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like trying to know somebody you never met

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"Natalya," the soldier says, still stretching out both sets of fingers, taking stock of what she knows and what she doesn't. She knows her mission, she knows this young woman, and, unusually, she knows her name is--

"Jane," the woman says.

Her accent is as american as the soldier's own when she says it. The last time the soldier saw Natalya--the last time she remembers--Jane was still unfamiliar in her mouth, somehow both too soft and too hard. Natalya was a child, then; it's an advantage, the soldier thinks, of having so little noise in her mind, that she can tell instantly the young woman is the child she knew.

"We're to work together," Natalya says, in Russian now, and the soldier nods, realizes idly that the woman Natalya has grown into is beautiful. She pays it no mind; like her own childhood, like whether Jane is her real name, like whether she cares, it is so much noise, useless to the mission. They can't quite get rid of all the noise, though they try; the soldier does her best to ignore the rest.

* * *

They spend six weeks together, in a rathole of an apartment in a corner of Moscow. Literally a rathole--Jane kills rats to pass the time while she waits for Natalya to tell her to go kill something bigger. She doesn't know the details of Natalya's work, only that it's delicate and difficult, the preparations for Jane's own work, which is an assassination, as it is so often. An assassination without torture; if there needs to be torture, it is Natalya who will administer it. they both know this, the mission imprinted on them quite a bit stronger than their own names, but they discuss it by lamplight anyway, because they have so little else to discuss.

"The man will go down easy," Natalya says, "I've gotten to know him. He's weak."

Jane nods. She's heard this before.

"It's the woman who's hard work," she continues; "and you're not to kill her until I've got what they need. I may have to hurt her."

Jane imagines Natalya's hands as red as her hair, red with blood from hurting this woman. It makes her sad, because it is always sad when a clean kill cannot be made, but it is also beautiful.

"I'll do what you say, Natalya," Jane says, and Natalya smiles; not the brilliant smile she had as a girl but not the cold one Jane imagines her using on her marks either.

* * *

There is only one bed, an old brass bedstead and a sack of feathers for a mattress; Jane offers to take the floor, use her soft arm as a pillow, but Natalya points out that the shared bed will be luxurious for both of them. So they sleep face to face, because neither would feel safe back to back. They both rise early, often before the sun, and stare into each others' eyes for a moment before Jane rolls her shoulders, phantom pain from the missing arm stabbing for a moment, and Natalya dresses and goes to work.

Natalya sleeps without clothes, which at first is not a problem--Jane is, after all, a soldier, and soldiers are not known for their modesty--but after a time begins to become distracting. Jane tries not to be distracted, of course. She respects Natalya as a fellow operative, will not make a dish of her as she knows in some part of her is often what happens to women soldiers. And she is frightened, a little, of the intensity of her own attraction. There is nothing to compare it to in her memory, though of course it is possible she has felt like this many times before--for the same woman, even, and never knew.

They speak to each other in Russian, mostly, but occasionally in English; they rarely bother to remove Jane's English, unless it is integral to the mission she not know it, and Natalya speaks sixteen languages with fluency, but next to Russian, English best of all. Still, she likes to practice, to keep her skill up and her accent natural, so they talk to each other in English sometimes. Natalya will wash her hair in the sink and walk around, talking English, with it dark red and wet against her back, her clothes off so her long hair doesn't drip. Jane is not sure if her reaction to the hair is more attraction or simply envy; her own hair has been razor-chopped to chin-length at some point, and she thinks she might like a long mane like Natalya's. But there is desire in it too, her feeling about Natalya's hair.

* * *

She makes the kill after six weeks of this. Natalya makes it easy for her; leads the marks to their street, lets Jane simply lean out and shoot them out the window. It's a clean kill, and Jane knows this should incite simple joy, but there's something anticlimactic about it, all of their waiting culminating in two bodies dropping unceremoniously to the ground. She shakes her head. Six weeks is a long time to be awake, is all. And the strange feelings--she'll almost be glad when they wipe her again, put her to sleep until Natalya is a middle-aged woman with grey streaks in her hair.

When Natalya comes upstairs after the kill, Jane makes to leave, but Natalya stops her.

"We can stay one more night," Natalya says, "I'm in no rush to go back."

Jane nods. She is never in a rush.

* * *

"Do you ever wonder," Natalya says, in English, "about who you were before?"

Jane shrugs, enjoying distantly the play of lamplight on her metal arm as she does so.

"American," she says. "A killer. What else is important?"

Natalya nods. "What else, indeed?"

There's a silence. They're lying in the bed, but Jane doesn't think they're about to sleep.

"How much do you feel?" Natalya asks now, curiously. "I think it's more than they want you to."

"They want me to feel nothing," Jane says, surprised at a sudden rush of anger. "I try to oblige."

Natalya laughs; like her hair, like herself, it is beautiful. "And do you succeed?"

"Do you?" Jane asks; she's honestly curious, but there's something else to it to, a sort of teasing she doesn't have the word for in English or Russian.

"No," Natalya says, "I've never been a very disciplined operative," and her lips touch Jane's.

Jane's chest feels tight and brilliant, but Natalya pulls back instantly.

"Natasha," Jane says, the endearment springing to her lips as easy as the kiss did, and Natalya smiles. "It was all right, then?"

Jane smiles, and some long-forgotten reflex has her on top of Natalya, straddling her, a hand in her hair.

"Oh, no," Natalya says, "we won't have that," and then they're grappling, turning each other around, fighting to be on top when they start their kisses. Natalya wins, and Jane smiles, and says, "Just don't forget i taught you everything you know, Natasha."

Natalya raises an eyebrow. "You didn't teach me this," she says, and then she shows Jane what, besides fight, a black widow must learn to do.

* * *

Natasha doesn't send in the report. She will falsify the dates; she can buy them three weeks, at least, before they go back.

There is hardly room in the rat-infested apartment to not be in bed, so they don't try; they stay together, skin against skin.

"I wonder," Natasha says, "if I like women because they made me--"

But Jane is already shaking her head.

"You can't think about it like that," she says, because Jane has been thinking about this herself. "It doesn't matter if they made you or your nature did or some god; you can only be who you are."

She remembers believing this on earlier missions, but it was not a hopeful thing then, that she could only be who she was. Now it is, because she can use it to reassure Natasha.

"That's true," Natasha says, and Jane can tell there's more to what she's thinking than that, but she doesn't press. (She thinks perhaps Natasha likes women because most men don't let women have secrets. She isn't sure how she knows that, but she does.)

* * *

They're found, of course; it was stupid, not moving from the spot they'd been assigned for the mission, thinking no one would find it strange that the Winter Soldier and the Black Widow hadn't managed to complete their assignment in the minimum possible time. For all Jane knows there was a handler who'd been watching them the whole time, some operative who'd waited to turn them in because he liked watching their sex through his binoculars. The thought turns her stomach.

She's sedated, and brought back, but sedative never lasts long on her and as she's being strapped in she hears strident voices--

nothing in the file

you never once thought--her "friend"

sending someone like her out with Romanova, that's

She knows she won't be sent to work with Natasha again, that they'll clean Natasha out of her mind like Natasha rinsing the dirt out of her long red hair over a basin. It makes her sad, but not for long. She can only be who she is.

* * *

The soldier sleeps. Her dreams are red hair and gold, and softer than one might imagine a soldier to dream.