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The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides…


After SHIELD crumbles, Natasha Romanoff settles in New York. Stark gives her a floor in Avengers Tower and Natasha furnishes it with a selection of comfortable, modern pieces that Natasha Romanoff favors. She fills Natasha Romanoff's wardrobe with unfussy, tailored basics and her armory with state-of-the-art firearms. Natasha Romanoff gives testimony at the hearings in DC; Natasha Romanoff goes shopping on Fifth Avenue; Natasha Romanoff is photographed arm-in-arm with Dr. Bruce Banner at a UNICEF benefit.

Natasha rents Black Widow an efficiency in the ass-end of Queens under a new alias. Black Widow gets a stockpile of beater Makarov pistols and 9x18mm rounds, wigs and thrifted clothes, facial prostheses, and a cheap air mattress that smells like plastic. She buys enough canned goods for the pantry to last a few weeks of nuclear winter.

As Natalie Rushman, she sublets a room in a four-bedroom apartment uptown that she shares with five hassled med students who don't pay much attention to the news.

Natasha herself prefers to hide in plain sight. She gets Steve to give her access to his floor in Avengers Tower and moves in.

Pepper figures out that she's moved in downstairs in less than 24 hours, because Pepper. "What else do you need?" she says, sitting down in Steve's living room. Most of the stuff in here is from IKEA. "More guns? More pillows?"

"Security," Natasha says. "I need you to show all movements here on my own floor instead."

Pepper frowns. "I'm sure Jarvis could isolate you by heat signature, biometric data—"

Natasha's already shaking her head. "Keep it simple," she says. "You know Steve won't use this place."

Whenever the topic comes up around Tony, he gets a hard look on his face like a gathering storm; Pepper just sighs. "Are you going to let him crash on the couch?"

Natasha shrugs. Of course, she has intel that Pepper doesn't. "We'll figure it out."

Sam and Steve have been overseas for two weeks when Natasha flies out of JFK; she doesn't have that kind of time if she wants to maintain her cover in New York. She blocks out four days for the extraction and one on either side for travel, which should be more than enough time to meet them in Belarus, cross the border, and get back with their prize in tow.

They're tooling down a dirt road toward Moscow when Sam asks, "Why'd you ride along, anyway?" Steve is dozing in the back of their jacked car and Sam's up front with Natasha, who knows where they're going and won't get them killed driving on the wrong side of the road. There are dark rings under Sam's eyes, but Steve's have already faded away.

Natasha lets the question stretch out between them for a few miles. "Steve would put himself on ice for this man, and you're already following Steve into hell. You'd get yourself killed before you'd compromise your goal."

"So, you like us," Sam says with a chuckle.

Before, Natasha would have said, we need you, meaning—Fury, SHIELD, a comfortable aggregate. She has no we to hide behind anymore. "I trust you," she says instead. "I'd like you to stay alive."

Blending in everywhere means belonging nowhere. As an asset, Natasha had a home base, a direction, goals. Her free time was dedicated to cultivating new skills—flower arranging, hacking, stenography. Everything she did was to some eventual, unseen end. Natasha likes being useful, so she liked most of it. Fury had her working all the time. He was a good boss.

Natasha is not a very good boss. She doesn't have the contacts to freelance—she's eliminated or made enemies of most of the people who'd hire her—and the other agencies of the US are just as riddled with problems as SHIELD. Since she was a child, there's been a longer arm directing her movements, guiding her in a pattern that Natasha can usually predict but has never tried to plan. She doesn't have any training for long-term strategy.

But she can learn.

Shall we play a game?

Natasha gets herself invited to a lunch with the First Lady and a select group of decorated servicewomen. She works the occasional coffee date with Pepper into her schedule. She gets herself on the donor list of a few nonprofits. At present, Natasha has enough social cachet to win introductions; long-term, she'll need to establish deeper connections. She needs a network.

Her short list is, well, short. Steve is easy—she's already got him. The rest of the Avengers are best treated as free agents. They've all got all got ties and competing loyalties, to Stark or Asgard or a dinky apartment building in Bed-Stuy, and that's at conflict with what Natasha needs. She has to get them fresh.

It always starts early; at least, it started early for her.

Clint has his ankle in an air cast, so Natasha partners up with the younger Hawkeye on the next Avengers all-call. Kate's only just back from LA with burn scars on one arm and a new haircut, but she's eager to suit up and head into the action. "I swiped all of the good gear," she says to Natasha as Natasha climbs into her purple convertible. "Hey, who was that guy?"

Natasha glances back toward the coffee shop before she shuts the door. "I hear you took more than Clint's arrows."

Kate puts the car into gear. "I didn't steal his dog. Lucky came with me, okay."

"Man's best friend," Natasha says drily.

"You can't go it alone in this business," Kate says. "I wasn't going to try."

Natasha smiles and says, "Neither am I."

Sam Wilson isn't going to be part of Natasha's web. That's a pity, because they're such good complements—everyone always says you shouldn't hire people just like you. If Natasha is nowhere and everywhere, Sam is a perfect pinpoint on a map: steady job, set jogging route, standing phone date with his parents every Sunday night. His dad's a veteran, too.

The morning Sam misses his 6AM jogging date with Steve, Natasha goes to check up on him. It's not breaking in, exactly, if she's made herself a key. Sam is normally a light sleeper, but he's out soundly on the couch, some crushed beer cans at his feet. He doesn't stir until after Natasha starts making coffee. By then, she's already unlocked his phone—the passcode is his nephew's birthday—and started perusing his social media accounts. "Wonder if they'll make a Falcon costume next year," she says when she comes to a photo of Sam and a kid with a cardboard Captain America shield. "I bet there's a Pinterest page for the wings."

"God, don't," Sam groans, then, "Can you shut the blinds?"

They get a birthday cake for his fallen comrade and watch reruns of Jersey Shore. Reality TV is a perfectly mundane interest to cultivate and makes for excellent water cooler conversation, so Natasha DVRs Toddlers & Tiaras, The Real Housewives of New York, and a few others. She puts them on in the background while she works out or does paperwork, passively noting regional accents and gestures, mimicking them sometimes as she does housework. One time Tony came into the apartment and Natasha didn't bother switching back from the long vowels and slow drawl on the TV. Tonight, she sticks to licking frosting off her fork and keeping her eyes on the screen.

After a while, she notices Sam watching her instead of the TV, turns toward him. "What?"

Sam doesn't look too concerned to be caught out. "You're always working, huh?"

Natasha shrugs. "Sometimes I paint my nails."

"You don't have to keep tabs on me," Sam says.

"I don't have to do anything anymore," Natasha says.

Sam nods. "You want more cake?"

Natasha says, "I'll take a beer."

If Sam is the complement Natasha wants, Steve is the one she's got—brave, kind, and selfless to a fault.

The fault's former keepers called him "the asset," Tony calls him "The Asshole," but Steve calls him "Bucky," so Natasha does, too. Bucky's not an asset anymore, not yet. He's a watch unwound, sitting in Steve's apartment with a bracelet around his ankle while the hours unspool and living off a diet of TV dinners and Steve's bachelor cooking. There are a lot of boiled vegetables. Natasha has taken to bringing takeout for three when she comes over.

"How is he doing?" she says tonight as Steve begins to make up a plate for Bucky, who's watching Meerkat Manor in the next room. Bucky's hair is a shaggy mess and he's lost more muscle mass since the last time Natasha was here. His metal arm looks like it's weighing him down, too bulky next to his natural one.

Steve puts a lot of protein on Bucky's plate, basil beef and chicken curry; he's noticed, too. "Better," he says. Natasha's not sure if he's lying to her or himself. "Well—he's having some trouble sleeping at night."

"Don't we all," Natasha says.

Natasha sleeps lightly on Steve's foam mattress in New York; she sleeps lightly everywhere. Her fear has kept her cautious and alive so far, so she treats it with respect. There are no retirement communities for spies or superheroes—she won't be going gentle into that good night.

Still, she likes to imagine. So she shows up at Sam's apartment and they watch bad TV and eat popcorn; she drops by the coffee shop he favors and drinks a tiny cappuccino. Natasha sends flowers to Pepper on her birthday, buys Bucky a Tamagotchi off eBay, goes to the Met with Steve when he's in town. In another life, she'd do everything without purpose, without motive; in this one, she's laying the groundwork she needs to nudge people around the chess board, so each deed doubly pleases her. She won't always have reason to be kind.

Natasha goes to Fury's grave the next time she's in DC and kneels to run her fingers over the inscription on his gravestone. It's not like her to openly mourn or pay remembrance, but whoever's watching her can think what they want to think. Natasha spent her years working for Fury trying to even her accounts; he may have closed and set fire to his own, but she gave up the opportunity to do the same when she unlocked SHIELD's database. She's always going to have red in her ledger.

Time to open a new one.


Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children.