One crisis averted and ten more arise. Natasha is a good agent; she knows this is how it works. No sooner is the final repair been completed on the Helicarrier than Fury begins summoning them all. Natasha, Barton, Captain Rogers, and Banner are the only ones that show up regularly. Clint and Natasha because it’s their job, Steve because he wants a job, Banner to make apologies for Stark.
The first time, though, Natasha calls Steve to check in and give him a head’s up about Fury.
“He doesn’t exaggerate, he’s just very sincere about what needs to be done. He knows you’ve got a handle on the situation, but even so he’ll speak to you like you’ve just finished basic training sometimes.”
“Well, that’s kind of true.” She can almost hear his smirk.
He shows up in full armor the next day. “You know, I should have told you to wear street clothes. Even with the Asgardian around you’re rather conspicuous.”
“I’m sincere too,” he says and grins.
It becomes a routine. Natasha gets the intel before it becomes intel, and then she calls Steve.
It is never once spoken about in person, but Natasha knows that on the battlefield Captain America used to give rather than take orders. SHIELD is still keeping him on a short leash, providing him only with domestic assignments and being cagey about the details. Fury’s still calling it an adjustment period. Natasha is pretty damn sure that was rendered null and void when half the Helicarrier exploded. So when she hears rumors that SHIELD may become involved in the neutralization of a radical terrorist group with Soviet ties, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Here’s your chance to see more of Europe,” she says.
They’re holed up in a cabin in the Czech Republic, far removed from any city but close to the target’s ill-conceived complex. (She privately thinks they must have based it off some old Soviet pulp the chief engineer was fond of.) It is snowing. Natasha has just finished recon and her breath is forming long white clouds, pale against the gray sky. She and Steve have set up a security radius that extends five miles out, so when she reaches the front door she’s able to knock. It all reminds her of a year during her childhood when she had a use for the word “home.” It reminds her of James. If it reminds Steve of anything, she does not ask. After all, those phone calls had only ever been about the mission at hand. But for days she’s been thinking of sleds, skates, frozen pools, and the cup of hot borscht that would be waiting for her whenever she made it back inside.
They told stories that winter too. Folk tales, old family lore about the long gone days of luxury. She still tells all kinds of stories, but they are very rarely about Natasha Romanoff. Loki had been an exception; the story was the price for Clint’s safety, the price for protecting SHIELD’s assets. Others have had to learn about her in different ways. Fury had dossier after dossier and an assassination attempt, Clint had a savage kick to the head and a mouth full of blood. But even all that had been part of the Widow’s work.
When they have few hours to rest in between preparations, she does not say My name is Natasha, I spent most of my life in the company of sadists and murderers, I have killed and killed and killed. Instead, she tells him about the evolution of SHIELD after he went into the ice. She tells him what she knows about Fury’s climb to the top (she doesn’t even have clearance for those files, but they were once presented to her in a sealed envelope long before she ever started working for SHIELD). She explains the typical response pattern to incidents of international terrorism. She’s aware that she’s centering the entire conversation on the job again, but for years it’s been the only thing she knows how to talk about.
Natasha tells Steve about the Cold War. It is an impersonal account, of course. She sticks to the highlights: the planned economy, the Curtain, Khrushchev spitting on Stalin, the Space Race. That last one is hardly impressive to a man who has already seen the sky ooze open to reveal another world, but he still asks her if those photos of the men on the moon’s surface are a hoax. She laughs out loud and says “For the sake of my career, I certainly hope not.” Natasha isn’t sure when she started being able to joke about such things, but she blames Steve’s influence. She’ll be the first to admit he’s actually quite funny.
“For the sake of my career, I’m just glad war bonds don’t exist anymore.”
“Oh, but you had quite the stage presence. I saw the footage.”
Steve’s face is caught somewhere between a grimace and weary smile. It strikes her that in all those phone calls she never once asked him what Steve Rogers thinks about the world to which he’s awakened. It’s a force of habit: she can find out what she wants know about someone via SHIELD’s vast resources. Or fighting them. He has had the pain of time stripped from him and replaced with the pain of absence. Natasha can remember every excruciating moment of the Red Room’s manipulations, each brief respite tainted by the knowledge that it would never persist, but she thinks it would have been worse if it had all been fragmented, her chronology broken into pieces and reassembled into another instrument of torment.
She imagines it: falling asleep that winter in her childhood before all the death, waking with nothing to bind her, waking again to blood and pain. Made and unmade. James never appeared mad to her, but she considers that he was an expert in concealing things.
The only furniture in the cabin aside from their SHIELD issued cots is an old wooden table and few chairs left by the previous owners. Steve sits across from her, his palms pressed flat against the stained and scratched surface. The cabin is a small structure, and when he stands his head nearly scrapes the lowest beams. She cannot imagine him as he was before the serum, so weak and small. So anonymous.
“Tell me about growing up in Brooklyn,” she says.
“Not much to tell, really. My parents were Irish, I grew up poor but happy. My dad was a drunk but not a cruel one. I drew pictures almost as much as I got beat up, which was a lot. Bucky and I would cut class and go to Dodgers games.”
Natasha does not ask who Bucky is. Fury has made it clear that on that subject she is to remain ignorant, no matter what Rogers may say. Natasha had accepted this without argument, though she can’t ignore the twinge in her stomach at the mention of the name. She asks a different question instead. And then another.
“Did you always want to be a soldier?”
“No. But one day it became the only thing I wanted. Like they say, be careful what you wish for.”
“What else did you wish for?”
Half a week passes and they’re making the final preparations to infiltrate the complex. Natasha’s observations have provided them the necessary details: lapses in security, potential hindrances—human and otherwise. When the Czech government asked SHIELD to intervene, they stressed their primary aim was taking out the group’s leader, a well-known demagogue and military commander directly responsible for many of the 1968 invasion’s brutalities. Fury bluntly suggested the operation may not be so precise.
But what does the Super Soldier know about espionage? Natasha laid the groundwork, scouted their contacts in Prague and Kladno—men who’ve grown tired of idealism and slaughter, each of them ready to re-enter the democratic Republic’s good graces. (Natasha has learned it often helps when she’s mistaken for C.I.A.) Still, they scare easily; it is Natasha alone who meets with them—Steve’s presence would only raise their anxieties and lead to unwanted questions. He understands, of course, though he’s been cooped up far more than he prefers. It has, however, given him the opportunity to study the profile of each member of the organization, most of them ex-KGB or former Czech secret police. Steve Rogers became a soldier when the battle lines were starkly drawn and the guise of the enemy instantly recognizable—this man is a German with a gun and one of you will shoot the other and one of you may die. That too has changed, though Natasha knows Steve is not so ignorant as to believe it was truly that simple. He must learn to expect rather than fear that ambiguity, but the Super Solider will be needed again soon enough; it’s time to start warming up. She’s not surprised when he suggests they get in some practice in before the main event.
They’ve both dressed for the occasion in loose layers that swish as they move. That sound and their panting breaths are the only things that break the winter day’s silence except for the slice of the shield through cold air. It’s hard for her to jump over or roll away from it because her feet keep getting pulled down by the snow, but somehow she manages, though it nearly makes contact more often than she would like. They do a bit of hand to hand as well. He hits hard and he’s quick, but she’s quicker, decades of muscle memory proving superior to the serum. His true advantage is his size. Things are more frenzied than they should be for a simple sparring match, but Natasha will never forget how the commanders of the Red Room would drag them all out into the cold and make them fight for hours, often in clothes that could hardly be considered weather appropriate. James once told her to flex every muscle periodically to keep warm, and she does so now while rolls his neck and stretches. His solidity is disquieting; if Natasha’s honest with herself she’s still shaken by what happened with the Hulk. Nothing had ever made her feel so small. The Red Room wanted to make her into a vessel for all their malicious energy, but the experiment failed: the pain was supposed to be irrelevant, but what good is that against rage given physical form?
Human flesh burns, it freezes, it cracks and tears if the right pressure is applied. Steve is more than human, Natasha is a shadow. And yet somehow they are evenly matched. She has him in a head lock and he’s yanking at her calf with one of his hands, trying to pull her off. She releases her grip and snaps back, using the momentum to pull him to the ground. The snow flies up around them on impact.
“Enough,” he says and laughs. It’s getting dark.
She rolls over and tosses a handful of snow in his face. He reaches out drags her towards him, grabbing at the ground with his other hand, and her legs kick wildly. He stuffs a ball of compacted snow down her collar.
“Here, let me help you with that,” she says, watching him try in vain to yank off his boot. She’s exhausted and Captain America is having trouble getting out of his own boots. Everything is hilarious. She kneels down and grips the top, pulls it down his shin and tosses it aside. She glances up at his face. He’s looking at her with barely concealed anxiety. Her hand is still on his leg; she slides it up to his thigh and pushes herself upright.
“Heroics are not the thing, I think, for tomorrow.”
His brow furrows. He knows she means it.
“I think we—” he begins, but she cuts him off by shaking her head.
“Who do you think I am, Steve? I was a child. I never had the chance to be anything else.”
“It’s different now. You’re going to prevent a lot of innocent people from being hurt or killed. We put a stop to what they’re doing and everyone will be much safer.”
He’s still sitting in the chair in his wet clothes, water from the melted snow dripping into a growing puddle on the floor. She is standing very close. And in a moment her great physical control seems to evaporate and suddenly she’s yanking his shirt over his impossibly huge shoulders and pressing herself against him. Her lips are on his neck. He’s tense as steel. His hands settle on her waist for a few seconds then fly off like she’s turned to flame.
“Natasha,” he says.
He had the chance to be remade.
“I am not what—”
“You wanted to be someone else so you changed. You don’t have to tell me everything yet, Natasha.”
Made and unmade. She pulls herself back.
“I wanted to be a dancer,” she whispers.
Outside, the snow falls.
Later that night there is another knock at the door.