The junior dormitory at the Red Room training facility is grey and sterile. The metal-frame bunk beds have thin mattresses, lumpy pillows and scratchy wool blankets. There's no rug on the tiled floor, not a scrap of decoration on the walls, and the tiny barred window doesn't let in much light but does let in an icy draft when the wind rattles the pane. Some of the girls complain, but Natasha keeps her mouth shut. Grim as the room is, it's still better than anyplace she's ever had before.
She grabs the top bunk in the corner that's farthest from the window. It's a desirable spot, and she ends up having to fight to keep it, four times in the next three days. The girls who pick the fights are bigger than she is, but Natasha is faster and more vicious. She has learned her lesson years before in the orphanage: if you lose just once, you become a target forever, so don't lose. Natasha doesn't lose, and after she breaks Sveta's nose in the fourth fight, the other trainees learn to stay away from her. There are nine girls and ten bunks, and no one takes the one below Natasha's. She's left alone and she likes it that way.
* * *
A week after training starts, there's a late arrival. The new girl is tall, almost as tall as some of the adult instructors, with short blonde hair and a strong-jawed face. She walks in one night after supper, takes a look around the room, and heads for the only empty bed.
Natasha is sitting on top of her own bunk, mending a torn shirt, pretending not to look. The new girl drops her rucksack and her coat onto the lower bunk, stands there for a moment, then tilts her head back to meet Natasha's gaze. Natasha wonders if she's going to have to fight for her bunk again. The new girl is big, and she moves like someone who knows how to throw a hit and how to take one. Natasha thinks of her training, thinks of some tricks she's already learned that can take down a larger opponent, considers the best opening move to make if she's going to attack first.
"Can we switch?" The girl asks.
Natasha blinks. "Why?"
"It's cramped down here." The girl waves her hand at the space between the two bunks. "You're smaller than me, so it won't bother you as much."
"Don't talk to her, she's crazy!" Sveta yells from the other side of the room. Next to her, Lada and Galya snicker behind their hands. The new girl glares at them.
"Shut up, I wasn't talking to you!" she snaps, then turns to face Natasha again. "So will you switch, or not?"
To tell the truth, Natasha doesn't care that much which bunk she's in. She only fought to show that she couldn't be bullied. The new girls looks like a bully, but she's the only one who actually asked. Natasha can't remember the last time anyone asked her for something instead of just trying to take. Maybe no one ever has.
"Sure," she says, "we can switch."
The new girl grins and holds out her hand. "I'm Sasha," she says.
* * *
It's a funny kind of friendship, Natasha thinks. The two of them don't have much in common aside from being female, orphaned, and ready to fight when cornered -- which is what all the girls in the Red Room have in common. But that first, easy trade creates an alliance between them, and somehow that alliance lasts.
They pair up in training, sit together in the mess hall, spend their rare periods of free time talking and sparring and braiding each other's hair. Their schedules diverge after a while: Natasha's handlers emphasize dance, gymnastics, target shooting, interrogation techniques; Sasha's instructors focus on pilot training, mechanics, explosives. But there's enough overlap that they still get too see each other regularly. Of the two of them, Sasha is the first to get assigned to a real mission, Natasha is the first to get a kill. Neither one of them talks about what they do -- even if they wanted to, they're not allowed. But when Natasha wakes up crying or Sasha wakes up shaking, they curl up together in one bunk and share what strength they have.
* * *
The training compound is large, but after years of exploring, they know which spots are safe. There's a corner in the laundry room where cameras can't see you and the mics can't hear you if you talk near the end of washing cycle, when the ancient machine moans like a dying beast.
"Tell the truth," Sasha whispers one evening, "do you plan to live like this forever?"
Natasha is at the sink, washing blood out of a black silk halter top. "No," she says.
Two more girls walk in, so they say nothing more that night. But three days later, at the back of the communal shower where the water heater always clanks, Natasha picks up the conversation as if they'd never paused.
"If we run," she says, "we should run together. Watch each other's backs."
Sasha looks doubtful. "Do you really think we could?"
"We'll find a way," Natasha tells her. "It'll be the two us, I promise."
Five years later, she shatters that promise and runs alone. It's not how she wants it, but the chance is there, in the ashes of a ruined mission, and Natasha knows she may never have another opportunity to get away undetected. She wishes she could've warned Sasha before taking off, thinks of several ways to at least leave a message, but it's too risky. Sasha is sure to be interrogated once Natasha's handlers realize she's cut loose, and it's safer for everyone concerned if she doesn't know anything. Natasha keeps telling herself that, over and over, for years. Evading pursuit, building a reputation as an independent operative, darting from bolt hole to bolt hole all over the world, she holds to that thought -- Sasha is safer that way. And Natasha was right to get out when she could.
She never entirely learns to believe it.
* * *
After Barton brings her in, after she earns enough trust at SHIELD to gain access to the high-security data, Natasha looks up Sasha's file. SHIELD has a fairly extensive record of her, several dozen missions where she's been clearly identified, many more where her presence is merely suspected. The file is marked the same way Natasha's file was once marked -- terminate on sight. But there's no record of a termination, or capture, or any other identifiable ending; the missions just stop.
Natasha tries to make some discreet inquiries, but backs off when Fury takes notice. If Sasha is dead, then all inquiries are irrelevant anyway; if she survived and got out, she probably doesn't want SHIELD on her trail. Natasha tries hard to believe in the second option, but life hasn't taught her to be optimistic.
Six months after SHIELD goes down, Natasha receives an e-mail on one of her secure accounts. The attachment is a wedding photo -- Sasha in a white sundress, standing on a tropical beach next to a bearded mountain of a man who actually manages to make her look small in comparison. The man's suit doesn't fit right and his tie is askew, but he's looking at Sasha as if she hung the moon. The date stamp at the bottom of the photo is three years old. The e-mail says "I wanted to send this earlier, but you're a hard woman to find." Natasha traces the e-mail to an internet café in Lisbon. She tries a few contacts there but Sasha, too, is a hard woman to find. Natasha sends a congratulatory e-mail back, but doesn't bother to attach a photo. Her entire life is on the internet now. Sasha has plenty of pictures to choose from.
* * *
The first time a Kaiju attacks, the Avengers arrive too late to save San Francisco. The second time, they arrive just in time to get their asses handed to them. Afterwards, the entire team relocates to Malibu to join the newly-minted war effort. The first Jaeger is actually Iron Man Mark XXIII, and it's Tony Stark's success in taking out Rachnid that convinces the UN to go with the program. Unfortunately, it soon becomes all too clear that Stark is the only one who can pilot the damn things alone.
Over the next few months, Natasha makes it a game of sorts, watching the Jaeger pilot testing and trying to predict who ends up Drift-compatible. Some teams are fairly obvious, like Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis or Fury and Hill. Others make sense in hindsight, like that hot-shot blonde Air Force pilot that ends up Drifting with James Rhodes. And some come way out of left field, like when Barton goes through three months of testing before teaming up with a slip of a teenage girl who apparently signed up for the program to piss off her rich daddy. Natasha herself doesn't volunteer. Even if she was willing to let somebody into her head like that, which she isn't, that kind of brute-force combat isn't the best use of her abilities. She joins the analyst team, sorting through reams of data, working to pinpoint Kaiju weaknesses and predict their moves. It's more than enough to keep her busy and feeling useful.
She's at the Anchorage base, having just gotten out of yet another strategy session, when a voice she hadn't heard in years calls her name. She turns, and there is Sasha running down the hallway toward her, followed by the big guy from the wedding photo. Next thing she knows, Natasha is enveloped in a hug that lifts her clear off her feet for several seconds and leaves her slightly breathless. Sasha hasn't gotten any taller in the years since Natasha last saw her, but she's packed on quite a bit of muscle.
"Sasha!" Natasha gasps when she's planted on her feet again. "What are you doing he--" she breaks off as she notes Sasha's fur-collared leather jacket with the embroidered patch on the sleeve, a perfect match to the one her husband is wearing. "Oh my God, did you get a Jaeger?"
"Cherno Alpha," Sasha says proudly. "We just got out of training yesterday. Natasha, this is Aleksis. Aleksis, this is Natasha. We used to know each other in Moscow, when we were girls." She makes it sound like a perfectly ordinary childhood friendship, and Aleksis plays along, even though he must know the truth. If he has Drifted with Sasha, then he must know things about the Black Widow that even Clint and Fury don't know, but he says nothing about it, just wraps his massive hand around hers and rumbles "Pleased to meet you" while Sasha grins.
"Come have dinner with us!" she demands, and Natasha follows them to the mess hall, still feeling a little dazed.
They stick to neutral conversation topics through most of dinner, mostly alternating tales of pilot training and Avengers missions. Aleksis offers an obviously cleaned-up version of his and Sasha's meet-cute in Krasnadar, which apparently involved some sort of motor race, a flash flood, and a stolen helicopter. Natasha pulls out her phone and shows photos of the last Avengers New Year's Eve celebration at Tony Stark's rebuilt Malibu mansion. This carries them through to coffee and dessert, at which point Aleksis announces his intention to log a few more hours in the mission simulator and leaves. Natasha feels her smile fading as she watches him walk away.
"Sasha." She leans forward to plant her elbows on the table, and lowers her voice so that there's no chance anyone but Sasha might hear. "Look, I know it's been years, but I just want to say… I'm sorry."
It's a relief when Sasha doesn't brush it off or pretend not to know what she's talking about. Instead she leans forward, mimicking Natasha's posture, and fixes Natasha with a hard, cool gaze.
"There's nothing to be sorry for," she says. "You took your chance when you could. I took mine when I could. I we'd sat around waiting for an opening that would admit both of us, we'd both still be back there. Or dead. You did the right thing."
"I'd promised you--"
"It was a stupid child's promise. We both knew that when we made it. " Sasha's eye soften a little, but her voice stays firm and determined. "You can't always count on promises, and you can't ever count on anything but yourself. That's what they taught us, isn't it?"
"I don't want to live the way they taught us!" Natasha says fiercely. Sasha grins at her, bright and sudden.
"You're on a team of superheroes. If that's not the opposite of everything the Red Room taught us, I don't know what is. Think about it, Natasha. You have your Avengers, and I have Aleksis, and we have each fought off an alien invasion. Not bad for two lost girls from the Red Room, is it?"
Natasha can't let go of the guilt quite yet, but it's hard to look across the table at Sasha and not return her grin.
"Don't get ahead of yourself," she says. "I'm still one up on you. After all, you haven't fought off an alien invasion yet."
"Don't worry," Sasha says confidently, "I will."
* * *
The day after Gipsy Danger closes the Pacific breach, there's an impromptu party at the Shatterdome, half celebration and half wake. Marshall Hansen makes a speech, and while he doesn't quite have Pentecost's knack for an inspirational turn of phrase, he does pretty well. Then again, everyone's primed to be inspired. The war is over. They won. Happy endings all around, for everyone still alive.
Natasha hangs back from the crowd. She doesn't feel like celebrating and isn't entirely sure she has the right to mourn. Hansen has lost his son, for god's sake. Mako Mori lost her father. Natasha lost… a piece of her childhood. A friend. Possibly the last person in the world who truly understood the things that had made Natsha Romanoff into the Black Widow. It seems unfair, to compare her loss to the others. And yet, she's the only person here, possibly the only person left in the world, who remembers Sasha Kaidonovsky as anything other than a Jaeger pilot.
Bulatova, a stubborn voice whispers at the back of her head. Alexandra Sergeyevna Bulatova. Natasha is probably the only person left in the world to remember that, too.
"Hey." There's a soft bump against her shoulder and Natasha looks up to see Clint standing next to her chair, holding a shot glass of vodka in each hand. "You look like you could use a drink." He hands one of the glasses to Natasha, lifts the other one himself. "We're supposed to be drinking to victory, apparently." He sounds like he's trying very hard not to be bitter. His and Kate's Jaeger was decommissioned sixteen months before after taking heavy damage in battle. There had been money enough to fix Gipsy Danger or Hawkeye, but not both. Natasha can't make herself feel sorry. If Clint had been out there, he'd probably be dead too, and she's lost too many friends already.
Natasha stares at the glass in her hand for a moment, then closes her eyes.
"To Cherno Alpha," she says, and knocks back the shot.