S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t exactly have an environment that lent itself to gossip. Interesting, dangerous things certainly happened all of the time but very few had access to the entirety of that data, and that may have pissed some people off (people being mostly civilians, or those in other agencies who knew S.H.I.E.L.D. existed but had no clearance), but it was certainly for the better more than for the worse.
So it wasn’t that there was nothing at all to gossip about, it was just that it mostly, mostly, didn’t happen. Oh, sure, people talked about others' private lives all the time, or at least what they knew about them, but as far as the internal workings of the agency went, no one was talking about which consultants were getting raises, or whose clearances levels were changing, or what was going on in the Cairo office. It wasn’t that no one knew about these things, or that no one was curious about them, just that no one dared overstep their rank or clearance level and try to learn more than they were meant to know.
The system worked, and everyone who it worked for, and who worked within it, respected it.
The system worked, but that also meant the system sometimes got in the way of private life issues.
So when Coulson got back from being out of reach for two months, snappish and a little jittery, Melinda had no way of finding out exactly what had happened to make him that way. And while she had absolute trust in the system, and acknowledged that whatever had happened didn’t concern her in the least, she still harboured a burning curiosity about what could have shaken Phil so badly.
She didn’t approach him about it. She went about her own business, because really they were only colleagues, or work friends who sometimes grabbed a drink when they weren’t on the clock at best.
She didn’t bring it up when they stopped by the pub a week after he returned.
She didn’t mention it two weeks later when they were in the same spot and she was nursing a shoulder healing from having been dislocated while breaking up an arms deal.
She didn’t even mention it when, the week after that, she stopped by his office to drag him out for beer (because he’d been locked in his office for a solid week and she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him), and he was arguing with Clint Barton in low tones. Their voices didn’t carry into the hall, and she’d had no reason to think Phil was anything but alone in the office, but that didn’t mean she didn’t feel the slightest hint of embarrassment when she opened the door and discovered he was in the middle of something.
She probably should’ve knocked. She gave them a cool glance instead and stepped back into the hall, waiting patiently until Barton stormed out of the office and out of her sight, not even giving her a backward glance.
“What’s going on, Phil?” she asked when they’d claimed their usual out-of-the-way booth in the back of the pub. The bench was set up in an ‘L,’ giving them both perfect view of the lines to doors and windows as long as they sat perpendicular rather than across the table from one another.
“Classified,” he grunted. Then he moaned and put his head in his hands. “But since it’ll get around, I’m being court-marshalled.”
Melinda raised an eyebrow, and didn’t press it until they’d each gotten through half a pint.
“What, exactly, did you do?”
Coulson shook his head. “That’s the classified part. It’s beyond your clearance. Hell, with all they’re telling me, it might be beyond my clearance.”
“How’s Barton involved?”
Phil pressed his lips together, looking like he wanted to talk—like he wanted to talk really, really badly—and Melinda gave him a tight smile.
“Forget it,” she said. “You need a character witness? When’s the hearing?”
“Next month. The subpoena hasn’t technically been issued yet, they think it might not even happen, but that just means I have to wait.” He put his head in his hands and groaned.
“What’s it for, Phil?”
He mumbled something into his hands, unintelligible with the music and noise in the pub, and the blockage.
“Phil,” she prompted.
“Insubordination,” he said, barely raising his head enough to get his lips clear of his hands before burying his face again.
She pushed his beer across the table toward him until it nudged his hand, and he gripped it, gave her a thankful look, and downed half of what was left. He wore a miserable expression, and if this had been hanging over his head for a couple of months—at least one that she knew of, but she suspected more—then it was no wonder.
“The worst part,” he said, “Is going to be convincing them that I regret what I did.”
“Time to stop talking, Phil,” Melinda said. “I’ll be your character witness, but if you’re being court-marshalled the last thing you need is to be breaching clearance levels, too.”
He waved a hand, but nodded all the same. “I know. Thanks,” he said, and now his voice mirrored the misery on his face.
“It might not happen?”
“It’s going to happen.”
Coulson had a month, anyway, if anything was going to happen, and that meant that nothing came up on the topic again, because she’d seen how close he’d come to telling her things he couldn’t, and he’d tangled himself up in his own head too much to think of trying to talk about it on his own, anyway.
A week and a half after he’d told her about the insubordination charge, Melinda was on a helicopter out to the Raft, a file in her head about the prisoner she’d be escorting to the Hub.
Potential Asset, rather, the file had said, but anyone who S.H.I.E.L.D. arrested and locked up in a high-security prison couldn’t possibly be that useful to them. All she had on the prisoner was an inmate number and list of things to be warned about: expert escape artist, master at espionage and infiltration, assassin, genetically enhanced. Melinda didn’t have a problem seeing the use this person had to S.H.I.E.L.D.
She could also foresee him being more trouble than he was worth.
At the Raft she left her gun at the door, and accompanied the warden—who grunted at the inmate number she showed him—to a cell on one of the upper levels.
As soon as Melinda laid eyes on the prisoner, she wished there had been more information in the file she’d been given on the little redheaded woman sitting and reading a book within.
She was young, couldn’t have been any older than 25, with curls cascading out of her ponytail and down her back. The cell she was being held in was comfortable, with any number of things in sight Melinda knew could be used as tools for escape. For an expert escape artist, she seemed complacent, even happy to be where she was.
The warden entered the cell and cuffed the redhead’s hands behind her back anyway, leading her out roughly. If it bothered the woman, she didn’t let any discomfort show on her face. If nothing, she seemed amused by it all, and that only made Melinda more certain that she saw S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world existing at her sufferance. Trouble. Melinda didn’t need any more exposure to her to know she was more trouble than asset.
Too bad that wasn’t her call.
“I’ll sign Romanova over to you if that’s what the paperwork says, but you sure you can handle her?” the warden asked at the exit of the high security hallway. The look he gave her said he’d taken one look at her size and decided that wasn’t the case. Since Romanova was, if anything, smaller, that was interesting.
“I’m sure,” Melinda replied. Romanova’s expression remained impassive; bored, like S.H.I.E.L.D. and this prison didn’t have her fate in its hands and she still had her freedom.
The warden raised a shoulder as though to say ‘if you’re sure’ and ‘I doubt it’ but there was nothing he could do to counteract the paperwork she’d presented, and he led them out into the office area of the prison, Melinda at the rear with Romanova sandwiched between them. Melinda watched her, looking for any tells or twitches that might suggest she was about to try something, but the woman remained calm.
She probably didn’t know she was in a prison on an island in the middle of the Hudson River, but if she’d been Russian intelligence, it was more than likely she’d made an educated guess to that effect.
They’d returned to the chopper, Romanova’s arms bound elbow to wrist behind her back and Melinda holding onto her upper arm, when she planted her feet and refused to move forward. Melinda pushed her, but Romanova refused to move, looking into the helicopter like it held a cobra.
“What?” Melinda snapped.
“I was promised all escort duties would be given to Agent Barton,” she said, without even a trace of the heavy Russian accent Melinda had been expecting. None of that careful control had left her face, and if she was afraid the emotion wasn’t present in her voice, either, but her stance had changed. “He isn’t here.”
“Well observed,” Melinda said, dryly. “Get in the helicopter.”
“Where are you taking me?” Romanova asked, instead of moving. And now, now, she didn’t look like she had all of the power in her hands. Now she looked like she might try and make a run for it, even if the landing pad was three stories up and there were at least 20 gunmen in sight and she had no hope of getting away.
Melinda didn’t respond, only nudged her forward, prompting a long, steadying intake of breath from the woman. She complied, not even dragging her feet.
Melinda secured her in the caged in seat in the chopper before strapping herself back into the co-pilot’s seat. A tiny monitor on the panel in front of her provided a feed of the camera monitoring Romanova, and the picture wasn’t the greatest, but it didn’t need to be with the stationary position the woman had adopted. Nose practically in the air, she looked proud despite her incarceration.
Her eyes also didn’t sparkle with as much life as Melinda had seen from her in the cell in the Raft, and she reconsidered the woman’s demand to see Barton as the helicopter rose into the air. When they were level and she looked back at the monitor to check on their prisoner, she had to look quickly away. Romanova had found the camera, giving her a too-close, too-direct view of resigned, deadened eyes that unnerved her more than they should have.
Like with the Raft, the Hub’s landing pad was on the roof, but even being outside and out of the way for most people who had business here, it bustled like an anthill.
Romanova looked around as they disembarked from the chopper, only looking a tad bit interested in what was going on around her, and Melinda wished she knew what was going on in the woman’s head because she didn’t look even a little bit curious about where she was. For an enemy spy, that seemed awfully unusual. The amount of information she could return home with from here should’ve had her memorizing everything she saw.
“May. Everything went smoothly?”
Coulson hadn’t been the one to issue her orders regarding moving Romanova, but given that the woman had mentioned Barton, it didn’t surprise Melinda to find him waiting for them on the landing pad.
“No complications,” she said, and if Coulson wanted to hear about it, she could tell him in private about Romanova’s reservations with getting into the helicopter when Barton wasn’t present. As little weight as the words had carried then, they carried less now with his continued absence.
Coulson nodded, and they both signed the inmate transfer form that passed Romanova from Melinda and over to him. Melinda couldn’t control the obvious widening of her eyes in shock when Phil’s next move was to entirely undo the restraints binding her arms together.
“Coulson?” she asked, a bit of a snap to her voice. Romanova massaged her arms and rotated her wrists, ignoring them (at least for all intents and purposes) in favour of her own concerns.
Her own concerns, which apparently didn’t involve Melinda or Coulson. She hadn’t reacted to Coulson’s presence much, either, at least not negatively. Almost as though she knew who Coulson was, or at least recognized his face.
And Melinda could’ve hit herself for not seeing it before this, when Romanova had asked after Barton.
“We’re going to talk,” Melinda said, meeting Phil’s eyes. His lips twitched upward a little in a smile and he nodded his head to one side before tapping Romanova on the shoulder.
“Follow me, Natasha.”
Melinda watched them go, flicking her gaze up and down Romanova’s figure, memorizing the way the woman walked, the way she carried her body, because regardless of Coulson treating her as the asset S.H.I.E.L.D. had apparently decided she was, Melinda still couldn’t see anything but trouble.
Natasha’s experience with S.H.I.E.L.D. thus far had been a lot more relaxed, and gone a lot more smoothly, than she’d expected. Even with her shallow knowledge of the operation of the organization, it made sense to her. The operations were regimented, the way she’d been moved from person to person so orderly as to be clinical. Even being remanded into custody and detained for two months had been comfortable. She’d been able to get her mind in order, and the jail hadn’t been infiltrated by her former employers aiming to remove any threat she posed to them.
Even if the paperwork hadn’t yet been processed and S.H.I.E.L.D. still considered her probationary, Natasha was without country and couldn’t return home now. Not that she expected S.H.I.E.L.D. would allow her to leave scot-free if giving her a chance didn’t go well for them. She’d be put down like a dog, and possibly not even with as much mercy as an arrow through her eye would’ve been.
An arrow. She’d been bested by Robin Hood. How ridiculous.
Waiting now, on the little, hard couch in Agent Coulson’s office, alone, gave her some comfort. He’d been a familiar face after her escort from the prison hadn’t been, at least, even if he still wasn’t Agent Barton. He trusted her enough to have left her alone for the couple minutes he planned on being away from the office, and that was something, when she considered how great a risk to career and organization it was for him to have brought her back with them, to America, instead of leaving her to bleed out in the tiny little alleyway behind the abandoned hospital in Minsk where they’d caught up to her.
Agent Barton, Coulson had said, had a great instinct for people. Natasha wasn’t sure of the truth in that statement, but she was willing to give him a chance in return for his giving her the same.
Barton. A charming, disarming man whose eyes, staring into her from the end of the arrow held at her throat, had shown her her death, held it out to her, then pulled it away and hid it again.
Natasha carried no doubt that he would show it to her again if she double-crossed S.H.I.E.L.D.—or made a mistake that made them think she had. He wouldn’t get the better of her twice; not now that she’d gotten a grasp on the extensiveness of his support structure, now that she’d been surprised by him once. But neither did Natasha have any desire to end the life of the man who had looked at her and, in an instant, decided she deserved a second chance, orders be damned.
There was no fathomable length she could go to repay the debt that had kept her warm and fed even when she likely still topped S.H.I.E.L.D.’s hit list; the debt that had brought her to this office, free of chains—at least of the physical variety—and left alone to do as she would.
But Natasha could try, and one thing she would certainly be careful to do was make sure that Barton stayed alive long enough for her to see out this debt. That, at least, was something she knew she could do. Protecting someone else would be different than making sure she herself got safely out of every situation; it would mean particular, purposeful recalibrating of the way she operated.
Working with a partner would require that recalibration anyway, and Natasha knew it was going to take some time for her to adjust, to fully line her instincts up to recognize that if he was in trouble, she had to get him out—not only herself.
The door opened, and Natasha rose, at attention, when Coulson stepped into the room. He smiled at her. “So, Miss Romanova, we’ve almost got everything arranged to start your probationary period.”
“Romanoff, please,” she said, and when she filled out the form he handed her, she was careful to scratch out the ‘V-A’ at the end of the typed ‘FAMILY NAME’ line and scrawl in an ‘F-F’ in its place.
The first step to changing how she operated was changing who she operated as, and names were powerful things.