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In The Cactus Lands

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This is the way the world ends….

She is sixteen when she reaches the end of her training.

Her name is Natalia Alianovna Romanova, and like many of her peers, fortunate to have been recruited so early for such an honor, she has been trained from a very young age. She is one of twenty-eight young ballerinas who dance at the Bolshoi. And she is one of twenty-eight Black Widow agents chosen for the greatest honor: to become the Mother country’s protector. To serve her and all that she stands for; to guard against those who would wish to destroy the lives she, and her family, and the families of Russia, have built.

Sometimes at night, her memories slip, and the training becomes difficult to remember: wrong.

 She is in pointe shoes and holding a gun in both hands; she is dressed for an ops mission, at a performance for the Kremlin. She remembers being very young, there being chaos, and her handlers changing. Knowing something was different, but being punished, told everything was the same until she stopped before she even questioned. Her parents’ faces are never clear, though she knows she has seen them in pictures. Her mother: was she tall like Natalia—no, that was— they told her she was like her father. His stature. Her mother’s posture. 

They told her she could have been royalty. 

Something isn’t right. She wakes screaming. Her room has been reinforced for this reason, and no one will come. 

She is sixteen when she reaches the end of her training with the Black Widow program; when she is told she will no longer dance with the troupe. Instead, they tell her, she has been selected for a new kind of exercise: one that no one else has been worth attempting. If she succeeds, she will earn the mantle of the Black Widow spy. If she fails, she will have become a victim of a true Soviet hero. 

Natalia has heard stories of the Winter Soldier since the earliest she can remember (and she can remember very early). She knows nothing about him: what he looks like, how old he is, where he really comes from. Some of her handlers call him the American. He’s brought into the room in full armor, stripped of weapons, and he looks at the floor rather than those who lead him.

« This is Natalia Alianovna. She will be your charge and you will train her to be lethal. » 

The Winter Soldier looks at her and she sees a flash of something living.

She is sixteen years old when she begins her training.

…this is the way the world ends… 

She is seventeen on her first solo mission. She is given a folder with the pictures and  schedules of an American journalists and two diplomats, and no information beyond that. The American – for this, she finds, is what he likes to be called, a tenuous link to a past he doesn’t understand and might well be a lie - the American looks at the pictures and leaves her to choose a weapon. She chooses two sigs that fit easily into her hands, and he frowns but offers her silencers and no comment. 

He is the first person to allow her to make her own decisions. She stares at the guns for a very long time. 

She kills the journalist execution-style, in an alley with no lights. She’s vaulted up and onto the fire escape before anyone has registered the sound of the blowback, and walks out of the apartment next door with a hood over her head and the guns hooked into the back of a pair of baggy jeans. No one suspects the hunch-shouldered teenage girl and she’s able to walk into the hotel in which the dignitaries are staying, a thin white tank top leaving little to the imagination and a smile that’s all shark teeth and bite giving her a room number and key and leaving a pair of tittering idiots, murmuring about the perks of the job.

 It was the American, who taught her this move. The Black Widow program had never been

concerned with something as imperfect as seduction.

 She knows he isn’t supposed to accompany her: he shades her like a ghost, and he’s good, but she’s getting better, tracks him as he stays behind her, checking her six, confirming her marks. In Prague, she hears the rubber scrape of army boots on the balcony of her hotel room, and pulls the door open, bare feet on the carpet too quiet for a tell.

He freezes. They stare at each other. 

« You want to have sex with me. » 

The Soldier scowls, mildly disgusted. « That would be easier. »

« Then why are you still here? » 

The American pushes past her, into the hotel room. She’s staying for a week: her new target is a businessman, poised to make a deal that would compromise a major source of income for the Kremlin, and her job is to kill him before he has a chance. It needs to look like an accident: right now, she is supposed to be twenty-six and a socialite, staying in a hotel more opulent than anything she could ever find a need for. She’d sleep on the floor, if not for the possibility of cameras in the room.

« The government’s fallen. You never worked for who you think you did.» He spins, turning on her fast. « I won’t remember any of this. I might be gone tomorrow. Natalia.» He hands her an envelope out of his utility belt: it’s sealed, heavy, filled with paper of some kind.

«Natasha Romanoff. You will run, and follow those directions. You will leave.» He looks at the ceiling, then at her again. « I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.»

Natalia is frozen, trapped to the ground. The American looks: terrified. Desperate. Like he may have been human, himself, once; like he knew what it was like to care about someone.

He looks like he’s telling the truth.

« You could run too. You don’t have to stay here — »

He laughs. « They don’t give me a name. I’m just the gun. »

He’s out the window before Natalia has the chance to open the envelope.

…this is the way the world ends….

They keep her locked in a glass room in SHEILD: trading one prison for another, one set of information pumped into her skin for another list of forced half-truths, fed to her like gospel. She pulls up the furniture so it’s taken away, and she refuses the newspapers, the information they give her.

The dates and maps make something inside her head go to fire. She thinks about the American, about drained, blue eyes and the surety of gunpowder. She wonders if he would have been different if he had had a name.

 Natalia Alianovna Romanova. They’d said she was their royalty.

 Natasha Romanoff. Written in strangely perfect lettering on a dirty, folded envelope.

 “I want to talk to someone.” She looks up at the cell because she knows she’s being watched. “Give me someone who makes decisions.”

She expects them to send back in the archer — to lie to her, to give her another false truth. Instead, a man in a sweeping black coat with a patched eye comes in, kneels down at the floor within striking range, and holds out his hand.

“Natasha. I’m Nick. You’ve made quite a name for yourself.” 

“None of those names are mine.”

“Well, be that as it may. I’m here to offer you a deal. I want you to work for me.” He looks around. “Unless you’re enjoying your current residence. I figure you’ll stay here a few more days. Get bored. Break out. And we’ll send Agent Barton after you all over again. Maybe he’ll get soft, maybe he won’t. But I’ll have an agent trailing him, and Agent Coulson doesn't do soft. So it’s your move. Bullet in both of your brains, or use your skills for the good guys now.”  His face is neutral.  "I'd rather not lose my archer, Ms. Romanoff."

Natasha raises an eyebrow. She’d expected…different. Promises. Coaxing. Lies, buried under beautiful language. The idea of glory that would never be real. This man — this is something else.

 Honesty, gory and true.

”What if I don’t want either option?” She presses down against a smirk. “What if I said my spy days are behind me? Hanging up the Bizon.”

“I’d say a spy doesn’t often use a submachine gun, Romanoff. And I’d say, I think we’re more alike than you think. This isn’t just something you walk away from, is it?” He moves to stand, reaching out his hand to help her, too. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts. Agent.”

She doesn’t watch him leave.

….not with a bang but a whimper. 

It is 2013.

 The Soviet Union collapsed when Natalia Romanova was seven years old, and the men who told her otherwise worked for someone else entirely. She knows this, but she still forgets sometimes, still thinks of herself as a person she cannot possibly be. But she is Natasha Romanoff now, and for the first time in her life she feels off-guard. She does not understand Steve Rogers.

Steve Rogers is everything America wants itself to be. And Steve Rogers does not want to be here at all. He smiles brightly and participates fully and there is a heaviness to him she has only seen in Nick, only remembers before that in the blue eyes of a wintry ghost.

His apartment unnerves her. 

It’s empty but for the furniture SHIELD provided: even the books and reading material were left here by SHIELD, attempts to get him caught up to modern time that read like a college history course. Natasha sits on his mattress while he showers and changes and looks around the empty room, the way the afternoon light reflects absolutely nothing.

There’s a single photo on his bedside table, and she picks it up, half-expecting to still find the stock image in the frame. Instead, it’s a worn-out newspaper clipping of Steve and another man: blurred and hard to see, both of their faces faded beyond tight recognition. The other man has dark hair and a lithe build underneath a double-breasted coat, and Steve is looking at him like he could block out the sun.

Natasha rubs her thumb over the other man’s faded face. No one mentioned this in Roger’s dossier.

Steve comes out toweling his hair dry, stops short at finding Natasha holding the photo. On noticing him, she lifts it for his inspection. “Who’s the guy?” She taps the glass. “Hard to see.” 

“That’s—” Steve looks like he doesn’t know if he wants to share. “Old propaganda photo, it showed up in a London paper. Bu—the guys thought it was hilarious.”

“It doesn’t seem amusing.” She tilts her head. “The man with you. Boyfriend?”

Steve looks like he might be frozen again, maybe forever.

Natasha tries again. “You and he were together.” 

“I—no. No. Bucky would never—he wasn’t like that.”

He doesn’t sound like he’s even convinced himself, but Natasha doesn’t push him. ”You lived together,” she says, instead.

It has the same effect. Steve seems to shrink in, whole body deflating. “Once ma died, yeah.  Moved out of his parents’ house for me. They liked me alright, just think they— Hoping we’d grow out of it.”

Natasha’s mouth tightens into an unhappy line. She reaches out and grabs his hand, tugging him towards the bed. He sits, and she hands back the picture. “Do you have any other pictures?”

Steve ducks his head. “One in my wallet.” He arches his hips and pulls out his slim folio, extracts a piece of plastic with a yellowed slip of card stock inside. He hands it to Natasha; what she sees, almost makes her drop it.

The blue eyes looking back at her are uncannily familiar. She’s seen them before. She knows them.

She knows what it’s like to look into them and not see the life there, even in this photo.

Natasha hands the picture back and sucks in a breath. Holds it.

“What was he like,” she asks, finally, letting her breath out in a quiet whisper. Steve seems surprised, and Natasha wonders if he’s ever been asked that, before.

“He—” Steve fumbles for a moment, as though he doesn’t know where to begin, what words fully encapsulate the person he left behind. It’s a kind of loss that emanates and Natasha doesn’t know what it’s like, can’t imagine it, doesn’t want to. Even the version of the man he speaks of wasn’t this, to her — wasn’t this to himself, not when she met him. She thinks of the way Steve said it, Bucky; thinks about the American, the last thing he said.

They don’t give me a name. I’m just a gun.

You have one now, she thinks. It’s the closest to sentimental she knows how to be. He has the man beside her, for that.

“He was a good man,” Steve says, quietly.

Natasha doesn’t believe in good men. Good men, like happily-ever-after, are fairy tales.

“You loved him. He had to be.”

She doesn’t believe, but she wants to. 

*

In 2014, they find Steve on the bank of the Potomac River, surrounded by the tracks of army boots that can’t have belonged to him.

He saved me, he tells her later, desperate, bones stitching together in a hospital bed with a mouth full of chemical cotton.

She kisses his forehead. She wants to say, me too.