Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, some Hydra schmucks
Content Warnings: None
Natasha picks up supplies at a local mall and changes in the bathroom. She frowns as she stretches the photostatic veil over her face. It's not the most comfortable accessory, and it's definitely too warm to be wearing a wig long-term, but it's necessary. If she's lucky, she'll find what she needs and get out in a couple of hours. She takes an extra drink of water from the tap. Hydration is important, since she's not counting on being lucky.
Her first errand is at a wash-dry-fold cleaner. She deposits a rucksack full of her dirty clothing, and is assured the task will be complete within four hours. Natasha spends fifteen seconds staring up at the video surveillance camera while the cashier counts her bills.
Then comes the covert routine. She takes a clandestine route to the Hydra office. Getting in is not difficult. It never is. She'd chosen one of the more outgoing operatives (her file had listed qualities that primed her for a career in leadership), which means all the hard work has already been done for her. All Natasha needs to do is smile, and people will assume that she is who she appears to be, a colleague and a friend. They deliver cues that she can respond to easily ("I can't complain, how are you?"), and she trades off the affable relationship her cover has, getting closer to her mark.
Obviously fake name. His real identity is not useful, so she has not investigated further. What interests her is his occupation. The public title is 'lending and real estate liaison', but People's Trust is not a real bank, and his work history has been skillfully fabricated. She has concluded, based on the reports she recovered from the compound, that his duties as a correspondent between varying overseas offices are understated. She finds his name in a directory while chatting with a secretary about the state of the highway (congested). People leave all sorts of information out when they think their base of operations is secure.
Third floor. She takes the elevator, greeting anyone that recognizes her with a courteous smile and an inquiry about the sate of affairs ("how are you", "rough week ahead", "oh my goodness"), and directs her line of inquiry outwards. People are often willing to talk about themselves if you exhibit concern and polite interest. They assume they are not giving anything away. It is so much easier to extract information this way. Even though none of it is essential to her current mission, she is aware that Bobbi Morse is undercover and has a reputation for being a 'hard-ass', that there is an important meeting happening on the sixth floor, and that research regarding an ancient artifact described in Masajid of Sankore is going well. She files the data away, knowing she will have time to transfer it to the appropriate agents en route to New York.
She arrives at the office with 'Archie Phillips' in bold script engraved on the door. He answers when she knocks. Inconvenient, but not a setback.
"Calinda?" He shakes her hand. "I heard you were, well, missing, you were supposed to report to-"
"Rumors of my disappearance have been greatly exaggerated." She presses a finger to her lips. "Can I have a word?"
He ushers her into his office, and shuts the door with a click that echoes.
"Is everything all right?"
She scans the room. No video, but there is audio equipment stored in the light fixture. Not unexpected.
"I received orders from someone higher up." She watches his face. "That's why I didn't report back."
She puts her hand on her hip, mirroring the series of photos of Calinda she'd examined.
"Do you remember your work on the Moranbong chapter?"
He takes a step backwards, accidentally crashing against his desk, upsetting a container of pens.
"Holy- that high up." He is nervous, but not suspicious. It is because of the nature of the orders, and not because of any cue she has missed or given. This makes sense. If there are agents carrying the undocumented history of Hydra, it would be essential to impress upon every person aware of this fact the extreme importance of their secrecy and security. Archie Phillips probably did not have clearance until he passed a series of rigorous tests confirming his loyalty and fortitude against torture. He is recovering from his surprise, and he sits.
"Okay." He tidies the pens. "And they wanted you to check in with me?" She nods. "Fine. What's your clearance?"
He gestures to the chair across from him, and she sits.
"I'm not cleared, not yet. They ordered me to convey everything I knew, to make sure I didn't uncover anything sensitive in the field."
He takes out a pad of paper.
"And if you did?"
She chews on the inside of her cheek.
"I fully expect to be reassigned. I know this is all above me." She cracks a smile.
"Honestly, I'm just looking forward to forgetting all this ever happened."
He grins back at her, grabbing one of the pens and clicking it three times.
"Sure, sure. Just tell me what you know, I'll check my file to see if there are any red flags."
She drags out the conversation for as long as she needs to. His notes on Moranbong are all encoded, and she has to read them in reverse, but it's easy enough to figure out (he's got the encryption key taped to the bottom of his computer screen, and she can see it in the reflection of his glossy desk). By the time 'Calinda' has discussed the most extraneous details about the operation, Natasha knows that the Moranbong chapter was captured by the Japanese branch of S.H.I.E.L.D., being held for eventual hostage exchange with North Korea. Agents working for Hydra had been delaying the transfer, counting on Project Insight to solve the issue. When it failed, Hydra had taken over the Japanese offices, and in the chaos, the prisoner had escaped. She manages not to groan when she sees where the Moranbong chapter is currently being held. It's a good thing she already needed to visit Tony Stark; she's going to have to borrow some equipment.
Archie Phillips is so polite when he says goodbye. He seems to think her discovery is minor, and tells her not to worry too much about it. It's going to be embarrassing for him when he realizes Calinda is dead, and has been for several hours.
She exits the building the same way she came in. From there, it's simple enough to duck into a nearby fast food chain, ordering a meal she knows will take extra time to complete. She changes her outfit in the bathroom, removing Calinda's face. She has to rinse her sweaty skin in the sink, and the cool water is refreshing after the time spent underneath the digital mask.
The food is hot when she emerges from the restroom. She eats as she walks, collecting her laundry with a cocky grin for the camera. That will be irritating for the Hydra agent that works out her deception.
After that, it's a short walk to the train. She travels back to DC, using her phone to book two busses and a flight. She has to borrow another S.H.I.E.L.D. car to drive around DC, collecting the essential belongings and shutting down a few overnights. The other safe houses are locked and ready if she needs them. She drives past Monica Chang when she tails Rogers, but is rebuffed, which means that the surveillance is going fine. She parks the borrowed car in a garage downtown, in a spot she knows won't be checked, since it's on the top level in a low-volume neighborhood. Time is moving in a way she knows well. She is early for the bus, exactly as planned. It will not be the most comfortable journey, but she does not intend to be conscious for most of it, so that will not be a problem.
She claims her ticket for Rhode Island, and then loads herself and her cargo onto the bus headed for Boston. It is a little out of the way, but the trip will last for more than ten hours, which is all she needs, and it has the design specification she requires: the bus model has been constructed in such a way that she can lie down in the space between the back wheels behind the stored luggage without being detected. It will be loud, but her body will not notice, and the exhaust fumes will not empty out into her lungs.
She lays her bag in front of her body, and listens as others are loaded in front of her. When the bus begins to move, she allows herself to sleep.
Thanks for reading everyone!