The true story is vicious
and multiple and untrue
after all. Why do you
need it? Don't ever
ask for the true story.
Margaret Atwood, True Stories
Art by Felixandria/Alex Schlitz
Image Description: Natasha stares out a train window; Yelena, as her reflection, stares back.
Before there is anything else, there is cold. White snow, burning through the knees of her pants to skin; red blood blistering her palms. She is scorched, then doused; if she is forged in fire, she is set fast in ice, and neither will kill her.
This is the first lesson she learns —
No. That's not quite right.
Alexei digs a stick into the packed snow before them. "A wolf, Natashka," he says, sketching out the broad, ruthless sweep of its jaw, "with teeth like so, great long limbs. Red, like blood, in its eyes. That is what we are."
She tilts her head, her own bloody mane tucked neatly away.
"Well," Alexei amends, "not you. Not yet. But don't worry: Wolves and girls alike have teeth sharp enough to cut a man to ribbons."
She smiles, a grin, mean like the wolf he's crudely etched into the snow. He laughs. There are splinters of wood dug into the snow like fur, like a thousand wounds.
Someday the snow will melt. The wolf's bite will heal. The earth will be mauled anew. Such is the way of things.
"Mother wonders how you're doing, Natalia," Darya says in Kiev. "She worries about you."
"Mother's been dead twenty-five years," Natasha says brusquely.
Darya pauses, thoughtful, her red-tipped hand still on the file, and says, "There are so many back from the dead nowadays. Surely she can't be unexpected, even if she is unwelcome."
"Did I say that?" Natasha enquires. She slides the file from under Darya's hand.
Darya smiles, kindly, like a sister would; like she thinks a sister would. "Of course not." She rises. "What shall I tell the family?"
"That they have better things to be doing than wasting their time with a useless spy like me," she says baldly. "Tell them that."
Darya laughs, a golden peal of a sound. "Dear Natalia," she says, "how I've missed your sense of humor."
Natasha bares her teeth. Rises. Holds Darya's warm-cold gaze. "Don't send them after me, Darya. I won't be returning."
"Suit yourself," Darya says easily. She bends down, kisses Natasha on the cheek: the touch of falling snow against skin. "Take care of yourself, Natasha."
"You might not want to pull on that thread," she tells Steve, or warns him. He's got that awful heartbroken, determined expression on; he won't listen to her any more than she can not help him — or the ghost of a man he chases.
Steve takes the file, and Sam Wilson with him. She's glad of that. Fury vanishes back to Europe, and she — she vanishes in the other direction, nothing but highway unraveling before her. It's hot and black and human and eternal, everything snow is not. It's enough for now, for the top of her convertible to fold down, for the wind to whip her hair into a tangle, for the sun to scorch her arms. She buys sunscreen at a rest stop and pays a college student to cut out the worst of the damage, too impatient for the knotted weight of her hair to be gone to hold out for a comb. The student watches her curiously, warily, and almost says nothing.
"Hey," she says abruptly. "Aren't you—?"
Natasha smiles, hands her a creased bill. "Keep the change," she says, and leaves.
The first lesson goes something like this:
In the beginning, there was cold snow and hot blood and dark wolves snapping at your heels. But Mother came for you, caught you up in her strong soft arms, wrapped you in goosedown quilts and fed you hot soup, spiced tea; lay you gently to bed. Mother took you in when you were lost. There would be nothing without Mother.
(She dreams of words never spoken, her new-cut hair itching on her scalp:
Hey, aren't you the Black Widow-spy-terrorist-monster-murderer—?
My father-mother-sister-brother-cousin-grandmother is dead at your hands.
Did you hear me? I said—)
In the morning, she stands in front of the mirror, stretches, shifts unconsciously into first position. Looks at her hard hands, the trip-wire strength of her arms. How her feet curve perfectly en pointe, her arms held correspondingly in seventh.
She lowers herself, stands flat against the ground, then lowers herself again, the bare skin of her shoulders meeting the grit on the floor of the motel. One hundred crunches, one hundred push ups, one hundred lunges. Enough not to take too long, enough to keep her strong, enough not to gain unbecoming muscle. She isn't Margaret Carter, whose raw, fearless brutality was so effective and charmingly to the point. She is the Black Widow. Her skill set manifests itself differently.
Maria Hill calls on the third day.
"I owe you an apology," she says the second Natasha picks up.
Natasha squints out over Lake Michigan, the wind blowing fiercely through her new-cropped hair. It's Fury who didn't trust her. She knows Maria well enough to know that.
"For subjecting you to Stark," Maria clarifies. "It was wrong. No one should have to endure him for longer than ten minutes. I have no idea how you did it for so long without punching him in the face."
"It's a carefully honed skill," Natasha says drily.
"Well, I haven't honed it," Maria says, a little petulant. It's true enough for the purposes of this conversation.
"You'll get there," she says, in her best ironic cheerleading voice. "I believe in you."
"Yeah, fuck you," Maria says, but it's with a laugh. Mission accomplished. "Come to New York and save me from the limits of my patience."
"I'm in Chicago," she says, glancing along the shore. Jackson Park is green and beautiful and brisk here at the water.
"I'm not coming to Chicago," Maria says. "Going into winter?"
"It's September, Maria."
"Not everyone's got your tolerance for extreme cold. Is there even anything between Chicago and New York?"
"Maybe a highway."
"Lots of corn," Maria says with dislike. "Tractors, I bet. Probably a few Confederate flags. Christ."
"I don't want to deal with Tony," Natasha says. "I think I'm a bit rusty on that not-punching-him-in-the-face thing."
"So don't deal with Tony," Maria says. "Let me deal with him; they're paying me enough for it. Come to New York and deal with me instead."
She hums pensively. The water slaps against the shore.
"Nat," Maria says. "Come to New York."
"Well," she says graciously, "if you insist."
Maria picks her up at JFK in the morning, brows raised at the uneven chop of her hair. She doesn't comment, because of course she wouldn't. "Good flight?" she asks.
Natasha shrugs. "Good enough."
She'd spent the entirety of the flight staring out the window, hyper-aware of the rustle of shifting passengers elsewhere, trying to convince herself that it was safe enough to sleep. The TSA was, after all, very thorough; she'd only been able to smuggle a garrote wire and some sheathed ceramic blades onto the plane.
She hadn't slept.
Maria notices, if the close lingering of her gaze is anything to go by, but she keeps any concern to herself. It’s a useful skill, that careful watchfulness, and a necessary one in this work of theirs.
Work of theirs. What a nice, euphemistic way to put it, Natalia.
As if you were anything like Maria Hill.
She can't keep herself from cataloguing the weapons tucked about Maria's person, the gun at her hip, the knife in her boot, up her sleeve. She wonders if there ever were a time she could have kept herself from noticing, not even looking, and sleeping easy next to a stranger.
That is the real first lesson: everyone is a stranger, unknown and unknowable and absolutely, devastatingly predictable. They each sit at the center of a web of their own weaving. Only another weaver can guess at the pattern.
(Arachne or Ariadne? As if she were ever allowed to choose.)
(In the beginning, there was a maze and a spool of red thread and a monster in the heart of it. Mother gave you the spool, hummed as she braided your hair out of your eyes, tucked long bone pins at the back of your head to hold the plait in place.
"Do not fear the monster, Natashenka," she said. "There is nothing more frightening inside than yourself."
This is a dream except it's not, a memory except it cannot be. There is blood on your mouth, around your eyes, friction burns on your hands from how tightly you clutched the thread. Your feet ache from the en pointe you've forgotten how to move without.
"Find your way out," Mother said. You are still trying.
No. That's not quite right.)
Maria takes her back to her apartment. "So," she says. "What've you been up to?"
"What you'd expect," she says in answer to Maria's question. "You know, I kind of thought you'd be in Queens."
"I would, if it were up to me," Maria says, "but the commute wasn't workable. I needed a faster response time."
"Coffee?" Maria asks. At Natasha's nod of assent, she goes to brew some.
Natasha toes off her shoes, drops her bag by the couch. The apartment both is and isn't what she expected from Maria: mostly clean, although she wouldn't be surprised by a week's clothes strewn haphazardly about the bedroom. It’s laid out neatly, good lines of vision to all entrances and exits; accoutrements that range from old, heavy cherrywood chests to a minimalist glass coffee table. She's been to Maria's previous apartment, of course, is familiar with her style and habits, the thin spill of coffee grounds hastily wiped away on the counter, but still: she's familiar with Stark, too, and wouldn't have been surprised to find something a little more quietly luxurious waiting for her.
The coffee’s thick, black and rich, espresso in heavy utilitarian mugs. "He sent it to me," Maria offers, staring at Natasha over the rim of her cup. She means Fury; there's no one else she could mean. Something in Natasha relaxes at that, even after he did not trust her and after she decided not to follow him to Europe. It hurts, still, when she lets herself think of it, but she is glad to know he is alive and sending Maria Viennese coffee from a world away.
"I'm trying to set up some covers," Natasha says at last. "It is...more difficult than I expected it to be."
"Maybe you're out of practice," Maria says drily.
Maria shrugs. "Well, you're welcome to stay here as long as you'd like. Though I may ask you for consultations on Stark."
"Fair enough," Natasha says. She downs the last of her coffee.
It's work, except in the ways it isn't; Maria comes home and complains and structures her remarks in such a way that it's easy to offer a suggestion or two. Natasha knows that's what Maria is doing, just as she knows that Maria really doesn't need her help, and is more than capable of dealing with Stark's idiosyncrasies. But it's a way to contribute without pressure, to ease back into any of her many skill sets without being defined by them. In between, she reads, marathons cartoons, pulls a hood over her head and runs along the dank damp of the Hudson before the sun's risen, Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge, up through Williamsburg and Queens and back to the island. Her feet ache, the breath tears down her lungs, and her hair tangles in the hood no matter how many ways she braids it out of the way.
Maria wants to say something — running by Central Park at night, Nat? — but she doesn't. She knows better than most that there isn't really anything more dangerous than the Black Widow.
She knows Steve is back when he passes her at four in the morning, a huffed on your left the only warning she has before he's sprinting down the street. She rolls her eyes and changes her route; if he's surprised that she catches up with him no less than seven times, he attributes it to her familiarity with Manhattan.
She lets him. She has few enough secrets left anyway, and Steve, she thinks, won't begrudge her that.
He buys her a coffee at a bakery back in Harlem: black, bitter, the way she likes it. His smells suspiciously of vanilla.
"Steve," she says, "is that —"
He shrugs, pinking sheepishly. "I process caffeine too quickly to drink coffee," he says, "and I never actually liked the taste much."
"So you just pick the sweetest confection they'll sell you?"
He grins, sweet and self-deprecating. "I'm working through a list," he says. "London fog, today."
"Oh my god, Steve," Natasha says, the horror in her tone not entirely feigned. "Steamed milk with earl grey? What is wrong with you?"
"I like it," he says, defensive.
She rolls her eyes, and settles into a booth near the back of the bakery. The kitchen doors are just to their right, a bathroom squeezed in at the back, and from here she can see the entrance and the street beyond.
"So," she says, once the cup's half-empty. "What are you doing back in New York?"
"Funny you should ask," he says seriously. "Actually, I'm here to see you."
Steve wouldn’t abandon his search for Barnes if he had another choice. She looks at the coffee, traces the rim with her finger. "Give me today," she says, "and I'll be ready. Where are we going?"
"Oh," Steve says, "no, I mean — of course, I'd love to have you with us, Sam says hi, by the way, but — I'm actually here to warn you."
"Nat," he says gently, "you know you can trust me, right?"
"Steve," she says, at a loss.
He leans back.
"I wish you'd told me what you were risking," he says, quiet and sincere in the way only he quite manages.
"What am I risking?"
"Natasha," Steve says.
"Steve," she returns. "I only pretend to know everything, remember?"
"Okay," Steve says, almost to himself. "Then — maybe this one is on me and Sam." He looks at her, and it's almost as bad as when she gave him the file from Kiev.
"Nat," he says, "have you heard of the Red Room?"
Has she heard of the Red Room.
Of all the questions, Steve.
Steve lets her be silent. He may be the world's worst liar but he's always been excellent at reading others, and if even a fraction of what she's feeling shows on her face — well, game over, Natalia; so much for ways to stay alive. The wrong business all your life, and you're only just realizing it now.
Truth is a matter of circumstance, and maybe Steve took her more seriously than she'd expected him to, because now he watches her, his hands spread wide on the table, and talks.
"We met someone in Ukraine," he says. "And again in Alsace-Lorraine, Berlin, Bristol."
"Quite the Grand Tour," Natasha says, but her mouth is too dry to give the words the bite she means.
Steve shrugs, discomfited. "I say 'met,' but that's not quite right. We met her in Ukraine, and we think she followed us the rest of the way after, but we only got sightings in those three cities."
"What on Earth forced you to Bristol," she says, a too-loud, off-tempo quip to mask the way her pulse flutters at her wrists, how her palms dampen the cloth over her thighs.
"Nat," Steve says, "she called herself the Black Widow."
She stills, holding his gaze. "Ah," she says, quiet. "Would you excuse me for a moment? I need to make a call."
She calls Darya from the bakery's cramped, dingy restroom, Steve waiting outside in the booth. She should call Maria. If Natasha's been compromised, it's only a matter of time before all the dominoes fall. For the first time, she's glad of how little Fury actually told her.
Darya answers, as established decades prior, on the third ring. "Natalia," she says, warm, welcoming, pleased. "How wonderful to hear from you so soon."
"Darya," Natasha says, "what did you tell Mother about me?"
A pause. She cannot hear Darya's breathing on the other end, cannot tell if she intends honesty or deception. "Only what you told me to, sister," Darya says demurely.
"Darya," Natasha says, "please tell me. Has the family grown?"
A soft, resigned rustle of breath on the other end. "Natalia, sister," Darya says, "you know how fond I am of you, but if you have questions about the family, you should return to us. There is nothing Mother cannot answer. You know that."
"Is that what you told her? Your new little spider?"
"Well, you know Mother," Darya says. "What do you think she told her?"
She stops, holds her breath, covering the receiver on her cell instinctively.
"Natalia," Darya says gently, with all the kindness of a knife between the ribs, "don't be afraid, my sister."
"I'm the Black Widow," Natasha says, sharp, brutal, the crack of a bullet from across a city, the ending of a world in a second's fraction. "I am not afraid."
"Well," someone says behind her, low and amused, "that makes two of us."
The bathroom door — she'd locked it, she knows she'd locked it — closes behind the other woman with a soft snick.
Natasha hangs up.
What a fool she was to call Darya. She practically led them right to her, lost whatever advantage she might have had, and it's not wholly Steve's fault either. Trust is a weakness, and love is for children, Natasha. Sharpen your teeth. Tear their throats before they tear yours.
The woman looks at her, the pale gold of her hair like the gilded turrets of St. Petersburg, the line of her nose, the curve of her mouth, intimately familiar.
"I know you," Natasha says.
"You don't," the woman says, and lashes out.
Natasha ducks, not as fast as she normally could, but she's lacking practice. What her body remembers is enough to keep her alive. She'll have to ask Steve to train with her if he's in town longer, if she survives this.
So: duck the fist to the jaw, sidestep the sweep of the woman's feet meant to distract her; block the knife, the third intention wrought with steel, let her drive it into the wall behind you and take your opportunity, this flaw of threes. Knee to her stomach, heel of your hand to the line of her nose, get hold of her hair, that's it, Natasha, now you've got it. Get your fingers under her jaw and press upwards to make her scream.
The woman laughs, quiet, they've been so quiet this whole time. There is blood from her nose staining her smile, her teeth, and Natasha wants to kiss her, kill her, press her own teeth to that pale throat and leave a scar.
"Who are you," she says evenly, pressing upwards with her fingers.
"I am the Black Widow," the woman breathes, and breaks free, knee to Natasha's stomach, hand at her throat, the other tangling in the crop of her hair, and Natasha thrusts her hand at the other woman's face, fingers angling for eyes, the catch of her nostrils, brings her knees up at her waist, close as lovers, and presses forward, throw her off balance, let her cushion your fall, just like training, Natalia, that's it —
The woman grins up at her, eyes electric, one hand still at the back of Natasha's head, the other settled at her waist. They could be lovers, close like this, Natasha thinks, something foolish and hysteric sparking up her spine, but it's beyond even instinct to lean close when the woman tilts up her hips restlessly, to caress her jaw, to thumb at the blood on her mouth.
"Who are you," she says gently.
"Your equal," the woman says, “or better,” smiling like a knife in the dark, and suddenly her hands shift at Natasha's head, to the pulse point on her neck, and really, Natasha thinks, she should've seen this coming.
"You think," Mother said once, very softly, "that it gives me joy to make you thus? To make monsters of you sweet, dear girls? It does not. But it gives me peace to know that I have made you strong, and that you will endure beyond the imagination of men."
"Natalia," Mother says gently, her hand kind on your brow, brushing your hair behind your ear. "My dear child. The best of us. It's time for you to come home."
She blinks, blurry. Steve is bending over her, his hands light at her temple. Checking over her head for injuries; she recognizes the pattern.
"Steve," she says, and sits up. The other woman is nowhere to be seen, not that she'd expected her to stick around. "How long—"
"About ten minutes, I think," Steve says. He's pale, and there’s poorly disguised fear in his eyes, but his hands are steady on her shoulders, the nape of her neck, making sure she's stable before letting go.
"She's gone," Natasha says, not needing his confirmation. Through the kitchen, likely; in and out before Steve, his faithful back to the wall nearer the bathroom, the sounds of steaming milk, ovens, the radio and tuneless humming of one cook or another covering what faint noise they might have made.
They. The Black Widows. Your equal, or better.
Natasha exhales sharply. "I need to get to Maria," she says, and Steve — she wishes she could understand, could comprehend the truth of Steve's loyalty and trust, how he has faith in her after everything and all her secrets, but it's something that remains just beyond her grasp.
Steve nods, pulls her to her feet. "Let's go."
They go to Stark Tower, even though Steve sets his mouth in a thin line at the sight of it, because there is no way in hell Natasha is leading one of Mother's spiders to Maria's home if she can help it. Stark Tower is an entirely different animal. Everyone who cares where Stark Tower is, and who the Avengers are, already knows. They weren’t exactly subtle when the Chitauri attacked.
(There is a smear of the Widow’s blood on her thumb, staining her fingerprint crimson; she tucks it into her fist and says nothing.)
Stark’s bodyguard, Happy, lets them into the building; if he recognizes her, in street clothes with her hair three shades lighter and tangled, short, at the crown of her head, he says nothing. It will eat at him the rest of the day, she thinks, but doesn't correct him, and lets Steve do the talking until she catches sight of Maria, tall and strong behind walls of glass, laughing at something Pepper Potts is saying.
"Maria," she says, almost before she finishes opening the door, and Maria — bless her, keep her safe from snow-cold kisses and blood-hungry fingers, women who spin webs because they've forgotten how to do anything else — Maria stands at the sight of her, the smile vanishing from her face as if it never were.
"Natasha," she says, reaching instinctively to brush at the abrasion high on her cheek, to ease her into down into the chair, but Natasha shakes her off.
"I've been compromised," she says.
Maria's tone is completely professional, devoid of any inflection, and Pepper stays quiet, her eyes kind, concerned, careful on Natasha's face. She's never been so grateful for these women in her life.
So: the truth.
"Not Barton," she says. "Me."
Steve tells them the story of the other woman, with her long strong limbs and hair like sunlight on a field of snow. Pepper gently helps her clean the signs of the struggle from her body, and produces new clothes from somewhere while Natasha examines her body for evidence of anything that happened while she was out cold. Ten minutes; she knows what she would have done if the tables were turned. Did you take blood, Widow, or leave something behind? Did you poison me, track me, whisper a weapon into my ear?
She remembers the points of contact, the ache (almost forgotten, before today) between her thighs, how she'd moved towards the Widow like a planet in orbit around a star. Gravity had nothing on the blood-stained promise of the Widow's smile.
She finds nothing, and nor does Maria when she comes to check. Pepper makes a quiet call for Dr. Foster, who has been developing a quantum field generator modeled on the Asgardian medical device in her spare time, but that, too, reveals nothing out of the ordinary.
"It's just something I do when the insomnia hits," Jane says dismissively, adjusting something Natasha can't quite see.
"Or," Darcy Lewis mutters, standing just to the side, "when I haven't hidden the coffee well enough."
Jane throws a pencil vaguely in her direction, but there's a smile fighting its way through the scowl, and Darcy dodges it with practiced ease.
"She came to meet you," Steve says. "Face to face."
"But what was the message?" Maria asks. "A challenge, a threat? Or did she just want to meet you?"
They both look at her as though she has the answers. Natasha threads her fingers through her hair, smoothing out the tangles as best she can.
"Probably both," she says, and it's not a lie, but it's not what Steve would consider the truth, either. Grow up, Steve: the truth isn't all things to all people all of the time, you poor lost boy, and neither is she, and neither is this.
The truth is that the Widow likely wanted to think she was acting on her own, and to carve her own mask out of Natasha's bones; the truth is that it was a challenge and a threat and message from the family.
Come home, Natalia. Meet our new little spider.
The truth is this: Mother found you in the cold and the dark with wolves at your heels and frost at your fingertips. The truth is that she brought you back into the warmth and nourished you to health.
The truth is that you starved, brittle bones and frozen hands, for four months between the finding and the taking.
The truth is that Mother did not make you a killer. You were damned long before you ever met her.
It's an invitation. Embossed, gilded, hand-delivered by the standards of the Red Room. And what do you do, Natalia, when the Red Room comes calling?
You run. What else?
Maria sits across from her, behind her desk. Until thirty-seven seconds ago, she had at least gone through the motions of doing work for Stark, but now she fixes Natasha with that cool, perceptive gaze.
"You're going after her, aren't you," she says. Not a question, and Natasha knows her well enough to be grateful for that fact. Plausible deniability is a beautiful thing.
She closes her eyes, leans back. The Widow's blood is a faint stain on her thumb. "When the Red Room comes calling, there's only one thing you can do, Maria," she says quietly. And so, the untruth Maria will understand without explanation: "I'm going to drop of the grid for a while. Visit some family. Set up my covers, finally."
Maria says, "Family, huh."
She opens her eyes.
"You have family here," Maria says, suddenly fierce. "Barton. Steve. Me." Her hands are hidden beneath the desk.
Natasha reaches across, offering — the only thing she has the right to offer. A moment of contact, a kindness. "Maria," she says softly.
A muscle ticks in Maria's jaw. "You're more than what your family wanted you to be, Natasha. Don't you dare forget that." She takes her hand, squeezing it briefly, and then her steadfast professionalism slides smoothly back into place.
"Thank you," Natasha says, "for reminding me."
"Always," says Maria. Her eyes are so blue. "You're one of ours. We don't abandon our own. And neither do you."
Natasha smiles, uncalculating, impulsive. "I'll be back," she says.
Maria shrugs. "Of course you will," she says. "You're the Black Widow. You always come back."
When the Red Room comes calling, you run.
No one ever said anything about running away.
Steve, if she asked, would put everything on hold for her, would follow her through bloodstained snow to the first place she knew as home, and he might not even hate her for asking, at the end of it. By now, he knows Barnes was there too, if only briefly, and the Red Room's black books would give him a master list of HYDRA centers throughout the world — even after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But Barnes is adrift in the world, and Natasha knows that is his choice, but she also knows that Steve would die before he gave up on Bucky Barnes, and nearly has more than once. She won't make him choose between friends. She can give him that much, at least.
He watches her on the plane across the Atlantic, a loan from Pepper Potts and Stark Industries to help him resume his search for Barnes, and her to begin her long march home. "I would," he begins.
Natasha smiles. "What'd I tell you, Rogers."
"Yeah," Steve says softly. "I am shit at espionage."
"Most are," she tells him.
"You aren't," he says. She shifts, turns and holds his gaze. "Look at you," he says. "Managing everyone else's safety before your own. Protecting Maria, Clint. Leaving Bruce out of it. Letting me focus on my own mission."
"We all have our own missions," she says quietly.
"I think you're the best of us," he says, that unshakeable faith solid and strong in his voice, his eyes.
My dear child.
Natasha bends the shape of her mouth into a smirk. "Yeah, well. What else is new."
Steve, always keener than she expects, watches her, smiles to himself. "Yeah," he says, "obvious from the start, really."
"Can I ask you something?"
Natasha rolls her eyes at him.
"If I get lost," Steve says quietly, "if I can't find my way home for him and me both — will you —?"
She sits up, stricken. How can he ask this of her, when she has always been lost? Bird-boned girl with fire-bright hair and a beast in her belly, screaming silent into the dark while the wolves watched from the edges of her vision, a monster in the maze of her own making with a spool of red thread clutched tight in her hand. She has always been lost, never found. It does not count, it has no meaning, if others find her before she does.
But she looks at him and knows what he needs to hear.
"Steve," she says.
"I promise," she says. "I won't need to."
He swallows, relaxes against the hull of the plane. "And, Natasha —"
"You won't need to, either," she says. He sighs, in disappointment or relief; some combination of the two.
So maybe it's a lie. It's a kindness, a boon. A little less red in that ledger of hers. Maybe it's a selfishness and not a gift. Maybe it's both. Maybe the intention doesn't matter. Blood stains your hands whether you take a life or save it.
That is the first lesson.
(She dreams, white-gold hair and pale blue eyes, a hand at the nape of her neck in a caress, a stranglehold. Blood etched and rusty in the whorls of her thumb.
Kiss me, the Widow says, kill me. A pause. You cannot save me, Natasha.
A hand, her own, over the Widow's throat. Rust on pale, pale skin, a wolf's kill on a field of snow.
I am the Black Widow, Natasha murmurs. Braced over the Widow's body, the heat of her sharp hips burning bruises into Natasha's thighs. I can't not try.
The Widow kisses her, eyes blue and open, watching, waiting, and slips a knife from her sleeve.
Save me, then, she says, and thrusts the blade up into Natasha's abdomen: a cruel, painful kill.)
"Hey," Steve says, "we're about to land."
She shakes out the aches from her limbs and checks that her pack is secure. Passports, cash, a holographic face mask from the Triskelion, a cache of her Widow’s bites, her gun and ammo. Her knives and garrote wire are hidden on her person, and her cuffs, fully charged, hidden under her jacket sleeves.
"Expecting trouble?" Steve asks wryly.
She hums noncommittally. Always expect trouble, Steve; that's the first rule of espionage.
"How are you still alive," she says out loud, and startles a laugh from him.
"I ask myself that every day," he says, but it's the barbershop quartet line all over again: desperately lonely, miserable and trying to hide it, so determined not to bleed on anyone else.
"You've got good people on your six," Natasha says drily. "That tends to help."
He stills, looks at her more closely than she intended. "Goes for you, too," he says seriously, and she cuffs him on the shoulder.
"That was me fishing for compliments, Rogers, you hopeless sap."
He grins, a little sad, but lets her misdirect. "My bad, Natasha."
Sam Wilson meets them off the plane, grim until she smiles first. He hugs her, and Steve, and says nothing when she holds maybe a beat too long, but Sam is — has always been — safe, steady, secure, and when her own stability is crumbling, his is a relief.
It's the same for Steve, she thinks, watching them, but there's something other than the platonic in that embrace. Let them be, Natalia: they've allowed you your secrets, let them keep theirs.
The Black Widow knows all the secrets anyway. Letting them keep one is just not announcing it to the general public. Steve's face will do that on its own, probably.
Sam knocks at her door, the hotel room adjoining theirs. "How long are you planning on staying with us?"
She shrugs, checks her pack for the umpteenth time. "Not long," she says. "I'll probably leave in the morning."
"You're not gonna just vanish into the night?" he says drily. "I'm pretty sure that's standard spy procedure, Romanoff."
She pauses. "No," she says. "I won't."
He pushes off the door frame, gestures to the bed, asking permission. She nods.
"You know—" Sam says, sitting, "what am I saying, of course you do. Before the Triskelion, I talked to Steve. Told him that Bucky wasn't the kind you save; he's the kind you stop."
He pauses to meet and hold her gaze. "Natasha," he says, and sighs. "I don't pretend to know the details of what you're dealing with. But I'm wondering if you need me to tell you the same thing."
Natasha tucks a stray wisp of hair behind her ears. "I don't know," she confesses. "I'm not really sure what I'm doing at all. If saving isn't stopping in itself."
"Sounds like you've got a few things to sort out," Sam says carefully, after a pause. "Look, Natasha — none of us know what we're doing. I'm in way over my head, too, and Steve — I'm really just along in case he gives his own life jacket to Barnes and forgets to save himself, too."
"Steve keeps trying to help," she says lowly. "Remind me that I've got people waiting for me. He learn that from you?"
"Could be," Sam says. "That a bad thing?"
"No, of course not," she says, and pauses again.
"What," Sam says, low and warm, "you think that it somehow doesn't apply to you?"
She bites her tongue. "I'm not Steve," she says.
"No one's asking you to be Steve," Sam says. "You're allowed to have people who care about you, you know. Regardless of your ability to give rousing speeches full of truth, justice, and the American way at the drop of a hat."
"That's not—" she says, and stops.
Sam sighs. "Of course it's not," he says. "But it's something to think about, at least. G'night, Natasha."
She's not Steve. But it's not just about the perfect idealism Steve embodies. She's not Bruce, either, or Maria, or Thor or Jane or Clint. Not Stark, not Fury.
It's a useless model, anyway. It's not about being, it's about doing, and the things she's done — well, maybe it's not that, either. Stark waged wars of mass destruction, Bruce destroyed a city; Maria and Fury led an army of shadows, and even Steve has ghosts come back to haunt him.
It's about her. It's about being the Black Widow. About stains you can never wash out; about choosing and not being able to choose.
She wonders, fleetingly, if the other Widow feels the same, if they share more than a name.
Mother sets her book down, beckons you to the fire. "Come here, my dear," she murmurs, and helps you into her arms. "Trouble sleeping?"
"You are so clever," she murmurs, "picking that cuff so well. Do your dreams trouble you, Natashenka?"
There was a time — you're sure of this, the way you're sure of almost nothing these days — when you trusted her implicitly, when she soothed your nightmares away with a hand at your brow and an attentive ear, but now —
"I think I had too much tea," you whisper into her shoulder, and she laughs softly, strokes your hair.
"You must watch that, Natashenka," she says. "Take your rest when you can."
"Yes, Mother," you whisper, and tuck yourself closer to her warmth, her softness, how she smells of dill and bay leaf, the fire's lingering smokiness. She hums in your ear, tuneless and almost inaudible, but you're learning to listen, and recognize snatches of the song as she braids your long red hair. A song about wolves in the woods: wolves are everywhere, Natalia, and they are always watching.
You can still taste the blood from your dreams.
Natasha wakes, but stays still and quiet and soft, her breathing even, her eyes open only a slit. There is a figure in her window, perched on the sill, long and lithe and barely discernible from the shadowy curtains.
"Natalia," she says. Game over.
Natasha sits, stretches, works out the crick in her neck. "Fair's fair," she says, and catches a flash of white, a smile slicing across the woman's face.
"I am the Black Widow," she says. "That is all you need to know."
"Well then," Natasha says, "what are you doing in my window, little spider?"
Gracefully, the Widow dismounts from the window, but comes no closer. Her eyes gleam in the dark.
"I came to check on you, Natalia," she says, and smiles again. "What kind of family would we be if I did not ensure your wellbeing?"
"We are no family at all," Natasha says. "The family disowned me. I have no family."
"And yet here you are, and here I am," the Widow says softly. "What does that make us, then?"
Natasha leans back, rests her head against the headboard, baring the line of her throat and watching as the Widow's eyes rest on her pulse point.
"We are the Black Widows," she says. "The only two of our kind in the world."
The Widow is across the room in a flash, her limbs pinning down Natasha's legs, her hand at Natasha's throat. "I am nothing like you," she breathes. "They said you were the greatest, but here I am: I bested you in every single way, and they gave me your name, and sent me to take you apart. I am the Black Widow, you are a traitor unworthy of the name."
"And yet here you are," Natasha says, almost lazy, half-wondering where her caution went, "in my bed, following me to New York and the Loire Valley, picking the lock of my hotel window just to watch me sleep. You can't say a word except to tell me of your superiority. Who are you trying to convince, Rooskaya?"
The Widow stares, expression unreadable. Her weight is heavy on Natasha's thighs, and her warmth bleeds through the sheet and skin. Daringly, Natasha raises a hand, delicately reaches towards the Widow's face, brushes a lock of pale gold hair behind her ear.
"You can talk to me," she murmurs. The Widow's hand is slack at her throat. "I will understand."
Hesitating, as though the movement is foreign to her, the Widow echoes Natasha's earlier gesture, brushing her hand through the crop of her hair, but she curls her fingers, painfully tight, yanks, pinning Natasha's head back. Her eyes are wide and so, so blue.
"I could kill you," she breathes, and Natasha smiles with a faith she does not feel. Her abdomen aches with a stab wound she never suffered.
"You won't," she says.
"I won't," the Widow repeats, almost to herself, almost a question but for the way she looks at Natasha. She settles slightly in Natasha's lap, and hums lowly. "Tell me, Natasha," she says, "why won't I?" Her fingers dig in, sharp, cruel, dangerous, in the back of Natasha's head.
"Because," Natasha says, "you love this too much."
The Widow sighs, a soft puff of air in the dark. She leans closer. Her eyes, half-lidded; her lips, parted; her neck long and pale in the slivers of moonlight arcing through the air. Her fingers wind in Natasha's hair.
"I'm not the only one," the Widow murmurs, and kisses her.
The Widow keeps her eyes open, and so Natasha does, too, and they watch each other through the kiss. Her mouth is soft, open, wanting, tastes of mint tea and apricots, and she bites down ungently on Natasha's lip, drawing a bead of blood. Natasha — Natasha wants, very badly, and so, heedless of the Widow's hand at her head, she leans up, presses her breast to the Widow's, tangles her fingers in that fine gold hair and pulls her in tight. They're close, so close, pulling and clawing at each other. She can feel the Widow's nipples on her breast, and palms at her ungracefully.
Neither of them are graceful. They were taught grace in the heat of sex, taught to draw back and watch, cold and detached, for the opportunity to strike; taught to be a fantasy, so much better than the real thing. The Widow draws blood and Natasha scratches bluntly down her back, and it's real, it's real, it has to be. It hurts, so it's real; she aches, she wants, she burns: she wants to claw her way inside the Widow's ribs, get her hands on the shape of her bones. She will never be close enough.
The Widow gasps, pulls back, eyes wide and wild. Her hands rest, limp, in Natasha's hair, over the pulse in her throat.
"Fuck," she says, sudden, vicious, and just like that her shirt is yanked down, her hot weight gone. She is a shadow at the window. Natasha misses her already, but she's damned enough without following where she's not wanted, so she lies on the bed, quiet, still, watchful.
"Are you alright, Rooskaya," she says softly.
The Widow turns back, bares her teeth, snarls. Natasha wants those teeth at her throat. There is blood on her tongue, her own, and she aches, wet, slick, between her legs.
But she is wolf more than woman, it feels, so she bares her own teeth back — never back down, Natalia; you are to be indefatigable, unbeatable, a monster the likes of which they cannot begin to imagine. They have never heard of you because there are no stories of you. Girls sent into the woods all in red get gobbled up, remember? They do not become wolf cubs. They do not sharpen their smiles to razored points, and their eyes are hidden beneath mother-made cloaks, not bloody stains.
The Widow balks for a second, only a second, only a second's fraction, but you are Natasha Romanova. You are the Black Widow, you have ended worlds in less time. A jagged splinter of time is all it ever takes.
The Widow, Rooskaya, stares, and vanishes out the window in a blinking. She is there, and she is gone; Natasha allows her the dignity of the escape and turns instead to the bathroom, to wipe as much evidence of this away as she can. She feels suddenly cold, detached, empty: the wolves always eat the girls, and if the girl comes back a wolf — well, it doesn't change the fact that she was swallowed whole first, does it.
"What the fuck, Natasha," Steve says. Behind him, Sam stares grimly.
She tries, "It's not that bad."
Steve looks concerned, unconvinced. Sam verges on mutinous.
"This," he says, "is not what I meant by things to figure out."
Her hair, short as it is, does little to hide the raw, angry evidence of the Widow's grasp. There is a shadow of a bruise, the approximate size of a woman's hand, at her throat. Her mouth is sore from biting kisses, and perhaps more swollen than it normally is, but she is the Black Widow. To name the things she has endured is to invite pity, concern, well-meaning suggestions of rest, retirement, a different line of work. Good intentions pave many roads, none of them honest.
"Really," she says. "It's fine."
"So you're telling me that you wanted to look like you'd been mauled by an angry monkey," Sam says.
Natasha fixes him with a stare. He raises his hands in defeat.
"Do you know her?" Steve asks suddenly. "From...before."
There is no honest answer, but she tries.
"Sometimes, I think I do," she tells him quietly.
He exhales: a barely-heard tragedy of sound. Like he's just realized that perhaps he's not alone, but, for her sake, wishes he were. From anyone else, she would regard the sigh as a subtle display, a performance, and deconstruct it with her cynic's scalpel, but from Steve —
It is a wonder, really, that Steve is himself, in spite of everything. Of course he feels for her. He would not be Steve if he didn't.
Sam scrubs his hand over his face, catching on the morning's stubble. He looks, suddenly, haunted, old and tired and aching in his body, and she remembers the ghost of a man with wings haunting him, a scar made immaterial and everlasting in the corner of his eye. But he looks at her with kindness, compassion, affection and worry rolled into one. He wants to ask if she wants to talk about it, if she'll tell them the secrets of the Red Room's history, the scars it inflicted upon her, but he doesn't want to pry, and she doesn't want him to, either.
No good would come to any of them by resurrecting those ghosts.
Here is a ghost: you remember far more than you were supposed to.
Here is another: you dream in labyrinths, red-spooled thread unwinding in your hands. There is a monster in this maze, and it is you, with your wolf-jaw and red hair; it is a mother who is not a mother, who is a metaphor made real, whose heart beats in time to the glory of Soviet supremacy. It is a man with wounded eyes and a metal arm. It is a girl with sunlit snow for hair and a blue-ice gaze.
Choose your role, Natalia. Ariadne? Theseus? The Minotaur? Daedalus? Choose carefully.
There are no happy endings here.
Steve squeezes her hard. "I'm only a call away," he says, voice thick. "Always."
She hugs him back, her face tucked into his jacket. "You too, Rogers. Anytime."
Sam hugs her next. "Don't you fuckin' die on us, Romanoff," he says. "I've been to too many funerals already."
She almost says that they would never find her body, but it wouldn't comfort any of them. "I'm not gonna die on you," she says, "I've got to save you from Stark's holiday parties, remember?"
"Damn right," Steve says under his breath, and she grins tightly at him.
"You and Maria should start a club," she suggests. "'Those Unable to Escape Tony Stark for Love or Money.'"
Steve wrinkles his nose. "That's terrible, Nat."
"We can definitely do better," Sam agrees. "The 'Punch Tony in the Face Club,' how's that?"
"'Stark Pranksters United,'" Steve says, deadpan.
"Oh," Natasha says, "I like that one. Get Darcy, and Clint's protégé in on it, too."
"And Thor," Steve reminds her.
"Yeah, you owe me an introduction to a real life Norse god," Sam says.
Natasha pouts. "What, we're not cool enough for you anymore?"
"Please," Sam says dismissively, "like the two of you were ever cool enough for me."
"Well," Steve says, bone-dry, "he's got us there."
She flicks his ear. "Speak for yourself, Gramps."
Steve lunges for her and she ducks, caught beneath his big body, and they tussle, playful, breathless, while Sam laughs 'til he wheezes beside them. She could kiss them, she thinks, these brave good men, these friends of hers, if it would mean anything, if she were like them: honest and open with their bruised hearts worn on their sleeves, but she is the Black Widow. Some days she cannot find her heart, and some days she does not want to.
But, no, that's not — that's not quite right, is it? Is it?
Tell me, Mother, is it true what Dostoevsky wrote? It's life that matters, only life?
A hand at your cheek. Soft, kind, tea-scented, familiar. Horns above, cloven feet below.
Natalia. My child.
An empty spool in your hands. Bone pins in your hair; aching feet taut and trembling in worn pointe shoes.
What makes you think you ever lived?
Ha. Would she be this exhausted if she were not alive, Mother? What a joke her dreams make of her, but then — what if she were nothing more than a dream, a skeletal shade of a person? Do dreams sleep anymore than she does? What if she were eaten up and hollowed out, a matryoshka doll brimming with the ghosts and dreams of other bloodstained women?
If a joke, Mother — a cruel one.
She's waiting for her espresso to cool in a café just over the Alps when a lean dark shadow slides silently into chair opposite.
"You look tired, Natasha," the Widow says. Her long pale fingers dance in the air between them, tracing the circles Natasha knows must be under her eyes. "Are you sleeping?"
Natasha cradles the espresso in her fingers, her silence an answer in itself. "What do you dream of?"
The Widow tilts her head. "What makes you think I dream at all?"
"We are the Black Widows," Natasha says.
The Widow smiles, ducking her chin down. The fall of her hair over her cheekbone mesmerizes. "Do dreams dream?"
"Then who dreams us?"
The Widow leans back. "A little early for psychoanalysis, isn't it?"
"Mm," Natasha says. "Yes, I can see how that might not appeal to you."
"People are more than their dreams, more than an amateurish interpretation," the Widow says with distaste. "I prefer folk stories for understanding people. Fairy tales. The dreams of a nation spun in sugar and blood."
"And what fairy tale are we?"
The Widow smiles. "You tell me," she says.
Natasha stares, and says nothing.
The Widow laughs. Her throat is long, white, swallowed into the thick black sweater and coat she wears. Her eyes look grey in the dawn's half-light.
"Dear Natasha," she says, sounding so much like Darya it hurts for a moment, "if you are the wolf, then I am the girl in red. And I should warn you: my granny is quite good with an axe."
"A pity," Natasha says. She'd half expected the opposite, for the Widow to see herself as the wolf and Natasha as the girl in red, but it makes more sense this way. She is hunted and baited, and follows temptation knowing the axe awaits.
When she looks up, the Widow is gone.
Natasha says, "You know, I'd like something to call you, if you're going to insist on following me all over Europe."
A different café, East Berlin instead of Vienna, a newspaper held expansively over her face, another wide white cup glimmering with black coffee. Another dark shadow slipping into the chair opposite.
"You know my name," the shadow says. She flips down the top of her paper, brows raised.
James Barnes looks haggard, face dark with the beginning of a beard and exhaustion bruised under his eyes.
"I suppose I do," she says. She folds the newspaper neatly into quarters and places her coffee on top of it. "Is that the name you're using?"
Barnes looks at her unblinkingly.
"Or don't talk, that's fine," Natasha says. "Stare at me all you like, Sergeant. It doesn't bother me."
"I remember you," Barnes says.
"You shot me," Natasha says. "Twice. And at me multiple times."
He stares at her. "Before that."
She remembers suddenly seeing the Widow for the first time, the instinctive recognition and attraction; her gravitational pull.
"We are all of us ghosts," she says, subdued. "Shadows and dreams given life and sent to wander the world at the bequest of our dreamers."
"Yes," he says quietly.
They sit in silence for a moment. Natasha sips her coffee, bitter, dark, perfect.
"Can I have the crossword?" Barnes says.
She extracts it from the paper and passes it to him without a word.
"Three down, three letters," he says, smiling like a skull. "'A professional liar.'"
She smiles back. Spy lies unuttered between them.
"I used to love doing the crossword," Barnes says. It sounds like a confession. "Old man hobby, I know." His pen darts across the paper, sure, unerring. "But I am an old man, now, so I got no shame."
"Fourteen across," she says. He makes a face, expression scrunching up.
"Who the hell even makes these crosswords," he mutters. "What goes around comes around, huh?" He writes GUN in the boxes with his gloved left hand. Good handwriting. Neat, effortless. She wonders how long it took him to relearn writing, to relearn English.
"There, now," she says, "we've pulled each other's pigtails."
Barnes places the pen down precisely. "So we have."
"So why are you here, Sergeant?"
"Let's not be so formal," he says. "Long time since I wore any kind of uniform. And I was going to ask you the same thing. What brings you this side of the Berlin Wall?"
She spreads her hands out on the table: open, offering, unthreatening. "I suspect you already know, James."
Barnes smiles at the table. "I'm not gonna get you to 'Bucky,' am I."
"You want someone to call you by that atrocious nickname, go find Steve," she says, and he tenses: another battered boy with his heart worn bruised on his sleeve. How does she keep finding them? Are they drawn to her because she hides her heart like a secret in the marrow of her bones, because they think she can contain all that they are with no negation of herself — because she has no self? An unfair allegation but — she wonders, sometimes. Is that cruelty or human nature, that wondering, that doubt? A doubt of others or a doubt of self, that she could be so easily used and cast aside after serving her purpose?
Don't be silly. You are a tool, Natalia. You have always been a tool. And tools get used. What lesson was that?
Quietly, Barnes says, "How is Steve?"
Natasha sips her coffee, lets the silence hang for a moment. "He worries about you," she says at last. "But I am not your go-between, James. If you want to know how Steve is doing, you should talk to him yourself."
He looks down, runs his thumb along the half-finished crossword puzzle. His finger, when he turns his hand over, is dark, stained with newsprint ink. "I know," he says softly. "I know."
She says, "I suspect you know why I'm here."
"Me too," he agrees. "Always nice to have suspicions confirmed, though, isn't it? Vindication is a sweet, sweet thing." His tone is bitter; she wonders who first taught him that, to what lesson in whose syllabus that axiom belonged.
"And," she says, "I suppose we are friends."
He raises his brows at her.
"Or at least," she amends, "we are not enemies."
"No," Barnes agrees, "suppose we ain't."
She says, "I do not remember you before Odessa."
"Sure you do," he says. "You're just full of holes like I am."
"What do you know about the Black Widow?" she asks, all business.
"Pretty sure I'm looking at her," he says amiably, but his eyes go cold and hard for a second, scalpel-sharp.
Natasha shakes her head. "The other Black Widow."
"No such animal," Barnes says easily. "You're the only one in the whole wide world. Anyone knows that."
"That's not true," she says. "I've met her. Haven't you?"
"Sure," Barnes says, "I've met her. Kinda prickly, blonde? Not the Black Widow."
"She earned the title," Natasha says. Barnes waves a hand, making a face.
"Who determines what the title even means?" he asks. "What does 'Black Widow' even mean? Seems to me, you're the only one who can speak to that."
He smooths his hands over the crossword, and casually tugs at the glove over his left hand.
"See, the thing as I understand it is, the Black Widow's a legend. A ghost story, a fable, a fairy tale. Whatever term you like the best. You don't become the Black Widow by passing your written and oral, y'know?"
Natasha stares. Rooskaya's words haunt her. The dreams of a nation spun in sugar and blood.
Your equal, or better.
"She said much the same," she says, soft, tender like a bruise.
Barnes says, almost regretful, "She always was sharp."
He shrugs. "Like I said," he says. "I'm like you. Full of holes. Don't mean I don't remember things I wasn't supposed to."
The glove slips off with one last tug, and he pulls the newspaper up smoothly to shield it from other eyes. The silver glints in the sun, plates clean and sharp, flexing towards her wrist, and she dreams — she remembers — she remembers the dream of a memory, a man with kind eyes and a wounded smile, his hand steady at her side, his aim uncannily accurate.
"Ah," Natasha says softly. He smiles: sad, kind, knowing. She takes his hand, the metal cool against her palm. "Thank you," she says. She knew him. She knows him. She had not forgotten, just been unable to remember. "James," she says.
"Figured I owed you one," he says, "or more, who knows. I'm not so good at keeping track of my debts these days, but — I'm trying. I am."
It's by no means a complete recognition; she cannot recall meeting him, or missions with him if ever there were any, or conversations they might have had, but she remembers the sound of his voice, his abysmal Russian, the spiderwebbed scars on his shoulder. She remembers knowing him. It is a start, and now that she knows what was missing, she can find out the rest.
Barnes pulls away, tugs the glove back over his hand. She breathes.
He says, "I don't know a lot about her. What I do know, I expect you'd want to find out from her yourself."
"That obvious, huh?" She folds her hands together, a tell she thought she'd excised years ago. Barnes watches her, smiling small.
"Not to everyone," he says. "Just — you recognize the signs, y'know? You see them in the mirror enough, it's easy."
Is it who you see, or who you want to see, she thinks, disjointed, and sighs.
There is a bare slick of coffee left in her cup, enough that she can see herself in its dark gleam. She looks nothing like the Russian Widow, with her burnt-red hair and dark eyes, but give her a half-hour, bleach, cosmetics, she could change the shape of her face enough to be her, and so could the Widow. There is a holographic mask in her bag; she would not even need a half-hour.
"I think I do not have the luxury," she says, "of waiting for her to confide in me."
Barnes says, "Do you have the luxury of not waiting for her to confide in you? What will she do if you take the advantage on the sly?"
Do you care for her, he doesn't say, and doesn't need to: she can read it in his eyes.
"You know the answers," she says. Of course he does.
I am the Black Widow, spy of spies, she doesn't say, and doesn't need to: he knows that, too.
"I think you do, too," he says, serious. "Just, y'know — full of holes."
A name wants to fall from her tongue. She can taste it: sweet and clear as honey, as stained glass, as the Widow's eyes. Rooskaya. Beloved. Come back to bed.
She shivers, her ribs contracting over a hollow hurt in her chest. She aches; there is a loss she cannot account for, a longing she cannot quite understand. She thinks of the Widow's dream dagger, cutting clean into her stomach through the heat of a kiss: she would take the wound, the death, the killing kiss over this empty absence, this excised imagined touch.
"It's almost enough," she says lowly, "to make one wish nothing had ever happened. That I had never known her, or you, and lived a quiet, dozing life, where mornings smelled like fresh-cut hay and the sky was always blue except for the summer storms. And I had as many cats as I could feed."
Barnes smiles, sad, kind. "'Almost,' huh?"
"You can still have all that," he says. "Retire, disappear, live out all your dozing dreams."
"But it's not a dream," she says. "It's a wish yet unwished. A wish that should not be wished. I am not myself without my past."
Barnes shrugs. "No one is, Natasha."
They sit in quiet for a moment, Barnes tracing the rows and columns of the crossword, Natasha staring at the black swallow of coffee left in her cup.
"Hey," Barnes says abruptly. "Ever read Tolstoy?"
She levels him with a stare, as flat and unimpressed as she knows how.
"Russian, right," Barnes says, "should've figured." He strums his fingers on the table contemplatively. "Y'know, I haven't read much of him myself. Not much time for reading in cryo, you know how it is. I've been trying to catch up on Russian lit, seeing as how I've woken up more or less fluent—"
"Aw, shut it," Barnes says, grinning. "Anyway, there was something, I'm gonna mangle it, something he said, about love—"
"'All,'" Natasha says softly, and he quiets, bright-eyed, listening, "'everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.'"
There's something soft, tender, kind in the lines of his face. "That's it. I think about that a lot, y'know? Like, if I had the choice to live out my dog-farmer fantasies, grow old and grey with a bunch of bees, who knows — would I choose that, knowing that Steve wouldn't be waiting for me? Would I live a life where I never held a gun in my hands, where both my hands were made of bone?"
He stands, stretching. "Would I give up Steve, if it meant giving up the Winter Soldier, too? But it's like you and that Russian say: I'm only me because that's never a choice I would make."
She thinks, on the train east from Berlin, about her sisters. Mother's daughters, the snow-born foundlings. Darya, with her glossy ebony hair and milk-white skin; Masha, her mouth bruised like cherries, her eyes green and sharp as the needles of the Nordmann fir in the Georgian summer. Alina, singing in the morning like a firebird. Kseniya and Zinaida, bent towards each other like gilt parentheses, pink-cheeked and smiling and lethal. Widows, all of them, deadly and dangerous as grief.
Her classmates, her bedmates, her sisters. How she knew them all, could tell Kseniya from Zinaida by the fractures in Zinaida's wrist, learned the dance of Masha's feet to the washroom and back in a rare moment of leisure, Alina always humming so you knew she was coming, Darya watching and smiling from her cot in the room you shared as teenagers. And her, with her hair like sunlight in your fingers, close enough that barely a breath separated you.
If you could turn back the years, Natalia, what would you choose? Alexei, the wolves, the Red Room, or summer thunderstorms sweet with hay? A half-remembered dream? What would you sacrifice?
What do you have left?
There's a warmth settling against her side in the train compartment, the sky a feathered purpling blue. Black jacket, pale skin, white-blonde hair. A soft grey scarf at her neck.
Natasha says nothing, relaxes into the seat. The Widow exhales; they are each waiting for the other to speak first, trained to make the silences drag uncomfortably so the mark fractures the quiet.
Natasha speaks first, pity or tenderness teasing the words from her. "This will work better, Rooskaya," she says softly, "if we do not hunt each other."
"We were made to hunt each other," the Widow murmurs. "That is all we were made for."
Natasha says nothing.
The Widow turns to look at her, warmth radiating through her jacket to the marrow in Natasha's bones. "You asked me before," she says, "if I dreamed. What I dreamed."
"I did," Natasha agrees.
"I dream of you," she says. "It is night, and it is cold, and your hair looks like spilled blood against the pillow. I am watching you from the door, and you are not sleeping, because you smile and call me by my name, and tell me to come back to bed. You smell of fire and cinnamon. I cannot breathe for looking at you."
She cannot breathe: the air stagnates, trapped, in her lungs. Carefully, carefully, she turns, shifting to meet the Widow's gaze without breaking the cradle of her body.
"I dream of you, too, Rooskaya," she says softly. "But your name is cut from my tongue. I bleed from the wound of it."
The Widow exhales, a thin, hurting sound. "I should not be here," she says. "I am not here. I will not be here when you wake."
"Alright," Natasha whispers. "Be here while I fall asleep, then."
The Widow says nothing, but she softens against Natasha, curls under her arm, lays her head on her shoulder, and Natasha, unthinking, instinctive, brushes a kiss to the crown of her skull.
She wakes after an hour, cold, lonely. The Widow is gone. The compartment door slides open.
"Hello, Natasha," Nick Fury says.
She doesn't stand. He takes the seat across, settling down with a grunt.
"Sir," she says, stiff.
"Natasha," he answers, and sighs. "What are you doing?"
She stays contemplatively quiet: she wants to answer him with honesty, with the truth, whatever the fuck that means to the both of them in this moment, and so haste must be set aside. What can she say that is not an evasion of truth? I'm doing what I need to, Nick. I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm unravelling the mystery of myself, I'm looking for redemption or suicide or a little less hurt in my bones. Is that enough, Nick? Do you trust me now?
After all these weeks, it still hurts.
He'd been like a father, when she'd never had one. Had it ever been real, reciprocal? It hurts. She hates that it hurts. She wants to hate him, just a little, for this latest scar he's given her, but hate drains, it always does, and she needs to conserve her energy.
Natasha says, "You know exactly what I'm doing."
He looks at her, that one eye steady and unwavering.
"Guess I do," he says. "Tell me anyway."
She looks at him, long and unblinking. Smooths her hands over her thighs, links them at her knee. She almost says something, but stops, breath stoppering up her throat. "I don't owe you that," she says quietly.
"Who said anything about owing, Natasha?" he asks. "Aren't we past that talk?"
She pauses again. "I understand," she says, and stops. "No," she says, abruptly. "I know why you kept me outside your plan, why you let me think you were dead, and I get why you kept Steve out of it, too, but — I don't understand why you didn't trust me enough to let me be there for you."
"You were exactly where I needed you to be," he says, tired. Every line in Nick's body is tired, suddenly, lax and exhausted and worn-thin, like a flannel that's been used and stained and washed so often it's threadbare in the most literal sense: the threads themselves are all but invisible and intangible, a bare patchwork of spidersilk tenuously binding the fabric together. "You were protecting Steve, Nat. You were doing exactly what needed to be done."
"I know that," she hisses, suddenly venomous, the words bitter like cyanide on her tongue. "Why do you think I did it? It needed to be done and no one else was fucking stepping up, and you were gone, and it was the right thing to do, so I did it. That's what this means." She gestures to the whole of herself. "I was made to do what needed to be done. That's what I mean. The Black Widow."
"Yeah," Nick says softly, "and that's why I didn't trust you."
Natasha goes very still. "Fuck you," she says. "How dare you say that to me. How dare you."
"Natasha," Nick says, sharp like a gunshot, "stop talking for a minute and think. Think. Who am I?"
She hates the childishly angry flush that wants to flood her cheeks, being reprimanded like a misbehaving schoolgirl. "You're Nick Fury," she says. "Former director of S.H.I.E.L.D."
"And who am I loyal to?"
"The world," she says.
He points at her. "Exactly. The world as it is, for all its beauty and bullshit. The reality of planet Earth. But Steve? He's loyal to something else entirely. The world as it could or should be, all its unrealized potential. The difference between me and Steve Rogers is that for him, there's a point where he thinks he'll be able to let go, retire, hang up the shield and the suit. But me? There is no end for me, or Maria — 'cept death. There is no retirement for people like us. And you, you're straddling that line, between what is and what could be. And as long as you are, as long as you're waiting for the job to be over, I can't entirely trust you to do what I need you to do in the here and now."
Natasha stares. "You — you're talking about hope, Nick."
"No," he says gently, "I'm talking about pragmatism."
"No," she says, angry again, but unashamed: this is not an anger born of hurt but of certainty, of knowing the difference and being right. "You act like the two are polar opposites, but they're not. Protect the way things are — are you serious? You of all people should know that the way things are is awful. And maybe it's not my place, or yours, or anyone's, to judge this world, fine, but — how can we possibly protect it, do what we do, if we don't have hope that the world can be better? That it might eventually be a place that, that — that does for us what we do for it?"
"The world doesn't do reciprocity, Nat," Nick says.
She looks at him. "Do you?"
He settles a bit, resignation in the slope of his shoulders, consideration in the line of his gaze. "I do...what needs to be done," he says quietly. "I do loyalty, and duty, and debt, but reciprocity is not something I can afford."
"Ah," she says, soft. There it is.
"Now you see." He watches her, even, tired, sad.
"Yes," she says. Her bones feel leaden, too heavy to move and aching from the weight. "I was a tool. Tools do not merit trust."
"Natasha," Nick says.
"No," she says. "What else was there to do?"
"This is what it means," he says, gentle again, "to be the first line of defense. To do the things that need to be done. In this line of work, these are our choices, and they are always necessary, and never easy."
"Yes," she says, soft, and lapses into silence.
Nick reaches across the compartment, his hand open, offering.
"So," he says, tone uncharacteristically kind. "Natasha. What are you doing?"
She looks at him. Takes his hand, and the gauntlet he offers.
"I am doing what I need to do," she says.
"You're the Black Widow," he says. "That's what you do."
He stands, and she does, too, almost a habitual reflex; shakes his hand.
"Romanoff," he says, formal. "Black Widow. It's been an honor."
It's not I love you, or I'm proud of you, or a word of recognition — daughter, always — but it's as close as they can get to it.
"For me, too," she says. "Sir."
Nick Fury smiles, and leaves her.
Darya is waiting for her when she finally disembarks in Moscow. She looks like something out of a fairy tale, with her dark hair and white skin and red mouth.
"Natalia," she says warmly. "You came."
Natasha accepts Darya's embrace, returns her kiss upon the cheek. "How could I refuse such an invitation?"
Darya smiles dazzlingly. "I knew you would take to her. Isn't she magnificent?"
Darya's not looking for an answer, so Natasha doesn't give her one, and follows her in silence to the car.
It's black, nondescript, quietly luxurious in a way she wants to associate with Stark — a display of power all the more intimidating for its subtlety. It's not Stark, though, and not just because of the absence of AC/DC screaming through the speakers. It's the same type of power as the decision to leave James Barnes' metal arm uncovered in the Washington fights: like a cold smile, such power means so little to us that we do not bother to hide it.
Stark's ostentatious suits, Barnes' decision to hide his arm in public, those are more reckless and more cautious. This is measured, calculating. A test of her.
Natasha says nothing, and keeps her face calm, clean of expression.
Darya speaks quietly to the driver for a moment, and then settles into the back, chatting with an ease and assuredness that requires no response from Natasha. She waits, as they approach the city limits, for a pinprick of sedative at her wrist or her neck, or perhaps a chloroform rag held kindly and impersonally over her mouth and nose, but nothing comes, and Darya never falters.
They do not care if she knows the new location of the Red Room, then. They do not plan on her leaving.
Snow falls over Moscow, and from the corner of her eye, Natasha dreams a wolf.
The car pulls to a lazy stop somewhere between Moscow and St. Petersburg. It's snowing — of course it is — and cold, but her blood remembers even if her reflexive shiver does not.
"Careful, Natalia," Darya murmurs, handing her from the car. "Watch your step, my sister."
Natasha squeezes her hand in thanks, and stares.
The structure before them looks like Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut, if only in its impression. It is tall, narrow, wooden: there is a small set of turrets at the top, settled and satisfied like a crown among the highest wooden slats, and there are stairs everywhere. Even from here, she can smell the woodsmoke of fireplaces, the hot spiced tea she grew up with. In the distance, she hears a howl.
It is different entirely from the Red Room she remembers, and yet exactly the same. The same fingerprints cut into every window, the same blood staining the dark wood; the same story unraveling again before her.
"Natalia," Darya says. "Welcome home."
The door opens before them, spilling warm golden light out into the night-blue snow. Masha blinks out at her, green eyes glittering.
"Natasha," she breathes, and turns back into the house. "It's Natalia! Natalia is home!"
There's a sudden, almost soundless rush of motion from inside; instantly, Natasha senses dozens of eyes upon her, staring, implacable and unblinking.
"Go on," Darya murmurs, pushing gently forward between Natasha's shoulder blades. "Go in, our sisters are waiting."
Hands reach out for her the moment she crosses the threshold: Alina, head tilted attentively towards the space of Natasha's body, Kseniya with her wheat-blonde hair and Zinaida's pale scars peeking from under her sleeves, and more — Marina's smiling clear eyes, Catrin and Irina all smiling at her, bright and warm, their hands outstretched to her in welcome, in absolution. Natalia, she hears, and Natasha, Natashka, her names called and whispered with such fierce, burning joy that she nearly weeps from it. Her sisters. How could she have forgotten, how could she have left them, how could she have ever walked away from this kind of love?
But at the top of the stairs she glimpses pale hair, and beside the Widow, another woman: thin and stooped like a skeleton beneath the swaths of red wool hanging from her frame, age mapped onto her face like a web. For a second, she cannot breathe, and nearly freezes in place but for Darya's guiding hand at her nape.
"She will see you after dinner, sister," Darya murmurs; "come in, eat. You must be famished from all your travels."
Dinner passes in a ceaseless, graceful flurry of motion, each exchange and gesture so elegant as to be choreographed and practiced, though Natasha knows enough of her sisters, by memory or by instinctive recollection, to know that none of it is premeditated, exactly. It is a coordination that only comes from the training that they have received, and from the familiarity built between them.
What she knows is this:
There is almost more food than she thinks the twenty of them will be able to eat, and all of it is hot and smells mouthwateringly from the edges of the room. Girls, who will have already eaten, flit about, bringing dishes to the main table, as requested, vanishing like chameleons into the background as soon as that service is not needed. Natasha remembers doing the same at their age, or a little older; practice for invisibility in their own home. There is a warm, constant chatter around her, a press of contact and consciousness that jars her after her weeks of semi-solitude. There is vodka, clearer than glass and infinitely stronger, and the women drink it like water.
The Widow is nowhere to be seen, and neither is Mother. In this moment, she can't help but be grateful for their absence, for this moment when this place and these people seems uncomplicated. In this moment, this is her home again, and these women are her family, her sisters; maybe the only people on this earth who can understand her, who can claim to know who she is.
A hand brushes her elbow as the Red women rise: one of the girls, leaning in quick and quiet to whisper, "Mother will see you now."
Natasha tousles her hair. "Thank you," she says. "Lead the way."
The girl grins up at her, and darts shadow-like through the house: up stairs and down hallways Natasha almost thinks shouldn't be able to fit in the structure, and Natasha keeps up, feeling full and brave from the food and contact.
The girl pauses outside a closed door; at the lintel, light from a fire flickers, and she can hear a soft susurrus of conversation. The girl knocks softly at the door, and a moment later it opens.
The Widow stares at her, impassive and unblinking, then crouches down. "Thank you, Anya," she says gently. "You may go now. Sweet dreams."
The girl, Anya, flits away into the shadows, and the Widow stands, and beckons Natasha into the room.
Mother is seated by the fire, swathed with crimson blankets. She looks, for the first time in Natasha's memory, old, her skin tough and wrinkled like a walnut. "Sit down, Natalia Alianovna," she says. Her voice is exactly the same: warm and smooth like summertime honey.
The Widow gestures to the only other seat, another winged armchair; as Natasha takes it, the Widow slips behind Mother's chair, all but vanishing into the fire-cast shadows. Her eyes glitter in the dark.
"So," Mother says. "Natalia. You look well, my dear."
"There is little better than being reunited with one's family, Mother," she replies.
Mother hums. "We would know, wouldn't we? Yes." She tilts her head back against the chair, and stares at Natasha. The Widow stares, too. Assessing, measured, implacable.
Natasha keeps her body language open, unthreatened, her breath even, her eyes unblinking. She must not display fear nor any sign to hide it: this is, after all, the safest she has been in some time, and also the greatest danger she has ever faced. No fear, Natalia: you are home, and it may kill you. Give it nothing.
Mother says, "Why have you come home, Natalia? After all these years away...I confess we had thought you lost."
"Why, you called to me, Mother," Natasha says. "You extended a hand in welcome to a lost daughter, and beckoned me in from the cold."
"Yes," Mother says. "The unfortunate events in April. Quite the sacrifice you made, Natalia, leaving your histories for anyone to find."
"You mean careless," Natasha says drily.
"That goes without saying," Mother says. She smiles. "But it was brave of you, though you've never lacked for courage. How deeply you must care for your American friends, to lay yourself on the altar of their ideals."
"You misjudge me, Mother," Natasha says softly; she must keep them off Steve and Maria and Sam and Barnes if nothing else. "It was loyalty to myself, as you taught me. I completed the mission I was given and struck a blow against your enemies."
"You expected to be invited back into the fold?"
"Of course not. I hoped. But I expected nothing."
Mother sighs, softly, and settles more deeply into the chair. "My Natashenka," she says softly. "What am I to do with you? Abandoning your sisters the way you did; and now, after so many years in service to our enemies, you ask to return?"
Mother sighs again. The Widow shifts slightly against the wall.
"You understand," Mother says, "that as much as I would like to, I cannot simply welcome you back with no questions asked; nor can I send you on your way."
"I understand," Natasha says calmly.
"So you understand that you must prove your motives, your intentions, your loyalty to us."
"I do," Natasha says. "What must I do?"
"We have crafted a test," Mother says. "A gauntlet, if you will. In the manner of the examinations you endured in the days of your youth."
"Ah," Natasha says softly. The Widow looks away, a split-second flicker of motion.
"At first light, Natalia," Mother says, "we will see if we can still call you sister. Daughter. Family."
"Yes, Mother," Natasha says. The Widow takes a silent step from the shadows, and Natasha rises.
Mother smiles, thin and gaunt. "You lost the right to call me that twenty-five years ago," she says. "Sleep well, Natashenka. Dream deeply. Earn us back in the morning. Darya will prepare you."
Mother closes her eyes in the chair: they are dismissed. The Widow beckons her through the door, and down staircases and hallways spun wild like briars from the wood. The house itself is a maze.
"Here," the Widow says at last, stopping by a small, stooped door. "It was made ready for you."
"Thank you," Natasha says.
The Widow follows her into the room, and closes the door. It is almost too small for the both of them: Natasha can hear her heartbeat, can smell the tea on the Widow's breath.
"Rooskaya," she says softly, but the Widow flinches at the word.
"You should not have come here," the Widow says, low and vehement. "You were gone, you were free. You should not have come here."
Natasha shrugs. "I am here," she reminds her. "There is no point in agonizing over the past, about choices made with a clear mind. I chose this. For the first time in my life, I chose this."
The Widow sits on the bed delicately, as though it might buckle under her slight weight. "I did choose this," she says quietly. "The family, the training, the name: I chose all of it with my eyes clear and my mind sound. More than anything else...I wanted to be the Black Widow."
Natasha can't breathe. She sits, carefully, a hand's breadth separating them. "Why?" she whispers.
The Widow shrugs. "You...you are a legend. Our very own superhero. The best defense of the Motherland. And then...you left. You betrayed us. There was a void to fill, and no one could see it but me. And I had always loved the Black Widow."
"Love is for children," Natasha says softly. The Widow smiles, a bitter thing.
"I was a child," she says quietly. "Weren't you?"
Natasha says nothing. The Widow sighs, and cups her cheek. She presses a kiss to Natasha's brow.
"I hope," the Widow says softly, "that you get what you want tomorrow. But I do not think you will."
"Nor do I," Natasha says. A ghost of courage limns her ribcage. "But I am the Black Widow. I can't not try."
The Widow smiles that bitter smile again. "Dream well, Natasha," she says, and leaves.
A test in the manner of the examinations of her youth. She does not need dreams, nor their absence, to prepare for this: she knows what is coming. There will be a pinprick at her wrist, perhaps, or a hallucinogen pumped hissing into her room while she sleeps. She will not be meant to know what is real and what is not. Dreams make truths of us all, Natalia. Especially when we have done our best to make truth a lie.
She thinks that there will be something familiar in the trial. A maze. A monster. A spool of thread.
A choice: betrayal or faith?
You already know the answer.
— she is a girl and there is a hand combing in her hair, long white pins gleaming in her hands —
— she is a girl in dark dark woods and there is blood in the snow before her, wolf eyes glittering in the dark —
— she is a woman with blood between her legs and a bruise high on her cheek and a man standing over her who will die at her hands —
— she is a woman who is not a woman, who is a gun, who is a knife, who is a sniper's scope in the cold winter night —
— she is a woman who loves women, a secret, an aberration, a monster —
— daughter sister lover why did you leave us natasha —
"Come on, Natalia!"
Darya's laughing, her black hair swinging in the sun. The grass is green and the sky is blue and the air smells sweet and clean, like fresh-cut hay.
With difficulty — attempting to move feels like swimming through cold molasses — Natasha takes Darya's hands, lets Darya pull her to her feet.
"Wake up, sleepy," Darya laughs. Natasha blinks. Her head is a hive set to swarm. No. Her head is a mountain drowning in an avalanche. No. Her head is a circus screaming and spinning while an archer looses his arrow directly at her —
She catches it, the shaft, stares the razored point down. Masha grins at her. Barton jostles her, you glad i taught you that trick, tasha, and vanishes past her shoulder. Masha lowers the bow, and takes her hand.
"Wake up, Natasha," she says, smiling, but her eyes are green like a killer's.
This is not a dream, Natalia. This is not real. This is the maze you made.
"Natalia," Darya whispers.
"Natasha," Masha says.
Alina sings by the door. There is a door. Darya opens it, and Masha is already inside.
There is a mirror that is a wall. There is blood stained into the floor. A music box chimes Tchaikovsky.
"Do you remember, Natasha?" Masha murmurs.
The Widow walks through the room and through the mirror and she is gone. A girl ties on her red pointe shoes.
"I am one of twenty-eight," Natasha breathes, and Masha and Darya and Alina echo her, one of twenty-eight, one of twenty-eight —
"I am awake," Natasha says.
"You're not," Alina says, and stabs her.
Natasha dies, and wakes.
Masha cuts her throat.
She dies, and wakes.
Darya holds tea to her lips, and cradles her head as the poison takes hold.
She dies, and wakes.
Kseniya holds her down, and Zinaida slits Natasha's wrists, and then her own.
She dies, and wakes.
One of the trainers says, "This is a test."
You stand silent, still, ready for anything.
The trainer kneels before you.
"Mother knows you understand survival, Natalia Alianovna. We are seeing if you understand killing."
It's what you would expect: two girls enter.
One girl leaves.
You scrub the blood from your hands. You were not ready.
She wakes in the training room. Alina stands on her thumbs.
"This is a story, Natashka," she says. She will have heard the change of her breathing. "How does it start?"
Once upon a time —
Alina crouches in front of her, expression fixed and intent.
"Once upon a time," she says softly, "there was a girl and there was a wolf. There was a girl and there was a curse. A girl and a monster locked away in a labyrinth. How does it end?"
Natasha whispers, "The girl looked in the mirror and said, 'Hello, Wolf.' The girl listened to whispers and witch fires and made herself into a curse. The girl was alone, and there was no mirror and no whispers, and all she had were the horns on her head that made her monstrous."
Alina says, "If I am the curse, who are you?"
"Wolf," Natasha answers. Her head pounds.
Alina says, "If I am the curse and you are the wolf, who is the monster, and who is the maze?"
Darya stares at her from the room they share.
"When you left," she says, the crime unspoken, "you took everything we had."
"I took only what was necessary," Natasha whispers. "I took myself."
"You left us a ruin," Darya whispers. "A body in a field, the heart cut out. How can we forgive you, Natalia?"
"I don't know," Natasha says.
"How could you do that to us?"
Natasha looks at her.
"How could I not?" she asks.
Kseniya says, "Tell me what you did, Natalia."
Zinaida says, eyes distant and empty, "Tell me what you remember."
"Tell me, Natalia," Kseniya whispers, "do you know what it feels like to have your heart cut from your living chest?"
"Natalia," Zinaida says, "tell me. How does betrayal taste?"
Natasha wakes. She is alone in a room with many doors. Passages wind out like silk in a spiderweb.
The Widow sits before her.
"Natasha," she says.
Natasha says something, a word, a name; she cannot hear herself. The Widow's expression does not change.
The Widow says, "What does it mean to be the Black Widow?"
The doors open. Natasha blinks. Her hair is long and pinned up behind her; no, it is braided and hanging long down her back; no. It is short and unevenly cropped. She remembers. A college student at an American rest stop had cut it for her.
She remembers. Mother's hands gentle in her hair. Find your way out.
It's time to choose, Natalia. Who are you? The monster, or the monster-hunter, or the monster's captor, or the monster's sister? Remember: There are no happy endings, and there is always blood on your hands.
Masha is filing her nails a little way down the passage. Natasha catalogues the strength of her perceptions: the cold cement at her feet, the feebly flickering florescent light above, the colorless plaster slick with damp and mold when she reaches out to steady herself.
Masha watches. The nail file hisses faintly in the gloom. "How are you feeling, Natalia?"
Natasha closes her eyes. This is not a test of ability, of physical prowess: it is a test of self.
Masha is staring still when she opens her eyes, but the file is nowhere in sight. Her joints ache against the ungiving cement. This is not a dream. This is real.
She allows herself a smile.
"Ready," she says.
Masha raises one perfect brow in question, and Natasha launches herself at her.
It's over quickly, but not easily; while she may have had a half-second's head start in motion, in velocity and thrust, and maybe a quarter-second's element of surprise, Masha has not been drugged with hallucinogens recently. Her perception is clear and unimpeded, her movements fluid and precise.
Who are you, Alina had whispered.
Her hands are claws, her teeth, fangs; she fights with the hunger of the hunt writ ravenous in her eyes.
It ends, and they are both bleeding, Masha's shoulder dislocated, Natasha's last left two fingers broken and screaming red in the back of her mind, her side purpling from being thrown against the wall. Natasha's knee presses into Masha's kidney over her twisted arm, and her uninjured hand holds Masha's head down hard against the concrete.
"Ask me," she says raggedly, "your questions, Masha."
Masha laughs, a ragged, gasping sound. One of her ribs may be cracked, but not broken, Natasha thinks; she hadn't hit her hard enough for that. Careful, careful: does none of them any good to break each other permanently.
"You know what the question is, Natasha," Masha rasps.
Why did you do it?
Natasha tells her.
She leaves Masha on the cement, and follows the corridor a little farther. There's a choice: left or right? Treachery or loyalty?
This is a story. Pick your symbols with honesty, Natalia.
She takes the left hand passage.
The hallway winds along; she passes through two rooms, continuing forward as best she can. The first is a classroom, names quietly carved into metal legs; the second is a perfumery. She covers her face and darts through as quickly as she can; as much as she might want to know what new pheromones and toxins the Red Room has concocted in her absence, she is unequipped to do so. She'd need a hazmat suit, at least.
The third room is a kitchen. Kseniya is sitting at a table, her fair strong hands cradling a mug of tea. Zinaida is staring at the clock.
"No need to fight," Kseniya says smilingly. "You know what our question is."
How did you do it?
"You know exactly how I did it," Natasha says.
"I have extrapolation and conjecture," Kseniya says. "Give me the truth."
Natasha looks at Zinaida. Zinaida looks back, and nods.
Natasha splints her fingers, and tells them.
She moves to leave, and Zinaida says, "Wait."
"What was the crime?" Zinaida asks.
"Not completing the mission," Natasha says.
Kseniya is watching, but her eyes are on her twin, Zinaida, on the pale cruel webbing of scars up her arms. Her eyes are hard when she looks at Natasha.
"Finish the mission," she says, "or die trying."
Hallways, passages, wood-hewn corridors. She hears a music box — Swan Lake. It starts and stops, the song fractured into jagged mirror-shards. Alina sits at a piano, her hands delicate on the box's metal keys.
"It's like Braille for sheet music," she says. "I've always liked it."
Natasha sits at the edge of the piano bench. "And the Tchaikovsky?"
Alina hums. A wicked smile flits across her face. "There are many answers to that question, aren't there? It is Tchaikovsky, and a masterpiece: how can I not love it? And it is an overture that cages me. And you. It has been used with too heavy a hand. How can I not hate it?"
"You understand," Natasha says quietly.
"I understand," Alina agrees. "That does not mean I forgive."
Natasha looks at her. Alina shrugs.
"Both," she says, "either. But I know the answer to the riddle of this place. I do not need forgiveness. Do you?"
"Forgiveness is a luxury," Natasha says. "An obsolete currency in our line of work. I do not need it, but I would welcome it from you."
"A good answer," Alina says. The music box chimes in the space between them. "But that is not my question."
Who is the monster, and who is the maze?
"I know," Natasha says.
"Will you answer?"
Natasha smiles. "As soon as I know, I will tell you."
"Know it soon, Natashka," Alina says warningly. "This is almost over."
"I think you deceived me, Natalia," Darya says.
Natasha looks at her.
"Respectfully, sister, I do not see how that is possible."
They are sitting in a room, a ballet studio. Mirrors line the wall, their reflections interrupted only by the barre; a screen before them plays surveillance footage of a lesson given years ago. Natasha watches her younger self rise from plié to pointe, and Darya does the same next to her.
"Don't lie to me, Natalia," Darya says, whip-sharp. "Don't you dare lie to me."
Natasha turns and looks at her. Darya's eyes burn dark in the half-light of the studio.
"I did not deceive you," she says, slowly and clearly, "just as you did not deceive me."
To anyone who knew her less, Darya's expression might have seemed impassive, unchanging, but Natasha — Natasha grew up with this face, slept three feet away from it for twelve years and has spent the time since distrusting its every affect. To Natasha, the shift at the corner of Darya's mouth is as telling as a flinch, a too-hasty denial.
"So all those years," Darya says quietly, "you..."
"I knew you spied on me," Natasha says. "I spied on you right back. Did you expect anything else? I knew you better than anyone else in this wretched place, how could you think to keep your betrayal a secret from me?"
"I am a graduate of the Red Room just as you are, Natalia," Darya hisses. "Whatever skills you possess, I learned them, too."
"That is demonstrably untrue," Natasha says coolly. "Only one of us in the room holds the rank of Black Widow, Darya. You could never best me."
"Oh?" Darya asks, and her hand is on Natasha's left, seizing her two broken fingers and bending them back. "Let's see about that, sister."
Natasha allows herself a grunt of pain — don't trap pain inside yourself, Natalia, does no good to anyone — as she head buts Darya with as much force as she can. There's a sickening, wet crack, a collapse of bone and cartilage that won't be easily repaired. Darya reels back, her hands flying to her shattered nose, and Natasha steadies the splint on her fingers, fuck fuck it hurts, let out the pain, Natalia, let it out. She kicks high, spinning for momentum, catches Darya's jaw in the sweet spot that knocks back her head first and her body second.
Darya staggers, gasping for breath, but she lashes out quickly: her heel to Natasha's side, the soft vulnerable kidney right there, but Natasha twists with the movement, catches Darya's leg at her shoulder and uses her momentum to flip her past. The television with its grainy surveillance footage crashes, and Natasha turns around.
Darya scrabbles for purchase, winded and disoriented. A concussion, at least, along with her broken nose; probably her jaw is fractured, and if her ribs and hip aren't bruised at least, Natasha won't have done her job right. She walks over, puts her boot on Darya's sternum.
"I only came here to kill one person," Natasha says quietly. "And you know that it's been a while since I've killed outside mission parameters, but believe me, Darya. I won't bat an eye, I won't lose sleep. You won't haunt my dreams, and I will forget anything you ever meant to me. So stay down."
"Yes, Darya. Stay down."
Mother stands in the doorway, leaning heavily on a carved wood cane. The Widow stands at her shoulder.
"We wouldn't want that lovely face of yours wrecked any more, would we, Natalia?"
"That's a question for Darya," Natasha says.
"No," Mother says, "it's a question for you, and for me. You, because you are the wolf, and me, because I am the hunter, and my draw is very fast."
The Widow says nothing.
"You were given an opportunity, here, Natalia," Mother says. "How you've squandered it. How you have squandered every chance I've given you."
"I simply did not make the choices you wished to make for me," Natasha says.
"I saved your life," Mother says sharply, brutally. "You would be mud and bones were it not for me."
"Would I?" Natasha inquires. Behind Mother, the Widow's eyes glitter in the shadows. "I think not. I was a wolf before you tried to make a monster of me, Mother."
"Make a monster of you," Mother says with scorn. "As though I sought out the wolf in you, that venomous sting. I gave you structure, purpose. I brought you in from the cold not once but twice, and you spat in my face both times. I don't know why I'm surprised."
The urge to contradict is strong: she can hear the echo in her memory, Mother whispering you think it gives me joy, to make monsters of you girls, but her childhood memory is not as reliable as she wishes it were. A groundless contradiction is more dangerous to her now than the Widow standing cold and deadly behind Mother.
"I don't know why you're surprised either, Mother," Natasha says. "We've rehearsed this, you remember. Surely you remember."
The Widow blinks.
"What is she talking about?" she asks.
"Yes, Natalia," Mother says cruelly, "why don't you elaborate on your crimes for those who did not endure them. Tell her how you lured me out into the snow, pretended to care for your sisters' empty bellies, and betrayed us all. Tell her how you killed me."
Doors open behind her. Darya groans. The Widow raises her gun.
"I think I'll do that," Kseniya says from the back of the room. She clucks her tongue, toes at the wrecked television. "Lost your temper, Natalia? My, my."
Zinaida slips in silently behind her. Masha follows, gait uneven, her shoulder back in its socket and her cheek rubbed raw. Alina comes in last.
"You see," Masha says, a little hoarse, "we think Natalia's talked about it enough for the day. Kseniya, would you —?"
"My pleasure, Masha," Kseniya says sweetly. "Natalia and Mother went out for a hunt. We were not so hungry as to be desperate for uncleaned and bloodied meat, but Natalia knew our stocks were not limitless, and so offered to go on a hunt, to procure a beast and clean it, drain it, cure it, and so on. And Mother was preparing to brief her on a new mission."
"Kill two birds with one stone," Zinaida whispers.
"Precisely, my love," Kseniya says. "And Natalia took Mother out into the snow, and challenged her. And Mother raised her hand to this, her best of daughters, and Natalia killed her. I must admit, Natashka, when I first saw Mother's body, I believed you had lost your mind. But when she returned — I saw your actions for what they were. Cut the throat, pack her nose and mouth with snow, and cut out her heart: you were trying to make sure she would never come back. Twenty-five years, and you'd been trying to protect us."
"No," Zinaida says. "She could not protect us. She could never protect us."
"She was trying," Masha says, "to save us. And for a while, we were free. I moved back to Tbilisi, I floated in the Dead Sea: my hands forgot the slick slipping death of blood."
Alina says, "I taught myself to cook. My knives forgot their killing edges."
"We had a farm," Zinaida says.
"We raised dogs," says Kseniya.
Zinaida says, "My arms forgot their scars."
"I forgot the science of pain," says Kseniya.
"We were free," Masha says fiercely. "And then we were betrayed. You see, Darya — always the cleverest, Darya — Darya took a body that forgot life and a mind that forgot consciousness and taught it both with fire and ice. Darya resurrected a demon."
"I brought our mother back to us," Darya says thickly from the back of the room.
"You returned us to a cage," Masha snarls.
"You welcomed it," Mother says. Her voice snaps through the room like a whip. "You welcomed me into your houses, into your arms with warmth and gratitude. You returned with me to our home to start anew. You picked and recruited and trained the girls. You relearned your blood, your killing edge, your scars, your pain. Don't tell me you didn't choose this."
"We chose this," Kseniya says. "Here, in this room."
"We chose a reunion," Masha says. "We chose girls who needed to learn their own strength, and we kept their hands clean of your work."
"We chose the end," Zinaida says.
From the back of the room, Alina smiles, prettily. She terrifies. "After all, this is a story, Mother. And all stories must end."
The Widow is frozen at Mother's side. Her gun aims at them unwaveringly. Her eyes fracture like ice in the sea.
Natasha stands, hand braced against her ribs, the ache in her temple, the raw agony of her fingers. "Rooskaya," she says softly.
The Widow shifts. Her gun stares directly at Natasha's brow. Natasha takes one step forward, and another.
"Don't move," the Widow says, the words as painful as if she'd bit them from stone. "Nata, do not —"
Natasha advances. Stops close to the Widow; stands perfectly still.
"What are you waiting for?" Mother snaps. "Kill her."
The Widow does not move.
What does it mean to be the Black Widow?
"Rooskaya," Natasha says. She swallows. "Yelena."
You are a tool, Natalia. You are a gun in her hands. Her finger on the trigger, her hair like the winter sun.
The Widow's lips part. The gun wavers in the air. Natasha reaches, steadies the Widow's grasp with her own. The gun nudges at her breast, at the shiver of her heartbeat, the mechanics of her lungs.
What does it mean to be the Black Widow?
"If I pull the trigger," Yelena whispers, "will I kill me, too?"
A wolf. A choice. A spider and a deadly sting. The precipice of dying.
Silence from the Red women, the deadly Widows. Her choice. Natasha breathes. The gun hitches with her breath.
Mother, cold and hard: you are the Black Widow. You will do what needs to be done. Maria, sure, loyal: you always come back. Fury, tired and truthful as she's ever known him: this is what it means, to be the first line of defense.
Answer the question, Natalia.
"No," she says gently, an absolution. "Only me."
Yelena nods, slow; and then, snake-fast, the gun is gone from Natasha's breast and hard against Mother's skull. There is a flash and a bang, a body on the floor and a ringing in her ears, and when Natasha wipes at her eyes, her hand comes away smeared with blood.
In silence, Natasha sits, and watches. Alina hums in the corner, her hands sure as she grinds herbs and oils in a mortar, the pestle churning rhythmically in the dim light. Anya, the girl who had led Natasha from dinner to her reunion with Mother, flits to Alina and back, carrying salves, ointments, bandages. Yelena kneels at Natasha's feet, the pale of her hair gleaming as she tends to Natasha's broken fingers.
"A clean break," she says quietly. "Your fingers should heal without any trouble. Darya did not ruin them during your fight."
"I'll have to thank Masha for her care," Natasha says.
"Take off your shirt," Yelena says. Her tone is cool, detached, unemotional. "I want to see your shoulder and ribs."
Alina sighs loudly, pointedly, in the back of the med room. "Just because I'm blind," she mutters, or at least Natasha thinks she does, watching her lips: the gun had gone off so close to her ears, and there's still an echo shrilling in her ears.
"Anya," Alina says, "come help me in the cupboard a moment whilst the Widows tend to each other."
Yelena waits until the door closes behind them before her fingers skirt the hem of Natasha's top. "Take off your shirt," she says again, but her voice has changed, more urgent. There's a waver that strengthens her voice rather than weakening it: a ferocity of feeling, not a break in her ability to bear it.
"Yes," Natasha says, an instinctive response instead of a deliberate one. Her hands move of their own accord, until her left protests under the exoskeletal cast Alina had concocted. The shirt vanishes, balled up and flung away, and Yelena runs her hands over Natasha's mottled ribs, her shoulders, the muscled dip of her waist. There's a hunger to her touch, to the too-tight press of her fingers, to the ache of Natasha's skin for her contact. Yelena's hands clutch at the softness of Natasha's breast, as though she could steal out her heart beneath through will alone.
Yelena shudders suddenly, a jagged gasp ripping its way from within her. Her head drops to Natasha's belly, her nose edging at the crease between her hip and thigh.
"Yelena," Natasha whispers. "Rooskaya."
Yelena's shoulders hitch against her thighs. "Don't —" she says roughly. "You know my name. How long have you known my name?"
She thinks of Barnes, the shuddering shock of remembering the knowing of him. What answer can she honestly give? I have always known it — I cannot remember not knowing it — I cannot remember the forgetting but not a day went by that I did not mourn its loss.
What is the kindest answer, Natalia?
She touches Yelena's cheek, drawing her eyes as sweetly as a honeybee draws nectar from a bud. "I think I have always known it," she says, as gently as she knows how. "I only remembered it in the labyrinth."
Yelena exhales, pressing in close. Her nose skims the bare skin of Natasha's abdomen. "I thought," she says, and Natasha knows how this story goes, how this train of thought ends: I thought I was doing service, I thought I was doing good, I thought I stood for something beyond politics and treason —
"I know," Natasha says quietly. "I know."
"I don't know what to do," Yelena whispers.
Natasha quiets, and threads her fingers through Yelena's white-gold hair. "Come away with me," she says.
Yelena shivers, stills, looks up. Her eyes are clear as glass.
"Natasha," she says. She leans up, kissing her like a gift, like a salve on her bruised mouth, with a prick of teeth to remind them both who they are.
"Yelena," Natasha whispers. "Come away with me."
There is a crimson whorl of blood stained into her fingertips, the ghost of Yelena's hand on the trigger. Red on white, girls smiling sharply in winter woods. Her hair shines like the moon.
"Alright," Yelena says, and kisses her again.
They don't leave immediately, of course; the Red women lay out all the food in the maze-house, and they sit around for hours, talking and quiet by turns.
"I'm going back to Tbilisi," Masha says near the end of the night. "I'm taking Darya with me."
"Good," Natasha says.
Kseniya says, "We're going back to the dogs. We've got a kennel out in Noginsk."
"I'm going with them," Alina says. "We're bringing the girls. We'll burn this place to the ground tomorrow."
Yelena says, "Let's stay for that."
They drag Mother's corpse up from the labyrinth, and into the center room. They spill gasoline onto the walls, the books, into the perfumery and kitchen and armoury. Kseniya offers Natasha the lighter, but it's Zinaida who takes it, and flings it into the house.
The snow melts around their feet as the house burns. Yelena squeezes her right hand under their coats, her face flushed, the snow crunching beneath the shift of her feet.
"Natasha," she says. "Let's go."
Natasha follows her to their car, slides into the passenger seat. "Where are we going?"
Yelena looks at her, pulls her close and kisses her. When she pulls back, she's smiling, fierce, almost manic. From the stretch of her own mouth, Natasha knows she's mirroring her face.
"Where do you want to go?" the Black Widow asks.
The Black Widow smiles. Fire gleams in her eyes, the red of her hair.
“Everywhere,” she says.