Actions

Work Header

And There Are Deserts Still

Work Text:

Natasha Romanov knows that she isn't Jewish, knows it deep in her bones.

But she also knows that knowledge can be a lie. There are all sorts of things she knows that aren't true. She knows Alexei, knows Ivan, knows Mother Russia. She knows every step in Coppelia and Swan Lake.

So she knows muscle memory can be faked just as easily as an entire childhood. And she knows that she has the reserves, somewhere buried deep inside her, of knowledge of nearly everything- just in case it ever comes up. And it does, at the oddest moments: a taste or a sound or a smell and if she doesn't remember to exert control over herself, it's easy to drown in a whirlpool of nostalgia for things that never existed in the first place. Things that tug at the place where her soul would be, if she believed she still had one.

This, she realizes instinctively, is one of those things. Maybe she had a great grandmother who made her chicken soup. More probably, maybe there had been a mission at a synagogue where she'd been under deep cover, where she shot someone at point blank range and watched dispassionately as their brains splattered against the symbolic Tree of Life.

Either way, when Coulson interrupts the ridiculously boisterous team meeting (over Avengers stuffed animals - it’s the sixth one, which is six more than Natasha ever needed in her life, thanks) to ask her to join him for High Holy Days services, she finds herself saying, "Okay."

*

There are three minor catastrophes the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, but nothing so dire that they can't go to synagogue as planned. Fury tells them to go repent on behalf of everyone at SHIELD. Coulson says he only has ten days. It's a back-and-forth they've clearly been through before. Natasha's saved up more than enough vacation days- a hazard of not having any real reason to use them- but Fury tells her this doesn't count as one.

She goes home (and when did Stark Tower start feeling like home?) and changes into a simple dress that she knows is appropriate, gut-level knows even though her brain can't explain it to her. If she hadn't given up on understanding how she knew everything she thought, she would have gone crazy by now, so she just comforts herself with the knowledge that she isn't wearing leather and her bare arms are covered with a lightweight sweater, and even if it's uncanny, she knows that it's right. When she meets Coulson on the street outside of the Tower, she knows that he's appraising her outfit and that she passes inspection; she won't stand out in the crowd.

He hands her a piece of cheap yellow cardstock, which she can tell with a glance is the ticket for services, and she slips it into her purse. The bag feels disconcertingly light with all the weapons she's removed from it. "Thanks, Phil," she says, then pauses. "Coulson? "

"Phil," he confirms. "They think the ticket's for my girlfriend."

Natasha raises an eyebrow. He had been serious with that cellist for a while, but she hadn't realized he was that serious. All she says, though, is "Am I your girlfriend for the evening, then?"

"Do you need to be?"

It's an out he's giving her. He's her handler, and he's seen how strong she is, but also how easily she can be wrecked completely. If she goes in under the guise of a person with set beliefs, she's fine in every situation. But as Natasha, there's always the chance that something will catch a loose thread that causes everything she's built to unravel.

It's tempting to be someone else, but the more she's around people who try to know her, the more she tries to be someone they can know. Undercover is supposed to be for missions.

"No," she says. "We're coworkers." Truth, or something like it.

"I'm an accountant," he tells her mildly. "I'm a real whiz with numbers."

She smiles now. "I work in legal."

"Be careful who you tell that to. I've had to do three different families' tax returns to keep my cover."

"Noted."

"The rabbi's a blowhard, and his sermons are awful," Coulson warns. "But the music is good, and the oneg afterward is delicious."

They walk in companionable silence. Natasha knows discretion, wears it like a suit, but Clint and Phil are the only people in the world she can be quiet with in a way that releases tension rather than ratchets it up. She can feel Phil's heartbeat in the hum of her muscles. She focuses on it to keep calm.

New York is an immigrant city. Whole neighborhoods are overflowing with Russian Jews, strangers who could be the relatives she never knew she had- or, even worse, that she had known, once. Natasha Alianovna Romanova is going to Rosh Hashanah services, but she is not Jewish. Unless, perhaps, she was.

Her heels click on the pavement. Heartbeat. Muscles. And the tugging, deep inside, that may or may not signify anything deeper.

She and Coulson walk in perfect step with each other, exactly the same pace without even trying, and that means something, too, the way the holiday means something, the way everything means something. Even if the circuits are firing haphazardly in all directions and she can't figure out what, exactly, any individual part of it means, she comforts herself by recognizing that the meaning is there.

*

None of this is an excuse for the knife she holds to the rabbi's throat less than three hours later.

Context is not the same thing as an excuse.

If it were, she wouldn't have nearly as much to atone for.

*

She knows about services the same way she knows about everything (she doesn't know how) (she just does), so she listens to instincts that tell her when to stand or sit, appreciates the predictability in knowing which parts will be done by the gentle-looking cantor with a surprisingly rich baritone and which by the anxious rabbinic intern who adjusts his glasses every few moments.

Natasha's life is déjà vu without the foundation of knowing that something had happened once, but you don't become a ballerina without a sense of balance.

Everything is fine until the sermon. Then the floor falls out.

*

God called on Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, and Abraham obeyed.

Isaac said, "Father," and Abraham said, "I am here." And Isaac said, "I see the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?" And Abraham said "God will provide that."

They built the altar, and laid the wood, and then Abraham bound Isaac and lay him upon the altar and prepared to kill his only son.

An angel said, "Abraham," and Abraham said, "I am here." And the angel told him not to kill Isaac, for God would provide an offering instead.

Abraham was shown a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, and Isaac was spared.

Isaac was lucky. God had not wanted a child sacrificed on that day.

Mother Russia had no such scruples.

Natasha said, "I see the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?" and they told her it was in the Red Room and she went to look and she never came out again.

Natasha hears the words in Hebrew, and her vision is tinted crimson.

*

His tallit is ivory-white, with dark blue embroidery.

She does not remember moving toward him, does not remember finding the knife, does not remember striking. She knows she held back, kept herself to surface wounds, but does not remember making that conscious decision either.

She processes everything; later, she will remember it all, from the angle of light across the bimah to the murmurs of the crowd to the terror in the rabbinic intern's eyes from across the room. Later she will be able to recount what the rabbi had been saying, will know what part of the sermon had jolted her out of her seat and across the universe into the fuzzy nothing-world she finds herself in.

But right now nothing registers except the stain on the rabbi's tallit. It expands slowly, forming shapes she imagines she recognizes, like a child staring at clouds. A bird. A train. A spider.

Natasha turns and runs.

*

Tony has his labs and Phil has his offices and Clint has his vents but Natasha hides in plain sight.

When she's two blocks away from the synagogue she stops running; walks. Her heart rate is steady; her breathing is even. She gets on the subway, switching trains every few stops, taking the long way back to Stark Tower. She gets off at Bryant Park, finally; the Grand Central subway station has been fixed since the Chitauri invasion, but it's the one place she's inevitably recognized, so she avoids it whenever possible. Without Coulson by her side her heels sound unnaturally loud clicking against the sidewalk of 40th Street. She stares at the pavement to avoid seeing the signs in the storefronts, advertising the newest Avengers merchandise Tony okayed. Thank god, or something like it, that the Black Widow doll looks nothing like her.

Natasha Romanov does not need other people. Natasha Romanov does not need reassurance. Natasha Romanov only exists when she's in someone's visual sightlines.

Her fist still clenches around an imaginary knife, but she knows there's no blood on her skin. She's invisible as she walks past the fence to the park.

She watches as parents pay for their children to ride on the carousel- one of them is wearing a Hawkeye tee shirt, because that’s how her life is going to be, apparently- and not for the first time, she wonders what the point is when there's every chance the kids won't remember it later.

*

It's a sign of how distracted she is that she sinks onto her bed before she notices the breathing that isn't hers.

"You're a dick," she announces to the empty room, then pointedly stares at the vent until Clint drops out of it.

He used to have the decency to at least look sheepish. He doesn't, today. Because he's a dick. Or her best friend. Whichever.

He isn't even dusty, which is ridiculous, because no one else cleans the vents, and she's pretty sure he hasn't cleaned his bathroom since he moved in, and she knows for a fact he's skipped out the last three times he was responsible for doing dishes after team meals. Admittedly, the circus probably wasn't as big on sharing responsibilities and chores as a home run by a communist government seeking to indoctrinate its pupils, but even so, he bakes. He should know it's basic common courtesy. She makes a mental note to punch him extra hard next time they're sparring.

"Say it," she says, because they know each other too well for her to not know the difference between his not-wanting-to-talk taciturn and his personable quiet and his waiting-for-the-right-moment-to-tell-her-she-fucked-up silence.

"Nothing to say," Clint says. "Phil's worried about you."

"Phil worries about everyone. He still hasn't forgiven you for refusing to eat broccoli."

If there's one thing predictable about Clint Barton, it's always engaging in any fight, no matter how petty, just for the sake of the argument. To be fair, that's something they're both predictable about. So it's disconcerting that he doesn't rise to the bait, just frowns.

"Three people tailed you for an hour and you didn't notice," he says to her instead.

That makes her pause. Had she realized she was being followed? Changing trains was probably more than just habit, but it wasn't something she'd consciously thought about. And, clearly, it hadn't worked.

"One of them even asked you for change in front of the library," he continues. "You're freaking Phil out. You're freaking me out."

That's new, too. "I'm fine," she says, leaning over to pull off her nondescript low heels.

"Also the part where you attacked a man of god," Clint says. "But I expect things like that from you. Not noticing you're being followed, though?"

"Where did he even find three people to follow me?" Natasha tosses the shoes toward her closet. One hits the wall by the door and clatters to the carpet. She doesn't need to look at Clint to see him wince; they both know he would have gotten them both in the open box without even looking.

"Matt from Accounting called Fury. There were eleven agents there before you even left. Seriously, you didn't notice? What's going on?"

In another life, Natasha Romanov was a ballerina. She spins around questions, jumps over obstacles, twirls away from anything resembling the truth. "Is he okay?"

Clint doesn't bother pretending not to know what she means. "He'll be fine. Phil says there were probably more doctors in services than there are in medical, and also that the wounds were superficial. He said thanks for that, by the way. Nat, stop dodging the question."

"I didn't mean to," she says, and it's the last thing she should say, because they both know the question she's actually answering, and the entire point of keeping a brainwashed Russian operative on staff is that you assume she's been cleaned of the worst of her unspoken triggers. She waits for him to get up and move away.

She keeps waiting. He doesn't. Because he's Clint fucking Barton, and that's both the best and worst thing about him. She could kill him and he'd still believe the best in her.

If he weren’t her best friend, she wouldn't do this. But he is, so she reaches into her dresser, pulls out the nicest set of handcuffs she has, and tosses them at him.

"Now's the time you want to get kinky?" he asks. "Seriously?"

"Take me down to headquarters," she says. "I'll do less damage there. If you call Fury he can have a copter here in ten minutes so we don't need to risk any civilians."

Now he laughs, like it’s funny. With a twist in her gut that feels deeper than the knife she'd been holding, she realizes he thinks it is. With everything he knows about her, he still doesn't accept how low she can sink.

"Do you really think you're a threat to anyone?" he asks gently. "You could have taken out a dozen people in that room before anyone even thought. You held back, and you ran."

"Tell me why," Natasha says. Her heart rate is steady. Her breathing is normal. She isn't sweating. She knows, somewhere deep, that her calm is more of a problem than panic would be. "Tell me why I held back. Because until we know that, then yes, I'm a threat to everyone. Including you."

"You aren't a threat," Clint says firmly. "You're Natasha."

"Tell that to the guy whose throat I slit."

"You didn't slit anyone's throat." Natasha doesn't need to look up to recognize Phil's voice. "I mean, in the future we'd prefer you didn't assault anyone inside the sanctuary during the holiest week of Judaism -"

"I don't think she really needs to hear this right now, fuck, Phil, come on-"

"-but you didn't try to kill him either."

Now Natasha looks up at him. "I broke your cover."

His eyebrow twitch is more acknowledgment of confusion than Phil Coulson normally grants anyone. "What?"

"Your cover. You're supposed to be an accountant. Fuck."

"You didn't break my cover. Temple Beth Shalom is just much more impressed with the field of accounting." Phil pauses. "Also, Donnie Finkelstein's nephew said that it was the first time he'd seen a good reason to date a nice Jewish girl."

"Don't date Donnie Finkelstein's nephew," Clint says. "He sounds like a shmuck."

"Don't speak Yiddish, Barton. I'm going to have enough Reform Jews beating down the doors of Stark Tower without you in the picture."

"Oy vey," Clint says, and grins so proudly that Natasha almost feels bad elbowing him in the gut. Because he's her best friend, she avoids the three ribs of his she broke last week.

She knows they're going through the routine for her, that they're trying to be light and easy to make up for the way that she lost control and held a knife to a man's throat in the middle of a sacred ritual. "I'm not Jewish," she says, like it answers all their questions.

That I know of. It's unspoken. They know it, she knows they must know it, but they don't realize it the way she does, bone deep and truer than true. They're so used to her that they forget, intent be damned, everything she says might be- probably is- a lie.

People who have committed a set number of wrongs can apologize. People who live their lives from day to day can measure their flaws with pluses and minuses. Natasha is multiplication and exponents. The logo on her uniform's belt buckle looks like the symbol for infinity, and it isn't far off.

She knows what they'll tell her next: that they can take care of themselves. That even if they couldn't, there's no place in the world safer than a building monitored by Captain America and Iron Man and Thor and the Hulk and a self-aware AI that knows her breathing patterns even better than she does.

She doesn't want to hear it.

"Take me into custody," she says quietly. "Or get out of my room."

She doesn't speak again until they leave to handle a disturbance in Greenwich Village. She's never been more grateful to a supervillain; she's pretty sure nothing else could have gotten either of them out of her quarters.

If Natasha Romanov were the kind of person to break down, she knows that this is when it would happen. But she isn't that person. Even if Clint weren't waiting right out in the hall, even if JARVIS weren't monitoring the room, she wouldn't be that person. She's been trained better than that.

The Black Widow remembers vulnerability, but then, she remembers lots of things that aren't true.

*

She isn't sure, now, if the Red Room was actually red. Maybe that was what they called it. Maybe it was symbolic. Maybe the walls were the color of fresh blood. Maybe it was just what they should aspire to.

That was the irony, she knows now: if you were red enough, you didn't have to go to the Room. At the time, she didn't think a lot about irony. She mostly thought about iron and steel.

She didn't have guilt, then. Guilt was a sign you didn't believe fully enough. Guilt was something to be washed from you. Guilt was a sign you needed to go back to the Red Room, so you could re-forgetremember.

Just ask the Winter Soldier.

*

When she wakes up- she hadn't realized she was sleeping- the name Winter Soldier is ringing in her ears, but she can't remember what it means, or why it's there.

*

The Tower's silence is loud and oppressive. She doesn't know what caused it, if Clint and Phil told everyone else or if they figured it out themselves, but the end result is the same; the uncomfortable silence when she enters a room, immediately followed by the loud make-conversation noises that have never once, in the history of humanity, occurred when things were normal. They must be talking about things besides the fucking stuffed animals, but in front of her that’s all there ever is.

So she ignores social spheres, and she spars instead.

The rookies have all been warned about sparring with her, but some of them do it anyway, either because they don't believe it or because they have a secret death wish. The rest of the time, she uses machines and waits for one of the other Avengers to need to burn off energy. It rarely takes long; this is what most of them were built for, and out of the six of them, she's the only one known for her patience.

Violence, paradoxically, is safe. No one expects her to be pulling punches, so she can relax into the rhythm of it.

Bruce won't Hulk out, Tony isn't that competent outside of the suit, Steve's careful with her even after she tells him not to be, and she can tell that Clint's walking on eggshells. So the best fights, for her, are with Thor, who respects her enough to punch her in the face and then help her up so he can do it again.

(Well- so he can try again. They aren't equally matched physically, but they aren't equally matched strategically either.)

They talk while they fight. Conversation, the way other people might while they were on the treadmill, except their exchanges are over knees and fists and, on at least three memorable occasions, headbutts.

Natasha tells him about unimportant things that she knows he'll enjoy: her greatest fights; her best escapes; her relationship with Matt Murdock.

Thor tells her about Loki.

Asgard is a world where the punishment fits both the crime and the criminal. Loki's lips have been sewn shut, the silvertongued forced into silence.

Thor loved his brother. He loves his brother, that's the thing, loves him like he's an extension of himself, and Natasha listens (and dodges, always listens and dodges, because Thor can thunder dramatically about his relationships and then knock her down in the same breath), but it's like a fairy tale when he speaks, all of it. Compared to loving someone so deeply that his attempting to end the world fills you with pity instead of rage, the idea of sewing someone's mouth shut seems downright normal.

(She refuses to think about how she would feel if it had been Barton, not Loki, orchestrating things. Natasha Romanov does not have feelings like that. It's not how she was designed.)

They aren't evenly matched, but they're unevenly matched in a way that works; he's tougher, she's sneakier, and they both quickly develop ways to play with the other's strengths, and then to undo the other's newfound strategy. The exertion burns her lungs in the best way and she realizes, abruptly, how to topple him. She feints, feints again, sweeps out a leg, and he's down on the mat. She keeps him down for the count, and has that deep flush of joy that only comes from winning, the kind of win where you had to work for it and you earned it and it's no one's but yours. She feels better than she has since she went to services with Coulson.

From beneath her on the mat, Thor speaks, his words rumbling through her skin where her kneecap is braced against his vocal cords. "Some, like my brother, need the silence to think," he says. "And others need the words exposed to the air to be real."

And she realizes that she underestimated Thor yet again.

*

She waits for Phil in his office. She's been there so many times that her favorite chair feels fitted to her, and he keeps the hard candies she likes in a dish on his desk as a matter of course.

When he enters his office today, she's standing, her back stiff against the wall.

He doesn't react, doesn't even Phil-react with an eyebrow raise or an exaggerated blink. He just puts his cup of coffee down on his desk, then places his briefcase on the ground, then rifles around in a drawer for the half-and-half that Clint's been telling him is going to give him lab-rat-cancer since they started working together. When the coffee is the exact shade that he likes it each morning, he finally makes eye contact. He offers her the dish of candy; she shakes her head no sharply, just once. "I was wondering when you'd show up," he says gently, and the care in his words strikes harder than a slap.

"I'm sorry," she says abruptly. The words are acid against her throat, because the Black Widow does not apologize, the Black Widow does not do things that need to be apologized for.

The Black Widow doesn't, but Natasha does.

No. No. She can't deal with that. She forces the thought down, swallows desperately. She needs to say it, but refuses to be undone.

"There's no need to apologize to me," he says.

Her mouth opens and closes a few times; he's as good at being inscrutable as she is, and she can't tell, for a moment, if he's sincere or he's trying to get ease her discomfort or trying to get her to say even more.

He continues before she has to decide. "I accept your apology, Natasha. And I'm sorry, for putting you in that position."

Rage flares up inside her, so bright she can barely see past its light, even though she is Natasha Romanova and she is trained to keep her breathing steady and her pulse still. "You're apologizing to me?" she asks, her voice clipped and precise as a machine gun.

"I know your history," he says carefully, "but I hadn't thought about how strongly you might connect to the story."

It's a betrayal, then, on levels. That he thinks knowing her history makes him special. That he thinks knowing her history changes things. That he thinks knowing her history makes anything remotely okay. "You can't seriously be comparing that to what I did."

"Why not?" he asks. His voice is the deceptive calm that she's familiar with him using on other people; he rarely uses that tone with her, and it burns white-hot through her, that he thinks she needs to be handled like this. "Why are you so convinced your sins are that much worse than anyone else's?"

Without her training, she wouldn't be able to keep herself from throwing him against the wall. She imagines watching his perfectly-prepared coffee stain the beige carpet as she presses her elbow into his windpipe. It's comforting, in her head. But she settles for crossing her arms stiffly across her chest, and waiting.

And it's a mistake, because he's Coulson, and he knows her well enough to know what she's doing. His words are dangerous, each syllable slicing underneath her skin like a machete. "Why are you apologizing to me, instead of the people you've actually hurt?"

Her voice is as even as his is. "Fuck you, then," she says, and she turns on her heel and walks out.

*

If Natasha were to try to apologize to everyone she’s actually hurt, she wouldn’t have time to breathe.

*

If it were just Steve's call to assemble, she thinks, she could ignore it.

If it were Clint and Coulson, she could probably blow them off too. Maybe she's finally done it, found the magical point where even they're sick of her and they'll give in and they won't press anymore. There's something oddly freeing, she thinks in those moments, in not being a superhero anymore. There's an attack on the people, and all she has to do is stay still and not die.

But instead it's Thor standing at her door, saying "It's Loki" in a near-broken voice, and she doesn't have a choice, really, except to slip on the skintight suit and fasten the utility belt and follow him outside to fight for good, again, like she's the kind of person who stands for anything at all.

It's different, fighting Loki with his lips sewn shut. He can't manipulate the way he had, can't taunt or offer veiled clues, and Natasha isn't nearly as valuable as she had been when he was just in a cage. So she leaves the fighting to the people who can go toe-to-toe with the god of lies, and focuses on rescuing civilians instead. She's not entirely sure why Loki chose Union Square for this attack; it lacks some of the gravitas of smashing through Grand Central. She makes herself useful ushering the terrified NYU freshmen to safety and gets perverse glee out of the conflicted faces of Forbidden Planet customers, several of whom she finds hiding beneath an honest-to-god life-sized cardboard cutout of Steve.

She lets them use their StarkPhones to take pictures of her rescuing them, mostly because she knows it'll go viral, and she's deeply entertained at the idea of Tony getting home from punching a god in the face and finding out he isn't the most important part of the news cycle.

She ushers people to the basement of the Strand, where at the very least Loki will have to force his way through barricades of ancient sociology textbooks. They look at her like she's a mirage, or a miracle, or anything besides a woman who could kill them all without a second thought. One man can't stop staring. "You- you're-"

"The Black Widow," she confirms. "Yeah. I get that a lot."

*

It's a lie, technically.

Like everything in her life is a lie, but bigger and bolder. She isn't the Black Widow, she's a Black Widow. The first, the best, the brightest, maybe, but at the end of the day it's just another case of American exceptionalism biting people in the ass. If America knew she was just one of many, that there were dozens of her out there spending their days thinking about how to destroy them-

She doesn't know. Maybe things wouldn't be different at all.

But they probably should be.

Still, they try to avoid panic whenever possible. They identify her as the Black Widow and she says yes, and they imagine her as a vigilante superhero, rather than whatever she is.

And they let her rescue them, instead of doing what they should, which is turning and running away.

*

He finds her at Stark Tower. Natasha isn't much worse for the wear; that honor falls to Thor and Banner and Rogers, who were actually fighting hand-to-hand. She already showered and combed the tangles out of her hair and does not look, for once, like she was engaged in an intergalactic pissing contest.

When JARVIS informs her that someone's here to see her, she goes downstairs automatically because no one ever comes to see her here unless it's Fury or Hill or someone else who has a mission that needs to be attended to ASAP, and Natasha does not believe in keeping her superiors waiting. It was instilled in her in the Red Room, but more importantly, it's just a dick move.

She does not expect to see a civilian wearing jeans and a Mets jersey, his head covered with a yarmulke.

"Natasha Romanov," he says in greeting.

There's a power differential, him knowing her name and her not knowing his. She doesn't like it.

"I'm Eric Eisenstein," he says. "The Cantor at Beth Shalom?"

She remembers him, now, the baritone that registered through the haze of everything else. "Pleased to meet you," she says coolly.

"You were there," he says.

This is what it always is in the end, isn't it? No matter how good you think you are, they will hunt you down, and they will find you.

She doesn't have an excuse this time. No mission. No greater cause. Just a knife she can't even remember finding. "I'm sorry," she says, because there's nothing else to say, and it tastes like gravel and dirt and defeat.

"Why- oh, no." The man is blushing, blushing, and that's not something she's used to in this context. "I didn't mean that, I meant- Union Square today. You were there."

Her head snaps up and she looks straight at him.

"I won't, I wouldn't tell anyone. But I understand now. What happened at services."

It's supposed to be a thank you, but it feels like a scythe through her chest. "You don't know anything," she says.

"You're a superhero."

He says it like it's an answer rather than a question, like it's the truth rather than the biggest in a steady stream of lies. She doesn't even know how to begin to answer.

"This is the time of year when we reflect on the past year, and whether we've done more bad than good," he continues. "And I just wanted you to know- I think you're on the right side."

"I fucked up," she says evenly.

"Everyone fucks up, but you work to make the world a better place."

He speaks like it's simple. "I didn't hold a knife to your throat," she says. "I don't think you get to judge which side of the scale is weighted more heavily."

"No," he agrees. "The only people who can judge that are you, and God."

"I don't believe in God," she says.

"You don't have to," he says, which for some reason makes her feel like Thor kicked her in the stomach. This is the problem with letting a mask slip, even for a second; every crack in the façade just gives more surface area to demolish.

The cantor looks at her, really looks at her, in the way that most people don't because they're distracted by her appearance or how she's just beaten the shit out of them. It feels fucking terrible.

He must realize, because he looks away. "I'll go," he says. "You must be exhausted. I just don't understand-"

He lets the words hang in the air. She knows he expects her to follow up, but she doesn't. She just waits.

"You spend your life saving people," he says to her finally. "Why don't you believe that you might be worth saving?"

He turns and leaves.

She tells herself the chill she feels is because of the air conditioning. If she weren't in the practice of only allowing herself to lie to others, she'd believe it.

*

Brainwashing sounds clean, but it's the farthest thing from it. It's not the places where the light gets in that make an impression, but rather the streaks left on the glass.

The Black Widow is not a person. She is a tool to be used. She is the vehicle through which other people can be redeemed. Redemption is not something designed for people like her, because people like her were never designed to need or deserve redemption.

The Black Widow does not need to be saved. Doesn't need it theologically, doesn't need it physically, doesn't need it emotionally.

There is nothing there to save.

(Don't ask what Natasha Romanov needs.)

(She couldn't answer if you did.)

(She is the Black Widow. That has to be enough.)

(Sometimes, through the streaks in the glass, light fragments into a rainbow. If Natasha were the kind of person to deal in empty metaphors, that is what she'd be thinking right now.)

*

"I'm sorry," she says to Coulson from the chair in his office, and this time he doesn't fight it, just says "Thank you" and "I forgive you." It doesn't feel like they say apologies are supposed to feel, like releasing a breath you've been holding for too long, but it doesn't feel like she knows apologies to be either; nothing hurts and nothing is bleeding.

So she figures it's good enough.

Then he apologizes to her again, and she can feel her body jerking to leave before her brain has even processed his words, and he says "Wait" and maybe because he's Phil and he's earned it, she does.

"I'm not excusing what you did," he says. "I'm not saying it's okay. I'm not letting you off the hook." The pressure eases a bit, the steam hissing out of the tea kettle, because if nothing else in the world is hers, at least she can still own her flaws. "But that doesn't mean you're guilty for everything and the world is blameless." He pauses. "You could have come as a cellist. It would have been okay. I didn't think you'd want to."

And that, that is an apology she can take, because she says "You fucking idiot, I'd love for people to think I was dating you," and that’s easy, and "it's better than them thinking I'm dating Clint," which has the benefit of being true, and even though she knows that he's apologizing for leaving her vulnerable, he's letting her take it as an apology for something very different, and that's what friends do, they let the truth be buried in the space between the words.

She's not used to this friendship thing. But she's trying.

She hears herself say, "I should apologize to the guy too."

"The guy?" Coulson asks, with a sharp glance.

"The guy whose throat I cut," she explains helpfully.

"That might not be such a great idea."

Because there are some things that are beyond apology. Because some people deserve forgiveness, and some people don't, and some people aren’t people at all.

She doesn't let the mask slide, but he must see a hint of it anyway, because he clarifies: "Not because of you. Because of him. He's kind of a jackass."

"Isn't he your spiritual leader?" she asks.

"We're Jewish," he says. "We don't expect anyone to be just one thing. He can be my rabbi and still be a jackass."

"I still want to talk to him."

"Okay," he says, "but don't say I didn't warn you."

*

Phil's right. The guy is a jackass, and the meeting is incredibly awkward. Coulson stays right inside the door with them- she's not entirely sure if he's protecting her or the rabbi; probably both- and their conversation is stilted and uncomfortable and everything she'd expected apologies to be.

Under any other name, Black Widow or Laura Matthers or Natalie Rushman, the words would come easily, but as Natasha they're halting and flawed. There are words she chooses not to say and words she can't say because of national security and words she can't say because her lips won't form them without splintering her heart into a million pieces.

The rabbi wears a three-piece suit, and his tie covers up the wound. She can tell, though, that there's gauze wrapped there, sees it in the slight puff of fabric around his neck. She feels the abstract guilt when she notices it, but nothing like what she felt around Coulson, where the guilt had a palpable place in the room, was a third party in their conversation.

"You apologized purely and with your heart," is what he says finally. "Of course I offer my forgiveness, and I hope you come to Yom Kippur services for the final stages of repentance."

It's the most formal, least sincere apology she's ever been a part of, but to be fair, she hasn't been part of very many.

"I told you he was a jackass," Phil says as they walk onto the street, and for once Natasha lets him have his I-told-you-so.

*

Phil insists on taking her up to her quarters, although he uses the excuse that Clint had told him he was making muffins and Phil wants to take some home. Natasha can't actually argue that, because anyone who's tried Clint's muffins will demand more- which, despite what Clint insists, is not actually a euphemism at all.

Clint, who either has a sixth sense about these things or had JARVIS alert him, meets them at the elevator bank, wearing a KISS THE COOK apron that he's artfully defaced with a spot of paint on the right side of the second O and carrying five muffins. Because he's decided it's his signature, all five of them are speared on a single arrow, which dangles from his fingertips by the fletching.

"Tell me this is one of the special hygienic ones you had Tony make you for this purpose," Phil says.

"Whatever lets you sleep better at night," Clint replies, "but in the interests of full disclosure, you should know that they're banana nut."

"Did you at least clean the blood off first?" Phil asks, but as he speaks he's already easing one off the arrow shaft.

"Let's go with yes," Clint says. "How'd it go at Jew Castle?"

"Oh god," Natasha says. "The muffins aren't worth it."

"They actually are," Phil says through a mouthful of baked goods. Sometimes, Natasha has to stop and take a minute to think about how these are the two people in the world most responsible for keeping her alive.

"You know we love you, right?" Clint says. "Me and Phil. We've got your back, always."

"Please stop."

"No, seriously." Clint looks almost defiant. "That jackass isn't going to say it because it makes you uncomfortable, but someone has to. So you should know. We're here for you."

"I don't have these conversations."

"All I'm saying is, you're my best friend and I love you."

"Shut up, Barton."

"Fine," he says, "but you're getting a hug."

"Please don't give me a hug."

"Sorry, non-negotiable." He wraps his arms around her, and she can feel the muffins against the back of her dress. Her hair is never going to stop smelling like banana.

She doesn't push him away, but only because based on the smell of his apron, he put chocolate chips in the muffins.

When he finally releases her, he says "Also, I forgive you for all those times you kicked me in the balls."

She blinks. "I didn't apologize for that."

"I thought it was implied."

"No, you deserved it."

"You aren't really doing a great job at this Jewish thing, are you?" he asks her.

"Actually," Phil says (and when did he get through a second muffin? It's kind of incredible), "I think she's got the hang of it."

"I'm not Jewish," she reminds them, and this time the "that I know of" slips out.

Thor was right. Being exposed to the air makes things terribly real, in ways she hadn't even imagined. It isn't that it's new, it's that it's out there, a fog separating her from everyone around her.

But it isn't everyone. It's Clint and Phil. "The chance to start over isn't a bad idea for anyone," Phil says. "Jewish or not."

That's when Clint gets the look on his face that, really, Phil should have been trying harder to avoid, because he has no one to blame for this but himself. "So shouldn't you be apologizing to me for anything?" Clint asks. "You're way meaner to me than you are to her."

Phil doesn't even blink, because- Natasha sometimes has to remind herself- he's been wrangling Clint even longer than she has. "I'm sorry I'm not more on top of you to get your damn reports in on time," he says. "I'll make more of an effort for that next year. And I do mean that sincerely."

Clint will insist later that the sound he makes is not an offended squeak, but that's because Clint is sometimes a dirty liar. "That isn't even a real apology!" he protests. "That's a passive-aggressive insult!"

"I didn't think it was particularly passive."

"If you got your reports in promptly," Natasha offers, "maybe he'd have time to come up with more genuine apologies."

"Wait, you're on his side? This is bullshit! You're my partner. You're supposed to be on my side."

"Is this what I'm supposed to be apologizing to you for?" she asks, snagging a muffin from the arrow Phil offers her.

"It would be a start," he protests.

He did use chocolate chips. The muffin is really, really good.

*

Matt from Accounting delivers her check in person, which is weird, because normally payroll just leaves envelopes on everyone's desk like the SHIELD equivalent of the Tooth Fairy. They're actually impressively sneaky; Clint once staked out his office for an entire day to catch them, and they delivered his paycheck during the two-minute window he got distracted chasing a pigeon out of the air vents.

But Matt from Accounting is right there, at Natasha's desk, and she knows the envelope in his hand is an excuse more than anything else.

She braces herself, but it's still strange to hear him say "You should come to services."

She doesn't answer.

"I know Coulson has a ticket for you," he says.

"I stabbed your rabbi in the neck," she says, because even though she deals almost exclusively in lies, sometimes the truth is more effective.

"It was the shortest Rosh Hashanah sermon we've ever had," Matt says. "The temple president was so thrown he didn't even ask for money."

He smiles, not flirtatiously but sincerely. It's not a look Natasha is used to.

"Bernice Leibowitz's grandson told anyone who would listen that this was the best High Holy Days service he's ever attended," Matt continues. "Seriously. You should come." He pauses. "Just maybe this time bring a stun-gun instead of a knife."

"I didn't bring the knife, I found it," she says.

"Just think about it," he tells her. "That's all I wanted to say."

It's normal for an encounter to leave Natasha silent, but odd for it to leave her speechless. This falls into the rare second category.

*

It shouldn't be harder to recover from that than the meeting with the rabbi, but somehow it is.

*

When she's re-collected herself, she goes straight to Coulson's office. "Why was Matt there?" she asks.

"In your office?" he counters, because the speed of light has nothing on the speed of gossip in SHIELD offices. "I'd imagine to try to persuade you to come to services, but I didn't check the footage, so maybe it was something else entirely."

"Services," she says. "Why was he at services?"

She can't quite place the look on Coulson's face. "You didn't just hack his files to find out?" he asks.

It's a fair question. "I wanted to hear from you," she says, and it's only after she's said it that she realizes it’s the truth.

"What I told you was true," Coulson says. "Accounting's my cover. He was out of a job and asked if I knew any place that was hiring. I did."

"So you just recruited a random stranger to SHIELD."

"He wasn't a random stranger. We'd sat together at the Sisterhood bagel brunch once. Had a great conversation about the Knicks."

Natasha was blessed with an expressive face. A single look conveys everything rolling her eyes or making a sarcastic comment would have covered.

"He's a decent guy. We need more decent guys working here." Coulson shrugs. "Besides, we're part of a community. That's what you do. You help each other. You solve each other's problems."

He lets the pause last long enough to be meaningful.

"I'm not listening to your thinly veiled metaphors," Natasha tells him.

"I wouldn't expect you to."

"Would you have forgiven Loki?" she asks.

It's hard to surprise Coulson, but that does. He waits for her to continue.

"If his lips hadn't been sewn," she says. "If he apologized for trying to kill you, and it was genuine."

"Before or after he tried to take out Union Square? Because that factors into my answer pretty heavily."

It's all the answer she needs. "I'll go to morning services with you," she says.

"Thank you," he says, and she knows that he really means it.

*

They sit toward the back of the sanctuary for morning services, and this time the déjà vu has an antecedent she can identify, which is a nice change of pace.

She knows when to stand and knows when to sit and knows, this time, who Donnie Finkelstein's nephew is. She just quirks an eyebrow at him, because she guesses she owes Clint that much, and it irritates her that just because it's a holy day, she can't justify slugging him in the face.

She keeps her head down, but the cantor still makes eye contact with her. His eyes say thank you, like she did something special. His voice has the gravitas he seems to think her actions carry.

*

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
On Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
Who shall perish by fire and who by firestone;
Who by gun and who by knife;
Who by Hulk and who by Thor;
Who by Chitauri and who by Doom;
Who by Widow's Bite and who by Red Room;
Who shall be secure and who shall be driven;
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

And there's Phil Coulson, her handler, fingers ghosting over her sweater sleeve and reminding her that she isn't anywhere but here, isn't anyone but her, and every instinct in her body screams to run, but she forces her muscles to relax and her heart rate to slow and her breath to even out, and she stays still and waits for the sermon.

She still doesn’t expect the rabbi to place six stuffed toys- the full Avengers set- on the pulpit before he begins to speak.

*

Gut yontif. After last week, I hope you don't mind that this sermon's a bit shorter than usual. I'm changing a few things up this week; don't have my knife on me either.

You've all heard the midrash about Lashon Hara, evil gossip. A man spoke ill of others and then realized his wrong, and he wanted to repent. He went to the village rabbi for advice about how to make up for his action. The rabbi said, find me a feather pillow, and the man did. The rabbi said, go to the highest point in the village, and open the pillow, and the man did as he was told, watching as the feathers flew every which way. He returned to the rabbi and asked what to do next.

The rabbi told him to collect all of the feathers. "But that's impossible," the man protested. "But that is Lashon Hara," the rabbi told him. "Once the words are out in the world, you can no sooner fix them than recollect all the feathers from your pillow."

What that midrash doesn't tell us, though, is that good deeds can travel just as far. Last May, we saw six people come defend our city. We don't know who they really are. We don't know where they're from, or where they went. But what we do know is that we needed them and they came.

We know that they were willing to put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us, and we've seen those feathers flying just as far as every bad word or deed that's ever happened. We've seen thousands of people across the country, across the world, finding it in them to stand up for what is right.

We all know that the Days of Awe are a time for apologies and forgiveness. But it is also a time for turning over new leaves. For realizing that we all have in us what those six people had, the power to change other people's lives for the better.

This Yom Kippur, think of those who you've wronged, and try to make amends. But think, too, of Captain America and Iron Man and Hulk and Thor and Hawkeye and Black Widow. Think of how to make the world a better place than you've found it. Start the New Year with the six of them in mind.

*

"God damn," Coulson says on the walk home. "He finally got something right." He glances at Natasha. "He had no clue who you are, by the way. He's a stopped clock that happened to get lucky. But if there's one sermon you're going to do right, it might as well be Yom Kippur."

"You have a good cantor," she tells him.

"He's the only reason I haven't switched synagogues." Coulson pauses. "That and the Sisterhood. They have really great bagel brunches."

"What do you normally do for the rest of Yom Kippur?" Natasha asks him. "Do you just sulk around hungry?"

"Officially? I sit around and think very seriously about all of my sins from the past year. Also I repent for Fury. The guy has a lot of sins he's asking me to shoulder."

"No, what you actually do."

"Usually I go to a movie or something."

They don't say anything as they change direction. In that perfect, synched-up way they've developed, they just turn.

Natasha can skip the popcorn if the explosions are big enough.

*

The sky's dimming by the time they get back to Stark Tower. When they do, they're greeted by an arrow full of muffins again, this time lodged into the wall of the elevator bank.

She knows that's the kind of thing that would make most people less hungry. She's not most people, and neither are any of her friends.

A stuffed Hawkeye dangles from the tip, hanging by its quiver of arrows, which she thinks is a nice touch.

Coulson sniffs as he pulls the arrow out of the expensive wood paneling. "Blueberry," he announces.

"We can eat already?"

He glances at his watch, then shrugs. "Close enough." He pulls the muffin apart around the arrow and hands her the half that was closest to her skull.

Everyone else is in the living room. They’re laughing and teasing and rearranging the goddamn Avengers stuffed animals and Natasha thinks the gathering must have just happened until she notices the food: bagels. Cream cheese. Lox. Chicken soup. Something she’s at least sixty percent sure is gefilte fish.

Tony’s the first one to notice them. “This is how you break fast, right?” he asks. “Because my butcher said this is how you break the fast. He was very clear on me not getting pork chops.”

“You still got bacon, though, right?” Bruce asks.

“I’m not a heathen, Banner. Of course I did.”

“You didn’t have to do all this,” Natasha says. Phil doesn’t say anything; he’s loading his plate.

Steve looks at her in this weird, completely guileless way that makes him look like the cardboard cutout, and says “Who said anything about have to?”

"We did it because you're our friend, you idiot," Clint says, and he forces Natasha into another hug which she is completely aware, thank you, he is doing just to torment her.

"I don't do feelings," she says to him, because if she laughs like she wants to it will only encourage him.

"I know," Clint says. "But that doesn't mean we can't do them for you."

Tony pushes one hand of the Hulk stuffed animal, and oh god, it turns out the thing speaks. "HULK LOVE," it roars loudly, like the punctuation settling the discussion, and Natasha thinks about how much money Tony must have wasted to get the Hulk into a recording studio and then bait it into saying catchphrases.

“I am never letting you get me drunk again,” Bruce declares, and Tony smiles like that’s something he hears a lot, which to be fair he probably does, although possibly not in this exact circumstance.

The room is filled with smiles and laughter and all kinds of things that aren’t familiar, but maybe will become it, someday, and Natasha realizes her heart rate is normal and her breathing is even and it wasn’t even a conscious choice.

Most things about her are a lie, but if there's one thing in her life that's true, it's these people right here.

She scoops some food onto a plate, and then takes advantage of the team’s distraction to throw the Iron Man stuffed animal at Tony. It bounces off his arc reactor with a soft metallic ping. Clint raises a hand for a high-five, and their palms connect. She doesn’t even need to look.

Natasha Romanov does not say "I love you," but if she did, this is how she would say it. And for once, she knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that that’s the truth.