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Ghost in the Machine

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Natasha Romanoff wakes up and counts her breaths until she becomes Natalie Rushman.

My name is Natalie Rushman, she thinks as she climbs out of bed. I work for Stark Industries as the personal assistant to Pepper Potts. My hobbies include going to the ballet, listening to classic rock, and wearing inappropriate lingerie to work.

She's never had a hard time slipping seamlessly into the roles she's needed to play for work. But for some reason, this one refuses to stick.

Natalie Rushman sets a StarkPad down on the C.E.O.'s desk. The file open on it details R&D's expenditure reports for the last two quarters. Pepper Potts gives her a small smile in acknowledgement, an afterthought, as she argues on the phone.

"No, Tony. We are not having an AC/DC reunion show at our wedding..."

Natasha closes the door firmly behind her.

Natasha Romanoff is going soft. She knows it, but she's not sure how to combat it. Between the meetings and galas and public events she has to attend as Natalie Rushman, there's very little time for the Black Widow to maintain her skillset.

She wonders if it was planned this way.

Clint Barton leans against her desk. She wants to push him away. She doesn't like people invading her space. One thousand nine hundred and sixteen days ago, she would have told him to remove himself or face bodily harm.

Today she smiles and passes him a donut.

"How was the honeymoon?"

"Definitely over. This morning it was all, 'No Clint I don't have time for shower sex, I have a meeting at 8:30 to discuss super-secret spy stuff.'"



Natasha dreams.

Sometimes in her dreams she fights--aliens, robots, and beasts with no name on Earth. Sometimes she eats take out from cartons in bad motel rooms. Sometimes she lives in a house with a voice and people she is happy to know.

Always, she loves. And always her dreams are tinged in green.

Coulson is on the phone as she buzzes him in.

"No sir, I'm on my way to see him right now," he says. "I'll be sure to mention it. Yes sir. I made reservations at the usual place. See you at six."

He doesn't look at her as he walks past her desk. She turns back to the news-piece on her tablet. It's short, only a few sentences long.

Dr. Jane Foster, astrophysicist, married long-time boyfriend Donald Blake on Thursday, May 6th. The wedding was observed by long-time friends and co-workers Darcy Lewis and Dr. Erik Selvig. Two very different worlds collided when Jane and Donald met in Puente Antiguo during a thunderstorm.

Sometimes things are wrong. Natasha notices them as she goes to and from work. Little hiccups in her everyday reality. She passes the same intersection twice. A headline makes no sense given the context of the how the world now works. Once, early on, she lived the same day for a whole week.

She's never sure if it's done on purpose to throw her off, remind her just how little control she has now, or if it's a mistake. If he's distracted.

She considers rebelling in those moments, but can't risk the repercussions. The scale is weighted, and it is not in her favor.

The cracks are more noticeable now. They're larger and happen more often. The scale may not be weighted towards her now, but one day it will be. Natasha is patient. She'll wait for the day that it is.

There is another wedding announcement. Doctors Robert Bruce Banner and Elizabeth Ross married on June thirteenth.

"Good to see you're okay. Just don't get angry," she says to her empty apartment after reading it. "I'm sorry was that mean?"

It's always a little different. Just enough change that she's thrown off and has to find her feet. She knows this means she isn't supposed to get comfortable. She makes every effort to do exactly that.

The one thing that never changes is that she is alone. She wakes up in a single bed in an apartment with only enough for one. There is no space for anyone else in the life she has been given. Once she tried buying a fish to test the limits. It died in under an hour.

She spends her life watching everyone else connect and find each other in new ways. Jane brings her husband to a scientific convention and he hits it off with Tony. Betty convinces Bruce to attend Stark Expo and he catches Tony's eye. Tony makes weapons for S.H.I.E.L.D. and a friendship grows between Pepper and Coulson as they corral the man who could have been Iron Man. Clint makes a quiet comment full of his usual snark and Tony overhears.

They come together and form something that is almost familiar.

Natasha stands to the side, forever destined to observe where she once belonged. This is her punishment for daring to trick the greatest trickster of all. It's not that much of a punishment at all.

She searches in her spare time for Steve. No matter who she contacts, there is no mention of a man found in ice. She finds a single mention of the U.S. government possibly attempting a super soldier program, but it's on a conspiracy theory website. If Steve Rogers ever existed, someone took great care to wipe that fact from history. It reeks of a cover up, and she wonders if someone's hiding failure or success.

She cannot breathe for cracked ribs and punctured lungs. Still, she lives.

"So here we are again," Loki mocks her.

"I'm impressed. You almost made it six years this time." Natasha smiles because she and Loki both know there is no victory in lost composure. "Maybe next time you'll finally get it right."

"And maybe next time you'll rouse your teammates from their illusory life. Get them to put their costumes on and abandon their happiness. All to avenge a world they can't remember." They both know he can't stand against them if they stand together. Defeat after defeat over the years has proven it.

She always chooses to stand alone.

"Tell me, Agent Romanoff. How does it feel to be unmade over and over again? How does it feel to be remade in my image year after year?"

He doesn't know, she thinks. If he did, he would know that he has yet to unmake her. That all of her pieces and parts are exactly where she wants them. It makes her stronger. It means she'll win, just like she did in that first meeting on the Helicarrier. She'll always win.

"Nobody makes me but myself," she says even as she chokes on her own blood.

"We'll see about that," Loki says.

The staff descends as she closes her eyes.

Natasha Romanoff wakes up and counts her breaths until she becomes Natalie Rushman.

My name is Natalie Rushman, she thinks as she climbs out of bed. I work for Stark Industries as the personal assistant to Pepper Potts. My hobbies include going to the ballet, listening to classic rock, and wearing inappropriate lingerie to work.

My name is Natalie Rushman, she repeats to herself as she goes through her morning routine. Shower, breakfast, clothes. She tells herself she does it every morning. I make myself. And I win.