Before Natasha, there is Natashenka, bug-eyed and gap-toothed. Not happy, not quite, but content. Natashenka doesn’t know that there are people eating caviar from golden plates, elsewhere. Natashenka doesn’t miss what she doesn’t know.
She learns, later on.
Mother, father, sister. They leave her and she learns, hunger gnawing at her belly, fear biting at her spine.
Love is for children. Regimes fall every day.
What counts, in the end, is the red. Red on her head, hair that makes men go crazy, makes them go careless. Red like the bra that hides a piano wire and a knife, that leads to cold cash in her hand.
Red under her nails, scraped clean with the tip of a knife, on her boots, on her skin, like freckles.
Red in her ledger.
Red on the floor.
Red is the trade, red is what she sells. Red is what she has to offer. Red, red, red. She learns, even though the stains never quite come out.
The first thing Hawkeye says when they finally meet face to face is, “You have blue eyes.”
Tony Stark is born in winter and no-one he ever tells finds that unfitting.
He is born in winter to a woman in love with saving souls and a man in love with taking lives. He hangs somewhere between them, for a while, a balance to their scales, until he tips over, comes down on the wrong side.
He builds weapons not because he wants death but because he wants love and he is aware, in the darker parts of his heart and the quietest corners of his mind, that there are wires crossed, somewhere.
His mother looks at him with hollow eyes and he gets angry, asks her what her charity is worth, if she pays for it with blood money.
That is the first and only time she slaps him.
He tells Steve, once, drunk and so tired of his own face staring back at him from the mirror, “World War II? Was a joke compared to what I built.” He gives a finger wave. “These hands, Cap. Hands of a genius. The bombs I built make Hitler look like a school yard bully.”
Steve, sober and solemn, takes his glass from him and blocks his reflection in the door of the fridge. Says, “I know.”
Says also, “It’s okay.”
Absolution, Tony mouths, soundlessly, and looks away.
Bruce is normal. Bruce is average. Bruce is the guy you pass on the street without looking twice.
Bruce works long and hard for that. Works until he forgets his father’s teeth glinting in the dark, his mother’s screams, the rage, blind and vicious, that he tucked away, deep down. Out of fear. Never turn into daddy. Never let go.
“You’re better than him, Bruce,” his mother says, and dies.
Now, twenty years later, his rage has its own body, its own mind, a name. It glows from the depth of his eyes, chews at the ragged edges of his soul and tears down cities.
And then it sinks back into his skin, settles into the dark corners to wait for its next chance. It’s next taste of freedom.
Bruce is normal. Bruce is average. Bruce is the guy you pass on the street , that will turn around and rip your fucking head off if you bump into him the wrong way.
Bruce is the man his mother feared all her life.
Bruce is his father.
So Bruce puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.
Sometimes, in the dead of night, Loki Odinson dreams of snow. Great blizzards and old ice, the colour of the Asgard summer sky at dusk.
He tells Mother once, and she purses her lips, tells him to go play with Thor. That night, Odin asks him about his dreams and he shrugs, weary of his father’s solemn eye, boring into him.
“They are just dreams, Father.”
“Nothing is ever only a dream, son,” Odin returns.
Later, when he dreams of fire and magic, of entrails binding him to rock, of his children’s cries in the dark, Odin’s words haunt him, terrorize him. Still he gives the Allfather every single one of his little ones, trying to buy love with love. With life.
Love is for children, the red girl says, but she misunderstands.
Love doesn’t disappear when you grow older. It doesn’t die. It twists, until the weight of it shatters you and scatters your shards across the realms.
Love is not for children and dreams are never just dreams. Make of that what you will. Loki is otherwise occupied.
They don’t tell you about the blood and the dying and the pain when you enlist. They don’t tell you about how there are people starving in the streets but you can’t afford to give them your rations. They don’t tell you how you fight and fight and fight and there are still more of the enemy coming. They don’t tell you how you run out of food and ammo and hope.
They should, Steve thinks, in 1940something, raises his gun only to have it click empty, rolls his shield around his left shoulder, hefts it. He thinks of his mother, five years dead, and wonders if she is watching over him. Wonders what she thinks of him now.
He wanted war and they gave it to him.
“Careful what you wish for,” she used to tell him often when he was a kid, bedridden and wishing he could be strong, so strong.
“Careful what you wish for,” he murmurs in the ruins of Manhattan, remembering a stray thought before the ice, as the plane came down. I wish I had more time.
Tony claps him on the back hard and the Hulk roars. Natasha fiddles with one of those little phones everyone has and Clint makes a joke Steve doesn’t understand.
He got more time. He got a second chance.
They don’t tell you what war is really like when you enlist. They don’t tell you that war never changes.
They don’t tell you that if you sink deep enough, wishes curdle and war is the only comfort you have left.
He thinks they should.
Well, what he thinks is, Yes, Ma.
Bang, Clint mimes and mouths, firing suction arrows at passersby from his nest up in the tent’s scaffolding.
“Argh, stop that damn shootin’,” one of the acrobats snaps, eyes narrowed. Clint shoots him in the forehead.
The man snarls, runs for the ropes and starts weaving his way up to where the boy sits, small and vicious with his child’s weapons.
“You just wait,” the threat comes and Clint giggles and drops his bow by accident, watches it fall with a grimace. Then he stands, runs along the beam he was perched on, flips down to a lower level, holding on to a random piece of rope for stability. He jumps and flips and rolls until his feet hit the soft, dusty ground, rushes for his bow, flings himself sideways and shoots the acrobat in the face. Again.
“I’m a superhero!” he crows at the bystanders, who smile. The clowns applaud, their painted faces twisted in laughter.
Bang, he thinks twenty years later, counts to three, detonates the arrow. There are screams instead of applause and the only face paint anywhere is red.
Natasha is warmth at his back, a cut on her leg bleeding sluggishly.
Bang, he thinks, and another five people die.
For Thor, childhood is never about his mother, or his father. From almost the very beginning, it is about Loki.
Loki, Loki, Loki. Brother, friend, companion, partner in crime.
It is Loki he seeks to please, Loki he seeks to amuse.
If he were given a choice, if his brother just told him, he would stand by him. How could Loki ever think… Thor would stand by him, because it has always been Loki. He loves their parents, but Loki…
Loki never asks and so Thor tries to tell him, every time they meet on the battlefield.
“Loki,” he starts.
“Thor,” his brother mocks, smirking sharply.
Loki tightens his hold on his spear, snarls. “Do you ever stop whimpering?” he demands.
So angry, so alone.
“Loki,” Thor tries to tell him. Tries every single time.
He thinks his brother knows what he wants to say. He thinks that is why he never lets him.
Phil joins the Navy directly out of high school, becomes a Marine, fights for his country. Wins, too, most of the time. He does his job, never sticks out, never toes out of line.
He is the good soldier. It bores him to tears, even as it makes the General proud as a peacock. The living room at the Coulsons’ is plastered over with pictures of Phil in uniform, right next to those of his old man.
It’s that, more than anything, that keeps him going for ten years until, one night, a stranger with an eyepatch finds him in a bar and offers him a chance to think for himself. To stick out. To work outside the rigid order that’s been choking him.
He tells the General he’s working for a private security firm.
“Night guard,” the old man snorts, waspishly.
Phil doesn’t correct him, can’t and never will. “I’m happy,” he says at the dinner table.
His mother pats his hand, smiles at him. “That’s what matters,” she agrees, but there is something unsure in her eyes as she looks at the General. “Isn’t it George?”
A grunt is the only answer they get. Phil leaves with a container full of leftovers and returns only for Thanksgivings, until, one year, Pepper catches him in late October, says, “You’re coming, too, right? Steve is cooking. He promised us enough turkey to feed even Thor.”
Phil calls his mother to make his apologies and asks Pepper what he should bring.