It takes Yelena three months before she allows herself to believe she's not dead.
Her memory is something strange; she can picture the room where they sparred, can smell the layers of fresh and stale sweat and chalk dust. Can hear her own breath, hard and sharp, and the smack of her bare feet on the floor, and the crack that Inna’s neck makes. And then: nothing, all the way through to waking up in an underground SHIELD base, Vasilia making soothing noises almost under her breath, and Yelena is nothing so much as startled to discover it's because she's been screaming in her sleep.
I'm dead, she says to Dr Yang, I killed myself in that room, Natasha didn't need to shoot me for that, and isn't sure it translates. But she's passed through the eye of that needle, lain awake and weeping, hearing nothing but the snap of Inna’s neck echoing again and again. She's gone cheek to cheek with death, felt its breath on her face. She was dead before anyone ever pulled a trigger.
“I killed Inna,” she says to Natasha a month later, testing the words with her sister even though she already knows the truth resonating in her flesh, her bones, and Natasha nods, unflinching. “Did I try to kill myself?”
“Probably,” Natasha says. “A lot of us did. You stole a knife at dinner once, I think.”
“I was twelve,” Yelena recalls. Rubs the notched scar below her left ear. “They searched us after meals, after that. Evgenia got caught stealing extra bread. Better a knife than bread, Madame said, and they put us all on starvation rations for a month. I remember that, Natasha, my brain isn't so much porridge. I just meant, after Inna. Did I try then.”
“No,” Natasha says. “So they told me to do it instead.”
“Oh,” Yelena says, surprised somehow even as she suddenly remembers the bag going over her head, the thud of her heartbeat loud in her ears in that otherwise silent room. The breath of the two handlers, one of them stinking of garlic. The sound of the door opening, footsteps she'd been able to identify. Vasilia, Natasha, Evgenia, Svetlana. Olga, sniffing a little from that cold she'd had. Madame. Natalia, Madame had said. You have your orders. You know what to do. “Oh,” she says again, “yes, I remember now,” and startles the both of them by throwing up her breakfast all over the clean concrete floor.
She's sick for days; a bug, May says, but when Tuesday comes and she still can't keep water down, they start talking about a doctor, a hospital.
“No,” Yelena says, shivering, “no hospitals. No doctor.”
“It won't be like Konstantin,” Vasilia says soothingly. “And I will be here.”
“Who's Konstantin?” Yelena hears May ask, in the background, and Coulson’s murmured response: a handler. They're always handlers, Melinda. These kids didn't have anyone else.
The SHIELD doctor isn't like Konstantin. Yelena should have known—she's been seeing Dr Yang for months, of course—but the memories of Red Room medical are dug in deep.
“Stomach flu,” the doctor agrees, checking her temperature and frowning a little. “I think we should get you on some fluids, sweetheart. Don't worry, this won't hurt much. Just a pinch, I promise.” It's not even a pinch, she's so gentle sliding the IV line into the back of Yelena's hand, and the little plaster she sticks over the top has cartoon bears on it.
“You'd think nobody had ever put a needle in me before,” Yelena says to Vasilia, laughing, and the corners of Vasilia’s mouth creep up even as she's making a face and saying, English, Yelena, we shouldn't speak Russian when we're with Americans.
There's some sort of medicine in the IV, not just saline, because Yelena feels herself get the kind of drowsy she vaguely recognizes from back in the Red Room. She panics for a minute, afraid suddenly that she's about to plunge down into sedated darkness, forgetting, some kind of medical procedure she'll only remember in painful flashes.
“Vasilia,” she says, “what kind of medicine…” and her words slur like she's exhausted.
“What did you give my sister,” Vasilia asks, voice sharp, and the doctor looks up in surprise.
“Just something for her nausea,” she says. “Is it making you feel worse, honey?”
“Sleepy,” Yelena manages; her eyes are heavy, but she can feel now that it's not as strong as the stuff they used to give her back when Konstantin was their doctor-handler-observer. “It's okay, Vasya.”
The doctor must ask Coulson and May about her medical history, because even through her sleepiness Yelena gets drawn into a discussion with Vasilia and Natasha about the likelihood of any of them ever having gotten regular or adequate vaccinations. Probably not, they agree eventually, and in the end it seems easiest just to have the doctor do a proper physical for all of them since she's already there in the base.
“You're all in pretty good health,” she says eventually. “I wouldn't mind running some blood tests, some X-rays. It looks like Irina might have broken her arm at some stage.”
“She fell,” Natasha says, making very deliberate eye contact with Yelena. “Out of a tree.”
“Yeah,” Yelena agrees, thinking of how an American child might be hurt, a normal way for them to fall while playing. “She was climbing the tree in our backyard,” and remembers Irina crying, the quiet voices of her sestry trying to hush her before a handler got annoyed by her hiccuping little sobs. They'd set it themselves, no anesthetic, and they'd done it just the way they'd been taught but Yelena's still not sure it's healed exactly right.
They get their vaccinations, blood tests, X-rays and dental checks, and Yelena gets the impression Natasha is somehow guilty about it like perhaps she should have thought of it sooner. But she's distracted from that thought by the results that come back: she's allergic to wheat. Celiac, the doctor's notes say, a word that's unfamiliar; she has to ask Coulson how to pronounce it.
“I didn't even think that was possible,” she says to Svetlana. “No bread, no cake. No blini.”
“At least you still have all of your teeth,” Svetlana says in reply, unsympathetic, but she makes Yelena tea anyway strong and sweet the way Yelena likes it best. Settles across from her, stirring honey into her own tea, and Yelena can tell Sveta is thinking about something; her silence is very loud. What, she wants to say, and waits her out. It doesn't take long.
“Natalia is different now,” Svetlana says eventually. “Don't you think, sestra?”
“We're all different,” Yelena says evenly, even as she agrees. Natasha's different; she's seen it.
“Yes, but Natasha,” Svetlana says, persisting. “She's changed, don't you think? She's not the same as before.”
“I killed my sister,” Yelena says. “Natasha didn't. I'm the one who changed.”
“We all would have,” Svetlana whispers. “You know we would have.”
“Natasha didn't. Olga didn't. You didn't, with Mila.”
“I didn't think you remembered that,” Svetlana says, even quieter now, and Yelena shrugs; it's something she's only just dredged out of deep memory.
“Love is for children, that's what they told us. But we were children. They should have known.”
“It wasn't your fault,” Svetlana tells her. “It was different, once Natalia got us all out, once we didn't— there were no trainers, by then. No Madame. It wasn't the same for you. It wasn't your fault, sestra.”
“I know,” Yelena shrugs again, tired now. “But she was my sister. And I did it.”
A dead girl wouldn't get sick, she thinks; a dead girl wouldn't yearn for bread spread thick with butter, and perhaps it's a stupid reason to accept she's not dead but at least it convinces her she's alive. Her memories start working again; she gets more and more of that interstitial zone back to herself, over the following weeks and months of learning to live like an American girl. Flashes: snow, explosions, the sound of her sisters laughing at cartoons. The taste of cheap milk chocolate, gritty and over-sweet. “Did you blow up the Red Room?” she asks Natasha, uncertain, two months later, and Natasha makes eye contact, swallows her mouthful of cornflakes, nods. “Okay,” Yelena says, filing that one into place. “Did we fly here in a spaceship?”
“No,” Natasha says. “A jet.” Eats another mouthful, taps her spoon against her teeth. “Monica told the kids about repairing a spaceship. You must have heard.”
“Monica,” Yelena repeats. Thinks of a voice that sounds like the way honey-cake tastes. “Okay.”
They reach a year—a year in America, a year in some kind of freedom—and Bucky brings home a cake, the kind that they've only ever seen in pictures up until now. The frosting is thick and glossy, and Yelena spots the smear where Natasha has clearly swiped her finger through it.
“Rude,” she says, and then, realizing she can't eat the cake anyway, “rude.”
“I got you this,” Bucky tells her, passing her a smaller box; it's a little individual pastry of some kind, fluffy golden-white on top. “It's lemon meringue pie, some kind of almond crust. Sorry, sweetheart, they didn't have anything chocolate you could eat.”
“Oh,” Yelena says, disappointment turning to pleasure, “thanks, Yasha.”
She's never had lemon meringue pie before—she's never had much of anything sweet—and the lemon filling turns out to be tart on her tongue, sharp and a little biting against the fluffy burnt-sugar-caramel of the white topping. It's better than chocolate; she can't help but remember the taste of chocolate tied up in Natasha kissing her, in the reward she'd gotten before fighting Inna, in the chalky sweetness of the hot chocolate Vasilia had coaxed her to drink when they were so new to America she felt the snow hadn't melted from her boots.
It's easy to decide what she wants to do with her life; there's hardly even a choice. Harder, only, to decide on her identity in that new life. Natasha prepares the papers, or the request for them, and Yelena becomes a Rusakova like her sisters just like that. Gets other papers too, the glossy American version of herself—you'll need it sometimes in SHIELD, Natasha says, even if you're in Intel not Ops—and they agree on a surface-level cover for the both of them. Natasha seems to be having a little too much fun with it, Yelena thinks, but she doesn't have the heart to point out that the kids don't even speak Ukrainian. It's probably not like anyone in SHIELD will notice, anyway.
“Hello,” she says to her own reflection. “Hello. Hi. Hi. My name is Yelena Rusakova.” Makes a face, opens her mouth wide and lets her chin muscles relax. Works her jaw for a moment, takes a deep breath. “Hi, I'm Helena Richards.”
She holds her own gaze. Smiles at herself, and then blows her hair out of her face. Repeats herself, listening for the sibilants, the voiceless glottal transition into the H of hi and Helena. Elongates her vowels to mimic the cheerful Californian girl she'd heard ordering a macchiato at Starbucks that morning. “Ugh, who am I kidding,” she mutters, “my accent is terrible.” Sticks her tongue out at the mirror. “Privyet. Myenya zovut Yelena.”
“Privyet, tovarisch,” Natasha says from behind the door. Yelena jumps.
“Have you been there the whole time?”
“Nyet,” Natasha says cheerfully. “Are you rehearsing for your first day at SHIELD?”
“No,” Yelena says. Kicks her toe against the base of the bathroom vanity. “Maybe. What am I supposed to wear, sestra?”
Natasha looks down at herself. Shrugs, gesturing at her jeans and oversized GAP sweater. “Wore this to the office today,” she says, smirking a little, and Yelena can tell Natasha is messing with her but she lets herself fall for it anyway.
“I look twelve,” she says. “Nobody's going to take a twelve-year-old seriously.”
“You are twelve,” Natasha teases. Yelena scowls.
“I'm sixteen. And my license says I'm twenty-two.”
Natasha makes a face like she's trying not to laugh, but perhaps not trying very hard. “Come on,” she says, and goes through into their bedroom, finds her purse and digs out a credit card. “Here. Go to Bloomingdales or Ann Taylor or something, fling some money at anything severe and gray. And some good shoes, Intel are fucking assholes about your shoes. Actually, scratch all of that, go to Nordstrom and ask for a personal shopper. Tell them you're starting your first job in a law firm or finance or something.”
“Which account is this?” Yelena says, considering the credit card, and Natasha grins.
“Offshore, baby. Get yourself something nice.”
The personal shopping service is more intimidating than it should be, but Yelena squares her shoulders, smiles sweetly and sets the credit card down on the counter. “I need some help with work clothes, please,” she says, and then, thinking of that movie she'd watched with Evgenia and Sveta last week, the one with the American actress famous for her big smile, “I promise that money is not an issue.”
“College job fair?”
“Internship for a law firm,” Yelena says. “I graduated early and now I need to be taken seriously.”
The personal shopper looks her up and down. Yelena resists the urge to fiddle with the cuffs of her sweater. “Oh, honey,” the assistant says, “yeah, we can do something about that. What's your size? You look like you're maybe a four. Any favorite colors?”
“Gray,” Yelena says, “and lilac, and pink. Pale pink, not bright. No red, please.”
“Great,” the shopper says enthusiastically. “How do you feel about cashmere?”
Yelena has strong feelings about the relative merits of ligatures versus stiletto knives, but she's never had an opinion in her life about cashmere. It doesn't take her long to discover that she's a fan, of cashmere cardigans and also of silk blouses; she comes home four hours later struggling under the weight of six Nordstrom carrier bags, a garment bag with three suits inside, and a Kate Spade nylon tote which the shopper has packed full with Clinique perfume and mascaras and little compacts of blush and powder.
“God,” Bucky says, “did you bring home the whole shop, sweetheart?”
“You might be able to wear the same black jeans and combat boots for the rest of your life,” Yelena tells him, “but I absolutely needed four different pairs of shoes. Natasha told me to get something nice.”
“And you will look very nice,” Evgenia says, appearing in the front hall to help Yelena with her bags. “SHIELD will have no choice but to take you seriously.”
“More seriously than Natalia,” Lyudmila calls from the first landing. “Did you see what she wore to work yesterday? I think it was one of Yasha’s flannel shirts.”
“Those are my pajamas,” Bucky says, “shit, I wondered where those went, she's such a little gremlin.”
“Did you get my soccer socks?” Lyudmila asks, vaulting down the last five stairs, and Yelena shakes her head.
“Not that kind of shop, I'm sorry. Vasilia and I can take you tomorrow.”
“Don't worry,” Bucky says, “I'll do it. We can go kit you out properly, I'll take all you kids for ice cream after.”
“Me and Kseniya too?” Marta asks from where she's twined around one of his legs, and Bucky laughs.
“Yeah, you and Kseniya too. Go hang your fancy shit up, sweetheart, dinner's nearly ready. Irina whined for hamburgers but Vasya and I bargained her down to pot roast.”
“And mashed potato,” Marta says, “I mashed it.”
“Did you just,” Bucky says. Picks her up so he can ruffle her hair. “I bet it's great.”
“It's lumpy,” Marta says. “We didn't remember to peel the potatoes.”
“Why do I bother,” Bucky sighs, dramatic, and Yelena can't help kissing him on the cheek before she takes her clothes up to her room.
She'll be working in the, what's-it-called, the Triskelion, Natasha tells her, but Yelena still has to go through recruitment onboarding and orientation in New York while they wait for their transfer down to DC. “Do you want me to pick you up for lunch?” Natasha asks over breakfast, the day Yelena is due to start, and Yelena shakes her head, shoves another forkful of eggs into her mouth.
“She doesn't need her big sister holding her hand,” Irina says, “don’t be embarrassing.”
“So you don't want me to walk you to school this morning?” Olivia teases, and Irina rolls her eyes.
“That's different. You have to walk Marta and Kseniya too.”
“You're right,” Olivia agrees. “And we better go, or we'll be late. Good luck at work, sestra. Don't worry, you can always go join the ballet if it doesn't work out.”
“I am never putting on a pointe shoe again,” Yelena says, determined, and on that note she propels herself into action and out the door, managing somehow not to get trapped in the chaos that is five kids under fifteen getting their shit together for a regular day in a regular American school.
There are ten other people in her SHIELD intake: six fresh out of the Academy, three from the army, and one who's just graduated MIT.
“And you?” an Academy kid asks, and Yelena takes a deep breath.
“Classified,” she says, “sorry, that's kind of boring.”
“What do you mean, classified,” one of the army guys says. Looks her up and down. “We're in SHIELD now, right? We have clearance.”
“SHIELD still has levels,” another girl from the Academy says. “We're Level 2, that's not exactly top-secret access.”
“Yeah, whatever,” army guy says dismissively. “Okay, how'd you get in, Classified?”
“Languages,” Yelena says, reminding herself that she could murder every one of these recruits with a ball-point pen and probably wouldn't even rip her skirt. “They fast-tracked me over the last couple months.”
“Languages? Really? Let me guess, you took AP French at high school? How many can you speak, huh?”
“Ten, fluently,” Yelena says, struggling now not to roll her eyes. “Wie viele Sprachen sprichst du? Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma? Or are you just an asshole,” she adds in Russian, a little against her better judgment, and the Academy girl who'd mentioned Levels stifles a laugh.
“He's absolutely an asshole,” she replies, also in Russian, and then switches back to crisp British-accented English. “Caroline Weaver. I like your blouse.”
“Thanks,” Yelena says. Sits down at the nearest desk, relieved the worst appears to be over. “I like your shoes.”
“They're new,” Caroline says, sliding into the seat next to Yelena and putting her bag down on the desk. “I heard Intel are assholes about shoes.”
“You know, I heard the same thing,” Yelena tells her, and feels herself begin to relax.
“She's a diplo-brat,” she overhears some of the others saying at lunch, to general agreement. “Gotta be.”
“SHIELD doesn't just fast-track diplomat kids, no matter how many languages they can speak,” one of the guys from the Academy says. “They want you to pass combat training, weapons, even if you're not in Ops. She's a spy kid. I bet her parents are CIA. Deep cover, maybe, that's why she's classified. Do you think Yelena is even her real name? Come on, who'd name an American kid Yelena Rusakova, that's a cover name for sure.”
“Ignore them,” Caroline tells her, “they're idiots. How'd we get put in a class with such morons? You know one of them asked me if I'd gotten in on a scholarship for African-Americans, like… first of all, no, because I'm English, and second of all, no, because go fuck yourself? Hey, let's go eat in the courtyard, it's a nice day. You can tell me nothing about yourself, and I'll tell you everything about the Triskelion, since I assume you're transferring too once we're done with this tedious nonsense.”
“Okay,” Yelena says, “yeah, sure,” and hears the words slide out easy and American just like she's practised.
“How was your first day?” Natasha asks that evening, “what are your intake class like?”
“They think my parents are spies,” Yelena says, “in the CIA,” and Natasha cackles with laughter for so long that even Kseniya demands to know the joke.
Intake training lasts for two months, during which Yelena teaches herself the basics of Pashto, gives Caroline a crash course on pommel gymnastics as translated to combat tactics in exchange for the trick to the best fried plantain, and accidentally starts a rumor that Agent Coulson is her father. She also, less accidentally, breaks three of army guy Jason's fingers and two of his toes during self-defence practice when he tries to disarm her, which only adds fuel to the spy rumor and also leads to every woman in her class, and at least five in the wider office, deciding she's their new favorite person.
“I didn't mean to,” Yelena protests, over Caroline's congratulations. “Anyway, he's being a baby. I thought he was a big brave soldier. I broke two toes in ballet rehearsal once and I still went to class the next day.”
“He is being a baby,” Caroline agrees. “And you absolutely did mean to do it, Classified.”
“Yeah, I did,” Yelena admits. “Whoops, I guess. Anyway, what are you doing this weekend?”
“Dinner with my sister Anne, she's down from the Academy for the weekend.”
“She's training too?” Yelena asks, unaccountably pleased at the idea of another set of SHIELD sisters, and Caroline laughs.
“No, she's a lecturer, over in Science and Technology. She's way smarter than I am, got her first PhD at twenty-two. Thank God I went into Comms not Scitech, it's bad enough having a big SHIELD sister without her actually being my teacher. Can you imagine?”
“All too well,” Yelena says. Bites her lip. “You should—you know, if you want, you and Anne should come to dinner at our house.”
“Really?” Caroline asks, “you mean, I'll finally get to meet your CIA spy parents? Oh my god, someone tell Jason, it'll blow his mind.”
“You're very funny,” Yelena says. “Don't get too excited, okay, it's not that interesting. It's just me and my sisters and my big brother.”
“Hmm,” Caroline says, clearly unconvinced, and she's clearly even less convinced when Yelena comes in the next morning with two NDAs ready. “You want us to sign a non-disclosure? For having dinner at your house? Lena, I don't know how to break this to you but this is why people think you are a spy.”
“It's not my decision,” Yelena says, embarrassed; it'd actually been Vasilia who had insisted. Just in case, she'd said, and Yelena had appealed to Natasha and Bucky but gotten overruled, two to one. You're right, Bucky had agreed, this shit will come up eventually, we can't keep the kids in a bubble forever, but if Natasha and Vasya think it's smart then you might as well listen to them, you know? We can figure it out again later.
They organize dinner for Saturday night; Anne and Caroline show up a little bit early, while Evgenia and Bucky are still trying to figure out if the lasagna is supposed to be that messy, and Yelena has to mutter to herself in Russian before she girds herself and welcomes them in.
“Vasilia,” she says, “and this is Svetlana, and Lyudmila, Irina, Marta, Kseniya. Natasha's just out with Olivia picking some ice cream up from the store, they'll be home in a minute. Oh, and this is Evgenia, and my brother James. Everyone, this is my friend Caroline, and her sister Anne.”
“Hiiiii,” the sestry chorus, Evgenia passing Bucky a dishtowel so he can wipe his hands before shaking.
“Hey,” he says, “come on in, it's good to meet you.” They make it into the living room somehow, and while Bucky and Svetlana are making conversation with Anne, Caroline pulls Yelena aside and back into the hall.
“Okay,” she hisses, “just so you know, because I know you did not go through the Academy, there's a History of SHIELD course. It is mandatory, two semesters. And you know who shows up really early on in that course, Yelena Rusakova?”
“Oh,” Yelena says, “yeah, it’s, um. Sergeant James Barnes, probably?”
“Yeah, it's James Bucky Barnes,” Caroline says. “Except, apparently, he's your brother now? Cooking us dinner, with about seventeen suspiciously Russian-sounding sisters? Tell me how that works.”
“It's,” Yelena starts, and stops. Opens her mouth and closes it again, genuinely at a loss for words. Caroline starts laughing.
“Let me guess. Classified?”
“We escaped from Russia,” Yelena says. “About eighteen months ago now. The ten of us, we were in an orphanage together, basically. Yasha is a little more complicated, but…you know, think of SHIELD tech and double it. He helped get us out.”
“Okay,” Caroline says. “Wow. Okay.”
“You have to promise not to tell,” Yelena says. “I shouldn't really have told you, but…”
“Yeah,” Caroline says, “of course, Classified. Wait, does this mean you are a spy? Oh my God, you totally are. What kind of orphanage teaches someone ten languages and combat gymnastics, huh?”
“A very advanced one,” Yelena says, deadpan. “They taught us ballet too.”
“Well,” Bucky says once their guests leave late that evening. Looks around the room, the empty wine glasses and sticky ice cream bowls, the vase of flowers Anne had brought. “That went okay, right?”
“Caroline figured you out,” Yelena tells him. “Apparently you're featured in the SHIELD history course.”
“Fuck,” Bucky sighs, resigned. “Of course I am. You think we could get Coulson to take that bit out?”
“Probably should,” Natasha agrees, “it'll get awkward otherwise. Let's get these sleepy little babies to bed, huh?”
Kseniya and Marta are asleep on the couch, had insisted on staying up even as their eyes had gotten heavy. Natasha scoops up Marta, passes her to Bucky and picks up Kseniya.
“We're not babies,” Kseniya complains. “We're your little wolves, Natalia.”
“Yes,” Natasha agrees. “Yes, you are.”
It would be romantic, of course, to say Yelena had fallen for Monica the first time they ever met, but that's not how it works.
For a start, Yelena always has to admit to herself later, she doesn't ever remember meeting Monica the first time. All she can recall is her voice, her stories about spaceships like some future-world fairytale. It's not the first or even the second time that Yelena meets Monica Rambeau that has her heartbeat suddenly pounding in her ears; it's the third.
She goes upstate with Caroline to visit Anne at the Academy; they're taking a walk around campus, waiting on Anne to finish her lecture, when Yelena spots someone who looks just like Monica from across the lawn. She waves, a little uncertain, and sees Monica clock her, do a double-take and wave back before jogging across the lawn to catch up with them.
“What are you doing here?” Monica asks, surprised, and Yelena shrugs, suddenly very glad she's wearing her favorite sundress.
“Visiting Dr Weaver,” she says, “what are you doing here, huh? I thought you were home for the summer.”
“I'm interning over the break,” Monica says. “Turns out it's easier to build spaceships for SHIELD than it is to get into NASA. Although maybe being family friends with Director Fury had something to do with it.”
“Yeah, they'll just let anyone into SHIELD now,” Yelena jokes. “Even me.”
“So I heard. And you're moving to DC, right? You and Natasha?”
“Next month,” Yelena says. “Oh! Sorry, this is Caroline. We're going through intake together. Caroline, Monica. We stayed with Monica and her mother when we first got to America.”
“Hi,” Caroline says, shaking hands, “it's lovely to meet you.”
“Yeah, you too,” Monica says. “You're Dr Weaver's little sister, huh? No offense but she is fully terrifying, I feel like such a dummy in her classes.”
“Oh, everyone feels like a dummy around Anne,” Caroline agrees. “It's Monica Rambeau, isn't it? Does it help if I tell you that you're one of her favorite students? She's upset you're going back to MIT at the end of the summer, she wants you to stay at the Academy.”
“Hmm,” Monica says, ducking her head like she's embarrassed. “Nope, that just adds pressure, sorry. Doesn't help at all. But I am thinking about coming back to SHIELD in a few years once I've done some grad school. Hey, you got dinner plans? Come on, I'll take you out to eat, Mom would kill me if I didn't.”
“Oh,” Yelena says, torn, “I was going to—” and Caroline elbows her hard.
“That'd be great,” she says loudly, “Anne and I can catch up on our own.”
Monica takes her to a diner near campus. “It's not great,” she says, “it's pretty terrible, actually, but it's got killer cheese fries. And their shakes are pretty good.”
The milkshakes are good, Yelena discovers, even though Monica gently teases her for getting a vanilla one. They talk about school, Monica's summer project and her plans for senior year, about Yelena's intake training and what she thinks she might do in SHIELD once she gets there.
“The kids are going back to school in the fall,” Yelena says. “Sveta and Zhenya are starting college. I sort of wonder if I shouldn't have done the same, but…”
“What would you have studied, though?” Monica asks. “You just told me most people don't enter intake until they've got at least one undergraduate degree, you're some kind of savant for languages, and Mom won't tell me exactly what it is you and Natasha got trained for but I'm pretty sure it's something wild. You'd chew your own arm off if you had to sit through gen-ed papers.”
“You're right,” Yelena says, “you're right, I know. Vasilia says she's going to study literature. I think she wants to forget what we learned back in Russia.”
“And you don't?”
“If I could,” Yelena says. “Maybe. But I can't, so I might as well do something with it.”
“So long as it's not fucking you up, I guess,” Monica says. Studies Yelena's face for a minute, her expression thoughtful. “You look good. Better than when I saw you last time. Definitely better than when you arrived at Mom's place. Being out of that old SSR base must be good for you.”
“Yeah,” Yelena says, and then, thinking about it more, “yeah, I have a life now, I guess.”
After dinner Monica walks her back to her room; Yelena's staying with Caroline in an empty dorm room, a building on the other side of campus. It's a nice night but Yelena's only in her cotton sundress, and the adjustment from the heat of the diner to the outside breeze makes her shiver.
“I forgot my jacket,” Yelena says, rueful, and Monica pulls her sweatshirt off, hands it to her. “No,” Yelena says, “you'll get cold, right?”
“I'll be fine,” Monica says, “I'm used to this Northern bullshit now. It was a real adjustment coming from Louisiana, though.”
“I should be used to the cold,” Yelena says, giving up and tugging on Monica's sweatshirt. It's soft with wear, still warm from her skin, and smells like cocoa butter and the strawberry body spray Yelena's seen Monica use. “I'm Russian, you'd think I should be immune to it.”
“Babe, you gotta stop saying you're Russian if you're going to go work for a US intelligence agency,” Monica tells her. Reaches out, combs Yelena's hair back into place with her fingers.
“Yes,” Yelena says, very dry. “Because saying I'm American will be just fine, even when I introduce myself as Yelena Rusakova.”
“So tell them you're adopted,” Monica says. “No big deal, right?”
“Bucky wouldn't let us use Barnes,” Yelena says, faking mournful, and listens in delight to the way Monica laughs.
“So,” Caroline says the next day as they're driving back. “Monica, huh?”
“She's amazing, right?” Yelena says. “Her mom's Air Force. She went to college at sixteen, got a full-ride scholarship to MIT.”
“Yeah,” Caroline says, “I know, Lena, you've told me that already.”
“Oh,” Yelena says, feeling herself start to blush. “Did I?”
“Last night,” Caroline says pointedly, “when you got back from dinner. And then again this morning, and you've told me three times about the project she's working on this summer, and how she puts mustard on her French fries, and her favorite milkshake flavor is strawberry, and she said you should come and visit her down in New Orleans before the new school year starts. And you're wearing her sweatshirt.”
“I forgot my jacket,” Yelena says, cheeks burning.
“Yeah, you left it in the car. Doesn't explain why you're still wearing her sweatshirt today, considering it's seventy degrees right now.”
“I like it,” Yelena says, pulling the cuffs down over her fingers. “It's cosy.”
They have a party to celebrate Yelena passing out of intake—ready for graduation? one of her classmates had asked, and Yelena had had to excuse herself to go and throw up—and to mark, however ironically, the Fourth of July. Monica can't make it, but Coulson and May come along with May's husband Andrew, and Caroline; she clutches at Yelena's arm when she spots May.
“You didn't tell me Agent May was coming,” she says urgently, “she’s so cool, Yelena, I'm going to make a prat of myself.”
“Yes, you will, if you keep whispering to me and looking at her like that,” Yelena agrees. “Stop being such a weirdo, okay, and help me with this grill. I don't know how it's supposed to work.”
“I'll handle it,” Bucky says, appearing behind them in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. “Go sort your sisters out, Liv is having some kind of breakdown about Cool Whip.”
There are at least five sestry in the kitchen watching Liv make some kind of terrible American dessert; Mila and Irina are looking gleeful, eating blueberries out of the fruit salad, while Olivia swears in Russian at her mixing bowl. She has a streak of syrup on her nose and what looks like whipped cream in her hair.
“It says I should mix the cans of crushed pineapple with the Cool Whip and then layer it with the wafers,” she says, an edge of desperation in her voice. “But it's so damn runny it won't layer up, it's just melting everywhere.”
Caroline looks into the mixing bowl. “Did you drain the pineapple before you put it in?” she asks, and Olivia stares at her before swearing again, longer this time.
“It'll be fine,” Yelena says firmly. “Look, Sveta, grab the baking dish we use for lasagna. We'll layer it in that, the edges will hold it in. And then we can put it in the freezer to set, tell people it's supposed to be an ice cream cake.”
“Use these blueberries and strawberries and do an American flag on the top,” Evgenia suggests. “Then it'll look like it's rectangular on purpose.”
“It's genius ideas like this that got her into art school,” Svetlana says. “Mila, quit eating those berries and pick them out.”
“Aw,” Lyudmila complains, but she and Marta and Irina get to it, carefully dividing the fruit into two bowls. Lyudmila is wearing bike shorts and a hugely oversized, faded t-shirt that says BORN IN THE USA across the front; when Yelena looks closer, she realizes that ‘USA’ is surrounded by smaller letters so that it actually says BORN IN THE yUgoSlaviA.
“Lyudmila,” she says, baffled. “Your shirt. What on Earth.”
“I found it at a thrift store,” Lyudmila says proudly. “I love it, don't you?”
“You weren't even born in Yugoslavia,” Olivia tells her, and Lyudmila squares her chin a little.
“I might have been,” she says. “You don't know.”
“That's true,” Yelena agrees, “we don't.”
Natasha goes down to DC to find an apartment while they're waiting for Yelena's placement to get approved; she'd go alone, but Yelena gets wind of the plans at the last minute, packs her bag and is in the car with Natasha in under five minutes.
“I could have done it myself,” Natasha says, perhaps a little reproachful, and Yelena shrugs.
“You wouldn't have picked something with the right closets. Or kitchen space.”
“So picky,” Natasha says, “you’re such a little monster now. I suppose you want your own bedroom too, huh?”
“I think you do,” Yelena counters, and Natasha grins at her, takes them through a drive-through so they have snacks and ridiculously enormous Big Gulp sodas for the drive.
“Do you remember, that day before we escaped,” Yelena says; they're a couple of hours in, just past Newark. “Down by the lake.”
Natasha shifts her hands on the wheel. Glances sideways at Yelena, very quickly. “Chocolate and kissing,” she says, “yeah, I remember.”
“Why,” Yelena asks, and has to pause, take a breath. Wipes her palms on her jeans. “Why did you pick me? Was it just—you know, because we were the most like friends?”
“Friends,” Natasha says like she's tasting the word in her mouth. “Yelena, I…”
“I mean, what were any of us really to each other, back then?” Yelena says, feeling like she shouldn't have raised any of it. It's not what she's meaning to ask, anyway. “What were we, sisters? Comrades? Prisoners of our own circumstance?”
“All of that, and more,” Natasha shrugs. “You're my sister now, you know that. And my best friend in the world.”
“Yeah, I know,” Yelena says, “I know,” and then Natasha is making a strange noise in the back of her throat.
“You don't, you know…I mean, you didn't ask about that because you want to do it again, right?”
“Oh my god,” Yelena says. “No. Ew, Natasha, don't be such a dummy. No, I just meant—did you know, then? That you wanted to kiss a girl? Or was it just circumstance?”
“Oh,” Natasha says, “right, that's what this is about. No. It wasn't just circumstance. And I'm guessing for you too, huh?”
“I think I have a crush on Monica Rambeau,” Yelena says, a little uncertain: crush doesn't seem to articulate the way she feels, but I think I am in love seems a little overwrought.
The night before she leaves for DC, she crawls into bed with Vasilia. Rests her head on Vasilia's shoulder and sighs.
“Lenotschka,” Vasilia says, touching her hair with gentle fingers. “You've done so well, little mouse.”
“I don't want to leave,” Yelena murmurs. “I don't want to go. Do you think it's too late to go to college after all?”
“What are you afraid of, huh?”
“What if I lose you,” Yelena whispers. “What if I lose all of us. I've never lived somewhere without you.”
“You know,” Vasilia says, “they have these things called phones, now? And you'll only be a few hours away. You can visit us, on weekends.”
“I know,” Yelena sighs, “I know,” and she does, she knows, but—she's never lived somewhere before where all her sisters aren't.
Yelena's new team is delightful: a pack of bright-eyed American children who appear to have been engineered in a Scitech lab to live all day on coffee and covert data monitoring in at least six languages. “I'm sad you're not in my division,” she says to Caroline, the end of their first week; they're eating a late dinner at some shitty noodle place since they've already worked sixty hours each and Yelena knows there's nothing but hot sauce and half a wilted broccoli in her fridge. “They're nice, my team, but none of them can swear in Russian.”
“I knew that Russian lit minor would come in handy,” Caroline says. “You'll be fine without me. Anyway, the quants all suck, I think I'm the only woman in the department and the whole floor smells like Axe body spray. I keep getting flashbacks to freshman calculus.”
“I know I'll be fine,” Yelena says, indignant. “That's not the point. You're my best friend.”
“I'm your only friend,” Caroline says, blunt, and Yelena pokes her shoulder.
“Not true. I have nine sisters. And Monica.”
“Oh, Monica,” Caroline teases, and all Yelena can do is roll her eyes, steal a shrimp out of Caroline's rice noodle soup.
The team—Theta Division, which means basically nothing as far as Yelena can tell—is nice, especially once they catch Yelena mid-meltdown from caffeine withdrawal after she'd tried giving up her eight-coffee-a-day habit on the basis that it was probably not great for her health. She's got a blinding headache, puts her head down on her desk and swears under her breath in Cantonese for a solid three minutes, and Julia just translates the whole lot for the rest of them and then passes her a can of Red Bull. The whole team watches in newfound respect as Yelena cracks it open and chugs the entire thing in basically one go, using the last dregs of the can to wash down the Tylenol Ryan's tentatively offered up in sacrifice.
“We thought you were, like. Terrifyingly well-adjusted,” Siobhan says. “But you're not, huh.”
“I'm a work in progress,” Yelena says, covering her mouth as she hiccups from the carbonation. “God, that's disgusting. I don't know how Natasha drinks them on a daily basis.”
“Natasha Ivanova?” Julia says. “Wait, you know her? Red hair? Working in Ops?”
“Yeah, she's my sister,” Yelena says. Tosses the empty can into the trash, catches the way her team are staring at her. “What?”
“Honestly, I don't know if that makes you make more sense or less,” Siobhan says bluntly. “Also, why’s she an Ivanova if you're Yelena Rusakova? You know that guy Jason from your intake group keeps telling people Rusakova is a fake name.”
“Jason is a blowhard,” Ryan says, extremely matter-of-fact. “He tried to start a push-up competition with me in the gym the other day. But he's right, Rusakova, what's up with the name?”
“We're adopted,” Yelena says. “It's not that exciting.”
She wants to try kissing someone, she decides one evening, lying in bed and staring up at the crack in her ceiling. She might have her heart gently hung up on Monica, but Monica is somewhere in the depths of some MIT or SHIELD lab, and Yelena wants to kiss someone now, and once she's made that decision it's just a matter of time waiting until a weekend when Natasha is out of town and she's not.
“You wanna come out for a drink after work?” Julia asks Friday morning, standing up at her desk so she can talk to Yelena over the cubicle divider. “A few of us are going out to the SHIELD bar. The unofficial one, I mean, or we'll wind up doing shots next to our SOs all night.”
“Yeah,” Yelena says, “okay.”
“TGIF,” Julia says patiently. “Thank God it's Friday.”
“Oh,” Yelena says, “right, yeah. Thank God.”
“Wait, you are old enough to go for drinks, right? You can never tell with people from SHIELD Academy, half the quants are, like, disgusting child prodigies who did college calculus at nine.”
“I'm twenty-two,” Yelena lies. “I just have a baby face. Hey, what I'm wearing… do you think that'll be okay for the bar?”
Julia scrutinizes her. “Those pants are fine,” she says. “What do you have on under that cardigan?”
“Just a tank top,” Yelena says. Unbuttons her cardigan to show Julia the pale pink silk shell top underneath.
“Yeah,” Julia says, “you'll be fine, it's not like we're going clubbing.”
“Okay,” Yelena says, and promptly talks herself into such a wild spiral that she goes on her own to Forever 21 on her lunch break and buys a glittery silver handkerchief top that seems to stay up mostly thanks to her own force of will. Then she chickens out, shoves it down into the bottom of her bag. Reapplies her lip gloss, takes her hair out of its ponytail and smooths it down as if she'll be able to get rid of the kink from the hair elastic.
“Hey,” Julia says, “you ready? We might be meeting up later with some of Siobhan's friends in Gamma Div, apparently they're curious about the new girl.”
“Seriously, I'm not that interesting,” Yelena says, knowing now that it's a lost battle, and gathers up her things.
Yelena's not sure what to drink—she's never had anything except a glass of champagne at their escape-anniversary, and then half a stolen beer on the Fourth of July before Bucky had caught her and stolen it back—and she watches surreptitiously until Julia orders a white wine cooler and then says, relieved, “I'll have the same, thanks.”
“Boring,” Siobhan says. “Guys, who thinks we should be doing shots? Rusakova’s first month with Theta Div, right?”
“You always want to do shots,” Ryan says, “don’t pretend it's because of Yelena. But yeah, okay, I'm in.”
“Yeah, fine, me too,” Julia agrees. “But only if it's tequila, I'm not touching that licorice bullshit you made us drink last time.”
“Okay, first of all, there's nothing wrong with sambuca. But fine, fine, tequila, whatever. Lena, you in?”
“I, uh,” Yelena says, taken aback. “Um, okay.” She has to watch them again and mimic as they go through the unfamiliar motions of a tequila shot. Licks the back of her own hand, sprinkles salt on the wet patch and then throws back the liquor, licks the salt, sucks the wedge of lemon. The tequila burns all the way down; she can feel her eyes watering. “Wow,” she says, coughing a little. “That's awful. Let's do another one.”
“Vodka shots!” Ryan says, with considerable enthusiasm, “because you're Russian, right?”
“Russian-ish,” Yelena agrees. “Russian enough for vodka, that's what Natasha says.”
“Your sister is so fucking weird,” Siobhan says, accepting the shot of vodka Yelena passes her. “You know, I heard she totally murdered Brock Rumlow from Strike Alpha? Emily Green says he grabbed her ass in the lunchroom—Natasha's, not Emily’s—and nobody has seen him since.”
Yelena chokes on her mouthful of wine cooler. The others don't notice; Ryan is arguing that Strike teams don't just kill each other in cold blood because “that's still murder, Siobhan, your SO wouldn't cover you” and Julia is taking the opportunity to argue both sides at once.
“I know, I know, he probably just got reassigned overseas,” Siobhan says eventually. “Still, though. Don't you wish someone would murder him? He called me ‘baby’ once when I got in the same elevator and I felt like I needed a shower for the rest of the day.”
“Yeah, that's gross,” Julia says. Clinks her shot glass against Siobhan’s. “Cheers, baby. Here's to Brock Rumlow’s eventual death.”
“Cheers to that,” Siobhan replies. Taps her glass to Yelena's. “Sláinte, you beautiful weirdo. Welcome to Theta Div.”
“Thanks,” Yelena says, “sláinte. Na zdorovie,” and throws back her vodka easy like she's done it before.
Four hours later Yelena has had two more wine coolers, half a plate of cheese fries, and an indeterminate amount of a pitcher of margaritas Siobhan's friend Gretchen has ordered for the table. She's...okay, she's past tipsy and well into drunk, and it's great, she's great, everything is great and she loves everyone, she loves Gretchen and Jimmy and whoever else in Gamma Div, but she especially loves Theta Division.
“Let's go clubbing!” she says to Julia, “I bought a top for it and then I got too nervous to wear it but it's really cute, we should go clubbing so I can wear it.”
“Wow,” Siobhan says, “okay, who got Rusakova drunk?” and then holds her hands up when everyone points at her. “Me? Excuse me?”
“Let's do shots, you said,” Julia says, “and now look at us. I shouldn't come out, if I don't go soon I'll miss the Metro and I'm too cheap to pay cab-fare all the way back to Columbia Heights.”
“You could stay at mine,” Yelena suggests. “I mean, Natasha is out of town for work, you can take her bed. I'm in Dupont Circle, a cab won't cost that much.”
“Yeah? You sure?”
“Yeah!” Yelena says, possibly too-enthusiastic, but Siobhan smacks her on the shoulder with about equal enthusiasm.
“Hey, me too? I was gonna sleep on Gretchen's floor but if you've got an apartment…”
“I mean, you'll have to take the couch,” Yelena says. “Or fight to the death with Julia over who gets the bed. But sure.”
“I could take her,” Siobhan says. “I work out practically every day. I think I've seen Jules in the gym like one time, max.”
“I'm an analyst,” Julia complains, “I shouldn't be judged on my muscles. Okay, Lena, go put on this apparently cute top so we can get out of here and find somewhere with better music.”
“I'll see you Monday,” Ryan says, pulling on his jacket. “My brother wants me to help him fix his motorcycle tomorrow and I'm not crashing this girls’ night, that's for sure. You coming, J?”
“Oh,” Jimmy says, prevaricating, “I could… No, you're right, it's a girls’ thing, huh. You taking the Metro, man? I could give you a ride, I've only had like one beer. My fault for getting here late.”
“Yeah, sweet, if you're okay with dropping me over in Georgetown. Bye, gang. Have a good weekend, okay?”
“Byeeeee,” Julia says, sing-song, and Gretchen and Yelena wave goodbye while Siobhan chugs the last of the margaritas mix straight from the pitcher.
The club they go to is packed full of what Yelena assumes are college kids; she assumes people think the same about her, even though the bouncer studies her ID for longer than usual before waving her in.
“Shots?” she says, and Julia cracks up.
“No,” she says, “no way, you told me earlier that this was the first time you'd ever been drunk, we're not doing more shots. You can have a vodka Red Bull.”
“Gross,” Yelena says, wrinkling her nose, but she drinks it when it's handed to her. It's loud and dark, kind of overwhelming; she feels herself get caught up in the strobing lights, the smoke, the mass of people dancing.
“We're gonna go upstairs,” Julia says. Has to repeat herself before Yelena catches what she's saying. “There's a smoking balcony, it's quieter up there, usually.”
“You go,” Yelena says, waving them off. “I think I want to dance. I'll come find you.”
“You sure?” Julia says, and Yelena nods. “I'll text you if we lose you, okay? And don't let anyone feel you up.”
“I can kill people with my hands tied behind my back,” Yelena says, and Julia cracks up even though Yelena didn't mean it as a joke.
Yelena said she wanted to dance, and she does, she thinks, she does want to dance, but now that she's on her own she's suddenly shy, unsure of the right moves. She stands at the edge of the dance floor, watching the crowd. Tentatively sways to the beat and drinks her awful Red Bull until suddenly the glass is empty and she's just holding it to have something to keep her hands full. She looks around, not sure what to do with it. Sets it down on a ledge cluttered with other empty glasses, sticky rings of spilled liquor, and edges closer to the crowd.
“Hey, baby!” a girl shouts at her over the pounding music. “Having fun?”
“Yes!” Yelena shouts back. “I think so! But I don't know how to dance.”
“What?” the girl asks, leaning closer, and Yelena lifts herself onto her tiptoes so she can speak more clearly.
“I don't know how to dance,” she says again, and the girl—tall, with short dark hair and a big smile—laughs.
“Baby, we can't have that! C’mere, I'll teach you. It's easy.”
Yelena lets herself be tugged onto the dance floor, feeling giddy and a little fizzy from the vodka, the syrup-sweet energy drink, the way the other girl is touching her hips. The bass resonates behind her breastbone, beat catching her up.
“I'm Alice,” the girl says, still smiling, and Yelena nods.
“Yelena,” she replies. Alice shakes her head to show she hasn't heard. “Lena,” Yelena says, louder, and Alice touches her fingertips to Yelena's cheek, tucks a lock of hair back behind Yelena's ear.
“Lena? Lena! Hi! See, you just have to follow the rhythm.” Alice is very close to her, her hips flush with Yelena's, and all at once Yelena understands how to move, how to pour herself into the shifting lights and pounding bass. Alice doesn't step away, even after Yelena's picked it up, and Yelena realizes she doesn't want her to; she gathers her courage, rests one hand on Alice's waist so they can move in closer unison.
“Do you want to have some fun?” Alice asks her a little later, and Yelena nods, because yes, she would like to have some fun.
Alice digs in her pocket. Pulls out a little metal case, the kind Coulson carries for his business cards, and opens it up, takes out a couple of white tablets. “Here,” she says, holding one out to Yelena, “this’ll make you feel so good, okay.”
Yelena takes it from her, more curious than anything else. The tablet has a pink love heart on one side, and Yelena doesn't have any water so she puts it in her mouth and swallows it dry. “Thank you,” she says, and Alice grins, swallows her own pill. Tucks Yelena's hair back again, and then slides her fingers slowly down Yelena's spine, traces little circles across the small of her back. Yelena isn't sure whether she's supposed to feel anything yet—will it happen immediately, or later, she doesn't know—but the way Alice is touching her is making little sparks go off under her skin, and it makes her feel bold.
Time turns kind of funny after that. Yelena doesn't know how long they've been dancing, but her body feels tingly, swept up in bubbles of joy. “I'm gonna go get some water,” Alice says to her eventually. “And have a smoke, maybe. You wanna come?”
“Yeah!” Yelena says, and then, thinking more about water, “yes, please.”
“Okay,” Alice says. Smiles at her like she's cute, takes her hand, leads her to the bar and orders a couple bottles of water.
“Oh,” Yelena says, “I can—” and finds the cash in her purse. The water tastes amazing; she drinks half of it in one go, presses the cold bottle to her overheated forehead.
“Hot in here, huh,” Alice says. “Come on, let's go have a cigarette.”
“I've never smoked a cigarette before,” Yelena says thoughtfully when they're outside, but cigarettes are amazing too, everything is amazing, the air and the way Alice is touching her, the sounds of people laughing around them, and then Alice is kissing her and that's even more amazing, it's—it's electric, it's breathless and perfect and everything Yelena's been daydreaming about while pretending she isn't. Alice backs her up against the corner of the balcony, kisses and kisses her, and Yelena gasps, takes Alice by the shirt and pulls her in to kiss her back even harder.
“I have to use the bathroom,” she says eventually, breaking apart, “I drank so much water,” and Alice laughs. Nods, kisses the tip of her nose.
“Down the stairs,” she says. “To the right.”
“Okay,” Yelena says, and kisses her once more, stretching up on her tiptoes, before going downstairs.
The restroom lights are bright, shockingly fluorescent, and Yelena blinks. Sits on the toilet for a while, staring at her knees, and then at her face in the mirror while she's washing her hands. She doesn't feel like she recognizes her own reflection, can't tell if it's just because she's drunk or if she's changed that much.
“Hey, Lena,” Siobhan says from behind her, “we thought we'd lost you! Where'd you disappear to?”
“I smoked a cigarette,” Yelena says. “And I, I met someone who taught me to dance, and she asked if I was having fun and I said yes, and she, uh… Wow, my face feels tingly.”
“Lena,” says Siobhan, taking Yelena's face between her palms and looking closely at her. “Are you on drugs?”
“No,” Yelena says, perplexed. “I'm not sick, why would I need any medicine.”
“No, I mean—did anyone give you anything? A drink, or a pill, or anything?”
“She said it would make me feel good,” Yelena says. “And she was right. I feel very good.” Blinks up at Siobhan and drifts into a smile. “Your eyes are so green, wow. My sister Evgenia’s eyes are green too but yours are even prettier than hers.”
“Oh my God,” Julia says, “someone dosed Yelena. Shit, do you think SHIELD will make a thing of it?”
“We'll cover for her,” Siobhan says firmly. “She's, you know, foreign. She didn't know.”
“Am I in trouble?” Yelena asks, feeling her eyes go very wide. “I don't want to be in trouble.”
“You're fine,” Siobhan tells her. “Do you want some water, or something?”
“I want to dance,” Yelena sighs. Feels it spark down her spine, little shivers of electricity. “I used to be a ballet dancer. All of us were. I didn't like it then, Madame made it hurt, but I loved the way the music made me feel.”
“Oh, honey,” Julia says. “Okay, come on, let's go and dance, maybe that'll get some of it out of your system.”
It's not quite as intense dancing with Siobhan and Julia as it was with Alice. She doesn't want to kiss either one of them, for starters. But the music is loud and the lights are bright, and Yelena lets herself spin out into it, untethered and drifting through the pulse of it.
“Okay,” Julia says eventually, “it's almost three am, babe, we're going home,” and gets her outside, hails a cab. “God, I'm so sleepy. How'd it get so late?”
“You can sleep on my couch,” Yelena says, remembering that important point.
“Yeah, I know. We sorted that one out already. But you're going to have to tell us your address, we don't know where you live.”
“Oh,” Yelena says. “Right.” It takes her a minute to remember how to tell the cab driver her address, but they get there, and Yelena pulls herself together enough to get them in the front door.
Yelena's tired now, but not tired enough to sleep, and it seems like Julia and Siobhan are happy enough to keep her company for a bit longer because all three of them pile onto the couch as soon as they've changed into pajamas Yelena has dug out of the clean laundry.
“I can't believe your sister wears pajamas with little cats on them,” Julia says, raising a leg in the air so she can study her flannel-clad thighs.
“I gave them to her,” Yelena says. “For Christmas. She has a pair with sheep, too, but those are her favorite so she probably took them with her.”
“Somehow I never considered that Ops agents have to pack pajamas on their missions,” Siobhan says, “that just seems wrong to me,” and they fall silent for a minute while contemplating that fact.
“How are you doing, Rusakova?” Julia asks eventually. “Feel like you're coming down from your high yet?”
Yelena hums under her breath. Considers her body, the state of her brain. “I think so. I don't know, I've never done this before,” she says dreamily, and hears Julia yawn.
“Do what? Drugs? Probably shouldn't do them again, Lena, SHIELD will probably only accept ‘I didn't know that I shouldn't accept a mystery pill from a girl in a club’ as a reasonable excuse once.”
“Yeah,” Yelena says, “you're probably right, but I've never…I didn't know they could make you feel like this.”
“That's drugs for you,” Siobhan says lightly, and Yelena sighs.
“They didn't ever give us anything like this before. Only things that made me feel terrible, I never knew what they were. Testing our reflexes, our fear response. Our capacity for pain, that kind of thing. Once they gave me something and left me alone in a room for three days.”
There's a long silence. “Yelena,” Julia says, quiet and very gentle, “who did that to you? It wasn't SHIELD, was it?”
“No,” Yelena says. “Not SHIELD. Oh—wait, I shouldn't—I think that's something I wasn't supposed to tell anyone.”
“Everyone has secrets,” Siobhan says. “And we know how to keep them. That's why SHIELD recruits us. You don't have to worry about us saying anything.”
“Also,” Julia adds, “honestly, we're still pretty drunk, we might just have forgotten by morning. But you're safe now, right? You're not with those people anymore?”
“They're all dead,” Yelena says. “It's just me and my sisters now. And my brother. We're different than we used to be.”
“Okay,” Julia says. “Okay. Do you want some water?”
“Yes, please,” Yelena says gratefully. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have—”
“Shhh,” Siobhan says. Pats her hair. “Didn't happen, okay? You're chill.”
“Yes,” Yelena says. “Okay.” Her heart feels delicate and full, almost unbearably open; it's terrifying to know that she trusts them, that she can do nothing except trust them.
“Here's your water,” Julia says. “Make sure you drink it, bud. Also, do you have any snacks? I'm fucking starving.”
“Yes!” Yelena says, relieved to have something simpler to think about. “Um, I think Natasha probably has some Hot Pockets in the freezer? Or there might be some pizza rolls. And there's Pop-Tarts and cereal and probably some microwave popcorn in the pantry.”
“I thought you only ate, like, organic salmon and rice cakes and Sweetgreen salads,” Siobhan teases. “Hell yeah, pizza rolls, let's cook the whole box. I don't care if they're your sister's, I'm drunk and hungry enough to say I'd fight her for a Hot Pocket.”
“She might let you win,” Yelena says, grabbing the box of cocoa pebbles so she can eat them in dry fistfuls straight from the packet, and then, laughing, “no, she'd absolutely destroy you, I'm sorry.”
She feels awkward the next morning—the next afternoon, by the time they all wake up—but Siobhan and Julia just make the kind of sleepy gremlin noises Yelena associates with Natasha when she needs a pot of coffee and about five thousand pancakes, and then she realizes she's doing it too.
“My brain feels like it's been shaken around and put back together wrong,” she says, “ow,” and Siobhan makes a sad little noise of agreement.
“Shots,” she says, “it’s always the shots, I'm an idiot who'll never learn. It seems like such a good idea at the time.”
“Don't talk about shots,” Julia says, “I'm gonna puke, oh my god. Did you talk me into sambuca again? I swear to God I'm gonna kill you.”
“No,” Siobhan says, “you suggested it, after Gretchen left. While Lena was AWOL getting up to mischief.”
“Ughhhhh,” Julia groans. Chugs a glass of water, stares into space for a minute like she's debating her internal organs. “Okay, Rusakova, tell me you have frozen hash browns.”
Yelena shakes her head; she didn't even know frozen hash browns were a thing, but now she wishes she did. “I have, like, gluten-free toast,” she says. “And vanilla yogurt?”
“Nope, that's not gonna do it. Okay, fine, we're going to find a diner that will sell me a breakfast sandwich and a vat of home fries, come on.” That occupies a solid chunk of Saturday afternoon, and then Yelena steals a pair of Natasha's flannel pajamas, curls up in bed with her book and falls asleep half a chapter in. She wakes up again Sunday morning feeling like she's been hit by a truck from sleeping fifteen hours in a stretch, but she throws herself out of bed and into the shower before she can talk herself out of it. Runs some errands, the dry-cleaner and the grocery store, a slow-paced jog around the Lincoln Memorial. Changes the sheets on her bed and Natasha's, and calls her sisters, same as she does every Sunday night.
“I went out with my workmates,” she says to Svetlana. “I think we're probably friends now.”
“I think you probably are,” Svetlana agrees, and Yelena bites her lip.
“Do you ever—forget,” she says. “That not everyone grew up the way we grew up.”
“Yeah,” Svetlana says. “Sometimes in class, I have to remember not to talk about it. How I broke my elbow, where that scar on my shoulder comes from. Why I didn't notice when I broke my toe. Did you scare your new friends?”
“Maybe,” Yelena says. “Maybe a bit. But they said I don't have to worry about it.”
“Then don't worry about it,” Svetlana says. “And don't forget, sestra. We're still growing up too.”
When she gets in on Monday morning, it's with coffee for all of them; she's the first one at her desk, but Siobhan and Ryan come in ten minutes later, their eyes lighting up at the lattes waiting for them.
“Just tipping you off, you might feel a bit weird the next few days, that's totally normal. And you should probably get someone down in labs to run a blood test,” Siobhan murmurs to her quietly, once Ryan is occupied with his emails. “Just to, you know, find out what you actually took.”
“Oh,” Yelena says, “right, okay,” and takes ten minutes to do her own blood draw, run down to the lab and find her favorite tech. “Hey, Alex,” she says. “Could you run a drug panel on this?”
“Sure,” Alex says. “You want me to email you when it's ready?”
“That'd be great,” Yelena says. Smiles brightly and heads back to her desk, resisting the urge to curl up underneath it. The results come through within an hour—Alex must be having a slow day in the lab—and Yelena clicks open her email wondering what she'll find.
Results don't show much, Alex says. Relatively low level MDMA, about as much caffeine as you'd expect for a four-cup-a-day habit. No alcohol, but that's not surprising, it processes out pretty fast. Your guy probably had a fun Saturday night but that's about all.
Yelena has no idea what to do with that one. Thanks, she types back. This probably makes me extremely sheltered, but what is MDMA?
Oh, right, you got home-schooled, Alex says five minutes later. It's ecstasy. Molly. Party drug, popular with club kids. Half the students in Georgetown probably have similar blood results today.
Oh, Yelena says, okay, thanks. I owe you a coffee, okay?
She fidgets at her desk for a minute, pulls out her personal phone.
Do you think SHIELD will care that I accidentally took like maybe one pill of molly?
What on God's sweet earth is molly, Bucky texts back, and then, a minute later, never mind, I looked it up on Wikipedia. I don't know whether to be proud or disappointed. Did you have fun?
Yeah, Yelena says. Yeah, I did.
The following week, she's settling in for a regular Tuesday: five-mile run in the SHIELD gym, half an hour on the Pilates reformer, her second-favorite suit ready in her garment bag. She treats herself to vanilla syrup in her morning coffee, lets the lobby Starbucks barista flirt with her even though she's pretty sure by now that boys, no matter how cute, do absolutely nothing for her. Has her emails up and is half an hour in when the others show up; she's already wondering if today's going to be the day she'll finally get to deep-dive on the linguistic analysis Ops asked for a week ago.
“Fucking mornings,” Julia says cheerfully, sitting down at her desk and swearing as she spills her coffee on her hand. “Why do we all start so early, huh?”
“It's eight am, Douglas, it's not exactly the crack of dawn.”
“Speak for yourself,” Julia complains. Turns to Yelena. “Seriously, it's early, right?”
“Oh,” Yelena says a little awkwardly, “you know I'm kind of a morning person, I'm probably not the best person to ask.”
“She goes to the gym before work,” Siobhan says from across the room, “right, Rusakova? I've seen you in there. You're an overproductive little nightmare.”
“It's just how I start the day,” Yelena says, more awkwardly now. “When I was a kid I always had to be up at five, it's hard-wired into me now.”
“Show-off,” Julia mutters, but she offers Yelena half her bagel anyway, shrugs when Yelena shakes her head. Shoves the other half in her mouth, checks her phone and frowns a little. “Hey, Ryan, turn on CNN, my brother works for American Airlines and he said something’s going down on a flight out of Boston.”
“Something like what?” Ryan asks, but he turns on the TV in the corner of the office: the morning news, talking heads discussing the weather. “Seriously, Jules, something like what?”
“I don't know,” Julia says, texting furiously now. “I'm asking. Can you get anything from the FAA?”
“Give me a second,” Ryan says. Turns his attention to his computer. “Shit, okay, Boston Center thinks it's a hijacking. Transponder’s turned off but they're still on primary radar.”
“NORAD’s got no chatter,” Siobhan offers. “NEADS has nothing. Wait, no, I'm hearing something now. National Guard Otis Ops is getting a report from Boston. Should we be reporting this up?”
“No need,” Agent Andersen says brusquely from the door at the far end of the room. Snaps his fingers for attention, not that it's necessary. “Everyone on me, right now. Douglas, tell me what you've got.”
“Sir,” Julia says. Pulls herself together, glancing a little nervously at Ryan. “I received informal intel from American Airlines, 0823, that a flight out of Boston was in trouble. 0825, Boston Center reported to other flight control centers regarding AA Flight 11.”
“0834, Otis Ops received a report from Boston,” Siobhan says. Pauses, listening to her headset. “0838, Boston Center have reported to NEADS. Flight 11 has been hijacked, sir. They're requesting military help to intercept.”
“Stay on it,” Andersen tells her. “Everyone, stay on this, I'm calling it up the wire.”
“We're Level 4 Intel, sir, we probably don't have clearance. Julia only found out because of her brother texting her.”
“And that might be the best intel SHIELD has got right now,” Agent Andersen says. “We're not going to get anything fast through the official channels at NORAD, so stay on the chatter. Anything you can't get, send it to me for a clearance override.”
“Yessir,” Siobhan says. There's a flurry of activity, all of them getting to it. Yelena thinks for a second. Pulls up the AA passenger manifests for that day, and then, reconsidering, the manifests for all major airlines. Wonders how to sift them, what she's looking for.
“Any direct contact with the flight?” she asks Ryan. “The hijackers, or the passengers?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Boston got a couple transmissions. One minute, I'll send them over.”
“Sir,” Siobhan says. “At 0846, NEADS ordered two F-15s to scramble from Otis.”
“Boston and New York Centers reporting they've lost Flight 11,” Ryan adds. Falls quiet for a moment, listening, before he looks up again. “New York Center reporting from Kennedy Tower that there's a fire at World Trade.”
“A fire,” Andersen says, and Ryan nods. “Okay. Anything from NEADS?”
“Nothing, sir. They've lost radar. Still trying to locate.”
“Oh my god,” Yelena says, almost without any independent volition. Stares up at the TV. “Look.”
The minutes go by in a blur: the first plane, and then the second, making it clear this isn't an accident but some awful design.
“Anyone got an update for UA 175? Lost transponder contact ten minutes ago.”
“FAA just notified NORAD,” Siobhan says, and then they're watching it right there on CNN, live coverage as 175 hits. It's terrible, Yelena knows; it's terrible, it's terrifying, hundreds and hundreds of people, but two planes is a pattern and she's got data to work with now. She can't think about anything else. Puts it aside, compartmentalizes it with the ease of long practice.
“We've lost AA Flight 77,” Ryan calls out. “Dropped off transponder and primary radar 0856, FAA can't find it based on extrapolated flight path.” That's three, Yelena thinks, more data points to work from, a pattern emerging, and until she can see the shape of it she can't consider where the third plane might be aimed.
“Sir,” Yelena says quietly. “I need to show you something. There's another plane headed to DC.”
“Flight 93,” Andersen says. “Yeah, Rusakova, we're on it.”
“Not Flight 93,” Yelena says. “Another one. Aimed at us, sir.”
“The Triskelion. The Pentagon’s just been hit. UA 93 is almost certainly aimed at the Capitol or the White House. I think they're banking on that flight to take up our attention. They've got to know they'll be shot out of the sky before they reach the White House but I think they're hoping it'll distract us long enough to hit one more target.”
Andersen looks at her sharply, glances around the room full of agents. “You picked this up on air control chatter? They lost transponder contact like the others?”
“No,” Yelena says. “I don't think they've noticed. I don't think the flight has been hijacked yet, sir, but I believe it will be.”
“What have you got,” Andersen says. “Show me your thinking, Rusakova.”
“I pulled passenger manifests. Ran some analysis based on the transmissions from AA 11, the details I was able to pull. There are commonalities: Middle Eastern, mostly but not exclusively Saudi. Groups of four or five. Often seated in first class. On those parameters, I was able to find one more flight that returned similar passenger details. Delta, flying out of Reagan. Transponder information pinged it just over Columbus at 0942.”
“US airspace just shut down,” Ryan calls out. “All planes in the air to be grounded ASAP at the nearest airport.”
“We should see this flight contact Columbus for landing in the next few minutes,” Andersen says. “Unless you're right.”
“I hope I'm wrong,” Yelena says, and knows she won't be.
Andersen takes it up the chain: all the way up, so that thirty seconds later Yelena is sitting in the Director's office taking Fury through her analysis again.
“Did Natasha give you any of this intel,” Fury asks, and Yelena shakes her head.
“No, sir. It's only analysis based on the passenger lists. I could be wrong.”
“You're not,” Fury says. “Okay. I'm making the call. Get a cloaked Quinjet in the air, shoot the plane down. Deepest cover protocol.”
“There are seventy people on that flight,” Yelena says, feeling herself resigned to it already: seventy people, and a building with three thousand staff onsite, SHIELD’s best agents and deepest secrets. She can do the math.
“Something crazy going on with Delta Flight 18,” Ryan says five minutes later. “It was tracking fine. Dropped off the radar for just a minute or two, came back online and then disappeared again. Columbus air control is trying to reach it now, clear it for emergency landing.”
“Another hijacking?” Yelena says, and Ryan shrugs.
“Could be. We'd expect it to—oh, shit. Columbus is reporting an in-air explosion.”
“NORAD thinks it's a bomb,” Siobhan says. “Cleveland reported hearing a transmission from UA 93 saying there was a bomb onboard, you think they detonated?”
“Could be a bomb, I guess. But I don't think it's UA 93, I think it's Delta 18,” Ryan says, and Yelena knows he's right. Knows, too, that it's the story she'll hear in the days and weeks ahead: a bomb onboard the Delta flight, detonated when the hijackers panicked. Well, it's tragic for those on board, of course, and my heart goes out to their families, but thank God they didn't make it to another target.
“It's an inconsistency,” she says four or fourteen hours later to Fury, wrapping up her report. “Delta 18. If none of the other flights had bombs onboard. It's an inconsistency in the pattern.”
“You're good at patterns, Rusakova. You think others will be? They'll look that closely?”
“I would,” Yelena says. “CIA will. Five planes hijacked in an hour? An attack this big, on US soil? They'll be looking at that for years. Sifting through every fragment and recording until they've got a timeline recorded in microseconds.”
“Yeah,” Fury agrees. “They will. And they'll find a bomb on UA 93, if they need to. If that's what makes the pattern fit.”
Yelena thinks maybe she should be shocked; someone idealistic would be shocked. SHIELD shot down a civilian American plane, she imagines Julia saying, and then covered it up, planted a bomb on UA 93 to protect the narrative. Lied to the American public. It's unforgivable. Maybe Yelena doesn't have the energy right now, or she's not an idealist, or she isn't yet American enough to care.
“Today is classified,” Fury tells her. “All of it, obviously, we don't need Congress hearings making it public just how easy it is for us to listen in on NORAD. But the Delta flight? That goes nowhere, Rusakova, you understand me? Not your sisters. Not Coulson. Absolutely not the CIA or FBI, should they come asking. Nowhere.”
“I understand,” Yelena says, exhausted. “I know how to keep a secret, Director.”
“Yeah,” Fury says, “I know you do.”
When Yelena gets home she doesn't know whether it's still the same day or the next; time's bled out beyond her comprehension. She doesn't remember when she last ate, when she slept: she looks at her watch and discovers she's been awake for twenty-two hours and at work for twenty of them. Her apartment is empty; Natasha's already driven up to New York.
Are you seeing this? she'd texted, nine-thirty that morning, I'm in the briefing room along with basically all of the DC office but I can't find you, and then, two minutes later, never mind I forgot you'll be in some Intel bunker. Going to New York ASAP for Ops response. Call me when you can. I love you.
I love you, Yelena texts back. Tell me you're safe. There's no reply, but it's three in the morning. Natasha is probably asleep in the room she'll have to share for the night with Olivia. Yelena considers her phone, stares slack-faced in exhaustion at the screen for long enough that it locks itself. Thumbs it open again, thinking she'll text Caroline or Monica, but can't find the right words. Just re-reads Vasilia's text, the one thing she'd let herself focus on all day that wasn't work: all your sestry are well, Lenotschka. Yasha too. Don't worry yourself about us, okay?
Okay, Yelena thinks, and falls asleep fully-clothed, phone still clutched in her hand.
She's up again at six, a nightmare waking her from dead sleep so that she's flooded with clammy adrenaline. Fuck, she thinks, breathing hard, and peels off yesterday's suit, puts it aside for dry cleaning. Propels herself into the shower, clean clothes, damp hair pulled back into a French twist, and then she's out the door, back to the office within half an hour of waking.
Give me your coffee orders now, she messages her team, I'm in the lobby Starbucks.
How the fuck are you awake, Julia replies. Venti extra-hot latte please, but seriously Lena wtf, you were still in the office when I left at midnight.
She slept under her desk, Siobhan says, and Yelena smiles a little.
I don't sleep, she says, ordering five venti lattes, extra-hot, extra espresso shots; she doesn't usually buy for the SO, but Andersen probably got even less sleep than she did. I just power down in a closet for a couple of hours.
I knew it, Ryan says. Hey, have any of you checked your emails? We've gone up a clearance level overnight.
I guess that's what happens when you're the intel team that catches first wind of a terror attack, Julia says. BRB I'm gonna look up the Kennedy files with all my new privileges.
They're restricted Level 8, Ryan says, deadpan even in text. I already checked.
“They trained you for it too, right?” she asks Natasha three weeks later, the thought that's been on her mind every day since, and Natasha knows immediately what Yelena is talking about.
“Yeah,” she says. “It'd have been a smaller team, for us. Two handlers, one with flight training, and one kid.”
“An American family,” Yelena agrees. “Nothing that would stand out in passenger manifests. A little girl on her first plane trip, wanting to visit the pilots up in the cockpit.”
“We'd have hit high-value targets first,” Natasha continues. “Everything in DC. The White House, the Capitol, probably the Triskelion. Pentagon isn't that useful strategically, they fucked up there. We'd have had better timing, too. All at once, maximum confusion. It could have been worse.”
“Yes,” Yelena says. “Yes, it could have been worse.”
She'd wondered if her judgment was off, but Natasha's confirmed she was right. The Triskelion was a target, not because of flight paths or intelligence analysis or locations already hit, but because Yelena was trained for it before she even lost her milk teeth, and she'd take out the Triskelion before anything else.
SHIELD sends her overseas for the first time the following month; Yelena's vaguely unhappy about it, a knot between her shoulder blades that won't release, but she doesn't say anything. Just packs her suitcase, looks up the weather in The Hague.
“Weird, right?” Julia says, “getting on a plane right now. Do you think they'll search your bags?”
“I hope not,” Yelena says. “I packed very carefully.”
“Doesn't it feel a bit weird, though, flying right now? Aren't you kind of nervous?” Julia says, persisting, and Yelena shrugs.
“I haven't really flown much before, so it's not like I have much to compare to.”
“Really? But you moved here, right? To the US, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Yelena says, “when I was a kid, though.”
“Oh, right,” Julia says. “They probably won't give you crayons and a coloring page with your mini pretzels this time, sorry. Unless you ask very nicely.”
“I didn't get that when I was a kid either,” Yelena sighs. “Aeroflot sucks, the plane we came on wasn't that fancy.”
Despite Julia's teasing Yelena genuinely thinks she'll be fine, right up until she's buckled herself into her seat and the jet engines start up. Then the noise curls its way down her spine and she's abruptly, fundamentally afraid: the kind of terror that she hasn't felt since before leaving Russia, or maybe tied up in the leaving.
“Nervous?” the woman in the seat next to her asks sympathetically, noticing Yelena's suddenly white-knuckled grip on the armrest. “Don't worry, honey, I think we all are. I just look at it mathematically. You ever take a statistics class? The probability of it happening again is just vanishingly low.”
“I know,” Yelena says, “you're right. Thank you.” Takes a deep breath, practises the grounding exercises she'd had to learn when she was waking up with night terrors, drenched in sweat every night and Vasilia trying her best to calm her.
She'd thought she'd forgotten the flight out, or hadn't been conscious enough to remember it at all; she can't recall any of the details except for the cold, that unheated cabin more like a cargo hold than anything else. But her body remembers the noise, and it holds her in its grip. She doesn't relax until she's been in the Netherlands for three days, and then gets on the flight home to find it's just as bad.
Can I ask you something about trauma? she emails Dr Yang when she gets back. Does it transfer itself from one memory to another? I'm afraid of flying and I don't know why.
Yes, Dr Yang replies. We can talk about it more, if you like, but it doesn't surprise me. Your limbic system was so overloaded on that escape flight it's as if your body has found an outlet for the fear.
It sucks; it sucks and it doesn't get better, even when Yelena books sessions monthly with Susan to talk it through and displace the fear-response.
“Sometimes it's just a trigger we learn to live with,” Dr Yang says, and that would be fine, Yelena's learned to live with a lot, except that SHIELD keeps sending her overseas now, Singapore and Berlin and Tokyo, Beijing, fucking Kazakhstan, and even as Yelena knows she could say something about it, get medical clearance to keep her Stateside, she's too damn stubborn to let this shit get in her way.
They celebrate Christmas—their first Park Slope Christmas, with a big Douglas fir in the living room and Yasha in a fake beard stuffing a pillow down his front to play Santa for the kids—and their first New Year's Eve too. Yelena is in New York for Christmas and DC for New Year, a party at Julia's that wraps up at four in the morning with Siobhan and Yelena both asleep on Julia's couch until three pm New Year's Day.
We took the kids to watch the bell drop, Vasilia says. Times Square is disgusting. I am never doing it again.
Then April comes, their second year in America. The school year is just about finished; Yelena goes to Toronto once, Vienna twice, Geneva four times. Caroline goes to Moscow, and SHIELD doesn't send Yelena with her. She's not exactly mad about it, would be perfectly happy never to set foot in Russia again, and thinks that perhaps SHIELD knows that, will make decisions to prevent her ever having to risk it.
Hey, Monica says in May, any chance I could crash with you next month? I have to be in DC for a thing for work.
Depends, Yelena texts back. You'll probably have to sleep on the couch, unless Natasha is away. Or unless they send me to Kabul for something, then you could take my room.
Nvm, Monica replies, I'll make work pay for a hotel. Don't let them send you to Kabul, I want to see you.
She's not sure who ‘work’ is for Monica right now—last she'd heard, Monica was finishing up senior year—and it turns out to be maybe Air Force, maybe NASA, maybe SHIELD. Maybe some combination of the three.
“Aerospace engineering is a tough gig,” Monica says. “You'd think it'd be fine once you get into NASA but they're super under-resourced these days, now that there's no space race going on with the Soviets. Nobody wants to go to the moon anymore. Makes it hard to get funding, you gotta hustle for it wherever you can get it. If I ever design a working long-range spaceship I'll let them duke it out on ownership rights, I'm just trying to build the damn thing.”
“You're a little bit a genius, aren't you,” Yelena says, impressed all over again. Monica shrugs.
“I dunno,” she says. “I guess?”
“You're a rocket scientist,” Yelena says. “Like, literally.”
“Pshh, strap enough jets onto something for the upward thrust and anyone can get a rocket into space,” Monica says. “The hard bit is making it liveable once it's up there. And landing, obviously. I'm beginning to think the theories about building in orbit and relying on landers to commute to and from the planet might be the way to go, that way you don't have to compensate for gravity. Still gotta get the damn materials up there, though, and nobody's figured out how to build an entire ship in space. Maybe if robotics were more advanced. Anyway, that's where I'm at.”
“So SHIELD is getting into space flight now instead? That seems weird for us.”
“Wellllll,” Monica says. “I think they want to keep a finger on the dial, at least. There was, like, a tiny little alien invasion a few years back—chalk one up for Mom and Carol for solving that one—so I think the Director wouldn't mind having extraplanetary capability. But you didn't hear that from me, okay.”
“I'm very good at keeping secrets,” Yelena says, and Monica laughs.
“Yeah, honey, you sure are. Mom still won't tell me where you came from, way back when. Says it's not her place to tell me.”
“Right,” Yelena says. Takes a deep breath, wipes her finger through the ring of condensation her glass of soda has left on their table. “Well, perhaps you could buy me a real drink and I'll tell you.”
“I'm nineteen,” Monica says, “you know I can't buy you or anyone else a drink for at least another couple years.”
“That's a pity,” Yelena says, feeling her heart hammering and making herself say it anyway. “Maybe I'll have to buy you one instead.”
“Wow,” Monica says. Sits back in her chair and looks at Yelena a minute. “Are you flirting with me?”
“No,” Yelena lies. Waits a beat. “Is it working?”
“Come back in five years and ask me then.”
“I'm twenty-three,” Yelena protests.
“Yeah, on paper, maybe. How old are you really?”
“I don't know,” Yelena admits. “We didn't have birthdays, not really. I'm around seventeen, maybe eighteen or nineteen. Natasha says we're almost twins.”
“Oh,” Monica says, “huh, okay. That makes me feel a little better. You had me thinking you were, like, some secret twelve-year-old.”
“I have a baby face, I know. The suits are supposed to help with that,” Yelena sighs, and Monica laughs, gently knocks her knuckles against Yelena's arm.
“They do, they do, babe, you look at least sixteen. Don't worry, I'm just teasing you because I'm milking it, usually I'm the one being given shit for being a kid. I should have gone your route and gotten myself a fake ID.”
“I could help you with that,” Yelena says. “First thing we learn in SHIELD, making false papers. You’d never believe how often it comes in useful.”
“I can organize my own fake ID, thank you. It's just rude that I'm probably a year older than you and I still can't drink in bars.”
“Seriously,” Yelena says, “fake ID, it's the only way to get through life when you're a weird child prodigy.”
“Yeah, I feel that. And a nice suit, huh? Dammit, I told your sister I didn't want to work for SHIELD because I'd have to wear suits all day. Guess I have to accept my fate.”
“I think you'll be safe in Scitech,” Yelena tells her. “Kind of tough to wear a suit when you're building spaceships or flight suits or whatever.”
“I feel like they'll figure out a way to make me do it anyway,” Monica sighs, “and it just won't be as good as you make it look, babe.” Yelena blinks, because that definitely sounded like some kind of a compliment, and then Monica gives her a slow and lazy smile, bites her lip a little. “Now I'm flirting with you,” she says, “just in case that wasn't clear.”
“Right,” Yelena says, “um. Okay. Should I buy you that drink after all?”
“I'd like that,” Monica says, and Yelena can't help the blush she feels rising from somewhere like her collarbones all the way up to her hairline.
“Tell me a secret,” Yelena says six months and ten dates later, lying in Monica's too-small bed that they forget is too small every time Yelena gets a chance to visit Monica at the Academy, and Monica laughs.
“Shouldn't you be telling me a secret? You're the one with all the security clearances.”
“As if you aren't cleared all the way up,” Yelena says, “you're doing something extremely important over in Scitech research labs, and I know it's not just rockets,” and Monica shrugs.
“You got me there. A secret, huh? Okay, here's one. I'm working on a plane that can disappear.”
“What do you mean, disappear? Like, off the radar?”
“Not just radar. Full cloaking. Invisibility, shielding, that kind of thing.”
“Wow,” Yelena says, staring into the middle distance as she processes that. “What does SHIELD want invisible planes for?”
“Probably so that sister of yours can go on even more secret missions,” Monica shrugs again, and rolls over toward Yelena, traces her fingers down the line of Yelena's shoulder. “Now you.”
“Now me what?” Yelena asks, and Monica kisses the corner of her mouth.
“Now you tell me a secret,” she says, “that's how it works, isn't it?”
“Malishka, I've already told you all of my secrets. The only ones left are the boring classified things I work on.”
“That can't be true,” Monica teases. “No secret guilty pleasures? You won't admit you watch The Bachelor when nobody's around?”
“I'm afraid of flying,” Yelena admits, finally, and Monica's face turns serious.
“Yeah,” Yelena says. “Very afraid. I get on a plane and I just lock up, and it never gets better.”
“But honey, you fly for work all the time.”
“I know,” Yelena agrees. “I do.”
“And you still—”
“Americans love this phrase,” Yelena sighs, trying to stay light-hearted. “How does it go? It is what it is. I can't do anything about it, so I just… leave it alone. It's not so bad.”
“Hmmm,” Monica says, kissing the tip of Yelena's nose, “it doesn't sound great, babe, but okay,” and after that she organizes road trips instead of flights whenever they go down to Louisiana.
Yelena and Monica see each other less often than they want to—a weekend, an excuse for work travel to DC or the Academy, very occasionally a whole week down in New Orleans—and Yelena wonders if it's a bad sign, if it shows a lack of commitment or something. It's been years, surely they should be—she doesn't know. Moving in together, or something.
“Babe,” Monica says, when Yelena gets up the courage to voice this. “You really think that?”
“I don't know,” Yelena says. “It's not like I have any models for healthy relationships, okay?”
“Honey,” Monica says, eyes going soft. Kisses the corner of Yelena's mouth, touches her fingers to Yelena's hair. “You don't want to move upstate, do you?”
“I could,” Yelena admits. “But I'd have to commute back to DC a lot, or I'd be overseas when I'm not in the Triskelion.”
“And I spend approximately eleven hours a day in the lab,” Monica says. “Sometimes more. Oftentimes more, actually, don't tell anyone how often I sleep on that couch. The only reason they haven't relocated me across the Atlantic to the Sandbox is that the Air Force got touchy about my research taking place outside US airspace. We're both committed to our work, Len, that doesn't mean we don't love each other. You know Mom hasn't seen Carol in years and they're still solid.”
“Okay,” Yelena says, reassured. “So long as you know—”
“You love me more than SHIELD,” Monica teases. “And I love you more than rockets. But I'm still gonna build them, and you're still gonna go overseas five hundred times a year.”
She feels better, after that, but it still drives her crazy how often her plans have to change, how many things get cancelled last-minute based on the whim of some diplomat, some bureaucracy deep in the mechanism of state, the warning signs of a coming terrorist attack or ultra-nationalist protest that'll pitch a country off-target. She knows it must be the same for Natasha; they're sometimes away from each other for weeks, out on their own missions and unable to talk about them without clearance. Did I sign up for this? she wonders occasionally, but then there's always something that reminds her: a human rights lawyer freed from detention, an emerging refugee crisis averted.
“I love my job,” Siobhan mutters one morning, “I love my fucking job, it's not like I had plans tonight anyway,” and yeah, that's about it, isn't it. All her friends are in the same boat anyway; Caroline doesn't complain when Yelena reschedules dinner for the third time in a month because she'd had to cancel drinks twice the month before.
“We should try and date people in other intelligence agencies,” Julia jokes. “I bet people in the CIA or FBI don't have such hellish schedules.”
“They'd be just as bad, but, like, diametrically opposed. Also, imagine dating an FBI agent. Gross.”
“Could be worse,” Yelena says. “Could be NSA. Or Homeland.”
“Oh, ew,” Julia says, as if Yelena and Siobhan didn't have to perform an intervention when Julia met some NSA flunky on OkCupid and tried to convince them he was an attractive human man. Yelena wonders if she should remind Julia about that, but before she's done more than raise her eyebrows Julia just makes a face. “I know, I know,” she says, “you don't have to say it. It wouldn't have worked anyway, we'd have different clearances. He'd get sulky because I know more. I just need to date someone in SHIELD.”
“Wouldn't help,” Yelena sighs. “You think I know what Natasha’s cleared for? I swear, they got IT to design specific firewalls just to keep us separate in the system.”
Natasha comes home sometimes with bruises, Yelena with thumbprint-protected files, and despite it all, the long hours and missed dates, late-night anxieties and things they can't talk about even when Yelena's pretty sure they're assigned to the same file, for all of that bullshit she knows neither of them ever really think of quitting, because when everything else is stripped away this is what they were trained for all along.
They've talked for years about Steve, and so it shouldn't be a surprise when he's found. Exactly how Natasha knows that he'll be found in the ice of the Arctic is something they carefully never touch on, the same way they don't push on what Natasha does for SHIELD, precisely how she and Bucky rid the world of Hydra’s threading tentacles, why it is that she seemed to know so much about the foreign world they arrived into. But when Steve shows up—when he arrives, Yelena can't help thinking, as if he's a visitor travelling from far away—she's surprised anyway, and annoyed she's not even there to meet the person who's been their missing twelfth figure for so long.
She gets to meet him a couple of weeks later. Recognizes his expression: it's one that says he's still learning the new world he's found himself in, is taking it in so fast that the culture shock of seventy years all in one week is physically overwhelming. She sympathizes; at least she and her sisters had gotten a whole year to adjust.
“So,” he says, sweet. Polite and earnest exactly the way Bucky says he isn't. “You're Yelena, right? Evie told me I wouldn't get to be part of the family until you approved of me.”
“Oh, as if I could ever tell James Barnes his star-crossed tragic wartime love story boyfriend wasn't part of the family,” Yelena says, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, our family is mostly about being a stranger in a foreign world, so of course you're one of us.”
“Oh,” Steve says. “Huh. I guess I hadn't hadn't thought of it that way. Your sisters seem so American.”
“Defence mechanism,” Yelena tells him. “Pick things you like and lean into them, that's how we adjusted.”
“Yeah? Gonna ask me what I like?” Steve says. “Give me recommendations for things I should try?”
“Sure,” Yelena says. “I could. You probably have a list already. I do too. Let me guess, Star Wars? Thai food?”
“Harry Potter,” Steve says. “And yeah, Star Wars. Natasha and Bucky already got me pad thai and made brutal fun of me until I learned how to use chopsticks.”
“In the deep end, that's how to do it. I've never seen Star Wars either. I'm too busy to spend six hours watching something about laser swords in space. No, that's boring. What do you miss from home?”
“What do I miss?” Steve says, surprised, like nobody's asked him that yet. “Oh, jeez, I don't know. The air is cleaner now. I can kiss Bucky on the street. Apparently we have a lot of money here, I got all stressed about running the aircon and how big the house is and Nat had to sit me down and explain the investments. I dunno, Yelena, there's not a lot to miss. The way my apartment looked in the early morning light, maybe. The bagels I used to get from the shop across the street, the way women dressed. Nobody wears lipstick and hats like that anymore. What about you? What do you miss?”
“Nobody speaks Russian the way I do,” Yelena says. “Except for my sestry, and not all of them will speak it anymore, not even with me. They've forgotten, or they don't like the sound of it. We all remember things differently. Sometimes it feels like I'm set adrift.”
“The past is a foreign country,” Steve says. “I heard that somewhere.”
“Yes,” Yelena agrees. “Yes, it is.” They go silent for a minute, Yelena taking the opportunity to study Steve's face in profile. His high cheekbones, his long nose; that blond hair, blue eyes, he could be a Soviet propaganda model just as easily as an American one. “What do you think you'll do now?” she asks, mostly out of simple curiosity, and Steve shrugs.
“I don't know. Actually, I never… you know, I never considered what life might look like once we won the war. Well, maybe before Bucky died I mighta. But after that, I don't know. All I really thought about was the fight.”
“It's simple, isn't it? Fighting a war, letting them make you into a soldier and a weapon all at once. Harder to work out how to live like we're human at the end of it all.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. Swallows hard. “I think so, yeah.”
“Hey, heads up,” Julia says one summer afternoon, and then, narrowing her eyes, “Where did you get a fork? There are never any forks in the kitchen, I had to eat my salad with a teaspoon.”
“I keep cutlery in my desk drawer,” Yelena says through a mouthful of buckwheat pasta salad. “What's up?”
“You're going to Belgium,” Julia says. “Some UN thing, very last-minute. I overheard Ravi from Travel Resources making the bookings, figured I'd run over and tell you before you get the news.”
“For fucks sake,” Yelena sighs, and her email dings with a new-mail alert. “Wow, would you look at that. Apparently I'm going to Belgium. This is garbage, I had plans with my girlfriend this weekend. And with my sisters, we were supposed to be going to Disneyland next week.”
“You're just too good at your job,” Julia says with absolutely no sympathy. “Get worse and you'll have to do less.”
“Thanks, as ever, for your support. I'll bring you back some chocolate from Belgium.”
“Toblerone doesn't count,” Julia tells her, “it’s just airport candy. I want artisanal milk truffles.”
“I'm assigning all of my non-UN work to you,” Yelena says, and pitches her empty carton into the trash. “Ugh, fine. Guess I better go home and pack. What's the weather like in Belgium right now?”
“Doesn't matter,” Julia says, “you'll only see the inside of a conference room.”
“Rude,” Yelena says. “I'm reassigning these files right now. I hope you love nothing but degraded Moroccan-French audio translation for the next hundred years.”
“I know you're being mean because you're afraid of flying,” Julia says sweetly. “So I'll let that go. But, seriously, you should try that homoeopathic stuff, I heard it's magical. Or just take a sleeping pill and a shot of whisky.”
“I can't sleep on planes,” Yelena says. “Too much work to do. And the noise keeps me awake.”
“Therapy,” Julia suggests. “Or hypnosis. Noise cancelling headphones and a white noise app.”
“Tried it all,” Yelena says lightly, and that's a lie, because she's never given hypnotherapy a go, but there's no real way to explain I flew here on an illegal Russian cargo jet when I was fifteen, and then I directly contributed to a 9/11 cover-up, and now the sound of a plane gives me a mild little panic attack, at least to anyone except Monica and Dr Yang—and even then, half of it is ultra classified—so she just pushes it down, grits her teeth and fucking deals with it.
“Welcome back,” Julia says when she gets home the following week. “Hey, these look fancy, nice. I'll leave the hazelnut pralines for Siobhan, I'm just that good a person.”
“Yes, you're very selfless. At least Belgium wasn't a total bust. And now I'm home.”
“Oh,” Julia says through a mouthful of chocolate truffle, “you're going to Taipei on Wednesday. Longish term, I think, Ravi said there's no return flight booked.”
“Fuuuuck,” Yelena sighs. “Ravi, huh? You overheard this too?”
“Wellllll,” Julia says. Tilts up the side of her mouth in a self-satisfied smile. “I might have an inside line.”
“Nice,” Yelena says. “You've desperately needed a date for a while. Taipei, huh? Well, if it's longish term at least I'm not flying anywhere for a little while.”
“Silver linings everywhere,” Julia agrees, and offers Yelena a chocolate.
The winter of 2007 is brutal, the kind of cold Yelena remembers in her bones from Siberia, and in February she gets super sick. A cold, she thinks at first. Takes a decongestant, pushes on, and then her chest kind of hurts when she coughs and she's getting light-headed every time she stands up for too long.
“Yelena,” Julia says. “You look like shit, why are you here?”
“I have work to do,” Yelena says, blowing her nose yet again. “It's fine. It's just a little flu.” Her words are undercut by the hacking cough that takes over halfway through, and she feels herself shiver.
“Okay, show of hands,” Siobhan announces to the office. “How many of us actually feel comfortable with Yelena breathing the same air as us right now?”
“It's just flu,” Yelena protests, knowing it's a lost cause when nobody else in the office raises a hand. “I need to take a vitamin supplement, that's all. I'll be fine.”
“Lena, you look worse than my grandmother, and she's literally in the ICU. Go home. And don't come back in for at least a week, okay? Go lie on the couch and watch daytime TV. You know what, here's your coat and your purse, I'm driving you home.”
“Seriously,” Yelena begins, and then sighs, lets Julia tuck her into her coat and scarf. “Okay, but I'm taking these files with me.”
“No,” Siobhan says firmly. “No work. Or do I have to get over my fear and find your sister so I can rat you out to her?”
“She's in Tajikistan,” Yelena says. “Something to do with those files we gathered on Ten Rings, I think.”
“You can't go home by yourself. Is your family all in New York?”
“My sisters, yeah. Fine, fine, I can go to Bucky's. He'll look after me better than Natasha would anyway.”
“Sweet,” Julia says. “Gimme the address and I'll drop you off.”
Bucky answers the door, and his expression goes from ‘mild annoyance at being bothered in the middle of the day’ to real concern in about ten seconds.
“What's up? You okay, sweetheart?”
“I have flu,” Yelena says. “They sent me home from work. Natasha's out of town, can I stay with you?”
“Oh, sweetheart. Come on, you look like some poor little feverish Victorian orphan. I'll make you some tea.”
Steve is stretched out on the couch, drawing in his sketchbook. He sits up straight when he sees Yelena, closes his sketchbook and puts it down on the coffee table.
“Yelena, hey, you okay? You look like death warmed up.”
“She has the flu,” Bucky says. “Sit down, Lena, let me get you a blanket. Steve, go over to Dupont and pick up her pajamas and shit, would you?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, “sure, of course. Gimme your keys? Anything else you want from home?”
“My toothbrush and house slippers,” Yelena says, coughing into the crook of her elbow. “And the book by my bed, please.”
“Sure,” Steve says, “on it,” and he's back so quickly Yelena's pretty sure he either broke some traffic laws or just skipped taking the car and ran the whole way. It might be just the honey tea, the Tylenol and flannel pajamas and cedar-scented blanket Bucky wraps around her shoulders, but she does begin to feel better.
“I got the flu a lot back when I was a kid,” Steve says. “Thought I might die of it, a couple of times. People used to die of the flu back then.”
“Comforting,” Bucky says, bringing in a tray with bowls of soup. “You used to almost die of a lot of things, bud, it's a miracle you made it long enough to let army scientists experiment on you.”
“I don't think Dr Erskine was an army scientist specifically,” Steve says, propping Yelena up with extra cushions so she can accept the soup Bucky passes her. “But yeah, I take your point. God, remember the year I got scarlet fever?”
“Which time?” Bucky says. “Before or after you got diphtheria? Oh, wait, you mean back in ‘27, when it turned into rheumatic fever and we thought your heart was gonna give out, yeah, I remember. I made you this chicken soup back then, I'm pretty sure, you can tell me if it still tastes the same.”
She winds up having to take a full week and a half off work, which is basically unthinkable except for the fact that Bucky is apparently an implacable nurse who ignores every feeble protest that she's got shit to do. By Sunday afternoon she's feeling better, mostly; better enough to send Bucky out to the Asian grocery store over in Rockville so she can make mapo tofu for dinner.
Come over if you want, she texts Julia—it's her recipe, after all—and sets Steve the task of peeling and chopping three heads of garlic while she gets started making the chilli oil.
Are you sure you're not still extremely unwell, Julia replies, you've been staying with two supersoldiers who are immune to disease, you're probably still infectious to us mortals, but she shows up half an hour later anyway.
“I had no dinner plans,” she says, “and I wanna watch Captain America eat Sichuan food, I think it'll be hilarious. God, it smells good in here.”
“You can crush the peppercorns,” Yelena says, handing her the mortar and pestle, and Julia groans.
“If I wanted to help make Chinese food I would have just gone to my mom's for dinner,” she complains. Grins at Yelena to show she's joking. “You look like you're feeling better. Did they look after you?”
“Yeah,” Yelena says. “Yeah, they did.”
When she gets assigned her own office the following year, it's a little bittersweet: a promotion, sure, but the idea of not seeing Theta Div for ten hours a day is wildly upsetting.
“I think it's only because they want to throw classified files at me without making me adhere to the clear desk policy,” she says. “That, or they realized Julia keeps leaking my own travel plans to me, and they want to keep me more on the back foot.”
“As if I wouldn't keep telling you anyway,” Julia says. “It's unfair to send you places without giving me a chance to look it up first and decide what snacks I want you to bring home.”
“Whatever,” Siobhan says. “We're replacing you already. Right, Maddie? You're the new Yelena, get used to it. I'll be like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, calling you Lena all the time.”
“Um,” Madeline says, looking nervous, “I don't think—I mean, I think Agent Rusakova is a lot too good for me to, uh…”
“Don't haze the newbie,” Yelena says. “That's mean.”
“We're not, we're not. Look, I even got Agent Pearse a welcome to Theta Div present.”
“You got me a plastic plate and some cutlery,” Madeline says. “With little pandas on it. I think it’s the same as my baby cousin eats from, and she’s three.”
“I picked it out for you at Daiso,” Julia tells her. “You'll be grateful when you're eating dinner at your desk and you don't have to eat hummus with your fingers. Don't lose it. We got you a leaving present too, Lena.”
The leaving present is a matching pair of bobble head figurines—a redhead in a black SHIELD-branded jumpsuit, and a blonde in a business suit with a briefcase and a stack of files—and Yelena touches them with genuine wonder.
“We ordered them online,” Siobhan explains. “You can get the Natasha ones in sets along with Captain America and Barnes. But we had to customize the Yelena one ourselves.”
“I love them,” Yelena says, and sets them up on the top of her monitor so she can see them every day.
She runs into someone in her building hallway the following week: a blonde woman in medical scrubs, carrying a laundry basket on her hip.
“Hey, neighbor,” she says. “Going to the gym? God, I don't know if I'm impressed or jealous. Honestly, the shifts I've been working this week, it's a struggle just to get this done.”
“Your apartment doesn't have in-unit laundry? That's the worst, the laundry room is so scummy.”
“I know,” the woman sighs, “it has that weird smell, what is it?”
“Nobody knows,” Yelena says, laughing. “I've lived here for years and I've never been able to track it down. I'm Yelena, by the way. Welcome to the building, I think you're new? I haven't seen you around before.”
“Kate,” the woman says, “yeah, I just moved in last week. I didn't know some of the units had their own laundry, I clearly missed out.”
“Well, uh. You could, you know, you could use mine,” Yelena offers, “if you want.”
“Oh, that's okay, you're heading out. And you probably don't want my scrubs in your machine. Don't worry, I have a novel, I'll be okay. And I'm a nurse, I'm used to weird smells.”
“Yeah,” Yelena says, “okay,” and glances back over her shoulder as she leaves.
She's not a nurse, that's clear enough. It's more than straightforward to find out she's not FBI or CIA; Yelena has access to all their databases, even the ones she's probably not technically cleared to see. Could be foreign, she supposes—MI6, Mossad, maybe even FSB—but Kate had the look and bearing of an American, and Yelena knows how to apply Occam's razor to her situational analysis.
She calls Natasha, and Nat picks up even though Yelena knows from context clues that she's in some deep mission somewhere in the Balkans.
“Privyet,” Natasha says. “What's up? If you're calling because you forgot the wifi password, it could probably wait.”
“Why is there an agent set up in the apartment across the hall? Is there a credible threat against us I haven't been told about?”
“If there is, I haven't heard about it either. How do you know she's an agent?”
“I had a hunch,” Yelena says. “Called in a favor with a friend who has access to personnel files and they confirmed it.”
“You're not supposed to do that,” Natasha tells her. “One of us is supposed to respect the rules, and it can't be me.”
“That's so insulting. I can break the rules. You don't even know how much I break the rules.”
“Yeah, I bet you file expense claims for things the travel policy says it doesn't cover. An extra glass of Bordeaux in the hotel bar, upgrades on your flights, that kind of thing. It could just be her apartment. We're close to the office, it's a good apartment block. Big closets, nice windows.”
“I doubt it,” Yelena says. “She's undercover. Pretending to be a nurse. Told me her name was Kate.”
There's a long silence on the end of the line. Yelena, knowing all of Natasha's body language, translates that to the stillness she'd get when she's suddenly and deeply aware of something misaligned in the facts.
“Her name's not Kate,” Natasha says eventually, and Yelena hums agreement.
“No. She's Sharon Carter. Agent 13.”
Natasha makes a disgruntled noise. “Rude,” she mutters, “that's rude, you'd think they would have talked to me about it first—”
“It's not fine. And I'm here in goddamn Yugoslavia for another three weeks, that's not a conversation I want to have with Nick over the phone.”
“I’ll sort it out,” Yelena says. “You're busy. I just wanted to check with you first in case you'd assigned her.”
“As if I'd do that without telling you. I better go, okay?”
“Yeah,” Yelena says. “Love you. Hey, Natalia?”
“It's not Yugoslavia anymore. They had a whole bunch of wars about it.”
“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. “I always forget. When we were kids Pluto was a planet and Yugoslavia was Yugoslavia. And then we left Russia and it all broke up.”
“Still breaking up, I heard. Are you in Kosovo? They're about to declare independence.”
“Lenotschka,” Natasha says fondly, “you know that's classified. Go sort out Sharon Carter and I'll see you when I get home, okay?”
“Okay,” Yelena murmurs, and considers her next steps.
In the end she just goes with the most straightforward option: pulls on a sweater over her lavender wool sheath dress, ignoring that it's nine in the evening and she hasn't changed out of work clothes yet because she's only just got home from work, and heads down the hall to knock on Sharon's door.
“Hey, neighbor,” Sharon says. Perhaps a little surprised; she's either a good actor or she genuinely didn't expect to see Yelena at her door. “What's up? You need a cup of sugar, or something? An appliance disaster? My microwave blew up the other day while I was reheating dinner and I nearly cried. I had to order Chinese takeout for the third time this week.”
“Why am I under surveillance?” Yelena asks, blunt, and Sharon's eyes widen.
“I don't know what you mean,” she says. “Do you want to come in? Is something going on?”
“Sharon,” Yelena says, “you can… what is it that Americans say? Cut the bullshit. It wasn't hard to find your file. Who assigned you? What is going on?”
“Okay,” Sharon sighs, visibly deflating. “Come on, you'd better come inside, this isn't a conversation to have in the hallway.”
She's wearing Scottie-dog print yoga pants, Yelena notices as she comes inside, and that makes her like Sharon a little more, but—
“Who assigned you?” she asks again. “Is it a threat against me, or am I under suspicion? Because if they think I'm a liability now—if they decided to use me until—until my loyalty has been called into account, somehow—”
“It's not you,” Sharon says, swift and perhaps surprisingly sincere. “You're not under any kind of suspicion. Not as far as I know, anyway. Fury assigned me for your protection.”
“So there's a threat? Why haven't we been told?” Yelena's heart is thumping hard; she's terrified for her sisters more than for herself. Marta and Kseniya are still in middle school, for fucks sake.
“It's not—there's no active threat,” Sharon says. “But your sister is the leader of the Avengers now. It'd take exactly one dedicated threat to get to you.”
“My sisters in New York,” Yelena says. “Are they under this kind of protection too? They're just as much at risk as I am. More. They're civilians and they don't have Bucky there anymore.”
“Yeah,” Sharon agrees, “you're right. But you're the Intel agent whose loss would be catastrophic to the organization. And by SHIELD standards you're a civilian. Non-combat desk agent, you know the drill.”
“Right,” Yelena says, “okay.” Considers that fact a moment, marvelling at how integral she's become to SHIELD in the last few years. “So it is me, then. At least a little bit.”
“Okay,” Sharon says. “I guess it is, when you put it like that,” and Yelena thinks about the situation. She doesn't want to be the subject of a surveillance slash protection assignment, no matter how integral she apparently is to SHIELD or how nice Sharon seems.
“Let's go to the office,” she says. “I'd like to show you something,” and waits impatiently while Sharon changes out of her pajamas, grabs her keys. When they get to the Triskelion she pushes B2 on the elevator button, takes them down to the shooting range in the basement.
“You want to see me shoot?” Sharon says, amused. “I promise I passed the accuracy tests before they allocated me a field weapon.”
“If you like,” Yelena shrugs. “I trust your competence, that's not my point. I just need you to pull a firearm for me from the practice safe, I haven't been assigned anything.”
“Glock or Beretta?”
“Doesn't matter,” Yelena says. “Either will be fine.” Puts her earmuffs on, feels the weight of the gun in her hands. Considers the paper target, and then shoots: six times, six holes, dead center.
“Huh,” Sharon says. “Unexpected. Your file just says you're a desk agent, specialist linguistics. Does Fury know you can shoot like that?”
“Maybe,” Yelena says. “Like you said, I'm in Intel, not Ops. My proficiency with firearms hasn't exactly come up. But I think it's clear, Agent Carter, that I don't need a protection detail. Assign me a sidearm and I'll be just fine on my own.”
“Yeah,” Sharon agrees, “you're right, you will.”
“But my sisters,” Yelena tells her, “you've got to put something in place for my sisters. Nothing can happen to them, you hear me? That's more important than any value Natasha or I might have to SHIELD, no matter how Fury sees it.”
“It's funny,” Sharon says. Actually smiles a little. “From what I understand, Natasha said exactly the same thing.”
Her next flight is to Pristina—a conference with the UN Interim Administration Mission and a bunch of grumpy Serbian politicians, and she can see before she even gets on the plane that the meeting is going to go precisely nowhere and achieve less than nothing—and two weeks in, she rounds a street corner a block away from the Ministria e Shërbimeve Publike and literally collides with Natasha.
“Oh,” Natasha says. “Well, hi.”
“You're supposed to be in Tel Aviv,” Yelena says. Natasha rolls her eyes.
“You're supposed to be in Singapore. Jeez, I know SHIELD loves opsec but this is just dumb. We could have saved money on the hotel bill if we'd shared.”
“Let's skip the bit where we ask each other what we're doing here and each tell each other it's classified. Have you eaten? I was about to go get some lunch, I'm so sick of being stuck in windowless hotel conference rooms with faceless UNMIK apparatchiks.”
“Sure,” Natasha says, “yeah, I could eat. There's this Albanian place around the corner, they do a great meze plate. You like stuffed cabbage, right?”
“I don't love it,” Yelena says, “but it's fine, I guess. I don't know why you're so obsessed with cabbage, there are better vegetables.” She squints at Natasha, scrutinizing her closely; she's wearing a bad brown wig and dark contact lenses. “And that's a terrible disguise. Aren't we supposed to have budget for undercover work?”
“Leave me alone, it was the best I could do on short notice and an Albanian drug store.”
“Awwww,” Yelena says. “Are you actively wanted by law enforcement? Because I really am hungry, so any kind of police chase will have to wait until after lunch.” She shifts her purse to her other shoulder so she can link her arm with Natasha. “It's good to see you, sestra.”
“Did you figure out that Sharon Carter thing?” Natasha asks her over lunch, picking at the remains of their meze. Yelena nods. Swallows her mouthful of tarator and boiled egg, washes it down with the tea she'd managed to get despite Natasha's insistence on raki.
“Apparently I'm very big and important,” she says solemnly. “SHIELD couldn't go on without me, and with you gone so much, they obviously assumed I needed protection.”
“Yes,” Natasha says dryly. “You're extremely helpless without me.”
“On paper, maybe. Anyway, I sorted it out, it's fine. Sharon said she's gonna keep the apartment though, apparently it's much nicer than her old place. You were right, it's a good location.”
“I told you,” Natasha says, laughing. “It's the windows and the closet space. Also, good work on your Kosovo analysis.”
“How do you know it was mine? Anyone could have done it, that's supposed to be the point.” Yelena pauses, considers the somewhat damning fact that she is in Pristina right now. “Just because I'm here doesn't mean it was my work,” she adds, “we work across each other's analysis all the time,” but she can't help feeling like it's a little too late for that. Natasha just shrugs.
“Nobody knows the Eastern bloc like we do, though. They'd be idiots if they asked anyone else to handle it.”
Yelena rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I knew you were full of shit with your ‘oh, I forgot, Yugoslavia isn't a country anymore’. Anyone could see this was coming, Serbia was never going to accept the Ahtisaari Plan.”
“I guess so,” Natasha says. “Anyway, if I'm being honest they didn't really need me here. It all went a lot more smoothly than everyone expected. Hey, are you flying home commercial? Want a ride?”
“I hate flying on Quinjets,” Yelena sighs, but she takes Natasha up on her offer since it'll shave six hours off her travel time.
“You'll be heading back to the Balkans pretty soon,” Yelena says one night a couple months later: a rare evening when they're both at home. Natasha’s sitting at the other end of the couch, her toes tucked under Yelena’s calves; her feet are fucking freezing, but Yelena is enjoying the solidity of having Natasha there too much to complain. “South Ossetia, I think. There's a diplomatic crisis brewing between Georgia and Russia, Putin is offering support to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics. Same old pattern of destabilization, it's very boring.”
“Only you would say that civil war in the Balkans is boring,” Natasha mutters, but when Yelena picks up intelligence three months later on a Chechen spy assisting rebels in the North Caucasus, it doesn't take analysis to figure out where Natasha is right now no matter how much opsec SHIELD has put in play.
“Heyyyy,” Natasha says one afternoon early in 2009, appearing in Yelena's office doorway, and Yelena doesn't jump because she's a trained agent who's in control of her startle reflex, but she is sort of surprised.
“I thought you were off doing some kind of superhero stuff,” she says, clearing her screens. “What are you coming into the office for?”
“Well, you're in the office,” Natasha says. “You're in your own office, in fact, and I need to put it on the record that it is much nicer than mine. I like the bobble heads.”
“Your office would be perfectly nice if you put any effort into it. Like, you could put art into the blank Ikea frames, just as a starter. What's up? What do you need?”
“Can I come in? There's some baby agent out here that I think is dying and I can't help but think it's sort of because of me.”
“Yeah,” Yelena sighs, “come on, before Maddie asks for your autograph,” and Natasha shuts the door behind her, picks up one of the figurines off Yelena's desk to examine more closely. “Out with it,” Yelena says, “what is it?”
“I need you to do me a favor,” Natasha says. “Work, not personal.”
“You're involving me in the Avengers now?” Yelena says, dry. “What, have you forgotten how to speak Farsi now that you've been in Ops so long? Got some Ten Rings videos you need me to translate?”
“No! No, it's not Avengers. Well. It's kind of, I guess. Tangentially.”
“Fine,” Yelena says, giving in. “Sit down. Give me the file.”
“It's just undercover for a month or two,” Natasha says. “Observation, that's all. I'd do it myself but I kind of blew my cover already by getting hardcore day drunk with him when he got back from Afghanistan.”
That's… extremely Natasha, so Yelena gives her the dignity of pretending she hasn't heard, and flicks open the digital dossier. “You want me to go undercover and observe Tony Stark,” she says, swiping through the files. “As… his assistant? Oh, I regret saying yes to you, Natalia Ivanova.”
“Not his assistant!” Natasha says. “His assistant's assistant.”
“Wow. Even better.”
“Hey, Pepper is lovely,” Natasha says. “And she's actually the CEO of Stark Industries now, so the work will be totally interesting. You'll barely have to interact with Tony at all. Just, you know, keep an eye on him for me.”
“Fine,” Yelena sighs, “fine, but you owe me one, okay?”
“Go and buy yourself those shoes I've been watching you add and delete to your online cart for the last three months,” Natasha tells her. “I'll pay for them.”
“They're Louboutins,” Yelena says, torn between covetous delight and guilt about spending nine hundred dollars on a pair of shoes. “Are you sure?”
“I already said yes,” Natasha says, “don’t make me take it back. Also, how do you know about the Ten Rings?”
“Are you kidding? We're all over it in Intel. Seriously, do you not even read the briefings we send over, I swear to God. I'm fucking assigning Siobhan to your team so someone will do some actual intel analysis for once instead of just shooting things.”
“I came in here for a good time,” Natasha says, “and I'm just feeling really attacked right now, okay?”
Yelena blows a raspberry at her. “You came into my office,” she points out, “to ask me a favor, which I am doing, at great personal expense because I fucking hate LA, and now you're just cluttering up my workflow so unless you're going to take me out for lunch, you can leave me in peace.”
“Can I?” Natasha asks, perking up, “I never get to go to lunch with you. Hey, let's go to Dacha.”
“I don't know why you love that place so much,” Yelena says, “and they have barely anything for me. Fries are not lunch. I was just going to run down to Sweetgreen.”
“Boring,” Natasha tells her, wrinkling her nose. “Come on, let's eat currywurst and get drunk and blow off the rest of the afternoon,” and again, that's Natasha, but it's a sunny day even though it's like twenty degrees outside and Yelena's been at her desk since six this morning, so she doesn't protest too hard. It's been a while since they've both been in the same city long enough to go out together; they should really coordinate their calendars better, but in the meantime, there's wine and fries and a beer garden.
She turns up for her first day of work as a PA at seven on the dot, in a dove gray sheath dress and carrying a tray of coffees from the eco-friendly fair-trade locally owned shop near her short-lease apartment. She knows already, from the research she'd done herself rather than Natasha's file, that Pepper Potts drinks precisely two coffees before nine and both are large extra-hot oat-milk lattes with a dusting of nutmeg, and that once the clock hits nine she'll switch strictly to green tea and lemon water for the rest of the day. Yelena thinks she might be a little in love already just based on such a regimented hot drink schedule.
“Good morning, Ms Potts,” she says quietly. “Your coffee, and I have your schedule ready when you are.”
“Thanks,” Pepper says, distracted already by her StarkPhone, and then glances up. “You're new. Did HR find you?”
“Helena Richards,” Yelena says. “I'm from the agency. I'll be with you until they can find a permanent staffer, ma'am.”
“Pepper is fine,” Pepper says. “Great, okay. Let's start with the schedule in the car, I think I have a meeting off-campus first thing.”
“You do,” Yelena agrees. “An eight-thirty, at the Ivory in the Mondrian. The car is ready for you.”
“Okay,” Pepper says. Slides her arms into the jacket Yelena is holding out. “The Ivory? Interesting. Most people take me to the fucking Waldorf-Astoria when they want a breakfast meeting, I'm so tired of egg white omelettes.”
“It's with Sheryl Sandburg,” Yelena says, keeping up with Pepper's brisk pace. “No formal agenda, but I've put together a file for you. It should be in your inbox.”
“Thanks,” Pepper says. “Helena, right? Great. Wow, this coffee is excellent, I'm afraid you'll have to keep picking it up for me. Tony installed a coffee machine in my office but I swear to God the thing is possessed.”
“No problem,” Yelena says, “I'm glad it's good,” and sips her own coffee; it is really good. The car is ready out the front, just as she'd said it would be, and Yelena waits for Pepper to get in first.
“Okay,” Pepper says, once Yelena has slid into the car, “let's go, hit me with the schedule. Can't wait to hear how hellish my Monday is about to be. Also, nice shoes.”
“Thank you,” Yelena says. “My sister bought them for me. She owed me a favor.”
“Must have been a big favor.”
“Sure,” Yelena agrees. “It didn’t turn out too difficult, though. Shall I start with the Sheryl Sandburg file? Or would you like to see the rest of your calendar first?”
“Let's start with Sheryl,” Pepper says, and Yelena catches her looking at her shoes again. “Hey, do you know if they still have those in store? They're lovely.”
“I can check. Size 38?”
“You're a miracle,” Pepper tells her. “Are you sure I can't convince you to make this permanent?”
“Sorry,” Yelena says, almost regretful now. “I'm locked in with my agency.”
“Lucky agency,” Pepper murmurs, and then they're away.
Natasha calls her after a month; Yelena is in the middle of microwaving a bag of double-butter popcorn, pouring herself a large glass of wine.
“It's like you know I'm eating a Natasha dinner,” she says. Puts her phone on speaker so she can tip the popcorn into a mixing bowl. “How's DC?”
“How's the favor?”
“Pepper is amazing,” Yelena says, “do you know how hard it is to get a company like Stark Industries to pivot that hard without crashing the stock price? And she's already brought the board up to thirty percent gender parity in the last five months.”
“Yeah, okay, you're in love with Pepper Potts,” Natasha says. “I meant the actual mission.”
“Of course I'm in love with Pepper,” Yelena says, “she likes my shoes.” Grabs a fistful of popcorn from the bowl, stretches out on her bed. “He's fine. A bit depressed, maybe. Didn't you say he was in some kind of existential crisis? He made this wild case to Pepper about setting up a non-profit, some kind of medical foundation for advanced rehab and prosthetics, and now she's got to get the board across the line on diverting twenty-five percent of baseline funding. I'm pretty sure she can do it, though.”
“Interesting,” Natasha says. “That's interesting.”
“If you say so. Anyway, I can't see that he's much of a liability, even if he is a genius with a talent for building robot suits that could be weaponized way too easily. It seems like his biggest problem is that he's painfully in love with Ms Potts and has no idea what to do about it.”
“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, “that sounds more like it. Thanks for the update, sestra.”
She wraps up on Tony Stark a month later, gives herself a weekend and a shopping trip on Rodeo Drive before she flies back to DC and all the actual work that's piled up in her absence. Coulson calls her on Sunday, her work cell; she has to juggle her iced tea in order to answer it before it hits voicemail.
“Sorry to call you in like this,” he says, sounding worried. “And on a weekend, too. If it makes you feel any better, May is postponing her vacation to the Bahamas.”
“Jeez,” Yelena says.”How'd Andrew take that?”
“Not great, honestly, but he knows the deal. May's there already. Look, I know you don't usually go into the field, but there's a situation developing in Bahrain and we need you on it.”
“Pick me up from the LA office in an hour,” Yelena tells him, and winds up leaving her shopping bags under Jimmy Woo’s desk, a note scrawled hastily to say hi sorry I'll pick this up when I'm back, love u Yelena xx. It's not until they're in the air that Yelena realizes she's still in jeans and a cashmere sweater.
“Eva Belyakov,” May says once Coulson and Yelena get on the ground in situ. “Showed up in Bahrain three days ago and we've been hearing bad chatter ever since. Eva has been on our radar for a few years now. Russian intelligence tipped us off that she's enhanced, some kind of super-strength. Possibly Inhuman. We'd like to bring her in, but she'd gone to ground until now.”
“Interesting,” Yelena says, studying the file. “But why'd you ask me? This is Natasha's line of work, not mine.”
“Sure, if it just involved taking Eva down. Hell, I know Natasha is some kind of superhero now but I like to think I'd be able to handle Eva myself,” May says with her usual understatement, and Yelena smiles, nods in agreement.
“There are complicating factors,” Coulson says. “Do you recall the intel you worked on regarding the Inhumans? I know you were pretty involved in that whole situation. You were the lead negotiator, right?”
“Yes,” Yelena says. “That was, what, a year ago? Their leader was very cagey, didn't like that I knew anything about them at all, but I think we reached a reasonable outcome. I'd hope she trusts me, anyway.”
“More than you know,” Coulson tells her. “Jia Ying sent a coded message directed specifically and only to you. We know it's about Eva, but we don't know any more than that.”
“You didn't read my mail? I was on vacation, Phil, I thought you'd empty my mailbox, water my plants, that kind of thing.”
“You were on surveillance detail over Tony Stark, that is not a vacation. No, Lena, we'd have looked at it if we could, but we can't. It's bio-coded to you, won't open for anyone else.”
“Huh,” Yelena says. “I thought that thing with the crystals and the blood sample was just some sort of ceremonial thing to conclude negotiations. Okay, give it here.”
Getting the message open is simple: she pricks her thumb on the nearest sharp surface—the backing pin of her brooch, carefully cleaned off with an antiseptic wipe—and presses her thumb to the surface of the crystal, watches it blossom into new shape.
Yelena Rusakova, Jia Ying’s message reads. I send you this in great urgency and with great sadness. Despite my best efforts, my people have caused a danger to yours. Yelena reads the rest in silence, quickly first and then again, closer, before lifting her thumb off the crystal so that it seals shut. Closes her eyes for a moment, thinking about what has to be done.
“It's not just about Eva,” she says. “You were right. It's her daughter Katya too.”
“Yeah,” May says, “we've seen her daughter with her. Cute kid. It'd make it more difficult to bring Eva in even if there wasn't this Inhuman thing going on.”
“Yes,” Yelena says, looking again at the file footage of them both. Looking closer. “Yes, it would, but that's not—”
“Not what?” Coulson asks, and Yelena shakes her head.
“I promised Jia Ying secrecy,” she says. “Absolute secrecy. She knows that—she wouldn't have written to me if she didn't—but I can't tell you what she told me. I have to deal with this myself.”
Yelena doesn't know if anyone else would have seen what she's seen. Doesn't know, even, if she would have noticed it herself without Jia Ying's warning. Not Eva but Katya, skipping happily around the souk and playing a one-sided game of tag with all the stall-holders and market heavies. Yelena had been a child weapon once. Katya is another.
“Send me in,” she says. “Agent Coulson, Agent May, send me in. I know what I'm doing.”
“Your sister wouldn't like you doing this.”
“My sister holds her own secrets,” Yelena says. Doesn't break eye contact. “Let me have mine.”
There's barely an argument; Coulson wants Yelena wired with a mic, and May wants her armed, and Yelena says no to both.
“If I can't talk my way through it, a gun won't help at all. I'm sorry, May. Phil. I know you're worried, but I promise you I have to do this my way.”
“Yeah,” Coulson says. “You're good, Lena. You've got this.”
I've got this, Yelena thinks, and pulls the cotton scarf over her hair, settles herself at the cafe table beside Eva.
“Hello, Ms Belyakov,” she says. Signals to the waiter for mint tea. “It's Eva, isn't it? My name is Yelena.”
“Yelena,” Eva says, questioning. “You're Russian?”
“I used to be,” Yelena agrees. “Once.”
“Are you here to try and stop me? You know you can't.”
“No,” Yelena says. Sips her tea. “I just want to talk, that's all. About you and your daughter. What's her name, Eva?”
“Yekaterina,” Eva says. “My little Katya.”
“Tell me about Katya,” Yelena says, switching to Russian. “I know about Inhumans. The Terrigenesis. Your daughter is special, isn't she?”
“They wouldn't listen to me,” Eva says. “It was her birthright, her turn and they wouldn't—they thought she didn't deserve it. That she wasn't ready.”
“But you believed in her,” Yelena says. “She's your daughter. You thought she was ready.”
“I stole the crystals,” Katya says. “If they wouldn't put her through Terrigenesis I would do it myself.”
“What happened to Katya, Eva?”
“She's—” Eva says. Pauses like she's considering her words. “Jia Ying told me she sensed darkness in her. She said Katya wasn't good enough for transformation into something new. But she's my daughter, what else could I do? I was desperate. Katya deserved it.”
“And now?” Yelena asks. “How is Katya now?”
“She feels it,” Eva says. “The darkness. She's one with it. I think she can sense it somehow, can control it. She needs it.”
“She needs what?”
“Pain,” Eva says, “she wants pain,” and her eyes light up with ferocious purpose; her glare is so hot Yelena almost feels it burn. “She needs pain. We want your pain, Yelena Rusakova. You think you can help us? Yes, you'll help my little girl. I'll make sure of that.”
“Okay,” Yelena says, feeling calm settle over her like a cloak. “Okay. Why don't you take me to her. Quietly, now, so that my friends don't shoot you in my defense.”
“If they kill me Katya will go wild,” Eva says. “There will be no stopping her.”
“Then take me to her,” Yelena says again, “and when they see me walking with you they won't shoot. Here, take my hand and we'll go together.”
Yelena has to force herself to stay calm as they walk into the abandoned warehouse Eva and Katya have made their desperate home. She wonders if Natasha feels this way now on her missions, heart beating fast and the prickle of terror at the base of her spine, or if she remembers better their childhood training of absolute control over all fear.
As they get further inside, there are dead bodies strewn in distorted form. “Police,” Eva says, noticing Yelena's gaze, “and those others who tried to stop us. Katya fed off their pain just as she will on you.”
“You didn't go back to Jia Ying,” Yelena says. “For help, after.”
“She would be no help,” Eva spits. “She would only kill my Katya, pull the life from her as she does to so many of our people. What kind of help would that be.”
“And what if Katya could be made different? To feel joy instead of pain? To live?”
“She feels joy in the pain,” Eva snaps. They're silent a few seconds before she asks, “and how would you help her with such a thing?”
“I don't know,” Yelena says honestly. “But I know that I was raised for violence until I thought I could be nothing else. That kind of thing stains your soul, I thought. But here I am. Perhaps it could be the same for her.”
“I don't think so,” Eva says. “I don't think she's as weak as you. But you're welcome to try, and fail.”
“Just a minute,” Yelena says, “just let me speak to her for a moment, that's all,” and Eva shrugs.
“Have it your own way. Here she is, my little girl. I've brought you a new kind of pain, moya solnishka.”
“Come here,” Katya says, small and coldly imperious. “Take my hand.”
“Come and sit with me,” Yelena says instead, stepping away from Eva and dropping to the floor, settling herself cross-legged, “and you can tell me how it feels.”
“Didn't Mother tell you? I feel pain. Just pain,” Katya says, sneering, but Yelena can see the crack of uncertainty.
“I know. I used to feel that way too. I thought there would never be anything else. Come and sit with me, won't you?”
“There's nothing else,” Katya says, “I feel it all. You're afraid of me.” But she steps closer anyway, like she's drawn to the idea of something new. Reaches out to Yelena as if to cup her cheek, and Yelena readies herself, draws on everything she's ever pretended she'd forgotten.
Kill her before you draw a second breath, Jia Ying had written, or you will draw no second breath without Katya’s control of you, and in the instant that Katya presses her palm to Yelena's cheek she knows it to be true.
“I'm sorry, little sister,” she whispers, and as she feels the fog of Katya's control begin to creep in at the edges of her consciousness, she snaps Katya's neck just the same way she had done with Inna so long ago. Katya is just about the same size as Inna used to be, and Yelena isn't even fifteen anymore, has the weight and muscle of an adult. It's not very difficult to do.
There's a pause, after: a moment of blunt and painful silence, and then Eva’s scream breaks it like shattering glass.
“You killed her,” she cries, “you killed my Katya,” and Yelena braces for it. Expects, absolutely, that Eva will come for her now, and she does. Yelena is an adult now but Eva is taller, stronger, faster; it's hardly even a fight. Just Eva’s hands locking around Yelena's throat, her fingers like steel, and then Yelena's vision going dark. It's so quick, over so very fast. She's known for years dying would be easy, but she wonders, nevertheless—who will she see, beyond—
“Hmmm,” a voice says, and Yelena startles, tries to draw breath only to discover it's impossible. Yet her lungs aren't screaming for oxygen; she feels that she barely has a body at all, that it's just some distant and entirely unnecessary afterthought. She can see a figure, when she focuses hard: a drifting and skeletal silhouette, just the barest sketched apparition. A woman, or something pretending to be one, her ghostly face veiled in black.
“Am I dead?” she asks, and is met with a dry rattle of laughter.
“Almost. Your thread's worn thin. But there might be life in you yet. My sister would be able to tell you so, but I don't have her gift to look forward into all of what's possible. Only to look back at what's been, the lives already lived. And yours is so very interesting, little mouse.” The woman—if she's that, if she's anything like human enough to be a woman—scrutinizes her closely, reaches one bony finger out as if to touch her cheek. “You know, your sister has met mine,” she adds. “Only fitting, then, that I should meet hers.”
“You have sisters?”
“The threads of the universe aren't done weaving. One of us holds the weft. The other threads the warp. I came last: the shears to cut the thread.”
“There are those who would call me Lady Death. As fitting a title as any other. You may use the same, if it pleases you.”
“Lady Death,” Yelena says, feeling a cold chill. “So I am—I'm dead.”
“Hmmm,” Lady Death says again. Considers her for a long moment. “In another world, I'd met you long since. In this world, another fate.”
“Inna,” Yelena whispers. “And Natasha. The gun.”
I should be dead, she’d said to Dr Yang so long ago, and perhaps she's been waiting for all these years just to hear it now, because she doesn't fight it, doesn't plead or cry or argue her case. “I knew this was coming,” she says instead. “I think I've known all along. You're here to take me now, then?”
“No,” Lady Death says. “Not this time, either. I told you your thread was thin, but it seems the universe still has other plans for you.”
“Why am I here, then?” Yelena asks, confused now. “Surely I'm dying—surely you don't appear for everyone on the edge of it?”
“That's true enough,” Lady Death agrees. “But if the universe wants you alive, then I have a mind to task you with something in return. Will you promise me something, Yelena Belova? Oh, but I can see that you won't. You're clever, little mouse. A fine negotiator. You wouldn't make a promise to Death without knowing what you're agreeing to.”
“I mean,” Yelena says without thinking, as if she's just talking to Julia or Natasha, “would you? It doesn't seem very smart.” She bites her lip—making a joke with Death, perhaps she shouldn't have been so bold—but Lady Death laughs again like she's genuinely amused.
“I almost wish I could take you now, sweet girl. You'd bring a bright spark to my world for a brief moment. But I won't. Here it is, then: I need you to fix something for me. A thread which shouldn't have been cut, the universe breaking its own rules.”
“Someone who shouldn't have died?” Yelena guesses, and Lady Death nods.
“I said you were smart, didn't I? Yes, even the universe makes mistakes. I was tricked into giving up my post for what seemed like less than half a mortal breath, and that was enough. I can't uncut this thread, but I can send you out on my behalf to ravel it together again.”
“And bringing them back to life, it won't… I mean, it won't make things worse? They're not a bad person?”
“Little one,” Lady Death says gently, “is any person truly bad at heart? In their soul? I cannot tell you whether they are worthy of life, whether they're pure of heart and intention or corrupted with misdeeds and creeping hatred, whether their living will cause someone else pain or joy or anything else. I told you, my sister is the future-seer, not me. All I can tell you is that they died, and they should yet live.”
“I understand,” Yelena says. Takes a deep breath. “Yes. I agree.”
“As my sister knew you would, I suspect,” Lady Death says, and pulls a thread from the ragged edge of her sleeve; it shimmers silver once it's free, transformed somehow into metal or something stronger, and she loops it around Yelena's wrist, watches as it seals fast. “You're bound by this, Yelena Belova Rusakova. And know this, too. When your shield offers you a sword, you're to accept it. No matter the cost.”
“I understand,” Yelena says, and feels Lady Death’s kiss, faint and chill as a snowflake melting on her cheek.
Her waking back into life is strained and painful; she gasps and then coughs desperately for air, head pounding and vision swimming. Her throat feels so bruised and swollen she can barely breathe.
“Yelena,” someone is saying, “Yelena, look at me, it's okay,” and when Yelena manages to blink up at the person kneeling over her, she recognizes Agent May.
“May,” she chokes out, “how—”
“I followed you in,” May tells her. “When Belyakov attacked you she was distracted enough I was able to take her down.”
“You told me you would let me go in alone,” she croaks, hardly audible. “You said you wouldn't follow me.”
May shrugs. “I lied,” she says. “Don't hold it against me, Rusakova.”
“I would have died,” Yelena says. Touches her throat, the tender skin, and winces. “I nearly died, didn't I.”
“Yeah,” May says, “it was a close one, sweetheart,” and then her usual calm expression cracks open; she’s got tears in her eyes. “Don’t do that to me again, okay?” she says, and gathers Yelena up in her arms just the way she did Yelena’s very first month in America.
She expects somehow that her sweater will be filthy, soaked in dark blood, but when she gets back out into the daylight it's perfectly clean. Maybe a little dusty from the floor of the warehouse, but no more than that. And around her wrist, a bright silver band: the kind of bracelet which could have been there all along.
“Rusakova,” Coulson says. His face is stern, the faintest tremble in his mouth betraying his worry. “Don't you ever do that again, you understand? If I had to tell Natasha you died on my watch I don't think I could ever live with myself again.”
“I'm sorry,” Yelena whispers. “I had to do it. I'm sorry.”
“We should get her to medical,” May says.
“I'm okay,” Yelena protests, and May shakes her head.
“You were out cold for a few minutes, there could be brain damage. And that bruising looks like bad news. Strangulation is no joke, take it from me, you don't want to wind up having a stroke from a hidden blood clot in a month.”
That's true, Yelena would deeply prefer not to keel over from a stroke or cardiac arrest, so she submits to the medical assessment in what she's fairly sure is an unsanctioned but suspiciously well-provisioned safe house in the UAE.
“So this is where we smuggle out our Saudi defectors,” she says in between the X-rays and the MRI, and Coulson looks fondly at her.
“That's classified,” he says, in the way that Yelena knows means yep, that's correct.
“I don't want to go home,” she says once she's medically cleared, “not until—I don't want my sisters to know.”
“Okay,” May says. “That's fine, we can stay. Or you can come to the Bahamas with me.”
“No,” Yelena protests, “May, don't—you planned that vacation with Andrew, don't ruin it by feeling like you have to look after me. I'll be fine by myself.”
“Yelena, I've known you since you were fifteen and still figuring out how to be a person, so I feel like I've got authority to say: not a goddamn chance. It's okay. It works out better this way, actually, if I took you home to stay at my place Natasha would definitely figure it out, but if you're on a classified assignment and I'm on vacation she probably won't connect the dots. As long as I get a whole lot of drinks with paper umbrellas in them I'll be just fine.”
“Those paper umbrellas are a big choking risk, actually,” Coulson says, “I read an article in Time about it.”
“I’m gonna murder you in your sleep if you tell me another fact like that,” May tells him sweetly. “Yelena, you're coming, okay? I'm not going to argue on this.”
“Yeah,” Yelena says. “Okay.” Looks down at her hands. There's a long dark hair on the sleeve of her sweater, caught in the soft nap of the cashmere, and Yelena remembers, suddenly, that Inna had dark hair too with just the same kind of curl.
Months later, when Natasha gets shot, Yelena feels guilty: here she is hauling Natasha over the coals for not taking her own mortality seriously, when Yelena spent two weeks sitting on Lucaya Beach waiting for her bruises to fade and having a tiny little breakdown over—what, she doesn't even know. Andrew had helped her through it; he couldn't be told the detail, obviously, but understood the broad shape of it enough to talk her through the worst moments. It's not so bad. She'll never wear that shade of cashmere sweater again, and she's discovered she's allergic to Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen, but it could be worse.
After Bahrain she makes more of an effort to go home as often as possible, wherever home is: Park Slope or upstate or down to Maria Rambeau’s place, it doesn't matter. It seems dumb, suddenly, to spend her whole life overseas when the life she wants to be having is right here. It doesn't mean she's not busy—she's hellishly busy, surely she can't be that important—and Monica isn't always around either, spends days at a time down in the lab. There are still weeks at a time when apparently nobody else in the whole of Intel can do what needs to be done in Tokyo or Sydney or London.
She thinks—she worries—that she'll have nightmares, will wake screaming at the memory of Eva’s grip on her throat or the way Katya's neck had snapped so cleanly, and perhaps she does but it's more muted than she might have expected. It's not that she forgets, it's simply that life goes by so fast now. Zhenya is having babies; Natasha finally gets her act together and stops pining for Maria.
“You realize that I fell for Monica, like, practically the same time you met Maria,” Yelena says to Natasha afterwards, can't help it. “And we have been together for more than eight years now? That is eight years I have lived with you sighing over her when you think nobody is around. I'm not congratulating you on anything.”
“I'm very busy,” Natasha protests. “I run the Avengers. I'm very busy and important.”
“I haven't worked less than ten hours in a day for the last three years,” Yelena says, “and yet that somehow didn't stop me.”
“That's different,” Natasha says, sulking. “You're much more efficient than I am, it's not fair to compare the two of us.”
“That is true,” Yelena says, “I am extremely efficient,” and proves it again when she pulls off Zhenya’s wedding plans in all of eight weeks.
The babies are born, Nadia and Natalia, and Yelena's heart feels like it might burst with love. “Should we have a baby too?” she asks Monica, giddy with how tiny Nadia’s fingernails are, with Natalia's long lashes and wisps of red hair. Monica laughs.
“I don't think a baby would fit into our lifestyle right now, honey,” she says, ever practical, but she pokes Nadia's chubby little cheeks anyway in something like wonder. “God, they're cute though. Don't let me huff them or I really will want one.”
“You don't want one,” Evgenia says, voice hollow. “Don't let them fool you. It will ruin your life.”
“I don't believe you,” Yelena laughs, because Evgenia looks tired, of course, but she looks radiant too; lit up with it, glowing golden whenever she looks at her daughters. “You don't look like someone whose life is ruined.”
“You got me there,” Evgenia admits. “I don't know how anyone does it without at least three extra people, though. If Vasilia hadn't been here when Seb had to go back to work, I think it might have been all over for me.”
“Yeah, most families really fuck up by not having nine aunts on call.”
“Vasilia won’t let us skip school to babysit,” Marta complains. “I said we would do it. Nobody needs to study geography, anyway.”
“You might not need to study geography, but you do need to pay more attention in class,” Vasilia tells her sternly. “Don’t think I don’t know that you failed your AP French exam.”
“Yeah, but,” Marta argues, “as if I really need to know French, come on. One translator in the family’s enough, isn’t it?”
“You are not moving to America and becoming a drop-out,” Vasilia says, and Yelena can’t help but hide a smile.
Every time she goes home for the weekend her little sisters are taller, smarter, somehow even more assimilated seamlessly into American culture. Vasilia and Natasha complain every chance they get about Kseniya and Marta’s obsession with the Kardashians, but Yelena sort of loves it: it's just so perfectly dumb.
“This is definitely what we left Russia for,” she says, “the chance to get deeply over-invested in the worst family in America,” and secretly buys Xenni all the Kim K merchandise Vasilia won't.
Despite that, she can't help but think of Kseniya in her head as forever a baby. It surprises her every time, seeing Kseniya’s selfies in their sestra chat: she expects to see a ten-year-old, all grazed knees and bitten nails, and not this sweet teenager. Kseniya looks like Vasilia too, the same blonde hair and sharp nose, and that startles her more than anything else. She didn't think any of them were actually genetically connected. It's not like it matters, but—it's a shock, that's all. She kind of wishes she knew how Vasilia feels about it, but doesn't quite want to ask. They're all sisters; that's enough.
“Agent Rusakova?” Andy says one afternoon, knocking on her door. “There's a young woman downstairs. Claiming she's your sister.”
“What—” Yelena says, already out of her seat; if something’s happened—if something had happened—Vasilia would have called her, surely, but her personal phone shows no texts, no missed calls. Natasha is out of the country, but they'd have told her—someone from SHIELD, Maria Hill or Sharon, one of them would have come and found her, surely—
“This facility isn't cleared for visitors,” the agent says. “I put her in Interview Room 6,” and Yelena nods, walks so briskly down to the first floor interview rooms she's basically running.
“Xenni?” she says, getting in the room, and Kseniya, fidgeting in her uncomfortable plastic chair, looks up and smiles like she knows she's probably in trouble. “Sweetheart, what are you doing here? It's the middle of the day, aren't you supposed to be in school? How did you get here?”
“I took an Amtrak,” Kseniya says. “I needed to talk to you.”
“I'm at work, Kseniya. I'm very busy. You could have called me tonight. Or come to visit on the weekend.”
“No,” Kseniya says, sharp; a little annoyed now. Worries at her thumbnail with her teeth, swipes her sandy blonde bangs out of her eyes. “No, Lena, it's—it's for your work. It's about your work. That's why I needed to talk to you. Because I think I found something SHIELD needs to know about.”
“What,” Yelena says again, utterly baffled now, and sits down opposite Kseniya. “What is it?”
“I think I found a terrorist cell,” Kseniya tells her, very serious. “On the internet.”
Yelena can't take Kseniya up to her office, which is incredibly annoying because of how uncomfortable Interview Room 6 is—all of the interview rooms feel like they're set up solely for interrogating rogue agents, which is deeply unhelpful for diplomacy—but she gets Andy to bring them in a bag of chips, a couple cans of seltzer from the cafeteria vending machine, and then she looks seriously at Kseniya.
“Okay,” she says. “Tell me what's going on.”
“You know how I was getting into bitcoin,” Kseniya says. “Crypto-currency, like, Neopets money but for nerds. Olivia learned a little about it in her modern econ lectures and I read her notes. It got me interested, so then I convinced Vasilia to give me a couple hundred bucks to play with investments. And then I found something.”
Kseniya does her best to explain, but Yelena genuinely cannot comprehend a single sentence: it's a humbling experience.
“I have no idea what this all means,” she says an hour later, staring at the figures on screen; they might as well be Greek. In fact, it'd be better if they were Greek, at least she can read the Greek alphabet, can pick out basic sentences. “I think I need to get Caroline, she'll get this better than I do.”
Yelena hands over the file to Caroline's team with a sense of deep relief. Looks Kseniya up and down.
“It's six pm,” she says. “I'm not driving you back to New York in rush hour traffic, and I'm definitely not sending you home on Amtrak, so…”
“Can I come stay?” Kseniya asks, voice full of undisguised excitement, and Yelena pretends to sigh.
“I guess,” she says. “No, of course you can. Natasha's away, you can take her room.”
It turns out Natasha isn't away; she gets home an hour later, Sam in tow. Drops her gear bag on the floor, kicks her boots off in the middle of the entranceway exactly where Yelena is always tripping over them.
“Natasha!” Kseniya says, jumping up to hug her, and Natasha lets out an ‘oof’ of surprise.
“Heyyyy, kid. God, look at you, did you grow another foot in a month?”
“I'm taller than Irina now,” Kseniya tells her. “She's real mad about it.”
“I bet. Hey, Yelena. What's Kseniya doing here? Don't you have school?”
“She got obsessed with nerd shit and figured out some sort of online terrorist plot,” Yelena says. “You should be impressed, it took Caroline and her team of math prodigies an hour to understand.”
“It took them like ten minutes,” Kseniya says, sounding torn between embarrassed and proud.
“Okay, like ten minutes. Maybe twenty. I still have no idea what it all means, but anyway, our little sister is very smart, you should be proud of her.”
“Are your whole family total geniuses?” Sam asks. “Because it sure seems that way.”
“Olivia says we just have outsized expectations of ourselves,” Kseniya says cheerfully. “Basically we're over-achievers, that's all.”
“Anyway, by the time we got to the bottom of it all, it was too late for Xenni to go home, so I asked Vasya if she could stay in DC a couple nights. Sorry, I didn't expect you home tonight, I thought your mission was due to go another few days. Xen will have to sleep on the couch instead.”
“We wrapped up early,” Natasha says. “Sam and I might have caused an international incident to get it done, but that's not my fucking problem.”
“No,” Yelena says, dry, “it'll be my problem, I guarantee.”
“Sorryyyyy,” Natasha says. “Not really that sorry, though. Hey, Xenni, are you cooking chili? Is that what I can smell?”
“Yeah! Vasilia told me that if I was staying with Yelena I should try and make sure she eats a couple of solid meals. You want to stay for dinner, Sam? It's turkey chili and cornbread, I got the recipe off Coulson.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “Sure, that sounds great,” and Natasha leans over to give Kseniya a smacking kiss on the temple.
“You're the best,” she says, “oh my god, Coulson’s chili is so fucking good, we've been stuck with nothing but MREs for the last two months. Never let the US Army tell you they'll provision your deep-cover ops. And Sam wouldn't trade me on any of his meals, I was stuck with the vegetable omelette all the damn time.”
“The cheese and vegetable omelette MRE should be a war crime,” Sam says cheerfully. “I served two tours, I'm not eating that shit again. You're on your own, Ivanova.”
“No respect for your leader,” Natasha mutters. “I shouldn't let you stay for dinner.”
“Too bad,” Sam tells her, “your sister already invited me.”
“And anyway, Sam is basically family now, right? Because of how he's totally banging Yasha and Steve?”
“Kseniya,” Yelena says sternly, trying her very best to ignore Sam's embarrassed protests and Natasha's howls of laughter, “that’s not how we talk about guests.”
“But that's what Natasha said,” Kseniya protests, “and we all saw them hooking up at Zhenya’s wedding, are we supposed to just pretend that didn't happen?” and Natasha laughs even harder.
“She's got you there,” she says to Sam. “Welcome to the family, bud. It's all downhill from here.”
Yelena gets home one evening to find a cat sitting on her couch like he owns it. Looks around her otherwise empty apartment and back at the cat: ginger stripes, green eyes.
“Hey,” she says. “Who are you?”
The cat doesn't answer, not that he'd expected him to. Why is there a cat in our apartment? she texts Natasha. And where are you? I didn't think you were away on mission this month.
Fury asked me to petsit, Natasha texts her back, and then, after a long pause, I wasn't supposed to be, but tell that to the Swedish mafia.
Does the Director know you've abandoned his cat? Yelena says. I'm pretty sure that's not how petsitting works. What if I'd been sent to Geneva again.
I bribed your assistant to block out your calendar when this Sweden thing came up. It's just a milk run, Natasha says. I'll be back tomorrow. Thursday at the outside. There's kibble in the bag on the kitchen counter, and I already set up his litter in the bathroom.
Yelena contemplates the grocery bag on the counter, the cat blinking up at her. His name is Goose, Natasha adds. Don't give him too many cat treats.
“Hi, Goose,” Yelena sighs, and he chirps back at her: an absurdly high squeak for such a big cat. “Yeah, hi. You're cute. But you'd better not get your hair on my angora sweater, you hear me?”
Goose sleeps on her bed all night, politely curled up by her feet. Just yawns at her when she gets up for work in the morning, stretches out and then rolls over, curls up again.
She's in the bathroom doing her makeup when she realizes something is wrong. It's not a noise that alerts her but the absence of noise: a sudden and prickling awareness that she's not alone in her house.
Her gun is on the kitchen counter. She puts down her mascara next to the sink, reaches for her hair straightener. Coils the power cord around her hand; perhaps she can use it as a throwing weapon, a garotte. Her hair is wet on the nape of her neck. She steps out of the bathroom barefoot, into the hallway. Glances at her open bedroom door, where Goose is asleep in the patch of sunlight at the foot of her bed.
There is a man in her living room, studying the row of framed photos along the mantel. He turns to face her when he hears her footsteps. Smiles like she's an old friend.
“Hello,” he says pleasantly, in English but with a Russian burr to his words. “There you are. I've been waiting, you know.” Half of his face is scarred, the glossy pink of old burns long-healed, but his shoulders are broad and solid under his canvas jacket. Yelena can see the outline of something she knows instinctively to be explosives; a vest, perhaps. A bomb. He is holding her gun, safety off.
“Hello,” Yelena says, very calm. Holds herself in stillness. “Who are you?”
“Is that little Kseniya?” he says, gesturing at the photos with the barrel of her gun. “She's grown so big. And what's this? A wedding? You didn't invite me. I'm disappointed.”
“We kept it small,” Yelena says, eyes on the gun. Feels the prickle of fear that tells her this man is unstable in some deep way.
“And a baby!” he says, picking up the next picture. “Not yours, I think. I don't see a cradle here, Yelena.”
“No,” Yelena says. “My niece. You didn't do your research? I'm disappointed.”
“Oh,” he says, “I did a lot, Yelena Belova. You wouldn't believe how much it took to find you here.”
“I'm sorry,” Yelena says, irritated more than anything else, “but who are you?”
“You don't recognize me?” he says, the unburned side of his mouth twisting into a mocking grin. “Your big brother, and you don't recognize him?”
“I only have one brother,” Yelena says, knowing what Natasha would say and leaning into it for once. “He lives across town with Captain America. So who the fuck are you?”
“Yelena,” the man says. Shakes his head. “I'm disappointed, tovarisch. You don't remember me? You told me I was your favorite, once.”
That stirs something deep in the sediment of her memory. Laid down so long ago it's geologic, a layer of flint underneath it all. Tovarisch Ruslan, you're my favorite.
“Ruslan,” she says slowly. Stares at his face, trying to see the resemblance. It's difficult to remember; she can only think of the lake, the color of it where the sky had met the water. His eyes had been just the same shade. He stares back at her, and his eyes are the same luminous grey. “Comrade Dezhnyov. You taught me to skip stones down at the lake.”
“There you go,” Ruslan says. “Now you have it. Surprised to see me, little sister? Oh, but you can't imagine how surprised I was to see you. I thought you'd died, you know.”
“Everyone died,” Yelena says. “That was the point.”
“Yes, yes, everyone died. You brought the building down. Everyone died, all those little girls and all their comrades. What a tragedy.”
“You weren't our comrades,” Yelena says, “you were our prison guards. You think I'll cry for you? You think I ever mourned your loss? No.”
“My brother Nikola was only seventeen,” Ruslan says, “and he didn't die when the beams crushed him. He burned to death instead. Nothing I could do, no matter how I tried.”
“Kseniya was four,” Yelena spits. “So forgive me if I don't grieve for a guard who held children prisoner. And you weren't my favorite, Dezhnyov. You should have died with your brother.”
“Oh, I very nearly did, I assure you. First the fire and then the cold, you see it's a wonder I have any fingers left at all.” He holds up his left hand, and Yelena sees that it's missing the two smallest fingers, the tips of his middle and index. A drop of water runs down her spine; she forces herself not to shiver. “I thought for so long that the Americans had attacked. But then, you know, I saw your sister on the news. She's famous now, little Natalia. Saves the world from things like bombs and terrorists. And then I saw the Soldat there beside her, and it all began to make sense.”
“What do you want, Ruslan,” Yelena says, tired now, and cold; she hasn't finished getting dressed. “Do you want to kill me? To blow us both to pieces? Whatever it is, get on with it.”
“I was looking for Natalia,” Ruslan says. “But you'll do.” He pulls a chair out from the kitchen table, gestures with her gun. “Sit down, please. You're going to have to be a little patient with me, I'm afraid, while I finish what I'm doing. It's so lucky your kitchen has a gas line, don't you think?”
His jacket has swung open once or twice during their conversation, enough for Yelena to see the explosive vest. He's got at least a couple of bricks of Semtex, Yelena estimates, probably more. That'd be enough to take down the whole floor of the building. Stella and Benjamin two doors down won't have left for kindergarten yet. It's not a good outcome; she needs to delay, to dissemble just a little longer. Has no means of attack, and even if she did, she wouldn't. Never take out anyone in an explosive vest, she remembers their threat assessment tutors telling them. Not unless you know for sure the vest is not attached to a kill switch, or you'll risk detonation as soon as their heart stops beating.
“I'm cold,” she says instead of sitting down, “do you mind if I put my sweater on? It's just there on the couch.”
“Oh,” Dezhnyov says, “don’t worry, you won't be cold for long. But go ahead, if you like.”
Yelena puts down her hair straightener. Reaches for her sweater, every move slow and choreographed; she's not making a play, she's just stretching out the minutes between now and the clock hitting eight. She pulls on her sweatshirt, tugs it down over her head. Brushes her uncombed hair out of her eyes. She hasn't blown it dry; it'll be unmanageable all day long.
There's a noise from her bedroom, a gentle little thud, followed by the faint jingle of a bell: Goose jumping off her bed. Dezhnyov jerks, eyes widening and wilding. Tightens his grip on the gun, waves it at her.
“You didn't tell me someone else was home, Yelena.”
“No,” Yelena sighs, “it's just a cat, Ruslan,” and feels Goose rub himself against the back of her calf. “You see? There's nobody else here. Just us.”
“Disappointing,” Dezhnyov says, “I was hoping we'd see Natalia after all. Is she off saving someone from bombs blowing up? She must not know her own sister's in danger. She'll just have to dig you out with her bare hands when she finds the rubble.”
“Ruslan,” Yelena says, trying to be gentle; she hasn't heard Stella and Benjamin leave yet, and she's pretty sure today isn't the day they've finally learned not to slam their front door. “Tovarisch, do you really so badly want to take yourself down with me? You survived one explosion, after all. You could simply shoot me. Go and live the rest of your life.”
Dezhnyov laughs. It's not a good sound.
“What life? I haven't lived since your little escape.”
“That's not my fault,” Yelena sighs, and Dezhnyov fires, shot going wide; she jumps despite the silencer muffling the sound.
“It is,” Dezhnyov says, pale and sweating, “you and your little bitch sisters, if it weren't for you,” and finally, finally, Yelena hears her neighbors leaving for school. She picks Goose up, since he's winding himself insistently around her ankles. He's bigger than Piroshki but not as heavy as Potato—not that that's hard, Potato is so chunky Vasilia keeps threatening to put him on a diet—and Yelena tries in vain to settle him against her shoulder, but he squirms until she's left holding him with both hands, his back legs dangling inelegantly.
“Sorry, cat,” she tells him. “Looks like this is it for us.”
There's so much she wants to do and she's so angry, suddenly, angry like she hasn't been in years. What a waste, she thinks, what a goddamn waste. This can't be how death comes for her, after everything else: she's still got that silver thread bright around one wrist, hasn't fulfilled that promise, and that thought gives her a rush of wild and fearless energy.
“If you're going to do it then do it already,” she says. Switches to Russian for her next sentence, fills her voice with contempt. “Or are you a coward after all? I wasn't such a coward when I was ten years old.”
“Shut up,” Dezhnyov snaps, “shut up, be quiet,” and fires again, another wild shot that hits her couch in an explosion of white feathers. Goose makes an ugly noise, a low growling yowl, and then—what—what—Yelena doesn't even have words for what happens next. Goose is all maw and teeth and horrible alien tentacles, gullet stretching impossibly wide. There's a wet crunch, a scream that's broken off almost before it starts, and then silence.
“What—” Yelena gasps. Goose chirps at her. Licks his chops, jumps out of her limp grasp. Hacks for a minute like he's about to cough up a hairball before spitting out an explosives detonator, promptly sits down and serenely starts grooming himself.
“What,” Yelena says again, dumbstruck. Sits down heavily on the floor. “What are you, Goose.”
Goose looks at her. Squeaks out a meow, butts his forehead against her knee. Yelena reaches out, touches the detonator with one finger. Makes a face.
“Ugh,” she says out loud. “Fuck, I'm going to be so late for work.”
She actually winds up at work by nine, which is about an hour and a half late by her standards but doesn't make anyone else blink. Her assistant brings in a stack of files to be signed off mid-morning—SHIELD’s having real issues adjusting to a paperless environment despite how many Starktech tablets they have these days—and scrutinizes her while she flicks through each file.
“Did you know you only have mascara on one eye?” he says, conversational. “Is that a look you're going for now?”
“Ugh,” Yelena sighs. Considers her life, and then, swearing with considerable feeling, “fuck it, I'm taking the day as PTO. Andy, can you sort it for me?”
“Yeah,” Andy says, clearly startled. “Sure, boss. Are you feeling okay?”
“Fine,” Yelena says, “but if you could talk to Agent Hancock over in Building Security, tell him I'd appreciate his opinion on some safehouse alarm options.”
“Sure,” Andy says. “I'll get right on it.”
He must literally get right on it, because Agent Hancock calls her half an hour later, while she's wandering the aisles of Williams Sonoma in a gentle daze. Yelena answers her phone, staring at sets of copper pans, cheese knives, some complicated silicone gadget for peeling garlic.
“You need a new alarm system?” he asks, and three hours later her apartment is fully wired, biometric code readers and all.
There's a new security system at home, Yelena texts Natasha. No big deal, but don't be alarmed when it scans you at the door, okay?
I dunno, should I be alarmed?
It's fine. I dealt with it. How's the milk run?
Would you be mad if I said I might have gotten detained in a Dutch prison for a hot minute?
I don't know, Yelena texts back, should I be?
There's a long pause, and she pats Goose's ears, strokes her fingers down his spine. Also, she adds, I bought a set of copper pans. Don't cook anything in them, please, you'll fuck up the finish.
Let's be real, Lena, as if I ever cook anything. I'll bring you back some Gouda, okay?
And a pair of clogs, Yelena says, and feels herself begin to relax.
She brings Goose in on Monday; he doesn't seem to have a carry cage, but he also doesn't object to her picking him up and tucking him under her arm so she can put him in the passenger seat next to her briefcase.
“I brought your cat back,” she says, pausing in Fury’s office doorway, and he waves her in.
“Your sister was supposed to be looking after him,” he says, taking Goose from her. Yelena shrugs.
“My sister is stuck in prison somewhere in the Netherlands, last I heard. Do you think she's losing her touch?”
“Wow, say it to her face, Rusakova. She's doing great. It's just a milk run.”
“You know, the more people saying that, the more suspicious I get. Should I be brushing up on my Dutch? Because I do have plans next weekend, and I don't really want to reschedule.”
“Natasha will be fine,” Fury says. “You and I both know it. And thanks for stepping in with Goose. Was he a good boy?”
“Yeah,” Yelena says, “he was great,” and then, pausing, biting her lip, “he, uh—does he always, um…”
“Did he eat someone again?” Fury asks, and Yelena exhales.
“Yes,” she says, “is that, like, a normal thing for him?”
“Were you in danger?”
“Yes,” Yelena says. “Yes, I was. He would have killed me. He was going to kill me.”
“Who's a good boy, Goosey-goose,” Fury says, scratching the spot between Goose’s ears. “Is it something we need to know about, Rusakova?”
“No,” Yelena says. “A ghost from my past, that's all. Not a SHIELD problem.”
“Right,” Fury agrees. “I'll tell Kelly to approve the expense claim Building Security filed on the new alarm system, then. Stay safe, Rusakova. Thanks for looking after my cat.”
“No problem,” Yelena says. “Honestly, I think he mostly looked after me.”
“What the hell happened to your couch?” Monica asks the following weekend, and Yelena follows her gaze to the ripped-up seat cushions, the drifts of feathers and down that she hasn't gotten around to cleaning up.
“Oh,” she says, “I got roped into cat-sitting Goose for the Director last weekend.”
Monica makes a face. “That cat is a damn menace,” she scowls.
“You have no idea,” Yelena sighs, and Monica laughs.
“What, did he eat someone again?”
“Oh my god, does everyone know about that? Does he just… do that?”
“Nah. My mom told me when I was a kid and I thought for years she was making it up, playing a prank on me. Then we had this attempted home invasion when I was in junior year, Mom was out and I was at home by myself. It didn't end well for the burglar. Not that I was particularly upset about it, he scared the absolute shit out of me.”
“Wow,” Yelena says. “That's wild.”
“Right? Apparently Goose isn't even a cat, he's, like, a genuine alien.”
“I mean, the tentacles sort of gave that away.”
“Cute, though. Apart from the tentacles.” Monica kisses Yelena's hair, wraps her arms around Yelena's waist. “You should get a new couch, babe.”
“I guess. We have spilled a lot of red wine on that one, it's not really worth fixing. But ugh, couch shopping.”
“Get your assistant to do it,” Monica suggests.
“I feel like that's taking unfair advantage of him. He's got a postgrad in international politics and he can field-strip a gun in sixty seconds, I've seen the intake test scores.”
“And he'll probably do great at picking a couch,” Monica shrugs. “Come on, let's go hang out in bed, I don't want to sit on that mess and risk having to pick feathers out of my locs for the next five years.”
The twins are thirteen months old and just about walking when Coulson calls Yelena into the New York office for a meeting to pitch her on something that genuinely knocks her sideways, leaves her gasping.
“We want you to lead something,” he says. “A new team.”
It's not just a new team. It's a spaceship, off-world, jumping through the universe.
“Why me,” Yelena says, bewildered. “I don't do combat. I'm not in the Avengers. I have no special powers.”
“We don't want someone who'll go in combat-first,” Coulson says.”We want an interpreter, an ambassador. A negotiator, and Yelena, you're our best. You pick up a language in days, you walked into that warehouse in Bahrain alone and walked out again.”
“That,” Yelena says, “that was different. I was lucky, that's all. I couldn't do this alone.”
“You'll have a team. Daisy Johnson, Elena Rodriguez. Anyone else you choose. And we want Monica to be your pilot.”
“Monica—she's not even in Ops,” Yelena says. “She's a scientist, an engineer. Why would you bring her in on something like this?”
“Because she's been designing spacecraft for almost a decade,” Coulson says, “and she's one of the best. And she has the kind of personal experience with aliens you don't find everywhere. Come on, Lena, you know me. Would I ever ask you to sign up for something I didn't trust?”
“I'm afraid of flying,” Yelena tells him, and laughs a little. “I'm terrified of flying.”
“Just look at the file, okay?” Coulson says. Slides it across the table to her. Yelena sighs. Presses her thumb to the screen, waits for it to unlock. “I really do think you could be amazing for this,” he says, as the file opens, and then Yelena is reading the first line: [Level 9 classified] SWORD mission proposal.
“SWORD,” she says, heart suddenly pounding in her ears. “What is that, an acronym?”
“Sentient World Observation and Response Department. Plus it just kind of goes nicely with SHIELD, don't you think?”
“Yes,” Yelena says, hardly knowing what she's agreeing to. When your shield offers you a sword, take it no matter the cost. “Yes. Okay. I'll do it.”
She calls Monica on her way to the Park Slope house, her heart thrumming with nervous energy.
“Hey,” Monica says after three rings. “What's up? What did Coulson want?”
“Did you know you were building a ship for off-world exploration?” Yelena asks, and Monica pauses a moment.
“The Zephyr,” she says eventually. “Yeah, my plans were on hold for a couple years because I couldn't figure out the jump drive. But then your sister brought Stark in as a consultant, and he had a bunch of really good ideas, we kind of figured it out together. I didn't really think SHIELD was that interested, though, it'd be hella expensive to operate.”
“Well,” Yelena says. Takes a deep breath. “They're interested. So, you want to go to outer space with me?”
“You're not—Lena. You're serious.”
“That's what Coulson wanted. An off-world team, interplanetary diplomacy. I'd be the director and you'd be the pilot.”
“Yeah, but babe,” Monica says. “You're afraid of flying, don't they know that?”
“That's what I told them too,” Yelena says, “and yet. I think I said I'd do it, so… please say yes, malishka, I can't do it without you.”
“I always thought it was super unfair my mom got to go to space and I didn't,” Monica says. “Of course it's a yes. Shit yes, oh my god. Lena, I promise, you'll love the plane. You won't even know that you're flying.”
“I think I will,” Yelena says, and stops dead in the middle of the street: how can she ever leave her sisters behind?
“Something is on your mind,” Vasilia says an hour later, her brow furrowed in concern as she scrutinizes Yelena's face. “Did your meeting with Coulson not go well?”
“No, it wasn't—it went fine,” Yelena says. “Just… unexpected, that's all.”
“Is it something you can talk to your sisters about? Or is it classified?”
“Both,” Yelena says, “but—” and bites her lip. Vasilia touches her hair very gently.
“You can tell us when you are ready, Lenotschka.”
Yelena is silent for a moment. Looks at what Evgenia’s working on. It’s a big canvas, a painting of a bird or a moth. Abstract, all wings. The brushstrokes are broad and the paint is luminous and soft, hazy. It makes her heart feel tender and full.
“Monica and I have to go away for a while,” she says eventually. “A mission, for work.”
“You don't go on missions, do you?” Evgenia asks, squinting at her canvas. Drags her brush through a line of cerulean blue, smudging it gently into the swathe of emerald below it. “You might be overseas but you work in an office. Or in a meeting room.”
“Yes,” Yelena agrees, “I don't usually. But this time I will.”
“Will you be gone for long?”
“I don't know,” Yelena admits. “It could be three months or three years. I hope it won't be that long.” One of the twins makes a fretful noise, the kind Yelena recognizes as the prelude to louder tears, and Vasilia leans over, scoops her up and settles her on her shoulder.
“Shhh,” she says. Pats Nadia on the back, bounces her a little. “Shhh, sweetheart. It's overseas, then? This mission?”
“Yes,” says Yelena, and then, “no. It—do you remember when Aunty Carol was away?”
“Off the planet,” Vasilia murmurs, still soothing Nadia. “You're going away from Earth.”
“Not forever. It'll be like a diplomatic posting. We'll be able to come home sometimes.”
“Aunty Lena,” Natalia says sleepily. Holds out her arms, and Yelena reaches for her, lifts her up.
“You've gotten so big, little bee! Your mama must be giving you food for giants.”
“No,” Natalia giggles. “I'm not big. I'm still little.”
“Your tetushka Yelena just isn't as strong as me,” Vasilia jokes. “She can't carry both of you at once like I can. Do you think I'm as big and strong as your uncles? Perhaps I could arm-wrestle them.”
“Nooo,” Natalia giggles again, and Yelena smiles, tickles her neck just to listen to her giggles turn to shrieks of laughter.
“So you're going away for a while,” Vasilia murmurs later. “That's not so bad, is it? So why the long face?”
“I'm afraid,” Yelena admits. “It'll be lonely, Vasya. It's so far away. Further than I've ever gone before.”
“You will still have Monica with you. What's there to be lonely about?”
“But I won't have you,” Yelena says. “I won't have you, moya sestra, or Natasha, or any of you. I can't take Sveta or Mila or Marta to space with me.”
“No,” Vasilia agrees. “Marta has her school play, and Mila has midterms, and Sveta is rehearsing for Onegin. But we'll be here, and you'll come home.”
“What if I lose you,” Yelena whispers. Vasilia kisses her hair.
“They still have phones in space, don't they?”
“I don't know,” Yelena admits. “Maybe I should say we can't go unless the jet has a phone, huh?”
“Maybe so,” Vasilia says. Holds Yelena tight.
Coulson wasn't lying about her being able to put together whatever team she chooses; she gets Elena and Daisy, Agents Piper and Triplett and O’Neil, Dr Fraser from medical.
“I want Mack,” Monica says. “Agent Mackenzie, I worked with him in engineering div. Something is inevitably gonna go wrong on this plane and Mack’s the only one I trust to help me fix it.”
“Sure,” Yelena says, “we can ask him.” Adds his name to the list. “What about Vasquez? And Philips? I sort of want Andy, actually, but I don't know if being my assistant extends to coming to space with me.”
Monica shrugs. “Might as well ask him,” she says. “Maybe he'll love it.”
They get a whole six weeks to equip the mission, which feels like simultaneously a lot of time and nothing at all: it's all too soon when Yelena is standing in the launch bay waiting to board the Zephyr and wondering what the hell she agreed to. It's huge: almost the size of the SHIELD helicarriers, with two Z-jets that they'll apparently use for short flight and orbit-to-surface landing. The only thing Yelena likes so far about the entire thing is that at least she and Monica have their own bunk, big enough that Yelena almost feels like she could be in her own bedroom if it weren't for the artificial gravity and simulated window panel.
“Sup, Rusakova,” Daisy says when she reports for duty. “Or do I have to call you ma’am now? Director? Because that's kinda not gonna work for me.”
“Oh my god,” Yelena says, laughing. “Don't be ridiculous, you know it's just Lena to you. Give me a hug, it's been way too long. How's your mom?”
“Yeah,” Daisy says, returning the hug, “she’s doing good. Sort of cranky about me saying yes to this mission, I think she was hoping I'd help out more with Afterlife. Don't ask me how that's supposed to work when I've already got the Secret Warriors project kicking off, or I did until I signed up for this. But anyway, maybe you can fill me in on this, because I never got a straight answer from him. How come Coulson’s not taking this whole gig to space, huh? I thought he'd be all over it.”
“He wants to move to Portland,” Yelena tells Daisy. “His girlfriend is first string in the orchestra and he secretly thinks he could quit SHIELD and start a bistro, Natasha found his google searches. I give you full permission to tease him about that. Also, I think he knew that Monica would never let someone else take the Zephyr into space without her, and if he tried to send Monica into space without me there'd be hell to pay. So here we all are.”
“A bistro,” Daisy says, delighted. “Oh man, I am going to give him so much shit. There's no way he can quit SHIELD, though. Especially not with you off-world.”
“Yeah,” Yelena agrees, “I know. Don't worry, Natasha said she'll talk him down.”
“Wheels up in ten, guys,” Monica says over the comms. “You might want to strap in.”
“I might want to puke in a bag,” Yelena mutters, but she smiles at Daisy, heads up to the cockpit so she can say her goodbyes to Earth from the front seat.
Running SWORD is wild; it's crazy and stressful and weird, but Yelena's been dealing with crazy and stressful and weird for so long that she settles into it much quicker than should feel possible. They're four months in, diplomatic relations established with nine new planetary systems not counting Asgard, when they come across the first situation that's genuinely and particularly strange enough to make Yelena hesitate.
“I don't understand,” Monica says, frowning at the empty void in front of them. “All the readings show there should be a planet here.”
“Daisy? Can you feel anything?”
“Nothing like a gravitational pull big enough for a planet,” Daisy says.”But—guys, there's something out there. Someone.”
“That's impossible. How can anyone be out there? We're in deep space, there's nothing here for at least three jumps.”
“I know, but I'm telling you. I can feel their heartbeat.”
“Send out a Z-jet,” Yelena says. “Piper, Mack, see what you can find.”
“Yes, boss,” Piper says, and prepares the Z-jet for short-range flight.
“Do you think this is a mistake?” Yelena says to Monica quietly, and Monica just shrugs.
“There's something out there. And if Daisy says it's a person… I don't want to leave them in space, do you?”
“No,” Yelena admits. “But if they're non-human, powerful enough to survive in a vacuum, we don't know what we could be bringing back.”
“Oh my god, did you watch Alien before we left? Babe, I told you not to! I told you it was scary and it would make you paranoid! Sometimes growing up in a pop culture black hole is helpful, there's such a thing as knowing too much.”
“I watched it after signing up for this too,” Daisy says ruefully. “The first night we were in space, after our first jump, I went to bed and I genuinely did not sleep a single minute. It was a big mistake.”
“This is a plane full of idiots,” Yelena sighs. “And I am the biggest idiot. Piper? Mack? You got anything?”
“Daisy was right,” Piper says through comms. “There's someone out here. We're bringing her in now.”
Her? Yelena mouths at Daisy, and Daisy shrugs.
The woman Mack brings back to the Zephyr isn't human, Yelena can see that. Green skin, long dark hair. Metal implants of some kind on her temples and cheekbones. She's still in the way that death is still: cold and silent, and then Yelena feels it under her fingertips where they're pressed to the woman's throat. A pulse, slow and ragged.
“Get the thermal blanket,” she says, and Elena is back at her side with it before she's finished speaking. “Babe, is she—”
“Not Skrull,” Monica says. “Green, yeah, but she's not Skrull. Carol might be able to tell us.”
“She might be able to tell us, if she wakes up. Let's get her to medical.”
“Her vitals aren't good,” Dr Fraser says, once they have her down in the medical bay. “It's a little hard to tell, her biology isn't the same as ours, but she's not in great shape and I don't know what I could do that would help. She's in some sort of coma, just hanging on by a thread.”
“A thread,” Yelena says, memory coming to her all at once: “a thread which shouldn't have been cut,” and undoes the loop of fine silver around her wrist, lifts the other woman's hand and carefully ties it into a double knot.
“What—” Monica says, and Yelena shrugs.
“Hard to explain. Universe stuff.”
“Oh, universe stuff,” Monica says, and then Dr Fraser's machines start beeping urgently. “Right,” Monica says, “yeah, universe stuff. Okay.”
The woman jerks up to sitting. Coughs like she's catching her breath, inhales deeply. Opens her eyes and looks around at them all. “Who the hell are you?” she asks, and Yelena clears her throat.
“We work for an agency called SHIELD,” she says, “and we're from Earth.”
“Terrans,” the woman says, shoulders slumping. “Of course. You know Peter?”
“No,” Yelena says, sharing a glance with Monica. “Who's Peter?”
“Peter Quill? He also goes by, ugh, I cannot believe I'm about to say this, Star-Lord?”
Monica and Yelena both start laughing at once, can't help it. “I'm sorry,” Yelena gets out between giggles, trying to pull herself together. “We don't know any Peter Quill. Or any Star-Lord.”
“How did you get here?” Monica asks. “What's your name? What do you remember?”
“Gamora,” the woman says, shivering. “My name is Gamora. I—I met Lady Death. And she had my sister's face.”
“The universe broke its own rules,” Yelena says, and Gamora stares at her.
“How did you—how do you know that?”
“You're not the only one who's come face to face with Death,” Yelena tells her. “You died. She said it was a mistake.”
“My father—” Gamora says, and begins to weep.
Gamora refuses to answer any more questions after that, her expression hollow like she's woken from a nightmare or, perhaps, into one.
“She needs to rest,” Dr Fraser says, “I think she's frayed thin, that's all,” and while she's still fussing over Gamora Yelena slips off to call home.
“Hey, Coulson,” she says once he picks up. “Sorry, did I wake you? It's hard to remember time zones when you're in space.”
“It's four in the morning, Rusakova. Yeah, you woke me. What's up?”
“Can you run a search for someone? Peter Quill, I don't have anything except the name.”
There's silence at the other end of the line for a minute or two, and then Coulson clears his throat. “Nothing much,” he says. “The only record for a Peter Quill here is a kid who disappeared from Missouri in 1988. What's up?”
“I'm not sure. We might have something weird going on, but it's hard to know what. Sorry I woke you up.”
“No problem,” Coulson says, yawning. “I'm gonna ask Stark to invent something for you that'll keep time with Earth, though.”
“Good luck with that,” Yelena says. “Give my love to everyone, okay?”
“Always do,” Coulson agrees, and the line crackles just a little before it goes quiet.
Yelena waits until Dr Fraser approves her questioning Gamora again, although it's a struggle; she wants answers. But when Gamora wakes up it seems she remembers even less than she did when they brought her in. She doesn't know where she came from, what happened to her to have her floating adrift in deep space. Not even the purpose of the metal implants in her temples; she touches them with careful fingers, looks surprised and then annoyed at her surprise.
“You said you met Lady Death,” Yelena says. “And she had your sister's face. Is that your only family? What's your sister's name?”
“It—I don't—I don't know. I should know. It feels like forgetting the stars in the sky. She's like galaxies, like a supernova. Why can't I remember?”
“Death plays tricks on you,” Yelena suggests, and Gamora shakes her head.
“It's like my old life is a dream,” she says. “And I've woken up, and now—it's dissolving like so much salt into the ocean. I don't remember where I came from before here, but I feel like I should know where I'm going—and I can't, I can't name it at all. I know I asked you about Peter, but now… I don't even remember how I remember that name, what he might have been. Why I would think he's Terran. It's driving me crazy.”
“Hey,” Elena says then, ducking her head around the door. “Sorry to interrupt, Director, but your sister is calling for you. She said it's urgent.”
“Shit,” Yelena mutters. “Fuck, sorry. Okay, I'll be right there.”
She doesn't know which sister, but when she picks up the line it's Natasha. “How do you know about Peter Quill?” she demands, and Yelena blinks.
“How do you know about Peter Quill?”
“I'm monitoring all of your correspondence with Coulson. Lena, seriously, how did you hear that name? Did you run into him in space?”
“No,” Yelena says, too taken aback to address Natasha's brazen security breaches; she can't say she wouldn't do the same thing if it was Natasha off-planet instead of her. “No, we didn't… We found someone else, who says she knows Peter. She says her name is Gamora.”
Natasha goes extremely quiet for so long Yelena thinks they might have lost the connection; this far out in space, it can be spotty. “That's impossible,” she says eventually. “Gamora is dead.”
“Yes,” Gamora says, and Yelena jumps; how the fuck had she come into the comms room that quietly? “I would have said so too, but Yelena tells me that Death made a mistake with me.”
“But,” Natasha says. Pauses again. “Your sister told me so herself.”
“My sister? You know her?”
“I did,” Natasha says, very quietly. Sighs, the sound crackling down the line. Yelena can practically feel her hesitation from across the universe. “Yeah, I knew her once. In a different world.”
“In another world,” Yelena says, “another fate. I understand now.”
“You're not the only one who gets to meet the sisters weaving the universe, okay? I met Lady Death—don't ask me how—and she told me that in another world she'd have met me long ago. After… After Inna. That's the world she was talking about, wasn't it. The world where you knew Gamora’s sister. The world where you shot me like you were supposed to.”
The silence on the line is resounding; Yelena can't tell whether it's a dead connection or whether Natasha is quietly breaking down in her own fucking kitchen with the wilting basil plants on the counter, and then, finally, Natasha makes a desperately sad little noise that snaps Yelena's heart straight in half. “You were never supposed to know,” she whispers. “I never wanted you to know.”
“Do you really think it matters now? Natasha, come on, don't be stupid. Lady Death told me you'd seen the future, or at least met someone who can, did she tell you it changes anything at all here in this life?”
“No,” Natasha says, voice thick. “No. But I thought that it would change things with you.”
“Well,” Yelena says. “It doesn't.”
“But my sister,” Gamora says urgently, “you knew her. Please—just tell me her name, please—”
“Her name is Nebula,” Natasha says. “She was born on Luphomos. If your adoptive father never existed here—which I'm led to understand that he didn't—then perhaps she's still there.”
“Nebula,” Gamora says, and Yelena isn't surprised at all to find that they're both crying.
It takes them a long time to get to Luphomos: fifteen jumps, and the ship isn't built for that, has to pause between each jump and return to cruising speed.
“I'm sorry,” Yelena says to Gamora. “We're doing our best. It must be frustrating.”
“I don't remember much,” Gamora says, mouth twisting into a smile, “but I'm pretty sure every spaceship I've ever been on has been faster than this one.”
“Well, this is the only one I've ever been on,” Yelena shrugs. “Talk to Monica, if you have suggestions for improvement.”
“You're taking me where I need to go, based only on a half-remembered dream and a name from another world,” Gamora says, wincing. “I should be grateful. But it's just so slow.”
“More time for you to teach me that trick with the double batons,” Daisy suggests, because somewhere along the way they've discovered Gamora has the reflexes and muscle memory of a trained fighter. It'd taken them all aback: Vasquez reaching for something, not realizing he was in Gamora's blind spot, and she'd visibly startled, sprung into action to fling him to the floor smooth and fluid as breathing.
“Oh, fuck,” she'd said afterwards, “Jesus Christ, Vasquez, I'm sorry,” and Vasquez had just laughed, let her haul him to his feet.
“Real funny hearing you swear like that,” he'd said, grinning. “Seems like you've picked something up from us Terrans, huh?”
“Seems like it,” Gamora had agreed, and Yelena could see in the way she was holding herself still and careful that she was as surprised by it as anyone else. She remembers the way Vasilia and Olivia and Svetlana had looked, the first month out of Russia and their bodies still more of a weapon than anything else; it's just the same with Gamora. Don't worry, she'd wanted to say. You'll learn to be different, it just takes time, but she thinks Gamora's figuring that out for herself already.
Yelena wonders, obviously, how they're supposed to find Nebula even once they reach Luphomos. It's a whole planet; she thinks about the impossibility of landing on Earth, saying to the first person she meets I'm looking for Natasha, and actually ever finding her sister.
“Do you think we'll have any chance at all?” she whispers to Monica before the last jump, and Monica shrugs.
“I have no idea. We've come all this way, won't your universe stuff help us out with the rest?”
“That's not how it works,” Yelena says, knowing Monica is teasing her but taking it seriously anyway. “It's not—I don't get, like, a map, or psychic visions, or anything like that. I just had a weird near-death experience.”
“Which I'm still real mad about,” Monica mutters, because when Yelena had finally told her the whole story Monica's eyes had gotten bigger and bigger until she'd slapped the soundproofing button on their bunk and yelled at Yelena for five minutes solid. “I dunno. I guess we can just… ask?”
Yelena doesn't get psychic visions, but apparently the universe decides to come through for them after all, because when Luphomos comes into view in their cockpit window Gamora goes rigid, points at the continent visible on the south-east side of the planet.
“There,” she says. “There'll be a spaceport there. That's where we'll find her.”
“Yeah?” Monica asks, looking at Yelena, and when Yelena just shrugs Monica shrugs back. “Okay,” she says. “Sure. I'll get us in orbit and we can take the Z-jet down to the surface.”
Yelena hates the Z-jet more than anything else she has ever experienced—it's like the Quinjet on steroids, combined with the worst of her memories of that first terrible flight—but she grimly straps in anyway, determined not to miss whatever the outcome of this mission might be. It takes ten minutes to reach the surface: ten minutes of Gamora chewing her lip until Yelena can see that it's bleeding, and then—
“Welcome to Luphomos,” the spaceport official says over the comms, “lower your doors for boarding, please,” and Gamora gasps, says, Nebula? and there is a long, long pause.
“Gamora?” the official says, and Monica's dropping the doors for her to come aboard: a woman only about as tall as Yelena, slender and blue-skinned with huge, void-black eyes.
“Nebula,” Gamora says again, voice thick with tears, and Nebula drops everything she's holding to race across the cargo hold and grab Gamora tight.
“I've been dreaming of you since I was ten years old,” she says minutes later, sounding dazed as she looks up into Gamora's face. “How is that possible?”
“She thinks it's fate,” Gamora says, tilting her head to Yelena. “I think it's the universe playing tricks on us.”
“That's basically the same thing,” Yelena shrugs. Gamora squints at her.
“Are you crying?”
“Yes,” Yelena says. Wipes her face. “Don't worry. It's just—now I finally know why the universe needed me to come this far away from my own sisters, that's all.”
“Where do you want to go now?” she asks them both, a long while later; they've taken a week of shore leave on Luphomos, restocked the ship and gotten a bit of alien sunlight, but the Zephyr's got to leave eventually. Gamora and Nebula look at each other, a long moment of shared silent conversation in their expressions.
“Let us come with you,” Gamora says eventually. “Tell your SHIELD we'll join them. I'll go anywhere in the universe if my sister goes.”
“Are you sure? We might never come back here.”
“Yes,” Nebula says. Takes Gamora's hand, grips it tightly. “Yes. Where my sister goes, I go.”
“Okay,” Yelena agrees. Glad, at the heart of it: she doesn't want to leave Gamora behind. “Okay. Welcome to the team, sestry.”
She heads up to the cockpit that night, once they're two jumps into deep space and have hit cruising speed.
“Wow,” she murmurs, stepping in behind Monica so she can rest her chin on Monica's shoulder, press her cheek against the curve of Monica's jaw. “God, look at that.”
“It's a twinned galaxy,” Monica says, staring contemplatively at the spectacular array laid out in front of them. When Yelena glances sideways at her she can see the stars reflected luminous in Monica's eyes. “We've never seen one before. I thought maybe we could call it The Sisters.”
“I like that.”
“Yeah,” Monica says, “I thought you might,” and leans herself back into Yelena's arms for a kiss.
“Look at us,” she says eventually, once she's pulled Yelena around and into her lap. “Right out here on the edge, huh?”
“The edge of the forest, the edge of the desert,” Yelena says, quoting: Natasha's favorite poet, the one she picked up from Maria.
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire
“I've been meaning to ask,” Monica says, her fingers warm on Yelena's bare skin. “Are you still afraid of flying?”
“No,” Yelena says, and realizes that it's true, that somewhere along the line the ground dropped out from under her and it ceased to matter. “No, I'm not afraid at all.”
She's not afraid, not shivering with unshed tears, not making her peace with death. It's singing in her: she's alive, she's alive, she's alive.