A Small Comfort

June 14, 2015:

Natasha comes to check on Argyle.

Argyle's Apartment

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NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Back in the day, Emmett used to spend his Saturday nights out at the local pub around the corner. Either that, or he'd be working out at the gym or out to a movie. But Natasha knows that he hasn't had a single night out since everything came to light. He's kept his head down at work. He got his first ever lacklustre performance review for not being very thorough on a stack of reports. Besides that, he's been punctual. All he does is work and go home.
He's sprawled out on the couch, beer in hand when there's the knock on his door. He pulls a 9MM from a holster underneath the lip of his coffee table and inches towards the door. The deadbolt pops, but the chain stays on. He stands behind it and opens it only far enough to speak to whoever's there.

*

Natasha can look like anything from the Black Widow, beautiful and deadly, to Natalie Rushman, who is pretty but not New-York-unusual pretty, to the dumpy social worker who wears florals and flats and no makeup. She hasn't gone quite that far today, but she's dressed down in normal clothes — blue jeans and a black-and-white-striped T-shirt — and holds a paper grocery bag under one arm. She isn't armed… or, well, it's more accurate to say that she isn't visibly armed. It's Agent Romanoff. Chances are, she can kill you with her pinky.
"Hi," she says, peering through the tiny crack in the door. "I almost never knock when I come to kill people unless I'm feeling really sporting. Social call. Can I come in?"

*

"You know, they have these things called phones. You can text with 'em. Then you can ask if you come over. Calling on people is something kids do. Or do they? I don't even know." Emmett slams the door, but there's the telltale scrape of the chain as it's unhooked. The door doesn't open, but if Natasha tries the handle, it will open.

*

"Sounds like a lot of effort." There's a friendly smile from the other side of the door. "Besides, you would have said no." Therefore, just show up. Simple. Natasha does try the handle after a polite moment of waiting for Emmett to actually open the door for her. She steps inside, closes and locks it behind her, and sets the bag down on the nearest flat surface she can find. Something inside goes clink-gloosh. "How's it hanging?"

*

"Oh y'know. Just the daily grind of weapons design and identity crisis." Emmett drops back down on the couch and retrieves his beer. "And Netflix." On the screen, Piper Chapman is yelling something about artisinal soaps while dressed in prison-issue orange. "Whaddya want, Romanoff? Do you have my files?"

*

But Nat's attention is immediately grabbed by the TV, and she leans against the table to watch a few seconds of the show with a broad grin. "Love this show," she said. "No spoilers. I haven't been able to catch up for way too long." She glances back over her shoulder at Emmett after a moment, though: "You understand SHIELD doesn't know everything about you, right? You probably know most of what's in your file already. Russian agent, 'volunteer' for special program. Judged to be the most capable of blending into American culture. Not the strongest, not the smartest."
Natasha moistens her lips. Turns around, taking a deep breath, and begins unpacking her bag. There's a number of small glass bottles full of what looks like water. Clearly not water, but it might as well be.

*

"Mmhmm. And mentally malleable. Able to be fucked with nice'n easy-like." Emmett leans back and pinches the bridge of his nose. "You're a spy, Nat," apparently he's going to go casual with the woman who knows more about him than anyone. "The game's about knowing what your enemies know, not just learning new shit. I wanna know how deep that rabbit hole goes."
He eyes the bottles, then looks up at her. "You planning on getting me shit-faced?"

*

"Actually," Natasha replies, "I chose you because you had the best heart. You had a sense of fair play and decency. You were the most American of the Russians I'd ever met. I really liked you." She has her back to him as she uncorks one of the little bottles, pouring out two tiny glasses. There's maybe a shot's worth in each.
She turns around to face him, fully expecting him to be holding the gun out again. Even if he is, her face is calm and polite. "Before two people get to really talking or really eating, in Russia we always shared a swallow of vodka. It's a tradition. Sort of a palate-cleanser. I worked on getting a few small bottles of the stuff from where you were born."

*

That's the thing about Argyle. He'd really, really love to scoop up his gun and point it between her eyes. He'd love to yell and spit and blame her for everything gone wrong in his life. But he's a man ruled by logic, and he knows that threatening Natasha in the here and now isn't going to do a damned bit of good. Not only because he knows he couldn't get a shot off before she broke his wrist, but also because, well, that was a long damned time ago. That doesn't mean, however, that he can't glare daggers.
"You realize," begins Emmett, "You just said you liked me, that's why you royally fucked me over. So you fuck your friends over and kill your enemies, is that how it works with you?"

*

"When you were chosen for this project," Natasha replies — and she is terribly cool and calm, apparently not at all uncomfortable — "I was an agent of the KGB — well, we weren't really the KGB anymore, and I myself was always a bit of a weird case. Regardless. I told myself that you were a volunteer, that you knew what you were getting into. I interviewed you, and you confirmed that. I'd been sent to evaluate that program, to evaluate the final potentials. They didn't really erase your personality. In many ways, you're still the boy I met ten years ago. You have a sense of — of fair play that isn't so common among Russians. It's a very American trait. Americans can't accept that they will be betrayed, that bad things happen to good people. It charmed me. You charmed me in ten minutes of conversation. I also knew that in… other programs similar to yours… the ones who didn't make the grade were culled, because individual life and liberty has never been high on the list of important things. So I kept you alive and preserved you for an evil program, and I never forgot it. Programs like the one that made you were why I defected."
She extends the little glass again. "I'm not telling you this for sympathy. I'm not telling you this so that you can be my confessor. I'm telling you because no one else will tell you, because no one else except Fury knows. And I'm helping you because this is my fault, and therefore my responsibility."

*

"I was a child, Romanoff. How old was I when you met me? 15, 16?" He was eighteen, but he'd been under training and observation for five years before that, and primed for the program by his own family before that.
Emmett stands up and straightens his shoulders. He's not a guy who looks physically intimidating on a day-to-day basis, but he can look it with subtle shifts in body language. He does that now, unconsciously. Not that the Widow is easily intimidated by the likes of him. "And now you work for SHIELD, who may not have made me, but have been perfectly happy to use me. I do not know who the fuck I am. Do you have any idea what that feels like?"

*

"Yes."
There's that same matter-of-fact tone, but behind it is something bleak and jagged and broken.
"I was called in to judge the efficacy of your program because it was a continuation of the one that made me. I have no idea what my name is; I have the name they gave me instead. I have no idea who my parents were. No one now alive does. I have the answers when it comes to you, but no one has the answers about me."
When she smiles again, a bit of that calm is gone. Her eyes are bright. She offers the little glass a third time. "There is no one to give me the truth I can give you. And now you know more about me than almost anyone else in the world. The program that made me was adapted to make the Winter Soldier. That's why he wants you so much. Part of him thinks you're the key to his cure. Part of him, I suspect, feels the same sort of responsibility that I do. Here we are, the three of us. Broken toys of Mother Russia. She loved all her children equally."

*

Emmett knows two things for sure about Natasha Romanoff - that her past is complicated and that she's an expert liar. That makes him a little unsure of how to take what she just said. He's not the kind of spy that can read people. He's the kind of spy that can blend in and blow stuff up. In fact, reading people is one of his least-developed skills. That's why he's such a bad interrogator. Another thing that made him appealing to Russia's black programs. They needed someone who would take what he was told at face-value - not someone who would try to see through the lies.
"He don't want me," he says. Finally, he does reach for the cup of vodka, though he doesn't sip from it. "He wants what I can get him. He wants my intel, and my access to SHIELD."

*

Natasha inclines her head. Evidently she suspected this. "The part of the Winter Soldier that's still who he was wants the answer to what can make you better. Not for the purposes of healing you — that's just a happy side effect — but for the purposes of healing himself. The Winter Soldier wants your SHIELD access for HYDRA, which is apparently still a thing." A tiny shrug. She holds her own glass, lifts it very slightly to eye level.
"And I want the same thing for both you and my old teacher. I want the scales to drop from your eyes. I want you to see the world through your own eyes, whatever that may mean."
"If you want," she adds, "you can confirm my story. He knows some of it. He knows something of the program that trained me and maybe a little of how old I am. Depends on how clear a day it is for him."

*

"Who is he, really?" Emmett asks. "I got a look at his files," by tricking poor Fitz into opening them. "There's some speculation that he's actually American. S'at true at all?"
He looks down into the vodka, then over at Natasha. "I barely know who I am now. I don't know who I'd be if I remembered my real childhood. I…can't…I can't reconcile who I think I am with someone who'd be willing to live a lie and take over someone else's life."

*

"I actually had some doubts about the program myself when they described it. You were primed for it from childhood but they didn't start you actually training until you were about thirteen. Much, much later than I started. I suppose in that respect, who my parents were really isn't that important. You were raised a patriot. Your name — technically Aleksandr, but everyone called you Sasha like I'm called Natasha. No one calls me Natalia unless I'm being formal." Another tight little smile.
Natasha takes a deep breath when he asks that question, though: "Haven't you figured it out by now? Though you might have forgotten the questions he asked you under the Haze. But yes, he's American. A prominent American, actually. Think about it: where does the phrase 'Winter Soldier' come from?"

*

"I don't remember nothing when I'm the other guy," says Argyle. "He showed me a video, but I was too busy watching someone else talking outta my mouth that I wasn't paying real close attention to what was actually being said." He steels himself, then tosses the vodka past his gums. He slaps the glass down on the table and wipes a hand across his mouth.
He hoods his eyes and looks across at Natasha. "Seems a dumb thing to do - turn a famous guy into a soldier for the other side who don't know who he is." He can't help but chuckle. "None of us turned out like they wanted us to, uh?"

*

Natasha slings back the vodka when Emmett does: apparently she was waiting on him. This is her cue, apparently, to set the little glass down and move to seat herself. A small grin crosses her face: "The three of us didn't. That's right. I suppose the Winter Soldier was the closest, but he's not going to be like that for long. Hopefully. I'm relying on a bit of the same stuff he is: if we can help you, we can maybe help him. He's been at it much longer than you."
Settling back in the chair and steepling her fingers, Natasha goes on: "The term 'Winter Soldier' was popularized in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. There was a movie in… 71, 72, about the atrocities committed by American soldiers overseas. Americans were supposed to be the heroes, but in fact they were doing terrible things over there. That's the joke, sort of. Though he's much older than the war. Do you really want to know who he is? The answer's pretty depressing. I actually didn't know, not until… well, not until he captured you."

*

"I wanna know who I'm dealing with, Nat. The guy's pretty bugfuck. I think he likes me. I think he thinks he needs me. But that don't mean he won't knock half my teeth out or break my wrist. Or worse. He's like a half-tame wolf, that guy." Argyle looks tired, suddenly. It's hard to stay angry all the time - even if it's semi-righteous anger. "I told him I'd tell him what SHIELD has on him. He deserves to know, cause his handlers aren't gonna give him a straight answer."

*

"He suspects. He doesn't know. Understand that by telling him, you might actually cause a psychotic break so, you know, be careful about that."
For a long moment, it looks like Natasha isn't going to say. She takes the moment to refill her little glass with a second of the several bottles, saying "These have different flavours, you know; fennel vodka is surprisingly nice."
But when she's downed that glass, she twiddles it in one hand before setting it down. "He was an American soldier missing in action. Well, I say missing. He was believed to be dead. Is still believed to be dead. The few who know won't go public because… well, it's bad news for everyone. I actually thought for a long while that he was Captain America."
Flashing a quick smile, she shakes her head. "Of course, that was ridiculous. But I wasn't far off. The name of the man who became the Winter Soldier is James Buchanan Barnes."

*

That should hit Argyle like a lead balloon, but instead it's more like a sudden jostle. He, like a lot of kids, idolized Captain America and read all about him. There weren't too many instances where he saw the Soldier with his mask off or askew, but it was enough that he seemed…somewhat familiar.
"'at's fucked, man," he says with a shake of his head. "Fucked up. To do that to Captain America's best friend? Also, who thought that'd be a subtle thing to do?" If there's a bottle within reach, he'll go for it to fill up his glass. "The people at the top, man, they're pretty damned fucked up if they think what they did to us was any kind of good idea."

*

"That's right. Bucky Barnes, Agent of HYDRA. Except that's not really true; Bucky Barnes would never be an agent of HYDRA. I didn't know him before, but I know what brainwashing can do. You know what brainwashing can do."
When he starts flailing around for a bottle, Natasha leans forward with hers to give him a refill. She settles back again with a sigh.
"Well, he's always supposed to have his mask on. And basically no one ever sees him without it except for HYDRA agents who get to snicker about it for seventy years. Anyone who sees him without the mask is basically dead. I'm not sure I even saw him without it when we were training. I was pretty young when they took him, but we met a little further down the line."

*

"He's always kept it on with me, but I landed one good punch and it got knocked a bit. Plus, the eyes. I mean, the dude's face is blown up a hundred times and projected on walls at exhibits." Argyle scratches his temple. "No way I'd ever have figured that out on my own, but he did seem kinda familiar." He sips the vodka this time instead of shooting it back. "Does Captain Rogers know?"

*

"Mmm." Natasha nods slightly. "He's not very public about it for obvious reasons. He's not happy. He wants to bring him in, but you know how hard it is to hang onto him. He gets brought in, he gets out." She rubs her hand over her face, sighing. "Naturally, I mean, I don't need to tell you this, but tell literally no one anything we've described in here because I'll have to kill you, I'll have to kill them, it'll be a mess, and I'll get written up."

*

"He deserves to know what his own name is. But hell, I don't think I wanna be the one to tell him. Like you said, it might break something." Argyle stares at the ceiling. "Nearly broke me. Actually, I think I'm still shattering, you know? Slowly, like when you get a rock chip on your windshield. And then one day, I'm just gonna spiderweb." He lifts a hand and makes a popping sound.

*

"Guess why I'm here." Natasha smiles faintly and gives Argyle a tiny nod. "I know that feeling. I do. So I'm hopefully in your phone. I can be sympathetic if you need it. I can also restrain you pretty fiercely, too, if necessary. I have a few things that could… open up a few windows, but I'm thinking you'll want some leave before that happens. It's going to be rough going."

*

"I keep dreaming about winter," says Argyle. His voice grows distant. "Moscow, I think. I've been there, on a couple missions. But this was different." He shakes his head. "I think they're his dreams." He shakes his head. "If I could resign from SHIELD and they'd let me, I would. But I know they're not gonna let me go from out under their thumb."

*

"I can work on putting you on some leave, but it's going to cause some questions among those who know who you are. We'd have to put you on some kind of project I'm supervising. I think that's possible, but not something even I can do immediately. I'm investigating, too," she adds. "Ways to undo what happened to you. I have some leads, but I'm basically putting together what might have done it based on who the people were who did this. How they thought. It's slow work."

*

"It's also possible there's no way to undo this. If I was that expendable, why would they build in a way to bring me out of it without psychosis?" Argyle's had a lot of time to think about this. The internet has some things, too. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. "The fuck am I supposed to do with my life now? Or after this whole…" he motions to his head, then gives up on the thought. Instead, he drinks.

*

Natasha rises from where she sat at last, moving over to sit alongside Emmett. She is quite possibly still being thoroughly honest with him. Reaching out, she sifts fingers through his hair and shrugs: "Just because they didn't build in a back door doesn't mean we can't cut one into the wall," she says. "If it's impossible, it's impossible, but the human mind is a powerful thing. I'm not going to stop trying just because it can't be done. As far as what you do? You're the only one who gets to choose that. That's something I'll fight for," she adds, a soft smile on her face. Leaning forward, she presses a tiny peck to his temple. "I'm in this with you."

*

Emmett keeps his hair quite short, so there's not a lot to finger through. What is there is soft and dense. "So the other me…you think he's a good person? He's not some…evil Russian spy who'd kill everyone if someone ordered him to?"
He turns his face just after Natasha leans back from the peck. He looks…confused. Now that he knows she's older than she looks, that she's expressed a protective instinct towards him, he's having a harder time reading that contact. He tries to figure it out by looking at her, but…man, he's bad at that.

*

And she's really, really good at keeping her cards close to her chest. Even now. Protective, certainly. Solicitous of more, certainly, though whether that 'more' is simply trust or… associated emotions. Certainly she's not above using those associated emotions when it helps her get somewhere, and there is a certain subtle flick of her eyes between her eyes and lips. But it could be manipulation or instinct or, frankly, nothing. But her hand does drop to hold his.
"He's you," she says simply. "He was dedicated to this cause, but he's been riding around with you long enough to have gained his own opinion. Being Russian doesn't necessarily make you evil; present company excluded, I'm not very nice. And Sasha's a decent enough man to have made me question what I was doing if it was erasing good men like him. I have the highest opinion of you, regardless of what your memories may say."

*

"I've got no illusions about myself," says Argyle. "I've pulled the trigger 'cause I was ordered to. I've gunned down and blown up people just 'cause the bosses said they were the bad guys. And I don't feel as bad about that as I probably should." He lifts a shoulder. "I don't even remember the first time I killed someone, which is kind of fucked up. But my first couple of missions were back to back. I think they told me what my first registered kill was, but I don't know if it was in Guatemala or Argentina."
He closes his eyes, which is its own kind of trust. It's weird how knowing someone could kill you no matter what brings an odd sort of serenity. "So I'm roughly the same man, just on two different sides." He chuckles humourlessly. "'At's fucked up, right there."

*

One hand settles on Argyle's chest. The other arm snakes around his back as Natasha… hugs him? She looks up at him and listens, resting her head on his shoulder. Snuggling him, in other words. This is odd, possibly. A bit like being licked by a tiger.
"The way this usually works," she murmurs, "is that whoever's inside experiences whatever's being done by what has made him. I don't think anyone has talked straight to Sasha in a very long time. I would like him to know — well, I would like for you to know — that I don't regret keeping you alive, but I regret not having found some other way out earlier."

*

A bit odd, but hell, it's Natasha. Even when things are awkward, the contact isn't unwelcome. "I wonder how many more are out there like us. People who don't know who they are." Argyle arches his brows and tries to catch her eye. "Y'know…I know exactly how deadly you are. When you touch me, I'm wondering if maybe you're lookin' for the right nerve cluster that'll incapacitate me with a flick of your fingers." He clears his throat. "I also don't know if you're gonna sprain my wrist if I try'n return the favour. Normally I'd take my chances, but you're one person I don't wanna risk mis-reading."

*

"Darling," Natasha replies with a slow grin, "if I wanted to hurt you, there are easier ways. Admittedly, this is one of the most fun, but no. Even for me, this would be unnecessarily convoluted. Be assured that I know where the right nerve cluster is, and I am choosing not to use it on you. If you do something I don't want you to do, you'll know, but feel free to try. As far as how many?" She gives her head a tiny shake. "We can't know. Don't make yourself responsible for the world. You can't handle that. But what we find may be able to help all of them, if we can find out who they are."

*

"You should show me that nerve cluster shit. My style of fighting is just to hit people til they stay down. Which, admittedly, works pretty good for me." Argyle says that like his old self, like the wisecracking lab geek/demolition man, and not the terminally confused double sleeper agent.
He's very tense, but he's trying to relax. "You know, I still don't trust you. And I kind of hate you a little bit." He says it like a joke, but there's a note of truth there. "But you're smoking and you're leaning on me, so I'm a little confused. Well, I'm a lot confused, but I think both mes would agree in this case."

*

"Hey, we can work on that. I'll be pleased to teach you some advanced combat techniques. I have anatomical charts and everything. If you want the five-fingered exploding heart technique, though, you're going to need to watch more bad 70s ninja movies. I don't have that one."
To the idea of trust, she laughs: "You'd be a fool if you trusted me just because I've been honest with you. I have. Been honest. But I've never been nice or trustworthy. Hell, there's a lot of SHIELD that believes I'm a double agent. I could be one of those sleepers, too. More deluded than I know. Giving SHIELD my all and secretly working for I-don't-even-know-who. So I can stop. If you want me to stop. But you're tense and I'm making myself comfortable."
Her hand moves up his back to rest at the base of his neck, but all it does there is use her unparalleled knowledge of nerve clusters to find the ones that are tightening his neck and shoulders like cables. Gently, though, like water wearing away a stone. "Besides," she adds. "There might just be something fun in cuddling up to someone who might kill you. I encourage trying it sometime."

*

"Sort of the cool acceptance that comes when your back is against the wall and death could come at any minute?" Argyle drawls. He arches his back at the fingers on the spot on his neck. He makes a low rumbling sound. "Goddamn you, Romanoff," he murmurs. He reaches out and sets a hand on her leg. His fingers flex.

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