She broke her ties with what was left of the Soviet Union while she still had breath to say no, and she went about trying to wipe the red from her ledger.
It was a life Natasha Romanov – Natalia Romanova, Natalia Shostakova, Tatiana Sokolova, so many other names – was sure would end with her and gun, alone. Probably in St. Petersburg, in the winter, with her luck.
Natasha had been in pursuit of an enemy no organized state supported; in other words, someone her clients and S.H.I.E.L.D. had found common ground in fighting. She wasn’t supposed to be out in the open, but her cover had been blown, and suddenly she was quite literally exposed to the daylight. She was outnumbered, outgunned; she always worked alone. The fight had devolved, and she was trapped, until a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent appeared, and fought by her side.
They were hiding from Egyptian officials and attempting to lay low before getting out. Their governments were, temporarily, unaware that they had survived. He was calm, composed; the mission he’d been given had gone awry, but he was satisfied. Natasha couldn’t recall when she’d felt the same.
“I always have someone watching my back,” he told her. He reached out for her hand, and she let him take it. “You could come with me. You don’t have to do this alone.”
She was caught up in the moment, she would think later, remembering his kind, tired face and the pressure of his hand in hers. She told him, maybe, I don’t know, and they parted ways.
You don’t have to do this alone.
She let herself get caught. The official story was much bloodier, colored with more explosions and double-crossings and guns-held-to-heads. But reality, Natasha had long since found, rarely lived up to legend.
That was a point on which she was, on that day, corrected.
Natasha was brought to a room deep within the Triskelion; she'd lost track of how far, exactly. Hulking men in matching double-breasted suits had ushered her in and left her cuffed. There was a table and two chairs, but no customary mirrored window.
An agent, she never knew his name, came in and asked her questions. He stopped short of belittling or mocking her, but was curt and annoyed, his voice tighter every time she refused to speak. He left her after awhile, and she was alone with her thoughts.
Until the greatest spy of their time walked through the door. She wore a timeless blue skirt suit with tasteful heels just high enough to slim her calves; her make-up was perfect, shading her true age but not at all comical.
Peggy Carter, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Founder, really, though even the most extensive dossiers were apt to give heavier credit to her male partners. Natasha knew, though, and looking now at the woman herself, it was impossible to believe she'd ever been the silent partner in anything.
“Here,” said Peggy Carter, as she bent over to unlock Natasha’s cuffs.
What happened next was pure instinct. She gave no thought to what she did, and later was appalled that her training had been so thorough she couldn't do a proper threat assessment when faced with so much history all at once. Natasha had her pinned to the table in seconds. An alarm sounded, and the two male agents who had escorted Natasha here pushed into the room.
“No!” shouted Peggy, voice choked a little from the pressure Natasha put on her. “Stand down! I have this!”
They stood there, pistols raised and pointed at Natasha. One of them put his hand to his ear, then lowered his weapon and backed away, his partner following him. They closed the door.
Peggy looked up at the stunned Natasha. “Now, if you don’t mind, Ms. Romanov, I would appreciate it if you let me up.”
She backed up and stood against the wall, eyeing her surroundings openly. She hadn't expected a welcome reception, true, but even this seemed so unlikely. How was she in a room, alone, with Peggy Carter?
“This room is secure, Ms. Romanov. If we wanted you dead, you would already be on the coroner’s table. But you knew that, or you wouldn’t have let me up.”
Peggy smoothed her graying hair, straightened her skirt, and sat down. She motioned for Natasha to do the same.
Peggy opened the manila folder on the table, set there hours before by Natasha’s original interrogator, and tapped her finger silently on the paper that lay inside.
“Ms. Romanov, we have everything. We are prepared to prosecute you under the law or kill you while you attempt to escape. There’s nothing we will stop at; you are wanted across several continents for your crimes.”
It wasn’t hard to read what was written across the top of the page inside the folder.
Операция Черная вдова
“Operation Black Widow,” said Peggy, though Natasha hardly needed the translation. Peggy continued to speak, and Natasha hardly heard her. She’d earned the name, that was certain. At some point, she’d lost track of those she’d killed for the Soviet Union, but she knew exactly how many had died since she’d defected. There’d been a KGB handler, in the early years, who had a way of describing it that stuck with Natasha.
“You have red in your ledger, Natalia. You may never wipe it out.”
She was here to try, though. She shook her head, focusing.
“Your record goes quiet, I noticed,” said Peggy Carter. “You are the primary suspect in a dozen major assassinations, and then there is a gap.” She folded her hands and placed them on the table. Natasha watched her, wary. Was it all an elaborate trap, a web to catch the spider at her own game?
“Our agent in the field believed you were retired, as it were. Not from the life altogether, perhaps, but seeking a different way. He tells me I can trust you. I trust him, so, we are at a crossroads.” She unfolded her hands, placing them flat on the table. Natasha could see her age in them, lines and scars. She had always wondered what her own hands would look like, if she reached that age.
In the life she’d been leading, as the Black Widow, under the Red Room’s influence, she was never going to reach an age where her hands puckered. Peggy Carter’s famous coif was gray now; Natasha reached for her own hair, far from gray, but….
Peggy leaned forward, just slightly. Just enough. She lowered her voice.
“There is another way, Miss Romanov. You don’t have to do it all alone.”
It would take a long time for Natasha to understand what Peggy Carter saw in her in that moment, what made her offer Natasha a chance when even one thing she’d done was enough to hang her by most standards. By Peggy Carter’s standards, if the stories were true, and Natasha knew they were.
For now, Natasha only asked, “Why?”
Peggy met Natasha’s gaze, and broke a million rules. She reached out and held Natasha’s hands, like a sister might.
“Natasha, S.H.I.E.L.D. is different. Things are different here. The world…you know how things are, what’s at stake. I know something of what you went through – I’ve seen what it does, and I want to believe we can stop it from happening to anyone else. And we can’t be enemies if we’re going to fix it. I helped build S.H.I.E.L.D. because I had faith that there was a better way. I think you know what I mean.”
Natasha’s eyes welled, and she could hardly believe what came out of her own mouth next.
“Okay. How does this work?”
She started out pretending to be a novice, climbing the ranks in S.H.I.E.L.D. Few knew her real identity, and that hardly bothered Natasha; she was still learning who she was.
There were no special perks, no shortcuts. She was an agent like any other, though it became clear very quickly that wasn’t true; her history, her training, everything that was once meant to make her exceptional did so again here. She surpassed one agent after another, moved into special projects, and always knew there was someone she needed to thank for paving the way.
Natasha spent years trying to reconcile what she’d learned, on paper, about Peggy Carter, and the Peggy Carter she actually came to know.
She spent even longer trying to apologize for throwing her down on a table, the first time they met.
Officially, she was to answer to a Deputy Director Granholm. And Natasha did – she turned in rote, typed reports devoid of emotion, the kind of thing expected of most agents. She never reported any activity that might have raised hackles among the higher-ups. Granholm never questioned it.
Unofficially, Natasha took everything to Peggy. Almost from the very beginning.
It was her third mission as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and the first time she used the Natalie Rushman persona. She was assigned to watch a low-level State Department hack who’d gotten it in his head he could make some dough on the side selling secrets to the Chinese.
She was bored and she was annoyed; this sort of amateur espionage was far below her skill set, but it was work she could live with. She wouldn’t have to kill anyone; hell, there wasn’t a physical requirement for this beyond breathing and walking. And most importantly, she could have said no, she could have worked with her superiors if she was ever uncomfortable with her orders. All her missions had been like that for S.H.I.E.L.D. up to that point.
After a day of following her mark (at one point, she slipped away for a manicure, and came back to find him in the same meeting making the same points to colleagues uninterested in his bloviating), Natasha found herself headed for Peggy Carter’s home.
It was a presumption, but Peggy seemed completely unsurprised to find her standing there. She smiled, and let her in.
Natasha came up short when she saw Peggy already had a visitor.
“Agent Romanov, this is Agent Barton.”
She hadn’t known his name, in Cairo. She hadn’t even gotten a good look at him; he’d been dressed for winter, dirty from days on the job with no relief. Now Natasha had a chance to look at him; clean-cut, muscular. His hands were rough, but not chapped. She’s seen how he could use a bow, more efficiently than any marksman she’d known.
She was fascinated.
“I’m Clint,” he said, holding out a hand in greeting.
“Natasha,” she replied, taking his hand.
Peggy came back, bearing a bottle of whiskey and some glasses.
“Now, I believe you both came here with something to get off your minds. Let’s get to it – tomorrow’s still another day at the office.”
And a tradition was born.
She finished the job with the State Department hack, getting him locked away for a good long while and earning a commendation from S.H.I.E.L.D. for her work. Deputy Director Granholm retired, and was replaced by an ageless, loud former agent Peggy assured her was meant for great things.
“Nick Fury,” he announced to a room of agents one rainy Wednesday morning. “I’ll be taking Deputy Director Granholm’s role. And our division, ladies and gents, is shifting purpose. Several of you will receive new assignments by the end of the day.”
The surprise in the room was palpable, but Fury refused to answer questions and disappeared for the rest of the day. His orders, if they were his at all, were carried out in due course.
The next day, standing in the room were Agents Coulson, Romanov, Barton, and Hill. They waited a good long time before they realized, they were it.
“Congratulations,” said Fury, entering the room. “You’re part of my team now, and our mission is going to be broader and more intense than anything you’ve experienced in S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Natasha looked up, and met Fury’s glance.
She was going to like this.
When they returned from Budapest, Natasha and Clint had gone to Peggy before they went to Fury.
“What happened?” said Peggy, handing them each a glass of whiskey on ice.
Holding his drink to his left temple, Clint groaned a response. Peggy raised her eyebrows and looked at Natasha.
“We won, if that matters,” said Natasha, taking a drink. Clint groaned again.
“Gratifying as it is to see you both alive and relatively well, what I mean is, what happened, Agent Romanov?”
So Natasha launched into the story; she had been in Budapest on an undercover mission to recover scientific data from a KGB contact. Clint had been there on a separate mission, following a French dissident on supposed holiday. They hadn’t known that their marks were connected until the first shots were fired, and they improvised.
“You improvised,” Peggy deadpanned.
“You should see the other guys,” croaked Clint, who finally took a drink from his glass now that the ice had melted.
Peggy smiled, and refilled their glasses.
On Peggy’s desk at the Triskelion was a framed picture of herself and Howard Stark, and a young man Natasha knew from reading about him was Daniel Souza.
Peggy had outlived them both.
Natasha knew about Steve Rogers. She had memorized Peggy’s file once, all the information the KGB and every other spy agency had. Her story always started with World War II, and Captain America. Peggy Carter had been a minor celebrity, in a way.
“A fairy tale character,” she scoffed at Natasha, the day Nat finally got up the nerve to ask.
Whoever Peggy Carter was to the world, it was a fantasy. “I lived through adventures much more mundane than any they came up with on the radio shows,” she said. Her look turned wistful. “More incredible, too, in some ways.”
She took up one of the frames, in it a picture of a young man in an Army uniform that didn’t seem to fit him. “This was Steve,” she said.
She talked about who he was before the serum, brave and selfless, a bit reckless. “He quite took my breath away,” Peggy said, smiling.
Then, after the serum, and how he didn’t change, but if anything became even more himself. The day he went and rescued all those prisoners of war from the Nazis. The time after, with the men who called themselves the Howling Commandos, who to a man became Peggy’s closest allies in the years after the war. She named them all, pausing to tell a story about Morita or Dugan, and finally coming to James Buchanan Barnes.
Her voice was sad, sadder than it would be even later when she came to the story of Steve Rogers’ fateful plane crash. Because what happened to Barnes – Bucky, she said – had crushed Steve, had left him adrift and probably made him even more reckless than usual.
She stopped, looking at the time, realizing she’d let nostalgia run away with her. She scolded Natasha – “you’re just back from your latest mission, you need to see Fury immediately” – and they left for the night.
Another day, another mission. Natasha had been gone for two months. Clint was away on leave, and Natasha went to Peggy’s without him.
She sat and told Peggy the basics over a plate of shortbread. Peggy was as impeccable as always, though Natasha had begun to think she was tiring. She didn’t let her concern slip, knowing it would stiffen Peggy’s spine and they would part for the night, and Natasha had things to tell Peggy.
“I wasn’t in South Africa, Peggy. I was in Moscow.”
She got up and walked across the room, where Peggy had framed photos hung on the wall. Many were in color, several were of her niece Sharon at various life events. One, though, was fading, sepia-toned and ragged, even in the frame.
Natasha pointed at a face in the picture. Not Steve Rogers, who was standing in the center, shield by his side. Another one.
“I know him,” she said in a low tone.
Peggy gaped. “You couldn’t. He’s dead. He died in the war.”
Nat shook her head. “No. He was captured in the war. And he’s…alive isn’t the word.”
She told Peggy everything she’d found out about the serum’s use in Russia. The Winter Soldier was well-known, and had never had another name, by most accounts. Once, though, on a mission so long ago Natasha hadn’t had a reputation at all, she’d been spying on KGB agents involved in what was only known as Department X. It was common, in those early days, for her handlers to want her spying on their own. She’d seen a file, before destroying it.
James Buchanan Barnes. Known associate of Captain America.
She reiterated, she hadn’t learned much. Department X had been scuttled, the Winter Soldier still very much feared but silent. Except….
“He was the assassin who killed Howard Stark and his wife.”
Peggy closed her eyes.
“There…it was a trademark job. The Winter Soldier has only ever been used for that kind of work; Stark was a problem for…he was a problem.”
“He was good at what he did,” Peggy sighed. “That was always the problem with Howard Stark.”
Peggy’s retirement came far sooner than anyone was ready for, most of all Peggy herself.
In the weeks leading up to that day, she let no one mention the word, lest they be banished to a basement desk for month. Agent Sitwell spent a memorable day helping scrub the men’s restrooms in the east wing, for joking about Peggy Carter’s age in Nick Fury’s hearing.
“S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been about protecting the world; the acronym was hardly accidental,” Peggy said into the microphone, standing on the auditorium stage. Laughter rippled through the crowd. “When we started out, our enemies were out in the open, for the most part. We knew who were aiming to shoot.”
An uneasiness took hold where laughter had coursed, though it wasn’t accounted for that day or for a long time afterward. Natasha and Clint would look back on it with wry understanding, and kick themselves, however undeserved.
“Our enemies now hide in caves, but also in suits, in plain sight. And you agents – you wonderful team – are still charged with protecting the world. Our job is not done. I leave you all with no misgivings, save the obvious mistake on my birth certificate.” Laughter returned, the uneasiness passed. “Today I am retiring, and I will put my days to good use. But I will miss you all.”
She turned to the deputy director standing beside her, and held out her hand to shake his. There was applause, and some sotto voce grumbling, but from a select few, there were whoops and hollers.
Coulson would say, there was rejoicing.
“From this day on, you will answer to S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury.”
And they did.
Coulson and Hill were promoted, and Fury came to Natasha and Clint to ask them to perform a very specific task.
“Internally, it’s being referred to as the Avengers Initiative. We don’t know, that is, we don’t have a complete team in mind. For the moment we’re going to monitor a few situations and see where they go. Can I count on you both to handle the necessary assignments as they come up, knowing this might deviate from other missions you may be assigned?”
There was no hesitation from either of them, and they eagerly dove into the material Director Fury gave them to read.
It came as a surprise to find their own names at the top of the list.
Natasha monitored Stark, then was assigned to him. She donned her Natalie Rushman persona, long out of use, and determined within minutes that Howard Stark's kid was not Howard Stark, and thank goodness.
But Tony Stark was arguably more dangerous, and certainly had inherited the legendary ego.
He was ruled out of eligibility for the Avengers Initiative. That made Fury laugh, and he gave Nat leave to tell Peggy.
"She's practically family anyway. She's enjoy it, and she won't tell a soul."
Natasha still went to see Peggy regularly. Peggy would bring her a whiskey, or occasionally tea, and they would share war stories.
Peggy told her about those first years, before Steve, when she was still Miss Carter to most and she was prone to imperiousness. “Hard to believe I could be as stuck up as all that, I know,” she would smirk, and Natasha would laugh.
Natasha told her what she could remember about her childhood, cold winters and lost songs. She would falter in the telling, always bumping up against the day she was taken and remembering her father’s tears, her mother’s resolve. “They didn’t know. I’m sure they didn’t. But they were complicit. It took a long time to forgive that.”
Peggy patted her hand. “We all have to forgive our mothers something.”
They came to Peggy one day breathless and in disbelief.
Clint told her in halting tones about Bruce Banner.
“The Hulk, General Ross called him,” he breathed out. They’d seen video.
Peggy waved her hand to her bar and Clint went over to pour a drink. Peggy stared at Natasha, who was pale and quiet.
“I know the name. Banner. He’s a brilliant scientist, working on gamma radiation as I understand it. Howard would have loved it, probably would have hired him. What has he gone and done, then?”
Natasha told her. “He…they say he was trying to recreate the serum. Or he wasn’t, but he did.”
Peggy’s eyes widened.
Natasha heard about Steve Rogers more times than she could count, and when the day came that they found him in the ocean, and Fury told Natasha, nothing in the world could stop her from going to Peggy Carter's house with the news.
There were tears, and there was rejoicing. And it had taken both Natasha and Clint to keep Peggy from running to the Triskelion to find Steve.
"All these years," she said, between sobs. "All these years."
All these years.
Steve was everything Peggy had said he would be, Natasha noted, when she was finally introduced to him.
She found she could fight beside him as easily as she could beside Clint. With his mask on, carrying that shield (and yes, Natasha had some time to think about how much that shield had defined her life, long before the Battle of New York), he was Captain America, and he fought better than even the legend he'd been.
She told Clint it reminded her of Budapest, and he scoffed, saying how they remembered it differently. Natasha didn't think so. She remembered a fight, a hard one, with a partner by her side she could trust completely, and with whom she could find a rhythm without even trying.
"You have to meet Thor one of these days," Clint told Peggy, as she laughed at Clint's impression of him.
New York was recovering, slowly. The Avengers, a loose group of individuals at best, was beginning to coalesce into a real team. Natasha and Clint told Peggy everything; nothing was classified, with her. She gasped at the story of Loki, took at hard look at Clint and felt him over for broken bones. Clint allowed the mothering, before launching into exaggerated tales of the wonders they'd seen.
Natasha knew he was covering up the worst, trying to save Peggy from it, and Peggy was seeing right through him.
"And you, Natasha? Have any tall tales that can match Barton's here?"
She thought of the Hulk, and shuddered. Peggy saw it and narrowed her eyes, but she let Natasha's story of Bruce Banner and his green friend stand unchallenged.
There were so many good days.
Until there weren't.
Steve had come back, but Peggy was slipping away. That was the truth of it. The saving grace was that she was kept from knowing the worst of what they learned when HYDRA came out into the open.
She never would have recovered, had she known.
Clint went home to Laura, leaving Natasha to find out about HYDRA alone. It rocked Steve, it damn near destroyed him, and Natasha did her best to hold him together when it fell apart. Peggy couldn’t, and Natasha had to do something without Clint to put her back up against.
She felt her deepest loyalties shift to make room for one more.
Natasha and Steve went on the run. She let Clint know; they might go after him, looking for her. He promised to keep an eye on Peggy as best he could; they didn’t know where Fury was, if he was alive, and there was no one left to protect Peggy if HYDRA came calling.
It kept both Steve and Natasha awake, wondering, worrying.
They moved quietly, on back roads and through small towns. She changed her hair, he wore ball caps. They used assumed names.
For a while, they ran a diner in Michigan, and Natasha learned that Steve could make a mean apple pie. She tried to find a way to get that information to Peggy, who would love to hear it.
When Fury finally made contact, assuring them he'd survived, the only thing Steve wanted to know was how Peggy was.
Truthfully, Natasha worried, too. And she worried most of all what would happen when the answer was, Peggy is gone.
Until that day, they kept up their cover, moved around.
Finally, the team was called back together.
"And you can stay here," Tony said, showing them the rebuilt and redesigned tower.
Natasha visited Peggy when she could. She tried to keep her visits quiet, tried not to let Steve know what she was doing. She wasn't sure she should tell him, she wasn't sure Peggy was going to be around much longer.
Peggy told Natasha about Steve's visits, eyes glowing.
"He came back," she whispered.
And for hours one night, an exceptionally lucid Peggy Carter told Natasha every one of her dearest memories of Steve, a litany of battles, a ballad of war and love and everything golden. Natasha had heard it all before, and she was as enthralled as she had been the first time.
Even the best moments had to end. Peggy's eyes began to close, her words fading. Natasha got up to go.
"He'll need you."
Natasha looked down. Peggy reached for her hand.
She had fallen asleep.
Natasha went looking for Steve, a few days later, and found him sitting quietly in a library Stark seemed to have added just for him.
She sat next to him, and just listened to him breathe.
They fought Ultron. They survived.
Reading the Sokovia Accords, uppermost in Natasha's mind was, what would Peggy Carter do?
And she signed, with that thought, knowing Peggy would want to protect people. Even if it meant having to give up some power, to cede control, Peggy would get it.
All those years, listening to Peggy, telling Peggy her own stories, it never occurred to Natasha how much it would hurt when she went.
But she did go. Peggy Carter died quietly, in her sleep, surrounded by family. Only Steve hadn't been there; Natasha cringed to think where he had been, the vitriol between him and Tony, how Peggy would hate to see them fight and want them all to come to an agreement.
Was that true, though? What would Peggy Carter do?
Natasha went to the funeral for herself and for Clint, who had “retired, maybe,” but watched Steve's tense face as he walked the coffin down the church aisle with the other pallbearers.
It was impossible to bear, and the fight that followed was fueled by Steve's grief as much as his fierce protectiveness of Bucky and his anger at Tony for both putting them all in this situation and for forcing an impossible compromise on them.
Clint took the deal, and Natasha couldn't blame him. Others may have judged him; she would not hear of it.
She watched as Bucky, finally found, said goodbye to Steve, still a little lost.
Wakanda was unlike anything either Steve or Bucky had ever seen, much less imagined. They used those last few moments together to share some memories and joke about their paltry world education, way back when.
“Join the Navy, see the world, they used to say,” said Bucky, a sad smile on his face.
“We joined the Army, Buck. What have we seen?”
Bucky turned around, the Dora Milaje flanking him as he walked away.
“Too much, Cap. Too damned much.”
The flight home –
But there was no home. Leaving Steve in a motel off the beaten path, a place with no tourists and no media, Natasha went to the compound, collected the few personal things she and the others would want. Clint and Sam left things in the armory. Wanda had something of Pietro’s in a small box. A picture of baby Nathaniel Barton for her, a fragile one of Peggy that Steve thought no one knew he still had. Looking at it gave Natasha chills – Peggy Carter was gone and the world was ending.
It surely wasn’t a coincidence.
She didn’t get away very cleanly; Friday had alerted Tony to the presence of an intruder.
“An intruder. This was my home, Tony.”
She turned and there he stood, in the doorway of Wanda’s room.
He didn’t say anything, turning to let her go past him. As she did, she stopped, uncomfortably close.
She whispered, “I didn’t think it would end this way,”
“I did,” he choked out. Tears stood in his eyes, and he barely held them in check. “I always knew. We weren’t a team,” he spit. “Bruce knew it, that first day, in the lab. All this? A delayed reaction.”
He stood his ground, and Natasha knew he would not give in.
“Take care of yourself, Tony.”
He let her go.
“Did I ever tell you about how I met Peggy Carter?”
Steve was sitting on one of the creaking motel beds in their room, staring at his hands. He looked up at the sound of Natasha’s voice.
He was still bruised, as Tony had been, and almost as badly; Natasha was surprised they’d both survived, given everything. In Tony’s shoes…well. She couldn’t look at it that way, not really. She couldn’t step outside of it and see things Tony’s way. Barnes hadn’t been Barnes. He hadn’t been Bucky. He was unrecognizable, back then, to anyone who might have known him before.
Anyone except Steve Rogers.
She sat on other bed, facing him. “I was…well, we’ll forget how old I was. I was ancient, when I met her. I’d seen it all, I thought. And damned if S.H.I.E.L.D.’s famous founding lady spy was going to intimidate me. Clint trusted me, but not many others did. My reputation was well-earned.” She licked her lips and folded her hands. Steve watched her, and she hoped he understood what she meant without her having to tell him.
The newspapers had printed what was fit for the page, and the internet had the rest.
She continued, seeing Steve acknowledge what she meant. “When Peggy walked into the interrogation room, I was certain the next time I’d see daylight would be on prison rounds once a year. If that. Peggy’s reputation was equally well-earned.” At that, Steve’s mouth turned in a knowing smirk. “I found things to fight for, you see. But it was Peggy Carter who showed me that, who cleared the way and welcomed me in when she shouldn’t have.”
She reached for Steve’s hands, and held his gaze.
“Barnes knows what that means, too. He’s in good hands in Wakanda. You have to be okay with his decision, Steve.”
“I am, Nat. It isn’t that,” he sighed.
“Yes. And no. It’s all of it. Nat, how to we protect a world that doesn’t want us?”
The truth was, she was unsure whether there was reason to go on. The Avengers were a thing of the past. She’d been among the first to hear of Fury’s grand plans for a team that could fight the worst battles. Her cynicism had never let her believe it could be done, until it was, and look what happened.
The world would have to fight for itself, to Natasha Romanov’s way of thinking.
But the fight wouldn’t be over for Steve Rogers anytime soon. She could see that, felt it as his hands tightened on hers. He’d told her once, while they were on the run after D.C., that he did what he did because he couldn’t stand bullies. She had learned that was true of her as well. It was what they had to work with when all else failed.
Natasha reached up to touch his face, careful of the bruises. Her hand trailed into his hair; he closed his eyes and sighed.
“Do you know, when Sharon gave Peggy’s eulogy, and talked about how Peggy would stand her ground? That’s why we keep going, Steve. That’s why there was a Captain America in the first place. Because someone has to be there for the people who may not even know they need help yet. If we must do it from the shadows, well…not every shield is made from vibranium.”
The laugh that puffed from his lips was genuine, and Natasha smiled.
Clint watched Natasha walk into the room, then repeated himself.
“You don’t even know what I’m going to say.”
He shrugged. Prison, though it hadn’t been for very long, had not been kind to Clint. He was pale, dark circles standing out under his eyes. He didn’t sleep well when he couldn’t see what was going on around him; he didn’t sleep at all if he was worried about Laura and the kids.
“Yeah. I do. Come with me, you’ll say, and we’ll save the world. It was what Peggy would want us to do.”
Natasha winced. Clint hadn’t been at the funeral, and she hadn’t had a chance to…well, there wasn’t time now.
She sighed and sat down. “You came when Steve called.”
“I did. I also took their deal.”
Silence dropped between them, and Natasha crossed her arms over her chest. They watched each other, and for once, Natasha felt like she had no idea what Clint was thinking.
“There was always going to be a day when I had to choose, Nat,” he said quietly, coming to sit next to her. “I thought I could retire, and you know, for a minute there I thought I’d done it, I’d gotten out. But Cap called and I was out the door so fast…do you know I couldn’t even call her in there? The bastards told us the Accords were very clear about the actions we’d taken, and we weren’t ordinary criminals. Ross…that son of a…Nat….”
Clint held back the sob, just in time. But he was destroyed, and Natasha grabbed his hand. He held on.
“You were right. And I really didn’t come here to ask you to come with us. I wanted…Clint, you and I, we’ve been at this a long time. The others don’t always understand that. Hell, sometimes I think Stark believes the world began when he put on that suit the first time. I wanted to ask you if you think it’s worth it.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “What did Peggy always tell us? When the whole world is against you, you have to stand up to it. Of course, saving the world, being the sword and the shield when there aren’t any others, that’s the dream, right? And it’s supposed to be worth every sacrifice. It was worth it, until now. You just make sure you’re fighting for the cause, and you always know why you’re fighting.”
They sat there for a long time, until Clint finally stood, ready to make the final leg of his trip home. Nat reached for him and they held one another, and Clint whispered to her that she could always come along.
“I can’t, you know that. Someone…someone has to stand up to the bullies in this world,” she said. “Peggy Carter is gone, the Avengers are…and I can help. With all of that, I can’t walk away now. It’s just the way it is.”
Clint pulled away from her, looked in her eyes. “The world’s a better place with you in it, Natasha. Don’t forget that.”
She walked away, and over her shoulder, smiled shakily at him.
“Go home, Clint. I’ll see you.”
She told Steve and Sam they had to do just one thing before they left Washington for good. Steve, realizing immediately what she meant, said yes before she even explained. Sam nodded.
"She wouldn't want us to, say we're making a fuss. But she'd be pleased," he said.
Steve wore a hat, Sam glasses and a coat. Natasha let her red hair swing free, and dared the network of remaining spies and Ross’ people to come and take her away.
She had a duty, before she went.
There were flowers against the headstone, some fresh, some fading. Steve knelt down, face covered as he said a private goodbye of his own.
He rose, face as stoic as he was capable of, and Natasha stepped forward. She handed him the picture she’d recovered from the compound, then turned and lay the lilies she’d brought against the stone.
“Thank you, Peggy Carter,” she whispered, words catching in the wind and carrying.
They left, solemn and emboldened.
The flag, half-staff, whipped violently in the wind, and Natasha held her chin up, watching it.
“What’s next?” she asked Steve, Sam echoing the sentiment.
Steve was looking at the flag, too.