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born in fire (again and again)

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The Avengers Compound is quiet. Too quiet, just like everything is these days, with a false stillness, like someone pressed pause on a movie and then couldn’t get it back to rights, after.

Natasha sits on a couch, in one of the many living rooms, with her socked feet tucked underneath Steve’s legs, and a copy of Fahrenheit 451 open in her lap. Steve makes a soft hmph sound, like he’s thinking, and Natasha is pulled right out of the fire, back to the present, to Steve and the wrinkle that always pops up between his eyebrows when something in his sketchbook isn’t turning out the way he wants it to.

The corner of Natasha’s lips quirk up. In a second, he’ll blow out a breath, will let out a put-upon sigh that he’ll never explain, but the pad of his left thumb will press into the corner of the page, softly, with a yearning that tells her everything she needs to know about what he’s trying to put down in those pages.

That adorable gap-tooth in Sam’s smile. Wanda, young and somehow still bright-eyed, laughing at one of Shuri’s jokes. Barnes, half-asleep in the bed they used to share in Wakanda, in Brooklyn, looking more open, more trusting, than she could ever begin to imagine.

Natasha flipped through a couple of the pages, once, because she’s a spy, still, and she’s never really been able to break that habit. Because she wanted to know what was in there and now that she does, now that she’s caught a glimpse of the yawning chasm of grief contained within its pages, she never has to look again.

She’s watched him do this once, twice, a thousand times. She makes a bet with herself. Ten bucks and a soda pop if Rogers does that thing with his face that’s just heartbreaking enough that it makes her want to lean over and poke him in the nose, to see if it’ll get him to stop.

“Nat,” Steve says, shooting her a brief, impatient look. “What are you doing?”

“Cheering you up,” Natasha says, blankly, her index finger still pressed against the tip of Steve’s nose. “Is it working?”

Steve huffs, and pushes her hand away. “Not really, no.”

But there’s a small, curl of a smile stealing across his face as he says it, so Natasha will take that as her victory for the day. She tries to collect at least one a day, every day, to get herself out of bed for the next victory.

Yesterday, she flirted with Okoye, in slight, teasing tones that probably won’t go anywhere but still made her feel a little more alive, anyways. Today, she made Steve smile, made Captain America smile, and my god, if the KGB could see her now.

This is who she is, now. A life meted out in small victories, meaningless and personal and hopelessly, pathetically human.

That’s the real triumph, probably.

.

Natasha lands, in dust and sand and light, in the middle of a great landscape of nothingness. She sits up, and touches one hand to the back of her head, and it comes away wet and sticky with blood.

There’s copper in the back of her mouth, and she spits it out into the sand, watching with satisfaction as the blood splatters into the otherwise pristine surface.

“Huh,” Natasha says. “So this is death.”

.

 

She’s never been one for Christmas. Or any holiday, really, because you don’t celebrate holidays in the Red Room, not unless the celebration is for another day that you get to wake up in your own bed without a knife sticking out of your back.

And Christmas with the Bartons is….overwhelming. There’s too much light and tinsel and gravy, and every time she eyes the pile of presents, she gets dizzy with the excess of it, with how much Americans think they need to buy just to be happy.

Natasha takes a deep breath, bracing herself over the kitchen sink, and barely resists the urge to throw open a window and let some of that brisk, Midwestern winter air into the room.

“Don’t tell me,” Laura says, stepping into the cool, quiet kitchen. “You’re one of those ‘Die Hard is a Christmas movie’ types.”

Natasha turns around and straightens, and tries to look like she has her shit fully together. She likes Laura. She’s not always sure, all the way, if Laura likes her back.

“Well,” Natasha starts, “a lot of my Christmases looked like Die Hard, if that helps.”

Laura grimaces. “Yikes, Romanoff. Clint’s right, you don’t pull your punches.”

“Sorry,” Natasha tosses out, although she’s not sure, exactly, what she’s sorry for.

Sorry that you had to share your Christmas with an assassin. Sorry that everyone we work with thinks I’m fucking your husband, I promise I don’t want to, I promise I’m not, not yet, but I also don’t trust myself not to do it anyways.

Sorry that I don’t know how to do this, any of this, at all.

But Laura just laughs. “Don’t worry about it. I married a SHIELD agent, trust me, I knew what I was getting into.” Laura digs into the pocket of her bright red Christmas-print apron and digs out a small, wrapped box. “You forgot to open your present.”

“Oh, I didn’t….” Natasha says, and then trails off, into silence.

“I know you didn’t,” Laura says, “it’s fine, seriously, that you came all this way is enough. Just, take it.” Laura holds out the small box, and Natasha plucks it from her hand, carefully, because she can’t shake the fear that it could wind up exploding in her hands.

The ribbon wrapped around it and tied up into a bow at the top is a fake, glued on to make it look neater, and the box opens easily to reveal a small, silver necklace with an arrow on the chain. Natasha frowns, and thinks, maybe this is another kind of trap.

“You saved Clint’s life last month,” Laura says. “In Budapest. I know he’s not supposed to but he told me all about it, anyways.”

“He saved me first,” Natasha says, but she’s not sure what she’s arguing against, exactly.

Laura shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. I’m grateful for it, anyways. That makes you one of us, now.”

Natasha slips the necklace on, and touches one hand to her chest, taking in the weight of it, how it settles against her collarbone.

She heard a story, once, about a girl who lived her whole life with a ribbon wrapped around her neck until one day, the man she loved couldn’t live with his own curiosity anymore so he untied it, pulling the ribbon away and cleaving her head clean from her body. And the girl, she knew it would happen and she let him do it anyways because she had to, because she loved him.

This feels a little like that, somehow. Like a promise, like a tether that could get her killed.

But she wears it anyways. She has to, because she loves him.

.

 

There’s no endpoint. No mountain on the horizon, no point of reference to work towards.

There’s just her and a desert, in all directions.

“Well, Black Widow,” Natasha says, kicking at a pile of sand, “I guess there’s nothing to be done,” and then a noise tears itself out of her, a high cackling sound that she recognizes as laughter, hoarse and desperate and lonesome as it is, emptying itself into the desert.

The sound doesn't echo. There’s nothing for it to echo against.

Natasha picks herself up off the ground, and brushes the sand off her suit.

“It’s not like it’s the first time that you’ve laughed at your own joke,” she murmurs, as she squints off into the distance. Everything is bathed in a bright, ultraviolet light and Natasha lifts up one hand to shield her gaze, but it doesn’t help.

She could stay right here where she’s standing. She could lay her body down to rest, let her blood seep into the sand until every stretch of land in this landscape of nothingness is coated with her sacrifice. She could rest, finally. God, she’s so fucking tired, she can feel it in the way her eyes burn and her feet ache.

But there’s a little voice in the back of her mind that sounds like Steve and Okoye and Wanda and Rhodey, that sounds like every person who ever looked at her like she mattered, and it’s saying, “c’mon, Black Widow, maybe you’re not done just yet.”

Natasha closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, steadying herself. She hears that voice again, clear as a bell, and it shakes her a little to realize that it’s her own.

So, she picks a direction and starts walking.

.

 

“Come on, Natalia, I know you can hit harder than that.”

Natasha curls her fists close to her sides and fights to stay steady in the partially frozen snow. She doesn’t know if she’s ever been this cold in her life. This cold or this hungry or this terrified. There’s blood under her fingernails and dried into the space between her fingers.

Only some of it is her own.

She tosses her head, shaking wet red hair out of her eyes, and tries her best to feign bravado. “I didn’t realize you were in such a hurry for me to kill you, Yelena.”

Yelena scoffs, like she knows just how much Natasha is lying through her teeth right now. She probably does. The two of them, they’ve always been the best the Red Room has to offer.

There used to be more of them. More recruits, more girls that she used to call her friends, more of everything before they got dropped into the middle of nowhere with a compass and just enough supplies for one girl to survive.

But that was before she wrapped her hands around the neck of a girl that she spent the last few weeks sharing ghost stories with, and squeezed and squeezed until there wasn’t a friend there anymore. Just a corpse in the snow, staring up at her, eyes gone glassy and unseeing.

Natasha blinks once, twice, lets the snow coat her eyelashes, and wishes she was somewhere, anywhere else but here. She’s in the middle of a nightmare, probably, or a vision of her future.

Yelena is good. She’s got a sharp tongue and broad shoulders and a head for numbers like Natasha will never have. She’s also wildly annoying, the way she’s pushes and prods at Natasha’s every move, like she’s testing the perimeters for weaknesses.

Yelena is good but Natasha is better. She knows this, just like she knows that Yelena hasn’t noticed the fallen branch that’s right behind her, like she knows that Yelena is a little soft on Natasha, that she might not hit as hard as she should, either.

After, Natasha stands and tosses the branch aside. She should finish it, should get moving, and instead she just stays there and stares down at Yelena, at how her blonde hair is splayed outwards in the snow, like a halo stained into glass. Yelena is still breathing, for all that her face is covered in bruises, for all that every one of her ribs is broken.

This is the moment, Natasha knows. She’s about to become the last of her recruitment class left alive and then she’ll make her way back to the compound, and she will finally, finally become the Black Widow.

Suddenly, hysterically, Natasha remembers that tomorrow is Yelena’s birthday. Her sixteenth. Annika stole a bottle of vodka from the guards a few days ago. They were all waiting to open it, together, on Yelena’s birthday.

Natasha falls to Yelena’s side, lets the cold wet snow drench her pants at the knees, and for the first time in over a decade, wants to cry. Natasha digs frantically through the deep pockets of her coat until she pulls out the compass, and presses it into the palm of Yelena’s hand.

“Good luck, little spider,” Natasha whispers into the crown of Yelena’s head, pressing a kiss to her temple.

“Fuck you, Natalia,” Yelena rasps, and there’s still anger in her gaze, in the set of her broad shoulders, that lets Natasha know that whatever comes next, Yelena still has plenty of fight in her.

Natasha checks the compass one last time and then gets to her feet, setting out on the slow, limping walk back to the Red Room compound.

.

It only looks like a vast nothingness, Natasha discovers, when the air she’s breathing starts to turn slow and sticky, like she’s moving through molasses.

She’s been at it for three days or three months, maybe, and the atmosphere has become something heavy, something that she has to push through in order to keep moving. But it doesn’t feel like a sickness, or death finally coming to collect whatever remains of her body in this wasteland.

Natasha reaches one hand out in front of her and pushes.

“Holy shit,” Natasha says, “it’s a barrier. I found a fucking barrier.”

.

The funny thing about Carol Danvers is, she doesn’t scare Natasha at all.

And she should. Carol has the power to level battlefields, to push spaceships safely to solid ground, to tear solid metal in half like it’s nothing more than a sheet of paper.

Carol could kill Natasha in less than thirty seconds. There would be no defense. Every ugly, vicious year in the Red Room was spent trying to turn herself into something unstoppable, into the sharpest, most silent of blades, the one that strikes long before you ever know it’s there.

But in the face of this woman, Natasha finds herself both powerless and completely unafraid.

Well, maybe she just doesn’t scare that easy anymore. Not after Thanos.

So, when she goes to make a cup of tea at 3 in the morning and finds Carol standing in the kitchen, with most of the lights off, staring down at a small piece of paper, Natasha doesn’t even blink.

She just rolls her left shoulder, trying to shake out any lingering tension from the way she fell asleep on it, and flips on the rest of the lights.

“Want some tea, Danvers?” Natasha asks, but Carol is quiet, like she’s somewhere else entirely, and doesn’t respond.

Tony had outfitted the kitchen with some expensive state-of-the-art electric kettle but Natasha brought her old stove-top number with her when she made this move permanent. It’s mint green and chipped on the side from where Clint dropped it, once. She likes the ritual of doing it this way, with the clatter of porcelain on stovetop and the sharp, high whistle at the end of it. She fills the kettle enough for two, just in case, and turns on the stove.

Up close, Natasha can see that the piece of paper is a photograph, an older one from back when getting your photos printed at the store was still common. Carol is holding it carefully by the edges, like she’s afraid it will fall apart in her hands.

“I had a family here, you know,” Carol says. “I lost them….long before Thanos and then when I got them back, I….didn’t stay with them. But I should’ve stayed. God, I wish I had.”

Natasha inhales sharply. Carol doesn’t talk about herself, not ever, and Natasha almost doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to break the spell, but she can’t help it, she wants to know. “Why didn’t you?”

Carol shrugs. “I didn’t understand, all the way, what I was capable of. Or how far away from home my mission would take me, how many more years it would take away from us. Years that would pass me by in the blink of an eye.”

Carol sets the photograph down on the kitchen counter, face up. A younger Carol is grinning up at her from the photo, Santa hat jammed firmly on her head, and bracketed on both sides by a beautiful young black woman with short hair and a sly grin, and a little girl that can only be her daughter.

Their daughter, Natasha corrects herself. This is Carol’s family.

Natasha touches the corner of the photo, just for a second, and then takes a step back. “What are their names?”

“That’s Maria,” Carol says, pointing to the young woman, “and that precocious little hellraiser is Monica.” Carol clears her throat but it comes out wet, so Natasha looks away, allows Carol the privacy of her small moment of grief. “Maria and I were Air Force together.”

Behind them, the tea kettle starts to whistle, and just like that, the moment slips away from them, the spell broken. Carol catches Natasha’s gaze out of the corner of her eye, and grins, wryly. “I think I will have that cup of tea, actually.”

.

“Who’s strong and brave and here to save the American way?”

Natasha is singing to herself. She’s been singing to herself for days, she’s pretty sure, but her brain blanked out on music that she actually likes a couple of hours in. And then she ran out of Top 40 hits a day or so after that, so now all she’s left with is this: the lyrics to fucking Star Spangled Man.

She’s out of breath, mostly, so it’s less singing and more like pushing noises out of her mouth between trying to take in huge, ineffective gulps of air as she pushes forward through the heavy, stickiness of the barrier, but right this second, she can’t bring herself to care all that much.

“Who, uh….vows to fight like a man for what’s right night and day,” Natasha doggedly keeps on singing, however tunelessly. It’s not like there’s anyone around to hear her. “He vows to fight like a man night and day? Fuck. Americans. You’ve gotta be kidding me with that one, Steve, I’m gonna give you so much shit the next time I see you for that.”

There’s sand in her boots, in every crevice of her suit, and her eyes haven’t stopped burning, not once, since she got here.

She wants to stop moving. Wants to lie down and just sleep, finally, god, why can’t she just let herself fucking rest.

Natasha grits her teeth. That’s not who she is. That’s never been who she is and she’s not about to change now, it doesn’t matter if she’s dead or if this is hell or some type of afterlife.

She’s Russian, afterall. She knows that these things are relative. It can always be worse, somehow, somewhere else.

“Something something…..I think you went shore to shore for America? Maybe. Fuck, this song is bad.”

.

“Can I ask you something?”

Steve looks up from his perch on the fence at the edge of the compound. The compass, with Peggy Carter’s picture tucked inside of it, lies open in his hand. “I think you just did.”

Natasha leans against the fence, and flicks him in the knee. “Don’t be a dick, Steve.” She nods at the compass. “I know that you love her, still. But I also….I know how you felt about Barnes, so why….”

“So why do I carry this around with me everywhere?” Steve finishes. He snaps the compass shut and slouches down, so his entire center of gravity is pointing towards the earth, like a puppet with his strings cut off. “I guess, to remind myself that….that love doesn’t go away when you lose someone. Even when it hurts like hell, it’s still better to feel it. And that there’s never as much time left as you think there is.”

“Wow,” Natasha says, “well, that’s even more fucking tragic than I thought it was going to be.” She leans into Steve’s side anyways, though, and lets herself be a solid weight propped up against him.

Steve huffs a laugh. “Yeah, well.” We’re pretty fucking tragic, is the only response to that, and neither of them have any patience for stating the obvious these days.

“What about you,” Steve says, nudging her slightly. “Why do you still wear that?”

Natasha’s hand flies to the arrow pendant around her neck and she considers, just for a moment, whether it was a mistake making friends with someone this fucking guileless, this frustratingly earnest. “Because I haven’t given up on him.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, nodding. “I get that.”

.

Fury. Sam. Laura. The kids. T’Challa. Wanda. Maria Hill. Barnes.

Clint, to his grief.

Natasha has been losing people since the day she was born. It’s the one constant of her life, the most reliable truth in her universe.

She lost her parents and then not long after that, she lost herself.

There’s not a lot that matters after you’ve lost yourself.

.

Sometimes, when everyone else has logged off, Okoye will stay on the line, just to talk.

It doesn’t happen often; Okoye isn’t exactly what Natasha would call talkative, most days.

But even for the General, there are moments when the straight line of her shoulders slumps, and grief dampens the bright determination in her gaze.

Okoye is a knight without a king or a queen or even a small, cheerful princess. It’s a surprise to Natasha that Okoye keeps it all together as much as she does, anyways.

And so on days like this, she speaks of Wakanda. She speaks of its people and its traditions, she speaks of how everything was, before Thanos, and Natasha….Natasha just likes the deep, steady sound of her voice, and the way Okoye’s love for her country is woven so deeply into every word she says.

“There used to be a rule, you know, about the Dora Milaje,” Okoye says. “We were the King’s personal guardians but we were also meant to be his ceremonial wives-in-training. The Dora Milaje could not marry or fall in love or engage in any kind of courtship, not if there was an unmarried king who might choose them.”

Natasha leans forward, cupping her chin in one hand. “So what changed?”

The right corner of Okoye’s lip twitches into something like a smile. “Two of the Dora Milaje fell in love with each other and decided that they could not be without each other. I hear it caused quite a stir, at the time.”

“Okoye,” Natasha says, voice teasing, “are you sharing Wakandan gossip with me right now?”

Okoye just raises one delicate eyebrow. “It’s a much longer story than that, but I like the principle that came out of it, at the end. That the Dora Milaje…..in order to become one of us, each woman must know that she is more than the parts of herself that she might have to give up along the way. That she owns her autonomy and is whole, regardless.”

Natasha sits back in her chair, face blank and calm, and does her best to ignore the insistent, hollow ache that’s taken up residence in the center of her chest. “Do you still believe that?”

Okoye doesn’t hesitate. Natasha’s quickly learning that she never does. “Of course.”

.

 

On the seventh day, she starts hearing voices. Or….not voices, rather, just one voice, a voice that she knows, saying her name over and over again.

Nat? Natasha? Nat! Do you hear me? I’m right here, you have to come towards me, you have to fight your way through or it’s never gonna work, Nat, it’s me, it’s —

“This better not be a fucking hallucination,” Natasha grumbles. She doesn’t think it is, though. She doesn’t want it to be. God, she’s not done yet.

Natasha re-orients herself, plants her feet solidly in the sand and pushes forward through the dense nothingness, through the ache in her head and the burning in her eyes, she pushes and pushes and just when she thinks she can’t possibly do this for another fucking second, there’s a surge of light and that voice again, and —

.

Natasha stumbles out into the wet, cold clifftop of Vormir, and right into Steve, who is standing with one arm outstretched, palm open, looking for all the world like he’s gone to war with a rock face.

Natasha laughs, breathlessly. At this point, she’s not ruling anything out. “Hey, Steve,” she says, “I feel like you weren’t supposed to come along to this part of the mission.”

“Natasha,” he breathes, and there’s wonder on his face, wonder and relief and that same old heartbreaking sincerity. “It worked, Nat. The whole crazy fucking plan worked and I’m here, I’m here to help bring you home,” he says, before pulling her into a hug.

Natasha leans into it and just breathes, in and out, in and out.

It worked. She’s going home.