There is no language that she has lived fully in. None of them that she can call her first. She doesn’t think in Russian or in English. Her body of thought is the mangled half-space between the two, and neither sing words of affection.
Steve finally bought that apartment in Brooklyn. He can afford more, but he settled for two rooms, and Barnes occupies the second. These days, the Avenger’s call it home-base, and the modest quarters remind her of S.H.I.E.L.D..
The view from his living room window is of somebody else’s terrace, of the street traffic down below. Steve chose a heavily populated neighborhood, but it’s New York and everybody lives in a heavily populated neighborhood.
She can hear the conversations civilians are having on the sidewalk. Somebody is pressing down on their horn. If she had to guess, it’s because a curbside parked car is trying to merge in. She respects that this apartment is Steve’s dream, that he’s finally building a life outside of Avenging- but the walls are thin, and they’re woefully unguarded here.
She taps the glass, feels it under her knuckles. She could break it so easily.
A man looks up at her from the sidewalk, and throws his arms up, a half curled newspaper in one hand. He thinks she was addressing him, and squints his eyes up at her, annoyed.
Steve smiles from beside her.
“Some things never change.”
She doesn’t know why, but she’s suddenly angry with him. Angry that he has a home. Angry that she misses the view of the skyline from the top of the tower. Angry that she misses the empirical arches of Russia. Angry at every lever and cog stopping her from going back to either.
In the red room, she didn’t have a name, she was just a head for them to count. At S.H.I.E.L.D. she had whatever name they gave her, whatever name rolled easiest off the tongue of a mark. She tried to stick to variations of Nat. Natalie. Natasha. Natalyn. She wanted to see how close she could get to Natalia, to her birth name, before the rug came up from under her again. Here, the Avengers all call her Nat, removing any facade she could put over herself. It’s that easy name that allowed her to finally build an identity for herself- she’s just not so sure anymore that it’s one she likes.
In the wake of the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. that left her in the wind, she returned to Russia to find her parents and found nothing but their graves. She didn’t cry; She never knew them to mourn anything but what could’ve been. She wondered, though, if they would’ve been proud of her. She cleared all the red in her ledger. She killed the monster the that Red Room built. I’ve changed, not for you, but-
She knows now that they would not be proud of her. She was bombarded as soon as she returned by every agent she blew the cover of. How many people had they gotten killed? How many lives lost to her recklessness? She’ll never get a true count, and her ledger will never be clean.
In some ways, saving Barnes, letting Steve go, was her trying to do better. Even allowing Wanda onto the team was an attempt of the same nature. Conjoin our hands. Here is your redemption, and here is mine.
She had made so many excuses for them. So many excuses for her own actions, even when Tony’s parent’s came out with the wash of all her lies- she justified it as a work for the greater good. This is how she knows to help, in half truths and underhanded dealings. Her goals have changed, but her core is the same. She is a spy with no colors. As for the cost of Bruce, the cost of Tony- well, there’s always a price to living.
She loved Bruce. She really did. He’s a gentleness she’s never known- a quiet, a calm. She talks down the Hulk, but Bruce was her own lullaby. He made her weak, and then he left, and then he hardly spared her a glance when he returned.
Two years he was gone, and two years she spent worrying about him. In the interim she worked with the new team, traipsed around the globe with Steve, tiptoed around government legislation. With Bruce and Thor coming back just in time for Thanos, she acquiesced. They just didn’t have the time for each other, but when more time passed and he still didn’t look her way, she had to accept her fate.
When they did talk, he was cold to her. Polite enough- but distant, like one would talk to a coworker. She thought maybe it was the time passing that did them in, but something about his manner told her that this wasn’t the natural decline of a relationship. It was an abrupt cut off.
She confided this in Clint, and he snorted at her.
“It’s probably Wanda. He’s just like Stark. Needs to get over it already.”
She didn’t agree with his phrasing, but that’s just Clint. She thought he was right about the reasoning, though. She just couldn't convince herself to be sorry, when Bruce clearly wasn’t.
Tony is different than Bruce. Their friendship wasn’t a budding thing. It was hard earned and fully fledged.
They didn’t start with any trust between them. It’s the nature of her game to trust nobody, and she had spied on him and used the cure for his poisoning as a bargaining chip. There were nasty things they could say about each other, and they hung in the air for a long time after the Chitauri Invasion.
She can’t say when their unease around one another started to clear- Maybe with her hand on his shoulder, maybe with him offering her a smoothie, maybe with Are you okay? Regardless, it had.
He was her confidant among them- probably because it’s easier to bounce ideas off somebody who thinks so differently to herself. She knows the value of a secret, respects a well played trick. He laughs at that notion. Own it or don’t. Take it in the light or not at all. That’s the magnitude of him. That he’s a lot of things: Stubborn, prideful, impulsive, obsessive- but he is not a liar, not where it counts. And if that’s not the defining line that sets him apart from her, from Steve, then what is?
Sometimes she is aware that this isn’t just him being mad about his parents- that they were just the domino that set off the chain reaction, forcing him to question every action of theirs for the past two years, and she knows that the line in the sand was drawn with their principles. Home can be anything, but right now it’s a circle with a slash through it, telling her to stop choosing sides- or there won't be any left to have her.
The Tower is still as she remembers it, still a glittering beacon smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.
A doorman let’s her in, and she has to wait at reception for clearance to go up to the penthouse. The receptionist can’t be out of high school, and has a badge pinned to his shirt that states that he’s an intern and that he goes to ‘the Midtown School of Science & Technology.’
He’s practically buzzing with excitement when she greets him.
“You’re the- yes. Oh my god. Okay, I’ll just- Let me tell Mr.Stark real quick.”
He taps something quickly into the computer interface on the reception desk and it’s only a second before he gets a response. He waves his hands excitedly.
“You’re good to go up!”
She steps in the elevator and the ride to the top is quick. The doors open to Tony and Pepper, both with glasses of champagne, leaning over a stark pad with blueprints on it. A cursory glance when she gets close enough tells her that they’re updates for the old Stark Mansion.
Pepper glances at her and squeezes Tony’s hand.
“You got this?”
He nods and she kisses him on the cheek, and tells him that she’s heading to bed.
With her and Tony alone, she focuses on the view from the windows. The lights from the city are dazzling.
After a period, she speaks.
“You’re not going to say anything?”
Tony crosses his arms, moves a few designs on the blueprints.
“You’re the one who came to me.”
She supposes that he’s right. Petty, but right.
“We can still work,” she says. The night sky is so pretty from here.
He shuts the StarkPad down, opens a drawer, and drops it in. He downs the last of his glass.
“Sure we can.”
It’s said with all the fake cheer of a wolf, and she waits for the blow to follow. For all that she was made in the Red Room, cut at infancy, and bred to be a weapon, he was raised in boardrooms and forged like metal from an unforgiving hand.
“But that doesn’t mean I want us too.”
He’s already walking away.
“You can see yourself out.”