Red Dragon Inn
Dreamweaver's Lair => From the Dragon's Mouth => Crash and Burn => Topic started by: Natasha Romanoff on May 26, 2018, 08:14:34 AM
The tech and computer labs at A.E.G.I.S. H.Q. had been running non-stop for more than twenty-four hours, and still there was nothing coming up from the Murmansk data. The sense of urgency still hung in the air, even after word filtered down from the top that Hydra had failed to kill Captain America's sister-in-law. But for the hackers and techies working on the data, all that did was give a little more incentive to find what was being hidden from them. Despite warnings from certain people to stop pushing herself, Agent Romanoff was up again just a few hours after she had finally fallen to sleep, too on edge to relax, and so - armed with coffee and sandwiches purloined from the top level cafeteria - she made her way into the labs, seeking out her favorite tech.
The techs had started alternating shifts, so that some of them were always at work on the data, while the others rested. Otherwise, they'd burn out too quickly and be no good to anyone. In order to properly pick through Hydra's data, they needed to be rested, awake, alert, and sharp. Coffee helped, but not even coffee could keep a weary mind focused when what it really needed was sleep. As it turned out, Agent Romanoff's favorite tech was a night owl, who did his best work when most people were sleeping.
It didn't take long to find him - most of the labs were dark, with only the few who worked best at night still working on the data in their own cubicles and labs. Natasha didn't knock; she just leaned in the doorway, watching long fingers tapping away at the keyboard with a secretive smile. "If I brought coffee, do I get to come in?"
The man whose fingers were tapping away at the keyboard didn't bother to look up, but there was an amused smirk on his face at the familiar sound of her voice, not to mention the promise of coffee. "Sure, and if you brought sandwiches, I might even let you stay a while," he said, momentarily withdrawing one hand from the keyboard to pat the chair beside him. "Make yourself at home. It's gonna be a long night."
"Hanging out here beats risking Croft or Rogers catching me out of bed," was her reply as she pushed off the door, walking in on bare feet to set the plate and cups down before curling comfortably into the chair he suggested for her. "I offered to help with this, but apparently I'm unnecessary."
"I wouldn't say that," he disagreed, pausing in his typing to reach for a cup of coffee and turning to meet her gaze with blue eyes the shade of a summer sky. "We all have our talents. Yours are just put to better use in the field."
Knees against her chest, her own cup resting on them in the wrap of her hands, she let her head tilt back against the chair with a wry smile. "Yeah, because hacking a sophisticated A.I. under pressure looks so good on a resume."
"I doubt you care much about a resume," he remarked, smirking as he sipped as his coffee. He spoke with an accent pegged him as definitely being English, but seemed to prefer coffee to tea - at least when he was working.
She chuckled mirthlessly, hugging her own coffee to warm her chest. "Who would have me?" she pointed out. "No one knows who I am these days. Legacy of a life badly planned."
"Who is no one?" he countered, reaching for a sandwich with an almost absent-minded, "May I?" Assuming she'd brought them to share with him, he took a bite, only then realizing how long it had been since he'd eaten last. "You have friends here, Natasha. Whether you let them get to know you is completely up to you."
"Sure." She nodded for him to eat, smiling at his comment on her prickliness. "Getting close is a good way to get killed," she said thoughtfully. "But no one's gotten killed in a few years. Either I broke my streak, or I'm next." She tilted her head, watching him for a moment. "So Edi in R&D turned you down, huh?"
He gulped down another mouthful of sandwich, evidently hungrier than he dared admit. "So, we're talking about me now?" he said with a smirk. "Maybe I turned her down, and she just doesn't want anyone to know."
Nat smiled, shrugging again. "I can't help it," was her only defense, but he was right - she always turned the conversation on to everyone else. "See, I thought she was into you. And then this morning, she was all riled up because apparently you prefer a woman who knows how to handle a weapon?"
"Since when did you take up matchmaking, Agent Romanoff?" he asked, with a strange mixture of annoyance and amusement, as he turned back to his keyboard, perhaps because for some reason, he didn't want to meet her gaze. He didn't bother to answer her question about Edi in R&D, only in part because it was personal.
"Oh, didn't you hear? I have a forty percent success rate as a matchmaker." Yes, she was teasing, and no, she wasn't answering his curiosity the same way he wasn't answering hers. "Would have been higher, but Rogers went and found himself a wife on a totally different dimensional plane."
"Forty percent isn't really that good," he pointed out, seemingly unimpressed. He wasn't sure why they always seemed to play this little game of theirs, bantering back and forth, but not quite flirting. "People do that, you know. It's called dating. Maybe you should try it sometime," he told her before gulping down the other half of his sandwich.
"Been there, done that. Didn't work out so well." Because, of course, the only dates she had actually been on had been while undercover, and the truth had eventually been the end of all those potential maybes. Anyone who knew her could spot when she wasn't being entirely honest.
"Yeah, well, maybe you just haven't dated the right guy," he suggested, fingers tapping away at the keyboard. Most techs preferred silence so that they could concentrate, but rather than find her a distraction, he was able to split his attention between her and the deciphering the code in front of him.
"Now who's playing matchmaker?" Nat teased, smiling again as she watched him. She found the computer labs surprisingly soothing, surrounded by the quiet bustle of activity with no expectation of needing to fight anyone while she was there. And she liked Colin Prescott's company, too. "Have anyone in mind, or is this your new opening gambit when you don't wanna talk about your own love life?"
"This is my opening gambit when someone is trying to matchmake for me," he replied, narrowing his eyes, his fingers coming to a halt against the keyboard as something caught his eye. "Does that look strange to you?" he asked, his eyes focused on something showing up on the screen in front of him, though it was hard to tell what. To anyone who wasn't familiar with computer code, it probably looked like a foreign language.
She snorted at his rejoinder, dropping her feet to the floor to lean forward and look at the screen before him. Thankfully, she knew a little about hacking herself, or she wouldn't have had a clue what he was talking about. There was something interesting there, though. She pointed to a line of code no different, it seemed, to any of the others. "That kinda looks like a mashup of S.H.I.E.L.D. encryption codes from the 70's and 80's."
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking, too," he said. Though she wasn't an expert, he figured she knew at least enough to recognize when something didn't look right. His fingers returned to the keyboard, quickly tapping away, entering coded data that only another hacker would understand. "You might want to call Croft. I think we have something here."
"Yeah." The word was dragged out slowly, suspicion laced in every letter. Nat had a nasty feeling she knew what - or rather, who - was behind that particular code. So what the hell was it doing in Hydra data files? She rose, moving to the phone to tap Croft's internal line. If she was lucky, Steve would be back at H.Q. by now, too. If that code meant what she thought it did, he would definitely want to know.
Colin, on the other hand, had no idea who might have put a message there or why, but there was definitely something there. He inched closer, adrenaline rushing through his veins at the implications of what he'd found, his fingers pounding the keyboard as he tried to extract the message from the encrypted code in which it had been hidden.
"Nat, are you seeing what I'm seeing?" he asked, unconsciously shortening her name to the more familiar version. "I think this is a list of Hydra bases."
"Locations?" she asked, barely noticing the shortening of her name, though few were given that privilege. It said a fair amount about her friendship with him that she didn't immediately correct him. The phone under her ear vibrated with sound for a moment. "Croft? Romanoff. We've got something."
"This is definitely something," Colin repeated, as he quickly worked to extract the message and save it someplace where it wouldn't get deleted. "It's encrypted though. Someone went to a bloody lot of trouble to hide it." But the question was who?
Setting the phone down, Nat returned to Colin, resting her hand on the back on his chair as she leaned down to study to code he was extracting piece by piece. "Coordinates in binary," she murmured, and suddenly pointed to a strange symbol embedded in the middle of one of the code lines. "That should not be there."
"It doesn't mean anything to me. Do you recognize it?" he asked, leaning back so that she could have a better look at what was coming up on his screen.
She leaned closer, her hand resting on his shoulder as she squinted at the screen. "s***." Not the answer he was hoping for, but evidently what she saw there was enough to galvanize her into action, returning to the phone. "Every instance of that symbol you find, pick out the code on either side of it," she told him, turning her attention to the phone. "Someone get Captain Rogers down here now."
Colin wasn't sure what that symbol meant exactly, but if Agent Romanoff thought it was important, that was good enough for him. "I can do that," he replied, brain and fingers going to work again to do as she asked as quickly and efficiently as humanly possible. He had come to A.E.G.I.S. fairly recently as part of a personnel exchange with England's MI5. He'd come highly recommended and from the looks of it, he was finally being given a chance to prove his worth.
On the phone, Natasha watched him working for a moment as Steve was hustled to the other end of the line. "Steve? We've got something here you're gonna want to see." There was a pause, no doubt for the captain to suggest that he'd see it at the briefing in the morning. "Fury's in the data," she said flatly. "Get your ass down here."
"On my way," came the reply from the other end of the connection. No argument there.
"Fury?" Colin echoed, without missing a beat. "Director Fury?" he guessed. What other Fury could there be? While he hadn't come on board soon enough to have known the man personally, he had certainly heard of him and knew who he was.
Putting the phone down, Nat turned back to Colin, her face pale but her expression very carefully blank. "He's been missing for over a year," she told him. "We thought he was dead. If he's turned to Hydra, we have bigger problems on our hands." She moved back to lean over him. "Any idea what the message contains?"
"Not yet. It looks like a list of locations, but there's more. I need to extract everything between those symbols and then work on cracking the encryption code. I'm afraid it's going to take a while," he told her, with an almost apologetic tone to his voice.
"I can give you the encryption keys for the different eras," she assured him. "That'll speed it up a bit." She gestured to one of the many computers currently unused in this lab. "May I?"
"Yes, of course," he replied, glancing her way. "I can use all the help I can get," he told her, not bothering to mention that he didn't mind the company either - at least, so long as it was her.
"What's going on?" a male voice interrupted - deep and very American with a slight Brooklyn accent. "You said something about Fury?" Captain Rogers asked as he joined them without announcement or fanfare.
Tapping the encryption keys into a program already open for just that purpose, Nat barely glanced up as Steve entered the room. "Fury's ident just showed up on the data we've been looking for," she explained, nodding toward Colin. "Some kind of encrypted message, using S.H.I.E.L.D. keys from at least two decades. Colin can tell you what else we found, though."
Too busy deciphering code at present to be overly impressed by the famous Avenger, Colin hardly batted an eye as the man joined them. "It appears to be a list of locations, possibly locations of Hydra bases, but I won't know for sure until we have the whole thing extracted and deciphered," he said, his gaze never leaving the computer screen.
"Hydra bases?" Steve echoed. "How many Hydra bases?"
"I'm not sure yet, but it looks like maybe eight or nine?" Colin replied, doing his best to guesstimate without yet knowing for sure.
"That can't just be in America," Nat commented, her own fingers swift over the keys of the other keyboard. "We could be looking at the break we need to put them out of action for another generation."
"If this came from Fury, he must be deep inside Hydra," Steve deduced. "But how'd he get there?" he mused aloud, and perhaps more importantly, could they get him back out? "Nat, you don't think ..." Steve said, turning to Nat with a quizzical look on his face, wondering if she was thinking what he was thinking. They'd both known Nick Fury pretty well and had been been understandably upset at his disappearance. Whether he often disagreed with Fury's methods, Steve was sure of the man's loyalty.
"No." That was it, a flat response. Natasha might have been suspicious for a moment, but embedding a message in this data made no sense if Fury had turned. "Using these encryption codes makes no sense if he's turned. He's in there, somewhere. I'd guess this message is gonna tell us how and where."
"But how? Why?" Steve asked further, doubting they'd have any answers anytime soon. Maybe if they were lucky, there would be an answer somewhere in that encrypted message, but it might take a while before they knew for sure.
"I don't know," she told him, her tone sharp for a moment. "Okay, program's ready to go. You want it uploaded to you, or the data brought over here?" This was clearly meant for Colin, but not even a stressed Steve Rogers would miss the signs of coffee and sandwiches shared over work.
"I'll send the data to you as I get it extracted, then you can run it through the program to decrypt it," Colin replied, the coffee and sandwiches forgotten for now. "This is going to take a while, Captain," he warned the other man, who was hovering anxiously behind them, on the verge of pacing the floor. "We can call you as soon as it's finished," he suggested.
"Sorry, I guess I got a little over-excited." Nat winced, leaning back to look up at Steve. She frowned for a moment. "I need some more coffee. Col, I'll be back." Her fingertips brushed Colin's shoulder briefly as she rose and headed for the door, heedless of showing off just how relaxed she was around this particular tech. Barefoot was not Romanoff's usual style.
Steve arched a brow, noticing how Nat brushed her fingers against the tech's shoulder, how comfortable she seemed in his presence - how much he resembled a certain Asgardian's brother. "Would you excuse me a moment ... uh ... Prescott, isn't it?"
Colin paused a moment to glance over his shoulder, mostly at the departing redhead before glancing briefly at the Captain. "Yes, sir. I'm relatively new here," he explained, as he turned back to his computer.
"Carry on, Prescott. I'll wait for your call," Steve told him, giving him a vote of confidence, before stepping out after Nat.
In the small kitchen, Nat was loading the coffee pot with shaking hands. Her loyalty to Fury had once been unshakeable, until his habit of keeping certain things to himself had put her friend's family in danger. Even after S.H.I.E.L.D. was dismantled, she'd hoped he would come over to A.E.G.I.S., but instead he had dropped off the grid entirely. Two years of searching had turned up nothing ... and now this?
Steve suddenly stood in the doorway, watching Nat quietly, a worried frown on his face only partly for her. The two of them had become close over the last few years. It wasn't hard to figure out what she was thinking when he was thinking it himself. But instead of mentioning Fury, the first thing he thought to ask was about her. He'd seen the expression on her face, the tone of her voice, the way her hands were shaking. As much as she might try to hide it, he knew she was upset, and rightfully so. They'd grieved Fury's death once; neither of them wanted to do it again.
"You okay?" he asked, staying where he was a safe distance away. She wasn't okay; neither of them were, but he had to ask anyway.
She thrust the pot home a little more forcefully than was really necessary before lifting her gaze to her friend. "You know I'm not," she told him. "You're not, either. How long did he know S.H.I.E.L.D. had become Hydra before he let us know Hydra still existed? How long did he send me out on missions for the enemy while he played his long game?" She sighed, turning to lean back against the counter, arms wrapped tight about herself. "How long has he been in there, trying to get out?"
"Maybe he's not trying to get out," Steve suggested. He wasn't suggesting that Fury had betrayed them or had gone over to Hydra, but that he may have pretended to do just that. It would have been nice if he could have warned them about the hit on Lucy, that ended up almost killing Liv, but maybe he either hadn't been privy to that information or hadn't been able to pass it along, for some reason. He didn't have to spell it out for her. She'd put two and two together on her own eventually.
"I thought I was turning my life around, working for him," Nat said quietly. "I thought I was one of the good guys. I'd be happier if he'd gone down fighting."
"Nat, you can't think like that," Steve said, taking a step into the room. "Fury's got reasons for everything he does. He's always ten steps ahead of everyone else. He's got his own end game going on, but I refuse to think he's betrayed us. Hell, Nat, this is proof he hasn't betrayed us." Unless, of course, it was a trap, but Steve didn't want to think about that.
"And proof that he doesn't care about collateral damage," she pointed out unhappily. "This makes twice he's put your wife in danger, just to see what happens. He'd better have a damned good reason for it." Nick Fury hadn't been around to see his most efficient killer grow deeply attached to Steve's wife and children, and their extended family beyond, but he should have realised it would happen. She had the same sort of bond with Clint Barton's family.
"If he's not careful, he might become collateral damage," Steve murmured quietly. A muscle in his jaw twitched, the only sign that he was having as much trouble processing this as Nat, but doing his best not to show it. It was one thing to go deep undercover inside of Hydra, but quite another to put those he was supposed to be protecting in danger.
"You realize that if that's good information, we could set Hydra back decades," he pointed out. He had to admit, it was a pretty big "If".
"Put you and me out of a job in the process," she agreed, but her anger was guarded again, less likely to explode. "Not a bad thing, for you." She drew in a breath, tilting her head to look at him. "Liv saw the healers, right? How is she doing?"
"She's doing fine, and you're changing the subject," he pointed out, unsurprised by her tactic. "When the world - hell, the multiverse - runs out of bad guys, then we'll retire," he told her, confident there were enough bad guys to go around for a while yet, even without Hydra.
"If - if - the information is good - and we'll have to do covert recon on it for a couple of days - Hydra's going to get the kicking of a lifetime," she pointed out. "Any bad guys paying attention will think twice about causing trouble anytime soon."
"You sound like you'd almost be sad to see Hydra go," he teased, taking a lean against the wall, arms crossed against his chest. He knew better than that, but he also knew she might have trouble sorting out what to do after that. "If you get bored, I've got a handful of teenagers who could use a little hands-on training."
"I'll have to go back to basics," she shrugged. "New covers, new life ... start over all over again." It wasn't something she wanted to do, clearly. The mention of his handful of teenagers made her smirk. "You seriously think Johnny would ever say yes to that?"
"He's gonna have to accept the fact that his daughter is following in his footsteps sooner or later," Steve pointed out. "We're not gonna live forever, Nat. They're the next generation of Avengers, and you know as well as I do that not all of Earth's threats come from Earth."
She nodded wearily. "Maybe we'll get lucky, and Thor's found an alien for us to beat up," she suggested, but she wasn't vetoing teaching the teenagers a few things. Powers only gave you an edge in a fight, in her experience - she knew a few other tricks that could turn that edge into a killing blow.
He noted the weariness in her, the worry, the warning signs that she might be starting to burn out. "Maybe you need a vacation. When was the last time you took a break?" he asked, knowing this wasn't the time for it, but if they really did somehow manage to take Hydra out, they'd all deserve a well-earned break.
He probably wasn't going to like the answer to that question, but she gave it anyway. "1994?" she hazarded a guess. "I was ten, it was a reward for passing into the Red Room." She shrugged. "This is what I am, Steve. I don't stop, I don't know how to."
"Then maybe you need someone to show you how," he said, unable to hide a faint smile from his face. You could say whatever you wanted about Steve Rogers, but he wasn't very good at pretending. "You and Prescott seem pretty chummy. You a little sweet on the new guy?" he asked, nudging her arm with an elbow.
She snorted with laughter. "If I was, do you think I'd tell you?" she countered, turning back to pour fresh coffee from the pot. "He's not like anyone else I know."
"How's that?" he asked, studying her as she turned her back on him, which was as much an admission of guilt as anything else. "Because he doesn't wield a hammer or hulk out and turn green?" he asked, for example. Or was it something else?
She was quiet for a long moment, but he knew that silence. It was Natasha trying to decide how much truth to share. "All my friends, all of us ... we're fighters," she said quietly. "We see a problem and we run at it. And here's this guy who could probably go toe-to-toe with me in a fight and almost win, who doesn't do that. He's a better shot than I was out of training. But he'd rather be support, rather pick through lines of code and run intel simulations, than raise his hand to anyone. It's ... it's not what I'm used to."
Steve didn't bother to point out the fact that she had plenty of friends who weren't fighters. There was Liv and Lucy, to name a few, and that was just for starters. Instead, he remained quiet until she was finished, until she'd said out loud, maybe for the first time, what she'd been thinking. "Maybe that's a good thing, Nat. Maybe someone different is just what you need," he pointed out, as gently as he could.
"Maybe you and he should open up an introduction agency," she drawled, half-amused by Steve's insistence that there was something in her that was worth more than a lifetime spent fighting and hiding.
He wasn't telling her to fall in love, get married, and have kids - at least, not right away - but what he was telling her was that there was more to life than fighting. "I don't think you need an introduction," he said, chuckling. "But if you want me to make dinner reservations somewhere, I can do that."
"Yeah, with a mission that could kill me coming up? Not happening." She smiled, sliding a cup along the counter to him. And there was the main problem. Natasha was a covert agent, always had been - she would always be able to find the excuse that would keep her from living the life left to her.
"If I thought that way, I'd have never gotten married," he pointed out further. "Have you ever considered that maybe having someone to come home to gives you more reason to stay alive?" he countered her argument with one she could have made to him at some point in the past when he'd been struggling with the same thing.
"Have you ever considered that most guys want the 2.4 family?" she argued mildly. "Destined for disappointment there, because I can't give anyone the .4 part of that."
"Most," he echoed, pointedly. "Liv didn't think she could have kids. That's why they adopted Fliss. Kids aren't for everyone, but if you decide you want a family, there are options, Nat. Besides, we're just talking about a date here, not the whole white picket fence thing." He smiled again, warm and reassuring. "Don't you think you deserve a little happiness, Nat?" he asked, gently again.
"After everything I've done?" Though they had known each other several years, not even Steve knew the full extent of her history. Her file was so redacted, no one could piece it all together without her help. But the pain and guilt and sadness in her eyes as she looked at her friend offered just a hint that the darkness behind her was not so much a cloud as a gaping maw. "Some people just don't deserve to stop paying, Steve."
"When are you gonna stop punishing yourself, Nat?" he countered, hoping he didn't sound too harsh. He was trying to be gentle. While it was true he didn't know everything she had done in the past and didn't want to know, he also believed she deserved a second chance. "You're your own worst enemy, you know that? No one is blaming you for anything, but yourself. Nick saw the potential in you. He saw the good in you. He believed in you. Don't let your past ruin any hope for your future, Nat. If you do that, then they've already won," he reasoned, knowing he could have followed that same path, but didn't.
"Loki was right," she said, her voice very soft. "Nothing can wipe out that much red." Her head bowed, and for a long moment, she was silent. Then she drew in a deep breath, lifting her head again, and she was the Nat he knew best once more. "So if I date, you'll stop poking at me to have a life?"
Not soft enough for him not to catch with his enhanced hearing. "Loki?" he echoed, eyes narrowing. He hadn't failed to notice the resemblance between the Asgardian and the hacker, and he knew she hadn't either. He hoped it was only coincidence. "I wouldn't trust one word that comes out of his mouth, and neither should you. You know that," he told her, ignoring her question for a minute to let that sink in. If she didn't know him better, she might think he was angry, but any anger he was feeling wasn't directed at her. If he ever saw the Asgardian again, he'd make him regret his words. Slowly, his anger visibly faded. "If you have a life, I'll stop poking at you to have a life, but we can start with a date, sure."
"Why do I get the feeling you're going to arrange this date for me?" she mused, friendly suspicion in her voice and eyes as she looked at him. After all, she'd been behind the unexpected arranging of a few dates for him and his wife, albeit with his own children as accomplices.
"You're wrong on that," he told her, smiling again. "Unless, of course, I tell Lucy, and she invites you both to dinner. I wouldn't put it past her," he said, half seriously.
"You're a cruel man, Cap," Nat teased, shaking her head. "I better get back to Colin. He's not familiar with the cyphers he's using yet." She took a sip of her coffee. "Never thought I'd see those cyphers again."
"Nat, you realize if we attack any one of those bases, they'll know we're onto them. And if we do a single strike against all of them, there will be collateral damage," he told her, knowing she knew all this already and had even said as much.
"That's what the recon is for," she pointed out. "We're gonna have the whole team back again, plus a little extra since last time. We can split our focus and lead strike teams if we have to. Minimise the collateral as much as we can. But this is better than our worst case scenario, Steve. Much better."
He understood all that, but wondered if she was missing his point. "We might not be able to extract Fury," he pointed out, though S.H.I.E.L.D.'s former director seemed to have more lives than a cat.
"If he's in and he can't get out, encrypting a message and embedding it into their own data is a last resort," she told him in turn, knowing a little more about covert ops than he did. "It's risky, and there's no guarantee it'll be found by the right people. You only do it if there's no choice. He could be dead already."
"But what if he's not?" Steve countered. Fury must have known the risk when he presumably went undercover, but were they really willing to give up on him and leave him for dead? Until they decoded the entire message, though, all of this was conjecture, and they were wasting time discussing it.
"He'll have a contingency for that," she said in a dark tone. "He always does. We're just lucky he dropped the scepter for us to find before Hydra found him."
"Right," Steve agreed. "I'm gonna check in with Lucy and the kids and try to get a little shut-eye. Wake me up as soon as you have something, okay?" he told her, knowing it would take at least a few hours before they knew what they were dealing with. He had learned over the years to grab a little sleep when you could get it, just in case.
"Will do." Nat nodded. "Croft's aware, the briefing will be set for morning anyway. Thor's expected anytime, Banner by midday. When we get the message intact, I'll com you."
"Might want to tell Hill, too," Steve said, if she didn't know already. If there was anyone who would know what was going on with Fury, it was Agent Hill, but so far she'd shared nothing of her former boss's plans.
"I'm not telling Hill a damned thing until we know she didn't know he was in there," Nat informed him heatedly. "You don't lie to my face and call yourself a friend and get away with keeping a secret this big."
"Fury had a lot of secrets, Nat," he reminded her, and by extension, so did Hill. If she'd share a few of those secrets, they might have some answers, but he understood Nat's distrust of the other agent. It was one of the reasons they had agreed that Croft should head up A.E.G.I.S. and not Hill. "She's gonna find out sooner or later."
"When she does, she's gonna look me in the eye, and if she lies to my face again, she's out," she answered with frightening calmness. "We can't have people keeping secrets in our ranks, Steve. That's how S.H.I.E.L.D. fell."
Steve arched a brow, only a little surprised by Nat's candor. It wasn't so much her honesty that surprised him as the fact that she felt so strongly about it that she was willing to boot Hill completely from the newly-established A.E.G.I.S. "Okay, if that's the way you wanna play, I'll back you up," he told her, giving her at least one vote of confidence.
"Thank you." She patted his arm. "You better get some sleep. And yes, I will sleep in the morning. This is more important for now. He doesn't really know what he's looking at, or how important it is. I'm gonna have to bump his security clearance up a few levels; finding this puts him at risk."
"Okay," Steve agreed, putting his trust in her, just as he always had. "Wake me when you have something," he reminded her, before turning to make his way out. He didn't bother to give her any more lectures about settling down. He's said his peace; it was up to her whether she followed his advice or not.
"You know I will." She watched him out of the door, waited until she heard the elevator door close. Then, quite deliberately, she punched the wall hard enough to leave a dent and skin her knuckles. That done, she straightened her shoulders, poured another cup of coffee, and took both back down the hall to where Colin was still laboring over the code. "Coffee, as promised."
As it happened, Colin was sliding back and forth, juggling both computers and keyboards as he frantically worked to download the code and put it through the program Nat had created to decipher it. "Good, we're gonna need it," he told her, without taking his eyes off the screens as she joined him.
"Easy there, speedy," she warned. "It'll take time, everyone knows it. Once the code's in the program, that'll take a couple of hours." She put the coffee down on the desk. "Don't run yourself into the ground on this."
"It's important, Nat," Colin argued, though he knew she knew this already. He rolled his chair back over to his side of the two computers, allowing her to retake her seat. "Took you a while. Did you run out of coffee?" he asked, though he had a feeling it was Captain Rogers who had delayed her return.
"Had to talk a couple of things out," she admitted, dropping into her own seat to take over the input as the data found its way onto her screen. "This hits home. It's top-level stuff."
He arched a brow as he looked over at her, momentarily taking his eyes away from the screen. "Fury?" he guessed, though he'd heard about the attempt on Olivia Storm's life.
"Fury," she agreed. "There's only a couple of ways he could have got into this data. This message could be life or death for AEGIS or Hydra, depending on who breaks it and acts on it first. And ... and it's personal."
He wasn't quite sure why she considered the message - or whatever it was - personal, but it wasn't his place to pry. They hadn't known each other all that long yet, after all, and he didn't want to scare her or push her away by asking too many questions.
"We'll find out soon enough," he assured her, as he reached for a much-needed cup of caffeine. "You know, back home it would be tea, but this calls for something stronger." It was just idle chit-chat that meant very little, but maybe it was just what she needed to calm her nerves.
Natasha was a very good spy. Which meant she knew he'd taken her words in a different context to how they had been meant. "No, I don't mean that the message is addressed to me, personally," she assured him, still inputting the data at her screen. "I mean ... Fury's what brought us together, and very nearly what tore us apart. Just him being involved in this makes whatever he has to say personal, to everyone here."
"By us, you mean the Avengers," Colin inferred. He had a feeling she hadn't meant him, not only because he hadn't been with A.E.G.I.S. very long, but because Fury hadn't been the one to bring him on board.
"Well, I'm not really an Avenger." She threw him a faint smile, tapping the last of the data into place before setting the program to decrypt it. "Everyone who was part of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s core is gonna feel this one."
"That's not how Stark tells it," Colin pointed out, though he wasn't sure how much of what came out of Tony Stark's mouth could be believed. "Nick Fury created S.H.I.E.L.D., didn't he? It was - how do the Yanks put it - his baby?"
"Uh ... he took it over in the seventies, kind of shaped where it was going and what it was doing," Natasha told him carefully, lifting her feet onto the seat as she reached for her coffee. "It was founded in the late forties by three people - Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and Colonel Chester Phillips. But yeah ... Fury made S.H.I.E.L.D. what it was, and ultimately it was his habit of keeping secrets from us that destroyed it."
"Right, after the war," he said, remembering what he'd read of S.H.I.E.L.D. before he'd come on board with A.E.G.I.S. So, Fury hadn't created the organization, but had eventually shaped it into what it had begun. "But how did Hydra manage to infiltrate it?" he asked further, taking another swallow of his coffee as he awaited her reply.
She sighed into her cup, shaking her head. "Operation Paperclip, by the sound of things," she told him. "That grab for the best scientists the Nazis had to offer brought a lot of Hydra agents into S.H.I.E.L.D. right from the start. I'd like to think Fury didn't know they were there for most of his directorship. I hope he didn't."
He arched a brow, not really surprised by her explanation, so much as by how easy it must have been for Hydra to infiltrate, but that had happened long before Fury's time. "Perhaps it's best S.H.I.E.L.D. was scrapped," he said. "Start over from scratch."
"That's what we did." Her eyes were watching the program run as they spoke. "A lot of people lost their jobs because they couldn't prove they weren't part of Hydra. A lot of people disappeared. Fury disappeared. I hoped he was dead."
He arched a brow at that, too, but then he seemed to understand. It was better to think of Fury as dead than to consider the alternative - that he was either captured or part of Hydra. "Let me ask you this - do you trust him?"
Nat sighed again, tucking her hair back behind her ear. "That depends on what's in that message," she admitted. "I trusted him once, and it turned out I was still working for the bad guy. I want to trust him. But there are some things that have to be in that message for me to trust that he's on the up and up here."
"If you don't trust him, there's a good chance it's a trap," he pointed out further, though that much seemed obvious. He wasn't sure what it was that might Nick Fury might have put in the message to make her trust it, but all of this was proving a lot tricker than he had first realized.
"Exactly. Which would mean we almost lost someone for no damned reason but to make us look harder at the data. And if he's put one of the girls at risk again just to see what happens, I will kill him myself." It was rare for her to show real anger, but it was there, simmering just below the surface.
"Maybe it's not that simple," he said. He was no spy - his mind didn't really work that way - but in order to analyze data, one needed to be able to sift through data, looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. "Maybe he wasn't able to get a message out in time warning of the attack. Maybe he didn't even know about it. It must have been hard enough to get this message to us," he reasoned.
"If he's still on side, that message should have a warning of the attack on Olivia Storm in it," she predicted. "Too late for us to do anything about it, but it'd be a sign that he's not theirs." She shook her head. "I've trusted the wrong people my whole life. I don't want to make that mistake again."
"You mean Lucy Rogers," Colin corrected. Olivia Storm had only been attacked because someone had mistaken her for her twin sister, or so they'd assumed. He frowned thoughtfully, exhaling a sigh that echoed hers. "I don't like it, Nat. Even if Fury isn't part of Hydra, it could be a trap." But if it was a trap, why give away Hydra locations, when they could easily avoid a trap by ordering missile strikes? Unless they weren't Hydra locations at all.
"Part of what makes my life so exciting," she told him, green eyes glimmering teasingly above her smile. "Everywhere I go, it could be a trap. Hasn't killed me yet."
From the look on his face, that didn't make him feel any better. "No one lives forever," he murmured. He didn't really want to think about anything bad happening to her, but with a job like hers, it was always a possibility. Not even Nick Fury would live forever.
"I've been shot a few times," she shrugged. "It's no big deal by now." Although, admittedly, to someone who wasn't intimately aware of how good pain was at motivating a person, that probably wasn't very comforting.
"Let's try to make sure that doesn't happen again," he said, though he had no idea just how to ensure that without following her around and becoming a spy himself.
She raised a brow, her conversation with Steve still fresh in her mind. "Are you worrying about me, Mr. Prescott?" she asked teasingly.
"It seems someone has to," he countered with a smirk of his own. He nodded his head toward the computer screen in front of her. "It's going to be a few hours before that program is finished running. Why don't you get some rest?"
She actually laughed at that, an unexpectedly warm sound that erupted from her lips as she let her head fall back for a moment. "Why is everyone trying to send me to bed?" she asked in amusement. "Do I look like I just crawled out of a grave or something?"
"Captain Rogers and I equate to everyone, I assume," he presumed, only partly in jest. He hadn't noticed her in the company of anyone else but the two of them for the better part of the evening. "You may not have a chance to get much sleep once this message is decrypted," he pointed out, more seriously.
"I will," she promised with a smile. "The locations have to be reconned, and that'll take a couple of days. I do solemnly swear that I will sleep," she added. "But until I know the content of this data, it's not happening."
"Well, then, we're going to need something to pass the time," he said, looking like he wasn't going anywhere either. "And more coffee," he added with a smirk. "Do you play chess? Checkers? Poker? Scrabble?" he asked, just to name a few.
"Pick one," she told him, glad he wasn't going to push the point about her neglecting herself. "Playing for stakes, or s***s and giggles?"
"Playing for stakes would make things more interesting," he replied, rubbing at his chin as he contemplated a possible wager. "How about a date? Winner picks the place and loser has to pay."
She was quiet for a moment, but she couldn't disguise the smile on her face as he presented his suggestion. She knew Steve hadn't had the opportunity to talk to him about it, so this was all Colin. And despite her instinctive reservations ... she liked it. "All right," she conceded. "Choose your weapons, I'll go and steal the coffee pot from the kitchen."
He might have preferred Chess or Scrabble, but without a board, that was going to prove difficult. A deck of cards was a lot easier to procure though. "Jarvis," he said, addressing the A.I. Stark had installed at A.E.G.I.S. HQ. "Do you know if there's a deck of cards around here somewhere?"
"There are a selection of entertainments in the window cabinet of the breakroom on your level, Mr. Prescott, including four packs of playing cards," the computer responded. It was easy to forget that Jarvis was everywhere, but very handy when you remembered.
"Very good. Thank you, Jarvis. Could you make sure no one enters this room, until Miss Romanoff or I return?" he asked further, as he set the now empty coffee cup on the desk and moved to his feet.
"Of course, sir. Locks set to open only for yourself or Agent Romanoff."
Nat smirked as she rose to her feet. "Sounds like we have a plan. Meet you back here, Mr. Prescott."
"See you soon, Miss Romanoff," Colin replied, stepping toward the door and pausing to hold it open for her. He wasn't sure what he was going to find in the so-called breakroom, but all they really needed was a deck of playing cards to pass a few hours.
She chuckled, slipping past him to head for the kitchen. What Colin found in the cabinet Jarvis had directed him to was a collection of near pristine board games and puzzles, as well as the promised packs of cards.
Pleased with the selection, but unsure what Nat would prefer, Colin chose a couple of items before making his way back to the computer lab, the boxes tucked under one arm - all of which were still in their original shrink-wrap, including the playing cards.
He met her in the hallway, the entire coffee-maker under one arm, and the constituent parts needed to keep making coffee wrapped in the other arm. "Success, I take it?"
"You, too, I see," he replied with an amused smirk at the sight of her lugging everything possibly needed to keep them in supply of coffee for at least the next few hours. "Only one problem," he teased, leaning forward to lower his voice as if someone might be listening. "Water."
She grinned, nodding to the water cooler in the hallway. "I could drag that in here too, if you really wanted me to," she suggested. "I figure if you like a woman with a weapon, you must really like a woman with muscles."
"Mmm, that depends on the woman and the muscles," he replied, reaching to snag a thing or two from her arms, though that would mean she'd have to open the door. "I prefer my women not to be hulked out, if that's what you mean," he said, choosing that particular word on purpose.
"I can promise you, I don't turn green when I'm pissed," she countered, tilting her head at him curiously. "I just know the lullabye, that's all." She considered him for a moment as she pushed open the door. "Are you a little jealous of Bruce Banner?"
"Are we talking drunk pissed or angry pissed?" he countered further, with the hint of a smirk on his face. "Jealous?" he echoed as she got the door, taken a little off guard by the question. "Should I be?"
"Angry pissed." She flashed a grin over her shoulder, moving to assemble the various bits and pieces on the clearest area of desk and plug the coffee maker in. "Well ... I do know about the rumors that fly around this place," she pointed out. "Why else would you mention "hulking out"?"
He shrugged, avoiding her gaze as he, too, set the various coffee-making components down on the desk. "I'd prefer a woman who isn't liable to squash me like a fly," he told her. He'd heard the rumors - it was hard not to in a place like this - and he wanted to make sure he didn't step on anyone's toes, especially not the toes of one particular green hulking brute.
She paused, straightening to look at him. "I am capable of controlling my violent tendencies," she told him, a little hurt that he didn't seem to be entirely sure of that himself.
He seemed to sense something in her tone of voice that told him he might have crossed a line. "Sorry. I didn't mean to imply otherwise," he said, hoping she'd accept his apology or it was going to be a very long evening.
She sighed, tugging her hair over her shoulder. "Look, I know the rumors imply that I was in a relationship with Dr. Banner, or the Hulk, or both of them, but the truth is very different," she told him calmly. "I haven't been in a relationship with anyone. And the lullabye works because I'm the only one of the team the Hulk doesn't immediately see as a threat, and because Bruce trusts me to be honest with him. That's all of it."
"You don't have to explain, and I didn't mean to pry," Colin told her, setting the games down on another desk nearby and turning to face her. "It was a joke. I didn't mean anything by it. I'm sorry I mentioned it." He wondered if she was getting defensive because there was some truth to the rumors or just the opposite.
"Sorry. I guess I'm a little touchy." She offered him an apologetic smile. "I've lived my whole life under other people's names, with other people's histories. When things get personal, when rumors get the truth wrong ... it hits a nerve. I didn't mean to get pissy about it."
"It's all right," he said, moving over to help her with the coffee maker, even though she probably didn't need the help. "It's been a long couple of days, and everyone's on edge. You're allowed to get pissy sometimes. Just let me know if I get out of line, and I'll back off," he told her, pressing a hand against his heart, as if to make a pledge.
"You didn't." She hesitated for a brief moment before her hand brushed his arm. "I just reacted badly, that's all. I'm not used to being teased by attractive guys." Which wasn't entirely true, given the general good looks of the entire Avengers team, but certainly carried a compliment with it.
"I find that hard to believe," he said, with a chuckle. The male to female ratio at A.E.G.I.S. was at least three to one, not to mention the Avengers. "More used to being teased by ugly guys?" he said, hoping to get at least a smile from her, instead of offending her this time.
He got his smile, complete with a faint huff of laughter. "Something like that," she allowed, snagging the pot to go and fill it from the water cooler in the hall. "So what are we playing?" she called back, holding the door open with one foot while filling the pot.
"I'm not sure," he replied, frowning at the pile of games he'd snagged from the break room. "Cards leaves too much to chance. I was thinking Chess," he called back, though Chess might be more mentally challenging than Poker.
"Strategy games, nice." The door thumped against her hip as she came back in to fill the reservoir from the pot. "I've played way too much poker just to keep Stark happy. Chess would be a refreshing change."
"Not Strip Poker, I hope," Colin said, glancing over at her momentarily to gauge her reaction, hoping she didn't assume jealousy again. It was hard to be jealous when you didn't have a claim to the object of your jealousy.
She snorted with laughter. "Once," she admitted. "He refused to play it ever again after Barton got him down to his jockey shorts in about five hands."
Colin winced, chuckling again. "Why would he agree to ..." he trailed off, realizing the answer to his question almost as soon as he'd asked it. The answer was obvious enough, after all. Stark had agreed to a game of Strip Poker because he'd been overly confident he'd win and Nat would lose. "Did he cheat?" he asked further.
"He tried." She flashed him a sudden, very mischievous grin. "I'm better at it, though." Not that she was going to tell Stark that the only reason he'd been the one almost naked was because the entire table had conspired to make sure she kept her clothes on, and he didn't.
"Hard to cheat at Chess," he said, turning back to unwrap the box and get set up the board. "Black or white?" he asked, letting her choose. Each had its own set of advantages. White went first, which might seem like an advantage, but some players preferred to let their opponent make the first move.
"Black." Nat drew a stool between their chairs for him to set the board on, tucking her feet beneath herself as she made herself comfortable. "You realise that, by your own stakes, whoever wins this, we're still going on a date, right?"
"Those were the agreed upon stakes," he said, moving the board to the stool before starting to set up the pieces. If she wanted to withdraw for some reason or change the stakes, this was her chance. He showed no sign of doing so himself.
"Just checking." She smiled to herself as she watched him set the board. All right, so she hadn't agreed to anything more than a single date, and there were still a thousand ways she could screw it up, but ... maybe Steve was right. Not that she was ever going to tell him that, of course. He could be infuriatingly smug at times, though admittedly not as annoying as Stark.
He set up the pieces, black on her side of the board, white on his and made his first move. Not a complete surprise at this point in the game, he moved his King's pawn to E4.
Her response might have been a surprise - her first move was with a knight, rather than a pawn. "So ... you seduce women into dating you with chess, code, and coffee a lot, or am I a special case?" she asked mildly.
So, she was taking an offensive tact, rather than a defensive one. He wasn't too surprised. He countered with a knight. "I'm not aware of ever having purposely seduced a woman," he replied. "But if you're asking if this is a proper date, then no, it isn't. The date comes after, remember?"
"You've only ever accidentally slept with someone?" Nat countered with a tease, this time moving a single pawn. "I find that hard to believe. You've gotta have a few notches on your bedpost by now, surely, handsome guy like you."
"Now who's seducing who?" he asked, arching a single brow at her. "I'm no virgin, if that's what you're asking, but all my liasions have been consensual," he replied vaguely enough.
"Can't blame a girl for being curious," she answered, and yes, that was a flirtatious smile. She had given herself permission to flirt with him. "And if all it takes is compliments to get you into bed, I should have tried harder months ago."
"I guess that depends on what you're looking for - a one night stand or something more lasting," he said as he moved his bishop onto the board. He didn't bother to tell her which he was looking for. Whether he won or not, she had agreed to a date, and he was pretty sure they'd both find out then whether there was anything worth pursuing between them.
"I think it's more of a case of what you're prepared to put on the table," was Nat's counter-argument. "I'm not an easy person to get to know. I think the popular way to describe it these days is "trust issues"."
"But you trust your teammates," he pointed out, more statement than question. Was she saying she had trust issues all around or just when it came to romance, he wondered.
"There are different levels of trust." She shrugged, studying the board for a moment over the rim of her mug before taking one of his pawns with her knight. "Trusting someone to have my back on a mission is a whole lot easier than trusting someone with the power to break me."
"How does the old saying go?" he asked, as he swapped out one of his pieces for one of her pawns in answer to her move. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained? It's just a date, Nat, not a marriage proposal."
"It has the potential to be more than just one date," she pointed out mildly. "And if it goes further, there will come a time when you know more about me than anyone. You'll know the worst of the things I've done, the things I've allowed to happen. Being able to tell you those things will lay me open. And I wouldn't blame you for walking away at that point. This is how my brain works on this, Col."
He paused, looking up from the chess board to meet her gaze. "Why don't we just take things one step at a time?" he asked, hoping not to overwhelm her. He wasn't sure what it was about her past that she was so worried about. Everyone had a few ghosts kicking around in their closet, and he was no exception.
Meeting his gaze, Natasha offered another apologetic smile. "I always expect the worst," she admitted. "I've never not been a spy, it colors everything. But I'll try not to assume you're going to run screaming from the mention of my name."
"Never is a very long time, Nat," Colin replied, exchanging her knight for his bishop without blinking an eye. "You certainly weren't born a spy," he pointed out. While it was true he didn't know much about her history or background, everyone was born innocent.
"Nature didn't really get a chance to do much where I was concerned," she confessed, smoothing the shock of this with a smile. "I was born into a system, and the system decided to make something of me. What about you, anyway? I doubt you were born with a keyboard in your hands."
"Hardly," he said with a chuckle. "My mother would have preferred I mastered a piano keyboard, but I had no talent for music, then or now," he admitted, the smirk on his face showing he had no ill will about it. His talents merely laid in other areas.
Her hand passed over the board, sacrificing a castle to take his knight. "No talent at all?" she asked curiously. "Pretty sure I've heard some of the ladies around here talking about your dancing."
"Dancing doesn't require talent, unless you're wearing tights," he said, though that point could be argued. He was, perhaps, only speaking for himself. "Have you ever seen a small child dance?" he asked, mulling over the pieces on the board. "They need no lessons or dance steps. They feel the music and let their body move likewise."
She seemed wistful for a moment, visibly making the effort to push that reaction away. "I've seen Rogers' kids dance," she agreed. "It's ... an experience, I'll give them that." Chuckling, she raised her cup to her lips again, glancing over at the computer. The progress bar was rising into the thirties - not bad.
"You're close to Captain Rogers and his family, aren't you?" he asked, as he boldly moved his queen onto the chess board. He didn't need anyone to tell him she and the captain were close - it was pretty obvious in the way they interacted together.
"Well ... don't tell Agent Barton this, but Steve's my best friend," she admitted with a smile. "He understands me better than pretty much everyone else, and he listens when I tell him he's being an idiot. We've been through a lot. But no, never attracted to him."
"Would Agent Barton be jealous?" he asked, one brow ticking curiously upwards. It seemed Agent Romanoff was surrounded mostly by men, both professionally and otherwise, starting with the Hulk and ending with Captain America. Just where did a simple programmer fit in?
"Maybe a little," she chuckled. "Clint's the only reason I'm alive. He was sent to kill me - recruited me instead. We worked together almost exclusively for years before the Avengers were put together."
"Kill you?" Colin echoed, jerking his head up, his concentration broken by that information. It took him a moment to recover, leaving him even more curious than before. "Why was he sent to kill you? Because you were Russian?"
"Because Russia's Black Widow was the best covert assassin and spy in the world, and I was making life very difficult for S.H.I.E.L.D." She shrugged again, brushing her hair back off her face. "I had orders, I obeyed my orders. I didn't think I had a choice. And then the man who was supposed to kill me gave me a choice."
But her explanation only answered half his questions. He forgot about the chess board for a moment, finding the image of the woman in front of him far more intriguing than any game could offer. "A choice between joining S.H.I.E.L.D. and dying isn't much of a choice, Nat," he pointed out assuming that was the choice Barton had given her.
Her laugh was quiet, just slightly touched with bitterness. "It's the first choice I ever made for myself," she told him. "Gotta start somewhere, right?"
"Have you ever regretted it? Have you ever regretted joining S.H.I.E.L.D.?" he asked. He was pretty sure she didn't regret the choice she'd made if death had been the only option, but how did she feel about turning her back on her native Russia and working for A.E.G.I.S.? Then again, he'd noticed that she wasn't the only Russian among their ranks.
"That's ... complicated." She rubbed her forehead briefly, leaning back in her seat. "When I thought S.H.I.E.L.D. were the good guys? No regrets. These days, knowing what I know now and didn't know then? There's a lot of guilt, and not knowing if what I did for S.H.I.E.L.D. was the right thing at the time ... Hydra was never my plan. They tricked me, and I'm not supposed to be trickable."
"That doesn't mean that everything you did for S.H.I.E.L.D. was really for Hydra," he pointed out. "Is that what Stark believes? Or Barton or Banner or Rogers?" he asked, naming a few of the men she seemed to think of as friends, or at least, as allies.
"No one really knows when Hydra got control," she pointed out. "The team ... they never really worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. Me and Barton? We have our doubts, and we always will."
"But that's all behind you now, Natasha. Whatever you did when you thought you were working for S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't your fault," he pointed out further. "Nothing can be done to change the past, but you can do something about the future." It seemed like pretty simple and obvious advice, but maybe she needed to hear it.
"I've killed a lot of people in the name of one regime or the other," she said quietly. "Can anything really make up for all that death?"
He shrugged his shoulders, a soft smile on his face. "You won't know, unless you try," he said, moving his queen into place with a smirk. "Check," he declared, proving he hadn't been as distracted as he might have seemed.
Her eyes narrowed as she looked down at the board, studying the layout of the pieces. "Not for long," she countered, moving her king safely behind a couple of her other pieces that still remained. "How would you recommend I try?"
He moved again, not quite putting her king in jeopardy yet, but it was only a matter of time once he had her on the run. "Take things one day at a time and try not to over think things. Your heart will tell you what to do every time."
"You really think my heart can be trusted to make the right decisions?" Nat asked, quietly shy of the faith he seemed to have in her. He'd won this game, but she wasn't going to give up without a fight.
"Then if you can't trust your heart, trust your gut," he replied, moving his castle to back up his queen, putting the black king in check once again. "Check," he declared again, and this time he was confident it was Mate.
"You think my gut's right about you?" she asked, only to look down and find herself in checkmate. "Aw, hell. I used to be so good at this game!"
"Perhaps you've met your match," he said, innocently enough, not quite realizing how his wording could be misconstrued. He gently knocked her king over to make it official, an amused smile on his face. "Looks like you'll be buying me dinner, Agent Romanoff."
"Looks like you're deciding where we go, Agent Prescott," she countered, though her smile was wide at his innocent suggestion. It was a lovely dream, if nothing else. "After these missions are done," she added firmly.
"Is McDonald's too expensive for you?" he asked, kidding, of course. He didn't answer her question about her gut feeling about him, though whether it was because he couldn't answer it or didn't want to was unclear.
She snorted with laughter, wondering if he knew just how much she was worth. She didn't maintain a home off the base, she borrowed Stark's cars when the mood took her. She earned a salary, but she didn't actually spend much of it. "I can definitely stretch to more than McDonald's," she assured him with a chuckle. "Don't you worry about my bank account."
"I'm not," he assured her with a grin. "The problem is I haven't been here very long and don't know of many good restaurants, so you may have to choose." He could have asked someone else for a recommendation, but he didn't want to have to explain.
"Well, you've got about ten days to do a little research, then," she told him. "I lost, all I'm doing is paying. If I choose as well, what do you get for winning?"
"I get to spend some time with a gorgeous redhead. I'd call that a win," he told her. Never mind the fact that he was spending time with her now - they were at work, so that didn't count.
"Funny, I thought you were doing that right now?" At least she didn't have any false modesty; if he wanted to compliment her, he was allowed to without her trying to negate the praise. "Put like that, my stake for losing isn't really a punishment. I get to spend time with a handsome fella with sinfully long fingers."
He couldn't help but laugh at her description of his fingers. "That depends on what I do with them," he said, wiggling said fingers for effect. "I like you, Nat. I hope you don't mind if I say so," he told her, a warm smile on his face.
"I don't - I don't mind," she answered quietly, her smile broad with warm pleasure at this honest comment. "I, uh, I like you, too. You know, in case it wasn't obvious, what with the never letting you go a night shift without company ever."
His smile widened in amusement at the slight stammer, which was very un-Nat like. He couldn't help but wonder if he was making her nervous. "I don't mean like a friend," he told her, though if that's all she wanted, he would respect that.
She held his gaze for a long moment, her expression softer than he might have ever seen on her face before. "I know," she promised in a soft voice, and suddenly she was moving, rising out of her seat to lean over their makeshift table and press her lips to his, her fingers teasing through the hair at his nape. "Me neither," she murmured almost playfully as she drew back.
His brows arched upwards at her unexpected reaction to his statement, surprised by the kiss but not so surprised that he didn't think to reciprocate. He smiled as she drew back, obviously appreciating the little sample she'd offered of what he'd been missing. "Do I have to wait ten days for an encore?" he asked, blue eyes bright with amusement.
She grinned, easing back down onto her seat. "Beat me again, and you can have as many kisses as you like," she challenged, reaching to set the board for another game. The program was barely over halfway done; they still had time to kill.
"That sounds like a challenge," he said, that smirk still on his face. He had a feeling he could have had as many kisses as he wanted anyway, but it was more fun this way. "And if I lose?" he asked, as he helped her reset the board.
"No more kisses until the date," she decided on a whim, flashing a wide grin over at him. That was certainly an incentive to play well, at least for him, but he knew her well enough to know she wouldn't throw the game just to spare a little building tension.
"Hmm, do I have a choice?" he asked. Of course, he always had a choice, but he was willing to play along for now. If she could wait ten days, he certainly could do the same.
"There's always a choice," she assured him, contrary to what she had believed for the first twenty or so years of her life. "Scared you might lose this time?"
"It seems I win either way," he pointed out. Whether he beat her or not, she had already agreed to a date, and she had given him a preview of what to expect on that date. The worst that could happen was that he might have to wait a few days for a repeat performance.
"So do I." She smiled, leaning down to turn the board around and make the first move with a white pawn. This probably wasn't what Steve had had in mind with his encouragement, but she doubted he would complain over much about the method she'd chosen of diving in at the deep end, so to speak.
Not an hour had passed before Nat had Colin's king in checkmate, proving she was a worthy opponent. "You win," he said, with a dramatic sigh. "Are you sure you can wait ten days?" he asked, almost with a challenge in his voice.
Crowing over her victory, Nat laughed at his question. "Well, I would plead the Fifth, but I'm Russian, so it doesn't apply," was her response, not really prepared to give a yes or a no to that query.
"I can't plead the Fifth either," he chuckled, amused at her reply. "I didn't realize I was so irresistible," he teased, smirking again. "I'm told pleading the Fifth is as good as admitting your guilt."
"Yes, I'm barely keeping my clothes on here," she drawled with warm sarcasm. "There's just something about you that makes my underwear try to escape without me noticing."
"Well, who am I to argue with your underwear?" he remarked. "So, does this mean hands off for ten days, or are we just talking lips?" he asked, realizing he probably should have asked before he accepted her challenge.
She blinked, impressed he was looking for a loophole and that he'd found one so quickly. "I-I ..." She tried again, even as she laughed. "All I said was kisses!"
"I guess I'll just have to try and resist," he said, reaching across the table to link his fingers with hers - the fingers she'd called sinful, for some reason.
There was something unexpectedly intimate in that twining of fingers. For all that she seemed open and free, Natasha was actually rather touch-starved. A simple touch from someone she liked was more than enough to send a delicate shiver down her spine. "You're going to tease me until I give in, aren't you?"
"Not if you don't want me to," he replied, making no move to pull away. He could tell from her reaction that he was having an effect on her, and he couldn't help but admit, if only to himself, that he liked the feeling of her hand in his. He was a long way from home, with few friends to call his own, but it seemed friendship was not quite what he was looking for in Nat.
Her eyes on their joined fingers, her answer was a contradiction that provided a positive answer. "I don't not want you to," she managed, feeling that odd shyness rising again. What was wrong with her? She was never shy. Natasha Romanoff was always confident and in command of the situation. But with Colin ... she wasn't sure she wanted to be.
He laughed, not at her exactly, but at the situation they'd gotten themselves into; and yet, they were both full-grown adults, capable of making their own decisions. "What do you want, Natasha?" he asked, blue eyes dancing with humor.
"Now you're asking the deep questions," she warned, her own amusement reflected back to him in her smile as she brushed her thumb over his. "Sure you're ready for that information?"
"I'd rather hear it from you than read it in some dossier," he replied. Though he certainly had the means to dig pretty deep, he hadn't looked into her background beyond what everyone at A.E.G.I.S. already knew.
But this was something she'd never told anyone, not even Steve. Still, she should start as she meant to go on, right? "I want ... what I've never had," she admitted softly, lowering her gaze to their joined hands again. "A home, a family. Love. A reason to live beyond the next mission, or the one after that."
His smile softened, as his thumb returned that caress against hers. It wasn't a kiss, but somehow the simple touch seemed almost as intimate. He knew enough about her past to know she had never had those things that most people took for granted - things even he'd taken for granted. "It's a bit too soon to make any promises, but everyone deserves to be loved, Nat. And I think, perhaps, you have more friends and family than you care to admit," he told her gently, though he knew what she meant was that she wanted a home of her own to share with someone she loved.
"They're not mine, not really," she murmured. "Friends are all I have, and they have their own families. I'm just a visitor. Opening up to people usually gets them killed ... but you're not in the field, you're not in constant danger. You're protected."
"Ah, so if I were a field agent, you wouldn't have made that wager," he presumed, unsure how he felt about that. Was she only attracted to him because she thought he was safe, because he was unlikely to be killed? "How does opening up to someone get them killed exactly?" he asked further, possibly misunderstanding what she was trying to say.
"I don't know," she admitted. "That's just the way it happens. I tried twice, both times they were murdered by my bosses. Too much of a distraction. I'm the problem, Col. Not you."
"Which bosses were these?" he pressed her further, not only out of curiosity, but a need to know and, perhaps more importantly, a need to prove her wrong.
She knew what he was going to say - it showed in her rueful smile as she answered his question. "KGB," she told him. "Well ... an off-shoot of the KGB. Technically, the KGB disbanded before I got into training."
He knew enough about her that he wasn't surprised to hear she'd once worked for the KGB or whatever Russian Intelligence was calling itself now, but that was the past. "But Nat, you're no longer working for them," he pointed out, leaning closer, as if that would help her understand that she didn't have to fear that any longer.
She drew in a slow breath, risking a glance up to meet his eyes. "For a long time, the only way to protect myself was to be all alone," she said with disarming honesty. "It's a habit that's hard to break."
"Nat, life is all about taking chances and making choices, from the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night. Some choices will be good ones, some not so good. Everything worth having comes with a price. Everything. No one lives forever. Life isn't about living forever. It's about living a full life, not necessarily a long life," he tried to explain, meeting her gaze, his expression warm but solemn.
Nat was quiet for a very long time. "Do you think it's possible to ... to make amends for a lifetime of not asking the right questions?" she asked curiously. "To make up for obeying orders even when you knew they were wrong?"
He looked a little confused by her question, which didn't seem to have anything to do with her reasons for being alone. Maybe she couldn't or wouldn't allow herself a chance at happiness, until she was sure she deserved it. "I think most people deserve a second chance," he assured her. Most, not all. Some people were just too evil to ever be redeemed, but he did not believe she was one of them.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. was supposed to be my second chance," she said, a little bitterly. "How many chances do you get before you're beyond hope?"
"How does the old saying go? There's no point in crying over spilled milk?" he asked, knowing it might not be fair to compare her past to a carton of spilled milk, but he was trying to make a point. "Unless you know of a way to go back in time and erase all your mistakes, there's not changing them. All you can do is learn from them and hope you don't repeat them." He chuckled a little at the sound of his own words. "And that's my philosophic advice for the evening."
She smiled faintly. "One more question for you, professor." Her hand tightened on his imperceptibly as she swept her uncertainty and indecision out of sight behind a teasing smile. "How far do you think we can get before we invalidate that second wager?"
He arched his brows, a little taken aback at the implication of her question. "I suppose that depends on how far you'd like to go," he replied. Unable to even do so much as to kiss her hand or risk losing their wager, he only studied her expression, almost as though by doing so, he might be able to read her thoughts.
"Kinda wish I hadn't set those stakes now," she admitted with a low laugh. "I guess you don't always get what you want, huh?"
"It's only ten days, but perhaps I can offer a solution," he said, the slightest hint of a smirk on his face. "What if we agreed to a simultaneous kiss? That way, no one wins or loses. It's a draw."
"Just the one?" But the smile on her face was full of agreement, enjoying the way he could find loopholes in her confirmed statements with ease. No one else had ever done that.
"Well, I can't promise one won't lead to more," he said, smirking again. "Though I'm not sure this is the right time or place," he added, his expression turning serious as he looked over at the pair of computers that had to be at the tail end of their decoding by now.
She sighed, rolling her eyes. Of course work had to get in the way, why should this time be any different? She followed his gaze to the progress bar. 98%. "I guess I should call Steve and get him down here," she muttered. "He's gonna want to be one of the first people with eyes on this."
He frowned, studying her expression, noting the way she reacted to his reminder that they still had work to finish, but it wasn't just about work. When they were finally able to enjoy that kiss and wherever it led, he didn't want to be anywhere near A.E.G.I.S. Headquarters or their associates there. "Nat, whatever is going on between us ... it isn't over, okay?"
The corner of her mouth lifted into a surprisingly intimate, if lopsided, smile. "It had better not be," she warned. "I already decided what I'm wearing on our date." But reluctantly she released his hand, rising to her feet to reach for the phone.
"I presume it won't be McDonald's then," he teased, reminding her that she still had to pick the restaurant. "I'm going to check on our progress," he said, moving to his feet, as well, and turning to check on the program's progress.
"I expect to see you in a suit that you haven't worn to work," she countered warmly, dialing Steve's internal line. She knew he'd be awake in seconds; Captain Rogers could go from nought to sixty in a split second.
Just like before, Captain Rogers promised he'd be right there, leaving Nat alone with Colin for just a few more minutes. "So, where do you want to go?" he asked, as his fingers tapped the keyboard to check on their progress.
"Escalada," she answered almost immediately, leaning over his shoulder to watch as he teased the message together from the decrypted code. "Not totally over the top, but a nice place, I hear."
"Sounds fancy," he said, his gaze never leaving the screen, though he was all-too-aware of her beside him, so close he could feel her breath on his neck and smell the scent of her perfume.
"It won't break the bank," she promised, taking advantage of the opportunity to rest her hand on his shoulder, one fingertip very gently teasing a caress against his neck as he worked. She could decipher bits and pieces - it didn't look as though this was going to be a very uplifting message.
She was a distraction, that much was for certain, but right now, he needed to focus on deciphering the message. "Can you make any of it out?" he asked, realizing it could be a coded message within the encryption.
She frowned, trying to remember where she'd seen that collection of zeroes and ones before. "It's not binary, it's ..." The penny dropped. "Holy crap, it's Morse. Give me a sec, there's a Morse dictionary around here somewhere. This could take a little while."
"Morse?" Colin echoed, obviously stunned. "As in Morse Code?" Well, obviously - what other kind of Morse was there? "What do you need me to do?" he asked, eager to help in any way he could, even if decoding an antiquated set of codes was not his specialty.
"Separate it into sets of three, and see if there's a program on there for decoding Morse?" she suggested, rummaging on the desk. "Jarvis, we do have a way to decode Morse, right?"
"Certain, Agent Romanoff. Downloading the appropriate program to Agent Prescott's computer terminal."
"How the bloody hell did he find time to enter Morse Code?" Colin asked, tapping at the keys to direct the download that Jarvis had set in motion.
"He's a master at espionage." Nat shrugged, drawing her chair alongside his to watch the program at work. "And Morse wasn't out of fashion when he started out. I guess ... if he's in deep ... makes sense he'd go back to basics. Most V.I.'s aren't programmed to recognize Morse these days."
"Yes, well, it's a good thing someone had the sense to add it to Jarvis' programming," Colin remarked, knowing that someone was probably none other than Tony Stark. "This is going to take a while," he said with a sigh, echoing what she'd said only a moment before. They'd already killed a couple of hours waiting for the message to be decrypted and now this.
"Not that long," she predicted in turn, nodding to a new window on the screen, already beginning to fill with discernible words. For the attention of Captain America and his team ...
"Bloody hell," Colin muttered to himself. If the message's address was that long, he could only imagine how long the actual message might be. But at least, Jarvis' program seemed to be decoding it pretty quickly.
Fury, Nicholas J. Captured by Hydra 15/27/2016. Attached to the machine - ask Romanoff for clarification. Tapped for information on counter-measures against Avengers. Hope you have a new team, Cap - you're going to need something to knock them back. Enclosed are coordinates for the five main bases, and four research labs that need taking out. No idea of my location. Hit planned on Lucy Rogers - distraction tactic. Hit them hard, make it clean. Wipe Hydra off the map. Message ends.
Natasha sat back, her body vibrating with shock. "Two years," she breathed. "He's been in the machine for two years ..."
"What does he mean by that?" Colin asked, as he read the words coming up on the screen. "What machine?" Unlike Nat, he wasn't a spy or even an A.E.G.I.S. operative. His area of expertise was computer technology, not intel, but he was intuitive enough to understand that whatever had happened to Fury, it wasn't good.
"The machine is ..." She hesitated, but knew he deserved to know this. "It's brainwashing tech. Scrambles neurons, makes the subject more compliant. Connects the brain directly to the central computer system. Fury, he ... if he's been connected all this time, his body's already dead. This is his last chance to warn us about Hydra. He might have killed himself just putting this together."
"Good God," Colin breathed, looking properly horrified, his face visibly paling. "That's ... I don't even know what to say," he admitted, for once in his life, at a loss for words. Horrible wasn't a strong enough word. There were no words to describe that kind of fate. "I'm so sorry, Nat," he said, turning to her with a sympathetic look on his face.
But the Nat sitting beside him wasn't the woman he had begun to get to know tonight. Her expression was dark with anger, with guilt, with an unenviable certainty that her former boss deserved peace above all else. "Copy this to Croft and Stark," she told him. "I'll take the captain's copy." Because she was going to run Steve down in the corridor rather than bear this knowledge alone for the next few hours.
"We need to act on this quickly, before they find out this message has gotten out," Colin said, turning back to the computer to send a copy of the message on to Croft and Stark, encrypted and marked urgent. "Jarvis, can you make sure Director Croft and Mister Stark are informed of this message right away?" he asked the A.I., as easily as if he was talking to a personal assistant. Right away meant right away - even if they were sleeping.
"Of course, Agent Prescott. Waking Mr. Stark now."
"Nat?" a voice broke in behind them as Captain Rogers entered the room. "What's going on?"
Steve entered just as the print out came from the computer. Nat tore it off and handed it to him. "I need to get people moving on those coordinates," she told him tersely. "And you need to decide who is taking which base."
"Damn," Steve muttered, as he made quick work of Fury's missive. The word might not be a very strong one, but it was for a man who rarely if ever uttered an expletive. Some of Fury's message only confirmed what they knew already, but reading the rest of it and knowing there was little hope now for a rescue was like a punch in Steve's gut. Whatever disagreements he and Fury might have had in the past, they had also been friends, and Steve wouldn't wish his fate on anyone. "We need to act fast," he said, his voice grave, his expression solemn. It was time for the Avengers to Assemble. As upset as he was about Fury, there wasn't much time to think about that now.
"Give me eight hours," she promised. "This is what A.E.G.I.S. intel has been training for." And she knew Croft's favorite proteges were going to leap into action as soon as they had coffee in them.
Steve looked from one to the other and nodded. "Eight hours. Not a minute more," he told her. "I have to talk to Croft ... and Tony," he added, having overheard Prescott's instructions to Jarvis. "Good work," he added, looking from one to the other. "Try to get some rest, if you can. It's gonna be a long day tomorrow." And then, he was gone, presumably off to talk to Croft and Stark and summon the Avengers to HQ.
Natasha nodded, leaning her hip against the desk as Steve left. Her brows were drawn together as she stared at the floor. "Col ... you should get to bed," she said quietly. "I, uh ... this needs fast action."
Colin frowned, furrowing his brows. It had been a long night, and they were both tired, but he wasn't leaving her to deal with this alone. "Then let me help," he told her. He wasn't sure what she needed to do exactly, but he wasn't going to sleep when he could be of some use.
She tilted her head curiously. "You sure?"
"I'm sure," he assured her, even though he wasn't sure what she had in mind. "I'm as much a part of A.E.G.I.S. as you are. We're in this together," he said, reaching for her hand and giving it a squeeze, a faint smile on his face.
Just touching her seemed to jerk her out of whatever dark place her thoughts had gone, renewing the softer side as she drew in a swift breath. "All right," she agreed, pushing out of her lean. "Close up, we're going to the Hub."
He nodded his understanding, glancing momentarily at what was left of the coffee and sandwiches and the pile of games that had helped them pass the time. "I'll clean up and meet you there," he promised, not wanting to leave the mess behind for someone else.
"I'll see you there," she agreed. "Jarvis, give Agent Prescott access to the Hub. Security override Romanoff, Natasha A."
There was a pause.
"High level access should be verified with another ranking officer, Agent Romanoff," the A.I. pointed out mildly.
Natasha narrowed her eyes. "Get Steve to do it," she told the computer firmly.
There was another pause.
"Security level granted, Agent Prescott raised to Level One security status."
"Thanks, Jarvis." Nat turned to Colin with a triumphant smile. "See you there, agent."
Agent? Colin arched a brow, wondering what Nat was up to. He wasn't an agent; he was mainly a computer geek, albeit, an exceptional one. Sure, he could use a handgun if he needed to, but he hadn't been in the field in years. "Yes, ma'am," he replied obediently, a little relieved to see she could still manage a smile. "I'll see you there."
The Hub was A.E.G.I.S. center of operations, a massive array of surveillance screens and computer terminals, from which the Director and the highest level agents could direct operations in the field around the world. By the time Colin reached the Hub, Nat was already in the process of waking agents and sending them out.
It was Colin's first time to visit the Hub, and it was quite a sight for him to see. The first one to greet him was Captain Rogers, though the man was clearly too busy for idle chit chat. He directed Colin in Nat's direction before returning to his study of the message and the various Hydra locations.
As Colin entered, Nat looked over her shoulder, offering him a wry smile as she gestured to the bank of terminals to her right. "I've got D.C., Moscow, Rome, and Japan on the case," she told him. "Get in contact with London and Paris, give them the coordinates for the bases in their home territories, tell them we need covert recon reported back in six hours. If they try to give you trouble over that timeline, cut them off and restate the objective and the time frame."
Colin arched a brow, a little surprised at being accepted into this inner circle of A.E.G.I.S. agents, but knowing better than to ask questions. He was good at taking orders and following them. He nodded to acknowledge Nat and went straight to work, without question.
Luckily for him, A.E.G.I.S. agents around the world were also good at taking orders, especially when they came from the New York Hub. As the last of the home bases around the world were activated, Nat leaned back from the terminals with a pensive look on her face. "They won't start checking in for at least four hours," she said thoughtfully, glancing over at the wall, where a wide cot was set up in case anyone needed to stay and maintain a contact link.
"So, now we just wait?" Colin asked, following her gaze to the cot that was set up near the wall - a small refuge amidst the chaos going on around them. "Tired?" he asked, though that much seemed obvious.
She nodded reluctantly. "We'll be on mission in twelve hours, maybe a little longer," she told him. "I really should take all the sleep I can get. There won't be time to sleep once the debriefing and prep gets started."
"We," he echoed with a frown, knowing that wouldn't include him - at least, not in the field - but maybe he could be of some use here at the Hub. "There has to be someplace more private than this," he whispered back, leaning in a little so that no one overheard him.
She looked into his eyes, wondering for a moment what he was getting at. But if this mission was really as big as she thought it would be, why not take the chance and find out? She leaned back in her seat, calling over to Steve. "Hey, old man - you holding the fort here for a few hours?"
"Yeah, where else am I gonna go?" Steve called back, a slight smirk on his face at Nat's question. He glanced from Nat to Colin, almost reading their minds. It wasn't hard to figure out what Nat was asking him. "Go on, get some rest. I can handle things here," he told her, shooing her away with a hand. Steve Rogers was the one agent among them who could go at least a few days without rest, after all.
"I'll get Jarvis to wake me when the data's being analyzed," she promised her friend, grateful that he hadn't chosen to tease her the way certain other people would have. Her eyes tracked back to Colin. "I, uh, I have a room on the next level," she told him softly. "Is that okay?"
"Yeah," Colin replied quietly, not bothering to ask if she was thinking the same thing. In a few hours, she'd be off with the others, putting herself in danger to eradicate Hydra. He didn't want to think too hard about that right now, but he'd be damned if he didn't give her something good to come home to.
Nat's eyes flickered to his mouth for a long moment, her lower lip drawn between her teeth as she drew in a slow breath. Then that softer, inviting smile rose into view as she lifted her eyes to meet his gaze. "I guess we should stand up, then, huh?"
"That would probably help," he agreed with a chuckle, even as he studied her face, noting the way her gaze drifted to his mouth. They'd already mutually decided to forgo their wager, so there was no reason to worry about waiting, and he no longer wanted to. He reached for her hand as he moved to his feet, as though he was merely helping her to her feet. Thankfully, everyone was too busy to bother looking in their direction or asking questions.
There was still a lot to do, but Nat wasn't needed for any of it. Colin had given them the means to get started on wiping Hydra out for at least one generation, if not more. It was just a matter of time now. And time might be in short supply for the teams who would be heading out in less than twenty hours. Squeezing Colin's hand, Nat drew him out of the Hub and into the elevator up to the domestic levels, aware of a strange butterfly feeling in her chest she hadn't felt for anyone but him.
A quiet tension settled between them, born of adrenaline and exhaustion and physical attraction and maybe something a bit more. He said nothing, only letting his fingers tangle with hers, while they waited for the elevator to arrive on the domestic levels. He was half tempted to kiss her right there, as soon as they were safely away from the prying eyes of friends and co-workers, but he wasn't a hormonal teenager - he could wait a little bit more.
It was still deep in the early hours, the building eerily quiet. As much as she wanted to start right then and there, Nat, too, had enough self-control not to do more than let her fingers tangle with his. Indeed, she used the elevator ride to set her wake up call with Jarvis, acutely aware of Colin all the while. The hallway she drew him into was dark, lit intermittently with tiny LED lights, but she knew her way without needing to see. The door opened at her touch, and she turned to Colin, backing inside to lead him by the hand into the lair of the woman behind the Black Widow.
What exactly was it about this woman that he found so captivating, drawn like a fly right into the spider's lair? He couldn't deny she was gorgeous, but it wasn't just that. She was intelligent, dangerous, mysterious, and maybe just a little bit sad, but it wasn't just that either. Maybe it was the fact that, unlike other women, she could keep up with him. She didn't find him boring or look down on him just because he spent the better part of his day in front of a computer keyboard, like some other women might. She was able to understand and appreciate how critical his job was and treat him as an equal, rather than an underling, even if he didn't have a license to kill. What wasn't there to like about her? She was everything a woman should be and then some. He assumed she understood that he hadn't suggested privacy just so they could get some sleep and didn't waste any time pulling her to him as soon as the door closed behind them and they were alone.
There was no hesitation in her. The decision had been made long before the moment the door closed, perhaps even before the chess game that had spurred this on in the first place. She liked him. She more than liked him; she didn't feel threatened by him, she hoped he wasn't intimidated by her. There was more than friendship to be explored if she just took the chance ... so here she was, taking that chance, her lips on his, her arms about his waist, silently cursing her lack of height as she stretched up onto her toes, wanting, needing, to be closer.
In their line of work, with a dangerous mission looming not far in their future, there was no time to waste. They were both all too aware how short life could be, and though it might hold some people back - it might have even held them back at one point or another - Colin didn't want to waste any time. He didn't want to wait ten days to find out what made this woman tick, to hold her in his arms, to taste her kisses, and learn everything about her intimately. He found himself chuckling as she tried to reach him and finally took pity on her and pulled her closer, lifting her up and wrapping her legs around his waist so he could carry her toward the bed.
That chuckle was all it took to turn this encounter from urgent desperation to warm intimacy, sparking her own grin to make itself known as she hooked her ankles together at his back, her mouth teasing his with smiling kisses as her fingers undid the buttons of his shirt. This time might be hurried, might be charged with the possibility of her impending mortality, but she was determined there would be others.
But there was urgency in the way he kissed her, desperate with need, like a starving man hungry for her kisses. He eased her down onto her feet as they reached the bed, his lips still searching hers, kisses deepening with desire, as his hands hastily moved to peel away her clothing to find the woman that was hidden behind their covering.
The form he uncovered told a story of its own. The toned strength of muscles honed for years, the few scars that must have tales behind them; the way she hesitated for just a moment before surrendering to lie back against the bed, bare and vulnerable and aching for more. His name - his name - ghosting on her breath as she reached to uncover him in turn, smoothing her wide mouth over his skin with tender kisses that burned.
Though there might be no time to waste, he took his time in unveiling her, uncovering the secrets that laid beneath her clothing. A gentle fingertip slowly traced one of those scars, as gentle and tender as a caress, curious what had caused it, but not wanting to think about it too hard right now. It seemed he had a few secrets and scars of his own, things she might not have known or been told, unless she'd dug deep into his dossier. But none of that mattered right now; all that mattered was the shared heat of passion and the need to quench that desire in the only way they knew how.
Each scar she uncovered piqued her interest, saddened her that he'd seen enough action to wear the marks it left behind. She hadn't read his dossier, trusting that he was what he seemed, and yet those scars suggested he was perhaps not wholly what he seemed. But it didn't make her draw back. No, she held tighter to him, loved him harder, knowing now that he knew she might not have more than this one night left.
He didn't make her wait too long, eager to hear her sigh with pleasure, and yet, he wasn't a selfish lover. He had enough experience to know what a woman wanted and enough skill to give it to her, knowing she needed and deserved a little more attention than himself. He neglected nothing, exploring her body and playing her with skill, waiting for the moment when she grew impatient with her own desire.
But she was not a passive lover, allowing him the leisure to begin learning her just long enough to give rise to her impatience before she took matters into her own hands, knocking him over onto his back with a laughing growl and searing kiss to seek that moment of connection and bring him with her as she rose.
He laughed along with her, even as she knocked him onto his back. This was no shy wallflower, but a woman who was a true equal and one who knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to give as good as she got. Maybe this was exactly what they both needed - not just the release of the physical tension, but the ability to laugh together and to surrender to the joy of the moment.
It was a release, in more ways than one. It had been, oh, too many years since she'd allowed herself even the illusion of intimacy, much less intentionally laid herself bare to share in real tenderness with someone. He got the full benefit of that intentional relaxing of her guard - the laughter, the moments of uncertainty, the way she curled close in the trembling aftermath to listen to his heart beat against her own in the newfound stillness. The wry curve of her smile as she imagined Steve Rogers congratulating himself on convincing her to go through with an oft-repeated impulse for once.
It was that wry smile that caught his attention and made him curious. Was she smiling because of him or because of something else? "I hate to tell you this, Agent Romanoff, but you're smiling," he teased, tracing the curve of her breast with his fingers, though his eyes were on her face, as they lie tangled together in the aftermath of their lovemaking.
She let out a soft huff of laughter, tilting her head back even as she shivered in answer to his touch. "I'm not Agent Romanoff here," she told him in a whisper, her hand rising to trace her fingertips over his jaw, his lips. "I'm just Nat. I haven't been just Nat in a long time."
"Very well, Just Nat," he teased further, that smirk still on his face, hoping to make her laugh again. She really was too pretty not to smile more often. Maybe he could help with that. He turned quiet a moment, before speaking again, this time with a more serious tone of voice. "I need you to know, I'm not going anywhere. Not unless you want me to."
She shifted, rising onto her elbow to look down at him, her own expression just as serious as his, as certain as she could be. "I'm coming back," she promised him fiercely. "I have more to come back to than I've had for years. Don't think it doesn't make a difference."
"I know it makes a difference. That's why I'm telling you - I'm not going anywhere, Nat. I want to see this through and see where it leads - wherever it leads," he told her, as he cupped her cheek in his hand, a soft smile on his face.
Her lips found a curve in another soft smile, a smile that touched his mouth as she leaned down to kiss him, pressing her palm over his heart once more. She didn't have the words to be able to tell him what that promise of his meant to someone who had spent a lifetime afraid that she would always be alone.
That seemed like answer enough for him. Who was he to argue with that? They'd both been alone for too long. Maybe together they could find a little happiness. He returned her kiss with one of his own, his fingers grazing her cheek to comb through her hair. "You should get some rest," he told her quietly, close enough that his breath was ghosting against her lips.
"Will you stay?" The words were so quiet, almost as though she were afraid of asking, or perhaps afraid to be heard to ask. "You-you don't have to, I ..." She trailed off, smiling awkwardly. "I-I'd like you to stay."
He smiled at her timid request. For a woman with a reputation for being a cold-hearted assassin, she was certainly surprising in her almost girlish charms. "Of course, I'll stay. I said I wasn't going anywhere, didn't I?" he reminded her.
She breathed another of those soft laughs, shaking her head as she settled beside him once again, her fingers still playing over his skin. "I just don't want you to regret staying if I'm gone when you wake up."
"Afraid of long good-byes?" he asked, arching a curious brow. He wouldn't have expected that of her. It wasn't like they were never going to see each other again, though there was always that possibility.
"I don't like saying goodbye," she murmured, sleepy eyes still studying his face, as though trying to commit every nuance to memory before she slept. "Never have."
"It's not good-bye, Nat. It's just 'See you later'," he corrected her, leaning over to brush a kiss against her forehead. "Go to sleep. I'll be right here."
She didn't offer an argument, but her smile returned at his reassurance. She nestled into his shoulder, wrapping her arm about him as she sighed softly. It had been a long night, and promised to be a longer day to follow, but for now, she was relaxed and calm. All because she'd taken a little friendly advice.
Steve was going to be so smug about this.