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love is for children and other lies

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pulled out and poured in

There was once a little girl called Tasha, though nobody knows where she went. Up in smoke, perhaps. Down with the ashes. The orphanage might have housed her shadow and echoed thinly with the notes of her whistled lullabies, but there's no trace of her now.

"What is your name?"

"Natalia Alianovna Romanova."

"And what are you?"

She doesn't know the answer yet. She does know that the penalty for wrong answers is violence -- there's blood in her mouth, a strange new taste -- so she keeps quiet.

"What are you?" he says again.

Silence. Natalia can hear his watch, a heavy thing, ticking away.

This is part of what it means to be erased and remade: that for the next ten years her identity will be a great void of nothing, of wordless insignificance, of her heart thudding away at a faster pace than the second hand of a man's watch.


the hundred daughters of the grave

"It will likely be necessary for you to convince him that you are truly interested. Is that clear?"

Natalia is eighteen and a virgin. The odds are good that her handlers are unaware of this fact, but one thing Natalia knows by now is that even when you're not being watched, you're probably being watched. She doesn't make assumptions about what secrets she might or might not have.

She also doesn't hesitate.

"Clear, sir."

A lot of questions were passed between the girls brought up in the Black Widow program. Balanced on the highwire that was being treated simultaneously like worthless scraps of humanity and fiddly, expensive pieces of machinery, they asked: is it true that Anca shattered Galine's marksmanship score? How many ribs did you crack falling from the climbing wall, and from what height? Has anyone every been able to wrangle a word of praise out of Petrovich?

Do you ever wake up uneasy and annoyed from a dream about a pair of faces that were barely faces at all, just the memory of breath that smelled of warm seasons infused with charcoal, and wonder if you were ever anything but this agile shell of anonymous skin wrapped around vocabulary and tendons and reflex?

What they didn't ask one another is this: but what are we being trained for?

Having known no other life it seemed only natural, for many years, to be schooled in weapons and flexibility and the practical, castle-under-siege model of human anatomy, where the focus is on patience and vulnerabilities. It became mundane to be punished with force; Natalia will never shed the invaluable feeling that pain is something silly that must be sat through, eyes on the clock, before one can go outside for games and snacks.

Asking certain types of questions is encouraged. It's the start of a lifetime spent gathering information one way or another. So Natalia's starting point for this mission is the same as any other: gather adequate data. She likes her intelligence firsthand, like any well-trained spy. Clean. As far as possible, unsullied by agenda or ego. The trust that webbed itself between the Black Widow girls as a survival mechanism is being teased apart, as they grow older and more aware of their roles, but she's not in direct competition with anyone here. Natalia sits in a crosslegged circle of teenagers swapping stories about sex; they could be normal girls, anywhere in the world.

Question: is it enjoyable?

The consensus is: yes. Mostly. And they touch their throats and smile at the absurdity of it, these girls, at the sounds and the stickiness and the potential for sheer awkwardness. Natalia ventures, leaning back on her hands, that it doesn't sound all that fun.

"Have a go with yourself," Anna says, to a general wave of squirming and laughter.

Irena tells her it will definitely hurt, but Irena was recruited to the program after killing her stepfather at the age of eight, so she may not be the best source of clean information.

Karina is the eldest of them all, a mild-voiced young woman with not much beauty. She wouldn't be sent on a mission like this one. She's not tall, she's not ugly, she's not striking. She's one of the most perfect spies that Natalia will ever meet.

"Really, never."

"Really," Natalia confirms. Karina wasn't judging her, just confirming fact.

The circle of girls is respectfully quiet as Karina rests her chin on one hand and plucks at the carpet with the other, thoughtful. She shrugs. "Don't try too hard to be anything in particular. You'll work out what he wants. And if you don't, ask."

Karina's also the one who gives her the videotape. It's the first time Natalia has ever seen a man's genitalia up close and she gets her fascinated blinking out of the way quickly. The whole thing is a use for human anatomy that has never been relevant, never held practical application for her. Natalia is more in touch with the capabilities and limitations of her own body than most people in the world, but her imagination has a ragged gap in it the shape of these writhing women and the men who handle them in a way that has none of the economic, purposeful force she knows. Not that she can't sense the danger in it. Behind the absurdity is an ugliness of untruth, the sense that what these people are doing together is much closer to violence than it is to love.

Natalia finds that reassuring.

She takes Anna's advice and tries out the area of her own anatomy that she's neglected to train up with the rest. It isn't a great success. She keeps stubbornly at it, with the instilled persistence that saw her marksmanship and close combat scores climb to the top of the boards, but that just leaves her feeling sensitive and sore and not a little angry that someone didn't think to give her lessons in this earlier. It's not nearly as intuitive as the others told her, and Natalia is not used to failure.

The job, too, is intelligence. It's a slow game and nobody has to end up dead, though of course it can't be ruled out should things not go as planned. Even so, Natalia has been briefed so thoroughly on eventualities that there shouldn't be any need for improvisation. It's not difficult. The government hasn't poured years of effort and thousands of dollars into her only to have it squandered by her own inexperience. Her mark's paranoia has failed to progress as far or as fast as it should have, given his new wealth and the number of secrets up his tailored sleeves. He's a sleek, complacent man with a ready smile; he reminds Natalia of an otter, or a fox kit.

The first smile that she directs back at him is a grain of sand, and the rest of the identity forms around it, layer after shimmering layer. Yelena is sweet, and amusing, and easily impressed by money. Yelena drinks cocktails in tall glasses and uses lace ribbons to tie back her dark hair. She leans close and listens well. And she's just experienced enough to run her hands with confidence down a man's chest, rise onto her toes, and to whisper:

"Tell me what you want me to do."

There's a story about a girl made of snow who seeks out companionship, not knowing that to create love in her heart will warm her even unto death. Natalia thinks of the snegurochka as she bares her skin to friction and touch, as she finds the fire in the man's eyes and mirrors it back at him. It's an inside-out version of the myth. She does what she's asked and she plays at heated desire, and she's cool in the centre, unmelting.


try not to wonder what the weather will be

She doesn't realise that she's been thinking of herself as a sort of soldier until she learns what the difference is. Brushing shoulders with the military is an awakening. She meets men -- and women -- mostly men -- whose training is in many respects similar to hers, but it's the contrasts that are the most telling. Growing your thick hide and your fangs surrounded by other people, one of a merciless many, the question it boils down to is this: when you're sent out into the world, will you be in a pack, or alone? They don't know how to treat her, these soldiers, they're not sure of her, because they exist within a hierarchy, a necessary structure for their safety and for the coordination of many people. You take your orders, and as long as you follow them to the letter, nobody can blame you too much when things get fucked up.

(One of the problems with Natalia is that she provides information on the strength of which, it seems, these decisions are made; the high-level ones, the ones that fuck things up.)

Natalia takes orders but works alone, and soldiers don't trust that -- teamwork is trust, it's motivation, it's what gets you through the now-now-now life of combat, which refuses to acknowledge a past or promise a future. Soldiers use their structured pack for this, the bravado, the insults, the shared languages which have no words for fear but a thousand ways to call someone a girl.

Which is another problem. Natalia's shoehorned into a sniper course littered with crude, twitchy boys not much older than she is, boys who clutch their rifles like security blankets or a drunkard's last bottle of spirits. She is neither mother nor insult nor orifice nor wife. They are not trained to function in the face of Natalia's smile and flicked-back hair, her delicate fingers disassembling a gun faster than anyone but the instructor. And for her part Natalia can't imagine herself in one of these structures, trapped between heavy layers of superiors and all that responsibility for anyone below. She can't imagine trusting people, multiple people, to have her back.

"You don't find it lonely," says Vittorio.

Natalia looks up from where she's frowning at the snapped heel of her shoe, contemplating the run from here to the Spanish Steps in bare feet, and catches herself before she glares at him. It wasn't inflected as a question.

"You do," she says.

This is a bit embarrassing. She's in Rome to destabilise things, stir up enough trouble between the higher echelons of the Church and the secular government of the city that -- well, she's need-to-know only, and her handlers have decided she doesn't need to know what will be stolen, or built, or negotiated, from the chaotic rift that she's been instructed to leave in her wake. That'll be the job of someone with a different skillset. Her best guess would be something to do with property rights, which can be related to import/export and goods storage, which in her line of work translates eight times out of ten to weapons.

The Vatican must have caught more wind of this than anyone suspected, because Natalia hadn't been in the city long before she noticed a man turning up in the same places that she was staking out, too often to be coincidental. She watched him just long enough to note that he stood like a fighter, alert and loose, and then she decided to attack the problem head-on by trailing him away from a Municipio building one evening and waiting for a handy side street before closing the distance and slamming him face-first against a wall.

"Right," she hissed, mustering her very mediocre Italian. He wasn't struggling so she turned him swiftly around to face her and then leaned in again, applying hard force with her forearm across his neck. "Who are you and what are you doing?"

"Oh, good," he gasped. "You are following me. I was starting to think I was imagining things."

She increased the pressure. "Name."

"Father Vittorio Carducci."

Natalia glanced at the dog collar peeking out from beneath her arm, which she'd been ignoring on the assumption that it was a disguise.

"Really?" she said, interested.

"Really," Vittorio said, and crushed both of his feet down against her left ankle with enough force that she heard the snap of her shoe's thin heel and was thrown off balance, and then he leaned comfortably against the wall and told her about the information-gathering servants of the Apostolic Signatura, himself included, with such offhand dryness that it took her almost a minute to realise that he was a fucking priest spy, on the trail of the corrupt officials she'd been planning to leverage. She didn't know if he was warning her off or extending the hand of a potential ally; she was sure they were on opposite sides of something, but she never stopped a source mid-speech, and the frank conversation was refreshing. His Russian was even worse than her Italian so they switched to English, which he spoke fluently but with a heavy accent.

And here they are now, sitting in shadows, half-lit by the lamps from the larger street around the corner. Natalia's tucked away a lot of quality information about the structure of the Roman Curia's more hush-hush departments, and learned enough about Vittorio himself that she's comfortable saying, You do, when it comes to finding their lines of work lonely.

"Yes, on occasion," he says. "But I wouldn't stay in the job if I didn't find it satisfying."

Natalia turns the idea of job satisfaction around in her mind; tries out its shape; can't find a good place to keep it, and so lets it fade away.

"I suppose there are the charming interludes like this one to get you through," she says. She digs in her bag until she finds a half-empty bottle of apple juice, and holds it out to him. "Here. You probably licked up half a handful of dust when you hit the wall."

"Thank you -- ah! Careful of that ring, there's an edge to it."

"Sorry." She makes a face and twists the ring on her finger. "It's old. Sentimental value. I keep meaning to file that sharp bit down."

He takes a long swig of the juice, which is likely warm from a day's worth of summer and her body heat through the bag, then hands the bottle back. She catches his eyes on her body, a brief glide, and he looks rueful but unruffled when she meets his gaze. She hadn't thought about the issue of chastity -- it's hard to remember, what with the sting of her ankle and the way he holds himself, that he's as much a member of the priesthood as any cassocked old man who stands at the front of a church saying Mass for his flock -- but it does explain some of the sharpness to him, the splendid blade of his self-discipline. Chastity is as much a weapon for him as sex is for her: a measured denial of their inner natures in the name of something larger.

"You didn't like the idea of being a normal priest?" she asks.

"I have a gift for this. I can be most useful to the Church this way; it's how I have been called to serve." He smiles. "I get to travel a lot more than most priests, as well. And you, Natalia? What made you choose this life?"

A laugh almost escapes, but she lets it stick in her throat. "It's what I know how to do," she says. And then, more truthfully: "I'm an investment. It's my job to provide good returns."

"It seems out of character," Vittorio says. "Unprofessional, I suppose I mean. For someone in your position to be telling a perfect stranger about your job."

She could spin that back on him, but she doesn't think he works to the same standards of mistrust, doesn't have the same danger pinned to discovery of identity; after all, most of his work is sanctioned, performed in the light of day. And something in the way his sentences flow smoothly out suggests that he doesn't get to talk about his life very often, and he craves it.

"I was Catholic once," she says, "maybe it's habit. I hear the word Father, and out come the confessions."

"Maybe," he says, and now he touches a hand to his mouth. His breathing is shallower than it was.

"It wasn't the juice," she says.


She waits for him to look at her. His hands are spasming and his lips are a dusky purple.

"It was my ring," she says. "When I handed you the bottle."

"But you..."

"I'm here to destabilise," Natalia says.

"When someone kills a priest, it's all about where the body's found," she adds, but he can't hear her any more.

She abandons the corpse for a moment, leaves it sitting against the wall, posed sleepily, and buys a pair of leather flats in a shoe shop two streets away. That broken heel will slow her down. When she returns she hunkers down next to the body that used to be Vittorio and brushes his hair further over his face. She feels irritable, and very tired.

"You fool," she says softly. "I told you my name."

She wears the bad mood for another day or two, despite the relative smoothness of the rest of the mission, and is still chafing when she reports back to her handlers. It's Petrovich and another man in a grey suit who she's reported to before, but whose name she's never been told.

"We did not request a deletion," this man says.

Natalia rocks minutely on her feet and keeps her face still. "Was it ineffective?"

"It was an unnecessary complication."

"It seemed necessary at the time."

He frowns. "Later stages of the operation were compromised."

"I didn't know that. And I didn't know the Signatura was conducting their own investigation; I had to improvise. If you'd given me more information --" She's biting down on the words, but the grey-suited man lifts a hand to halt her.

"Then more information could have been extracted from you," he says.

Testament to the fact that she's been trained to resist interrogation are two scars on Natasha's left shoulder, and the drilled-in ability to keep track of the passage of time independently of environmental stimuli. They rely on her but they don't trust her; they know her but they don't know the depth and breadth of her. What chafes is that she could be used more effectively if they bothered to understand that she's more than the statistics of her test results and the terse lines of her reports. There is no such thing as a perfect Black Widow, but to admit that would be to expose problems with the ability of the program to carry out its mission statement; so they're stuck, annoyed by their own investment, wishing she came with a remote control.

"What are you?"

She is the trigger finger, the teeth at the end of the chain.


certain is the plague of fables

"-- and four and no. Lines!" The crack of Sergei's stick on the floor cuts across the piano. "Look at where you are standing!"

Renata lowers herself onto the balls of her feet, then the flats, with a sigh of muffled relief. As one, the corps de ballet glances from side to side and shuffles itself into a neater formation. It's not as though Sergei, unlike many of the terrifying elderly women that breathe fire and stomp around the edges of the industry clad in black wool, actually has any need for a walking stick; his is purely for emphasis and direction.

"Enough," Sergei says.

Renata shakes out her shoulders as she sits down, and stretches her neck one side at a time. In the huge mirror across the room her reflection is beheaded by the barre, and she turns out her feet and tightens her core on reflex. She takes two good gulps of water from her bottle and checks her phone for messages from Alexei: only two today, but the second one makes her skin heat up; she supposes that her heart would also beat louder and faster, if it wasn't already thumping its way down from a day of exertion.

"I see that smile," Greta says. "Dinner again?"

"Yes, somewhere fancy. He wants me to dress up."

"I'm sure he does," says Greta, but there's no nastiness in it. The poisonous looks and whipcord streams of gossip that appeared when Renata first started seeing one of the company's major sponsors have settled now that she hasn't been nudged up to soloist or even coryphée. She's still a junior corps member, usually on the end because she's a couple of inches below standard height.

When she tugs off her shoes there's blood on the cotton padding, again, and new spots of rawness on her toes. It hasn't been this bad since the early days of pointe classes, or the final weeks-long burst of rehearsals and auditions at the end of school. She never thought that taking two months between seasons would leave her so out of form; she'll just have to push through it. At least her flexibility hasn't suffered.

For dinner Renata wears a red dress and heels that straddle the line between sexy and unwise, considering the damage that she could do her career if she rolled an ankle. But Alexei likes her legs, they're the first thing about her he noticed -- so he says -- and this is the first time in her life she's thought of herself as more than a dancer, more than the daily exercises and the ambition that's steered her this far. She can put up with the ache of her toes and risk a minor sprain for the way Alexei smiles.

"Have you thought more about coming to Vienna? I know," Alexei adds at once, forestalling her, "you've got to see out Giselle's run, but you can take some time before rehearsals start for -- is it Rite of Spring next?"

"It's not that I don't want to..."

"I know, sweetheart." He pushes aside his coffee cup and takes her hand. "My friends -- well, it's business, but they're friends. I want you to meet them, they'll love you."

She laughs. "You want them to meet me because they'll love me. You want to show me off."

"Absolutely." He grins, wheedling. "It'll be dull without you, Renenka, I'll be bored. I'll drink too much. Say you'll come."

"I'll talk to the company," she promises.

Alexei lights up, though he releases her hand and doesn't say anything more as the waiter hovers at their table replacing their half-finished desserts with a plate of petit fours. Renata watches Alexei as he picks out a truffle and holds it delicately in his broad, strong fingers. A tingle of desire crawls down the bare nape of her neck, deliciously sluggish thanks to the three glasses of wine she's already had, just enough to make her shift on her seat and become aware of her mouth.

"What is it?" Alexei asks, noticing her gaze. The chocolate is already melting with the warmth of his hand. "What are you thinking?"

She's thinking about the way he kisses her, the sureness with which those fingers of his can splay her open and make her soar. She doesn't think she could say that aloud even if they were alone, so she takes a chocolate of her own and pulls it between her lips more slowly than she needs to.

Alexei lifts his hand for the cheque with a swiftness that's designed to be amusing, and Renata laughs around the hazelnut that's glowing on her tongue.

She says yes to Vienna.

Alexei sends her roses on opening night, and during intermission Renata keeps holding them gently beneath her nose, not pressing them any closer in case her makeup comes off. She's grateful for the distraction; she's coming down with something, her head's been throbbing and fuzzy for a day and a half. The performance has been fine and will be fine, she's pushed her body through worse and she trusts her muscle memory to get her through the choreography, even if she has been having these brief moments of soft, crackling blankness, like a lost signal on the radio.

The speakers spit out the second act's ten-minute call for the corps, sending a wave of energy through the dressing room. Renata smooths down the edge of her lipstick with one finger and blinks at the smooth, perfect, anonymous face above the ghostly white of her costume.

"Renata," Greta says, and gives her shoulder a tap. "Come on. Hey."

The white noise is back. Renata shakes her head to clear it and follows the rest of the girls silently through the cramped backstage area, trying to run through the opening dance in her head, but she can't focus. One of the stage hands has to yank her sideways when she stumbles so that she doesn't knock against the thick black fabric and set it rippling. The other dancers glance at her, disquiet obvious in the set of their shoulders. The orchestra glides into the first bars of the music and there's a sudden sharp click above her in the flies as someone readies a backdrop and her whole body tenses in response and her hands are wrong, her hands are reaching for a gun, her mind is a radio dropping in and out and in and out and she can't remember how to breathe --

-- and Natalia crashes back into her own mind here, now, in the wings, shrinking back from the audience's line of sight because Renata's instincts are still steering her body. She remembers:

that Alexei Simonov is suspected of having the wrong sort of connections in the United States, and that he's known to have a fondness for ballerinas because his mother danced for most of her life;

that she, Natalia, spent three months learning ballet for what she assumed would be just another job, another deliberately-donned identity, so that when Renata first stepped into an arabesque her tendons would not snap under the imposition of falsely remembered habit;

and that they would have woken her up, somehow, once she had the right information, even if what it took was the interrogation and torture of Renata Vasnetova; driving her out of her mind until all that was left was Natalia herself.

Instead, this. Natalia hyperventilating and hollow in a theatre, ringing with a speechless anger as the truth of her nature displaces the music.

She ignores the faces turned in her direction and backs away, clumsy with the confusion of her feet, until she can break into a run. She shuts herself in the dressing room and wipes paint from her face with trembling hands. With each bared strip of skin she rages at the risk of it, the danger that they put her in by trusting their experimental methods over her own training and ability. She could have done the fucking job. She could have created Renata and worn her skin-tight just like every other imaginary girl. Even now she could walk out pale and quiet and claiming a transient nausea, do her stretches, and curl up in Alexei's bed. Nobody would be any the wiser, not even the people who wiped her clean and sent her out into the world without her weapons, her instincts or her past.

For a long time she sits, framed by bare light bulbs and lipstick kisses for luck, making mental lists of contacts and hideouts and options while her toes bleed gently into the white satin. Her hypothetical nausea is soon a reality so fierce that she retches over the basin, though there's little enough in her stomach to throw up. Renata worries about the abandoned performance; Natalia snarls her down.

This can't happen again, she tells herself. She's only cut out for one line of work, it's true, but if it means escaping another of those ghastly awakenings she'll learn to do it on her own terms. At her own discretion. And in her own mind.


I can sing as you reply

She fakes her own death; or rather, Renata's death, leaving enough clues pointing towards the freezing river and a well-hidden drug dependency that there's even -- she learns, months later -- a few newspaper inches devoted to it. It won't fool her handlers. But it buys time.

When they send people after her, she's waiting. The investment they made is on her side, because they don't leap at once into trying to kill her; the best case scenario for them would be her safe return, broken if necessary but not beyond repair. If they can replace a life's worth of memories with a different life's worth, Natalia reasons, throwing food and clothes into a backpack and trying to decide if she's got enough time to buy another gun before she leaves Dallas for Dublin, they can definitely make her forget that they did it in the first place. She'd be a wasteful corpse.

Plane travel is getting harder for dangerous people who travel light. There are tricks up her sleeve but her pursuers are the ones who put them there. Natalia's impeccably trained, but so is every woman sent after her with instructions to retrieve; she doesn't want to risk a direct interaction, and for all that she likes the message a few broken fingers and missing teeth would send to her old superiors, under her skin there's an affinity that she can't shake. She wonders what happened to the other reprogrammed Black Widows. She wonders if they've worked out the kinks in the method now or if they've factored in a few unfortunate losses, a few girls unmeshed and exposed in more dangerous situations than a well-lit stage.

So she swallows her instinct to stand and fight and negotiate, and instead she runs. She's tired to the bone, her hair is dry and thinning from bleaches and re-dyes, but she's getting away with it, right up until she blinks awake to discover herself tied to a chair. Her head is pounding and her throat is raw and she can't remember -- she remembers going out to buy food. That's it.

"I know you're going to test the knots anyway," someone says, "but you needn't bother."

Natalia looks sideways, and tests the knots. They're very good, especially the ones around her ankles. A woman is standing with her back to Natalia and fiddling with a set of metal things on a tray, which is usually a poor sign. It's only when she turns around again, casting a calm glance at Natalia's experimentally twisting feet, that Natalia recognises Karina.

"I'm glad you've gotten that out of the way," Karina says. She's holding a syringe tipped with a thin needle, and Natalia has a brief moment of confusion: why let her wake up and then drug her?

"This is a local anaesthetic," Karina says. "Hold still."

Natalia doesn't, of course, she makes a fierce go at twisting her shoulder away and almost dislocates it in the process, and the needle jabs in at an angle.

"Seriously, Natalia," and now Karina sounds exasperated. "I'm not here to hurt you, so stop it with the fucking wriggling around."

Stripped of other options, Natalia forces herself to settle. There's a brief sting in her arm as the drug spreads out in the tissue. It feels exactly like every other local anaesthetic she's ever had.

"What are you doing?"

"There's a tracking chip embedded under your skin," Karina says, matter-of-fact. "Didn't you wonder how we always found you?"

Natalia's dry mouth goes even drier. "I guess I thought I wasn't hiding well enough."

"No, you were doing fine." Karina sets down the empty syringe. "Give that a minute. If it was just your physical trail, we'd have lost you in Osaka."

Osaka was three cities ago.

"I got that scar on my arm in the first week of arms training," Natalia says, but it's a token protest only. This makes too much sense to be a lie; she's an idiot not to have suspected already. "We were doing knife drills."

"So they sewed you up, and two nights later they sedated you and inserted the chip beneath the same spot. They're not stupid. I think mine's in my left calf; we've all got scars. We've all got secret places."

"How did you find out?"

There's a scalpel in Karina's hand now. "I'm being -- streamed differently, I suppose you would say. Information is where I'm strongest, and despite the enhancements I'm going to age out of the ideal physical capacity sooner than the rest of you. They're feeding me bits and pieces of data to see if the program is capable of producing analysts too."

Natalia watches as Karina widens and deepens the initial cut. There's a very quiet ting of metal on metal.

"If you have a tracker as well, they'll see the signals meet. They'll know you're with me."

Karina gives her a flat look: catch up. Natalia does, and laughs under her breath.

"You're the latest sent to retrieve me?"

"Actually," Karina says, "no."

This time Natalia laughs more loudly, despite the thinness of the edge she's skating, despite the instruments probing her numb flesh. "They finally decided I'm more trouble than I'm worth. Fine. But how are you going to explain it to them? If you were careless enough in a deletion mission that we were in the same room for this long, why would I leave you alive? Why would anyone..." A plaintiveness has crept into her voice.

Karina pauses with the tracking chip held neatly in a pair of forceps, and hears the true question. She shrugs. "Why does anyone do anything?"

"Motive," Natalia snaps. "Or I won't believe you."

"I don't care if you believe me," Karina says. She sets the chip down on a plate and peels off one of her gloves. She's looking at the chip, not Natalia, when she says, "If you want out, you should be allowed out."

"Do you --?"

"Me?" She turns back, smiling. "No. I'm happy where I am. But I can't say for sure that I might not be, some day. There's no harm in creating a precedent." A pause. "I'm going to untie you now. Then I'm going to stitch this up."

It's true that their strengths lie in different areas, and Natalia's eighty percent sure that her hand-to-hand combats skills have Karina's outmatched. Untying her is a signal, an outstretched palm.

"All right," Natalia says, meaning, I won't kill you. She stays silent in the chair while Karina puts the first stitch through the small hole lipped with pale scar tissue. It isn't bleeding much at all; there must have been adrenalin in the anaesthetic. Natalia says, "I can throw the chip into a ditch, or whatever you've been told to do with my body. I can still be dead."

Karina shakes her head. "One glance of you, years from now, anywhere in the world, and I'd be proven a liar. Besides, you'd be running and hiding forever. Is that what you want?"

Natalia kicks out her freed legs and tenses the muscles. She points her feet, straining for a good arch even in the leather ankle boots, and then ejects herself forcibly from Renata's train of thought.

"No," she says. "I think I'm pretty much done with hiding."

"Then you have to convince them to stop looking. Why do you think they want you dead if they can't get you back?"

An easy one. "Information. I know what they know, and what they want to know."

"Precisely," Karina says. "So hold it to ransom. Send them a message: you'll keep quiet if they leave you alone, but for every time they try to kill you, you'll let something slip."

Natalia nods, working out the shape of the story. "You were their best chance; you tried, and you failed. And I left you alive to show them that I'm not their enemy, and to carry my message."

"One more knot," Karina says. "There. Done."

Natalia stands and stretches out the rest of the cramps, shakes herself loose and ready. "A Black Widow doesn't go down easily," she says, a warning.

"So we'd better make this convincing." Karina checks her balance, raises her hands, nods once, and smiles.

Natalia smiles back.


you know I dream in colour

In the end she crushes the chip into jagged dust with the hilt of her heaviest knife, and sweeps the dust onto the floor. Let them think whatever they want about the timing; Karina can handle that side of the story.

She buys one more plane ticket and sits in the airport, touching and touching again the small line of prickly sutures on her arm. Only now that the fear's strings have been cut can she admit that she was scared in the first place, scared that she'd freed herself only to live an existence stifled by the shadowy pressure of other people. Now she's alone, and she's happy. She's got money, and a job offer or five that she can walk into now that she's stopped running, and she's reclaimed the right to wake up tomorrow with the future held tightly in her own fists.

Her name she reclaims as well, backing away from her birth and unfolding the intimacy until it's hers alone. Natasha Romanoff is not the same person as Natalia Romanovna; the differences are subtle but they're there nonetheless, even if the only person left to notice is herself. It's not difficult. She's reinvented herself so many times already in the name of survival.

The codename, however, is an accident.

"Alright, take the blindfold off," says a voice.

Natasha waits with harmless patience while her guide releases her arm and tugs the scrap of fabric up over her hair. She even blinks a bit and looks around her as though for clues; might as well maintain the charade that she's that easily disorientated. The sort of person who enjoys leaving coded advertisements for assassins in the adult section of a magazine probably also enjoys this sort of useless theatre.

Nobody offers her a seat. She falls into an easy stance and casts a glance at the man sitting on the opposite side of the room, even adding a hint of the coquette, pretending to be impressed by the amount of wealth that's scattered around them on careless display.

"Are you her?" the man asks. He sounds so breathlessly, childishly pleased that for a second Natasha wonders if that advertisement really was for an escort.

She unhoods her eyes, flattens her voice and says, "Am I who."

Her employer all but claps his plump hands together. "The Black Widow."

Natasha's first instinct is to glare the handle into nonexistence, shake it off like all the other remnants of her history, but a deeper stirring of satisfaction makes her pause. And why not? The underworld knows who trained her, it's why they're clamouring to put money in her bank accounts. They know what she can do. And there is, Natasha sees now, an element of vindictiveness to their enthusiasm that is childish, and that doesn't have much to do with her, personally, at all: she was created to act as the tool of a government, and many of these people like the idea of turning such a tool to their own ends. It's like they're cheating on their taxes, in some obscure way, or finding roundabout revenge for years spent in prisons built by other governments, elsewhere.

On the other side of the coin, it reminds Natasha's creators that she's not theirs and she's not scared. She's even providing them with free publicity.

And it all starts here, in a purple-walled room that smells like too much cologne, Natasha making the quick decision to clothe herself in all the mythos available.

"That's right," she says. "That's me."

For a while her identity is simpler than it's ever been -- even though sometimes she lies awake touching her own scars and thinking about other young women, elsewhere in the world -- and she lets down her guard. She allows herself to forget that she's been rewritten by her own hands and those of others such that the blackboard is gathering stubborn layers of chalk, never quite rid of the shapes of the previous lesson. You can't leave yourself, your selves, behind.

She's in Amiens, a stopover adding credence to her current tourist alias, and the hotel breathes night air through lace curtains along with a thread of classical music, wafting on the edge of hearing. When she wakes she throws an arm across the pillows and wonders why the bed is empty. A name catches in the back of her sleepy throat. The room is unfamiliar until she rolls onto her back, frowns at the ceiling, lets things fall into focus, and abruptly feels sick and grimy from the inside out. Her body remembers how to crave another body and it's like being punched in the stomach. It's her and it's not her. Over and over Renata went willingly to bed and used Natalia -- Natasha -- Natalia's anatomy to play out her loving desires.

Her head is stuffed with things she's wanted and she's never wanted. Her arms are shaking, rattling like teeth, and she gets out of bed and heads to the bathroom, meaning to vomit and then scald herself sensible in the shower. Rendered awkward by the sense that her legs aren't hers, she stubs her toe on a chair instead. The sudden, blinding crack of pain acts to clarify her and hold her steady. Renata and Natalia collapse and leave Natasha, covered in cold sweat.

"Get a hold of yourself," she says, aloud.

Hold on tight, she means. Grab firmly at the corners of what you know to be true.

From Amiens she goes to Paris, where the job turns messy. She should have seen it coming. More than that, she should have known better than to take the job in the first place; she should have turned it down as soon as she knew she'd be acting as part of a team. But there's nothing else on offer at the moment and she's becoming less and less comfortable with long periods of downtime. She likes having the sure objective of a mission.

The situation is that a research group in America and a research group in France are racing each other towards the medical breakthrough of the century, or else the French group has been ahead all along and the American group is jealous, and either way a pharmaceutical company is waving a lot of money around; Natasha listens to that part of the briefing, then discards most of it as irrelevant to the task at hand, which could be dressed up under the title of corporate espionage but is, when you get down to it, stealing and petty vandalism. Mitchell, the coordinator, is the one who contacts her. She knows of him as people in their line of work know of one another: rumours and reputation. He certainly knows of her. Natasha suspects she's on this job because their employer handed Mitchell a lot of money and it short-circuited his brain into hire-a-celebrity mode, never mind that there are hundreds of cheaper grifters around who could do what they're asking her to do. Apparently the computer guy, Abdul, is just as well known in hacker circles, and -- judging by his eye-rolling -- just as overqualified.

At least the first stage is enjoyable. Natasha spends two days reading through the passive-aggressive academic catfights currently taking place in the Letters sections of a few bioscience journals, dons her best office-dominatrix pencil skirt and some strategic pearls, and plays infiltration.

"Really, Madame, we had our security protocols upgraded just two months ago."

"Mm," Natasha says. Her current persona leaves long pauses in conversation. This is partly because it's an easy way to discomfort people, and partly because it's been a long time since she spoke French and her syntax is rusty enough that she has to wrench it into shape.

"We should really -- oh, down here. As you like." The lab technician made the mistake of letting Natasha overtake him, and now he's stuck answering questions in her wake instead of leading her on the standard tour. It's almost too easy to ascertain what happens in the event of a fire alarm and where the main servers are housed, and get a feel for the the odd layout of the offices. The building shows signs of wear; the hospital is being rebuilt as a series of snugly connected modern buildings next door, and medical services are being moved one by one out of this large and ungainly structure. The research offices are housed in what used to be the maternity wing, with the nurses' stations having been fitted out as common areas or gutted for lab space.

The sequence of events as Mitchell sees it goes something like this: Natasha sets a small fire in an old kitchenette next to the server room. Legitimate staff evacuate when the fire alarm sounds. Abdul downloads the required data from the servers, and then sets his own fire to destroy the hardware. They're gone by the time the fire trucks arrive to contain the modest blaze.

Mitchell, of course, sits in the apartment and calls the shots via radio.

"Are we ready?"

"We're fine," Natasha says, jamming some cardboard under the door. The tiny room has a faint smell of mould and the carpet has been torn up at the edges as though it was planned for renovation like the rest of the wing and then abandoned. For all that, Mitchell's building plan is correct: a smoke detector is embedded in the ceiling

Natasha sets up her pile of fuel in the middle of the floor and, with grunting effort, cracks the room's window so she doesn't asphyxiate.

"Any time," says Abdul. "I just got out of the elevator."

Natasha lights her miniature fire and uses a magazine that she discovered abandoned and limp, next to a microwave that's seen better days, to waft the thread of smoke up towards the ceiling. It doesn't take long.

"That sounds promising," says Mitchell, barely audible now over the painful whooping of the alarms, which are punctuated by a calm recorded voice advising people to évacuez, s'il vous plaît. Voices pass the door in small groups and Natasha settles in, wetting the floor in strips around her fire to discourage it from becoming too wide. It's burning nicely now.

"I'm in," says Abdul. There's a sharp rap on the wall between the server room and the neglected kitchenette. "This shouldn't take long."

Natasha sets her nose against the window and breathes the city-tainted air, waiting. She casts an occasional glance at the fire to make sure it's behaving. Beneath the window and a way back from the building, large groups of people are gathering at their evacuation points, a handful of them bearing hardhats and clipboards. She can't hear sirens yet.

"I've got the data," Abdul says eventually.

"Right," Mitchell says. "Now you --"

Natasha can't hear the rest of the sentence because the explosion knocks her off her feet. It's the shock more than anything else, but there is a jolt, and the noise leaves behind a ringing sucking quiet that feels like a slap and lasts only a second. Then, cacophony from under the floor. Frantic yells. Screams that rise to screeches, and a muted crackle that stiffens the hair on her arms.

Her radio is screeching too. She puts it next to her ear.

"-- going on? Abdul?"

Natasha stares at her fire, which has grown but doesn't look wider; she steps around it with barely the need to dance on her toes, and puts herself near the door. It looks hungrier, though, both taller and deeper somehow, licking away at the jagged floor and heating one side of her face. There's a black line seared like a snake between where she lit the fire and one of the room's walls.

She tries to open the door and can't, has a brief moment of paranoia and fury and considers kicking it down, then remembers the cardboard doorstop. Once she's outside the room she lifts the radio and shouts into it.

"What the hell is below me, Mitchell? Why hasn't it been evacuated? And why do I have a damn explosion on my hands?"

"That's -- shit, hold on." A rustle of papers. Mitchell clears his throat. "The Intensive Care unit."

"You said this whole wing was offices!"

"It is on that floor," Mitchell snaps.

Natasha isn't going to give him the breath it would take to say, and everyone knows that fire only travels horizontally, don't they? She flicks the radio off, shoves it into her shoulder bag, and runs for the stairs. Intensive Care. Medical gases, oxygen, running through plumbing and tubes and into people's lungs; patients hooked up to life-saving things that are hooked into the wall, patients who can't evacuate quickly. A crumbling hospital that needs to be replaced. And she didn't ask, she didn't even fucking look, she just assumed that the person whose job it was to research the situation and come up with a plan would have enough sense not to make an oversight this colossal; that if he knew where the smoke detectors were, he'd also know about any active lines of gas embedded in the floors. She gambled with someone else's intellect instead of her own. Stupid.

On the ground floor the screams are louder, people are stumbling out of the grey din and also, unbelievably, stumbling in as well. The smoke is no longer a hint in her senses, it's a cloth held over her nose and a rasp in her throat. She can hear the muffled, hysterical sobs of children and now, in the distance, sirens. She's pinned to the spot by a horror that's knife-sharp and visceral, and part of it is felt by a dancer who's never lifted a hand in violence, but most of it is older than that. Older and younger. Natasha breathes in and coughs out the taste of burning things and deep within her is a six-year-old girl smudged with ashes, screaming.

Running is a decision made by her body and her memories, so she doesn't stop when it's sensible to do so, when she's out of immediate danger or even when she's left the hospital many streets behind. She doesn't stop when she's showered the smell out of her hair and then chopped most of it off and dyed it with henna, replacing one stink with another. She doesn't stop for the deafening disaster of Mitchell's apologies and recriminations, which reach a phone number she never uses again.

Natasha runs for a week and ends up in another continent, drunk and full of white noise, bullying her next job out of the aether. She's killed people without once asking if they deserve it, or even asking what sort of meaning the word deserve can possibly hold. She's taken people apart and made them sing. This shouldn't be any different, accident or no accident, but it's gotten under her nails and now she feels flame-heat on her eyelids when she closes them. She's not religious but she finds herself getting into moods where she wonders if her deeds are being tallied, somewhere, and what that six-year-old girl would say if she could pick up that tally and read it. The shell of her is wearing thin and inside dwell the ghosts of strangers. She wants to sleep and she wants to discard her ability to dream.

But she's made to carry on, her clockwork is stronger than her fears. She keeps moving. She holds tight.


birds that land on the windowsill

Natasha is in Sydney and the sun shines on, the sky unclouded day after day like a personal affront. One of the richest men in the world is staying in one of his own hotels, the kind of place that has at least nine different kinds of suite available, and Natasha's been hired to kill him by a nominally mysterious client. Anyone with half a brain for current events, murky dynastic issues or plain old money-lust could have worked out that it's one or more of the man's children footing the bill, but it'd be discourteous at best for Natasha to point this out.

On Monday she checks herself into a room with a private balcony overlooking the beach, settles herself on the soufflé-like bed with its yielding softness awaiting the unwary beneath a crisp white cover, starts to flick through her dossier, and falls promptly asleep. She wakes up mid-afternoon with the familiar twist of complaint in her muscles; short downtime is one thing, but walking straight onto the plane after her last job without so much as a day in between was not, in retrospect, the smartest thing she could have done. She doesn't sleep well on aeroplanes. She doesn't sleep well in any enclosed space surrounded by hundreds of strangers, and she's carried out at least one job at twenty thousand feet, so she doesn't associate them with relaxation.

To keep herself awake she imposes sunlight upon her retinas. It seems to be what everyone else is doing; halfway across the lobby, towel in hand, she adheres to the tail end of a large crowd of American tourists. They're talking about the lives they've temporarily abandoned, in the awed tones of those who won't have to return to them for a while yet -- just think, right now I'd be in my third meeting for the day, oh! no! I guess it'd be the middle of the night -- and a rush of satiated giggles; isn't it just ridiculous that the planet turns on its axis in this way?

Natasha stretches out her towel on a patch of sand that's right at the edge of the clumped mass of people aggressively enjoying the beach. Already time has slowed to a tick of awareness in the back of her neck; she could make this last. After all, that's what she does on jobs, she's well known for it. She takes her time. She never leaps into a situation when she has the chance to plan. All the better if the sunshine makes her want to shudder her heels deep into the sand and knead salted air into the muscles of her arms.

The water is at first cooler than she expected, then warmer. There are broken shells beneath the balls of her feet, on which she bounces, lazy, the water just high enough for her to feel free of gravity. The swimmers are confined invisibly by a set of flags on the shore indicating safe water; Natasha bobs near to, maybe just outside of, the imaginary lines sketched on the sea. She's not alone, even when she ducks under the next wave and swims further out to where her toes can no longer reach the shells. Teenagers populate this area in loose, shrieking groups, out of earshot of any adults that might be accompanying them. Natasha watches them in between floating on the slow humps of the waves, for lack of anything else to do, but her mind is already creeping treacherously back to the subject of work: her inner blueprint of the hotel, the gaps in her knowledge of the mark's schedule. So she's been sightlessly watching the girl in the red swimsuit -- younger than the others, perhaps just over ten -- drift sideways and away for almost a minute before she realises that something is going wrong.

"Hey," she calls, and then, "Blyad," under her breath when nobody pays attention. No time for careful plans, only the decision: yes or no? It's none of her business, she's not here to draw attention to herself, and it would be very, very easy to look the other way.

The girl is further out, now, and here's a shrill note to her shouts that Natasha registers, automatically, as terror.

"Yes or no," Natasha says, treading water. "Damn it."

It doesn't take her long to reach the girl, which is part of the danger. The water tugs at her legs, wanting them deeper. Natasha takes hold of the girl's arm and grips it hard enough that the white-faced thing stops babbling.

"Arm around me," Natasha orders, "that's it," and off they go. Straight towards shore doesn't work, she finds out, and the flags are only dull specks against a beige blur by the time she aims herself at them and kicks harder, moving on a gradual diagonal, the girl shivering and making things worse by trying to help. Closer to shore people start to notice them, and as soon as they reach the frothy foam at the edge of the sand, the girl is squirming away on buckling legs. She stumbles into the waiting arms of the woman who forgot that timezones exist. Natasha switches on her most socially awkward persona and smiles, shrugs off thanks, extricates herself from the situation as swiftly as possible. It takes longer than it should. Their gratitude is persistent.

One of the group even finds her, later that night, in the hotel's rooftop bar. There are three other bars, of course, for the two days a year when Natasha assumes even Australia must have bad weather, but this one has strings of lights between neat potted trees and a breeze off the sea that soothes itself along her shoulders, which are pink and near-peeling from where she seriously underestimated the fact that gap in the ozone layer is a real thing.

"Hey," the man says, fitting himself into the space next to her at the bar. She recognises him as one of the small crowd who watched her stupid attention-garnering act and was hovering over the girl afterwards. "That was a good thing, what you did on the beach," he goes on. "Can I get you a drink?"

"Sorry," she says easily. "You're not my type."

"Alright," he says, just as easily. "You still look as though you could use the drink."

Light catches in the sweep of spilled spirits and condensation on the bartop and Natasha pulls one finger through it. Here she is, surprised by the kindness of a stranger. She has no agenda, and he has harmless eyes.

"Scotch," she says. "Whatever they've got. Thanks."

They've got Glenmorangie. Emma McCormack is lined up on her tongue, but he doesn't ask her name, just clinks his glass against hers with a smile and wanders off to join his friends while the malt is still warming her mouth.

She makes a habit of that bar, makes a fixture of herself, never drinking more than a single, slow glass, flirting with the night air. Hands near her hips, the tilt of her neck just so; it's the easiest disguise, but it's not just that. There's a shift in the air that she's learned to tune in to, because it means she's striking the right note of femininity and has been moved into the right box in the minds of her spectators. Well, technically it's the wrong box, but the right one for her purposes. For someone who has no interest in their hands on her skin, she cares a lot about winning their underestimating eyes.

Afterwards she takes off her shoes and goes wandering barefoot through the hotel, filling in her gaps, swaying into walls or fumbling her stilettos onto the ground with a drunken chuckle if she's found in places she shouldn't be. Her plan is complete, her escape route memorised, the night she steps into her hotel room and switches on the light to find a man with a gun sitting in the largest chair.

She takes an immediate step backwards -- she can keep up the drunken act if need be, trip to the ground and then the knife strapped to her leg will be within easy reach -- but there's a click as the man releases the safety on the gun.

"Don't do that," he says, close to friendly, and Natasha focuses on his face, actually shocked.

"That's not very polite," she says, "after you were such a gentleman in the bar." Almost without thinking she's shifting her weight over one hip, loosening her voice, melting into the best mixture of vulnerability and promise. It's usually worth a try.

He looks bemused and lowers the gun to his knee, still pointed at her. "It's a bit late for that, Natasha," he says. "I'm not your type, remember? Come on, sit down."

She settles on the edge of the bed, forcing her muscles into neutral, mind racing. This could be any of a number of things. She needs information.

"So, you know my name. Do I get yours?"

He smiles; it looks genuine, but that's no guarantee. He probably has just as many reasons to lie as she does. "My name's Clint Barton. I was sent to kill you by the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."

"SHIELD, huh." Government man. All right. "I assume the job's a fake, then. Lure me down to the wrong side of the world where I could quietly disappear, was that the idea? What were you going to do if I actually killed the guy?"

"The job's real." Barton shrugs. "SHIELD has no interest in Martino. They are, however, very interested in you."


"Nice thought," he says, "but I'm not for sale."

"Then why not we?"

"I try not to get interested in my targets. I'm sure you know how that goes. Drink?"

He stands and makes his way across the room. She's not stupid enough to seize this, the first thing like an opening he's given her. She does know how this goes: make a connection, emphasise their similarities, soothe her fear. But her instincts aren't tensing her up the way they normally would in the presence of manipulation. If only his smile didn't reach his eyes this would be a whole lot simpler.

Natasha unfolds her legs in a swift movement, experimenting. Sure enough, he turns just as fast, lifting the gun. She settles her feet deliberately on the ground and smiles at him: not fooled. He gives a little jerk of his jaw that looks amused, but his grip on the gun is steady.

She might not get out of this one alive. It's always a possibility, of course, but she doesn't often have so much inactivity in which to think about it.

He opens the minibar and peers inside with frank curiosity, then hooks out a handful of bottles. Tiny Johnnie Walker lands in her lap and she laughs, letting her startlement show, releasing some of the tension. Agent Barton unscrews the lid of his own small bottle and takes a swig. That could be a good or a bad sign. Natasha hovers, undecided, between her facades; she might as well be herself, in whatever time remains.

"How do you do that, with your eyes?"

"My eyes?"

"In the bar." She lifts her bottle of whisky to illustrate. "You didn't look like you could kill an ant. I'm usually a good judge of dangerous people."

"Yeah?" he says, unsmiling. "Me too."

That's genuinely amusing. She gives him an incredulous look.

"So why aren't you dead," he says.


He lifts the gun again and readiness warps through her limbs. "Call this self-defence," he says. "I wanted you to sit still for long enough that the urge to do something stupid would pass."

She opens the whiskey and takes a swig of her own: half a mouthful, it won't touch her reflexes, but it might put him at ease. "Stupid like?"

"Kill me before I could talk to you."

"Kill my assassin." One knife at her thigh, another in the small of her back, but her best shot here could be broken glass. He's the one who was shortsighted enough to drop it in her lap. "Sure, that'd just be childish of me."

He holds her gaze, smiling again. Slowly, with obvious gestures, he turns the gun in his hand, clicks the safety back on, and places it on the table. Now his hands are empty.

"I don't want to kill you, Natasha."

"What does that," she says blankly, "have to do with anything?"

"I'm not going to kill you."

She raises her eyebrows. "Is this a defection?"

"Quite the opposite, actually. I thought I'd try my hand at recruitment."

Silence. She waits for the punchline.

"You are kidding," she says finally.


"I have a job."

"This one's better," he says.

"You were sent here with an objective," she points out. "Isn't someone going to be angry when you fail?"

"Ah, well. The good thing about my bosses is that they trust my judgement. They trust that if I get halfway in and read the situation differently, I'll have enough sense to be flexible."

She can't think of anything to say to that. If they sent him in here with a script, well-worded professional bait, they did an uncannily good research job. But there are hundreds of less risky ways to headhunt a freelance agent, so she's left with the nearly-as-bewildering alternative: that this man has done an about-face in the middle of a dangerous assignment, and that he has good reason to think his instincts are allowed to override the orders of his superiors.

This is the second time in her life that someone's decided not to kill her. The knowledge is hot air in her chest, an expansion, a terrible lightness.

"Why?" she asks. "It's still a risk. Why take it, for me?"

"I know you could be more, you could be better, than what you're doing now. And I know you think so too."

She laughs. "You know that? Is that what you know?"

He walks over and crouches on the floor in front of her. Well within kicking range. "That's exactly what I know," he says, and holds out one empty hand. "I think you'd be a good fit. Why not give us a try?"

This is mad. Her palm itches and she closes it into a fist. "And if I say no, right now, or even once I've given it a try -- do you expect me to believe that I get to walk away?"

Barton's hand is as steady as it had been on the gun. Natasha still has no idea at all if he's about to lie to her.

"Take the risk," he says.

Later she realises that she was safe from the moment Clint let himself into her hotel room, because if he was going to kill her then she would never have seen his face. There would just have been the arrow, and then nothing.

Natasha shuts herself in the bathroom on the plane from Sydney to Los Angeles, a long, long flight chasing the sunset across the Pacific. Isn't it just ridiculous how the planet turns. She stands with her hands on the basin and her feet on the floor, breathing through the turbulence, looking at herself in the mirror. She can let herself think, now, because she's trapped herself in a metal box above the ocean, speeding inexorably towards the results of her own decision. Jobs she'll take slowly, but she's got to trick herself into following through on something like this. So she didn't kill Martino; that'll hurt her reputation, leave her a little less to run back to. So she didn't ask to go anywhere, or collect anything, before she let Clint Barton walk her out of her independent life and into the grasp of another organisation.

Barton. She was steeling herself for conversation, sure that he'd feel the need to consolidate and confirm his influence, but maybe he's just as aware as she is that simply by getting on the plane she's made her commitment. He's watched a couple of movies. Read the magazine. Now he's got his headphones on and his eyes closed, though they flew open as soon as she levered herself into the aisle on her way to the bathroom. She hasn't had to switch on any of her facades. His company is so damn relaxing that it's making her tense.

There's also the fact that he saved her life and now she has to prove that he didn't make a huge mistake in doing so, that he didn't judge the situation poorly -- oh, there's a trap there, an obligation, mixed up in all that trust.

The last thing she needs is a hawk on her shoulder, digging in his claws.

"Chase him away, Natasha," she says to her reflection.

The box hurtles onwards.


each of us a nation

She meets Phil Coulson's bland eyes over his forgettable handshake and thinks immediately of Karina. His is the truest sort of spy, the sort that will blend into backdrop with barely a whisper of apologetic presence, and silently soak up secrets. And on top of that, he's likable.

"Barton," he says mildly.

"She's good," says Barton. There's no way to tell from his tone if he means competent, which Agent Coulson no doubt already knows, or if he's making a moral judgement based on her Good Samaritan stunt on the beach, in which case Natasha has some news for him about context and shades of grey. He could be using it as shorthand for it'll be fine.

"I see," Coulson says.

Natasha, who gets irritable when denied data, tries a more thorough cold read on the man. She's unsurprised that it turns up nothing. She also bites down on the inside of her cheek, startled to find herself about to speak into Coulson's ready silence. He's very good.

When she says nothing, Coulson nods and looks back at Barton. "It's not up to me, of course."

"Well, yeah." Barton's stance relaxes. "But I'd have been an idiot to take her straight to the top."

Natasha would pass that off as either bureaucracy or cowardice, but she's heard things about SHIELD's director. Largely that he's a mean, slippery motherfucker who's seen more action than anyone under his command, plays a slow game, and -- despite the eyepatch -- wouldn't know the meaning of the word affectation if it bit him on the ass.

Fury's been prewarned; she can tell because he doesn't look up when Coulson leads the way into the room. He keeps typing with infuriating slowness and lets the atmosphere ferment.

After about a minute Coulson clears his throat in the same mild manner that he does everything else. "Sir," he says.

Fury gives the keyboard a final vindictive poke and stands up. He looks and Natasha looks back; she gets a lot more off him than she did Coulson, but the uncomfortable sensation of being seen just as thoroughly in return spreads over her face like a flush.

He says, "Traitors don't defect just the once."

Natasha doesn't blink. "This is a choice. My childhood wasn't."

"And how are you going to convince me that you won't sell us to the highest bidder?"

There's the sense that an expletive could and indeed should have been inserted after the majority of the growled words in that sentence.

Natasha says, "If money got me out of bed in the morning, I'd have retired to Hawaii years ago."

"Hawaii," says Fury.

"I like beaches," says Natasha.

"That," Barton says afterwards, "was the weirdest damn job interview I've ever seen."

He went all tight in the shoulders when Fury turned to him and said, "On your fucking head be it, Agent Barton," and he hasn't relaxed yet. Natasha eyes him. She should, she thinks, say thank you.

"Drink?" she says.

"It's ten in the morning and I -- hey, scratch that, we -- have a situation briefing at two," Barton says.

It's like the damn military all over again. Natasha thinks longingly about the three closest exits and wonders if she'd be able to get out of the base without killing anyone.

"Natasha?" Barton clicks his fingers in front of her face. "So are we getting this drink, or what?"

They sit bolt upright in the back row of the briefing, three beers down apiece, Natasha keeping her most perfect poker face and Clint Barton's arm vibrating with urgent, silent laughter next to hers. She's going to take her time making her mind up about him. She's not built for partnerships, much less friendships. One day at a time.

She's stuck at headquarters for four weeks, learning what passes for the ropes. She behaves, she doesn't push, she keeps her eyes open. Sometimes Barton's there; mostly he isn't. For most of the sessions she's assigned to Coulson or to Agent Maria Hill, who, to Natasha's relief, makes no attempt at bonding, feminine or otherwise.

In the fourth week something must be decided behind the scenes, because Natasha's first legitimate United States passport is approved, and the day after it lands on her desk her security clearance jumps five levels. That final week is when most of the real work is done; Natasha spends fourteen-hour days with SHIELD's analysts, a group of fiendishly intelligent people who possess a coffee machine superior even to the Director's, filling in gaps in the organisation's knowledge and trying to cram into her head the details of political situations that are relevant to the US government but were useless to a freelance killer.

It's halfway through the sixth straight day of this that she stands up to stretch, flicks her eyes around the ceiling, and catches sight of Clint Barton, sitting motionless on the upper balcony with one leg tucked up and his nose buried in a book. Agent Okotie follows Natasha's gaze and lifts an arm. "Hawkeye!" she shouts. "Come down here and be useful. My files are a mess."

"Your files don't know the meaning of the word, Nuanae," Barton says. He claps the book shut and levers himself over the edge of the balcony, then does a sort of jerky shimmer down the metal lattice to reach the ground level.

"This boy," Okotie murmurs. "Such a showoff."

"How long have you been up there?" Natasha demands, but Barton ignores her.

"Can I requisition the Black Widow?" he asks.

Okotie waves a hand. "You can requisition her lunch break."

"Great, let's go."

He takes hold of her arm, by the wrist. And maybe Natasha's instincts are turned up too high from being surrounded by strangers, and maybe she's trying to prove something to that part of her that was purely, whole-heartedly glad to see him again, and maybe Nuanae Okotie's razor intelligence has wound up in her a yearning for a chance to be the expert in her own field. Maybe it's been a long time since she was allowed to dance.

Either way, Barton slams into the table so hard that the air leaves his chest in a short cough, and Natasha kicks his feet sideways as he tries to find his balance. He's on the ground for less than a second before he rolls, crouches and stands, then stands there rubbing his side and glaring.

"Christ," he wheezes. In response to Natasha's unimpressed look -- surely, he could do himself more damage slipping over in the shower -- he adds, "I thought that was you defecting. I was going to ask to come with you so that Fury couldn't strangle me."

Agent Okotie is laughing so hard her eyes are crinkled slits and her loose shayla has slipped back from her hairline. "Get out of my offices," she orders. "Field agents! Nothing but trouble."

Barton actually makes a feint for her arm again, and this time it's Natasha who laughs.

The food in the staff cafeteria is just good enough that you can't complain about it, especially if you've eaten some of the meals that Natasha has; not that it stops SHIELD staff from complaining. Natasha eats in silence until Barton crushes his empty soda can thoughtfully under one fist, rests his chin on his thumb and looks at her.

"So?" he says.

Natasha glances at him. "So?"

"So when do you run back to your life and prove me wrong?"

"Not today," she says, her tone just as even as his. She turns over a few lettuce leaves in the hope of finding more chicken pieces, fails, pushes the plate away from her and says, "I've signed a lease. I'm moving out of the Regent this weekend."

"You -- of course you still haven't moved out of the hotel."

"I could use a hand with the boxes," she lies.

Barton says, "You realise you're buying me pizza."

She frowns. "We just ate."

"What? No. Oh. Moving house in America, 101," Barton says. "This'll be fun."

"One oh what?" says Natasha.

"You seriously -- and now you're messing with me."

"You make it too easy."

That's the problem with Barton. Everything's easy, with him, and the last time Natasha thought something too easy she ended up with burns on her hands and souls marked off against her name.

Director Fury doesn't send her into the field alone for six months. Natasha argues it with him, slams her fists into his desk and can see that he likes her for it, but he's implacable and she's a gamble.

"It's a waste," she complains.

"You're on probation, Natasha, what do you expect?" Barton says. "Besides, it's good for you."

"Good for me?"

"You're fucking pathological."

"You do know how to flatter a girl."

"Come on," he says. He picks up the first of two guns from the bench and checks it, loads it. "If it was you making the call, how long would it take before you trusted you? How long before you'd let the Black Widow go off unsupervised?"

"I hope you had fun writing your last report on me," she says. She loads her own guns. "I'm sure Fury will find it a fascinating read. All nice things, right?"

"Sure," he says, and she's getting better at seeing the danger behind his eyes but she still hasn't found a way to read his voice when he wants it to be flat. It annoys her; it makes her feel mocked. "All nice things."

The mission that makes up her mind about him is a small one by SHIELD's standards but a large one by Natasha's. Every year a group of manufacturers and dealers hold an expo of sorts for another group, this one comprised of the kind of people who used to pay Natasha large sums of money to ply her trade. Director Fury explains at the briefing, a smirk-like expression doing its best to pretend that it's crept onto his face by accident, that SHIELD has been instructed to shake things up. The more live captures, the better, but they're also hoping to rattle the remaining players hard enough that they'll think twice about attending next year. Fury emphasises the fact that it's part of a larger initiative to decentralise organised crime, shatter their links and isolate them as targets, and also to investigate the primary disseminators of technology evolved from HYDRA's. He makes this point very clearly. It doesn't alter the fact that this sounds like a day at the carnival for most of the field agents involved.

Natasha will be participating despite how uneasy the number of agents involved makes her, because it was her intel that got them the location of the hotel, and she won't let anyone fuck it up in her absence. Nobody asks her to go undercover in an evening gown or a maid's outfit; she dons her snug SHIELD uniform and spends a dull few hours in the hotel's wine cellar with a large unit of those agents who were more or less co-opted from the military. She adjusts the position of her gun straps twelve times and thinks about Barton, who to her surprise was appointed field leader. If all is going well, he should be tucking himself away on a rooftop by now.

"In position," comes his voice through her earbud, as though it was awaiting the thought. "Five minutes. Delta group, you'll have the furthest to travel, so keep things moving. Heaviest armed cover of the courtyard is on the south and east sides, but it looks like everyone brought their favourite hired muscle to this particular playdate, so it's going to be interesting no matter your entrance point. Weapons ready. On my mark."

He's right about the density of guards. Natasha's group hits their first trouble almost as soon as they've exited the cellar. She takes down two men who hesitate in the face of her gender and let her get too close, then breaks away from the fight -- it's ugly and awkward, as these things are in narrow corridors -- and targets another man who's speaking urgent Mandarin into a radio handset, too fast for Natasha to understand more than a word here and there.

She taps her own earbud and, while she waits for acknowledgment, busies herself kicking the radio out of the man's hands with enough force that she she hears the snap of his wrist breaking.

"Yes?" says Barton.

Natasha slams the gasping man's head against the wall hard enough to knock him out. "We haven't made the courtyard yet, but someone there will have been tipped off."

"It doesn't matter. We're already in."

"Good," she says. "See you soon."

The rest of her group is already moving on through the hotel and Natasha follows suit, stepping over the slumped body of the man, and firing two bullets into his radio as she passes it, for good measure.

By the time they reach it the courtyard is chaotic. SHIELD has formed a closing net, guns ring out above the shouting, and coming from the brightly-lit interior it's initially hard to tell dark uniform from dark suit in the dusky light of the open-air space; Natasha gets her back against a wall and takes rapid stock of the situation.

She's looking from face to face to test how well her eyes are adjusting when she recognises Harold Carson, an American with black market interests in India and Pakistan. Natasha did a month-long stint of intimidation and interrogation work for him, years ago, helping to strengthen his monopoly over his place of grubby business. Carson's alone, clearly panicked, trying to hide behind a slender tree, and he catches Natasha's gaze and recognises her in return.

"You," he says, purely befuddled for a second. He trips forward two steps and grabs her arm, clumsily enough that she conquers the instinct to pull away. "Look, I don't know who hired you as their bodyguard, but I'll triple your fee if you get me out of here."

Natasha says nothing but motions him to bend double with a hand between his shoulder blades and hurries him ahead of her, past Agent Cruz, who unlike Natasha is carrying plastic cuffs. Natasha lifts them from his belt, manoeuvres Carson's hands behind his back, slips on the cuffs and tugs them tight. The look Carson gives her as she shoves him into the waiting arms of Beta group, who are managing detainment, almost makes her laugh.

"Thanks for the offer," she tells him. "But no."

She was always going to be recognised, and now she feels as she did in that aeroplane from Sydney: trapped and freed at the same time. Yes, the Black Widow's back to doing government work, for the United States this time. It's the kind of news that will spread.

"Nicely done," says Barton's voice in her ear. She's not dumb enough to lift her eyes to find him and give away his position to any sharpshooters on the ground. "Guard your three o'clock," Barton adds, and Natasha swivels right and crouches, bringing up her gun.

The first of the two men rushing her is brought down by a bullet to the chest, but they're too well trained to attack her one by one, so when her second shot goes wide its target is upon her a second later, forcing her gun hand down and twisting until she drops the weapon.

Natasha kicks out but he's very tall, very strong, and rooted solidly to the ground. Her legs can't bridge the distance and she can tell from his grip that anything more acrobatic would be a serious risk. A sharp coolness pricks her stomach and she pulls her abdomen away from the knife, as far back as she can, but it means she loses her leverage and can't rake at his face.

She waits for the moment when he tightens his grip on the knife in preparation for a slicing lunge, and sure enough his other hand loses some of its force, so Natasha swings herself down -- away from the knife -- bites down hard on his knuckle -- and rolls between his widely-planted legs. Her gun is too far away for her to grab and now she's up against a wall again, but it should give her time to breathe.

Pain erupts at the back of her head and she swears, yanking hard enough that her neck muscles scream, but he's got his fingers well tangled in her hair. Natasha grits her teeth and throws herself at the ground so that he has to let go or overbalance himself; he struggles to control her arc and fails, releases her, and Natasha hits the paved ground with an awkward elbow strike that turns her left arm numb. She scrambles upright using the wall for support, eyes on the knife as the man closes in again.

He's only taken a single step when an arrow punches through one side of his neck and peeks, red-tipped, out the other. His eyes widen and he lifts a hand, but he's not even touched the shaft before he falls to the ground.

"Wake up, Natasha," says Barton. "How would you like a challenge?"

Giddy with the rush of near-death Natasha slams her head back into the wall so hard that her teeth rattle and she feels the scrape of brick along her stinging scalp, and she laughs without sound.

She sucks in a breath and says, "Tell me what you want me to do."

"Tall blonde, your one o'clock, about to break through the west exit."


"That's Mathilde Heine."

Natasha lets out a whistle and shakes her numb arm until it fills with grudging tingles, already moving to retrieve her gun from the ground. "She's got muscle three deep around her."

"Have fun," Barton says.

They didn't know for sure that Mathilde Heine would attend, she's notorious for conducting business through delegates, but she's one of the people Fury was most hoping to capture alive. Natasha pushes through the crowd, which is thinning due to escape or detainment or injury, and counts a total of seven men around Heine. Later the Director will tell her, with heavy use of sarcasm and finger-pointing, that she should have grabbed some help instead of charging in alone; Natasha will catch Coulson's eye where he is resolutely not smiling, shrug and say, he did say it was a challenge.

She isn't thinking about any of that now. She has an objective and she's not responsible for, not relying on, anyone's hands and mind but her own.

The first three she takes down with shots to the head, but by then the others have pressed closer and the chance she'll hit Heine is too high. They've got their own weapons but she can make herself a poor target; she turns sideways and cartwheels straight at them, limbs spinning, and she feels the burn of a grazing bullet across her thigh but she comes up close enough to strike.

She's been counting her bullets; she spends the last one on the man right in front of her and uses him as a shield, turning in a jerky waltz with his corpse until she's right next to Mathilde Heine herself. Heine has a knife in her hand but fear in her eyes; Natasha feints, twists the knife from the woman's grasp and buries it in the neck of another guard in one motion, and before the rest of the bodyguards have pulled their gazes from the gush of blood Natasha has an arm around Heine and is digging her gun's barrel into the woman's throat. Insanely, she can feel the rapid wobble of Heine's heartbeat, transmitted down the metal from the carotid and into her fingers, playing counterpoint to her own thundering pulse.

The two men remaining do what they're supposed to do, which is freeze.

"Guns down," Natasha says in German, and repeats it in English for good measure. She presses in deeper with the empty gun, making the point, and Mathilde Heine's pulse accelerates before the woman reaches out and makes a small flapping gesture with her fingers. The men drop their weapons in what could be relief.

"Hey," Natasha says sharply, catching the attention of the nearest SHIELD uniform, which turns out to be someone whose name she actually knows. Meera something. "Deal with these two, will you?"

Meera nods. Natasha looks around, beckons for a Beta agent to take Heine off her hands, and realises that things are more or less drawing to a close. She's about to do something about the bleeding wound on her leg when gunshots sound high above her head, and this time Natasha does look up. There are moving figures silhouetted against the darkening sky, at least six of them, and none of them has a bow.

She taps her earbud -- "Hawkeye!" she yells, not waiting for acknowledgment.

"Fuck," says a voice from behind her. Barton, when she turns around, is on the ground a bare ten feet away, and releasing an arrow with a pained expression. "There goes that eardrum."

Bullets are sparking down from above and SHIELD agents are dashing for the edges of the courtyard, some of them not fast enough. Barton doesn't move. Natasha reloads her gun and pulls out another as she runs forward and ducks under his arm so they're standing back to back.

"I see you lost your nest," she says.

"Yeah, someone got smart."

"Want a hand?"

"Couldn't hurt," Barton says.

She can feel the brush of his elbow as he chooses a setting on his quiver and sets the arrow to his bowstring; there are three men blurring against tiles in her line of vision, and she lifts her guns; the shadows descend and she can't hear, can't feel, can't see anything but the invisible lines along which she sends her bullets. One and two and three bodies slumped over, another plunging off the roof, dead before he lands.

Natasha keeps shooting until there's nothing left to shoot, and when she turns around there's nothing moving on Barton's side either and he's facing her, his face bright with sweat and a fierce, jubilant expression that makes her want to hiss out her victory.

"What couldn't I do, with ten of you?" He grabs hold of her shoulder and squeezes until she feels it even through the adrenalin. "God, what couldn't we do?"

Natasha hasn't had a cigarette in years but she recognises craving and this is it, the tug of desire along her nerves. She wants that feeling again, the one that came when he told her to do something and she trusted, absolutely, that he knew how to use her, and that he trusted her in return to get things done. It's hot in her joints, filling her up, and she wonders if she's attracted to him after all. But she doesn't want to kiss him. If she wants his body in any way she wants what they had tonight, the solidity of his back against hers. The contained violence of his arms as he pulled back on the string of his bow.


blow your body like glass

She waits for it, the attraction. Years of exposure to and study of human nature have told her that it should have come by now, if it's going to come at all. And if it's to be anyone, it should be Clint Barton, who saw something solid and precious in her just when she was beginning to feel smoked-out and empty, a fighting skeleton breathing shallowly under the debt of lives.

For all her expertise in exploiting human desires, she doesn't know if he wants her in the way that she sort-of-wants to want him. He looks at her. But then, she looks at him. They're building a whole language of joke and gesture that feels too intimate for Natasha's idea of friendship, but he's never touched her with intent, or voiced any desire.

In fact, the one of the first people to ask out Agent Natasha Romanoff of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division is Maria Hill, agent of the same.

Natasha says, "Oh," and swallows her shock.

She knows exactly how to handle attraction in others when she's deliberately eliciting it, but somehow it's different when she's just Natasha, not wearing anyone else's skin. Sex and romance are so far from her everyday mind that there's always that short, sour jolt of surprise when she's presented with the evidence that someone considers her in that light. She's developed a handful of easy ways to say no without ruffling too many feathers, because she no longer has the option of simply disappearing from her life. The people who know Natasha Romanoff, inasmuch as she can be considered a real and coherent person -- and even Natasha herself is still working out the kinks there -- these people belong to the world of her work. She isn't walking away from SHIELD.

Now she says, "Thanks, but I'm not looking for anything at the moment."

Hill gives a quick nod: not dismissive, just efficient. "Feel free to let me know if that changes."

"I will."

She doesn't think any more of it until many months later, when she's delivering the final copy of a classified action report for the Director's perusal. It's been a long two-day comedown from a mission, full of bullying physiotherapists and triplicate paperwork, and Clint is in Istanbul and Natasha is bored. She leans against the door frame, folder in hand, and watches Agent Hill conduct a kind of crisis response drill that involves minimal running around but a lot of complex operations on computers. Hill gives orders as efficiently as she does everything else, fast and sure, certain of obedience. Natasha watches the swing of her legs and the pleased set of her mouth and feels -- something. She runs a few thoughts through her mind and monitors her own reactions and thinks, ah. How about that.

When the room has emptied she makes sure to be standing in the doorway once more, head slightly atilt, waiting as Hill finishes her own typing.

"If that offer of yours is still open," she says, "do you want to get dinner?"

Hill looks up, nonplussed. "I --"

"Tonight," Natasha clarifies, wanting to leap on this before it vanishes.

"Yes." Hill gives her a look through narrowed eyes, like she suspects a trap. She's spent too long at Fury's side for anything else.

Natasha grins; shows her teeth. "All right then," she says.

They go to a small Italian restaurant where Natasha, who eats out more often than not, is known as a regular. It's home ground, familiar. Maria's hair has a slight curl and falls just past her shoulders, and she talks happily about baseball and classical music for an hour and a half; Natasha has no opinions on the former but manages to drag out Renata's knowledge of ballet scores and dust it off for conversational purposes. It's simple enough, and besides, the weight of Renata's personality has been pressing closer than usual because that's who she was the last time she had dinner with someone for pleasure. Alexei was the last person to sit where Maria is sitting now.

The thought makes Natasha's head swim, uneasy, wondering just how honest she's being. Who wants this? Is it Natasha Romanoff, or someone else?

Is there really any point to making that distinction, drawing that line so dramatically, when she's been talking about Tchaikovsky for five minutes and it's not like she's sorry that she feels joyful when she imagines violins?

Split yourself too far down the seams and you'll go mad, Natasha tells herself.

"I thought you'd be like this," Maria says. She looks amused.

"Like what?"

"Like you're thinking way too hard about it." She stands and gathers up her coat. "Come on."

Natasha watches the glide of Maria's calves as they walk to Natasha's apartment, and tells herself firmly that it's not worth the fretting. It's just sex. It's something she knows how to do, like picking a lock or assembling a gun.

Those metaphors fall apart halfway through the first kiss, when Maria pulls away -- flicks some of Natasha's hair fastidiously away from Natasha's lipstick -- and says, "So." She discards her shoes as she walks over to Natasha's beautiful, prize-possession leather couch; rests one hand on the back of it, and turns. "What do you like?"

Natasha opens her smudged mouth and tries to shape it around something that isn't confusion, because for all the times she's done this, it's never been about what she's wanted. If she's honest, she hadn't thought much further than the pleasant surprise of finding herself even mildly attracted to anyone at all, an occurrence that she's been assuming will be too rare to be wasted.

The pause goes on for what even Natasha can tell is a bit too long.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Maria says good-naturedly. "Come and lie down and take your skirt off, we'll go from there."

It's not an order but it's not a request either, and that works just fine for Natasha. This was what she glimpsed in Maria and found promising, because if there's one thing Natasha's body is superb at, it's following direction. And maybe it helps that both of them have dangerous hands and neither of them are anything like in love, or even pretending to be so.

"Go with your instincts," Maria says, and Natasha says, "You'll regret saying that," and with the next slide of thigh against hip she rolls them and finds leverage, wraps one hand around Maria's wrists and the other around her neck and leans down to kiss her with victory, with violence, with all the strange hot grace that she'd not expected to find here, or now.

Afterwards Maria's breathing hard through an incredulous smile, like she's just done something amazing: survived a two-storey jump, felt herself cornered and lied her way gorgeously out. Natasha feels, well, satisfied. But it's the kind of satisfaction that comes from craving beer through a hot week and then sitting down one evening and putting the bottle to your lips: the first two swigs are magical, but after that it's just a nice cold drink.

Natasha is, for the record, far more serious about alcohol than she can ever imagine being about sex.

"Well," Maria says, when she's caught her breath. She props herself up on one elbow and smiles widely, something Natasha hasn't seen much. With her lips gentled and her hair a mess, she's a different person. Well. Not really, not in any way that'd mean something. "That was a good evening's workout. You feel free to ask me out again, whenever you like."

"I should warn you, I may not," Natasha says. She's never told the truth while naked before. It's refreshing. "Or at least not for a long time."

Maria shrugs and leans down to kiss Natasha's shoulder with her strange, familiar-and-unfamiliar mouth. "Then I'll count myself lucky I caught you at the right time."

Natasha isn't sure of the protocol, after an encounter like that, but all it seems to mean is that they talk a little more easily at work, exchange friendlier nods. If Maria's told anyone, they're keeping it uncannily discreet; SHIELD, for all its size, is a hotbed of gossip, and Natasha hasn't caught the edges of any grins turned in her direction.

It doesn't come up in her own conversation until a month or so later. Clint is buying her cafeteria coffee at the DC headquarters in the few hours they have before flying out -- to Miami and Kuwait respectively -- and he's being sneakily funny in the way that still manages to surprise her, delivering a parcel of said SHIELD gossip seasoned with his own commentary. More than half of it isn't even about who's fucking who, but thirdhand stories about missions and things Tony Stark said when he forgot his mike was on, and people who have stood up to Director Fury and lived. Agent Hill falls into that last category, and there are rumours that border on the ludicrous as to how hard she works and what she gets away with.

"She's insane," Clint says, in the way that SHIELD people do: implying, with their voices, that this is an admirable trait and a job asset. "I don't think I've ever seen her put food in her mouth. Cruz has fifty bucks on her being a prototype from an android development program that they haven't told us about yet, what do you think?"

Natasha smiles. "No, she eats. And sleeps, too."

She can see where Clint starts to roll his eyes and tell her he wasn't being serious, and she can see where he catches on to how she knows, but after that his face returns to its usual considered neutral. If anyone's going to be casting robot stones, his house is suspiciously glass-like in that regard. And for all the small enhancements made to her as a Black Widow, Natasha's not psychic: she doesn't know what succession of emotion and thought Clint experiences in the long pause before he says, carefully, "I didn't think we talked about that."

"Sex? Why wouldn't we?"

"Because we don't," Clint says.

Natasha wraps her hands around her paper cup and looks at his hands, his coffee, steam rising sluggishly from it; he always removes the lid. Be someone else, Natasha, you know how to do that. Be any other girl. You're friends, you've talked about almost everything else, you've been drunk and bloodstained and furious together; this is a gap in human history, this absence of the language of desire. You should have noticed it sooner.

"That's true," she says.

"I didn't even know you liked women."

"Ninety-nine percent of the time," she says, words like walking on eggshells, "I don't like anything at all."

Clint takes a sip of his coffee, and when his mouth is once again unobscured she can tell that he's trying not to smile. "Nothing new there, then," he says.

Natasha makes a rude gesture with one hand and snatches up the sugar with the other. She upends it above his coffee and the crystals stream down like a broken hourglass, and Clint makes a sound of pure outrage and slams the toe of his boot into her shin under the table. It throbs; it's going to make an ugly bruise. Natasha laughs and knows there's neither pain nor apology in her face. She loves this, the sharpness and the challenge he raises in her even now.

"I would have told you," she says, "if there was anything to tell."

"Liar," he says, but he smiles properly this time.

What he doesn't say, and she's glad he doesn't say, is: you play a good game for someone who doesn't see the point of playing in the first place. They both know it's part of what makes her so employable. Natasha used to worry about what would happen when age rendered this particular skillset obsolete, if she lived that long, but there are many ways to be underestimated. Especially for women.

Half a year later she and Clint get tipsy in a bar in Chicago and sketch out an increasingly outrageous plan for how she will become the world's deadliest babushka, fooling her enemies with fuzzy hats and jam pirozhki.

"I can't make pirozhki," Natasha points out.

"You learned to play the piano for a cover story," Clint says. "Baking would be easier. You could start learning now."

"You just want a friend who can bake."

"It would be nice."

Neither of them is much of a cook. Natasha defaults to scrambled eggs and dull salads when left to her own devices; Clint can just about mix together the contents of a few different tins. They are paid to do what they are very, very good at -- and in return, they pay people who are good at making food.

"And that is how the economy works," says Natasha, having drawn an illustrative diagram in smudged red wine on the back of a napkin.

"No more drinks," says Clint, taking the glass out of her hand.

"Screw you," she says, taking it back and leaning against his arm, digging the sharpest point of her chin into his shoulder. She is drunker than she usually gets. She doesn't usually take part in conversations about old age, hypothetical or otherwise. People in their profession don't build anything, futures included; they tear things down more often than not. Natasha's instincts are superb, moment to moment, but she wasn't designed for aspiration. It's enough to be alive tomorrow.

She asks him at one point which arrow he'd have used to kill her. They're marking time on a mission, tense with the imminence of the fight; their conversations veer morbid the longer they hover in these moods with no excuse to strike out.

"I didn't --"

"Come on," she says. "If."

She's got her own theories about this, and it gives her a weird, unexpected glow of pleasure when one of them is proved right. She takes the arrow in her hand and handles the tip with professional care, picturing the impact on flesh with the impassive vividness of one for whom it doesn't require much imagination at all.

"A quick death," she says. "The poison would help."

"I'd have wanted to be sure," he says dryly.

She spins it around her hand; Clint has to move his leg out of the way. "Poisoning the Black Widow. Coulson would have appreciated the poetry of it, even if you didn't."


"And today?" she asks.

Clint smiles, a little, and taps the arrow in her hands with one finger. "Still."

It's a good call. He knew her, enough of her, before they ever exchanged words. It eases the taut, slick memories of her past somewhat to know this, because when he made the decision to bring her home instead of erasing her with this slender piece of metal tipped with venom, he made it based on the person he thought she was. And if he saw her that clearly, she has to trust that it was the right call to make. She has to trust him. And she does.

After she loses her knives in Jakarta he buys her a new set, sharp and swift, much nicer than anything she's had before. Natasha tries the balance of them, smiles, and tips her purse upside-down searching for spare change.

Clint gives her an odd look when she holds out the coins: two quarters. "Nat. They're a gift."

"Just take the damn money, Barton," she says.

He does so, without saying anything more; she assumes he reads something into it, perhaps the desire not to be indebted. Though it's a little late for that.

She wouldn't call herself superstitious, but some habits are hard to break.


everyone wants to know about

Clint dies in Budapest. That's it, that's what happens.

Technically he almost dies but that's not right, they almost die all the time, Natasha almost dies in Budapest and doesn't think anything of it. There aren't enough shades of meaning. This is down to the wire, wading in the Styx, Natasha's icy fingers slipping on the wet skin of his neck and failing to find a pulse.

It's not the first mission that's just the two of them, but it's the first where they're both undercover. SHIELD's been keeping their eye on a chemical engineering firm suspected of synthesising new, horrible little compounds, and they've put a lot of effort into creating a watertight imaginary buyer who can find out what exactly is coming onto the market. Agent Durack is all set to play the buyer, with Natasha as his hired expert, but Durack ends up on a rehab ward after shattering his kneecap in the field and Coulson pulls Clint in instead.

"I look like an idiot," Clint complains, turning on the spot in response to a whack on the leg from the pet tailor Coulson has politely bullied into last-minute suit provision.

"You look like a lawyer," says Natasha.

"As I said."

Clint sighs and adjusts the tie, making a face at himself in the mirror. He's playing games, probably for Coulson's benefit; not only does he wear suits to any fancy law enforcement ball to which he can wrangle a ticket, he's also a man who accepts a skintight tunic as basic work clothes. He doesn't look like himself, in this suit. But that is, after all, the whole point. The character of Frederick Smyth has a lot more money than Clint does, and better taste in fabrics, so a hasty wardrobe is being whipped up before they fly out. Coulson's tailor even works some bespoke magic into the cut of them to disguise the fact that Clint has the shoulders of a man who tenses them for a living.

"And it's too heavy," Clint adds.

The tailor brandishes a despairing handful of pins at Coulson. "You specified --"

"It gets cold in Hungary, Hawkeye," Coulson says, catching Natasha's eye in a way that makes her grin.

"No," Clint says, "really?" but he shuts up after that.

It is cold. It's January and the Danube is an uneasy stretch of dark grey scattered with ice in floating clumps. Natasha surprises herself by feeling sullen at being stuck inside poring over what Clint calls her chemistry homework; the bare trees outside the window are snow-dusted and the wind is up, nobody lingering too long on the streets, but it's been a long time since she had a winter that felt so much like home.

Their cover remains intact, Clint resists the urge to micromanage, and -- with the help of the portable field office -- Natasha gets through a lot of technical conversations about chemical warfare. It's a smooth mission. It's going to be difficult to explain to their superiors, Natasha reflects, how they ended up having to hide out in a basement annex slash storage room, which is approximately the size of a motel toilet.

"This is your fault," she pre-empts, voice as low as she can make it.

"What, I should have just let him shoot you?"

"I could have handled it."

She can't see, because it's very cramped in here and they're still working out how to inhabit the space without enormous discomfort, but she's pretty sure Clint rolls his eyes. "I know you're all special and enhanced and shit, Romanoff, but last I heard you couldn't turn your head a full one-eighty."

"Yeah, yeah," Natasha says. Her elbow digs into his throat, mostly by accident, as she turns around to crack the tiny window open. It'd be graceless to push the argument any further considering his instincts just saved her life. She's been around for long enough to know that So, you're sure you haven't told anyone else about this? is never the prelude to an amicable parting, but Clint was the one who had his gun out and firing before the seller's silent bodyguard could finalise the sale by ensuring that Frederick Smyth's expert chemist never told a soul about the compounds she'd just finished verifying.

Finally their limbs are more or less arranged, and Natasha steels herself for a long wait. If she's careful she can move most of her muscle groups; that should help prevent her body from locking up entirely in the cold. She knows how these things go. Sooner or later she'll have to run, and she might not get any time to stretch herself out first. Better the cold air trickling in from the outside than suffocation, though.

Clint takes a breath so deep it's audible and then exhales. They're tucked in close enough that she can feel the muscles of his arm relax, and see how his shoulders fall and loosen. After that, he doesn't move.

"Where did you learn to do that?" Natasha asks, when he's been sitting absolutely still, like a doll on a shelf, for almost ten minutes.

Clint moves his eyes to her face, but not much else.

"You can lie, if you want," she adds.

"What was the name you were born with, Natasha?" Clint asks. He doesn't ask her not to lie, and Natasha's almost sure he wouldn't be able to tell if she did.

She tells him the truth, and not a muscle flickers in his face, and this, too, is easy, this small boxy space of pretended distance and assured secrecy, and Natasha was Catholic, once. More things than priests can stir up confession. She tells him her name and the names of her parents, whose faces she cannot remember.

"I taught myself," Clint says, barely a beat after she falls quiet. "What I wanted more than anything was to make myself disappear. I thought I could do it if I practiced hard enough."

"How old were you?"

"Four," he says, with the same lack of hesitation. Like he's found a rhythm and he's unwilling to lose it. "How old were you?"

"Six," Natasha says.

"It took me a few years to get it right, the stillness, and the need for the right vantage point. You can notice a lot, if nobody notices you."

"Not really my style," she says easily, "I'm more the type to notice while being noticed," and she keeps talking, keeps the flow going with little stories from unimportant missions, but she's thinking about the surety of his leadership, which comes not from the ability to inspire but from his confidence in his own ability to read potential in the individual and pattern in the group.

Natasha stretches her muscles and Clint softens into his immobility, and the beat of whispered confession moves back and forth like a metronome between them. He tells her about growing up unsafe and powerless but for the ability to melt into the walls. She tells him about training through winter nights, a group of girls with cold gripping their limbs sent running and tumbling over streets slippery with sleet. He gives her the gut-wrenching disaster of the second mission he ever commanded; in a voice quiet and rough as hessian he pours his mistakes and his guilts into her hands, and Natasha looks at the ceiling, lets the rhythm tug her forward, and gives him the hospital fire in return. It leaves her feeling scrubbed raw and fragile, the space between them warmer, but she can tell that Clint is empty of stories now and she's kept one in reserve, shelved with her pride and tangled up in her guts.

I would have told you, if there was anything to tell -- did she mean it?

Liar, Clint said then.

Natasha stretches her muscles.

Natasha makes slow circles with her ankles and points her toes deliberately inside her boots until her feet cramp. Natasha sighs hot breath into steam in the cold space, and says, "I was someone else once."

"I thought we'd covered that," Clint says.

She sets her back against the wall and says, "No. You don't understand."

When she's finished telling him about Renata, Clint is silent for a long time. He'd moved his eyes away from hers as soon as her voice wavered in the telling, giving her what meagre illusion of privacy was possible. Natasha doesn't have to be told how weird it sounds, even for people like them who dwell firmly within the weirdest work that the public sector has to offer.

"Did you have to dress up as a swan?" he says finally. "Did you have a little feathery headdress thing, Nat, are there pictures --"

"Motherfucker," Natasha says, kicking the side of his knee, flooded with relief. "What sort of kinky shit are you into, Barton? Should Agent Garraby be worried about those photos of his parrot that he keeps next to his computer?"

Clint's face quirks into a tense version of his usual laughing face. "If you're saying --"

The door is thick, reinforced; it's what saves them. The bullets make solid thwacking sounds as they only just fail to penetrate it, and odds are good that this means they're being shot at from a distance that will be rapidly closed.

Natasha swears and breaks the window with the handle of a knife, hammering rapidly until there's a minimum of sharp edges left. The building's surrounded and they were hoping to wait it out until nightfall, but a firefight outdoors is preferable to being taken down like trapped deer.

"Go," she says, linking her hands for a boost. Clint doesn't argue, just lets her hoist him up and out, and then reaches down for her arms in turn. By the time she twists out of the small frame and hauls her legs through and onto the icy gravel, the bullets are coming all the way through the door.

"Company," Clint says as he lifts her to her feet. "Let's find some cover."

They run, Natasha cursing when she has to vault over a low wall into the paved area in front of the building; she catches the zipper of one boot on her thick stockings, tearing a hole large enough that a breath of freezing air slices at the back of her knee. It's not that it'll slow her down, but this isn't the climate for bare skin.

"There," she says, pointing to a car parked on the thin strip of road between the building and the river, and they dive behind it. It's not ideal, but they haven't got the luxury of the time required to dash across an open space in search of better cover. With any luck they can thin the number of their pursuers enough to have a better chance of escape.

"Backup?" Clint suggests. "We could call the field office, see if Etelka and Jasper can send some people."

"That'd make this a thing," Natasha says. They could still salvage this mission; if not for themselves, for the next attempt. "So far we're just two nutjobs proving surprisingly capable at self-defence."

"Right," Clint says. He gets off two shots and ducks down again. "Because that's not a thing at all."

"Shots fired in the open. Someone will call the police eventually." Natasha shatters the side mirror of the car and uses a shard to peek over the bonnet. "I count five. They're holding their position."

"Fury doesn't like bailing his agents out of foreign jails," Clint says. "He says it's embarrassing. I'm pretty sure there's a negative Christmas bonus if you make him do it."

Natasha hadn't been thinking about it that way; her reasoning was that jails are easier to escape than active gunfire. She shrugs. "How's your ammo?"

"Fine." He reaches into a pocket of the suit and pulls out more rounds. "Kinda wishing my bow folded up smaller, though."

"On three," she suggests. "You take the left."

Clint nods, and on her rapid count they stand up together, a calculated risk that nets Natasha the satisfaction of seeing one -- then two -- less people firing at them. She hears a bitten-off grunt from beside her and Clint takes two heavy steps back, but she doesn't hear him fall, so she doesn't move her eyes. "Alright?" she says, getting off two more shots, but instead of a reply she hears a splash.

"You are fucking kidding," Natasha shouts over her shoulder, ducking down beside the car again. She turns on her toes and moves two feet closer to the barrier above the river; there's a low concrete edging that would hinder a car, but trip the feet of a man who was distracted by a bullet.

"Meet you downstream," comes Clint's voice, thin and distant. She can't see him, she'd have to lean right over the edge for that, and her shadow of cover from the car is already stretched.

"Got it," she yells, and returns her attention to the men with guns. She still operates faster when she's only got herself to worry about. It doesn't take her long to kick one of the car's doors off its hinges, and that gives her a decent shield with which to cover the distance to the nearest alley and disappear; she's always been comfortable surrounded by buildings.

Once she's certain that she's lost her pursuers, Natasha winds her way back to the river. Worry starts to leak in as the rush of survival ebbs. It's a long way downstream from the point where Clint fell in before any convenient exits arise, and the early afternoon darkness of winter is falling, the chill in the air increasing. Natasha buries her chin and ears in the grey coat and blue hat that she stole and bought, respectively, during her escape; she's altered her silhouette and covered her hair enough that she's not concerned about recognition, especially not in this fading light.

Finally she spots a line of metal rings set into the stone side of the riverbank, adjacent to a small dense park full of trees denuded by the seasons and low, prickly bushes. She leans down and touches the highest metal ring, then brings her glove to her cheek; wet. She sweeps the park with a keener gaze, trying to discern outlines in the mass of deepening shadows. It's not much use, and besides, now she knows exactly how still and invisible he can be when he chooses to.

"Hawkeye," she calls, low. "If you're up a tree, I swear to God..."

Something like an unhealthy chuckle comes from her left, and she follows the sound to find the curled-up, sodden mass of Clint Barton. He's tucked himself under a bush so that the pale glow of his white shirt is less obvious.

"Up a tree. That'd be ambitious," he says. His voice is slurred and wet, punctuated with awful little pauses, and he's shaking.

"How long were you in the water?" Natasha demands. In her mind's eye she can see those grim clumps of ice.

"Damn jacket. Too heavy," he murmurs, "I told you."

Natasha's starting to feel the cold in a way she didn't before. He looks dreadful, and she knows dreadful. She pulls her phone out and calls the field office.

"What the hell is going on?" Etelka says as soon as she picks up.

"I need extraction and a medical team, right now." The nearest street sign is thankfully illuminated by a lamp; Natasha reads it aloud and Etelka says, "Ten minutes."

Natasha hangs up and flashes the light from her phone's screen at Clint, whose eyes are closed and whose shirt, she sees now, is soaked with dark blood all down the right sleeve and part of the collar. She hisses through her teeth and shakes his leg until his face twitches into a dull frown. Conscious, at least.

"Jesus, Clint, what the fuck were you doing, you fucking warn me if you're going into the field with a death wish --"

Clint coughs; no, it's a laugh. Either way he catches his breath on the exhale, wincing, one hand grabbing at the side of his chest.

"That's not fair," he says. His teeth are chattering so hard that the words come out in even more disjointed bursts. "You know I don't speak Russian."

"Shut the hell up," Natasha says, still furious, and this time she hears her own voice: high and thin, too young, rushing through the syllables of her first language. She takes a breath and quietens herself. "Shut the hell up," she says again. English this time.

The bush is stubborn and more thorn than leaf, but she manages to enlarge the hollow that Clint's found so she can press herself close to him for the second time that day, find space for their limbs. She covers them both with the stolen coat, which isn't as warm as her previous one had been, and bites down on the shiver that tries to start up in her jaw when she comes into contact with Clint's wet clothes.

"Tasha?" he says; a quiet question without an answer. And she's too cold to go cold but she goes brittle, instead, at the name of a little girl long forgotten. Nobody calls her that. Nobody's tried and nobody's allowed.

"All right," she says finally, tucking her head onto his shoulder. "But only because you're dying."

He doesn't answer. He's stopped shaking, too. He's motionless as his own magic trick.

"That was a joke," Natasha says, "not a suggestion." She bites the glove off her hand and puts her fingers to his carotid, his skin slippery and cold, hers too, numb at the tips, how could she be expected to feel anything, this was a smooth mission, who goes and falls into a river for fuck's sake, it's all so moronic she wants to scream. She can't. Feel anything.

Everything goes blue and red and spinning and Natasha wonders if she's having some kind of hypothermic hallucination, but it's the medical team, arriving with lights on top like a real ambulance even though the vehicle is unmarked. Natasha drags the both of them out of the bush and takes a step to the side, answering questions while Clint is bundled onto a stretcher and into the oversized van. A cosy glow of light comes from inside.

"Any injuries?" one of the medics says.

"Gunshot, his right arm, maybe the shoulder. I didn't -- I don't think," she says, and looks towards the river.

"He's not dead until he's warm and dead," the medic says firmly. "Agent Romanoff, get in. Agent Romanoff."

Natasha leaves the coat tangled in thorns and climbs in, screwing up her eyes against the light.

"Your hands," someone says.

"Oh," Natasha says, not very interested.

The size of her fear unbalances her. It's large enough that it sparks another fear, an older one, a warning against wearing your anchors and your weaknesses on your clothes. So she sits on the other side of the SHIELD ambulance to where they've got Clint strapped under a sort of mat inflated with warm air, and, rigid with tension, she doesn't look at him; doesn't look at the grim young woman cleaning out the deep grazes on her palms; she closes her face up and stares out of the tinted windows at the lights of the city.

Now she wants desperately to touch him, if only to reassure herself that he's getting warmer instead of colder. She wants to curl up and sleep with her ear against his heart, her weight holding him down.

The medic on Clint's side is fiddling with the screen that shows his vital signs, and Natasha allows herself a single look, but nothing's wrong. All that's changed is the fact that the screen is now tilted so she can see the regular green blips, and the soaring white rectangles that denote his breath. The medic doesn't so much as glance in her direction. He's probably used to working with people who need plausible deniability when it comes to these things, but it gives her an abrupt surge of guilt. Clint's her partner and she thought he was lost and this is not, in the end, a situation wreathed in originality. Being stronger than your fears doesn't just mean standing up to the bullets; pain's never scared her anyway.

She takes a breath and lets herself exist within the ambulance. Her hands are stinging. The medic now bandaging the dressings in place has a tattoo on the inside of her wrist, copperplate writing that Natasha can't make out. Blood drips down from a bag marked A-POS, through an IV line that disappears under the warming mat where it covers Clint's arm.

"Thanks for picking us up," Natasha says.

"No problem," says her medic, deadpan as you like. "We were in the area."

The green electric line of Clint's heart doesn't waver.


the cracks at the end of our street

"Barton's been compromised."

In the next few seconds she knows she's committed, knows also that Coulson -- a basically decent man -- would have told her about Clint even if her presence weren't required, and knows for a certainty that it's not just Phil's request she's hearing. Behind it is the firm echo of Fury's command; the fact that he would have treated any harm to Clint as the loss of an asset, yes, but also as a sure lever for herself. They are both of them spies first and foremost, she and the Director. She doesn't begrudge him the instinct. But it does make her loyalties constrict and lie flat, salient against her skin.

There's blood in her mouth. She probes irritably with her tongue for the place where her cheek tore against her own teeth when she was struck.

"Let me put you on hold."

Striking out is like releasing a breath. She enjoys the sort of spy games she's been playing here, the ones based on information-gathering and that same old underestimation. Barriers arise in a man's mind as soon as she wears a certain shade of lipstick or lets the straps of her dress fall down her shoulders, and he won't think past them, and she still gets a thrill out of these deceptions. But it's nice to stretch; it's nice to smash their assumptions in along with their teeth. Natasha isn't like Clint. She's never been a good sniper: sitting still for too long makes her itch.

Which is how she ends up standing outside a door in Calcutta, fresh rain trickling down from the damply loosening curls of hair at the back of her neck, waiting for an expert on gamma radiation who has the unfortunate habit of transforming into a raging ball of green chaos to finish packing his toothbrush. It's not even the weirdest thing she's ever done in Calcutta.

She likes Bruce Banner more than she expected to, and it makes her uneasy. She's known his story for a while, and though it's never given her outright nightmares, her mind shies away from thinking about the what-ifs; not the What if it happened to me, because Natasha doesn't have much time for this duality-of-man bullshit. The Hulk is another person entirely and Natasha's been there, done that, had her body and her mind snatched away and placed under another's control. The thought of such a transformation as Banner's makes her feel cold, sure, but it's a standard sort of fear, it fits within her existing repertoire.

No: what she fears with the deepest part of her is the Hulk himself -- itself. She's seen her fair share of the inhumane, sick sick human beings sharpened or eroded into malignant malice, and there's always been something she can use, some angle to play, some chink or desire she can exploit. Natasha operates in worlds of motive and control; before she read up on the Hulk she'd have said that there was no such thing as mindless destruction.

The thing is, Natasha was never meant to be a member of the Avengers Initiative. She knew about the concept because Fury wanted her in the loop and then wanted her to babysit a billionaire, but until Clint Barton went and got himself zombiefied by an entitled alien criminal who plans to use her planet as the setting for his megalomaniac identity crisis, she wasn't part of the plan. She was an enabler, nothing more.

And even now, what does she bring to the table? No godlike powers, no serum-swollen sense of right and wrong and patriotism, not even a metal shell. She can kill, very effectively, but she'd come out the bad end of a fight with any of these troubled powderkegs of men who exist at a perpendicular to the world and its standard realities.

Herding cats, Natasha thinks, smiling to herself as she walks across the deck of the helicarrier. Prodding personalities, that's what she's here for. She'll talk them into a team and point them anywhere she needs to; this is, after all, a potential global catastrophe, and she hasn't had one of those in a while. She also hasn't had the chance to do something for Clint that could even come close to equalling the favour he did her by hiding in a hotel room and bargaining her out of her life. That was bigger than a mere gift of knives; symbolism won't be enough to create balance. But this might.

It helps being on what is more or less home turf. She keeps a sharp eye on Banner, who gravitates towards corners and looks at technology with as much interest as, but less hunger than, Tony Stark. Of the two of them Rogers looks less rattled, for all that he's got more reason to be, and his interest is in the people. Natasha can appreciate that.

"So how did you come to work for SHIELD?" he asks her, politely, on the way to Stuttgart.

"Oh, you know." She keeps her eyes on the instrument panel. "Great benefits package, I couldn't resist."

"Coulson said he recruited you," Rogers says. "Agent Barton, I mean, the one Loki's -- got."

It's hardly a secret, and she can see why Coulson would let slip that sort of human interest note around Captain America, who's still working out where to place his trust.

"That's right," she says. Rogers shifts uncomfortably where he's crouched, and she makes herself relax her shoulders from where they've tightened. "You could say I've decided to take it personally," she adds, as dryly as she can, and is rewarded with a brief smile from within the blue frame of his uniform hood.

"I know how that goes, ma'am. Agent."

The plane switched to hover mode, Natasha focuses on what her screens show of the city below them. It's hard to miss the crowd of people huddled outside the building, and even harder to miss the costume-bright gold of Loki's helmet. She takes a deep breath of her anger and feels better.

"Your show, Captain," she says.

It's not a bad show at all. The one on the way back is even better, though: she'd sell tickets to Rogers trying to process the reality of Tony Stark if the mess weren't counterproductive to her own primary interests at this point, and that's before Thor shows a penchant for entrances -- and exits -- just as dramatic as his brother's.

"This is ridiculous," Natasha says, glancing at the camera screens. "Can you see them yet?"

"I thought the big Asgardian was meant to be on our side," says Agent Wood. His maternal attitude towards SHIELD's planes means he's scrolling through the readouts and wincing at any sign that Thor's lightning storm might have done something to the electronics. "I mean, I sure hope he's not on anyone else's, don't you?"

"There they are." The proto-Avengers have helpfully created their own clearing; she makes sure Wood steers them down towards it more slowly than necessary, all the lights on full. The last thing she wants to do now is spook them. Once they're all looking upwards she flicks on the loudspeaker.

"Gentlemen," she says. "If you're quite finished, we do have somewhere to be."

The first time Natasha officially met Tony Stark he was boxing with staggering inefficiency, her Italian was a lot better than it used to be, and Pepper Potts cheered instead of gasping when Natasha threw a man to the ground. Pepper has a whole purse full of free passes as far as Natasha's concerned, not least because she's put up with Tony's shit for years and has peaceful manipulation down to an art. Natasha was his assistant for less than a month and barely scraped through without inflicting bodily harm, resorting instead to lots of long runs and insulting Clint's taste in weaponry over email.

But Tony is the only one of them she knows well enough to terrorise, at this point, so she follows him to some kind of locker room when they've rejoined the helicarrier. She plants herself in the doorway as he ums and ahs over an impractical amount of clothing.

"Do you think you could refrain from laying waste to natural parks from now on?"

"Hey, that was ninety percent the fault of the walking Pantene commercial with the hammer. Though don't quote me on those numbers, I've been getting into trouble with percentages lately."

"It's a waste of time," she says.

"Are you going to just --?" Tony gestures with an arm that's half out of his sweat-stained shirt. "I'd put on a show for you, Natalie, but I'm kind of spoken for these days."

"I'm good."

Tony shrugs and fiddles himself into a blue shirt, pausing halfway to pop open a can of soda. He takes a few long gulps and returns to doing up his buttons one-handedly, his gaze losing focus as it does when his anthill of a mind has wandered into contemplation. When he's tucked his shirt in he just stands there, sketching something onto the metal of the locker with one rapid fingertip.

"So," he says finally, when this invisible calculation is done. "Sorry to hear about your boyfriend or whatever."

"He's not my boyfriend."

Tony takes another swig from his can, watching her. He keeps watching until she feels twitchy; she wonders if he's drunk, or imagining her naked, or trying to design a robot that could do her job. Or, indeed, knowing Tony Stark, all three at once.

"People like us should have one person who'll see us as we really are," he says abruptly, turning away again. He picks up and glances at his cell phone, taps it once against the lockers, shoves it into a pocket, then pulls out a tie. "No matter how shitty and -- ugh, how dare they! -- we find the whole idea."

"There's no us here, Stark."

"You'll have to get rid of that negative attitude before Fury hears you, Agent Romanoff. Haven't you heard? We're team players now. There's no 'I' in 'poorly thought out PR stunt'."

Natasha hates the fact that she actually pauses to work out if he's right. She uses the pause to bite back any comments she might have about the hypocrisy of bringing up teamwork after that stunt in the forest, because Tony's much too smart not to have done it on purpose.

"I'm going to the bridge," she says.

"Yeah, yeah." He leans sideways to peer in a mirror and starts prodding at his hair. "I'll be there in time for the trust exercises or whatever Fury has planned."

She leaves him there, darting brief looks at his own reflection, never holding eye contact beyond a few seconds.


welcome to the shakedown

It's itching at her, the way the Director talks about war as though he expects it to drive their behaviour. War isn't a single, blunt reality. She can see that to Captain America war is strategy, leadership, small horrors and large ideas. War to Tony is the thing he aided and abetted for half of his life and has been trying to burn out of the world since Iron Man came into existence; he can't be expected to embrace the concept with enthusiasm. Natasha knows war as a series of individual acts, committed with as much impersonality as possible. War is the child's emptiness, the surrender of identity, the transformation into a simple system: purpose goes in, action comes out. War is what weaponises you.

She doesn't know yet what Banner knows, or thinks, of war. He keeps things close; there's no art to it, no studied reserve, just a stifling diffidence, the sense that he is perpetually on the verge of apologising for someone else. No prizes for guessing who.

Rogers has adapted well to the seven-decade shift, but she can see the moments when he has to stop himself from tacking an extra ma'am onto sentences when they're talking; she can see his mild discomfort with the way she wears sex like a jacket and fiddles with its cuffs from time to time. She'd thought Thor might be even worse -- he has that archaic thing going on, and from what she's read in SHIELD's files about Asgard his society isn't without its own strict gender roles -- but he's been easy around her since they were introduced. Once or twice he's given her friendly punches in the arm that left bruises.

Natasha's so curious she ends up asking him about it.

"You put me in mind of a friend," Thor says, directing a genial grin downwards. "She too is a fine warrior who fights in the company of men."

The SHIELD files were very forthcoming about the incident in the desert, and every Asgardian who's ever set foot on her planet. "That would be the Lady Sif."

"The very same." Thor laughs. "She shares your love of the drink like burning water."

It takes a second for Natasha to translate that, but it does leave her with a vague desire to find out how many vodka shots it takes for a Russian spy to drink an Asgardian warrior under the table.

"So," she says, because it can't hurt. "Any tips for dealing with your brother?"

"Loki?" says Thor. "He lies. Be on your guard, should he draw you into conversation."

Natasha had been taking that for granted. Nobody's brought it into the open yet, the fact that their alien opponent and his earnest, weather-raging brother are also some of the oldest stories told by humans. Sure, she got the memo: ancient race, impressionable ancestors, tales twisted with time. But Thor seems spot on so far, and she's prepared to take Loki as true to his trickster image. It should be harder to underestimate him that way.

She doesn't ask for permission. She doesn't register her intent. She just slips away and stands at the heart of the challenge until Loki turns and gives a smile that consumes his eyes with uncaring knowledge: a balm, he says, as if that's how Fury would ever deploy her.

In one hand she holds the deception and in the other the truth. Lucky for her that with almost no effort she can make them lie so flush against one another, tucked between her fingers like the fletching of an arrow. She's seen Clint brush his palm over the top of his quiver as though that's the important choice, that's the vital end of the thing, not whichever custom-made marvel will attach itself as the head.

Natasha says --

"Love is for children; I owe him a debt."

His mouth turns up at the edges: not much, barely at all, but the important thing is that it's symmetrical. No sneer. Loki agrees with her, or wants to, even if he knows that she's lying. Whatever he says or does to her from here, that piece of information will have been worth the price of admission, because Loki is too desperately entangled in his Lone God act to ever really be part of a team. They will always, always outnumber him.

He says, tell me; he can't even get his silences right. And he of all people should know the danger of giving your opponent's tongue free rein.

Herding cats, Natasha thinks. Fine.

One liar to another, she gives him her truths, and into them he sinks his claws as deeply as they'll go. She hears it when his voice breaks into emotion, disdain, the basest sentimentality. Emotion is what she needs. And he clearly knows this dance well, so she'll have to give him some in return.

She opens her ears. She lets his words find their way inside.

She finds the dissonance, the raw horror, of the way Renata both seeps into her murderous memories and recoils from them; she fills herself up with the screams of children, the brute elegance of blood and the taste of smoke, and her eyes are burning now with the effort to keep her mind separated from what this is doing to her body. She has to be a mirror, she has to, one inky scrap of turmoil staining her face for every one he lets her see on his own, and it seems to be working, because what Loki's talking about now is how hard it is to separate yourself from your past. He doesn't sound detached. He barely sounds triumphant. He'd better give her something soon, because she can feel her shields mustering to slam into place.

He gives her a specific threat, a scenario, and the relief is enough to centre her. Now he's lost, now he's enjoying himself, there's a momentum building in Loki's unimaginative vision of her death, and Natasha lets him sing himself gloriously forward until he forgets who she is and what she was trained for, and then he stumbles.

Loki made Clint tell him everything about her, yes, she believes that. And he's very good at this game, if not quite as good as he believes. And yet he still managed to see the woman -- cringing, mewling, lower lip trembling -- more clearly than the spy.

Natasha stretches her arms up and curls her fingers, satisfied, as she makes her way back to the bridge.


always winter when I lay these crumbs

Her left hip and shoulder strike the metal first, so the air stays in her lungs, but the side of her head strikes second. Pain flares up and her vision fills with over-exposed galaxies, but she recognises relief in herself and almost laughs at it, because she'd prefer a whole afternoon of explosions and injuries to another five minutes of arguing with the other members of Fury's doomed experiment in teamwork. She can hear Maria Hill's rapid-fire sitrep filling her ear but her brain can't tune into more details than external detonation because of the sharp rush of air nearby, the heat of the metal, and the increasing throb of awareness from her trapped leg.

This is what she gets for feeling relieved: she's pinned down next to a decent man, a man whose skills are the polar opposites to hers and whose humour is as black as she likes it, and he's about to become the only danger she knows she can't talk herself out of, and -- despite her best efforts -- can't talk him out of either.

"I swear on my life," she says, and Bruce Banner hears the lie there as a man wouldn't, perhaps, if he hadn't held steel on his tongue and tasted with it the knowledge that life is nothing sacred enough to seal your promises by.

Watching the Hulk emerge seems to happen slowly. Natasha recognises it as a bad sign because that's what adrenalin does to you, her brain wants her body to fight even as it's flooding it with panic. Seconds tick by in the rush of her blood in her hands, set against the floor. She pulls harder. She pulls and pulls and breaks free and the Hulk turns around and then there's only the nightmare fear, primitive and strangling. This is what Loki was trying to do to her, this feeling, but he couldn't quite manage it because he's a rational being, bag of cats notwithstanding, and Natasha knows how to deal with rational beings. All she can do now is run.

There's no time to think and her instincts are jangled, the desperate desire to hide is battering up against the awareness that Banner was right and Loki was right: they brought the monster, they let him aboard and then hoisted him into the atmosphere in a breakable shell that holds hundreds of lives. Any hiding place will be, at best, more potential structural damage to this carrier that's being pulled to pieces from both outside and in. So she runs, she ducks and rolls and focuses on distance, and it isn't enough, and she knew it wouldn't be.

Again she hits metal, hard, swept sideways by a blow faster than any she could deliver, and she barely has time to find her bearings and roll onto her back. The Hulk is close enough that she can hear the growl of his breath and she's terrified and exhausted and she thinks, with a surge of something almost like petulance, but we're not done. Her life may be nothing to swear by but that doesn't mean she's happy for it to end like this.

A blur delivers her. She can't focus her eyes on whatever it is that bursts out of nowhere and then bursts again, through the wall, taking the Hulk with it -- and it could be any of them, couldn't it? No match for an Avenger but another Avenger. Her name was never on that list.

For a long time she holds herself tense, not deliberately, listening to the receding crash of metal. Her heart hammers onward, too loud. It takes a few minutes before her mind accepts that the immediate battle has moved away, and then it lets the senses that had been subsumed into eyesight and reflex start to trickle back in. Orders and combat dialogues are coming through her comm. Her ankle pulses with pain and it hurts to inhale. Her mouth is very dry and she can taste rust. She should move. Move, Natasha. Get up.

Natasha hugs one knee to her chest and takes breaths as slowly as she can manage, which isn't slowly at all. White noise buzzes through her head and she wonders who she'd be if she snapped out of herself now, if she'd wake up in ballet shoes or on a battlefield, she can be anybody at all, that's what she's for, she can be anything except invisible. Never in her life has she been this scared. It's an icy flood and it's drenched her, she can't move except to tremble and she can't get warm. Images flash up and linger: the Hulk roaring in her face. Clint shivering on a riverbank with blood on his clothes.

Her gut feels the jolt when the second engine cuts out and the sickening tilt as the carrier starts to fall.

"It's Barton," says Fury's voice. "He took out our systems. He's headed for the detention level. Does anybody copy?"

It's not even a decision. The ice and the sickly ache in her ribs are pushed down, held under, drowned in the imperative. It feels petty, even selfish. It has to be her. He'd want it to be her. Her hands need to stop fucking shaking right the fuck now.

"This is Agent Romanoff," she says through the noise. "I copy."

Move, Natasha.

Standing up feels like the hardest thing she's ever done, but as soon as she's running her mind finds the signal and the buzz disappears. She knows what she is, and she knows why she's here: to take back what's hers.

Of all the voices to have in her head at a time like this, it's Tony Stark's: we need one person to see us as we truly are. It's a terrible thought -- Natasha of all people knows that the bloody guts and deadly clockwork of her true self aren't the sort of thing anyone should examine too closely -- but there it is. She has to believe that she can get him back, she can win this fight for the both of them, because of all the causes and commanders in her life, all those lines and lines of red, this is it, this is worth spilling blood for. Anyone's blood. Even hers; even his. She'd survive without Clint Barton in her life but she doesn't want to, she would scratch down the walls of hell to save him, and if she fails then she'll burn his destroyer to the fucking ground and salt the blistered earth.


It's that anger that grounds her when Clint turns around, and once the first blow lands it becomes a fight like any other in close quarters: ugly, punctuated with grunts, reliant on seeing the angles and using whatever's available. Familiarity gives neither of them the advantage. She knows how many ways he can use his bow as a close-range weapon, and he knows a lot of the holds that she favours, and they both of them, intimately, know how the other uses a knife.

The clang of his head against the railing comes as a welcome surprise; she wasn't fighting with enough finesse to have aimed, but she knew she'd have to knock him out somehow, and that's a good start. Clint gasps but doesn't stay down, he's better than that, and Natasha keeps her eyes on him and loosens her knees and locks her wrists. This time she will aim.

Clint looks up and into her face.


He's not dying, not today, so he's not allowed.

Natasha unfolds the worst of her rage and hits him so hard she can see the white of his eyes before he collapses. She stands there, breathing hard. Then she hunkers down and peels up an eyelid. The chill blue is gone, but she doesn't know how this works, hell, one of the things she's come to love about SHIELD is that almost none of her missions come with a rulebook. She knows everything there is for a field agent to know about Loki Laufeyson, and a lot more besides, and she still wouldn't have a clue whether his possession of a human mind glows in the irises even when that mind is temporarily out of commission.

"This is Agent Romanoff," she says over the comms. "I could use a pair of hands down here. Make that two pairs."

Maria's voice comes after a pause. "Hawkeye?"

"We'll see," she says.

Of the two men sent to help her, one is harbouring a case of hero-worship for Clint that borders on uselessness when it comes to lugging him around like a sack of rice.

"Maybe a stretcher --"

"Sure," Natasha says, "do you have one on you?"

"The infirmary will have some."

"The infirmary is probably full. Maybe you didn't notice, but the carrier's engine just exploded, we had a systems malfunction, and the Hulk spent some time playing in the rubble. Quarters will be fine. Anywhere quiet."

"You don't have to treat us like idiots," says the other one, who's at least made an attempt at picking up Clint's shoulders.

"I don't have to," Natasha says. Fears old and new are pricking holes in her palms and the soles of her feet. "And we'll need restraints. Get --"

"Agent Coulson is down," says Fury through the comm.

The men drag Clint away, and Natasha will follow them, but a strange punched-out silence is stuck in her throat. She counts to five, then to ten. She hears Fury say that the medical team have called it. It surprises her how hard this has struck: this is a fight, a mission, and there have been deaths already and there will be more. But she'd count Coulson as a friend, and she's already too frayed and too raw, she's not equipped to process this loss on top of everything else. She feels like she's been angry forever, in a quiet sort of way, that it's what's pushing her blood through her veins.

She doesn't have the time to rearrange the idea of SHIELD in her head so that it makes sense without Phil Coulson, so she shoves it aside and follows the unconscious cargo of Clint to a room off the infirmary that's surprisingly unoccupied, with a padded chair and a choice of exits. One man is filling a water jug and the other is strapping Clint's arms down as she enters, and she casts a glance at the strong leather cuff. She thought she'd have to improvise, but this is SHIELD, and this is its flagship, and she shouldn't be at all surprised that this room exists.

"I've got it from here. You can go."

"Agent Romanoff --"

"Get out."

They exchange a this-is-above-my-pay-grade, the-Director-will-hear-about-this kind of glance, but they leave.

"It's your skin," one of them says, from the safety of the other side of a closing door.

"Right," Natasha says quietly. It is. And this is her partner. And this room has thick walls, and she can see only one security camera -- which is going to suffer a small, reversible malfunction in a moment -- and nobody else gets to deal with this mess, because it's hers, no matter who's looking out when Clint opens his eyes.

Nobody else gets to see Clint Barton, who prides himself on distance and stillness, when he's this helpless and close-up and wrecked.

Monsters and magic, she thinks, watching him cough and squint his way back into consciousness. They shouldn't be here. But they are, and now it's their fight. These are their losses and their wounds to avenge as they see fit.

"Clint. You're going to be be all right," she says.

"You know that?" he says, "Is that what you know?" and that's when the relief hits her like the very edge of a blast radius, that shock of hot air and noise telling you how lucky you are to have your feet planted right here, right now.


we should be on our most immortal behaviour

"Well," Natasha says, keeping an eye on their altitude reading. "This is new."

"Which part, exactly?" says Clint. He sounds all the way himself now, and a smile, a mere semiquaver of joy at this one victory, tweaks at Natasha's mouth.

"Manhattan, I meant. I've never had an assignment in New York."

"Not even...?" Clint says, meaning, before SHIELD.

"Not even. You?"

He considers it for a moment, scrubbing at his forehead as he's been doing intermittently since he woke up clean of Loki's influence. He did it when she told him about Coulson.

"Don't think so. Not much call for archers in Brooklyn."

"Hmm?" Rogers, behind them, looks up.

"Never mind, Captain," says Clint.

The burning line of blue light connecting Stark Tower to the heavens is all she can focus on as they swoop cautiously low over Manhattan. As they draw nearer she means to crane her head to see what it becomes where it meets the sky, but there are more immediate problems below them in the shape of two warring Asgardians.

There's a sizzling crack as the beam from Loki's sceptre slices into the plane, followed by a louder crack as one engine explodes. Natasha swallows a minor bleb of déja vu that belongs to the past twenty-four hours, a slice of time she can never share with Clint, and grabs onto whatever she can reach to stop herself from hitting metal as they bank sharply. Clint swears and jerks at the controls as they come drunkenly down, shouldering with violent jolts against building after building. Civilian faces shrinking back from windows. Aliens in the sky. This'll be a sanctioned fight, in daylight and under scrutiny, for terrible stakes, and somehow it's just them, they're allowed to be the first line. Though Natasha won't kid herself that they'll be the last.

They grind to a halt on the street, a lot further from the action than they'd planned to be. Down here the mess of humanity's fear is stronger, more palpable, it almost has its own smell as the clouds melt away under the force of the Tesseract and the sky opens up to let the monster through.

"My God," says Rogers behind her. In his mouth it's more prayer than oath.

Natasha fills her palm with the grip of her gun as she stares upwards, flimsy comfort only, almost none. She can't tell if the alien leviathan is alive or technology or both. As it spreads across her field of vision the knowledge gluts her, rocks her, that the world has changed and nothing will be the same; her world, everyone's world. In the face of Thor and Loki with their human forms and motives, she hasn't made herself think about what the rest of the universe might bring.

And this is the job. This is the war that the men who trained her could never have imagined.

It helps that they're under fire. Natasha dodges and weaves, her fingertips brush the road's rough surface and there's nothing alien about this. Urban warfare. Find your cover, Natasha.

They huddle behind a car and Natasha follows Loki with her eyes. He's on the move, now, having broken free from his brother and hopped aboard one of the zipping, hovering things.

"We've got civilians trapped," says Clint. That helps, too. That's a manageable goal.

Natasha nods and waves him towards the bus, jerking her head the other way: I'll cover. She directs her attention back towards their enemies, taking the time between shots to look at them with something other than novel wonder. The analytical part of her supplies some facts: they rely on their weapon because it's a good one, but they might not have a backup plan. Their teamwork looks fine on the surface because they're intelligent and working towards a single, if crude, goal. But there's little in the way of actual coordination, and if they're communicating, she can't tell how. Telepathy isn't out of the question, she guesses, but she knows soldiers, and these aliens fight like solitary units, not changing their strategies in response to the situations of their fellows.

"Want a hand?" Clint, abruptly beside her. The bus is empty; it's just them now. He whips an arrow into place and releases it, then another, and there are a few busy seconds.

Natasha's line, in their long-established dialogue of echo and code, is: couldn't hurt. But she'd like to say that she's happy and that she missed him, she'd have been sorry never to stand behind cars flirting with death and shooting at things with him ever again.

So she says Budapest instead, and knows from the dryness of his reply that he understands.

The longer the fight goes on, the more she learns about the aliens that Loki's called down onto the surface of her world. More or less by accident she discovers that their blue electrics -- or whatever they are -- are both vital and close to the surface, and once she's determined that the shock of contact when she rips the connection apart is unpleasant but not dangerous, she tries it again. There's a visceral kind of satisfaction to the act, like sinking your teeth into flesh.

She gets her hands on one of their own weapons, and it's fantastic. It's got leverage, elegance; it's tricky to aim but it's not like her targets are small. If SHIELD was planning to use the Tesseract for weapons development, Natasha would have been first in line to play with something like this, even if it's about as stealthy as Stark. Ah. That's the source of the familiarity that's niggling at her every time the recoil shoves against her elbows. She remembers Tony letting her slip on his suit's gauntlet, the odd tingle of it and the way she fell into a braced stance even in heels and then had to consciously correct it because Natalie Rushman had never held a gun. Tony didn't pick up on it, though she suspects Jim Rhodes might have, if he'd seen.

So they're holding their own, but there's only so much damage control they can do, and this is too large and too spectacular an invasion to be suffered for long by the people with stronger voices, larger guns, and wider perspectives. Natasha's no analyst, never has been, but she knows what happens when people in suits start talking about cutting their losses, the greater good. All those clots of words, too big and too thick.

Natasha turns at the low grumble of a motorbike, and she doesn't shock easily, but at the sight of Banner -- sheepish and ill-dressed on a motorbike, dirty and tired like his war's already started -- she inhales sharply. That's all, though. He's here, and for a man she had to wheedle out of India he looks like he's dragged himself through a few spare hells in order to join the fight again.

What do you say, what do you give the man who has nothing but his own wry momentum and the memory of his despair?

Gratitude, maybe, and grace. Grace enough to lie, in demeanour if not precisely in words, and pretend that fear hasn't bitten chunks out of you. He'll have his own ledger, and she doesn't have to be another entry in the wrong column.

For the first time Natasha finds the speed of all this grating. She wishes they had time to regroup, to pool their data, to discuss even the impossibility of strategy. But it's a dangerous wish. She knew, when she stood up even though she didn't want to stand up, when she shook herself clean of the worst of her terror and went to knock Clint back into his own skull, that she'd have to keep moving until it was finished, one way or another. It's not as though the situation has slowed down any, either, right down to the leviathan now charging in their direction chased by a wreath of smoke. It moves almost casually, as though daring them to produce an immovable object, because nothing less will work.

Except, it turns out, a Hulk.

The noise is excruciating, both high and low at once, building to a boom. The fear hasn't found Natasha yet. She has enough focus to watch the armour falling from the monster's sides, answering the question about whether or not it's alive, and then Stark brings the explosion and her vision is full of the Captain's shield, which is nice of him, because now she doesn't have to throw herself behind someone a little more fireproof.

"Bruce Banner?" mutters Clint, brushing past her as she pulls glass shards and gravel from the parts of her hair closest to her eyes. "Really?"

"I'll catch you up later."

"The green guy is on our side, right?"

"Ask me in an hour."

Another thing that she doesn't know enough about. The simple action of Banner allowing the Hulk out instead of fighting him could mean something, and Natasha has bigger things to worry about at the moment then her own stupid phobia.

So she turns her back, and reloads her gun.



She's run and she hasn't stopped, and it's ended. But then the half-dead Tony Stark drags them through the devastated streets of Manhattan for shawarma, for fuck's sake, and they sit there while the owner sweeps calmly around their table and the owner's awestruck husband keeps almost nicking himself as he slices strips of meat off the spit, because he's so busy flicking his gaze between Steve's uniform and Mjolnir. It's absurd. Natasha licks salt off her fingers and doesn't realise that she's staring at Clint until he hauls his foot up onto her chair and gives her a look -- happy? -- and she can shift backwards a little and feel the side of his boot against her hip.

Tony waggles his eyebrows at her across the table, delighted, like he's unearthed a scandal. Natasha narrows her eyes back until he blanches and looks away.

Clint leans over and steals a handful of her fries, then makes a grab for her puddle of garlic sauce. Natasha snatches her food out of the way and watches Clint's familiar blue-green eyes widen in mock outrage, and the cut on her forehead is stinging and she's pulled a muscle in her left shoulder grabbing hold of flying alien things and she can tell from experience that at least four of her ribs are cracked, but she laughs anyway, bright and sore and alive.


the only thing left of the sea is its sound

"So, who'd Fury pick as our tail?"

Clint twists in his seat. "Agent Delaney."

"Aww." Natasha glances in the rearview and waves at Meera Delaney, who is wearing enormous Ray-Bans and an embarrassed expression. "It's like they don't trust us."

Clint grins.

They've left New York behind them, Manhattan already rebuilding with its solid, vivacious survivor's pride. She doesn't know what type of paid leave they, the government employees, are actually on; personal, respite, something like that. No big deal for Tony Stark to drag Bruce Banner away to fiddle with the universe's mechanics until life makes sense to them again, or for Steve Rogers to process events in whatever isolation he needs, but on paper Natasha and Clint still serve at someone else's pleasure. Fury will work something out. They're owed this.

Of them all she feels worst for Thor, whose victory looked the most like failure, and whose eyes were shadowed with pain as he farewelled them.

"Doesn't it cost a lot in magic fossil fuels or whatever to send you between here and Asgard?" Clint asked at the time.

"There are many ways between the worlds," Thor said. "Loki knew of some. And we of Asgard are finding them, now, because we must. Loki --" He closed his eyes. "Loki said that we were wedded to our conveniences, and that they made us lazy in the pursuit of new ideas. In this, I think, he was not lying."

"Plus, the Tesseract," said Natasha.

"Yes," Thor said, but he didn't sound pleased about it.

SHIELD's files on Asgard don't yet extend to the minutiae of its justice system; Natasha doesn't know what Loki will face on the other end of his extradition. There's war crimes and then there's whatever your race believes in when it has built itself on conflict and the stern annihilation of foes. It worries at her, a niggling that won't dislodge, tucked away in her mouth like a thin bleeding cut.

But that's far away, out of her hands, and this is now. It's a good day for driving, the air pugnacious and fresh in the windows, the clouds high and thinly streaked. They've been half an hour on a fast, flat road before Clint asks, "Where are we going?"

She has less than three seconds to decide whether it'd be better for his mental state to let him make the decision, or to keep it out of his hands. Her instincts waver. But she knows what she'd want.

"I was thinking somewhere warm," she says, voice set at pure neutral, and pauses.

Clint is still beside her. Not preternaturally still, not as still as he can be, just thoughtful. After a moment he reaches over and with his knuckles taps the back of her hand where it rests on the gearstick, silent encrypted affection.

"You and your thing for beaches," he says.

The place she drives them to isn't on a beach, though there's a lake or two within walking distance. It's not crowded, and the assertive peace of the surroundings infiltrates the walls of every room, but there are enough people working and staying at the resort that it's difficult to sink too far into your own head. There's always another human being to acknowledge, even if they're doing no more than bringing you a meal or giving you a massage.

Natasha has these reasons and others lined up, and is prepared to deliver them in any pitch from mocking to gentle, but Clint doesn't say a word as they turn off the road and onto the long, roughened driveway that runs through haphazard trees and spits them out in front of the main building with its sleepily cheerful facade. Natasha exhales, then catches herself doing it. This place is hers: strictly for downtime, never for work, and the mere sight of it causes a reflexive loosening that isn't exactly calm but the promise of it, the beginning.

Agent Delaney has the tact to choose a parking space as far away from theirs as possible.

"Ms Wilson," says Amanda behind the front desk, as soon as they set foot in the foyer. "Always a pleasure to see you." Her gaze locks onto Clint with gleeful curiosity that pulls up an eyelash short of unprofessionalism.

"Tabitha Wilson," Clint says, as Amanda is busy swiping the credit card from which he read the name. "She sounds like fun."

"She doesn't usually bring guests," Natasha says.

With her hair pinned back and her most harmless stance, she's gambling on the fact that the staff here won't draw any connection between her face and that of the suddenly-famous Black Widow, no matter if the media is still chewing frantically over the existence of the Avengers. Context is powerful; she's confident she can remain Tabitha Wilson, here, for a long time.

Amanda's face droops a bit when Natasha books them into separate rooms, then re-perks as she looks at her computer screen.

"I'll give you Maple and Aspen," she all but cooes. "They're adjoining. Shall I make you a dinner reservation?"

"Yes," says Clint firmly. It's darkening outside and they didn't stop for snacks on the way.

Natasha wouldn't have come back here beyond her first visit if the food was anything less than what it is, and they eat without talking much, still easing into their own survival. She wrote her report before they left, outlining events seared into her mind with as little emotion as possible. The Director would have understood if she'd put it off, let things settle, but she doesn't know yet what shape her memory of this thing will have in three days, in a week, a month. She doesn't know what she might begin to protect herself from, or forget. Better to have the truth recorded so she can move on from it.

From experience she knows that she won't fall asleep easily, that first night immersed in peace, so she flicks the television on, mutes it, and takes her time unpacking, pads around the room feeling out its exits. She plays with her own sense memory in the thick skin of her feet against the even thicker carpet. The thrumming harmonics of her nerves will settle at their own pace.

By eleven o'clock she's not soothed into tiredness yet and she approaches the door between their two rooms, meaning to stick her head through and see if Clint is asleep or if he'd be up for a few rounds of mindless card games. As she touches the door handle, though, her ears pick up soft, disturbed sounds that prickle the hairs on her arms. The television, she tells herself, not believing it at all. The metal of the handle is lukewarm and glittering under her fingers. She wants to shrink back, out of earshot and into her own bed. Instead she sets her back to the wood and closes her eyes and listens.

For almost a minute she leans against the door. There's a pause and she thinks he might have settled down, but soon he starts back up again, the fretful groaning murmur punctuated with words this time, and Natasha remembers being out of her depth in salt water, watching danger tick over into peril, yes or no?

She opens the door. If he's hers to deal with, her business, then that means this as well, no matter how uncomfortable and lengthy an aftermath it turns out to be, the long-term simmering of psychic wounds having little precedent and even less chance of a quick fix. What can she tell him -- that the dreams will fade with time? Even if he missed the lie, she doesn't think he'd manage to fully believe in that sort of healing when all of his own experience stands against it.

Clint has kicked the sheets into a tangle that's slumping off the bed's edge and towards the floor, with one tendril still wrapped around his arm. He's not moving much now. Natasha watches his face, the lines of stubborn denial that form and reform around his eyes, the way his mouth twists and half-opens to release the harshness of his breath. His throat convulses around every swallow and he's breathing much too fast.

Awkward salvation in hotel rooms, Natasha thinks, that's us.

She sits on the very edge of the bed -- out of arm's reach -- and says his name, once and loudly.

His eyes open at once and lock onto hers, and his quick scramble upright is visibly aborted before it can complete itself. He sinks his head back onto the pillow, looking at the ceiling now, and Natasha climbs fully onto the bed next to him. She turns the pillow on her side upright, so she can sit up and lean against it. Without speaking she reaches over him and sorts out the mess of the top sheet, settling back with it so it covers her own legs too. She isn't sure what to say. But the instincts that don't often steer her wrong are telling her that the important thing is being here in the moment of suffering, walking through it with him, no more or less.

"You know," she says, "I have been watching and watching the TV and I haven't seen one kid dressed up as me."

There's a grateful, sorting-out silence as Clint's breathing softens. "Wouldn't do you justice anyway," he says at last.

More silence after that. It isn't a silence that manipulates and it isn't companionable; it's deeper, newer, shocking and intimate like a gunshot wound. Natasha, who itches with stillness, remains still. It isn't, she thinks, the spy-silence of confession. And if it's too early in the process for her to fall quickly asleep, it's definitely too early for him to talk.

There she goes, making comparisons. Her past can't be translated into his present. Loki replaced him with someone worse; she was replaced with someone better; her handlers didn't have to make her more dangerous, instead they dialled her down. He's scared of how many people he killed when it wasn't him, he thinks they count, somehow. Natasha remembers every mark in her ledger and has no one to blame but herself.

Which is worse? And is that a question with any kind of meaningful answer? And does it matter, in the end?

Clint turns his face and shudders a breath against the side of her leg, and she touches the too-warm skin over his cheekbone and wishes for a tangible enemy, a knowable desire, a way to suspend them in time; this, the immensity of what he means to her, is the war she wears on the inside. Love is for adults, she thinks. We're the ones who know what to do with it.

"I told you I'd sleep better if you'd let me kill the son of a bitch," he grumbles into her thigh.

"Yeah, well." She rests her hand on his head and smooths his hair, once, her fingertips moving gently back from the furrowed skin of his forehead. "Someone once talked me into joining an organisation that occasionally believes in bloodless justice. So suck it up."

"Mmhm," he says, somewhere between arch and incoherent. He's falling asleep again.

Natasha keeps herself from slipping away entirely, her hand in his hair and her shoulders against the hard wood of the bedhead, until she can assure herself that his sleep is once more undisturbed. The world blurs to stillness, but she's ready to jolt alert at the slightest prompt: the assassin's snooze.

What are you?

Half asleep in a safe bed she's a fairytale, a winter child with a man dissolving into feathers under her touch. She keeps the fight in her bones where she can feel it, like she still feels the ache of a dance in her feet, the dust of her deeds on her fingertips. The warmth of her heart like the truth of springtime.