Natasha’s old apartment seemed to have dead spots in it, memories lurking at their edges and just out of sight, and the feeling itched like a sniper rifle aimed between her shoulder blades. So she moved. Clint and Jessica helped, vocally judging her lack of home décor all the while, but she had a job from Isaiah and promised to furnish it properly when she got back.
In the week and a half she was gone, Natasha half-forgot how barren it still was. She walked in, a little battered but unbloodied this time, and the apartment looked like another safe house, utilitarian, grudgingly clean in the way of old buildings, and that felt right. She wasn’t so sure now that she’d bother with more furniture.
She did finish unpacking the boxes. Four fifths of the reason she’d chosen this place was for the extravagant spaciousness of its closet, and it soothed her, arranging her clothes in careful order on the racks. Here the small selection of things she chose to wear as herself, there the many camouflages of a spy. Sometimes she envied Jessica her single costume, but not tonight.
Electronic pop drifted in through the open window.
She met her first-floor neighbor while checking her mail. “You’re new,” the woman said in English accented but clear. “You moved in upstairs. I’m Ana.”
“Ah, Russian. Well. We cannot all come from Ukraine, I suppose.” She smiled knowingly, and Natasha found herself smiling back.
A cat had plastered itself against the front door, as far as possible from the driving rain. It was small and black, bedraggled, altogether pitiful. Natasha patted it on the head, and it immediately began to wind around her feet. “No pets,” she told it, not that the man across the hall from her didn’t have a decrepit old Persian. It had snarled at Natasha through the cracked-open door once. This cat seemed equally undisturbed by the rules.
Natasha went upstairs and heated soup. When she’d eaten, she opened a can of tuna, put a third of it onto a plastic lid, and took it downstairs. The cat immediately began vacuuming up the tuna, purring wildly.
Dubai, this time. The airplane’s recycled air gave Natasha a sinus headache, and she approached the apartment steps thinking only of bed.
“Natasha,” Anna called from the ground floor window. “You are home.”
Natasha summoned a smile. “Finally.”
“My husband is gone for the weekend. You should come to dinner.”
“I would,” Natasha said, in a flexible stretch of the truth. “But I’ve got an early morning—” With Maria, probably not for a mission. A briefing, maybe.
“Tomorrow night,” Ana said firmly, as though it were already decided. “It is lonely eating by myself. Come eat.”
“All right,” Natasha agreed. It was easier than arguing through her headache. “What should I bring?”
Ana pursed her lips. “Wine, I think.”
Ana’s apartment was painted in warm reds and yellows, and she ushered Natasha into a delicious aromatic fog of vinegar and fresh-baked bread. Natasha took a deep breath, and Ana grinned. “You eat a lot of Ukrainian food?” she asked over her shoulder.
Natasha followed her into the kitchen. “Sometimes. The little place on Second Avenue and Fourth Street?”
“Mm, yes. I get takeout there sometimes. The varenyky is so-so.” Ana waggled her hand, unimpressed. “Here, let’s open your wine.” She pops the cork and pours Natasha a glass. Then she motioned to her to sit at the table just adject to the kitchen. “You travel a lot?”
“Usually. I’m in consulting.”
Ana cast her a look that said she knew Natasha was evading the question, but declined to comment. “Where do you go?” she asked.
So Natasha told her about Dubai, the skyscrapers there shinier and newer and even taller than New York’s, the sun eye-stabbingly brilliant. Ana listened intently, soaking it in like the desert sand. “And Russia? You go back home sometimes?”
“Sometimes,” Natasha allowed.
A pause before the next question, which came softer and less sure. “And Ukraine?”
Natasha described her favorite restaurant in Kiev, the view down the Dnieper at sunset. Ana listened avidly, eventually abandoning the stove entirely to ask questions. “I talk with my grandparents there,” she said eventually. “With Skype.”
“There are cheap flights sometimes, in the off-season,” Natasha offered.
Anna turned abruptly to the stove. “Ivan wouldn’t agree to it.”
Dinner was pork with saurkraut salad. The flavors were stronger than anything Natasha has tasted in weeks, and she didn’t think it was only because of the pickling. Ana flushed at the compliments. “I only ever cook for Ivan and me. It is nice, cooking for another person.”
The black cat appeared on Natasha’s balcony one evening. Natasha looked for an obvious route he might have taken, but didn’t see one. “Are you a parkour enthusiast?” she asked it.
The cat stared at her until she went to the kitchen and brought back tuna. While he ate, she dubbed him Liho, in hopes that he would bring bad fortune to the mice.
New Delhi was not kind to Natasha. Even the cab driver was solicitous, but Natasha assured him she could get up to her apartment unaided. She regretted it somewhat once he had driven away. It hadn’t been so hard twenty four hours ago to dodge traffic and thugs, but now it was all she could do to drag her feet up the steps.
Ana blocked her in the hallway. “You are hurt.”
“I’ll heal,” Natasha said, trying to edge past.
Ana gave her a hard look. “Wait here.” Natasha hadn’t the energy to disobey. Ana soon returned. Ivan’s shouting her followed her out the door until she shut it behind her. “To your apartment,” Ana said, which got Natasha moving again.
Ana spared Natasha’s minimal furnishings only a glance before sitting her down on the bed. She tsked at the cut across Natasha’s eyebrow and dabbed at it with disinfectant. “Any further, and no more eye for you,” she said.
Natasha didn’t tell her that S.H.I.E.L.D. would replace it. She winced when Ana happened to touch her shoulder, so Ana turned to that next. “Sore?”
“You pulled it out?”
“And put it back in. It’ll be fine.”
“You need ice?”
“Just rest.” And some S.H.I.E.L.D.-grade pain pills, for that and other hurts, but those would wait until Ana was gone. “Do you have a lot of experience with injuries?”
She said it for something to say, and only because she happened to be looking at Ana’s face did she notice how Ana’s expression turned blank. “Your consulting, it is very violent,” Ana said.
Natasha opened her mouth to deflect the comment away, but then she saw how Ana’s lips were pressed thin, and she held back.
Now that she was watching, she saw how Ana held herself more carefully sometimes than others, how for three days she was disguising a limp.
One night, Natasha went down the stairs and knocked at Ana’s door. Ana’s eyes widened when she opened it. “He’s hurting you,” Natasha said. Ana peered anxiously past Natasha into the hall. “He’s gone. I saw him from the balcony.”
Ana pulled Natasha inside. Once she closed the door, though, she didn’t seem to know what to do.
“You need to leave him,” Natasha said.
Ana folded her arms around herself. “It’s not so bad.”
“He’s hurting you,” Natasha repeated.
“Only sometimes,” Ana said.
“You should go.” Ana shoulders drew tighter, and she didn’t look at Natasha.
Natasha went to Shanghai. Liho appeared on her balcony on irregularly on a schedule known only to him. She met Ana sometimes on the steps, coming or going.
One night, the skin around Ana’s eye was dark and mottled, and Natasha carried the sight of it all the way to Argentina with her. It lurked in the back of her mind as she snuck into a prison, broke a prisoner out, threw him to the alligators. On the long flight back to New York, she wondered if she would have done it if she hadn’t looked at Lobo Blanco’s fist and seen the shape of Ana’s bruise in it.
She hesitated at Ana’s door, but only for a moment.
Natasha didn’t see Ana again that week. Perhaps Ana had gone, but Natasha knew better than to hope for that. Still, she was unsurprised when a knock came at her door after she got in from Capetown. She opened it, and on the other side stood Ana, hands folded across her arms and gripping tightly. She stepped inside, and Natasha closed the door behind her.
“I didn’t ask you to do that,” Ana said.
“No, you didn’t.”
“You didn’t have any right.”
Natasha met her gaze. “Perhaps not.”
Ana’s mouth twisted. “Is that what you do, then, in your consulting business?”
Natasha allowed herself a small smile. “More or less. Sometimes.”
Ana nodded to herself. A short pause drew into a longer one. Finally, Ana said, “Don’t do it again.”
“I can’t promise that.”
“Don’t,” Ana repeated, for this one this moment unyielding, fearless. Then her gaze dropped. “Unless. Unless I ask you to.”
Natasha laid her hand on Ana’s arm. “Don’t wait too long. Okay?”
Ana shrugged, but she met Natasha’s eyes to say, “I made you something. Food. I know you just got in. Wait here a minute.” She stepped out into the hall. Before Natasha could close the door again, Liho slunk in and began to wind around her feet.