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Saturday, May 31st, 2014 12:21 pm
Third time lucky! I signed up again for [community profile] trope_bingo Round Three where I got this card. Although everything was awesome, I did the five on the right hand side.

It's a good thing that I watched Captain America: Winter Soldier, because it made for a series of good fics. A lot of awesome is coming your way!

Title: Centre of the Web
Summary: In order to recreate her identity, Natasha Romanoff decides to go back to her roots. She didn't bargain on going all the way to the start of the Black Widow program.
Content notes: Warnings for violence, mentions of recreational drug use.

Natasha had just made it to the entrance of the cemetary when she heard the soft thud of someone hitting the ground after launching himself from a high perch. Since the only vantage points were trees she had a pretty good idea who it was, and so she kept walking.

Sure enough, Clint came up alongside her in a more casual version of the black and white outfit that Natasha wore. Natasha eyed him, and figured out the lack of leaf debris was good enough. They were a good week too late for the proper funeral anyway. Pierce had been pretty eager to have Fury buried.

"I thought you were on a mission," she said. The crumpled nature of Clint's clothes and his tan showed how far away he had been before flying here without a break.

"I was," Clint agreed. "But I remembered I left you in charge. Kind of like leaving the pot on, only worse."

Natasha had to smile. Count on Clint to focus on making her laugh, rather than SHIELD exploding while he was away. "This one's on Steve. He made the call."

"I never figured Captain America was the kind to blow up things other than Hydra bases. Then again, I suppose SHIELD counts."

This made Natasha turn on her heel and glare Clint down. Clint looked surprised but stood his ground, though he was swaying a little. They both needed to sit down at some point, Natasha thought, but she had to make this clear right now.

"It wasn't all Hydra," she told him straight. "Fury, you and I are proof enough of that. And Coulson," she said, making the last a little softer seeing that it was Clint she was talking to. Coulson had been Clint's handler, and she understood the reason for sentiment.

Clint stuck his hands in his pockets, which was the only concession he would ever make that Natasha had won. "Kind of glad he isn't around to see this," he admitted, kicking a little at the ground. "I mean... Sitwell, you know. And the others."

Natasha placed a comforting hand on Clint's arm. "For what it's worth, during the fight I saw people fighting on our side. That's the SHIELD we know."

Clint squared his shoulders. "You put Sitwell in jail didn't you?"

"You bet I did," said Natasha. That had to be good enough, for now. Looking down at Clint's arm, she frowned. "You're really burnt."

"Ow Natasha. Stop adding burns to my sunburn." He punched her lightly in the arm, and if that gesture caused her hand to fall away from his arm they both pretended not to notice. "Next time call me before you make the both of us unemployed."

"I'll make sure I remember before the bullets start flying," she commented, and as one they turned to walk on.

"So now you and I are out of a job, what are you planning on doing?" Clint wondered. "I saw Fury going the other way."

"He's off to Europe, so the both of us might not be heading in that different a direction." It was Natasha's turn to fix her gaze forward and pretend that she wasn't talking about something very important. "I was thinking of going back to my hometown."

To Clint's credit, he didn't immediately start telling her how bad an idea that was. "Do any of your passports still work?" he wondered, focussing on the practical. "I almost couldn't fly in."

"I could apply for a new one. I have an identity now." That was the most surreal part of the entire situation, that Natasha had to stick to the identity of Natasha Romanoff, the whistleblowing SHIELD agent. It was not the worst identity to be stuck with, since Natasha Romanoff was friends with Clint and Steve, as well as part of the Avengers. But as much as Natasha disliked to admit it, she was a creature of change. Sitting still with one identity wasn't the way that she worked.

"Natasha Romanoff flying into Russia," Clint mused. "Sure they wouldn't reject your visa just on principle?"

"They wouldn't dare," Natasha intoned. "I just brought down an entire intelligence organisation. If they keep me out, that just makes them look guilty."

"Thinking of keeping all the fun to yourself again, Romanoff?"

Clint wasn't looking at Natasha but the dappled sunlight through the trees lining the path they were walking on didn't do much to hide his expression. He wanted to go with her, but was too proud to say so.

"I didn't think you needed a gilded invitation card," she quipped, and a corner of Clint's mouth twitched up.

"Would you make me one if I asked real nice?"

It was Natasha's turn to punch him on the shoulder this time.


Travelling back to Russia on an American passport bearing the name Natasha Romanoff should not have been so satisfying, but it was. It did however mean that she had to be careful about which contacts she approached. The disadvantage of her current passport was that it was practically a neon sign as to where Natasha was. So Natasha Romanoff checked into the Mariott, while Laura Matthers checked into Hotel Tsarina. It was a known alias, but it was still more discreet.

"There's a rooftop pool. Wanna check it out?" Clint mused as they headed up to their shared room.

"You go ahead." Clint would enjoy the view more than she did and was better at checking the rooftop for surveillance. Besides Natasha wanted to be sure that the reception hadn't arranged for them to stay in a room with pleasant surprises. Information from Marta always cut both ways after all. She was sure that Marta would be selling the information of the true location of the Black Widow in a bit. It was just a matter of making sure it was the right buyer that followed up on the information.

The room was not too shabby, though it was no Marriott. The Tsarina counted on its old-time charm, which meant dim lighting and high backed chairs facing the window.

Natasha tossed her bag on the bed to draw her gun. "Sorry, the front desk told me this room wasn't occupied," she said in English, keeping to her persona of Laura Matthers the American tourist since the stranger in the chair wasn't looking at her. "Do you wanna call down and check?"

"Shut the door, Natalia," replied a male voice from the rightmost chair. Natasha didn't recognise the voice though that might be due to the way it hesitated over the English words, a clear sign that it was not the speaker's first language. His face was still hidden, so Natasha wasn't sure that she knew him. "If I wanted to surprise you, I would have intercepted you earlier. The Marriott would have been more appropriate."

"I don't know you," said Natasha as Laura Matthers, which was not wrong. Mikhail Lukin was recognisable from the news, but a globe-trotting American tourist would not have any cause to interact with the Russian Defence Minister. Neither had Natasha Romanoff in her many incarnations.

"We are from the Motherland, Natalia, and she recognises all her children. When the prodigal son returns, the appropriate welcoming committee must be formed. Or prodigal daughter, in this case."

Over the wire Natasha had worn just before heading to the hotel, Clint's voice came to life. "I took out a sniper and now have a clear line of sight to our room. Want me to take out the unexpected guest?"

Since Lukin was still looking out of the window, Natasha dared a shake of her head, and closed the door. Now that Clint was helping her cover more of the bases, she didn't need to leave the most obvious escape route open. "Why would Russia want to welcome me?" she asked, in her persona of SHIELD agent.

"You've done a great national service," said Lukin, and finally stood to reveal himself. He was immaculately trimmed right down to his moustache, and was wearing a full suit of dark blue, the pant leg of which Natasha had spotted from the door. With its stark lines matched with a blue tie in the same shade, and a white shirt that stood out in all the blue, it called to mind a uniform. Of course, if he had been wearing his dress uniform Natasha would have expected a lot more medals.

"I haven't been in service of the nation in a long while," Natasha reminded him, a worded threat to match the threat of her gun. Lukin didn't seem to mind either.

"Your mind may have forgotten, but your actions speak for you. You've taken out Alexander Pierce and his intelligence service."

Natasha had to smirk. Self-serving men were the easiest to deal with. "You mean I've done you a service by taking out your counterpart."

"What's good for me is good for the country," Lukin had the audacity to say. "As Russia's respresentative, I want to extend my thanks."

"Is that all you have to offer? A bunch of words behind the closed doors of a hotel room?" Natasha didn't have to feign her boredom as she lowered her gun. Across the road Clint's bow glinted briefly in the sun, a signal to those looking for it.

"If I said I had a contract - "

"Then bring a contract, not a sniper. Or was that your compelling argument to get me to agree? I don't see anything else." Natasha let her gaze flick down to Lukin's empty hands.

Lukin's face was starting to turn red. Natasha watched, unimpressed by how easy he was to fluster. Honestly, how had he managed press conferences if he folded so easily?

"The US won't welcome you anymore - "

"You believe I'm here from a lack of choice, like a frightened child running back to her mother? I hope you're not in charge of any policies regarding the US, General Lukin, if this is the quality of information that you are relying on."

"This is the only offer you've had so far!"

"Your offer is the only offer you know about," Natasha said, turning away from him to go for her bag on the bed. She laid her gun aside and started to unpack. "I've already put all my secrets on the internet General Lukin. You could at least read that to understand how I work. Perhaps once you've done your homework, I can consider your offer."

"Why would I give you another offer?" Lukin thundered.

"You've already made the effort to see me in person," said Natasha. "I'll leave you to find your own way out, seeing how easy it was for you to get in."

At least General Lukin knew how to pick his battles. He pressed his mouth shut in a thin line, and strode past Natasha out of the room. Natasha settled herself on the bed and watched him go. She didn't think she had seen the last of him.

Clint wandered in a short while later, whistling in a way that suggested the fight on the neighbouring rooftop had gone well. Or maybe he had socked Lukin on his way up, Natasha wouldn't put it past him. Clint wandered all the way up to the phone. "Hey, do you still have the number from the cafe?"

Natasha couldn't help a grin as she dug out Clint's sugar packet. "Are you sure? This place is probably bugged to hell." She had tucked the sugar packets into the flat back that held her phone battery in, and once she had replaced this she checked her phone. "30 bugs, if you need a number."

"Not quite to hell. But it'll be enough for them to hear what I say."

He dialed the number with aplomb, and threw himself into a conveniently nearby high-backed chair. Natasha had to resist the urge to giggle when Clint proceeded to badger the prospective employer as if he were bargaining at the fish market.

"You're awful," she said, when he finally put down the phone.

"I'm awesome," he corrected, leaning over to kiss Natasha on the bridge of her nose. "Lukin now knows what kind of options we have, and that we can afford to snub them."

"That works for me," Natasha agreed, as Clint sat down on the bed with her.

"I know. That's why you're taking me out tonight."


The old building that used to house Department X still sat empty, any interested buyers chased away by the red tape of governmental officials that refused to believe the days of Department X were over. Or else there were still secrets lying underneath, waiting to be uncovered.

Natasha and Clint had followed the addicts and the gangsters that sold them drugs into the building. If there was an empty building that was mostly standing, they would have worn down its defences until it was suitable for their use. Clint thanked them for the favour by buying a joint off them.

Natasha had watched him do so with languid eyes, playing her persona of the girlfriend who was still too stoned to do much other than loll on her boyfriend's shoulder. Once out of sight, she straightened. "You aren't going to smoke that."

He twirled the joint in his hands. "Might let a bit of excitment to the night."

"It'll be more than exciting when we get to the lower levels," she cautioned.

"You really only bring me to the nice places," said Clint, as they walked arm in arm to the central staircase.

It was a comfortable position, which was why it was with some reluctance that Natasha unlinked their arms when they reached the level in question. Comfort had no place on a mission.

The door that they had been looking for had caution tape helpfully stretched across it to keep people out. Clint yanked it out with the metal tip of an ordinary arrow. Natasha too applied her widow's bite to the metal door, just in case there were any electronic surprises embedded in it. It had the added bonus of disabling the electronic lock.

"Ladies first," said Clint as the door swung open on silent hinges.

"Wimp," said Natasha, but stepped in anyway. Nothing attacked her. Still, Natasha kept her guard up. Natasha had learned from Camp Leigh that abandoned places could still hold a spark of life right in their depths and it was too early to tell if there were no other traps in the rest of the level. She just hoped that a missile wouldn't be the outcome of this investigation. Clint was useful at padding next to her on quiet feet as he was doing now, but he was no Captain America. Neither was Natasha.

The first few rooms that Natasha and Clint surveyed was bare, but Natasha's mind was filling in the details. Here would be the first few desks and filing cabinets arranged in an office layout to throw the casual observer off. Sometimes less sensitive documents would be allowed to float into this office to satisfy a thief that didn't know any better.

They came to the next set of doors, which swung open when Natasha applied her bite again. "I'm saving my charge," Natasha warned. Clint nodded.

This next set of rooms would also house offices. These rooms would definitely be empty, for this was the place that the more sensitive documents would be stored. If any of the cabinets were still here, they would contain innocent looking names until you ran them through a database. Then you would discover the men and women behind the names were far from ordinary.

Before they reached the next door, Clint reached into his quiver. Natasha ducked into a nearby doorway just before the heat from one of his explosive arrows filled the passageway.

"Maybe I should have hired an elephant to charge right through," Natasha said when she saw the door.

"I like to enter with a bang."

"If you don't use these puns in moderation, you'll run out when we actually have an audience."

"The great Black Widow admits there's actually no one here and I can make all the noise I want," intoned Clint. "Hey, I've got a new arrow that can blast through several doors - "

"No."

"You promised me excitement," Clint complained, but followed Natasha through the hole in the wall anyway.

This was not empty as Natasha expected, but all that was left was a sagging ring and a few fallen gym bags. Natasha toed a bag with her foot as she passed, and noted the dust shift in response. Other than Clint's explosion, it likely had not been touched in ages.

This room held more memories for Natasha. Natasha imagined the gym bags all strung up, the yell of instructors interspersed with the thuds of blows hitting bags. Her hands itched with the phantom memory. She turned her attention away from that. They were on a mission right now, and there were no secrets to be found in training rooms.

The particular route they had chosen led away from the wider training facility to the labs. This would be where any of the secrets that would be of interest to Natasha. Just one door was left. Clint opted for a shocker arrow that imitated her widow's bite, and the door swung open without any pyrotechnics.

Clint glanced at her, mouth downturned. "Quiet," he said.

"It's always quiet before a storm," said Natasha, and activated her bite.

Unlike the other rooms, there were still computer terminals here, for they had been built into the walls. Since he was the one with gloves, Clint flicked the switches on. Natasha gravitated to the nearest keyboard and set to work.

"How many files are you pulling?" he asked, stepping onto the platform in front of the console that Natasha was working on.

"Whatever I can get my hands on, I'll unravel it later. Three thumb drives for this one, it's just the system for defences."

Clint plugged in the thumb drives dutifully, and Natasha set the program she'd written to unravel what had already been copied. As the transfer started, she saw something interesting - a live camera feed.

She made the feed bigger for the benefit of Clint, who was peering over her shoulder. "What do you think?"

"Only 5 live cameras in this place, and they're all trained on the same mystery object under a glass dome. Either it's very important, or it's a trap."

"It's too interesting to ignore," Natasha admitted, and made some alterations to the program she was running to keep the existing camera feed. If she was going into a trap, she wanted some records to know what the Red Room had left as a surprise.

"Don't you think we should pop an image over to some experts? I think I can call in a few favours."

"Knock yourself out."

As Clint snapped off a photo with his phone, Natasha checked her own. She'd charged it before coming out, and there was still enough memory space to take a few readings of their mystery device. Assured that both Clint and her gadgets were ready, they set off in the direction of the mystery object.

Even though Natasha had already familiarised herself with the security around the object when she was copying things from the system, it was still strange not to meet any resistance. For all intents and purposes, the location had been emptied. She had only come here to pick up on the jagged edges that the removal of the Red Room had left, and see if she could find any matching pieces outside. That this mystery object, unidentifiable from the cameras, still remained was jarring. Clint too seemed to think that something would come around the corner, for he had his bow at the ready.

Nothing did, and they ended up at the room without any event. Natasha still couldn't quite make out what the object was even in person. Housed atop a dais and encased in a glass dome, it looked like a mismash of jagged metal edges had been put together at random, with some surfaces sporting dials with hands and numbers that didn't mean anything to Natasha. Not all of them were zeroed out, which meant that like a barometer there must be some baseline reading in the machine or the room.

Clint whistled as he took in the entirety of the object. "What's the odds of it just being some very weird piece of modern art? I could see the guy with the melting clocks making something like this."

"No, it's not Dali. Any comments from your experts?"

"Nope. I could dash off a few more pictures to see if that helps them any."

"Or we could just take it with us."

"Right. Remove the thing that even the Russians wanted to keep an eye on."

"There's no broadcasting capability in this building so they're not keeping that close an eye on it." It was Natasha's turn to run her phone over the object. "I'm getting safe readings off this."

"Yeah, that's pretty much what they said when the Tesseract was in its inert form."

"A form it maintained for close to half a century. I think we can take our chances with this."

"Ladies first."

"Wimp." She stepped right up to the glass dome, and touched it.

Nothing happened, so she tried to lift the dome. It came away easily, and the change in environment caused some of the dials to shift. Natasha hovered with the dome above the machine, ready to slam it down if anything happened.

"Natasha!" Clint shouted, and Natasha slammed the dome back down again.

But it was too late, because right in front of Natasha a strip of the lab was peeling away from the dais to reveal a second layer that seemed to feature the same lab, only with more machines. She whirled to where Clint should be, only to find that another piece of the lab had peeled away to show another version of the lab below. As Natasha spun on one heel more versions of the lab revealed themselves in bustling and noisy strips of sight and sound, like the petals of a demented flower.

A person walked across one particular strip, and Natasha reached out to grab him and demand answers. As her fingers closed around white cloth, the images in the rest of the strips shifted to form a fragmented but consistent picture of the lab.

The resulting flash of light when the images merged together threw Natasha into unconsciousness.


When Natasha awoke, she saw shiny metal stars.

She blinked again and the stars resolved themselves into the symbol of a general on a military uniform. The man that was wearing it looked familiar. "General Lukin," she accused.

"This is he." The moustache quivered as what looked like approval passed over Lukin's face. Approval.

As Natasha grappled with that concept, Lukin continued to speak. "It is good to see that the Red Room has seen it fit to send you back to the past. What is your name?"

"Natalia Shostakova," said Natasha. If she was really in the past, then it would be best if no one knew her name. If it was an elaborate hoax by Lukin, well, she had already put this alias on the internet.

Lukin only nodded. "Which year did you hail from?"

"2014." She wasn't bound to the table, which was strange.

Lukin clapped his hands slowly. As he did, the gesture was echoed around Natasha's table. Natasha sat up slowly, and took in the number of people in the room. She could take them all out, but that wouldn't tell her why she was here. If it was a game Lukin wanted, it was a game he would get.

"Congratulations to the Red Room," said Natasha, and left out the part where it had been burned to the ground long before Natasha had dismantled SHIELD.

Around her, blank faces shifted to those of approval and pride. Apparently loyalties ran deep in this particular iteration of the Red Room. "That would make it how many years again, General Lukin?"

"45 years."

It seemed Natasha had landed herself in the Cold War. She smiled, even though she preferred a wry smile to the approving smile that she spread across her face. "It has indeed been a very long time."

"I suppose my successor found my instructions."

"Of course," Natasha was quick to reassure. "We followed it down to the letter."

"That means you must be the best of 2014." He extended his hand to help Natasha off the table.

Best but not the most loyal. Natasha accepted his hand anyway.

As soon as she settled back on her feet he directed her towards the door. "Forgive us for being overbearing hosts, but we must ask of a favour while you are with us. We have no idea how long the machine will let you stay here."

"Have the other experiments ended rapidly?" asked Natasha, as she followed him and a few aides they had picked up along the way.

"Days instead of the months we prefer. Therefore, we must hurry if we want to meet the purpose of this transfer."

"Time is of the essence," Natasha agreed. She blinked as she was led out of the room, recognising it as another part of the labs. They were headed to the training rooms. "Would you like to brief you on my skillset?" Natasha guessed, based on the direction.

"I prefer a live demonstration. Let us see what the best of 2014 can do against our best now."

Natasha thought back to the old files that she had pulled outside of the Red Room. They were scant, which was why she wanted to enter the actual grounds in the first place. It was too bad that she and Clint were side-tracked before they could find out more.

Asking more about the operative would attract too much attention, and they were receiving some of it now. Natasha wiped her face of all expression even as she watched the expressions of everyone else. The people they passed in the corridor stared at Natasha with surprise but no recognition. Likely they were surprised by a new face walking next to a senior officer. She wondered if anyone knew who Natasha would be facing.

From the way people were pushed away by the men flanking Natasha and Lukin as they reached one of the more private training rooms, it appeared not. Natasha focused on her curiosity to keep her expression vaguely interested as the door swung open.

On the other side of the door, the Winter Soldier looked up at her.

Natasha beat down the curl of very real fear that came from seeing the Winter Soldier again. The last time they had met, the Winter Soldier had managed to shoot her in the chest, and that was after she had used the urban landscape to her full advantage. In a one-on-one in the ring, Natasha was not as sure of her chances.

Lukin set to introducing the Winter Soldier, a wave of words that Natasha only paid half of her attention to. What Lukin had to say was old news to her, since she had read the file on the Winter Soldier that she had given to Steve. Instead, she observed the Winter Soldier.

He looked the same as he had in 2014, though the last time she saw him he had been a hurricane of fists. Now he was at rest, and was that an expression of curiousity on his face?

A terrible idea occurred to Natasha, although her instincts were not bothered by what she was thinking of doing. She bit down a thrill of fear when she offered her hand to the Winter Soldier to shake.

"I am Natalia Shostakova," she said, with all the confidence and pride that had some agents calling her Tsarina behind her back.

The Winter Soldier swept her hand up in his, and kissed the back of it, much as she had seen Steve do just the once. "Pleasure to meet you," he said, and she felt a little flutter that had nothing to do with fear.