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The 14th of February, Then & Now

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One of her first missions for SHIELD is at an elementary school. She's still on probation, working as a low-level grunt, tasked with crowd control while senior agents and specialists handle the enemies inside. Natasha narrows her eyes when she, the only female agent on scene, is assigned to guard the evacuated children, but it's not currently her place to question her orders, so she takes up her position readily enough.

The children are quiet, huddled together in a mass and wide-eyed at the smoke rising from their classrooms, the sound of gunshots coming from inside. But as the fight wears on without ever getting closer they begin to grow restless, talking more, spreading out into the pen containing them. Just before the three hour mark, Natasha notices two of the boys staring at her, nudging one another and whispering behind dirty hands. She is unsurprised when they finally stand and walk up to her.

She is a little surprised when the shorter one thrusts a hand in his pocket and pulls out a grubby fistful of pastel hearts.


More nudging, then the taller one says "It's Valentine's Day. They're for you."

There is no evidence that the elementary school was a planned fallback position; the chance that this is an elaborate trap is slim. The boys in front of her and the children spread out behind them are watching Natasha expectantly.

She takes one hand off her gun to delicately pick up a single heart. "What is this?"

The shorter boy wrinkles his nose at her. "It's candy. It's good."

The heart is grimy white and has "BE MINE" stamped on it in red. It has no smell of its own, at least not one noticeable over the smell of dust and sweat and laundry detergent.

Natasha has crafted a resting face that projects "Fuck off," but the boys are still just gazing up at her hopefully. So with an internal sigh she says "Thank you," and puts the candy in her mouth.

It takes quite a bit of self-control not to spit it back out, strange chalky alkaline thing that it is, so Natasha just swallows it like a caffeine pill. She doesn't let herself make a face afterward either. The boys grin, then run back to the group of children chattering happily.

Natasha misses being a free agent, when she could keep a small flask of vodka on her at all times.


Natasha gets home a little before six. She's sweaty and pleasantly sore from an afternoon spent working over the new recruits, so she strips as she walks, leaving a trail of her clothes from the front door to the shower. It isn't until she's wandering back to the kitchen while toweling her hair dry that she spots the box on the counter.

It's lime green, with gold script and a gold ribbon, and when she pulls the bow loose and lifts the top the rich scent of champagne and chocolate wafts out. She grins because she knows this smell: this is the smell of Pepper's emergency chocolate stash, the ridiculously expensive truffles she keeps hidden in her office and doesn't let anyone -- not Tony, not Happy or Rhodey, not Natasha herself -- touch, on pain of death. The truffles she normally keeps in tupperware, because she refuses to divulge where she gets them from.

Because once upon a time Pepper had a favorite cafe, a cafe that knew just how to make her her coffee (with three shots of espresso) and had absolutely divine pain au chocolat. Then Tony did something to upset her, and in an attempt to apologize he bought the cafe, and then he insisted on "fixing" the cafe. And then every single employee quit, the baker burned all of her recipes, and Pepper's mornings have never been quite the same since. So now when Pepper loves something, she makes sure Tony has no way of finding its source.

But here and now the truffles sit in the box they obviously were sold in, company name clear on the top. Natasha takes a bite and has to close her eyes, moaning at the rich, velvety chocolate turning on her tongue; but it's the way her fingers can trace "teuscher: chocolates of switzerland" that makes her feel warm and soft and vulnerable inside.


There is a florist a block down the street from the entrance to the Triskelion. Natasha notes this when she is first assigned there, because she always works to keep a mental map of every street, alley, and business within a kilometer of the places she spends significant time, but she soon files it away as fairly irrelevant information.

It becomes relevant that first February, however, because SHIELD agents are two things: overworked and sexually frustrated.

One of the unfortunate side effects of the super soldier experiments conducted by the Red Room is a susceptibility to hay fever. It has something to do with creating an extra-robust immune system and the fact that most of the scientists were working out of a secret lab in the frozen wilds of Siberia. So as SHIELD agents try to get in each others' pants with limp bouquets from the previously irrelevant florist, Natasha is stuffing tissues up her sleeve and going through bottles of eye drops and concealer.

Clint is the one who suffers most in the end, however. Because when he swings by Natasha's desk at the end of the business day with a dozen blood-red pollen-laden roses and a lace-encrusted card, Natasha glares and begins lecturing him about the working conditions in the Victorian stationery factories, where they made the mass-produced Valentine's cards that cemented a minor saint's day as an important Anglo holiday.

She's just warming up to a diatribe on the lengths Western corporations have gone to export the holiday to Asia when Clint gives up and flees, gifts still in hand.


Pepper gets home at 6:45, just as Natasha is deciding what she wants to wear for their evening out. She's still on the phone as she reaches the bedroom, but hangs up as soon as she sees Natasha and crosses to her quickly, tipping her face up into a lingering kiss.

When they finally pull apart, Pepper brings her other arm out from behind her back.

"These are for you."

She's holding a simple bouquet of five red tulips, and Natasha smiles. At this point she has spent more years outside of Russia than within it, but some conventions stick with her nonetheless. And the gift of tulips rather than roses, arranged in an odd number instead of an even one -- this bouquet is right in a way none of the other bouquets since she defected to SHIELD have been.

Also, tulips are practically hypo-allergenic.


One thing that doesn't change, from working for the Red Room to working on her own to working for SHIELD, is that marks love to show off on Valentine's Day.

Through the years, various men have given Natasha: diamonds, yachts, throughbreds, tropical islands, haunted castles. One, who was being seduced by a version of Natasha closer to reality than usual, gave her a nuke. And, of course, they have also given her what she really wants: usable intel in spades.

It has become clear that this mark has very little to offer on that front, however, so Natasha is working to extricate herself without damaging her cover (just in case) when Valentine's Day rolls around again. He wines and dines her, as expected, but he seems nervous. Natasha is casting back through everything she's observed, trying to figure out if she missed something and he's making some sort of move against SHIELD tonight, when he slides to one knee on the floor next to their table.

"Natille. You are as pure and innocent as you are beautiful, and I can no longer imagine my life without you. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

Natasha just sits there for a moment, completely stunned. She's only been working this guy over for two weeks. She hasn't even kissed him yet, because he responded so well to her ice princess persona. For fuck's sake, he doesn't even know her (cover's) last name.

He's gazing up at her adoringly, holding out a small black ring box. To stall, Natasha takes the box and lifts the cover, revealing a truly gaudy emerald solitaire.

Well, there's nothing else to do. Natasha dons her reservedly-pleased face and slips the ring onto her finger. "Of course I will." She lifts him back to his feet, bestowing a chaste kiss on the side of his mouth just to see him flush, then indicates they should resume their meal.

When she gets back to her safe house she'll put the "killed in a tragic car accident, remains too burned to identify" exit plan in motion.


Pepper had made 8 o'clock reservations at Natasha's favorite Moroccan place, a little place in Midtown that was positively cheap on Pepper's salary but which made fantastic zaalouk. They are nestled into a booth in the back and Natasha can't look away from Pepper as she talks, her long elegant hands gesturing animatedly, her eyes sparkling with passion and her sly sense of humor.

Natasha fiddles with Pepper's last present, a platinum and peridot tennis bracelet. Pepper had said the peridots were because they matched Natasha's eyes exactly, but Natasha looks at them and wonders. The Red Room took her when she was five, took her in December and named her Natalia as a result, but one of her few memories of her life from before being taken was of a birthday gift ruined as her mother held her close in the face of riot police in Pushkin Square. Her best guess when trying to reconstruct her childhood was was that she had been at the demonstration in Moscow on 23 August 1989, and that that was her original birthday.

Natasha had asked that Pepper not investigate (or get Tony to investigate) her history, because she never wanted Pepper to know some of the things she had done, or some of the things that had been done to her. But peridots were the birthstone for August and over the course of the evening Natasha became convinced that Pepper had not obeyed.

Yet her eyes are just as warm as they had always been as they rest on Natasha's face, and the last time they had sex was just as wild and rough and tender as always. Natasha feels known for the first time, and loved nonetheless.

"We should get married."

It spills out her mouth unexpectedly, dropping into the middle of Pepper's conversation like a stone, and Natasha feels herself startle, wide-eyed.

Across the table, Pepper closes her mouth slowly and just blinks. Twice.

Then her lips spread into a delighted smile. "Okay. Yes."