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i have seen nearly every city

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It’s the year 2006 and Natasha Romanov has been working for SHIELD for little under twelve months. Buffy Summers has been head of the ISC for almost three years.

Natasha has never known her family and Buffy has left hers behind somewhere between California and Rome.

They meet in a decrepit warehouse on the outskirts of Prague, where the blonde has a demon on its knees, dagger pressed against its scaly neck. Natasha stands in the doorway, legs spread and gun aimed for a headshot, perfectly calm in the face of something that looks like the devil.

They both stopped moving when they caught sight of each other. The demon, bruised and beaten and snarling, sways in the slayers grip. It’s a feint and neither woman falls for it.

“You here for him?” Buffy asks, her Czech broken and heavily accented.

“Yes,” Natasha answers, in English. There was a Russian assassin once that spoke the entire rainbow of Slavic languages. She is not that person anymore.

Red Room is over.

“Personal business?” the blonde asks, knife still steady. There is blood spattered across her pants and shoes.

Natasha relaxes a fraction. “No.”

The other woman shrugs as if to say ‘well then’, pulls the dagger across the demon’s exposed neck and nimbly dances away from the resulting spray of blood.

Natasha tucks away her weapon, nods once, and leaves.

+

Buffy stands in a puddle of cooling demon blood, watching a red-tipped shadow dance through the darkness and away from her.

She wonders who the redhead is, where she came from, why she was after the demon. She wonders about the gun, and about the knives she saw glinting in thigh holsters.

She wonders and is interrupted by her phone singing cheerily from her pocket.

“Dawnie,” she greets, consciously stepping away from the blood, wiping her knife clean one-handed and tucking it away.

“Christmas?” she asks, “Of course I’ll be back in time for Christmas. I always am.”

Slowly, she starts the trek back to her rental car, her sister in her ear and that strange woman on the wind.

“Mhm? What? Yeah, I’m listening.”

+

Natasha crouched on the rooftop of a nearby building and listens to holiday plans and promises and wonders if the blonde is aware of how distracted, how absent she sounds.

She wonders if the family is an act, a cover. She wonders who the woman is, to slay demons without flinching.

Her thought process gets derailed when the blonde looks up from where she’s fiddling with her car keys, and right at Natasha’s hiding place.

+

Of course they check each other out. Buffy suspects a lost slayer, Natasha a fellow Widow.

Neither finds what they are looking for. Neither is entirely disappointed. There is something calming about knowing that there is someone else out there, someone who thinks and acts like you without sharing your curse. It makes them both feel a bit more at home in their skins.

+

Their second meeting is in Alaska. There is a remote little town at the edge of everything, where people have been dying in threes every night for the past seven days. Buffy is missing her best friend’s birthday and Natasha isn’t missing anything at all.

One of them thinks demon, the other simply thinks threat. They catch sight of each other in the town’s only bar in the late afternoon and their conversation goes a lot like the last one.

Except for how, at the last moment, Natasha catches Buffy’s wrist as she walks past and says, “Happy hunting.”

She doesn’t know why she does it, why she invites conversation and contact like that, but there is something in the older woman’s eyes that reminds her of…. Something. A girl. There was a girl in the Red Room, one like dozens of others. She shared Natasha’s bunk for a while and her eyes were green like Buffy’s. Green and a little broken, like all eyes in that place, but also filled with a quiet, steady hope.

Natasha never understood what that hope was for, or what it survived on, but it was there, even the last time she saw the girl, dragged away by guards, quiet and docile and never to return.

Buffy’s eyes remind her of that girl, steady and a little broken and still hoping for something.

This time, Natasha makes the kill, faster and surer on snow and ice than the Californian bred slayer.

They trek back to town together, dawn a cold, blue weight at their backs.

“Breakfast?” Buffy asks at the edge of morning.

Natasha considers for a long moment. Then she hums agreement.

+

They stay at the diner all morning, exchanging carefully edited tales of their exploits. They eat ice-cream despite the early hour and scare away all other customers.

When they leave, Buffy smiles at the spooked waitress in apology and puts a hundred percent tip on the table.

“Sweet,” Natasha says, flat and acid and teasing, in her own way.

Buffy laughs.

+

The third time they meet on a hunt, they just give up and exchange heavily encrypted phone numbers.

+

“Why is it always you that gets sent monster hunting?” Buffy asks over the by-now habitual post-slaying breakfast.

Natasha shrugs, under no illusions that Buffy doesn’t know everything there is to know about her current employer already. No reason to keep secrets. No reason to spill them. Life of a spy, she figures, only she isn’t that anymore. She’s an agent now.

Occasionally she tells herself that makes a difference.

“I don’t fear them,” she answers, cold and precise and true.

There are worse things to fear than those that wear their evil on the outside.

“Why are you in the field, instead of in a boardroom?” She knows things about Buffy, too, and one of them is that she should be calling her ‘Director’.

The blonde doesn’t even introduce herself like that.

Buffy shrugs fluidly and then answers anyway, sticking her spoon in her half-eaten sundae and leaning back in her seat. There is a cut above her left eyebrow, going down her temple and along her cheekbone. It’s already scabbed over.

“I get itchy,” are the words she picks to encompass everything Natasha can only guess at. Heaven and hell and all the lovers she buried, all the promises she broke. The things she lost and how, eventually, she found herself not missing them anymore.

The terror that comes from knowing that you’re broken and don’t care.

She picks up her spoon again, plops a cherry into her mouth, grins. Her teeth are red.

They’re scaring the other customers again.

+

It’s the truth, or as close to it as Buffy can put into words. She gets itchy.

She decides, at least once a year, that this is it, that she’s retiring. Getting a desk job. Giving up field work.

But then she dreams, or a girl dies, or the world ends and she tries to hang back, to let others handle it, but she was born for this, chosen.

It’s under her skin.

So she packs her bags, one with clothes and one with weapons, and doesn’t say goodbye to Dawn in person because she knows there’ll be yelling, doesn’t tell Xander or Willow that she’s leaving at all, doesn’t let Giles know where she’ll be until she’s almost ready to move on again.

Slayer means kill.

Slayer means alone.

And the older she gets, the harder she finds it to deny either of those things.

She finds Natasha, these days, more often than not. She finds Natasha and they hunt together, silent and efficient, and then they gorge themselves in ice-cream and the itch goes away, fades into a low hum.

Natasha doesn’t ask, doesn’t demand, doesn’t try to keep Buffy away from the violence because, in many ways, Natasha is the violence.

She calms something in Buffy, deep down.

There is no-one else left alive who can.

+

They never fight each other.

It’s an unspoken rule between them, to never lay a hand on each other. To never try. They have strengths, they have weaknesses. One more than the other.

If they fought, one of them would kill the other. One of them would walk away. Why bother? They know everything they need to know about each other, from the way Buffy eyes her phone at odd times even though it only rings on holidays and birthdays, to the way Natasha only showers with the bathroom door barred and locked.

They never fight each other because they already know how it would end, so there’s no need to see it through.

+

“This is new,” Natasha observes as she sinks into the chair across from the blonde, somewhere in a Roman café, far off the beaten path.

It’s 2010 and this is the first time they’ve met when there aren’t bodies on the ground and things moving in the shadows. The first time Buffy feels no itch.

“I thought we might try this whole coffee and gossip thing for a change,” Buffy supplies with something dark and dead in her eyes. Natasha blinks and by the time she meets the other woman’s gaze again, it’s gone.

“I didn’t know we were this kind of friends,” she observes as she flags down a waiter. She doesn’t know how to be this kind of friends with anyone. She can lie and steal and kill, but normal is too much for her, too strange. It fits her ill, like a badly cut dress.

Buffy, she thinks, watching her, feels much the same. But she seems determined to tough it out, to fake it until she makes it, normal, normal, normal, and Natasha knows what breaking looks like, so she plays along. She pretends this is a mission and the aim is to keep the other woman together until she can get a hold of all her pieces again.

It’s stilted and slow, but it works. Somehow, it works.

+

Later, after they’ve had coffee and lunch, after five hours of shopping in a whirlwind across the city, trying only a little too hard, Natasha sits down at her SHIELD issued laptop and researches until she finds why 3rd September puts nightmares in the blonde’s eyes.

“Happy resurrectionday to you,” she whispers into her dark hotel room at two in the morning.

Across the city, a slayer walks into a vampire nest armed with only a stake in each hand and smiles.

+

It’s 2010 the first time Natasha picks up the phone to call Buffy without work as an excuse.

“Are you in America?” she asks without preamble, and when the blonde answers, “San Diego,” it seems like a godsend. If one were to believe in such things as gods.

Natasha remembers the conversation she had with Clint earlier, about New Mexico and people falling from the sky and very pointedly turns her train of thought away from deities in general.

“I killed a god once,” Buffy said, last year, hurt and drugged and happy in a dangerous, heartbreaking way. She doesn’t think of that either.

“Drinks?” Natasha says in there here and now, belatedly. She read somewhere that this is what normal business women do to unwind after a trying week. Since she’s wearing the pencil dress and high heels already, she might as well play the part. Maybe it’ll even work. “I’ll drive down, we can meet somewhere.”

+

“So, what crawled up your butt and died?” Buffy asks eventually, after watching the redhead put away her weight in vodka and still only list slightly.

“Tony Stark,” the agent offers, gravely.

“Iron Man?”

Yes.”

Buffy quirks an eyebrow and obediently refills Natasha’s glass when she makes a grabby motion. Maybe she’s a little drunk after all. “I take it he’s as obnoxious as everyone says?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, gloomily. “He’s also likable.”

“Oh, the horror!” Buffy teases, sitting patiently, waiting, watching. Guarding. Letting Natasha let her guard down.

They sit and talk for the rest of the night and a little before dawn, they switch from vodka to ice-cream.

+

Somewhere between chocolate sauce and strawberry ice-cream they both look at each other and realize that this is a thing.

It’s a tradition.

Buffy smiles and licks her spoon. Natasha snorts.

+

“Come on,” Buffy calls twenty-four hours later. Natasha made it back to Malibu in time to change and suffer another day of Stark’s borderline harassment, escaped around six and just stepped out of the shower.

The blonde is waiting in the living room of her fake apartment, dressed in leather and weapons, eyes sharp and dark.

“What are you doing here?”

“We’re going hunting,” the blonde declares, throwing a pair of jeans at Natasha and settling in to wait with an expectant look.

“Why?”

“Because we did the drinks and the ice-cream last night and I know you enough to know that didn’t really help. So get dressed and we’ll work off some of that frustration.”

Natasha fists the jeans in her hand, squeezes, and looks into Buffy’s green eyes, borrowing some of the steadiness, some of the rock-solid, effortless hope she finds there.

She borrows them and uses them to anchor herself against the storm that is Tony Stark and Pepper Potts and the Avengers and all the things she feels, all of a sudden.

Buffy gets it. Buffy gets how itchy human interaction makes Natasha. Buffy gets how ‘have drinks with me’ really means ‘help me kill something’.

“Give me five minutes,” she says and spins on her heel to get dressed.

+

Phil lays it all out for Natasha like a deck of cards. Loki. SHIELD a hole in the ground. Clint gone. Natasha listens and nods and swallows bile and when Phil is done, she gets up from the conference table very slowly and pulls out her phone.

“I need help,” she says by way of greeting.

Buffy sounds solemn on the other end when she asks, “You do, or SHIELD does?”

She knows about what happened to the main facility. Of course she does. Natasha looks at Phil who is watching her patiently, as always, and at Fury, who is grinding his teeth.

“I do,” she answers. “They took Clint.”

“I’m on my way.”

+

“Director Summers,” Fury greets as the blonde climbs out of a SCI chopper and waves the pilot away, bag slung over one shoulder, scythe gleaming in her hand. She looks deadly. Natasha is grateful. “Still doing lowly field work, I see.”

Buffy smiles at the Director and then really smiles at Natasha. “Director Fury,” she returns, “still working on that blood pressure problem?”

Despite the situation, Natasha’s lips quirk.

“So,” Stark wants to know from the sidelines, “Who’s she?”

Buffy twirls her scythe once, makes it disappear into a holster strapped across her back and then steps in for a quick hug with Natasha. She’s the hugging type. Natasha isn’t. They compromise.

Finally she answers, “A friend.”

+

“So, how friendly are the two of you?” Stark asks Buffy the first time the three of them – him and the women – are alone together.

Well, mostly alone. Banner is rolling his eyes in the corner.

Natasha leans back against the wall and keeps her face carefully neutral as Buffy leans in close to the Iron Man.

“Do you really want to know?” she asks, careful and low, intimate, the way Natasha’s taught her.

Stark’s pupils dilate and Banner gives up the pretense of working in order to watch.

“’S why I asked.”

“Think you could handle the truth, big boy?”

He nods, spellbound, and her hand comes up, suddenly and too fast to track to slap him on the shoulder as she says, very loudly, “Then it’s really sad that you’ll never know, is it?”

For a long moment, Stark just stands there and blinks. Then he throws his head back and laughs.

+

On the way to New York, Natasha unhooks herself from the copilot seat and makes her way to the back, where Buffy is sitting. She sits across from her and holds out her hand.

Buffy takes it, squeezes it.

“I knew a girl with eyes like yours, once.”

Buffy cocks her head to one side, always more perceptive than anyone gives her credit for. “What happened to her?”

“She died.”

Natasha’s hand is squeezed tighter. “Are you telling me not to get killed?”

Unsure how to answer, the redhead stays silent.

Buffy smiles. “You’re my best friend, you know?”

Before Natasha can react, the other woman stands, presses a quick kiss to her forehead and then goes to the front to heckle Clint into teaching her how to fly the jet.

“You’re good together,” Captain America says quietly after a moment’s deliberation. Natasha looks up at him, finds his face open and friendly, if a bit pinched, like he’s not sure it’s okay to find this okay. Whatever he thinks this is. When he comes from, homosexuality was a crime.

She shakes her head. “It’s not like that.”

He shrugs and the pinched look leaves his face. “You’re still good.”

+

They never fight each other.

Because it doesn’t matter.

Because they both have strengths and weaknesses.

Because there is no reason to.

But more than that, they never fight each other because they never want to.

+

They save the world and Natasha thinks, a little bit, that she understands why Buffy does this. Why she keeps wading into impossible battles and fighting head on, weapons and fists instead of poison and words.

It feels damn good.

There’s blood dripping in one of Natasha’s eyes and every muscle in her body hurts. Buffy is holding one of her shoulders and limping. She’s covered in the Chitauri’s blackish blue blood.

Natasha makes a face at her because the other woman usually doesn’t get this messy. The blonde just shrugs. “It was personal,” she answers, echo and distortion of that first conversation so long ago.

The only person Natasha has known longer than Buffy is Clint, who steps up to them, slings and arm across the Russian’s shoulder and asks, “So, Stark wants us to try Shawarma. We in?”

He gives Buffy a worried look because she looks the worst, out of all of them.

Natasha ignores him for a moment to close the distance between them and touch her forehead to Buffy’s, lightly, intimately. “Thank you,” she whispers and returns the earlier kiss to the forehead for no reason other than that she wants to.

For coming. For not asking questions. For being one of two people in the world Natasha truly trusts.

For always having hope in her eyes, and steadiness to lend.

Buffy smudges at a bit of dirt on the redhead’s cheek. “Thank you,” she echoes.

For calling her. For not asking questions. For making her less lonely. For making the itch subside without even trying.

They stay like that for a few seconds, then separate, chuckling at the awkwardness, the stillness of the moment, so unlike them.

“We’re weird, I think,” Buffy offers, gingerly opening and closing the hand of her hurt arm.

“Personally?” Stark interrupts, hand up, waving at them, “I think you’re damn fine. And you know if you ever want to…”

Whatever he wants to say next is cut off by Banner, still mostly naked and exhausted looking as hell, slapping him upside the head.

“Ouch!”

“Shut up. So, Shawarma?”

Nathasha looks at the people around her, all of them dirty and dusty and grimy and hurt, all of them exhausted beyond the point of no return. Then she looks at Buffy.

“Nope,” she says, borrowing a little Californian flippancy.

Stark pouts. “No?”

“No,” Buffy confirms. “No Shawarma.” She grins. It splits her lip and she licks up blood. “It’s ice-cream time.”

Rogers frowns. “It’s ten in the morning.”

“It’s ice-cream time.”

“But…”

“Ice-cream,” Natasha cuts off. “It’s tradition.”

With that she hooks herself under Buffy’s good arm and the two women start limping out of the disaster zone without a look back.

After a moment, the men follow.

+