Partners in Crime
"Clint took Loki to the Red Room.”
The pronouncement was met with silence at first.
Rogers was frowning, Stark looked thoughtful, and Banner was staring down at his hands, a troubled expression on his features.
But none of them really understood.
“Are you sure, Romanoff?” Fury demanded. “You don’t know Loki.”
“But I know Clint. I know how his mind works. And it makes sense. Money, manpower, supplies - whatever Loki needs, the Red Room could provide it.”
“But would they?” Rogers asked. “If the Red Room is anything like HYDRA, they have their own agenda.”
“More than anything, the Red Room wants power. For themselves. For Russia. If Loki offered them the means to get it, I have no doubt they would cooperate with him.”
A muscle tightened along Fury’s jaw, his expression dark. “Banner, Stark,” he ordered, “start your search in Russia. We’ll concentrate our efforts there for now.” Fury pushed his chair back and stood, his one-eyed gaze no less piercing. “I hope you’re wrong about this, Romanoff.”
“So do I,” Natasha answered simply.
But hope, she knew, might not be enough.
The bridge of the Helicarrier buzzed with activity.
Arranged almost like a circular arena, it was ringed with windows, allowing a sweeping view of the sky outside. A wide stretch of deck-plating followed, and the helm was stationed just behind that, sunken into the center of the bridge, making it the room’s lowest point. Work stations followed behind that, set in four rows at a graduated height so that the row farthest back was also the highest. Balcony railings set it apart from the rest of the room, while stairs connected it to the lower levels. The rows of work stations were positioned at a wide angle, the two halves of the room facing each other. They were divided only by a center catwalk designed to allow command personnel to traverse the entirety of the bridge with ease.
Maria Hill stood there now, calling out orders while numerous uniformed personnel milled around her, some manning the work stations and others walking from one station to the next with clipboards in hand, relaying status updates and reports.
A few of those personnel glanced up at Natasha as she passed, and as she walked farther into the room, she sensed Hill’s narrow-eyed gaze as well. But no one stopped her. She had been cleared to enter the bridge for well over a year now, and though she could have gone elsewhere, she preferred to remain in the command center while they waited for Banner and Stark to conduct their search.
That way, if there was any news, she would be one of the first to hear it.
She had returned to her quarters only to change from the office attire she had worn to retrieve Stark, donning her uniform instead. Her original request to wear something more form-fitting had been granted; in fact, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s textile department had gone as far as creating a new synthetic material for her use. Similar in appearance to leather, the black synthetic fabric fit snuggly, while stretching to accommodate an unrestricted range of motion. It also offered her some minimal protection from shrapnel, heat, and blades, though it wouldn’t stop a bullet.
A belt made of the same material hugged her waist, a black widow’s distinctive red hourglass forming the clasp. It was a personal touch the Red Room would have never allowed, but S.H.I.E.L.D.’s regulations were slightly more flexible in that regard.
She liked the look of the uniform, though she wasn’t blind to the fact, that while it was designed to be practical, it was also, essentially, a “catsuit.” She had not failed to notice the appreciative stares of some of the male personnel, but she wasn’t bothered by it - their interest might be useful at some point.
In any case, none of them had been bold enough to approach her. Most, she knew, still believed that she and Clint were involved.
Releasing a quiet breath, Natasha let her gaze wander around the bridge until it finally came to rest on Clint’s picture on one of the screens. There was no match in any broadcast image thus far, and she knew there wouldn’t be. She walked over to Clint’s picture anyway, crouching down to stare at it.
The tech manning the station glanced over at her curiously but said nothing.
The image was on a screen a level below Natasha on the tiered bridge, so crouching down as she was, she was nearly level with it. Clint’s picture stared back, his eyes blank, his features composed in a stone-like mask. The static image simply lacked the subtle cues Natasha knew to be there in reality, and she felt a sudden pang of longing.
Natasha turned, silently berating herself for becoming distracted. Four armed security personnel stood behind her. They were all male, quite large and muscular, and she knew from having sparred with them that at least two of them had training that was nearly comparable to her own.
She stood up, careful not to make any sudden moves when she saw that they had all subtly reached for their sidearms. “Yes?”
One of them stepped forward, a brown-haired man she remembered was named Gains. “We need you to come with us, ma’am.”
Her eyes narrowed faintly. “What is this about?”
“I’m afraid I have to insist, ma’am.”
That was hardly an answer, and for a moment, Natasha considered resisting, but she had trusted S.H.I.E.L.D. for two years, and she would give them the benefit of the doubt now. She nodded her assent, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu as the guards moved into position around her. The bridge crew stared as they passed, and Hill was frowning, pressing the radio at her ear, but the doors of bridge closed before Natasha could hear what it was that Hill said.
The journey didn’t last long.
Fury’s office was located a short distance from the bridge, and beside that was a small room with a pair of guards stationed outside. The control panel beside it clearly required an access code.
They must have been expected, however, because the door slid open to admit them. As soon as Natasha stepped inside, she was plunged into near-darkness, the only light coming from a source in the ceiling above. Her gaze was immediately drawn to the large screens arranged in a semi-circle along the front wall. They displayed the shadowed silhouettes of several men and one woman. She could see that much as least, though their faces were hidden from her view.
This could only be the World Security Council.
Fury stood in front of the screens, standing stiffly, though she suspected his posture had less to do with respect and more to do with surprise.
“Why is Romanoff here?” he demanded.
“We felt it wise to be certain of Ms. Romanoff’s whereabouts,” the councilwoman answered, “especially now that Mr. Barton has shown his true colors.”
Natasha bristled, but Fury answered before she could.
“Councilwoman,” he began curtly, “there’s no evidence that Barton planned to defect. You saw the footage salvaged from the base. Barton was trying to stop Loki up until that staff touched him.”
“So it appeared,” one of the councilmen agreed. “But, Romanoff and Barton’s loyalties have been suspect from the beginning. How can we be certain that Barton is not actually working with Loki willingly?”
“His eyes,” Natasha said, sensing the gazes of council members turning to her as she spoke. She stared back coldly in return. “His eyes glowed blue. The same color as the Tesseract.”
“Same thing happened to Selvig,” Fury added, drawing their attention once more. “I saw it. Unless you think he’s working with Loki willingly too?”
“Selvig is known to have allied himself closely with Loki’s brother,” the councilwoman answered. “Who is to say that his loyalty does not extend to Loki as well? The color of their eyes might have been part of the ruse.”
“Ruse?” Fury repeated incredulously. “Exactly how could Barton and Selvig could have plotted anything with a man from another planet?”
“We have no idea what sort of capabilities Loki might possess-”
“Like mind control, you mean,” Fury put in.
The councilwoman ignored him.
“-and it is not out of the realm of possibility the he was communicating with them somehow. That seems to be the case, if indeed, Barton has taken Loki to the Red Room.”
“Romanoff’s the one who suggested that in the first place!” Fury pointed out angrily. “If she was in on their supposed plan, why would she tip us off?”
“Perhaps to avoid suspicion. In any case, Ms. Romanoff herself may have been their point of contact. She met with Thor, did she not?” she continued.
Fury’s eye narrowed. “Agent Romanoff attempted to subdue Thor when he attacked our New Mexico installation.”
“How can we be sure that she didn’t pass some sort of message to Thor, who then gave it to his brother?”
Fury drew a deep breath in an obvious effort to remain calm. “I’ve told you our intelligence indicates that Thor is not a hostile.”
“Your intelligence has been wrong before, and in this instance, we simply can’t afford to take any chances. Effective immediately, Ms. Romanoff is under arrest.”
Natasha heard guns being cocked behind her and tensed, but she didn’t make a move to disarm the guards responsible. Fury, despite his anger at her for her unwillingness to risk Clint’s life, was clearly an ally, and in such close quarters, Fury would be in the line of fire. Moreover, resisting now would only enforce the idea that she had been working against S.H.I.E.L.D. all along. If she cooperated, there was a chance that Fury could persuade them to release her.
“Put your hands behind your back,” Agent Gains ordered.
She did, and an instant later, she felt the cool metal of handcuffs close around first one wrist and then the other. As soon as she was cuffed, they quickly confiscated her weapons.
“This is crazy,” Fury grit out. “You have no proof that any of what you said is true!”
“As you’ve told us many times, Director,” the councilwoman answered, “Ms. Romanoff is exceptionally good at her job. It’s unlikely that there would be any proof of her treachery until it was too late. Thus, we have decided to err on the side of caution.”
Fury looked absolutely disgusted. “Arresting her now is like shooting yourself in the foot! We need her. The strike force-”
“-will have to function without her,” one of the councilmen declared. “Your objection has been noted, but you have your orders, and we expect you to follow them.”
She saw Fury’s hands curl into fists at his sides, a muscle clenching along his jaw, but he nodded tersely.
“Agent Gains,” he said at last, “escort Agent Romanoff to the holding cells on Level 4.”
The guards surrounded her once more and led her out the door and into the corridor. The hallways had not been cleared in advance, something she might have used to her advantage had she been inclined to escape, but she suspected that the lapse in security was a deliberate move on the Council’s part. Perhaps they were hoping she would somehow prove their suspicions, or perhaps they simply wanted others to see her in handcuffs, to doubt her even more than they already did.
If that was the case, they had succeeded, because the stares she and the guards attracted now were clearly wary - more so than usual.
It wouldn’t be long before rumors about her arrest spread.
They reached Level 4 a few minutes later, and she was taken directly to the high security wing. Her cell was located at end of a long hallway, which she assumed was an additional security measure. It was likely equipped with sensors that alerted the guards to an escape, or perhaps it was even booby trapped, designed to disable anyone who breached the confines of the cells.
She offered no resistance as the guards removed her handcuffs and the door to the cell was opened. She was ordered to step inside and she did so; the door immediately slid closed behind her. A small electronic whine signaled that the automatic lock had snapped into position, but for an instant, she had expected to hear the much louder clang of the thick metal doors she remembered from the Red Room.
Her gaze quickly swept over the space.
It was a 6′ by 8′ cell with featureless metal walls and an adjoining bathroom. A simple bunk was welded to one wall, and the gray blanket covering it nearly blended into the dark metal behind it.
Her eyes drifted towards the ceiling, to the small vents cut into the metal above her, and at once, she saw another cell, the vents in a slightly different configuration. Someone was peering at her through them…
The memory slipped away before she could grasp it.
Closing her eyes briefly to dispel her frustration, Natasha moved to the bunk and sat down.
She would wait to see if Fury made any headway with the Council before she made a move of her own.
But she would not wait long.
The Helicarrier was not designed to serve as a long-term holding facility, and if the Council intended to keep her locked away, they would have to transfer her elsewhere and soon. That would be her best chance to escape. If she could break away from her security detail, she would be able to hide within the Helicarrier easily enough - Clint’s propensity for heights had given her a detailed knowledge of the ship’s layout. From there, she would need to make her way to the hangar and stow aboard one of the jets.
It would be difficult but not impossible, and if she succeeded, in all likelihood, her original termination order would be reinstated, but she didn’t particularly care.
Fury had already made it clear that stopping Loki was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s main priority. Saving Clint and the others Loki had taken was a very distant second.
Clint didn’t matter to them, not really. But he mattered to her.
She wouldn’t allow him to become a casualty, and she wouldn’t leave him with Loki. With the Red Room.
She kept her expression purposefully blank, knowing she was being watched by the security cameras sure to be monitoring the cell. But a cold sensation washed over her as she considered that if Loki had indeed gone to the Red Room, he might simply return Clint to them as part of whatever bargain he’d struck.
Traitors to the Red Room received an immediate death sentence, but then again, Clint wasn’t a traitor in the truest sense. He hadn’t chosen to defect. The Red Room might gladly reclaim their missing operative, and if they altered his mind once again, she might very well lose Clint regardless of whether or not he survived.
Natasha blinked hard, her chest suddenly tight.
No. She wouldn’t consider that possibility. She wouldn’t. Not yet.
One hour had passed and then another, and eventually, Natasha had laid down on the bunk, closed her eyes, and willed herself to sleep. Regardless of what happened, it would likely be some time before she had the opportunity to rest, and she knew that she should take advantage of the forced inactivity while she had the chance.
However, her eyes snapped open when she heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire in the distance. She sat up and rolled off the bunk, landing on her feet and crouching down on the floor, facing the door.
As quickly as it had begun, the gunfire stopped.
A new sound followed a minute later.
And they were drawing closer.
Natasha tensed, her eyes narrowed.
A series of faint beeps told her that someone was using the control panel outside, and a moment later, the door slid open.
Iron Man stared back at her.
“Romanoff,” he greeted. Stark’s expression was inscrutable through the mask he wore, but his voice was wry as he took in her obvious attack stance.
Natasha relaxed and stood. “Stark.”
“Don’t suppose you’d wanna get out of here?” Stark asked. He paused. “And I didn’t actually mean for that to sound like a pick-up line, just for the record.”
She ignored him and strode out into the corridor. If there were additional security features in the hallway as she’d assumed, Stark must have disabled them, because the corridor remained quiet aside from the soft clank of Stark’s metal-clad feet as he followed her.
“You’re welcome for the rescue, by the way,” Stark added.
“Are the others with you?” she demanded, her eyes still scanning the corridor as they walked.
Stark shrugged. “Stars and Stripes is creating a distraction, and Banner is finishing up in the lab, but yeah, we’re working together if that’s what you mean. Rah, rah, rah, go team.”
She frowned. “Fury told you what happened?”
“Not exactly. I may have done some unauthorized digging in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s databases. Ran across the order to arrest you. Found some other interesting things too.”
He didn’t elaborate, and Natasha couldn’t deny her curiosity. Unpredictable as Stark was, she doubted that he would act against S.H.I.E.L.D. without a good reason, and she knew that she wasn’t that reason. Stark didn’t know her well enough to rail against injustice on her behalf. The same was true of the others - she was practically a stranger to them all. But she didn’t press - she could get answers later. Right now, they had to move. This was the best chance she had to escape, and she wasn’t going to waste it.
The guard station came into view as soon as they left the corridor. Three uniformed men and one woman lay on the floor, unmoving, but all of them were still breathing and none of them seemed to be seriously hurt.
Stark had clearly used a restrained approach.
If the gunfire had been any indication, the security personnel hadn’t felt it necessary to do the same.
Natasha crouched down and turned one of the men over onto his back before reaching for his sidearm. She quickly unhooked his thigh holster and slipped it around her own leg, tightening it until it fit snugly. She drew the gun, checked the its sites, chamber, and clip, ensuring that they were in acceptable condition, then patted the man down to check for any additional weapons.
“How long do we have before they come after us?” she demanded.
“Fifteen minutes at least.”
Stark sounded smug, and Natasha glanced up, frowning. “What did you do?”
“Uploaded a virus. It’s working through the Helicarrier’s systems as we speak. Took out the cameras and the comms first. Everything but the engines, flight, and environmental controls should be offline soon.”
Natasha’s eyebrows rose. Impressive.
If S.H.I.E.L.D. had one weakness, it was their reliance on technology. Without cameras they were effectively blind and were likely still unaware of what had happened in the holding cells. And, without the comms, messages would have to be relayed manually. If the elevators were down as well, then personnel would be forced to used the service tunnels which would make it almost impossible for command to receive timely intel.
Still, it wouldn’t take them long to guess that she was somehow involved, and they needed to hurry.
“Lights will be down next,” Stark added. “In fact, that should be happening right about…now.”
“Okay, hold on…now.”
Stark sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Oh, fine, just wait for it.”
The lights flickered and then switched off, leaving only the dim emergency lighting behind.
Natasha snorted softly, amused in spite of herself, and continued checking over the other security personnel. She claimed another 9mm, then emptied the other guns she found, taking the magazines and pocketing the bullets. There was no way of knowing how long the guards be unconscious, and she didn’t want to risk leaving them armed.
She stood up again, holstering her newly-acquired weapons. “Where’s the rally point?”
“The maintenance locker outside the hangar. Seemed like a good place to meet, considering that we’ll probably need to make a fast getaway.” Stark cocked his head. “We sort of assumed you’d be able to help with that. Can you fly one of those jets?”
Natasha nodded. “I can.”
She wouldn’t call herself particularly skilled, but it had been a required part of her training with S.H.I.E.L.D. Every field operative was expected to be a competent pilot should it ever become necessary for them to take over the controls of a quinjet. Considering the highly classified nature of the aircraft, it was a reasonable security measure. Clint had shown some real aptitude as a pilot, but he hadn’t been allowed any further training once the minimum requirements had been met, a decision that had likely been made by the World Security Council.
She pushed the thought aside and started for the exit, Stark following behind her.
“Quickest way to the hangar is through this junction here and up two Levels,” she offered aloud.
“I know.” Stark tapped the side of his helmet. “Downloaded the ship schematics.”
That wasn’t really a surprise, though she couldn’t help wondering how much “digging” Stark had actually done. Natasha’s lips curved faintly. He was even more of a security threat than she was.
Stark’s predictions about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s increased response time were apparently accurate because the corridor directly outside of the holding cells remained empty, and they made it to the first section juncture without incident. But as soon as Natasha peered around the corner, she spat a curse in Russian.
A security team was headed their way.
They had two options: they could backtrack and take the roundabout way to the hangar, which would cost them precious time and might present other obstacles, or they could take the security team head-on and hope that the fight was not a long one.
She reached for one of the guns she’d taken and started forward, but she was brought up short when Stark grabbed her arm.
She tried to pull away, but his mechanically-enhanced grip was unyielding. “Let go of me.”
“No. Hold on. I have an idea. Just trust me.”
She didn’t, but at this point, she didn’t have much choice. She gave a curt nod and Stark surprised her by grabbing her other wrist with the same hand, effectively locking both arms together with metal fingers and dragging her out into the corridor with him.
The security team came to an abrupt halt, clearly not expecting to find Iron Man walking towards them with a captive in tow. (At least, she assumed that was Stark’s plan now. He gave a rough yank on her arms, in what was apparently an attempt to make her status as a prisoner seem more believable.)
The security team was not entirely alone in their surprise, however. As they drew closer, Natasha recognized the agent leading them.
She wondered idly if he had volunteered for the detail assigned to check the holding cells. He surely would have jumped at the chance to catch her red-handed in an escape.
As if sensing her thoughts he turned to give her a dark look, then turned back to Stark.
“Mr. Stark,” he said tersely, a hard, suspicious edge to his voice.
“Took you long enough to get here,” Stark began immediately. “You just missed them. Tactical team. Wearing ski masks. Big guys. They went that way.” He pointed back down the corridor, in the direction leading away from the hangar. “They were probably here for Romanoff. Fury sent me to get her.”
Spence’s eyes narrowed. “Director Fury sent you? Impossible. We would have been notified.”
“With comms down, I bet it’s hard to relay anything to anybody.”
She had to give Stark credit as a liar. He’d sounded only faintly self-satisfied as he’d said that.
“Look,” Stark continued, “Fury told me to get her, so I did. You have questions, bring it up with him later.” He gave another tug on her arms, obviously hoping to walk away, but Spence didn’t move, and Stark was forced to stop again.
“Since when do you follow the Director’s orders?” Spence demanded.
“Oh, I don’t know, since I learned there was an alien maniac running around on earth, bent world domination?”
Spence’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. We’ll escort Romanoff to Fury. You can deal with the tactical team.”
“Are you sure you and your men can handle her? Dangerous criminal and all…”
“You’ll turn her over into our custody now, Mr. Stark.”
“Yeah, no, I don’t think so.”
“I said NOW!” Spence barked, drawing his sidearm. The other security agents followed suit.
Stark sighed. “This is ridiculous. I’ve got her, you’re letting the mercs get away-”
“This is your last warning, Stark. I won’t ask again.”
“Technically,” Stark pointed out, “you didn’t ask, you ordered.”
A moment later, the security team opened fire.