Warnings: Violent references
Summary: Two former assassins have a quiet drink together. Or, Eliot Spencer and Natasha Romanoff knew each other back in the day, but that doesn’t make them friends.
New York, 2013
The hotel room is situated in a blind corner across from the stairwell. Inside is dark and cool, comfortable but sparsely furnished. An Army-issue duffel bag is packed neatly on the dresser, and the bed shows no sign of having been slept in. There’s a line of light showing under the bathroom door, the smell of steam and hotel soap, and over the patter of the shower is the faint sound of a man singing. It’s a country song, not one she recognizes, and his voice is surprisingly good.
Natalia pulls the desk chair out and sits down, silenced pistol in hand, and waits.
The shower shuts off, and she can hear him moving quietly around the bathroom. She thumbs the safety off. There’s nothing in the sound of his movements to suggest that he’s aware of her presence, but it’s better to be cautious.
Finally, the door swings open and he steps out, pulling a t-shirt over his head. “Parker, I told you--” His voice trails off when he sees her. He drops his hands, palms out, and smiles a little. It’s rueful, but not particularly surprised. “Agent Romanova.”
“You here to kill me?”
She raises an eyebrow and aims the gun at his heart. “I could ask you the same question. Would you like to explain to me what you’re doing in New York?”
“You got a hell of a way of looking up old friends, you know that?” He moves into the room, smooth and cautious, eyes on her. It’s still an assassin’s walk, that bone-deep awareness of his body, the same deadly grace of the man who once cut down twenty of her best men like a hot knife through butter. Something has changed, though. There’s gray in his shaggy hair, an unfamiliar softness in his face that she can only partly attribute to age. And, of course, there’s the fact that he isn’t carrying a gun.
There have been rumors, of course, but she knows better than to trust those.
“I wasn’t aware that we were friends. The last I knew, you were Damien Moreau’s chief enforcer.”
“Last I knew, you were a wetworks asset for the KGB.” He smiles faintly and adds, in Russian, “It’s been a long time. People change.”
She doesn’t lower the gun. “What makes you think I have?”
“You haven’t shot me yet,” Spencer points out, reaching to open the minibar. He pulls out an iced bottle of Zelonaya Marka and lifts it inquiringly. “Want a drink?”
“Is it poisoned?”
“You know that’s not my style, sweetheart,” he says, which is true. He’s a hands-on operative, always has been. His rough American notion of honor would balk at poison.
“So you just happened to have a bottle of good Russian vodka sitting around?”
“I had a feeling you might show up.” He turns his back to pull a pair of cut-glass tumblers out of the tiny cupboard. From almost any other man, that would be cocky to the point of contempt for her skill, for her willingness to do the job.
Eliot Spencer, though, knows that she wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger, which makes this something else entirely: a gesture of trust, and one that she knows she hasn’t earned. She lowers the gun. “Why are you in New York?”
“I’m on business.” He pours a generous measure of vodka into each glass, hesitates. “You take tonic water? I can’t remember.”
“Neat, please.” He slides the glass across the counter toward her, and she catches it with her free hand. “I heard you’d retired.”
“Nah, just switched careers.”
She lifts her glass silently, to the dead, then takes a sip of the chilled vodka, savors the smooth cold slide of it over her tongue, like drinking frozen sunshine. “I also heard that you overthrew the government of San Lorenzo.”
His face creases into a private, unfamiliar smile. “I had help.”
“You’re still freelancing, then.”
“You’re still on the government payroll,” he observes, settling back against the counter with his glass between his hands. His tone is neutral, but she bristles all the same.
“Different government. Different rules. I’m working for the good guys now.”
It’s an absurd, childish thing to say. She knows that before the words are even out of her mouth. In their line of work, there is no such thing as good guys, only shades of gray fading to black, and she’s already in the black and beyond.
Can you really wipe out all that red? Loki’s voice whispers, a sweet, nightmarish echo.
Sao Paulo. Panevėžys Hospital. The vastness of her guilt is not often something she allows herself to consider--there is no useful purpose in contemplating her own damnation--and yet. And yet.
Spencer is watching her through hooded blue eyes. Eliot Spencer, who on Damien Moreau’s orders murdered Ambassador Benoît Larue, and his wife, and their four young children. The case was in the international press for the better part of six weeks with no leads, but everyone in the business knew who’d done it.
Natalia cannot remember the names of Larue’s children, though she must have read them a dozen times. She wonders if Spencer can.
“I’m working for the good guys too,” he says, and she observes that he does not say he’s one of them. This does not surprise her. He is as close as it gets to an honest man in their line of work. “Good crew. Good people.”
There’s a threat implicit there, and she nods. “You’re not here on a contract.”
“Not like you’re thinking.”
“I take my obligations very seriously.” Every single one of her team has powerful, wealthy enemies, people who would pay and pay well to have them removed from the board. They can look after themselves, for the most part, but that isn’t the point.
“So do I.” He tosses back his vodka, and she can’t help but smile at the tiny grimace he can’t hide. It’s never been his favorite drink. “I don’t do that anymore, though. Not if I don’t have to.”
Reading men is her skill, and she knew Spencer well, once upon a time. He isn’t lying. “I want you out of New York by the end of the week.”
He shakes his head. “We’ll leave when the job’s done, not before.”
He looks away, jaw tightening, but before she can pursue that line of questioning any further, there’s a faint click and the door swings open.
There are two people on the other side of the door. The man is dark-skinned; young, handsome, wearing an incongruous knit cap with his tailored shirt and trousers. He’s tall and well-built, but it’s the petite blonde next to him who looks dangerous to Natalia’s experienced eyes.
Spencer growls, and there’s a surprising note of concern there, buried under the annoyance. “I thought I told you two to stay the hell out of my room.”
“Parker was worried,” the other man says. His intelligent dark eyes take in the room, Natalia, and the gun that’s still lying across her lap with a dubious expression. “Friend of yours?”
“Yes,” Natalia says before Spencer can open his mouth. She rises smoothly, holsters her gun, and downs the rest of her vodka in one swallow. “I should be going now, though. Thank you for the drink, Eliot.”
His given name doesn’t feel as strange as it ought to on her tongue, and his startled face is more than worth it. “Anytime.” Then, as she moves toward the door, he adds, “Natasha? Two weeks. No more.”
She nods. “That’s acceptable.”
“Guess I’ll see you around.”
“I doubt it,” she says coolly, and he laughs.
The man at the door moves aside to let her pass, but the blonde woman leans in closer, peering at Natalia’s face as though she’s looking at a puzzle. Natalia holds still for the inspection, and finally the woman smiles--a sweet and startlingly lovely smile--and steps aside.
When she gets down to the foyer, Clint is waiting on one of the overstuffed couches, reflective glasses perched on his nose, for all intents and purposes absorbed in a lurid celebrity magazine. She can tell in the shift of his shoulders exactly when he notes her presence, but he doesn’t look up until she stops in front of him. “Hey, Nat.”
“Have you been following me again?”
“I thought you might need back-up,” he says, sounding not the least bit abashed.
“Thanks,” she says dryly. He’s been overprotective lately, but she can’t quite bring herself to blame him.
“Do we need to do any clean-up?”
“No.” She glances back over her shoulder at the well-appointed foyer, the bank of elevators. She won’t be coming back. “No, I was just having a drink with an old friend.”
Clint’s eyebrows jump at that, behind the rims of his glasses, but all he says is, “I see.”
He folds the magazine and stands, and together they walk out into the cool, noisy Manhattan night.