It’s a Saturday morning, somewhere in 1999, and Natasha Romanoff is lost.
She’s going by Nancy, right now— Nancy Robinson is the name scrawled in the motel guest book. There’s something comfortable about Nancy Robinson, something suitably un-dangerous; it feels like baseball and apple-pie, like the wrong side of 1955, like air kisses and white picket fences, and Natasha Romanoff is not-quite-twenty years old, probably, and she is going to die.
She doesn’t know just how long she’s been not-quite-twenty years old. It might have been a while.
But it’s 1999, a year clear and beautiful and modern; they say the apocalypse is coming in a year or two, and that’s the kind of thinking Natasha can get behind (even if Nancy can’t). She’s almost looking forward to the Bomb. It’ll be a nice change from all the waiting.
Or— well. She would look forward to it, if she wasn’t going to die.
The door of her motel room is barricaded with four chairs, because she hadn’t had any supplies left after she’d used the last of the duct tape on the window. The bathroom is where most of her supplies went. She had to improvise.
The motel room has a full-size bed, a table, a telephone, and a little grainy color television. Natasha turned it on, briefly, yesterday; it had been advertising some kind of mysterious juice box and a dead-eyed pile of neon hair that might have been a toy, ostensibly related to the juice box. She had turned the television off. The toys black eyes had unnerved her.
She has been waiting for thirty-three hours for someone to kill her.
At hour thirty-four, the phone rings.
Natasha (Nancy) eyes it, wary; there’s an episode of American television about this, she’s seen it. No one’s been in this room but her, but—
It rings again, loud and buzzing.
She edges closer, prods it very gently, leaps back.
It rings again, insistently.
She edges closer again—
—picks it up.
The voice on the telephone says, “Duck.”
The window explodes.
The bathroom explodes, too, a second later— or Natasha assumes that’s what’s happened, from the dull thump behind the bathroom door and the yell of pain, she’s tired and scared and on the run but damn can she set a booby trap. But it’s the window Natasha’s worried about— flying glass, and the telephone she’s dropped on her foot, and the man in black who’s come tumbling through the space where the window was.
The receiver’s buzzing; whoever it was that told her to duck is talking, but Natasha doesn’t have time to listen to him. The man in black is tall and skinny, with a mask over his face; he looks vaguely familiar, in the way everyone looks vaguely familiar, like someone she knew (killed) a long time ago.
He springs at her.
That’s familiar. If there’s one thing she can handle in the world, it’s that.
He’s been trained; he’s been trained well. He’s not been trained as well as her. (By all rights there ought to be more than one of him, besides the one in the bathroom— by all rights there ought to be an army, by all rights they ought to spare no expense taking her down. Natasha registers that thought, records it, pushes it to the back of her mind for later.)
He throws her against the floor; she sweeps his legs out from under him. He comes up swinging; she ducks down, goes for the juncture between his legs. She feels the curl of vicious satisfaction when he doubles over with a whoosh of air. Her knee slams into his face.
Blood splatters on the right leg of her white pants. He crumples. She does it again because she feels a weird curling of anger and the fleeting thought of these are Nancy's favorite pants before she shoves it away and goes to check what remains of the bathroom.
There’s nothing left, nothing except rubble and some smoke and, presumably, a body. Or parts of a body. Natasha isn’t really in the mood to check.
She picks up the phone.
"I know you’re there," she says.
The voice on the other end says, “Damn.” The television says, WAYNE HEIR DEAD AT 15, BILLIONAIRE FATHER RETURNS HOME IN GRIEF, REFUSES COMMENT.
Natasha thinks the anchorwoman looks too excited to discuss a child’s death, but can’t be bothered to judge the woman for her interest. An unorchestrated death is always surprising to her, as if without a planned killing a normal life should never end.
Natasha blinks at the thought, shaking her head.
She asks the voice on the phone, “Who are you?”
"A friend," says the voice. "Or. Uh. Not a friend. A new friend? Possibly an old friend, too? I don’t know what you remember from Calcutta. Wait, that sounds weird--"
She’s never been to Calcutta.
"I don’t make new friends.” Natasha cuts in tonelessly. The boy’s face is on the television screen, a long lens camera shot of his dark head tucked under the arm of a large, clean cut man with a stoic expression. They might be related if not for the difference in skin tone. The screen freezes when the boy looks up at his adopted father, eyes wide, a sharp grin splitting his face. The man isn’t looking down, but the way the boy is held tight against his side says more than enough. Love is easy for her to spot from a distance. It’s meant to be viewed through a rifle scope. She thinks she could make this pale, stoic man do anything in the world if she laid but a single finger on that dead boy’s head.
A part of her speaks up, glad he’s dead, because now she’ll never have to.
The voice on the phone exhales in frustration, too comfortable, too familiar, too memorable, and says, “Fuck, alright. No new friends—just someone who wants you not to die. Is that it? Does that work?” Another exhale. “Jesus.”
She sets down the phone, walks to the window, pushes up on her tiptoes to peer out. Then, on instinct, she looks down.
There are bodies scattered on the pavement directly below her window. Broken black shapes against the pale sidewalk backdrop and her head hurts and hurts and hurts and
She walks back to the phone, picks up the receiver, and says, “You missed one.”
"I wasn’t aiming for him," says the man on the phone. "Why, was he a problem?"
She snorts. The voice says, “You know they won’t stop coming. You know we can help—"
Natasha hangs up.
It’s 1999, somewhere in America. She doesn’t remember getting here, but she knows she needs to leave. She’s surrounded by bodies and broken glass, the bathroom’s exploded, and she’s completely and utterly alone. Except not quite.
On the television screen, a big man dressed in blue holds a sign and smiles brightly at the screen. The tag line at the bottom flashes twice. DON’T WAIT UNTIL IT”S TOO LATE!
Natasha stares at the television for a long, blank moment. Then she runs a bloody hand through her hair, glances at the window, and pushes herself up on the ledge.
Time to go.
Natasha has been in Detroit, in Metropolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh. She doesn’t know how long she’s been running, but it’s been a least 3 weeks too long. The timer is clicking down. She’s tired, she’s so tired, she’s never felt so tired in her life, or at least all the parts she can remember. They catch up to her somewhere in South Bend, and then again in Oakland, and the bodies she leaves behind are less of a message and more of an expression of supreme exhaustion—she doesn’t bother covering her tracks, just hitches her way to the next overpopulated city on the back of yet another semi, hoping against hope of getting lost in the crowds. She shaves her head in a gas station bathroom somewhere in Bludhaven, after an unfortunate explosion burns off a noticeable chunk of her bright red locks. It bothers her for no other reason except that it makes her memorable, even more memorable than the red, when all she wants is to disappear.
She hears Gotham is a good place for that.
Natasha makes her way from the truck stop to a lower city borough, just a hair south of East End. She’s been to Gotham before (she thinks, she’s almost sure, but she doesn’t contemplate it for too long. Whatever the reason for her being in the shadowed city, it definitely wasn’t good). She knows Crime Alley is too much trouble, where she’ll stick out like a corpse-pale thumb in a sea of dark fingers. Instead, she heads for the edge of the Bowery.
Natasha is hiding with the homeless when they find her, huddling with the children in an alley. Because of course that’s how it goes. Only the innocent are ever left dead in her wake.
It’s only a team of 8, which that same part of her still thinks is a little offensive, really, because for all intents and purposes they should’ve sent 10 men, 20 men, a veritable sea of soldiers— but another part is glad because now the children won’t have to suffer so much. Eight men is nowhere near enough to stop her, and it won’t be nearly enough for the crowd of hungry eyes at her back by the time she’s done, or dead.
The mouth of the alley opens up wide in the wake of one lone flickering streetlight, tinged red because there is no such thing as true light in Gotham City. Natasha watches as the men fan out slowly, gun metal glinting in the dim light, and she thinks, wearily, as she stands up, time to go.
The team of men creep closer, their soft-soled boots silent, until they’re 30 yards away, 20 yards away, bracketing in on them where the alleyway tightens. Nowhere to run, she thinks, and waits.
But the men never reach her.
Instead, a boy with dead eyes falls from the sky. He lands feet first on the team leader with a wet crunch, taking out the next with a knee to the throat in one vicious flow of movement. The men don't have time to shout before he's falling on them.
Blinking, she looks up, correcting herself. No, not the sky, she thinks— the fire escape? She and the children in the alley sit silent and watch.
The boy is…good. He’s very good. And he hits hard.
He’s agile and quick, almost acrobatic in his movements, dodging separate gunshots from 4 directions with ruthless precision, using the alley wall as a springboard to send another man slamming into the brick on the other side, headfirst. Less than 6 seconds in and 4 bodies are crumpled on the ground. Natasha finds herself tilting her head slightly, trying to catch the angle as he backhands another Hydra-trained soldier into a dumpster, shoving the whole thing back with the force of the blow, and then he vaults forward, following the move with a beautifully efficient knee to the man's chest. The man slumps to the ground, blood bubbling in his mouth. Huh. She might have to borrow that one.
He was trained when he was much smaller, Natasha thinks; she recognizes the signs. He fights like someone who learned to target vulnerable points to compensate for a relative lack of physical strength— she knows because it’s the same way she fights.
It’s a mean form to fight; relentless, brutal. Violence at its most base. (The rules of engagement are made for people who have never been desperate.)
The last man standing falls to his knees, then crumples the rest of the way into the dirt of the alley floor, neck broken. The boy turns, blinks at the crowd of kids pressed up against the brick. No one says anything for a long time. And then:
“Hi, Rob.” Natasha glances at her side to see a small, dark haired girl in braids, probably 8 or 9, soot on her face. Its echoed by a few other small voices, all speaking softly, gently. These children know him. They're not afraid. The boy is still silhouetted in the alley entrance, a few yards away. His pale eyes are bright in the dark. He’s breathing heavy, but slow, like an animal trying to calm itself. “You okay? You want something to eat,” the girl asks, and holds out a tin can. The side reads “Beast Bowery Chili: Feel the Burn.”
The boy steps over a body to come closer, interest in the hard line of his body. He seems bigger now, at least half a head taller than her, blood on his hands; but she's wary. Like recognizes like. Natasha very consciously doesn’t allow herself to tense up.
The little girl glances up at her, reassuring. “Don’t worry. He won’t hurt you. That’s just Robin.” The boy reacts slightly to the name, looking down at them both and tilting his head to the side, comically birdlike. “People try to take us all the time,” she says simply, as if everything about that isn’t horrifying. As if she, Natasha, is a child that could ever be taken. (She can’t be taken, not her—she can only be put down.)
“He don’t speak much,” the girl explains to her, “but he remembers. He never really liked kid snatchers, even before.”
Robin. But that’s not his name, is it, Natasha thinks, faintly. Before. She's curious, but then the boy turns his scarred face so it’s haloed by the orange-red of the streetlight. The dead boy from the television stares right back at her.
He’s wearing a brown suit jacket and pants—no, black, just coated in dirt and grime, with a starched collar shirt of probable once-white. He blinks. Takes the can from the little girl with his big, bruised hands. The girl pats his bloody knuckles and goes back to the sit with the silent group of children huddled back against the wall. None of them seem to have been affected by the show of violence, focused more intently on the few cans of soup being passed around with small, hungry, hands. Natasha feels only slightly shaken. The lack of sleep hits her all at once. She's been running for months but suddenly she can feel every second.
“Thank you,” says Natasha, copying the tone the little girl used. The boy blinks again but says nothing, just stares. A bone white shock of hair sticks straight up from his dark forehead—very obviously trauma induced. Why would someone fake the death of a child? What’s the point? Why would they leave him out here to wander alone?
Was it an accident? she wonders. Do they even know he’s here? Then a bubble of cold anger. Was it the hard-faced man who had loved him?
She’d seen far worse things done to children by men who claimed to love them. She, Natasha, is even a product of it.
The boy blinks again and nods, then reaches out. He holds the chili can out to her, surprisingly gentle. Natasha is not hungry, too filled up with nerves, but she takes it anyway, because she knows how rude it is to turn away a gift given from someone who has nothing at all.
He smiles at her when she scoops some out with her fingers, spicy tomato flavoring bursting over her dry tongue. The smile only makes its way across one side of his scarred face, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He blinks again, reaches up to pat her shaved head, simple and sweet. Unexpectedly, she lets him.
It hits her then, as he leads her over to the group, herding her like a lost lamb. He’s wearing a funeral suit.
She does her best not to wonder where he got it.
Later that evening, after they drag the bodies out of the street, Natasha finds herself settling back into the small crowd of Bowery children, eating cold chili with her bare hands, warmed by the small bodies pressed close around her, listening to the youngest of them as they trade stories in the dark. She doesn’t feel as cold anymore. It’s an unusual feeling, not wanting to go.
One of the children sidles up, asks her boldly, "Why's all your hair gone?"
She thinks about ignoring him but decides against it. "I'm hiding," she says. The children all nod, understanding.
Another child pipes up. "What's your name?" Natasha blinks.
"I'm not sure," she says after a minute. Natasha doesn't quite feel like herself anymore. She doesn't feel like the Widow, but she doesn't feel like Nancy either. She doesn't really feel like anything at all.
The group seems to accept this with the same nonchalance as before, nodding and turning back to continue telling their strange stories. Maybe disappearing isn't as hard as she thought. It feels nice.
She listens as they tell wilder and wilder tales of all manner of animal monsters: penguins and jokers and riddlers, giant bats and dead birds. She feels sleep tug at her, insistent, and the dead boy that sits beside her feels like a guard dog against the night. He smells like wet loam and rainwater, and he nudges her whenever she jerks herself awake, slightly admonishing, so the next time she feels her eyes closing of their own accord, she sighs, and lets them fall shut. The boy’s body heat lulls her deeper, and she feels him pat her head again softly before she fully settles back against the alley wall. Natasha knows he’ll still be there when she wakes.
When sleep finally digs its sticky fingers in and pulls her under, she thinks, for the first time in a long time, maybe dying isn't always the end. Maybe when she wakes up, she'll be someone new.
The dead boy stays silent beside her all night.