She has a hundred names and none of them are her own, almost, not really. She changes her name because, in the real world at least, she cannot change her face (could, won’t) and what’s in a name anyway?
She changes her name, changes her voice and her hair, her smile and the precise angle of the tilt of her head. Everything about her is calculated, calculating, measured and displayed and designed to show you whatever you want to see.
Natasha Romanov is more than a Forger, she is a forgery made in flesh, waking or sleeping it hardly matters anymore.
Masks are mirrors are masks, but if you look close enough, if you catch the moment when one mask slips and another slides in to take its place, you might just catch a glimpse of the truth.
Did you see it?
Clint Barton is the first man to get so utterly under her guard, to slide beneath her armour, strip away her stolen skin and find the place where she is only herself, Tasha.
It was never going to work, not really, she is a forgery and he is the realest man she’s ever met, he is facts and she is layer upon layer of fiction.
But it’s fun while it lasts.
They light Chicago on fire, (not really, not this time) steal an entire priceless jewelry exhibit because she likes the way the diamonds throw the light, the heavy weight painting rainbows on her skin.
Later he makes love to her while she wears nothing but ten million dollars in diamonds and a sharp edged smile.
She wants to break into the Louvre - not to steal anything, she assures him when he gapes at her, horrified - just to see if she (they he reminds her) can. He gets the blueprints, the guard schedule, a couple of tranq guns, and a pair of matching ski masks (just to make her laugh).
It is an unqualified success. The Mona Lisa really needs to be seen up close, not hidden behind bulletproof glass and a red roped line.
They chase each other across the globe, the perpetual push and shove that has defined them from the very start, until they find themselves in Mombasa on the wrong side of Cobol with no way out (not together, one of them could survive but not both) and she’s forced to choose between his life and hers.
The look on his face when she chooses, when she shoots him in the leg (a glancing wound, a last kindness) and starts running full tilt, the split open expression of betrayal, haunts her for far longer than she cares to admit.
Natasha Romanov was always a one woman show, anyone who said differently wasn’t paying enough attention.
She goes back into Dreamshare after Clint, can’t take another partner in reality, needs a team in dreaming, and it’s easier, somehow, to shed herself and walk in foreign-familiar cities on long legs, her blonde hair streaming behind her, skirt caught around her thighs in the soft breeze. Something’s changed, shifted, and now it’s harder to hold her own skin than it is to wear someone elses.
“You do good work,” She says to the architect, “But there’s something missing.”
“I assure you,” He says, and really he’s a boy, what does he know about it? “My designs are flawless.”
“I know. That’s the problem.”
The job gets done, but it’s a near thing and only her quick thinking keeps her alive. The architect - she thinks his name was Teddy, but didn’t care enough to check - is dead, so is her chemist and damnit he’s going to be hard to replace, but she’s alive and that’s all that matters in the end.
There’s a rumour in the underground - her network of spies and informants has landed her the moniker of Black Widow, eventually everything and everyone gets snared in her web - of a chemist in Calcutta whose formulas could revolutionize Dreamshare, change the nature of the game.
It’s whispered his compounds could make Inception possible again.
She follows these whispers, makes her way to the ass end of nowhere, and is pleasantly surprised by what she finds.
Bruce Banner is mild mannered until he isn’t, intelligent and wilfully ignorant all at once, dresses like a vagabond and talks like a man with a genius IQ and two different PhDs. He’s an enigma, a puzzle, the first man she’s ever met who is utterly immune to her wiles.
Three months later she’s still in Calcutta, watching people and building dreams for Bruce’s unending line of clients. Out here people pay anything you ask for a little slice of oblivion and Natasha might not be an architect but she’s seen most of the world and these people don’t care if it’s perfect as long as it’s anywhere but here.
“Are you ever going back?” He asks one night as they pass a bottle of wine between them, a toast to another successful week. “To proper forging I mean.”
Natasha shrugs one shoulder in a surprisingly eloquent motion. “Perhaps, for the right job.”
“For the right fee.” Bruce corrects her, “You can’t hide here forever you know.”
“Darling,” She says, giving him her best seductive smile. “I never stay anywhere I don’t wish to be.”
“You can’t run forever either.” He says finally, handing her the last of the bottle and rising to head to bed.
“Says who?” She says quietly after he’s gone and finishes the rest of the wine in a long swallow.
She starts taking jobs again, works with anyone who can pay her fee - there aren’t many who can, but those who can always will - but comes back to the little house in Calcutta when she’s done.
Bruce stops trying to make her leave - she doesn’t belong here, but then again neither does he - and starts learning to treasure the moments when he’s a little less alone. They’ll never be lovers, but they’ve become some strange kind of family, just the two of them in a place where the only thing worse than reality is the dreams.
She comes back from one of her jobs with a spring in her step and a mountain of praise for a new extraction team - Steve Rogers, a kid from Brooklyn with charm to spare and an innocence that belied his sharp intelligence and his partner, Bucky Barnes, who she hasn’t figured out yet, but she will - vowing to take Bruce with her next time.
“You need to get back into the world.” She tells him. “It does no good to stay here, tucked away, forever.”
“I won’t go for just any job,” He cautions her.
“Neither will I.” She laughs.
Six months later she gets an enigmatic email from Steve.
Have a job. You’ll want in. Sending my Point Man to give the details. He’ll be there tonight.
She smiles, wide and predatory, and starts packing.