Annika Reiter didn’t believe in redemption. The day she turned thirty-one she shot her mother’s killer in a New York sidestreet not far from Grand Central station and thought of it as a birthday present to herself. Her body looked lovely thrown across the tarmac. The Herzog had always said such a thing had a beauty all its own, but Annika had never seen it until that very second.
The bitch had not aged a day. Annika disassembled the gun, scattered it, as she came closer. There was no one close. She’d used a silencer. It would take a moment more for someone to realise what was happening back here.
She’d carried a coffee cup, dropped it as she fell. Annika circled the brown puddle as delicately as she did the red one. “Tell me something,” she said, squatting by the other woman. “Do you know who I am?”
Death-rattle breath; blood seeping through the fingers clenched around her thigh. “Annika Reiter,” said the Widow, and bared her teeth in something approximating a smile. “Next time, headshot.”
Annika smiled. “The way you blew my mother’s brains across her wardrobe doors? I won’t kill the way you do.”
“Was it the Hawk who let you live?”
Widow laughed. “Let me live?” she repeated. “No one let me live. I killed the Hawk the way I killed your mother.”
Annika hit her across the face. It was unnecessary, the woman was shot, it was a wonder she hadn’t bled out already, right in the femoral artery. Still, the way her head snapped back…
“The only part of that I regret is having touched you,” she said, standing up again. “Well. Better get to verschwinding.”
Verschwinde. Raus hier! Verschwinde oder ich knall‘ dich ab genau wie deine Mama. Raus!
Sirens, shouting. Annika walked away and didn’t look back; she had another appointment. The Hawk’s apartment was more of a bolt-hole safehouse than a place you’d actually live in if you were a human being, but he wasn’t much of a human being, was he; a killer and a promise-breaker.
Not that Annika was any better herself. You became what you had to be to achieve your goals. And she at least had never killed for money.
She was humming to herself as she laid the bomb.
“Bitch,” said Clint furiously. “Bitch, bitch, bitch, homicidal maniac lunatic bitch…”
“For fuck’s sake, Barton,” said Nat weakly. “I shot her mother dead in front of her.”
He dropped back into his chair by her hospital bed, sighing. “Yeah.” She reached for him, hand trembling; it looked, ridiculously, thinner than it had this morning, before the shooting, before the transfusions and the operation and all of SHIELD waiting with baited breath to find out what happened when the Black Widow got shot.
Hawkeye went off the deep end was what happened. He grasped her thin fingers in his and felt comforted that they were still the same shape they had always been under his own.
They sat like that in silence for a long time: until Maria came in to tell them that there had been an explosion in Clint’s apartment building.
Then, then, Natasha snarled with fury.
Annika went back to Berlin without stopping to check that the Hawk was dead. It didn’t really matter much; he was incidental. A nice little bonus, but not worth any extra effort.
“Have a good trip?” said her husband, wrestling Vanessa back so her mother could get through the front door uninjured.
Annika laughed. “I did what I set out to do,” she said. “Hello, darling. Vanessa.”
Vanessa was indignant. “I’m a darling too!”
She had job offers after that. A reputation-builder, shooting the Black Widow. She thought the Herzog had put it about, trying, as he always did, to rope her into the game. Annika would have none of it. He had never understood that she wouldn’t kill for money. He even tried to contact her personally, but Annika was definitely having none of that. She was shipping out again, back to Afghanistan, in a few more weeks. She wanted to spend the time with her family. She wanted to travel to her mother’s grave in Vienna and say, I killed the bitch. I revenged you.
I don’t know if you would have wanted it, but I know it would make me sleep better, and so –
When the reports came through from the Council that Widow was dead, her superiors were ecstatic.
“Fucking dangerous asset,” said the General. “Leaving the bitch to SHIELD. Should have been taken out and shot the moment the Wall collapsed. All of them should have.”
Annika blinked. “All of them, sir?”
He waved a hand dismissively. “They were thorough, our former comrades.” He was an Ossi, she’d forgotten that. “Scheiss drauf. If I ever meet the man who shot her I’ll give him a promotion. Now, Reiter, you’ve been briefed about the collaboration in Helmand…”
And wasn’t that fucking typical. The man who shot her.
It was Annika’s private belief that no man would have managed it. When it came to the Widow they all seemed to get distracted so easily.
Just look at the Hawk.
Two days before she shipped out she came home and found Vanessa skipping in the street before their apartment building. There was a red-headed woman leaning against a car not far away, sunglasses perched on her nose, smiling at the girl.
Time slowed to a halt. The very air took on the quality of toffee: Annika could barely move through it though her brain was screaming at her limbs to work, work, work.
She wasn’t carrying her gun.
“Mama!” Vanessa stopped skipping long enough to wave, laughing. “Here’s Natasha to see you! She bought me a skipping rope, look.”
Annika had to work hard to get moisture into her throat. “Sweetheart, that’s lovely. Did you say thank you? Of course you did. Skip inside, ey, I want a word with – Natasha – in private.”
“All right. Bye, Natasha!” She waved. “Will you tell me about the school in Vienna over dinner?”
“Little one, I’m sorry, I can’t stay. Some other time.” Widow’s German was as impeccable as her American had been. Annika waited until the door had swung firmly shut behind her daughter before she faced the other woman.
“She looks like you did at that age.”
“You dare,” Annika hissed. “You dare, you murderous –“
“Yes, yes, get it over with,” said Widow, sounding bored. “I’m a bitch, I’m a monster, I’m a murderer, I kill for money and I enjoy it, I’ve tortured and poisoned and stabbed and shot.”
“You’re proud –“
“I let you live,” said the Widow, surging up, crossing the space between them so they were standing close enough to touch. She wasn’t tall: that was the thing that astonished Annika. She wasn’t tall. She was short and slight and so much more dangerous that Annika had known, than the General had known, than anyone had known.
She knew where Annika lived. She had spoken with her daughter.
“I let you live,” the Widow repeated. “Remember that, little girl. I let you live then and I’ll let you live today. I let your daughter live today. Remember that the next time you target my own family.”
Annika licked her lips. “The Hawk,” she said. “Is he dead? Well, now you know what it’s like to live with grief.”
“One more time, Captain Reiter,” said the Widow, unmoving. “I let you live. That’s the part of this conversation you should be remembering.”
“I didn’t ask for your mercy.”
“The world doesn’t care what you ask for, little girl. It doles out whatever it wants to whoever it wants. For example, your mother’s last words were not my daughter please, which was the same thing my own mother screamed when the Red Army dragged her away, but if she’d known what them leaving me alive would have entailed I’m fairly sure she would have preferred me to die.”
“So it’s pity you’re after.” Annika was shaking badly.
“No,” said the Widow. “It’s that look – that one there – the one that says you care more about your daughter than your own life, and you’ll not risk her again by antagonising me.” She had the fucking gall to smile. “Goodbye, Annika.”
Clint met Natasha at the airport, hands in his pockets, whole and hale and healthy. She stumbled against him, let him lead her out of the terminal. She’d thrown up in the airport in Berlin until there was nothing left in her stomach to throw up and then done it again on the plane. She was pale, she stank, she was unsteady on her feet, weak and wounded.
He was safe. She was safe. He took her home in silence. She walked into the shower and stayed there for an hour; when she came out again Clint had gone. He’d left a note. Come on upstairs.
Natasha went upstairs. Tony was sketching schematics on the sofa – something wasn’t coming out right, he only ever used pen and paper if something wasn’t coming out right and he needed a new perspective on it. Steve was in the kitchen with Clint, Bruce was reading, Thor was on the balcony, phone to his ear, calling Jane.
Natasha slid onto the sofa next to Tony and stole his coffee.
“Thief,” he said.
“Warmonger,” she said.
He looked up at her. She paused. None of the others were close enough to hear. Tony, it turned out, didn’t need to hear in the first place.
“The shooting? Clint’s apartment?”
“I threatened her family because she threatened mine after I killed her mother,” said Natasha.
“You let her live.”
“She was one of the few.”
He shrugged. “I’m sure my missiles saved someone’s life, somewhere, once.”
Natasha sighed. “It’s a funny kind of cosmic justice that gives you a home and a family to do penance in instead of a cell and a torturer.”
Tony shrugged. “Not much point punishing someone who doesn’t care.”
Natasha couldn’t say anything to that. She felt breathless with the truth of it: wasn’t caring the part that truly hurt? You can know something’s intellectually wrong for as long as you like. If you don’t care it’s meaningless.
“I like Bruce’s take on it, personally,” said Tony. “Guilt is just another way of making it all about you.”
Natasha burst out laughing.
“But Tony Stark’s a textbook narcissist, so whatever,” he added, grinning.
She put her head on his shoulder then to watch him sketch and calculate in silence, feeling comforted.
She let you live, thought Annika, hugging her daughter goodbye, kissing her husband, turning away to her unit with a rushing in her ears, permanent now, or so it seemed. She let us both live.
She didn’t know – she didn’t think she’d ever know again – whether she should laugh or scream. It would never leave her now, she knew it wouldn’t – she’d live the rest of her life, she’d watch Vanessa living the rest of her life knowing that everything either of them would ever do from this day on hung by a thread, the thinnest, most delicate of threads, that Black Widow had chosen not to cut.
Was that mercy, or a punishment all its own? If Annika hadn’t threatened the Hawk, the Widow would never have come to Berlin, never have sought Vanessa out.
Christ alive, how alike they’d become.
the same thing my own mother screamed as the Red Army dragged her away…
How alike they’d always been.
That made her laugh at last, laugh all the way to the battlefields. Maybe she believed in redemption more than she’d thought. It was difficult to tell. She would always hate the bitch – always – but there. She’d let Vanessa live.
Annika wasn’t fool enough to think she’d ever straighten her emotions out about – all of this. Ever be satisfied with the way she felt, ever match it up to the way she ought to feel. But later on, when she learned – quite by accident – that the Hawk was still alive, she almost felt relieved. She supposed that was mercy, of a kind.