Twenty Pieces of Silver

Infiltration Part 1

An hour into their flight, Natasha activated the autopilot, and she and the others gathered in the back of the quinjet. They stood around the on-board computer’s main terminal now, a satellite image of the Red Room’s main compound displayed on the screen.

Natasha stared at it intently.

The coordinates they’d gotten from the tracking algorithm pointed to this being the probable location of the tesseract. She cataloged entry and exit points, calculated the distance from one building to the next, and estimated the size of the forces likely to be stationed there, but that was habit, training. A larger part of her mind was busy trying to match the surveillance images to the ones in her memory.

Of course, there was no guarantee that this was the same facility that had held her. The location told her nothing - the Red Room had a number of bases throughout Russia, and she’d never known exactly where the facility could be found…a security measure, she assumed, in case she were ever compromised.

Nevertheless, while so much of her time in the Red Room was a miasma of fractured memories and broken images, the layout of the compound itself remained clear in her mind, if only from the sheer repetition of walking those halls. She remembered the training fields adjoining the forest, the parade grounds outside, the barracks, the gymnasium, the gun range, the classrooms, the Polkovnik’s office…

It had to be. It had to be the base from her memories.

The one that had served as her prison for the better part of her life.

“What do you think, Agent Romanoff?”

Natasha blinked, the sound of her name finally drawing her attention. She looked up to find Captain Rogers watching her.

“I think our best bet is infiltration,” he added, seeming to sense that her thoughts had been elsewhere. “A frontal assault will never work - we don’t know for sure what kind of resources they have or how much manpower we’ll be facing. And we’ll have to be fast. In and out as soon as possible.”

“I agree,” Natasha said simply.

“What kind of response are we looking at, once they realize we’re there?” Stark asked.

He’d deactivated his suit shortly after they’d left the Helicarrier, leaving him in a long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans. For once, his expression was serious, his dark eyes focused, his mouth drawn into an unhappy line.

Natasha considered that for a moment. “Assuming that protocol is the same, it’s likely that they’ll be authorized to terminate with extreme prejudice. Their first priority will be to neutralize the threat. Intelligence can be gathered later - even from a corpse.”

“Wonderful,” Dr. Banner muttered.

Natasha glanced over at him, frowning faintly. He’d agreed, reluctantly, to join them on the ground when they reached the compound, but he’d warned them that he had no real way of controlling the Hulk once it was unleashed. Chances were, it wouldn’t recognize the difference between friends and enemies. But, while it was a risk, it was a necessary one. The Hulk might just give them the edge they needed against Loki and the Red Room’s forces. Banner still didn’t seem convinced, however, and that worried her. They had no time for second guessing. Not now.

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Rogers asked when Natasha’s eyes found the picture of the compound once more.

“I can give you some intel about the layout of the base, but other than that, no. A lot may have changed in two years, and even if it hasn’t, there’s not much else I could offer. They made sure of that.” She nodded at the compound pointedly. “You have a better chance of finding what we’ll need in the files Dr. Banner took from the Helicarrier.”

"I copied everything I could find on the Red Room,” the scientist had explained before downloading the contents of his flash drive to the on-board computer.

Natasha had given the other files a cursory glance. Some of it she recognized: the minimal intel she had been able to provide when she arrived, Coulson’s reports during S.H.I.E.L.D.’s manhunt for her and her subsequent bargaining with the agency. Both hers and Clint’s full personnel files had been there too, including their medical files and psychological workups.

But, there was a lot that had been new to her as well, like a record of assassinations attributed to the Red Room - some of them may very well have been her work. She had no way of knowing. Next was a list of Russian officials believed to have connections to the Red Room, and speculation about the source of the program’s funding. It was the field reports, though, that had interested her the most. S.H.I.E.L.D. had documented a number of other encounters with Red Room personnel, and several of the reports included surveillance photos. A short-haired blonde woman with fine features. A young man, barely out of his teens, with dark hair and dark eyes. An Hispanic woman with long, straight hair and tanned skin.

Had she known any of them? Trained with them? Worked with them?

She had no way of knowing that either.

“I’m not sure I understand,” Thor interjected. “This Red Room…are they like your S.H.I.E.L.D.?”

Stark snorted. “You could say that.”

Rogers gave him a sharp look, then turned back to the Asgardian. “No, they’re not like S.H.I.E.L.D, not really.”

Stark looked incredulous. “You actually still believe that? After the stunt they pulled with the cube? Trying to use it to make weapons?”

“I don’t know what to believe. But at least I’m pretty sure they’re not plotting world domination. I can’t say the same about the Red Room. I know their type. I’ve fought them.”

Stark looked like he wanted to keep arguing, but it was Thor who spoke next, his tone brimming with regret.

“I’m sorry that my brother has brought this upon all of you.”

Now it was Stark who turned narrowed eyes to the Asgardian. “Yeah, about that,” he began, “you wanna explain how Loki got here in the first place? Or does your planet just not bother with the little things, like monitoring the criminally insane?”

Thor’s expression darkened. “Have care how you speak. Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard, and he’s my brother.”

“He killed eighty people in two days,” Natasha pointed out flatly.

“He’s adopted.”

A long moment passed, and the Asgardian’s gaze shifted to the cockpit windshield, where the sun was slowly sinking towards the horizon. Thor sighed heavily.

“Loki may not be of my blood,” he continued at last, “but we were raised together…we played together…we fought together. He is my brother. At least, I felt it was so. Perhaps Loki did not.” Thor turned back to face them, his blue eyes solemn. “I blame myself. I should have seen that he was growing jealous…bitter. But I didn’t, and because of that, he betrayed our family, our world. When he turned against us, Loki and I fought, and the battle did not end in his favor.”

Rogers tilted his head thoughtfully. “So you believed he was dead?”

The Asgardian nodded. “We did. We mourned him. It wasn’t until Heimdall saw his attack upon your people that we realized he still lived.”

“Wait, he saw it?” Stark repeated. “Saw it how, exactly?”

“Heimdall is charged with guarding our boarders. He keeps watch over Midgard as well. He sees many things.”

“If he’s so all-seeing, then why didn’t he know Loki was alive?”

“Heimdall’s sight is not all-powerful. Loki may have learned to shield himself somehow…perhaps with a spell.”

“Then why now? Why could he see him now?”

Thor sighed again. “Loki’s arrival on Earth may have weakened him enough that, for a short time, he could not sustain the magic necessary to continue the spell. But now, enough time has passed that he has grown strong once again. Heimdall would not be able to aid us, even if I could return to Asgard and seek his help….and I cannot. During my battle with Loki, I was forced to destroy the bridge which made travel between our worlds possible. My father’s magic was strong enough to send me here, but he will need time to recover.”

“In other words, we’re on our own?”

“I fear it is so.”

Dr. Banner frowned, folding his arms across his chest. “Hold on…if you knew you’d only be able to track Loki for a short time, why not head straight for him, before he cloaked himself?”

“Because Heimdall also saw that the Lady Natasha was in need. I chose to come to her aid instead. I felt I owed it to her, after our last encounter.” Thor turned to meet her gaze, giving a small bow of his head. “You fought well and honorably…more honorably than I did.”

Natasha’s eyebrows rose faintly in surprise. “I was following orders - Coulson’s orders.”

“Nonetheless, I was arrogant, proud, and careless. For that, I am sorry.”

The apology was unnecessary - the events in New Mexico mattered very little to her now - and it was somewhat ironic, given her upbringing. Honor was not a concept the Red Room embraced. But she nodded all the same, sensing the moment’s importance to Thor, and not wishing to offend him, if only because of his value as an ally. He might prove to be the only one among them who could match his brother, and at the very least, he offered them an insight into Loki that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“Speaking of Loki,” Stark interjected. “Got any idea what his end game is? Since he took Selvig, it seems like he needs an astrophysicist, which probably means he plans to use the cube. But for what? A nightlight? A paperweight? Another portal? What?”

Thor looked pained. “That, I do not know. But…I believe it is a throne my brother seeks. He has been denied Asgard. Perhaps now, he sets his sights on Earth.”

The answer was met with grim silence by the men around her.

It wasn’t a reassuring thought, especially when she recalled Loki’s words in the underground lab about “a world made free.” And, while, it wasn’t really a surprise to learn that Loki probably intended to claim Earth as his own, it was an unwelcome confirmation nonetheless.

Natasha was also starkly aware of the implications for Clint.

In a game of such high stakes, Clint was nothing but a pawn, a rather useless one now, since Loki had needed Clint only for the connection he could provide to the Red Room. If that was accomplished, as it seemed to be, then Clint had become entirely unnecessary. Disposable.

Would the Red Room feel the same if Loki had returned Clint to them? Was it better if they had simply executed Clint? Or should she hope that they’d chosen to integrate him back into the program?

She couldn’t hope for that, not really. That was no life. But she couldn’t wish for his death, either.

Almost unconsciously, her gaze found the picture of the Red Room’s compound still on the screen, and her hand curled into a fist at her side.

The Red Room had taken so much from her already.

She wouldn’t let them take Clint, too.

The rest of the flight was spent finalizing their plans, and combing through the information Banner had collected about the Red Room. (All but hers and Clint’s psychological and medical files, which Rogers had declared to be off-limits. Stark had rolled his eyes at that, but the reaction seemed to have more to do with his opinion of Rogers, and less to do with the order itself.)

Natasha, however, had insisted that they examine Dr. Lawson’s notes, as well as all of the neurological scans the doctor had taken, because the men who were with her needed to understand just what sort of enemy they were facing.

They did now, and she could still feel their uneasy gazes lingering on her back as she maneuvered the quinjet into the valley below.

The Red Room’s base had been built in a large expanse of rugged tundra and barren rock that stretched out to the east. On the west, however, the shallow depression in which the base sat was surrounded by a sparse forest that extended over sprawling foothills. Those foothills gradually transitioned into a distant mountain range that was barely visible on the horizon. The natural highs and lows of the terrain would work to their advantage now.

The valley they’d chosen was a few miles away from the Red Room’s compound, far enough, she hoped, to avoid any security the Red Room had in place. Radar, at least, wasn’t a concern, and neither was thermal imaging. The quinjet’s shielding rendered it invisible to even the most advanced systems. But, the noise of the engines could still be heard on the ground, and she wasn’t certain if the Red Room had posted guards somewhere beyond the compound’s parameter. She wasn’t willing to take the chance that they had, and the others had agreed. They would land here, and hike the rest of the way to the compound.

The jet touched down, and they quickly set about checking their weapons and gathering their supplies, each taking a comm from the jet’s cache of electronic equipment, hooking the small transmitters over their ears, and setting them for the same frequency. The comm Coulson had given them was entrusted to Thor, who concealed it inside his armor with a flick of his hand.

The quinjet was stocked with some cold weather gear as well, though they turned out to need very little of it. The suit Coulson had helped create for Rogers apparently included some thermal enhancements, and Thor was oblivious to the frigid temperatures. Stark, for his part, had already donned his own suit once more, and a machine designed to protect him from the cold in the upper atmosphere would have no difficulty dealing with the bitter climate of northern Russia. So, in the end, she and Banner were the only ones to make use of the coats and gloves stored in the quinjet’s aft compartment. Both the coats and the gloves were an institutional gray, but the hoods were lined with faux fur that was as white as the tundra outside. They were warm, so much so that Natasha wondered if the same textile scientists who had created her customized uniform had also designed the cold weather gear.

When they were as prepared as they could be, Natasha locked the quinjet with her command code, ensuring that anyone who attempted to enter it without prior authorization would activate the self-destruct. She also set the tracking beacon to begin transmitting in twelve hours. If their mission wasn’t complete in that timeframe, then they’d likely be dead, and she didn’t want the jet to fall into the Red Room’s hands. Even if the Red Room’s technicians couldn’t board it, they would still be able to study the design. Better that S.H.I.E.L.D. find it again.

At last, she opened the rear hatch and the ramp lowered, filling the cabin with the familiar bite of the Siberian air. Even the scent was the same, a mix of pine, snow, ice, and damp earth.

Once, perhaps, this would have been her home, but it wasn’t now and never could be.

It was just one more thing the Red Room had stolen from her.

The trek through the forest itself was largely silent, with Stark and Thor taking the lead, cutting the trail ahead of the others. Rogers seemed to be dealing with the conditions almost as well as they were, and Banner, while clearly not as comfortable as Rogers, didn’t seem to have much difficulty keeping up. Natasha made her own steps quick and light with the ease of long practice. She had deliberately taken up position at their six, her eyes scanning the forest as they walked, searching for threats.

There were none, though, and they made good time. They’d landed in Russia late in the evening, and now, night had fallen so that a crescent moon hung high overhead, highlighting the ridge overlooking the compound.

They approached it cautiously, keeping low to the ground, then peering into the clearing below.

She did not expect the feeling that rose up within her at the sight of it.

Before, it had been a grainy black and white image on a screen, but here…she swallowed hard, her heart lurching in her chest, her vision blurring for a moment in a way that had nothing to do with the cold stinging her eyes. She could not name the feeling…wasn’t even certain that such a thing had a name. But it burned. It burned and ached like an old wound being torn open again.

She crushed the feeling ruthlessly. She couldn’t afford to be distracted, not now.

Instead, she blinked away the moisture in her eyes, and let her gaze sweep over the compound, comparing it against the satellite images they’d studied earlier. The pictures must have been fairly recent, because the compound was unchanged.

A tall fence ringed the parameter, topped with loops of barbed wire, and interrupted only by the lofty brick structures which served as guard towers. Inside the fence, was a series of gray, concrete buildings that were in a careful grid pattern, with larger buildings clustered on the left - the warehouses and storage facilities - and smaller buildings on the right - the soldiers’ barracks and officers’ quarters. The squat, rectangular buildings in the back housed the administrative offices, but it was the main complex at the center of it all that drew her eye. It was a massive, three-story building arranged in an L-shape, so that the “hook” of the “L” formed the build’s main façade. It might have seemed innocuous, if it weren’t for the fact that the windows were barred with iron.

The training center.

There was no sign of Loki yet, but Natasha knew that if he was actually on the base, he would be there.

“What do you think?” Rogers asked quietly. “Is the road still our best bet?”

It was suddenly an effort to turn her head to look at the man beside her, to force the words past her lips, but she did it.

“Yes. The perimeter is too well guarded. They’d see us before we made it three feet.”

The road, however, seemed promising. It was little more than a long, straight, treeless line that stretched far into the distance, but it continued on through the compound itself, passing through the main checkpoint, then curving around the buildings and stopping at one of the warehouses on the eastern side of the base. It was covered in snow like the rest of the landscape, but marked out by the tread of countless vehicles that had passed that way, coming and going.

“The road gives us a better chance.”

Rogers nodded, and by mutual agreement, the group retreated to the forest once more.

“So?” Stark asked, when they were far enough away. “I take it we’ll be hitchhiking in after all?”

Irritation flickered over Rogers’ face at the description. Stark had settled on it as soon as they’d discussed the possibility of stowing aboard an in-coming vehicle as a means of infiltrating the base.

“It looks that way,” the Captain answered.

It was Stark’s turn to nod thoughtfully, then he turned to her and waved a hand in the direction of the road.

“Okay, Romanoff, do your thing - you might want to unzip that jacket a little, though. A thumb alone won’t be enough to get their attention.”

Rogers wasn’t amused. “Stark,” he warned.

“What? I’d do it, but I don’t think they’d go for it.” He struck an exaggerated pose, thrusting a hip sideways and resting his hand on it in a poor imitation of a come-hither stance. It looked even more ridiculous given his suit.

Banner hid a snicker behind his hand, and Thor seemed puzzled.

Natasha ignored them.

They had no way of knowing how often vehicles entered the base, and moreover, they didn’t have time to find out. Even if they’d had the time, it might not have done any good - it was entirely possible that vehicles departed or arrived at random, their schedules determined only by necessity. Moreover, not only did they need to find a vehicle - they needed to find the right kind of vehicle. A covered jeep or humvee would be too small, and was more likely to have passengers who would notice an uninvited guest. Ideally, they needed some sort of truck, preferably one with few windows and a point of access they could use to climb inside unnoticed. The vehicle would be searched at the checkpoint, but they would simply have to deal with that as it came.

They didn’t have a choice.

“We need to scout the area,” Natasha said, already turning on her heel.

If the men behind her reacted to her brusque tone, she didn’t see it.

They made their way to the road, then traveled up it for half a mile before they found a stretch that seemed promising. The majority of the road was flat, but here, it had been cut down through a series of small knolls, leaving elevated banks on each side. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best cover they were likely to find.

The plan was relatively simple. They would wait for a vehicle to approach, then leap aboard it as it passed. Their timing would have to be perfect, because they couldn’t afford to disrupt the vehicle at all; the soldiers inside would be sure to investigate - and report - anything suspicious. They would have to spread out as well, and jump in small groups if not one at a time. There were several dips in the road, Natasha noticed - patches where the snow had melted then frozen into thick sheets of ice, making the surface uneven. If they were lucky, the soldiers aboard would assume that any jostling or noise was just a result of the rough terrain.

They positioned themselves along the banks, spread out on each side of the road. Natasha herself remained with Rogers who would give her a boost up into the air so that she could make the leap more easily, while Thor, Stark, and Banner would approach from the other direction. Banner was the only one who wouldn’t be jumping alone, since he wasn’t certain that he would be able to reach the truck in his human form, and no one wanted to risk unleashing the Hulk early. Stark had blithely offered to be the one to “give him a lift.”

Then, they all settled in to wait.

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