Agent Jasper Sitwell is her babysitter in Budapest.
Natasha doesn't like having a babysitter, but it's better than the alternative.
"My objective," she says, very slowly, making it as obvious as she can that is not pleased with his line of questioning, "is to find Martha Jones, escort her back here to the SHIELD headquarters, have her debrief me on the information she has been given, find out what she needs of SHIELD, do what I can to help her while she is here, then escort her to the next drop-point."
Sitwell nods, scanning them through to the underground SHIELD garage. He looks as if he wants to make a follow-up remark, but he retains, only saying, "And at any point should part of the mission become difficult to accomplish..."
She will suck it up and deal with it. But that's not the response he's obviously leading her towards, so she politely says, "Then I will call you, inform you of the difficulty, and wait for you to bring in back-up, so that we may all proceed in a manner that is neither reckless or dangerous."
He nods again. He spends a minute talking with the garage station attendant, before spending another minute flipping through a stack of paperwork, signing where necessary. He brings it over, on a clipboard, and quickly points to the areas she needs to sign, which she does, will little flourish. The man on the other side of the counter gives them their clearance, and key, so Sitwell leads her through the garage, to the far corner. "Off the record?" he asks, as he opens the door of a black Land Rover, and gestures her in.
She rolls her eyes at the move, but climbs up into the driver's seat. There are some scuffs on the exterior, and the interior looks battered, but it's all surface marks -- the car's been well maintained, she can tell. She's driven Land Rovers before, so she only needs a few moments to scan the dashboard to re-familiarize herself with it. "Yes?" she asks, finally, voice a touch sharp, when he doesn't close the door after her.
"I would just like to know what the likelihood is that you'll actually follow through on your objective."
She bristles at that. "My objective is to find Martha Jones, bring her to SHIELD, and escort her on her way." She holds her hand out for the key, which he slowly relinquishes. "Off the record," she says, starting up the ignition, "you brought be in because I am the best. I won't need any back-up."
He nods, looking displeased. "I thought so." He steps back, though, and shuts the door closed.
Natasha revs the engine, and checks that Sitwell is far enough back, then reverses the car, and drives out of the garage.
It's a half hour drive to the western outskirts of the city, where Martha Jones is waiting. The roads are nearly empty at five in the morning, and Natasha could easily make the trip in twenty minutes, but as Sitwell felt compelled to remind her, it wouldn't be worth the risk of drawing attention to herself.
She arrives half an hour later, exactly, gets out of the car, and heads to bottom of the hill.
There’s been talk of Martha Jones, around the base. Nothing Natasha actively listened to, but passively overheard, stored away for later.
Martha Jones, they say, will save the world.
But when Martha Jones finally comes into view, all Natasha sees is a scared young woman -- to Martha’s credit, she is attempting to hide it, she holds her head tall as Natasha approaches, but there are still dozens of ways her body is signally her uncertainty.
Natasha is open to the possibility of being surprised, but she isn’t counting on it.
Although there are no Toclafane that Natasha saw on her way here, she still walks up closer to Martha than she normally would, and pitches her voice low. “My name is Natasha Romanoff,” she introduces. “I am an agent of SHIELD, I was sent here to escort you back to our base. Please come with me.”
“I’m supposed to...” Martha starts, before trailing off, biting her bottom lip.
“Ask for my credentials, of course,” Natasha replies. She pulls her SHIELD ID badge out of her back pocket, and holds it out.
Martha skims it over, and then reaches into her own pocket, and holds her own out.
Natasha doesn’t need to give it more than a glance, before she’s taking a half-step back, gesturing to where the car is parked, twenty feet back. “Shall we?”
Martha nods, and falls into step behind Natasha.
At the car, Natasha swiftly unlocks the doors and slides into the driver's seat, while Martha takes a moment more to step up into the SUV. She buckles herself into her seat, and then starts clutching at the straps of her bag.
Natasha starts the car, reverses, and starts driving back to the base.
“Mind if I turn the heat on?” Martha asks, a few minutes into the drive.
“Not at all,” Natasha replies, taking a quick glance at Martha. She's wearing jeans, a zipped-up maroon leather jacket, and a pair of boots that are more fashionable than functional. Guessing Martha probably isn’t familiar with the dashboard controls of the SUV, she reaches over and flips the heat on.
Natasha brings the car to a stop, at the next street light, and gives Martha an assessing look. She looks even more uncertain than she had when they first met. "Sit up straight," she tells her.
Martha looks at her, and blinks. But she does as she says, straightening her posture up.
The light has turned green, and Natasha continues on their way back to the base, eyes on the road, but she finds herself continuing, “You’re the world’s best hope for killing the Master. If you want people to believe you're capable of it, you should start acting like you are. Don’t slouch, whether you’re walking or sitting. Don’t fidget, either. Keep your gaze even, and don’t be the first to look away. Stride, don’t walk. People think you’re going to save the world, make them believe that as soon as they see you.”
Martha is nodding. “Thanks.”
“And speak up. You're too quiet. Timid isn't going to save the world."
"Thank you," Martha repeats, voice clear.
"Are there any guidelines to follow when asking questions?"
"You'll look like an idiot if you ask about everything, but you'll look just as bad if you don't ask anything at all. Walk the middle ground, and when you ask questions, make it sound like they need to answer you, not like you need the answer. Don't preface, and don't over-explain." After a moment, Natasha adds, "Why?"
Martha gives a small laugh. "I was just going to ask if you knew if SHIELD is going to provide breakfast. I'm starved."
"Do you know--"
"Never ask someone if they know a certain piece of information," Natasha interrupts. "Ask for the piece of information. If they answer that they don't know, then you need to learn an important phrase: ‘then find me somebody who does know.’"
"Does SHIELD provide breakfast?"
Natasha looks down at the clock on the dashboard. "The SHIELD headquarters has a cafeteria that should be open by the time we arrive. But once we arrive at SHIELD headquarters, I am to introduce you to my immediate superior, Agent Jasper Sitwell, who will escort you to a meeting, where you and SHIELD will be debrief each other on the situation. I would advise against bringing up breakfast until after the meeting is over. There should be a power bar in the glovebox, though."
"Thank you," Martha replies, as she pulls out the standard-issue power bar.
"Don't thank me just yet, they taste like cardboard."
They're a few hundred meters before the Danube when the radio crackles to life. Over the system, Sitwell asks, "Black Widow? Please report.”
Natasha narrows her eyes. Had Sitwell been planning to radio her -- a risky move, given the likelihood the Master has superior technology that could easily decode any transmissions -- he would have told her ahead of time. She reaches forward, and takes the radio out of its cradle. "This is the Black Widow."
"Black Widow, what is your location?"
“I’m halfway to the destination,” Natasha replies. She doesn’t ask why he’s asking, knows he won’t be able to disclose the information over the radio.
“Alright, please continue along the route posted in the first itinerary,” Sitwell says.
“Acknowledged." When Natasha kills the radio call, she replaces the radio in its cradle, then immediately accelerates. She pointedly ignores the posted speed limit, and the fact she is going quite a few kilometers per hour over it.
"Black Widow?" Martha asks, clutching nervously at the handle above the door.
"Ask more precise questions."
"Why were you called Black Widow?"
"Because there's the potential that there's a security problem."
Martha stiffens. "I'm sorry," she replies.
Martha nods her head.
Natasha doesn't ease off the acceleration until she turns off of the more main roads in the Kőbánya district, sees another black Land Rover, and a few more decoy SUVs. It’s a showier diversion, which may bring in the attention they wanted to deflect, which means something went very wrong. Martha finishes up the power bar -- that she had stopped eating once Natasha had passed a hundred kilometers per hour -- as Natasha takes twice the number of backstreets that is strictly necessary, before heading back to the SHIELD garage.
She needs to scan her ID twice before the gate opens, which makes her even more suspicious.
Natasha parks the car, but leaves the ignition on. She turns to Martha, gaze flicking from the rearview mirror, to the passenger side mirror, to the concave mirror hanging up in the corner of the garage, before she’s satisfied that she has a complete range of vision. She softens her voice as she says, “Welcome to SHIELD, Miss Jones. As you are not an agent or member of SHIELD, you will need to be accompanied by an agent or member at all times, both as a security measure, and so that you will be able to have access wherever you need it. I will be your handler for your stay here, and you will either be accompanied by myself, or my direct supervisor, Agent Jasper Sitwell. Is there an issue I have not addressed, or that you would like me to repeat?”
Martha shakes her head, mutely.
“Before I bring you in to debrief Agent Sitwell, I am going to make sure the garage is secure. Please stay in the car,” she says, keeping her tone pleasant, but putting a bit more steel into the request.
She slides out of the car, eyes flicking between every mirror one more time, and draws her sidearm. The garage is half-empty. There’s no good place to hide -- the two parking spots on the passengers side were both empty, and there’s no way anyone can approach them without her seeing -- and she hadn’t seen anyone when driving into the parking garage; but there’s a prickling sensation at the back of her neck, and she knows there’s someone watching her.
She gives the garage one wide sweep, and he’s easy to spot, the aisle of cars behind her, one car over. The garage is brightly lit, and his shadow easily gives him away. She holsters her sidearm, and asks, "Sitwell bring you in?"
"Yep," comes Barton's voice, as he walks into sight, leaning back against the car.
“Did he tell you what the hell happened?”
He shrugs. “He brought me in before the security alert.” Then he straightens up, looking past Natasha.
Natasha had heard the click of the car door opening, and isn’t surprised to see Martha standing, waiting. Mildly exasperated that she didn’t follow Natasha’s request, but not surprised. “Miss Jones, this is Agent Clint Barton, the agent who brought me into SHIELD. Barton, Martha Jones," Natasha introduces.
“You can just call me Martha,” she says, looking between the two of them.
Barton walks over, and holds out a hand. “And you can call me Clint,” he tells her, smiling warmly. Then he tilts his head back, and says, “I was brought in to help handle Nat.”
Natasha shoots him a warning look, before she tells Martha, “Agent Sitwell should be waiting, please follow me.” She heads back to the sign-in booth, where she signs the Rover back in. It should only require handing the key back over, but SHIELD has an aggressive amount of procedure and protocol and paperwork, so Natasha flips through the pages, signing where necessary. Behind her, Barton is apologizing for Natasha’s brusque nature, saying she softens with time. Natasha ignores him, notes that the emergency power bar needs to be replaced, and signs a few places more.
Barton reaches over her, and adds his signature at the end. And then he reaches past her to slide his ID card through security.
Proximity doesn’t bother her in general, and she’s aware Barton is more tactile than most agents, but she finds herself growing weary with his ulterior reasoning -- she hasn’t figured out if it’s a power play, if he’s trying to soften her, or if he’s doing it for his own amusement, but whichever way, she could do without it.
She takes the lead as they climb up into the compound proper.
Sitwell is at the top of the stairs, looking completely unfazed, even though there are harried agents hurrying past him.
"Martha, this is Agent Sitwell. Sitwell, Martha Jones."
Natasha lets them shakes hand, exchange subdued salutations, and then she asks, "What happened out there?"
"There was a security breach," he says, starting down the hall, gesturing for them to follow.
"What kind of security breach?" Natasha replies, not moving.
Sitwell looks behind him, sees that Natasha isn't moving, and neither is Martha. “It was no fault of yours, Agent Romanoff. We just got some surveillance footage we didn’t like the sight of, and thought it would be best to bring you both in as quickly as possible.”
"Then why did you bring in Barton?" she asks.
"I had already signed him onto the mission," he admits, with a half-shrug.
Natasha glares at Sitwell, feeling briefly annoyed. "I thought our conversation was off the record."
"You fell for that?" Barton asks, with a raised eyebrow. "Nothing is ever off the record with SHIELD."
Natasha spends a moment indulging her annoyance at Barton, then turns back to Martha. “As I said before, Agent Sitwell will be escorting you from here, to your debrief."
"And afterwards I’ll summon Agent Romanoff, and she will continue to be your escort for the remainder of your time here,” Sitwell adds, smiling at Martha. “Now if you will please come with me...”
Sitwell leads her off, then, and Natasha watches as Martha follows him. Her posture is straight, and even if she’s not quite striding, at least she isn’t shuffling. Once they’ve turned out of sight, and Natasha remains acutely aware of the fact Barton is hovering, she turns down a barely used hallway. She picks up her pace, just slightly, knowing Barton will match her, and she turns down another hallway.
Halfway down it, when she can hear Barton's footsteps just behind her, she stops suddenly; and then she's grabbing his retractable bow, sweep-kicking his legs from under him. He gives a grunt as he hits the ground, and she rolls him onto his stomach. She flicks the bow out to make it extend, and then she's straddling his back, holding the bow at his neck, slowly putting pressure on it. She knows they’re being monitored, and she has less than a minute before agents rush in. "I would like to make something very clear, Agent Barton. Sitwell may have reassigned you to make you my handler, but if that is the case, your job is to join him in supervising that I am doing my job to SHIELD expectations, which I am. You can not handle me, and if you try to, I will bring you down."
And then she lets the bow go, the string bouncing on his neck, and she walks off.
Sitwell gave Natasha no indication of when the debriefing would be over, but she guesses it’s not going to be a short meeting.
Natasha catches up on a few hours of sleep, but mostly spends her time in the cafeteria. It's a cramped room, converted from a conference room, with two long tables squeezed in. It's less frequented than the semi-official break room, and very few people bother her, where she's made herself comfortable in the far corner of the room.
Barton makes his way over to her, before the lunch crowd. "Sitwell sent me a note, saying the debrief is taking a while."
She nods. "Thank you," she says. She nearly strangled him, she owes him some degree of courtesy.
He nods, and lingers for a moment. He's across the table from her, and not infringing on her personal space, so she looks up at him, patiently.
"What do you think of Martha?" he asks, finally.
She looks up at him. "Haven't decided yet," she says. She waits a moment. "Why?"
He shrugs. "Just curious. Enjoy your vantage point," he says, before pushing off the table and going to get his lunch.
Natasha turns around, and sees Sitwell, with Martha trailing behind him.
"Agent Sitwell," she replies, waiting for him to continue. "Martha."
Martha gives her an awkward half-wave.
"Although most of the details in the debriefing are beyond your clearance," Sitwell tells her, to her unimpressed look, "it has come to our attention that, uh, Miss Jone's combat skills are not what we would like them to be, and I would appreciate it if you would take her down to the shooting range, and help develop some of the skills she lacks."
"I don't fight," Martha says, and for the first time, she’s really secure in what she’s saying, proud. "And I've never fired a gun before."
Natasha is surprised, but she doesn't let it show. "Alright," is all she says instead. She stands, slides the sudoku she's been working on to the middle of the table. While she has no difficulty playing the handler, this is more her area of expertise. “Which is more important, the hand-to-hand or the weaponry?”
“I think,” Sitwell says, and Natasha can tell he’s choosing his words carefully, “it would be more beneficial for her to understand how to fire a gun.”
"The first thing you really need to understand about guns," Natasha says, as she gestures to Martha to follow her, and they fall into step together, "is that anyone can use them, at any given time. I could be pointing a gun at your side right now, and if I wanted to pull the trigger, you would be dead right now."
Martha swallows, but keeps walking, staring straight ahead as she says, "I make a habit of not acquainting with people who would pull the trigger."
"Tell me how that works out," Natasha says, partially wondrously.
The ride down the elevator is quiet.
"I'm supposed to debrief you," Martha says, as they go down the floors. "Agent Sitwell told me you weren't of a high enough clearance to be in on the meeting itself, but that I was supposed to inform you of the details -- some of the details -- anyways."
Natasha nods, and waits.
"There is a gun, that was made by UNIT, in the past few years. A gun that can kill anything."
Natasha keeps her body language neutral, knowing some SHIELD agent is probably watching and listening in, and she doesn't want them to know that a gun that can kill anything could be of great value to her.
"But it's... it's dangerous, and so they split it up -- I have the gun, but there are four vials needed, for it to work, for it to kill."
"For it to kill the Master," Natasha adds. "And it will kill him?"
Martha nods. "The first vial is here in Budapest, then I need to go to Beijing, San Diego, and the last is back in London. I would have gotten it before I left, but..."
"It's understandable," Natasha tells her. "Don't worry about it."
She huffs a small laugh. "I worry about a lot of things," Martha admits, quietly.
"Don't admit to that. You can tell me that, but do not tell anybody else that."
Martha looks at her, curiously. "Why do you...?" She straightens up, and asks, "Why do you keep giving me advice?"
"Because if you're the one who is going to save the world, you need to be able to inspire confidence that you'll actually be able to do it,” Natasha tells her. The elevator dings, and the doors slide open, and she walks down to the end of the hall.
There’s no one in the firing range -- Natasha isn’t sure if it’s because Sitwell cleared them out, or if people are twitchy, and don’t want to hear gunshots.
Either way, it doesn’t matter.
Natasha pulls out a simple handgun, from her side holster, and hands it over to Martha, who takes it, and holds it. She’s better than most, in that she manages to point it away from either of them.
"Rule number one," Natasha says. "Only point a gun at something you plan on putting a bullet in. Good job, a lot of people have trouble with that one." Natasha doesn't mention that it's a very good thing Martha didn't point it at her, as Natasha has a very immediate reaction to having a gun pointed at her.
“Rule number two,” Natasha continues, moving in close. She takes one finger, and points at Martha’s, where's it's resting lightly on the trigger. “Trigger discipline. Keep your pointer finger outside the trigger guard. Only put your finger on the trigger when there's something you plan on shooting."
Martha nods, and removes her finger, rests it on the guard.
Natasha stares at Martha quietly, who is staring down at the gun with a puzzled expression on her face. Then she asks, "You're a medical student, right?"
Martha nods. "Right."
Natasha holds up her hand. "You know every bone in the hand, right?"
A distant look passes over Martha's face, but she pulls herself back, and nods.
"You know every bone, what it does, how it connects to others, and how it connects to the other systems?"
Natasha reaches down, unholsters the reaches down and pulls out another gun. "A gun is just like that. It's made up of very small parts and different types of parts that all work together so it can do what needs to be done. You do not need to know all the medical details, but if your gun jams up, you are going to need to know how to fix it, and I can give you an overview. Will that help?"
Martha nods again.
Natasha takes a few minutes to dismantle her gun -- and it's almost difficult, she's so used to disarming a gun in seconds, it's second nature, and it honestly feels strange to do it slowly -- and explain what does what and what goes where, and what's the easiest parts to jam, the easiest to fix.
And then Natasha takes her to the range proper, and tells her to stand, and starts making subtle adjustments here and there, widening her stance, telling her to loosen her shoulders.
Martha looks back her nervously. “Isn’t there usually eyewear, and ear protection?”
“Do you plan on wearing them when you’re in the middle of the field?”
Martha is quiet for a long moment, shifting her stance. Then she pulls the trigger.
The bullet hits the paper, which is good, though it hits in one of the outer rings.
Martha herself looks a little shaken.
Natasha debates the merits of giving Martha few minutes, and settles for a full sixty-seconds, before she taps Martha's arms, so they go back up. "Don't pull the trigger," Natasha tells her. "Squeeze it."
Martha nods, and after sending a nervous look to Natasha, she squeezes the trigger.
She seems less startled and shaken, though the bullet only goes in one more circle close to the target. She takes a deep breath, and tries again.
By three more tries, she's on the ring just outside the bullseye, which isn't good enough for Natasha, but she lets it be.
Natasha teaches her through how to replace the magazine. Shows her how to do it -- again making herself to do it slowly -- then has her practice, goading her to do it more and more quickly.
The minutes trickle away, as Natasha replaces the target paper, and Martha goes through a magazine.
After the third round, Martha still looks shaken, but her bullet holes are getting closer and closer to the target.
"You're doing a good job for somebody who's never done this before," Natasha says, carefully.
Martha turns and gives her a shy grin. "Thanks."
"Don't thank her."
Natasha rolls her eyes, though she's glad Barton has finally decided to make his presence known, instead of lurking out of sight.
Barton walks so he's standing on Martha's other side, and he gives her a smile. "For someone who's never shot before, you're doing a great job."
Natasha can't see Martha’s face, but Natasha would guess she's grinning.
Barton looks up quickly, giving her a 'see?' look, and Natasha just rolls her eyes, and asks, "Shouldn't you be practicing your own shooting?"
Barton's eyes narrow, and he gives her a sharp grin, but he doesn't say anything in reply to Natasha, only looks down at Martha and says, "I'm an archer."
"He's the best marksman in the world," Natasha tells Martha.
"I've..." Martha starts, but she seems to think the better of it.
Barton looks interested at that. "You...?" he prompts.
"I'm not an archer," she says, quickly, "but there was one time... and there was a shot I had to make, and I made it, and..."
And Natasha knows when somebody is about to breakdown, is used to taking advantage of it, but she doesn't know what to do with Martha Jones, who suddenly looks so overwhelmed and so grieved.
Martha takes a breath, and turns back towards the target, and Natasha can see her mentally steeling herself.
Barton reaches out to touch Martha's shoulder, but Natasha sends him a warning glare -- in her experience, touching someone who couldn’t see her and was wound up and holding a loaded gun doesn't end well.
"There's an archery range here," Barton says instead, tilting his head towards the other end of the shooting range. "Unwind a bit. Show me what you've got."
Martha sends an inquiring look to Natasha, who shrugs. "I don't have a problem with it."
"Excellent," Barton says, placing a hand on Martha's lower back, and takes the gun out of Martha's hand, hands it back over to Natasha, who holsters it. "Guns are so uncivilized."
Martha huffs out a laugh at that, while Natasha rolls her eyes.
At the archery end of the shooting range, Barton makes quick work of restringing his bows, and although her personal feelings on him are less than charitable, she respects how he knows exactly what he's doing.
"He brought you in?" Martha asks, while Barton is rifling through quivers of bows. "You don't really seem to get along all that well."
"It was either go with him, or he was going to kill me," Natasha tells her.
Martha stares at her, then gives a weak laugh.
Barton heads back over, and hands over the bow, and a quiver of arrows. Martha takes them, and she looks much more confident in herself than she did when she took the gun Natasha had extended to her.
Her confidence with the bow and arrow shows; her stance is not perfect -- she can see Barton's hands twitch, his body shift just slightly into a better pose -- but it's close, and her first arrow lands just outside the bullseye.
Barton makes an appreciative noise. "Maybe we should be focusing on perfecting your archery, instead of sending you to firearms."
Martha is actually beaming as she reaches back for her second arrow.
It hits closer than the first.
When she's stringing her third shot, though, the tip of the arrow slides down from the notch for a moment, and in that moment she knows Martha is exhausted. She's able to hide that pretty well -- Natasha guesses it's from her days as a medical student who probably experienced many all-nighters -- but after her third arrow, her fourth slips from the notch as well.
From the way Clint is frowning, slightly, she knows he's noticed as well.
And he notices her stare, because he lifts a hand, and signs something.
Natasha doesn't read American sign language. But there are probably only so many things that Clint is asking, and she asks Martha, "Did Agent Sitwell show you to where you'll be staying?"
The fifth arrow hits the bullseye.
"Sorry, what?" Martha asks, turning around. She looks proud, but still exhausted.
"Did Sitwell show you to your quarters?"
Martha shakes her head. "He was concerned when I said I didn't know how to use a gun, and asked if I would mind being instructed before settling in."
"Well you've been instructed, so whenever you want to settle in, I'd be happy to show you to your quarters."
"I've still got a few arrows left in me," Martha replies.
And it's only a few. The sixth, seventh and eighth all hit the target, though they creep away from the perfect bullseye.
"Don't worry about keeping the weird sleeping hours," Barton says, after Martha asks Natasha what time it is. "Only about half the base here actually keeps a normal sleep schedule."
Martha is quiet on the way back up to the living quarter levels, and as Natasha leads her to her temporary living quarters. “My own quarters are just next door,” she says, nodding towards the next door down.
Martha pauses in the doorway. "How long am I going to be here, and will I have enough time to talk to people here?"
"You're going to be here as long as you need to be here, and what do you mean by you need to talk to people?"
"I just need to talk to people, tell them something."
"Get some sleep first," Barton says. "We'll talk about a game plan later."
Martha looks too tired to argue, and so she just retreats into her room, closing the door after her.
Natasha walks off, vainly hoping that Barton will stay at Martha's door, but he quickly falls into step with her.
"So what's the game plan?" he asks.
Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. She wants to tell him that it's none of his business, but if he's been made her handler, there's no way around it. "Martha will probably sleep until the evening, she'll be hungry again, we'll eat, and then we'll go to the UNIT base, get whatever she needs there, head back, she'll say whatever she needs to say, and we'll head to the next drop point."
"Alright," Barton replies, clapping his hand down on her shoulder. "I'll see you after dinner."
When Natasha attempts to convince Sitwell that breaking and entering is a one person job, he has no sympathy, and informs her that it's a two person job, she's working with Barton whether she likes it or not.
She doesn't, but she's a professional, she can ignore her feelings of annoyance towards Barton long enough to do her job.
Natasha spends her dinner eating the best unidentifiable gruel that governmental money can buy. Her sudoku book has been untouched, and she plays a few more boards.
"You put down two sevens in the lower right box," Barton comments, from above her.
Natasha glances up, and sees him standing opposite her, head cocked to view the sudoku page. "It's a two and a seven," she tells him. She turns back to the puzzle, plugging in a few more numbers. "Do you need anything?"
"No," Barton says, sitting down across from her. "I was going to ask if you wanted to play poker with us, but apparently you've shelled everyone out of their allowance."
"And you're going to be done with that sudoku book in the next fifteen minutes." Barton shuffles the cards and bridges them. "And I'm betting you won't have anything better to do until Martha wakes up."
She gives him a considering look. "How much are you betting?"
Martha ends up sleeping until sometime after eleven.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she says, as she makes her way over to Natasha and Barton's corner of the cafeteria.
"Stop apologizing," Natasha says instantly, as she and Barton flip their cards at the same time. They're playing a card game Barton played when he was young, and they haven't been putting money on the games since the second round, but it's been a good way to pass time.
She gives Martha a quick glance, and sees that Martha looks much more rested. "How long had you been up before you I picked you up?"
Martha makes a face as she sits down next to Barton. "Twenty-eight hours, I think. I had stopped counting."
Barton wins the next round of War. "You should get something to eat," he tells her.
"In a moment. What time are we heading to UNIT?"
"The Toclafane patrol more at night, so we won't be able to leave until tomorrow morning. Early, probably around five."
Martha is quiet for a moment. "I should probably just go back to sleep, then. If I eat anything now, I'll have trouble falling back asleep, and mess up the schedule."
"If you just woke up from nine hours of sleep, you probably won't be able to just fall back asleep." He stands up, tossing his cards on the pile in the middle. "Let's go back down to the archery range. Romanoff, you coming?" The hand gesture he makes doesn't look like any form of actual sign language, but she gets the gist of his pointing. Come with me.
She puts all the cards back into a pile, and leaves them behind, as she follows them.
When they enter the shooting range, Martha goes immediately for the quiver of bows. "Do I get to see what you've got this time?"
Barton smiles. "Later,” he tells her. “For now, there are just a few things I'd like to ask."
Martha sets the quiver of arrows back down. "Is there any place to sit?"
There's a cluster of stools along the weaponry wall, and Martha sits down, and looks at Clint. "What do you want to know?"
"To start, who's the Master?"
She hesitates. "To understand who the Master is, you have to understand who the Doctor is."
And then she explains. About Royal Hope Hospital, traveling the universe, time and space, the end of the universe and Professor Yana.
"And I'm the only one who can stop him," Martha concludes.
It's silent for a few moments. A quick glance to her side shows Clint's expression has shifted from the initial disbelief to something more thoughtful, and he's frowning just slightly as he stares over Martha's shoulder.
If Natasha is being honest, she's surprised. She doesn't doubt the existence of aliens, or that time travel is possible, but this really isn't the medium she was expecting to hear about them. Natasha spends another moment staring at Martha, mentally filing the information away for later, then she checks her watch. It's later than she would have liked. "And if that's going to happen, you should probably rest for tomorrow." She gets to her feet, and rolls her shoulders back. "And it's after midnight, the elevators have been shut off to conserve energy. We'll have to take the stairs."
They slowly make their way to the stairwell. Natasha’s ID doesn’t scan to get the doors to open, and Barton has to use his, and she falls behind both of them as they go up the stairs.
"What I still don't get," Barton says, as he falls into step beside Martha, "is how the hell the Master got elected to be Prime Minister. Didn't anybody notice that Harold Saxon's entire life story was fabricated?"
"No, because the first thing the Master did, when he came to Earth, was he launched the Archangel network. Over the next eighteen months, it grew more and more popular, and more people used it, and when they did, it emitted a low-level psychic field, it convinced everyone that he was who he said he was."
Barton gives her a hard look. "He brainwashed us?"
"The Doctor would explain it differently, said it was more like hypnotism, but yeah."
A slight shiver runs up Barton's spine. “If the Archangel Network is what’s keeping the Master in power, can’t we just take down the satellites?”
“Do you know anyone who can build fifteen missiles without attracting the attention of the Toclafane?” Martha asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Tony Stark could’ve,” Barton muses. “Probably one of the reasons Saxon killed him off. Still, there’s gotta be some way for SHIELD to destroy them, or UNIT, or...?”
Martha shakes her head."There may be some way, but the Master is using Archangel to influence people, keep them from rising up against him."
"So at this very moment he's inside all our minds?"
"His message," Martha corrects.
But Barton doesn't seem assuaged. When he sees Natasha raising an eyebrow, his posture goes defensive, his shoulders drawing up slightly. "I don't like the possibility of not being in control of myself."
It's not an uncommon fear for agents in their field, but Natasha is more surprised that he admitted to it.
They're halfway between floors, when the lights start flickering, before they go off, followed by the sound of power shutting down.
Martha goes tense. "The Master knows I'm here," she says, quietly.
"There have been rolling black-outs all around the globe," Barton says. "It's nothing to worry about. And the back-up generators and emergency lights should be turning on any moment now."
A few lightbulbs light up, a vibrant orange that washes out the entire stairwell.
Clint nods, then sits down on the step he's on, and stretches his legs out across his step. "The back-up generators are lights-only, though, so people can figure out how to get the regular power back on. Until then, the door security systems are down, and we're stuck here, so I'd sit down if I were you."
Martha sits down on her own step, while Natasha takes another few steps up, and sits down above them. She leans against the metal railing, on the inside of the stairwell, allowing her to see up the rest of the stairwell.
Barton is leaning up against the railings as well, and Natasha feels fairly certain that he has a sight on the area below him.
Martha, thankfully, is leaning against the wall.
A few minutes later, though, Natasha notices Martha is shaking slightly. "Martha?" she asks, carefully, slightly alarmed. And then she hears Martha's heavy breathing, and it clicks together.
"I'm sorry," she says, immediately, rubbing at her face. "It's just..."
"It's difficult," Clint finishes, for her. "I can't imagine what it's like, to be suddenly thrust into this situation."
"It's not... I don't care about myself-- I'm just--" she takes a deep breath, and sighs. "He has my family. On that day, he brought my family to the Valiant, and I had to leave them. I had to leave my mum, my dad, my sister -- they're all still up there, and I don't even know where my brother is, I have no way of knowing if any of them are still alive, or what he's doing to them if they are, and..." She coughs to clear her throat.
"Honestly," Natasha says, slowly, and they both turn to look up at her as she continues, "he's keeping them alive. If he killed them, then it would give you all the more reason to fight against him. If he keeps them alive, then they can still be used as leverage, they can be used to force your hand, they can be used to make you weak."
"That's not really helpful," Clint says, sounding a bit reproachful, a crease at his brow.
Martha gives a hollow laugh of sorts. "Actually, it is," she says, rubbing at her eyes. "The Master is twisted, and cruel, and he probably would keep them alive to make me suffer. There's just nothing I can do, not right now, and I just have to learn to keep going. And it's a change. And it's scary."
"It's new," Natasha corrects.
"And terrifying," Martha adds.
"It's new," she repeats. "And the only way to cope is to keep going forward."
Martha stares up at her. "What about your family?" she asks. "Do you worry about them?"
At any given point in time, Natasha has at least half a dozen different covers she could use for her parents, but with the way Martha is looking up at her, it would feel wrong to lie. “I don't know where they are," Natasha says. "I haven't had contact with them since I was very young. They could have died in the past week, they could have died in the past ten years. It makes little difference to me."
She shrugs. "It’s not something I think about a lot."
Martha looks at Clint.
Natasha can see his body tense, just before Martha asks, "What about your family?"
He rubs at his face, and is silent for a long moment. "When I was six, my dad got drunk, went driving, wrapped himself and my mom around around a tree. Me and my older brother ended up in the system, and when my brother turned eighteen, he joined the army, and I haven't seen him since. There's... some history between us. When I joined SHIELD I looked him up, saw he's FBI now, but I didn't look into his life any farther than that. He could be alive, he could have been killed by a Toclafane, he could have died anytime in the past decade."
Clint isn't looking at either of them, and Natasha is glad she doesn't have to decide whether or not to act surprised.
Martha is looking at Clint with a sympathetic expression on his face; and there's something confused about it too, like she can't understand how Natasha and Clint aren't close with their families.
And there's a resolved look to her eyes, like she refuses to become like them -- when this is all over, Natasha is willing to guess she'll become even closer to her family.
Good for her, Natasha thinks. It's a resolution, and that's what she needs, what she's been missing.
Then the lights suddenly flash on again, and they all wince away from the sudden light.
Natasha pushes herself up to her feet, and rolls her shoulders back. "Should we get going?"
Clint nods, starting to get to his feet. "Things should be clear, now," he says. He reaches down, gives Martha a hand up.
Natasha can't read into the gesture -- if Agent Barton is helping the to-be savior of the world to her feet, or if Clint is attracted to Martha Jones and trying to charm her.
Like so many things with Barton, the gesture could go either way.
Martha doesn't look nearly as rested as she had last night, and Natasha feels an odd pang of guilt about that, even though there's nothing she could have done either way.
They load up into the SUV Natasha took yesterday morning, with Barton pointedly handing over the keys to Natasha, to her relief.
It's still dark as they set out, but Natasha can see the sky getting lighter in the rearview mirror; thankfully, aside from a huff of amusement, Barton stays silent about her speed.
It's a twenty minute drive, and Natasha manages to make it in fifteen, the eastern sky growing to include warm peach hues.
As they approach the UNIT base, though, Natasha pulls up to the stop sign and idles.
"Natasha?" Barton asks, behind her.
Natasha is staring at the building. They sent a notice over a secure channel, before they had left, and the base confirmed that they were expecting their arrival. But the building is still, too still, and there's alarms going off in the back of her head. "Something about this doesn't feel right."
Barton leans up over the middle console. "How so?"
"We're a block away from the UNIT HQ, when the Master knows there's something out there that can stop him," she says. "Why are there no Toclafane around? This place should be surrounded, but there's none of them around."
"You think we're walking into a trap?"
"I think somebody knows we're coming."
Natasha would rather not. "I think we should fall back."
"Call Sitwell," Barton repeats.
"I know exactly where the vial is," Martha says. She's biting her lip. "I don't... if you don't think it's safe, then I could just..."
“You’re not going in there alone,” Clint tells her, voice flat. “Call Sitwell, now.”
Natasha frowns, but there's a car pulling up behind her, and she turns onto the next street, and drives around the block to circle back around the building.
In the scant half-minute it took to go around the block, the base has gone from deserted to swarming with armed hostiles.
"Get down," Natasha says, immediately, before the bullets start raining down on them. She immediately slams on the breaks and reverses the car, Martha in the front seat and giving out a shriek as the glass breaks around them.
In the rearview mirror, she can see Barton lunge halfway out the window, and she hears the shots of return fire.
"How many of them did you get?" she asks, a block later, once he's back in his seat.
"I was aiming for their tires, but I got half a dozen," he replies, sounding unhappy. He leans forward again, and presses a hand to Martha's back.
She gives out a slight jump at the touch.
"Hey," he says, softly. "Just me. You okay?"
Martha slowly sits back up, though she looks rattled.
Natasha is glad they have to take the long way back.
"Who were they?" Natasha asks, after a few moments of silence.
"Judging by the uniform?" Clint asks. Natasha glances up briefly at the mirror and sees he's not happy. "I think it was UNIT."
"Did they think we were impostors, or something? Did we go through the wrong security channel? They knew we were coming," Martha says in a rush. "They knew I was coming."
"And there's your answer," Natasha replies, as she starts down the decline to the SHIELD garage. She keeps her eyes in front of her, doesn’t want to see Martha’s face as it clicks into place.
Clint is out of the car in moments, helping Martha with her door, a hand supporting her lower back. "It's okay," he tells her.
Natasha is perfectly capable of withholding her 'no it's not' and does not appreciate the warning look Clint sends her. Instead, she heads towards the end of the garage, and sets the keys down on the desk, and shoves them towards him. "There's been a bit of an issue," she says, but she ignores his questions and overrides the door controls to open, as she stalks up the stairs.
"Natasha..." Clint says, voice low, warning, a few paces behind her.
"Where's Sitwell?" Natasha asks at the agent hurrying towards her. She knows he's the top supervisor of all SHIELD missions and bases in Europe, but Natasha has better things to do right now than deal with ass-kissing. "We have an issue," she says, cutting off what would not have been a location. "I need to talk to Agent Sitwell and debrief him on the issue."
"We are aware there's an issue, Agent Romanoff" the man says, sounding affronted. "We were calling you to discuss it, but your communication was off."
"No it wasn't," she replies immediately.
"I can vouch for that," Clint adds, and his voice has a hard edge to it.
He bristles at that, but doesn't push it. "The mission is off."
"The mission can't be off," Martha says, and she sounds rather firm about it. Natasha, for all she is annoyed with everything else at the moment, is rather proud of Martha.
"There's been a security breach, and we fear that confidential information has been leaked. I am sorry, Miss Jones, but we need to investigate this matter before you can continue with this mission."
Natasha doesn't bother giving him another moment of her time.
"Agent Romanoff!" the agent calls after her, followed by yelling for her to not walk away from a superior agent, that she will be put through disciplinary action.
She doesn't give a fuck.
She continues down the hallway, taking a left, finding her room easily. She blocks the security camera from her bedside drawer, and pulls out the wad of cash she's acquired in the past few days. No one here can play poker, and no one here is going to sign out another vehicle to her. But she has the forints, and a few hours. She'll make do.