They arrived in New Mexico after sunset.
The site wasn’t difficult to spot, even from the air; large floodlights shown down over it, chasing away the darkness, offering Natasha a clear view of the area as their quinjet approached. Coulson had given her and Clint a copy of the installation’s layout before take-off, and it had been memorized easily enough, but nonetheless, she was glad to have the chance to study the compound from above.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s newest complex stood in a large basin, in the middle of what appeared to be a ring of giant, concentric craters. The compound was enclosed by a tall, razor-wire fence and consisted of a network of winding plastic tunnels and prefabricated buildings all surrounding one central square. Additional trailers and tents were lined up a short distance away, linked to the main complex by freshly-hewn dirt roads. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like a small city had sprung up in the middle of the desert.
The jet was granted clearance to land almost immediately and it touched down on a long strip of hard ground, sending a cloud of dust into the air as the engines slowed. Coulson stood as the landing ramp lowered, already starting for the complex. Assuming that he wanted them to follow, Natasha matched his brisk pace, hearing Clint do the same beside her.
Up close, the installation swarmed with activity; an almost constant stream of security personnel, scientists, and technicians moved past, some jogging from one building to the next, others driving motorized carts to cover the distance more quickly.
Even here she and Clint drew a few curious looks, though she suspected that was partly due to the fact that their crisp, new uniforms marked them as recent additions to the agency. Natasha glanced down and frowned faintly. The uniform she’d been given was sized well enough, but it was still looser than she preferred, more likely to get in her way during a fight. She would have to ask Coulson about obtaining something more form-fitting.
A short walk across the compound brought them to central command where a bald man in a charcoal suit stood in front of a bank of electronic screens, directing the group of technicians monitoring the feeds from various cameras. He turned around as they approached, the light from the screens reflecting off of his glasses and the ID badge clipped to his lapel.
“Sitwell,” Coulson greeted, offering him a nod. “Status?”
“It’s been relatively quiet, sir. The coyotes are playing havoc with the thermal imaging system and there have been a few false alarms. There’s also been a lot of air traffic from SAF*, but we’ve had no issues diverting flights. I’ve gotten an earful from the techs about the interference that thing is causing, though.” He nodded in the direction of the square, roofless tower.
Coulson smirked faintly. “I’m not surprised. Has Bigsby’s team made any progress?”
“None that they’ve reported, sir.”
Coulson nodded again then turned on his heel, this time clearly headed for the central square. Thunder rumbled overhead as Natasha once more fell into place behind him, and she frowned. The skies had been relatively clear just a few minutes before, though, she supposed, weather in a desert was sometimes unpredictable. Clint was still at her side, matching her step for step the way he often seemed to, but she slowed considerably when they finally reached the center of the complex and she caught sight of what actually lay in the middle of it.
She had wondered if “hammer” was a code word of some sort, but clearly it wasn’t.
It was a large hammer with a thick, square head, not the type used in construction, but one obviously intended to be used in battle. Intricate carvings filled small panels on each end, but the rest of the hammer’s surface was smooth, its matte finish gleaming dully in the light. The handle was wrapped in brown leather, another loop of leather dangling from the end, designed to wrap around a wrist or perhaps meant to allow the hammer to be hung from a belt.
The hammer alone might not have seemed so remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that the head was partially lodged inside a pillar of bedrock, its handle protruding into the air as though inviting bystanders to attempt to free it from its resting place.
Natasha might have thought that the hammer was part of some sort of archeological dig site - a relic buried centuries ago and found during an excavation - except that a small ring of earth had been pushed up around it and another larger ring was visible a few feet farther out.
She recalled the much larger, concentric craters she had seen ringing the installation, and standing here now, she could see that they appeared to originate from the hammer itself. But…how was that possible? Even if the hammer had been dropped from a plane, it wouldn’t have been thrown with enough force to cause that sort of damage to the earth around it, nor should it have been traveling fast enough to have made such an impact.
Unless, of course, it had been falling from space.
Natasha dismissed that idea immediately - that was far too unlikely to be believed.
She would leave the speculation to the scientists.
There were certainly enough of them. They buzzed around the site, some dressed head to toe in white, others wearing suits, circling the hammer with various pieces of equipment in hand. A few stood on the walkways above, exchanging hushed whispers and spats of technical jargon.
One man in particular seemed especially animated. His was short and stocky, with short, dark brown hair sticking up at odd angles as though he’d run his hands through it several times and hadn’t bothered to smooth it back down again. His white lab coat was rumpled, brown smudges marking his knees - probably from kneeling down in the dirt - and a pair of plastic safety goggles was perched crookedly on his nose. He was standing in a corner, waving to one of the groups on the walkways, calling out instructions.
“Bigsby,” Coulson tried. “Bigsby!”
Lightening flashed overhead, the thunder louder than before, raindrops beginning to pelt the ground through the square’s open roof, but the scientist must have heard him because he finally turned around.
“Agent Coulson!” He hurried over, adjusting his goggles as he went. “The artifact is incredible! Unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I could spend years studying the alloy alone!”
“I’m sure you could, Doctor, but unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time. We need answers now.”
“I know, and we’re working as fast as we can, but I’m not sure if you appreciate the difficulties we’re facing. The artifact is emitting interference similar to a Coronal Mass Ejection. We’re using filters but they only do so much, and the vast majority of our equipment is cutting in and out. We’ve had to resort to taking handwritten notes!” He motioned towards the walkways where a number of scientists held clipboards and pens, then scowled up at the sky. “And this weather will only make things worse.”
He paused, frowning suddenly, then pointed a hand at Clint, who, Natasha saw, had stopped behind Coulson, a few feet away from the hammer.
“You! You there,” Bigsby demanded, “move away from that! You’re liable to damage it!”
Natasha arched an eyebrow - the hammer hardly looked fragile. If anything it looked more likely to do some damage of its own.
Clint backed away obediently and the scientist watched him go, glaring and muttering under his breath. He was obviously not intending to be overheard, but his voice carried easily enough in the enclosed space.
“You soldier types. Nothing but trouble. Do you even understand what this is? No, of course not. How could you?”
Clint cocked his head. “It looks like a maul - a type of late-medieval war hammer used during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”
Bigsby sputtered, his mouth opening and closing several times at the matter-of-fact response, and Natasha snorted softly, smirking at the scientist’s shock. Clint, she knew, might not have actually meant to get the better of the man - he tended to assume that any question posed to him was literal - but there was a faint glint in Clint’s eyes that made her wonder.
Coulson, who had watched the exchange with a small smile of his own, turned to look at her, eyebrows raised.
Natasha shrugged. “Extensive knowledge of weapons history was required at our academy,” she said simply.
There was no real reason for her to omit the Red Room’s name - she assumed that anyone with clearance to work on the hammer would have the clearance to know about their particular situation as well - but it had become habit now.
Coulson nodded in understanding, then turned back to Bigsby who still looked indignant.
“Be sure to keep me posted on your progress, Doctor,” he ordered.
It was clearly intended as a dismissal because Coulson didn’t wait for a response. He simply started back in the direction of command.
As soon as they reached the tunnels once again, he paused, turning to face them, but an alarm sounded suddenly, cutting off whatever Coulson had been about to say. It was quickly followed by a site-wide announcement: “We have an intruder. Repeat, we have an intruder. West sector. Agents down.”
Search lights flared to life, making the area outside the complex even brighter than before, and red emergency lights illuminated the passageways, pulsing with the sound of the sirens.
Coulson’s gaze immediately snapped to Clint. “Barton, I want eyes up high. Head to the armory first - a bow and a radio will be waiting for you. Outside, northwest corner, there’s a crane. The operator already knows to expect you. Go.”
Clint gave a brisk nod and took off at a run, deftly making his way through the other personnel hurrying through the halls.
Coulson turned to her. “Romanoff, southwest sector will be a staging area. Join security there and await further orders.”
She gave a nod of her own and sprinted down the tunnel.
She emerged into the open a few minutes later. The rain had become a downpour and it immediately began soaking through her uniform, but she ignored it and kept moving. She spotted the staging area quickly, surprised to find that she recognized the officer in charge: Agent Spence.
He glanced up as she approached. Clearly her arrival wasn’t unexpected, though he didn’t look pleased.
“Romanoff,” he greeted curtly.
He held out a radio earpiece, but when she reached for it, he tightened his grip.
She looked up to meet his eyes.
“Let’s get one thing straight, Romanoff,” he began. “I don’t care that the shrinks have given you the all-clear. I don’t trust you. You take one step out of line and I’ll be there.”
He glared at her, clearly hoping for some sort of reaction on her part.
She didn’t give him one.
He scowled at that and released the radio. “I don’t trust your boyfriend either,” he added. “Make sure he does what he’s told.”
With that, Spence spun away, already issuing orders to the next group of soldiers to arrive.
Natasha stared down at the radio for a moment, her fingers tightening around it.
It wasn’t the first time someone had made that assumption. As one rumor had it, she and Clint had fallen in love and run away from the Bratva - or, as some insisted, a remnant of the KGB - and S.H.I.E.L.D. had offered them protection in exchange for the intelligence they could offer. It was relatively close to the truth, but that particular rumor bothered her nonetheless.
Spence was one of the few who knew their real origins, but apparently, he believed that the rumors had gotten at least that much right - that she and Clint really were together.
He was wrong.
As she’d told Coulson once, she owed Clint a debt. She was working to repay that debt in the only way she could, and that was all.
She was just trying to balance the scales. Anything else was out of the question.
Pushing those thoughts aside, she tucked the small radio over her ear, then let her gaze roam the sky, squinting against the increasing deluge until she found Clint across the compound. He was already standing in the basket of the crane, bow at the ready, the string taut and set to be released if the command came, his eyes locked on his target below.
“Do you want me to slow him down, sir?” Clint asked, his voice sounding tinny across the open radio channel.
“I’ll let you know,” Coulson answered.
She could see very little from her vantage point, save the shadowy silhouettes of the agents running down the tunnels to confront the intruder. He eyebrows rose faintly when the wall of one of the tunnels suddenly exploded outward, the form of a limp agent flying through the air, landing in the dirt. He stirred briefly then went still.
The crane was immediately in motion, adjusting Clint’s position so that he had a better line of sight, but he didn’t fire.
She wondered why Coulson was waiting to give the order.
For a few moments it was quiet, and then two large figures suddenly tumbled through the plastic tarp at the south juncture, rolling down the muddy slope, locked together as they wrestled.
Between the rain and the movement of the fight, it was impossible to make out their features, but she saw that the intruder was broad-shouldered and muscular, dressed in a blue t-shirt and jeans. That struck her as strange, but she dismissed it as unimportant, already assessing the other man.
Judging by his size, she guessed that it was Agent Strickland - few could match his 6′ 7" frame. She had sparred with him once or twice, and he was difficult to beat.
The intruder, however, seemed to be holding his own.
Strickland managed to wrap one massive arm around the intruder’s throat, but the intruder thrust back with his elbow to break free, stunning Strickland long enough to land two more blows. But, when the intruder tried to pin Strickland down, Strickland threw him off. The intruder landed a few feet away, and both staggered up, struggling to stand on the rain-soaked ground.
Strickland started forward, but the intruder jumped into the air suddenly, kicking out with both feet, sending Strickland sprawling in the mud. Strickland tried to stand again, but the intruder kicked out once more, the blow connecting with Strickland’s head.
This time, Strickland came down limp and unmoving.
“Romanoff,” Coulson ordered an instant later, “you’re up. Disable only. We need to question him.”
She took of at a run, rushing to intercept the intruder before he reached the central square and the hammer.
He was reaching up to rip away the plastic sheeting from the wall when he heard her approach and turned to face her.
He was a rugged-looking man with handsome features and blue eyes. He towered over her by nearly a foot, and his blond hair, which was dripping wet and sticking to his forehead, fell just below his chin. He had a short beard as well, though it was difficult to see underneath the mud smeared across his face. He was still out of breath from his fight with Strickland, but he ran his eyes over her from head to toe, his lips twisting wryly, white teeth gleaming in the dark as he smirked.
“You’re a lot smaller than the last one.”
She rushed at him, her steps pounding the earth, and taking a page out of his book, she launched herself into the air, aiming for his chest with both feet. He staggered back as the blow connected, and she gave him no time to recover, thrusting her elbow up, hitting his chin, forcing his head back, then she spun again, kicking into his abdomen.
She aimed for his head once more, but he blocked her fist with his forearm, all amusement gone from his face.
He grabbed her wrist and twisted, and she grunted as her shoulder strained, but she brought up her knee, striking him in the stomach, and he released her, stumbling back a little, though not enough. Thrusting her leg out, she kicked hard, and this time, her heel met his knee. It was his turn to grunt as the leg nearly crumpled beneath him, and she tried to press her advantage, aiming for his other knee as well, but he’d anticipated that. He swung hard at her head, and she ducked out of the way, dropping and rolling so that she came up behind him.
She jumped up again before he could turn to face her, arching her back so that her feet were pushed into the air first, her calves hooking over his shoulders. She twisted, her legs wrapping around his throat, her weight hanging down his back. Had he been a smaller man her weight would have been enough to drag him to the ground, but the intruder didn’t fall even as she tightened her thighs, trying to cut off his airway. He drove his elbow backwards, into her ribs, and pain exploded in her side. The blow was hard enough to wind her, enough that her legs loosened for a second, and that was all he needed.
He threw his torso forward, doubling over, forcing her back over his head. She landed facedown in the mud, a shower of water and dirt exploding around her. What little breath she had left was stolen by the impact, and the intruder’s hands were there a moment later, grabbing her shoulders, picking her up as though she weighed nothing at all and throwing her a second time.
She flew through the air and felt herself hit the wall of the central square, the plastic sheeting ripping around her as she went through it and landed inside. Her forehead stuck a hard patch of ground and stars exploded in her vision. She lay stunned for a moment, but then, gritting her teeth, she pushed herself up, blinking hard and tossing the wet, muddy locks of her hair out of the way, ready to stand once again.
The intruder was paying no attention to her now. He had entered the square through the hole her body had made, and his sole focus was on the hammer, an eager smile on his lips. He stepped closer, his right hand wrapping around the handle slowly, almost reverently.
Then he pulled upward, clearly expecting to free the hammer from the rock.
But the hammer stuck fast, and his smile faded, his expression growing increasingly dismayed. He tried again, this time with both hands, pulling hard enough that the muscles, tendons, and veins in his forearms bulged with the effort.
Natasha started forward, hoping to catch him off-guard, but Coulson’s voice sounded in her ear: “Romanoff, wait. I want to see this.”
Her jaw clenched, but she did as ordered, watching as the man finally gave up, staggering back, his chest heaving. He looked down at his hands for a long moment, as though he didn’t recognize them any longer, then turned his face to the sky, heedless of the rain, his features twisted in obvious grief.
“WHY?!” he screamed at last, his voice echoing long and loud, his fists clenched at his sides, his muscles shaking until he was spent. He fell to his knees in the dirt, his shoulders slumped, his head hanging low, water dripping down his face.
“Alright,” Coulson said finally. “Show’s over. Ground units move in. Barton, stand down.”
Natasha heard footsteps on the catwalks above her, and soon, the square was filled with security personnel.
They approached the man cautiously, but he offered no resistance as they reached for his arms, cuffing them roughly behind his back. Instead, he stared dully at the hammer, tears pooling in his eyes as though it had betrayed him.
Natasha winced faintly as the medic examined her ribs, pushing against them gently, looking for any obvious fractures.
Her side was tender, and the resulting bruise would probably be rather spectacular, but Natasha didn’t believe any ribs were broken. She’d had broken ribs in the past, and while painful, this injury did not match that particular sensation.
The medic recommended an x-ray nonetheless.
Natasha agreed, promising that she would visit the infirmary when she returned to the Helicarrier, since S.H.I.E.L.D.’s New Mexico installation boasted only basic medical equipment.
Apparently satisfied with that, the medic helped her role down her undershirt to cover her injured side once again, then handed her an ice pack before leaving to tend to the next Agent in need of her care.
Natasha pressed the pack against her ribs, releasing a breath as the cold began to penetrate the fabric. She shifted a little, trying to find a more comfortable position, then reached up with her free hand to push a lock of hair away from her face. It was still damp to the touch - both from the earlier rain and from the shower she’d taken to wash away the mud. The spare uniform she’d changed into was warm and dry, however, and the medic had offered her a blanket as well. The military issue cloth was stiff and not particularly soft, but it had served well enough to chase away the chilly air filling the medical tent.
A soft tread on the ground made her look up, and she wasn’t surprised to find that it was Clint who now stood in front of her. He’d obviously had an opportunity to change as well, because like her, his clothing was dry, but his hair was still wet, droplets of water visible on the short, brown spikes.
Clint said nothing though his eyes raked over her body assessingly, a faint frown marring his features.
Sensing the unspoken question, she shrugged one shoulder - the shoulder opposite her injured ribs. “I’m fine,” she assured.
But the frown didn’t fade. If anything, it deepened as his gaze dropped to the icepack she was holding then moved back to the bruise she knew was visible near her hairline, the one that promised to darken as time passed.
“I’ve had worse,” she added.
Clint’s head tilted, his lips parting as though he were about to respond, but the sound of heavy footsteps made them both turn instead.
Coulson appeared beside them a moment later.
He nodded in greeting. “Romanoff, Barton. I just finished speaking with our guest. He didn’t have much to say.”
That was hardly shocking news, but Natasha felt a small pang of disappointment. She couldn’t deny that she was curious. The man fought like an experienced soldier, but he had broken into a high security installation without any weapons and no equipment, dressed as though he’d simply walked in off the street. His reaction to the hammer had been especially strange.
She would have liked to know who he was.
The Red Room would have already done whatever was needed to persuade him to cooperate, but S.H.I.E.L.D. was not as quick to resort to torture. At least, not the level of torture the Red Room employed. S.H.I.E.L.D. had its own methods, but they were generally used only as a last resort.
Apparently, they hadn’t yet reached that point with this man.
Coulson seemed able to sense the direction of her thoughts. “Erik Selvig came to collect him a few minutes ago,” he added. “We released him into Selvig’s custody.”
Natasha frowned, thinking back over the reports she had read when Coulson had first briefed them. “Selvig, one of the physicists whose research you confiscated?”
“The same. Selvig claims that our intruder is a Dr. Donald Blake, a colleague of his who was upset by our interference. Blake’s an M.D. and a physicist, apparently.”
Natasha scoffed at that, her ribs giving a small twinge. “Unlikely. He’s had training. A lot of it.”
“I agree. We’re following them now.”
Natasha thought for a moment, then nodded in understanding. Letting the man go was a risk, but they might very well learn more from observing him than they would have from hours of interrogation.
“Will Clint and I be running surveillance on them as well?”
“No,” Coulson answered, and for the first time, something like a grimace broke through his usually composed mask. “You’ll both be returning to the Helicarrier.”
Natasha’s eyes narrowed. Judging by the finality of his tone, he didn’t mean that they would be returning only for the x-ray the medic had ordered. “You’re taking us off the mission.”
This time Coulson sighed. “Yes. This may be even bigger than we realized initially, and there are…certain individuals who don’t yet feel you should be granted access to such sensitive information.”
“You don’t agree.”
Coulson smiled faintly and didn’t deny it. “Those certain individuals outrank me,” he said simply. “But, if anything, you’ve both proven that you’re too valuable to be sidelined any longer. You’ll be on active duty within the month. Congratulations.”
Natasha gave a brief dip of her head in acknowledgment, watching as Coulson left, feeling an odd mix of irritation and relief.
Being pulled off the mission at this point was galling, though she understood why members of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s leadership were suspicious. A skilled asset was a dangerous asset; S.H.I.E.L.D. always had to prepare for the possibility that their own people would turn traitor, and two operatives from the Red Room probably seemed all the more likely to bite the hand that fed them.
But, at the very least, S.H.I.E.L.D. was willing to trust them to an extent, and she would be glad to return to duty. The Helicarrier had become more and more confining as the months passed, and rigorous training aside, the forced inactivity had proven to be just as difficult. Clint, she knew, had felt the same, his restlessness showing in small ways - the twitch of his fingers, the clench of the muscles in his arms when they sparred, the faster pace of his walk.
Having to wait a few more weeks wasn’t ideal, but, she supposed, they would have to take what they could get.
Pushing away the blanket wrapped around her, Natasha set the icepack aside and stood, reaching for the long-sleeve shirt the medic had left on a nearby chair, but Clint moved to pick it up before she could, handing it to her silently.
The move caught her by surprise, and for a moment their eyes met.
This time, she was certain that she hadn’t imagined the smallest hint of a smile.