The Red Room did not die easily. Not the people, not the places.
“I’m sorry, Agent Romanoff, it’s not possible,” Fury had said.
The Red Room hadn’t created Natasha to do easy tasks, though, and taking them down was a mission she had both dreamed of and feared.
Natasha had insisted, “It can be done!”
When Director Fury had called her in to take part in the interrogation of a captured ally of the Red Room, she had been the one to propose the attack. The information on places, schedules, and entry codes they’d pulled from the prisoner would be outdated within forty-eight hours. Anything less than simultaneous attacks on all five centers would guarantee failure.
They needed to go in hard, they needed to go in fast, and they needed more people than even SHIELD could mobilize in that time frame.
“Not spread across so many targets, not in this time frame. We’ll keep looking for a way. I give you my word.” Fury had looked genuinely sorry, but also resigned to the facts. It was important for the head of an organization the size of SHIELD to have a grasp of what was and was not possible. She trusted him. She did.
But, “this is our chance.”
“There are only four strike teams that can be in position that quickly.”
“I’ll take out the Budapest training site myself.”
“Yes!” She had taken a deep breath and let it out, and finally looked him dead in the eye, calm and ready. “Yes. I can take them all out. And a strike team wouldn’t want to take on the Widows in training anyway. It will be better this way.”
It was true. SHIELD agents didn’t like killing kids. That was largely because Fury didn’t like killing kids and didn’t like having agents who were okay with it. And yet, he somehow made an exception for her.
“When you came into SHIELD, I promised that I’d never treat you as a disposable tool. I’m not going to send you on a mission you don’t expect to return from.”
“I want this.”
He had studied her, and she had known she was going to win. Then he had relaxed, and she’d had an instance of foreboding. “You and Barton will go to Budapest together.”
“But…” Barton’s ribs were still cracked, and he’d still insist on going into the fight with her.
“I don’t want to have to deal with him, if I send you off alone. It will be bad enough dealing with Coulson when he returns, if I send the two of you off together.”
She’d allowed a small smile. It was a stalemate, of sorts. She finally got a chance to take on the Red Room and take it out for good. Fury kept her on a leash of friendship, in the hope that it would be enough to keep her to safe through it all.
All of this had resulted in having to plan for possible exit points for after she had snuck into the outpost. She couldn’t simply bar all the doors and go in guns blazing, to take them all out. She couldn’t even limit it to one exit, since Barton had only allowed her to go in alone because she needed him up high monitoring multiple exit paths.
She’d slipped into the building through an upper window that even Barton had looked at dubiously.
“That thing practically has ‘trap’ written on it in blinking lights.”
Natasha had raised an eyebrow at that. “It’s way too obvious for a trap. That’s just a training exercise.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“Yup. That’s all.” And she had slipped right up and through it.
Of course, she had failed to mention to Barton some of the details of what the Red Room considered a training exercise. And that was how she spent the next few hours in a hallucinatory daze with the drugs she’d been hit with while avoiding the more lethal drugs.
Barton had been less than impressed with her and had only stopped cursing her through the earpiece after she told him she needed to concentrate.
The hallucinations added a certain something to the mission.
That certain something mostly consisted of monsters that looked like monsters, unlike her intended targets, who were monsters that looked like friends and memories. The windows bared their teeth and she walked through the mouths of doors that wanted to rip her to pieces. The walls writhed around her.
Though the drugs made it harder to wend her way through the curving hallways and hidden traps to find her targets, it was nothing she hadn’t been trained to compensate for. And the drugs made it easier to kill the women she had once known and trained with.
They were just monsters, and now they looked like monsters, too. She couldn’t see past the hallucinations to recognize them, if she even would have after all this time. So, she never knew if they were the women she grew up with, but she killed them as if they were, and they died whether or not they were.
And Clint murmured encouragement in her ear, to get her through this and out the other side.
Somehow, it all actually went according to plan. Despite the way the tiles tilted and the walls swirled, she had managed to get to the main server room and upload the computer virus. Despite the voices that whispered all around her, she had managed to kill every single person she had seen so far. And despite the smell that made her nauseous, she had managed to douse the carpet of the command center and the various dead bodies with accelerants and light them up before she departed.
The fire was like a red bull close behind her, she told Barton. Covering her footprints. She was sad she wasn’t a unicorn.
“Yeah, well, Princess Amalthea was sad she wasn’t a unicorn too. So at least you are canonical. I am going to tease you so much about this conversation once you’re back in your right mind. Now get out of there.”
And she almost was, she was almost out when the creature came out of the shadows. It looked like a gold and ivory idol appeared out of the shadows. It fought like a Red Room operative, though. And it coughed in the smoke as much as Natasha did.
At an impasse in the fight, they both paused to reassess, crouched under the billows of smoke on either side of the room. Natasha struggled to make her brain work. She was in rough shape. She had always been the best of the Red Room’s graduates, but in the shape she was in, even the least of their graduates could have won if fresh to the fight.
“Are you the reason why there were no children left in the dormitory?” She had noticed that there had been no screams or sounds of attempted escape from the locked-down dormitory when she had passed it by. She was grateful for the reprieve that had been.
“Were you planning to kill them or recruit them?” the creature asked. But that casual inquiry, like conversation at a garden party, was familiar.
“Welcome home, Natalie.”
With the fire raging behind her, the smoke billowing around her, and the drugs coursing through her, Natalie would not have recognized Laura if not for her voice. She was impressed that she even recognized the voice.
But as a young girl, Natasha had been in awe of Laura. Laura was a few years older and already being sent on missions when Natasha was still being trained. She had been one of the Red Room’s successes, and yet she had been the most human of all the graduates. She would sometimes be unnecessarily kind to the students, and was rarely unnecessarily cruel. Apparently she’d been brought back as an instructor, or maybe a house warden.
Laura was generically pretty and deceptively mild and now that Natasha knew, she could sort of see it in the figure before her.
To drown out the hissing of the various monsters in the air, Natasha answered Laura’s question, sort of. “I came to destroy the Red Room.”
“To kill them, then.”
“I would have saved them if I could.” It was true, she thought. Maybe. Or maybe she was trying to convince herself. Was Laura even here?
“Then it’s a good thing you didn’t have to.”
“I want them to live. To live free.” It was a silly statement. If Laura was an instructor now, then surely she would scoff at Natasha being so soft as to want something. And not even just want it, but to voice the desire.
“None of us are free,” Laura responded instead, her voice softened slightly. Natasha couldn’t tell if it was part of some manipulation or if Laura truly wished to reassure the Black Widow, who she might herself remember as a child. “They have a chance. They’ve scattered. Maybe they’ll return, maybe not.”
“Loyalty was not instilled yet?”
“Survival first. What matters loyalty in a dead agent?”
“And that’s the actual official policy now?” Natasha was doubtful. The Red Room always preferred a dead agent to a traitorous one. As demonstrated by the intermittent attempts on her life over the years.
Laura shrugged. “They’ll survive or not. They’ll return or not. But you won’t be around to see.”
Demons crawled over the walls, hiding in the smoke. She spoke to them as much to Laura when she said, “Neither will the Red Room. The Red Room is no more.”
“It’s all very nice, you catching up with an old school friend,” Barton said in her ear, “but maybe you should try to get out of there sooner rather than later. Because, you know, the fire and all?”
She had forgotten about Barton. How had she forgotten?
He was the reason she wanted those girls to survive.
She had wanted to bomb the whole instillation. Fire it all and salt the Earth and never think on it again.
It was Barton who had held her back. He had seen the school filled with little girls trained to be just like her, little versions of Natasha, and wanted to save them. Natasha had also seen little versions of herself but wanted to kill them all.
This was not a suicide mission though. No versions of herself were to die. None at all, Barton had insisted. Only the bad guys died, and Natasha was not a bad guy, he said.
Sometimes she just had to trust in Barton, because she couldn’t trust in herself. She would delegate trust. He would trust for her.
And she had to get out. Because the fire.
She focused on Laura’s face instead. Maybe the drugs were starting to burn out of her system, or be sweated out in the intense heat. Because she thought she could start to see Laura’s face. Laura who was an earlier version of Natasha, and now turned more children into monsters. Laura who had let the children escape and scatter. Laura who was so like Natasha that she wasn’t sure if Barton would consider her a bad guy or not.
Laura who stood between her and the exit.
She had promised to return to Barton; it was the only reason he had agreed to stay back, to stay just a voice in her earpiece for this infiltration. But now there was Laura standing between her and the door. She was better than Laura. Natalia was the prime achievement of the Red Room, the best of the Black Widows…
But Laura was no failed student. She had been so successful that she had returned as an instructor. Laura might not be Natasha’s match, but she was currently in better condition than Natasha and that mattered dearly.
“The Red Room is no more. We don’t have to fight.”
“Don’t we?” Laura looked vaguely amused. It was a trained expression. Her eyes glowed demonically, but Natasha was fairly sure that was the drugs.
“Are you really so loyal to it?”
“Not at all, really, but I have nowhere else to call home. And thus, I will die with it. As will you. It is a fitting funeral pyre for us both.”
Natasha had no answer for that.
“Remember that we must make our dying throes count.” Laura smiled in a way that invited a smile in response. They had both gone through the same training. They had that camaraderie, such as it was.
Natasha knew they could both deal a lot of violence before succumbing to death. The fight was won, but it wasn’t over. The Red Room was done, but she and Laura were still here, successful graduates, both of them. Maybe Laura was right, and they both needed to die here, too, in order to truly destroy the Red Room.
It would be worth it, to die in the destruction here.
A snort of dismissal sounded in her ear, though. “Oh come on,” said Clint. “Dying throes are for suckers. Survivors are the better fighters. You know that.”
His flat American tones were a welcome touchstone.
And he was right. Clint with his almost brawler fighting techniques, learned in a circus of all places, had fought her to standstill before. Never in a fair fight, but sometimes in a real world fight, he could still win against her. He had drive that she still struggled with. He was a survivor and so was she.
“I believe I have shown that I have cast off many of the teachings of the Red Room. I prefer to survive,” she said to Laura.
“That’s my girl!” Barton said in her ear. She would get him back for that later. She was no one’s girl. She would also never tell him she appreciated the reminder that she did have a home.
She had someplace to go back to, someone to welcome her home. She wasn’t Barton’s girl, but Barton was her home.
“You can find another home,” she told Laura.
“Of course I could. But I don’t want another Red Room, not even a SHIELD. I’m tired of this life. I want a home. I want a white picket fence.”
God, Natasha hadn’t thought of that in ages. But that white picket fence had been the dream. It must have been passed down from student to student through the years, in this place of red walls: the dream of living in a house with a white picket fence. There would be green grass and maybe flowers and a low fence that even children could hop over, that was never stained with anything. It would always be white and never bloody.
Knowing they’d be sent out to seduce politicians and scientists and key government employees, the dream was to be assigned a sleeper position with a nice man in America. He’d be a minor government official with access to so much information that they might never be told to kill him.
“Those were children’s dreams,” Natasha said. They had all dreamed of that, all the little girls in the Red Room being trained to be assassins and spies and sleeper agents.
Except none of them got to live the dream.
The memories drowned out even the demons in the smoke. The memories were worse than any demon.
No one got the dream.
The better you were, the shorter your individual assignments were. And anyone not good enough to seduce their way in and kill their way out quickly—they were more useful as a training tool for the other students to kill than as a sleeper agent sent to America.
“Yes, they were. And yet, that is all I want,” Laura shrugged.
“It’s not possible.” Her statement was true. She knew it, and Laura knew it. And yet, her own words echoed Director Fury’s words to her, just two days past. She and he had both known his words were true too. And yet, even knowing he was right, she had denied the truth, and demanded her own way instead.
Maybe Laura felt there was a way. If that was her dream, maybe she had a way to make it a reality…
But Laura just said, “I know.” She sounded as tired as Natasha was. Her voice was almost hypnotic and Natasha recognized that, too, as a lulling tactic to keep them both in place while the fire around them did all the fighting. “I want a farm in the countryside and a husband and children. And at this point in my life, I want either the dream or death, no half-assed survival.”
Laura didn’t need to fight to win this battle. She just needed to keep them both here.
“It’s not possible.” Natasha repeated with regret. She wished she could save this last sister of the Red Room.
“What is, is,” Laura spoke with long resigned acceptance.
“For god’s sake, Nat. Just offer her a white picket fence,” Clint sounded exasperated in her ear. “It’s not like she’s asking for a palace.”
Natasha wanted to. She wondered what Laura would even do if Natasha could genuinely offer her the dream. And god, but Natasha wanted to bribe her way out of this stand off. Get both of them out of here and let the fires rage, eating only the dead. But it wasn’t possible. SHIELD would never support Laura’s retirement, and Laura would never believe the lie.
They were in a standoff, watching each other, waiting their chance to fight, as the smoke continued to billow and explosions popped in the background and monsters danced through it all.
“Nat!” Clint repeated. “Offer her the fence! Nat!”
The voice repeated and merged with the monsters in the smoke and the wavering form of Laura, too, and it was all too much.
“Shut up, Clint! It won’t work.”
Laura blinked. Nathalie should have thought to answer Clint earlier because Laura actually blinked at the sudden outburst, her surprise giving Natalie an unexpected moment of advantage. She used that moment to attack, leaping forward and arcing a kick to the neck, but it wasn’t enough. Laura simply blocked her and pushed her back. She didn’t even bother to counter attack. It was merely a waiting game at this point while the fire continued to devour the walls around them.
“Of course it will work!” Clint argued.
“SHIELD would never go for it!”
“Who said anything about SHIELD? You think we can’t create a solid identity between the two of us?”
“Not one with a husband!” Why did she always fall into these childish arguments with Barton? He always came up with the craziest ideas and then made her argue them out. He was the idiot here.
He really was. And in case she needed further proof, he said, “If you don’t have someone better in your crazy-ass list of random contacts, I’ll marry her myself.”
“What?!” she yelled, “You’d be a terrible husband, Barton! You know it and I know it!”
“How terrible?” Laura interjected. She couldn’t hear Barton, of course, but could follow everything that Natasha was saying in response and was smart enough to work out the rest. Laura sounded almost unsettled, uncertain as to what would inspire Natasha, a graduate of the Red Room, to consider someone awful enough to be called terrible.
Natasha wondered again how she got herself into these conversations. It was all Barton’s fault. “I meant terrible in the American-civilian sense, not the Red Room sense. He wouldn’t abuse you. And I hear he’s exceptional at sex. But he’s a slob, and he’d never be home, even if he had a home to be at, which he doesn’t.”
“Hey!” Clint protested in her ear. “I could buy a home! I’ve got all sorts of hazardous duty pay!”
“I could make a home for him,” Laura offered at the same time. Hopefully. She offered it hopefully. Natasha wondered if the drugs were contagious somehow, to affect Laura as well. Even the monsters seemed to be taken aback by this turn of events.
“Really?! I’m not a matchmaker! This was supposed to be a suicide mission!”
“No, it wasn’t, Nat,” Clint corrected. “This is a marriage proposal! You tell her! I’ll buy her a farm in the Midwest! We can have 2.5 children! And horses!”
There was actual laughter in Clint’s voice as he made the offer, and a not-so-hidden delight that let her know the offer was real.
Because as much as all the little Red Room girls had dreamed of having a real family one day, she knew that Barton had too. He’d run away from his abusive parents and lived with the circus for years before becoming a mercenary, and through it all he had dreamed of having a proper home. He’d known it was never going to be possible either before or after joining SHIELD.
Laura still blocked the door, but she back away slightly, offering a hint of an opening, or the potential for an opening. “I would be a good wife,” she said. “I know how to keep a house and raise American children. I’d go completely native and never allow myself to be recalled.”
“You’d be Aunt Nat!” Clint said in her ear.
She wanted to refuse them both, because she didn’t trust Laura to take care of Clint and she wasn’t sure Clint was capable of taking care of Laura, and her head was swimming because she wasn’t even sure who she was supposed to be protecting here. She also thought she might be getting blisters on her back from the fire closing in on them. She wanted to walk away from this all, but she also wasn’t sure her legs worked right after that last block of Laura’s had thrown her back. And she wasn’t even sure how much of the darkness was the smoke or the drugs or just her sight finally failing from exhaustion.
The voices all around her tugged her in different directions, Laura’s and Clint’s and the fire’s and the memories’…
Clint was her touchstone to reality in all of this and he was asking for something she didn’t think she should give, but who was she to decide?
“Fine! You two work it out.” She took her earpiece out and tossed it to Laura.
And then she passed out.
Because of course she did.
She should have died then. She should have burned and Clint should have shot the last remaining Red Room operative, and gone back to report the mixed success of the operation to Director Fury.
Instead she woke up in the safe house, tucked into bed, with her earpiece on the bedside table. Maybe it had all been a nightmare? But there were Laura and Clint talking quietly on the other side of the room. They looked happy and excited. It was nauseating.
She must have made a noise, because they both turned to look at her. Laura smiled shyly at her. Clint grinned in that way that transformed his face.
“Excellent! You’re awake! You’ll be my best man, right?”
She closed her eyes and decided she wanted to go back to sleep for a while longer. Barton was an idiot—of course she’d be his best man when she woke up again.
“Oh hey, Coulson! I need to update my personnel file. I got married!”
Coulson stared at him. “You didn’t marry Natasha.”
“Lord no. I love her, but no. I married my old circus sweetheart, Laura.”
“You just got back from a mission in Budapest that you can’t debrief from properly because you weren’t physically on the scene and Natasha was high as a kite for the majority of the fight. And now you need to register your marriage.”
“Wow, you don’t normally state the obvious.”
“And you aren’t normally this careless. It’s a good thing Natasha is there to help with that. I assume she was your best man?”
“How’d you guess?”
“Go home, Clint. Get your wife settled in. And register her as your next of kin next time you’re in the office. And maybe don’t mention to anyone that you got married to a perfectly innocent, not-at-all-a-spy civilian while on a mission to take down a black widow facility.”
‘Yeah, okay, you might have a point with that.”
“Specifically the point about going home, I hope.”
Seeing the giant space turtle-whale calmly swimming through the sky, covered with invading aliens made Natasha question her soundness.
She had too much experience with situations where she couldn’t trust her own senses. Surely this couldn’t actually be happening?
But there were enemies to fight and every single one of them needed to be taken care of as quickly as possible.
“This reminds me of Budapest all over again,” she let Clint know.
Clint didn’t waste time looking at her, but said with his usual exasperation. “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”
His standard response reassured her. Everything may be absolutely crazy, and reality deeply in question, but Barton was there for her.
She’d fight for all she was worth and when it was over, they’d go home to Laura’s white picket fence where he could be the man of the house and she could be Aunt Nat and it didn’t matter whether they were fighting aliens or demons and memories.
They had each other and they had a home to return to.
"I retrieved Wanda, Sam, and Scott."
Natasha nodded. Yes, she knew.
"But I wasn't able to get Clint out. I couldn't even figure out where he had been taken. The others just saw a women come and get him. He tried to argue to stay with us, but she said something, I don't know what it was, but he just followed her out after that. And the guards refused to talk. I'm sorry, Natasha. I don't know where to even start looking."
Steve finally managed to halt his flow of words. God, the guilt was going to eat him up; he wanted her to yell at him for leaving her partner behind, but he knew she wouldn't blame him like he deserved. For all her teasing, she never blamed him for the real failures that she should.
He didn't get yelled at or attacked, like he almost wished. But he also didn't get the kind reassurance that he had done his best, like he had expected. Instead, Natasha just rolled her eyes. "Yeah, don't worry about it. He's at home."
"His wife was less than impressed with the situation and went to collect him."
"He felt pretty torn up about leaving the others behind, but I told him that you'd get them out soon enough."
"... uh... thanks?"
"I told General Ross about your wife and kids." Tony blurted out before he could stop himself. He had never really learned how to apologize. Also, how do you apologize for something like that anyway?
"God, Tony. You really need to work on your teamwork. I showed you my safe house when we needed it, and you told?"
"I tried to tell him they were civilians and didn't need to be involved, I thought they wouldn't be involved because you had retired!"
"Just because I retired doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t help any of my teammates that reached out to me for help,” Clint explained. He mostly sounded aggravated. “Steve knew he could rely on me, but you couldn’t even imagine that possibility."
"I get that you're pissed at me, which I expected, but I don’t understand why you are so hung up on recognizing social connections, when I sent a strike team after your family. Accidentally.
“You sent a strike team?!”
“I didn’t! General Ross did.”
“For God’s sake, Tony.”
“I know! I was wrong. I’m confused why we aren’t suiting up to rescue them, though.”
"Eh, Laura can take care of herself. She'll let me know where we live now if we had to move."
“Um, you heard me say strike-team, right?”
“Yeah. But what would you expect from Nat’s sister?”
“Wait, what?” said Tony Stark. “She’s Aunt Nat through your wife?”
“You know that Nat’s not actually my sister, right?”
“Yeah, but she could be an honorary aunt!”
“Okay, yeah, she still probably would have been Aunt Nat even if she wasn’t Laura’s sister, but they grew up together in the same foster home. She introduced us.”
“You’re married to the Black Widow’s sister. Who was trained by the same people. And we slept in her house. And you didn’t tell us.”
“You thought I would take you to a safe house with my kids there if it wasn’t defended by someone who could take on the US military if needed?”
“Okay, that’s a point, but… you didn’t tell us you were married to a Russian assassin!”
“Hey! She’s retired! Also, the military think she’s a nice Midwesterner. Who I married while I was on a mission in Budapest. Also, you sent a strike-team after her and the kids. It’s a good thing she was more than you knew. So really, count your blessings here.”
“Oh my god!”