After the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Natasha has an agenda. It's the same one she's always had. Except now, she doesn't have any oversight, no commander, there's no one behind her smoking gun. Who is she accountable to now, and who handed her the ledger to begin with?
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Brock Rumlow.
Due to popular demand by I am officially writing a Black Widow fic. I'll change the content warnings/ratings for each chapter. Enjoy!
When she said they’d know where to find her, she hadn’t meant for it to be a lie.
Natasha is not hiding. She stays in America, near the wreckage of yet another institution she helped bring down. She lets herself have a routine. Something repetitive. Predictable. There are tickets for every Sunday matinee ballet under her name (Natalia Romanova, the closest thing she has to a ‘real’ name). She counts security cameras automatically, but she ignores the impulse to duck from them, doesn’t cover her face or take route through the blind spots. She allows herself to be seen.
It feels strange.
It’s a tickle at the back of her neck, tension at the bottom of her spine. She ignores it for as long as she can, and when her chest begins to feel too tight she ducks into the corner store (run by Nuala, the big lady with the raspy voice who is always ignoring the soccer game playing on mute behind the counter; she knows to give Natasha matches without being asked). It’s not good, feeling like she should be on the run, but it’s a feeling she’s accepted.
Errands. She prioritizes them without needing to think about it. Shower, this will need to be completed after the visit. She needs to call Clint, to explain. This should be done soon, but it can wait until tonight (it is 01:16 in Pakistan, that conversation should definitely wait until Clint has had time to acclimate to the new time zone, he gets cranky without enough sleep, and he needs time to charge his hearing aid, delay phone conversation). She wants to discuss the security detail she intends to assign to Rogers. They will have to be efficient; close enough to intervene if the Soldier appears, distant enough that Rogers won’t notice. He’s naive. The challenge will be finding people she can still trust.
Hospital first. The visit needs to happen now, or the opportunity will be gone.
She scouts the perimeter first, but reacquiring the target seems to be a low priority for Hydra. Injuries are too severe, he’s not going to be combat-ready for months. His intel is obviously limited, but anyone living who knows the things she’s looking for is so deep underground she’ll be lucky if she ever learns a hint of what they’re hiding.
Natasha knows she’s not lucky. But she is extremely skilled. That ought to get her farther than any luck ever could.
Perimeter secure. There are a few rogue agents watching, but they’re not threats. They’re barely even hidden, sitting in the window of the coffee shop across from the non-emergency entrance or loitering on the bench by the NICU. They’re not even paying attention. No, they’re waiting. Their generals have been arrested, their leaders gone to ground. They need orders.
She startles the one sitting on the bench. It’s his fault for being so obvious. Turns out there’s a benefit to leaking your entire history for the world to see. Millions of tweets, an op-ed in the Times about Cold War super violence, and a judicial inquiry, suddenly this man is too frightened to soil himself at the sight of her. Unprofessional. Hydra was bound to fail if this is the caliber of their surveillance experts. She smiles, cracking her knuckles. She intends to say something clever, but the idiot runs before she can begin. Pity.
The security team in the hospital is no obstacle. She’s not even trying to avoid them, and it’s as if they don’t see her walking right past them. Too lazy; one is watching pornography on his cell phone, another is too invested in his lunch to track where she’s going. Inattentive. She’d have to drive through the hallway on a tank to get their attention.
The idea, while amusing, would not support the testimony she just gave Congress.
The corridor echoes with distorted conversation. Nurses discussing weekend plans, “-this job is hell on my manicure”, and she lets the white noise wash over her consciousness.
She finds the room easily. It’s a single unit, and the lights are dim (out of deference for the nature of the injury, or perhaps because the doctors assume he needs darkness in order to sleep; she’s heard that most people consider ‘rest’ to be a cure-all restorative). She closes the door exactly as she finds it, the lock tongue resting just outside the strike plate. Their conversation will be muted. It’d doubtful anyone passing by will be listening closely enough to investigate. She scans the room for listening devices, but no one has bothered. The sound of grizzly snoring does not seem worth the trouble.
She skims the chart, sitting. No new medications scheduled in the next thirty minutes, but the patient is due to be transferred tomorrow. She doesn’t doubt it will be to a Hydra base.
Rumlow is in bad shape. She can smell it. The sterile scent of hospital cleansers can’t mask the stench of burned skin, of raw, healing flesh, of singed hair, of red hot pain. Natasha glances at the painkiller dosage, and grimaces. She doesn’t have time to wean him off slowly. She needs him awake. Now.
It doesn’t take long. Within a few minutes, Rumlow’s eyelids are flickering, and he hisses when he tries to move.
“Don’t get up on my account.”
He tenses at the sound of her voice.
She tosses him a sloppy salute from her position in the chair by the corner. He snarls in response, though that might be the pain. Getting your face melted off tends to be agonizing. His lip curls in a sour, seething shape, painfully disfigured. He glares at her, and she can smell the pain-induced adrenaline rush from where she’s sitting. She doesn’t feel bad for him.
“Me.” She coos in mock sympathy. “Don’t tell me you’re not happy to see me?”
“Tell me what you want. I won’t be useful for long.”
He’s right, but it doesn’t matter.
“You know, there’s not much that can be said for Hydra. I know, supposedly when you cut off the head, two more take its place, sure. You’re a lot like cockroaches.” She leans forward, just barely crowding into his personal space, letting the unease settle in before she continues. “But I will say this in your favor, you keep very organized records.” He doesn’t react. “So I find it odd that the documents I’m looking for are missing. It’s almost like someone didn’t want me to find them.”
Rumlow’s voice is gravelly.
“Thanks to you, everything is out in the open. There’s nothing left that the whole world doesn’t know.”
“Sure. All the digital records of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra are public. But you’re a secret society, with a lot of moving parts. Paranoia comes with the territory. No one person knew everything. Not even Alexander Pierce. And not all of your records were digital.”
His eyebrow twitches.
“You found the library.”
“You say that like it should have been hard.” She stands. “Yeah. Your files on every sleeper cell, every brainwashed agent in the United States, all their little codewords and signals. You have a lot of friends in odd places.” She places a finger on her lips. “Well. I guess you wouldn’t call them friends? Not if you have to torture them to get them to behave.”
Rumlow scoffs, ignoring the way she’s getting closer.
“Looking for some light reading?”
She bites the corner of her mouth.
His jaw is tight, but it’s due to the pain. He’s not revealing anything. Rolling her eyes, she leans on the bed, exerting the barest amount of pressure. Just that slight shift should unsettle his limbs enough to send shooting pains throughout his entire body. He grunts, and she leans a little more. He gasps.
“You want something?” His lips jerk around the words. “Ask me!”
She looks up at him through her lashes.
“You might say I’m looking for an origin story.”
“The Soldier!” He gurgles. “You know everything I know. Probably more.” He glares at her arm. Obliging, she stands up, letting the bed settle slowly back into place. He takes a wheezing breath, and his heart rate monitor beeps with a little less insistence.
“No.” She crosses her arms. “Not the Winter Soldier.”
Rumlow swallows, and she can tell even that is hurting him. He’s letting the pain break through his facade. She has an idle thought: a memory. Order only comes from pain. She’d heard him say that over Sam’s com, heard it and ignored it, filed away until this moment. It hadn’t been important until now. She doesn’t understand what he might have meant. Probably not this.
He’s croaking, a sound that might be laughter.
“Oh. You want to know yourself. Back. Before the Black Widow Program. You want to know the things that nobody bothered to write down.” His voice cracks. “You want to know if you might be the missing Anastasia.”
She stands up, turning away. She’ll get more from him if he has to imagine the look on her face, if he assumes she’s upset or unsettled. Let him think he’s insulted her, hurt her precious feelings. All she has to do is touch her cheekbone, force her voice to waver, and he’ll treat her like she’s crying. Lying in bed, vulnerable, injured, defenseless and immobile. He’ll make the same mistake people always make when they look at her and think that she’s the one that’s fragile. He’ll treat her like he’s won.
“You won’t find that in any file. Some secrets are too important to trust to paper.”
She tightens her shoulders, pretending to avoid looking at him.
“Then who keeps them?”
She watches his reflection in the metal supply cabinet to her right. He’s smiling, even though it hurts, keeping his face like that.
“The secret keepers.”
She almost groans. What a boring game he’s decided to play. She shakes herself, looking like she’s strengthened her resolve. She spins on her heels, lightweight and precise and deadly, and she reminds him of it. Reminds him that he’s lying there prone and she doesn’t need him alive, not really. Whatever he knows, and it’s obviously not much, there’s someone else out there who knows more. He’s only alive because she hasn’t killed him, and the only reason she hasn’t is because he’s the most convenient resource available. That convenience is contingent on his cooperation.
“And who are they?”
His head rolls to the side.
“Who are the secret keepers? They’re our pensioners’ club. You have our documents, photos, videos, but you don’t have our soul.”
“I thought the point of Hydra was to make the soul obsolete.”
She can see the whites of his eyes.
“No, Agent. No, you’ve got it… wrong.” He seethes as he takes his next breath. His lungs are struggling, he’s in too much pain, but he’s not done talking yet. “Mankind does something no other species does. Monkeys build tools, parrots talk. What makes us unique?” His voice crackles into a bizarre laugh. “We tell stories. That’s what they’re good for. Our philosophy, our tactics, our long-term battle plans, those aren’t kept on paper. Paper can be burned, files deleted. Good ideas never die, not when enough people carry them.” He licks his ragged lips. “They are the secret keepers. Our oldest, our best and brightest. Hydra’s secrets are keeping them alive.”
“That’s almost nice. Shame none of it’s true.” She leans over him, adjusting the morphine drip. “I think that’s all for today.” She can see him fading into the haze seconds later, but he’s still conscious, slurring his tongue over the words as they fall from his mouth.
“How do you know I’m not one of them?”
Snarling, she turns the morphine off. She waits until she can see him sweating, the pain tearing through his skin, white-hot and miserable. That’s what you get for taking a bath in flaming jet fuel.
He wheezes, and she can read the answer on his smug face without waiting for him to speak through gritted teeth.
She rises. His lips tremble.
“But it’s true. It is.” His voice rasps. “What’s the fucking point of lying?”
“What’s the point of telling the truth?”
He shakes his head, cheeks drawn tight.
“Hydra doesn’t lie. We may have been hiding, but we were always in sight.”
“I have personally lied, on numerous occasions, on Hydra’s behalf.”
His fingers twitch.
“Assume I’m lying then. You’ll never know for sure if you never look.”
She crosses her arms.
“Have you ever heard of Pandora’s box, Agent Rumlow?” She cracks a grin. “You’re not offering my legacy. You want whatever it is Hydra’s been hiding to take me down with the sinking ship.”
“You’re the one that let the demons out, Agent. You spilled everyone’s secrets, S.H.I.E.L.D’s and Hydra’s both. I’m just trying to help you find the hope at the tip of the jar.”
She filters his words, knowing she’ll have plenty of time to dissect them later. He’s happy to keep talking, even if most of it is bullshit, she can sift through it to find what she needs. She’s gotten good at making inferences.
“And what is it you think I’ll find there?”
His shoulders twitch, the closest approximation to a shrug he can muster without tugging at his shiny new skin graft.
“Why don’t you see for yourself?”
She leans close, grinning wide so all her teeth are showing.
“Why don’t you just tell me?”
He chokes on a bitter laugh. His breath reeks of sickness.
“Careful. You’re letting me see how much you want it.”
She leans back schooling her expression.
“Good. They’ll know I’m coming for them then. I could use a fair fight.”
His grin is rigid and spiteful.
“You’re slipping, Agent. Your commanding officers are all dead. What are you going to do without orders to follow?”
She shrugs, filing away the data for later. Rumlow believes Nicky Fury is dead.
“Dunno. Guess we’ll both find out.”
Rumlow coughs, wheezing, and she doesn’t think she has much more time before the pain will make him completely useless.
“What mission brought you here?”
She turns the morphine drip back on.
“No mission,” she whispers, knowing he won’t remember these last seconds. “Just trying to figure out where my ledger began.”
His lip twists into cruel and bitter smile.
“Which masters will you betray when you find out? Heh,” he takes a rattling breath. “And whose purpose will you be serving when you do?”
Natasha resists the urge to turn the morphine down again, just to make him miserable. It’s tempting, but a nurse would notice before too long. She’s not hiding, but she doesn’t need anyone to know she was here.
“Your chapter is in the Bolshoi.” He croaks. “Happy hunting.”
She’s already gone. What a stupid codename.
See you next week Vingle!
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