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From Fire by Fire

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PART TEN

And what the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell you, being dead: the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

- T.S. Eliot

(Before: 2003)

“Aren’t you going to ask why I’m here?”

The prisoner does not turn from his contemplation of the sky through the narrow window. There had been few windows in C-Max, and the prisoner had sometimes gone days without seeing the sky. Every morning since his transfer he wakes with the sun on his face, and it is glorious. “I do not care who you are, much less why you are here.”

“You should,” said his visitor. “I’m the reason you’re here now, instead of rotting in 23-hour a day solitary.”

Now he has the prisoner’s interest. “That was you? How?”

His visitor smiles. “I’m a well-respected psychiatrist with many friends in the Ministry of Correctional Services,” he says dryly. “I convinced them that you were no longer a threat.”

The prisoner frowns. “I was never a threat, not to them, not to anyone else. I am a patriot. A protector. They locked me up for wanting to protect—”

“I understand,” says the visitor quickly. His smile is ingratiating, but his green eyes know too much. “And some of us – many of us – believe you were right. If we abide by the decisions of the old fools on the Council, sooner or later we will all burn.”

The prisoner turns from the window. He is intrigued but eager not to show it. There is always the chance that this is a trap, that Mbeki and Skosana are trying to catch him in an act of imagined rebellion. Those in power will always fear the powerful, as they fear their inevitable fall. “And yet the Council is out there,” he says carefully, “and I am in here.”

“You’re in here,” agrees the visitor. “For now.”

 

(Before: 2004)

She strikes the match and drops it on a pile of old clothes. The fabric catches quickly, and her breath is stolen away by her own daring.

“I saw what you did,” said the nun. “I want you because you are special.”

The memories, jumbled and fragmented, knock together like bits of flotsam washed up in the wake of a passing ship.

*

At first they try to reason with her. They speak of destiny, national pride, and serving her people. But she has no pride, and she has no people, because she is no one. She has been no one since her last day in the Lotus House. She will not hear reason because she has embraced unreason.

They speak of destiny, but she understands the vagaries of fate in a way they never will.

When reason fails, it is followed by pain.

*

She was Devi, then Anya, and now they call her Parvati, but mostly she is no one in particular.

 

(35)

Clint wakes with a headache, his back pressed against something cold and unyielding, a strange pressure just above his right elbow, but for a moment all he can do is appreciate the fact that he slept without dreaming.

He opens his eyes and finds himself staring up at a concrete slab mottled with lime and water stains so complex, so teasingly abstract, that he spends a few seconds trying to pick out a picture in the streaks and whirls. Then he looks to his right and realizes that he is being watched.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hello.” The girl is sitting atop a large black truck full of bow-repair supplies, clothing and other odds and ends, her sock-clad feet swinging a couple feet above the ground, eating an energy bar. She watches with clinical interest as he winces, pushing himself into a sitting position. He glances at his watch: just after one in the morning, so he’s only been out for a couple hours.

They’d made it into Vegas, abandoning the Jeep on the strip where it was most likely to be towed – the harder it was for their pursuers to track it down, the better – and brought the kid to his cache: one of about a hundred indoor units at a nondescript self-storage facility a few blocks off the main drag.

Clint remembers climbing a flight of stairs, weariness dragging on him like weights on his ankles, keying in a six-digit code to access the unit, rolling up the metal door, rolling it down again, and then… nothing. He must have finally succumbed to the sedative, collapsing onto the slab floor. And yet, sitting up he notices a folded-up blanket that had been placed beneath his head. Remembering the pressure in his arm, he looks down to find a white gauze bandage covering the injection site.

Clint peels part of the bandage back. Skin that had been smeared with dried blood – maybe he’d pulled away from Jason just in time, ripping the flesh but avoiding a full dose – is now clean, and covered in something that smells like antibiotic cream.

He looks at the girl. She looks back at him, eyebrows raised, as though daring him to comment.

He sighs, rests his arms atop his knees, and says, “My name’s Clint,” because he can’t think of anywhere else to start. At least as far as he can remember they haven’t been formally introduced.

She finishes the bar, crumpling the foil wrapper between her small hands.

“Do you have a name?” he asks.

She nods, and is silent for so long that he starts thinking that she took the question literally and he’s going to need to rephrase it, but then she says, “Julie Banks.”

“Julie,” he echoes, and she nods again. He indicates the bandage on his arm. “This was you.”

She meets his eyes unflinchingly. “I didn’t know how long you’d be asleep. I thought it might get infected.”

The strangeness in her voice, which had eluded him in the Jeep, is obvious now that the sedative is out of his system. “You… you’re British, aren’t you?”

Her brow furrows. “Are you really just now noticing that?”

Right, Clint recalls. Smartass.

He gets to his feet, trying not to hobble too much, and looks around. It’s a mid-sized unit, about fifteen feet on each side, so he doesn’t have to look for very long. The doors to the two smaller cabinets where he keeps first aid and other emergency supplies – like food – are both hanging open, their padlocks lying discarded on the floor.

A larger cabinet is still secured by a combination lock. When he opens it, he finds the keys to the padlocks sitting on the top shelf, right where he expected them. Underneath: a few racks of arrows, a spare bow, a couple of handguns, two Dragon Skin ballistic vests and an array of smoke and gas grenades. None of these items seem to have been moved.

He looks again at the padlocks, and then back at the girl. Julie. She’s holding up a twist of metal that must have once been a paperclip. “I found it in Dr. Fisher’s office,” she explains. “I thought it might come in handy.”

Shaking his head, Clint returns to the emergency supplies. He gets an energy bar for himself and two bottles of water, which were stored on an upper shelf, out of the girl’s reach. “Is that what they’re teaching in schools over there these days?”

Julie receives the water eagerly and without a word of thanks. “I go to an all-girl Catholic school,” she says, as though this is explanation enough. Her eyes drift back to the weapons locker as she untwists the bottle’s plastic cap, and she chews on her lower lip for a moment before speaking again. “You’re one of them.”

“Them?” he echoes. That sounds ominous. What will he do if she starts shrieking about being kidnapped?

But there’s no screaming, just a long drink of water. “You know what I mean. One of the Avengers.”

He must look surprised, because her expression changes quickly from contemplative to scornful. “I’m from London, not Outer Mongolia. Of course, I expect they’ve heard of you there, too.” She narrows her eyes. “You’re him, aren’t you? They call you Hawkeye on TV.”

Clint smiles ruefully. There were leaks after New York, of course, because SHIELD is run by human beings and human beings are fallible and greedy for attention and recognition and importance, and even though most people were properly distracted by Stark, Banner, Thor and Steve, part of the problem with the internet and the twenty-four hour news cycle was that there was ample opportunity to go prying into everyone’s identities. So now the nickname that had become a stage name that had become his codename  – in the sort of ironic, hang-a-lantern-on-it way that he’d come to expect from Coulson –was compromised. Natasha’s too. They were Hawkeye and the Black Widow, a couple of mortal hangers-on in the pantheon of real-life superheroes.

Few people had cared. Unfortunately Fisher and Witten had been paying attention, and Natasha had suffered for it.

Natasha. The thought of her sends a pang through his chest. He forgets to answer the girl’s question, almost forgets she’s there at all, until she demands, “What’s your power?” watching him with such a penetrating stare that he feels like an amoeba on a microscope slide.

He scowls. “Being sassed by seven year-old girls, apparently,” he retorts, standing again. There’s aspirin in one of the open cabinets and he washes down three. It’s more than the recommended dose on the back of the bottle, but the condition of his stomach lining is not a real high priority at the moment. “Sorry, kid,” he says brusquely, returning to the weapons locker. “If you’re looking for superpowers, you’re talking to the wrong Avenger.”

If that’s even what he is anymore. If he was even that to begin with.

When he turns around, a bow and collapsible quiver in hand, Julie is still watching him, appraising him, reading him in that odd, thoughtful way of hers, and she says, “Well, you’re the Avenger who came for me, so I suppose you’re the only one who matters.”

Clint feels himself flush, more out of guilt than misplaced pride, and points to the black trunk. She gets the hint and slides off, moving aside as he opens the trunk and roots around. A change of clothes is in order, since he still reeks of sweat and smoke. “I wasn’t there to rescue you,” he says slowly. “Not on purpose. I was… looking for someone else.”

“Natasha?”

His head snaps up. “How do you know that?”

She raises her eyebrows again. “You were talking about her a bit on the drive here, but I couldn’t make much sense of it. Is she your girlfriend?”

Clint isn’t real sure what universe he’s living in right now – the one where he spent the best week of his life with Natasha in Germany, crashed back to reality, then got blown up and dumped in New Mexico, or the one in which the last month of his life has been a complete lie – and when he thinks about it like that he’s not entirely sure which one he wants to be living in because they both sound like crap. However, he’s definitely not living in a universe where he’s about to take his pants off in front of a seven year old girl, so a new shirt will have to do. He makes a spinning motion with his finger and she obligingly turns her back on him, although not without rolling her eyes in a way that implies he’s being immature.

“She’s… someone I care about,” he says eventually, tugging the smoke and sweat-stained shirt over his head and pulling on a clean one. He takes a black, military-style field jacket from the trunk for good measure, since the longer sleeves will hide his bandaged arm. “I thought Fisher might be holding her there.”

Julie turns back around. “The only other woman I saw was that cow Sophia,” she says, looking pensive again. “You’re Barton, so… so she must be Romanoff. They were talking about you.”

Clint returns to the weapons locker. The false back of the cabinet, when freed from two tiny latches, swings forward, revealing a hidden space not more than two feet deep. On the floor is a metal box containing a few identities and a couple thousand dollars.

“Mr. DeGrasse said you’d worked with her for five years and didn’t have any complaints,” Julie continues, “but according to Dr. Fisher that’s just because of how she looks.”

Clint isn’t sure whether to be annoyed or amused. “Fisher said that?”

“It was implied.”

“You have an awfully good memory.”

The girl puffs up a little. “I know.”

“Hm. Modest, too.”

He crams a few more supplies into a backpack, tucks a M1911-A2 pistol into his waistband at the small of his back, relocks the cabinets, and takes one more look around the storage space. His gaze comes to rest on the girl, who is watching him expectantly. “Come on,” he tells her. “We’re getting out of here.”

“Good,” she says gratefully. “I really need to go to the bathroom.”

 

(36)

Jason is a diagnosed agoraphobe – or he had been, before Sloane cured him.

She’d been waiting for him the day he got out of the state prison up in Golden Valley, just sitting in her car in front of the bus stop with the AC cranked up as high as it would go, like she had nowhere better to be. “I’m a psychiatrist. I’d like to help you,” she’d told him. She’d seemed genuine – and she was definitely cute, and so was the Indian chick she had playing chauffeur – so Jason had gotten into the car and never looked back.

It didn’t occur to him to wonder why anyone would want to help him, or what that help would entail. It seemed that lately he’d taken a lot of crap from karma, and it was about time he got some of his own back. When, eventually, he explained this philosophy to Sloane, she had approved. “I think deep-down you care a great deal about fairness,” she observed, and Jason had liked that. He suspected that he had a strong – albeit deeply buried – commitment to justice that no judge or prosecutor had ever fully appreciated. After all, he never stole from people who were worse off than he was, and he’d always divided up the spoils equally with his crew. When there were spoils, of course.

“I believe,” Sloane had said after several therapy sessions in her weird little clinic in the desert, “that you suffer from agoraphobia… a fear of open spaces. Subconsciously, you commit crimes not because you desire wealth but because you know that when you’re caught, you’ll be taken somewhere safe, enclosed, and familiar. Above all things you desire a controlled environment.”

Jason had never thought about it like that before, but it did explain why he’d gotten busted so many times. He didn’t get away with his crimes because – subconsciously, like she said – he didn’t want to get away with them. This was the kind of doctor-talk he could get excited about, the kind built on logic and reason instead of big fancy words that always seemed to indicate that he was a bad person. He wasn’t a bad person. He liked puppies and he didn’t mow down old ladies in crosswalks, even when he had a green light. He was enchanted with the idea that someone as lovely and brilliant as Sloane Fisher could see the truth in him so easily.

Sloane was insightful and clever and self-contained. It was part of the reason he’d fallen in love with her, even before she’d cured him of his agoraphobia. After that… well, it seemed like he just owed so damn much to her, like even if he spent the rest of his life doing everything she wanted it still wouldn’t be enough.

It’s his love for Sloane that sends him out onto the dark desert road, really testing his imperviousness to wide open spaces for the first time. The night sky stretches over the desert like the lid of a pan, and Jason feels his heart start to beat more quickly, or maybe that’s just because he’s remembering how Sloane had totally seemed to lose it back there… although, standing in the dirt road in front of the clinic, covered in dust and ash and having lost her high heels, she’d still looked amazing. She’d started shrieking about finding Kamala, and the French guy had yelled back about finding the girl, and Sloane had cursed at him and said, “Who cares about the kid? There’s more where she came from!”

“Of course you don’t care – you’re not the one who paid for her,” the Frenchie had shouted back, and Jason was bemused at the idea of secret organizations worrying about funding and budgets and things like that. It never happened in the movies. “That kid represents a substantial investment.”

“So does this!” Sloane had screamed, waving at the smoldering clinic. “I need Kamala more than you need the girl.”

Frenchie had been unmoved. “And your other little toy?” he’d asked scornfully. “Damian, is that his name? Where’s he run off to?”

Sloane had scowled, but she’d looked more embarrassed than angry. “I don’t control him yet – he’s not mine yet – because you told me that you’d arranged for the girl and that she was the priority.”

This had all been incredibly odd and confusing to Jason, whose skull was still aching from where that asshole Barton had clocked him with the butt of the rifle, so he’d looked over at the other muscle, Frenchie’s black bodyguard, to see if he was just as lost… but the guy was gone. And so was another one of the Jeeps. That meant one left, plus the SUV the two visitors had come in, and the answer seemed obvious to Jason. “I’ll find Kamala,” he’d said eagerly, interrupting Sloane mid-tirade. “She’s got one of our cars, so I can track her. You think… you think Barton got her, too?”

Sloane had stared at him as though she’d completely forgotten his existence, which kind of hurt, but after a moment she nodded. “Maybe it’s better if he has,” she’d said icily. “The only other option seems to be that they were working together, and if that’s true…” Her lip had curled as she glanced at Frenchie, as though daring him to comment. “Go. Find her. Make her explain everything. If she knows where Barton is… make her tell you. And then find him.”

“You want me to bring him back in?” Jason had asked, impressed by her tenacity.

But Sloane had shaken her head. “No. I want you to kill the bastard. I don’t care how. Just kill him.”

“I thought you wanted his brain,” Frenchie had observed, seeming not to realize the fine line he was walking.

“Screw his brain,” Sloane had said flatly; framed by smoke and ash and ruin, she was gorgeous, like an avenging angel. “I just want him dead.”

*

He’s been on the road for hours now, watching his phone, following the red blinking light that represents Kamala’s car. It’s been all over the damn place, always one step ahead of him, from Needles to Bullhead to Kingman and then back down Highway 40 again, like she’s driving in a damn circle, and she’s not picking up her phone, and then it occurs to Jason…

She’s not the one behind the wheel. She’s ditched the sedan and paid someone to drive it around the desert, or she just left it where she knew it’d get stolen. It’s what he would do, if it was him.

But it’s not him. He wouldn’t betray Sloane like that. He can’t even contemplate that. He owes her so much.

He doesn’t want to return to the clinic and admit his failure, but for some reason now Sloane’s not picking up her phone either, and he isn’t sure what to do. The idea that she’s not available to provide him with clarity, to give him direction, threatens to lift the lid on this whole cursed night and let the void come rushing in.

Jason shudders. Find Kamala. Kill Barton. Those are his orders. He has to obey.

 

(37)

East from the diner: back towards Bullhead and what passes for civilization. Two police cruisers, lights flashing but sirens silent, pass them heading west. Natasha slows, expecting trouble, watching the rearview mirror for the tale-tell flash of taillights, but the police continue without pause.

*

They pass into Bullhead and then turn north towards Lake Mohave. Like Havasu to the south, Lake Mohave is really just a widening of the Colorado River; the Davis Dam and its attendant power plant are lit at night by banks of floodlights as blindingly bright as the desert sun.

Parking the Chevy on the Arizona side of the border, in a shadowy area within sight of the switchyard, they had pause to await further information. Well, Natasha waits while Manesh sleeps.

The other woman is slumped in the passenger’s seat, eyes closed and mouth slightly open, breathing steadily. It could be a ruse, but Natasha’s gut tells her otherwise. It seems her decision to tell the truth had been the right one; it has bonded them, even to the point where Kamala Manesh feels secure enough to fall asleep within arm’s reach of a former enemy. As though their shared past makes them… what? Comrades? Sisters?

Natalia had liked Anya, but Natalia hadn’t been an especially decent person. And in the intervening years, it seems, Kamala has gone even further down the road of callous amorality, no doubt helped along by what has been done to her in the name of science and power and national security.

Not that she’s entirely without her own code of ethics. When they had gotten into the rented Chevy and Natasha had accused Kamala of stealing the only other vehicle in the parking lot – a green Subaru with a COEXIST bumper sticker – Manesh had been quick to set the record straight. “It wasn’t stealing, it was trading. I left the owner the keys to the Hyundai and a note that says she’s free to use it as long as she needs to. And when the cops show up they’ll find it here, good as new, and give it back to her, and then she’ll have two cars.”

Natasha hadn’t bothered to educate her on the finer points of the law.

Now she sits in silence, in darkness relieved by the halo of light from the switchyard, and she waits. She doesn’t sleep, not because she isn’t tired and not because she’s especially wary of Manesh, who seems likely to die without SHIELD help, but because she’s irrationally convinced that by resting she will somehow break faith with Clint, that her sleepless determination is the only thing keeping him alive.

Stupid. You don’t even know if he is alive.

She glances at Manesh and hardens her heart. You’re not my sister, and I would kill you in a second if it would bring him back.

*

Her cell phone, set to vibrate, buzzes against her hip. Natasha checks the ID, takes a steadying breath, and answers the call. “Stark.”

For once, he doesn’t waste her time with preamble or one-liners. “We found Fisher’s new place. It’s on the outskirts of Lake Havasu City, a couple miles off 95.” The crisp, businesslike tone, the lack of enthusiasm that would have indicated success, sends a prickle of suspicion across Natasha’s scalp. “Barton isn’t here. In fact, no one’s here except us chickens, the local cops, and until a few minutes ago, someone from the FBI.”

Natasha tries to tell herself that this is good news. They’ve found the viper’s lair; they’re on the right path and might not even need Manesh and her treacherous half-truths. “Then we just haven’t found the right place yet,” she replies, her voice straining with false cheer. “Fisher must have him somewhere else.”

“Fisher’s dead,” says Stark.

Natasha closes her eyes.

“She was shot in the head. There’s another body here too, also a woman. We think. As for this not being the right place…” He sighs heavily.  “Someone rigged the roof and the generator to blow, and JARVIS analyzed the chemical residue – it matches the stuff Barton uses in those exploding arrows of his.”

She opens her eyes. She’s glad – fiercely, desperately glad – that Clint wasn’t so far gone as to think he could just walk into Fisher’s web and sit down for a nice little chat, that he had gone in prepared, taken the fight to her… and yet she’s also as terrified as she has been at any point in this endless day. “Do you think he killed her?” she asks quietly.

Stark’s response is unexpectedly diplomatic. “It’s not like it wouldn’t have been justified.”

That isn’t what I meant, thinks Natasha, but the words won’t come.

*

When Natasha ends the call and glances over at Manesh, she finds that the other woman is awake. She hasn’t moved, but her eyes are open, dark and liquid with resignation.

“Fisher’s dead, isn’t she?” Not bothering to wait for confirmation, Manesh continues: “You know, I never actually thought about it like this before, but… from the moment she made us, her operatives, she knew that if anything ever happened to her, we’d be doomed.” She sighs ruefully. “What a bitch.”

Natasha pushes open the door and gets out of the Chevy, possessed of the same manic energy that had animated Manesh at the diner. She paces away, towards the bright hum of the switchyard but still safely in the shadows, always in the shadows, and after a moment Manesh follows. “What’s the matter with you? I’m the doomed one here, remember?”

“We needed her,” says Natasha, not looking at Manesh. Her hands are clenched and she can’t unclench them, and she suspects that if she laid eyes on a suitable target her fists would fly of their own volition.

“To do what?” Manesh is close behind her. Foolishly close. “To snitch on Lycaon?”

Natasha turns sharply, hands still formed into weapons. “To fix Clint.”

For a moment, just a moment, Manesh keeps up the act. Her brow creases and she begins, “But the antidote…” Then she sees something in Natasha’s face and goes silent, sliding back half a step.

The two women watch each other for several long seconds – wariness on one side, loathing on the other – and then Manesh shrugs. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying.”

Anger is like acid, eating away at Natasha’s self-control, burning in her fists and in her throat until her voice is barely more than a whisper. “There is no antidote for what’s been done to him, is there?”

Manesh shoves her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket. Maybe her hands are cold, or maybe she’s reaching for a gun, so Natasha unthinkingly turns sideways to present the smallest possible target. But Manesh seeks to wound with words alone: “Not the kind that comes in a bottle,” she admits, adding in unsympathetic afterthought, “but… you know. He’s tough.”

The sheer inadequacy of this statement, even more than its careless delivery, drives Natasha closer to the brink, closer to the light. It’s dangerous; someone on the dam or looking through a window might catch a glimpse of her figure, and would surely jump to the conclusion that no tourist, no matter how big a fan of the Bureau of Reclamation, would be loitering around a power plant at one in the morning.

Of course he’s tough, she thinks with despair, and that’s part of the problem, because he’s tough and he’s stubborn and if he’s determined to stick with this sick fantasy she has no idea how to reach him; if his mind is so warped that he can’t recognize the truth when he sees it – can’t recognize her when they’re standing face to face – then she doesn’t know what to do next. And now Fisher is dead.

Her eyes burn with the heat and pressure of tears unshed, because if she cries it will mean she’s weak, and if she cries it will mean she’s already lost him.

Manesh says something but Natasha isn’t listening; she makes herself turn around, counting on the blazing lights of the switchyard to backlight her face and blur her features. “What did you say?”

“I said, he’s just a man,” replies Manesh, speaking slowly and with exaggerated care. “Look at you. Look at both of us. We could have any guy we wanted. What makes him so special? I mean, there’s the sex, I’ll grant you that one, but it’s not like he’s the only person on this planet with a—“

“I love him,” says Natasha, surprised that the words come out easily, without inducing either mental anguish or physical pain. How unfair that it seems so obvious now, standing here without him; how cowardly it makes her feel. She hadn’t said it during their week in Germany, that week they’d pretended that they could have quiet, domestic, normal lives, when she’d slept every night by his side, waking every morning in his arms. She’d been able to deny it as he lay there in that hospital bed. Now that they’re separated by miles and madness, however, it all becomes as simple and necessary as drawing breath. She loves him.

Manesh gives a short laugh, as though in anticipation of a punch line that never comes. “He doesn’t love you,” she says pitilessly. “Maybe he loves this princess-trapped-in-the-tower version of you he’s created, sure, but he doesn’t seem too crazy about the real thing.”

“That was your doing.”

Is Manesh genuinely offended by this, or is it still part of the act? “I suggested the threat, but I didn’t give it a name. He did. Do you think if he really cared for you, if he really felt safe with you, he would believe the things he does? He doesn’t even recognize your face anymore, Natasha. You’re an impostor, remember? A fraud. You’re Aten.”

The words hit Natasha like a blow. “How do you… you were listening to us?”

“Of course.”

Natasha has run surveillance more times than she can count, but she’s surprised at how awful it feels to be on the receiving end of such scrutiny. She feels exposed, violated. There’s the sex, I’ll grant you that… She moves towards the car, but Manesh is between her and the open driver’s door. “Get out of my way, or I will move you out of my way.”

“Where are you going?”

“That’s none of your damn business.”

Once again Manesh looks wounded. “I’m not saying these things to be cruel. I’m saying them because you need to hear the truth.”

“I think you’ve done plenty already.”

“I was following orders,” Manesh snaps, her expression darkening.

Now it’s Natasha’s turn to laugh. “If that was true, if Fisher’s hold on you was really that tight, you wouldn’t even be here right now. You did what you did to him because you wanted to, either because you’re a psychopath or because you hate him…”

“I don’t hate him!” Manesh exclaims, pressing one hand to her chest, fingers splayed. “I needed him. I thought he could save me.”

The wretchedness in her voice stops Natasha, even plucks a note of sympathy from one ragged heartstring. She recalls her time as Aten, and although the memories are often vague and discomforting they resonate with the other woman’s declaration. “It’s not that easy.”

Manesh holds her pose for another moment, breathing hard, maybe counting each heartbeat as it throbs beneath her palm… and then she composes herself, letting her hand drop to her side as she moves away from the car. “I thought, at the very least, if I got him away from you I’d have a shot,” she says, her voice dull with resignation. “What about Rogers and Hill?”

Natasha shrugs. “Maybe they’ll find your real name. Maybe they won’t. I’m honestly past caring.”

She watches Manesh as she walks back to the car, expecting one last, desperate attack, but again the only weapons in play are words. Manesh waits until Natasha is in the driver’s seat, is reaching out to pull the door closed, and then she says, “Did Stark say if they found the girl?”

Natasha freezes and looks up. She does not ask the question Manesh wants her to ask, but the question is already there between them. What girl?

There is challenge in Manesh’s dark eyes now, no hint of acceptance or defeat. “It’s part of the reason Lycaon got Fisher back on her feet so quickly. He has a new project for her. He wants his own Black Widow, from scratch. Obviously it’s an endeavor without much payoff in the short-term, considering her age, but Lycaon… he has vision. The girl was supposed to be brought in some time today. Did they find her?”

Icy fear trembles down the length of Natasha’s spine. “The place was abandoned,” she says hoarsely, lips and tongue and throat suddenly as dry as desert sand. “Just Fisher and someone else, another woman, both dead.”

“Hmm. Sophia never did know how to keep her head down,” says Manesh. “If everyone else is gone, DeGrasse must have the girl.”

Yes, that is definitely challenge in her eyes, challenge and a hint of triumph, too sad and weak to be expressed in a smile but evident from the tilt of her chin, from the cool, unblinking stare. She wants Natasha to ask who is DeGrasse or a dozen other questions; she wants Natasha to know she is still a person of worth and a source of vital information.

Or not. This could be as false as Manesh’s promise of an easy cure for Clint.

But a girl. A girl. Would they name her Katya or Yelena or Natalia for old time’s sake?

“If you lie to me again,” says Natasha, “I’ll kill you.”

Now Manesh does smile. “You won’t have to. Just wait a few days and Sloane Fisher’s ghost will do it for you.”

 

(38)

With sunrise more than three hours away, the woods around Alum Creek Park are as dark as any primeval forest, and Steve reminds himself that a normal human would be forced to stumble between the trees blindly, navigating almost completely by touch.

It’s something he does sometimes: making a point to consider how things are for regular people, men and women who lack his gifts, not because he enjoys lording his physical superiority over them but because he doesn’t want to forget. He doesn’t want to lose the memory and, thereby, lose another fragile connection with the rest of the human race.

His eyes adapt to darkness with the ease of something nocturnal; his balance, as he climbs over fallen boughs and navigates small rivulets, is so perfect that he barely makes a sound through rock and water and fallen leaf. He moves between the maple, beech and sycamore and remembers another time, not so long ago, when the trees were of a different variety and the tang of eucalyptus was in his nose, when a man under his protection died – and he was a bad man, a monster in human form, but that didn’t make Steve’s failure any less complete.

He emerges from the treeline and pauses to reconnoiter. There are a few spots of light in the distance: a domed tent glowing from within, like a lightning bug. A small yellow lamp over the door of a distant bathhouse. But this is the very edge of the campground, and it is very late, and all is quiet as Steve approaches the Skyline Aljo.

Maria is sitting on the bottom-most step. She rises when she sees him – or, more likely, hears him – but not in surprise or alarm. “What took you so long?” she asks, at the same time that he wonders aloud, “How did you get here so fast?”

He’d had the greater distance to travel, of course, but he’d already been well on his way when Natasha told Hill that she had sensitive information regarding Russian intelligence, information she had acquired and concealed four years ago, information that she had hidden somewhere SHIELD had never thought to look for it.

“I had to chopper in,” says Maria, adding dryly, “we don’t keep a lot of Quinjets in the middle of New York City. Besides, requisitioning one would have drawn too much attention. What’s your excuse?”

“I had to find an alternate landing site.” The access road Natasha had mentioned had been too narrow to be a viable option; JARVIS had helpfully located a more suitable meadow a mile and a half to the northeast. “Wait… where did you land?”

“On the main road,” says Maria, as though this is obvious. “About half a mile west of the campground.”

The area is rural but not abandoned, and one of the first things Steve learned about this century is that there’s always someone watching. “Isn’t that going to draw attention?”

“It’s the middle of the night. And if anyone asks questions, we’ll say we were searching for a missing hiker.”

Steve shakes his head, not because he disagrees with Maria’s methods but because her tone seems to indicate that such methods are more than just sensible, they’re obvious, while his own instinct to lie isn’t nearly as well-developed. If someone had walked out into the meadow as Steve prepared to leave the jet, if that someone had demanded to know his business, Steve would probably have identified himself without thinking twice.

Along with the night-vision and the balance, it’s not something he takes pride in. In this time, in this place, honesty is a liability. When eyes are everywhere, sometimes the truth must be held in reserve. And even in his own time – before the cube and the crash and the decades-long ice nap – plenty of secrets had been kept. Hell, he’d been one of them, and a liar by omission if nothing else. He’d been an open secret, his existence flaunted and yet highly-sanitized for public consumption. If people had known that he wasn’t a direct result of the mighty American gene pool – strengthened by baseball, fortified by apple pie – that he was in fact just Frankenstein’s monster without the neck bolts… well, he sure wouldn’t have sold as many war bonds, that’s for sure.

“You’re doing it again,” says Maria.

“Doing what?”

“Feeling guilty about something that isn’t your responsibility and that you have no control over.”

Steve raises his eyebrows, even though he’s certain that she can’t see it. In fact, in the inky darkness, he doubts she can see any more of him than a vague shape. “You think you know me that well?”

“I think we can probably stand to save the pity party until after we recover the drive.”

“You could have gone in without me.”

“You’re the Avenger.” There’s a small suitcase – or a large briefcase – on the ground by her feet, and she nudges it with one booted foot. “I’m here for tech support.”

“So, you waited out of courtesy, then.” He can’t keep the skepticism out of his voice.

“That. And the very real possibility that this entire trailer is booby-trapped.” She takes a step back and indicates the front door of the Aljo. “Have at it, Captain.”

Steve hesitates. “I’m sure Natasha would have mentioned…”

“Yes, because she’s thinking so clearly right now.”

Provoked, Steve steps forward and pulls the door open. It requires breaking the deadbolt and torquing the lever-action handle, but there’s no other option because this isn’t the kind of lock JARVIS can hack, although Maria might well have finessed it if she’d been so inclined. Part of him thinks that he should educate himself of certain aspects of spycraft, and that Agent Hill, as his SHIELD liaison, would make an excellent tutor, but another part of him thinks c’mon, Rogers, stick with what you’re good at: brute force and breaking things.

When nothing detonates, collapses, or jumps out of the open doorway, Steve steps up into the Aljo. Maria is close behind. The inside of the trailer is even darker than the landscape outside. Maria wordlessly brings out a flashlight.

The trailer is as cramped as Steve had expected, with barely enough width for the two of them to stand side-by-side. It smells musty and closed-up but not unclean, and nothing appears out of place. If this is a cache of the kind Natasha spoke of before, where Barton keeps money and weapons and other necessities hidden away, they won’t be easy to find. But that’s not why Steve’s here.

“Bedroom,” says Maria, aiming the flashlight’s beam towards the folding doors to the aft of the trailer.

Because of the close quarters, she hangs back as Steve opens the door and lifts the mattress off its box frame. The tear is small and the stitches meticulous, and he feels a little guilty about undoing Natasha’s handiwork, but he feels more relieved when the long-sought drive – an innocuous plastic and metal box no bigger than a paperback novel – slips through foam and fabric and falls into his hand.

Maria sits down at the dinette and opens her case. There’s a computer inside and a wide selection of cables and wires. He hands her the drive – she passes him the flashlight – and there’s no bickering now, no attempts at witty repartee, because even if they’ve been relegated to the sidelines of this particular enterprise – seeking out a tidbit of information that might help an enemy who, in turn, might help one of their own – the recovery of the drive somehow makes it all seem more urgent, more real.

Drive successfully mated to laptop, Maria begins to type. Steve can’t see the screen from where he stands, on the other side of the dinette table, but judging by her furrowed brow and thinning lips he guesses that pulling up the needed information is proving to be a little more difficult than ‘logging onto’ Facebook.

Minutes pass, punctuated by only the slight rattle and click of the keyboard, and Steve is wondering if he dares to disrupt her concentration by speaking, when she saves him the trouble by growling out an oath. “This is going to be more difficult than I thought.” She shakes her head. “If Romanoff had brought this in back when she’d acquired it…”

“So why didn’t she?”

Maria glances up, just for a moment, and then her eyes return to the screen. “If you’d asked me back then I would have assumed she planned on selling the information herself.” Steve says nothing, but Maria continues as though he’s expressed his surprise. “Looking out for number one’s a hard habit to break.”

“Especially when it keeps you alive.”

Maria grunts acknowledgement. Her typing is louder now, and more forceful, as though she isn’t trying to finesse information from the machine as much as beat it into submission. “In retrospect, I’d say that she was trying to keep it out of the wrong hands. And in her mind, that included SHIELD.” She glances up again. “You have to understand, Captain… this drive is the Red Room, or at least all of it that survived.”

“After the fall of the USSR, you mean,” ventures Steve. He sets the flashlight down on the dinette table, the beam aimed across Maria’s hands.

“Even after the Soviet Union broke up, even after the KGB was nominally disbanded, the Red Room kept soldiering on in different forms, under different names, different leadership. I guess you could say it was like Hydra in that respect. It just didn’t know when to die. Then everything just went off the rails. There was chatter that one of their operatives had vanished in the field. And then…”

“Natasha?”

Maria nods. Her fingers slow, her expression settling into a moue of dissatisfaction. “SHIELD didn’t know what had happened, not for a while, just that suddenly this program that officially didn’t exist was in an uproar. According to our assets in-country, they closed up shop almost overnight. Burned a lot of their own operatives and abandoned others. Generals that had survived the rise and fall of the Soviet Union up and decided that they were overdue for retirement.”

“They were afraid.”

“That’s my guess.”

“Of her?”

“Can you blame them? But it wasn’t just Romanoff, I think. It was the idea that one of their pet projects was out of their control, and the possibility that she was just the first of many. That these girls they’d systematically brainwashed might turn out to have minds of their own after all. That what they’d done might be exposed.”

Steve leans against the wall. Would it have ended up that way with him, if things had happened differently? Would people have started looking at him with fear instead of awe, picturing the problems he could create if he decided to stop following orders?

Maria sits back with a sigh. “I can’t crack this. I figured, it being a four-year old encryption…”

A dry crackle; a crisp snap. Steve straightens and Maria looks up sharply, then follows his gaze to the trailer’s door.

A figure appears on the steps; his hands are empty but Steve steps in front of Maria anyway, just an instinct, really. He doesn’t see her rise from the dinette but he feels it, and he knows she’s reaching down for her service weapon even before he hears the soft creak of the holster.