Once again, many thanks to Alpha Flyer for her brilliant betaing skills. You should slip over and read her work. It's amazing!
The hotel had three floors. Natalia found it unimpressive, having stayed in five star accommodations in various exotic locales. The lobby, with its vaulted ceiling, was like a large box, three levels high, and viewable from all floors via open balcony rails. The halls branched off away from the center, and she counted herself lucky that her target's room was not on the stretch that overlooked the lobby. That would have made her job far more difficult, invisibility being imperative for a successful assassination.
She noted the layout in an instant, including potential escape routes, and set up her backup team in strategic locations to keep a look out. She preferred to work alone. It was far easier for a single person to slip in and out unnoticed, but her superiors had insisted on a four man team. She had acknowledged the order with a raised brow but did not question it.
Why should she? She had been psychologically programmed from an early age to accomplish whatever task they gave her without batting an eye.
Her intel suggested she was running a race with the Americans in trying to collect Frederik Berkov, a Russian scientist attempting to defect with crucial research her government did not want to lose. Whatever he was working on, her superiors were taking no chances of Berkov making it out alive to deliver that information to another country. The larger team would watch her back, ensuring she accomplished her task with no hindrances.
Not that she had ever needed a team before, especially with something as simple as this hit.
It should be an easy task: locate the scientist, kill him in a manner that left no fingers pointing back at the FSB, collect his research and get the hell out. But something about the added men, the sense of danger, blared that this task would be anything but easy.
Her true identity lay safely hidden beneath jeans and a bulky sweater that hid her weapons. Her red hair was hidden with a long blonde wig and her green eyes masked behind blue contacts and thick framed glasses; she looked like a college student touring Europe as she sauntered down a second floor hall towards Berkov's room.
She had the scientist's door in sight when all hell broke loose.
Shots were fired from the vicinity of the lobby. Her team called out warnings over her comm. She heard shouts from further up the hall, coming her way. Was nothing ever easy?
Natalia slipped into the nearest room (thankfully empty) and, through a small crack she left open, watched a team of four men in black fatigues storm the scientist's room. She did not know who they worked for, nor did she care. Her team was engaged in a firefight (did they know nothing of stealth?), while her target was being rescued (the Americans?), and she was caught somewhere in between.
She contemplated going into Berkov's room anyway and taking out the four men along with the scientist, but her superiors would not be happy with a blood bath. Besides, another team arrived and entered the room, leaving one man to guard the door.
Her team was greatly outnumbered and outgunned. With her men radioing for instructions, she called an abort. This mission had failed before it had begun. It was time to get out and think about the repercussions of her failure later.
Natalia glanced out at the man guarding the door, but his back was to her. She could slip out and get down the hall before he turned around. She pulled open the door and darted out — and ran directly into another man in black.
She had never seen or heard him coming down the hall. It startled her, because she always saw and heard everything. But not him.
They both stumbled, and he reached out a hand to steady her. She took note that this one was dressed differently. His short sleeves were tight over the muscles of his arms; all the others had worn long-sleeved fatigues. He was young, somewhere in his late twenties to early thirties — one of those faces that made it difficult to guess his age. His dark hair was spiked up in a bad haircut, but he had the air of a leader: confident, precise, cool headed.
She easily fell into the role of a hotel patron, a frightened young woman in the midst of an attack by gunmen. She glanced up fearfully into his rough but handsome face, and was pinned by steel-blue eyes so intense she froze. Never had she seen eyes like his. This was a man who saw everything. It was unsettling.
Thankfully, as always, her brief flash of true emotion aided her cover. He might see all there was to see, but she was an expert at masking her true self and only showing what she wished for others to see.
"Please don't kill me!" she shrieked in an American accent, shaking violently in his hold. He held her tight by the arm, but broke their gaze to glance back down the hall towards her target's room. In that moment, she caught sight of the patch on his shoulder: a stylized eagle with spread wings.
S.H.I.E.L.D.? Here? Bojemoi!
"I won't hurt you," he assured, returning his attention and that disconcerting gaze to her. "We're the good guys. You alright?" he asked, setting her away from him.
S.H.I.E.L.D.? Good guys? That was laughable!
She nodded frantically, not breaking her wide-eyed fearful expression. Her lower lip trembled and tears filled her eyes. "I'm so sorry," she babbled. "I heard shooting. Oh my God, why is there shooting?" Her voice wavered.
He did not seem to notice her question; his attention focused on the sound of shots being exchanged downstairs. "Best you return to your room, miss. And lock the door."
He shoved her towards it, and she allowed him to do so, closing the door, but leaving enough of a sliver open for her to watch him go, her eyes taking note that while he had a gun holstered on his thigh, he also wore a quiver strapped to his back and carried a folding bow in his other hand.
That was rather…confounding. How had she missed seeing the bow and quiver? And since when did S.H.I.E.L.D. agents carry bows and arrows? Who did he think he was? Robin Hood?
He disappeared up a flight of steps leading to the next floor, and she slipped out of the room, keeping out of sight of the guard down the hall. Her intention at this point was to just get out and as far away from the hotel and S.H.I.E.L.D. as she could.
She made it downstairs without being seen and eased her head around the doorframe into the lobby, taking in the situation. She could just barely make out Yuri, one of her team, bleeding from a bullet wound to his shoulder. He was holed up against a wall behind a large grandfather clock as he held off two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.
She could see another member of her team lying dead on the floor, but he was not the only fatality. There was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent down and several civilians who had been caught in the initial crossfire. That left one of her teammates unaccounted for, but Aleksei would not be seen; he moved like a shadow. She had called an abort, and he would already be headed to their extraction point.
Time for her to go as well. Yuri…was on his own.
She had taken a single step when a child's whimper reached her ears over the mayhem. Her gaze found the small girl trying to crawl towards a limp body. The woman was clearly dead.
Natalia should not care, should not stop, but that sight sparked something inside her, reminded her of something she had all but forgotten.
She had only been five when she had lost her own mother. The memory flash was brief, accompanied by a sharp pain in her head and a sudden bout of nausea. She had been programmed to forget the past. The combination was enough to make her shudder.
Frozen in place, she could only watch as the child stood, right as Aleksei showed himself off to her right, his gun leveled at the agents firing at Yuri. The girl was right in the line of fire.
Natalia did not think, only reacted, exploding into motion.
She drew her gun at the same time as she dove, sliding across the floor on her side and grabbing the child to her body, even as she used her momentum to spin and fired her weapon. Her shots hit Aleksei in the chest, and he went down, even as she slipped with the child from the line of fire behind a sofa.
Then she peered over it to aim her weapon at Yuri in order to end it, but it was already over. Yuri dropped to the floor, an arrow sticking from his chest. He was dead.
Natalia glanced up and her gaze collided with puzzled, but sharp steel-blue eyes.
The archer she had run into earlier stood leaning over the third floor balcony rail, his bow still raised. As their eyes met, she saw something in them, caught a glimpse of him, a hint of deep, hidden scars, but also strength and free will. This was a man with choices, who did what he did because he believed it was right.
The sight stirred something deep inside her. What would it be like to have control of her own destiny? To have a choice, to think for herself?
Then the moment passed. She had to get out. It would only take him a moment to process that he had seen her upstairs by the target's room, and what she had just done…
She broke her gaze away, released the girl and scrambled back to the doorway, expecting to feel the bite of an arrow in her back. Those eyes followed her; she could feel them burning into her as she retreated.
But it was too late. Natalia was out the front entrance and had slipped into the night, blending in and fading away as only she could do.
Clint Barton stood at his perch on the third floor, his bow still outstretched over the balcony railing from his fatal shot that ended the gun fight below, and watched as the blonde beauty he'd encountered on the second floor disappeared.
What the hell just happened?
This was supposed to have been an easy mission. He nearly snorted at that thought. Easy? He'd known the moment Fury insisted on more than one team to extract the defecting Russian scientist that it wouldn't be a simple in and out mission. But one could always hope, right?
Clint didn't know what the scientist's research was about. He didn't want to know either. That part wasn't his job. Then again, picking up strange Russian scientists from tourist frequented parts of Europe wasn't usually in his job description either. He was an assassin, not a babysitter. But from what he could gather, whatever the strange little man had been working on was important enough to the WSC that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been sent to collect the man. And Fury had assigned Hawkeye as Team Leader.
He'd thought it was something of a reward for his last mission ending so successfully. He should have known better. Fury never gave his top operatives a walk in the park assignment. No, he'd been given this assignment in case something went wrong.
And something had gone terribly wrong. Clint just wasn't sure what.
The sound of a child's crying brought him back from his thoughts. He shuddered and glanced down at the little girl crying beside her mother's body. His heart clenched in his chest, and he pulled back from the banister.
"Coulson, we have a situation."
"Copy that, Hawk. Report." Coulson's voice came over the comm stuck in his ear.
"Mission accomplished, sir, but… We have a mess here. Multiple casualties: civilian, enemy and our own." The child's cries could be heard even though Clint could no longer see her. His hands shook.
"I don't know. Intel said the Russians would send an assassin to eliminate our package, but I count three dead Russians in the lobby and based on performance, none of them are of assassin caliber. Not a typical hit by the FSB. I'd say possibly a strike team, but not a very efficient one. Backup for the assassin, perhaps? But that also isn't in keeping with an FSB hit. I count one that escaped…"
He paused, then glanced back over the balcony at the weeping child, seeing again in his mind the blonde girl, first on the second floor not far from their package's room, then down in the lobby…
Clint mentally berated himself as all kinds of a was good — the image of an American college girl touring Europe. He hadn't seen her for what she was.
"Talk to me."
"I believe our assassin is a young woman. Blonde, wearing jeans, grey sweater and glasses. She slipped out before we could stop her. My guess is she aborted her mission when we entered the package's room. She… She shot one of her own team, sir."
"Come again?" It was one of the rare times he actually heard surprise in Coulson's voice.
"There was a firefight in the lobby. I'm not certain how that started, but she saved a child and shot one of the Russians and turned to kill the other, but I got him first. Then she fled."
The silence over his comm was telling. Hell, he was having a hard time processing it himself.
"Clear that building and make certain there are no more Russian operatives lurking about and get Alpha Team and the package to the roof for extraction."
"And Barton, get me any video surveillance of the woman that hotel security might have caught."
Clint glanced at the one camera in the lobby. He hoped it was recording. In his mind he could still see the blonde sliding across the floor, grabbing the child and turning to fire… He'd never seen another woman move with that kind of precision.
Clint took a deep breath. He could still hear the cries below above the murmurs of other guests who had taken cover when the shooting had begun. Team Delta had secured the lobby, holding position at the exits, and keeping anyone from entering.
"Beta Team, sweep the hotel for hostiles. Alpha is to remain put with the package until further notice. Shoot anything that comes in the door of that room."
Both teams acknowledged the orders.
"Check in when it's clear."
Clint glanced at the mess in the room, skipping over the weeping child and the bloodied body of her mother. "Coulson, we're going to need one hell of a clean up team here, sir."
"I'm already on it."
With a calmness he didn't necessarily feel, Clint made his way from his perch down to the lobby. Then he forced himself to cross it to the little girl huddled by the body of her mother. A man's body lay not far away. The child's father?
He picked the girl up in his arms, cradling her against his chest. "Shhhh… It's alright, little one. It'll be alright."
How he wished he didn't have to lie. Her life would never be the same again. If she was lucky, she had grandparents or an aunt or uncle who would take her in. But if she did not, then she very well might end up in an orphanage. And Clint knew all about orphanages.
He glanced at the Russian the blonde woman had shot. Clint had taken position at the railing of the third floor just as the little girl had stood up, putting herself into the line of fire. He'd drawn, nocked and aimed his arrow at the man in a split second, unwilling to watch another child die if he could help it. But the blonde had dived into the fray and shot the man, so Clint had turned his arrow to the final gunman, ending the bloodshed.
A disturbance near one of the doors caught his attention, and he turned towards it. A man was arguing with one of Delta Team securing the lobby, but Agent Black held his position, gun drawn, and refused the man entrance.
"That's my daughter!" the man shouted, pointing to the girl in Clint's arms. "My God, that's my daughter!"
Clint's eyes slipped closed in relief for a moment, then he nodded at Black to let the man enter. He made his way over to him. As soon as the girl saw the man claiming to be her father, she started struggling in Clint's arms and reaching out for him.
Clint gladly handed the child over to her father, who wept and rocked the girl in his arms, even as his eyes locked on the body of his wife. There was nothing Clint could do about his loss, except to express his sorrow and explain that he could not answer any questions as to what had happened at this time. Coulson could handle this part much better than he ever would.
Stepping away, Clint moved to the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent lying on the floor. He stooped down and checked for vital signs he knew he would not find. The agent stared up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes.
Clint hadn't known Thomas Burland well, but had heard good things about the younger agent. He reached out and closed the man's eyes. One never got used to losing a fellow agent in the field, but he'd learned emotion wouldn't change the past. He stared hard at Burland for a moment.
"Hawkeye, this is Beta."
"Go ahead," he replied, rising to his feet. There was no time here for grief. That would come later, with a single glass of whiskey and loud pounding music.
"Building is clear. Exits are covered."
"Roger that. Coulson, you have extraction in place?"
"Waiting on you, Hawk."
"Alpha, proceed to the roof with the package."
"Package is moving."
When it was all over, the scientist safely extracted, debriefings and reports delivered and the mess cleaned up, Clint climbed aboard the Quinjet with Team Beta. The mission was listed as successful, but it did not feel that way.
A little girl had lost her mother. Another family had lost a father. S.H.I.E.L.D. had lost a good man…
Clint turned his thoughts from their dark paths and instead went back to puzzling out the mystery woman that had escaped.
The surveillance camera had indeed caught a fraction of her rescue of the child in the lobby. S.H.I.E.L.D. had confiscated the tape. But Clint had the image burned into his mind.
Who was she? Why had she been there? Why had she killed her own team member to save a child?
He knew better than to ask about her. If he needed to know, Coulson would tell him. But Coulson was being silent on the subject, and that only peaked his curiosity more.
Who the hell was she? And why was he even thinking about her?
In the aftermath of all that had happened, he found himself unable to stop his thoughts long enough to catch some much needed sleep on the flight back. Over and over he saw her in his mind, sliding across the floor, grabbing the child, spinning to fire and making that shot.
And her eyes. There had been something about her eyes when their gazes had locked. It felt as if he'd looked into her and caught a glimpse of the woman beneath the mask of an assassin.
As much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, he was intrigued.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, thinking about those eyes…and her pouty lips, and what secrets she held. He might never know, but he could imagine, right?
To Be Continued...