"Is it stealing if I promise to bring everything back in one piece?"
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Bucky Barnes, OC
Content Warnings: None
Natasha leans away from the scope.
He was quiet when he approached, but the wind changed and gave him away. Unpredictable, at such heights. Any half-decent sniper would know that. And any undercover agent would prepare for that. The Winter Soldier is perhaps one of the finest snipers in the world, and he's been presumed dead for seventy years. She concludes that he wanted to alert her, which means he does not wish to dig a bullet out of his chest after startling her. Excellent choice.
"You found it?"
She rolls her stiff shoulders.
"I found someone."
He sits beside her, looking without seeing, at the heavily guarded building ahead of them. The lights of Hong Kong feel brighter than sunlight down on the street; from above, the city is a brilliant mass of technicolor and sound. Barton once mentioned that he enjoyed views like this one, that it made the word feel small and safe when he could look down at it from far away. Natasha is still not sure what he meant. It is 19:36 in Pakistan. He will be finishing dinner.
"Do you have more information for me?"
The Soldier shifts, reaching into his breast pocket.
She tenses, watching his hands. He's not braced to assault her, and his position is not advantageous. From the folds of his coat, he plucks two candy bars, wrapped in bright foil.
"Long surveillance means it will be difficult to eat."
He hands her one of the bars, unwrapping the other one. He bites into it, halving the chocolate. He chews more thoroughly than he did before, swallowing methodically before he finishes the candy. She opens the one he handed to her, sniffing it.
"I didn't poison it." He looks at her, one eyebrow arched. "But I can't fault you for checking."
She takes a small bite, letting the smooth chocolate melt across her tongue. It tastes sweet, and makes one of the molars at the back of her mouth sting. She swallows, and takes another bite, avoiding that section of her mouth.
His voice rumbles. "You said someone."
Watching him in her periphery, she sees the Soldier blink.
He licks his lips, chasing traces of chocolate.
"I thought there would be more than one."
She adjust her scope as the security team undergoes a shift change.
He crumbles the candy wrapper, storing it inside his coat. The material is thin. More suited to the streets beneath them. It's colder at the top.
"I thought there might be others they were telling their stories to."
Natasha feels her lip curl.
"The point is not to tell."
The Soldier grunts. Minutes pass without movement except for the shifting wind. It smells like rain. Below, the shift change is complete. No contact made with the target. "What about Operation: Orphan?" He is silent. "I looked. There's nothing in the digital files I released. Not by that name."
The Soldier swallows.
"The Mission Head forbade documentation."
A reasonable precaution. But the information needs to be somewhere. Well-guarded, inaccessible, not the kind of data that can be unencrypted or downloaded. Hydra began as the Nazi science division, but it has grown since then. It's brilliant, she can recognize that this is brilliant. A person, a number of persons, assigned specific pools of data. Not connected to anyone, isolated from one another, compiling and memorizing the missions and operations for which no documentation exists. The Soldier's chest rises and falls, she can see the barest hint of movement reflected in the glossy surface of her rifle. She needs to know if he knows.
"The data is analog then." There's a flicker of movement down below, but it's only a meal delivery. "It's secure in some respects. But extremely vulnerable to human error."
He hums. "It is contained."
He sounds sure. Perhaps he has looked. Perhaps he did not find what she found, buried in shipping manifests and translated from a language she doesn't speak. Perhaps he is not aware that the Moranbong chapter is said to contain information regarding Operation: Orphan, and that it contains nothing about Agent Natasha Romanoff, the defector, previously Natalia Romanova, code name черная вдова, call sign second, short for second sister.
There is too much about the Soldier that she cannot be sure of.
His clothes are new and indicate only that he has been in Hong Kong, the scent of traffic and food and neighborhood smells clinging to the material. He has been near public transit. That is all. He is not clean shaven, but the growth of his facial hair is even, and calculated to obscure his face without drawing attention. She has used similar tactics. His posture is comfortable. Accustomed to waiting. There is nothing she can glean from him. He is spotless.
"The last time we met," she leans away from the scope, "you said it had to be this way. That I would find what I was looking for first, and then I would destroy Operation: Orphan." He doesn't move. "Can you tell me why?”
He isn't as tense as he was a week ago when he answers, "I can't override the command."
She nods. There is a command then, one which forbids him to tell her why she must follow her own history first. It is frustrating. But it is also a good sign. She is confident she could overtake the Soldier if he tried to deter her, or prevent her from pursuing the target because the Soldier's commands dictate the order of events. He has not tried to stop her. It means he doesn't know what the Moranbong chapter contains. If it truly does contain the history of Operation: Orphan. Which it might not. There is only one way to tell.
"This is going to take some time."
He stares at the scope.
"Have you accounted for-"
He grins, small and shy, but his eyes glitter, picking up traces of the sparkling lights beneath them.
She returns his smile.
"There's a hotel two miles south of here. Very scenic. “Same altitude, six days from now?"
He offers her his hand. She takes it. They shake.
She finds a new place to sleep every other night. There is a neighborhood to the south where addicts sleep in condemned complexes, and she blends in well enough as long as she obscures her features to conceal her whiteness. The same is true of the Uigher colony on the outskirts of modern civilization. She adapts the affectation and stride of the younger men, makes a digital copy of an anonymous face (an amalgamation of several missing persons), and says a few words in the relatively obscure language and she passes for uninteresting. She sleeps in a binder, because she can't take it off, too public, too much chance of discovery, and she bruises her ribs. Her equipment is disguised as a tent, anonymous and obscured by the reality of homelessness scattered across the city. She returns to it as necessary, swapping out her roughshod disguise for the glossy veneer of a European tourist. She eats dressed like this, at bars that pretend to imitate local cuisine, per their English language advertisements. A woman traveling alone attracts attention, so she signs up for tours of the city, photographing potential escape routes and attractions alike. There are millions of people in Hong Kong. After her survey of the target, she is sure that she is indeed only looking for one.
The security detail is well-structured. Personnel rotate frequently, limiting contact with the target. No time to establish a relationship, isolation tactics. The routine is usually reserved for prisoners. The Hydra secret-keepers must occupy a similar position.
She has concluded that the safety of the storytellers largely relies on secrecy. The Japanese S.H.I.E.L.D. office couldn't have known the value of their captive. They made no effort to torture him. That is the flaw. It is impossible to resist prolonged torture. The only guaranteed security is to ensure information is never carried in its entirety. You can't give away what you don't know. The Russians understood this. The taught her how to forget anything. To forget so completely, she might as well have never known.
She wonders if the woman tailing her was taught the same skill.
The gloves give her away. It's too warm for them. The face she's wearing is digital. Natasha recognizes the facial structuring algorithm. Her hair is neat, and the wind as it picks up barely touches it. A wig then, one that's been woven close to her scalp. Once Natasha recognizes the disguise, she can infer that the woman is hiding something underneath her gloves. She's constructed herself to appear Punti, but she needs to conceal her hands. Her skin tone must not match. And there's no way to digitally transform hands.
The woman knows how to walk. Natasha sees the training in the way she trails her down the sidewalk. Slow, uninterested, glancing at street signs, paying attention to vendors. She knows the elegant choreography of covert tailing. One of her sisters, then, though she would have been part of a satellite program. There are no dark-skinned sisters in Natasha's memories of Russia.
Natasha goes into a hotel, and the other allows herself to be led. Up, she knows there will be empty rooms, further, somewhere that will not pose the risk of civilian casualties, climbing, somewhere they will not be seen. The tail follows her, and her body changes. She drops the cover once they are out of sight completely. She understands what Natasha is trying to tell her. They part from one another, but Natasha knows the other will find her. She waits, patient and calm.
The face has been removed when she arrives, and she is tugging at her gloves. Posture, firm and prepared. Her skin is dark, cidery brown, and her body is round and slender. Her eyes are emerald green. Natasha recognizes those eyes, though she has never seen their like before. They are as significant as her own shock of blood-red hair. Something tampered-with in their DNA. Something that marks them.
"Sister." The other inclines her head. Her voice is deep and firm.
"Likewise," Natasha follows the gesture, as innate as her next breath. It indicates a familiar signal. I have been trained the way you have been trained. Different bases, different rooms, but the training did not resist duplication. We are evenly opposed. The original model was efficient. Natasha knows it is up to her to make the first move. Efficient, and she sees that effective motion reflected back at her, the way it was for so many years. The training was hard. What happens now will hinge on luck. They don't need to speak the words to understand the message. It is an invitation.
Natasha doesn't need much momentum to kick off from the floor, running across the side of the wall, giving herself more height as she begins her assault. The other is prepared, and counters with knives. Her throws are excellent. Natasha dodges the first, hearing it lodge in the wall beneath her feet. She catches the second, and the third nicks her ear as she lands. She slashes, and the other sways, feet crossing serpentine. Natasha knows the other will be expecting a brutal attack in response, so she makes a different choice, tossing the knife so she catches the blade. She drives the handle up, underneath the other's jaw, leaving herself open. The blow to the abdomen is not damaging, but her body's response cripples her attack.
"Where were you stationed?" The other stretches her jaw as she speaks, assessing the injury. Minor bruising, at most a chipped tooth. Natasha is equally unconcerned.
"Kiev, at first. You?"
The other uses the knife planted in the wall to vault into the air. Natasha catches her leg, and they spin. Natasha slams the other into the wall as she tumbles to the floor, landing badly on her knee. She's expecting the gun and catches the other's arm before she can aim properly. They grapple, and Natasha groans from the wild kick to her kidney that lands as she empties the magazine. It clatters as it falls.
"Algeria," the other's voice is hot against Natasha's ear. "What is your mission?"
Natasha thrusts backwards, maneuvering her shoulders to sandwich the other between herself and the wall. There is an arm around her throat, digging the empty gun into her shoulder socket. She will have to dislocate it to slip out of the chokehold.
"I was an assassin. Covert. Until I defected." She bites on the wrist in front of her. The grip doesn't loosen, but the pain is a distraction, and Natasha uses it to tug one of her own knives from her belt, slashing at the other's abdomen. "Now I'm searching for Hydra’s secret keepers." Fabric tears behind her, and the other lets go. Natasha spins, deflecting the kick.
The other is bleeding, but the scars across her belly are more interesting. Caesarian. At least five years old. An emergency surgery, she must have been in the field. Probably ectopic, judging from the quick slashes made to her gut. Her body doesn't heal like Natasha's does.But like Natasha's, it cannot be rewritten. Blood drips on the floor. Natasha yanks her shoulder back into place. They assess one another.
"My body remembers," the other rasps, blood escaping through her fingers. "I am called Nefertiti."
"I was Natalia."
Other smiles. "I know." She resets her posture, forgetting the pain. It was not a lethal injury. "I have been sent here to kill you."
Natasha has never considered herself lucky. “Good luck," she assumes the other is the same.
Nefertiti smiles. "You as well." It did not need to be said, it was communicated in the way her body twists and prepares, but the sound of her voice shaping the words was a kindness. Natasha leaps and kicks, lets Nefertiti's fists land on her forearm as she attacks. She gains enough leverage to flip her, but Nefertiti follows, aiming a kick to her face. Dodging, she crashes into the wall, and plaster crumbles all around her. Nefertiti punches, and Natasha ducks, yanking her knee. Nefertiti allows herself to fall, grabbing Natasha's shoulders. They roll, unsheathing knives and burying them in flesh. When they separate, Natasha has a thin knife buried in her thigh, and one of her own is lodged in Nefertiti's shoulder. Their sweat smells sanguine, coating the air with their heat.
Nefertiti lifts her index finger. Hold.
"I am being told to abort."
Natasha plucks the knife from her thigh, and Nefertiti mimics her. They return each others weapons. There is no point in keeping them, there will be no useful evidence attached to them.
"Until we meet again, sister."
Natasha nods. Nefertiti kicks down one of the doors; she will be picked up. Natasha can hear the helicopter flying above them. Yes, there is the shattering window. And there will be a cleanup crew en route to deal with the blood. Natasha steps through the broken door, watching Nefertiti jump. It would be a waste of time to follow her; Natasha has neither the resources nor the patience. And the target is more important anyway.
She tears one of the sheets to make a bandage, and disguises the bloodstains underneath a coat she steals from the closet. Algeria. It might be worth looking there.
Thank you so much for reading everyone! Nefertiti is the first major OC in this fic and I'm excited to finally introduce her :D