Phil Coulson hadn’t gotten to where he was today by being a fool. Despite what others would say about him he didn’t take unnecessary risks. Every asset he’d brought back to Shield proved that. Shield wanted the best and that’s what he got. They needed these men and women to keep it’s edge and he was the one they sent to get them. Fury trusted him, a rare thing in their line of work because he did his job and he did it damn well.
There were always cases he couldn’t logic and reason his way into explaining why they would work. Sometimes the assets he brought in were ones that no one at any other agency would even dare think of taking. No other intelligence agency would think about hiring a man like Barton. No high school degree, no background in, well, anything. Yet he was quickly taking to the work like a duck to water, rising in the ranks despite his ‘disrespectful 'manners. And it was all because Coulson had trusted his gut in taking in a rude young man with a bow.
But this… this one was a hard one. He’d been in this business since the woman in front of him had been a child, if the estimates of her age were right. She didn’t look a day over the age of twenty-five but looks could be misleading. The carefree way she sat behind the table with a small smile was manufactured, even if expertly. Her short red hair is just the slightest bit messy, locks of it falling over wide innocent green eyes. He kept his gun on her, though her hands were opened and resting on the bare table.
A Black Widow getting caught was damn rare but one letting herself be caught, which he knew was the case here, was completely unheard of. As brutal as the training was, it was effective. Black Widows that wanted to leave the KGB, or what was left of it, didn’t exist because they would have been killed long before they ever first left Russia. And this wasn’t just any Black Widow, this was one who was just starting to really make a name for herself.
“I have to say; this is a surprise, Ms. Romanoff.”
Her smile twitched into a smirk and she shrugged, her hands not moving a centimeter on the table. “I thought you deserved a birthday gift, Agent Coulson.”
He wasn’t surprised she knew his name even though he’d only been assigned her case or cases as it were, last month. Romanoff had popped up in a few assassins, a new lover of a dead oil barren here, a cleaning lady of a politician there, but the last one had been… messy. It was the first one that had occurred while he was on her case. Normally it had taken the home office a few weeks to find her involvement in these cases but this one hadn’t exactly been hidden. A politician killed in his room with evidence of his crimes scattered around him wasn’t normal for the Red Room but Romanoff was seen clear as day on cameras around the hotel laughing on his arm only minutes before his death.
There hadn’t even been any long undercover work, her M.O. at this point. From what they gathered she’d met him the night of his death. There had been a trail to follow even if it was a hard one.
“My birthday is in May,” he said with a carefully casual tone.
She just shrugged again, sitting still with that same innocent smile.
Romanoff had been clearly baiting him here, a run-down warehouse in the middle of nowhere Lowa. He’d been chasing her from D.C and their game of cat and mouse had lasted the better part of the last week. Other agents, he knew, wouldn’t have hesitated to put her in cuffs or perhaps kill her on sight. He wasn't like other agents.
“Why the chase?” He finally asked as he lowered his gun just an inch. “We both know that if you didn’t want to be caught I wouldn’t be here.”
The woman moved slowly, her left arm rising until her elbow braced the rest of her then rested her face on her palm like a teenager bored in math class. “I like that you admitted that, most men wouldn't have.”
Suddenly that faded as she dropped her arm back down. Her eyes turned cold and calculating as she looked him over, studying him closely, all innocence gone from her face. It was kind of amazing how quickly that change happened.
“I want out,” she said.
“A Black Widow leaving the Red Room is completely unheard of,” he fully lowered his gun but kept it ready. “The training makes it impossible-”
Green eyes flashed. “I think I know a little bit more about my training than you do.”
Coulson nodded once, letting her have that point. No one had gotten a true look at what the Red Room was up to with their Widow training since the 1950s. Everything they knew had mostly come from Director Carter’s own reports of the time. What they did know was that they got the girls young and brainwashed them almost completely. The methods weren’t known but the results spoke for themselves. When he first got the case he’d read of one Widow from the ’70s that had been taken into custody only for her to suddenly kill herself a week later. From what they gathered it was some kind of trigger.
“But you can understand my worry,” he said. “We don’t know everything about the training but we know enough. It’s much more likely that you’re a double agent. Or trying to be at least.”
“Is it?” Romanoff leaned forward with a raised eyebrow. “People betray the people that raised them all the time. Perhaps I’m just the first one that’s come to you.”
“Why us then ?” he questioned. “There are hundreds of agencies, why Shield?”
“Your Director has been taking risks in who he takes in and word gets around, '' she said casually. “Shield’s always had surprisingly high morals for an intelligence agency but now you’re letting people join. I’ll be clear, I don’t want anything to do with the Red Room and I never have. I want out but I’ve done things that would land me in jail for the rest of my life if there was a prison that could keep me. I think Shield can help me.”
“ To, what, make amends? I can’t guarantee that’s something you’ll find in this lifetime.”
“Probably not,” she shrugged. “ I also need protection. I can’t just leave, every Widow in the world will be after me soon. I can dodge them for now but everyone has bad days sooner or later.” Her smirk grew again, her tone turning playful, “But I’m not an idiot. You aren’t going to believe me just because I’ve been giving you a fun chase. You don’t trust me and that’s smart.”
Romanoff pulled out a tiny thumb drive from her sleeve and tossed it at him. “We both want the same man dead, Agent Coulson. I help you and you help me.”
“This is insane.”
Coulson shrugged a little. “Not the craziest missions I’ve done,” he commented as he checked over their stock of ammo.
Barton snorted in clear disagreement. He waved in Romanoff’s general direction, who was sitting across from him in a beaten old van on the way to the headquarters for this mission reading a magazine that had to be at least ten years old that had been left inside. “What's crazier than working with a Black Widow to take down one of the biggest crime lords in the world?”
“That, Agent Barton, is classified.”
Dear God, please let there be no shapeshifters.
Three days later Barton was firmly on her side which made things easier.
“I like her,” he said as he fiddled with his bow. Coulson liked to pretend he always knew what was going on but he had to admit that he didn’t understand anything that Barton did with his bow. Sometimes it seemed that he changed the settings around for no other reason than to do something with his hands. He didn’t miss though so he kept his mouth shut on it.
“Hmmm,” Coulson didn’t say anything for a moment. Romanoff was professional to the extreme at times, dead-faced at most of Barton’s little comments. It had been little surprising considering how coy she had acted when he ‘caught’ her. Yet now that good humor had faded almost completely. There were moments when he saw her lips twitch into a smile though, mainly when Coulson indulged his childish side and played the straight man, figuratively of course, to Barton.
Was the coyness of their first meeting a ruse then, something to get his guard down? If so, why hadn’t she kept it up? She had to be trained to keep any kind of cover in any conditions. Three days in a bare apartment was nothing to a trained spy, let alone a Widow. And the way she checked and double-checked things almost felt like nerves. This woman was highly trained from childhood for this job, she shouldn’t be getting any kind of nerves.
Simply a ruse then? Or were the nerves from the fact that it was this Dreykov person, who had never been connected to the Red Room before now?
So far nothing about the intel had been wrong, nothing yet that pointed to a trap of any kind. The thumb drive had contained enough information that they would make a move on Dreykov but they’d kept it small, Fury demanded it. This mission was only three people on the ground and the backup was so far back that they might as well not have it. They had no techs or any other kind of support, just a very far away team that may or may not be able to get to them in time if this went wrong.
Romanoff hadn’t asked for more. Instead, she told them just what Dreykov had for defenses and started working around the limited support. She hadn’t asked to see or speak to higher-level agents. Hadn’t even tried to clarify what Shield would offer her in exstrange for this mission. They wouldn’t let her go, they all knew that, but for all she knew Fury would have her put in prison. It was a reach at best to say that because Shield was bringing in some… unsavory people that they wouldn’t slap cuffs on her after this.
Coulson knew Fury wouldn’t allow this much talent to go to waste but did Romanoff? She was risking a lot for the mere chance of protection if this was genuine, which he was believing more and more as time went by.
“I think,” Coulson said after much thought, “that Romanoff is hiding something.”
There was a moment five days later when Romanoff disappeared in the middle of the night that Coulson thought he made a mistake. That perhaps he’d even made the kind of mistake that would end his own life and Bartons.
“You lost her?” He asked Barton with a sigh. They’d been sleeping in shifts for eight days now and when he woke Barton was alone, drooling on the floor and the black widow was gone.
“She must have knocked me out with something,” Barton grumbled.
“But why not just kill you then? Why go through the trouble-”
The safehouse door opened, Coulson and Barton had their weapons drawn and aimed before the handle finished turning.
The door opened slowly and then Romanoff inched her head from the side, open hands in front of her. “Hi.”
“Natasha,” Barton said with a small pout though he kept his arrow notched, “I thought we were becoming bros.”
There was a small snort behind the door before a girl’s voice said, “I had to sit in that basement while you became ‘bros’ ?”
Romanoff eyed their weapons and didn’t move an inch away from the door. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to explain.”
She was protecting the girl behind her with her own body, he realized. Romanoff could have killed them both multiple times but hadn’t. Desperate for protection when she was trained well enough that she could hide from anyone she wanted to. She could have run from Dreykov without going out of her way to take him down. He had thought about her nerves that hadn’t faded away… Were they born from worry?
He lowered his gun, Barton doing the same with his bow and a relieved smile.
“Who did you bring us, Romanoff?”
Yelena Belova was strange.
The woman, a girl really even if he didn’t know her age yet, was young. Much too young to be on the field. Coulson could admit to himself that having her here didn’t sit right with him, that having a teenager help plan an assassination wasn’t something he wanted. Looking at her made him want to get her out of here and buy her ice cream.
She didn’t act like a spy, not really, because she was open in ways most spies weren’t. He didn’t think it was a cover and if it was it was a detailed one. Her emotions were easy to read, from her annoyance at Barton, to her love for Romanoff, to her hatred and fear of Dreykov. He had to keep reminding himself that she wasn’t just a young woman that Romanoff had found.
But it was the way Romanoff changed with her around that made him realize his gut was right.
Because of Romanoff’s nerves, her need to check things over endlessly, to hover and not get any sleep, faded away like they were never there. The dead-eyed mask she wore became a little smirk and that coyness from their first meeting came back. She teased Barton now, to his delight. She watched over Yelena with half an eye at all times, made sure she had water, and slept a full eight hours.
It took him about two days to realize that Romanoff was now judging them just as much as they were. She hadn’t before, had barely seemed to care who it was that she was allying herself with, but now she watched, listened, and never let one of them be in the room alone with Yelena if she could help it. He’s sure that they passed whatever benchmark the assassin had set for them, as her watching lessened bit by bit and they kept breathing but Coulson privately thought that it was a rather low bar. One that seemed to be, ‘how will these men react to being alone with two beautiful women for days on end.’ One that any decent person would be able to pass and reminded him very clearly what kind of monster they were dealing with.
Three days later Dreykov was dead
“You know how much of a pain in my ass you are sometimes Coulson?”
Coulson nodded in easy agreement, “ I can imagine that some people weren’t happy about it.”
Fury huffed from behind his desk as he slapped Romanoff’s file down. “This woman hasn’t been in the field for five years and we only got crumbs. Then you tell me that she wants out. No one has ever gotten out of the Red Room so it’s a damn big chance to take.”
“And now Dreykov is dead.”
“Ah yes, Dreykov. He was a very important man with a whole lot of friends.” Fury shook his head, “When I told you that you weren’t getting any kind of backup, any kind of support from me to hunt him down, what did that say to you? Hmm? Does that sound like you were supposed to take a half-cocked agent and recruit two child assassins to blow up half a city? ”
“No sir, it sounds to me like I disobeyed your orders quite clearly on the matter,” Coulson said.
A smirk grew on the other man’s face, “Damn right. There were a lot of unhappy people when you refused to wait for a full investigation and do you know how many snakes came out of the woodwork when you reported that a Widow had broken free? Dreykov had a lot of public connections before this too, we’re going to be up to our ass trying to figure out who knew what about the Red Room.”
“And what about Romanoff and Belova?” He hadn’t seen them since they landed here at the Hub. He wasn’t the biggest fan of this base because of the Alaska cold so he'd rather had this all done at the Triskelion or one of the main offices in New York or D.C. But the Hub was more remote and big enough that they would have the manpower to watch over something of this size.
“I wasn’t kidding about you being a pain in my ass,” he raised an eyebrow. “First you bring me a damn carnie. Then you bring me two brainwashed assassins from a place where no one has ever been able to break away from.”
Coulson simply nodded. “I did.”
The small amount of humor left Fury’s face, “You think they can leave all that behind them? We’re talking about brainwashing from early childhood. Trained to kill anyone and anything and to listen to their master’s orders to the ends of the earth. I’ve seen the old reports, just like you have.”
It twisted something in his gut now to think about it if he was honest. Romanoff and Belova were young, he had to keep reminding himself to not think about them as Natasha and Yelena, who liked to tease each other like family and who traded food between themselves without a word. Natasha had really clicked with Barton after she stopped having to worry. Yelena kept stealing Barton’s candy.
But he read the reports. Handcuffed to beds and killing each other over the smallest weakness. No doubt experimented on and worse. He knew, just like anyone else in his field, what could happen to young girls around men with unlimited power.
“I think they can,” he replied carefully. “They seemed genuine. They clearly care for each other like family, which the Red Room wouldn’t care for. If they do become a problem I think it will be some kind of trigger outside of their control.”
Fury nodded once. “Alright. We’ll get every person we got on it. If there's a way to get those triggers undone we’ll find it.” He paused for a moment, “Damn good job, Phil.”
His lips twitched into almost a smile, “Are you saying that because I brought them in or because I’m going to be the one taking the heat from the council about it?”
“Can’t it be both?”