Past, Present, Future.
She was seated in a small, windowless conference room, her injured leg elevated by the footrest on the wheelchair she had been given. The ache in her calf wasn’t particularly bad - S.H.I.E.L.D.’s doctors had numbed the area before seeing to the wound, and whatever they had used had yet to wear off. For the moment, the steady throb at her temple was more insistent, but she’d refused the painkillers the doctors had offered, preferring the pain to the influence of the drugs themselves.
Coulson had appeared as soon as the doctors had finished treating her, and the interview had been a lengthy one. It was only the first of what she knew would be an even longer interrogation process, though Coulson had not called it such. Undoubtedly, the desire to preserve an atmosphere of cooperation was the reason that she had been assigned to a conference room instead of a holding cell, and the reason why, as promised, the tracking device had been removed from her back.
Nonetheless, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s hospitality extended only so far. She had not failed to notice that the door required an access code, and that a sizeable security detail was stationed just outside. The fact that she was currently several thousand feet above solid ground was equally hard to miss. The Helicarrier, as Coulson had called it, was, in essence, a flying fortress. Even if she managed to elude the security detail, escaping from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mobile headquarters would not be easy.
For the moment, she saw no reason to try. S.H.I.E.L.D. had honored their part of the agreement and she had done the same. Whether or not that would continue was another matter, but it was, at least, more than she might have expected from the Red Room.
Leaning back in the wheelchair, she allowed her gaze to sweep her surroundings once more. The conference room was the same dark, metallic gray as the rest of the Helicarrier, and it lacked any sort of decoration save a large, electronic screen mounted on one wall and a stylized eagle emblem opposite that. An oval-shaped table dominated the space, offering seating for six, and its sleek, black finish reflected the light shining from the ceiling above. A glass of water sat on the table in front of her, along with an empty plate; Coulson had ordered a meal brought for her before he’d left to present his report to his superiors a few hours earlier.
As if summoned by her thoughts, she heard the door slide open behind her and looked up to see Coulson enter. He held a thick manila folder in one hand, and wore the expression he seemed to favor most: eyebrows faintly raised, the corners of his lips turned up in a small, polite smile. As masks went it was a good one, neither overly aggressive or excessively friendly, and in this case, it was perfectly able to conceal the nature of the news he brought. Were his superiors satisfied with their arrangement thus far, or did they feel that they had been shorted in the bargain?
Coulson had clearly anticipated her questions.
“I get the impression that you aren’t one for pleasantries,” he began, moving to sit across from her, “so I won’t bother with them. At this point, there’s very little you’ve told us about the Red Room that we weren’t already aware of, but we understand that they go to great lengths to maintain their secrecy, so it’s not unexpected.”
“I didn’t promise you intel, I promised you operatives,” she pointed out evenly.
“Which you delivered,” Coulson agreed. “The hit will remain suspended indefinitely, or until such time that it becomes necessary to reassess our relationship.”
It was not quite a guarantee of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s good will, but it was better than she might have expected, particularly this early on. S.H.I.E.L.D. had undoubtedly considered the possibility that she had been sent to them as a mole, or perhaps an assassin - she had, rather pointedly, not yet been introduced to anyone that outranked Coulson himself.
“And what exactly will our relationship be?” she asked.
“That’s actually one of things we need to discuss next.”
“One of them?” she repeated.
He nodded and opened the folder he held, removing a piece of paper and sliding it across the table for her inspection.
It was a circus poster.
The Amazing Hawkeye, the Word’s Greatest Marksman, it proclaimed in large letters. The figure of a young man stood out sharply against the yellow background. He was dressed boldly in purple and black, holding a bow at the ready, a fierce look of concentration on his face. The picture was poorly rendered, obviously cheaply made, but she recognized his features nonetheless.
“His full name is Clinton Francis Barton,” Coulson told her. “He’s from Iowa, originally. Disappeared from Carson’s Carnival of Traveling Wonders when he was 16. A missing person’s report was filed, but he had a previous history as a runaway and the case was never seriously investigated.”
Coulson reached into the file once more. She heard him shuffling through the contents but found that she couldn’t take her eyes off the poster, even when Coulson spoke again.
“The same night he disappeared, his older brother was found dead. The official cause of death was anaphylactic shock, though he had no previously known allergies. The local police assumed that Clint was upset by his brother’s death and left of his own volition. We can find no record of him after that point.”
There was a pause.
“We’ve searched for information about you as well.”
That brought her gaze back to him.
“Unfortunately, public records from Cold War era Russia are sparse to begin with, and even fewer have been computerized. The Red Room may have even purged your information from public archives, something they would not have been able to do in Clint’s case. The program most likely has a copy of your original file, but we don’t have access to their databases.”
The spike of anger in her chest caught her off-guard; she hadn’t known the extent to which the Red Room had gone to erase those few traces of her past, but the news should not have been surprising. Nonetheless, the knowledge stirred a quiet rage she had not known she possessed.
She pushed that feeling aside, however, her eyes narrowed. S.H.I.E.L.D. did nothing without a reason, and she knew that Coulson had not revealed this information as a courtesy to her.
“Why tell me any of this?”
“Because we believe that you might be a valuable asset to us, and we felt it wise to offer you something of value in return.”
“To prove that our relationship would be mutually beneficial?” she asked, deliberately echoing Coulson’s earlier wording.
Coulson nodded. “Something like that.”
Almost against her will, her eyes found the poster again. “And Clint? Do you believe that he’ll be a ‘valuable asset’ to you as well?”
“That, Ms. Romanoff,” a deep voice interrupted, “is something else we need to discuss.”
She turned to see a tall, dark-skinned man standing in the doorway. He was dressed head to toe in black, a long leather jacket hanging over BDUs, a TAC vest, and combat boots. He was bald, with a square jaw and broad nose, a goatee marking his chin. A patch covered his left eye, gnarled scars peering from beneath it, but his right eye was dark brown, his gaze piercing, his brow drawn together in something approaching a scowl.
“Director Fury,” Coulson greeted, beginning to stand.
Fury waved away the formality and stepped further into the room, revealing a woman who had been hidden behind his broader frame. Natasha did not recognize the woman from her earlier visit to the infirmary, but she wore a blue skirt and a light purple blouse, both of which that were visible beneath a white lab coat; she had a slight build, and without the heels she wore, it was clear that she would have been only slightly taller than Natasha was herself. Her blue eyes peered out from behind a pair of glasses, and her blonde hair was pulled up into a French twist, a few loose strands falling around her face.
“Dr. Cynthia Lawson, our chief neurologist,” Fury introduced.
Lawson offered her a small smile which Natasha did not return.
Fury said nothing else, simply waved Lawson to the front of the room and took one of the empty chairs next to Coulson, leaning back and folding his arms across his chest.
Lawson assumed a position beside the electronic screen, loosely clasping her hands in front of her waist. “Given the Red Room’s history of using mind-altering techniques to control its operatives,” she began, glancing at Natasha again, “I’ve been assigned to work with both you and Mr. Barton. In Mr. Barton’s case, we ran a number of scans while he was unconscious, and we found something quite unexpected.”
Lawson opened her mouth to continue, then hesitated, obviously reconsidering whatever it was she had been about to say. “Ms. Romanoff,” she asked at last, “have you ever heard of a man named Phineas Gage?”
Natasha frowned and shook her head. “No.”
“He’s famous in neurological circles. He was a railroad foreman who was injured in an explosion. A tamping iron was sent up through his cheek and into the front of his brain, where it pierced the top of his skull. He survived, but witnesses claimed that his behavior was drastically altered after the accident, so much so that he seemed almost like another person. His case was one of the earliest to highlight the link between the personality and the brain, specifically, the frontal lobe.”
“What does this have to do with Clint?”
Lawson touched the corner of the electronic screen, bringing it to life, then with a few quick flicks of her fingers, brought up the black and white image of a skull, the cross section showing the brain itself.
“This is one of the scans we took of Mr. Barton’s brain,” Lawson explained. “These darker, gray areas represent normal tissue, but these lighter areas here,” she pointed to Clint’s forehead, where a large, white mass seemed to reside, “represent altered tissue.”
“Altered?” Natasha repeated.
Lawson nodded. “I’m not sure how else to describe it. This isn’t the pattern we would expect to find with a head injury. In fact, the structure of the brain itself appears completely intact. But, areas in his frontal cortex and temporal lobe have clearly undergone some sort of…traumatic event. Essentially, he has suffered what appears to be a very deliberate, very specific type of brain damage.”
It was instinct that kept Natasha from reacting in any visible way, but a buzzing began in her ears, not unlike what she had suffered during her last fight with Clint; a cold sensation began in her chest, spreading through her body and settling somewhere in her belly.
Fragmented memories surfaced in her mind, one after another in rapid succession.
"Don’t let me forget…”
"We talk, don’t we?”
She tried to cling to them, grasping at them with desperate mental fingers, but they vanished just as quickly as they had come.
Natasha blinked to find that Fury was sitting forward in his chair, as if to study the image of Clint’s brain more carefully. Clearly, this was the first time he had heard this information as well.
“You’re saying that the Red Room inflicted brain damage on one of its operatives? Deliberately? Why? How could that possibly benefit them?”
“Well,” Lawson answered, “we’ve known for some time that the Red Room has the ability to alter the memories and personality of its operatives, but we weren’t sure how they accomplished it. These scans might reveal just that. They show alterations in the areas of the brain believed to be involved with processing emotions and memories. In Mr. Barton’s case, the damage appears serious enough that significant changes in his personality were probably readily apparent; in fact, I won’t be able to say for certain until I speak with Mr. Barton myself, but from the scans alone, it seems likely that he has trouble accessing strong emotions and displays a very flat affect.”
“He does,” Natasha agreed, and felt all the eyes in the room turn to her. “I’ve seen it when we’ve fought.”
Fury’s scowl seemed to deepen as he studied her, then he turned back to the doctor. “Wouldn’t that interfere with his ability to do his job?”
“It depends on the types of tasks he was assigned. Ms. Romanoff, for example,” she motioned in Natasha’s direction, “told Agent Coulson that she was primarily tasked with infiltration and assassination, both of which require significant emotional intelligence and adaptability. It’s doubtful that Mr. Barton could function in the same capacity. However, his intellect may be entirely intact; he may still be able to reason, to use logic, and understand probabilities. If that is the case, then he would be capable of acting independently - at least, to a certain extent. The parts of his brain responsible for physical processes such as his motor cortex, his sensory cortex, and his Parietal, Occipital, and Temporal lobes, are also completely untouched, so I assume that physically, he functions on an entirely normal level. Overall, given the changes visible in these scans, I believe that he is capable of following orders and carrying them out, but unlikely to act with complete autonomy.”
“In other words, they wanted him to be easy to control,” Fury surmised darkly.
Lawson nodded. “It would seem so, yes.”
“Can it be reversed?” Coulson wondered.
It was the question Natasha might have asked herself, but her tongue seemed strangely incapable of forming the words.
The doctor hesitated. “It’s hard to say. Neurology has come a long way, but there’s really still so much that we don’t know about how and why the brain functions as it does. And I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen anything like this before. I can’t even begin to guess how it was done, or what techniques were used, and that will make treatment much more difficult. At this point, I think the best we can do is treat this like we would any other brain injury, with therapy and counseling, training new areas of the brain to assume the functions that the damaged areas would normally control. But, even then, I can’t say for certain how much improvement there will be.” She paused, frowning. “Assuming that Mr. Barton has also undergone significant indoctrination, we’ll have to deal with that first - we’ll need his cooperation if therapy is going to have any impact.”
That cold sensation in Natasha’s belly seemed to sharpen, to freeze and break, forming shards of ice that seemed to shift with an unseen tide. Inexplicably, her eyes were drawn to the circus poster that still sat on the table, the bright colors strangely muted now.
She looked up only when she sensed Fury’s stare. He had turned to face her and was leaning forward, his elbows resting on the tabletop, his hands clasped loosely in front of him.
“What about Ms. Romanoff?” he asked, clearly speaking to Lawson, but never taking his eye off of Natasha. “Do you think she’s received the same ‘alterations’?”
Lawson sent Natasha a brief, apologetic look. “I haven’t yet had the chance to examine her myself, but my guess is that she has undergone some of these same changes, though the pattern of damage would be unique. As she told Agent Coulson, she was imprinted with numerous personalities over the years, and her long and short term memories have also been significantly altered on repeated occasions. However, she would still need to function at a high level while on a mission, so the alterations in her brain would need to be even more specific than those inflicted upon Mr. Barton, the equivalent of writing and rewriting a single piece of software over and over again. At this point, though, all I can offer you is speculation. I’ll be able to tell you more once I’m able to perform some tests…with Ms. Romanoff’s permission, of course,” she added.
Natasha ignored the implied question for the time being, and simply returned Fury’s stare. She felt herself being measured and judged, and kept her features purposefully blank, waiting to hear the verdict.
After a long moment, Fury’s lips curled up into a smirk tinged with amusement. “You made fools of my Agents twice, Ms. Romanoff. First in Venezuela, at that motel, then in Brazil.” He shook his head. “Waltzing right into that warehouse like you owned the place, even knowing that every person in that room had orders to shoot you on sight…that took guts, I’ll give you that.”
He unclasped his hands, leaning back in his chair and bracing his hands further apart on the tabletop, his right index finger tapping the surface twice, thoughtfully, his expression fading into something much more serious.
“But I don’t trust you,” he continued bluntly. “The Red Room is a can of worms on a good day, and this,” he waved a hand in the direction of Dr. Lawson, “adds a whole other level of crazy. As far as I’m concerned, there’s not a death painful enough for the people who created that place.”
“We’re in agreement then,” she returned simply.
“Are we? Really? Because how can I even be sure that leaving the Red Room was your idea and not theirs? You could be their puppet right now and not even know it. Isn’t that how it works?”
Natasha’s jaw clenched, but she couldn’t deny the accusation. She would have been lying if she said that the thought hadn’t already crossed her mind over the days and weeks since she’d escaped the Red Room. She’d never considered that possibility for long, however; if she allowed it to linger, she would find herself questioning her every thought, every action, wondering if they were truly her own. Oh, that way madness lies, a silent voice supplied, the long-forgotten quote all the more haunting because she could not recall when she had learned it. She had never possessed any great love for Shakespeare…but perhaps she had once been someone who did.
She closed her eyes for a moment, pushing that train of thought ruthlessly aside.
“What is it you want from me?” she demanded at last, opening her eyes once more. “If you want proof that I’m free from them, I can’t give it to you.”
“What I want, Ms. Romanoff,” Fury answered, “is a reason to give you the benefit of the doubt. You’ve already shown us that you have skills that shouldn’t go to waste. S.H.I.E.L.D. could use an asset like you…and Barton, if the Red Room hasn’t turned his brain into so much mush.”
She let the barb about Clint pass without any reaction, sensing it for the test it was. Clint had been her most apparent weak point thus far, and Fury wanted to see how she would respond his prodding.
She mulled over his earlier words instead.
When she had decided to approach S.H.I.E.L.D. she had never considered the possibility that she would be asked to join them. If indeed they upheld their end of the bargain, she’d assumed that she would eventually be moved to one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s maximum security facilities; it would not be the freedom she had imagined, but at least the Red Room would have no way to reach her there.
But this…this was unexpected.
Was it what she wanted? She had not left one master intending to run into the arms of another. She had planned to be her own master instead.
That wasn’t a complete impossibility now - escaping from S.H.I.E.L.D. would be difficult, but it wasn’t beyond her skills. She could carry out her original plan and go into business for herself. S.H.I.E.L.D. would reinstate the hit, of course, but she had already proven that she was capable of eluding them. And, with Clint safely out of the way, nothing would keep her from killing the next operative the Red Room sent. Or the next. Or the one after that.
That, however, was all her life would be. Running. Hiding. Fighting. Killing. Until, at last, someone succeeded in killing her.
She wanted more.
Would S.H.I.E.L.D. be able to give it to her?
There was only one way to know.
Using the arms of her wheelchair as leverage, she pushed her body up and slid across the table, sending the glass and plate crashing to the floor and the papers from Clint’s file scattering; she struck Fury in the chest before he had a chance to react, his chair tipping backwards with him in it and her crouched on top of him, her momentum carrying them to the floor.
Fury’s sidearm was in her hand a moment later, pointed at his temple.
Coulson had moved almost as quickly and was on his feet with his gun drawn. She was lucky that he hadn’t yet pulled the trigger, but that had been a calculated risk. Dr. Lawson was unarmed, but she clearly had some sort of training because she’d moved away from the electronic screen to block Natasha’s path to the door.
“You wanted a reason to give me the benefit of the doubt?” Natasha asked, cocking the gun. “I could kill you right now.” She un-cocked the gun and clicked the safety back into place. “But I won’t.”
She rolled off of Fury and stood, ignoring the sharp stab of pain from her injured leg; the doctors would need to see to it again.
Turning the gun in her hand so that she gripped the muzzle, she held it out to Fury. “Is that reason enough?”
Fury stared up at her for a long moment before he snorted, shaking his head and accepting the gun. “It is.”
Pushing himself to his feet, Fury motioned for Coulson and Lawson to stand down, then replaced the weapon in his holster. “Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Romanoff.”