about this?” Kate asks. “Because I have a bad feeling about this.”

From somewhere deep within the ancient castle, there is a sudden, low rumble that vibrates up through the soles of Natasha’s feet. She looks back at the hole in the floor and raises her guns.

“Brace yourselves, ladies. We’re not done, yet.”

Another rumble comes, hard enough to shake Natasha where she stands, and, this time, it’s accompanied by the ear-splitting shriek of metal on stone.

Arms spread like a patron saint of carnage, von Bardas rises out of the chasm in the floor, glaring down on them with a look of vicious malice.

"Your meddling has forced me to advance my plans, but you cannot hope to halt what I have set in motion."

"Oh for fuck's sake. Shut up." Kate's arrow strikes von Bardas in a shower of lightning and sparks, and von Bardas shudders in the air, spasming as the electric pulse arcs around her forcefield.

For one moment, Natasha lets herself think that maybe, this time, they'll just be that lucky, that the disinterested gods will give Kate this one shot, and it will end here. The moment passes.

Von Bardas shakes off the energy surge, and Kate's arrow clatters to the ground. "Enough! I will waste no more of my time with this folly. Prepare to meet your end!"

Again, the ground rattles beneath their feet as von Bardas rockets through a shattered window and into the blue sky beyond.

Natasha barks, "Captain. Rescue."

They don't need to be told twice, already shooting upward on their target's heels. Before she can reach the window, a massive metal tendril shoots out of the broken floor and catches Pepper's legs in a spiral grip, flinging her savagely into a far wall.

Right. Giant robot tentacle monster.

Carol pauses in the air, clearly torn between helping Pepper and chasing down von Bardas, and the order to keep going is on Natasha's tongue when a storm of plated tentacles bursts through the floor. She grabs Kate and runs, racing across the stone as it crumbles beneath her feet. Over her shoulder, she can see the thing rising, an endless nightmare of whirling metal that shreds through the ancient fortress like folded paper.

Natasha, Kate, and Sif dive through a doorway as the monstrosity rips its way out of the castle and into the courtyard, walls collapsing in its wake.

"I just wanted to hit something, is that so much to ask," Carol grumbles, while Sif expresses similar sentiments simultaneously.

"What manner of monster is this?" Sif growls, as if angry at the thing for interrupting a perfectly good fight.

"Scans show robotic, rudimentary AI." Pepper's voice comes clear over the com as she rises up out of the rubble. "It's self-contained, but the programming doesn't seem to be very sophisticated."

"Okay, so what's it programmed to do?" Carol asks. "Besides smash."

"Same thing as the rest of von Bardas's plan," Kate answers. "Take out Doom's enemies. Latveria's enemies."

There aren't many enemies that warrant a giant robot tentacle monster, but, when it comes to Latveria and Victor von Doom, Natasha can name a few. Specifically, she can name four, along with those who would turn up to help.

"We need to contain this," she says. "Sif and I will try to get in close and find weak spots. Hawkeye, get up high and see if you can spot anything. Cap, Rescue, hit it until you find something that hurts."

Kate's already moving before the orders are over, and Sif is at Natasha's side, sword raised, a wicked smile on her face. Carol and Pepper circle above, darting between the whipping metal arms.

Kate's voice comes over the comm. "Well, you did say you wanted to hit something, Colonel. Looks like somebody's been peeking at your Christmas list."

"I don't have a Christmas list," Carol tells them. "I just have a Most Wanted."

"So say we all," Kate says, and Natasha shakes her head.

"This isn't the time for Battlestar Galactica references, Hawkeye."

"Copy that, boss."

"Carol?" Pepper interrupts. "I'm getting some strange readings from that robot, and I don't think it's wise to--"

"Aw, hell no, Rescue," Carol says. Natasha watches as a giant tentacle darts out at her, and she lets out a breath she didn't realize she was holding as Carol ducks under it just in time. "Do not tell me that I can't blast this thing."

"Cap?" Pepper says, in the same tone that Natasha imagines she usually reserves for Tony at his more mildly obstreperous moments, "you can't blast that thing."

"Dammit," Carol swears, and Sif and Natasha both chuckle; they can hear Kate snickering over the comm along with them.

"No one said you couldn't beat it up," Natasha reminds her.

"I've got a better idea," Kate says suddenly. Natasha raises an eyebrow at the interruption, but she waits to see what Kate has to say. When Natasha doesn't comment, Kate continues. "Hey, Lady Sif."

"Yes?" Sif asks.
.
"Think you can get behind this thing if we distract it for you? There's a place on whatever this thing has instead of a neck that looks like it's just begging for someone to stab it with a long pointy sword."

Sif stands a little straighter, "Oh," Sif says, staring up at the robot, "I believe I can handle this task."

"You heard the lady," Natasha says. "Let's keep it distracted."

+

"I'm not sure what's harder to believe," Kate says thoughtfully as they disembark from the jet. "That we rescued Victor von Doom, who was basically a damsel in distress, or that we rescued Victor von Doom and had to be special guests at an opera in his honor."

"It was an interesting performance, to be certain," Sif says.

"I think the part where we all lived through the opera was the most unbelievable, personally," Carol says.

"You really didn't enjoy The Life of von Doom?," Natasha laughs, and Carol makes a face at her.

"I thought the tenor was particularly impressive," Pepper observes. "He had an amazing vibrato. And he conveyed a lot of emotion. For a cyborg."

"I guess we got some...interesting tourist swag," Carol snickers. She looks down at her t-shirt, a deep blue that matches the dominant color of her uniform overlaid with the Latverian crest; a happily vibrant font around the crest proclaims, Triumfărik quel regierte Latverium-- Thankks for visit Latveria!! "I have plans to re-gift all those hats he gave us, though."

"Poor Jess," Kate laughs, but her laughter is short-lived: Clint is waiting for them when they exit the elevator that leads to the team lounge.

"Natasha," he says, his voice far too carefully level.

"Clint," Natasha replies, in the same measured tone.

"Black ops, huh," he says.

"Another successful mission," Natasha replies.

Kate looks between the two of them, then reaches into her Latverian tourism! Tour us! bag to pull out a folded t-shirt. She smiles awkwardly as she hands it to Clint. "I know you're gonna want to have a talk about now important not getting killed is, but first, here, I got you something," she says, and Clint's expression softens a little.

"Aw, Kate, you shouldn't-- okay, yeah, you really shouldn't have," Clint says, as he unfolds the material to find a t-shirt that reads, My protégé got kidnapped in Latveria and all I got was this damn t-shirt.

"They had them pre-printed," Kate explains, barely stifling a laugh. She shrugs. "I couldn't resist."

"It did seem too appropriate to let her pass it up," Natasha says, and Clint glares at her before turning back to Kate.

"Time for a lecture, Hawkeye?" Kate sighs.

"I'm not gonna lecture, Katie-Kate," he says, and Kate rolls her eyes.

"Can you at least wear the shirt? I went through a lot of trouble to get you that thing."

Carol laughs, tries to turn it into a cough, and gives up; Clint pulls the t-shirt on over his other shirt and gestures toward the door to the hall. Kate grins and waves at the others before following him out.

"We're not done here," Clint says, leaning back around the door to point at Natasha.

"Copy that," Natasha sighs. She turns back to the others when he goes. "Congratulations on a mostly successful first operation, ladies."

"Mostly? Hey, we beat a giant tentacle robot," Carol says. "That's a victory."

"We'll find von Bardas," Pepper agrees. "She can't hide forever. Something tells me she won't try."

"Indeed," Sif says, hand on her sword. "We will track her to a distant realm, if we must, but together we will be victorious."

Natasha smiles. At times during this op, she would have traded her favorite weapon for some kind of miracle to make things go smoothly. But with a team like this, you don't really need miracles-- you make your own.
.
Epilogue

A few days later, Natasha gets another summons from Maria Hill and reassembles her team, sans Kate, who she suspects will be stuck organizing and curating Clint's collection of trick arrows for the foreseeable future.

She doesn't want to admit it, but she thinks she's actually gonna miss that kid.

"Thank you for coming on such short notice," Natasha says, nodding at the others as she passes around a briefing file. "Director Hill informed me a short time ago that we may have a new lead. There's suspicious activity in the Black Sea."

"And she thinks there's a connection to von Bardas?" Pepper asks, just as Carol says, "As in, more giant robots?"

"Only one way to find out," Natasha replies. "Ready to take another run at this?"

"Absolutely," Pepper says.

"Of course," Carol nods.

"I am, as you say, in," Sif says. She frowns and looks at the others. "But what about our youngest warrior? Is she to be left behind?"

"Clint's not gonna let her out of his sight for another year at least," Carol laughs.

"About that. I have an idea," Pepper says.

+

Kate is sitting at the counter of Clint's old apartment in Bed-Stuy, sorting arrows for what feels like the fifteenth time today. She doesn't know why he keeps this place when he's got a home to go to now, but sometimes she suspects that it's for afternoons like this-- the tenants are always glad to see him come around, and when the weather's nice, like today, they grill up on the roof.

She is, of course, benched until she's labeled all these arrows. To be contrary, she's labeled every one backwards. In French. So far, Clint hasn't noticed; he's too busy making coffee and forgetting that he never bought any more cups.

Just as she's finishing up with the boomerang arrow, Lucky scrambles to his feet, wagging furiously and snuffling around by the open window across the room.

"If Clint's stuck in a well, you can forget it, I'm benched," she calls to the dog.

Across the counter, Clint gives her a disapproving look over the rim of the coffee pot he's drinking out of, and she shakes her head and resumes lettering.

Lucky barks twice, and there's a strange rush of wind that blows Kate's post-it notes off the counter. Clint puts the coffee pot down to bend to retrieve them, but when he stands up, he doesn't hand them back to her. Instead, he just looks over Kate's shoulder, a resigned expression on his face, and says, "Oh, for fuck's sake."

Kate turns to face the open window. A quinjet now hovers there, Natasha in the pilot's seat and Sif grinning and waving from the second chair as Pepper stands between them, smiling.

Kate's face brightens with a grin of her own. Apartment-side quinjet service. That's pretty cool.

As she watches, the jet rotates around, then the back bay opens and Carol steps out, hovering between the window and the jet.

"Get in, loser, we're gonna go save the world," Carol shouts, holding out her hand. Kate doesn't have to turn around to know that Clint is giving her a look, and sure enough, Carol laughs. "What? Jess makes me sit down and watch a movie once a week. Kate. You coming, or what?"

Kate doesn't hesitate for another second.

"Don't wait up, Hawkeye," she calls, bending to pick up her bow and quiver from the couch.

"Be careful out there, Hawkeye," Clint replies, clearly resigned, but also, just maybe, ever so slightly proud.

Kate's heart pounds in double time as she leaps out the window and grabs Carol's hand, letting her teammate pull her into the jet.

Okay. That was extremely cool.

"Welcome aboard, Hawkeye," Natasha says, as the back bay closes. "Pepper has mission details for you."

"Thanks," Kate says, taking the tablet Pepper hands her. She looks at the screen. "Oh, good. Lucy again."

"We'll get her this time," Carol says. "I've got a good feeling."

"Will the other Hawkeye manage in your absence?" Sif asks Kate.

"We'll see. At least I left him the dog," Kate says, grinning at the others. "This time."