May ran through the darkness, elbows tucked in and knees pumping despite the unsteady ground, regardless of the sporadic periods of nothingness beneath her feet. The buildings in this part of Tangiers were close enough that there was nothing more than a leap between one roof and the next. The bugs, on the other hand, were definitely a problem. Something warm and feathery smacked against her mouth and she spared a hand to bat it away. She hoped it was just a moth, and not some secret weapon the KGB was putting into play. Weaponised moths. Fury would love that.
"I don't often get to say this, but I think she's faster than you," said Phil, in her ear. He had it easy, up there on a rusting radio tower with a pair of infrared goggles. "What hit you back there? Was that a bat? It was really big."
"What's." May's voice was short. "Her exit?" Phil was right, though. Nobody runs this fast for this long in this heat, not without some kind of advantage. There were no reports that the Black Widow was an enhanced person, so it was probably chemical. By now, May's legs were screaming, and her lungs too; she'd start to flag in a minute or so.
There was a moment of radio silence, punctuated only by the thud of her feet while Phil scanned the area. "Not sure. You're running out of buildings, so maybe she's got air support. This row finishes at a sheer drop to the water." There was another pause then Phil swore. "Damn it, May, I've lost her position."
May kept running, but she slowed, alighting softly on each roof, breathing as quietly as possible while trying to pick up the sound of the Black Widow's tread. A washing line loomed up before her and she got ready to duck but noticed the irregular movement of a bed sheet. She jumped, launched feet first into the wall of white cotton, and smiled with satisfaction as she landed solidly against the Widow's body. As Romanoff struck forward with a blow to the throat, May heard Phil's voice. "Oh, yeah, I see her now."
The fight was fast; Romanoff was well trained, well practised and she fought dirty. She was younger than May expected from the reports. May kept her hands moving, used tricks she'd learned from mercenaries and cage fighters, and only barely kept ahead of the rapid exchange. How could Romanoff be so experienced so young? She supposed Russia was still recruiting from kindergartens, training their agents from toddlerhood. Poor kid. She's never had a life of her own, how can she understand what she's fighting for?
Still, there was not much leeway for mercy, not in this game. May caught a handful of red hair, curled it around her fist and used it to drag Romanoff to the ground. She knew how the rest of the fight would go now: she'd pin Romanoff’s arms to prevent her from drawing a weapon, then secure the thumb drive she had acquired from Baintronics, then wait for Phil to arrange extraction. Instead, Romanoff pulled against her hand with enough force that May was left holding a bloody hank of red hair. The calm with which Romanoff had injured herself was startling enough that she had a few seconds lead on May, and then they were both running again.
"Remember the drop!" Phil sounded out of breath, which meant he was down from his viewpoint, and was running for the chopper.
May kept her head down and ran full pelt for the end of the street, close enough behind the woman that she could hear her breathing, short but steady. She realised Romanoff didn't know about the drop when she skidded to a sudden desperate halt on the flat roof. May almost careened into her. Romanoff spun, converting her momentum into a kick that struck May's ribs like an anvil, then turned back to the edge of the roof. The house they were standing on faced onto the ocean, at the very edge of a rocky cliff.
May's perception was a little hazy now. Every movement was a knife in her side – she was certain Romanoff had broken a rib – and the fight was moving to the stage where things got a little hazy at the edges from lack of oxygen. She defended against Romanoff's next attack, promising her body she'd stop soon, really soon.
"Jump!" a voice called from below them: male, authoritarian and demanding. It took a few seconds for May to realise he was speaking Russian, from the deck of a small powerboat that had navigated the rocks at the bottom of the cliff.
For the first time tonight, Romanoff hesitated, and when the fight spun the two of them around, May saw why: this wasn't a survivable leap. Even if Romanoff missed the rocks and landed in the water, the impact would be lethal. The intelligence would be delivered, though, and easily retrieved from her dead body.
May picked up the pace of the fight, ignoring the sharp pain in her side. If she could get the thumb drive from Romanoff, there'd be no need for her to throw herself off the cliff. It was probably oxygen deprivation, or maybe the pain, but May found it grossly offensive that the KGB would spend all that time training up an elite agent – an obviously talented agent – to throw her life away on a shitty Baintronics thumb drive.
"Let me take it," she said, between blows. "You don't have to die for this."
Romanoff blinked at May through her own blood, streaming down from where her scalp was ripped open. Then she let her shoulders fall, and moved towards the edge of the cliff. Below, her handler started with the commands again.
"Jump. Jump now!"
He didn't even recognise her as a person, May realised. Romanoff was as much a piece of equipment as the thumb drive she carried, except that she was more disposable.
Somewhere distant, May heard the thud of rotors cutting the humid night air. Phil was coming. She took a deep, painful breath and made her decision. She stepped away from Romanoff, her hands up. "You win," she said. "Climb down; take your time." Stay alive, she wanted to add, but she doubted Romanoff would believe it. May barely believed it herself.
Romanoff watched her, startled and wary, but she didn't ignore the opportunity. With a gymnast's confidence, she let herself drop from the roof, caught the edge of the building with her fingers, and began to climb downwards.
The chopper swung over the houses, kicking up dust and stray laundry. "That was interesting." Phil's voice was mild over the radio.
May propped her feet on the skid and hoisted herself on board. It hurt a lot. "I'm ready to defend the decision." She lay on the cabin floor. There was grit between her teeth, and long strands of red hair caught in her fingers. "Did she make it down?"
"Just alighting now," said Phil. "I'm engaging the EMP generator."
When she felt able, May clambered into the co-pilot seat, and pulled on a headset. Below, she saw the powerboat slow then stall, drifting dangerously close to the rocks. Aboard, a tall man and a redheaded woman scurried from the engine to the wheel, trying to restart it, but the EMP had fried the on-board electronics, and with it, the thumb drive from Baintronics.
Phil veered the chopper away from the buildings and towards a commercial flight path. "It would have been handy to see what Bain had that was worth a KGB operation."
"I know," said May. Her muscles were beginning to stiffen. She probed gently around her ribs, and hissed with pain.
"This is probably coming back to bite us on the ass. Your ass, probably."
"I know," said May. She shifted in her seat, trying in vain to get comfortable.
"I doubt Sunset Bain will be completely forthcoming about the intelligence." Phil was piloting at her, flying in that studied way that meant he knew she knew he knew she'd rather be flying the chopper.
"I know!" May said, angrily. Her muscles started to spasm from all the weird postures she tried in an effort to relieve the pain in her ribs.
Phil reached across, and adjusted the angle of the seat for May, so that there was less pressure on her broken rib. "You'd better be healed up by the time we go interview Ms Bain. I don’t think she likes me."
"Oh, she liked you plenty," said May, closing her eyes at last. "She watched you like a cat watches a goldfish. You should take the lead on the interview."
The last thing she heard before she drifted into an exhausted half-sleep was Phil's slightly terrified laugh.
May was on the Triskelion when Barton brought Romanoff in. The rumour ran ahead of him, that the Black Widow had been captured, or killed, or had defected. May didn't pay much attention to rumours, except to make mental notes about potential security breaches from people who can't keep their mouths shut. When Fury sent a minion for her, Phil shook his head in mock sorrow.
"Told you it would come back to bite you," he said.
May dumped a stack of papers on his desk. "If I'm still gone in an hour, finish my report."
In Fury's office, Barton lounged in a chair, legs crooked over the arm, with the kind of smug daring that only comes from pulling off some incredible coup.
"I want you on the induction team," Fury said, his finger jabbing in May's direction. "Barton is running this thing."
May was proud that she could hide her wince. She didn't argue and she didn't ask why. Fury had been the one to debrief her after the Tangiers mission, and his protests at her choices had been vociferous. Now, he had executed what he probably saw as the perfect ironic punishment for May: she'd let Romanoff live, and now she would be one of her jailors.
"She's doing it hard; they had her on all kinds of crap. She'll be detoxing for a few days." Barton strode towards the infirmary with May beside him.
"What's my role supposed to be in this?" May asked.
Barton shrugged as he walked. "A bit of this, a bit of that." At May's exasperated hiss, he flung his hands upwards in frustration. "I don't know! Do you think I've ever done this before? I just want to get her through in one piece."
May caught his elbow and held tight, just where the nerves bundle together. Barton skidded to a sudden halt.
"Ow!" he said. "That hurts. Kind of a lot. Can you stop?"
"Why'd she come in? What's her game plan?" May kept the pressure on his nerve point.
Barton looked down at his feet for a moment. "I don't think she has a game plan, May. Honestly, I don't think she has any plan." There was something stark in his expression. In May's experience, when Barton put the clown act aside, it was because he was unsettled.
"She got to you, didn't she?" May didn't mean to sound as accusatory as that, actually, but months later she was still replaying that moment on the cliff face, trying to analyse what had made her step away from the fight.
"Yeah." Barton took a deep breath. "Can you let go of my arm now? I need to go take care of my defector."
It was difficult to reconcile the clammy, trembling person sitting hunched on the moulded plastic bed with the athletic woman who had broken May's rib in two places. A medic hovered by the bed, talking softly to her. A military nurse, burly and gloved, monitored a fast-dripping IV taped to the wall. They weren't even risking a metal stand in the room, May realised. Everything was made of easily breakable plastic, and even the blanket that covered Romanoff was papery and thin. It wouldn't be impossible to kill someone with the equipment in this room, but it would be difficult enough that the trained staff would have time to intervene.
"They're trying to figure out what her handlers had her on," said Barton. "So they know what to expect over the next few days."
Romanoff looked up at his voice, gave him a weak smile and kept talking with the medic. Her voice quavered and she scowled in frustration, but she continued describing medications and treatments. She had no detectable Russian accent; her English was bland and American, her syntax practiced and easy.
"There was an injection in the thigh, once a week. It looked oily. The white tablets, every day while I was on mission. I think they used radiation, sometimes? We had to stand beside a metal canister for an hour, but only a few times a year." To the medic's credit, she didn't flinch at this description or the way it was delivered in a monotone, her patient apparently unconcerned about the chemical cocktail with which she'd been dosed.
"It's like every sports enhancement drug ever," said Barton. "Doc says that stopping it all cold-turkey is risky."
May remembered Romanoff sprinting effortlessly through the humid Moroccan air, barely raising a sweat. "Hell of an insurance policy – keeps the assets close to home, afraid to break rank. Except for her."
On the bed, a visible tremor ran through Romanoff's body, and she pulled her legs up onto the bed, drew her knees to her chest. The medic and the nurse bustled around her.
"Okay," said Barton, stepping up to the bed. "This will be nasty but we'll get through. I'll stay here today, keep an eye on you till this passes. May'll take the night shift."
May opened her mouth to protest being press-ganged into night duty, but then she realised Romanoff was watching her, through the cluster of bodies around her bed. It was an appraising gaze, despite her tremor and obvious discomfort, and May was surprised to feel a little discomforted by it. She wasn't sure she would be as assured in the same position, though it was difficult to imagine being in Romanoff's position at all.
"I'll see you tonight," she said, and left to brief Phil on the situation.
That night, May sat on a bench in the infirmary and watched Romanoff sleep. She and Barton had decided they'd be better off unarmed in the room with her; any weapon May brought in could easily be turned against her or one of the medical staff. Romanoff didn't try to break out or attack anyone, though she woke with a start an hour after Barton had left. May watched her reach first under her pillow for a weapon she no longer had, then for a knife or something strapped to her forearm, then recognise where she was and sit up in the dim light.
"You okay?" May asked from the shadows, and Romanoff wheeled to face her direction. When she saw who was sitting there, she slumped back. She wore scrubs now; they'd taken the bloodstained clothing she'd been wearing when Barton brought her in. Her arms were slender in the wide sleeves, and if the room wasn't so warm, May thought she'd be shivering with cold.
"Did your rib heal up all right in the end?" Romanoff asked. Her voice was hoarse. May gestured with her chin towards the plastic jug of water on her side table.
"Keep rehydrating," she said. "And yeah, it's just fine." She didn't know if Romanoff was referencing that mission to remind May that she'd been beaten that day, but she wouldn't let it put her off-balance.
Romanoff poured a tumbler of water and sipped it slowly, taking steady breaths. After a while, she settled against the pillows and turned on her side facing May, and closed her eyes. May was almost sure she'd fallen asleep, when she spoke again.
"I'm sorry I hurt you that day." Her voice was soft and a little hesitant, as if she hadn't quite decided whether she was going to speak at all.
May watched her on the bed for a little while. "Apology accepted," she said, eventually.
"That's the first of many apologies," Romanoff said. "I should be so lucky if they're all that easy."
"I doubt it," said May. No point in cushioning that: the Black Widow had a spectacularly bloody history.
Romanoff rolled over to stare at the ceiling. "Why did you let me live, that day in Tangiers?"
That was something May could barely understand herself. "Get some sleep. You've got a lot ahead of you."
May was early to the briefing, because she was always early, and because she had to help Phil manage his crutches up the stairs.
"I'm really sorry I can't go on this with you," said Phil, as he leaned the crutches against the wall. "I wish you'd just say 'I told you so'. It was my mistake. I should have waited for backup." He tried gingerly to sit, made a strangled noise, and sprung to his feet.
May dragged a tall stool over for him. "They said you have to keep your legs straight," she said. Phil looked plain miserable perched on his stool, and she sighed. "It'll do me good to work with someone new. And if the two of us start with the 'I told you so' routine, we'll never stop." She looked at the conference table, which was too far away for him to easily reach. "Do you want a bagel or a muffin?"
She regretted her generosity about temporarily losing Phil as a partner the moment Barton bounded into the room and grabbed both a muffin and a bagel. May appreciated Barton's skill with projectiles, and she knew he was a competent agent, but if she had to work a mission with the man, it would end in death.
"So, I heard Coulson sprained his ass," Barton said, looking from one hand to the other as if he couldn't decide what to stuff in first. He propped his feet on the table and rocked back in his chair.
"Well, technically, it's a gluteal tear," started Phil, from his perch on the stool.
Barton shoved most of a muffin into his mouth. "Should have waited for backup," he said, through a rain of crumbs.
"You read the report. There was no time for backup," said Natasha, coming in the door. "Jesus, Clint, don't make me do the Heimlich on you. Again." Barton held the bagel above his head and she took it as she walked past. She sat at the table next to May and turned in her chair to look up at Phil. "How are you? Muscle tears are painful."
"Especially in your ass," said Barton, before Phil could answer.
The huge screen in the briefing room came to life as Maria Hill walked in the door. "All right, people, let's focus." Sunset Bain's face appeared on the screen: unrealistically sculpted and glamorous. May snuck a glance in Phil's direction; he looked suitably appalled.
"Sunset Bain has had regular contact with high-ranking Hydra brass for a few years. We know she's done design work for them, but whether that's for ideological or financial reasons, it's difficult to say. We have received intelligence that Hydra is giving her access to something they value highly enough to keep in a secure bunker in Texas. We'd really like to see inside that bunker." Maria gave Phil an evil gaze. "Fury and I floated a plan to insert Coulson into Bain's security team, but that's off the table now."
May knew Phil well enough to see the relief flash across his face before he rearranged his expression into one of contrition.
"So, we're switching to plan B: stowaway on Bain's jet, infiltrate the site, get us eyes inside the bunker. Romanoff and May: you're the team. Barton and Coulson are support." Hill's phone chirruped and she glanced at it briefly. "All right, I'll leave the details to you. Get it done."
The luggage compartment on Bain's jet made for cramped quarters. May sat knee-to-knee with Natasha and leaned against the bulkhead with a sigh.
"At least we're pressurised," said Natasha. "It could be worse."
May pulled her phone out and brought up the schematics of the bunker complex. "There's not much cover onsite," she said. "We'll need to keep low, all the way in." She told herself that there was no reason to feel any different about this mission. The fact that she and Natasha were working together on something related to Baintronics was not significant. It didn't mean they were doomed, it didn't mean anything. May prided herself on not being superstitious. She wondered if Natasha was the same.
"I'll need to keep low if Sunset's there," said Natasha. "She's no fool and I doubt she's forgotten a face in her life."
The plane rocked gently, a little turbulence that jostled the two of them in their tiny compartment.
"Remember when I was out of detox, and you made me run till I puked?" Natasha said, into the silence.
"Please tell me you're not going to lose your lunch," said May. "There's not enough room in here for you, me, and a barf bag."
Natasha shook her head. "Oh, no, I'm fine," she said. "This is nothing. I was just remembering."
"It wasn't that I made you run till you puked," said May. "It was that you had no idea of your own physical limits, and if you wanted to work for SHIELD, you had to have more self-determination. If I'd told you to run until you dropped dead, you'd have done it."
"I wouldn't have, not after Tangiers," Natasha corrected. "As it turns out, someone ordering you to your death really gets you thinking about the way things work." In a small space, it becomes very obvious when one person doesn’t want to meet the gaze of the other. Natasha was suddenly very interested in her cuticles. May ran another series of checks on their position relative to the ground.
The two of them were saved from more awkward conversation – conversation Natasha had started, damn it! – by sudden and intense turbulence. The plane dipped and the luggage compartment juddered, piling May forward and onto Natasha's body. Their arms and legs entangled, as the plane bucked up and down.
May sputtered, her mouth full of Natasha's hair.
"Sorry," said Natasha, trying to extricate her arm, awkwardly pinned against the wall by May's body. "I think… No, wait, I'll just…" The plane lunged forward and threw the two of them up towards the ceiling. They fell with a thud as it levelled out again.
"Who is this bozo?" May's face was pressed against Natasha's collarbone. "I can't believe Sunset Bain wouldn't employ a competent pilot."
There was a moment of realisation, then, as a single unit, they both started kicking at the access hatch. By the time the door fell away, the plane was diving and the cabin was a nearly vertical drop below them. Pressed against the cockpit wall, two Hydra bigwigs held Sunset Bain by the shoulders, while another forced her to press her thumbprint to the screen of a tablet. The cockpit door swung back and forth, crazily, slamming against the slumped body of the pilot. Bain's security detail, very much the worse for wear, was now a pile of bodies in the corner.
"You get through to the cockpit and pull this plane up," said Natasha, crouching at the opening of the access hatch. "I'll… do something here with these guys."
"Be careful," said May. She eased herself out of the luggage compartment and went hand over hand downwards, using the ceiling panels as rungs.
"You too." Perhaps it was the falling plane, but when Natasha spoke, May felt her stomach dip, as if this moment had been ready to unfold ever since the rooftop in Tangiers. Natasha had changed so much in that time, from an enemy combatant to someone May trusted with her life. Before May reached the cockpit doors, she looked up: Natasha gave her a quick smile then dropped like a hammer feet first onto the Hydra men in suits
The fight was very involved and May found it easy to slip into the cockpit, and strap on a harness. Once her hands were on the flight yoke, she knew things would be okay. For all May hated vanity aircraft, the Bain jet handled sweetly. It came up out of the dive more easily than she would have expected, and both engines kept purring on without complaint once she had the jet levelled out.
Behind her, May occasionally heard thuds and Natasha's voice, loud and commanding as she ordered, threatened and punched the cabin into order. The sounds were reassuring: Natasha had the situation under control, and May could put all her concentration into securing the plane.
Eventually Natasha leaned on the cockpit doorway. "We're in lockdown back here. How's it going for you? I'm taking from the general horizontal situation that we're not crashing anymore. Nice work, by the way."
May allowed herself the luxury of a small smile. "I like this little bird. How's Ms Bain?"
"Sunset's in one piece. The plan was to gain control to her private servers, apparently." May heard Natasha's breath, and felt the movement of air that said she'd stepped closer.
"SHIELD's going to want to see what caught Hydra's attention there," said May.
"Sunset knows, and she's pretty mad about it. I think I scared some sense into her when I told her she could face charges for trafficking technology to Hydra." Natasha sighed. "She's talking to her lawyers now."
"Coulson's given me an airbase we can land at," said May. "I've plotted a course." She threw a glance over her shoulder towards Natasha; she had a thin stream of blood trickling from her eyebrow. "You hurt?"
Natasha balled up her sleeve and pressed it to the wound. "Nothing I can't handle," she said. "I should go look for ice. There's no way a plane like this takes off without ice behind the bar."
At the airbase, the prisoners were all confined to the brig, Sunset Bain included, much to her indignant protests. In the women's barracks, May towelled her hair dry, and then she sat on the lower bunk. There wasn't a flight to the Triskelion until tomorrow morning. Phil offered to come get her, but she didn't want him sitting in a pilot's seat, not with his injury.
Natasha appeared from the showers, holding a gauze dressing. "Can you help me with this? The medic said I had to cover it after I washed up."
May pulled her down to the bed beside her, and pushed the damp hair off her forehead. "Two stitches? I told you it was worse than it looked."
"I've had worse. It didn't stop me," said Natasha. She peeled open the dressing.
May snatched it from her and pulled the wrapper off completely. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't stop. Weren't we just talking about that a few hours ago?" She pressed the dressing against the wound, and smoothed the edges down. Natasha sat still while she worked, and her breath was warm on May's wrists.
"I saw things differently that night," Natasha said. She didn't need to say what night. "When I came over, I tried to explain that to you but I didn't have the words for it. When you did that, when you let me live, I think it was the first time someone saw me as a person."
The dressing was firmly in place, but May kept tracing the edge of it with one finger, uncertain but unwilling to move away.
"When you saw me as a person, it was like I was allowed to see that too," Natasha said, quietly. "I don't always like what I see – I've hurt a lot of people, I've done so much harm – but you showed me the first step towards stopping that damage, and starting to do things to make up for it. I wanted to tell you how important that was to me." She pressed her lips to the inside of May's wrist, tentatively.
May froze for a moment, startled as always by incipient intimacy, but then offered Natasha her upturned wrist for more. Natasha smiled as she kissed harder, teeth grazing the skin, moving up May's arm. She lingered at the point of May's collarbone and finally reached her mouth. May lost track of reason when she found her fingers tangled in red hair, and Natasha pressed up against her body. Natasha's hands were on May's ribs, her fingers too gentle for May. May pressed her hands to Natasha's, showed her what she liked and followed her cues in the same way. Then it was smooth skin over firm muscle, salt and pleasure, and finally sleep.
In the darkness later, May woke, pressed hard to Natasha's side for safety reasons as much as intimacy: the bunk was very narrow and the two of them barely fit. The barracks were filled with the soft sounds of sleeping, and May realised that they were no longer alone. She was glad she'd pulled the curtains closed before Natasha appeared.
"You okay?" Natasha's voice was quiet and rough with sleep. "You want me to move to the other bunk?"
May wriggled herself into a more comfortable position. "This is fine," she said. "You don't kick much."
"Trained out of me at an early age," said Natasha. She lifted up an arm to make more room for May beside her and they both lay still, with the sounds of the barracks around them.
"You were worth saving," said May. It was easy to explain it, here, in the dark, far away from Phil and Barton and the trappings of life at SHIELD."I knew what you'd done, even then. The harm is always outweighed by the potential to do good. And I saw your worth."
"Thank you," said Natasha. "It means a lot, to be believed in. I didn't know it then, but I understand it now."
Time didn't really pass for May, after the Bahrain incident. One day was the same as the next and the only thing that terrified her more than the nightmares of dead, accusing children was not being at work. It was easy to stay at her desk for longer and longer, it was easy to stop talking, and if she kept her gaze steady and her mouth closed, people would leave her alone.
Andrew left before Phil, which surprised her, in a numb sort of way. Phil persisted – was persisting still – but she knew his foibles, and had plenty of tricks to keep him frozen out. It became a little like a cat and mouse game: where would Phil try to waylay her next? How would she avoid it, and what was the worst, most hurtful thing she could say to make him flinch?
Natasha was in and out of the country often, which made her much easier to evade, or so May thought until a pair of running shoes landed on her desk.
"Come running with me," said Natasha. She was just in from Syria, May thought, with a tan and hair bleaching blonde from the sun.
May picked the shoes up: they were hers, from her locker. She looked at Natasha. It seemed stupid to throw them at her, so she put them down again on the desk.
"No speeches," said Natasha. "Except this: if I am worthwhile, then you are, too. So I'm investing in the good you're going to do in the future. That's all. Oh, and no puking."
May took a breath, and switched off her screen. It wouldn't kill her to get some fresh air. She picked up the shoes and followed Natasha out of the office.