Just Don't Break the Thing

June 06, 2017:

Natasha Romanova and Phil Coulson travel to Malta to steal a few items from Ian Quinn…items which might just be helpful in unraveling the designs of one Icarus Dynamics.

Malta

A place outside of SHIELD's authority.

Characters

NPCs: Ian Quinn

Mentions: Captain America

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

When you have to go into an area where SHIELD has no sway, when you can't afford an extraction plan, and when you need stealth and a clean operation, when the payload is dangerous and when the going gets tough, there is only one operative that Phil Coulson can call. And that is Natasha Romanova.

Today's mission takes them to a mansion in Malta, one of many owned by the international business magnate Ian Quinn. Certain intelligence reports indicate he may be a major financial backer for Icarus Dynamics, a company that is currently producing jets with what seem to be alien fuel sources, possibly Chitauri.

This evening there's a fancy dinner party for the types of people you don't want buying those types of weapons. Petty dictators. The kinds of terrorists who end up on playing card decks. Warlords in nations which have long since fallen apart. The HYDRA operatives that will be circulating between them sowing the seeds of war, all so they might sell weapons to both sides, reap a profit, and push ever-more Draconian world policies out of the chaos and the ashes. Ordo ad chao. Quinn is supposed to be showing them footage of the planes, as well as showing off a cannister of the fuel that he's acquired. The nasties who don't have the money for the planes might be able to purchase the fuel at lower prices and develop something out of it, after all.

Objective 1: if possible discover where and how Quinn is getting the fuel so SHIELD can shut that shit down for good. Nobody needs to be running around with alien feul. Objective 2: Steal the cannister of fuel so that it may be studied, destroyed, reverse engineered and put to use protecting the world, or countered as appropriate.

Tonight Nat has a little backup in the form of one unassuming older gentleman who will coordinate from whatever vehicle she deems appropriate for her cover. SHIELD can turn anything into a tac van these days, thanks to holographic computer interfaces and low-level AIs. He's already wearing the communicator and will soon be running a program designed by a hacker back home to let him get control of the internal security cameras, all to keep an eye on things. Other than that, however, Phil is content to let Nat run the op however she chooses. She's ten times the spy he is, and part of being a good leader is just kind of knowing when to let an expert do her job.

—-

The flight to Malta, in the company of Natasha Romanova, is par for the course.

She naps, she eats, she makes her sparse small talk, her hooded blue eyes always slanted with their mischief. But to a seasoned agent like Phil Coulson, and especially seasoned a colleague with the defected Black Widow, he can see her every glance for the Y-incisions they are. Clean, precise surgical cuts pulled so skillfully even the nerves are fooled not to feel pain. When she gets bored, and that is often, she digs.

If the woman takes any time for herself, it's to read recent news reports on her phone. She absorbs yesterday's headlines facelessly, pockets the device, and says nothing of it.

Landed in Malta, the Widow goes to work. Given the option between one of her roles and straight stealth, the woman opts for the former, declaring reconnaissance too risky during a busy party. Infiltration sounds fitting, though the woman foregoes any feigned, fancy roles for something far more innocuous, overlooked, and forgotten.

Tonight, the Widow is part of the help, a literal spider on the wall.

Dressed in the uniforms of one of the catering servers, her red hair hidden under a cropped-cut, black wig, her blue eyes disguised under dark contacts that do technologically far more than to discolour the irises —

— one of the Cold War's greatest killers politely and shyly serves champagne to dangerous men. "Grazzi," is all she says, low and toneless and timid, and like any good servant who knows her place, downturns her eyes in submissive deference.

The chip stuck into the inside of her ear gives Coulson his ear in. Her contacts let him see, through his camera, all she sees.

—-

Phil had been a hard man to dig at on the flight. He's quiet and grim, not even really in the mood for his usual sass. Now he pays attention from the old, beat up car he's sitting in, offering reports.

"We've got two security people at every exit, eight circulating the lower floors, and eight on each of the upper floors. They've got two extra guards at the library entrance." His voice is quiet, mild, giving her what she might need to get this done. His eyes flick around the displays, between her eye-cams and the other cams he's got control of right now.

The dangerous men mostly ignore her, when they don't smirk at her, pleased by her deference. Mostly they talk, in dozens of languages. Some of the conversations are mundane.

"How is your son?"

"He is going to Oxford, he is doing quite well."

Some are a bit more intensive.

"…third time this month guns have gone missing."

"…Moving in on our territory…"

"Blow them sky high."

Above it all presides one Ian Quinn, the man with the smuggest of smiles. He sips on a champagne recently liberated from Natasha's tray and stops to check in with a light and sound guy. "Everything about ready to go with that presentation?" he asks, pleasantly.

Everything is about ready to go with that presentation.

"We'll start in ten minutes," Quinn decides. "Give people a chance to get a few more appetizers into their mouths."

—-

The Widow is their dutiful little shadow. Seen and not heard.

Her turned face barely merits a second glance, pretty and ultimately forgettable. She knows better than to dare eye contact with those of superior pedigree; it is privilege enough to be here, prostrate at their feet, making the salary she must at their frivolous party.

The server, tray emptied of drinks, does not tarry; she retreats the moment she serves no use for them. Not that it matters. The translucent audio transmitters — little more than finger-tip sized microchips that adhere beautifully and invisibly to glass — decorate the undersides of champagne flutes — even the one in Quinn's hand.

It will be enough of a transmission into the presentation that Romanova's eyes will not be necessary.

The servants' corridors are a different fare from the open foyers and hall designated to receiving guests; the Widow takes the narrowed, claustrophobic route that keeps her cloistered, eyes up; the panning view of her eyes is transparently that of a woman learning her environs from the inside, taking note of blind corners, of exits, of doors. "You're really missing out on the gbejna, boss," she says breezily to no one save for the man in her ear. "Though it might go straight to your hips."

She makes a pit stop at the kitchen, trades her empty tray for a platter of food. No one else gives the Widow a second glance. She doesn't make sound as she bypasses the route back to the party, the woman's attention firmly on that so-mentioned library. "Ten minutes sound all right to you? Time enough for me to be recover the fuel. Time enough for you to sit back, have some popcorn, listen into the events downstairs. Frankly, as much as I love to hear overbloated men talking about themselves, that is sort've your specialization."

—-

"Can't have that. I'm just ten pounds away from my bikini bod," Coulson quips back, feeling a smile touch his lips in spite of the mood that's been plaguing him. It instantly grows a bit lighter, and he turns up the transmitters to listen to the presentation himself. He rolls his eyes as he sees what it is. "Ten minutes sounds fine," he says, letting the jibe about old men being self-important roll right off of his shoulders.

She will eventually get to hear him gripe about it though. "This son of a bitch is playing the footage of them shooting down our planes in Russia," he comments. "What a tool."

But he'll concentrate on listening to the rest and keeping an eye out on her…or rather seeing what she's seeing.

The library is guarded by two toughs bearing tasers, guns, and of course their own beefy bodies. The only entrance is from the first floor; it's a two story library but with an internal staircase. The guards circulating around certainly pay the woman with the gbejna absolutely no mind, like most of these parties the thing extends all over the place, and there are a great many guests who don't want to listen to overbloated men either. Many of them wives or mistresses of said men.

—-

"Language, Phil," chides Romanova, her voice flush with amusement. "What would Rogers think?"

She continues her way among the guards, head down, eyes subservient. A wolf in sheep's clothing.

Her eyes watch the road crossing of moving guards. Natasha suspects she has a window of thirty seconds — conservative — to make her way through those doors until seen.

"Scuzi," comes next over the comm, and though it is Romanova's voice, she sounds like the moon in another phase. None of that bored irreverence confidence. Only the mild, tentative, hopeful babbling of a girl sent on orders not her own. She speaks in flawless Maltese, her accent straight from Birkirkara. "«Mr. Quinn has asked me to see you both fed.»"

Head bowed, tray proffered, and harmless in every way, the server cannot meet the eyes of either posted guards, read across her face and careful bearing a young thing well-intimidated. Her platter of gbejna is an offering straight from the master of the house.

All the Black Widow needs is a prey willing to come within arm's reach.

She lashes out with her free arm, and within a gold bracelet linked at the hem of her sleeve, she fires an immobilizing dart into the first man's neck. Her Venom is a shot of electrocution enough to stop the heart. Simultaneously, without pausing, the Widow arrests the second man with a simple snap of her leg, a silent, singular strike to garrote him by the throat, strength in her leg that is not human, folding the windpipe and capping the carotid arteries. Bored, Romanova counts the nine seconds until unconsciousness.

In her other hand she balances the tray. All in silence. Not a single appetizer dropped.

—-

He actually clears his throat at the chiding of his language. Musn't dishonor Cap!

Natasha knows his weaknesses too well.

The men, of course, are all too gratified that Quinn remembers they exist, and fall in silence. Phil counts seconds with her, not as bored, tense, because he's also counting the seconds until the next rotation comes around.

He doesn't pipe in there with his own estimation of the time though. So far, so good, as far as he's concerned, and distracting her won't help. Not that it probably would, much, considering she's still holding the tray like a pro. It's only when they mutually reach the 9 second mark does he say, "If you ever get bored of the spy game, there's surely a fantastic career in flair bartending waiting for you."

There's a touch of envy there. He could never make such a move look that cool.

He frowns as he hears something from the presentation, but the devices in his car are recording it. It doesn't rely soley on his own ears. They can go through the data later.

"Rotation patterns holding," he adds. "Estimate 45 seconds before two more reach you, those doors, and those unconscious hungry guys."

—-

"Been there, done that," Romanova answers that quip on bartending, not a catch in her voice, not a single break. The first man she catches by the collar, and the second, turned to boneless dead weight, she lets sink slowly down, levered between her foot and the wall.

The Widow knows better than to make a single sound. The only noise she allows to escape is that what she returns to Coulson, in flip sotto voce. "Bartended back in '84. Miami."

She sets her tray down on one man's face.

With that, the Widow sees to the library doors. If locked, neither dies that quickly stop her. She pulls from a lockpick kit hidden beneath her belt. "Good cover while I made pickings on the Gulf Test Range. Robbed you kids blind. Ever seen Cocktail? Based on me."

Coulson's voice in her ear warns Romanova of the time. She does not seem to share his tension; or tension at all, as a thing. Probably something beaten out of her back in the Red Room. Probably something she's long forgotten how even to feel before his parents were born. Who knows with the Widows.

Romanova puts on hand on each man, and with a patient, coordinated strength, drags them both into the unsecured library, closing the doors behind them all.

"I'm in, boss."

—-

They might well notice the missing guards in about thirty seconds when the next rotation comes through, but it is what it is. As it is, she's staring at a massive wall of books. It's the kind of library that would make a certain Disney Princess faint with avarice. Antique books, new books, hardcovers, softcovers, all catalogued like they might be in a public library. The spiral staircase leading to the second floor sits in the center, spiraling up like a fairy tale acoutrement. The floors are gleaming hard wood.

It's Phil's job to be tense, but that's neither here nor there. She might be a super-Widow, she might be the best there ever was, but Phil worries about his people. "Desk on the second floor," he comments, just to give her the lay of the land. "Whole little office up there."

—-

Whatever may or may not be noticed, Natasha Romanova seems to remain terminally unbothered.

Tonight's probably not at Budapest level.

In fact, silence carries over her comm, the terminus that comes after a pregnant pause. Alleying her voice comes a shocked, stricken gasp.

Through Romanova's lens-cam, a very distinct book, taken in hand off some shelf, swings into view. "Whatever his sins, Mr. Quinn is a 50 Shades fan. Think I should take this home as a souvenir for Cap?"

The Widow tosses the book aside. Per her orders, she makes her way to the staircase. No longer are those timid, mousy strides of a fearful little servant, but the strides of a self-assured predator. She glances up. Stairs take time.

Natasha swings herself onto the rail, takes a few quick jumps, and vaults herself up like a gymnast on the uneven bars. She swings herself over the second-floor railing, and moving liquid-like, as if God forged her with too many vertebrae, bends back to her feet.

It is not long she finds the desk, and her camera feed through her eyes looks it patiently over. Natasha sorts placidly through its drawers.

She is strong enough and deft enough to break drawer locks by hand — and silently so.

—-

Inside the desk…a safe. It has one of the traditional safecracker's spin locks, instead of the newer keypad locks which are arguably easier to defeat. That's probably what they're looking for. It's kind of small to hold a fuel source.

There are also some papers; various invoices and things which might have some use or have some information, but it's hard to tell simply by glancing at them.

"50 Shades of Grey to Cap? That's the closest I've ever heard anyone come to a real villian speech. Natasha, you're not supposed to tell the guy who would oppose the assassination exactly how you plan to make the Star Spangled Man with a Plan die of a heart attack."

And then, conversationally, "Guards have noticed the missing links."

Downstairs, the library doors open.

"Four," Phil tells her, unecessarily, because she can of course hear all four of their radios, their steps, their heartbeats.

—-

"Hard to die of a heart attack when the blood supply has migrated south," quips back the Black Widow. She sorts through those papers with a seasoned eye; no time to read, but just enough to collect, and she stacks and slips them into her clothes, flush against the bones of her back. Not the first time she's worn intelligence, and fashionably at that. Time for task the second.

For a moment, Romanova looks on the rotary safe with demure affection. Oh, has she missed these. For me? You shouldn't have.

TL-30? The spy tilts her head. No matter. Switched by a quick pattern of eyeblinks, her contacts — helpful little things care of SHIELD — switch to radiological topography. No lead shield in this safe, so the Widow sees straight through to the dial. It takes seconds for her to open.

Coulson's voice warns her of company. Natasha does not bat an eye against the count. Four? Snore. She opens the safe to peek at what might be inside. "Still need me to be quiet about this? Or do I have permission to be loud?"

Inside she'll find a little vial of glowing amber liquid. The vial is reinforced glass, capped with reinforced metal. It could be the fuel source. It's no bigger than her ring finger, but like most things in the technological world, powerful punches come in awfully big packages sometimes. It's like a cartridge that snaps into an engine rather than something that is poured inside.

—-

Phil sighhhhs as she says she wants to get loud. Well, they're going to notice their stuff stolen eventually…

"Just…don't break the thing," he says, leaning back in his seat and grumping. "You could do this quiet if you wanted to," he also adds, just to see if he can't appeal to her professional pride on that matter. Because really, he would like her to make her way through the house with the stuff, get into the car, and let them get out of here without some sort of massive car-and-helicopter chase across the island.

Though he supposes if that happens he'll just let her drive. Or surf on top of the car wielding machine guns, whatever suits her fancy.

—-

Don't break the thing, advises Agent Coulson.

He'll be able to witness, with his own eyes through hers, just how disciplined and austere the famous Black Widow can be.

Natasha flips the vial, catches it. Flips the vial, catches it. She weaves it among her fingers, and then catches it in a careful pinch between her forefinger and thumb. It's not that she plays with death; it's just that she absolutely believes it cannot and will not ever come to her. Not so easily. Life has taught her that lesson frequently, and well.

"I could," Romanova replies, a current of unspoken laughter pearled up at the edges of her voice. She opens her collar, slips her hand down her shirt, and hides that vial in a place of trusted safe-keeping that has not once in sixty years proven her wrong.

She stands from the desk, head turned, listening vaguely as four men wade deeper into the library. The woman considers it, her senses enhanced just enough — thanks, Red Room — to localize some of their movements. She stretches out her arms, rolls her shoulders, curls her back. Limbers up.

Romanova pulls the black wig free because, eh, it's making her scalp hot.

With that, the woman vaults over the rail one-handed, a tiny bullet that shudders down through the air and toward those men. She twists and catches one by an ankle-lock around the throat, a spin of her body to make his orbit collide with a second. The Widow disengages, catching herself by both hands, and circles her legs around to sweep out the feet of the third. She rolls up on top of him, covers his mouth as her knee crushes force down over his throat.

One free arm: to dart the fourth with her Widow's Bite. This all happens in a handful of seconds. This is the work of Russia's monsters.

—-

In the car, Phil pinches the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger as Natasha starts doing coin tricks with the Chitauri fuel source. There's nobody better to call for situations like these, but he always forgets how many antics one has to put up with to get to the end of the mission. Still, he says nothing about it, and by the time he opens his eyes again there are four unconscious men on the floor, and none of them have even had time to make a sound. Quiet enough. Enough that he won't bellyache over it.

"Alright, you've had your fun," he says sternly. "Get back to the car so we can get out of here. The presentation's almost over. You might have earned yourself one extra minute just because Quinn can't stop making crappy jokes."

It's not that he doesn't appreciate her work or what she can do, it's just that as calm and collected as he is, he's just not blessed with that total unflappability, and he would hate for this thing to go pear-shaped when they're so close. Even Natasha's jobs go pear shaped sometimes.

—-

"You and I have vastly differing definitions of fun," retorts Romanova's voice over the comm, dry as that champagne she was serving earlier.

Still, she rises, fixes her clothes in a quick, oft-practised movement, and leaves the four new bodies behind. Natasha returns to the initial of the men she stashed, one still diligently offering up his unconscious face as a table for her platter of gbejna. She toes it back up into her hands, all appetizers left artfully untouched.

Save one. Romanova helps herself to a well-earned dessert.

"Warm the engine. I'll be right out," are her parting words. The Widow leaves her sport behind, closes the library doors, and inside a heartbeat —

— changes back from predator to a sombre, timid-eyed, mousy little thing. The server holds herself with such careful, forgettable deference, that no one notices her switch in hair colour.

Within seconds, the Black Widow passes through the party and disappears. She is gone within that minute.

She leaves her abandoned tray balanced on the groin of one of Quinn's favourite marble sculptures.

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