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From Fire by Fire

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PART FIVE

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

- T.S. Eliot

 

(After)

I am seventeen and my parents are worried, although they hide their fear behind a mask of mild disapproval. In the past they’ve always been able to turn their worry into something else. Action. Control. But now I’m leaving and even though they’ve agreed to it, even though they know it’s what I want, they don’t like it.

“It’s just… so far away,” says my mother, her lips compressed into a thin line.

“Not that far, really.” I decide not to mention that it’s only California, not another planet. She has a very stubborn, decidedly negative opinion of California.

“Criminology,” muses dad. “Like you didn’t learn enough about that from us.”

I just smile, hugging him, and then the rest of the family comes in. They’re led by Sasha – sitting atop Charlie’s shoulders, enjoying the view and the attention – who doesn’t understand that this is a going-away party, who is happy in the uncomplicated way only a five year-old can be. The others are asking about dinner and music and drinks, and Howie and the other kids are running around playing Cops and Aliens, and the moment is over. But my parents’ eyes follow me for the rest of the night, full of concerns they won’t name and questions I can’t answer.

 

(Before: 2012)

He drowned, once.

Coulson always qualifies it with ‘almost’ – almost drowned – but Clint remembers swallowing half the sea, breathing in the rest, and puking it all up after they fished him out. If that doesn’t count as drowning, nothing does.

This is worse.

*

He feels perfectly in his right mind… until he looks a little closer and sees what it is he’s doing.

Shooting Fury in the chest.

Trying to ram Hill into the side of the tunnel.

Driving into the night with the Tesseract and an alien megalomaniac and counting the evening a success.

There’s a small part of him still struggling to breathe, but it’s being smothered by a weight greater than that of all the oceans combined, compacted into nothingness by the great squeezing hand of inevitability.

He’d step in front of a truck if he could. He’d put a bullet in his own brain, just to stop from being crushed. But his puppeteer, his God, won’t let him. His grip is implacable, his control absolute.

Clint is just a toy. Just a tool. But a useful one, and not easily replaced. You can die later, when I’m finished with you, promises God.

*

Please, Natasha.

It’s a refrain in the single chamber of his mind that is still his own. A room, locked and sealed, that becomes steadily smaller.

Please, Natasha.

Kill him. Or me.

After a while he can’t tell the difference anymore.

 

(Before: 2012)

London agrees with Mary Charlotte.

She is not British, although she has pretended to be on occasion, just as she has pretended to be a Catholic nun. Honestly, she is no longer quite sure what she is. A little of this, a little of that.

She is standing in line at the grocery store, idly watching a nearby television screen, the kind shopkeepers have learned to position near lines like this to prevent the customers from killing each other out of sheer boredom. The channel is turned to a celebrity-trash talk show, which everyone is watching while pretending not to watch, and when the hosts play footage of a recent Tony Stark press conference – interspersed liberally with scenes from last month’s devastation in New York City – Mary Charlotte agrees with the rest of the people not watching that yes, he really does seem like he must be a complete prat, but the suit is quite nice in a flashy, American sort of way.

Mary Charlotte’s phone rings. The other customers seem amused by the sight of a nun – even a thin, attractive, modern-looking nun in her mid-forties – with a cell phone, but she merely smiles. “The Lord’s work follows me everywhere,” she chirrups, before turning away to answer the call.

If she were in truth a practicing Catholic, and the voice on the other end of the line was that of Satan himself, she would not be more repulsed than she is when she hears these words: “It’s me. I have an order to fill.”

“Dear,” says Mary Charlotte sweetly, for the benefit of eavesdroppers, “I’m afraid that I’m no longer in that line of work.”

“Don’t give me that shit, Charlotte,” says the Mad Russian with a barking laugh. “You have your gift, don’t you? I bet you’re thinking of someone right now.”

A child springs instantly to mind: a little girl with bright gray eyes and red-brown hair and a clever, pointed face. She attends a school where Mary Charlotte often volunteers, and she is undoubtedly a special child. “It will take some time,” she says slowly. “And it will be difficult.” She refuses to take undue risks. London is not Bangalore, after all.

“We’re dealing with deep pockets here,” says Artemiev slyly. “Not the Russians, either, or the Chinese.”

Mary Charlotte is surprised. “Americans?” she asks.

“Even better. SHIELD.”

 

(16)

So, Natasha thinks. This is what dying actually feels like.

She’s come close to dying before, more than once. She’s always too busy trying to stay alive at the time to give it much thought, but afterwards, looking back, each brush with mortality has a quality of unreality to it that makes her wonder if she’d imagined the whole thing.

She sits in the motel chair as Bruce ties her ankles and wrists together with lengths of power cord, and she watches Clint, and it feels like dying.

“You and Thor will have to get her to New York,” Clint says, observing the process with undisguised loathing, “or call Stark and Rogers and get them back out here. Keep her restrained. She may not be Natasha but she’s probably almost as dangerous.”

Bruce questions none of this, nodding as though Clint’s ravings are well-reasoned logic. “And where are you going to be?” he asks, completing his task. The knots aren’t especially tight, but Clint could kill her before she could free herself. The bowstring is still pulled taut, the arrow unerringly aimed, even though his muscles must be burning with the strain. She is only too familiar with her partner’s stamina.

Clint’s eyes slide into a distance only he can see. “West,” he says finally. “I think Fisher has Natasha somewhere to the west.”

“West, sure,” says Bruce agreeably, although not without a nervous smile. “That makes sense. I should go with you, though. Let Thor and the others deal with old Fake Natasha here.”

Clint’s own smile is strained, little more than a baring of teeth. “Doc, I’m not quite that stupid. Judging by how much slack you left in those cords, you either think I’m nuts… or Fisher somehow replaced you, too.”

It’s like Loki all over again, Natasha thinks, her stomach turning, but… not. In a way it’s worse. At least then she’d only had to fight him (and she knew how to fight him, fighting him was second nature); she hadn’t had to watch the sweat streaking his face, hadn’t had to listen to the madness rolling off his lips, hadn’t had to see him fall apart in front of her.

“Oh, no, I’m the real deal,” says Bruce hastily. “Genuine Bruce Banner, accept no substitutes.”

 

Clint looks at him coldly. “It doesn’t matter. I can do this on my own.”

In one fluid motion he unstrings the bow – Natasha tenses, sees Bruce’s eyes go towards the gun on the bed, but even if they had it there’s nothing they could do unless they’re prepared to shoot him – grabs the bag at his feet, and then he’s moving towards them, between them, pushing past Bruce, ignoring Natasha as though she’s now beneath his notice, to the door, over the threshold, outside, gone.

*

Bruce stands frozen, listening to the rapidly-receding rhythm of boots on concrete. “What,” he says distinctly, “the hell?

“Brain damage,” Natasha says numbly, similarly immobile, held not by the plastic-and-wire at her wrists and ankles but by the new vision of the future that spreads out in front of her: Clint, not simply pushing her away but unable to recognize her, unable to tell friend from foe.

Lost.

“But the doctor…”

“Forget the doctor.” The memory of the doctor, of the hospital staff in general, is the spark of anger that sets her in motion again. She’d known that they couldn’t be trusted. Dammit, she’d known and she hadn’t done or even said a thing.

Natasha wriggles out of her bonds even as Bruce kneels to free her ankles, steps over him and out the door.

The motel has no internal hallways, just uncovered lengths of concrete separated by a strip of desert weed and rock. Their room is on the first of two floors – no higher vantage to search by, but also no stairs to negotiate – and she breaks into a sprint, rounding the corner of the building until the front portico and main avenue are in sight.

The land is flat. The streets are wide. She turns in a full circle.

Clint is gone.

*

She meets Bruce halfway back to the room, and he demands, “Now what?”

Once upon a time, his question would have been her own. She had been trained to be obedient, not innovative. But SHIELD had no interest in agents who couldn’t adapt, and she’d quickly become comfortable with improvisation. “We need to find him. Call Thor. He can cover more ground than we can. Tell him… tell him we’re going back to the hospital.”

“We are?”

Back in the room she steps into a pair of jeans, yanks the sleep shirt over her head – Bruce jumps and turns his back on her, muttering about a lack of warning – and replaces it with a bra and fresh t-shirt from her bag. “If there’s something wrong with Clint’s mind,” she says, stubbornly forcing herself to say the words, to face the possibility, “we need to know what it is. I want to talk to that doctor.”

*

Bruce calls Foster during the walk back to Ashmore General. Natasha can’t make out the other woman’s words, only her tone, but the tone isn’t good.

“Those things are coming through the rift faster than before,” says Bruce worriedly after he hangs up. “Thor’s hanging in there, but Dr. Foster’s afraid if he left they might overrun the town again. I think we’re on our own for now. Should we… is this something that SHIELD…”

“No.” If Clint doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be. And she needs to know. “Hospital first.”

*

They walk into the step-down unit at the same time that Kimberly Andrade appears to be leaving, purse in hand, a smile on her face as she chats with the nurse named Marie. When Natasha and Bruce step out of the elevator alcove Andrade stops short, waves Marie on, and smiles saucily. “So, Mrs. Barton, where’s the husband?”

Natasha isn’t in the mood to be mocked. She’s never in the mood, but if she was ever to be in the proper mood this would not be the time. “Running around your town half-cocked, most likely.”

Andrade blinks, the smile sliding from her face. “Excuse me?”

Natasha forces herself to take a measured breath, wondering if she should defer to Bruce. Right now she’s so full of anger and fear that she feels incapable of sweet-talking the nurse into compliance. It might be time, she thinks unhappily, to cash in on a little name recognition. “You know who we are.”

It’s a statement, not a question, but Andrade nods. “My sister lives in Manhattan. Last summer she was almost crushed to death by a… what does the news call them? A leviathan?”

Natasha stiffens. “That wasn’t our fault…”

“I said almost,” Andrade interjects. “According to her, something ‘big, green and ugly’ jumped on the thing’s back, got its attention, and saved her life.” She glances sidelong at Bruce. “Thanks.”

Bruce’s cheeks redden; his reply is mostly a stammer.

“I figured if you wanted to be recognized,” Andrade continues, “you would have said something.” Her brow creases with genuine concern. “Now… what’s this about half-cocked?”

*

“No edema, no bleeding,” says Lila Rajani, lacing her fingers together. The doctor’s voice is maddeningly calm, her manner irritatingly competent. “No mass affects or midline shift. No fractures or irregular ventricles. I promise you, we wouldn’t have discharged him otherwise.”

“That can’t be right,” Natasha insists. She suddenly finds that she’s a big fan of brain injury. Injuries can be treated with therapy and medicine and, God forbid, surgery. Insanity is a lot messier. “You must have missed something.”

The doctor gives no indication of offense. “The brain is a tricky thing,” she says neutrally. “Did he exhibit any strange behavior after leaving yesterday?”

Natasha exchanges a brief glance with Bruce. She doesn’t feel the need to go into particulars – well, he was quiet and a little withdrawn, because we’d sort of argued the night before, but then afterward we had mind-blowing sex and… “No nausea,” she evades. “No slurred speech or weakness.”

“No personality changes?”

“No,” she answers promptly, although Bruce still seems unconvinced. Maybe he’s noted the mark on her shoulder, or the faint redness around her wrists that may well darken into a short-lived bruise. It’s none of his damn business anyway.

“I really don’t know what to tell you,” says Rajani, spreading her hands. “We’ll need to get him back in the MRI, take some new pictures to see if anything has changed, but if you say he’s missing…”

“Pictures,” says Bruce abruptly.

“Pardon?”

“Pictures. Video. Do you have surveillance cameras?”

“Not in patient rooms,” says Rajani immediately, her smooth brow furrowing. “At the entrances, yes. The loading dock.”

“Can we see the video from last night?”

Rajani frowns. “I’ll have to speak to the facilities manager about that, I’m afraid. I don’t even have the password to the server.”

“Can you call him now?” Natasha asks. She doesn’t know where Bruce is going with this, suspects it’s nothing more than desperation given form – because what could video of the hospital entrances possibly tell them about Clint’s condition? – but she finds that she trusts his instincts.

The instant Rajani leaves the conference room, Bruce stands. “Come on.”

“The doctor…”

“If they keep their surveillance video on a server,” Bruce says, his eyes shining with new excitement, “then we don’t need a password. We have JARVIS.”

 

(17)

SHIELD may combine many of the worst aspects of an international paramilitary organization and an enormous bloated bureaucracy with no set budget or strict accountability, but at least somebody in charge of naming things has a sense of humor. The building on West 23rd Street is where SHIELD keeps its off-the-radar metro facility is emblazoned with the logo for Tektel Systems… which, as any good Schwarzenegger fan knows, was the name of his cover company when he played a bad-ass spy-slash-family man in the movie True Lies.

There’s a new above-board office in Brooklyn, a very respectable-looking midrise where protesters shrieking about their civil rights go to trample the lawn and harass passersby and where reporters go to ask questions they know they’ll never get straight answers to, but PR is really all that the place is good for. Tektel Systems is where much of the actual work gets done.

Unless, of course, the team from Internal Affairs is visiting, in which case no work gets done at all.

Benjamin Park is standing at the receptionist’s desk, engaged in friendly conversation with Jillian Wenzel. Because Human Resources also has a sense of humor and enjoys playing up stereotypes, the receptionist is bottle-blonde, wearing long acrylic fingernails and too much eye makeup. She is also the first line of defense against unwanted visitors, highly rated on every weapon in the substantial arsenal hidden behind the counter, and a Sandan – third-degree black belt – in Okinawan Uechi Ryū karate.

Park sees Maria and abandons his conversation… which, judging by the expression on Jillian’s brightly-painted face – perky interest fading, replaced by hard-edged annoyance – is probably better for everybody.

Everybody except for Maria.

“Agent Park,” she says, making a mental note to talk to Jillian about her poker face, “I’m sorry. We were told you wouldn’t be in until tomorrow.”

Park – forty-two, just pushing five-foot-ten, with dark eyes and a well-trimmed goatee – has the generic good looks and affable manner common in most successful politicians, which is essentially what he is these days.

As Nick Fury’s right-hand man he’d gained a reputation for being both steady and efficient, but apparently the work hadn’t thrilled him; he’d left the position after only six months, landing in Internal Affairs as a desk jockey.

That was four years ago. Now he’s running the place.

“Don’t worry,” he says, smiling briefly. “Not a surprise inspection or anything. My prior business wrapped up sooner than I expected and I decided to take an earlier flight. I’m having cravings for the Dak Gui at this little place over on Carmine… best I’ve ever had, not that I’d ever tell my mother that.”

He looks at her expectantly for a few awkward seconds until Maria is able to decode this seemingly offhanded statement. She ignores Jillian’s silent fit of laughter and says, “Actually, I just had lunch.”

Park looks mildly dismayed, as any consummate politician might when presented with an unsupportive constituent, but not offended by her bluntness.

They had ‘dated’ for two weeks back after he had joined IA, which was exactly how much time passed between his asking her out for the first time and his getting assigned to the epic shitstorm that was Romanoff’s Volgograd mission. Maria hadn’t been directly implicated in any of that; even Coulson and Barton had been kept out of the loop, presumably for their own protection. But Maria had been sufficiently perturbed by the idea of socially seeing – and maybe eventually sleeping with – someone who was investigating the actions and motives of… well, not a friend, exactly, but a close acquaintance.

And, if anything, it would be even less appropriate now than four years ago. So if Park jumped on a plane and flown early to New York with the express hope of rekindling that guttered flame, well, that isn’t Maria’s problem.

*

In place of a Korean restaurant and candlelight: two cups of strong coffee – a mainstay at all hours, day and night – and Maria’s Tektel office.

It’s more of a closet, really, but that’s fine with her. She doesn’t spend much time earthside these days – now that the Helicarrier is really up and running and not threatening to drop out of the sky every time a bird hits one of the turbines – but not every aspect of her job must or even should be accomplished thousands of feet in the air.

Park looks around the cramped, windowless space, a faint look of distaste on his aristocratic features, and Maria can practically hear him thinking there but for the grace of God go I.

She slides behind the desk and sits, waits for him take his own seat across from her, and hides her forced smile behind a sip of coffee. She considers wasting a few moments with inconsequential small-talk in the hopes that something apocalyptic or at the very least catastrophic will happen, giving her a credible excuse to postpone this moment indefinitely, but that seems cowardly. Best to get this out of the way now, she decides. “How can we help you, Agent Park?”

If he’s pained by the formality, he gives no outward sign. “I wanted to speak with you because I have a few… lingering concerns. We’re wrapping up our initial investigation of the incident in New York…”

“The incident?” she echoes, bemused. It seems like a gross understatement, better applied to a traffic collision or construction accident than an alien attack via intergalactic portal.

Park shrugs. “There’s a very official designation, of course, and some not-so-official nicknames that have sprung up around the office, but to me it’s easier – and maybe safer – to just stick with ‘incident’.”

“And you don’t want to share these concerns of yours with Director Fury?”

He laces his fingers together and considers his words for a moment before responding. “Actually, Maria, Director Fury is one of my concerns.”

She knows this, has known it from the moment that IA launched their investigation, but in the interests of discretion – and to keep this conversation from straying to a more dangerous place – she feigns confusion. “In retrospect, of course, we probably should have had more security at the New Mexico facility… but the way things went down, that might not have mattered. It might have just been more people for Loki to kill.”

Park shakes his head. “It’s not that. The security in place was reasonable when you consider that we were worried about external threats. The Tesseract, the portal… nobody could have predicted what happened. Besides, assigning blame might be Senator Boynton’s game, but it’s not mine. I’m only interested in the future.”

“I think everyone’s interested in the future. What part of the future, specifically?”

“The part where our best hope for clean, sustainable energy took a one-way trip back to the planet Asgard,” says Park, sounding peevish for the first time. “The part where Loki’s scepter somehow went missing, although your girl Natasha admitted to having it in her possession. The part where billions of dollars of damage was done to the city of New York and we have almost nothing to show for it.”

Maria raises her brows. In truth, they have hardly come out of ‘the incident’ empty-handed. SHIELD scientists will spend the next twenty years deconstructing the Chitauri tech: their weapons, their vehicles and the warriors themselves, not to mention the leviathans. Then there is Selvig’s emitter – which he’d done his best to trash once Romanoff had closed the portal – and the data amassed by thousands of cameras and receivers all over the city during the battle itself. Something else is happening here.

“Are you sure you’re not channeling Boynton, Agent Park? Or is this your superiors talking?” she asks at last, although it might have been wiser not to, because despite pledges that Internal Affairs agents remain independent and fair she has no doubt that Park, with all of his ambitions, is simply repeating what the members of the Council have said to him. Even as she thinks this Rogers’s words come back to her. “Someone helped Fisher and Manesh escape. What about an… intermediary? Someone who’s trying to move up in the organization, who does think it’s worth the risk?”

Park’s eyes are stormy, his lips pressed into a straight line. “They’re not just my superiors, Maria. And they’re not an advisory board, they don’t make suggestions…”

“They give orders,” she agrees. “Colonel Markham could tell you about orders.”

“Who?”

“Kevin Markham. The pilot who fired a nuclear weapon at Manhattan. He wasn’t advised, he wasn’t given a suggestion… he was ordered. But it’s funny… all the recordings of his radio chatter that day have gone missing, and Markham is rotting in a brig somewhere. Strange, isn’t it?”

The frustration bleeds from Park’s face, leaving only the lofty blankness of the consummate politician. “I had hoped you’d have more sense than this, Maria. I told them you would.”

Maria doesn’t need to ask who they are. She’s tired of playing the naive waif anyway, even if she barely kept up the act for three minutes. “Sorry to disappoint,” she says, standing. “We’ll have to continue this discussion at our original appointed time, Agent Park. I have work to do. I’ll see you in the morning.”

*

The elevators at Tektel Systems have buttons for two floors labeled ‘garage’. The bottommost of these two levels requires a keycard to access; any curious visitor would be told that this is executive parking for the company’s top brass, and also a secure storage area where prototype computer systems are kept locked away from the eyes of greedy competitors.

Really, the cover story is only half a lie: there is no executive parking level… however, the space is given over to secure storage of a very particular type.

(The topmost garage is really just a garage.)

*

His name is Alonzo Salinas, but he doesn’t answer to that anymore. He insists that his name is Ajax, and he won’t respond to anything else.

Of course, even when he does respond, he doesn’t say much. Unlike the Institute operatives who were placed in the field, or sent out on occasion to perform atrocities in the name of rehabilitation, thereby becoming vulnerable to capture and coercion, Salinas – Ajax – was never ‘coded.’ His continued existence doesn’t depend on hearing a specific pass-phrase recited every five or fourteen or twenty-one days. However, he is still ‘triggered,’ brainwashed into utter obedience, unable to disobey his absent mistress even if he were so inclined. To go against her commands – which must have been vague but remain effective – he would drop dead of a massive, spontaneous, inexplicable aneurysm.

Of the twenty-three Institute operatives that SHIELD had recovered, either from the Colombian facility itself or from locales throughout North and Central America, seven had died in this fashion.

Their names and locations had been listed in Sloane Fisher’s files, which she had offered to decrypt during her brief time in SHIELD custody. The files had been unlocked and read; the operatives – those not on site in Villavicencio – had been recovered, taken into custody at the nearest headquarters or safehouse.

And seven had still died. The files had been incomplete, the codes existing somewhere else… if they existed anywhere but in Fisher’s memory. The rest had been saved through the hasty administration of their personal antidotes, which had negated the command Fisher had implanted instructing the subject’s brain to destroy itself.

If Romanoff had been coded – and there was nothing in the files to say she had been, but no reason to believe Fisher wouldn’t have taken this precaution – then the mechanism had been rendered null and void after Barton and Rogers had injected her with the now-infamous 13A-10R. That had been a risk, but a prescient one. Eventually Romanoff’s internal timer must have ticked down to zero, telling her brain to short-circuit… but the command had never been received.

At least that was their best guess. How terrible must it be, Maria thinks – stepping into the elevator, pressing the G2 button, and sliding her key card – not to be able to trust your own brain? Or, conversely, to have no recourse except to trust it and just… just hope for the best?

As far as they can tell, Ajax rarely left Fisher’s sight. He was her muscle and her sex toy, and coding him must have seemed like an unnecessary provision, considering that she had already brainwashed him into submission.

Unfortunately, no antidote created for Alonzo Salinas had ever been located in the Villavicencio facility. Maybe Fisher had destroyed it long ago. Maybe it never existed in the first place because she considered him disposable.

Maria steps from the elevator, presents her credentials at the security station, submits to three different identity checks, and continues.

Alonzo-Ajax has already been brought to an interrogation cell when she arrives. It’s a larger space than Maria’s office, although just as windowless. As in the room upstairs there are two chairs, although one of them is fitted with heavy-duty manacles. This is not a feature in any of Maria’s furniture, although after dealing with Park she finds herself reconsidering the oversight.

“You again,” says Ajax.

“Me again,” agrees Maria.

The man is smaller and paler than when he was brought in a month ago, although this is not a sign of mistreatment. While it’s understandable that he has lost a little color, being so far from the sultry Central American sun, he is afforded two hours of exercise every day. So far he has chosen not to utilize any of the weight-lifting or strength-training equipment in the subterranean gym, and as a result he has lost muscle mass. His short black hair has started to grow shaggy, as well, but the scar across his face will forever render him immediately identifiable.

Barton gave him that scar, Maria remembers. Culiacán, 2005. Salinas’ cartel bosses had sent him and a few friends to the estate of a rival drug lord named Vega, to blow up some buildings and steal some product, with specific directions to target the kingpin’s family.

Barton had been in Culiacán with a team to run surveillance on Vega for another reason entirely – intelligence that he was working with South American terrorist organizations interested in moving bio-weapons – and taking out Salinas had blown their cover.

Barton had never apologized, and Fury had never asked him to.

“Lycaon,” says Maria, by way of an opening.

Ajax sighs, leaning forward. The manacles around his wrist clink against the chair. “I told you, I don’t know who he is. None of us ever actually saw him.”

“Did you see someone claiming to represent him?”

“I was told not to discuss sensitive information with outsiders. What are you trying to do, kill me?”

Maria shrugs. “I was just thinking that you might be worried.”

Ajax gives a bull-like snort. “You know what? I am worried. I’m worried about being bored out of my mind. I’m worried that the food here tastes like shit. I’m worried about my roommate thinking he wants to go to the next level of our relationship because then I’m gonna have to kill him. But I’m not worried about you, baby. If you putas had the stones to try to torture information out of me, you would have done it already. But you’re not going to because you don’t want a dead body on your hands.”

“You’re right,” says Maria. She’s sitting, legs crossed, hands folded in her lap. “You don’t have any reason to be afraid of me. Or of Director Fury, for that matter. You’re a small fish, and he’s bored with you. But I thought that you might still be concerned about this person that Sloane Fisher called Lycaon.”

Ajax’s brow furrows. “Why would I? He’s on my side, bitch.”

Maria nods slowly. “And yet you’re still down here, with bad food and a not-so-secret-admirer, while Dr. Fisher and Kamala Manesh continue to roam free. Be honest… that pisses you off a little, doesn’t it?”

The man’s hands tighten into fists below the manacles. The chains rattle, a reminder and a warning. “Like you said,” he replies through clenched teeth, “I’m a small fish. Never thought otherwise.”

“And this Lycaon,” Maria continues, “knows that you’re down here. I mean, if he really does work for SHIELD. If he has any reason to think you might be able to identify him, or give us information that leads to us identifying him… you could be in some trouble.”

Ajax looks at her dumbly. “I can’t tell you anything,” he says. “Not even if I wanted to. Which I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. I do, I’m dead anyway.”

“You know that,” Maria says. “And I know that. But maybe Lycaon doesn’t. Maybe it’s something that never made it into the official file.”

She’s bluffing, of course. Fisher’s tactics are common knowledge; Ben Park, for one, is surely aware of them. But deep in this sunless hole, with nothing but memories and anger to sustain him, she’s counting on Ajax’s riddled mind to work up some good, healthy paranoia.

He stares at her, lip curling. “I can’t tell you anything.”

Maria shrugs and stands. “Maybe not. But maybe there’s a little give in that leash. I’ll come see you tomorrow, Alonzo. We’ll talk again.”

 

(18)

Compared to the pockmarked and toad-ugly Artemiev, Ansel DeGrasse is a prince.

The Frenchman is tall, well-built but without the over-defined musculature of a gym rat. His healthy tan and clean, strong hands with their well-shaped nails suggest that he takes pride in his appearance, while the touch of gray at the temples of his chestnut-brown hair promises that he is not overly vain. In fact, his only unfortunate feature are his brilliantly green eyes which, combined with his habit of blinking rather slowly, give some aspects of his face a vaguely reptilian quality.

Contacts, thinks Sloane, considering the challenge. Brown eyes, to match his hair. And some therapy for that blinking issue.

DeGrasse’s manners are also beyond reproach; he is what might have been called, in a more civilized era, gentlemanly.With very little in the way of behavior and personality modification, Sloane decides, he might prove to be a worthy successor to Ajax and, more recently, to Jason.

Or even to poor dead Bruno. Sloane, having worked hard for her first husband – and equally hard for a permanent separation – is in no great rush to enter back into matrimony, but DeGrasse has undeniable potential.

Though never less than exceptionally polite, he seems aware of her admittedly unprofessional interest. In the past, he had never entered the old Institute without his bodyguard, Keyes – Keyes, just one name, like Madonna or Cher – and always graciously declined any offer of food or drink. Now, even though he has reaffirmed their friendship by helping her rebuild, by coming in person to tour the new facility, he maintains his careful ways.

Sloane isn’t offended by his suspicion. She appreciates a man who keeps his wits about him. Besides, if she wanted to get to DeGrasse, she wouldn’t do something as gauche as put a sedative in his coffee right here in her own facility… she would give the task to an intermediary, someone who wouldn’t – couldn’t – implicate her.

Kamala would be ideal, if she wasn’t already on assignment out in the Land of Enchantment, but Keyes is also a possibility. His dark brown skin, lumpish nose, and five-plus decades don’t appeal to Sloane aesthetically, but he has the capable, gimlet-eyed silence that she appreciates in a potential operative. And, under the right circumstances, surely he would find it difficult to refuse refreshments.

Otherwise, there’s always the old standby: Jason with a hypodermic needle.

“Good. Very good.”

The best thing about DeGrasse is his lack of puerile fascination with the seven year old girl, which would have been a serious impediment to any future relationship. Instead his interest appears purely scientific. “She’s small,” he continues. “But that isn’t necessarily a drawback. Physical size is a poor indicator of lethality, when you come right down to it.” He leans towards Sloane and adds, in a stage whisper, “But don’t tell Keyes I said so. He might get the wrong idea.”

Keyes, standing well within earshot at the door of the girl’s room, gives no indication that he’s in danger of getting the wrong idea, or indeed any idea at all.

“You realize,” says Sloane tactfully, “that the physical training is going to have to be done off-site. I don’t have the expertise or the resources for that kind of thing here.”

DeGrasse’s smile is all warm understanding. “Naturally, Doctor. We have our own subcontractors lined up for that aspect. Of course, they have certain expectations as to what they’ll be getting.”

The girl: dressed in sky blue pajamas and white socks, as though she’s attending a sleepover.

“I hope you’ve put any fears they might have to rest, Mr. DeGrasse.”

“I hardly needed to. Your reputation speaks for itself. They were quite delighted, as well, to hear that the base material is coming from such an excellent source. Christopher Artemiev is still something of a legend in certain circles. Imagine the stories he could tell, the books he could write. Bestsellers all, and a fortune in royalties. Of course, it would be hard to enjoy those royalties in a federal prison.” He chuckles at his own witticism.

The girl: auburn hair pulled back into a messy, lopsided braid, tied back with a strip of ribbon torn from the bottom of a matching sky-blue robe.

“Keep in mind, of course, that I don’t intend on utilizing any KGB tactics,” says Sloane carefully, maintaining a pleasant smile. They have discussed all this before, but always under the cover of implication. “My methods are my own, unique but effective. I couldn’t replicate the Soviets’ Red Room program even if I wanted to.”

DeGrasse nods, his serpent-green eyes flooding with regret. “So much was lost in the Volgograd fire… it really is unfortunate,” he laments, and then a stray spark of an idea lights a more cheerful expression. “Of course, while most of the files were destroyed, there remain a handful of… living records, you could say.”

The girl: cross-legged on a plush azure rug in the center of her new room, a book of children’s nursery rhymes and folktales in her lap.

“Kamala does an admirable job,” says Sloane, “but she would make a poor subject for study, after everything she’s been through.”

DeGrasse rubs his chin. It’s a nice strong chin, with a deep cleft following the underlying fissure of the right and left jawbones. “And then there is always Ms. Romanoff,” he says, carefully noncommittal.

That name, as always, stokes a fire deep in the pit of Sloane’s stomach, as though she has eaten hot coals with a chaser of gasoline. Natasha Romanoff, who should have been her crowning achievement, had instead been a bitter disappointment. Not her downfall – no. Never that. Sloane has stumbled but not fallen, and in stumbling she has discovered higher ground, better opportunities, greater influence.

“Ms. Romanoff,” she says, lips aching with the strain of her fixed smile, “is more proof – as if it’s needed, mind you – that the Soviets’ efforts, while achieving impressive results in the short-term, ultimately did more harm than good. Romanoff’s mind has been reduced to the consistency of cheesecloth… too many drugs, too much physical abuse, too much… remaking.”

Blink, blink, go the slow lizard eyes. “I’ve done a fair bit of reading regarding Ms. Romanoff. She’s had the same partner for more than five years, and he’s never had any complaints.”

“You’ve seen her,” says Sloane sharply. “What red-blooded man is going to complain about working with that?”

DeGrasse shrugs and nods, conceding the point.

The girl: pajamas and socks, braid, cross-legged on the rug with the book in her lap. Not reading. Tearing out the pages, carefully and only after much consideration of the volume’s spine.

Sloane is annoyed. She isn’t made of money.

The child is not engaged in entirely wanton destruction. Every colorful page of verse she has separated from the book has been laid flat on the vinyl-tile floor, examined, and folded into impressive specimens of origami. Ring Around the Rosy is an exquisite paper flower. This is the House that Jack Built has been transformed into a miniature cow with a decidedly crumpled horn. Now Who Killed Cock Robin is being repurposed as a classic crane.

Patience. Focus. Attention to detail. These are positive qualities that DeGrasse’s associates will want to see enhanced.

“Speaking of Romanoff’s partner,” Sloane continues, turning her back on the girl, “there have been some interesting developments.”

“New Mexico?” DeGrasse laughs, glancing at Keyes. “Yes, last night was a lovely mess, wasn’t it? I thought of you when I heard… how upset you would have been if Barton’s brains had been splattered across that Godforsaken little town.”

“You’re being sarcastic,” says Sloane. “But, in fact, it would have been a terrible loss.”

“Really?” Blink, blink, dubious and serpentine. “What interest do you have in Barton?”

“You said it yourself,” Sloane tells him. “His brain.”