Next time I shall die
bringing forth wings and feathers like angels
after that, soaring higher than angels
what you cannot imagine
I shall be that.
Natasha notices the woman for the first time at the shooting range: red earmuffs, black hair pulled back in a high pony tail, the woman is a terrible shot. "You should close one eye," Natasha says, slinging a towel over her shoulder and walking past her. "You'd aim better that way," and the woman gives her a look, not quite surprise but something close to it. Natasha shrugs and gives a little smile, because it's obvious the woman isn't muscle. She's intelligence, probably better for infiltrating. A cocktail spy, slipping in the darkness in a little black dress and heels.
The second time Natasha sees her, it's when some rookie agent is trying block Natasha's path, throwing out one arm in front of her and leaning forward, intimately.
"Baby, I can show you a great time," he says, and he flashes Natasha a smile, one that's completely naive to the things Natasha can do and the things Natasha's already done, and before Natasha can bat her eyes and cut the man to pieces with a few choice words, she feels a hand press gently against her shoulder.
"Sorry love, we have a date," the woman says. The woman smiles at the agent, and Natasha glances back, startled but practiced enough to rearrange her face.
"Sorry," Natasha says, and she smiles. The woman winks then locks arms with her, leading her down the hall.
They're sitting in a bar, the woman smiling and tucking a loose strand of black hair from her face. It isn't Natasha's first choice to meet. Public spaces are crowded. There are too many civilians, too much open space, and though they're not on-duty, Natasha silently counts the number of exits around them: the entrance at the front, two windows, one fire exit, and the restroom in the back of the bar. "You are forgetting the storeroom," the woman says, and Natasha glances up, surprised.
The woman tilts her head above her left shoulder, motioning. "There is an exit behind the storeroom where they load the alcohol. I noticed you counting."
"I see," Natasha says. She stares at the woman, trying to place her. She can't pinpoint her ethnicity. Dark hair and pale skin, with high cheekbones and a well-defined nose, at first she looks Persian, maybe, or maybe a hint of Asian. The woman's eyes are cat-like and disaffected, grey-green and seeming to soak in everything around the room. Mediterranean, then. Natasha tilts her head, frowning at her.
"What's your name?" Natasha says.
"Laura," the woman says, and at first pass, the accent is British: second pass, there is something else there, an undercurrent of a second accent, like a Russian or a German raised in Britain for a very long time. "But you already know that isn't my real name."
"Does it matter?" Natasha says.
"In this business, I suppose, it hardly ever matters."
"I can drink to that," Natasha says, and she raises her glass. "So why did you help me?"
"Why not? The man was slobbering over you. I was merely returning the favor."
"Favor?" Natasha arches a brow, curiously. Laura smiles.
"I close one eye now, you see," Laura says, and she winks slowly, an exaggeration meant to be cloying or seductive. She raises a finger as if pointing a gun. "I meant to introduce myself earlier, and then I saw Romeo making his move. I couldn't resist."
She isn't lying. She also doesn't seem to have any ulterior motive, other than to talk to her and get to know her better. Natasha's powers of observation have never failed her: it's always working, always in the background, but if the situation warrants, she can focus those powers like a laser, cutting through the bullshit and the poker faces and reading her enemies' insides the way an ordinary person would read a book.
Laura isn't lying. Laura also isn't being completely forthright, but neither is Natasha and neither are most of the agents in SHIELD, who come from all corners of the world and who carry pasts equally as bloody.
"So tell me," Natasha says, slowly, because she's curious and because the woman is inviting her to do so:
"How does someone who doesn't even know how to shoot a gun end up in SHIELD?"
Her combat skills are terrible. "You're gonna get yourself killed," Natasha says, and irrationally it makes her angry, because most other women agents suck but not this bad, not the way Laura is flailing about like a trapped fish, wriggling through grips and chokeholds and falling gracelessly on the mats below her.
The other rookies smirk: she's the only female in the rookie class, and it pisses Natasha off. It offends her, seeing a female agent making a fool of herself like this, because Natasha's worked hard to be respected, by criminals and good guys both. She's not about to let this girl be just another pretty face, just another china doll for bad guys to take and carve a deeper, bloody smile.
"A private session, then?" Laura says, and her face is flushed and her lips are swollen and parted. Even the pupils of Laura's eyes are dilated, soft and unfocused, looking up at Natasha as if she's had the most amazing sex in the world.
Natasha frowns at her, and Laura grins. Her breasts heave under the tightness of her shirt.
"Look, I know your game. I play it too. But if you don't have anything to back it up," and she pulls Laura to her feet, frowning, "some guy's gonna get it in his head to jam it between your legs. You know that."
"It's the chance we all take, isn't it?" Laura says, but she seems genuinely touched by Natasha's concern.
They spar. Laura's slightly off-balance, the weight of her body tilted toward her left. She's good at evading but not at landing hits, and her footwork is clumsy, uncertain.
"Do you know anything else?" Natasha says.
"I do," Laura says, and she seems to hesitate. "A bo staff," Laura says. She lifts her eyes. "I think I can manage if I have that."
Natasha nods. She herself feels more comfortable with a knife in her hand; everyone has their security blanket, combat or otherwise.
She tosses Laura the staff from the weapons rack, which Laura catches, expertly. And suddenly, it's as if the carriage of Laura's body changes: her spine straightens, her center of gravity lowers, body balanced perfectly around a centered core.
She springs. Leaps, a coiled spring exploding into the air. The strike comes and Natasha barely has time to evade, one arm thrown upward to catch the brunt of Laura's staff. The staff becomes a pivot point and suddenly she's all movement and rotation, a whirling gyroscope of unimaginable speed. Natasha fights and ducks and slams bodily into her, the crack of Laura's staff striking with sickening clarity.
Later, they sit on bleacher benches and share a bottle of water, Natasha taking one long swig before handing it to Laura, who sips, daintily. "That was amazing," Natasha says. "I've never seen anyone fight like that before."
Laura grins but doesn't look at her, shyly tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ear. "It is difficult, isn't it, fighting people who are larger than you?" She looks up again, earnestly. "But with my staff, it's as if my strength increases three-fold. I'm equal with them. On better footing. Even if they say I should use my opponent's weight to my advantage," Laura says, and her face darkens. "My staff is just a crutch, you see."
Natasha nods. She knows what it's like. Arms pinned, the weight of the enemy crushing your ribs and throat. She knows what it's like, the sour-sick smell of a man's breath like rotting garbage, hot and sticky against her face and neck. The helplessness, the feeling of being just so small. "We all have crutches," Natasha says finally, and Laura looks at her bottle of water, silently.
"May I be forthright with you, my friend?" Laura looks up at her, quietly. "I do believe you're the first person who's told me that. And," she hesitates, playing with the cap of her water bottle, "I do believe you and I are alike, in many ways. In disposition, if not in any other skill set."
Natasha grins. "Well your 'skill set' is pretty awful," Natasha says.
"Of course it is. I need only my good looks to get by," Laura says, and her eyes are shining.
It's the most startling and beautiful thing in the world.
There are few times in Natasha's life where she finds a genuine connection. Usually, people are points on a map to a final goal, simple objectives to seduce or conquer, nothing more. Sure, there is the occasional partner, or teammate, or agent, with whom Natasha is paired, but typically these pairings don't last longer than the mission, and Natasha goes by herself, unattached and unfettered, stripping off the layers of her uniform alone.
Clint was the first one: he coaxed her out the way a man would coax out a rabid animal from the brush, his presence steady and silent, letting her sniff him out and circle him with suspicious curiosity.
Lately, Natasha tries to integrate herself. She stands with the others with wary acceptance, watching as the other Avengers avail themselves with friendly conversation and familiar smiles. But there isn't a connection. She doesn't trust them--not with the way she trusts Clint, with whom she would trust her very life--but she knows that they mean her no harm.
"It's a pretty good start," Laura says, and Natasha frowns. It's the one thing about Laura that's so disconcerting--she's so good at reading Natasha, at guessing the things she's thinking even before Natasha knows herself, and it's that intuition that makes Natasha itch, uncomfortably.
"Can't we just pretend to have a normal conversation, like normal people do?" Natasha says. Laura snorts.
"Like what? Gossip over martinis and dissect all of our sorrows? Please," Laura says, and Natasha watches as one elegant finger traces the ridge of her glass, a movement imbued with such grace and beauty that Natasha has to force her eyes upward, so entranced she is by the movement. "Besides. How can we have a proper conversation when we already know everything about each other?"
"Everything?" Natasha says, and Laura quirks an eyebrow. "Laura, I don't even know your real name."
"And I don't know yours," Laura says. She leans back in her chair, as if inviting her to shoot her chest. "Come on. Dissect me. I know you've been wanting to do it," Laura says. She grins, slowly. "Let's see how much you know."
"This is stupid," Natasha says, and then, "We're not even on duty, what the hell?" but Laura stares and stares and stares at her, and Natasha squints her eyes a little, frowning.
"You're wondering if I've figured you out," Natasha says.
"A hit," Laura says dramatically, and she waggles her eyebrows and grins. "What else?"
"You have something to hide, and you're paranoid I'm going to find out."
"As if that isn't already apparent," Laura sniffs. "What else?"
Laura is sitting in front of her wearing a low-cut top. Her neck is long and slender, and her face is delicate, bird-like. Her hair, dark and uncombed, falls in unkempt tangles around her face, her light green eyes peering into her as if silently steeling herself, bracing herself for whatever revelations Natasha is about to throw.
"You're nervous," Natasha says, and Laura grins. "You're nervous and you talk too much, because that's the only way you know how to cope. You're bad at shooting and you're bad at fighting and you probably weren't very attractive growing up, but you use words like weapons and you're used to talking your way out of trouble."
"All things you already know," Laura says, quietly. "What else?"
It's all a game to you, but at the same time you're terrified.
"I don't know," Natasha says. "That you think you look fabulous in that dress?"
"You disappoint me," Laura pouts.
"Well," Natasha says, and she pours Laura a drink.
"How about you enlighten me?" Natasha says.
Laura is cagey about the details, but Natasha can read well-enough between the lines not to have to ask: the broken family and the black sheep, a story so universal it almost bores Natasha to tears. "I don't see why it matters," Natasha says.
"Of course it matters. Everything matters."
"But it doesn't," Natasha says. "You can do anything you want. Be anything you want. None of that really matters."
Laura doesn't speak for a very long time, and Natasha knows it, knows it as much as she knows the sun will rise in the east and the shadows will fall on the world: that Laura is a study in imperfections, at once beautiful but damaged, a crystal vase with a crack down its center.The bruises under her eyes are an unspoken history, etching out in sharp relief a woman without a single friend to her name.
A friend except for Natasha, she realizes, and she knows how fiercely Laura clings to it, this bond they've forged, unlikely though it may be. Loneliness cuts through her like teeth, and Natasha can feel it, the other woman's desperation burning in the backs of her eyes.
The next day, Natasha rounds the corner to see two agents squaring head-to-head with each other, shouting in each others' faces and nearly coming to blows. Natasha has to bodily shoulder between them to push them apart. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Natasha says, and she glances up behind her.
Laura is grinning. One slow smirk, crossing her face. Natasha has to pull her into a corner to ask.
"It was just a bit of fun," Laura says innocently, and Natasha stares at her, mouth hanging open.
"Pitting two agents against each other, just a bit of fun?"
"Yes," Laura says, and she widens her eyes in mock incredulity. "I can't help it if they're both attracted to me. What woman doesn't want to be fought over?"
Then the pranks start. First it's the copy machine, which one of the agents graciously showed Laura how to work. "This one's temperamental, just make sure not to do anything double-sided," the agent says, and Natasha's eyes widen when not five minutes later, Laura is punching in "2-SIDES" and "999" as the number of copies to make.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Natasha says again, and Laura laughs and laughs and laughs her ass off, when the machine clogs and sputters and SHIELD's entire tactical division grinds to a sickening halt, the documents in the copy machine too valuable to shred or leave in the metal rollers.
Clint is skittish around her. Natasha notices it the first time she introduces him, inviting him for drinks with her new friend. He fidgets with a napkin and mumbles one-word answers, staring at his drink in his hand.
"So, you're a part of the Avengers?" Laura is daintily tracing the rim of her drink, while Clint sits on his hands and stares at her, silently. "What is it, exactly, that you do?"
"Tactical missions," Clint says. "Recon. Surveillance. Among other things."
"Ah," Laura says. "And have you any super powers? Super strength, perhaps?"
Laura's eyes glitter. Clint's jaw tightens.
"I have my bow," Clint says.
"Ah, your bow," Laura says. "How lovely. And I suppose your bow makes you stand out, what with the super soldier and the giant beast and the iron man, of course."
"Laura be nice," Natasha says. She rubs Clint's arm, fondly. "Clint is very good with a bow," Natasha says.
"I'm sure he is!" Laura says. "And good he must, given the rest of his company."
"I don't have any super powers either," Natasha points out.
"Could have fooled me," Laura says. "Unlike our Katniss, here, you have abilities far greater than normal men. Or women," she adds, as an afterthought. "Myself being the exception, of course."
"I don't like her," Clint says, when they're alone and Clint's cornered her in the room. Natasha frowns at him and Clint paces, grimacing.
"Why?" Natasha says.
"She's...I don't know. I just don't trust her," Clint says.
"You're being ridiculous," Natasha says.
"Am I?" Clint says.
"Yes," Natasha says, and Clint frowns.
"You don't know her," Clint says, finally. Natasha bristles, despite herself.
"Excuse me, but who do you think has a better judge of character?"
"I just don't like her," Clint says. Helplessly, eyes darting, terrified. "Nat, please. I just have a bad feeling about this. I can't help it."
"Fine," Natasha says, and Clint wrings his hands. "I won't make you hang out with her. But don't get pissy with me if I'm doing a little girls' night at the bar. Okay?"
Clint sets his jaw, but doesn't answer.
She's standing in the command center when the doors slide open, Thor and Stark talking. "It's called a 'phone,'" Stark was saying. "And yes, they tend to break when you drop them. Try to be careful, next time."
Behind her, Laura freezes. Fear darts in her eyes and seizes her throat.
"Laura?" Natasha glances back. Thor is laughing, "There is no one as amusing as you, my friend!", and Stark is making clever quips and telling Jarvis to check his mail.
Laura's face is pale. Her hand is shaking when she brushes the hair from her eyes.
"Excuse me," Laura says, and she moves quickly, not before Natasha sees the flashes of hurt and confusion and barely concealed rage, before glancing up at Stark, who looks as bewildered as she feels.
Later, she finds Laura sloppy drunk at the bar, hanging over sleazy guys and laughing.
"I've just had the most glorious period," Laura says. She doesn't quite slur her words, but she's having trouble focusing her eyes, holding her drink and wobbling a little bit on the stool. "I just find it so...fascinating...how a woman can just...bleed and bleed through that gash between her legs, and it is as normal and common as breathing."
"You're drunk," Natasha says, but Laura laughs, clapping Natasha on the arm.
"I am not drunk, friend. I am...I am astral drunk. A drunkenness on a whole different plane of existence. A whole different," and she squints her eyes a little, "what was I saying again?"
"You're wasted, you know that?" Natasha says. She slings Laura over her shoulder, helping her to her feet. "Good lord, I've never seen anyone get so trashed so quickly. It's pretty pathetic," Natasha says.
"Quite right," Laura says, and she stumbles, the heel of her shoe catching. "Whoops," Laura says, and her eyes widen just a little, a parody of surprise.
"I wonder how long I can keep this up," Laura says. She gestures toward herself, the tops of her breasts popping out of the little black dress and her lipstick smeared on her teeth. "Perhaps, after another drink, I shall find myself completely changed. I can only imagine the horror," Laura says, and she laughs again, giddy and sparkling and spilling out of her like an upturned glass of wine. "You will hate me, if I show my true face."
"Yeah, well," Natasha says. "Just try not to harass the cabdriver, okay? We're going back to the hotel."
In the taxi, Natasha doesn't bother asking Laura what the hell had happened. "Shit. I must have slept with her," Stark had said, and Natasha stared daggers at his face. "I can't even remember her name. Christ."
It must have been a while ago: Stark was with Pepper now, but judging from Stark's reaction, it may have been more than a one-night thing. Stark had a reputation, and for all of Laura's bravado she's a tender thing, soft and vulnerable under layers of hardened steel.
"Ass," Natasha said, but she didn't dignify the situation by chasing after her: she wouldn't like that, no matter how many times Clint chased her out into hallways or rooftops or wherever hell else Natasha escaped to, tears stinging her eyes for this, that, or the other.
In the hotel room, Natasha doesn't switch on the light, too busy hefting Laura's weight and negotiating the arms and legs that are flailing in all directions. She dumps Laura unceremoniously on the bed, frowning a little when Laura curls on her side and cuddles sleepily into a pillow. "Goodnight," Natasha says, and she starts to leave.
"Wait," Laura says, and Natasha turns.
Laura is looking at her. There is something in Laura's eyes, something like uncertainty or hesitation, that swims beneath the alcoholic fog. "Stay a moment," Laura says. Her voice is just so small.
The bed smells like mothballs, and the mattress creaks with Natasha's added weight to it. All at once, Laura cuddles close and presses her face to the space of Natasha's chest, and Natasha frowns slightly, moving to rest her hand on Laura's head.
"You know," Laura says. She's speaking into Natasha's shoulder, dark hair falling in loose strands over her face. "If I had a sister, I imagine she would be just like you."
Natasha's throat is dry. The room is empty except for the ratty striped chair and the rickety table, and the mattress they're lying on caves with their weight. Laura leans more fully against her and Natasha can see one shoe hanging off of Laura's stockinged foot, the run in her stocking starting to snake up her leg. The woman is completely helpless right now, the vital points of her body left completely open, and if Natasha wanted to, she could kill her without so much as a blink.
"You wouldn't say that if you knew me," Natasha says, softly. Laura makes a noise--a contented sort of sigh, something exhaled between wakefulness and sleep--and murmurs,
"I believe I do know you. As you know me."
Laura's eyes are soft. Not the drunken sort of soft, but gentle. Knowing. She smiles and reaches out to trace a finger along Natasha's cheek. "It's a lonely business, isn't it?" Laura says, and she settles against Natasha's shoulder, closing her eyes.
An exposed nerve, a raw wound missing the outer layers of skin. That's what Laura seems like right now, and Natasha would see Laura's eyes close before they can brim with self-hatred. She understands the feeling, because she has felt it before, herself.
The clock ticks, and Laura falls asleep. Natasha says nothing. She lies back and stares up at the ceiling, listening to the rise and fall of Laura's breath, and letting her fingers run through tangles of Laura's hair.
"She took my arrow tips!"
Clint stalks around the corner, shoving Laura against the wall.
"Clint!" Natasha rushes behind, tugging on his arm.
"I could've been killed!" Clint shouts in Laura's face.
"Clint! What the hell! What happened?" Natasha says. Clint drops Laura and wheels toward Natasha, slinging off his quiver.
The arrow tips were severed. Or more precisely, clipped off, as if a pair of pliers had wrenched the arrow heads off the wooden bodies. Natasha turns to Laura.
"Laura, is this true?"
Natasha doesn't need to hear the answer to know. "Did you think this was funny?" Natasha asks, and Laura breathes, hard.
"No funnier than anything else," Laura says, and she juts her chin out a little, defiant."I thought our man Clint here could handle himself. It is not my fault I was wrong."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Natasha says. Laura stares.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Laura says. "And here I thought we were getting along."
Laura's face is pinched. Angry. Natasha stares at her. She understands but she doesn't care.
"Clint is my friend," Natasha says. Her words cut. Precise. Exact. "And you almost got him killed."
Laura's face doesn't change. Just a flicker, and then nothing, not even that furious sadness Natasha had seen before. Laura's mouth twists, pressing into a tighter and harder line. And then,
"Perhaps next time I shall do it with my bare hands, then," Laura says.
Then she turns, one heel smartly clicking forward, before moving and slamming the door.
Natasha tries to understand.
The change is sudden. It isn't often that Natasha is caught by surprise, but she is when Laura starts avoiding her. In the hallways, she gives Natasha a wide berth, making a point to duck between cubicles or take another hallway. In the shooting range, Laura sets down her weapon and leaves as soon as Natasha steps on, frowning and avoiding Natasha's eyes.
There is a security breach in the perimeter. Alarms blare, and Natasha rushes forward to see Laura grinning back at her, hands clasping pages and pages of classified files.
"My friend," Laura says, but her voice deepens, and everything rights itself, the lines of Laura's body lengthening and straightening, breasts shrinking to muscle and shoulders growing more broad, even as the gauntness of the face stays the same.
"Loki!" Natasha says, but Clint's pushed past her and he's shooting arrows, Loki leaping above them and his cape waving behind him. Agents run and shoot guns but Loki's nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard, and all that's left is Natasha standing there, stunned, as Thor and Stark and the rest of them rush into the empty room.
"Do you know what it's like," Laura asked, once. "When someone you love leaves you to die?"
Natasha said nothing. The rims of Laura's eyes grew dark, and the wetness that gathered there threatened to spill over. "It is awful," Laura had said, and she took another drink, swirling the glass bitterly. "It is as if your heart is torn out, and the very marrow of your soul is sucked dry. An oblivion," Laura said, and Natasha understood, understood more than most, because she too had been left out and shattered, had her insides scooped out and replaced with shards of jagged glass. Laura took a drink, and Natasha could see how her jaw set, tighter and tighter with a vehement sadness, hurt and betrayal and a barely contained rage.
It is cool in the evening, and Natasha opens her bedroom window, frowning at the darkness of the skyline and at the cloud-cover obscuring the moon.
She readies for bed, pulling back the covers and switching off the light, when there is a sound, soft like a cat landing from a rooftop; Natasha turns and isn't surprised when she sees Loki slipping out from the darkness, materializing as if from nothing and standing silently behind her.
"I came to apologize," Loki says, after a moment, and Natasha lifts her chin, the slightest show of defiance, letting her eyes cut into him like tiny blades. "I only meant to gather information. That I dragged you into this mess was an unfortunate...accident," he says. His eyes seem to measure her, calculating quietly.
"I do not mean to gloat," Loki says finally, and Natasha's jaw sets. He's taller than she is and when he steps forward she backs up against the bed, a reflexive movement. "However, I was a tad disappointed. The one who read me so well, then fell so gracelessly, later. I haven't forgotten how you tricked me," Loki says. "Divining the reason for my imprisonment and your precious Hulk. Consider this your propitiation."
Behind him, the curtains move, the nighttime wind rising with the threat of rain. Loki doesn't move, doesn't make a sound, but she can read him as if he is screaming.
That's what you want me to think. That's what you would desperately hope for, even now.
"Level one access," Clint said. He looked at "Laura's" old security clearance, pouring over video footage and the files under her name. "Not even Tier two. She didn't have anything. Did she get anything from you?"
"Not a word," Natasha said. Clint looked up at her and frowned.
"He misses you," Natasha says, quietly, but Loki doesn't stiffen, Loki doesn't make a move or sound, his walls built up and shielding him, even now.
And then his mouth stretches into a thin smile, eyes slanted and glittering. He looks at her, face a careful mask, as he projects an air of superiority and amusement, letting her see his contempt before turning away, catching his scepter and leaping out into the windy dark.