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we burn in fire, in blood, (in dreams)

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we burn in fire, in blood, (in dreams)

It is the 1940s, and Natalia Romanova is a weapon and nothing more.

It’s been approximately thirty-seven hours since her handlers unleashed that hell inside her blood, that American sickness they called a serum, and she burned, she melted, she was welded into something new, something bright and savage. A loaded rifle, hidden behind gently parted lips. A daydream dressed to kill.

The blond they called “Dottie” returned to the Red Room approximately eleven minutes ago for debriefing. She returned with teeth bared, bones all but broken, hands trembling with the impulse to tear the world apart at the seams. In the Red Room, there is no need for the naïve façade, the sparkling-eyes, red-lips, lovely-beautiful-fool mask they wear on to the streets. And so Dottie returned not in elegance, but in rage.

“She knows,” Dottie said to her handler. Natalia listened from the rafters above, crouched silently in the shadows. “The English woman, this Peggy Carter… she knows who we are, what we do. She has to be eliminated.”

“That was precisely your task,” said the handler, in a voice like ice.

“If I’d been properly equipped –”

“Your body is your weapon. Your beauty is your armor and your sword.”

Dottie hissed. “The American serum. You promised us that when our training was complete, when we were worthy…”

“Are you worthy?”

“I’ve signed my life away to you in blood. What more do you want? What else can I be?”

“And what are you?”

“Whatever you want me to be.”

The handler swore under his breath. “Somewhere on the other side of the ocean, the English woman is still alive, still breathing, and likely sticking pins into a map as she plans exactly how to approach our once-clandestine home. You, my darling, are a failure.

Natalia could not see Dottie in the room below, but she felt the breath rush out of Dottie’s lungs, heard the silence that was like everything breaking.

“If I had the serum –”

“The scientists who designed that serum are dead, shot down by the very woman you failed to eliminate. The last remaining sample has already been used.”

An intake of breath; knuckles cracking. “On whom?”

“Natalia Alianovna Romanova.”

At the sound of her own name, it became too much. Natalia crept down from the rafters like a spider, swept back to her shared bedchamber, and laid down on her cot, pretending to have been at rest. Even with her eyes closed, her mind was still whirring. What would become of Dottie, branded a failure of the Red Room program? What would become of herself, its living legacy?

When he returned from his current mission in Sokovia, what would James think of this fire inside her veins, this power that had left her shuddering and screaming in the dead of night, arching away from phantom pain that’s seared into her bones?

Then Natalia’s thoughts fractured, because there was a shadow above her cot, deepening even the darkness on the inside of her eyelids. She looked, and froze.

Dottie smiled, wicked, a curved silver life clenched in her trembling fist. “It seems you’ve taken something of mine,” she said, all enthusiasm, her lip curled back in a wildcat’s snarl. “I’ll take it back, if you please.”

Natalia barely had time to roll aside, her spine hitting the floor with an awful crack, before Dottie’s knife slashed the empty space where her throat had been. “Dottie,” she gasped, and again, “Dottie,” but the blond moved to drive the knife between her ribs, and adrenaline took over.

Natalia tackled her assailant, knees pressing on her chest, hands seizing her wrists. The world was glistening red at the edges, shimmering, too bright too loud too inside every pore of her, and in this moment, Natalia loathed the serum. She loathed knowing that it was redirected biology – not destiny – that allowed her to pin this taller, stronger girl with lean arms and a predator’s teeth to the floor.

Dottie’s eyes were flat, pupils wide. Unreadable. “Get off me.”

“Dottie,” Natalia breathed, and the breath shook her ribcage, rattled her lungs. “Dottie, please.” The blond sagged beneath her, and Natalia straightened a bit, drawing her knees back, loosening her claw-grip on the other girl’s wrists. “We were like sisters.”

“Such a shame,” Dottie said, and thrust out with the silver blade, “that they made you into a weapon.”

It has been approximately sixteen minutes since Dottie returned to the Red Room. Now Natalia lies huddled in the nearby woods, her back pressed against the rough bark of a tree, her side spilling red, red, red into the clean snow. She’s a failed experiment. She’s a rifle in a madman’s hands. She’s less than she ever was, when the serum was supposed to make her so much more.

She’s bleeding out, alone in the wilderness, one hand pressed in vain to the damage, teeth gritted against a scream that would never stop.

James would be proud of me, she thinks, not knowing why, before darkness creeps across her eyes.


Peggy Carter wasn’t on the other side of the world, marking a map to plan an invasion. Peggy was leading the Howling Commandos headlong into Russia’s abandoned places, blinking hard against the howling winds and snow.

The primary Red Room training facility isn’t far from here. She can glimpse the building through Dugan’s binoculars, and it’s terrifying how normal, how inexplicably meaningless, the facility actually appears. They’ll be upon it in minutes.

But Peggy freezes in her tracks, her heart in her throat, because there’s a teenage girl in the snow, eyes closed, skin pale and all but frosted over – and she’s bleeding.

Because she is a soldier, Peggy doesn’t flinch, choke on a sob, or lean on the nearest male shoulder for support. Because she is a soldier, she kneels beside the girl and demands immediate medical attention.

Because she is Peggy Carter, she pauses the mission where they stand, she kneels beside the bleeding girl, and she prays, by God, she prays because this is all but a child with years to live and a world to claim and people she hasn’t even met that she will feel she was born to love, and this child cannot – will not – die today.

“What about the mission?” asks the nearest Howling Commando.

“The mission is to stop more lives from being lost,” Peggy says, unfaltering, “and that starts by stopping the bleeding. So you can help me, soldier, or you can go on without me, but I think you know which is best.”

The Commandos all stay.


Natalia fades in and out, like a flickering candle flame. Sometimes she’s aware of the bandages on her side, the gentle palm against her forehead, the whispered words of assurance that stick to her like snowflakes; sometimes there’s only dark and dark and pain.

A strange woman talks to her for hours, even though she can’t find the will to answer. In a very English accent, the woman tells a very Russian legend, one Natalia dimly remembers being told as a child in the Red Room, during one of their required lessons. The story is of a firebird, whose wings flashed orange and scarlet and gold. Her handlers once said that the bird burned so brightly that it blackened, then dissolved, its feathers raining like a fanfare over Russia. But the English accent says the bird’s ashes birthed another, and another, and so on until an army of firebirds shone like assembled stars in the winter sky.

Be strong, little firebird. There’s time yet for you to light up the world.

Natalia chokes, and for a lucid instant, her eyes are open, fixed upon the very blue gaze of the English woman. “I have no place in the world,” she says, or thinks she says, before the world goes black like ashes again.

But she’ll rise (she always does.)


It is the 21st century, and Natasha Romanoff is a thousand different people, and none of them are herself.

It is the 21st century, and Peggy Carter is a collage of dreams and wars, hopes and loves, tangled together in a dance that never stops.

The nurses don’t look at the redheaded visitor, but they see her in the corners of their eyes. They imagine her clad in leather, armed with guns, poised to draw them into her very detailed, very much public web of deception, and they maintain more than a safe distance (if there is such a thing.) The nurses only allow her to enter because when one of them, boldly or stupidly, calls the police, the police say, “We aren’t authorized to touch her,” which means, “She scares the breath out of us,” and they won’t be coming.

“Your hair is so red,” says Peggy, absently fingering a strand of her long gray tresses. “You always were so red, little firebird. You haven’t changed at all.”

And Natasha hasn’t. Not really. She was too selfish to come here of her own free will. She was too soft to refuse when Steve looked at her with those baby blue eyes and said, pleading, “Natalia, I can’t be there every day, and she’s alone. She should never have been alone.”

Peggy takes a deep breath, her eyes fluttering open and shut. “Where’s Steve?”

His name makes Natasha’s heart do a somersault behind her ribs, and she tells herself it’s for any other reason but the truth. “He couldn’t visit today. But he’ll be back.”

“For our dance?”

Natasha’s breath hitches. “Yes,” she lies. She’s good at lying.

Peggy shakes her head. She knots her fingers together, as if in prayer. “No,” she says softly. “No, little firebird. You love him.”


“You love him.” Peggy stretches out a frail, pale, wrinkled hand, knotted with blue veins, but there’s strength in it still, and it holds Natasha’s fast. “I know. I did.”

“Miss Carter –” The room is spinning, orbiting the place where their hands meet; two generations, dying and deathless, soldier and assassin, hero and weapon, American spirit and a Russian winter’s cold.

“It’s okay, little firebird,” Peggy says, and squeezes her hand. “It’s okay.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything. She wipes away a drop of something that’s stranded on her cheek, that’s certainly not a tear, that couldn’t be. She closes her eyes. “You saved my life once. I’ll never be able to repay that.”

“But you will.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Peggy’s eyes are faraway, but more than intense. They are the oceans that swallowed Steve Rogers, then relinquished him as someone new. They are the sky above countless outdoor drills with the Red Room. They are promises to a girl Natasha fears she has never been, or will never be.

“Live, little firebird,” Peggy says, “and it’s payment… it’s payment enough.” And then she breaks into a coughing fit so fierce that the nurses really do enter the room, albeit warily, and Natasha leaves when one of them snaps a photo that will doubtlessly be posted to Twitter later. Saw the S.H.I.E.L.D. assassin from the news. What was she doing here?

Natasha doesn’t really know. But as she steps outside, as the door clicks shut behind her, she looks at her hands, and they’re shaking.

Live, little firebird.

She wants to try.

Chapter Text



Everything is dark. The only sound is a shivering series of inhales and exhales, fearful and trying to stifle that fear. Then fluorescent lightbulbs flicker – a clinical yellow wash of light -


RUSSIA, 1943


- and we see a woman’s hand, fingers splayed. The hand shudders.


                                   DOCTOR (O.S.)

                              (Russian, subtitled)

                         Your hands. They tremble.

As the woman’s hand curls into a fist, the camera slides to see that it is chained down at the wrist.

                                   DOCTOR (O.S.)

                         Are you afraid?

The camera continues to pan horizontally across the woman’s body. She is chained to a stretcher on a rolling metal table.

                                   NATALIA (O.S.)

                              (also in Russian)

                         Every drop of blood I’ve sacrificed to the Program, every sleepless night, every bone broken and re-broken - every breath - comes to this.

The camera, still panning – it pauses at her head and tilts to see her face from above. Her wide-eyed, steady gaze is fixed on the ceiling, and her visage is a mask of calm, betrayed only by her rapid breaths. Her long scarlet curls spill loosely past the nape of her neck, untamed, the antithesis of her poised expression. This is NATALIA ROMANOVA.

                                   NATALIA (CONT’D)

                              (slight tremor in her voice)

                         You’ll forgive me if I’m eager.

NATALIA lies prone on the stretcher, chained at the wrists and ankles alike, clothed only in a thin hospital gown. She is stock-still, more like a weapon being reloaded than a young woman being examined. At her side stands a white-robed DOCTOR, whose head is outside of the frame, rendering him faceless. A small metal tray of assorted surgical tools is on his right.

                                   DOCTOR (O.S.)

                         I will ask you one final time, Romanova. You think you know something of pain, but when this procedure begins, you will encounter it intimately.

Close shot of the doctor’s hand selecting an empty syringe.

                                   DOCTOR (O.S.) (CONT’D)

                         You think yourself strong, but you are still only flesh and blood. Today will change that.

The doctor clasps Natalia’s wrist, and she obediently twists so that her palms face the ceiling, her veins exposed. She swallows. Her lips, still trembling. Her unsteady breath plumes, a ghostly white, in the cold air.

                                   DOCTOR (O.S.) (CONT’D)

                         But in the throes of metamorphosis, I expect you will scream. You will plead. You will seek any release, even of a permanent nature, from your suffering.

Natalia’s chained hand is curled tightly, defiantly, into a fist.

                                   DOCTOR (O.S.) (CONT’D)

                         Today you will be reborn, but until the forging is through . . . you may wish you were never born at all.

We see the doctor’s face for the first time, but the lower half is concealed by a white medical mask, making it expressionless. The brows are in a straight line. The irises are a watery blue-gray. His mechanical gaze meets and holds Natalia’s.

                                   DOCTOR (CONT’D)

                         If you do this, I will ignore anything you say until your birthright is received. Now I will ask you one more time, Romanova.

               Side view of Natalia’s face, jaw set, determined.

                                   DOCTOR (O.S.) (CONT’D)

                         Are you ready?


                         I live to serve.

                              (eyes sliding shut)

                         So I will die.

Close on the doctor’s precise, clinical hands. He enters a key code on a tiny metal vial, and the top slides open. He inserts the empty syringe, filling it with a savagely bright liquid, like distilled fire. This is the Russian derivative of the SUPER-SOLDIER SERUM.

CUT TO Natalia’s face, seen from above. Her lower lip still quivers. Her eyes are shut. She opens them, and her expression settles, resolute. Nothing but steely strength.

                                   NATALIA (CONT’D)

                         So I will live again.

The doctor clasps Natalia’s upturned wrist, pinning it between his fingers like a vice. He injects the syringe.

CUT TO the doctor’s eyes, brows narrowed, focused. Then his mouth as he speaks.


                         Be brave, Black Widow.

The liquid is slowly, slowly pressed into Natalia’s veins. CUT TO her eyes flying wide. She takes a shuddering breath.


                              (in muted awe)

                         You will be a weapon to change the world.



We hear Natalia’s first agonized scream, more animal than human. Tortured. In the distance, the sun gleams golden on the snow. Time speeds up and we watch it sink beneath the horizon, turning the landscape into an expanse of endless shadow. Natalia’s screaming continues as though it will never stop.