When Eliot first meets Natasha Romanov, she’s calling herself Nicole Richards and they’re after the same target.
The unfortunate man is a former member of the Russian mob who has managed to piss off enough people that two separate organizations have hired both the Black Widow and Eliot Spencer for a considerable price.
They meet on a rooftop outside of the target’s apartment, and size each other up.
Eliot isn’t fooled by the name she introduces herself as. He’s heard of the Black Widow; he knows her reputation. She knows his as well, and she’s as curious about him as he is about her.
They’re professionals. They compromise. Sure, there’s an itch beneath both their skins to experiment, to see which of them could win in a fight, but the process would be loud and messy, and could alert the target. Better to work together. They’re both on salary, not fighting for a bounty as it is. There’s no reason to compete.
They kill the target cleanly and quickly, send evidence to their employers, collect their payment, and share a bottle of excellent wine in a Parisian café.
“I wouldn’t mind working with you again,” she says, and it’s a lie.
Neither of them are built for teamwork. Neither of them are wired for trust. They could handle this one time because it was better than fighting (and possibly killing) each other, but no more.
(Neither of them are sure who would win)
Maybe they will work together again. They clink their glasses together and smile at the possibility.
They both doubt that it will ever happen.
Both of them start to think about how they would kill the other, choreographing out the fight in their minds.
Eliot is grifting.
The mark is a wealthy businessman who’s been stealing college funds and draining savings accounts, leaving plenty of families in painful places. Luckily for them, he also has a taste for art, which leaves him plenty vulnerable to Nate’s machinations.
Eliot is playing a distinguished art dealer with an impressive collection. (Most of it assembled from Sophie and Parker’s stashes.) The mark is on the hook, and now Eliot just needs to lure him to the warehouse, where he’ll be caught with a stolen painting. Then the police will come crashing down, and he’ll go away.
Normally, this is Sophie’s part, but she’s playing a rival bidder this time around, so it falls to Eliot to play this role.
The final stage for the con is a fancy charity gala the mark is attending and Hardison managed to score Eliot an invitation to. Eliot’s taking his time, drawing it out. It needs to be natural. The mark knows who he is, knows what he’s selling. Sophie’s going to be walking in soon, pretending to make her bid, and then he’ll panic and approach Eliot.
He’s flirting with a pretty young actress when he sees her.
And she’s looking right back at him.
Her hair is blonde now and she’s wearing a ridiculous dress that’s meant to distract, but she’s armed to the teeth and there’s recognition and surprise in her face, although well-hidden.
A few years ago, that wouldn’t be a problem, but now the entire criminal world knows that the Black Widow is an agent of SHIELD, and SHIELD is a problem.
They both turn away. Eliot’s heart begins to hammer in his throat as he snarls, “Nate, I’m blown.”
“What happened?” Nate demands.
“An old acquaintance of mine is here. We’re fine, but I’m not. I’m going to have to make sure she doesn’t follow me back to you guys.”
“Can’t you shake her?” Sophie says.
“No. Hardison, I need you to do something.” He quickly underlines what he needs. An airtight cover would make SHIELD suspicious. They probably haven’t run him yet, because they don’t have a name, but they will as soon as possible.
They can’t know about the team. The last thing they need is to get on SHIELD’s radar.
He takes out his comm and puts it in a pitcher of water. No way for SHIELD to use it to trace the others.
He takes two flutes of champagne and carries them over to her.
“Long time no see.” (Not since a bar in a small town in Idaho, where he’d been playing body guard to Sophie’s latest character and pretended he didn’t know about the SHIELD issue earpiece in her ear. He couldn’t get away with that anymore. Everyone knew about the Black Widow changing sides now. She’s been noisy, these past few years.) He smiles his most charming smile at her. “Ms...?
“Natalie Rushman,” she says with a smile that’s perfectly charming and completely deadly.
“James Cortez,” he says. His smile is the same as hers, although probably less pretty.
She accepts the champagne and pretends to drink.
Parker divides her life into categories.
There’s before the Red Room. That time is a blur. Her memories overlapped and contradicted each other and blurred around the edges. There were lullabies and smiles and fire and kindness and death.
Out of all of her memories, she knows only three things for sure.
Bunny had been there the whole time.
She had a brother.
He had died on a bicycle and it was her fault.
Then there is the Red Room. That part of her life is painfully clear in her memories. There were lessons and people who looked at her with eyes that saw too much and handcuffs and not enough food and needles.
Parker didn’t like to think about it.
Then there was after the Red Room. Foster Care and running and exploding houses, and being chased and always running, never stopping.
Archie finds her, after foster care. Archie changes everything. He teachers her, and there are rewards instead of punishments and there is a warmth and he is hers. He knows, too, he knows enough about the Red Room. He hides her, gives her a new name and a new reputation. No one will ever draw the connection between the skinny runaway and Parker, the master thief.
In the Red Room, she had been ordinary, slated for death, to be killed by the top of her class at some point down the line. She would never have been a good Widow, she had heard her teachers say it. She’s too soft,
But she is the best thief.
And then there is the Crew.
She doesn’t know how to think about what happens after that. She doesn’t want it to end. She wants to keep going forever and ever. Now has Hardison and Eliot. It has Nate and Sophie. Now has Lucille and helping people and learning new things.
But when she looks over Hardison’s shoulder and sees a familiar face with Eliot, Parker knows, suddenly, that things are about to end anyways, no matter what she wants.
When Eliot Spencer first meets Clint Barton, they’re both soldiers.
Eliot is almost done with his first tour and already knows there’s going to be a second. His gun is comfortable and familiar and it feels good to have a flag on his soldier. His hands aren’t clean but they’re also not quite dirty. The blood hasn’t soaked in yet. He hasn’t realized it’s starting too.
They’ve been sent out on a dangerous mission with the men he calls his friends (they’ll all be dead within a year). They’ve been on dangerous missions before. But this is the first time the brass sends a special sniper.
Clint Barton is young (too young to be a killer, possibly too young to be a soldier) but his hands are steady and his aim is true, so Eliot and the others like him well enough. He keeps to himself, but he does his job and keeps them alive and keeps watch and beats them all at darts.
Eliot and Barton exchange maybe a dozen words over the course of the mission. Then the mission ends. Barton gets reassigned and Eliot’s tour finishes.
They both forget, and think nothing about it until years later.
Criminals like to talk hypotheticals, matching each other up against each other or against law enforcement. Could Hardison hack Tony Stark? (Sometimes.) Could Parker break into Fort Knox? (Yes.) Could Sophie Deveroux infiltrate SHIELD? (She has. Multiple times.)
Who would win in a fight, the Black Widow or Eliot Spencer? (That depends.)
Everyone in the Red Room knows Natalya Romanova. She’s the best of the Widows, the best one ever produced. Each group produces one Widow, and one Widow only. Most Widows die after a year or two.
No one knows how long Romanova has been a Widow. She’s mysterious and distance, and she’s only seen by most of them once a year, when she goes through the ranks, and picks two students. She kills one to demonstrate some advanced technique, and then she takes the other on a mission. That student will return, covered in blood and silent, and excel in their lessons for the next year.
Parker is called Tatiana, in those days. She’s pretty sure it’s not the name she’s born with. It doesn’t quite fit around the edges, chafing like the cheap clothes she wears. When she gets away from the Red Room, she sheds it immediately. She’ll go through many different names before she settles on Parker, with Archie’s help.
(Archie finds her, and he knows what she is. He used to know a Black Widow, he tells her. Her name was Dottie. It’s because of Dottie that he keeps her away from his family. Because the Red Room will kill his family, if Parker is there. Parker understands. He’s protecting them. He trains her to be a thief, and that’s more than enough.)
Tatiana is known as Tanya to those familiar to her. (Those are few and far between. Tanya’s friends die a lot, in the Red Room.)
Tanya is not the best at fighting, but she is easily the best at sneaking. She always has extra bread for herself, and sometimes for the others if she’s feeling generous, and none of the teachers have ever caught her. By the time she is nine she can escape the handcuff that keeps her to the bed, although she usually doesn’t, because she does get caught there, sometimes.
The Red Room is tough, and it’s made Tanya tough. She wakes up early and dances until her feet bleed, she fights until she is covered in bruises, she learns languages until her tongue is numb. Tanya is bad at the other lessons; pretending to be other people is hard for her, lying is hard, killing is hard.
Tanya slips away during their reading lessons in Japanese. She can get away with it in that class; the teachers don’t count the students in the back, only the front. Tanya knows that Marianna, who is the best student in her group, will be killing again tomorrow. Tanya wants to know who. She wants to know if it’s her.
Marianna is pretty and tall and black haired. She is also cruel and hard, never weeping once, not even the first time she was told she was the best of the students, and told to kill one of the others. She is terrible at ballet but excellent at killing and fighting. She will be an artist instead of a dancer, their teachers say. It is a pity that she cannot dance, but not everyone can be Natalya Romanova.
The names are in a box in Nicolai’s office, and Tanya knows her way in there easily.
It’s that day when she meets Natalya Romanova. Natalya moves like a dancer, her muscles liquid control and danger. Her hair is red, long, and beautiful, her eyes cold and impassive. She’s not armed, but that doesn’t mean she’s not dangerous. Tanya has heard every rumor, has memorized all of them and used them to scare the younger group of Widows when she used to break into their room to visit. But they’d started to tell, and there’s only so many Widows who look like her, so she stopped visiting.
Natalya comes into Nicolai’s office, and Parker nearly doesn’t hear her, nearly doesn’t hide. But she does, and she thinks Natalya didn’t see her, because she doesn’t kill her, doesn’t call her out. Instead, Natalya sits in one of the chairs, has a drink with Nicolai, and then leaves. It would be nice to think that Tanya is good enough that she could evade the gaze of the famous Black Widow, but she’s not sure if that’s true. But maybe Natalya Romanova knows what Tanya knows, clutching the sheet of paper to her chest.
Maybe she knows that Tanya will be dead tomorrow.
But if she thinks that Tanya will accept that, she is wrong.
Tanya escapes that night. She hasn’t tried to run since she was small, so they won’t expect it. It had been stupid to try and escape then, but the experience had been informative, if painful. She knows now, what they will do. She can take precautions.
She breaks open the door to the youngest Widows, the ones she hasn’t visited, the ones too young to know better than to run. She undoes their handcuffs and then breaks the window to wake them up. They scatter in all directions without questioning her, seizing the chance she has given them. They’ll mask her trail, she hopes. And maybe a few will even get away.
She never finds out what happened to them.
Alec Hardison meets Clint Barton when they’re both kids. Clint is drifting, and Nana brings him home for supper, piling his plate high with all kinds of food.
The table is crowded; it always is. Neighborhood kids and Alec’s foster siblings and Nana’s two grandkids all sit, elbows jostling. The food is good and there’s enough of it to go around. There’s been even more lately, since Alec has started siphoning off money from Janey’s bio-dad’s account. Nana had been mad at him, but Alec argued it’s child support.
Money’s not so good that Nana couldn’t make good use of what Alec stole, but her lips get thin sometimes, when she thinks about it. He promises her he’ll get a real job, help her pay the bills legally. He’s not the oldest; the oldest of Nana’s kids is old enough to have kids herself, and the oldest of the foster kids was already grown by the time that Alec had shown up in Nana’s life. They all help when they can, but Nana’s heart is just too big. She’s always helping people, always taking more.
Clint doesn’t talk at all during dinner, just eyes everybody suspiciously while he bolts down his food. He’s about sixteen, a few years older than Alec. Nana tells Alec while he’s clearing plates that Clint just got out of jail after getting into a fight.
Clint won’t stay, Alec knows that. He has all the age and wisdom of his twelve years of age, and so he walks up to Clint Barton and asks him where he’s going to go next.
The guy practically jumps out of his skin, then squints at Alec. “I’m going to join the army,” he says.
It’s Alec’s turn to squint. “You’re too young.”
Clint’s chin goes out. “I’ll manage.
Alec shrugs. “If you’re sure, I’ll get you the papers.” He can too. Faking IDs is one of the easiest things he’s learned to do. He makes good money that way, but for one of Nana’s strays, he can do it for free.
Clint Barton stays for the full week, giving Alec the time he needs to fake all the paperwork, digital and physical. Nana takes the opportunity to feed him up, but Alec never gets the story out of him. Not that it matters.
He sees Clint off at the end of the week, papers in his bag and a grin on his face.
Natasha Romanov pauses the moment she sees Eliot Spencer.
He’s dressed in a suit, the image of respectability. He even holds himself differently; he’s learned to change himself, to blend in. (Grifting, it’s grifting, but Natasha lives in a world of spies, not cons.)
He sees her too, and he has the same panic that she feels on his face for a single moment before he conceals it.
Her mind races, going through the guest list. Who could be his target? He has to know she works for SHIELD; her work with the Avengers has scuttled her anonymity on that front. She’s good enough that she can still go undercover, but being made as the Black Widow means everything’s blown.
He turns away, and for a moment she thinks he’s running. She loses him in the crowd for a moment, before he returns, walking towards her, holding two flutes of champagne.
His smile is pretty as he offers her a drink. Poison isn’t his style, but there’s no reason to take risks. They exchange the names of covers, pretending as if both of them aren’t coiled, ready to strike.
He’s very good; he wasn’t like this last time they’d met. His accent is buried, his posture is different. Whoever he’s been working with has taught him well.
She wonders who he’s here to kill. He’s apparently off Damien Moreau’s leash, but he could be working for anyone. The rumors surrounding his activity these past few years have been… odd, to say the least. There’s enough targets that he could be here for any of them.
But he’s as jumpy as she is, despite his cool exterior. He leans in, against her ear, and whispers in her ear.
“Shall we get out of here? No reason anyone else should get hurt.”
Eliot Spencer is a man with the strangest of honor codes, she thinks. He hates casualties, unless they’re specifically ordered. He’s no stranger to them, but he doesn’t want it here. Perhaps he thinks he can beat her, return to the party, and kill his target, and no one will be any the wiser. Arrogant. In her ear, she hears Clint hissing, telling her to take him out to the alley so he can get a shot.
Natasha inclines her head, and leads him. He follows, even though he has to know SHIELD would have at least sent a handler to go with her.
The moment they’re out of sight, they’re on each other. Hands go to throats, and they slam against the walls of the outside building, each scrambling for control of the fight.
He’s good, he takes hits like they’re nothing. She’s almost offended by this, this and the fact that he can actually hit her. He knows how she fights; he’s probably watched videos. But she knows how he fights, and the two of them keep at it, each of them going to incapacitate, not kill. He must know killing her is at the least highly unlikely, and if he could succeed, it would only bring SHIELD crashing down around his head.
(Natasha Romanov has a ledger dripping in red ink. Eliot Spencer has the same. It does not occur to her that he is also trying to blot it out.)
Finally, she has him pressed up against the wall of the alley, a knife to his throat. “Who are you here for?” She demands.
“No one,” he croaks. She snarls, wordlessly. “I’m on retrieval, that’s all.”
“I don’t believe you,” she says. “But SHIELD will get the truth out of you.”
It seems wrong, that Natalya has dyed her hair blonde. She is red, in Parker’s mind, seared that color. Not red like blood, not red like rubies or paint, but a horrifyingly dangerous human red. Red like the Red Room.
Everything’s gone wrong; the Black Widow is here, SHIELD is here, and it’s okay, everything’s okay, they’ve got a plan. Black Widow will take Eliot into custody, she’ll break him out on his way to the holding cell, Sophie will have to sell to him directly, but that’s okay, Nate’s already setting the scene.
But then Hardison sees a sniper on the roof, and Eliot is in his sights.
Parker knows that Natalya is supposed to be a good guy now, but Eliot is a bad guy, and Natalya is the kind of good guy who doesn’t have a problem with shooting bad guys like Eliot. Parker cannot let Natalya hurt Eliot.
Nate would have a plan, but Hardison is yelling in her ear, and all Parker can think about is Natalya, watching as they kill each other. Parker wants to run, like she used to do, every time the Red Room found her, before Archie hid her so well that she couldn’t be found. But if she runs, Eliot might be hurt. And Parker can’t let that happen.
Parker bursts into the alley, and throws herself at Natalya Romanova, the terror of the Red Room, the Black Widow, and pulls at her hair and scratches at her face.
“Run!” She yells at Eliot, who doesn’t, because he’s Eliot, and he instead attacks Natalya too, fighting like he’s scared, all swinging fists and desperation, trying to keep himself between Parker and Natalya after Natalya throws her off her back.
“Tatiana?” Natalya breathes, when she catches a glimpse of Parker.
Eliot swears, and attacks Natalya again. “Parker! Run!” He yells at her.
Natasha sees red when she realizes that Eliot Spencer is here with Tatiana.
Tatiana, the girl who ran, the girl who ran so fast and so well that the Red Room thought she was dead, willingly exposing herself to a Black Widow to save him meant one thing.
He was her handler.
Eliot Spencer was a man who did not balk at blood. She had seen records of the things he has done, especially for Damien Moreau. His bloody past is almost as bad as hers. He was willing to kill children.
He is definitely the sort of man who would have worked for the Red Room, had he been born in another nation, in another time.
She lunges for him, thoughtlessly going for the kill now. Rage fills her being. How dare he?
“Parker!” He yells again, and she grits her teeth. He changed her name? “Parker, run, goddamnit, why don’t you listen?”
“I won’t leave you with her!” Tatiana yells, and she’s grown up, Natasha thinks. She’s so different from the skinny, scared child she’d once seen slipping around the corners of the Red Room.
“Damn it Parker!” He throws a trash can at Natasha, and she sidesteps it neatly. Only then does she realize that Clint is silent in her ear, and fear rushes through her.
This is so much bigger than she had realized. She knocks Spencer to the ground, and prepares to advance. Her temper has cooled. She’ll take him into custody, get answers about who has had Tatiana, who has managed to keep her hidden from the Red Room and SHIELD alike for over a decade.
But there’s a blur of action, and Tatiana is between her and Spencer, fury in her eyes.
“Tatiana,” she says, making her voice soft. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Parker,” he growls. “Run.”
“She has a sniper,” she says.
“Of—of course she does, Parker, she runs with Barton!” He snaps. “I had it under control.”
“She was going to kill you,” Tatiana insists, and Natasha says nothing. There is no reason Tatiana would think otherwise. She’s misjudged things. Spencer talks to Tatiana… like a partner. She talks to him the same way.
Things are different. Eliot Spencer does not work with partners, would not look at a woman like Tatiana with such concern, would not be the kind of man who Tatiana would try to protect.
“Tatiana,” Natasha says, not sure what to make of this.
“Parker,” she spits, her face twisting t her old name. “My name is Parker.”
“… Parker,” she accepts. The name is familiar, but she can’t place it, not now. “He’s hear to kill someone. I can’t just let him do that.”
Parker twists to look at Eliot. “Are we killing him now?” She says, honestly curious.
“No Parker,” he growls.
“Oh. Good. Because we don’t do that.” She nods seriously, then turns her attention back to Natasha.
We? Eliot Spencer has never worked with people, he’s famous for it. And since when is he part of a we that doesn’t kill?
Is he trying to change? She wonders. Is Parker his Clint?
It’s then that she realizes that Clint not only still hasn’t responded, but Coulson hasn’t asked for a check-in either. Her hand goes to her earpiece. “Report? Report!”
“Sorry,” a voice drawls from the end of the alley. “We’re in control of the radios.”
She spins. A man in a tacky suit stands there.
“It seems like there’s just been a misunderstanding, Agent Romanoff,” he says. His accent is thick, butchering her name. “Our business here is done.”
“Is it?” He’s smart, she realizes, watching him. He’s like Coulson, planning, seeing, evaluating.
“It is,” he says. “In fact, if you hurry back, you’ll probably be able to still ensure that Mister Johansson will open that safe. Although,” he adds, thoughtfully. “Waste of time; he moved the plans last week.”
Her stomach drops. “How could you know that?”
“Because we are very good at what we do,” he says. The pattern on his suit is almost blinding. “Parker. Go get the car.”
Parker moves away from Spencer. (She brushes against Natasha for a moment, and Natasha knows that there will be something in her pocket when she checks later.)
“What am I supposed to tell SHIELD?” She asks, curious.
“You tell them that you happened to run into the famous thief Parker, and her bodyguard, Eliot Spencer,” the man says, hands in his pockets. “She made off with some very expensive jewelry, and you were able to disable Spencer, but he was rescued by Parker when you had to return to the ballroom. “Where,” he holds up a piece of paper. “You discovered where Johansson had moved those plans to.”
Parker, the thief? It all makes sense now; the mysterious, odd thief.
“Clint’s been watching,” she points out.
“He’s already agreed,” he says, like it’s simple. “And there we go, Agent Romanoff.” He drops the piece of paper to the ground. “A nice, clean solution.”
“What were you really after?” She asks.
“Well. Parker did steal some jewels,” the man hedges. But then he smiles. “We just emptied a rich, corrupt man’s wallet. No concern of yours.”
He’s telling the truth, Natasha thinks. She inclines her head, and moves to let Spencer stand up.
“A pleasure, Agent Romanoff,” the man in the awful suit says, walking out of the alley.
Spencer gets up, inclining his head to her. He doesn’t begrudge her the victory, it seems. “No offense,” he says, and his southern accent is back in full. “But I hope I don’t see you again.”
“Same,” she says.
And then he leaves. Her comm flickers back to life, and Clint is swearing, grumbling about snot-nosed kids who know too much. She doesn’t say anything, just checks her pocket. A phone. It’s pre-programmed with a single number.
When the mission is done, and she’s sitting in the hotel room, holding the phone.
She should just throw it aside. Parker is a thief, there is no reason that she should contact her. But…
Natasha longs to know more about the girl she had once known. She wants to understand, to see how it is that Parker has found this little makeshift family. The names that Clint has given her beat through her mind. Eliot Spencer, Alec Hardison, Nathan Ford. And Coulson has given her one more, the one she didn’t meat. Sophie Devereaux, who had been in the party, and hadn’t left until the others had all left. A famous con artist and swindler, or, as Coulson called her, a “grifter”.
What had happened, to the little girl who had been so good at sneaking, and when did she become the world’s greatest thief?
She makes the call.
“Hello?” Parker’s voice says. She sounds wary, but she also sounds alone. Natasha wonders where she is. What is her life like, this other girl, who understands the urge to handcuff herself to the bed some nights?
“Hello,” Natasha echoes. She tries to think about what she should say next.
Finally, she settles on. “Do you want to meet sometime to get coffee? I’d rather catch up in person.”
Parker seems to hesitate. “Sure,” she finally says.
Natasha takes a deep breath, and feels herself smile.
It’s a start.