The afternoon sun is shining down on them, highlighting bright blonde hair held back in a wispy, unassuming romantic braid and Yelena clenches her fists, tucking them away in the pockets of her dress.
A hand slips around her waist, easy as anything but Yelena tenses anyways, every line in her body screaming fight or flight but she rolls her shoulders, forces a smile and hopes it doesn't come out a grimace.
"I'm Natalie Rushman and this is my wife, Ellen Bailey."
Natasha squeezes her side gently and Yelena fights down the scowl, digging out a clenched hand to exchange pleasantries with their new neighbor, an elderly woman who is peering up at them with a bright grin and what looks to be a ridiculous American dish, probably a casserole, in one hand.
Bozhe moi. How did she get herself into this mess.
[48 Hours Ago]
Aleksandra Krupin is a former KGB scientist hiding out in a small, unassuming town in Massachusetts, attempting to blend in by teaching 10th grade chemistry.
The Black Widow was ordered to bring her in, dead or alive. Preferably alive but Yelena's superiors made it clear that it was no skin off their back if the traitor never made it back to Russia, as long as all of the high tech gear and sensitive information that she made off with does.
Yelena's not in America often and she tells herself -- she tells herself it's because this land is not for her, it is vast and wide and so much open space but it is not her open space, not her Russia -- her Russia is something greater, more wild than this land but with the window rolled down and a song she thinks she knows playing on the tinny radio, Yelena loosens, the weight of two long plane rides and the tension she carried every step of the way easing off a bit. She's got a mission, she's got a plan and she knows this. There is a rhythm to the life that she loves, the one-two-three beat of plan, fight, win, and she wouldn't have it any other way.
She doesn't have it any other way. She always wins.
She's two miles outside of Boston in a rental car, a beat up bright red sedan, when a car comes up behind her and rear-ends her. Yelena swears loudly and swerves sharply to the right, hoping to force the other car off the road. Digging her gun out of the glove department, Yelena chances a glance out the rear view mirror as she goes, catching sight of the person in the car behind her.
Red hair pulled back, Aviator shades to hide her eyes but Yelena would know Natasha Romanova anywhere.
Yelena steps on the brakes sharply, forcing Natasha to stop.
Yelena pushes open the car door, gun up and out and trained on Natasha before she can do anything. Natasha steps out of her car, hands held up gingerly. She keeps the sunglasses on and Yelena swallows an annoyed groan, wants viciously to tell Natasha that she looks like an idiot, but.
She's not a fool, she knows that just because she appears to have the upper hand doesn't mean that she really has it -- there are always hidden depths with Natasha, always about fifty different moves played at once. Natasha has a mind for the spy game like Yelena never will and she accepts this, most days. Natasha may be the chess master but Yelena's got passion and sheer bloody-minded, backbiting gumption in spades.
"Aleksandra Krupin," Natasha calls out. "Sound familiar?"
"Don't tell me. The Avengers are interested?"
"The Avengers? No, definitely not," Natasha says. Her face is blank, her eyes covered -- nothing given away, nothing taken. "But SHIELD is very interested in who a former KGB scientist might consider selling all that info and tech to. You know the drill, rooskaya. Dangerous things, wrong hands. The world hangs on a razor thin balance."
Yelena rolls her eyes. "Spare me your dramatics, Natasha. I have orders, I'm going to follow them."
"Yes, I thought you might say that. Luckily, I made a contingency plan just for you. You see, we could play this the way we usually play this, rooskaya. But we could get a lot more done if we just worked together," Natasha says.
Still, her expression gives nothing away. Yelena grits her teeth.
"What did you have in mind?"
Natasha shrugs and a smirk curls around the edges of her mouth. That can't be a good sign.
"I'm going to want you to put the gun down first."
"Explain to me again why we can't just be sisters."
"Two spinster sisters who look like us moving to the suburbs together? Rooskaya, please."
They stop at a motel an hour outside of Hollow Springs, Natasha sending Yelena to the front desk to get them a room for the night while Natasha unloads whatever supplies she thinks they'll need for however long they're here.
When Yelena returns, she finds Natasha leaning against the red sedan, a duffle bag slung over one shoulder, looking entirely too pleased with herself.
"They only had one bed left," Yelena grumbles, heading for their room. "If you snore, I'm going to stab you."
"I don't snore but I do sleep with a gun under my pillow," Natasha says and there, Yelena has to laugh because who doesn't. It is a fluke of fate and skill that Natasha lived to be as old as she is today.
Their line of work is not for the people who want to grow old.
"I don't understand why we're stopping here instead of just moving forward with the plan," Yelena says.
"I've just come off an Avengers mission and I need the time to get into character. We both do. I could use your help dyeing my hair, too, if you wouldn't mind," Natasha says, toeing off her boots and slinging the duffle to the floor.
“Oh, so you mean you’re not planning on walking in looking like a walking traffic cone? Good, maybe all the rumors are true about you after all, Natalia,” Yelena says, something sharp and bitter sitting heavy on her tongue, and Natasha raises an eyebrow, amused, and Yelena hates this, hates it when Natasha treats her like someone who’s still too green around the edges to bother condescending to.
It feels too much like blood beneath her fingernails and a face that’s not her own, a lesson she never asked for and she’ll never admit she needed to learn.
Natasha digs a garishly bright box advertising a deep, dark brown hair dye out of the duffle bag and walks into the bathroom without another word.
A beat and then, “are you going to help me or not, rooskaya?”
Not, Yelena thinks petulantly, but.
She follows anyways.
Brown hair dye runs into the sink like so much mud in the rain, Natasha’s neck laid bare before her, more trust than she thinks either of them should accept, and Yelena thumbs across the soft skin of Natasha’s neck, rubbing at a spot of dye, telling herself not to linger for longer than necessary.
It’s a dangerous thing, these thoughts she’s always had about Natasha Romanova. A trump card up Natasha’s sleeve that she doesn’t even know she holds.
Yelena’s mind pricks, an image caught on the edges of her mind, a scene from a movie that she half paid attention to while on recon duty for a mission a couple of years ago in Madripoor. “This reminds me of something that happened in one of your American movies. There was a girl and a guy on the run, I think. I don’t remember the rest. Just this bit.”
Natasha hums. “I know the one you mean. Try not to get me killed to further your emotional journey, rooskaya.”
“What about getting you killed because you annoy the hell out of me?”
Natasha laughs, soft and close. “That, I can accept.”
There’s another smudge of dye on Natasha’s neck. Yelena swallows hard and ignores it.
Case File: 34567
Target: Aleksandra Krupin
Mission: Seize information, apprehend target. Elimination of target optional.
In case of obstruction from opposing intelligence agencies: eliminate the opposition and alert your handler.
Yelena thumbs a finger across the call button on her phone before shoving it into a pocket and swearing to herself.
Natalie Rushman is a dance teacher hired to help boost the local high school’s arts and theater program. Ellen Bailey just finished her masters in Russian literature and hasn’t figured out what she wants next, although she’s thought about writing herself. She’s always had a bit of a knack for poetry.
Yelena likes computers, likes taking them apart and putting them back together and she likes guns and antique knives and she likes puzzles that she can’t solve until she can, that adrenaline rush of satisfaction flowing through her veins. Natasha was right, after all, she saw right through Yelena from the start. The chase is your passion, she said, and Yelena’s got precious little room for much else.
She fell asleep once, face down on the desk her mother bought for her because ‘you need the right desk to be a good student, Yelena,’ trying to read “War and Peace” when she was sixteen years old and she never did finish it all of the way, she thought the whole thing was a waste of time, but.
She likes Pushkin all right. Maybe she can fake the poetry thing.
The town is small and takes to the arrival of newcomers with a keenness that sets Yelena’s teeth on edge. It is too much too soon and she feels like they might as well have announced their presence with guns blazing but Natasha just smiles that cheshire cat grin, all tucked up in an oversized sweater and leggings and soft boots, cat-eyed glasses perched on her nose and looking about as far from the Black Widow as she possibly could, muddy brown hair falling around her sharp, pale face, obscuring all of her finely honed edges. She speaks softly and pulls people into her web and miraculously, they buy it.
Yelena takes a deep breath, centers herself, and follows. This is not her forte, not for lack of skills but for lack of desire, but she is no slouch at undercover and so she puts on a dress with pockets big enough to slip a copy of a Pushkin collection in, tucks a pen behind her ear and lets ink smudge her fingers and pretends like she cannot murder their neighbor ten different ways with the casserole alone.
They play the part of newlyweds, flushed bright with happiness and the newness of their marriage, prone to public displays of affection, and when Natalie’s hand slips into Ellen’s and squeezes, Ellen goes tight with tension and tries not to think about how she wishes that heavy look, the one that screams promises of tangled sheets and just wait until later, was more than just subterfuge.
“What are you doing?”
Natasha flicks a piece of brown hair out of her eyes, looking up from where she’s intently slicing up apples at the kitchen counter of their small, ranch-style suburban house. “We were invited to a block party tonight. I volunteered to make apple pie.”
Yelena folds her arms across her chest and wonders dimly if she hasn’t been hit on the head and this whole thing isn’t some extended hallucination. “You know how to make apple pie? How do you know how to make apple pie?”
Natasha shrugs. “Steve taught me.”
“Captain America taught you how to make apple pie?!” Her voice goes higher than she'd like but for once, Yelena doesn't care that her well practiced ambivalence is failing her; the mental image she's conjured up is just too absurd to be real.
“He’s a stress baker,” Natasha answers smoothly, facial expression giving nothing away.
Natasha is probably just fucking with her -- it is her way, after all, but Yelena finds that she really doesn't want to know the truth one way or the other.
The pie is annoyingly delicious, flaky and soft and just tart enough that she can believe that Natasha had a hand in it.
Aleksandra Krupin, on the other hand, now Amelia Kroeger, is every bit as steely eyed and suspicious as her headshot led Yelena to believe.
They spot her from across the yard as soon as they show up to the party, hands grasped tightly together between the two of them, Natasha with her pie tucked close to her in her free hand.
“You see her?” Natasha whispers out of the corner of her mouth.
Yelena hums in response. “She’ll wait us out. Introduce herself later. Might as well make nice for now.”
Natasha tosses her an unreadable look, squeezing her hand briefly before leaning over to press her lips lightly against Yelena’s and then walking away.
It’s a nothing sort of kiss. Nothing special or good about it. A quick brush of the lips, nothing more, nothing less.
A couples’ kiss, the sort of thing you do because you’ve done it a thousand times over, more of a “here I am and here you are and here we are, then,” more a reassurance of presence than anything else.
The sort of kiss that Yelena has never known a day in her life because she chose a life that has no room for this, this space for small gestures and little intimacies and she doesn’t regret that.
Still doesn’t, not even with Natasha’s scent lingering around her and a thousand thoughts dancing in every direction.
They are neither of them the type to give up themselves, not for anyone.
(She wonders what it would be like, sometimes.
If they were.
Wonders what would have to happen to make that possible.
They’d have to be two completely different women entirely, probably).
The thing about a case like this is, well.
There’s no give and take, no adrenaline thrumming through her veins. No cars to be chased, no guns to be reloaded.
Her target is standing ten feet away from her, munching on what appears to be a hot dog on the stick, dressed like an old fashioned school marm.
Undercover is a waiting game and Yelena has never been one for waiting games, not since she was young and small and used to bite off more than she could chew, picking fights with the other kids while standing in line in the schoolyard, trying to do anything to take her mind off the itching in her veins and the constant buzzing of her mind telling her to go, go, go.
Natasha is in her element.
Natasha has this face that she makes. It almost looks blank except for when you catch her eyes just right and in them, Yelena can practically see the calculations -- the right word, the right body language, the right pop culture reference -- whatever it is, Natasha is working it through, turning it around and outwards and making it work and making it look natural, as easy as breathing.
No one would know that face for what it was unless they knew how to look for it.
Krupin is not looking and Yelena can breathe easy, take the time to make small talk but keep one eye on Natasha at all times even though she’s not supposed to, even though this is not the mission, not at all, but.
She just can’t help herself when it comes to Natasha.
She never could.
This is the plan:
Natasha tries to get a read on Krupin day in and day out while working at the school. Working as a dance instructor who’s only really there to help out the theater club gives her a certain amount of freedom -- it’s not weird that she’s there at any hour of the day but nor is she kept to any schedule, either.
The theater club’s need for more support from the staff at large gives Natasha a reason to keep banging down Krupin’s door to chat her up.
On the other side of town, Yelena cases Krupin’s home, bypassing the security and trying to work out where she’s hiding all of her high tech secrets. Once they’ve got it pinned down between the two of them, they’re to make their move.
In and out, one to two weeks, tops.
(It’s a good plan, Natasha says, a curl of her lips. She’s not even bothering to hide her amusement now.
It’s a waste of fucking time, Yelena says, and there’s a phone heavy in her pocket, waiting to be dialed, but.
There’s a taste in the back of her mouth and it is something like curiosity, gone long unsated.
It’s a waste of fucking time, sure.
But she still wants to see how it plays out).
Krupin’s home security is good but Yelena is better.
She walks up to the house carrying a covered cake pan full of tech and tools, making as if she’s here to drop off a gift. There’s no neighbors anywhere in sight but in small communities like this, that means nothing.
Yelena goes through the motions of knocking on the door, waiting, waiting, peering in through the foggy, decorated glass on the front door before making her way around through the gate into the backyard.
Only then do her shoulders ease up and Yelena lets out a breath.
It takes her two minutes to get inside but the better part of the rest of the afternoon to scour the place from top to bottom with the sort of precision that only the Red Room can teach. Not a hair, not a speck of dust out of place, nothing.
But there’s nothing here. Not a file, not a flash drive, not even a fucking floppy disk.
Which means one of two things:
Krupin either keeps it on her at all times.
Or it’s at the school.
“She keeps it on her at all times,” Natasha confirms. She’s chopping vegetables for dinner, messy brown hair gathered at the top her head in a barely together bun. Natalia Romanova with a knife in her hand while simultaneously doing her best to come across as young, naive, non-threatening, even now, even here when it’s just the two of them -- the overall effect is disarming, disorienting, and Yelena has to draw in a breath and look away.
“There’s a flash drive on her key chain that she carries with her everywhere. I’m not surprised; she does seem the paranoid type.”
“Aren’t we all,” Yelena remarks dryly. “You’ll want to check her office, though, just in case.”
Natasha hums. “She’s assigned to oversee after-school detention in the library at the end of the week. I can break in and check it out, then.”
“The end of the week? What are we supposed to do until then?”
Natasha shrugs, small unconcerned gesture that grates. “Eat casserole?”
What happens next -- well, what happens next, Yelena is pretty sure she’s going to go to her grave blaming on Natasha.
On the plan, on how this whole week has gone -- on her wasted afternoon and how the frustration has her nerves wrought, her skin feeling snapped tight.
Because it’s not. It’s not the sort of thing that Yelena does. It’s a childish, instinctual response that she regrets almost as soon as she does it.
But she does it anyways.
She removes the spoon from the saucepan, where she’s only just started poured in the tomato sauce for their pasta, a hefty amount of sauce in place, and flicks it at Natasha.
Natasha eyes flick down and then up, taking in the damage. There’s cold tomato sauce on her fake glasses, which she impatiently brushes away before reaching for the retractable faucet and aiming it in Yelena’s direction and this -- this was a terrible idea to begin with, full stop, and if they were in a romantic comedy (and maybe, just maybe, she needs to start taking on missions where she gets to stay in nice hotels instead of crappy motels with limited, borderline unbearable entertainment options), this would be the moment for the food fight montage but Natasha simply flicks her wrist just so, just enough to drench Yelena from head to toe before turning the water off and fixing Yelena with a glare that leaves her flayed open.
“Happy now, rooskaya?”
Yelena lets out a heavy sigh, dragging a hand through dampy, messy strands, still with this terrible, unending thrum of frustration running through her. “Not really.”
She expects Natasha, a woman of limited patience and definitely not one to indulge a fit of temper that Yelena is already embarrassed about, to just walk away.
She does not expect Natasha to stride up to her, fisting the wet, floral fabric of Yelena’s dress in one hand and kiss her. Does not expect Natasha to nip at her bottom lip, to look up at her through her eyelashes and murmur, “come on, Yelena, live a little,” soft and close and a shock to the system.
It’s half an invitation and half a dare, as if it could be any other way with them.
Yelena nudges her knee between Natasha’s thighs, liking the way Natasha rocks down into the motion, liking the way her eyes darken, go unfocused, and neither of them ever do anything by halves, do they, Yelena thinks, as she yanks Natasha down for another kiss.
(This is not the plan:
Natasha, on her knees, Yelena’s dress shucked up around her waist, both hands gone white from knuckling the counter.
Natasha, late getting to the school the next day, because neither one of them could come up with a good enough reason to get out of bed.
Natasha, kissing her in broad daylight, soft and deep on the front steps of their house for all to see, and it should be the perfect picture of the happy newlyweds fully realized, right, cover fully intact, but they are both of them covered in bruises and Natasha has seven different types of knives scattered about her person, all of which Yelena fitted her with, enjoying the way Natasha shivered with it as Yelena slipped a knife into the sheath of her garter belt.
Truth and circumstance, expectations versus reality. This is their lives and they’d know it no other way.
This is not the fucking plan, but.
Yelena makes a point not to lie to herself.
This was always the plan).
The end of the week comes a little sooner than Yelena expected.
Her phone buzzes and she swipes it open, reading the message on the screen quickly before grabbing her gear and their assorted junk and loading it into the trunk of the car.
Confirmed. Information not in office. Will meet at her place in an hour, activate Plan B.
If they get lucky, they can knock Krupin out in her own home before she so much as knows they’re there and then they’ll be home free and well on their way out of here.
Yelena pauses, fingers hovering over the zipper to her Black Widow suit.
Two weeks, tops.
She didn’t expect it to go by as quickly as it did.
Yelena shakes herself, pulling on the zipper until it reaches her collarbone and reaching for her gun, strapping it neatly in place.
Good thing this town is as small as it is. Good thing Natasha can get there on foot. Good thing they thought to put the car away in the garage because Yelena walking outside, dressed as she is, will raise too many questions too quickly and they want to keep this as low profile as possible.
Yelena flings herself into the front seat of the car, starts up the ignition and gets to work.
Krupin is at her stovetop making tea when they corner her, guns up and eyes steady. She turns around, shoulders slumping at the sight of them, before reaching back, twisting the knob on the stove, setting the teapot aside.
“It’s about time,” Krupin says, in quiet, roughened Russian, annoyance in her voice and weariness set in every bone of her body.
“I hate this fucking country.”
“Well, that was anti-climatic,” Natasha says lightly. Krupin is bound and gagged in the backseat and they’ve both of them alerted their exit strategy, leaving them en route to the nearest cleared space for transport.
“Did you know what was going to happen?” Yelena asks.
She’d bet anything the answer was no, but.
Sometimes, she wonders.
“I don’t actually know everything, Yelena,” Natasha says, face blank and voice deliberately bland, set to provoke and Yelena can only roll her eyes in return, but not before Natasha lets her see the small quirk of her lips, the shape of a genuine smile.
“Bite me, Romanova.”
“Maybe later, Belova.”
“At what point did you change your mind?”
They’re standing on the tarmac of a SHIELD facility, Natasha leaning against the inconspicuous black sedan that SHIELD had sent for them, arms folded across the chest and her now bright red hair blowing across her face. Natasha looks vulnerable, almost, like she’s trying to fold into herself or trying to keep something out. Both, maybe.
It strikes Yelena that she’s never seen Natasha like this, never seen her look quite so human -- not outside of -- outside of what they were, almost, outside of flushed skin pressed closely together, plausible deniability torn to pieces in the dim morning light. Yelena blinks and she can still see the periwinkle blue curtains closed tight against the windows, can still feel Natasha warm against her, and she thinks -- she thinks she might miss that house, a bit.
“Change my mind about what?” Yelena asks. There’s a plane waiting to take her and Krupin back to Moscow. She’s got copies of Krupin’s work packed away in her suitcase, the only compromise that they saw fit to come up with. She gets Krupin and the same info; Natasha gets to walk away with the originals.
She’ll see disciplinary action for this, sure, but it’ll smooth over a lot easier when she convinces them that the alternative would’ve ended in a very recognizable, very publicized shooting on American soil.
“About double-crossing me.”
Yelena shrugs. “Who says I haven’t?”
Natasha cracks a thin smile at that. “I think I know you a little better than that, rooskaya.”
“Maybe,” Yelena says, just to be that much of an asshole about it.
They have already said their goodbyes away from prying eyes, Natasha smiling into a kiss, hands digging into Yelena’s hair, taking the time to press Yelena’s whole body back into the car seat. Yelena can still feel the weight on her fingertips, digging into Natasha’s hips, grounding them both.
There’s no space for that here, on this wide, open tarmac.
“Until next time, Widow?”
“Until next time I take you down, you mean.”
That gets her a raised eyebrow, a surprised curl of the lips. Double entendres have always been an unspoken necessity in the school of the Black Widow.
Two can play at that game, Natalia, Yelena thinks, and takes a point for herself.
(This is not the end.