"The data is analog. It's secure in some respects. But extremely vulnerable to human error."
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Jarvis, OC, some Hydra jerks.
Content Warnings: Torture (& blood)
*Heads up, the rating is mature for this chapter. I'll post a censored recap if anyone needs it!*
The armor responds to her, just like Stark told her it would. "Brand spankin' new", he'd called it. She had ignored that, listening to the details about advanced weaponry and enhanced protective paneling. Filtered out the stray thoughts about previous decommissioned models, the pros and cons of starting over, and his interesting but irrelevant concerns about his own anxiety. "Do you need my help?" She'd ignored that too.
Standing on the roof, arm outstretched, Natasha summons the suit, waiting a mile away from the target. Out of sight, with the light pollution and smog, so far up no one will see the flashing lights as the flying parts assemble themselves over her body. Even though the armor has a reflective coating that should cloak it from a cursory glance, Natasha isn't willing to rely on inattentiveness or dumb luck. Tony had stressed the fact that it was a prototype, that the armor isn't as thick or as strong or as durable as he'd planned, that the weight is too heavy in the feet and too light in the shoulders, and she had listened to all of his concerns as she walked and ran and flew through his lab, filing them away should they become pertinent. All she needs to do is tear through a few layers of metal. And deflect a few bullets. And fly.
Tony had been confused. It didn't sound like the most subtle approach. He had expected her to laugh at that. If she wanted to be subtle, she wouldn't be borrowing a bright red robot. That's the point.
She flexes her fingers, and the machinery hums and whirrs around her muscles. Jarvis is a chipper, clear voice in her ear.
"All systems online, Agent Romanoff. I assume you're aware of the video cameras on the street and inside-"
She scans the city below her, vision enhanced by the screen floating in front of her. Seventeen operatives on the southwest corner, another ten on the east. Two escape vehicles for every operative, nineteen incendiary devices planted in the outer walls, anti-tank reinforcement on the interior ones, as well as acid bombs planted in the floors. There is one grizzled commander overseeing the operation- a retired hit man from the mob. Natasha looked him up, he has an impressive resume, though not one that impressed her. He will be intelligent enough to run before she has to deal with him. She has calculated these odds several times. With the armor deflecting their bullets, she should be able to dive in, tear open the wall, and retrieve the target with minimal personal damage.
Her leg throbs. Can't delay.
"Agent Romanoff, if you are going to be impersonating Mr. Stark, might I suggest-"
"Yolo," she drawls, cutting him off. She dives. As impersonations go, it's on-point.
She lets gravity carry her down, activating the flight mechanism at the last second. The effect of her retracted impact is immediate. Cars parked on the street shake and lurch, and a few of the operatives are thrown with the force of her aborted landing, a rush of air blasting through the glass windows of neighboring buildings. She floats, legs spread to accommodate the suit, deactivating the retro-reflective panels. When Natasha is sure they can all see her, she offers them a cocky salute in greeting, and waits for them to open fire.
They recover fast, and the bullets clatter against the armor like hornets against a windowpane. Natasha walks, swaying through her hips. One of the younger ones runs, gun firing , but he gets too close. She grabs his throat with her left hand, tossing him forwards, into the pit of operatives using the cover of a lopsided SUV to secure their vantage point.
"Agent Romanoff, might I direct your attention to-"
"The bazooka on the roof?"
She'd accounted for it in her initial plan, tracking the purchase through an unregistered gun show outside the city. It was sloppy, a barely concealed transaction. She can't abide by unsubtle arms dealers.
"Might I recommend the missiles in the gauntlet?"
Yes, yes you may, Jarvis.
She fires one at the wall in front of her, and another at the rooftop, then plucks the semi automatic from her waist and begins to pick off the guards on the north side of the building. She has until the dust settles before she needs to adopt Tony's careless swagger in earnest, to wear his identity as convenient as a glove. She uses the time to shoot, vaulting over vehicles in her path to get to the sidewalk. Natasha flips, circumventing gravity. The concrete rubble crumbles beneath her feet (heavy, yes, but not impossible to maneuver with the added support of the flight capabilities). Her landing secure, she kicks the first operative that tries to attack her, the metal toe of the suit dislocating his jaw as he falls backwards. Another onslaught of gunfire, from above, but the armor is still deflecting it, though she can hear the scratches and dents forming on its surface. Superficial. Not the point. She senses another attacker behind her, and swings her arm, connecting her elbow to his sternum. Returning the gun to her waist, out of sight, she fires with the palm of the suit, taking out three, four, seven. It's efficient, but imprecise. Property damage abounds. She looks around at it, and shrugs.
She turns back to the building; the target is still inside.
"Of course, Agent Romanoff."
She steps through the wreckage she's made of the wall, adjusting her gait to account for the weight of the mechanics, the pressure-sensitive security protocols, and her impersonation of Tony. The guards inside are prepared for her. Bullet-proof vests, full combat gear. Their weapons are sturdier, and they've taken defensive positions behind well-fortified walls. Someone sets off one of the incendiary devices planted over her left shoulder. The explosion vibrates through her, but the suit absorbs the impact, and she doesn't lose her footing.
When she speaks, her voice alters, words clipped and heavily dosed with snark.
"Wanna run that by me again?"
Of course, they retaliate. Natasha flies, careful not to scrape the ceiling, vaulting over the traps in the floor. She fires as she moves, alternating between her left and right palms. The shoulder of the suit groans a little, but the damage, Jarvis assures her, is minimal. Not life-threatening. Bullets trail her back, causing her flight to stutter and jerk. She lands, feet scraping. Natasha shoots, blasting holes in the fortified walls. The gunfire coming from that angle ceases.
She rolls her shoulders. "How many more alive, Jarvis?"
"Seven, Agent Romanoff. Not counting the survivors on the roof." One of the seven tries to set off the acid bomb on her right; Natasha soars into the air, grabbing the back of his vest.
"And how far away are the reinforcements?" She flings the operative into one of the exterior walls, and it cracks with the impact.
"Several blocks. You have fifteen minutes, if traffic patterns remain unchanged."
She scoffs. "I'll be out it in five."
More gunfire, this time from an unmanned machine gun in the ceiling. Natasha runs, then slides, and the gun tracks her across the floor. The suit lines up her target for her, the camera inside the gun. She aims, and fires. Natasha is pleased at how used to the kickback from the gauntlet she's become.
"Watch my six, Jarvis."
"Of course, Agent Romanoff."
She stands, crouching over the weakest point in the wall. She penetrates it with the gloves, digging the mechanical fingers into the core. She can feel the damage the suit is sustaining, the electronic pulses trying to compensate as she crushes the circuitry. Ignoring it, Natasha twists, using her entire body to pull and tug and tear. The suit cracks and snaps around her arms, joints and plates splitting and clattering to the floor as they fracture from the exertion. With a groan, the wall shudders and breaks. Natasha tosses the pieces over her shoulder, ignoring the loud bang as it hits one of the incendiary devices in the wall.
"Very nice aim, Agent Romanoff."
Natasha chuckles to herself, wondering if Tony is aware he programmed his AI to encourage him every step of the way.
The target is inside. Old, yes, but he appears younger than he is. His file had only indicated a country of origin (Korea, prewar) and a security clearance (carte blanche, essentially). The lines around his brown eyes and forehead are thin, and his dark hair is streaked with gray instead of dominated by it. He's got his back to the wall, and a gun in his hands. And he doesn't point it at her, but at himself.
"Don't come any closer."
His English is accented, but comfortable. Quick, she slaps the gun away, and he shouts. Not enough. She forces the right hand of the suit to retract, grabbing the man's jaw with her left. She digs inside his mouth, finding the false tooth. She yanks, and blood coats her fingers as the man howls. She inspects the rest of his mouth, making sure there was only one cyanide capsule. Reviving him will not be convenient. Satisfied, she lets go of him, and he chokes, coughing up splatters of saliva and blood.
"Let's go for a ride."
She doesn't give him time to argue. Wrapping her arm around his waist, Natasha shields him with her ironclad body as she rises, cradling his neck before soaring out of the building, firing the repulsor rays as she makes her exit as explosive as possible. She ascends over the damage, monitoring the smoke her target will be inhaling unfiltered. He is screaming, and struggling, though a fall from this height would be lethal. He won't be able to slip out of the armor's grip. There are already helicopters circling, so she reactivates the cloaking mechanism, obscuring as much of her captive as possible.
She circles Hong Kong, making sure she's not being followed before she heads south. The safe house is remote and discrete, disguised as an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of a destitute village near the water. The farmhouse itself is in an area still heavily laden with land mines. No one goes near it. It's not a long flight, and the exaggerated speed of the suit is ideal. The air over the ocean is chilly, even in the spring. Natasha lands, blasting open the door. She doesn't give her captive time to regain his footing, shoving him inside.
He turns on her. There is blood trickling from his lips, and he's snarling. While the helmet is still on, she mirrors his expression, teeth bared and eyes vicious.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?! Whose wrath you've incurred, you sniveling, useless coward, you-"
She shrugs, deactivating the voice modulator.
The man cuts his tirade short.
"Who are you?"
She points at the chair behind him.
"Why don't you take a seat?"
Gulping, he does.
She strips out of the armor, tossing the helmet over her shoulder with an aggressive clatter. She grins like a shark at its prey, all teeth and hunger, noting the flicker of recognition when he sees her face. Natasha sheds the gauntlets and gloves, letting them slip through her fingers. The target winces as with every stuttering clang as the machinery hits the floor. Glossy laminate on top of cold concrete. Easier to clean. The target's eyes are tight, pupils straining against the thin, weedy light. He's more angry than afraid. Obviously not prepared for physical stress, if he's eliciting so many uncontrolled emotional responses. She would be suspicious of such transparency, if not for the presence of the nervous, twitching fingers, the heartbeat hammering out a frantic pulse in his neck, the acid sweat thickening on his skin. He's trying to hide his fear, poorly. Natasha tears away her breastplate, and the backplate falls from her shoulders. She steps out of the boots, approaching him with confident steps.
"I'm in the mood for a story. Know any good ones?"
He wets his cracked lips.
"You're the traitor."
She smiles, letting it spread with slow precision across her face.
His body jerks as he tries to stand; Natasha reacts, too fast for him. She grabs his wrists, slamming them down on the armrests of the chair, and cracks her forehead against his skull. He yelps, groaning as he settles back down, head lolling, expression lax. Disoriented, but no risk of immediate unconsciousness or death.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you."
Natasha activates the recording device stored in a pouch underneath her shirt. The man is gasping, eyes closed. He'll hold, for a little while. She decides to start with his toes. Crippling damage, limit opportunities to escape. Pain receptors connected to other parts of the body will deliver extreme and thorough discomfort.
"I have nothing of use to you." He shakes his head. "I don't have the story you're looking for."
She crouches, looking up into his face. She grasps his chin, using a delicate touch. He opens his eyes.
"I'll be the judge of that."
His wealth of knowledge begins after the Korean Civil War. He has rehearsed this part of the story, though the way he speaks, Natasha suspects that he has not been given the opportunity to tell it out loud for some time. Three years of espionage. The details are vivid, and she can imagine it without difficulty. She has to break both his smallest toes before he will tell her whose side he was on.
"Why did Hydra have you record the stories of its enemies?" She rubs his ankle, applying a soothing amount of pressure. "If Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. in South Korea, why did it matter what was happening on the other side?'
He grits his teeth, holding back a whimper.
"If you don't know, I won't tell you."
He does, though. She is peeling back the nail on his big toe and he is howling when he begins. Enemies, yes. Hydra insinuated itself within S.H.I.E.L.D., making enemies of the Russians early on. The battlefield in Korea was a small one, but the victory was important to both sides, using the lives of the people on the ground as pawns in an international pissing contest. When the more colorful language appears, Natasha changes tactics. She asks him if his leaders care. If he thinks they're coming for him. She wipes her knife clean on his trousers, implying that she is finished with it (she's not, she never is), while she speaks softly, forcing a trickle of pity into her throat. Of course Hydra will kill him when they find out what he's told her, but she can keep him safe, yes, safe. It doesn't matter what's true. What matters is what she can make him believe. That's the point.
Alexander Pierce begins to feature prominently. He was the one who suggested the alliance, the failsafe for Project Insight. An Agent gone rogue, a traitor, the inspiration for the monopolization of power. Most of the details are not useful. Those chapters of her life are already an open book, she posted them all online, and she can remember all of this, should she choose to. This is not what she needs, but it is pieces of it.
She refocuses, staring into his eyes.
He claims he doesn't know, but he has too many tells.
Natasha plunges a screwdriver into his hip, cracking into the bone. He writhes and squirms, but she twists it, coaxing, prodding, and holding him in place. His throat is hoarse and his voice is cracked when he starts begging. She pretends not to hear him at first, leveraging the edge of the tool grind down against his marrow, nerves screaming with every twitch and swivel. The handle grows sticky and wet.
He tells her: "Perip... peripisy-" mangling the pronunciation, she finishes the word for him, encouraging him, "Yes, good, the program was successful, tell me what it's being used for now." Test facilities in Haeju. Doctors employed by Room 39. Such a delicate procedure, on a large scale. Possible, of course it's possible, anything is possible.
She makes him go backwards, out of a sense of obligation. "The Hunan Province, the massacre, the 0-8-4, tell me about that." Whispers, rumors. Very little to do with the Moranbong chapter, which is not surprising. Natasha doesn't hear anything new, but perhaps Skye will find something useful. Natasha will give her the transcript, with the bitching and moaning redacted.
He is tired. Dehydrated. Bleeding. Natasha leaves him, whimpering, to retrieve a bottle of water. She holds it to his lips, doling out carefully measured sips. Enough to regain lucidity, not enough to ease the soreness. She waits, his throat working as he swallows. There is sweat soaking through his shirt, cold now. He shivers. Exertion and seeping adrenaline are lowering his core temperature. Natasha allows it.
"You wanted to know..." he rasps. "About something else," he rasps. "Why."
She cocks an eyebrow.
His voice cracks. "There was a child. In the facility in Pripyat, just before the explosion. New to the program, it was part of their training. Follow orders, or do what their handlers wanted? Only one child failed. He did what was right, not what he was ordered to do. As a result, thousands of people died." His head lops forward, chin hitting his chest. "The consequences there led to the initiation of the program in Haeju. That is where the Moranbong chapter begins." Hs breath is coming in uneven ways when he looks up at her. "That is all I know of that chapter."
She grows more specific, now that his defenses have been broken. She asks pointed questions, about Operation Orphan. A training program. Fine. Training for what? Everything. Be more specific. Ballistics? Combat? Espionage? Command? Weapons development? Yes, his voice trembles, slick. All of it, all of it, yes. Some of it is familiar, some of his words reverberate in her body as she remembers being young, warm and dry and isolated and... no, that's wrong. It was cold in Russia. So much snow. And there were so many others there with her, though so few survived. He has a location. He has names, and code names. Not the purpose, because the mission head did not clarify, because even the mission head was not supposed to know. And who is the mission head? No, no, no, please, no more, but she pried open his leg anyway, dragging a blade through his femur, popping off his kneecap. He didn't have the answer.
He doesn't know where the Bolshoi is, has never encountered the person tasked with carrying that chapter. A dead end. A literal one. (She makes it literal).
Her body feels weak. There are aches all over. Her hands remember learning these skills, but her skin remembers something different. Endurance training, or resistance training. Cold and wet and dark, her body shivering because it had been losing blood and there had been a hose full of ice water and her eyes ached from the spotlight and then the dark. Her hands remember learning how to torture someone, how to send excruciating tremors through the nerves and her voice remembers the words to say to warp the mind and take away time, but her body remembers surviving it.
Natasha cleans her equipment, methodical, thorough, hands moving fast, but without the urgency of stress. Her heartbeat is calm. Her breath is smooth. The injuries she sustained during the capture are minor, healed. Even her leg, where Nefertiti gouged out a piece of her flesh, feels whole and fine. Natasha drinks what remains of the water, and eats half of her supply of nutrient bars. She discards her clothes and burns them. She stored a spare set in the safe house before she set it up. It's comfortable to put on clothes that aren't hard with dried blood. Gathering everything she needs, she dons the suit again, cloaked, stepping outside to fly.
When she's airborne, she sends a blast down to engulf the house, and the body inside it. It will be mistaken for a mine explosion. No evidence.
Thank you so much for reading everyone!