Natasha goes to a Kurdish restaurant in London. She goes to the banlieues of Paris, to the back of a Syrian supermarket . She goes to a small store that sells mezuzahs in Mexico City. She goes to a Ukrainian bakery on Neptune Avenue, in Brooklyn. Outside, an old man holds a lira in his lap. He plays it very carefully, turning and turning the wooden handle. The wheel spins; the strings groan and hum against it. His frail hand batters like a bird's wing on the keys. He watches her, but says nothing as she enters. After a while he sings. It's an old song. It's about an eagle and a falcon, but it's about war, really.
Everywhere she goes, people know her. It's a strange feeling, being seen. Not as a woman, or a deadly weapon, but as—
She doesn't know yet.
She cuts her hair short and bleaches it out; dyes it blue, then yellow, then pink. For a while she wears wigs. Once a headscarf. In Israel, she dresses as an haredi woman, with a scarf, a dark wig, and a skirt below her knees. People's eyes skip past her on the sidewalk. She feels oddly ancient in the summer sunlight. Older than the youth of Tel Aviv, who are bare-legged, bright-skinned under the neon signage. They drink beautiful cocktails, wear delicate sandals. It's the same in Barcelona, Moscow, New York. Like vines growing over the cracks in the old stones, unfolding their effortless petals and stems, a seasonal beauty she wishes she could preserve.
She catches a bus out of the city, to a very old kibbutz. Every olive tree up in the hills looks like every other olive tree. She waits where Lev knows to find her. He hikes up the slope with a walking stick, kicking small stones out of his way. For the first time he looks elderly. His skin is thin and soft as leather. She can feel his shoulder-bones when she holds him and kisses his cheek.
They talk in Russian. He says, "What happened to secrets?"
She says, "They got away from me."
"Secrets do that!" He laughs. "Like wild little birds. You can't keep them; they always want to be free. Pecking at the cage. What will you do now?"
"I don't know."
"Well." He takes cigarettes from his pocket, shakes one out into his hand.
"You shouldn't," Natasha says.
"I don't die so easy."
"No." She watches him light the cigarette. The smell is familiar; she shuts her eyes. She feels close to tears, inexplicably. "It was good," she says. "I thought it was good. I thought— I was close to that feeling. When it stops being so hard, when you don't have to fight to keep fighting."
"Ah. But this is the dangerous country." He exhales into the air; blinks. The sun is setting, blue-glass and scarlet. "That was a lie they taught you," he says. "That it should be easy. Little bird, that's when you look for the trap. It's hard; it's hard work, but we have to do it."
"I know," she says. "I know."
They sit in silence for a while. The insects begin chirping. The wind stirs in the dry hot leaves. Far off in the distance, a goat bleats. Voices chatter. A child's laugh; a bird rising, startled from the bushes.
"How is Yonatan?" Natasha asks after the long pause.
"And his children?"
"Also well. The boy, Simcha, he's marrying an Arab. Yonatan and his wife, they think, you know, Where did we go wrong? But, so— he'll have an Arab daughter. What can he do, not love her? The mother of his grandchildren? This isn't how we do things."
"Your great-grandchildren," Natasha says, contemplating.
"Yes. What a heritage for them. Perhaps I killed their ancestors. Other great-grandfathers, great-uncles. You know? How do you make an apology?"
"You don't." She knows. They've shared that lesson.
"No." He breathes out smoke. It trails into the distance, like a ghost that can't seem to take on a shape. "No. You just love them. That's all that's left. That's all you can do."
She thinks about the children, born nescient and nameless, clutching indiscriminately at warmth with their clumsy hands. Children's eyes have no depth, like rain puddles or shallow rivers. There is nothing dangerous, no history inside of them. If only they could stay like that, like drifting clouds. The past hasn't colonized them yet, like an infection. A kind of sickness, invariably fatal, that they will go on to spread.
This is what Lev means, though. It can't be cured. It's in their blood and bone marrow. There's nothing they can do about it. They pass it on and they care for the infected. They're all sick with it. They're sick.
Then Lidia Vladimirovna, in Karachi. Her eyes are narrow and dark over a painted teacup. She wears a veil. Her nails are sharp and red. "What are you looking for?" she asks. "You're still in the business? But you plucked out all your feathers, little bird. Better to stay on the ground, where you landed."
"I'm afraid that's not an option," Natasha says. The tea is hot and sweet and acrid. They're in a courtyard. A fountain stands pouring and pouring itself out on tiles. The water has a clean lemon scent.
"So." Lidia Vladimirovna's mouth is a thin line. "You run around, collecting new feathers."
"For you, it's the same."
"For everyone in the business. Don't you think?"
How deadly they are, sitting there together. The soles of their Louboutin shoes are red, and their mouths are red, and they eat little tea cakes. Each of them has toppled a government in her time. It's easy enough to do if you have the right training.
"Do you like Karachi?" Natasha asks.
Lidia Vladimirovna says, "Yes. I like a city that's so naked about itself. Here the violent are violent and the wealthy are wealthy. There is a lot of instability. It's good for business. Yet I can live as I like. You see the luxury. And I enjoy listening to the cricket."
She doesn't say that she has a husband, a Pashtun art scholar, who teaches at the university. Their marriage has been kept very quiet. But Natasha knows how to dig these things up. Do they love each other, she wonders. They must. Hard to imagine Lidia Vladimirovna with a weakness. But love is a weakness. Does the Pashtun art scholar know what Lidia Vladimirovna did in Grozny? In Angola?
Now everyone Natasha meets can know her in a instant— can know the salient facts, at least. S.H.I.E.L.D. had debriefed her very thoroughly. The transcripts and videos will always be out there.
—Her name was Ona Sergeevna. She had black hair. She liked birds. We knew she wouldn't survive, because she cried in her sleep. We could always tell the ones who were weaker. Their bodies betrayed them. They dreamed. They flinched. I didn't flinch.
—Can you describe the process for us?
—It wasn't a process. We fought. They gave the order. It wasn't hard. It's not hard to kill a little girl.
—No, it's not. Is it.
It had been Nick, the first person she'd told that story to. He'd made her tell him each death that she remembered. She hadn't understood why; not then. She'd gotten impatient: it was tedious, the long recitation. The same story, repeated over and over: I broke her neck. I cut her throat. I sealed the windows and set the fire. I don't know how many. It wasn't hard. It wasn't hard. It wasn't hard. I didn't flinch. Three quarters of the way through, she'd started crying. She hadn't known why. It hadn't been shame or any other emotion. She hadn't felt anything at all, for a very long time. It was something in Nick's face. He had kept his eye on her, very steady, never looking away, just watching her, seeing her, every part of her, each atom. She had never been seen like that.
Where is Nick now? Pursuing Hydra, in hiding. It's hard for her to think about him. She doesn't know what she feels; she feels— she remembers him dying. His covered forehead under her hand. They don't touch each other much; it's not what they do. But she'd thought: They're going to put him in the ground. She hadn't been able to stand it. It was the first time, maybe, that she'd really, wholly understood why she'd cried, all those years ago.
It's a weakness, of course. Knowing that. It's why she's stayed away.
Lidia Vladimirovna eyes her thoughtfully. She lifts her cup and takes a genteel sip. "And you, Natashenka, how do you like nowhere?"
Natasha finishes her tea. She looks down into the cup. She can see no shape spelled out in leaves, just dark bits slightly too bitter to taste. "It's the same," she says, "as it's always been."
She hears about Rogers and Wilson. They're making a lot of noise. Their quarry, on the other hand, seems to be more-or-less silent.
Don't get involved, she reminds herself. Don't go down that road.
It's not that she doesn't want to save James Barnes. But she's tried to save a lot of people in her life. Or: people have tried to save other people from her. She's seen it a lot, is the point she's making. She knows the odds. She knows how easy death is, and how much harder it is to live.
She watches them once, on a train out of Gare du Nord. Her hair is black and she sits a long distance away. She just wants to be sure... Anyway, there's no chance they'll see her, not unless she wants to be seen.
They look comfortable. They've always looked comfortable with each other. Laughing; talking. When the train's cleared Paris, Steve drowses on Sam's shoulder. He turns his face towards Sam's throat, mouth open in sleep. Sam's expression is tender and painful to witness. He touches Steve's hair, too lightly to wake him. All of his laughter has fallen away. He looks at Steve like Steve's a precious object, something rare that he fears might break, something he's barely holding together.
Natasha wonders if they're— but it doesn't really matter. What's important is that they're not alone. They're people who can't be alone. They have to be with other people. She used to think that Steve couldn't really be like that. How could he be who he is, and survive, being like that? But now she knows he is; she's seen him make a weapon of compassion, his refusal to kill, his will for another person to live.
Sam, she thinks, has a similar power. Maybe that's what drew Steve to him: the sense of that sustaining force, someone who could give life to him, and who wanted to be given life in return. Someone else with open hands. It was good that they had found each other.
She doesn't know what it's like to be sustained by another. She has always been a closed system.
She meets Clint in Los Angeles, at the top of the Standard. They're high-profile now; no point hiding it. Might as well enjoy the sunlight, the luxury, the cocktails. She picks a drink at random, something electrically green.
"You didn't call me," Clint says.
"You were out of the country."
"You didn't call me after."
"I was out of the country."
"Now I'm in the country again."
"I mean, Jesus."
"I'm sorry I gave all your secrets away."
They don't care about him, though— the public— or not so much: they care about her, the seductress with Russian-red hair, the traitor, the double (or is it triple?) agent, the woman who can never be trusted. She'd known they would. She'd known what it meant; that she and Nick would take the blame.
Clint rubs his face. He looks really tired. Too tired for the playful furnishings, the pool. "Guess I'm still just getting used to it," he says. "How are you doing? With all this?"
"Oh... all right." Her voice sounds brittle.
He studies her. "You talked to Nick since?"
"I've been busy."
"Yeah, I bet."
"I'm trying to stay alive, Clint. It's busy work."
"You don't have to tell me that. Nat. Hey." He nudges her arm. She doesn't react. "You don't have to tell me that," he says.
"I really am sorry," she says. "For everything."
They don't talk about Hydra. She thinks he can't really grasp it, the scale of it, how bad it was in those last days. He'd heard about it after, remotely: no detail. It was like friends of his had died or gone away. He hadn't had to face them, realizing the depth of the deception, the rage involved, or the lack of rage— the lack of interest that was worse, the mercenary killing. Pierce in his suit, so reasonable, so elegant, unconcerned about all of the dropping bodies.
She'd thought to herself: who will account for these deaths? She meant account as Nick had held her to account. It shouldn't have made such a difference, but it did. Someone ought to have to say their names, every one, the names of the Hydra and the S.H.I.E.L.D. dead. It would never occur to Pierce, she thought, to know those names. That was what separated him from Nick.
She has no name now, Tovarisch Privolova had told her. The dead have no names.
As though they weren't real; as though they had never existed.
She has business in New York, at the World Security Council. It goes about as well as you'd expect. What they want are answers, which she can't provide. How does evil grow in the world? How do we protect against it? Why do we do bad things? Who are we supposed to trust now? That's what they want to know. That's what it boils down to. And: I don't know. I don't know, she says.
They have new files for her to look at, full of old pictures. Nick and Pierce in the Seventies: in Latveria during the military coup, and in Iran; at a Fourth of July barbecue: Pierce's summer house on Nantucket. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark are in the frame. Natasha's glad that Steve isn't here for this. Tony, too, has gone to Paris, or Berlin, someplace on the Continent: out of the limelight. She hasn't talked to him at all.
There's a building out in Queens where they're keeping what they call, as though it's a court case, the "evidence." Documents, desks, steel beams, and rubble; filing cabinets and family photos; machinery; a cryostasis chamber; shipping crates. The enormity of it all, stretched out around her, makes her feel faintly sick. There's so much material; materiality, really. How could it have gone undetected?
Seagulls rattle in the rafters as she walks the aisles. She hears their gawky squabbling. There's a smell of the sea, of algae and rot.
How, how could they not have seen it?
Later she goes out to Nantucket, to where that photo was taken. A gray beach house that stands on a cliff. It's been cordoned off, so no one can get in. The wind makes the yellow crime scene tape move— though it's not a crime scene, really; or is it?
Down on the sand, the sea is shifting. Out in the yard, the weeds have grown up. The black iron grill has red-brown splotches, a kind of rust that looks like blood. The sky is colorless; the air is heavy. She slips past the house and sits on the back porch. Nick had stood here once, and he had been laughing. Stark, who is dead now. History was changed. Carter, her hair tied back with a ribbon.
Natasha takes the photo from her pocket. Pierce is wearing sunglasses in it. He looks straight at the camera. It's hard to read his face.
Behind her, the toe of a boot touches boards. She's alert all of a sudden, but doesn't give it away; there's a knife in her hand before the step is finished. But the angular shadow stays at a distance. Hands in pockets, face low and almost hidden underneath a cap-brim and hood. He doesn't really look like a whole person.
"Boy," she says, "Rogers sure broke you, huh?"
The Winter Soldier nods jerkily.
She doesn't know why she spoke to him in English. Why she put that sarcasm into the words, like she's Natasha Romanoff, not Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Natasha Romanoff, she thinks, snaps bubblegum; wears sneakers. Natasha Romanoff is young, and hasn't got a lot to be afraid of. The full geography of horror isn't drilled into her. Maybe she needs Natasha Romanoff's body: without bullet holes, with a clearer, more comfortable gaze.
"You here for me?" she asks.
He half-shakes his head, head still down and turned away.
"For Pierce?" she guesses. "You know, he's already dead."
His eyes flicker to hers, raw and burning, for an instant. "No body."
"No. But Nick shot him. I saw. Then the helicarrier. They found— pieces." She feels her mouth curve in distaste. It's not the state of the body she minds; it's the messiness of it, open-ended. Like him, she would prefer to be certain.
His hollow face is without expression. He says, "Pieces can be detached."
"He was old. He wouldn't have survived it."
"You'd be surprised what people can survive."
She looks at him for a long time. "No. I wouldn't."
He doesn't respond. She turns her gaze to the gray ocean. The wind rucks the waves up in repeating lines. She feels the hilt of the knife in her hand. She won't need it, she thinks; he isn't the dead-eyed boy she remembers, the ghost in black leather. She could kill him. He is vulnerable now.
"It's over," she says at last. "Just let it be over."
What she wants to say is: You will never find the body. All of Pierce will never be dead. There will always be more pieces: a photograph you find, a turn of phrase you recognize, a sudden flash of memory, a dream you have. Like grief, but not grief: same kingdom, different phylum. An absence that keeps on breeding and breeding. A weed in a garden whose roots are chthonic. You'll spend your whole life pulling those weeds.
What she wants to say is: But you have your own body now. That's a lot; that's already so much, so much. Cut your losses.
The Winter Soldier says nothing. His eyes touch the photograph she's holding, then slide uncomfortably away. He jerks one shoulder in the photo's direction. "I. Can I."
Natasha offers the photograph up. He hesitates before touching it. She gets a good look at his metal hand, though the sleeve of his jacket droops over his knuckles. It looks just like a hand, as though there might still be a real hand, right under the surface. She knows that's not true. It's a mistake to look for some authentic component, as though what remains of his flesh (she remembers the photos in the file, the skin and meat of his shoulder pulled back— don't look, she'd wanted to tell Steve, please don't look—) is somehow more really real for being organic. As though the soul has a natural body; as though there is a soul, under the skin: a secret self, impervious, atomic, and whole... As though all you have to do is keep digging and digging.
That metal hand scrapes the photo, over Howard Stark's face. The Winter Soldier makes a sound: something abraded out of him. It sounds more mechanical than it does human. Natasha doesn't look at him; she doesn't need to, she tells herself. She knows that kind of sound and she knows where it comes from.
Welcome to the country, she thinks, of those who flinch.
On the ferry, she tells him: "You could come back. If you wanted."
He shakes his head. He's wearing sunglasses now, under the hood and baseball cap, as though he wants to hide as much as he can of his skin, as though he doesn't want even the sun to touch him. "No."
"Rogers is looking for you."
"So are other people."
"What, you think he can't take 'em?"
He turns abruptly away from her. He's clenching and unclenching his hands in his pockets. "I'd rather be dead."
Natasha watches him carefully, but he just leans against the railing, scuffing one boot against the boat-deck. "All right," she says, neutral.
"They made me—" He's struggling to get the words out, breathing hard. "They made me to hurt him. Even after he was— They enjoyed it. So how can I— you know what I mean?"
She doesn't have anything to say to that. In the bunker, when she was trying to sleep, she had heard Steve crying, or not exactly crying. Just sucking in breaths with a raw end of noise, an unfinished, animal swallow of pain. Her impulse was not to comfort him, but to put him out of his misery. That was the kind of noise it was. It could have no comfort. Then his face in the graveyard, when she'd— God— handed him the file. No wonder the Winter Soldier still feels like he's a weapon. Like he's poisoned, maybe; fulfilling his purpose.
After a while he says, "Who was the other one? The man I killed."
"You'll have to be more—"
"The mission. Before. The man in the car."
"Nick Fury." She'd thought he'd known. "Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Well, ex-director. You didn't kill him."
His head jerks. "But they said—"
"I know. But Nick's hard to kill. Sorry to mess up your record."
Silence. She watches his mouth move, twisting with some strong emotion. When he speaks again, his voice sounds wet. "Good, that's— good."
One man against the mountain of the dead, diminishing that number by a microgesture. It hardly matters. But Natasha thinks about Nick lying shrouded on that table. What had scared her was that it hadn't been him. It had just been an object, an accumulation of parts that had no particular meaning. And she had told him the names, all of the names, and she didn't think that she could ever say them again. He had been the only one who could judge her value, like a jeweler who turned his eye and lens to cataloguing defects in a stone, but who kept insisting, nevertheless, on its preciousness. He had told her, You got a lot of life left in you, Romanoff. Only question is: what are you going to do with that life? She had been curled on her side on a thin S.H.I.E.L.D. cot, her knees pressed up against her chest, voice wrung out and raw from so much confession. Don't suppose you've got any ideas, she'd said. And he'd grinned that grin that promised trouble, that unexpected, almost little-boy grin, and he'd said, Matter of fact, I just might.
(She'd thought about that later. A lot of life left in you. Not a lot of life before you, not a lot of life left to live, which made life sound like an itinerary, dates and locations, a mission. You could show up or not; life went on without you. A lot of life left in you— it was yours, this allotment, somehow powered by your body: an energy you pushed into the world through your skin. You were an engine of life, in this schema. She'd found that she liked the idea of it.)
"Yes," she says to the Winter Soldier. "It's good. It's a beginning."
As they disembark, he says, "Don't tell Rogers?"
"I can give you a head start," Natasha says. "The thing is, he's my friend."
Haltingly, he nods. Then turns to go.
"Hey." Impulsively, she wants to reach out— grab hold of his shoulder or his wrist. But she doesn't think that he would let her. So she keeps her hands in her coat pockets. "It's a big deal," she says. "Being alive. You're not a ghost anymore. You've got to make good on it."
He shifts his mouth in a way that might be a smile. "Still crawling out of the grave," he says.
She watches him go. There's fog. It's started raining. He slopes off into the white wet mist, looking maybe three-quarters human.
Fuck you, Nick, for not being here, she thinks, which is unfair. You would have known what to say. You would have done a better job of this.
After she calls Rogers, she calls Hill, whom she's always scorned slightly (too much time behind a desk). To her surprise, it's good to hear Hill's voice. She has to hang on to her phone for a minute, because she's breathless; it's like going back in time.
"It's Romanoff," Natasha says. "I'm trying to get ahold of Fury."
"Oh, hey, Natasha." Hill is so warm-sounding; it's deceptive. She always sounds so ordinary. "Hang on for a minute; I'll give you the encryption."
There's the busy percussion of fingertips typing. Natasha listens. She hears Pepper Potts' voice in the background: a questioning tone, an ornamental laugh. She'd liked Potts, when they had worked together, but found her baffling: like modern art, blank white canvases or clean squares of color. There was something she admired about its composition; it was beautiful, but hard to understand.
"How've you been?" Hill says after a moment. "He tried to get in touch with you—"
"I needed some time," Natasha says.
Hill gives her the encryption and the number, and doesn't ask any more questions.
Natasha jots the information down.
Hill hesitates, then says, "If you're in New York, I can always use help here. And, you know, with the hearings and everything, it's just— it would just be good to see you."
Natasha stands facing the white wall in her latest apartment. For some reason she reaches out and touches it. She can see where past tenants have painted over, but badly. There are fingerprints and little drips; there are dips where nail-holes are not quite covered. She scuffs at one of them, flaking the paint off. She wonders how long you have to live in a place before you leave some kind of mark. She has never managed.
In the end she tells Hill, "I'll think about it."
Fury picks their meeting spot, which is the Reflecting Pool.
Natasha rolls her eyes, on the phone with him: "Really?"
"Well," he says reasonably, "no one's going to kill us there."
"They tried to take you out in the middle of the street!"
"The street is not a national monument, Romanoff."
"I'm bringing an extra sidearm," she says, "just in case."
He laughs, long and low. "I was kind of counting on that."
She doesn't care much for the American cult of nostalgia, the longing for some cleaner, less embellished past. Their false monuments, white as a dream of the Romans... and the statue of Lincoln, rather like one of Lenin: enormous, featureless, fierce-eyebrowed. Still, she has to admit that the pool itself, early on a Monday, is oddly restful. The water looks dark and almost depthless; the air is still fresh, not yet turned to a swamp. And she, in this moment, is no one, nobody— wearing yoga pants and her blonde hair pinned back, with bright pink stripes on the sides of her sneakers and silver barrettes. She looks like a housewife; a waitress; an intern.
"It suits you," Nick says from the shadows.
"What does?" She pauses; pretends to be out of breath. She's still not used to him without the eyepatch.
"The whole look. Suburbia."
"No, it doesn't."
"No, it doesn't."
They sit at the side of the pool.
"So," Nick says.
Natasha says, "So."
"Tried to reach you."
"I heard. I was... re-nesting. Since my old nest got burned down."
She's aware he's waiting, not pushing her too hard. She hasn't really looked at him. It's harder than she thought; she feels... tongue-tied. Angry, maybe. "I ran into the Winter Soldier," she says. "He seems— neutralized, for a given definition."
"Thought Rogers and Wilson were tracking him down."
"You can imagine how that's going." She sniffs. It's theatrics. "Steve hasn't tracked anyone since the Second World War. You should've seen him when we were on the run. I've met walruses with more tradecraft."
"It's a good thing he's got you, then."
"Is that what you wanted?" She looks at him hard, and she feels her calm breaking. "Was that always your endgame? Is that why you went to him? Is that why you trusted him marginally more— I mean, not a lot, but just that little bit; you still didn't tell him you were alive, you couldn't trust him that much, but you went to him for protection, you went to his house when you were dying, you—" Her voice is shaking.
He touches her hand. "Natasha."
She shakes her head. "Don't try to play me, Nick! You said it yourself: you didn't trust us. You didn't trust me."
"I knew they'd try to get to him. Didn't know how much damage they might do."
"But not me. They'd never get to me."
"No," he says on an exhale. "They wouldn't get to you. Not like that."
"So, what? I was a triple agent all along? All the way back to the Red Room. Leviathan. Or maybe they just bought me back. Offered me amnesty if I sold you out."
"That's not the issue. Natasha."
There's a long silence.
"You know how long I knew him?" he asks at last. "Alex Pierce. He wasn't always Mr. Secretary. He was— like Rogers, really. Just really good. Kind of felt like he was just made that way. To where you didn't want to tell him all the details; you just wanted to do the dirty work, so he wouldn't have to. So he wouldn't know what the world was really like, because you wanted there to be just one person who didn't know, just one person who you managed to keep clean. You know how that is."
Yes. She knows. Steve... you might not want to pull on that thread. She'd tried really hard to keep him away. She'd wanted so badly to protect him.
"... So that was Alex." Nick says. "For twenty-five, thirty years, that was Alex."
Natasha does look at him then. She sees the minute flicker of pain. "I'm sorry," she says. It seems like the thing to say, somehow. She's not sure what to do. She's not used to seeing Nick in pain. It's a part of this new world, and she's unschooled in its navigation.
"No use dwelling on it now," he says, a little brusquely.
"You always say that." She finds the familiarity comforting. He's not dressed in black— dark trousers, brown blazer— and he's got the sunglasses now, but he's still the same; the same Nick who had never let her say sorry. He'd insisted it wasn't a question of sorry. Sorry didn't make problems go away.
"Only one way to move, and that's forwards."
"You always say that, too." She sighs, the abrupt anger gone. "Maybe we're still crawling out of the grave."
He gives her a quizzical look.
"That's what the Winter Soldier said. He said he was still crawling out of the grave. I told him I'd give him a head start before I sicced Rogers on him."
Nick hmms thoughtfully. "That boy has got a ways."
"He tried to kill you."
"Not like it's not uncommon."
"I thought he had killed you." She doesn't know how to say this, but she tries. "I thought you were dead, Nick. I don't think I could've forgiven him, if— and he shot me. Well, he shot me twice. But it's not the same. I don't think I could've forgiven him."
Nick looks at her with measured seriousness. He takes off his sunglasses, and she can see that steady, watchful eye. He says calmly, like it's not even in question, "You would have. Eventually. You would've gotten there."
"Why?" Her breath is ragged. "How do you know? What makes you so sure?"
"Because you're practical. You've always been practical, Natasha. You know there's no point to grudges. There's only one place for the past."
"Behind us," she whispers. This too is familiar. She used to picture the past as a growing pit, one she struggled to fill endlessly with just a shovel and two hands. The point was: the pit would never be filled. All she could do was start building instead. But now the buildings are all in ruins. So much work. So many years. Such care. She could weep; she feels exhausted. She's not ready to start over. She doesn't know if she can do it. She says as much to Nick.
She expects him to say, No other choice, or maybe point out that you have to break things, when you know there's a warp in how they're made, or even point out that it's not really starting over— it's the same war that they've always been fighting. It will always be the same war, and they will always be fighting. Only their circumstances have changed, will change.
But he doesn't. He says, "You can, you know. I mean, I know you know, but sometimes... Sometimes, someone else's got to say it. I don't say it enough, maybe. You'll do just fine. I know you. Natasha."
She doesn't know how to respond. She bites her lip; ever-so-slightly averting her gaze.
"I thought you were dead, too," he says. "For a second there. You can't do that to me again. I'm an old man."
So that gives her an out; she can laugh, and move on, though her lungs feel heavy in her chest— as though she's inhaled some emotion she can't breathe out. Something that other people, maybe, would put into words; normaller people, with no murders behind them, with all their memories, who don't have to fight to exist. But if she knew the right words, in any language, they were part of the world that is now lost to her.
She had wanted him to say I'm sorry, she thinks. That's why she'd come here, though she hadn't known it. But he's right; it doesn't help at all. What matters now is moving forwards. Being alive. Making good. She's still learning how; the image comes to her, unbidden, of a child's hands shaping clay into a brick.
They sit there, she and Nick, as the air grows warmer. Birds patrol the pond's-edge, picking at worms, squabbling like little feathered fists, and sometimes floating up into the treetops. She knows she should go; it's not good tradecraft to stay too long, even early as this is. But she lets herself stay just for a moment. Nick leans back; says nothing. After a while, he puts his arm around her shoulder. Natasha looks at him: this isn't what they do. The weight is solid, though. So alive; reassuring She lets herself rest in its unfamiliar feeling. She closes her eyes and doesn't flinch.