"You might not want to pull on that thread."
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Jemma Simmons, Steve Rogers, Monica Chang, Alexander Pierce
Content Warnings: Memory issues
Simmons is still working when she arrives back at the warehouse. Natasha checks in with her, instructs her to get some rest, then spends the next hours scouting for a new holding location. It seems like it may no longer be an option to hold the Soldier, but she wants to be prepared, and she doesn’t want to leave it to chance that he hasn’t already found her other options. It’s irritating, but necessary. And, she completes the task with enough time to retrieve the Winter Soldier file and observe the ceremony for Nicholas Fury.
The only clean clothing she has is the outfit she wore during her interrogation on Capitol Hill. It makes her recognizable. Not a problem; it is reasonable to expect she will make an appearance at the service. But it is symptomatic of a longer-term problem. Without S.H.I.E.L.D. she will have to take care a lot of these things herself. She is capable, of course. She has spent months undercover, many times. But it is an inconvenience, and this mission is indefinite. And there are other things to consider. With her tongue, she prods her first premolar on the bottom left side. The problem will escalate if she continues to avoid it.
She considers the best way to accomplish her impending visit to New York during the funeral. She also analyses every face, every twitch, every fleeting thought exhibited by the guests. They are all familiar. There are no surprises, but it is impossible to be too careful, under these circumstances. She concludes that no one present has figured out that Fury is still alive. Rogers is there, with Sam. As expected. They wait, and she waits as well, listening from a distance. After Fury leaves, she delivers the file. Sam gives them some space, a sign that he is being considerate, and she does not think he will be able to hear their conversation, though she allows for this possibility.
She knows it is improbable, but she makes a final attempt to encourage Rogers to proposition Sharon Carter.
"She's nice." His expression shifts, and Natasha is sure that Rogers is going to choose the Winter Soldier instead. That is going to be aggravating. She is positive that Steve would enjoy Sharon's company, and if she has judged correctly, they are sexually compatible as well. She's glad she decided to censor the file, removing all references to major assassinations (she thinks the shooting on April 4th, 1968, would be especially troubling for Rogers to read about). All references to Hydra compounds are outdated; the file will not lead him anywhere active or dangerous. Just ghosts.
Not that there was much to begin with. If the Soldier wasn't currently haunting her, Natasha is sure that even she would have a difficult time tracking him, given the information at hand. But she does not want to make this task easy for Rogers. There is no reason to trust the Soldier. He is a weapon. He is dangerous. And Rogers, with all of his strength and all of his courage, will allow the Soldier to kill him. That is not an acceptable outcome.
She had not planned on kissing his cheek as she leaves.
She had, however, planned on warning him against reading the file. She turns back around, tells him "you might not want to pull on that thread." It is a metaphor Pierce used, and she remembers the timbre of his vocal pattern as she walks. She adapts her steps, so that she can hear his voice with all the clarity he spoke with in life.
The grass underneath her feet feels as if it disappears, replaced with clean linoleum. She recalls the anger, rancid and coiling inside her belly. She had been under the impression, mistaken, that being good meant no more children's bodies. And it had been her first mission with the American flag behind her shoulder. And she had wanted him to be pleased with her, to erase any lingering regrets he might have about adopting her as a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent. Because if he had doubts, she might be sent back, and she was aware that this was something Agent Barton feared would happen to her. It had been confusing, having so many choices. It made her anxious and confused, and she did the wrong thing and yelled at her commanding officer. It was the culmination of a series of erratic behaviors, and she should have been eliminated long before she had the opportunity to exhibit it.
She does not stop, though she is aware that, in her memory, she did. She chooses to keep going, because she does not want to attract attention, she does not need inconvenient questions about her retrieval process. But she feels the stillness of the moment in her joints. Her fingers feel tight; she had them clenched in stiff fists. Threatening posture. Defensive tone of voice. Alexander Pierce was behind her. He waited until she turned around. He held her face in his palms, and pressed a kiss to her temple.
That action was surprising. It made her heartbeat still.
"Why are you upset, Agent?"
She had answered automatically, and she can taste the words on her tongue.
"Because this is not good."
The words made her lips twist along the end of them. Pierce had considered his response to her, rubbing circles into her cheeks with his thumbs, just underneath her eyelids. She had seen the edges of his manicured nails in her periphery.
"Natasha, who told you that you were going to be good?"
Her shoulders feel tight, as they did then.
"Nobody. But." She had stopped herself, until pressure through his fingertips, so close to her jugular just below her ear, had forced her to continue. "I defected. I am supposed to be on the side of what is right and good now. How can I do that, when I am ordered to do bad things?"
She thought he would be angry, remove her from the program, slap her, throw her, and she felt the potential for it, but he smiled. And it reached his eyes.
"You're right, Natasha."
She remembers the confusion. How could she be right? She had yelled, disobeyed, left a debriefing before being dismissed. She should have been punished, no, eliminated.
"I don't understand."
She had been honest, because she did not know what else to say. Nothing in her previous experience could inform her actions, then.
"This isn't good, you're right. You have a very special set of skills. It's not pleasant, but sometimes you will have to use them to their fullest extent." His breath had been warm, so close to her lips. "All of your training, everything you've been taught, it's so you can do bad things."
That had all been true, had been something she understood. She did not argue. She listened.
"Natasha, sometimes we have to do bad things. But we always do them for the right reasons. That's what makes us different. That's how you can be good. Do you understand?"
Monica Chang is waiting, as expected, listening to Rogers making plans with Sam through her earpiece. They are examining the file, but Natasha anticipates that Rogers will wish to be alone with it very soon. She slides into the passenger seat of Chang's car. There is an egg and cheese sandwich already waiting for her. It's been kept warm on the dashboard, sitting in the sunlight. She tears away the wrapper, taking a bite. High sodium content. High caloric intake. The flavor has been engineered to taste delicious. Very similar to the last meal she consumed with Chang. It was kind of her to remember.
Chang waves her hand, short for 'don't mention it', so Natasha eats instead.
"I have a lead on a Hydra compound nearby. Sounds like they're regrouping. Have a feeling Rogers will try to infiltrate. Will make this job very difficult."
Natasha raises her eyebrow.
"Were you able to find a babysitter?"
"If this asshole is going to lead me hunting ghosts all across Europe, you could at least do me the favor of eliminating the ones that sprouted up in my own backyard."
"Is that a concern for you?"
Chang waits. Natasha assumes that means the answer is yes.
"I can deal with them."
It will be good, actually, she can acquire information to help Simmons.
Natasha hands her the empty wrapper, and Chang accepts it, crumbling it up before depositing it in a bag on the armrest.
"Nicholas wasn't pleased to see me."
Chang's lips curl into a wry smile.
"Don't be coy, Nat. He was under the impression I'd retired."
"Feeling smug, then?"
Chang turns to face her for the first time since Natasha stepped into the car.
Thank you so much for reading!
For now my headcanon is that if the MCU ever casts Monica Chang it's gonna be Lucy Liu.