Something cold brushed against the skin of her back. The pungent scent of disinfectant reached her nostrils just a moment before she heard a soft electronic whine, and there was a sharp, quick pain near the middle of her spine.
She offered no visible reaction to any of it, simply waited until the medical technician had finished pressing a small bandage over the area, then slipped her shirt back over her head without a word. But she was keenly aware of the faint ache between her shoulder blades, courtesy of the tracking device now embedded there.
A tracking device.
She saw the logic of it - S.H.I.E.L.D. needed a way to follow her movements at a distance without alerting Clint to their presence. That was precisely why she had agreed to it. But she was hardly naïve. S.H.I.E.L.D. did not trust her, and the device was, in effect, an electronic leash.
She had been led to an office at the back of the warehouse for the procedure, and was seated in a chair, facing a battered desk. The medical technician had been allowed to be alone with her in the room, though she had not failed to notice the number of security personnel stationed just outside.
She remained silent as the medical technician gathered his supplies and left; Coulson appeared a moment later.
“I’m sorry that this is necessary,” he began, closing the door of the office behind him. He did indeed appear to be sorry, though whether or not he was sincere was harder to determine. “But I must warn you that any attempt to remove the device without prior authorization will result in the reinstatement of your termination order.”
She didn’t bother to respond to that - she had assumed as much.
“The device will be removed when our business here is finished,” Coulson added.
She wondered if that were really true. S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to portray themselves as the “white knights” of the covert world, but they were hardly above betrayal. She trusted them as little as they trusted her, perhaps less. But they were one of the few organizations capable of standing against the Red Room, and they were the only possible means she had of sparing Clint’s life.
She had briefly considered other alternatives, such as trying to detain Clint herself, but she lacked the resources necessary to hold anyone long-term, and even if she managed to subdue him, it would be impossible for her to hold him indefinitely. Either he would find a way to escape and attack her, or the Red Room would come in search of its missing operative with even more force than before.
There was also Clint’s mind to consider. If her instincts were correct, and his mind had been modified in some way, she had no way of combating such mental programming. S.H.I.E.L.D., however, might be able to mitigate the effects of whatever the Red Room had done. At the very least, if her partnership with S.H.I.E.L.D. was successful, Clint would be out the Red Room’s hands for the foreseeable future. That could only ever be an improvement.
For that reason alone, she would give S.H.I.E.L.D. her compliance. For now.
Coulson walked around the desk and sat down across from her, taking an empty office chair for himself. In his suit, seated as he was, he looked like a simple bureaucrat and nothing more. Undoubtedly, that was the image he hoped to project.
He tossed a manila folder onto the desk and opened it, removing a photograph and pushing it towards her. The picture was somewhat grainy, but after a moment she recognized it as having been taken during her last fight with Clint. One of the nearby buildings must have been equipped with a security camera.
“This is the operative you’ve told us about?” Coulson asked.
“Do you know his name?”
She hesitated. Clint was a memory she’d hidden away for years, and sharing what little she knew of him, especially with someone she had no reason to trust, was more than enough to give her pause. But S.H.I.E.L.D. would learn the truth one way or another, and if their alliance were to survive, it was best that they learned it from her.
“Clint,” she said at last. “His name is Clint.”
Coulson frowned at that, and she could guess his thoughts.
“Clint” was hardly a Russian name. But, for all its fervent patriotism, the Red Room sometimes searched for candidates for its program outside of Russian soil; she even vaguely recalled a sparring partner who had looked to be of African descent. In Clint’s case, in every memory she had of him, he had spoken English with an American accent. Of course, that was easily feigned, but somehow, she believed that Clint’s accent had been genuine.
Coulson looked down to study Clint’s picture for a moment, a thoughtful frown still marking his features. “I take it that he’s not likely to be cooperative.”
“No,” she agreed, “he won’t be.”
“Will he be working alone?”
“As far as I know. I’ve seen no one else with him, though he may have a handler nearby.”
“Does he have a way to call for reinforcements?”
“It’s possible, but not likely. The Red Room prefers to keep a low profile, so large teams aren’t often used.”
Coulson nodded, and she could already see him running through possible tactical scenarios in his mind. “And you still believe that posing as a tourist is the best way draw him out?”
“Yes.” She’d suggested that scenario immediately after Coulson had agreed that she would serve as the lure. “Foreign tourists are common enough here, and they’ll make good cover. It’s what I might have done next, regardless.” She didn’t add that she had, essentially, been hiding among them already before she had decided to approach S.H.I.E.L.D.
“We can provide you with whatever you might need,” Coulson assured. “Money, documents-”
“No,” she cut him off. “I have no way of knowing what the Red Room has been monitoring, and unexplained funding might make them suspicious.”
That was true, and it was a logical precaution, but she was also reluctant to allow S.H.I.E.L.D. any more control than absolutely necessary.
Coulson seem to sense her thoughts because his eyes narrowed faintly at the refusal, but he conceded the point.
His gaze fell to Clint’s picture once more, then returned to her.
“Why are you doing this? Who is he to you?”
She could not keep her own gaze from drifting to the photograph as well. It had been taken from a distance, too far away to offer a good view of Clint’s eyes, but she could see them in her mind all the same.
“I owe him a debt.”
“A debt,” Coulson repeated.
“He said we could fight them.”
It sounded so very simple, she knew. Almost laughably so. But, when she looked up at last, Coulson was watching her with something like understanding. She wondered suddenly just how much he knew about the inner workings of the Red Room.
In any case, he didn’t seem inclined to press her for more information - at least, not yet. She assumed that, eventually, S.H.I.E.L.D. would expect a full debriefing. But, for now, he seemed satisfied with what little she had divulged.
Pushing his chair back from the desk, Coulson stood and walked to the door of the office, opening it, and motioning to someone outside. Footsteps followed, and a moment later, Coulson reappeared, carrying a small container. She recognized the grip of one of her Glocks sticking up over the rim, and straightened in her chair as the agent approached. He set the container in front of her, and sensing the implicit permission in the action, she reached for her weapons and began checking them over to make sure they had not been tampered with. Coulson could probably guess what she was doing, but offered no objection as she worked.
“We’ll need a name to call you by,” he said finally, almost casually.
For a moment, she considered giving him a false one; it would have been simple enough. Or perhaps she could offer him a codename. Her handlers had christened her “Black Widow,” since she was often called upon to seduce her targets before she killed them. She rather liked that name. It was accurate if nothing else.
But it was another name that flitted through her consciousness instead, the one she had hidden away in her mind so carefully that even the Red Room had not been able to strip the memory from her.
Natalia Alinova Romanova.
She had no real reason to hide that name now. Chances were that S.H.I.E.L.D. would learn it eventually - considering that she’d been their target before she’d become their tentative ally, perhaps they knew it already. But she was reluctant to give it all the same, and she was equally hesitant to use it. It was the name of the little girl she had once been, the name of the woman she could never become.
She ran through a list of other possible names in her mind, names she recalled from missions, names she had heard or learned elsewhere, considering and rejecting each one, until her eyes found the picture on the desk once more. Clint’s picture.
“Natasha,” she said, the name falling from her lips almost without thought. But it felt right. Familiar. “Romanoff,” she added after a moment, and that too seemed fitting. It was still reflective of the name that might have been hers. Altered, yes, Americanized, but since Clint’s accent had been American, it seemed a fitting enough tribute.
If Coulson suspected that the name was anything more to her than an alias, he didn’t comment on it.
She completed the inspection of her weapons, then stood and began replacing them in their sheaths and holsters. When that was finished, Coulson led her from the office and back into the warehouse. The agents had done a great deal of work while she’d been otherwise occupied - nearly all traces of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s presence had been erased, save for a few remaining cases of equipment that were clearly awaiting transport.
They reached an exterior door, and Coulson paused, withdrawing something small from his pocket. When he opened his palm, she recognized it as a comm device.
“We’ll be following your progress, of course, but should you need to contact us, this should be untraceable. All the same, we suggest you use it only as a last resort.”
She took it from him, slipping it beneath the left sleeve of her shirt and hooking it to the sheath hidden there.
“Good luck,” Coulson added.
She blinked at the courtesy, surprised that he had even bothered to offer it, but she nodded cautiously in return. And with that, Natasha Romanoff left the warehouse and stepped into the glare of the Brazilian sun.
She stood near the edge of a precipice, overlooking a massive ravine where white water thundered over towering cliffs into the basin below. The spray of the water was cool on the wind; she closed her eyes and allowed herself to enjoy it for a moment, feeling small droplets land on her upturned face.
Opening her eyes once again, she let her gaze sweep the gorge. Iguazu Falls was undeniably impressive; jagged, moss-covered rocks and lush, green vegetation ringed the valley, and the Falls themselves shown in the afternoon sun, occasionally sending rainbows stretching out over the surrounding jungle.
It was tempting to take a closer look - perhaps on the boat that ferried tourists to the bottom of the Falls - but she was all too aware that the roar of the water might drown out the sound of an approaching attacker. She thought it unlikely that Clint would attempt to kill her while she stood in the middle of a crowd, though she could not entirely rule out the possibility.
Pushing herself away from the railing she had been leaning against, she started back up the large, metal walkway. Other tourists milled around her, many holding cameras or posing for pictures. A little boy ran past her, eager to reach the Falls, prompting an exasperated call from his mother, and a group of Chinese tourists were holding up a map and attempting to ask for directions in halting, uncertain Spanish.
Such scenes had become familiar to her over the last week; she’d begun her own “travels” in Rio de Janeiro, spending several days in the city itself, and visiting the Christ the Redeemer statue which stood atop a mountain peak, overlooking the city with its arms out-stretched, its neck slightly bent, its head tilted downward as though watching the goings-on of the world below.
She’d been schooled in the basic tenets of Christianity and other common world religions (though her trainers had, of course. emphasized the irrationality of such beliefs). She saw no reason to embrace any religion herself and did not ever imagine that changing, but she had lingered at the statue nonetheless, staring up at it until the sun had started to sink behind the horizon.
Iguaza Falls had been the logical choice for a next stop; it wasn’t terribly far from Rio de Janerio, and the steady stream of visitors provided ample cover. She had dressed to blend in with them, choosing a sleeveless top and a floral skirt that fell just below her knees. It was not a style she preferred, but the skirt was loose enough to accommodate her Glocks and thigh holsters beneath it. She had worn boots that came to her mid-calf, and had hidden her largest knife there as well as extra clips for her Glocks. Her Ruger and other knives she’d had to relegate to the cross-body bag she carried because the day was warm, and she didn’t want to draw attention by wearing the layers and long sleeves necessary to conceal the additional weapons. She had one consolation, at least - the abrasions marking the skin of her face and arms had healed to the point that they were easily hidden by makeup, which had made it far easier to move about without attracting curious stares.
She paused on the walkway to allow a young couple to pass by, and then turned onto a lesser-used path, one that led away from the Falls and deeper into the jungle. It wasn’t entirely abandoned; a small group of hikers were making their way down the trail and she followed them at a careful distance. If she were correct in assuming that Clint did not plan to attack her in public, then she needed to ensure that she was isolated enough to lure him into the open without making it seem as though she were doing so intentionally. She had made a point to do the same in every location she had visited, but either Clint had yet to track her down, or the Red Room was suspicious of her tactics, because there had been no sign of him. She had seen nothing of S.H.I.E.L.D. either, though she had no doubt that they were somewhere nearby.
She let her eyes scan the terrain as she walked. Tall trees curved over the winding pathway, their bark an exotic mix of brown and white. Lush vegetation grew up around the trunks; she had never before seen such a deep, vibrant green. Overhead, monkeys chattered, birds called, and the buzz of insects added to the cacophony, competing with the increasingly-muted sounds of the Falls in the distance.
Her eyes narrowed faintly.
The Red Room had trained her for combat in numerous climates, but she had never enjoyed fighting in tropical forests like this one. Jungles offered both too much cover and not enough; the trees and undergrowth ensured that there was ample camouflage, but that same foliage provided little real protection in a cross-fire. She much preferred the brick and steel, asphalt and concrete of urban warfare.
She paused when she heard rustling in the leaves nearby. An instant later, a small mammal appeared on the trail. It reminded her faintly of a raccoon, but its body was far more slender, and its fur was made up of various shades of brown. Its nose twitched as it stared at her, then, with a quick flick of its striped tail, it disappeared back into the underbrush. Overhead, a toucan stopped on a low branch, squawking indignantly.
She could not say precisely what warned her in that moment, but sudden awareness crept up her spine and she dove to the ground, rolling out of the way just in time to feel an arrow skim across the top of her left shoulder. The resulting cut was shallow, but had she still been standing, she had no doubt the arrow would have pierced her heart. She came up with her Glocks drawn and spun around, her eyes immediately searching the trees.
The toucan, startled by the movement, took off in surprise, and numerous other birds followed its flight from the trees, briefly filling the air with the sound of beating wings. But, the noise died away quickly and she heard only the rustle of branches waving with the wind.
Then she saw it - the smallest glimpse of black among the green, visible only because a strong breeze had parted the nearby leaves. She raised her Glocks and fired, aiming so that she missed by a bare margin. The birds startled again, but when she glanced down the path, the hikers ahead of her had disappeared around a far-off bend, apparently unaware of the noise. Perhaps the combined din of the jungle and the Falls had been enough to mask the sound of the gunshots.
She spun around again to see that Clint had dropped from his perch, landing in a graceful crouch. He had another arrow nocked a heartbeat later, and she had no choice but to leap away again, this time into the brush, landing in a crouch of her own
The arrow embed itself in the trunk of one of the trees behind her.
Her first instinct was to stay and fight Clint here, but for the moment, he had the advantage of surprise and there was little chance that she could disable him without causing him serious harm...if she could disable him at all, she admitted silently, rolling away as an arrow struck the soil in the exact spot she had been sitting just a split second earlier.
Jumping to her feet, she took off into the jungle at a run.
It was not ideal; the undergrowth was so thick that she could barely see the forest floor, and as she had no time for subtlety, she was leaving an easy-to-follow swath of trampled vegetation in her wake. The soil itself was rain-soaked, and her boots sunk into the soft ground with every step. She grit her teeth as leaves and branches slapped against her face and arms; she felt one low branch catch her skirt, and kept going, uncaring when the fabric ripped. A fallen tree blocked her path and she vaulted over it, refusing to slow her pace.
Another arrow streaked past her, barely missing her shoulder and striking a tree to her right.
The arrow exploded a second later, sending bits of shattered bark and shredded leaves into the air like shrapnel.
The force of the blast blew her back several feet, sending her into one of the trees behind her, the impact forcing the air from her lungs. She fell to the ground, momentarily stunned, her ears and head ringing. She shook her head, trying to clear it, and staggered upright, feeling a trickle of blood dripping down her temple.
Raising her Glocks, she fired blindly in the direction the arrow had come from, hoping that it would be enough to send Clint searching for cover of his own. She needed to put some distance between them, particularly if Clint was armed with additional explosives and ordinance. A round in one of her guns spent, she turned and ran again, the world spinning dangerously around her, but she had no choice except to keep moving. Her first shots might not have been overheard, but chances were that the explosion had not gone unnoticed, and neither had her return fire. Iguazu National Park was vast, but there was no way of knowing how long it would take for Park officials to be alerted to the trouble.
She hadn’t gotten far when pain erupted in her right leg; she looked down to see an arrow sticking through her calf. Her knee nearly buckled but she forced herself to keep moving in spite of it, limping heavily; retrieving an extra clip from her boot, she reloaded and turned to fire behind her again.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed a small outcropping of jagged rocks and ducked down behind them, holstering one Glock and bending to examine her injury. The shot was clean through the muscle and wasn’t bleeding a great deal; she felt no numbness and found that she had no trouble moving her toes or ankle. Satisfied that no significant damage had been done, she reached down and grasped the end of the arrow. Had it been a wooden shaft, she might have tried to break it before removing it, but carbon fiber didn’t allow for that. So, drawing a deep breath, she began to push it the rest of the way through her leg, biting back the cry that tried to build in her throat. New rivulets of red trailed down her skin, but she pulled the arrow free with a ragged gasp and tossed it aside, reaching for her Glock once more.
A moment later, another explosion sent her diving down to the forest floor, dodging a sudden shower of dirt and broken rock. Rolling away and ignoring the increased ringing in her ears, she struggled to her feet again and darted back into the thick underbrush.
Her injured leg screamed with every step, and her head throbbed, but she ignored both and reached for the comm link she had hidden on the strap of the watch fastened around her left wrist.
She activated it with a flick of her thumb. “I need assistance. Now.”
She didn’t bother to wait for them to respond, just shut off the link and ducked behind a large tree as another arrow streaked past her. This one, at least, did not explode, but it had come close enough that she felt the breeze from it all the same. Raising her Glocks yet again, she fired from behind the tree. The ground in this area of the jungle was slightly elevated from the surrounding terrain, offering her something of an advantage. She watched as Clint dropped and rolled, coming up behind a tree much like her own, but his broader frame was less easily concealed by the relatively slender trunk. He moved again, spinning and coming up with another arrow drawn.
The strange shape of the arrowhead sent her running once more, but she wasn’t quick enough. The resulting explosion knocked her off her feet, and she could not suppress a shout as her wounded leg struck the ground. She had landed on her stomach, and gritting her teeth, she rolled over onto her back and brought up both of her Glocks, unsurprised to see that Clint had yet another arrow aimed at her.
For an instant, time seemed to slow. Her fingers tightened on the triggers, though she did not want to kill Clint, even as she found herself staring down the shaft of the arrow and into his empty eyes. But, before Clint could loose the string, something small streaked through air, embedding itself in his neck.
He blinked, once, twice, then frowned faintly as his muscles went abruptly lax and he crumpled to the ground, unmoving.
She stared as a squad of heavily armed S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel seemed to materialize out of the foliage. She scowled - her ears were still ringing, but nonetheless, she should have been have been aware of their approach. Then again, Clint had not seemed to be aware of them either.
Perhaps she should simply be grateful for their apparent stealth.
She let her arms - and the Glocks she held - drop, her fingers easing away from the triggers.
Coulson stepped from behind the group, looking out of place in the charcoal gray suit he wore.
“I’m sorry for the delay. It became necessary to lock down this section of the park.”
The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent looked her over with a critical eye, clearly making note of the blood now staining both her temple and her calf, then looked over to Clint as well. He had not escaped their fight unscathed. Blood was flowing down his left arm from a wound on his bicep, and more red glistened from a wound near his right hip.
“Agent Spence,” Coulson called.
A moment later, the dark-haired sniper she remembered from the warehouse stepped forward. He was holding what she assumed was a dart gun; he glared at her briefly, then turned to Coulson. “Yes, sir?”
“Alert the infirmary that we have wounded.” He paused, glancing around at the destruction now littering the forest. “And remind me to send our apologies to the World Heritage Committee,” he added.
Spence nodded, giving her one last dark look before he touched the radio at his ear and turned away.
One of the other agents, whom she soon identified as a field medic, set about wrapping her leg, and she found herself watching as another medic began attending to Clint.
Half an hour later, they were aboard a small aircraft, sitting in the aft compartment, surrounded by a wary-looking tactical team.
Clint was still unconscious, but he had been strapped tightly to a gurney, a sight that seemed familiar in a way she could not explain. Forcing back the strange sense of déjà vu, she turned her eyes to the cockpit, staring through the windshield as the Brazilian jungle gradually faded into the distance.