She stood in front of a small mirror, the hem of her shirt raised to examine the bruises covering her left side. Three days after her run-ins with both S.H.I.E.L.D. and with Clint, the injuries were still painful, but healing relatively well. The deepest ones on her shoulder and ribs had become a particularly vivid mix of purple, red, blue, and black; the lighter bruises scattered over her arms and legs were slowly beginning to turn yellowish-green.
Satisfied with their progress, she lowered the hem of her shirt once more and gave her other injuries a cursory glance. There were scrapes along her arms and elbows as well, an abrasion on her back where her shirt must have ridden up during a fall, a graze across her nose, road-rash along her cheekbone and chin, and a cut just below her hairline. (The still-healing wound on her left hand was tender and inflamed, but thankfully, the stitches had held.)
She’d been lucky, she supposed, that the majority of her injuries were easily concealed by clothing. The cuts and scrapes on her face, however, had made her escape from Venezuela particularly difficult. After all, S.H.I.E.L.D. surely knew that she’d been in an altercation after she’d eluded them at the motel; they had the damaged vehicles as evidence, both the truck and the car Clint had tried to crush her against. Perhaps they even had traces of her blood at the scene. So, even if she weren’t recognized the moment she set foot on the street, her wounds would have undoubtedly drawn attention.
She’d had no choice but to remain out of sight, using sewer and drainage tunnels whenever possible, and in the end, she’d left the city by hiding in the luggage compartment of a bus packed with tourists. From there, she made her way across the Venezuelan boarder to Columbia.
She’d been assigned a mission in Columbia once, just a few years before. She’d played the part of a American gun runner, a part close enough to her own personality that the Red Room hadn’t felt any additional modifications were necessary. She couldn’t recall much from that mission beyond those few details, but she did remember an arms dealer she’d done business with - Diego.
She’d decided to risk contacting him. Or at least, trying to contact him. She’d had no guarantee that he was even still alive - the arms business was a hazardous one - and she’d known that even if she could find him, it was dangerous to utilize anyone who’d had contact with the Red Room, no matter how distant. But, acquiring weapons second-hand had its own problems, such as the ammunition shortage she’d encountered in her recent skirmishes. If she had to choose between the two, she preferred to be well-armed when the next attack came.
So, she’d gone about collecting the funds she would need - stealing from anyone who seemed likely to being carrying significant amounts of cash - and then, she’d begun making very quiet inquiries.
Diego, as it turned out, was indeed still alive and in business, and in fact, he had even remembered her, something which had been almost a novelty. She’d never been allowed any additional contact with the people she’d met on her missions.
Diego had quickly agreed to set her up with any equipment she needed and demanded only a reasonable price in return. In the end, she’d walked away with three new combat knives, two sharpening stones, a Ruger SP101, extra ammo, a pair of Glock 26s she intended to hang onto, several magazines, cleaning and maintenance kits, holsters, and a cartridge belt she could hide beneath her shirt. She’d been tempted to buy more - Diego had a top-of-the-line NSV machine gun that she had spent a few minutes inspecting simply because she could - but she needed weapons that were easy to carry and conceal, and ultimately, practicality had won out.
Her new arsenal in-tow, she’d stowed aboard a private plane bound for Porto Alegre, Brazil, and once there, she’d checked into a small hostel that had the option of a private room in exchange for a larger fee.
The windowless room was painted a bland beige and held only a bed, a small side table, and a dresser with a mirror, but it was adequate enough for her needs. The other guests at the hostel seemed content to keep to themselves and she’d done the same, leaving her room only when necessary. S.H.I.E.L.D., she knew, was still searching for her, as was the Red Room. It was only a matter of time before they found her again. But, at the very least, she would now be better prepared.
Stepping away from the battered dresser and the mirror hanging above it, she walked the short distance to the bed and eyed the equipment she had laid out earlier. Diego had not cheated her. Every weapon was in fine condition. Nonetheless, she planned to inspect and clean each piece.
Sitting on the bed, she picked up one of the Glocks and enjoyed the weight and balance of it before she set about disassembling it, moving automatically through the familiar motions….motions that were ingrained, instinctive.
She couldn’t remember when she first learned them. How old had she been when a gun had first been placed in her hand?
She didn’t know. Perhaps it didn’t matter.
For better or worse, the Red Room had made her what she was, and from the moment she’d walked away, she’d intended to put her training to good use.
S.H.I.E.L.D. had been right to fear that she would go into business for herself, since there was, after all, a considerable demand for people with her particular skill set. The money she could earn would allow for excellent equipment, numerous safe houses, and more freedom than she’d ever experienced before. Of course, to have such a future, she would need to live long enough for the Red Room’s attention to be diverted by other, more pressing issues. Even then, she would never really be safe, but such a situation would offer, at least, a measure of security. It was the best she could hope for.
But Clint…Clint was a complication she had not expected.
Almost against her will her gaze drifted to the arrow sitting on the bedside table, the arrow she’d taken from him. Initially, after the fight, she’d kept it simply because all of her other weapons had been lost and it would have been foolish to discard it.
Now, she had no need for it.
She’d kept it anyway.
Looking down once more, she began reassembling the Glock, inserting the barrel back into the slide, snapping the spring and guide rod back into place, and reattaching the slide to the base. Then, setting the cleaned gun aside, she reached for the other Glock. She dropped the magazine, ensured that the chamber was empty, and began cleaning that gun as well.
But, inevitably, she found her eyes drawn back to the arrow.
In her mind, she had replayed both of her fights with Clint several times. Part of it was habit. She had been trained to analyze every fight she participated in. But she could not deny that there was another reason as well.
The more she considered their encounters, the more a sense of wrongness grew. It was hard to describe the feeling precisely. It was simply…instinct. She knew, without a doubt, that something was not as it should be.
Almost unconsciously, she started sifting through her memories of the fights once again, judging her own reactions, critiquing her movements, studying Clint’s technique, his speed and accuracy, examining the hard lines of his face…
Her hands stilled on the Glock.
Red Room operatives were taught to read the non-verbal cues that sometimes said more than words. Likewise, they were trained to avoid giving cues of their own, even - especially - during a fight. But such training could only do so much; minute facial expressions were involuntary.
She had seen proof of that often enough, even in the Red Room itself. Her sparring partners couldn’t quite hide the triumphant look in their eyes when they got the better of her, or their frustration when she got the better of them. She’d seen jaws tight with determination, eyes widened in surprise or narrowed in anger. The faces had blurred together, lost to time and the Red Room’s manipulation, but somehow, the expressions had remained.
There’d been no hesitation - his strikes were strong, precise, dangerous. He hadn’t been holding back. But there’d been nothing more than that.
No determination to carry out his orders.
No triumph when he’d almost killed her.
No frustration when she’d eluded him.
Just the hard, unyielding lines of his face and empty eyes.
Something surfaced slowly in her memory…it was vague, and hazy, and barely more than a shadow, but then, that was all most of her memories were.
A vent. A boy. And those same empty eyes.
They hadn’t always been empty.
"You can’t fight them.”
"I can try.”
Had he tried? Had he fought them and failed?
What had they done to him?
It shouldn’t have mattered. She was…she was oddly attached to him, yes, but he had tried twice to kill her, and he would undoubtedly try again. Compassion, hesitation, attachment…they were synonymous with weakness. Sparing his life, even considering it, defied all that the Red Room had taught her.
But she was no longer in the Red Room.
She was as free from them as she would ever be…free, in part, because of the conversations she’d had with a boy she barely remembered. And somehow, his resolve to escape had become her own.
For a long moment, she stared at the disassembled gun in her hands, then she set it on the bed and reached for the arrow on the nightstand, her fingers curling around it.
She knew what she had to do.
Attracting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attention hadn’t been particularly difficult.
She needed only to make an appearance on security camera footage in downtown Porto Alegre, and S.H.I.E.L.D. had descended on the area shortly afterwards. From there, locating their base of operations hadn’t been much of a challenge; they were expecting to be the hunter and not the hunted, and so, they had taken only the most basic measures to conceal their presence.
They had set up their command center in a rundown warehouse that had once belonged to a shipping company. An area in the center of the floor had been cleared to make way for tables and manned computer stations, but rows of large metal shelves stacked with boxes ringed the walls. She had situated herself behind two large stacks of those empty boxes, a position that offered a perfect, unobstructed view of operation headquarters, and dressed in all black, she blended easily into the shadows.
A detachment of about twenty men had been assigned to the warehouse. Half a dozen were technicians, a few of which seemed to be focused purely on administration, and the rest were clearly security. She’d quickly identified those that seemed to be in command positions, but the agent-in-charge interested her especially. He was a middle-aged man with short brown hair, a high forehead, and blue eyes. He had the unassuming look and soft-spoken mannerisms she’d learned to associate with men who were truly dangerous. She wondered just how high up he was in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s chain of command.
His name, she had learned, was Coulson.
“Berkowitz, status in sector six?” he was asking, two fingers touching the radio at his ear.
The answer clearly didn’t please him, because he frowned.
“Check again,” he ordered and broke the connection.
“Sir,” one of the technicians interjected, “Brazilian border security just sent out an alert. They’ve spotted a woman trying to cross over into Uruguay. She’s a possible match for the target’s description.”
Coulson’s eyes narrowed. “Tell bravo team to investigate, but cautiously. We lose her this time and she’ll go even deeper underground. She won’t be easy to find.”
“Which is why I thought I’d save you the trouble.”
She hadn’t yet moved into the open, but all eyes in the command center turned in her direction nonetheless. Knowing the risk she had taken by revealing her position, her hands were poised to draw the Glocks holstered at her thighs, for all the good they would do if the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents opened fire. The empty boxes concealed her from view, but the decaying cardboard would hardly stop a barrage of bullets.
For a moment, as the agents in the room rapidly drew their weapons, it seemed that would be her fate, but Coulson barked a quick command: “Hold your fire!”
He had drawn his sidearm along with the rest, and like them, he stood at the ready, but his eyes were sweeping the area as though ensuring that his order had been obeyed.
Apparently satisfied, Coulson’s gaze turned back towards her. “Show yourself.”
She did so, stepping out from behind the shelves and boxes. She did not raise her arms; she was not surrendering. She was, however, careful not to make any sudden movements that might be considered threatening. Her Glocks remained holstered as well, but their weight was reassuring, as was the feeling of the knives strapped beneath her sleeves, and the Ruger hidden at her back. If S.H.I.E.L.D. rejected her proposal and turned on her instead, she intended to take as many of their agents with her as she could.
As if somehow sensing her thoughts, the agents in the room seemed to bristle, but Coulson, for his part, simply studied her with narrowed eyes.
At last, he lowered his weapon and returned it to its holster, tucking it beneath his suit jacket with a practiced flick of his wrist. “You have a flare for the dramatic, I’ll give you that,” he said mildly. “But I assume you’re not here to commit suicide by S.H.I.E.L.D. So, what is it that you want?”
His words surprised her; she had not expected that S.H.I.E.L.D. would be so willing to hear her out. She did not intend to waste the opportunity.
“I have an offer for you.”
“And that is?”
“Take me off your hit list, and I can give you two members of the Red Room.”
Coulson’s eyebrows rose faintly in surprise. “Two?” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Would you be one of those two? Do you want to defect?”
The idea of defection almost made her grit her teeth; she knew, with absolute certainty, that the Red Room deserved only her hatred. But, the Red Room’s mantra of loyalty, duty, and obedience had done its work long ago, and it seemed that some small part of her mind would forever be held under its sway.
It was a part, however, that she had learned to ignore.
“Yes,” she answered simply, “I do.”
“And the other member of the Red Room…?”
“Someone I know. The Red Room sent him to kill me after I left.”
“But he’s like you? He wants out?”
“He did once.”
“Once? He doesn’t now?”
She did not wish to explain her history with Clint - what little she remembered of it - nor did she have to, not yet, not until she was certain that S.H.I.E.L.D. would agree to her terms.
“It’s complicated,” she said simply.
Coulson’s lips quirked faintly. “Since this is the Red Room we’re talking about, I’m not surprised.”
There was a long pause; she got the distinct impression that Coulson was weighing the sincerity of her words.
The silence was broken when one of the other agents stepped closer to Coulson. He was young and relatively short with dark hair, and there was an edge of anger to his movements that caught her attention. He had lowered his weapon as he approached Coulson, but his fingers gripped the gun tightly as he held it at his side.
“Sir,” he began, “with all due respect, you can’t honestly be considering this! Dawson and Fernandez won’t be back in action for months because of her.”
He could only be talking about the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents she had fought at the motel, the man and woman she had injured. She wondered if this was the sniper who had tried to cut off her escape. Perhaps he wanted revenge for his teammates.
“True,” Coulson agreed, “but she could have killed them. She didn’t.”
That was accurate enough, though she hadn’t been particularly concerned with sparing their lives either. She didn’t plan to correct the assumption.
“And,” Coulson added, “she’s probably been watching us for hours. She’s had ample opportunity to kill every person here if that was her intention.”
“But the risks-”
“If she’s telling the truth, they might just be worth it.”
“That’s enough, Agent Spence.”
Coulson hadn’t raised his voice, but it rang with finality nonetheless, and the young agent clearly heard it as well.
His jaw clenched, but he offered a quiet “Yes, sir,” and stepped away.
Coulson turned his attention back to her once more. “I don’t have the authority to call off the hit myself. I’ll have to discuss your offer with my superiors.” He gave her a small smile. “I’ll have to ask you to not to leave in the meantime, you understand, and I’ll also have to ask you to surrender your weapons.”
It was a test, she knew. He wanted to see just how much she was willing to gamble. If she refused, they would have a reason to doubt her. If she agreed, it would be a gesture of good faith.
She gave a slow, deliberate nod.
“Okafor, Cheng,” Coulson said, waving two security personnel forward.
She had been subject to far less professional searches in the past, but all the same, she watched darkly as they confiscated first her Glocks and then her knives and the Ruger. It wasn’t that she was afraid. Even stripped of her weapons, she was hardly defenseless. If the need arose, she could still kill a number of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operatives before they opened fire. But S.H.I.E.L.D. did indeed have more control over the situation this way, and that, she knew, had been Coulson’s intention.
Nonetheless, when the two men moved to cuff her, Coulson stopped them - perhaps that was a good faith gesture of his own.
Instead, he pulled out a chair from one of the nearby tables. “Please, have a seat.”
Her eyes narrowed faintly, but she did as he asked. She wasn’t surprised when the two security personnel followed, taking up positions on each side of her, and she watched as the other members of the security force positioned themselves strategically around the room as well. Clearly, they were taking no chances.
“Keep your hands where we can see them,” the guard on her right ordered.
Seeing no point in antagonizing him, she placed her hands on the table top, palms down.
Coulson was apparently satisfied with this arrangement because he left a moment later, heading for the warehouse’s exit, his hand at his ear piece again, speaking too low for her to hear. Presumably, he was contacting his superiors.
There was a brief moment of tension after his departure, but gradually, activity resumed around her. Those not assigned to the security detail holstered their weapons and continued about their business; she heard one of the technicians ordering the search teams to stand down, while others were already beginning to organize for their withdrawal. But, every so often, one of them would turn to observe her in a manner that was both wary and curious.
She stared back neutrally and waited.
Her wait proved to be fairly long. She wasn’t certain if that was a promising sign or a negative one.
When Coulson finally returned, he sat down across from her, smoothing his tie with his fingers before folding his hands on the table.
She watched him expectantly.
“Directory Fury has agreed to suspend the hit.”
Suspend, not cancel. It was a small distinction but an important one, and undoubtedly, it was a deliberate one as well. A warning, perhaps?
“There are, of course, some conditions,” Coulson continued. “One, you will divulge any and all intel you possess concerning the Red Room. Two, you will submit to any measures deemed necessary to ensure the safety of both S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel and civilians. And three, you will obey the orders issued to you while we are engaged in joint operations.”
“Very well,” she agreed, knowing that such terms weren’t unreasonable.
Apparently pleased by her acceptance, the senior agent leaned back in his seat to consider her once more.
“So, your…Red Room acquaintance. Do you have a way to contact him?”
“In a manner of speaking. He’s been tracking me. He’s found me twice so far.”
Coulson nodded and offered an enigmatic smile. “Then we’ll simply have to make sure that he finds you again, won’t we?”