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WARNING: This particular chapter has some mature content. She is the Black Widow, you know.
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"It's finally time, Natasha!" Alex Strelny, the famed Russian ballet coach said as he looked at his teenage protégé with intense pride. "This is the moment you've worked so hard for!"
He was right. Since she'd been nine years old it was Natasha Romanova's dream to be accepted at the Russian Bolshoi Ballet as a trainee with the hope of becoming one of its premier players. For years, she'd pushed through long grueling training days, six days a week studying under the great master until she became a prodigious dancer. Finally, the time had come to showcase her skill as one of the company's most exciting new talents.
All the other dancers were backstage warming up, getting dressed, and putting their makeup on. Natasha too was being outfitted. She checked her weapon not once but several times.
She could hear the orchestra in the pit tuning up the instruments, and the theatre had just opened to the public. From backstage she could hear the audience chatting before the performance. Although she had spent months preparing for this she was still nervous. She wanted to please her mentors who had invested so much in her.
Make your country proud, Natasha! Oksana Bolishinko said and kissed her cheek. Then the older Russian woman placed a gold pendant around her charge's neck. Natasha felt such guilt for the times she'd cursed her government handler for not allowing her the luxury of a normal childhood.
"I will." She promised her then took her place.
The house lights went down. Natasha rotated her shoulders to ease the tension in them. She then tucked her Makarov pistol beneath her dress into the custom garter.
The music began and her performance in the tragic ballet unfolded. The opening scene was a sumptuous feast being held on the eve of an important summit in Moscow. Natasha in the role of a beautiful ingénue and courtesan had caught the eye of the most important dignitary at the summit.
She was barely sixteen with emerald green eyes, a gorgeous mane of red hair, and an angelic face that was the perfect snare. The man immediately craved her innocence and his guards could not pull him away and back to the meetings he was there to attend. He found her achingly sexy as her cocktail dress clung in all the right places. Natasha played the coquette, inviting him to dance with her. She then entertained him with champagne, swiftly breaking down his inhibitions and over the course of the night the important man had come to want her more than his next breath.
The skillful young seductress accompanied the dignitary back to his hotel suite for more privacy offering the older man, positive assurances that she was his willing child lover. Past her initial discomfort, she unclothed herself in a decadent show and as they lay together she created a warm and idyllic state for him.
Natasha knew the success of her seduction hinged on moves that had been drilled into her again and again by her trainer. She fought to keep the rhythm of her performance perfect. She paused in the right places, kept her facial expressions a picture of sweet and ardent passion throughout. Her subjugation was the key to his ecstasy and carelessness.
The man hung onto her every exclamation of pain and pleasure. When he craved more, she continued her dance. She put thought and consideration into each enticing movement and utterance. Finally, her delivery paid off, her dance had paralyzed him with exhaustion. A sickly sated smile lit up his face.
However, Natasha knew the most crucial part of her performance had yet to happen. Hopefully, if her audience was thrilled with what they saw, her apprenticeship would be over. She'd be promoted to the position of "soloist" within the company and begin performing internationally.
As instructed, Natasha brought out her weapon that she had hidden under the pillow when she'd undressed for him. Before shock could register on his pathetic face, The Black Widow covered it with a pillow and shot him twice.
Pushing off the bloated whale that had mounted her, she uncovered his face and used the hidden camera in her gold pendant to document her work. Then Natasha grabbed her clothes. As she dressed she made the mistake of looking at him again. His eyes were stared blankly at her and a slight trail of blood flowed from the hole in his forehead.
The girl's stomach convulsed but she steadied herself. It was a sight she would see many times. She vowed to be stronger. For now it was over. Her audition was over but the sight of the dead eyes...
Natasha Romanoff woke from her nightmare gasping and clutching her body to assure herself she was very much alone. She'd had another one of those dreams.
Natasha extricated herself from her sleeping bag, anxious to get away from the dark places that haunted her. For years, her nightmares had become insidious reminders of how the Red Room, Russia's Cold War espionage program mixed her childhood fantasies of being a dancer with her cover as a femme fatale and deep-cover assassin.
As an adolescent Natasha had endured many applications of brainwashing and biochemical enhancements. Over and over her Russian superiors had tried to erase her individuality and make her a sociopathic drone for their purposes, using frequent conditioning to keep her under control.
After her defection, SHIELD psychiatrists had warned her that these pseudo-dreams were a residue of the brainwashing and would continue to rear up from her scarred psyche. At first they prescribed medications that prevented the night terrors but unfortunately, like toxic chemotherapy it had destroyed parts of her overall personality, and left her with feelings of detachment and isolation.
Natasha had ceased taking the pills but it left her at the mercy of the dreams. And during the stressful times in her life, she felt vulnerable to the psychological enhancements trying to reassert control.
Over time she'd recovered her individualism but even as she developed more personality, dry humor and witty sarcasm her partner and friend, SHIELD Agent Clint Barton still hadn't been satisfied.
"One of these days, Nat. I'll get you to laugh out loud." He'd told her.
Only Clint had not taken offense at her lack of emotions. He understood her coldness and often tried to break down her walls with his easy charm.
Natasha exhaled heavily. If Clint had been with her this morning, they'd already be on their way to the workout room together. Her enthusiastic workouts were always the balm to help her forget the disturbing dreams.
"Ouch! Enough, woman!" He'd say as he crawled away from her. Then quote a line from some old TV show. "One of these days, Nat! POW! Right to the moon!" But Clint had never tried very hard to land a punch.
Natasha roused herself from her thoughts. She couldn't go there right now. She glanced at the time on her phone. She'd only had 3 hours sleep but it was enough to tide her over until she got to her safe house. She quickly went about hiding the rest of her gear in the bowels of the SHIELD Helicarrier cargo bay. It was time to be on the move.
As a spy, Natasha had learned how to expertly conceal herself and thanks to Agent Barton she knew every place there was on the Helicarrier to remain undetected. He'd shown her every blind spot and the routes and timing of the security that patrolled the ship. Last night she had used that knowledge to disappear and to regroup after yesterday had gone so terribly wrong. The day Clint Barton had said goodbye to his career as a SHIELD agent.
"Fury put in my papers, Nat. Forced retirement."
Natasha had been stunned and tried to make sense of it. She'd found him in his quarters packing his meager belongings.
"Clint Barton is no longer an agent of SHIELD. Fury said it was out of his hands." He said with finality. "I guess it was too much to forgive. I killed a lot of people."
"NO! You cannot be fired! You were used!" Natasha knew what it was like to have someone pull your strings, know you were doing reprehensible things and be powerless to stop yourself.
That guilt was eating Clint alive. Natasha noticed that he almost never slept but when he did his sleep was plagued with night terrors that sent him sleepwalking in search of something. So the archer now avoided sleep, choosing to walk the Helicarrier's catwalks.
"Hey," Clint had put his hands on her shoulders. "Don't let it get to you. I'll make out. I always have."
'How could this happen?' She had thought to herself. Clint was the optimist. He was always the one who told her to "look for the silver lining" or "the bright side" or whatever stupid American colloquialism he often used. However his words didn't have any optimism. He had had defeat in his eyes.
She'd just watched as he stuffed all his things into his lone duffel bag. "Where are you going to go?" She had probed, already thinking that she could put him up in one of her many safe houses in the city.
"Forget it, Nat." Clint had said then closing the case on his bow. "I will always make my own way. So, no I won't be crashing in one of your hidey holes."
She nearly smiled. She'd never told him about the safe houses she kept in the city for emergencies. Perhaps he knew about them and her off shore accounts too? Most times it really bothered her that Clint could read her so well. In the business of espionage that made him a deadly enemy but she was lucky to have him as a loyal friend.
"Tash?" His tone of voice and his last words got her attention. "Don't let this affect your career. You're in good with SHIELD now. Promise me you won't do something stupid."
Natasha hadn't promised him. She tied off her pack and shoved it and her bedroll behind a large pipe. Then she loaded stingers into a small taser gun. She didn't want to hurt her fellow SHIELD agents but she would get what she needed and get out clean.
She moved quietly below the removable floors of the steel cargo bay as crewman worked above then wound her way to the main transport shaft. There she used a small remote device to open the shaft doors. She climbed into the shaft and closed the doors remotely. The spy hung patiently and painfully on the ledge until an elevator car began moving up. Quickly she stepped onto the moving car and rode it up to the Bridge Level.
Everyone at SHIELD was on alert. There was an intense search for her that made it more difficult to stay out of sight and unnoticed but stealth was her trade. Her movements and progress were much slower nevertheless she moved between pillar and post until she finally made it to the corridor outside the Bridge entrance.
When no one was in the corridor, Natasha came out from hiding and used her trade tools and stunned the security standing just outside the doors.
She worked quickly. She stripped one of them of their helmet and keycard. Then she dragged the two guards to the elevator shaft. Soon the unconscious guards were riding the roof of the car.
Natasha placed the helmet on her head and moved quickly onto the Bridge. She had to be in place before the morning briefing with the Council took place.
Not being in SHIELD uniform everyone had noted Phil Coulson's replacement, Agent James Murch when he had arrived on the bridge, including Director Fury and Assistant Director Maria Hill.
After he had taken a moment to cement his presence among the crew he approached the superior officers. "Fury, where do we stand in finding Barton and Romanoff?"
Maria Hill, the stern and by the book Assistant Director bristled. This man had no respect for the authority of the ship and even though Hill had vehemently disagreed with Director Fury on the Avengers, Nick Fury was owed respect.
When it looked like Fury would refuse to answer Murch, Hill offered information on his behalf. "Romanoff's still aboard. That much is certain. All transports have been searched and are accounted for."
"What about Barton?" An irritated Murch asked.
"That's more difficult. He has no family or friends. No known places he'd go and no last known residences prior to joining SHIELD. The search team is doing their best to pick up his trail since he left the Helicarrier."
Murch didn't take his eyes of Fury and accused him of complicity with a stare. Fury was not impressed. "Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton should have been turned over to my custody as soon as you got the order from the Council."
"Shoulda, could, woulda…" Fury mocked him. "Maybe if you tell me what you need them for I could help."
Murch finally broke eye contact. "I'm still waiting for that action report of how the Black Widow went 'missing' and Agent Barton was dismissed from service "accidently". An explanation the Council is dying to hear from you Director." Turning from the taller imperious man, he exited to a side alcove with a secured door. He entered his code and stepped through to the control room.
"Don't hold your breath." Fury said under his breath. He was not happy that he had lost control of the information flowing to and from his ship and exchanged an unhappy look with Maria Hill.
Nick Fury began to pace the lookout area beyond the helm and ground his teeth out of anxiety. He was worried. Romanoff should have left with the overnight flight crew.
Just then a cold sensation went up his spine. He became aware of a presence. He'd had these sensations before in his life, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Serbia, Madripoor… These paranormal alerts usually enabled him to avoid a fatal bullet or killing blow. He called it his Dead Man's Siren (DMS). Quickly and covertly he moved to find what set off his DMS radar.
He furtively looked up to the catwalk above the conference area and saw a shadow pass. He instantly knew The Black Widow had arrived. Without actually seeing her, he knew she was observing the bridge below. Then just as quickly he felt his inner siren end and knew she must have gone.
Tony Stark was NOT an early riser. More often than not at eight a.m. he was going to bed rather than getting up. Unfortunately with Pepper out of town, he had to attend to anything awry at Stark Industries.
God, he hated the lawyers! They had called yesterday and wanted a meet with him to discuss new litigation. This was of no interest to him as his company was large and often a target for lawsuits. What caught his attention was that it had something to do with the new construction on the Avengers Tower. It didn't sound good.
Tony staggered to his bathroom to get ready for the day. He was brushing his teeth when a holographic screen opened in his bathroom mirror. He had a new text.
'Meet me at Mari Vanna. 11 a.m. Natalie'
'Agent Romanoff?' He thought.
Agent Natasha Romanoff had used the name 'Natalie Rushman' when she'd been working undercover at Stark Industries last year for SHIELD. Tony deduced that the spy was using the name now to avoid the SHIELD scans of calls and texts. Something was up with his former personal assistant and fellow Avenger.
Tony rinsed his mouth and then pushed the highlighted text 'Mari Vanna' on the mirror to activate the map and browser. He saw that it was a restaurant in Brighton Beach.
"JARVIS, have the Corvette brought around. And make sure my Iron Man case is in it."
"Yes, sir." The AI alerted the building's valet and Tony moved more swiftly to get dressed.
Natasha knew she had only a few short minutes before patrols spotted her on the catwalk. So she quickly let herself into the control room's server booth. Before her were the consoles where all the Helicarrier's communications were routed including data secured transmissions like the video conferences with the Council. She opened that server's door to get access to that console.
SHIELD's communication system had been developed especially for them by Stark Industries, the world's leader in encryption technology. Anyone could access SHIELD's transmissions from any computer or browser. However the system had special robust security features that encrypted the transmissions and made intercepting and breaking those coded transmissions nearly impossible. Unless you had ever been a well-trained personal assistant to Tony Stark.
Natasha went to the keyboard on the console and logged into the system with her Natalie Rushman identity login. She was hoping against hope her passwords were still valid. Amazingly Stark had either forgotten to close out her out of the system or he anticipated her needing access again.
It must have been the latter, because the phrase "Good morning, Agent Romanoff!" accompanied by kisses and hugs symbols danced across the screen in an animated marquis.
"Very funny, Stark." She mumbled.
Going into the system log of communications in progress, she found what she was looking for. At that moment, four data secure transmissions were being relayed to the bridge control room.
Inside the control room, Agent Murch took a seat facing the four large blackened monitors. He was just unbuttoning his jacket when the first of the monitors came to life revealing a woman in dim light. In the corner of the screen was the text: WSC SECURE TRANSMISSION #3 - 15:30 GMT.
Soon another screen came alive with a man in dim light. WSC SECURE TRANSMISSION #4- 19:30 MSK
The last two monitors turned on simultaneously. Again male faces were shrouded by dim lighting and the text WSC SECURE TRANSMISSION #1 23:30 CST and WSC SECURE TRANSMISSION #2 09:30 EST appeared on screen.
"Good morning, everyone. Or evening as it may be." A deep voice came from monitor #2.
All the others repeated pleasantries in return.
Agent Murch addressed all the faces before him. "Greetings. Again I want to thank you for this opportunity. It is my goal to surpass Agent Coulson as the SHIELD liaison."
"If you are able to accomplish your bold proposal Agent Murch, then you will." Said the stately British woman on the third monitor. "But what is the status of Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff's whereabouts?"
"I'm afraid I don't have any information on that at this time. And Director Fury has consistently placed obstacles in my path."
"We will take care of Fury. You must find Barton and Romanoff for us to go any further in our plans." The man with a Russian accent said from monitor four.
After isolating the Council transmissions, Natasha took a data drive out of her pocket and plugged it in. It was going to be impossible for her to break into the feed without leaving evidence that she was there but secrecy wasn't her objective. She only wanted to copy the encrypted feeds now transmitting to the control room. Having that would enable her to find the source of the transmissions from the Council and learn what they were plotting.
There was no progress bar on a screen for her to determine when she'd nabbed the first encrypted feed copy. Only a small green light at the tail of her data drive flashed when it had completed. Her hands moved over the keyboard to capture the next feed.
Minutes crawled by and seemed like hours. Natasha knew she didn't have long before the tasered guards woke up. This was always the most stressful part of espionage, the adrenaline rush and the fear of being caught. Spies had different and more intense training than soldiers that was one part physical and one part mental. It was imperative to build up mental fortitude and mettle for times like these.
The light of the data drive flashed green twice more. She'd completed copies of the second and third feeds. As she sought the last feed however her fingers slipped on the keyboard. The wrong keystroke made the system buzz.
'Dammit!' She cursed herself. The bridge's security patrol was probably close by. Even with the hum of the servers the noise she created could have stood out if heard. Natasha stopped and listened.
Then she heard footsteps. Security was outside the server room!
This was it. She pushed the envelope. Her fingers flew over the keyboard typing, trying to capture the last feed. She felt rather than saw the door handle turning until….
"I thought all available security had been sent to sweep the ship for Agent Romanoff! Explain your presence here!" Nick Fury's voice boomed outside the door.
Natasha grinned and almost felt sorry for the guards getting reamed but her eyes stayed on the data drive.
Green light! She finally had the last feed copied. She yanked the data drive and pocketed it. Now she only had to catch a ride on the morning supply jet to New York.
It had been a long time since Clint Barton had felt the excitement of the carnival. The Carson Carnival of Travelling Wonders boasted the biggest and best side show acts and contracted with amusement parks and circuses around the country. Once Clint proudly claimed them as a former employer.
It was late morning and Clint walked through the show's encampment in New Jersey. Most people thought that a carnie's life was pretty easy. He watched as the workers stocked the games, checked the electronics of the rides and started food prep. Clint knew first hand from the set up, to running the show day after day, to the time to tear it all down, ready to start again, a carnie was on his feet constantly and with very little sleep.
He remembered that there were three things that he looked for in every town; a laundromat, a Wal-Mart and a McDonald's — the comforts of home away from home.
Motor homes served as their homes and vehicle of choice for carnival workers. Clint walked among the rows of motor homes now looking for the parking space A135 where he would find Ruby Carson's double-wide.
Twenty years ago, Ruby had taken over the travelling show from her late husband. She had turned out to be a gifted business woman turning the small travelling company into a blockbuster side show act contractor.
The archer finally saw the row of trailers he was searching for and then spied a heavy woman with unnaturally dyed platinum hair in a sun dress sitting beneath an awning behind one of the larger motor homes.
"Ruby!" He called to his former foster mother and employer with a fond smile.
When Clint and his older brother Barney had escaped foster care in Iowa as kids they'd found the Carson Carnival of Travelling Wonders and found themselves adopted by Ruby and her people.
As kids growing-up and working alongside their foster family, they'd learn to do a little bit of everything from riding in the parade to hauling hay for the horses and elephants, selling tickets at the front gate and for Clint, even performing under the bright lights for thousands of spectators.
"Oh my God! Clint Barton!" The large woman instantly recognized him. She jumped up and ran over to embrace him. "How did you find us?"
Clint laughed and opened his arms wide to hug the large woman who had treated him like a son. "I ran into Eddie in New York."
"I was wondering where he disappeared to." Ruby murmurred. "But I can't be mad now, if he told you we were here."
Clint walked with her back to the shade of the awning and sat with her. Ruby looked him up and down. "Well you are a sight for sore eyes. And still easy on the eyes too, you handsome devil! You been staying out of trouble?"
Clint wished he could have said yes. "You know me Ruby."
"That's why I'm asking." The older woman joked.
Ruby was good people. Six years ago when Clint had billed himself as the World's Greatest Marksman he'd been recruited to do some sniper work. It wasn't long before his short career as a thief went to hell, ending in the death of his older brother, Barney. It was Ruby that buried his brother, vouched for him, to avoid jail time and gave him his old job back.
"I did my best." Clint told her honestly.
The older woman could see something was wrong. She always thought, Clint had the prettiest eyes. Like pale blue mirrors they reflected everything he was feeling. "Are you alright, Clint? What brings the World's Greatest Marksman back home?"
"Actually Ruby, I've had a sudden career change. I was wondering if you had a spot for me in the show."
Next Chapter: Clandestine Meeting at Mari Vanna