Я Анастасия Жолнерова.
Natasha entered the gala on the General’s arm, dripping in diamonds. On her arms, she had enough bracelets to buy a third world country, even without the tiara on her head. She rolled her shoulders back slightly, finally losing herself in the posture of the Grand Duchess. Although she had no other childhood memories, logically, she knew she could not be the Tsarina, even with all the power of the Red Room. However, it was hard to deny the vividness of her memories as Anastasia. Playing with Alyosha and her sisters felt clear and real - but the hazy, more recent memories of training to kill and modern history caused her to doubt those bright memories of her family.
Once they reached the podium at center stage, Natasha took her seat in the plush red chair to its right, and gazed at the General with rapt attention. It was the General who had saved her. It was the General who would help avenge her family. From the corner of her eye, Natasha could see some of the attendees shifting nervously, eyes darting from her to the General and back to her again. The Red Room had worked hard for this resemblance. She was amused to see the whispers traveling from one to another in the crowd as speculation took hold. None of the attendees heard the General’s speech, as they were too busy speculating on the reappearance of the lost Tsarina.
Natasha eyed her mark. Valery Yurovsky had paled upon their entrance, and she could see by the General’s posture that he was pleased. Clasping her hands in her lap, Natasha let her fingers drift over the ornate ring she had been equipped with. The poison was slow acting, but effective. The Tsarina’s miraculous rebirth and Minister Yurovsky’s death would be a testament to the Red Room’s power. She had been trained her whole life for this moment. Somehow, she knew this, even if she had no memory of it.
Soy Nataliya Mihalova.
He stuck out like a sore thumb in the aid mission. Despite the civilian clothes, his entire being screamed military; that had caught her attention first and piqued her curiosity. Without hesitating, she followed him when he wandered off from the international contingent and into the bar. Although he seemed relaxed sitting at the bar, she could see his eyes rapidly scanning the place, constantly on alert. She was amused to see him pass her by, dismissing her in his threat assessment. From what she could observe, he was not a threat to her mission. Likely, the Red Room already knew that he was here, and so she decided he was not worth mentioning to the General.
Curiosity getting the better of her, Natasha sidled up to the bar next to him and ordered a drink, leaning against the bar as if she had all the time in the world. More information certainly would not hurt, and perhaps could be an asset to her own mission. It would be at least a few more days before she would get a shot at her target, and the waiting game had never been her strong suit.
“Come here often?” she asked him in Russian. She was curious to see if he would react at all.
He shook his head, giving her a wry grin. “I have no idea what you’re saying, ma’am. If you switch to Spanish, I’m still going to be lost,” he said. The way he drawled certain vowels hinted of life in small-town America.
Natasha raised an eyebrow and gave him her best smile. Perhaps his cover was a complete lack of one, though it was an unconventional route to take. But then, the Americans did funny things with their spies, after all.
Switching smoothly to English, Natasha gave her voice a slightly upper-class lilt to hint at schooling abroad and flicked her hair. “Well, that does answer my question,” she said. “I asked if you came here often.”
He shrugged, his manner genial. “No, I’d say not.”
Natasha took the seat next to his, taking a casual sip of her drink, and let the silence stretch between them for a moment. She liked to wait. Silence tended to be more effective than questions when she wanted to get the truth from a person.
After a few moments, he stuck out his hand. “I’m Clint.”
Natasha gently took his hand, keeping her grip light. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Nataliya.”
She kept her face calm, hoping he had not noticed her slight pause before giving her name. She had almost introduced herself as Anastasia. It worried her. These slips of memory would one day be her downfall. She knew she was Nataliya, the only daughter of a high ranking politician. At times, however, she was still Anastasia, posture shifting to reflect her no-longer-clubbed foot. And then at other times she was someone else - Natasha, with almost-tangible memories of blood and pain. She had met the girls of the Red Room. She knew what they did, even if she did not know who she was. It was logical to conclude she was one of them, assassins packaged with pretty bows.
“Do you come here often?” he said, throwing the question back to her.
She gave him a small smile over the rim of her glass as he took another sip. “Do I look it?”
Clint laughed and shook his head. He gestured to the bar around them and then to her light sundress. It was admittedly a dive, unlike El Floridita or the Hotel Nacional, which Russian heiresses on vacation were more likely to frequent. However, Natasha figured the dissonance would work in her favor. “This is more my kind of place than yours, I’m thinking.”
She laughed. “What is my kind of place?”
He gestured again with his drink as he shrugged. “Ah, I don’t know. Somewhere without bullet holes in the wall, maybe?” he said, spying a few behind the bar.
Natasha laughed again. “It adds character.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Clint muttered, taking a gulp of his beer.
“They probably added the holes themselves,” Natasha responded, tilting her head to study the wall behind the bar. “I rather doubt we will see a shootout here in the middle of the afternoon anyway. This is not one of your Western movies, cowboy,” she teased.
He laughed at that, tipping an imaginary hat to her. “You’re probably right.”
Her response was cut off by the sound of gunfire in the street. The door to the bar was kicked open and Natasha moved quickly, jumping behind the bar and grabbing the gun she had hidden in her thigh holster. From the corner of her eye, she could see the American had done the same.
“Spoke too soon,” Natasha said dryly. She stood quickly to assess the scene and recognized Anisimov’s men, so she fired a few shots before ducking behind the bar again. She had not spotted Anisimov himself in the fight, which was a disappointment. For a moment, she had thought that things were going to get interesting.
Clint briefly raised his head above the bar and he ducked back down. “Friends of yours?”
“Best,” Natasha replied, eyes scanning for an exit. The men were busy fighting someone, presumably their target, and had yet to notice them, despite the shots she had fired. They were sloppy. Anisimov was not here and she did not feel like wasting the ammunition.
Although Clint’s manner was relaxed, Natasha could see he had shifted his stance so he could have better access to his gun. Despite the ongoing firefight, he was positioned to fire at her. She liked that. Too many men underestimated her. Even the Red Room underestimated her. They still had not figured out that their programming was becoming less effective. It was refreshing to have a man take her seriously, even if he had overlooked her at first.
“Guess it is your kind of place,” Clint said, grinning.
“But not my kind of crowd,” Natasha said. She eyed the distance between the bar and the back door, shifting her stance so she could make a dash for it. “You’re on your own with this one, cowboy,” she said slyly, and sprinted to the door. A few bullets came close, but she managed to make it through without getting shot.
Natasha did not wait around to see what would happen next. She began climbing the fire escape to the building next door: she needed to slip back into her hotel unnoticed. If she were lucky, none of Anisimov’s men would be able to place her. All the same, the blonde hair was going to have to go.
Ich bin Olga Dahl.
The Professor snaked an arm around her waist and Natasha murmured a few endearments in German, feigning tiredness. She curled her legs up to her chest and kept her breathing soft and even as she waited for him to fall asleep. Christian Dahl was a lonely, brilliant man and easily susceptible to the charms of an attractive woman; it had not taken long for her to worm her way into his life. They had a whirlwind courtship, and if anyone found their marriage unbelievable, they were too polite to say that to Dahl’s face.
Letting her thoughts drift, Natasha reviewed the events of the day as she waited for him to fall asleep. She had a routine, first going to the market to plan for supper, and then returning home to clean the house before preparing the meal. It was mundane, but it made Olga happy. Natasha could almost believe she was happy scrubbing floors and kneading dough, were it not for the other memories lurking at the back of her mind. Anastasia had quickly grown tired of the novelty of chores, Nataliya recoiled from scrubbing toilets, and Natasha – Natasha had grown impatient. It had been a relief, that day she had finally been contacted by the Red Room. Subconsciously, even as Olga, she had been expecting it. No matter how many new memories the Red Room poured into her head, they could not seem to completely erase the other faces from her past. Even when she lost herself in Olga, like she had when chopping vegetables that afternoon, the dissonance would eventually creep into her consciousness, and she would feel like an imposter in her skin.
Slowly, the Professor’s breathing became deeper and he began to lightly snore. Natasha slipped from under his arm and padded over to her bureau, fishing out the canister of chloroform from her lingerie drawer. Quietly, she applied it to one of her slips and made her way back to the bed.
The Professor stirred, seeing her standing over him. “Olga-?”
Natasha moved quickly, holding the slip to his mouth as he struggled. Once he was unconscious, she picked up her phone from the nightstand and made the call. The Red Room had found its new geneticist.
Je suis Nathalie Rousseau.
“This is your kind of crowd, then?” he said by way of greeting, and Natasha narrowed her eyes. It had been a year since Havana, and she had never expected to run into the brash American again. She remembered him more starkly than any other of her Nataliya memories; for whatever reason, he had made an impression, though he had not seemed the covert type.
Natasha relaxed her grip on the champagne flute and let her lips curl into a slow smile. Nathalie Rousseau was not the type to cause a scene in public. She had to remember who she was. Later, she could worry over how she remembered him.
“Perhaps,” she replied. She spoke in smooth English, with just a hint of a French accent. Looking the part of a stereotypical French woman, she had a smooth sheath and upswept hair; she wondered if the Red Room would let her keep the Louboutins.
“Come here often?” he asked with a cheeky grin.
“Every time I am in Paris,” Natasha admitted. Whenever she was in a decent city, she loved to spend her free time and explore the art museums. It fascinated her, what artists could dream of and create. She reveled in forming her own opinions, deciding whether she liked Picasso and Dalí, without thinking of its effect on Mother Russia. It was a subtle sort of rebellion.
Taking her eyes off of him for a moment, Natasha scanned the crowd at the Musée de Cluny. She was subtly tailing her mark at a charity gala, trying to determine his weaknesses. She could see him over by the gothic sculptures, still talking jovially with a handful of other men she had already identified as neutral actors. Turning back to the American, she decided she wanted to determine the reason behind his appearance at the event.
“You here with friends?” he asked, snagging his own champagne flute from a passing waiter.
“You could say that,” Natasha said wryly, tilting her head to study him. Although his appearance was not objectionable, he did not look quite right in the suit he was wearing. He was not a traditionally handsome man; there was a rugged quality about him that left him looking out of place in a polished suit. He was better suited to denim – or leather, she thought. He lacked the ease of assuming different masks. This American was always the same, no matter the situation. She could not help but admire his constancy; she refused to envy it.
“I’m here for business myself,” he said blithely.
Natasha almost lost her composure, but took another sip of her champagne, tamping down the urge to laugh at his transparency. She would hardly call their work business. Business implied far too much polish. It could perhaps be an act, but she prided herself on being able to read others. Sincerity was the hardest emotion to fake. She found his brash sincerity amusing, although it would probably get him killed sooner than not.
“Really? How long will you be in Paris?” she asked mildly.
“Hard to say. You know how business can be,” he replied. He looked amused. There was a glint in his eye, as if he could tell she was trying not to laugh. Natasha almost found it charming, although still incongruous with the suit.
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a third party – Antonin LeClair. Her mark.
“I happened to notice you needed another drink,” he said to Natasha, exchanging her empty flute for the full one he was holding. With his dark hair slicked back and his appearance smooth, LeClair towered over the American, long-limbed and sleek lines. If the American was a rugged cowboy, this man personified the smooth Casanova. She preferred it. Men like him were easy to manipulate.
“Thank you,” she murmured in French, offering her hand to him and kissing both cheeks when he leaned in. “I am Nathalie Rousseau. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“And who is your friend?” he asked. He was jealous; she could see it in his posture. He had barely noted her presence at the gala until another man had spoken to her, and then he had found a reason to come over. It was an exploitable weakness. Natasha had the feeling LeClair would turn out to be an easy mark.
“I actually do not know,” she said with a light laugh, appreciating the irony of the statement. Despite remembering Havana more vividly than other missions, she truly knew nothing about the man. She turned to the American, switching to English. “Monsieur LeClair, this is-?”
“Clint Barton,” he replied, perfunctorily shaking hands with LeClair. Natasha wondered if he always used Clint. She doubted Barton was his last name, but perhaps it was. The American had done nothing as he was supposed to; it was unexpected and refreshing. She rather hoped he would not be the next on her list, but if he kept turning up like this, the Red Room was bound to notice. The Red Room noticed everything.
“I have yet to see the newest acquisitions. Do you think they complement the collection?” she asked LeClair, switching back to French.
“Ah, let me be your guide then. There are jewels that would make any woman weep,” LeClair said with interest. He offered his arm to her, giving Clint a perfunctory nod.
She did the same, another wry twist to her lips. “Good luck with your business, Clint,” she said.
He raised his glass to her, looking amused. “Same to you.”
Я Елизавета Иванова
Natasha turned away from the mirror where she was removing her stage makeup. Alexei strode forward into the bathroom, cupping her face with her hands as he leaned down to kiss her. Natasha followed his lead, letting him guide her from the bathroom and to the bed. She had tried before to avoid this, pleading exhaustion after a particularly grueling performance, but Alexei was persistent. His persistence had once been an asset for the Red Room, until he had begun selling secrets to the Chinese six months ago.
She had never trained with him in the Red Room, and so she was chosen to lure him into the life of Elizaveta Ivanova, a dancer with the Mikhailovsky Ballet. He was cocky and used to getting his way. Early on, Natasha could tell he expected the Red Room to come after him with guns blazing. As time went on, he had begun to think of himself as smarter than the General. She could see it in his walk and his increasing demands on her.
She waited for an hour after he had fallen asleep, and then removed the gun from the nightstand. The Red Room always got their way in the end. This assignment was a lesson for her as well.
Eu sou Talia Moreno.
This time, Natasha spotted him first, while she was settling into the city and waiting for her next communique on Drakov. He was perched on the edge of the pedestrian bridge, watching the passersby in the park below. Once again, his appearance was unaltered, aside from the addition of an oversized backpack. Somehow, he still did not give her the impression of a traveler making his way from hostel to hostel. He looked too composed to be a pleasure-seeker. Joining him at the railing of the bridge, Natasha noted with pleasure that she seemed to have surprised him slightly.
“You seem far from home, cowboy.” It had only been a few months since Paris, but he had seemed more tense the previous two times they had met. Natasha did a mental check on the location of the weapons she was carrying and tried to subtly figure out what he was carrying. There was no reason to be lax, simply because he was pleasant. Although it would be a shame if she had to kill him. He was one of the few amusing people she knew. Their interactions were a constant in the quicksand of her memory.
“I thought I might see you here,” he commented, eyes flicking toward her once, before returning to whatever mark he was watching in the park below. She leaned over the rail to look below, squinting to try and bring the people into clearer focus. She shook her head and returned to standing upright, leaning against the cement balustrade. She had no idea how he was able to keep sight of someone so far below.
“How was Paris?” she asked. She did not expect a real answer, although she was curious why he had been there. Havana, she could understand. Cuba had become a veritable playground for people like them. Paris was a large city. To see him at the gala was more disconcerting. She could not tell if they had shared the same target, or if she herself had been the target. He had not been hired by the Red Room. He was too unsubtle for that.
He actually turned to look at her after that question. There was an amused glint in his eyes, and he looked to be fighting a smile. “Curiosity killed the cat,” was all he said, before returning to his mark.
Natasha tilted her head to ponder the American expression. She had not heard it before, but she could understand its meaning within the context. “Cats have nine lives, do they not?” She remembered hearing that before. She liked it.
He grinned fully at that. “I’m pretty sure you have more than nine.”
Natasha thought for a moment about all her faces and all her names. “Perhaps.”
They both sat silently for a moment. Natasha wondered again about his target. If the Americans had wanted her dead, they would likely have tried something by now. Even if Clint was supposed to lull her into a false sense of security, he had done little to try and worm his way into her confidences. There were no innocent comments hiding pointed questions, no suspicious figures tailing her after dark. The coincidence of their meeting, if it truly could be considered such, was more likely a shared target. Still, the thought did not put her at ease.
He sighed and turned to look at her. “Look, I’m going to tell you straight. We’re here for Drakov. It’s going to get ugly if you interfere.”
Natasha narrowed her eyes at him, but said nothing. Again, he was sincere. She did not understand it. He was not in love with her – he had done nothing to indicate that. Nor was he trying to kill her, for he had plenty of opportunities before. She knew the motivations of men. This American acted like no ordinary man. Whatever it was, she did not like the game he was playing. What was the point of the game, when there was no object? She found it unnerving that he did not behave as most men would. Men lusted for her or underestimated her. Sometimes they did both. Men were never congenial to her.
She had not yet decided how to respond, when they were interrupted by gunfire. Natasha whipped her head around to spot three men on motorcycles, firing at them. She looked sharply toward Clint, who gave her a questioning look. She shook her head.
“Friends of mine, then,” he said, digging his hands into his pocket and throwing a set of keys at her. “I need you to drive my bike.”
She caught the keys easily and threw herself onto the bike, barely giving Clint time to catch her around the waist before she took off. She could feel him shifting behind her with his backpack. Assuming he was going for a gun, she continued to be surprised by his actions. He had no guarantee that she would get them to safety, and he had just finished warning her off her target, delineating the line between the two of them as opponents, if not enemies. She could not decide whether he was working on more intelligence on her than she presumed, or if he was simply the luckiest idiot in the world in assuming she would not drive him off a cliff. Her surprise was doubled when he pulled a compound bow from his backpack, snapping it into action. It was a distinctive weapon of choice, not to mention archaic.
She wove her way in and out of oncoming traffic, not bothering to track the men behind her. Managing to quickly pick one off, Clint hissed under his breath with pleasure. Natasha had stopped gloating over her kills by the age of twelve, but she supposed this was just another American mannerism. She had seen their behavior at the Olympics, after all.
Natasha abruptly turned the bike, taking them down a set of steep stone stairs down into the park below. She tried to zip around passersby without injuring anyone unnecessarily, but given the way this scene was playing out in public, she knew the General would not be pleased. At the very least, she would have to dye her hair again. More likely, she would be up all night doctoring new paperwork and history for herself.
She took another sharp turn, taking them under the bridge on the banks of the river. She was reluctantly impressed that Clint kept his balance with barely a touch of his hand to her waist. He had no concept of stealth, but he was seasoned, she could tell. She had misjudged him; her perception that he was new to the field was wrong. He was, perhaps, new to the game, but not to the fight. He had been a soldier before, she decided.
Natasha ducked her head down further as a bullet whizzed by close to her head, and frowned.
“If I am shot, I will be very displeased,” she informed him, raising her voice to be heard over the motor.
She could hear him laugh, a low rumble under the sound of the motor, and she found herself smiling involuntarily. She could feel him shift behind her, taking aim once more with the bow. He picked off another of their pursuers, although this time she did not hear him celebrate the kill. Perhaps the first had been a remarkably good shot. Even if his weapon was an impractical choice, Natasha could respect the skill involved. However, she preferred to make her kills up close. She never had to question whether she had succeeded when she could see the life leave their eyes. Distance left far too much to chance.
Turning again, she drove away from the river and onto a pitted street marking the entrance to the slums. Even if it would be easier for Clint to take a shot at the final man if he were straight behind them, Natasha felt it left them far too open to gunshots. A straight shot worked both ways. She could perhaps lose him in the alleys of the slums.
“When I tell you to cut the motor, do it, all right?” Clint shouted into her ear. Natasha gave a short nod to show that she had heard him, and continued to focus on navigating the narrow passages through the slums. Pedestrians scattered, and Natasha had to jerk the bike hard to avoid hitting a few who could not get out of the street fast enough. She did not particularly care if she hit one or not, but it would slow them down, and she did not want that.
Not long after that, he yelled at her to stop, and barely kept his seat on the back of the bike. Natasha heard nothing at first, and she turned around to look and see if they had perhaps lost their pursuer. Clint was twisted behind her, arrow drawn back and incredibly still. He loosed the arrow before she even heard the man behind them, striking the last man in the throat as he came around the corner. Natasha raised an eyebrow at his skill, once again re-evaluating her opinion of him.
“Well. That was fun,” Clint said dryly.
“Indeed.” Natasha dismounted the bike, handing the keys back over to him.
“Thanks –” he began, then looked to her quizzically.
Natasha could not help but laugh. Against her better judgment, she said, “Talia. Talia Moreno.”
“Thanks, Talia,” he repeated wryly.
“You will have to tell me about that bow someday,” she murmured, instead of saying goodbye. He gave a quick nod, not looking up as he packed it away in his backpack. She took the opportunity to walk away, ducking into the open doorway of the nearest building to try and make her way to the roof. She needed to get back to her hotel. There were changes she needed to make to her plan.
When she emerged from her hotel room the next evening, she had her communiqué from the Red Room: eliminate Drakov and his program, and bring back his daughter Tatiana alive.
Drakov had established himself at the Hospital de Santa Maria, hiding his program in plain sight. He had once worked for the Red Room, and while they would perhaps have tolerated a defection if it had been for purely pecuniary reasons, creation of a competitive program was hardly something they would ignore. The man was a greedy idiot, Natasha had decided. And it seemed he had caught the attention of the Americans as well. He lacked subtlety, and that annoyed her. The Americans had been leaving her well enough alone until now. She had a feeling that would change, now that they were interested in Drakov, though she had limited intelligence on what the Americans wanted. Her dossier on Drakov did not mention the Americans at all, nor did the information on his program. Natasha wondered if, for the first time, she had information that the Red Room did not. The idea was unsettling. She wondered how long it would be before the Americans took an interest in the Red Room. It was not a future she wanted to contemplate.
That did not alter her plans. She dyed her hair red and altered her papers, although she didn’t tell the General why. They had layered her identities this time, building Talia in her mind as another covert operative, what Natasha would be if she had a life beyond the Red Room. It was a lucky break for her. Had she been programmed a civilian identity, she would have had a much harder time explaining the need to alter her papers without giving away her secret.
Natasha layered the scrubs and white jacket over her catsuit, shifting in front of the mirror to make sure that nothing showed. Grimly, she tied her hair up into a knot and slipped on a pair of glasses to help her appear older. She mentally reviewed her equipment before moving on to her handbag, checking over every weapon to make sure it was in working order. She had no idea how many Americans were involved in this. It did not matter, as long as she was able to get to Drakov without engagement. With the Red Room intel, she would make quick work of the hospital and program guards. The only uncertainty was the American presence. She had no idea what sort of operative she would be going up against.
With a sigh, she exited her room through the window, hopping over to the next building’s roof to make her exit. She had taken a circuitous route back when she had left Clint, but there was still the possibility that she had been followed. It did not take long to get to the hospital, once she had entered the town car she had hired to meet her a few blocks from the hotel. She breezed in through the entrance, flashing her credentials without issue. The guard at the front desk barely looked up to see if she matched the identification she presented.
Once Natasha made it into the hospital, she went over to the main elevator bank, taking it up to the obstetrics floor where Talia Moreno worked as a resident. Once there, she stopped at the nurse’s station and reviewed a few charts, making polite chit chat with the nurses on duty. They treated her as an established presence, and Natasha suppressed her disbelief – not for the first time – that people were willing to believe whatever they saw.
She paused and fished her phone out of the pocket of her lab coat upon hearing it vibrate. Natasha had set her phone to send her a message ahead of time, and so she appeared like all other doctors who had received an urgent page that day for one of their patients. She walked briskly to the internal elevator bank and entered the security code which would give her access to the basement. She took a deep breath, mentally preparing herself for what was to come.
When the doors opened, she exited the elevator confidently, flashing her credentials to the security desk once more. This guard took more time reviewing her identification and comparing it to the information on the computer. He looked at her suspiciously. She had expected that. Natasha would have been more unnerved if he had simply waved her through. Still, she did not doubt her instincts; her gut was telling her that this was a risky mission. She had been concerned about the possible outcomes even before she had been informed of the threat of American involvement. She only hoped she had made it in before them. A firefight in the middle of a third-rate Red Room knockoff was not her idea of fun.
“This is a restricted ward.”
“I have been paged by Dr. Drakov. He has a patient who needs an obstetrics consult,” she said smoothly in Portuguese.
The guard raised an eyebrow at that, and returned to his computer for a moment before waving her through. He had clearly found the false page that had been hidden in the system a few hours earlier by the Red Room operatives assisting her. “Drakov’s office is the last door on the right,” he said, feigning disinterest. Natasha could see that his curiosity was piqued. She would have to keep an eye out for him, although she guessed that his interest was more in the gossip of an obstetrics consult for Drakov’s young girls than in her personally.
Natasha nodded brusquely, and kept walking. She entered Drakov’s office and was disappointed to find that he was not there. Although it was not likely, she had hoped she could ghost through this mission. She made quick work of Drakov’s computer, deleting the files that the General would have no interest in, and copying the rest.
As she skimmed over the files for all of Drakov’s assets, Natasha noted that he had only chosen girls for his program. Her lips thinned as she read the progress reports for his prized student. His daughter Tatiana, who had just turned thirteen, was the jewel of the program. Natasha had managed to copy her own files once, after they tried to wipe Anastasia from her mind; Tatiana’s kill count was almost as high as Natasha’s had been at that age. There were other concerning signs. Tatiana required reprogramming at twice the rate Natasha had. Her kills were overboard and high in drama, calling far too much attention to herself and out of character for her programmed identity. She had a penchant for mutilation and setting fires. Flipping through the files of the other girls, ten in all, Natasha noted that all had been reprogrammed far more often than even the Red Room would have done. One had even been reprogrammed twice in one day. Despite the chill that had gone down her spine upon reading that, Natasha kept moving with a grim set to her lips.
Snapping the files shut, Natasha shoved the papers in her bag, ignoring her orders to destroy all that she had copied. She left Drakov’s office purposefully, noting that the guard at the desk did not even look up as she exited. She turned right, following the narrow hallway that she had recognized from the map she had been provided. She entered a training room first, quickly shooting the man inside, who had his back to her. As she had suspected, the rooms were soundproofed, and the silencer on her gun minimized her chances of being heard. She locked the door behind her, to ensure that she would not have to backtrack, and moved to the next room, another training room.
Natasha was able to rapidly dispatch the man and woman seated inside with minimal effort. Again, she locked the door behind her, taking another deep breath to ease her jangling nerves. She did not like this mission. She had had a bad feeling about it even before Clint’s warning. Things were going too smoothly. Missions that started like this always tended to end in a bloodbath. Natasha hated to wait for the fight to come to her.
The next room she entered was more like the training rooms she was familiar with. A young girl, no older than six, was strapped to a table and screaming her loyalty. Reprogramming. There was a woman working over her; Natasha shot her in the face as she turned, and then picked up a chair to hit the man coming towards her. He stumbled backward – a doctor, not a soldier, then – and Natasha grimly shot him in the head as well. The girl was still screaming her loyalty. She had not even noticed her presence.
Fingering the trigger, Natasha raised a shaking hand, before striding forward and striking the girl’s head with the butt of her gun. If the Americans wanted to deal with this mess, they were welcome to it. She locked the door behind her, pleased to note that her presence had still not attracted notice.
Natasha moved across the hall, realizing that this room was the dormitory. She quickly counted the heads lying on the beds, suspicious eyes following her in the dim light. Nine girls – ten, counting the girl in the reprogramming room. That left Drakov and his daughter. “You are not to leave this room,” she said crisply. They did not question her. They barely moved from their places, and Natasha wondered if they had been restrained to their beds. Locking the door behind her, she tried to shake the feeling that something was very wrong with this mission. She did not have the time to be unnerved now.
Drakov and his daughter were in the last room, and Natasha had to fight the urge to scream as the strains of Beethoven’s Second Movement met her upon opening the door. She stiffened, but kept moving, training her gun on Drakov. It seemed that Drakov had not forgotten his time with the Red Room after all. They loved to layer commands into the psyche of their assets using music. Tatiana was restrained, eyes wild, and it took Natasha a moment to realize he had his pants around his ankles.
Fury and years of training overcame her will, and Natasha shot him in the gut, instead of the quick headshot she tended to favor. Stiff fingers fumbled in her bag before pulling out a serrated knife, and then she was on him, snarling and slashing at his face and chest, heedless of the open door. The arrival of a guard brought her back to herself, and she was quicker to draw, but it was close. Natasha was shaking, not from the surprise of the guard, but from her loss of control; she turned quickly, shooting out the stereo, and was left with silence, only the sounds of her heavy breathing echoing in the room. She needed to keep her head together.
Natasha rapidly shed her scrubs, calculating that the bloodstains would attract more attention than the black outfit she had on underneath. She nearly ripped the restraints from the bed when she released Tatiana, training the gun on her once more. The girl was trembling, eyes darting to and fro, muscles tensed at if she were waiting to pounce.
“Move,” Natasha ordered, voice firm but dispassionate. This time, her hand did not tremble, although Natasha felt her heart shaking inside. They were to make their way to the roof, with a medical helicopter ready to transport them to the Red Room liaison. She would give them Tatiana, and then she would get out. She had no desire to explore São Paulo anymore. She was in no mood for art museums.
The girl leaned down to pull on one of her shoes - and then jumped, striking Natasha across the face. Natasha hissed, trying to fend the girl off without doing too much damage to her. Tatiana had little strength compared to Natasha, and resorted to scratching and biting her as if she were a feral cat. Natasha refrained from striking her with the gun, instead focusing on restraining her. The General would be displeased if she brought back a worthless asset, Natasha told herself, although she had a feeling that Drakov’s overzealous reprogramming had already rendered her useless.
The girl dropped after a moment, defeated by Natasha’s easy ability to keep her back with only one arm. “Who are you?” she whispered, looking at Natasha with fear and loathing in her eyes.
“Do you not know?” Natasha replied. The girl blanched, although whether it was from her use of Russian or a guess to her identity, Natasha could not be sure. “Move,” she told her again, and this time, Tatiana did so, murmuring about the Black Widow in a childlike voice.
“I am a ballerina,” she murmured. “I am a princess. You cannot treat me like this. Daddy will tell you.”
Natasha suddenly felt very old, forcing the girl into the elevator ahead of her. They managed to make it to the roof without any others joining them in the elevator. She stood in silence, listening to Tatiana chatter, blipping from identity to identity in a matter of minutes. Natasha had not had the chance to count how many identities they had poured into Tatiana’s head in the last few months; Drakov had been playing with fire.
Natasha kept a close eye on Tatiana, waiting to see if she would strike out again, and she did not have to wait long. Once on the roof, Tatiana lunged for the gun again, screaming obscenities in four languages. Natasha threw her bag and gun to the side and blocked her, eventually subduing the girl. She wondered what the Red Room would even do with her: Tatiana was deadly, but completely lacking in wits. Not even the General’s programming would bring her back from the precipice. Natasha had seen it before. They put down girls who could not take it like horses with a broken leg. That knowledge kept her quiet, even with all the clamour in her own head.
Natasha sat on Tatiana to keep her down, reaching for her bag for the syringe that would incapacitate her. The Red Room could deal with that decision. Natasha wanted no more part of it. There was a moment of lucidity in Tatiana’s eyes and she stopped struggling.
“Kill me. Please, kill me,” the girl gasped. Natasha hesitated, and stopped reaching for her bag.
“Those are not my orders,” Natasha murmured.
“Please,” she gasped. Natasha quickly fished the syringe out of her bag and jabbed the girl with it, watching her go limp beneath her. Natasha hesitated again, fingers sliding over her gun, haunted by the girl’s pleas. The Red Room was no place for her. The world was no place for her.
Her decision was interrupted by an arrow slicing through the air and landing mere inches from the girl beneath her. Natasha did not bother to turn and look for Clint. Looking down at the girl’s face below her, Natasha reached out to run a hand softly over the bruise blooming on her jaw. She took the papers detailing Tatiana’s progress that she had stolen from Drakov’s office and tucked them underneath the girl’s head. The Americans would do more harm than good if they did not know what they were dealing with. Natasha doubted they would be able to do any good at all, and yet she could not bring her back to the General. She thought again about Drakov with his pants around his ankles, with the Second Movement thundering in her mind, and that fury steeled her resolve.
Natasha stood quickly, hearing commotion from the elevator shaft leading to the roof. Decision made, she did not look back as she left the girl lying on the roof and got into the medical chopper. Her hands were shaking, and it took her a few tries to manage the controls. As she lifted off from the helipad, she could see the agents burst onto the scene, all attention focused on the prone girl on the roof, rather than her escape. Perhaps the Americans were no better than the Red Room, but she had to hope. It was something she had never done before.
Я Лена Камінська.
Natasha nodded her thanks to the woman, passing her a wad of hryven' as she left the bar with her new gun. She was on a small assignment, set to retrieve some data that the Ukranians had tried to pilfer, but she could not stop thinking about the American. She had quietly asked around, finding few in the area with knowledge, until she had been directed to the arms dealer in Odessa. It had been easy to lie to her contact and say she needed a new weapon. Meeting with her gave Natasha the excuse she needed to discreetly inquire about the man.
She wondered what it would be like to always have the same face and the same name. Sometimes, the Red Room let her be the Black Widow, with simple assassinations. She liked those best. When she was the Widow, all she had to do was kill – she had been trained for that. Somehow, loving and living felt hollow. Despite the memories thundering in her brain, it felt more real to simply be, even if that meant blood on her hands. Blood was real; love never was.
Unfortunately, this was not one of those missions. Natasha showed the ticket taker at the train station her identification as Lena Kaminskaya, student, and boarded the bus that would take her back to the university. Her curiosity would have to wait. She had a job to do.
Én vagyok Natasza Katona.
Natasha was on thin ice with the General for failing to bring back Tatiana Drakova two months ago, although one of the younger handlers with the Red Room admitted to Natasha that they likely would not have been able to use her anyway. After reading the documents, he had peppered her with questions, and Natasha had cautiously answered them, wondering if her loyalty was being tested. The doctor might not have realized he was a pawn, but in the Red Room, Natasha knew that everyone was a pawn – even, perhaps, the General himself. They had still not mentioned the Americans, and that made Natasha uneasy. She had briefly mentioned their arrival at the hospital, but had withheld the American’s warning to her and their previous encounters. Omitting this was a gamble, but Natasha thought she would be able to get away with it. The General hated to be reminded of his failures.
That was why she was in Budapest. One of the younger girls had bungled her mission last week, and Natasha’s job was to quietly clean up her mess and get the job done. She had not realized, until she was embedded in the city and had received her dossier, that the target was an American journalist with close ties to the embassy. He was internationally known, and the bungled hit on him had garnered significant attention. Natasha rarely questioned her assignments, but she could not help but wonder how this journalist had even come to the General’s attention. The Red Room rarely dealt with journalists. The General viewed them as little more than buzzing gnats, focusing instead on the bigger targets with actual impact.
Once she was established in the city, Natasha sent out a few feelers through some of her channels of information, knowing they were so small the Red Room was not likely to be monitoring those sources. It took longer than if she had gone to her usual people, but the Red Room knew of them, and her unease made her cautious. She had been growing steadily more concerned since São Paulo, feeling as if there was something she was missing. She had not been reprogrammed this time – she could tell all the signs of that by now, no matter what they did. Natasha followed orders; until now, following orders had been enough proof of her loyalty.
It took a few days for the news to get back to her, given the smaller sources she had to work with. She rocked back in shock, reading the slip of paper a few times before hastily taking her lighter to it. The papers she had left tucked under Tatiana Drakov’s head had leaked. The journalist had not stopped there. He had kept digging, finding Drakov’s links to the Red Room and that was how he ended up in Budapest, somehow ferreting out the orphanage where the General had recently been recruiting. Natasha quickly tried to calculate whether this was a test for her, to eliminate all traces of the journalist and his discoveries, or whether this was a trap to take her out. The Red Room did not forgive, much less forget. Natasha knew she had to act now, if she wanted to make it out alive. They would be watching her, so she had to appear as if she were completing her mission. She would get only one shot at escape, she knew.
Natasha met her liaison from the Red Room that afternoon, accepting the dossier as usual. She gave him an estimated time of arrival at the journalist’s hotel and nonchalantly made her way back out to the streets of the city. Natasha considered warning the target, but she had no idea how she could get a message to him without the Red Room finding out. Selfishly, she also was not sure if she wanted him to live. If the Red Room became public knowledge, she would have even greater difficulty disappearing.
Acting as if she were a local on a regular Saturday afternoon, Natasha stopped at some of the fruit stalls along the way, examining apples and even purchasing a few to carry with her. She tried to blend in with the people around her, so that no one would take a second look at her. With her new knowledge, she cursed the red hair, knowing that it made her a bit more memorable than brunette or blonde. She could not change it now, not without attracting attention from those who were watching her. If she looked at all like she was going to run, they would know.
Back at her room, Natasha flicked on the device she had picked up from her contact this morning, hoping it would work as promised and jam the transmission of any bugs. Her contact had guaranteed that it would appear like nothing more than a solar flare or some sort of electronic interference, and so Natasha flicked the device on and off erratically for the next hour, trying to mimic non-human static. Finally, she turned it on and left it running, as she quickly dug out the map she had hidden in her bag. Flipping it open onto her bed, she began mentally tracing routes in her head, trying to determine her odds for exiting the city alive.
Natasha had a few bolt holes hidden that she knew the Red Room could not have found, but none were in close proximity to her. Her best bet would be to make it to the Middle East, where she could hide behind a veil without drawing notice to herself. It would have to be a long route, doubling back on itself, to give her time to lose anyone that might still be tracking her. She let out a shaky breath and flipped off the device again, shoving the map back into her bag.
She had a ghost of a plan. She hoped it would be enough.
It was easy to slip onto the roof of the journalist’s building. Far too easy. Natasha’s nerves were jangling and it took all her years of training to keep her face a blank mask. That reserve was quickly depleted with the thunk of an arrow into the wall next to her head. She muttered curses under her breath; when all hell broke loose, she did not have time to look for the American. The Red Room was there, and had brought its calvary. The Red Room never worked in teams; their assignments were always solo. The presence of so many told her that the General had spared no expense to take the legendary Black Widow down
Natasha hissed in annoyance, crouching behind the outcropping of the door and began to fire. There were at least twenty of them on the roof, and possibly more surrounding the building. She took one out with a shot to the head, and then raised an eyebrow at the arrows that had started to fall.
The roof rocked as an explosion blew out the windows on the south face of the building, sending shards of glass into the street below and black smoke streaming. Natasha reloaded her gun and picked off two other men before whirling behind her to face one of the girls from the Red Room. Inna had been a promising pupil, but Natasha had bested her at every turn. That jealousy fired her now, and Natasha had to duck and scramble out of the way from her blows, finally managing to kick the gun from her grasp. They were left to grapple hand to hand, but Inna lost focus because of her anger. Overcompensating, she nearly lost her balance. That gave Natasha the small opening she needed, and she broke her neck neatly. They had both dropped their guns during the struggle; Natasha picked them up, and noticed the smoke had become blacker and thicker. She was not sure how she was going to get off the roof, not when the General’s men kept coming.
Another volley of arrows assisted her by taking down two opponents and Natasha threw a small salute in the direction she assumed Clint was in. The man was good at making head shots. She did not know what he wanted, but she had no time to contemplate that now. Once she got out of the fight, she could determine whether or not she needed to kill him.
Realizing it was empty, Natasha threw down the gun in her hand, pulling another from her boot. She picked off two more men, leaving five left on the roof and no sign of another wave. Those that were left, however, were some of the Red Room’s best.
Natasha took a deep breath, ducking behind another piece of machinery in response to their gunfire. She heard a strangled gasp, and saw one man fall to the ground with an arrow to his throat. She managed to take out another three as the west windows blew out. Natasha’s eyes burned from the acrid fumes, but she knew her only way off the roof was down through the burning building. There was one man left. Though he was able to take cover from her fire, he was still open to Clint a few rooftops over, and was quickly felled by a hail of arrows.
Natasha took off for the door leading to the stairwell at a dead sprint, hearing the sound of a chopper behind her. Machine gun fire tailed her and she cursed, realizing the General had brought in air support.
She dove into the stairwell, pulling the heavy metal door shut, and took off down the stairs, holding an arm over her mouth to try and filter out the smoke, which was getting thicker as Natasha ran down the stairs as fast as she could. She tried to count how many flights she had left, but she was becoming light-headed, continuing to move through sheer will alone. Natasha refused to be taken out like this. It would be an insult to be overcome by a fire, of all things.
Bursting through the security door, she ran into what she hoped was the second floor. The smoke was overpowering the stairwell. If she had made it to the second floor, she knew she could probably survive a dive from one of the windows. Lungs burning, she sprinted down the hallway of the hotel, trying doors to find one unlocked.
When she finally managed to find an open door, she was met by gunfire. Dropping quickly, Natasha rolled forward, leading with her fist towards the man nearest her. She kicked the gun from his hand, managing to get her arm around him in a chokehold and pull him in front of her as a human shield. Her eyes scanned the scene quickly, trying to ascertain the players. It appeared to be the Red Room at work. There were a few men dead on the floor, including one who looked like the journalist she had been hired to take out. There was another man tied to a chair, bloodied but defiant, and three other men she recognized as working for the General. Natasha lunged for the gun on the ground, keeping her grip tight on the man’s throat as he struggled. One of the men took aim for her, and Natasha jerked, pulling her hostage into the line of fire.
The man in the chair took advantage of the distraction, rising and swinging the chair he was tied to into the man standing closest to him. The mystery man was good, unflinching even as the man fighting him managed to snap his arm like a twig. Natasha got a good shot at the man who had fired upon her, and he dropped. Throwing down the now-still body she had used as a shield, she jumped at the third man, who looked at her with terror in his eyes. She wrapped her legs around his shoulders, kicking the gun from his hand as she grabbed his tie. Ripping it from him, she wound it around his throat and garrotted him quickly. His fingers clawed at her legs before he dropped. When he stopped moving, she stood from his prone body, and barely had time to react as he grabbed the gun on the floor next to him and shot her. His aim was poor, but he managed to hit her in the upper thigh.
Natasha let off a string of curses, pulling her leg back to kick him sharply in the head before he could fire another round. It stunned him momentarily, and Natasha took advantage of his distraction to grind her boot into his windpipe. She smiled grimly at the sound of it rattling in his throat. Grabbing the tie from the ground, she ripped off the man’s shirt and tied it tightly to her thigh. Natasha lifted the gun from the man, hoping at least there were a few rounds left in the chamber, and swiveled around quickly. She was surprised to see that the unknown man had freed himself from the chair and was easily dispatching the last man standing from the Red Room. He was favoring his right side; she could tell from the way he moved that at least his right arm was broken.
Natasha was looking towards the windows and wondering if she could she could make a run for it when he turned around. She trained the gun on him, and prayed she had at least one bullet left.
“How would you feel about a change of employer?” he said mildly.
His words were so incongruous with his appearance that Natasha could not help the laugh that burbled up from her chest involuntarily. Any reply she might have formulated was interrupted by another explosion. The door blew open and she dropped to the ground, trying to avoid the thick black smoke that began pouring into the room.
Natasha could hear the floor groaning, and knew that there was not have much time left to exit. She crawled toward the windows, which had thankfully blown out with the latest explosion, and ignored the shards of glass digging into her hands and thighs. Natasha shoved the gun into her shirt; she had nothing left but the knife in her boot and whatever she could pilfer. Dragging herself up at the windowsill, she leaned out the window, still hearing the whirl of the chopper and staccato machine gun firing.
Below the window, there was the awning of a street-side café; Natasha let out a deep breath before she threw herself out the window to the street below. She hit the awning and rolled, managing to land, catlike, on her feet on the sidewalk below. To her surprise, the mystery man quickly followed, wincing at his rougher landing on the sidewalk. He touched his fingers to a piece in his ear, and Natasha wondered who he was communicating with. This had quickly turned into an international firefight, and she would not be surprised if more than the Americans were here. She smiled grimly, thinking that the General would be far too busy cleaning up this mess to try and find her any time soon.
A car came to a screeching halt in front of them, and Natasha blinked at seeing Clint in the driver’s seat. “Need a lift?” he said, grinning despite the gash down his temple that was sluggishly oozing blood.
The mystery man was already throwing himself into the passenger seat, and with a shrug, Natasha entered the back. She could always shoot the two of them in the back of the head, as long as her gun had bullets left. The car went careening down the road, weaving in and out of traffic, and Natasha winced as she was thrown against the door handle after a particularly tight turn. They were being followed and she looked through the back seat of the car to see if there were any weapons. Clint hit the highway and sped along, putting more distance between them and their pursuers, his mouth set with determination. She could see him eyeing the other man from the corner of his eye, and Natasha was surprised to see genuine concern.
Clint made a sharp turn off the highway, taking them off the roads and through the fields, trying to beat the chopper that Natasha could see following them in the distance.
Again surprising her, there was a plane waiting for them in the field, and she braced herself as Clint quickly stepped on the brakes. He threw himself out of the car with gusto, turning to look and make sure that Natasha and the other man were following. She looked behind her, seeing a few cars and the chopper in close pursuit. With a sigh, she followed the men. She had managed to get herself out of tighter spots before. At this point, the plane was the lesser of two evils.
The pilot had been waiting for them, and she barely had time to get herself into one of the seats before they were taxiing through the field and taking off. Once they were cruising, another man joined them from the cockpit, wearing scrubs and clucking his tongue in displeasure as he surveyed them.
“Are you bleeding out?” he asked Natasha briskly, eyeballing her thigh, and she shook her head. With that, he turned to the mystery man, narrowing his eyes at him. “You’re not even supposed to be in the field anymore, Coulson,” he said with exasperation, pointing to an area at the back of the plane that was curtained off. “Go. Shirt off. Chop, chop,” he ordered, making shooing motions with his hands and following him back to what she supposed was some sort of medical bay.
Natasha looked at Clint, raising an eyebrow and crossing her arms. He grinned back at her unrepentantly. “Bad day?” She narrowed her eyes but did not respond, choosing instead to glare at him. Her usual silence did not work in getting him to talk. Still grinning, he sat back in his seat and ignored the irked look on her face. Natasha realized she was going to have to change her tactics if she wanted answers.
“Have you been following me?” she asked. She hated having to ask directly. Direct questions gave too much away.
His smile dimmed, and he shrugged. “I was actually supposed to kill you,” he admitted, and then laughed when she tensed. “Oh, don’t be like that.” He paused. “I made a different call. Talked Phil into it, so you can trust him,” he added, jerking his head to indicate the man being worked on by the medical staff.
“Why?” The question slipped out before she could stop it. She had dealt with lovesick agents before – men from different countries sent to kill her, following like lovesick puppies and begging her to defect. She had dealt with agents who became squeamish at killing a woman, hesitating and giving her that moment to strike. She had dealt with agents who tried to flatter her, trying to persuade her to defect to other countries with flattery that had more to do with her appearance than any of her skills. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that she would be disappointed if the American behaved that way now. Somehow, she had come to expect more from him. He was better than that.
Clint shrugged again. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said simply. Natasha blinked, again baffled by him. She gave him a skeptical look and said nothing more. It was useless to talk to a man who spoke in riddles.
I am Natasha Romanoff.
Natasha eyed him warily. Coulson sat, calm and collected, looking as if he did not even feel the two broken arms he was sporting. Despite the casts, his tie was knotted straight. His suit was impeccably pressed, but highly unmemorable. He was a sharp contrast to the General and his men. Clint had said to trust him. Natasha found that statement laughable, but she refrained from doing so out loud. She was their guest, after all.
“Anastasia,” she replied.
Clint dutifully started to fill in the paperwork that Coulson had him dig out of his briefcase. He paused when Coulson lightly snorted. “Very funny,” Coulson said dryly. “Did they not get the memo that the Tsarina’s body was found in 2007?”
“Wait, what?” Clint looked hopelessly lost.
Natasha kept her face blank, locking eyes with Coulson for a moment before looking away. She had not expected this American to be so quick. She had expected perhaps an older version of Clint as his handler, not a contemporary in sharp suits and an even sharper mind. After seeing Coulson fight in the hotel, she had expected him to be an agent, and not a handler. Natasha hated reading people wrong. She would not relinquish what little control she had left.
“Let’s try this again,” he suggested after a moment. “What name would you like?”
The question was unexpected. Natasha blinked for a moment, thrown off by the presentation of choice. She had no way to determine if he truly was giving her a choice, or if this was simply a ploy to make this S.H.I.E.L.D. organization appear as something different from the Red Room. Natasha knew better. Men with power were all the same. And yet – still, he had offered her a choice. It was a foreign concept.
“Natasha,” she said after a moment, savoring the sound of it in her mouth. She had used it before, of course. The Red Room had given it to her, just as it had given her all her other faces and names. She had no way to determine if any of it was real. Those childhood memories, from before - they could be the memories of Lena, Olga, Nataliya, or Elizaveta. None of her names were real. However, she had a fondness for Natasha. It felt more solid than the others.
Clint had said to trust this man, but Natasha did not even trust herself. Yet she owed this man a debt, for accepting Clint’s decision to recruit her, and physically fightign for the likes of her. That was something she had never seen the Red Room do. Their persuasion was always about power - sex, money, and conquest. The Red Room never relinquished control, even when its target thought it had. The illusion of control was a dangerous thing.
“And a last name?” Clint asked.
Coulson’s face was immovable. She could not determine what he was thinking at all. Clint had a more expressive face, even if his train of thought was difficult to follow. Natasha wondered about his handler’s control. Perhaps dealing with a non-traditional asset made him more phlegmatic than most. She had seen him face the Red Room unflinchingly, not even giving them the satisfaction of pain when they broke his arms. She respected that.
And so Natasha gave Coulson a small, mischievous grin. “Romanov,” she replied. All names were masculine in America, she remembered. Her smiled widened as she watched Clint dutifully copy down R-o-m-a-n-o-f-f, but she let the bastardization pass. It suited, she thought. She was the bastard creation of the Red Room. She was the Tsarina. She was the Ballerina. She was the Widow.
She was Natasha Romanoff. Her name was real now because it was her own.
Coulson rolled his eyes. He seemed resigned to her dig. That was more comforting that any of their words about human rights. In the Red Room, such insubordination would never had been tolerated. “Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha Romanoff.”
“Welcome to the madhouse,” Clint muttered under his breath. “Where we have a form for everything.”
“You still have eight pages to go,” Coulson reminded him, his tone detached and helpful. “Do try to keep your handwriting legible.” Clint chucked the pen he was holding at Coulson’s ear.
Covering her smile with her unbandaged hand, Natasha found herself relaxing minutely in her chair. She did not trust S.H.I.E.L.D. She did not trust these men – but she liked them. For now, that was enough.