I'll Be Home In A Little While
"I've lived too long with pain. I won't know who I am without it." - Orson Scott Card
"Watch your step." Phil said from beside Clint, where he was gripping the archer's arm to steady him as he walked. "The ramp's just up ahead."
"You know my eyes weren't actually damaged in the crash." Clint said sarcastically, "In fact most people have commented that they are really quite something – better than most. Hawk-like one might even say?" He smirked, attempting to pull away slightly only to have Phil grip tighter as he lead him out of the quin-jet and into the New York Base hanger.
Any other day Phil would have let Clint pull away, respected his ingrained desire to be independent to the point of stupidity, but not today apparently. Clint had had a feeling the older man would be hovering overbearingly for years after this mission – to keep Clint in his sight and because he knew how much it frustrated the him.
To Clint it was a punishment all on its own, and Phil knew that more than anyone.
What frustrated Clint to no end though, was the fact that there was shit-all he could do about it except grin and bear it – because this particular bout of stony glares and hovering he had brought on himself.
"But you're right," Clint backed up immediately at the glare Phil sent him. "There was a step, thank-you," He said but the glare didn't fade. "A large one." He went on, trying his best at civility and failing miserably. "Your observations are always welcome, my most valued handler. Treasure of my life. The reason I get up in the morning-"
"Alright that's enough." Phil groaned leading them both through the twisting hallways of the base and towards the infirmary.
"You forgive me?" Clint asked hopefully.
"Not even close." Phil replied dryly. "But listening to you try and apologise is painful, so I'll settle for a silent reflection of your wrong-doings over the past few days."
"Aye, aye Overwatch." Clint sighed.
Yep. He was going to be apologising for this one until he died.
Which may be sooner than he'd hoped. Apparently the Counsel were less than pleased – which Clint had discovered to be S.H.I.E.L.D's way of saying that they were once again looking for any excuse to have him executed.
He suddenly felt a lot less safe than he had five minutes ago when they were landing. Truth be told he'd take an entire organisation of mysterious, Russian assassins over the Council any day.
At least he was allowed to hit them back when they attacked him.
"I wanna see Romanova," Clint said, coming to halt so suddenly that Phil had to back-track a couple of steps before he was eye to eye with him again.
"She's being escorted down to holding," Phil argued. "And Fury's probably given the order that no one talk to her before he gets a chance too."
"You don't need to talk to her," Clint reasoned. "I just want to see her."
"Why?" Phil demanded, his patience far below its typical level due to the stress of the last few days. "You don't trust that I haven't had her shanked?"
"I trust you," Clint said, his voice taking on a seriousness that his other apologies had lacked. This was one thing he knew that Phil doubted at the moment, and also the only thing that the older man should never have to doubt. Clint trusted Phil more than himself. "It's everyone else on this damn base I'm worried about." He said.
"You are supposed to check into the infirmary," Phil said, but Clint could tell he was wavering.
"I'm fine." Clint argued only to be sent the most heated glare so far and backtrack immediately. "But I'll check in later, let them look me over. I swear."
"And you'll do it without complaint," Phil added. "Even if they say they want to admit you. You'll do exactly what they say and for the first time in you damn life not cause trouble?"
"I'll be as gracious as a Politian in election week, I swear." Clint smirked and Phil tilted his head in relent. "Thank-you, Phil, I'll be right back-"
"-Oh hell no," Phil cut him off, grabbing a hold of Clint's uninjured arm before he could run off. "The last three times you tangled with her alone you wound up unconscious. If you want to go see her – I'm coming."
Clint was about to argue heatedly – he was twenty-one for christ sake, he didn't need a baby-sitting on his own fucking base – but looking a Phil he knew where arguing would get him right now.
And it was not down into the containment cells where he wanted to be
"Fine." He sighed, taking what he could get. "But you're waiting outside. She's shy enough without adding people that wanted the execute her in the middle of the street to the conversation."
"Yeah," Phil replied cynically as he followed Clint along S.H.I.E.L.D's winding corridors – away from the infirmary – and towards the guarded staircase that would lead them to the cells, all to aware of the young archer's painful looking limp. "Shy is probably not the adjective I would use to describe her at the moment."
The guards standing at the top of the staircase that descended into the cells were none too happy to see the two of them, but some choice words from Phil had both the handler and Clint on their way down without too much hassle. Clint couldn't deny that having Phil with him was helpful. The man practically ran the New York base and getting down to see the Widow would have been a lot more difficult – and possibly violent – without him.
But that was where the older man's helpfulness was going to end.
"I need you to wait here." Clint said as they reached the bottom of the stairs and Phil's reaction was exactly what he had expected. Fervent disagreement. Before he could verbalize that though Clint spoke again, more compellingly. "Look she's not going to say anything with you around, and I don't blame her. Your first impression was not great.""My apologies for not being my typically perky and polite self when confronting the woman that tried to kill you. Twice."
"Well I forgive you, but she might need a little more time." Clint said. "Just give me two minutes."
"Fine." Phil agreed reluctantly. "But she stays in the cell, and I'm serious about that."
"The woman shot me Phil," Clint threw Phil an exasperated look as he descended the last few stairs. "I'm not about to let her out for a hug."
The stairs ended at the beginning of a long, narrow and impeccably white corridor.
Even years after the first time he had seen the cells Clint couldn't get over how clean they were. To him secret government holding cells should be grungy and covered in spider-webs, but S.H.I.E.L.D evidently didn't agree.
The cells were as modern as they could possibly be.
Hell, they didn't even have bars.
Phil had tried to explain what exactly the walls baring the cells from the rest of the corridor were made of – some kind of electric current that had the ability to fry prisoners if they got too close – but the technical explanation had gone straight over even his head. Which didn't happen all that often.
Needless to say, they were impressive, but Clint couldn't help but wish for bars.
There was something so eerie about the invisible barrier. An irrational fear in the back of his mind that the Widow might reach right through and strangle the life out of him.
Something that he wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't do if given the chance.
That fear though dissipated when he finally caught sight of her.
She had been locked in a cell about half way down the corridor, left bloody, broken and looking like she couldn't stand let alone pose a threat. Someone clearly hadn't agreed though because the handcuffs they had secured around her wrists in Germany were still there despite that she was locked away in arguably the most secure building in the world.
She sat, cross-legged, on the cement floor in the middle of the bare cell looking smaller than he had ever seen her. Small and exposed.
She was vulnerable here – and if the tension in shoulders told him anything, it was that she was all too aware of that fact.
"You still look like crap." He said and her head snapped up, staring at him through the invisible wall and giving him a clear view of her face. Or what was probably a face – he couldn't tell due to the blood that was covering ever inch of it. The accident had clearly done more damage to her than him. More of her limbs looked broken than not.
"The doctors here can be tools, I'll give you that, but they aren't too bad when it comes to cracked skulls." He went on, slipping his hands into his pockets and doing his best to seem casual. "You can cite me on that too, I've had my fair share." She did nothing but stare evenly at him coolly, not moving to answer at all. "So," He nodded slowly, waiting for some kind of response and getting nothing but more steely silence. "It's going to be one of those conversations, but that's fine." He glanced up and down the corridor awkwardly, starting to feel more than a little uncomfortable under her stare. "I just thought I'd come down and make sure they hadn't thrown you out of the plane half way here-"
"When will he see me?"
Her sudden question caught him off guard, "Fury?" He asked before answering, not waiting for a confirmation that wasn't likely to come. "Soon probably." He said, earlier tension returning at the thought of that particular conversation. If she didn't have the valuable information she claimed then things were going to end very badly, for her and for him. The Council had been waiting for a chance to have him thrown back out onto the streets – and bringing her in would be excuse enough if all went to hell. "I hope you're ready to be much more chatty because he's not nearly as talented at annoying people into speaking as I am." Clint went on, much more firmly. She needed to understand what was on the line. "And things will not end well for either of us if that conversation isn't all its been made out to be."
"I'm ready. And it is." She said, her voice unwaveringly sure. He didn't know if that surety made him feel better or not.
Clint nodded again, content that she seemed to want this as much as he needed her too. That was a start. "You should at least wash your face, though," He said, looking over at her again. "You look like Carrie." Her blank expression didn't change. "Carrie? The horror movie?" He said again, receiving nothing more than a slightly more confused cold stare. "Nothing – really?" He exclaimed, surprised, before sighing and making his way back towards the staircase and Phil. "You know what," He called back to her. "If they let you live, I'll get you a copy. It can be your welcome to the Agency gift."
"Look," Clint twirled gracefully and dramatically as he reached the step below where Phil had been standing at the base of the staircase, waiting for him to return. "Not even a scratch. I'll have her domesticated in no time." The kid joked.
Phil couldn't even bring himself to smile.
"Clint," Phil began, staring down at the archer hesitantly, hating what he was about to say already. Hating the argument he knew was inevitable. "You might have to start preparing yourself for the possibility that Fury won't agree to this."
All humour left Clint in seconds.
"Then you have to make him, Phil." He said firmly, not willing to accept anything but an agreement, just as Phil had known he would. "She could do so much here – and she wants to. She does-"
"-Clint-" Phil cut him off, caution clouding his tone as he moved down a step so that he and Clint could be face to face.
"-Phil you didn't hear her in Germany." Clint ploughed on, not letting the older man keep him from saying what he needed to. "She wants another chance."
"She shot you." The words were no joke or quip this time. They were a truth that Phil didn't take lightly. And probably never would no matter how many times it happened. "That doesn't strike me as something that someone does when they're looking for a second chance."
"I haven't forgotten that, believe me, I'm still pretty pissed off about it." Clint fumed, eyes burning as he spoke. "I don't like her, Phil, and I don't trust her, but that doesn't mean she can't be better." He went on just as heatedly. "She chose this." He argued pointedly, waving a hand behind him at the containment cells just beyond the staircase. "She chose to come here with me when she didn't have to. She could have killed me a thousand times over and just slipped away." The fire in him dulled a little as he stared at Phil, took in his strained expression. He must have been able to see that Phil man was trying, that he really did want to understand. With a sigh the kid went on, more calmly. "Her life – how she was – it was chosen for her, and killing her for a choice that wasn't hers isn't fair."
For some time Phil said nothing at all. Just stared at Clint and the complete conviction in his eyes. It made the handler's next words almost painful to say, because Phil wanted that world. Wanted Clint's fair and just world.
But it didn't exist. And Clint needed to see that before his belief got him killed.
"Some people are just beyond saving, Clint."
Clint's answer was as swift as it was predictable. "You could have said that about me three years ago."
"You hadn't been trained to kill since you were an infant – which is what we're beginning to think was the case with her." Phil argued dejectedly. He hated that he had to argue at all, because he agreed with the kid completely. It wasn't fair.
It just didn't matter.
"-Why is this so important you?" The question tumbled from Phil's lips before he could stop it. His desperation to understand whatever was going on in the kid's head prompting him to push more than he usually would. Making him risk Clint shutting down on him altogether.
Which for a moment Phil thought he had.
Clint's eyes darkened at the words, and some of that conviction that had been so clear only moments ago dulled. He was closing off and Phil could see it. Protecting himself the only way he knew how – by keeping everyone out.
Or at least, he began to.
His blue eyes flickered behind him for just a second – towards the cells – and when they returned to Phil's that conviction was back along with something else.
"You asked me why I can't just let go of what I've done. Of what I was." He said evenly, "It's because – in the moment –it didn't feel any different." There was hint of desperation in voice that Phil hadn't heard in a long time. Before he could say anything to fix it though Clint was speaking again, cutting him off. "I know, I know, that it is. That I do save lives. Logically I know." The kid assured him animatedly and Phil couldn't help but nod forcefully because that was something Clint had to know. Something he had worked for Clint to see. Clint's next words though left him with a knot in his gut and knowledge that maybe he hadn't succeeded. "But in the moment," Clint went on. "I'm still a killer. I don't get to see the lives I save, Phil, I just see the long list of people whose lives I've ended getting longer." He said bleakly.
"Clint, that's not-"
"-That woman who came to kill us," Clint cut him off firmly, staring at Phil with his earlier conviction burning in his eyes. "The Widow asked her to spare me. To let her die knowing that she'd saved a life. Even if only one." To say the words caught the Handler of guard would have been a very severe understatement. She had bartered for Clint's life? Now he really did feel a little bad about nearly shooting her in the street.
"I want that too Phil," Clint implored. "I want to spare a life. I want to know that I still can." That desperation was back. "Want to know that I've changed. To see – with my own eyes – that I'm more than a trigger finger. More than a killer."
There was a moment of silence in which neither of them knew what to say.
"I'll talk to Fury." Phil said finally. And he meant it.
Clint had seen himself her – seen the goodness that Phil saw everyday – and he would be damned if he let that slip away. Let the kid become blind to his humanity again.
Nick had been remanded in the council chamber for over three hours now while the council screamed back and forth. He hadn't said a word himself in over two of those hours as previous experience had taught him that they didn't actually want to know what he was doing about the problem.
They just wanted to yell about the problem.
"-this is utterly outrageous." One particularly vocal member hissed, his expertly trimmed moustache practically quivering with rage. "This girl is everything we have built this organisation to stand against!"
Nick said nothing, though this time it wasn't due to his utter lack of interest in the council's futile yelling session. Maria Hill had appeared on the other side of the glass door that separated him from the rest of the base and stared at him for a moment before nodding her head slightly to the left – in the direction of his office.
He didn't need her to say anything more.
Romanova is ready in your office.
"-her even being here defies the very nature of this establishment-"
"-the nature of this establishment," He cut off the blonde council woman who looked just about ready to reach through her screen and strangle someone. "Is to gather information." He said tonelessly. "And that is exactly what this girl offers by being here. So if you will excuse me I am going to go and find out exactly how valuable that information is."
He ended the call without so much as a glance up at what he knew would be several furious faces. Instead he merely flicked the switch that disconnected power to the screens and swept through the glass door that lead to the hall.
"Keep everyone out of my office," He said without stopping and Hill fell into step with him easily. "I don't want to be interrupted – I don't care if it is Lenz demanding his sixteenth update this hour."
"Done." Hill said - ever to the point – as they rounded one last corner and through the open door of his office where an entire team of fully armed S.H.I.E.L.D agents stood in a loose circle around the redheaded assassin.
She sat stoically in the seat in front of his desk looking nothing short of abysmal. Dry blood clung to practically ever part of her except her face, which looked as if she had scrubbed it clean in a rush.
"Un-cuff her," He said from the doorway and the closest agent moved forwards immediately to remove the cuffs. "And leave us." They filed out of the room immediately and Hill closed the door behind them without another word, leaving him and Romanova alone.
The silence was deafening.
"I assume I don't have to tell you what will happen if your information isn't all that you've claimed it to be." Nick said calmly as he moved passed her and around his desk to stand beside the window, crossing his arms behind his back and looking down on the rest of the base.
"Ask," She replied, bleakly. "And find out."
He didn't need to be told twice. "Is it real?" Nick asked. "Devyat? The Nine?" He said without facing her, hands clenching. "Do they really exist?"
Despite that he had known what the answer would be, deep down, he still wasn't ready to hear it. Wasn't ready to accept what it meant.
That it would change everything.
Her answer was short, dry and unwavering.
He nodded slowly, staring down at the base to hide his expression because even he couldn't help the scowl that settled upon his lips at her words. "Is that an educated guess, or have you heard the rumours of supercharged assassins running around the world as well?" He asked cynically, not really expecting an answer from her but needing to say something. Her acknowledgment of his fears had soured his already fowl mood severely.
So when she did answer it was enough to make him turn towards her for the first time since he had started speaking.
"I've seen them."
His brow shot up as he took her in, still sitting in the chair in front of his desk with a scowl that matched his own firmly in place. Though he couldn't tell if the scowl was due to the conversation or the enormous amount of pain she must have been in from the accident.
"You've seen people who have been injected?" He clarified, staring at her intently. Assessing every micro-expression for a hint that she was lying to him. "You've seen what the serums can do first-hand?" He asked.
"I've witnessed the damage they can do on multiple occasions, yes." She replied disdainfully, but again he could decipher the cause of the distain. Whether it was him or the thought of the serums themselves.
The girl was harder to read than even Barton. And that was saying something.
"But they do work?" He asked taking a small step towards her. Drawn in by the possibility that what she was saying was true. "What reports have said they can do, it's true?" He repeated. "They've built on Erskine's original formula, made a new serum?"
"Yes. Nine of them." She explained, looking him in the eye unwaveringly. "Each with a different affect." She went on evenly, her expressionless-ness getting on his nerves somewhat. He had a feeling that even if she were lying, he wouldn't be able to tell. And that was frustrating beyond all belief.
He was about to ask another question when she spoke again, her voice deepening into a dark hiss. "Though none of them as nice as Erskine's."
"What is that supposed to mean?""Erskine wanted to create a super-soldier," She went on, the scowl he had seen before firmly back in place on her lips. "A shield to protect children, and puppies and all the goodness in the world." She drawled scathingly, her opinion of the world's goodness evident in the eye roll that followed the words she clearly didn't believe in. "Someone with the potential the end wars." She said, more solemnly, before continuing. "The people who made these," She looked away from him for the first time to nod at the desk in front of her, and the metal case that lay upon that desk – the very same case that had been recovered with both her and Barton. "Wanted to start them."
Nick took another few steps forward until he could settle a hand over the case. "And this is…" He began.
"Seven." She said.
He wasn't sure if he had been expecting that answer ever since the techs told him that for some unfathomable reason they still hadn't been able to open it, or if he was completely caught off guard.
"One of the nine serums is in this case?" He seethed, glaring down at her.
"Yes." She said, slowly and contemptuously. "The seventh serum." She repeated dryly.
"Why did Arkady Yozhikov have it?" Nick snapped, his already fowl mood not appreciating being mocked.
To her credit she didn't even falter despite his evident annoyance, like most did. Her next words were just as calm and dry as the last. "He's one of the leading bio-chemists in Eastern Europe," She explained, staring up at him both steadfastly and coolly. "He had a hand in developing the serums – particularly seven. He was transferring the case for the 'Devyat' program." She paused for a moment, her head tilting slightly as she considered her next words "They've been having some, ugh….real estate issues."
Nick nodded. "Are you referring to the incident eight months ago when five square miles of underground bunkers in the north of Russia burnt to the ground so completely and ferociously that it took four days for the flames to die out – and when they did there was nothing left but a creator the size of small city in an otherwise deserted artic wasteland?"
"Yes I am." She said without missing a beat, her slight rising of her tone suggesting that she wasn't at all dismayed with that particular event. "That was one of their facilities."
"One of their facilities?" He repeated harshly, arms crossing over his chest as he stared down at her from his position beside the desk – barely a foot from where she was seated. "How many are there?"
"I only the know that half a dozen or so that I was raised and trained in." She answered. "But from what I can tell there are a lot more." She revealed, appearing as unhappy with the information as he felt. "All over the world."
Her evident distain for the people she had just openly admitted to raising her sparked even more questions.
Who were they? Why her? What had they done to loose her faith in them?
Instead, though, he asked only one.
"Why did you want the case so badly?" He asked, settling his hand back on the case as he loomed over her.
"I knew how valuable it was to them." She explained, her eyes fixed on it, and her expression once again unreadable. "Trade it for my freedom." She went on. "But your Agent Barton was right," She sighed and Nick couldn't help his double take at the admittance. She didn't acknowledge it however and went on. "I would never have been free. Not really."
He nodded slowly, sure that there was a story behind that statement but putting off asking for another time. He was hesitant to get into her personal information before he had gotten everything else he wanted, and in that moment there was much more he needed to know – but one thing in particular.
"Did the other serums survive the fire?" He asked firmly.
He needed to know what they were dealing with.
"As far as I know, yes." She answered at once, "Those that were still alive at least."
His brow shot up again, though this time in confusion. "How exactly can a serum 'die'?" He asked. His knowledge of biology wasn't great but he knew the basics.
"The serum themselves can't," She clarified, staring at him as if what she was about to say was completely obvious rather than the brand-new and monumental information that it was. "But their hosts can."
"Hosts?" He repeated slowly, already sure that he wasn't going to like whatever she was about to say."'Devyat', or 'the nine' – whatever you want to call it – isn't actually a reference to the serums." She said, slowly, her own brow furrowing at his clear confusion. "You know that, don't you?" She asked, eyes widening slightly at the realization that he had no idea what she was talking about sunk in.
"Explain" Nick ordered.
He didn't enjoy having no idea about anything.
"You know that that case is essentially a outrageously expensive desk ornament." She said waving a hand towards the metal case he hadn't removed his own hand from. At his still confused expression she shook her head, incredulously, and finally explained. "By now you've probably realized that can't open it, and even if you could the serum inside is absolutely useless to you." She revealed. "Erskine developed his serum to adapt to the human body, and that very concept is what has proven to be the most difficult aspect of re-creating that serum because no one has been able to make a serum compatible to the human body. It's also why majority that try end up poisoning themselves and dying horrible, painful deaths."
"So what makes these different?" Nick asked at once.
"Nothing. If you or I were injected with it we would die horrible and painful deaths because it's not compatible to us." She said, but at the sight of his quickly heating expression she explained with more depth. "The people who created 'Devyat' couldn't solve how Erskine had made his serum compatible to the human body, so they stopped trying. Instead of creating a serum for humans they attempted to create a serum from a human. They took nine human hosts and they mutated them, unmade them in a sense, and then bound their genetic markers into the base of their serums so that the two would be perfectly compatible. It took years, and they mutilated children because of their more adaptive physiology, but it did work. The serums work – just only on one person. The host. Without the host they're useless." She illuminated, her eyes falling back to the case as she spoke. "And vice-versa. The serums aren't permanent so without fairly regular injections the host is also useless." She said, before considering the words and adding, "Well, at least as useless as highly trained assassins can be." She altered.
After a moment in which neither of the said a word she spoke again, dragging her eyes from the case and to his as she gave one last clarification. "'Devyat' itself is not the serums – they are merely a means to an end – 'Devyat' is the hosts. Nine people with the individual capability to bring the world to its knees."
Nick wasn't sure whether he was relieved that not just anyone could take the serums and wreck havoc, or horrified because somewhere out there were nine people that had been transformed into the perfect weapons.
Steve Rogers alone had ended a war.
He didn't even want to imagine what nine of them do if they were all together.
"And this case contains the seventh host's serum?" Nick clarified once more as he worked to process everything she was saying.
"Yes." She repeated. "Spontaneous Tissue Regeneration."
Nick's jaw clenched to forcefully that he was surprised his teeth didn't shatter.
"Super-healing?" He spat, his vague knowledge of biology enough to know what Spontaneous Tissue Regeneration was – and that it never ended well."Essentially." She conceded.
"There is literally someone out there who they have altered to be un-killable?" He roared, not sure if he was yelling at her or the case as he was still staring at it while he spoke. Eyeing it accusingly.
"Only when they've been injected with that serum." She amened, her eyes too fixed on the case. "But yes, essentially. I did warn you, these serums aren't like Erskine's." She repeated, staring at the case expressionless. "They're gory and they're cruel. And their host's are barely even human anymore."
Nick stood suddenly and strode back to the window, staring out over the base again while trying his best to process.
He had been praying that the rumours had been wrong. That 'Devyat' was nothing more a story. There were plenty of them after all. Stories of mutant soldiers and monsters on battlefields that the survivors made up to explain the atrocities they saw.
But this one, this story had always seemed too real.
The first time he had heard it – over five years ago – at the scene of a massacre in Kenya it had seemed like all the others. Another story of mutated monsters made to explain all the evil in the world.
But then he had heard it again several months later in Prague.
And then years later in Missouri.
Always the same story.
Extraordinary people with the ability to do terrible things.
"Did that information prove to be all I claimed it would?"
Romanova's words broke through his musings and he turned to face her again, staring down at her evenly but not answering.
"And what about you, Miss Romanova?" He asked. "You haven't said anything about yourself. Where you come from? Whom you worked for?" He pressed. Now he had his answers about 'Devyat' he wanted answers about her, and he was ready to push for them.
To his surprise though, he didn't have to.
"I was a part of a program similar to 'Devyat'." She said without hesitation, her voice and expression completely void of all emotion. "It enhanced the physical and mental abilities of children who were then raised and trained to be-"
"-Beautiful, psychotic mass-murderers." Nick cut in, "We've had some experience with the Black Widow program before. A long time ago."
She nodded, jaw tight, but didn't continue. She was silent for so long that he began to think she might not go on at all, but before he could prompt her too she spoke.
"They don't call it that." She said reluctantly.
"Call it what?" He asked, moving away from the window and toward his desk once more before finally settling into his seat behind it, ready for what he was sure would be a long and not particularly pleasant story.
"The program." She clarified tensely. "My program."
"What do they call it then?"
"The Red Room Program."