It wasn't the first time she questioned her orders; wondered what would happen if she disobeyed them. But she didn't have to wonder, really. She knew what would happen, if even in a vague sense. The disloyal were executed. That was all that truly mattered. Not how events might play out differently if an assassination didn't take place or information wasn't passed along.
The United States Government doesn't sanction assassinations. It's part of their 'better than everyone else' image. It's also one of the reasons there are secret paramilitary organisations within the US. Because in the world of secrets and lies, it's no secret that a good quarter of all assassinations and attempts are carried out by Americans.
The assignment was in Bulgaria, but the target was Ukrainian. It was practise to follow a high-profile mark out of the country, to deflect suspicion and send local authorities on a fruitless hunt. Natalia waited in the hotel lobby, where she was to meet Ulyukaev and accompany him back to his suite.
"The swans fly south under the moon."
Natalia looked over at the sound of the strange American voice. Standing beside her was a stout man in a suit that looked far too expensive for him. Natalia spoke English well enough, but she wasn't entirely sure she knew what he meant.
Rather than answering him, however, she shrugged dramatically, trying to convey an inability to speak his language.
"You see that stuff in the movies all the time, but it doesn't really work like that," said the American. "I've always wanted to say that though."
"I... I don't..."
"Walk with me," said the American.
Before Natalia could protest, he took her by the elbow, firmly enough to guide her away, but not menacingly. She could have broken his arm right there, but it would attract undue attention.
"Russia's famous Black Widow," said the American. "So, we meet at last."
Natalia dropped her act at once. The situation had suddenly become life or death, and she would make sure it was his life and death to pass. She stopped following him and reached for her handbag, but the American was faster than he looked. He snatched it away and tossed it to the ground.
"We need to talk," he said. "I was hoping to do this somewhere a little more private, but here works too."
"Fuck you," Natalia spat in Russian.
The American hummed. "Tempting," he said. "But I think not. I'd rather talk."
Whether he actually understood, or just guessed at what she said, Natalia wasn't sure.
"Okay, here's the deal," he said. "You're going to come with me if I have to carry you over my shoulder."
Natalia smiled wolfishly at him. "I have a job to do," she said.
"Ulyukaev, right?" asked the American.
Natalia didn't answer.
"Thought so." He brought his hand up to the side of his face. "Do it," he said into his wrist.
Suddenly, two loud shots rang out from the street outside, followed by the sounds of chaos that only ever followed a public assassination. The American grabbed hold of Natalia's elbow again and began leading her back toward the lift. "Walk with me," he repeated.
This time, Natalia followed more willingly. Technically, her job was done, and now she needed to get away from the scene. The two of them stepped into the lift, and the American pushed a the button for the twelfth floor.
"If you're here to kill me, I suggest you get it over with," Natalia said.
The American tilted his head to one side. "I should, shouldn't I?" he said. "But I have a better idea. Why don't you come with me, meet my boss, and we'll go from there."
Natalia looked at him blankly, not betraying any of the apprehension she felt. She knew she should have just broken his neck right there, but she didn't. There was still time to do it, but she stood still, waiting for the rest of what he had to say.
"Why?" she asked.
"Two-ply toilet paper," said the American, making it sound like an offer.
Natalia rose her eyebrows, letting him know how unamusing she found his quip.
"Free dental, good retirement plan. And I was actually suppose to kill you, yes," the American said. "But this way, I don't have to."
"Why?" Natalia asked.
The American shrugged. "Why not?" he said. "And hey, if you decide you don't like it, we can just have a good-old-fashioned Spy versus Spy grudge match."
Natalia considered this. "Deal," she said.
She went with the American to a large suite, very aware of the loss of her handbag. Inside the suite were four other men in suits, all busy with computers or headphones. One of them looked up from the monitor he was reading and gave the pair a cool stare.
"Barton," he said flatly. "There'd better be a good explanation for this."
The American called Barton shut the door and locked it. "She hesitated, sir," he said, incongruously casual.
"Hesitated?" asked his superior officer.
"Hesitated," Barton repeated. "Trust me on this."
His boss looked from one to the other again and nodded. "All right," he said. "I'll want to debrief both of you in five minutes."
Natalia finally snapped. These were men who were trained to kill on sight. Men who would have drilled in school for nuclear attacks. The Cold War was over officially, but it would never truly be over until no-one alive remembered being there. She looked round the room, calculating angles, furniture that might make an acceptable weapon. No American would be her friend, not here... But then again, here were two men who had changed their entire mission, based off of a perceived hesitation and the word of the other. There were no further questions asked. Barton left Natalia and wandered into the next room. Several of the others cast wary glances her way, but nary a word was said. Fine, two could play at that game. She held her head up arrogantly and sat down in a chair against the wall. If they were going to kill her, they would have done so already. She knew she could still leave, only having to kill one or two of them before slipping out of the suite and disappearing. It's what she should have done.
And yet. And yet. She was stunned enough at the turn of events to sit quietly, and curious enough to see what might happen next. Natalia took the name Natasha, and took only a week before she could affect a passable American accent. Within a month, every last trace of Russian was gone from her voice.
And then what happened next was enough to take her breath away.
“Your first mission.” Coulson put a file down in front of her. “I think you’ll like it.”
Natasha unfolded her arms and sat up straight. Lounging in the chairs in the SHIELD debriefing rooms were a pretty good way to become a permanent hunchback, but she felt she should keep up the appearance of someone who was only here on sufferance. She could leave whenever she liked. Right.
“It’s in Helsinki. It’s half helter-skelter, half twinkly. Nice this time of year, I think.” Coulson had a way of talking that made it difficult to tell if he was trying to make a joke, or completely serious. SHIELD didn't have commanding officers, as such. They prefered the term agent. But there was still some hierarchy to their ranks, however esoteric it seemed.
Natasha opened the file and skimmed over the page inside. She didn't recognise the target, but that was hardly new.
“No, this is America. We never assassinate. That’s what terrorists do.” Coulson looked mildly appalled. Natasha raised an eyebrow. Whatever helped him sleep at night.
“You’re going to try and recruit him.”
“He’s doing some very interesting work. We think it would be better if he was doing it for us.” Coulson shrugged. “What we’re offering is all in there.”
Natasha was actually kind of pissed. She was one of the world’s greatest assassins and she was being sent on a glorified baby-sitting job. What was the point?
“There are people who want him to stop working. You need to stop them from reaching him first. It’s all in the file.”
Coulson looked at her in a vaguely school-masterish way. Natasha looked away first, back down at the file. She could take it, and then if it was actually as ridiculous a waste of her talents as she thought, she could just jump ship.
Two days in, she made contact with her mark, an elderly lady who pottered around in her cellar-lab and was completely unaware that her ‘little hobby’ could change the rest of the world forever, probably by destroying a large part of it. She had six cats and offered Natasha tea and little cakes.
Three days in, she was approached by the other side. It wasn’t entirely clear who the other side was, since they sent a local boy, an incredibly tall, thin black man in an impeccable grey suit. He offered her money, a lot of money to make sure that the mark never made it to America. After that, everything rather fell apart in a hurry.
The mark never made it to America. The local boy never made it home either, and Natasha's face showed up on a security camera in a parking garage. Eight years, and a mission had never quite fallen apart so badly. Natasha believed — knew — that it had all been an elaborate set-up. The Americans wanted the Finn dead, but didn't want their fingerprints on it. If they wanted the old lady dead, that was fine, but now Natasha was hiding in a dive in Lauttasaari with the local boy’s friends circling ever closer. SHIELD had clearly decided to cut their losses, and probably the locals would get her the next time she went out for food. She was annoyed about that. Actually, she was completely livid about that. Never had she been put into such a compromising position in her life. Her ghost was going to hunt down Phil Coulson right into his next life. She looked at her meagre supplies. As delicious as half an elderly tin of baked beans were, they really wouldn’t last much longer.
Just as she was starting to face the fact that she would have to leave the flat, the sound of glass breaking cut through the silence. It came from the bathroom. The window there was small, but not so small that someone her size couldn't squeeze though.
It was Barton. Natasha grabbed a knife and ran to the bathroom door, ready to slice the bastard's face off.
"Little help here, hey, Nat?" Barton asked.
He'd managed to crawl in up to his waist, but wasn't able to get in any further than that.
"Looks like someone needs to lay off the Big Macs," Natasha quipped dryly. Maybe she could just leave him there and let him die slowly. After three weeks of knowing that her last meal would be mysterious tinned foods, it was the least she could do, really.
He tried to wiggle through the window again, but was well and truly stuck.
"What? No, shut up. It's my gun," he said. "Grab it off my belt, would you?"
Natasha studied him for a moment before stepping close to him. She had to stand on her toes to be able to snake her arm between Barton and the window frame. After some uncomfortably close contact, she managed to free his gun from his belt and pulled it through, bringing it to her side. Barton managed to slide through the window all the way then, falling into the mouldy bath tub below. He scrambled into an upright position, panting.
"Hey," he greeted in his irritatingly casual tone. "How you doing?"
Natasha wanted to shoot him right there.
"How do you think?" she asked.
Barton got to his feet and jerked his head back out the window. "Got a car about two blocks away. Want a lift?"
“Yeah, unless you've decided to relocate permanently." He looked around the dank bathroom. "And I could see why you'd want to. Otherwise, it’s past your curfew, and Dad’s getting mad.”
Natasha started to raise the gun, and then stopped.
“Dad? Do you mean Coulson?”
Barton winked at her and headed for the door. “Come on, we’d better get gone.”
Natasha raised the gun again, turning it over in her hand to offer the grip to Barton. He reholstered it and motioned toward the broken window. "After you," he said.
She slipped through with considerably more ease than he had done, and shimmied down the drainpipe like a ghost. Barton poked his head out of the window and watched her go, looking something like impressed.
“Damn you and your skinny ass,” Barton said.
He started to climb out of the window again, but stopped. A moment later, he held his gun out the window, making clear his intent to drop it. Several seconds later, he did. Natasha caught it out of the air and stepped out of the way to give Barton plenty of room to fall out of the window again. He started head-first, then changed his mind and started feet-first instead. Even Natasha had to admit, it was impressive, given the height of the window. But apparently he was a carnie in a not-so-past life.
This is probably what saved his life, as instead of the bullet intended for his head hit him in the thigh instead.
“Goddamn fucking ow!” Barton grabbed his leg. “Jesus Christ—”
And he toppled back out of sight. Natasha looked round, already working out the trajectory of the bullet... Brick exploded next to her head, and she ducked into the shadows, breathing hard. More shots rang out, this time from a different direction. Then, everything stopped. Not even a police siren, because it was apparently that sort of neighbourhood. Maybe if she was quick she could make it to the car... If only she knew where the car was.
"Fuck, this is gonna hurt," she heard Barton say. Moving more quickly than he had before, he made it out the window this time, falling over as soon as he hit the ground. He wasted just enough time hissing some more inventive curse-words before staggering to his feet and reaching for Natasha.
"This way," he said, leading her away from their latest crime scene. He was limping, badly, but Natasha couldn’t tell if he was bleeding badly. Another shot cracked off behind them and she ducked.
“Keep going!” Barton drew an honest-to-god collapsible bow and an arrow from the small pack on his back and fired it off behind them.
“Are you kidding me?” Natasha would have yelled it but she was running too hard.
“Hey, do I insult your cat-suit thing?” Barton drew another arrow. This time when he fired there was an explosion and a distant scream. Natasha almost laughed. Barton was clearly some sort of escaped lunatic. Maybe Coulson just kept him around for the novelty value.
More bullets started flying after that, and she kept to the wall, crouching low. There were a couple more explosions, and then some bastard got lucky. She felt the bullet as a white-hot pain in her side, and screamed. She couldn’t help it. She lost her footing and hit the ground mostly with her nose.
“What are you doing? This is no time for a nap!"
“Dying, I think...” Natasha put a hand to her stomach. Everything seemed to be soaked.
“Oh for fuck’s... Really? I thought you were a goddamn super-spy!”
“That doesn’t mean I’m impervious to bullets, you ass. Get out of here!” Natasha started to drag herself to the shadows provided by a couple of bins.
“Well, that was the idea, but you decided you had to get gut-shot like a big Russian ass!”
“Just get out of here, Barton, or I’ll shoot you myself.”
“Oh now you’re self-sacrificing. Come on, jeez...”
It took some cursing, mostly on Barton’s part—Natasha wondered if all Americans were this noisy about pain or if it was just this one—but soon they were both upright, staggering down the street like a couple of drunks.
“This is ridiculous...” Natasha panted. Barton eschewed the bow for his gun, firing it behind them and making someone else scream. Good.
“!” Barton grunted.
They made it back to the car, and Barton dumped her in the back-seat. “Stay there.” He got into the front seat and fiddled with the dash.
“Thank god for automatic...” The car roared to life and the windshield exploded. The bullet buried itself in the passenger-seat. “You okay back there?”
“Yeah, just drive!” Natasha yelled. And he did. They left that neighbourhood behind with a screech of tyres. After a while, all that could be heard was the sound of wind rushing through the windscreen and the unmistakable clatter of an air-cooled engine.
“I’m surprised they didn’t put a car-bomb on the car,” Natasha said, finally. Her stomach was killing her. Literally.
“They probably did, which is why I took this one instead.” Barton kept his eyes on the road. “Hey, don't you go all Mister Orange on me back there."
“You not a Tarintino fan?” he asked, that irritating casual tone back in his voice.
“Oh man, you gotta get educated. Assuming you don’t die or kill me, we should have a movie night. I bet you'd love Kill Bill.”
“A movie night?” Natasha wondered if she was delirious, and in a moment she was going to wake up back in the squat, the whole thing a result of eating mysterious tinned meat.
“Yeah, you know, popcorn, beer, the whole thing...” Panic belied his voice, but Natasha was certain she was imagining that as well.
They pulled off at a truck-stop, where there was a helicopter waiting for them. Barton pulled her from the back seat, carrying her in his arms like a new bride.
"Get out of the way. Now," he said as he passed Natasha off to someone on the helicopter. The last thing she heard was another string of swearing as he climbed in after her.