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when i die i’ll sacrifice (more than enough for the afterlife)

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The fall is longer than Natasha expects.

It’s tears cold on her face, teeth bitten all the way through her lip and the taste of copper in her mouth; she’s falling and falling and then, bracing for impact—she wakes up.

It’s so unexpected she blinks for a second. Longer. There’s light in her eyes and a weight in her hands and it feels familiar; she tightens her grip, settles her finger on the trigger.

Wait, she thinks, this is— and of course it is; she's seen this in her nightmares a thousand times. Lived it out behind her eyes, and every time she tries to pull her aim away from Yelena’s covered head; every time she fails. Feels herself pull the trigger, watches Yelena's body slump. Come on, little sister, she wants to say, get up, get up— and tries again to shift her aim.

Her arm moves. She blinks with it, almost fires the gun in her surprise, and then she is firing, one-two-three and a pivot, four, and Madame and their guards are nothing more than corpses heavier than Yelena could ever have been.

“Yelena,” Natasha says, the word cracking in her throat, and she's already moving; yanking the bag off Yelena's head, pulling at the ropes binding her hands. “Yelena, little sister, tovarisch,” and brushes the tears off Yelena's face, smoothes down her pale blonde hair where it's sticking up static-rough from the bag. Kisses her cheeks, blotchy and red, salt-chapped.

“Natalia,” Vasilisa says, uncertain: this isn't supposed to happen. None of the other girls have moved. Waiting, she thinks, for her next move.

“Come on,” she says, surprised all over again at the pitch of her own voice higher than she expects. “Stay and die, if you like, or come with me.”

 

They follow her lead without speaking, and Natasha has the time to think: god, could it really have been this simple? There are more guards in the hall, but they're not alerted by the gunfire, not on edge the way they should be, and Natasha's got thirty years of battle experience in her, takes down three of them easy as breathing. Evgenia gets another, breaks his neck, and Svetlana picks up his gun, shoots the last.

“Sisters,” Natasha says, breathless not from the fight but from the shock of it, this fall back into a child-body and an old nightmare she's fixing moment by moment. “Get your sisters.”

“Is this a test?” Olga asks, and Natasha grins at her, shows all her teeth.

“No,” she says; it'd be easier to say yes, to take advantage of their willingness to be tested, to let her take the lead on a new and baffling exam they don't have to understand to succeed on. “It's not a test. It's an escape.” She's taking a risk, she knows; remembers that Oksana failed to escape and died only a month ago, executed in the courtyard while all her sisters watched as cold and as silent as the snow that had caught on their hair, their eyelashes. The message had been clear; no-one had had to say it.

It didn't stop more of them trying. Yelena was the first one they were asked to execute themselves. She'd been given a test: spar with Inna, only ten years old to Yelena's fifteen, and Inna had been smart and whip-strong but of course no match for Yelena, her height, her muscle. Finish it, their trainers had said, and Yelena had done it: the snap echoing through the room louder than the shot that'd seen Oksana reduced to nothing but a body and blood bright on the snow. Yelena had been sick all night, shaking all over so that her cuffs rattled against the frame of her bed, and Natasha had known somehow that come morning she'd make a desperate break for it one way or the other.

“We’re going,” she says, shaking the memory off, “we’re leaving,” and hopes against hope that the difference will be doing it all at once.

“But Madame—” Olga starts, and Svetlana makes a harsh noise in the back of her throat.

“Fuck Madame,” she says, and the Russian invective resonates down through Natasha's bones; she's missed this. “Remember Nadezhda?”

“Yes,” Olga says; they all remember Nadezhda. Natasha watches their expressions shift: wolf-girls, turning sharp against their captors.

“The little ones,” Vasilia says, “Evgenia, Olga, come with me and get the little ones. Sveta, take Yelena. Natalia, sister, where will you meet us?”

Vasilia knows, Natasha thinks; Vasilia knows what she's about to do, and she has no time to waste but takes a moment anyway to wonder how, how she knows this. Has Vasilia planned it too, this tiny and steel-sharp blade held carefully in the most hidden space within her. Has she seen where they keep him when he's not teaching them how to kill a man silent as a ghost.

“The armory,” she says, “the corridor before the armory. Don't go in until I'm there.”

“Where are you going?” Olga says, the edge of panic creeping into her voice, and Vasilia holds Natasha's gaze.

“Soldat,” she says, “she's going for the Soldat,” and Natasha nods just once.

“You'll need help,” Svetlana says,”let me come with you, sestra,” and Natasha shakes her head no.

“I can do it alone,” she tells them. “I have to do it alone. Go. I'll see you soon.”

 

She's lucky with the timeline, she knows; three months from now they'll trade him back. Red Room never owned him exactly, only borrowed him from Hydra to train their own soldat, but these days Hydra’s moving away from the failed state that is post-Soviet Russia. It's so easy now to infiltrate the framework of the American government that they'll already have Congressmen and Senators, cheaper to buy off than oil-rich Russian oligarchs. It's a year, she thinks, trying to remember, before they'll start to store him down in that bank vault like an investment in their preferred future. Americans, she thinks before she can help it. Russian bleeding backward into her both in language and mindset. Amerikanskiy: of course it's a fucking bank. The Asset. The brutal capitalism of it all, it's exactly right.

 

Getting into the Soldat’s vault here is easier than it would have been in the bank, but still not easy. It's been so long since Natasha has worked alone; she's gotten soft, she thinks, the second time she catches herself waiting on Steve to bring up her flank, on Rhodes calm in her ear. But Natasha Romanoff soft, missing a team that won't exist for more than another ten years, is still more than a weapon against the guards and techs and scientists assigned to Soldat duty. If she's soft, they're lazy, she thinks, scornful, and she knows what that means. She'd hoped, perhaps, that he wasn't on ice, but that's not such a problem to overcome.

“Wake him up,” she tells the last scientist, the barrel of her gun against his temple. “Now. Wake him up.”

“He won't listen to you,” the scientist says, scrabbling and desperate. “He won't take orders from anyone except—” and Natasha shrugs. Pushes her gun harder into his forehead; he'll have a bruise.

“Wake him,” she says again, and perhaps it's the demand in her voice or perhaps the bodies on the floor but the scientist swallows hard, throat dry and clicking, and turns to the dials, begins the process.

“That's it,” he says. “It'll take a few minutes. But you don't understand— he'll be unstable. Erratic. He won't even understand you, let alone obey.”

“I'm very persuasive,” Natasha says, and she doesn't want to shoot this little rat, not really, but she pulls the trigger anyway. Looks away as she does it so she doesn't get blood on her face.

Bucky—the Soldier, fuck, he's not Bucky yet and she can't slip like that, can't risk him fracturing until she's ready for it—doesn't make a sound as he wakes. Just waits for her to unfasten the straps holding him in the tank, staggers unseeing to the chair.

Oh, Natasha thinks, oh no, no, but of course this is required. She looks down at the dashboard controls. Presses the switch, sticky with blood, and the restraints snap into place, the halo settling itself over his face. “Shit,” she says to herself, “the mouthguard,” and hits pause before the chair can start. Finds the rubber mouthguard, steps in to push it in between his teeth. “I'm sorry,” she tells him. Touches his cheek, her fingers leaving a streak of blood, and he just blinks up at her, waits blankly for her to start the machine.

 

She's prepared for him to scream, braced for it, but it’s still worse than she expects. Wants to throw up until her stomach aches and the back of her throat burns.

Zhelaniye,” she starts, when he falls silent. Has to work her hardest to remember them all, their order. “Rzhavyy. Semnadtsat’. Rassvet.” Takes a breath, keeps going. Watches how he stills in focus until he's fixed on her. “Vosvrashcheniye na rodinu,” she whispers, forcing it out, and thinks, homecoming. Here she is, her first home, and it hurts so much she thinks her chest will split open with it. “Odin. Grozovoy vagon.”

“Ready to comply,” he says, voice rusty, and Natasha settles herself.

“Yes,” she says. “Here are your orders, Soldier.”

 

They get to the corridor outside the armory and the others are there waiting just as Natasha told them to.

“Here,” Vasilia says. Hands her a parka, a pair of heavy boots. “We're going outside, after the armory? Don't freeze, big sister.”

“Vasya,” Natasha says without thinking; Vasilia is eight months older, three inches taller, has used those facts as weapons every chance until now. Vasilia just nods, busies herself with bundling Kseniya and Marta into their outdoor clothing.

“Sveta,” Natasha says quietly. “Brief the Soldat,” and the Soldier nods once.

“There are ten of them,” Svetlana whispers. “Nine guards and the supervisor. The guard changes in ten minutes, they’ll notice in five when the others don’t show up for shift change.”

“Then we’d better do it now, hadn’t we,” Natasha says, can’t help grinning sharp at the thought. “You’re up, Soldier.”

“Ten,” he says. Narrows his eyes. “All armed?”

“Armed, but not expecting anything,” Svetlana says. “And used to children, not soldiers.”

“We’re both,” Natasha reminds her, and Svetlana  rolls her eyes.

“Not big soldiers, then. Not like him. Or have you got a metal arm you’re hiding somewhere, sister?”

“Enough talking,” Bucky tells them both, and lifts his gun. “Don’t come until I tell you it’s clear.”

They all fall silent. Watch him walk up to the armory door, and then Vasilia tugs Natasha back around the corner.

“Don’t let them see us,” she hisses. Waits in silence, and then there’s shouting, gunfire, more shouting. The sound of someone yelling in pain, cut off, and then: silence again.

“All clear,” the Soldier says, reappearing. There's a spatter of blood on his face and in his hair, and as they watch he wrenches a broken finger back into place, face void of pain or emotion.

“You—” Lyudmila says. Points at his thigh, and the Soldier looks down, hisses a curse almost under his breath. Yanks the knife out of his thigh, wipes it clean, holsters it.

“It's a good knife,” he says, catching Natasha's expression. “I'm not impaired. Eighty-nine percent functionality. I'll reach full capacity within three hours.”

“Noted. You have your orders, Soldier. Is the armory adequately supplied?”

“Yes,” he agrees, “more than. And weapons for you all.”

We don't need them, Natasha wants to say. Bites it down. She's sweating in her heavy parka; unzips it, nods at them all.

“Who can shoot?”

“All of us except Marta and Kseniya,” Irina says. “Lyudmila and I need a gun with a small grip, though.”

“We'll find one, then.” Leads them to the gun rack in the armory, watches the Soldier load himself with his supplies for the mission she's set. “Hurry,” she tells them. “Two guns, check your ammunition, we don't have time to waste.” Leads them out, and the Soldier nods again: a professional, recognizing her. “We'll wait for you at the lake,” she says. “If you're not there in an hour, we go without you.”

“One hour,” the Soldier says. Loops the last of his fuses. “At the lake. See you soon.”

“What are we waiting for?” Vasilia asks, stamping her feet and rubbing her arms to keep warm. The spot they're concealed in down by the lake has a good vantage point up to the house; they'd be able to see any alarm raised, any guards sent out looking. The last time Natasha hid here, it was to eat stolen chocolate and practice kissing with Yelena; suddenly she can remember the gritty sweetness on Yelena's mouth, the way Yelena gasped, lips parted and breath hot against Natasha's skin, when Natasha had taken her by the hair and pulled her down a little.

Madame told us love is for children, Yelena had said, and we're sisters, not lovers, aren't we?

You started this, Natasha had shrugged. I was just going along with it, and had caught the moment when Yelena was about to tip all the way into it: if it's just practising, we could…

But if you think Madame wouldn't like it, Natasha had said, you're right, we—and Yelena had kissed her hard, defiant and painful.

Fuck what Madame would like, she'd said, a momentary bravery, and bitten Natasha's bottom lip so hard it'd drawn blood.

Ow, Natasha had said, that hurt, and then, inspecting her lip in the shiny tinfoil, looks too much like a bite. Better hit me.

Yelena punched me, Natasha had said the next day. During sparring. I wasn't fast enough to dodge. Madame had been pleased with it, Natasha could tell. Had touched her split lip, fingers hard on the bruised flesh, and looked over at Yelena sweaty from her training.

Getting faster, Yelena, she'd said. Perhaps you will be as fast as Natalia all of the time, someday soon. There had been a chocolate bar next to Yelena's plate at dinner time, Mishka Kosolapy just like the one they'd stolen, and the next day Yelena had been told to fight Inna. A reward, Natasha had known, and even now feels responsible. Touches her lip; it still stings.

 

“Natalia,” Vasilia says again, “what are we waiting for?” and Natasha blinks out of memory, looks at them all.

“Soldat,” she says, and, squinting at the house, sees a figure walking towards them. Sees the light glint off his shoulder. “That's him. Get up, get ready. Hello, Soldat. Mission complete?”

“Yes,” he agrees. Hands her the remote detonator, and Natasha looks at him, at the house, at her sisters, and pushes the button.

There's nothing, for a second or two. And then the Red Room seems to blossom from within, stone walls bowing outward and then shattering under a ball of fire expanding every second. It takes another second for the noise to hit them, and Natasha listens to it without covering her ears. Watches the debris begin to fall, the fire already taking hold.

“What—” Evgenia says, taking her fingers out of her ears, and Svetlana nudges her.

“Natalia told Soldat to rig the place with explosives. C4, nitroglycerin. Whatever the armory had.”

“Made sure it'd ignite the gas tanks,” the Soldier says. Smiles, just slightly: a professional appreciating a task done well.

“Time to go,” Natasha says. Sees how they're all in varying degrees of shock—the Red Room gone, just like that—and knows they'll have to address it eventually, but there's no time right now for that.

“Natalia,” Svetlana says, “Yelena, she won't—” and when Natasha looks she understands the problem.

“She's in shock,” she says. Touches her sister's shoulder and sees how unresponsive she is. She's seen this before, catatonic stupor after trauma, but never this bad. “Soldat, you'll have to carry her.” The Soldier scoops her up, tucks her in so that she's nestled carefully in the crook of his arm.

“I want to be carried,” Kseniya says, “my legs are too little,” and Natasha only has to think about it for a moment to know that's true. The snow is deep, and Kseniya is small for a four-year-old. She bends over, lifts her up. Settles her on one hip.

“The rest of you have to walk,” she says.”And we have to leave now. Sisters, let's go. Say goodbye to all this.”

“It's cold,” Marta says, resisting. “I don't like it.”

“We want to go back,” Irina agrees. “It's too much snow.”

“Can't go back,” Evgenia shrugs. “You saw what happened to the house. Let's go.”

“But—” Marta starts, and Natasha can see she's about to cry. Come on, little spiders, she want to say, and catches herself. She's not the Black Widow; will never be her again.

“Little wolves,” she says instead, “my little wolves, are you afraid of the snow?”

“No,” they say, a lilting chorus. Voices tired but lifting, the same way they'd have answered to Madame a day ago. “No, Natalia,” and Natasha shifts Kseniya’s weight on her hip, nods at them all.

“Walk, then,” she says. “Hold each other's hands. Stamp the snow down as you go.” Wants, reflexive, to call them sweetheart the way she'd say it to Clint’s kids, but these girls have never heard it in their lives; this is no time for softness. There's a future, she tells herself, there'll be softness for them in the future, and begins to walk.

 

“Soldat,” she says, minutes or hours later. “Status report, Yelena.”

“Heart rate fifty-eight beats per minute. Normal breathing, normal pupil response. She's… asleep.” He uses the word like it's unfamiliar, and she supposes it would be: most people the Soldat's asked for a status report on, the answer would simply be dead.

“Good,” Natasha says. Lifts Kseniya again; she's getting heavy.

“Here,” Vasilia says, “let me,” and takes her out of Natasha's arms, settles her on her own hip. “Marta won't be able to walk much longer, sister.”

“We're almost there,” Natasha says, willing it to be true. Can feel the chill of the snow beginning to sink in; Marta's the smallest besides Kseniya, but they'll all start to get tired soon if they're not already. Beside her, the Soldier clears his throat.

“I can—” he says, “I can carry her. Marta. If you need me to.”

It's surprising, though it shouldn't be. Natasha just nods, watches him carefully arrange Yelena into a fireman's carry over one shoulder so that he can scoop Marta up in his other arm. “I can take the other one, too,” he says, “if she can hold on,” and Natasha lifts Irina up so she can cling piggyback on his shoulders, legs wrapped tight around his waist. She rests her cheek against his back, right where he's got a handgun holstered between his shoulder blades, and he stands again with no sign of strain from carrying three kids like so much grocery shopping.

“Where are we going, Natasha,” Vasilia says: the first time anyone's used her diminutive here, and Natasha smiles at it. Brushes snow off her face.

“There's a Hydra base not far from here. Just an outpost, no more than two or three men, but it’ll  have food, heat. Hopefully transport. The Soldier and I go in first. A mission from our handlers; they’ll trust that enough to get us inside, to take them down without a chance to send a message out first.”

“Yes,” Vasilia says, considering the plan. “Yes,” and Vasilia’s approval is a compliment Natasha holds as close as her nickname murmured in almost-affectionate Russian.

 

The plan works just as she said. Three Hydra agents, all dead before they can raise alarm, and Natasha tells the Soldier to drag the bodies out into the snow before she'll let the little ones come inside. They're all exhausted, she can see, but the base has heat, cans of stew and loaves of heavy dark bread stacked in the pantry. A samovar of tea on the stove, and Vasilia and Natasha pour mugs of tea without speaking, load them with sugar. Begin heating stew enough for all of them to eat.

“There is a jet,” the Soldier reports, coming back in from outside, and Natasha hands him a mug of tea as well. Watches him look at it in confusion before he drinks. “Fully fuelled. In a concealed hangar, not far off.”

“They must fly in,” Natasha says, looking at Vasilia. “The roads are too unpredictable, this far out.”

“But can you fly a jet, sister?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, “my last test mission. They taught me. And so can he.”

“Well then,” Vasilia says. Ladles stew into bowls, rips the bread into roughly-torn hunks. “All we need to know now is where we are going.”

 

After they've eaten the smaller girls fall asleep sitting up; there are bunks, but nobody goes near them except to take the thick wool blankets. Svetlana finds a pack of cards, starts playing a round with Evgenia and Vasilia. Yelena is still asleep—she's got to eat, Vasilia says at one point, and Natasha nods, shakes her awake long enough to make her swallow some sweet tea, some bread soaked in gravy from the stew—and Olga is curled up near the stove, silent and serious. Natasha looks at them all, chews a hangnail on her thumb.

Come on, Natasha, what's your play, she thinks to herself. Can't run nine orphan sister-soldiers and a confused assassin by herself forever; they need somewhere to go, a way in that won't trigger the Hydra cells hiding in the framework of SHIELD to come for them. Someone who knows the system but isn't part of it, she thinks, and there it is: that's her play.

There's a comms room, a switchboard with an international line. Important enough for even this Siberian Hydra outpost to keep contact with its US counterparts, Natasha guesses, and it's galling but useful. She sits down in the battered office chair, makes a face at the groove worn into the seat. Picks up the phone and dials, grateful she took the time to memorize her contact list one sleepless night after the Decimation.

“Hello?”

“Maria?”

“Hold on, I'll just get her. Mom! Phone for you!”

Natasha waits. Listens to the sounds at the other end of the phone—footsteps, a murmured conversation—and fiddles with the paperclip some Hydra communications tech left behind on the desk. Unbends it into a single length of wire, tries to smooth the kinks out.

“Hello?” Maria says then, and Natasha presses her finger to the tip of the wire. Tests it for strength as a weapon. She could puncture a jugular with it, maybe, if she used enough force.

“I,” she starts. Clears her throat. “Maria Rambeau? Carol told me to call you. We need your help.”

“Who is this?” Maria asks, her voice hopeful now. Surprised and joyful all at once. “You—you know Carol? Is she there?” and Natasha takes another breath.

“No,” she says, regretful already that she's having to do it this way, “I’m sorry, she's not here, but she knew you'd be able to keep us safe. She said, uh. You have experience sheltering refugees.”

“Oh,” Maria says. “Oh, I—yeah, honey, I do. You need someplace to go?”

“I need—” Natasha says, and has to laugh a little. “I need somewhere to land a plane. And someone to keep it off the radar.”

“Yeah,” Maria says, “okay. I know a guy. Gimme a call back in an hour, I'll see what we can do.”

“Thank you,” Natasha says. “Thank you.”

 

There's one thing she's gotta do before they leave, and it doesn't take her long to find it. The outpost is small but it's still got a connection to the Hydra servers, and Natasha knows how to crack their encryption, how to skim through files until she knows what she's looking for.

She prints it out. Folds it up small, shoves it into the back of her waistband and tugs her sweater down over it. Thinks: why not, and takes another minute to write a few lines of malicious code. Sends it back up the line; the server will corrupt in hours. They'll have back-ups, she knows, but it's still satisfying to destroy something.

 

It doesn't take long to arrange plans, a flight path that'll keep them concealed. The first time Natasha hears Fury's voice at the other end of the line she almost sobs; it's been that long.

“Get ready,” she tells them all. “Use the bathroom and then put on your coats. Take the blankets and pillows. We have to walk to the plane.”

“Where are we going?”

“We can't stay here,” Natasha says. “If someone gets concerned about the silence from Red Room, this is where they'll come.”

“Yes,” Evgenia says, “but where are we going?”

“America,” Vasilia says. “We're going to America.”

“What—” Svetlana says, and Natasha nods.

“She's right. We're going to America. The Red Room is gone, sisters, you watched it burn. Put aside all your loyalties. We're starting over.”

“No,” Olga says, face stricken. “No, how could you—how dare you choose this for all of us.”

“You would have died,” Natasha says, feeling it snap, and Olga shakes her head.

“You betrayed us,” she says, “the Red Room, Madame, our mission, you betrayed us all.” Spits at Natasha's feet, and Vasilia slaps her in the face.

“She saved us,” she tells Olga. “You think you're special? Stronger than Inna, smarter than Oksana? Than Yelena? You really think you’re better than Nadezhda? They'd have eaten you whole and spit out your bones and done it again with every one of us.”

“Fuck you,” Olga says, “traitor,” and Vasilia slaps her again harder. Her nails rake red trails down Olga's cheek, and Olga squares her jaw, glares at them all. “Traitors,” she says again, and then Svetlana is pulling a gun, pointing it straight at her temple.

“Can't go back,” she says. “We all know that. The past is burned to the ground. So you either follow us into the future, or it ends here. You know the rules, sestra, we leave no traces.”

“Svetlana,” Natasha says sharply. “Sveta.”

“Would you have pulled the trigger, if it was you and Yelena?” Svetlana asks. Tilts her head, moves her arm until her gun is pointed at Lyudmila. “Would you have shot Mila, if they'd told you to? Because they'd have told you to. Would you have done it?”

“Olga,” Lyudmila says, voice cracking. “Sister, please.”

“Call us traitors again,” Svetlana says. Steps forward until the barrel of the gun is pressed to the side of Lyudmila’s head. Tightens her finger on the trigger. “Choose, Olga. You think they wouldn't have made you do it, soon as they saw you loved your sestra? Love is for children, you know that.”

“Lyudmila,” Olga whispers. Nobody moves, and then Olga twists her mouth up, crumples to her knees. “Please,” she says, “let her go, Sveta, please.”

“She's my sister,” Svetlana says. Drops her hand to her side, fingers slack around the gun. “She's my sister too. How could I ever.” Lyudmila collapses to the floor, her face wet. Lets Olga drag her in and cling tight.

“Nadezhda was our sister,” Natasha says. “She was the best of us all, you know that,” and opens the file she'd found, the one thing she'd taken the time to find aside from the Soldier. Drops it to the floor so they can all see it, the photos of Nadezhda’s slack face, the blood streaming from her nose and her ears. The vacant stare of her eyes, and then, the next page: a vivisection, documented in careful color record. “You want to know what they'd do to us? Here's what they did to our big sister Nadia.”

“Madame's freezing tits,” Vasilia says. Presses her fingers over her mouth. “Nadia, sweetheart, what did they do to you.”

“They thought they could make us like him,” Natasha says. Nods at the Soldier. “It’d make us more efficient, if they stripped everything of us away and left only their weapons behind. And then: they wanted to see where they'd gone wrong.” She can see the shock in their faces; can see that she has them, and feels only relief.

 

Most of them fall asleep on the flight: just a pile of children curled up together in a heap. The plane is cold, and Natasha is glad she told them to bring blankets. She'd worry about hypothermia otherwise, maybe. Just another thing to add to the pile.

“Can you fly solo a while?” she says to the Soldier, and he nods.

“Course locked in,” he tells her, “no problem,” and Natasha scrambles out of her seat and backward through the cockpit.

“Vasya,” she says. Touches Vasilia on the arm. “You should get some rest.” Even Svetlana is asleep, head lolling back against the webbing of the seat, and Natasha reaches out, takes a pillow and tucks it behind her head.

“Yes,” Vasilia agrees, “I should,” but doesn't move. Looks down at her hands, at the other girls sleeping. “How did you know?” she says eventually. “How long had you planned it?”

“Years,” Natasha says. Decades. I lay awake every night and retraced all my steps to find the escape points. “Since the Soldier arrived, maybe. I could see he was like us. We could use him.”

“You could have gone by yourself,” Vasilia tells her. “You're smarter than Oksana and Yelena. You could have taken the Soldier and gotten out.”

“Would you have, if you'd had the chance?”

“No,” Vasilia says. Doesn't even have to think about it. “My freedom would be worth nothing, if I left all my sisters behind. How would I live.”

“Yes,” Natasha agrees. Leans against Vasilia, drags a blanket up over them both. “How would I have lived, sister.”

 

It's a long flight; nine hours, up around the Arctic and then, threading carefully, the flight path Fury had organized to keep them invisible from authorities. Natasha checks back on Barnes in the cockpit; he hasn't moved an inch.

“You could rest,” she says, and he blinks at her like he doesn't understand the word.

“The mission is not complete,” he says.

“When we land, then. Your mission then is only to care for the children. Sleep if they sleep.”

“Noted,” Barnes says. Natasha catches the faintest note of skepticism in his voice; he hasn't been used as a babysitter in near-on seventy years. “We're on approach. Do you want to land?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, and takes over the controls, lands them careful and smooth in an empty green field. Don't need a runway, she'd told Maria, you're familiar with SHIELD Quinjets, right? and Maria had just laughed.

“Familiar with a lot of weird spacecraft,” she'd said, “don't worry, I know a place.”

Fury is there to greet them. Natasha gets off the plane first, nods once at him. “Thanks for getting us illegally into the country.” She lifts Kseniya down, nods again at the others. “We’re here, sestry, come inside.”

“Well, a guy over at Air Force owed me a favor,” Fury shrugs. “This was kind of a bigger favor than he owed me, though, so I guess I owe Rhodes a bottle of whisky now. Jesus, just how many of there are you?”

“Ten,” Natasha tells him. “Ten of us, and the Soldier.”

“The Soldier? Holy shit, is that—”

“Yeah,” Natasha says. “It is.”

“Well,” Fury says. Blinks, just once. “I’d say that’s impossible, but I’ve seen a woman shoot fireballs out of her fists, so. Welcome home, Sergeant Barnes.”

Barnes looks at him, flat. Picks up Kseniya and Marta, glances at Natasha for her instructions.

“Go with Svetlana,” she says, and he nods. Follows Svetlana without another word.

“What, he only speaks Russian now?”

“There’s a lot I need to fill you in on,” Natasha says, “but I guess I should start with this: this is a defection.”

“From where? Russia? Kid, the Soviet Union fell just about ten years ago, you’re a little late.”

“No,” she says, “not the Soviets. Hydra.”

“Hydra,” Fury repeats, “you’re even later on that one, Hydra fell damn near sixty years ago,” and Natasha shakes her head.

“What’s that phrase? It’s right on the tip of my tongue. Oh, right. Yeah, tales of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Fury looks at her long and hard. “I think you and I had better have a chat,” he says eventually, and Natasha nods.

“Yeah,” she agrees, “I think we better.”

 

When they get inside, Natasha takes a minute to consider her next move. “I want to talk,” she says, “I promise I do, but my sisters—”

“Yeah, yeah, get your people settled. Sorry, Maria, apparently your house is an impromptu refugee camp for the night.”

“Wouldn't be the first time,” Maria shrugs. “You want something to eat, kids? A hot chocolate?”

“Hot chocolate,” Irina says, shy, and looks at Natasha. “Are we allowed—”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, suddenly exhausted. “Only a little, though, or you'll make yourself sick.”

The kids get hot chocolate, some plain buttered toast, and Natasha makes eye contact with Vasilia, tilts her head towards the next room.

“Time to go and sit down,” Vasilia says. “We need to leave sister Natalia to it for a bit.”

“They can watch some TV, if they want,” Maria says. “We don't have cable but if they're happy with re-runs…”

“Somehow I get the feeling that it won't be a re-run for these kids,” Fury says. Sits down at the kitchen table, gestures for Natasha to do the same. “Shit, I've never done an interrogation in someone's kitchen before. Interrogation? Debriefing? What is this, kid, because you seem to know more than I do about the process we're following here.”

“How about the welcome wagon,” Natasha suggests, and Fury exhales, sits back in his chair.

“Yeah,” he agrees, “I can work with that. You wanna start with some names, then?”

“Natalia,” Natasha says. “Or Natasha. My friends call me Nat.”

“You got a last name, Natalia or Natasha or Nat?”

“Ivanova,” Natasha says. Feels it settle. “Natasha Ivanova.”

“Right, okay. How about we do the rest of the names later or we'll be here all night. You know me, apparently, but let's settle that one anyway: Fury, Nicholas J. My friends call me Fury.”

“No,” Maria says, from the kitchen doorway, “your friends call you Nick.” Natasha smiles at that, can't help it, and Fury frowns at Maria before getting back to it.

“So,” he says. “Hydra. Still a thing, apparently? That why you insisted on coming here under the radar, and not a SHIELD facility?”

Natasha nods. Lays her hands flat on the kitchen table. “I’ll tell you everything, but you have to promise me: don't put any of this in SHIELD files.”

“You're telling me SHIELD is compromised? How deep?”

“All the way to the top,” Natasha says. “A couple of the World Security Council members. Director Pierce. Agent Sitwell, other senior agents. The STRIKE teams. They'd plan to take you out, if you ever became a problem for them,” and there must be a ring of truth to what she's saying because Fury sits back again, looks at her for a long moment without speaking.

“Barnes,” he says eventually. “Tell me about him.”

“Hydra's used him as their weapon for decades,” Natasha says. “Remember Captain America? That supersoldier serum? Hydra did their own experiments, got somewhere close to replicating it. They brainwashed him. Wiped his memory, kept him in cryofreeze between missions. In Siberia, but they were going to transfer him here soon. The vault is probably already set up.”

“Brainwashing,” Fury says. “Cryofreeze.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, and lifts her sweater, pulls the file out of her waistband. Puts it on the table.

“This is in Russian,” Fury says, “it could say anything,” and Natasha nods.

“Yeah,” she says again. Turns a page. “But it's got pictures. And it's not all in Russian.” Pushes the paper across the table: photos of Barnes in the chair, the tank. An internal memo confirming the US transfer, signed by Pierce. Everything neatly watermarked with the Hydra logo; they really need to brand less, she thinks, and waits for Fury to consider the evidence in front of him.

“What about you,” he says, “where do you fit, you and your sisters.”

“It was called the Red Room. A facility set up by the USSR, back when that was a thing. They've trained us since we were children.” Natasha thinks for a moment, shrugs. “You saw Kseniya. I was younger than she is when they took me. Might have been born to them, I don't know.”

“Since you were children. You're still a kid, Ivanova. You're only, what, fifteen?”

“I'm older than I look,” Natasha says, and lets him draw his own conclusions: supersoldier serum, cryofreeze. Hydra experiments. She's not like Barnes, not so far as she knows, but maybe it's easier to let him believe that she is.

“And you're all Hydra?”

“Not exactly. I don't know. We weren't Hydra, but—affiliated, anyway. Loyal only to Russia, to our handlers, to the destruction of the capitalist state. They borrowed the Soldier to train us.”

Was, you said. Where's this Red Room now?”

“Well,” Natasha says. Tilts her head, grins at Fury. “I kind of blew it up on our way out.”

“So, you're telling me none of those kids in there are still loyal to, uh, the destruction of the capitalist state? You're all happily defecting to eat hamburgers and live the American dream?”

“Mostly,” Natasha says, “I think we're just defecting so we can live.”

 

They keep talking: hours, maybe. Operation Paperclip, the methods Hydra uses to operate inside the shadow of SHIELD. The ways the Red Room brainwashed them all. Natasha can tell Fury doesn't trust her, not all the way, but he believes her. Wants to let her convince him. Maria listens for a while. Shakes her head, makes Natasha a cup of coffee, and Natasha clutches at it. Drops her head to her hands, just briefly, and realizes that while she's been talking some of her sisters have come back in, are watching her like she might disappear if they let her out of their sight too long.

“Okay,” Fury says. “Jesus, okay. I don't know what we're gonna do with you all, but I'll do my best, okay? I might need to bring my partner in on this.”

“Bring him by the house,” Maria says, “it's been an age since I've seen Agent Coulson.” Glances again at Natasha, touches her on the shoulder. “You must be exhausted. There aren’t enough beds for everyone, but if some of you are happy to share, you’ll all squeeze in between the guest room and the couches in the lounge.”

“Are there handcuffs?” Lyudmila says in English, from the easy chair in the corner where she’s tucked up against Olga. Maria looks at her. Back at Natasha.

“I don’t…” she says, and Natasha makes a face, shakes her head minutely. Fuck, she thinks, and lets herself very briefly dream about just going to bed, pulling the blankets up and not having to think so hard for one damn minute. Wonders, idly, whether running the Avengers was easier or harder than wrangling a cabal of tiny assassin children with brainwashing and trust issues. In hindsight it seems easier, but she’s pretty sure she’s glossing over the memory of having to deal with Stark.

“If it’s okay with you,” she says quietly to Maria, “I think we’re going to need to keep them all in one room.” Thinks about it a little longer, drops her voice even quieter. “If you and Monica can lock your doors overnight, you should do it.”

“You’re—they can’t be that dangerous,” Maria says, “they’re just children,” and they are, they’re just children, but Natasha knows without needing to check that they're all still armed, that Olga’s got a kitchen knife stolen from the block on the counter and that even Lyudmila and Irina could kill someone in their sleep with only their bare hands. Maria must see the expression in Natasha’s eyes, because she squares her jaw, nods slightly. “I’ll get some blankets,” she says, “Nick, you wanna drag the guest room mattress downstairs?”

“No,” Fury says, “that sure as shit isn't in my job description,” but he drains his glass of iced tea, gets up to do it anyway.

 

When Natasha gets up she sways a little with exhaustion. Catches herself against the table, grits her teeth and takes a breath. Follows Maria into the next room, wondering what she’ll find now that all of her sisters have had an hour with no rules and no orders.

“Oh,” she says, “holy shit.” Tries not to laugh. Barnes is sitting on the floor, expression calm but maybe a little confused. Irina and Kseniya are asleep in his lap, and Marta is finishing the fifth braid in his hair. Evgenia and Svetlana are just watching, curled up around each other with Yelena leaning against them. Svetlana glances up at Natasha. Smiles slightly.

“They wanted to make him pretty,” she says, “and he let them.”

“His hair was in his eyes,” Marta says very seriously. “It was annoying him. I could tell.”

“You could tell, huh? Come on, little wolves, leave the Soldier alone and come to bed.”

“Yasha,” Irina says, sleepy. Clings to Barnes’ thigh. “I want to stay with Yasha.”

“He’s not going anywhere. We’re gonna have a sleepover right here.”

“What’s a sleepover?” Evgenia asks from the couch.

“It’s an American thing,” Svetlana says, “remember? We learned about it in cultural training. When teenage girls all sleep in one room.”

“But we always sleep in one room,” Evgenia says, and Svetlana shrugs.

“No,” Yelena says, voice soft. “Not like we do it. When American girls do it it’s because they’re friends.”

“Oh,” Evgenia says, and Svetlana touches her hair.

“Natalia says we’re Americans now,” she says like it’s simple. “So maybe it’s the same.”

 

They all get settled eventually—Marta and Kseniya joining Evgenia and Svetlana on one couch, Olga and Lyudmila curled up together on the other just as they’d been in the easy chair, and Yelena tucked down between Natasha and Vasilia on the guest bed mattress. Irina refuses to get off the floor beside Bucky, and in the end Natasha just drapes a blanket over her, leaves her to it. Looks around the room, the bodies crowded into the space, and realizes again how long she’s missed the sound of her sisters sleeping, the quiet exhalation of breath in the warm darkness.

“Natalia,” Evgenia says, and Natasha hums in response. “Will you leave a light on?”

“Yes,” Natasha agrees. “Get some sleep now.”

“Can we sleep like this every night?” Lyudmila asks then. “Together? And no handcuffs?”

“You can go to sleep however you like,” Vasilia says, “but no more talking, or Baba Yaga will come and eat you up.”

“Baba Yaga, sister?” Natasha whispers over the top of Yelena’s sleeping head. “Children’s tales? Really?”

“They’re children,” Vasilia says, and Natasha knows she wouldn’t have thought that way a day ago. God, she thinks, is this how tenuous the Red Room’s hold on them was, how fallible Madame B’s control? Was all they needed just one sister with a plan big enough to hold them all, and a place to go, a world outside everything they’d ever known?

“Vasilisochka,” she says, heart bursting; this last twenty-four hours might be more than she’s ever spoken to Vasilia before in her life. “Go to sleep,” and Vasilia yawns, tucks her hand under her cheek, closes her eyes.

They all fall asleep sooner than she expects; she’s tired, she’s so fucking tired, but she’s used to it now. Has had years as an adult of learning how little sleep she can get and still go into battle, and now in this quiet moment it’s like all her adrenaline is catching up with her. She died, she thinks to herself, she died and woke up here, and is caught with a wave of terror that she’ll close her eyes and wake up again broken at the bottom of that cliff on Vormir.

“Yasha, huh?” she murmurs to Barnes, and he blinks slowly at her.

“James,” he says, after a minute of thinking about it. “I was James, right?”

“Yes,” Natasha manages. Holds back her surprise. “Yeah, that’s right. James Bucky Barnes.”

“Bucky,” Barnes repeats. Thinks about it a little more. “That’s a goddamn terrible name,” he says flatly in Russian, and Natasha stifles a laugh.

“Tell that to Steve, Yasha,” she says without thinking, and sees how that makes something flash in Barnes’ eyes. Yawns, her jaw cracking, and Barnes reaches out, pats her shoulder.

“You should sleep. I’ll watch.”

“They,” Natasha says. Isn’t sure what she wants to express. “They might…”

“It’s under control,” Bucky tells her. “Go to sleep, kid,” and it’s only when she’s dropping down into it that she realizes he’d said the last in easy, sweetly familiar Brooklyn-accented English.

 

She wakes up the next morning with an unfamiliar cramp in the pit of her stomach. Wonders if something she ate is sitting badly with her body—was she lactose intolerant when she left Russia, maybe, she can't remember—and gets up to use the bathroom, careful not to disturb her sleeping sisters.

“Fuck,” she swears under her breath. Looks down at her underwear, swears again. “Come on.” Scrubs at her underwear with some balled-up toilet paper, digs in the bathroom cabinet for a tampon and some Midol. It's been so fucking long she's forgotten this could even happen, ridiculous as that is. She washes her hands, makes eye contact with herself in the mirror. Splashes water on her face, uncomfortably aware of how long it's been since she changed her clothes.

“Natasha?” someone asks, knocking on the door, and Natasha opens it to find Monica looking sleep-creased, a little worried.

“Oh,” she says, “jeez, sorry, I didn't mean to-—”

“It's fine,” Monica tells her. “Everyone's still asleep, I'm just used to getting up early. My roommate uses up all the hot water otherwise. I'm gonna make a pot of coffee, you want one?”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, “sounds good.” Sits down in the kitchen while Monica gets the pot brewing. “So, you're in college?”

“Yeah, engineering at MIT. Home for spring break. Wait, you probably don't know what spring break is. Or MIT.”

“I know MIT,” Natasha says. “You get a motivational visit from Stark yet?”

“Fuck, he's such an asshole,” Monica says with feeling. Grabs two mugs from the shelf next to the fridge; one's got an old Air Force logo mostly worn off, the other a teddy bear holding a ‘MOM’ banner. “You want cream? Sugar?”

“Black is fine.” Natasha remembers, suddenly, sitting in Clint's shitty Bed-Stuy walk-up, watching him drink stale stewed coffee straight out of the pot while not yet realizing that his shirt was both backward and inside out. She'd only been six months into SHIELD, barely out of probation, and it'd felt like she was never gonna adjust to a normal world well enough to pass as human. But there in Clint's apartment, on his lumpy couch and drinking her coffee out of the only mug he owned, she'd kind of figured: maybe everyone's just faking it. Maybe everyone's just as messed up as she was, doing their best in a world they aren't all the way prepared for.

“You're different from the others,” Monica says, sliding the MOM mug across the table to her and taking a seat. “More… Less Russian, I guess. Have you been here before, or something? In America, I mean?”

“God, Carol told me you were smart,” Natasha says, too tired to think before it comes out, and Monica’s face does something complicated before she smiles at the compliment. “Yeah, I… It's kind of difficult to explain, but this isn't my first go-round.”

“Kind of like Aunty Carol, I guess. She disappeared, came back. It took her a little while to remember us. Mom said she told you to call her? How—I mean, I thought she was…”

“She's on mission,” Natasha says. Swallows around the lump in her throat, remembering how she'd gotten to know Carol in those five years after the Decimation. Maria and Monica had both gone; Natasha could see it in Carol's face, the bitter loss of it. Had recognized it from her own expression in the mirror. “You know how strong she is, right? She's gotta use that to help people. There are so many people out there, there's not always time for anything else. But I promise: she thinks about you and your mom every day. She hasn't forgotten.”

“I just wanna see her again,” Monica says, quiet. “That's why I'm doing aerospace engineering. Figured if she can't come to us, maybe I can go to her.”

“Wow,” Natasha says, “you’re literally a rocket scientist, huh?”

“Well, I mean, it's not as hard as people think,” Monica shrugs. “Not when you helped repair a spaceship at ten, anyway,” and then grins, shrugs her shoulders again. “It's real fun though. I'm hoping I'll get an internship somewhere this summer. Maybe Pymtech or AIM.”

“Go for Stark Industries,” Natasha tells her, “Tony's an asshole but they've got a great grad program. Or you could just go work for SHIELD.”

“Ugh,” Monica says. “And wear a suit all day? Oh, that reminds me, you want a change of clothes? My old stuff should fit you. I might even still have my old kid's clothes up in the attic, if mom hasn't cleared them out.”

 

They find enough clothes for all of them: a little musty, a little or a lot out of date.

“What is Mickey Mouse,” Marta asks, looking down at her sweatshirt and leggings. “Why is he a mouse who wears clothes.”

“Americans,” Irina shrugs. “Remember Disneyland? We watched the movies.”

“Cinderella,” Marta says. “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Exactly.”

Natasha scrapes her hair back, ties it up into a ponytail with a threadbare velvet scrunchie. Almost laughs at Svetlana’s floral sundress, Vasilia's dungarees, but the fact that she's wearing bootcut jeans and a babydoll t-shirt kind of takes away any fashion authority she might have had. They're clothes that fit, and they're not the Red Room uniforms; that's enough.

“What should we do with these?” Yelena asks, and Natasha grabs a black plastic trash bag, yanks it open.

“In here,” she says, “we'll burn them eventually.” Has to think about Barnes, what the fuck to do with him. He can't wear old Disney sweaters, a velvet scrunchie; she'll have to ask Fury to get him some clothes that aren't tactical gear covered with old blood.

 

Fury returns mid-afternoon, Coulson in tow.

“Been thinking about the problem of your accommodation,” he says. “You can’t stay here, and no offense, but it’s not like I can just go rent an apartment for ten kids and a supersoldier who only speaks Russian.”

“He speaks fifteen languages,” Natasha clarifies. “He just only uses Russian right now.”

“Right,” Fury says. “Sure, okay. Anyway, I think I might have a solution. There’s an old SSR base which never got formally de-commissioned, didn’t get added to the record of SHIELD facilities either. Pretty appropriate, actually: the SSR used to call it the Playground. Underground, fully secure, hangar space to land a jet. Off the grid, got its own generator. Enough bunk space for the whole lot of you.”

“That,” Natasha says. Blinks. “Sounds great, actually.”

“Coulson found it,” Fury says, nodding at Coulson, “he’s a real nerd for digging through historic SSR shit.”

“Just like to do my research,” Coulson says evenly. Smiles slightly, the wry little twist of his mouth exactly as Natasha remembers it every time he was about to dig fun at himself. “I hear Sergeant Barnes is around here somewhere.”

“No,” Fury says. “Keep it in your pants, Coulson, Barnes isn't gonna sign your collector’s cards.”

“Wow,” Coulson says mildly, “okay. It's just, I had to search on eBay for months, it's a really rare card.”

“Tell you what,” Natasha says. “We get settled and Barnes decides he's up for speaking English again, I'll introduce you, how's that?”

 

The base is old, needs a good clean and some fresh paint, but it's big enough for the lot of them. “Brought some supplies,” Fury says, and it takes the lot of them to unload the freight. Boxes of non-perishable food, bed linen, blankets. Kids’ books and even a few toys.

“You buy all of this?” Natasha asks, squinting at him, and Fury rolls his eye at her.

“Course not. Sent Phil down to Costco, what else is a lackey supposed to do.”

“I'm a level four field Agent,” Coulson says. “Being sent to Costco is a criminal under-utilization of my skills. But I hope your sisters like the colors I chose. Didn't just want to stick with pink, you know?”

“So, what, you went with warm grey and sage green?” Natasha says, unpacking one of the boxes and shaking out the linen.

“It's tasteful,” Coulson says. Shrugs a little. “Calming, according to color theory. There's also a slate blue and heather option, if you'd prefer.”

“Well, I'm gonna leave you and Coulson talking interior decorating,” Fury says. “I can fudge his paperwork, make it look like he's out on a low-profile case for a while, but if I go off the radar too long they'll start to wonder. I'll check back in a few days. You good here?”

“There's just one thing I need,” Natasha says. Shifts her weight. “Can you drive me to Cleveland?”

“Aw, come on,” Fury complains. “Cleveland? Really?”

“I'll take you,” Coulson offers. “It's not that far, I don't mind the drive. Just you, or…”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, “just me. Someone I need to visit.” Feels wrong to leave her sisters right now, but she's got to do it now. Doesn't want to leave it to chance in case the news from Siberia leaks out somehow, filters down to someone who left Hydra half a decade ago.

“Sure,” Coulson says, “okay. It's about five hours from here, you want to go now?”

“In the morning,” Natasha says. “Or in a day or two, I guess, it's not that urgent. We'll get everyone settled first.”

“Yeah, about that. Do any of you know how to cook?”

“I can make MREs,” Natasha says, “and box pasta,” and Coulson rolls his eyes.

“That's what I thought. Okay, I'm bringing in Melinda on this one until you all get adjusted to being humans, there's no way I can take care of ten kids and a supersoldier by myself.”

“Oh, she'll love that,” Fury says. “Make her take them all clothes shopping, she'll love that even more.”

“They won't know how to make a choice,” Natasha says. “Can you just get May to bring some basics? Nothing matching, nothing like a uniform; they need to learn they're all different people.”

“I didn't tell you Melinda’s surname,” Coulson says, “you know that, right?”

“I saw her contact come up in your phone,” Natasha says, and Coulson gives her a sharp little look that tells her she hasn't fooled him at all.

“You'll all need a psych eval too,” Fury says, “I'm not stupid enough to think you're all actually de-brainwashed that quick. Brought the files so you can consider your options, in case you've got an opinion.”

“This one,” Natasha says, seeing the personnel photo and remembering her own sessions just after she'd come in, that near-feral girl who didn't trust a single person and was on guard for every trap. “Dr Yang. She looks nice.”

“Susan,” Fury says. “Okay, noted. Good luck, Coulson. I'll catch up with you in a few days, you can give me a status report.”

God, she remembers this: thousands of children made orphans by the Decimation, and she'd run the relief program. Brought them in, settled them with food, clothes, medical care and beds. Organized volunteers to work in shifts caring for them. She can’t tell whether this is more or less exhausting.

 

Coulson drives her out to Cleveland a couple days later, clearly a little perturbed by Natasha but doing his best to hide it. “What, uh,” he says, around three hours in, “what are we going to Cleveland for, exactly?”

“I need to kill someone,” Natasha says, and watches Coulson frown. “It’s okay,” she adds, “it—he’s from Hydra. He was Barnes’ handler for a long time.”

“So you’re taking him out before he can resurface,” Coulson guesses, and makes this little scrunched-up expression like he’s considering the morality of that choice. “Yeah, okay. I won’t cry over someone like that. Do you have to kill him, though? You’re so—you’re just a kid.”

“The first time I killed someone I was seven years old,” Natasha says absently, distracted by the view, the rain on the windows. “Do you think we could stop and get a cheeseburger?”

 

She makes Coulson wait in the car. “Don’t worry,” she tells him, “it’s easier if it’s just me. He knows about where I’ve come from, he’ll trust me,” and in the end that’s true: Vasily Karpov opens the door to her when she leans in, whispers Hail Hydra, tovarisch through the crack.

“The book, please,” she says before she kills him, and perhaps it’s because she’s polite or perhaps it’s because she’s so clearly a daughter of Hydra, but he just nods, knocks a hole in the drywall and takes it out for her. “Spasiba,” she says, “thank you for your service,” and shoots him neatly in the head. Takes the time, afterward, to push the gun into his hand, to twist it upward and shoot again: a suicide, clean for the authorities, even though she’s about to set his house on fire.

“Really?” Coulson asks afterward. “You smell like gasoline. And take your feet off the dashboard.”

“You don’t want to see what he gave me?” Natasha asks, because it’s obvious Coulson does, the way he keeps flicking little glances down at it.

“No,” he says. “I mean, I do, clearly, but show it to me later, we should get home before your sisters set the base on fire.”

“They’re not all like me,” Natasha says, and Coulson glances again at her. Takes one hand off the wheel to touch her shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs, “I’m not—you’re not a monster just because you killed one, Natasha.”

“Oh,” Natasha says, surprised. “Thanks, Coulson.”

“He died before you burned his house down though, right?” he asks after a minute, and Natasha actually laughs.

“Yeah, I’m not—it would have been unnecessary. It was quick. A cleaner death than he deserved, maybe. Don’t worry.”

“You know you’re not the only person who’s killed someone,” Coulson mutters. Falls silent for a bit, flicks the headlights on against the gathering dark, and then clears his throat. “If you had to die,” he says, “how would you want to…” and Natasha blows air out in a long gust.

“Jesus,” she says, “that’s bleak, what happened to you’re just a kid?” Doesn’t say: you were stabbed through the heart, but you held on long enough to take him out. To make one last joke. Doesn’t say: I fell off a cliff to save the world, and also my friend. “Air embolism in my sleep,” she says instead. “What about you?”

“I dunno. Stranded in space and low on oxygen, maybe.”

“Slow way to go,” Natasha says, and Coulson shrugs.

“Yeah,” he says, “probably. But being in space, seeing the world from up there. The peace of it all. Wouldn’t that be worth it?”

 

Natasha claims her own bunk in the base, but all the rest of them seem to trade rooms every night like it's an ongoing sleepover and they're pushing the limits of how many kids can fit in one double bed. She has to get up more than once when Kseniya falls out of bed and starts crying about it, and after three weeks of trying to get them all to pick a room she's exhausted.

“So push all the beds together into the biggest bunk,” Susan Yang says, “that seems like the simplest solution here.”

“But shouldn't they…” Natasha says. “I don't know, shouldn't they be learning how to be normal?”

“They're learning how to be human, kid. Normal will come later. Look at Svetlana and Evgenia: they're settling into their own room fine.”

“Yelena gets night terrors,” Natasha tells her, “unless Vasilia is there.”

“I know,” Dr Yang says. “We're working on it.”

“And what about Barnes? Are you working on that?”

“You know you're doing more work than anyone on that front. He's speaking in English now. Responds to his own name. Yesterday he told me about getting into a fistfight down at Red Hook because, and I quote, Steve goddamn Rogers never had an accurate idea of his own size.”

“He's getting his memories back,” Natasha says. “That's good. It's faster than I expected.”

“Based on the files you've shown me, I suspect that's mostly because we're not doing whatever it was they were doing to his brain every second day. It's giving him time to repair, to reconnect all those fried neurons. He might get some memory glitches coming up. Flashbacks.”

“He called me Becca last week,” Natasha offers, “I think she was his sister,” and Susan makes a note of that.

 

It's six months before Natasha feels confident enough to leave them alone in the base for more than an hour. Six months of impatience poorly pushed down; every minute Hydra gets to live is a minute they're in danger, all of them including Fury, but she needs Barnes, at least. Has to wait for him to get stable enough that he's a partner in her plans. She can't fucking drive—can drive, but can't get a damn license yet—so there's nothing to do but take Barnes with her.

“You got a look about you,” Bucky says to her eventually; he's about eighty percent Barnes by now, ninety on a good day, and the best cook of all of them. Has made meatloaf tonight, with mashed potatoes and carrots and broccoli. “What're you planning, kid?”

Natasha chews her meatloaf. Swallows, holding eye contact. “Alexander Pierce,” she says. “He's living on borrowed time, don't you think?”

“Yes,” Bucky agrees. Blinks, eyes losing focus. Gaze sliding sideways, and then, blinking again: back to her.

“Will you manage?” Natasha asks, and Bucky shrugs.

“Never met the guy. His file photo looks kinda like Steve, if Steve was ninety, don’t you think?”

“Hey,” Vasilia says, “cut it out. No spy talk at the table. I don’t care if you’re doing it in English.”

“Fine, fine. Irina, honey, you gotta eat all your broccoli or you can’t have any ice cream, you know that.”

“I hate broccoli,” Irina says, stubborn, and Natasha can’t help laughing.

“Imagine if we’d said that at meal times,” she explains to Vasilia and Yelena, and they smile, eat another bite of carrots.

“Yeah,” Bucky mutters to her, quiet. “You really fucked up, teaching these kids to know they’ve got choices,” and that makes Natasha laugh harder even as she notices Irina using her Red Room sleight of hand to sneak her broccoli onto Marta’s plate.

 

They make their plans after dinner. Natasha’s tempted to make it dramatic, to send a statement. To look Pierce in the eye and say, it’s over for all of you. We’re burning you to the ground.

“Nope,” Bucky says cheerfully. “If SHIELD is as full of these shits as you say, you don't want to trigger any alarm. It's got to look normal. Under the radar. That keeps them complacent until we can get to all of them.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, “you’re right, I know you're right. It's just not as satisfying, you know?”

“We can go blow up the Maryland Hydra base afterwards,” Bucky suggests. “I can make it look like a gang thing between factions of neo-Nazis, nobody will suspect a thing.”

“Alexander Pierce died in his sleep last night,” Fury says the next day. “Heart attack, apparently.”

“Tragic,” Natasha says. Sips her coffee, meets Fury’s gaze. “Does that mean you're taking over as Director?”

“Why does it feel like you have something to do with that whole thing?”

“I dunno,” Natasha says. “Why does it?”

“You got anything to tell me about an explosion in Maryland?” Fury says, and Natasha widens her eyes slightly. “They're pinning it on a bunch of local neo-Nazis, apparently.”

“There you go,” Natasha says. “Nobody's crying about neo-Nazis, right. Make sure you send flowers to Pierce's funeral.”

 

Their next trip is New Jersey: Camp Lehigh, and Natasha remembers it so vividly she can't help shivering the entire time.

“We don't need to go down there,” she tells Bucky, looking down the elevator shaft. “Just drop enough explosives down that it'll incinerate the whole thing.”

“Why?” Bucky asks, “what’s down there?” and Natasha looks over at him.

“Arnim Zola,” she says, “on a hundred yards of magnetic tape.” Watches Bucky flinch. “I told you. We don't need to go down there.”

“Fine by me,” Bucky says, “I've never been a fan of elevators,” and starts laying out his explosives and fuses, whistling between his teeth.

“Get the photo,” she says on the way out, “Steve might like it,” and Bucky rolls his eyes at her.

“Who says I won't like it,” he says, “she was something, Peggy Carter. Taught Steve to unbutton a fly with his teeth without smudging his lipstick.”

“What,” Natasha says, “wait, what,” and Bucky just grins at her slow and filthy.

“But who—” she asks, considering, as they're driving away, and Bucky hits the detonator.

“Who do you think, sweetheart,” he says, lit up now by the glow of the fire behind them. “Come on, you can't be that shocked. Hey, you wanna get ice cream on the way home?”

“Sure,” Natasha says, reflexive; she's never turned down ice cream even when she was way more lactose intolerant than she is now. “There's a Coldstone Creamery near here that should still be open. Hey, Barnes?”

“Hmm?”

“Peggy Carter is still alive. You don't want to go visit her?”

“Maybe later,” Bucky says. “Maybe… maybe when Steve's here, when I got this shit out of my head.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says. “I get it. So, ice cream?”

 

“Please stop blowing up Hydra bases,” Fury says, both fond and exasperated, “it’s getting hard to keep using the ‘gas main explosion’ line.”

“It’s Barnes,” Natasha says. Takes a bite of her donut. “Just can’t talk him out of it.”

“I’m very good with explosives,” Bucky agrees. Fury levels a look at both of them; it’s not quite a glare, but it’s getting there.

“No more explosions,” he says, and Natasha can tell he’s holding back a smile.

“One more explosion,” she bargains, and the corners of Fury’s mouth twitch.

“Fine,” he says. Sits back in his chair. “One more, and you better make it count. And I’m assigning you Coulson from now on, I’ve got too much shit to get on with here to deal with the both of you causing me problems. Someone made sure I'd take over the damn Directorship.”

“Sure,” Natasha says, placid now. Shoves the rest of her donut in her mouth, reaches for another one. Tucks her feet up under her. “Coulson’s great. He can come up with more cover stories besides gas leaks.”

“Ivanova,” Fury sighs, but he takes a donut too. “I swear, the two of you combined, you’re gonna take years off my life.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, “but on the other hand, at least you don’t have to deal with Nazis infiltrating your whole agency, right? Oh hi, Goose. Come on, that’s it, up on my lap. Hey, we should get the kids a cat, they'd love that.”

 

“Do you want a cat?” Natasha asks them that evening. Watches how Irina and Marta light up at the suggestion.

“Can we? Are we allowed?”

“Don't see why not,” Bucky shrugs. “Who's gonna stop you?”

Three cats,” Lyudmila says, getting daring now. Natasha eats another bite of tuna broccoli pasta bake, makes a face. It's her turn on dinner duty, and she thought she couldn't fuck up pasta, but apparently she was wrong.

“Two cats,” she says. “You'll have to look after them. Feed them, make sure they don't misbehave.”

“And eat all your vegetables for the next month,” Bucky adds, because it turns out once the Soldat is stripped away he's way more of a responsible adult than Natasha will ever be.

“Yeah,” Irina says, “except when Natasha makes them. They're gross.”

“I know,” Natasha admits, “sorry, it's disgusting. Let's order pizza.”

 

Bucky gets the cats in the end, takes the kids out with Vasilia one morning while Natasha's busy planning their next target.

“You don't want to go?” she asks Evgenia and Olga, and they shrug.

“Pets don't make sense,” Olga says, “why would you look after an animal when it doesn't do anything,” and Natasha hides a smile. Remembers saying the same thing to Clint, once, when he'd rescued a stray from the dumpster behind his apartment.

“Okay,” she says, goes back to her intelligence files. Yelena lowers her book, squints at the plans across the table.

“Better to go in here,” she says, pointing at another door. “You'll get more cover from the alley that way.”

“Hmm,” Natasha says. “Yeah, you're right. What else am I missing?”

The rest of them get home an hour later, Irina and Marta holding two cardboard boxes with the air of people who’ve been given critical missions. Natasha glances over at Olga and Evgenia, watches with amusement as they feign disinterest.

“Two cats,” Irina announces. “Marta wanted kittens but Vasilia said grown-up cats are better. They're Potato and Piroshki. Yasha named Potato.”

“Potato?” Natasha says, can't help it. “What the fuck, Barnes.”

“Look at him,” Bucky shrugs, “he's a potato,” and yeah, he is, just a round pale-beige cat so solid Natasha can already tell he's the kind of heavy that'll make her legs go numb if he sits on her too long.

“Which one of you named Piroshki, then?” she asks, and Lyudmila points at Marta.

“It was all of us,” Marta says, and Lyudmila laughs.

“Yeah, but you like piroshki the best. Especially the jam ones.”

Piroshki is tiny by comparison to Potato, a little calico with big eyes and bigger whiskers, and Natasha can already tell she's gonna be a pushover for this damn cat. She puts down her pen, watches the two of them explore the kitchen, and then Evgenia is sliding into the chair next to her, tugging at Natasha's sleeve.

“We don't have to kill them, right?” Evgenia whispers to Natasha, and Natasha feels a chill run down her spine. Fuck, fuck, she—she'd forgotten, it'd been so long ago, the memory overwritten with the time Lila had begged Clint and Laura for a kitten until they'd caved to it. Turn thirteen and the Red Room gave you a room to yourself, a kitten for company, a month off training. A reward, Madame had told her. A birthday present. Natasha's had been a little tabby, all ears and paws. Still small enough that its tail had stuck straight up, and Natasha had trained it to sit on her shoulder, to curl up around her throat and keep her warm in the night. Hadn't really named it, not out loud—koshka, she'd said, little koshka—but had thought of it, just in her own head, as Ninotchka.

“Congratulations,” Madame had said at the end of the month. “You're ready to go back to your sisters. Now kill it,” and Natasha had followed the order, snapped the kitten's little neck without needing to blink back a single tear. It didn't even have a name, she'd told herself later, don't grieve something without a name, but now it washes over her so that she swallows hard, closes her eyes a minute.

“No,” she says out loud. “No, Zhenya, you don't—I promise. Never.” Evgenia looks at her seriously for a moment or two. Nods.

“Okay,” she says, and sits down on the floor with the others so that she can let Piroshki sniff at her hand, climb over her legs.

 

“I forgot,” she says to Vasilia later, “I—forgot,” and Vasilia nods.

“Did you name yours?”

“Nina,” Natasha says. “Ninotchka.”

“Mine was Mishka. I almost didn't—Madame had to tell me three times.”

“You didn't get them kittens,” Natasha says, and Vasilia nods again.

“Adult cats are easier,” she says, “they're already trained,” and Natasha touches Vasilia's arm, rests her head on Vasilia's shoulder for just a minute.

 

She and Bucky are out a few days later taking care of a Hydra splinter cell, and when they're done Bucky loops them round into the city instead of back to base. Parks up outside a fancy-looking bakery, and Natasha squints at him.

“One minute,” he says, “I just gotta grab something,” and it's more like ten before he comes out of the bakery carrying a box that looks heavy. “Here,” he says, passing it to her, “don't drop it, it cost a bomb. More than the rent on my place back before the war.”

“What—” Natasha says, and lifts the lid, looks inside. “A cake? Why?”

“You don't remember what the date is, huh,” Bucky says. “Haven't looked at a calendar recently.”

“We don't have birthdays,” Natasha says, “only the date we entered Red Room, and we're not celebrating that. Oh shit, is it your birthday?”

“No, dummy, my birthday is in March. Come on, Nat. It's April. Ringing any bells?”

“It—” Natasha says. Stops. Thinks about it for a second. “It's a year already? Already?”

“Went quick,” Bucky agrees. “I thought it was worth celebrating, though. Called up Maria and Monica, Fury. Coulson and May. Figured we'd have a little party. Coulson said he'd even bring some champagne.”

“You know all of us are underage,” Natasha says, “bit unfair to bring champagne when none of us can drink it.”

“Well,” Bucky says. “I won't tell anyone you're breaking the law if you don't. And the kids can just make themselves sick on cake, I guess.”

“What flavor did you buy?”

“Chocolate,” Bucky says. “Was gonna get red velvet, but it looked kind of gruesome.”

“Probably not the most appropriate,” Natasha agrees, and swipes a fingerful of frosting when Bucky's not looking.

 

Dr Yang calls her a few weeks later. Asks her to come in for a meeting, and Natasha doesn't know what to say.

“Don't worry,” Susan says, “it's nothing bad, I promise. Bring Sergeant Barnes, if you like.” Natasha still isn't sure, but she trusts Susan by now—trusts her twice over—so she heads in with Bucky in tow, settles down in her office with a cup of the chamomile tea she only ever drinks during their sessions.

“What, uh,” she says. “What is it you want to discuss, Doctor? My sisters? Their progress?”

“Yes,” Dr Yang says. “It's been a year. I thought an update was about timely.”

“Okay,” Natasha says, and braces for it.

“They’re not loyal to the Red Room anymore,” Dr Yang says, and Natasha nods, sees that Dr Yang’s not done. “They’re loyal to you.”

“To—what. To me? That's—it's crazy.”

“It makes perfect sense, actually. It's not limerence, exactly, but there's a lot of transference going on.”

“Fuck,” Natasha says, reflexive. Thinks about it for a minute. “Fuck.

“It could be worse,” Bucky says later. “They coulda all imprinted on me.”

“Like baby ducklings,” Natasha agrees, laughing through her tears. Wipes her face. “The fuck am I supposed to do with nine baby Russian assassins who all want to be sestra Natalia, huh.”

“Vasilia's good,” Bucky shrugs. “She adjusted quick. Yelena, Sveta, they'll do just fine. The others? They're kids, Nat. Move into a normal house and send ‘em to school.”

“It can't be that simple.”

“Sure,” Bucky agrees. “Nothing's simple here, sweetheart. Steve's still on ice somewhere in the Arctic, we haven't got all this shit out of my head yet. Probably still pockets of Hydra ain't been cleared out yet either. It's a mess, but your little sisters are the least of it. So talk to them. Give ‘em the option.”

 

“Nobody's joining SHIELD,” Vasilia says like she's setting ground rules. “You understand me, sisters? None of you.”

“Natasha did,” Evgenia says, and Vasilia nods.

“Natasha is different. But nobody else. We're not doing that anymore.”

“What about—” Yelena says. Bites her lip. “I can still speak ten languages. That's not the same as killing someone.”

“You want to be a translator?”

“An analyst,” Yelena says. “I can do it.”

“It's true,” Natasha says. “They're always looking for language and intelligence analysts. No field work, no danger. Well, you'd have to sit at a desk ten hours a day, you might die of boredom. Or a blood clot.”

“Yeah,” Yelena says. “That's what I want.”

“Well then. I guess that's settled. Anyone else?”

“College,” Svetlana says. “Evgenia wants to paint. I want to dance. Tisch will take us both, if we fake our documents to show we graduated high school and have the grades for it.” She must see Natasha's raised eyebrow, because she shrugs, very expressive. “What? I did my research. Dr Yang brought me some brochures. Tisch is famous for performing arts, and James wants to live in New York again.”

“Traitor,” Bucky says, affectionate. “You weren't supposed to tell anyone that.” Ruffles her hair, and Svetlana flushes all the way to her hairline.

“You do?” Natasha asks. “You want to go back to Brooklyn?”

“Well, I mean. I dunno if we can even afford a place there, ain't property crazy now?”

“It is,” Natasha says. “But I wouldn't worry about that. We've got a lot of access to offshore bank accounts.”

“You've been draining Hydra funds. Natasha.”

“They're not using it,” Natasha shrugs. “They kind of owe all of us, right.”

“I wouldn't mind going to college,” Vasilia says thoughtfully. “A literature course, maybe. And living in New York, we could do that.”

“Yelena and I would have to move eventually,” Natasha says. “The main SHIELD office is in Washington. It's not that far away, we can still visit on weekends. And the rest of you, you're going to school, okay? You can meet some normal people. Learn algebra.”

“I want to change my name,” Olga says. Natasha blinks.

“Okay,” she says, “sure,” and Olga nods once.

“Olivia,” she says like it's settled. “That's an American name, right?”

“You don't have to—”

“Yes,” Olga says. “I do.”

 

The transfer request takes months to process, SHIELD at its most grindingly bureaucratic, but Natasha doesn't mind that much. They've bought a place in Park Slope, on Carroll St only a few blocks from Prospect Park, and there's always something to do at home, some delightfully normal teen sister dispute to negotiate. New York is lovely that time of year; she spends more time in the park, less in the SHIELD district office in Midtown. Goes in every couple of days just to drop by Coulson’s office, hear the gossip.

“Hey, Coulson,” she says one afternoon. Loiters in his doorway, balances on one foot just to test her own poise. “You got something for me?”

“Yeah,” Coulson says, distracted enough that he doesn’t look up. Shunts a file across his desk towards her. “Someone, not something. Intake assessment. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.”

“Intake?” Natasha says, “really? And it's coming across your desk?”

“I know,” Coulson says. “Must be special, huh. Doesn't seem like much—guy washed out of the army with a dishonorable discharge, spent a bunch of time before that scamming people with trick shots in the circus, or something—but it got pushed up to me, so.”

“The circus?” Natasha says. “Weird.”

“Yeah, carnie family, maybe? I don't know, I only skimmed the file. Read it yourself and then go put Barton through his paces, tell me what you think.”

“I,” Natasha says. Takes a breath. “Yeah, okay.” Picks up the file, sits down on the couch in the corner of Coulson's office. Waits for him to sigh in mock-exasperation.

“You know you have a desk out there somewhere, right?”

“It's a cubicle,” she says, “come on, Coulson, that's inhumane.”

“Open plan is the future for office efficiency,” Coulson tells her. “I read that in the Economist.”

“Which is why you're in your own corner office with your Captain America collectibles on full display. Anyway, I brought you a cupcake from Magnolia.”

“You're my favorite,” Coulson says. Accepts the bakery box. “Help yourself to coffee, I just had the machine installed.”

 

Clint, she thinks later, when she's alone in her room with his file. God, Clint. She'd known, academically, that Coulson had recruited him; that he'd been fucked up, wary, the kind of hot mess that hadn't been all the way fixed by the time he'd brought her in. But it's different to see the file—his dumb jughead army ID, records from juvie, the SHIELD psych assessment—and to know, in a way that hurts all the way down, that this is a version of Clint Barton who won't know her. A version she hardly knows at all.

You could train him, she thinks before she can help it, and shakes her head at the thought. This isn't something that needs fixing; change the timeline here and she might break it all, make it so Clint never meets Laura, never has his kids. Coulson saved me, she remembers Clint telling her once, gave me something to believe in when I didn't even believe in myself, and knows that the best she can do is make sure that happens again.

 

“Hi,” Natasha says. Doesn't smooth her hands down her shirt the way she wants to, just looks down at her file, raises an eyebrow. “Clint Barton? I'm Agent Ivanova. I'm here to run your intake assessment. For your information, everything you say in this interview will be used to consider your suitability for this role. Here's your visitor pass; please make sure you wear it at all times.” Hands him his pass; it's on a bright purple lanyard, something she hasn't been able to resist. Watches him look at the lanyard and then at her, raise his eyebrows like he doesn't know what to think.

“Aw, come on,” he says. “Is this a joke? You can't be more than seventeen, what the shit.”

“I'm older than I look,” Natasha says. “Don't be a dick, Barton.”

“Well, that's weirdly familiar. Wait, I've heard people talking about you. You're kind of famous, huh.”

“Am I?” Natasha asks, bland. Tilts her head. “Tell me about the army, Clint. What went wrong there?”

“You've got it all on file, right? See for yourself.”

“I've got the file,” Natasha says, “but I want to hear it from you. Guess I'm interested in your take on it.”

“Nothing special,” Clint shrugs. “Didn't follow orders, thought I knew better than my commanding officer on a mission. Went kind of AWOL.”

“Did you know better?”

“Well, yeah,” Clint says, like it's obvious. “Woulda fuckin’ died if we'd followed that asshole’s plan of engagement. But I also kind of shot him in the ass, so, y’know, here I am.”

“Here you are,” Natasha agrees. Smiles, softer than she means to, and has to clear her throat. “You're a marksman?”

“Marksman, sniper, call it what you want. I don't miss shots.”

“Show me,” Natasha says, and takes him down to the range. Doesn't miss how he looks at each of the guns like he's entirely uninterested.

“What's the standard SHIELD issue? Beretta? Glock?”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, “but let's not fuck around. I don't want to see your marksmanship with a gun, Barton, that's boring.”

“Then what—” Clint starts, and Natasha smiles again when his eyes widen as she hands him a bow. “Oh, hello, beautiful. God, you're something. This is standard SHIELD weaponry? I'm impressed.”

“We're well stocked,” Natasha says, lying; Coulson's gonna be mad when she submits the expense claim, but she's also gonna give him a brand new agent who just needs a nudge toward loyalty, so she figures he'll deal with it.

“You want to be his SO?” Coulson asks when she tells him, and Natasha shakes her head.

“Didn't you hear? I'm transferring to DC.”

“What can I say, I hoped you'd change your mind. You sure you don't want to? I get the feeling you liked him, the way you've drafted your report.”

“He's a jackass,” Natasha says, fond, “but he'll be great. Just—give him scope. Show him you trust his judgement when it matters. And don't let him shoot you in the ass.”

“I'll bear that in mind,” Coulson says very dryly. “Thanks, Natasha. I'm gonna miss you.”

“Don't worry,” Natasha says. “You'll still see me a heap, you know the Brady Bunch is in New York now. Oh, before I go. Got another intake for you to consider.”

“Jane Foster,” Coulson says. Flicks through the file she passes him. “Science undergrad at Culver? Seems pretty unremarkable.”

“Don't bring her in yet,” Natasha says. “Just—keep an eye on her. Maybe fund her research if she goes into astrophysics, it could pay off.”

“Uh huh,” Coulson says. “Because, what, you've got a hunch?”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. Shrugs. “You know they tend to pay off. Anyway, grad students can live on coffee and ramen, it's not like SHIELD can't spare the stipend.”

“If she's so great, why aren't you recommending her for the Academy?”

“Sometimes,” Natasha says, and smirks at Coulson, “people work better outside the system.”

 

Picking a surname for her sisters is more difficult than she thinks it'll be. All she has to do is have SHIELD fake their documents, but documents need a name, and Natasha realizes belatedly that she’s not sure they have any.

“Hey,” she says. Chews her pen. “What name should I put on these? Should I just make something up? Do you still want to be Russian?”

“We’re not sticking with Romanova,” Vasilia says, “but otherwise, I don’t care. Pick something.”

“What name did you use with Fury?” Evgenia asks, kicking her legs up over the side of her armchair and leaning backwards until her hair is almost on the floor. “Ivanova? Just use that.”

“Where did Ivanova even come from,” Svetlana says, “you never used it before,” and Natasha shrugs.

“I found my file,” she says, because she can’t explain the alternative—I met Death, and he gave me my father’s name before I died—and her sisters are waiting. “Before we left. There wasn’t much, but it had my father’s name. Seemed like I should use it.”

“But then it should be Ivanovna,” Evgenia says, frowning, “not Ivanova.”

“Americans,” Natasha points out, “they don’t understand patronymics, sister.”

“No, that’s true. Well, you could still share it with us.”

“She’s going to be an agent, though. It might be better if her name is different from us,” Yelena says, very thoughtful, and Evgenia sighs in frustration.

“Yakova, then. We can tell people Yasha is our father.”

“Absolutely not,” Bucky says, without looking up from his book. “The last thing I need is people thinking I’ve got a whole pack of terrible Russian daughters.” Evgenia laughs. Flings a piece of popcorn at him.

“Barnes,” she says, “just put Barnes, Natasha, didn’t you hear how much Yasha wants us as kids?”

“Everyone can be a Barnes,” Bucky says, “except for Evie. She can wait until Rogers defrosts, since she’s clearly as much of a terror as he is.”

“This isn’t actually getting me any closer to having these documents ready,” Natasha says. “Come on, pick something or I’m making you all Smith or Jones.”

“Rusakova,” Vasilia says, and nobody appears to have a better suggestion, so Natasha shrugs. RUSAKOVA, VASILIA, she writes on the first document order sheet, and okay, it’s got a nice ring to it.

 

She runs into Maria Hill entirely by chance three weeks after her transfer, and it fucks her all the way up. Maria had—she’d died, in the Decimation, and Natasha had managed to trace her to the same spot as Fury, so at least they hadn’t been alone, but—fuck, fuck, it hurts so good to see her again. She must be fresh out of the army, still carries herself like a Marine, and Natasha literally runs into her. Doesn’t look where she’s going until it’s too late and she’s collided with someone who staggers back a step, puts their hands on her upper arms to balance her.

“Oh,” Natasha says, automatic, “god, I’m sorry,” and takes a breath, freezes, because, Christ, Maria still smells the same: vanilla-amber body wash and gunpowder, and it makes something happen tight in Natasha’s chest.

“Hey, you’re Natasha Ivanova, right? Fury told me to look out for you. Maria Hill, special ops.” Natasha shakes the hand that Maria holds out, tries to rearrange her face into something normal.

“Good to meet you,” she says, “yeah, I just came over to DC from the New York office.”

“You’re very mysterious,” Maria says. “You know I looked up your file, when Fury said you were joining us here? What can I say, I always get curious about new women, this place is such a sausage party. But your file has nothing on it.”

“Maybe I’m just very boring,” Natasha suggests, and Maria twists the corner of her mouth up in a smirk.

“I doubt that very much,” she says. “See you round, Ivanova.”

It—it’d never gone anywhere, that’s the thing. Natasha’s heart had thumped every time she’d had a personal conversation with Maria Hill exactly the way it’s doing now, but they’d never done anything about it: had always been on the cusp of something, maybe, and then the timing had been wrong or Hydra had taken the entire fucking agency down or killer robots had attacked both them and Sokovia. And then Maria had died, and Natasha had died, and now here they both are in an entirely different world where Maria Hill still smells like fucking vanilla-amber set on fire with a match.

“Fuck,” Natasha whispers to herself, shaky, and tries to remember what the goddamn hell she was doing.

 

Fury calls her in a couple of days later; when she shows up in his office, he gets up, pulls on his coat.  “Thought we could go eat breakfast,” he tells her. “You ever had shrimp and grits?”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, a little confused, “okay, sure,” and it’s not until they’re sitting down at the restaurant that Fury turns serious.

“Wasn’t sure my office is a good enough spot for this conversation,” he says. “Always pays to be paranoid, you never know who’s listening. You haven't taken Rumlow out yet. I'm assuming you've got a reason why, but I have to admit, I'm curious.”

“I've got plans for him,” Natasha says. Looks down at her nails; she needs to trim them. “I need access to something, and he's my way in.”

“So long as you know what you're doing,” Fury says, and she does; she's talked this over with Barnes until every possible problem is fixed. “In that case, let’s eat. Seriously, get the grits, they’re great here,” and they are; they’re exactly as good as they were when Fury brought her here so many years ago to tell her he was promoting her to Level 7.

 

“Okay,” Bucky says that evening. “Let’s go over this just one more time. What if they—I mean, won't they have the trigger phrases?”

“Nah,” Natasha says. “Vasily Karpov took those when he left. Passed on the knowledge to the handlers in Siberia, but you know I took care of those. The Americans would've just relied on persuasion and dumb blunt force.”

“Don't they fucking always,” Bucky sighs, put-upon, and Natasha cackles with laughter.

“You were born in Brooklyn,” she points out. “You just bought a brownstone in Park Slope, Barnes. You're in love with Captain America.

“Shut up,” Bucky says, “you can't use that against me until we find him.”

“Okay, fair. You good to do this? I can put things in motion tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, looking thoughtful. “Yeah, I gotta get this nonsense out of my head someday, right? Let's do it.”

“Cool,” Natasha says, and punches him lightly in the shoulder.

 

She gets things going the next day just like she said: finds Brock Rumlow in his cubicle, carefully smooths out her expression before approaching him. Touches her blonde wig, settles her glasses.

“Hey. Rumlow, right? It's good to meet you. Allyson. Ally. I just transferred here.”

“Ally,” Rumlow says. Accepts her outstretched hand, looks her up and down while shaking. “Welcome to DC.”

“You're in a STRIKE team, right? God, I'd love to get on one of those.”

“STRIKE Team Alpha. You in ops?”

“Yeah. Transferred in from CIA. If I can be honest with you,” Natasha says, leans in closer and drops her voice, “I was doing a bunch of work in black sites. Figured my skills could be put to better use over here.”

“Did you just,” Rumlow murmurs, and Natasha nods. Makes eye contact.

“Hail Hydra,” she whispers. Watches Rumlow’s eyes flicker with recognition. “You've got a reputation,” she says, fiddling with a paperclip, “my CO said I should find you. Said you'd help me find my place here.”

“Yeah,” Rumlow says. Looks at her boobs, not even bothering to hide it, and Natasha has to stop herself rolling her eyes. “Yeah, honey, I can help you find your place. You want in on STRIKE? I can get you there, no problem.”

“He said you might be able to help with another problem too,” Natasha continues. “Is there anywhere safe we can talk?” Bites her lip, drops her chin a little so that her fringe falls over one eye, and Rumlow nods.

“Sure,” he says, “let's go take the elevator, I know a blind spot on level 32. You'll just have to say it quiet. Whisper it to me.”

“Okay,” Natasha says, “okay,” and fucking knows that Brock fucking Rumlow is gonna grab her ass in the elevator.

“You remember Director Pierce,” Natasha says once they're in the blind spot, and Rumlow nods.

“Reported directly to him, until he died in his sleep. Why?”

“Did he ever tell you,” Natasha asks, “about the Winter Soldier program?”

“Sure. Even saw the vault, I was supposed to be assigned duty there. But it got put on ice, right, the fucking Russians lost the asset before the transfer.”

“That's the thing,” Natasha says. “We don't think they did lose him. Director Pierce’s death wasn't an accident, just got made to look like one. My CO told me to get into NSA footage, the night of his death. We found this.” Pulls out her phone, brings up the grainy shot of Barnes outside Pierce's door. “He got me looking for other patterns. High-level Hydra assets are going down all over the show. Von Strucker, Grant Ward, Gideon Malick. Jasper Sitwell. The Hydra Council.” She flicks through photos: crime scenes, as if the CIA had found them. It'd been weirdly fun putting them together; there are a lot of outtakes where Bucky is mugging for the camera, throwing up peace signs or the bird.

“You think someone's running him,” Rumlow says. “One of the Russians.”

“Wiping out competition, maybe. And we don't think anything. We've got him. The Asset. Black site not ten miles from here, but he's no use to the CIA, not without the right tools to have him comply. My boss sent me over to see if you could find a way to use him. Didn't know who else to talk to; so many higher-ups eliminated, you might be the highest ranking Hydra agent on this side of the Atlantic.”

“Hail Hydra,” Rumlow says. Grins at her. “Lucky I still know the combination to the vault, huh. And the techs to run it.”

“Hail Hydra,” Natasha agrees, and cannot wait to shoot him in the fucking head.

 

She arranges to meet Rumlow at an industrial site east of the river; it's simple work to set it up so that it looks like a plausible black site. Harder, mentally, to put Bucky in reinforced handcuffs, to tug a bag over his head, and Natasha kisses his cheek before she does it, hears him laughing at her from inside the bag.

Rumlow pulls up in an unmarked van, bulletproof, and Natasha nods at him, waits for him to get out. Pulls the bag off Bucky's head like she's a magician revealing a flock of doves, or something; Bucky's got his best vacant stare going on, jaw slack and eyes fixed in the middle distance.

“This the guy, sweetheart?” Rumlow asks, leering up at Barnes in a way that makes Natasha itch to just punch him already. God, he was such a dick, it's a miracle how she ever worked with him so long the first time round.

“No, dickswab, it's another Hydra-trained supersoldier. They were just keeping him in the hall closet as a backup. Of course it's the guy, let's go.”

“You're gonna have to ride in the back with him,” Rumlow tells her, unapologetic, and Natasha shrugs.

“Fine by me,” she says, and herds Barnes ungentle into the back of the van, climbs in and sits down opposite. “Take us through a drive through on the way, would you? I want a McDonalds coffee. And an apple pie.”

“Yeah,” Rumlow says, rolling his eyes, “sure, okay,” and slams the doors closed on her.

“Hey,” Natasha yells. Bangs on the door. “No milk in my coffee, right, I like it black.”

“You are such a little shit,” Bucky mutters to her, and Natasha grins, bumps her knee against his.

“It’ll be okay,” she whispers. “This is gonna work.”

 

She thinks Rumlow takes them on a longer route than necessary, trying to keep the vault location off CIA radar, but he didn't bother to check her for trackers, and Yelena will be at home watching the little red dot move through the city. Not that it matters; Natasha doesn't plan on ever needing to come back to the vault after tonight.

“We're here,” Rumlow yells from the front, “get that blindfold back on, Ally,” and Bucky winks at her before she does it. Then they're inside, and Natasha's pleased to note that it's a skeleton crew: two guards, three techs. She took down more than that by herself just breaking him out of Siberia, she thinks scornfully.

“You can take the cuffs and bag off,” Rumlow tells her, “he's trained to be docile when he sees the chair. He'll just get right in it for us, won't you, sweetheart?”

Gross, Natasha thinks, and feels her trigger finger itch. “If you say so,” she says, and unlocks the cuffs, pulls away the bag again. Bucky's hair is kind of staticky, and it gives her a sudden flashback to Yelena, makes her heart clench; she has to resist reaching up and smoothing it down for him. “Hey, you mind if I stay and watch? I'm kind of curious.”

“Yeah,” Rumlow says, “hell with it, why not, always fun to watch, right?” and Natasha figures that's the moment to shoot both guards, one-two, in the same amount of time it takes Bucky to grab one of their guns and train it straight at Rumlow’s head.

“Newsflash, asshole,” Bucky says. “I'm not your Soldier anymore, bud. And I'm not your sweetheart either. Now get those cuffs on before I shoot you in the kneecaps.”

“Don't you fucking try anything,” Natasha tells the techs, who kind of predictably nod and cower in terror. She gets her own guns aimed at Rumlow, kicks the cuffs across the floor to him. “Put them on,” she says, “and maybe I'll let you watch.”

“What the fuck,” Rumlow says, more furious than anything else; furious she’d played him, that a dumb blonde bitch had taken him in so easily. “What the fuck, Ally.”

“Sorry,” she shrugs, “it’s not personal.” Thinks about it for a minute, can’t help remembering the way he’d kicked the back of her knee to get her on the ground. How he’d yanked her wrists into cuffs even as she was bleeding out from that goddamn gunshot. He said, Steve had murmured later, on his knees in Lagos, he said—they put his brain in a blender, and he just watched, and considering it now she knows she won’t feel a single pang of guilt. “Actually,” she says, “you know what, it is personal,” and shoots him in the throat just for the pleasure of watching him bleed out a little slower.

“Aw,” Bucky says, “come on, Nat, that’s kind of gross, now there’s blood all over the floor.”

“Yeah, I know. Let’s get this done, huh?”

“We need either of these guys, or do you know how to operate this thing?”

“I know how. Sorry, jerks, this really isn’t personal, but you shouldn’t have signed up for Hydra.” She shoots the techs, sort of genuinely apologetic that time, and Bucky settles himself in the chair, clenches his jaw. Reaches into his pocket for the plastic mouthguard he’d bought while helping Lyudmila pick out her soccer shoes.

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s get this over with.”

 

It’s painful and it’s hard: for Bucky more than for Natasha, of course, but it’s still a struggle for them both. She has the book, all of Zola and Karpov’s carefully detailed notes about the process of implanting the triggers, and they’d confirmed with Dr Yang that it’d simply be the same in reverse to remove them. There’s a different setting on the chair, one that will trigger theta brainwaves instead of stripping him right back to basic cortical rhythm, and once she has him there they just have to go through it again and again until Bucky’s glaring at her, working his jaw and blinking slowly. His pupils are huge, the blue-grey of his irises eaten up by black, and Natasha remembers when he shot her in Odessa, that long moment of sucking terror.

Zhelaniye,” she tries, and he spits out his mouthguard.

“Fuck off,” he says, furious all the way to his bones exactly the way he must have been the very first time Zola tried it, and that’s it; they’re done.

She brings him up slow, tries to make it gentle. He closes his eyes, opens them again, and his pupils are back to normal: eyes clear, the color of rain on sea.

“Did it work?” he asks, raspy, and Natasha nods. Strokes his hair back, can’t quite help it, and Bucky rolls his eyes at her, gets out of the chair with his usual loose-limbed grace. “Well, what the shit do we do with this place now?” he says, looking around, and Natasha shrugs.

“You’re the explosives expert. Think we could blow it up without taking the bank down?”

“No,” Bucky says, considering, “but it’s pretty solidly insulated from the rest of the building, we could probably burn it hot enough to destroy everything in here and they wouldn’t even notice the furnace was on above us.”

“Let’s do it, then,” Natasha agrees, remembering to steal the keys out of Rumlow’s jacket pocket before they torch the place, and fifteen minutes later they’re both sitting in the unmarked van smelling strongly of fire accelerant.

“Do you still want an apple pie?” Bucky asks, sounding kind of genuinely interested, and Natasha kicks her feet up on the dash, considers her options.

“Yeah,” she says eventually. “Why not. I'll buy you a Happy Meal.”

“Fuck off,” Bucky says, affectionate. Wipes a smudge of blood off her forehead with his thumb. “Good job in there, by the way. Efficient.”

“You know me,” Natasha says, “I’m the best.”

 

9/11 shouldn't come as a shock, but it does: of course it does. She watches it unfold in the Triskelion briefing room in full color, and for all that she's seen other disasters since then—Sokovia, the aftermath of the Decimation—it's more pressing this time, more painful. Most of the Triskelion ops staff are deployed to relief work at the Pentagon, but Natasha drives up to the city, SHIELD SUV packed with half a dozen agents ready to go on the recovery efforts. When she's dropped them off at Ground Zero, about to head up to the Midtown office and check in on her assignment, she has to pull over a minute and take a few deep breaths which don't fucking help at all.

The last time New York smelled like this it was in the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion. Acrid and toxic: burning plastic, chemicals, steel and wiring, and then, under that, the bitter chalk of ashes and a greasy cloy in the back of her throat. Jesus, she—she drives past Tisch to get to SHIELD, it's only fifteen minutes walk from—Evgenia and Svetlana might have been—god, she thinks, and is startled to find herself crying.

She didn't see it like this before, is the thing. Wasn't even in the US, and wouldn't have cared if she had been. Empires fall all the time, she thinks, I don't grieve for them, and maybe she's not grieving for an empire fallen but this is her fucking city now, her city and her family, and she's suddenly feeling the sting of putting down such deep roots.

 

“We still have to keep the windows closed,” Vasilia says three months later. “The ash, otherwise. The smell, it blows in. And Lyudmila was being picked on at school, for being an immigrant.”

“Fuck,” Natasha says. “Do I need to…” She doesn’t even know what she’d do, really. Can’t do a damn thing about kids being jerks.

“No,” Vasilia says. “Olivia told her she should just change her name to Lucy. Be American. Mila said she was already American, didn’t need to change her name to make that true, and then Yasha called the school, asked for a meeting with the children and their parents.”

“Fuck,” Natasha says again, laughing now. “Oh god, how did that go? Tell me he didn’t wear any tactical gear. Or knives.”

“Of course fuckin’ not,” Bucky says, grabbing the phone from Vasilia. “But some little shit thinks they’re gonna bully my damn kid for being an immigrant? I didn’t die in World War II for that shit.”

“One, you didn’t die. Two, you didn’t say that, right?”

“Nah. Went down there in my good blue button-down, talked very politely about serving in Kosovo and how I hoped my nice Rusakova girls weren’t catching shit just because they happened to be born somewhere other than Bumfuck, Missouri.”

“And now they think that I am Yasha’s Russian trophy wife,” Vasilia says, taking the phone back off Bucky. “Or his, what do you call it. Mail order bride.”

“It’s not mail order if he met you while he was over there, I guess,” Natasha says. “And also, gross.”

“I know, right? Gross. Speaking of gross, are you eating any better? Yelena told me that when she arrived your fridge only had pickles and hot sauce and that you looked like you were about one instant meal away from a vitamin deficiency disease.”

“She yelled at me for fifteen minutes without a breath and then went to the grocery store and made me solyanka,” Natasha admits. “And then blinis. With fresh sour cream, and everything.”

“Yelena,” Vasilia says fondly. “That little mouse. How’s she settling in?”

“The office loves her. She keeps getting sent overseas, apparently nobody’s got a handle on simultaneous translation and analysis like she does.”

“Well, nobody trained like we did,” Vasilia says. “Okay, I better go. Eat a vegetable, Natasha. A green one. No deep-frying.”

“Make Barnes take you shopping at Barney’s,” Natasha counters, “since you’re his trophy wife, huh?”

“Shut uppp. Love you, sestra. Take care.”

 

Natasha’s in the lunchroom a few months later when something happens that she did not see coming at all.

“Hey, uh, Natasha?”

“Hmm?” Natasha says. Swivels around to look at the guy who’s talking to her; his eyes widen and he takes a step back.

“Wow, you’re, uh, you’re just eating a cabbage, huh.”

“Lunch,” Natasha shrugs. Dumps a squirt of hot sauce on the head of cabbage and takes another bite.

“Lunch. Really? You know the mess hall has a canteen, right?”

“My sister told me off for not eating enough vegetables,” Natasha explains through a mouthful of cabbage. Swallows, puts the cabbage down on her plate. “Sorry, did you want something? You’re Agent Woo, right?”

“I—yeah. Jimmy. Wait, you know who I am?”

“Sure, we did the first aid refresher course together. You did Criminal Justice postgrad at UCLA, just graduated three months ago.”

“I, uh. Was not expecting you to remember that.”

“Well,” Natasha says, “I do.” Picks up her cabbage, takes another bite. “What can I do for you?” she asks thickly, “you wanna sit?” and Jimmy shakes his head.

“No, I just—well, I was wondering if you’d like to go out for a beer sometime?”

Huh, Natasha thinks. Blinks, thinks about that for a minute while munching her cabbage.

“We don’t have to,” Jimmy adds, obviously unnerved by her silence, and Natasha holds up one finger, makes an effort to swallow.

“I don’t drink beer,” she tells him. “But sure, we can go for a drink. I’d like that.”

“You would?”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. “Sure. It’d be nice. You doing anything Friday?”

“I am not. Cool. That’s, yeah, cool. Can I pick you up?”

“Sure,” Natasha says, a little amused now. “Here’s my number. Text me.”

“Great,” Jimmy says, “great. I—I better go, I’ve got—um, enjoy your cabbage. Your lunch. Yeah. See you.”

I have a date, Natasha texts Yelena. Can you believe that.

No, Yelena replies, I can’t believe anyone would ask a girl on a date when she is in the middle of eating an entire cabbage.

You’re in Singapore, how do you know that. Are you watching me through the CCTV again?

Nope. Caroline just texted me a photo of you like ‘wtf why is your sister eating a cabbage’. Natasha looks up, makes eye contact with Caroline Weaver. Waves, and Caroline gives her two thumbs up, turns it into finger guns.

 

When Friday rolls around Natasha does her best not to overthink it. Pulls on a black tank top, her favorite jeans and ankle boots, runs a comb through her hair. Fuck, she thinks, looking at her reflection, I still look about twelve years old, and maybe that’s not precisely true but she definitely doesn’t quite recognize herself in the mirror yet. Her face is still round, unlined, and her goddamn bangs haven’t grown out yet.

“Ughhhh,” she says out loud, tugs on her leather jacket and grabs her keys.

Jimmy Woo is nice; nice, and funny, and pretty fucking cute. They go to the unofficial-official SHIELD bar—not the one right by the Triskelion, but the more beat-up one a couple blocks away—and share a plate of fries, have a drink and then another. Talk about the differences between ops and intel, about Jimmy moving from the West Coast for this job.

“I mean, I like it, don’t get me wrong,” he says, taking another sip of beer. “It’s just, it’s not Cali, you know? What about you, did you grow up out East?”

“God no,” Natasha says. Laughs into her glass of Zinfandel, thinking about which cover she’s gonna run with here. Jimmy works in intel; she should probably use the standard story she and Yelena had agreed on for coworkers. “No, I—shit, I’m Eastern Bloc, not East Coast. Grew up in Ukraine, mostly in this little city called Slavutych. Russian parents, but working across the border. My family moved over here a few years ago.”

“Wow,” Jimmy says. “Your English is, like, really good. Oh my god, I've never gotten to say that to someone else before, what a trip. It is, though. You don't sound Russian.”

“I did a bunch of full-immersion study,” Natasha shrugs. “We're all good at different things, mine is passing for American.”

“So why’d you move over?”

“Oh,” Natasha says, “my dad was a nuclear physicist. The agency in charge of Chernobyl brought him in from Russia to help with ongoing work and monitoring in the Exclusion Zone. Then a few years ago they were decommissioning Reactor 3, and the Department of Energy offered him a job over here, so, here we are.”

“Wait, your dad worked at Chernobyl? No way, you’re making it up.”

“I’m not! You're in intel, you must know my sister. Yelena Rusakova? You can ask her.”

“Shit, you're the sister she talks about, that's terrifying. I need another drink, that's how terrifying that is.”

“Aw, come on, you work for SHIELD, we can't be that scary. Hey, I'm kind of hungry, you wanna share some wings?”

“Sure,” Jimmy agrees, and Natasha orders them wings, more drinks. Lets herself drift a little closer to Jimmy. Wow, she hasn't done this in so fucking long—hasn't flirted just for the fun of it, without any ulterior motive or agenda—and it fizzes under her skin, makes her a little reckless.

“If you could,” she says, popping a corn nut in her mouth and crunching it loudly, “would you want to know the future?”

“What do you mean? Like, everything?”

“Big things. What you do. How your life turns out, what you do with it.”

“Jeez, what a question. Nah, I don't think I would. I kind of like being an idiot blundering through my life, you know? Keeps it interesting.”

“Cheers to that,” Natasha says. Clinks her glass against Jimmy's beer, drains the last of her wine. Looks across at Jimmy for a minute. “Hey, you wanna get out of here?”

“Oh, I—I have like four roommates.”

“I only have one,” Natasha tells him. “I share a place with my sister. And my sister is in Singapore until Monday.”

“Well then,” Jimmy says, “yeah, I'd really. I'd like that, yeah.”

 

He kisses her outside the bar, tentative at first and then more confident, and Natasha kisses back, lets him press her up against a lamp-post and trace his mouth down her jaw to her throat.

“Tell me your place is near here,” he murmurs, and she laughs, nods and grabs his hand.

“Come on,” she says, “it's close enough to walk,” and they get home fifteen minutes later even with stopping to make out three more times.

“Your sister is definitely in Singapore, right?” Jimmy says, as Natasha gets her keys out to unlock the front door, and Natasha has to kiss him right there in the apartment complex hallway for that because god he's cute. Then they're in her room, stripping each other off, Jimmy looking at Natasha like he can't quite believe it, and it's just—it's so sweet and so tender and Natasha's heart feels a little too full even though she knows there's nothing serious here for either of them.

“You okay?” he asks, smiling down at her, and Natasha nods. Takes off her bra, kisses him again.

“You have a condom, right? I don't.”

“Yeah, in my wallet, hang on. Sorry, I don't—I guess I'm not real smooth about this sort of thing.”

“Don't apologize,” Natasha tells him, laughing a little, “you’re great, you're so great, this is so good,” and then she freezes, thinks about it for a second. Has she ever—in this body— “Oh shit, I think I'm still a virgin,” she blurts out, because she's apparently got no chill or fucking filter after three Zinfandels and a bunch of heavy making out.

“You,” Jimmy says. Flops down beside her, props himself up on one elbow. “Shit, you—you wanna stop?”

“No,” Natasha says, “not at all, no way,” and leans over, kisses him again. “Sorry,” she adds, “it's weird, I know.”

“Wait, how do you think you're still a virgin?”

“I, uh. Sex-ed in Ukraine is pretty patchy, you know?”

“Oh, I get it,” Jimmy says. “The first time my high school girlfriend gave me a hand job I was paranoid I'd somehow gotten her pregnant.”

“Wow,” Natasha says. “We're dummies.”

“Yep,” Jimmy agrees, and they lie there for a minute staring up at the ceiling before Natasha knocks the back of her knuckles against his ribs, turns her face to look at him.

“You still wanna do it?”

“I mean, yeah,” he says, laughing, and shimmies down between her legs, tugs off her underwear so he can get his mouth on her.

 

“I don't want anything serious,” she tells him the next morning while they're drinking coffee in bed, “but this was really fun. I'd like to do it again, if you're into that.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy says. “Yeah, no, of course,” and in the end they manage almost eight months of casual not-quite-dating before Jimmy gets a promotion that comes with a transfer notice sending him back to LA.

“This blows,” he says, “I was just beginning to get used to DC.”

“I'll visit you,” Natasha promises, “if I get a mission out on the West Coast.”

“Yeah, you better. And quit eating whole cabbages in the lunchroom, it makes people think you’re a crazy person. Plus I don’t think it counts as a balanced diet.”

“Oh,” Natasha says, “like you can talk,” because she has personally witnessed him making a giant batch of kimchi fried rice, putting it in a big Tupperware, and re-heating it for every meal for a week straight. It actually tastes really good on the third day, especially after a long day and three vodka tonics. “I’ll miss you,” she tells him. Hugs him tight.

“Sorry your boyfriend moved to LA,” Yelena says the following night. Hands Natasha a pint of Breyers.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Natasha says, but she eats the ice cream anyway. Yelena just snorts. Types something on her phone, and then Natasha’s phone dings with a message from the group chat.

Sorry your boyfriend moved to LA, Natashenkaaaaa, Evgenia has written, and then there’s a photo of all of them, mugging for the camera, and under that about five hundred crying face emoticons.

He’s not my boyfriend, Natasha replies. But thanks, sestry. I miss you.

 

A bunch of her missions are nothing but straightforward: take down a smuggling ring, investigate weapons trafficking. Sometimes they’re so covert she doesn’t actually do anything; infiltration, monitoring without direct contact. Other times they’re more overt, nudging the world toward a better and safer path. The opposite of Hydra, she likes to think: fostering peace, not chaos. She runs into a politician at just the right time in a regional airport gate lounge, spends fifteen minutes chatting innocuously and gets on the plane knowing they’ll vote down a particular bill on citizen mass surveillance three months later. Crashes the stock market just long enough that a facial recognition app developer thinks twice about selling his start-up to Google, decides to keep it in-house instead. Destroys a physicist’s research and makes it look like an accident, a corrupted hard drive too fucked to recover and a terrible mistake with the back-ups. But then she lets herself run into the woman at the bar afterwards, where she’s staring with dead eyes into her beer.

“Here,” she says, sliding a shot of vodka across the bar. “On me. Looks like you could use it.”

“Oh,” the physicist says. Wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “Thanks. God, what a day.”

“You get dumped?” Natasha asks sympathetically, and the woman laughs a little, throws back the shot.

“No. God, I could handle that. If only I’d just got dumped, I could find someone new eventually. Can’t really do that with my whole life’s research.”

“I dunno,” Natasha says, “a bad enough break-up, it probably feels like the same thing,” and she laughs again. “Nina,” Natasha says, offering her hand. “You need another?”

“God,” the woman says. Sighs, tucks her messy curls behind her ears. Reaches over and shakes Natasha’s hand. “Yolanda. Go on, why not. Only one, though.”

“So,” Natasha says, signalling the bar staff for another round of shots, “you wanna tell me about it? I’ve been told I’m a great shoulder to cry on.”

“Oh,” Yolanda says, clearly vacillating, “no, it’d—you’d be bored. It’s very boring.”

“Last summer I read War and Peace for fun,” Natasha tells her, passing her another shot. “Trust me when I say you don’t have to worry about boring.”

“Okay,” Yolanda says, smiling now. Brushes the tears off her smooth brown cheeks. “Okay, but just tell me if I’m really putting you to sleep, yeah? So, have you ever heard of the Everett-DeWitt many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory?”

“No,” Natasha says honestly, “tell me more,” and Yolanda nods, leans in a little closer.

“It’s about multiverses,” she says. “The simultaneous occurrence of independent parallel universes, the way that all possible consistent states exist in an entangled quantum superposition. I’ve been studying wave function collapse, quantum decoherence. Working towards quantum computation, originally, but I kind of got sidetracked. Wanted to figure out whether it was true that parallel universes are always inaccessible. That’s a baseline of MWI and of quantum decoherence, it shouldn’t be possible to interact with another universe because it’ll collapse the waveform. Oh, god, your face. See, I told you I’d bore you!”

“You’re not,” Natasha says. “You might just have to, uh, draw me a diagram.”

“Yeah, okay,” Yolanda says. Pulls over a cocktail napkin, grabs a pen from her shirt pocket. “Many-worlds,” she says. Draws a circle, two branches splitting off. “It’s about the possibilities described by quantum theory all simultaneously occurring in parallel, see?”

She’s not dangerous, not directly. Not a mad scientist researching quantum computing and multiverses to build a weapon or make some bad money selling the information to people who shouldn’t have it. If she were, SHIELD would already have brought her in. But she’s just a little too close to the truth: put her and Hank Pym in a room together for ten minutes and they’d have figured out the shit with Pym particles and quantum tunnelling, Natasha’s willing to bet, and she can’t let Dr Yolanda Zacharie publish that kind of research. Knows she won’t give up, but after this she’ll go back to quantum computing, get brought in on a convenient SHIELD project in three months time. Put her in a room with Jane Foster instead of Hank goddamn Pym, Natasha thinks, and they’ll figure out how to reverse-engineer the damn Bifrost before Thor ever even lands in Puente Antiguo.

“Can I keep this?” Natasha asks, touching the cocktail napkin. Yolanda looks at her.

“Yes,” she says. “Do you—god, I never do this—do you want to come home with me?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, “I do,” and she doesn’t have to, it’s not part of the mission, but she keeps the paper napkin too.

 

Fury raises the Avengers Initiative with her in 2005, and about a week after she's agreed to put together a plan, start researching for recruitment options, she slips on the wet tile of her bathroom and goes down hard. Feels her right wrist give out in a badly ominous way. At first it doesn't hurt at all; just a breathless kind of shock, and then about ten seconds later it radiates red-hot all the way to her shoulder so that she almost passes out on the fucking bathroom floor.

Jesus, she thinks, I am not going to the emergency room in a goddamn towel, and grits her teeth, gets up and puts on sweatpants, a tank top and cardigan that probably belong to Yelena. Her hair's still dripping, and she can't pull on any of her shoes, has to slide her feet into a pair of flat black pumps that are definitely Yelena's, and then she gets into her car, drives one-handed all the way to the ER.

Her wrist is broken—could have told them that, she thinks, she broke it when she was eleven and it feels just the same—and she sits through the X-rays, getting it reset and splinted. The cast isn't the bulky plaster she remembers but some kind of plastic, but it's still cumbersome, extremely irritating.

“Here,” a nurse says while she's waiting for the X-rays to develop, “you look kind of cold,” and wraps a blanket around her shoulders.

“Thanks,” Natasha says. Curls up a little miserably. She had plans for the day, damn it, was gonna go to the park, do some laundry.

I broke my wrist, she says to the sestra group chat, typing a little awkwardly with her left hand. I wasn't even in the field, I was in my own bathroom. Takes a photo of her cast, and then, absolutely fishing for sympathy, a selfie showing her bedraggled hair, her lower lip sticking out in an exaggerated pout.

You are a mess of a person, Natalia Ivanova, Evgenia says, and yeah, that's true, but she was looking for someone to be nice to her about this.

I broke my ankle landing bad on a jump last year, remember? Svetlana says. It sucks but you can get physio. At least you won't have to try and dance on it.

Check out my gnarly soccer injury, Lyudmila says, and sends her own photo of her shin, a long line of gruesome-looking abrasions. Someone went in for a tackle, got me with their cleats behind my shin guard.

Is that my cardigan? Yelena says after ten minutes, it's cashmere and you're dripping your wet hair all over it.

Love you, though, she adds after another ten minutes. I'll be home tomorrow. I hope it doesn't hurt too much.

Feel better, Natasha, Olivia says, sends her a bunch of little hearts, and okay, yeah, Natasha does feel better. Opens Angry Birds to see if she can still play it left-handed; she can't, but now she just has a project.

 

Bucky calls her a week or two later: a nice chat, at first, and then some mission talk—last few months, she's been clearing out some of the European Hydra cells that just don't seem to be getting the message—and then he shifts gear, subtle like perhaps she won't notice.

“Might come keep you company in DC,” he says casually. “Vasilia and the kids are doing fine here, and I…”

“Is it weird, being in Brooklyn without Steve?”

“Jesus, Ivanova. You really just went for the jugular. Yeah, it's weird, but I've been here years now, you know I'm used to it. Nah, I could just do with a change of scenery. Plus you could use me cooking you some actual vegetables, right.”

“Nothing to do with the new Avengers Initiative, then.”

“Maybe I do miss being your explosives guy,” Bucky admits. “But look, if I'm being honest, it's more that I promised Yelena I'd keep an eye on you. That girl is terrifying.”

“And increasingly out of DC, yeah, yeah. I can't believe you and my sisters are in cahoots to keep an eye on me.”

“You broke your wrist getting out of the shower,” Bucky says, “seems like you need an eye kept on you.”

“It was literally a freak accident, I don't see what you being in DC would do about it,” Natasha mutters, but she can't lie: it'd be nice to have Bucky in the same city, to have him on her team occasionally. “Okay, but if you're coming down you should do it next week so you can house-sit, I have to go to LA for work.”

 

She looks up Jimmy while she's in LA, just like she promised. Swings by his office, knocks on his door.

“Natasha!” he says, looking genuinely enthusiastic to see her. Jumps up to hug her, even kisses her on the cheek. “Hey, it's been too long. Sit down, tell me what's new in DC. Wait,” he says, as she takes a seat in his visitor's chair, “what did you do to yourself?”

“Would you believe this wasn't even a mission?” Natasha says, scrunching her face in embarrassment. “I slipped on some wet tile getting out of the shower. You want to sign my cast?”

“Very funny. What are you doing tonight? Want to get dinner?”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, “dinner would be great. You should bring your boyfriend,” and watches Jimmy flush red; it's very cute.

“How did you even—Ivanova, did you Facebook stalk me?”

“Don't be ridiculous. I'd never use Facebook. You have a framed picture of the two of you on your desk, dummy. I'm a spy, I'm literally trained to notice these things.”

“Right,” Jimmy says. Rubs the back of his neck. “You're not mad, or anything? Weirded out?”

“Is he nice?”

“God,” Jimmy says, “yeah, he's so nice, my god. It makes my teeth hurt sometimes just how nice he is. He's an architect, wow, can you believe I'm dating a civilian?”

“You really like him, don't you.”

“I like him so much, Nat. It's a little embarrassing.”

“Then I'm glad,” Natasha tells him, “and come on, why would I be weirded out. I always figured we were both a bit gay, right?”

“A little. About half.”

“Oh, jeez, higher for me. You were kind of an exception.”

“I'm gonna take that as a compliment,” Jimmy says, blushing again. “Okay, I'll bring David. I know a good place, if you can manage chopsticks with your hand in a cast.”

“I'm ambidextrous,” Natasha says, “I'll be fine.”

 

Her phone rings while she's in Cambodia: her personal one, not her work phone, and Natasha makes an apologetic expression at the sound of Britney Spears’ Toxic blaring out of her pocket.

“Sorry,” she says to the Unicef staffer, “my little sister likes to change my ringtone for me. I'll just be a minute. Barnes, what's up?”

“They found him,” Bucky says, “Natasha, they—they found him.”

“God,” Natasha says. Takes a breath. “Okay. I'll be there in twelve hours.” Winces as she puts her phone away; her wrist isn't all the way healed.

“Uh, flight time from Phnom Penh to the US is around twenty hours,” the Unicef worker says, and Natasha blinks at them a minute.

“Sure,” she says, “if you're flying commercial,” and gets wheels-up on the Quinjet five minutes later.

 

They’re in New York, not DC: makes sense, she thinks, a familiar city. Even with the flight from Cambodia she gets there in time, stumbles off the plane and into the briefing room.

“They’re still bringing him up to core temperature,” Bucky says. “I mean, you know I love him, but it’s extremely fucking boring watching him turn from blue to pink so slowly you gotta squint to notice. You can go look, if you want.”

“How the fuck do you defrost a supersoldier,” Natasha wonders out loud, and it turns out that the answer is hairdryers, mostly, and tinfoil thermal blankets, and extremely careful monitoring. “Weird,” Natasha says. Pokes his shoulder; it doesn’t quite feel human.

“Yeah, I asked them if I should go get my meat thermometer to test his internal core temp, and they just gave me a look.”

“Nobody wants to know about your weird sex games, Barnes. Hey, would you be real mad if we drew a mustache on him in permanent marker and told him he just woke up like that?”

“Hell no,” Bucky says, “that’d be fuckin’ hilarious,” and the scientists have to clear their throats and give them stern looks for giggling in the defrosting room.

“Let’s cover ourselves in tinfoil and tell him it’s the year 3000,” Natasha mutters to Bucky, quieter, and he snickers again.

“Fury wants to do something with costumes and radio,” he tells her, “I don't quite get it. Calls it an era adjustment process. Come look.”

“Oh, what,” Natasha says. Follows Bucky into the room full of careful 1940s set-dressing, the vintage SSR t-shirt and khakis they've laid out to dress him in. “Nah, this is stupid. I'm gonna find Fury.”

“All the psychologists recommended it,” he says mildly. “You don't agree?”

“You don't need to dress it up,” Natasha says, “he's not a dummy. None of that forties shit, just send Barnes here in for when he wakes up.”

“As if I'd be anywhere else,” Bucky says, indignant, and Natasha flashes him a grin.

 

In the end she gets her way: it's just Rogers and Barnes, a basic SHIELD bunkroom, and the only concession they have to make is that Natasha will watch from behind two-way glass until she's sure there's no risk of Steve going wild and breaking shit.

“Promise I'll give you some privacy as soon as I'm sure he's the same old idiot Steve,” she says to Bucky while they wait, “but don't fuck in there, god, it's too bleak for that.”

“As if I would. I might have moved out of Carroll St but you know I've still got a room there,” Bucky says, and Natasha shakes her head a little.

“Wouldn't be so sure, my money's on Lyudmila having taken it over by now. She'll be sick of sharing with Liv.”

“Aw, come on, that's bullshit,” Bucky mutters. “Are you telling me we’ll have to stay in SHIELD accommodation? I bought the damn house, I should be able to keep a room in it to have reunion sex with my defrosted World War II boyfriend,” and Natasha smirks before seeing that Steve's barely beginning to stir.

“Okay, you got this,” she says. Pats Bucky's knee. “I'll be right next door.” Gets into the other room just in time to see Steve open his eyes.

“What—” Steve says, blinking, and Bucky grins at him. Touches his shoulder as he sits up.

“Hi, punk. You been asleep for a fucking long time, you know that?”

“What is this,” Steve whispers. “Am I—am I dead?”

“Nah, you're too damn stubborn to die,” Bucky says. “We got that in common, I guess,” and Natasha knows she should stop watching but she waits just long enough to see Steve's expression change from confusion to the kind of joy that radiates; it's something she's never seen on his face before, and it makes her ache, makes her throat tight. He's always been just a little melancholy, and she understands why, but—God, Steve.

 

She fidgets in the next room for what seems like a long time. Bucky’s gotta catch him up on everything, she knows, but come on; she wants to meet him, he’s her best goddamn friend too and she hasn’t seen him in something like seven years. Eventually the door opens, Bucky leading Steve in. They're holding hands, Natasha sees, and can't help smiling.

“Steve,” Bucky says, “this is Natasha.”

“Rogers,” Natasha says. Doesn't want to spook him, but she's suddenly desperate—Steve, fuck, it's been so long and he doesn't know her at all—and she has to take a breath, cover it with a smile she knows she's learned from Bucky. “I've heard a lot about you.”

“Oh—” Steve says. Flushes a little. “Bucky's told you stories, huh, Agent Ivanova?”

“Jeez, Rogers, I'm not on the clock. Call me Nat.”

“Then you gotta call me Steve,” he says, sweetly earnest, and Christ, Natasha doesn't know how she ever stood it the first time. He was sadder then, she thinks. Adrift and lost in time, and it resonates in her.

“We're about to go get bubble tea,” she says, shifting her weight. “You wanna come?”

“You don't think he should, you know, get a little adjustment to begin with?” Bucky asks her, raising one eyebrow. “Pretty sure there's a process manual to follow. Debriefings and shit for dealing with the twenty-first century.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes. “I wrote it, Barnes, bringing your hundred-year-old ass up to date. Come on, Vasilia is waiting. You'll like bubble tea, Steve, I promise. I'll buy you a mango one.”

“Okay,” Steve says, slow. “I feel like Bucky hasn't filled me in on everything here. How did the two of you meet, again?”

“We'll get to that,” Natasha promises. Makes eye contact with Bucky, nods a little—they will get to it, sometime, but it's a story that can wait a while yet. “Barnes, you coming?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky sighs, exaggerated. “Surprised you want me and my old man bones there, Natalia.”

“Nah,” Nat says. Grins, sharp, showing her teeth, and perhaps she's showing off a little for Steve, leaning into the performance of their friendship. “Vasilia said she misses you, that's all.”

“You're such a brat,” Bucky tells her, affectionate. “I should have left you in Siberia.”

“I'll buy you extra bubbles,” she says, and Bucky squeezes her shoulders, tousles her hair.

 

She and Vasilia wind up taking Steve and Bucky back home, since they might as well get all of the weird introductions out of the way all at once. Steve gets swarmed by Kseniya and Marta and Irina, winds up sitting on the couch telling them tall tales about the 1930s while Lyudmila and Liv do their homework and pretend they're not staring at him every chance they get.

“Yelena says she can't believe she's missing this,” Evgenia says. Pillows her chin on her hands, watches Steve a minute before pulling out her phone and snapping a photo to add to the group chat.

“I can't believe you're basically married to someone named Captain America,” Svetlana says. “Embarrassing.”

“I know, right,” Bucky agrees. “Really letting down Mother Russia there, my handlers must be so disappointed.”

“Enh,” Svetlana says, dismissing it now. “Vasilia says he's basically a socialist, it's only a little way from there to the true Communist path, tovarisch.

“Sweetheart, he is such a goddamn socialist, you got no idea,” Bucky tells her. “All the way back to the 1930s, even.”

“I don't think either Hydra or the Red Room really believed in Communism,” Natasha says, joining the conversation from where she's sitting on the couch. Says it in French, since she's near Kseniya; she doesn't want her thinking about the Red Room, not here in their apartment with Evgenia’s art on the walls and Liv’s economics textbooks everywhere.

“Well,” Bucky says. Pauses for a minute, contemplative. “Who really does, I guess.”

 

She has to head back to DC eventually. Isn't sure what Bucky will do; he's got his place in DC now, but he does still technically own the New York brownstone, has already kicked Lyudmila out of his room and back in with Liv so that he and Steve at least have a place to sleep, and maybe Steve will want to stay in Brooklyn for a while, reacquaint himself with a city seventy years out of sync with his memory.

“Come to class with me,” Svetlana says to her the last Sunday morning before Natasha leaves. They're both up early, drinking coffee in the quiet kitchen, Natasha still in her flannel bathrobe and Svetlana wearing a shitty old MIT sweater over her leotard and leggings. “You look like you could do with it.”

“Isn't that Monica's sweater?” Natasha says. Squints at it, and Svetlana shrugs.

“I stole it off Yelena the last time I was in DC.”

“She's gonna murder you when she figures out who took her girlfriend's sweater,” Natasha says, and Svetlana shrugs again, elegant even as she's got one leg up hooked up on the back of a kitchen chair to stretch her hamstring.

“She's strictly non-combat. I could take a SHIELD linguist, no problem. Stop changing the subject, Tasha. Come dance.”

“It's been years,” Natasha says, and then, seeing that's not working: “I'm not exactly dressed for it.”

“So I'll lend you a leotard and some tights,” Svetlana says. “And some soft shoes, you don't have to go en pointe.”

“I probably could,” Natasha admits, “I still do all the arch stretches. Work through the barre exercises before all my sparring training. I just—haven't danced properly in a while, I guess. Don't want to look bad next to all your classmates.”

“It's a Sunday,” Svetlana says, “they'll all be hungover. You'll do fine.”

 

Natasha does do fine—fine, but Svetlana is so much better than she is that it shocks her a little—and after the first half she sits down, watches Svetlana rehearse the solo.

“Lana is so talented,” one of the other dancers says to her. Wipes sweat away from the back of her neck, smoothes her hair back. “Did you all train, in Russia?”

“Yeah,” Natasha says. “All my sisters did, but she was always the best. We thought maybe we'd join the Bolshoi eventually.”

“Did you have a crazy strict teacher?” another student says cheerfully. “I always heard Russian ballet teachers are super strict.”

“Of course,” Natasha tells them, more amused than anything else. “When I was fourteen my teacher decided my turn-out wasn't good enough. She made me do nothing but tendu for the next month, eight hours a day. And then strength training, consistency. Every jump had to be perfect. Same height, same attitude, all of us exactly in formation. If my port de bras was an inch higher than Sveta’s she'd smack me with her cane until it was right.”

“My jeté and pas de chat are so high,” Svetlana says, pausing a minute to grab her water bottle, “because Madame trained me to jump and jump until I was so tired I fell. And then she would tell me to jump again.”

“God,” the other student says. Shivers dramatically. “Suddenly I feel better about my teacher just telling me I was too fat.”

“Oh, my neck is too short,” Natasha jokes, “that's why I quit.”

 

“Remember Danse de la petits cygnes?” Svetlana says to her as they're walking home that afternoon, reaches out and links arms with Natasha. “All those rehearsals, you and me and Yelena and Nadia? I still struggle to listen to Tchaikovsky.”

“Must be tough,” Natasha says sympathetically. “Everyone loves Swan Lake.”

“Yeah,” Svetlana agrees. “Nobody loves Swan Lake more than Russians, that's for fucking sure, I'm so tired of it. My teachers want me to stick with classical, but I think I'm going to change my major. Go contemporary.”

“That's our life, huh,” Natasha says. “Going contemporary. Quitting being Russians.”

“Marta and Irina are campaigning for a vacation to Disneyworld before summer vacation is over,” Svetlana says, “doesn't get much more American than that, I guess,” and Natasha starts laughing. Has to stop in the middle of the sidewalk and bend over so she can catch her breath.

“God,” she says, wiping tears away with her knuckles. “Disneyworld. Imagine Madame's fucking face.”

 

Marta and Irina must be successful in their campaign, because Vasilia sends her a picture through their group chat a month later. Bucky's wearing mouse ears, and Steve is in a t-shirt at least two sizes too small which says REAL LIFE DISNEY PRINCESS across the front in glitter script font. They've both got sunglasses on, Kseniya riding on Bucky's shoulders, and Steve is eating a giant stick of blue cotton candy.

Jesus Christ, Natasha replies. Steve’s really gone ride-or-die for the Rusakovas, huh.

Love me, love my ten Russian daughters, Evgenia says, I think that’s Yasha’s plan here. He definitely bought that shirt for Steve, right?

You know it, Liv says, but I convinced him to get one that tight.

I love you. Have they complained about the price of food yet?

Yeah, Vasilia says. Steve refused to buy ice cream because it cost more than his rent back in the 30s, but then Kseniya cried about it so he obviously gave in.

I'm mad I couldn't come, Yelena adds from wherever she is right now. Belgium, maybe, Natasha thinks. Rude that the UN had to have a meeting this week, I mean, don't they know I've got better things to do.

We'll ride the teacups for you, Vasilia says. I'm hoping we can make Steve sick enough he pukes. Mila and I just keep buying him candy, he hasn't cottoned on yet.

Ask Bucky about the time he made Steve ride the Tornado in Coney Island, Natasha says, and copies the photo, forwards it straight to Fury and Maria. Lol, she says, and gets a whole paragraph of cry-laughing emoji in response.

 

About a week after that, Steve and Bucky show up in DC. Come over for dinner, Bucky texts her, bring wine, and Natasha does just that since Yelena’s working out of Taipei for the next couple months. Steve’s already caught up on a lot more of the twenty-first century than she would have expected, although she guesses living in Park Slope with eight Russian-American girls ranging in age from 11 to 24 for the past six weeks, including a trip to Disneyworld, would have been a pretty big crash course in modern meme culture.

“How's life?” she asks, making herself comfortable at one end of the couch, and Steve shrugs. His shoulders look a little heavier than they did in New York, and something pings in Natasha's hindbrain that makes her stretch her foot out to poke Steve's thigh with her bare toes. “What's eating you, Rogers? Come on, spill. It's not healthy to keep it that repressed.”

“God,” Steve says. Sighs a little, wraps his hand over the arch of her foot; it's such a familiar gesture it almost makes her cry. It'd taken him years to get to that level of comfort the first time around, but she wouldn't be surprised if the girls have just been using him as another convenient place to lean all over. “It's not—it's just. We visited Peggy today.”

“Oh,” Natasha says, “Steve, god, I'm sorry.”

“It's fine. It's—it was good? I'm glad she's still here, I'm glad I got to meet her again. It's just, her niece told me about the Alzheimer's. Early stage, but you can see it if you look close enough. I just sort of never… I guess I never imagined that Peg was anything less than entirely invincible, you know? She's always seemed so immortal to me.”

That's—that's just another layer to this, one Natasha hadn't considered before now. Six years early getting him out of the ice, six extra years before Peggy Carter had gone downhill. She's not even in the assisted care facility yet. Natasha doesn't know whether that's a blessing or a curse, and then, suddenly, remembers Steve's grief at the funeral, the utter loss of it, and knows exactly how precious this extra time must be.

 

He comes over to visit her a couple days later, just on his own. Finds her in her backyard; she's sitting out, enjoying the early fall sun.

“You know,” Steve says, sitting down beside her and passing her an iced coffee. “Your driver's license says you're twenty-six, but Buck tells me you're barely twenty.”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. “That's about right. Maybe a little older, I don't know for sure. It's all in my file, too. The top-level unredacted version. I know you have access, Rogers, I granted it myself.”

“Yeah, yeah. I read the file. Siberian orphanage, huh? That's rough.”

“Mm hmm,” Natasha hums. Takes a sip of her coffee; he's gotten the order just right.

“So why,” Steve says, carefully calm, “when I look at your face, do you have the expression I recognize in the mirror?”

“...Fuck,” Natasha says. Surprised by it, and she shouldn't be; Steve's always been too damn perceptive. “Goddamn it, Steve.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, “that’s what I thought. How old are you, Natasha?”

“It's,” Natasha starts. Blows out a breath, watches the ends of her hair flutter with it. Her bangs are finally all the way grown out, but she needs a trim: can see the split ends. “Complicated.”

“Try me,” Steve suggests, “I went into the ice in ‘45 and woke up in the twenty-first century, can't be much more complicated than that.”

“I dunno,” Natasha says. Thinks about it for a minute and laughs, a little wry. “Actually, I guess it's pretty close. Kind of the opposite, too. You came forward in time, Steve, I—”

“Went back,” Steve guesses, and it takes the wind out of her; she's gotta press her palm to her breastbone, feels her heart hammer.

“Yeah,” she manages. “Yeah, I went back.”

“You knew me,” Steve says. “You know me.”

“It's different,” Natasha tells him. Feels like it's important to clarify. “Everything happening now, it's different.”

“Because you changed something,” Steve guesses, and Natasha lets out another breath.

“I'm changing everything,” she says, “and I don't regret it, Steve, not a bit, but god, I miss you.”

“Well,” Steve says. Leans in so he can nudge his shoulder against hers, and it's enough that she turns to look at him, his blue eyes and open expression. It's startling seeing how young he is; he doesn't age, exactly, but she remembers the exhaustion in his eyes. Keeps expecting to see him with a beard. “I know it's not the same thing, but how about a friend?”

God, she can still remember what she'd told him then, years and years in her past and still nearly eight in the future, and it's not the answer she'd give him now; she's had ten years with him at her side, and almost eight with her sisters, with Bucky, with Nick Fury giving her a place in the world.

“Yeah,” she says, “yeah, Steve, I'd like that,” and then, realizing: “we weren't dating, Christ, it wasn't like that.” Lying, just a little; it wasn't like that but there were times after the Decimation when it was, when all they had was each other. But that one's too complicated to get into without explaining the end of the world, and it's not something she'd want now, so— friends. It's nice. Feels familiar.

 

The next time he sees her, his face goes serious. “Bucky told you,” Natasha guesses, “about—” and Steve nods. Touches his hand to her shoulder.

“Jesus, Nat,” he says. Voice cracking a little. “I didn't know—your file doesn't…”

“That's deliberate,” Natasha says. “You think my sisters would be safe, if all of SHIELD knew they'd been trained the way we were trained? That kind of skill-set, you know they’d want to use it. Fury knows. And Coulson. That's enough.”

“And Bucky,” Steve says. Takes a breath. “He says you're the only one who could really say what it was like. When he was…”

“The Soldier.”

“Yeah, when he was the Soldier. What did they call him? The Winter Soldier?”

“All we ever called him was Soldat,” Natasha shrugs. “I'm not… there's nothing I can tell you about it that'd make you understand. He hasn't been the Soldier for a long time. One of the first things I changed, and the biggest, maybe, the number of things they would have had him do.”

“You're not gonna tell me, are you,” Steve says. “What he did, who he was.”

“God, Steve. You think I know? He was a ghost story for nearly half a century. Maybe you could trace it back, piece your way through half a dozen countries’ most classified files. Coups, political assassinations. Hydra shaping the century with an iron fist. But I don't know.”

“There must have been files,” Steve persists. “Handler files, mission reports. Those don't just disappear.” Natasha frowns before she can help it. Shrugs, a little too late, and Steve narrows his eyes. “You’ve got the files, don't you. You took care of it.”

“Yeah,” Natasha deadpans, “they’re on my bookshelf next to the cookbook I bought when I was still trying to pretend I was gonna learn how to cook. Of course I don't have them, come on.”

“Then where are they? Locked down in SHIELD’s deepest level of restricted access, along with, what, proof I'm queer and the Kennedy assassination?”

“Pretty sure they're all the same thing, right,” Natasha says. Half-joking, but Steve's eyes widen anyway. “No. Like I said, you think we'd be safe if anyone in SHIELD had access to that? I found them all, and I destroyed them all. Didn't read them. There's nothing left, and I don't know if he'd even remember.”

“Bits, he says,” Steve tells her. “Bits, and then it starts getting properly sequential just after Siberia. Natasha, you— I owe you twice over now. My life and his, god. Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says. “I know, Steve.”

“How,” Steve says, “how do you know, I never told anyone—” and then smiles, a wry little twist at the corner of his mouth. “I told you, didn't I.”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. Takes pity on him, or maybe she just has to share it, let him shoulder a little of her knowledge. “He didn't—we didn't escape. I got out, but—later, and he didn't. They still had him. He tried to kill us a couple times. Me, once, and then the both of us.”

“The brainwashing was that strong?” Steve asks, like he can't believe it, and Natasha takes a breath.

“Steve,” she says, gentle. “He didn't even recognize us.” He looked right at me, she hears Steve say, and feels a wash of profound relief that she's got this right at least. “Don't tell him,” she adds, “don’t put that on him, I shouldn't have put it on you.”

“No, Natasha,” Steve says. Deeply earnest. “It's fine. I'm glad to know. But, just… did we get there, in the end?”

“Is he Bucky?” Natasha says. “Does he remember you?” Tilts her head. Considers how much she can say without snapping Steve's heart in half for a version of the two of them that might as well never have existed. “Yeah, Steve. You got there, in the end. Not the same way, but—near enough, I guess.”

 

There's one secret she takes extra care to make certain nobody will ever know. It takes a long time to plan it, the trip, the mission; she’s busy now at work, can’t just drop everything to go. Takes longer still to ensure that it’ll stay carefully off every radar. Status report. December 16, 1991. Tony might learn it was an assassination, Hydra hunting his father down for the serum, but he'll never know whose hand pulled the gun.

There are only four soldiers in Siberia. “Where are you,” Natasha says to herself, counting the tanks, “why—” and then is hit with a flood of memory. She'd come here after everything between Tony and Steve to do nothing else except clean up, to find any files or tech or anything else that shouldn't be left to rust. Had looked, curious, at each of the soldiers shot dead in their frozen sleep, and she hadn't recognized any of them then. But now her new knowledge spills backward, layers Vasilia’s sharp hawk nose and strong jaw over the slack features of the only woman in the group. Jesus, she'd thought—she'd figured the new soldiers had been made back in the 90s, right after they'd gotten hold of the serum, but they must have waited. Tried to replicate it, perhaps; tried to analyze it, and only then, failing, chosen their elite death squad for transformation.

“Vasilisochka,” she says when she gets home. Hugs Vasilia a little tighter than she otherwise might have, and Vasilia is startled by it but perhaps pleased too. Pats Natasha's hair, lets Natasha kiss her cheek.

“How was your trip, sestra?” she asks, and Natasha shrugs.

“Cold,” she says, “Siberia in November,” and Vasilia's eyes go soft and sharp all at once.

“I'll put on some tea,” she says, “you can tell me about it before the kids get home.”

“Oh,” Natasha remembers. “I stopped in Moscow. Brought back a treat.” Candies, Kis-Kis and Vzletnaya and Mishka Kosolapy, and the art on the Mishka package is still the same sweetly pastoral scene Natasha remembers.

“Clumsy bear chocolate!” Vasilia says, real delight in her voice. “God, remember the time we stole one from the guards?”

“Was that the first time we tasted sugar?” Natasha asks, and Vasilia nods. Fills the kettle from the kitchen faucet, gestures at the dining table.

“Stop changing the subject,” she tells Natasha, faux-stern. “Sit down and tell me about Siberia.”

“You know what I do for SHIELD is classified, right,” Natasha says. More for the form of it than anything else, and Vasilia just makes a dismissive noise.

“Psh. Don't tell me SHIELD sent you. Siberia, that's somewhere you took yourself.”

“I mean, I do speak Russian,” Natasha says, wry. “If they were going to send anyone to Siberia, it'd be me.”

“Even so,” Vasilia says. “It wasn’t a SHIELD mission, was it,” and Natasha fiddles with a candy wrapper, shakes her head. “Red Room?” Vasilia asks, “I thought we—”

“No, Red Room died with all of us, so far as the world is concerned. This was Hydra, something left on ice for too long.” And then she gives in, unwraps the candy and pops it in her mouth. Fills Vasilia in on her mission while her teeth are stuck together with Kis-Kis toffee. “Anyway,” she finishes, finally getting the last of it out of her molars, “turns out even Siberia is warm if you have a big enough bonfire.”

“Yes,” Vasilia agrees, amused. Sips her tea. “I remember.”

“And now I'm going to Malibu,” Natasha says, “so that'll be a nice change.”

“Pack your bikini,” Vasilia suggests, “maybe you can learn how to surf.”

 

Stark is fresh from Afghanistan, hollow-eyed and almost as thin as when he’d gotten home from that long drift in space. Fuck, Natasha thinks, and is almost moved to hug him. Steps in beside him instead, clears her throat.

“Hey, Iron Man,” she says, deadpan, and watches him startle.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, “I’m just a defense contractor.”

“You’re not, apparently, I saw the press conference. Congratulations on that.”

“Sorry, who the fuck are you? I know all the reporters, sweetheart, and you aren’t one.”

“I'm here from SHIELD. I need to debrief you regarding your time in captivity.”

“Oh,” Stark says, and lowers his sunglasses, looks her up and down.

“If you say you can debrief me any day, I will taze you,” Natasha tells him calmly, and watches him close his mouth. “Let’s go for brunch, there’s a place near here that does a great acai bowl. Bottomless mimosas, if that’s your thing, which I’m reliably informed that it is. You’re buying.”

“You… are not what I would have expected from a SHIELD agent,” Tony says once they’re sitting down in a corner booth; god, she’s missed this place.

“What did you expect?” she asks, sipping her coffee, and Tony shrugs.

“Black suit. Earpiece. Boring government nonsense.”

“Oh, I can definitely pull some boring government nonsense if that’s what you want. But why don’t you tell me about Afghanistan first? Or we could skip straight to the Iron Man suit and the arc reactor. Nice upgrade, by the way, but you're gonna want to do something about the palladium poisoning before it kills you.”

“What exactly is it that you want, Ms…”

“Ivanova,” Natasha says. “Natasha Ivanova.”

“Wow, okay. We teaming up with the Russkis now?”

“You can call me Natalie Rushman, if it would make you feel more comfortable.”

“Yeah, okay, Natalie. But seriously, what do you want from me? Because I’m getting the feeling that debriefing me about Afghanistan isn’t your main goal here.”

“I want another mimosa,” Natasha says, signals the waiter. “But what I’m here for is to put a proposal to you. We’re putting together a team, Mr Stark. You’re not the only superhero in the world.”

“I don’t play well with others,” Tony says. “I mean, you’ve done your research on me, right? Didn’t that throw up a whole phalanx of red flags?”

“You’d cope,” Natasha tells him. “More importantly, we’d cope. You don’t have to say yes right away. Just think about it.”

“Fine,” Tony sighs, “fine,” and orders three bottles of champagne. “What?” he says, catching her look. “Mimosas are for sorority girls starting out their bachelorette party. You want me to think about it, I'm thinking about it.”

“You are so fucking bourgeois,” Natasha says, but she takes a flute of champagne anyway, drains it in two swallows. “Go on, gimme another.”

 

“You brought this on yourself,” Fury tells her the next day, but he passes her a cup of coffee anyway. “So Stark’s a no-go, then?”

“We did vodka shots,” Natasha says, voice muffled by how she's got her head resting on the table. Reaches out blindly until she can grab her coffee, drags it in and clutches it close. “I'm Russian, or I was. I should be able to handle vodka shots.”

“I think it was probably the tenth Jager bomb that did it,” Fury says drily. “You look like shit, Ivanova. I've got meetings all day, take a nap on my couch.”

“I love you,” Natasha says, and Fury clears his throat.

“Yeah, yeah. You want a blanket?”

“Nah,” Natasha says. Heaves for a minute before taking a deep breath. “I'm good, I'm fine. Go to your meetings.”

She wakes up mid-morning to the unmistakable sound of a cat coughing up a hairball. “Gross,” she groans, not opening her eyes. Drags her palm over her forehead. “Goose, that's disgusting.” She should clean it up, she guesses—one thing to spend a Thursday hungover-napping in the Director's office, but leaving cat puke on anyone's  desk is rude—and takes a breath, girds herself for it.

“...huh,” she says. Stares at the Tesseract for a minute. “So that's where that came from, I thought Fury was fucking with me when he said his cat ate it.” She has to think about it for a second; she's not gonna just leave it there, not knowing what SHIELD’s going to do with it. Where that will lead.

 

“So, Stark was kind of a bust,” she says a couple days later. “He's up for consulting. Improving our tech, making better tac gear. But this could be a good option.”

“Air Force,” Fury says, looking at the files she's set down on his desk. “You cracking their top secret projects again?”

“What's the point of being in an intelligence agency if you don't get hold of the intelligence,” Natasha shrugs. “Over to you. My assessment is, these guys would be great assets. You wanna leave them in Afghanistan running pararescue and being shot at, that's your call.”

“EXO-7 Falcon,” Fury says thoughtfully. “What is it? Experimental tech?”

“Wings,” Natasha says. “Air Force convinced a couple of cockpit jockey idiots to strap wings and rockets to themselves and go for a flight in the desert. Somehow they didn't crash, now they're running sensitive missions under the radar.”

“Okay,” Fury says, “fine, you've convinced me. I'll give Rhodes a call, Christ, he's gonna hold this against me forever.”

“Oh,” Natasha says, “that reminds me. Stark said he promised Rhodes his own suit, so, y'know, maybe just bring him along too.”

“Three for the price of one,” Fury says, dry. “Thanks, Ivanova. What would I do without you.”

 

“We're getting them both,” he tells her later, “and Rhodes said he'd think about it once he's given the suit a test drive, but the EXOs are deployed for a mission right now.”

“Bakhmala,” Natasha says, and Fury looks at her sharply.

“Yeah,” he says, “how—” and Natasha shakes herself mentally. Smooths her expression.

“Khalid Khandil,” she says, “ops have been all over it for a while. Couldn't get in, they've got RPGs. Won't be a problem with an EXO-7, I guess.”

She calls Stark as soon as she's alone. “Natalie Rushman,” he says, “I did not expect you to call back that quickly. The answer is still no, by the way.”

“I need a favor,” she says, “and yeah, I know, you'll want to call it in at some stage. Whatever. I'll steal you the Kennedy assassination files, or something.”

“Boring,” Stark says. “Let me play with some SHIELD tech, that's more fun. What do you need?”

“Mission in Afghanistan. I don't need you in combat. Just… rescue, maybe.”

“That's extremely cagey, Ivanova. Come on, spill the details.”

“A pair of brave idiots using wing-packs to exfiltrate a target,” Natasha says. “And before you ask, no, they're not made to resist ballistic impact.”

“Well, that's just poor design. Should go with articulated carbon fiber, that'd give a better rigidity flexibility ratio and let you build in some ballistic resistance.”

“You can redesign them later,” Natasha says,”once nobody gets shot out of the sky.”

“Yeah, yeah. Afghanistan, huh? Send JARVIS the coordinates, I'll run back-up on your guys. No hostile engagement, though. I can't believe you're sending me back there this quick, it's like you don't care about my trauma at all.”

“I can recommend a great therapist,” Natasha tells him. Exhales in relief. “She's very discreet. Worked with Barnes.”

“Oh, that's my favor,” Tony says, “I wanna get a look at that arm.”

“I'll see what I can do,” Natasha says. “Thanks, Stark.”

 

“Bad news,” Fury says the next morning. “Just got a call from Rhodes. We're only getting Wilson, apparently, the other guy is in an army hospital with a spine fracture. According to Wilson's report, an RPG knocked him right out of the sky. Hit his wing, took him down. Shrapnel shattered his T9 vertebrae. Would've been dead for sure except that Iron Man showed up, caught him in free-fall.”

“Iron Man,” Natasha says. “Wow. That's good luck.”

“Yeah,” Fury says. “Real stroke of luck he was there. Gotta admit, I'm a little confused how he knew to be. Such a sensitive mission, and all.”

“Must have talked to Rhodes,” Natasha shrugs, “you know they're friends. Stark doesn't exactly strike me as respecting classified intel and operational security.”

“Yeah, I know someone else like that,” Fury mutters. “Go write up the transfer paperwork for Wilson, Ivanova. And don't try to foist it off on a junior agent, I want you dotting every i and crossing every t.”

“You know I hate paperwork.”

“Yeah,” Fury says. Fixes her with a glare. “I do.”

“Just one thing,” Natasha says before she leaves. “The other guy. Riley. Did he… is he going to recover?”

“Fragment might have nicked his spinal cord,” Fury says.”Still in surgery, when I talked to Rhodes, but didn't sound like a complete spinal transection. He should be able to walk again eventually.”

“Okay,” Natasha says. “Okay. I'll go do that paperwork.”

“Yeah,” Fury says. “You do that.”

 

Bucky's off-duty for the foreseeable future, making up for lost time with Steve, and Natasha doesn't begrudge it but she does miss having him on her six. Sam's just as great as she remembers him, though, and different too; a little younger, a little less jaded. His best friend isn't dead, just in a private rehab facility learning how to walk again; she figures that counts for something. Knows, too, that Stark has a hand in the rehab, the tech he's building for Riley. She remembers him developing it for Rhodes; feels like she's made a good difference in this one thing at least.

“Fury told me you hand-selected me for this,” Sam says. “I gotta ask: why?”

“Seriously?” Natasha asks, amused. “Wilson, the Air Force asked if you wanted to strap experimental rockets to yourself and you said sign me up, in what universe would I not want you on this team?”

“Okay, yeah, point,” Sam concedes. “And the upgrades are sweet, I have to admit. I'm just kind of wondering why this team doesn't include, y'know, Iron Man.”

“He's having an existential crisis about combat missions,” Natasha says. “And a romantic crisis about Pepper. He'll get there eventually. What, am I not exciting enough for you?”

“Come on, you know it's not like that. I was just curious.”

“We're a work in progress,” Natasha admits. “But we're a good team.”

“Yeah,” Sam agrees, “we are, huh.”

 

When her third mission with Sam goes a little bit sideways, it's so unexpected Natasha is shocked more by the surprise of it than the pain at first. A bullet to the side, and she goes down hard, lands bad enough to feel the snap of it in her shoulder.

“Motherfucker,” she swears. “Ow, fuck. Fuck. Trip, Wilson, I'm down, cover me.”

“On it,” Triplett says. “Coulson, get a med-evac in here, Ivanova took a shot. Wilson, you got my six?”

“Yeah, brother. Let's go.” They're good, she thinks; they'll be fine, they'll finish it, and holds pressure to her side, tries not to swear again at the pain.

“You're lucky,” the doctor tells her later. “An inch either way and the bullet could've hit something bad, nicked your liver. This is just a clean through and through. Painful, but you'll recover.”

“Guess that puts paid to bikinis this summer,” Natasha says. Tries to shrug, makes a face.

“Yeah, don't do that. You broke your clavicle falling on it. I'm sending you for an X-ray, but it doesn't look like you'll need surgery, it’s a clean break.”

She doesn't need surgery; just a sling, a bunch of meds. A set of scrubs to change into, since they had to cut her jumpsuit off her, and the nurse has to help her lift the scrubs shirt over her head. She picks up her boots, her pharmacy bag. Looks down at her own bare feet.

“You need me to call someone, honey?”

“No,” Natasha says, “it’s fine,” and walks stiffly out into the hallway, narrowly avoids colliding with Maria Hill. “Shit,” she says, “fuck, sorry—”

“Whoa,” Maria says. Catches Natasha’s elbow, steadies her very carefully. “You okay there, Ivanova?”

“Yeah,” Natasha says. “I’m—great. Fine.” Jesus Christ, she’s clammy with shock sweat, where her hair’s not pasted to her forehead she’s got dirt in every bit of it, she’s pretty sure she’s still got her own blood under her fingernails, and on top of all of that she is fucking barefoot in the corridor and wearing hospital pajamas. Maria, as ever, is flawless.

“You sure?” Maria asks. Looks her up and down, furrows her brow in concern. “You don’t look great.”

“I’m fine,” Natasha says, “I just—I got shot a little bit. It’s fine.”

“Ivanova,” Maria says, clearly trying not to laugh by now. Her hand is still on Natasha’s elbow—the good one, not the arm that’s immobilized in the sling—and she squeezes Natasha’s arm, strokes her thumb very lightly over the inside of Natasha’s bicep before letting go. “You got shot. That’s not fine. Let me give you a ride home. Or, shit, come stay with me for a day or two, you really don’t look like Medical should have let you out by yourself.”

Natasha sighs. “I’m fine,” she says again, “seriously, you don’t need to—my sister will be home from Tokyo tomorrow. I just need a shower and some food so I can take more painkillers.”

“Then let me drive you home,” Maria insists, and takes Natasha’s boots, touches her hand gently to the small of Natasha’s back as she walks her to her car.

 

When they get to Natasha’s apartment, Maria parks the car, walks her up to her door.

“You mind if I stay a minute?” she says. “I just kind of feel morally responsible for you now. In case you pass out and drown in your own shower, or something, I don’t think Fury would ever forgive me. You know you’re his favorite.”

“Nah,” Natasha says, “he’s just got Stockholm Syndrome about me, or something. Yeah, you can—I mean, my apartment is pretty boring, sorry. But feel free to, uh, make yourself some tea, or something. Watch TV, if you want. I’m gonna go take a shower.”

Showering is way more difficult than she remembers it being the last time she broke her collarbone. She’s too proud to ask Maria for help, or maybe too embarrassed—if she was ever gonna think about Maria Hill seeing her naked, which she has, at length, it does not involve her nursing a broken bone and a fresh bullet wound—and in the end she just does her best with a washcloth and the bathroom sink, combs as much dirt as she can out of her hair, pulls on her favorite pajamas.

“I ordered some delivery,” Maria says when she gets back out into the living room. “You didn’t really have much food in the fridge, and I wasn’t sure what to—I remembered you like Thai, but I didn’t know your favourite—so, anyway. I ordered you tom kha gai, I figured, you know, chicken soup, it’s a safe bet.”

“You ordered me Thai food,” Natasha repeats, and Maria nods. Grabs bowls out of the kitchen cabinet.

“Well, I ordered us Thai food,” she says. “If—you don't mind me staying for dinner, right?”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, “sure, of course,” and sits down on the couch, accepts the bowl of soup.

“Hey,” Maria says, sitting down next to her. Touches her fingers to Natasha’s knee. “Your pajamas have sheep on them.”

“Oh—” Natasha says. Looks down at them. “Yeah, my, uh. My little sister got them for me.”

“You have a lot of sisters? Yelena works for SHIELD, right?”

“Yeah, over in intelligence analysis. She’s the one who lives here with me. The other eight are back home in New York.”

“You have nine sisters,” Maria says. “Shit, girl, that’s practically enough to start your own soccer team,” and Natasha snorts with laughter.

“We can make Barnes be the goalie,” she says, and watches as Maria laughs so hard a little bit of fried spring roll comes out of her nose.

 

Yelena gets home the next morning; when she gets in the door, Natasha is lying on the couch watching cartoons and eating a pudding cup.

“Uh,” she says. “Should I ask?”

“Mission went a little sideways,” Natasha says thickly through a mouthful of chocolate pudding. “Don’t worry though, they gave me some good meds.”

“Is your arm broken?” Yelena asks, squinting at her, and Natasha shakes her head.

“Collarbone. ‘s fine, it was a clean break.” Sticks another spoon of pudding in her mouth, shifts her weight and can’t help wincing a little.

“What else is wrong with you,” Yelena says, narrowing her eyes. “Broken ribs?”

“Got shot. I’ll be okay in a week or two.”

“Natasha,” Yelena says. “Jesus Christ, Natasha, what is wrong with you,” and pulls out her phone, speed-dials. “Hey, Vasya.” Turns her back on Natasha, starts to speak in very fast Russian while gesticulating at the wall. “Yeah,” she finishes, “okay. Love you. I’ll see you soon. Right,” she tells Natasha, “go pack a bag and get in the car, I’m taking you home to stay with Vasilia.”

“No, Yelena, honestly,” Natasha says. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I just have to rest for a day or two, I can go back to my desk on Monday.”

“I have been flying for fourteen hours,” Yelena says, extremely calm. “I have been in intelligence negotiations for twelve days, and for the first three of those days the airline lost my luggage so I was wearing the same fucking suit until my assistant could go out to Parco and buy me new clothes. The meeting caterer did not understand gluten intolerance, so all I have eaten for two weeks is convenience store onigiri, pre-packaged salads, and gummy candy. Get in the fucking car, Natalia Ivanova, I am driving you to New York.”

 

“Natasha!” Kseniya cries. Drops her school bag, bends over to unlace her shoes. “Why is Natasha at home?”

“Because your sister is an idiot,” Vasilia says. “No, Kseniya, don't jump on her.”

“Vasya,” Natasha says. “I was only a little bit injured. It's fine.”

“You were shot,” Vasilia says. “And you broke your collarbone, and when you got out of Medical you went back to your apartment, you dummy.”

“Wow,” Lyudmila says. “You're in trouble, sis.”

“I know,” Natasha admits glumly; it's not even two years since she broke her wrist, and being shot is probably worse. Definitely worse.

 

The kids are all at school a day or two later when Vasilia sits down on the couch beside Natasha, pulls her in and strokes her hair.

“Why didn't you call us, huh?” she says. “Did you think we wouldn't want to look after you?”

“No,” Natasha says, “I just—forgot.”

“Stupid,” Vasilia says fondly. “Hey, did you know Zhenya has a boyfriend?”

Evgenia?” Natasha says, surprised somehow. Still thinks of her as a kid, even as it’s coming up ten years. “No. She’s kept that one quiet. Tell me everything.”

“I think it’s serious,” Vasilia says, considering. “His name is Sebastian, but she calls him Seb. He’s a sculptor, they met on that art retreat she took a little while ago.”

“Sebastian,” Natasha says thoughtfully. “Interesting.”

“Zhenya said they might move in together. Next year, maybe, when his lease is up.”

“Wow,” Natasha says. Blinks. “It is serious then, jeez. I hope she’s ready for the shock of New York rent.” Thinks about it for a little while, and then about their life, their lives. Has a sudden thought that feels important to voice. “Is this what you want, sestra?” she asks. Looks at Vasilia, gestures at the detritus of family—a pair of muddy soccer shoes discarded by the back door, schoolbags piled in the corner, Kseniya's old drawings still on the fridge—and tilts her head. “You've taken over without saying anything, and I know it's a load to bear. Eight sisters to care for all at once. Are you happy, though? You don’t want—I don’t know, a dreamy sculptor called Sebastian to fall in love with you?”

“Did you ever think about having children?” Vasilia says in return, and Natasha shakes her head.

“Not—I knew what was coming. Graduation. I didn't want to torment myself thinking about what I couldn't have.” It's not strictly true; of course she'd thought about it, after. Had longed for a baby so badly it was a physical pain, but her life hadn't had space for that anyway. She hadn't made space, she thinks, and understands why.

“I did,” Vasilia says. “I wanted babies. Children. Madame was suspicious of me, the way I was with the little ones. Do you remember when I went away for a while?”

“Your deep cover mission in Sweden,” Natasha agrees. “A test, the biggest any of us had ever been given. God, I was so jealous of you.”

“It wasn't a mission,” Vasilia tells her. “It—” and lifts her shirt so Natasha can see the scar low across her belly. It's long-healed, just a thin white line, and Vasilia traces her fingers across it. “They told you I had appendicitis, I think,” she says. “I didn't. I… it was with one of the guards. They gave us all shots, you know that, but I switched the needle when the doctor wasn't looking. I was fourteen, maybe. Madame found out, of course. Sent me away until the baby was big enough to cut out of me. They took everything all at once. Not a graduation, Madame told me. Just a failure.”

“Vasilia,” Natasha says. Chokes on a sob. Her face is wet; they're both weeping.

“I never even saw the baby,” Vasilia whispers. “They didn't kill it, I don't think. A daughter of Hydra, that's worth keeping. When Kseniya arrived three years later, I wondered. Perhaps she looks like me, I don't know.”

“You could find out,” Natasha says, “they could run a DNA test,” and Vasilia shakes her head.

“I don't need a test to tell me she's mine. My daughter, my sister, it doesn't matter. My family, and nobody will take them away from me ever again.”

 

She stays with Vasilia longer than she thought she would, after that. Takes a walk with her in Prospect Park, goes to her Pilates class even though she just has to sit and watch from the edge of the room. Calls Bucky, even though she could text him instead.

“What’s up? You bust a stitch? Steve says hi, by the way. Hopes you’re doing okay.”

“Thanks,” she says. “I miss you too. Can you go check on Yelena this weekend? She's a little more stressed than usual, I'm worried she's working too hard.”

“Got it,” Bucky says. “Distraction duty so she doesn't die at her desk like some 20s socialist cartoon about the perils of capitalist overwork. Steve and I will drag her out for brunch. Maybe Steve will torture her with a run around the Mall.”

“Also,” Natasha admits, “I need you to do me a favor. I kind of, uh. Promised Tony Stark he could look at your arm if he ran a rescue mission for me to make sure my new recruits didn't die before they actually joined the team. And they didn't, score one for me, but the end result here is that—”

“Tony Stark wants to take a look at my arm,” Bucky says. “Shit, okay. Did he save someone's life, at least?”

“He actually did,” Natasha tells him, and Bucky exhales loudly down the phone.

“Fine,” he says. “Actually, he could probably do some work on it, the joints are getting stiff. And I've been meaning to get the star filed off, it's kind of unnecessarily Communist, you know?”

“He could probably replace the whole thing,” Natasha suggests, “give you a newer model. Carbon fiber, or something.”

“Don't fix what ain't broke.”

“You just said it was kind of broken,” Natasha points out, and Bucky just cackles at her for a minute or two.

 

When she gets home, it's with flowers and a  Williams Sonoma gift basket for Yelena, and Yelena looks at them suspiciously for a minute before hugging Natasha, careful of her stitches.

“Wow,” she says, “you even shelled out for the Fortnum & Mason hamper, you must feel bad.”

“I'm probably going to eat all the caramel biscuits out of it,” Natasha admits, and Yelena shrugs.

“Go ahead, they’ll only make me sick. If you eat the Italian chocolates I will murder you in your sleep, though. I'm not kidding, I could still do it.”

“I believe you, Jesus. Your chocolates are safe.”

“Also,” Yelena says, “I'm being sent back to Tokyo on Wednesday, so I asked Yasha to come stay while I'm away.”

“You didn't need to—”

“Oh,” Yelena says, “I really did.”

 

Maria comes by on Thursday, unexpected; Natasha answers the knock at the front door, proud of the fact that she'd been able to get off the couch without wincing.

“Hey,” Maria says. “Thought I'd check on how you're doing.”

“Oh! You didn't have to—you want to come in?”

“Yeah,” Maria says, “that'd—I'd like that.” Holds out a Tupperware kind of awkwardly. “I made you Italian wedding soup,” she says, “it's what I eat whenever I'm sick. Family recipe. You're really feeling better?”

“Much better,” Natasha tells her, “my big sister pulled rank and wouldn't let me move for like three days. Plus she made me enough Russian food to feed, like, the entire Soviet army, and then she made me help Kseniya with her math homework.”

“You're fucking terrible at math,” Bucky says from the chair in the corner, “no wonder you escaped quick after that,” and Maria jumps like she's a little startled.

“Hi,” she says, “Maria Hill,” and Bucky gets up to shake her hand.

“Bucky Barnes. I've seen you around SHIELD, right? Let me get that from you, I'll put it in the fridge. Nat says she's better but she's still down to one arm.”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, “we're buds,” and Bucky flicks her shoulder with his metal fingers.

“Disrespecting the elderly,” he says, “who brought you up? And you haven't even offered your guest a drink, Christ. You want a coffee, Maria? Tea?”

“Coffee's good,” Maria says, “thanks. So, do you, uh, do you live here too?”

“Nah, I'm just staying a day or two. Lena's gone back to—where is it now, Brussels?—and Natasha definitely won't eat human meals if she's left alone for any stretch of time.”

“Hey,” Natasha protests. Can't deny it, but even so, in her own goddamn house, in front of Maria, it's a little embarrassing.

“You wouldn't come stay with Steve and I,” Bucky tells her, unsympathetic, “I'm gonna rat you out to your guests.”

“Oh, I'm under no illusions about Nat's eating habits,” Maria says, “I've seen her breakroom meals.” Finishes her cup of coffee. “I better go—I'm just on my lunch break, I've got about five thousand files to get through—but I'm glad you're feeling better, Tasha.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says. Feels herself blush, and horrifyingly can't seem to help the way she smiles. “Thanks for the soup.”

Tasha,” Bucky says as soon as Maria's gone. “Wow. Someone's got a crush.”

“Shut up,” Natasha says. Barnes squints at her.

“Oh,” he says, “sweetheart, you got it bad,” and yeah, she does. She's got it real bad.

 

She goes back to work the following week, but it still takes fucking forever to get signed off for combat missions again. “This is the worst,” Natasha complains, “I cannot believe I didn't at least break the side that'd mean I don't have to catch up on all this fucking paperwork.”

“Yeah,” Sam agrees drily. “Just go back out there and fall over again, do it right this time.”

She takes the time, while she's still on desk duty, to use a little of her scope for unofficially-official side missions. Flies to Delhi, spends an afternoon wandering through the markets. Waits for Banner to approach her.

“Why are you following me?” he says, three hours in, and Natasha smiles.

“Wanted to say hello, that's all.”

“Are you from the army? SHIELD? Did Ross send you?”

“God, no. Okay, I am from SHIELD. But I'm doing my best to make sure Ross's career gets buried so deep nobody can dig him out. And I'm not here on SHIELD business, Doctor Banner.”

“I don't believe you,” Bruce says. “How'd you find me, if you're not here on business?”

“Come on. You should know SHIELD still keeps tabs on your location.”

“You should know,” Bruce says, “that if you're here to bring me in, it's not gonna go well for you.”

“I'm not here to take you in. Why would I want to do that?”

“Well,” Banner says, “to use the other guy, for starters.”

“No thanks. Like I said: I'm just here to say hi.”

Banner pauses. Looks at her a minute, and then he's backing her up against a wall, hands hard on her shoulders. “Stop lying to me,” he hisses, and Natasha remembers the first time around on this one; her frozen terror, the sweat running cold down her spine.

“Lol,” she says. Pokes her tongue out at him, knocks his hand away and flicks him lightly on the forehead. “Was that supposed to be threatening?Also, fuck, ow, I'm nursing a broken collarbone here, you jerk. If I have to go back in the sling I'm gonna be mad.”

Bruce blinks. Backs off a step, looks her up and down. “Sorry,” he says, “that was—mean. Just wanted to see what you'd do. Did you really just say ‘lol’ out loud?”

“I'm a millennial,” Natasha shrugs. “And I have a bunch of little sisters. Come on, Banner. Quit fucking with me, we both know you're not going to have an incident. Come on, let's go get chai and I'll tell you why I'm here.”

She gives him the envelope of cash when they've finished their tea. “You're doing good work, Doctor,” she tells him. “Figured you could do with an anonymous donation.” Hands him the other envelope, then: his research, her jotted notes of what she can remember about their behavioral experiments with the Hulk. A pager, old enough it's got no GPS embedded. “Just in case you get curious,” she explains. “No pressure. Stay angry, Banner.”

“Always do,” Bruce agrees, and touches his fingertips to her shoulder, much gentler this time. “See you around, I guess.”

 

She's not sure what Steve will do from here—he could get out the way he never did the first time round, maybe—but he has a habit of showing up at SHIELD like maybe he’s a little curious or maybe he just wants to hang out. He finds her in her office one day, knocks on the open door jamb and leans against it looking a little too casual.

“Oh hi, Steve. You need something?”

“No,” Steve says, “just—a social visit, I guess. I can come back later.”

“No, we’re cool. Come on in. This is Sam. Sam, Steve.”

“Yeah, I kind of know who you are, man,” Sam says, laughing. Puts his sandwich down so he can shake Steve's hand. “Must be a shock, coming out of the ice and waking up to all this.”

“Well, you know,” Steve shrugs. “Pretty good in some ways. Folks I thought were dead turning out alive again. Buck’s only got one arm but he’s just as much of a pain in my ass. Plus the internet's a good time. Nat’s been real helpful catching me up on the world.”

“You sent him a bunch of cat videos, didn't you.”

So many cat videos,” Natasha agrees. “You gonna eat your pickle, or can I take it?”

“Go on, you vulture. So, Steve, what're you doing now?”

“I dunno,” Steve says. “War’s over. Could go enrol in art school, I guess.”

“Or go model for an Abercrombie and Fitch store,” Sam jokes, and Steve grins.

“What about you? What do you do in SHIELD, Sam?”

“Well, I was in the Air Force,” Sam says. “Afghanistan, two tours. But then Ivanova here shoulder-tapped my buddy and me for SHIELD, and now I'm doing something that's so classified I probably can't tell you about it.”

“Are you kidding me,” Steve says. Shoves his hands in his pockets, tilts his head. “I'm Captain America.

“Yeah, and fluttering your lashes at me won't get me to break no matter how cute you are,” Sam tells him, and Natasha watches with fascination as Steve's blush goes all the way down his throat past his collar.

“Come on,” she says. “Sit down and have lunch with us. Fury's considering him for the Initiative anyway, Sam, you can probably fill him in.”

“Now you tell me,” Sam says, as Natasha hands Steve half her sandwich, offers him the bag of chips. “Okay, fine. I'm one of the Avengers.”

“One of,” Natasha laughs. “It's you and me and Barnes, Wilson, and Rhodes, if he likes the suit and he doesn't have anything better to do. Barton, if I ever convince him joining the Avengers is more fun than waging pitched battle with those track-suited assholes in his neighborhood.”

“Didn’t you try recruiting Iron Man?”

“Don’t fucking remind me. I’m still traumatised.”

“You are not, you went to brunch and got so day-drunk you were hungover for two days, don’t lie.”

“Okay, fine. I'm holding out for Monica to decide she's in, though.”

“You've been out for a while,” Sam says to Steve. Looks at him seriously. “Thinking about getting back in?”

“Yes,” Steve says. “No. I don't know.”

“You're a terrible liar, man.”

“So I've been told,” Steve agrees. “You were Air Force? You a pilot?”

“Nah,” Sam says. Smiles at Steve, wide enough Natasha can see the gap between his front teeth. “I'm not a pilot. I'm way cooler than that.”

 

Steve comes back again a month or so later. Finds her in her office again.

“You said Fury was considering me,” he says. Sits down on her couch, tilts his head to indicate she should join him. “So tell me about the Initiative.”

“Like you haven't asked Bucky about it, come on.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, “I talked to Buck. Sam, too. But it's your team, Nat. I wanna hear about it from you.”

My team, she thinks, and God, that knocks her for six. She'd been there in that bunker when Fury had ceded calling the shots to Steve. Feels strange that this is him doing the same to her now without even knowing it.

“Okay,” she says eventually. “What do you wanna know?”

 

The years go by quicker now, or maybe things are just happening out of time, no longer in sync with her memories of how it all played out. Bucky’s awake, Steve’s awake; it’s barely 2010. She’d have had to wait another four years to get the kind of friendship she’s rebuilding now with Steve. When she looks in the mirror it feels like she’s recognizing herself: sharper jaw, the faint beginnings of lines around her eyes. God, she still looks so young, it makes her want to scream at the loss of it. Sveta joins the New York City Ballet, straight into a soloist rank; Evgenia introduces Sebastian to the family, finally, and they are so bewilderingly in love that nobody can even make fun of them. They move in together in a Williamsburg loft that seems suspiciously beautiful and even more suspiciously expensive, and Natasha stares Steve down until he admits that maybe he might have had a hand in the purchase.

“That’s two million dollars, Steve,” Natasha says, and Steve shrugs.

“Army paid me a lot of back pay,” he says, “and Buck says it’s pocket change when you consider how much we’re making off old Hydra investments.”

“Jesus,” Natasha mutters, “move to the US and ten years later you’re the goddamn one percent,” but she can’t lie: it’s nice to see Evgenia so happy. Even nicer when she insists that they all have to come home for the weekend, it’s April, their personal anniversary weekend, that means Steve and Yasha too, tell SHIELD to send another analyst to Bucharest, Yelena, come home, and waits approximately three minutes before flinging herself in the door at Carroll St and screaming, “I’m having a babyyyyyyy.”

“You’re what,” Natasha says out loud, as Yelena and Steve both well up with tears; her little sister is having a baby, Jesus Christ, that’s absurd. She’s never heard anything so surreal or so wonderful in her life.

“I feel absolutely rat-shit,” Evgenia admits, after she’s been mobbed by all nine of her sisters and two crying supersoldiers. “I am puking nonstop every goddamn day, sestry, I hate it, never ever have a baby please in your life,” and it’s obviously not a lie but she’s also glowing in the way that Natasha always thought was a lie about pregnant women, and Natasha knows that this baby is going to be loved so hard by so many people it will frankly be a little ridiculous.

 

It's twins, Evgenia texts the group chat a month later, apparently twins run in Seb's family, I am going to murder him and his twin cousins and his lovely abuelita Rodriguez. And her twin. She attaches a photo of the ultrasound, a selfie of her and Seb at the twelve-week scan; Sebastian looks so happy he might float away, while Evgenia is poorly pretending to scowl through the broadest smile Natasha has ever seen.

TWINS, every other sister texts back at precisely the same moment; Natasha's surprised Sam can't hear the high-pitched screeching going on in her own head.

“Turns out Evie’s having twins,” she says, very nonchalant, and Sam looks up, clocks her in one glance.

“Oh,” he says, smiling, “yeah, you're gonna be that kind of aunt, huh. Not that I can talk, I am absolutely that kind of uncle to my sister's kid. It's amazing, right?”

Twins,” Natasha says again, as if that'll make it seem any more real. Squints at the ultrasound, those grainy little blobs that are supposedly life forming in her sister's womb right goddamn now, and five minutes later just gives up on work entirely, drags Sam out to get celebratory drunk with him at three in the afternoon.

 

Now that she’s beginning to surround herself with her people, it gets easier and harder all at once. Delightful, of course—god, she loves them so much, missed them so much—but she’s got to catch herself, avoid slipping on all the things she shouldn’t know before they’ve happened.

"How's Laura," she’d asked Clint one morning, the mid-2000s when she was working across both offices and beginning to test Clint out as a mission partner. It’d slipped out so naturally, the both of them still half asleep in the New York office briefing room with their coffee and bagels, and she'd  winced, sipped her coffee. Clint wouldn’t meet Laura for another three months, god, it's so hard to keep it all straight.

"How did you know," he’d asked her, three months later, and Natasha had pretended not to understand the question.

"I only pretend to know everything," she says once to Steve, stretched out on his couch and on her second glass of wine while Bucky cooks them dinner, and Steve just rolls his eyes, disbelieving. “No,” she insists, “it's true. It's a ripple, the, what do you call it, butterfly effect. Every decision I made took me further away from what I remember. At this point all I know is the big stuff and the small stuff.”

“What's the big stuff?” Steve asks, curious now, and Natasha shrugs one shoulder.

“Hydra. Where to find you in the ice. Demi-gods throwing down in New Mexico. You know. Things that are too big to change just from my own actions.”

“And the small stuff?” Steve says. Tops up her wine. Natasha takes a sip, considers her answer.

“You learned how to steal a car in Nazi Germany,” she says eventually. “You broke two of your fingers catching the shield, first week you got it, and they healed crooked, still ache when it rains. Your body healed too fast, and you wouldn't let anyone re-break them and set them right—you should really go to medical and get them to fix that, by the way. Your favorite place to eat in DC is this Thai restaurant with really good tom kha gai.”

“I like mango bubble tea,” Steve remembers, and Natasha nods.

“Yeah,” she says, “you like mango bubble tea.”

“He used to wear newspapers in his shoes,” Bucky adds, from the kitchen doorway, and laughter bubbles out of Steve.

“I don't even know what tom kha gai is,” he says after a beat, going serious again. Natasha shrugs again.

“So we'll go eat there,” she says, “you can try it out. Shit, I think that place might not open until 2012, that's a bummer.”

“But what if I'm different,” Steve says. “What if—shit, I don't know. You said I liked mango, and I do, but what if it's not my favorite here. What if I liked strawberry, or milk tea. Or, what is it, the one Vasilia gets.”

“Winter melon and lychee,” Natasha says. “I don't know, Steve. Go try them all, figure it out for yourself. Decide you're gonna drink strawberry instead of mango. I only know what I know.”

“We did, didn't we,” Steve says. Takes a breath. “Tried them all out just to see.”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. Suddenly tired, full of the memory of the time after the second mission they'd run together. A sunny afternoon, the two of them at a loose end, and Steve still hadn't figured out where he fit in SHIELD, who he was in this new world. But Natasha had dragged him out—stay on him, Fury had briefed her, figure him out—and maybe she'd needed a friend just as much as he had. Come on, Rogers, she'd said, let's go make ourselves sick on sugar, and they'd ordered one of everything, sat in the park with the sun in their faces and traded off drinks until they'd settled on a favorite. She can still picture the sunburn Steve had got, the way it faded over the evening from pink into a collection of freckles across the bridge of his nose before disappearing; she'd been fascinated, trying not to show it. “Yeah, Steve, we did.”

She won't drink watermelon, now. Has switched to green apple, and it's good, of course it is, maybe even better, but it's still not quite the same.

 

Summer that year gets warm super quick; Natasha remembers that from the last time around, the sleepless nights and breathlessly hot days. She doesn't remember the Triskelion’s AC going out for a month straight in the middle of June—maybe that's just a bonus from this universe—and by the third week everyone's about ready to shank building maintenance along with anyone who had the good sense to requisition a desk fan in time.

“Hey, Nat,” Maria says one afternoon, knocking on the doorframe of Natasha's office, and Natasha looks up from her paperwork.

“Maria, hi.”

“You have a fan,” Maria groans, “gimme,” and comes in, drops down into Natasha's spare office chair and repositions the fan so that it's blowing directly at her. “Oh yeah, that's the good shit.” She has her collar unbuttoned; Natasha can see a bead of sweat in the hollow of her throat, another at her temple. She clears her throat. Stops herself staring.

“How's it going?”

“Good. Well, I mean, aside from this goddamn heat, and the newest intake group is a pain in my ass, but other than that, I can't complain. You doing anything for the Fourth?”

“I was raised in a Siberian orphanage which hadn't got the memo the Cold War was over,” Natasha says drily, “I think it's safe to say I've got no plans.”

“Isn't it Rogers’ birthday?”

“Nah, turns out that was just propaganda for the papers. Like the way people in England celebrate the Queen’s birthday, or something. His real birthday is in September.”

“The more you know. Well, anyway, I'm having a cookout at mine. Nothing fancy, but you should come along. Bring whichever passel of sisters or supersoldiers you've got around.”

“Sure,” Natasha says, “yeah, that'd be nice,” and immediately spends the next three days spiralling until it's clear even Yelena is sick of her shit.

“I should make a cake,” Natasha says. “Isn't that what you do when someone invites you over?”

“It's a cookout,” Yelena says, rolling her eyes and topping up her wine. “Not a dinner party. Take a six-pack of beer and a seven-layer dip from the deli. And if you made a cake you know that'd fuck up any chance you've got with Hill.”

“Fuck you,” Natasha says, “I could make a cake. I found a recipe online for an icebox cake, you don't even have to bake it.”

“Does it use Cool Whip?” Yelena asks. Natasha squints at her phone.

“Yeah,” she says, “and Nilla wafers.”

“Disgusting. Okay, look, I'm taking pity on you because I love you. I will make you a tiramisu to take with you, okay? And you have to wear something cute. Borrow my gingham playsuit. Or those high-waist linen shorts.”

“Yeleeeena,” Natasha groans, “those are so—”

Cute, is what they are. I know you, Natalia, you'll wear, like, compression leggings and a flannel shirt.”

“Maybe Maria likes flannel shirts,” Natasha says, sulking now, and Yelena cackles with laughter.

“All gay girls love flannel, that's not the point. Go on, wear the playsuit, you know it looks good.”

“It's gingham,” Natasha says, making a face, and steals Yelena's wine. “I'm not wearing gingham. And I have to deal with peeing while I'm wearing a one-piece jumpsuit way too often at work to put up with that shit off-duty.”

“The shorts, then. Wear them with that donut t-shirt, it's cute. I'll know if you don't, you know I will. I'll feel it in my bones.”

“Ugh, fine. Wait, you’re not coming?”

“No, I told you three weeks ago I'm going home with Monica for the weekend. And I think Steve and Yasha are heading back to Brooklyn for a visit, I'm not sure. Maybe doing something with Sam. They're being kind of evasive about it.”

“I have to go by myself?” Natasha says, aware that Yelena is laughing at her. “On my own?”

“Well, you won't be on your own,” Yelena tells her, “you’ll have tiramisu.”

 

Natasha finds herself on Maria's doorstep the following Friday, heart beating overtime and palms so sweaty she's kind of afraid she'll drop the damn dish of tiramisu. This is ridiculous, she tells herself, you are literally trained for stressful situations, but apparently nobody ever trained her for the way Maria Hill looks in cut-offs and a white tank top, because when she opens the door Natasha can't help taking a sharply indrawn breath.

“Uh,” she says, “hey, I—”

“You made it! And… you made tiramisu? Oh my god, you angel, how did you know it's my favorite?”

“I didn't,” Natasha admits, “and I didn't make it, Yelena did. It's probably way better than if I'd made it, though. She says hi, by the way. Sorry she can't come, she's down in Louisiana.”

“No problem,” Maria shrugs, “you’re here, so. Come on in, you want a beer?”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, “sure,” and follows Maria inside, still clutching at the Pyrex dish like it's a life preserver.

“Here, let me put that away,” Maria says, taking the tiramisu off her and bending over to find room for it in the fridge. Natasha doesn't look at her ass, but honestly, it's a close call. “IPA or pilsner? Or I've got a good Belgian wheat beer, if you're into that.”

“Uh, sure, that'd be great,” Natasha agrees, hoping that Maria can't tell that while Natasha is deeply familiar with the respectably-eight-to-fifteen dollar range of wines at her local Trader Joe's, she's never drunk a craft beer in her life.

“Sweet, I couldn't remember if it was you that can't have wheat, or someone else on the Russian orphan soccer team. I like your shirt, by the way.”

“Oh,” Natasha says, “no, yeah, that's Yelena. And it's Yelena's shirt, too. She made me promise I'd wear it, I guess she's really doing all the heavy lifting for me today.”

“Well, it looks good on you,” Maria tells her, passing her a beer. “I didn't think you wore anything except black.”

“Sure I do,” Natasha says. Takes a pull of her beer. “You've seen my sheep pajamas. And I have a whole collection of flannel.”

“Jeez, don't we all,” Maria mutters, looking Natasha up and down just enough that it's pretty clearly flirting, and then the kitchen door bangs open loud enough that they both jump.

“Hey, babe, I think the grill is ready for—oh, hi. You must be Natasha. I’m Kate.”

“Kate Bishop,” Maria says, “college roommate and general pain in my ass,” and Natasha smiles, shakes hands with Kate. She’s Korean-American, taller than Natasha—not that that’s hard—and when Natasha shakes her hand, she feels the calluses she recognizes from someone who’s a regular archer.

“You work with Maria, right? In SHIELD? Maria will never tell me what the hell she does all day.”

“It’s called a security clearance, Kate, I know you know that.”

“Yeah, yeah. So what do you do, Natasha?”

“Oh,” Natasha says, “if I told you that I’d have to kill you. What about you?”

“Human rights lawyer,” Kate says, grabbing a bag of chips from the counter and popping it open. “I work for the ACLU, mostly.”

“Oh, then I’d definitely have to kill you,” Natasha tells her, and Maria breaks into laughter.

“Did you say the grill is hot? Come on, let’s go outside, I’ll get shit cooking. Katie, can you carry a bunch of this stuff?”

“I can grab some,” Natasha says, “load me up,” and Maria grins at her, touches her arm.

“You’re my guest, you don’t have to help. But you could take the potato salad, if you want. And the burger buns.”

 

The cookout is totally chill, and Natasha winds up knowing about half the people there anyway—Coulson and his girlfriend, Clint and Laura, Helen Cho—so she's not really sure what she was so fucking worried about. Laura is pregnant with Lila, and that’s something Natasha painfully misses; it’s been too hard to recreate the ride-or-die friendship she’d had with Clint, and now she and Laura are friendly but nothing more. Their kids won’t call her Aunty Nat; it stings, a little. She's gotten so much out of this life, but she can't have it all; has to let something go, but at least she's on the sidelines.

“I mean,” Maria says to Coulson very seriously, “I've been sort of thinking about getting into growing my own hops but is that going too far, you know?”

“Farm to table, baby,” Clint says unexpectedly, and Natasha blinks for a minute.

“Yeah,” she says, “how is the farm going, bud?”

“It's great,” he says. Nods, glancing at Laura. “Yeah, we've been trying out some organic farming techniques, giving that a go. Grew some kale this summer, not that I know what to fucking do with it. The chickens love it though, I guess.”

“Kale is great,” Coulson says, “you just have to sauté it with garlic and olive oil, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Some smoked paprika, if you have it.”

“I put it in my smoothies,” Maria adds, like the goth jock that she is, “with some protein isolate and maca powder.”

“What's kale,” Natasha says, happy to make herself the butt of the joke, and grabs another hot dog off the grill.

 

They sit around late into the evening, watch some fireworks and get a little drunk. Talk shit about work, all of them ignoring the concept of security classifications as soon as they're a few drinks in.

“Sure, okay, you shoot for fun and recreation,” Clint says to Kate. “Didn't you say you work in human rights? Doesn't get much more coalface human rights than shooting human traffickers with arrows, bud, you should come try out for SHIELD.”

“That's… not what human rights lawyers do,” Kate says. “Like, at all. But you know what? I'm interested, tell me more.”

“Clint is not qualified to make a recruitment pitch,” Natasha says cheerfully. “Back me up on this, Coulson.”

“I don't know, Ivanova, you recruited him and he turned out pretty good.”

“I only did the intake assessment. You did the recruitment, right? What did you use? I'm pretty sure it wasn't ‘join us so you can shoot wrongdoers with arrows’, right?”

“Actually, that was pretty much exactly what I went with,” Coulson says to laughter. “Like I said, it worked out.”

“Jeez, how old were you when you did that intake?” Clint asks then, squinting at Natasha. “I swear, there I am sitting in this little windowless room, probably hungover and definitely washed up on life in general, and in walks this kid who looks all of about twelve like ‘I'm Agent Ivanova, I'm definitely an adult who has a job’.”

“Asshole,” Natasha says affectionately. “I should have recommended that we turn you down.”

“You were such a terrifyingly competent baby,” Maria says. Touches Natasha's back, rubs her thumb lightly over the strip of bare skin between the hem of her t-shirt and the waistband of her shorts, and Natasha prickles all over with heat even as it's getting a little chilly now that the sun's gone down.

“Thanks for coming,” Maria says when she leaves. Hugs Natasha, kisses her on the cheek, and goddamn, Natasha wants to stay.

“You want to share our Uber?” Coulson says, “we’re going near your neighborhood,” and Natasha nods, pulls away. Looks back at Maria as they're leaving, and it's like she can still feel Maria's fingerprints on her skin.

 

Natasha's still mulling the whole thing over when she gets an Avengers mission ping up on her radar, and she actually sighs with relief, pulls herself together in her tac gear and goes to collect the team.

“Hey, Barnes,” she says, opening their door without knocking, and then— “oh, Jesus, okay, I’ll just. Come back when you all have pants on, Christ.”

“Sorry, Natasha,” Steve says, sounding like he’s barely holding back a laugh.

“Jesus,” Natasha says again. “Shit, actually, I can’t come back later, it’s urgent Avengers shit, I guess I’ll just stand here with my eyes closed and wait for you all to put your clothes on.”

“We’re grown adults,” Steve says, “it’s not that weird, Nat,” and Natasha opens her eyes just to glare at him.

“For you,” she says. “Barnes is like my brother. And I fucking work with Wilson. Which, by the way, Sam, I’d high-five you if I didn’t know what that hand had just been doing.”

“You work with me,” Steve says, sounding wounded, and Natasha rolls her eyes.

“I watched you being defrosted,” she tells him. “There’s no mystery left there, bud, they used hair dryers. Barnes and I had to stop the techs from trying to measure your dick, okay.”

“That’s America’s dick,” Bucky says, and Natasha refuses to look at him because she knows he’ll be making the face that says he’s so smug about his own dumb joke all she can do is laugh at it.

“Really?” Wilson asks, buttoning his fly. “Hair dryers?”

“They did a bunch of research on the best way to bring him up to temperature without giving him freezer burn,” Natasha shrugs. “Turns out his cells would probably have regenerated just fine regardless, but I guess you’re both pretty happy about Captain America not getting his dick freezer-burned off like a pack of hot dogs that got forgotten at the back of a chest freezer.”

“Now there’s an image,” Steve says, wincing.

“Right?” Natasha agrees. “I'm never gonna be able to eat cut-up hot dogs in my instant mac now.”

“Gross,” Bucky says. “I'm telling Vasilia you still eat like a college freshman. Okay, what’ve you got for us?”

“The usual,” Natasha shrugs, “but we're still ahead on time, I was factoring in having to pick Sam up separately. Good job on assembling.”

 

“So, how the fuck did that happen?” Natasha says to Steve, quiet, while they’re on the Quinjet, and Steve shrugs.

“I got home from work that day I had lunch with the two of you, and Bucky asked how my day was, and I guess I said something real dumb and real fucking obvious but then the next thing, Buck was all, thank Christ, I thought maybe you wanted to be super conventional this century. Let's invite him over for dinner. And then, I guess, we invited him over for dinner.”

“Wow,” Natasha says. Thinks about that state of affairs for a minute. “I’m actually impressed, Rogers, that’s not your usual M.O.”

“Oh, jeez, tell me about it. Anyway, Bucky did most of the heavy lifting.”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. Elbows Steve in the ribs. “So I saw.”

“Shut up, Ivanova. You know, you could learn something. Ask Hill out for dinner, or something.”

“I don’t—” Natasha says, automatic, and Steve rolls his eyes.

“Yeah,” he says, “you do.”

“I have been a secret agent since I was five years old,” Natasha says. “That’s more than twenty years, Rogers. And that’s even not counting the fact that this is my second go-round.”

“And you still got a real shit poker face when it comes to a crush on a pretty girl,” Steve tells her, entirely unsympathetic. “Come on, just ask her out. Or are you too chicken?”

“No,” Natasha says. Scowls, remembering the fact that they’ve had this conversation in reverse and she doesn’t have the option of jumping out of the plane right now to end it. “I’m just too busy.”

“Last Saturday you came over to our place for dinner and spent the whole evening knitting a tiny sweater for Piroshki,” Steve says, brutal. “I’m pretty sure you ain’t too busy, Ivanova.”

 

Evgenia is five months pregnant when she comes over to Carroll St on a weekend Natasha and Yelena are home, flops down dramatically into the closest armchair, and says, to anyone who’s listening, “Sebastian asked me to marry him.”

“Hasn’t Seb been asking you to marry him for like, two years?” Lyudmila says, not looking up.

“Yeah,” Evgenia agrees, “but now he’s knocked me up and his mom thinks we should be married before the babies arrive.”

“Right, okay.”

“Well, anyway,” Evgenia says. Kicks her shoes off, tucks one foot up underneath her and rests her hand on the swell of her belly; she’s in faded blue jeans, a loose white shirt with paint all over the cuffs, and her auburn hair is slipping out of her crown braid and frizzing out into sweat-damp curls along her hairline. “I kind of said yes, I guess.”

The resulting chaos is a little quieter than when she’d announced she was pregnant, but only barely, and mostly because Steve and Bucky are back in DC and Marta and Irina are at the grocery store. Get home straight away, Natasha texts them, Evie is getting married.

What, Irina says, right now? Can I finish buying broccoli first?

Does that mean I can’t get Pinkberry on the way home? Marta adds, and Natasha laughs out loud at her phone.

Nah, but get me one too. Orange peach mango with strawberries and kiwi. And some chocolate chips.

Ugh, fine. If it melts before I get home that’s your problem.

“Can I be your bridesmaid?” Kseniya asks. “Come on, let me be your bridesmaid. Jenny Evans in my AP English class has been a bridesmaid for her sister and her cousins three times, it’s so unfair.”

“Nobody is being my bridesmaid,” Evgenia says firmly, “because if one of you was, then all of you would be, and I am not having the kind of wedding which involves nine goddamn bridesmaids.”

“What kind of wedding are you having, then?” Vasilia says, passing her an ice water. “Not a week-long Russian wedding, I’m assuming?”

“Oh, shit no,” Evgenia says. “Can you imagine? Hell no. We’re gonna do it nice and quiet before the kids get much bigger and I literally cannot walk. Just a civil ceremony, maybe in the park. Dinner out afterwards, that kind of thing.”

“If you want to do it before the babies get here, doesn’t that mean you have to plan a wedding in like eight weeks?” Lyudmila asks, ever practical, and Evgenia looks at her in dawning horror.

“Shit,” she says. “Shit, you’re right. Fuck.”

“Also,” Lyudmila adds, “remember how you told me you met Seb’s abuela Rodriguez at Christmas? I don’t think she’s gonna be satisfied with a civil ceremony and dinner out afterwards.”

“Oh no,” Evgenia says. Throws back her ice water as if it’s a shot of vodka. “Goddamnit, I knew there was a reason I kept saying no for two goddamn years. Fuck me.”

“Call Seb,” Yelena says. “Get him here in half an hour. Tell him it’s an emergency.”

“It is an emergency,” Evgenia says, pulling out her phone. “I’m telling him we have to elope, it’s the only option.”

“No,” Yelena says, “it’s not. I am a goddamn expert at emergencies. Here, let me airdrop you this Pinterest board, I’ve already found four potential venues available at a rush fee in the three weekends seven to nine weeks out from now. I’ve pinned fifteen different dress designers who specialize in maternity gowns, I’ve got a florist and a caterer already in my contacts list who’ll give me a discount if I promise to use them the next time an ambassador is in town, and I’ve designed three color story options for you and Seb to choose. I recommend the coral, pink glass, evergreen and blue fog, but seafoam, ivory and amaranth with peach accents would also work.” She looks up from her phone, blinks at them all staring at her. “What? It’s basic event planning.”

“Yelena,” Svetlana says slowly, “what do you actually do at work?”

“Intelligence analysis and negotiation,” Yelena says. “In fifteen languages.”

“That… doesn’t really explain anything,” Svetlana says, and looks at Natasha, who just raises her hands.

“Honestly, it’s a mystery. My job’s a lot easier to explain than hers is. She’s just kind of a genius, I guess.”

 

She gets back from New York on Monday and thinks to herself, Jesus Christ, Natasha, it's been more than long enough. Just do it already, for fuck’s sake.

“Hey, Maria,” she says. Knocks, belated, on her office door. “Can I talk to you a minute? I've got a problem I'm hoping you can help me with.”

“Yeah,” Maria says, “sure, what's up?”

“Steve says I should invite you over for dinner,” Natasha tells her. “Problem is, I really can't cook.”

“Oh,” Maria says. Considers the issue for a second. “I can cook just fine, so what if I invited you over for dinner instead? Is Thursday good for you?”

“That'll work,” Natasha agrees, “okay, cool. Sounds like a date.”

“Is it?” Maria asks, “a date, I mean?” and Natasha blinks at her a couple of times.

“Yeah,” she says, “I'd really like it to be.”

“Great,” Maria says. Considers Natasha for a moment, looks back at her computer screen. Smiles, teasing, in the corner of her mouth. “About fucking time, Ivanova.”

 

She drives over to Maria's house Thursday without letting herself think too hard about it: jeans, her favorite grey-marle cashmere sweater that Yelena takes to get dry-cleaned for her along with all her own officewear. A bottle of red wine, since Maria had mentioned she was making Italian, and a box of Ghirardelli truffles. A clean t-shirt and fresh underwear rolled up small at the bottom of her bag, so she won't have to go in to work the next morning in yesterday's clothes, and she's not even embarrassed about planning ahead like that; it just seems sensible.

“Hi,” Maria says, opening the door; she's in black leisure wear, feet bare and hair loose, and Natasha feels a crackle of energy just from the way they look at each other in the front entranceway.

“Are those Lululemons?” she asks to break the tension, and Maria laughs, looks down at herself.

“Yeah,” she admits, “they're real comfortable.”

“You're the hottest goth yoga teacher I've ever seen,” Natasha tells her, deadpan, “and I lived in Park Slope.”

“You think you're so cute,” Maria says. “Come on, let's have wine. Make yourself comfortable.”

 

“So here's the thing,” Maria says, when they're halfway into their first glass of wine, still standing in the kitchen and talking about god knows what. “I could cook dinner. I made osso buco yesterday, so all I have to do is make a risotto alla Milanese and some gremolata.”

“Or?” Natasha asks, and Maria grins at her.

“Or,” she says. Backs Natasha up against the kitchen counter until her hips are pressed flush against Natasha's. “I could skip making dinner entirely and we could just go straight to bed.”

“I'm not that hungry,” Natasha says, and Maria's smile widens.

“Good,” she says, “because Jesus Christ, Tasha, I want to fuck you so goddamn bad.”

“Should probably kiss me first,” Natasha says, smirking, and when Maria kisses her it's hard, biting, the kind of kiss that makes Natasha's blood sing and her heart pound in her throat.

“Jesus,” she says, blinking. Grabs Maria by the hair and yanks her back in. “Okay, yeah, you kissed me, now can we please fuck?”

 

“Will you come to my sister’s wedding with me?” Natasha asks her afterwards, her head pillowed on Maria's shoulder, and Maria laughs, runs her fingers through Natasha's hair.

“What is this, sweetheart, the lesbian spy U-Haul? Of course I'll come, it'll be great. Tell me there'll be booze even though she's a million months pregnant.”

“She's furious about it, but yeah,” Natasha says. “Anyway, speaking of U-Hauls, you want the truth? I've had a crush on you since I ran into you in the goddamn corridor and you told me you looked me up in the system.”

“Yeah? Okay, I've had a thing for you since I saw your dumb sheep pajamas, how's that?”

“I love my sheep pajamas,” Natasha says. “I had to buy another pair, the first set wore out. I'll get you some, if you like.”

“Sure,” Maria agrees, “I'll wear them to the wedding.”

“Nah,” Natasha says, “wear a suit, it'll murder me the whole time with how hot you'll look and I'll try to have sex with you in the bathroom during the reception.”

“Who's talking try,” Maria says, and the heat in her voice makes Natasha think they should go another round right then, never mind Evgenia’s wedding or work the next morning.

 

She's fully prepared for the wedding to be crazy, and it is, it's crazy, but Yelena's planned the whole thing to the minute with an iPhone and a death glare, so it goes off without a single hiccup. The craziness all comes from the fact that Seb's family are about as wild as the Barnes-Rogers-Rusakovas, and that's before anyone's even factored in the bevy of intelligence agents, spies, genius tech engineers and a woman who can shoot fireballs from her fists. Bucky and Vasilia walk Evgenia down the aisle; Olivia reads a Maya Angelou poem. Yet if we are bold, she says, voice clear, expression serious and joyful all at once, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls… love costs all we are and will ever be. Yet it is only love which sets us free.

Steve cries through his whole pack of tissues and has to steal Nat's from her purse, then has to borrow her powder compact and go make himself less blotchy before the damn photos. Sam rolls his eyes, but Natasha catches him afterwards, kissing Steve up against the wall in the powder room, and she pauses long enough for them to notice her.

“There are condoms in the toiletries box,” she tells them, “along with the tampons and safety pins and Advil,” and watches Steve blush so red he might never recover.

“This is such delightful heterosexual nonsense,” Maria says, slouching in her seat and topping up her champagne. Looks around in approval at the fairy lights, the coral and pink glass color story with evergreen and blue fog accents. Natasha still doesn't know what that means, but the place is full of flowers, drifting garlands of them, and it looks like one of Evgenia's paintings, the softly moody impressionist atmosphere.

“Amen to that,” Monica says, clinks her glass against Maria's, and Natasha takes the opportunity to steal Maria's cake, since it looks like it's going; Maria reaches out, grabs Natasha's wrist.

“No you don't, baby, I want a bite of that.”

“Yelena planned it all, though,” Natasha says thickly through chocolate ganache. Loads up the cake fork, hands it to Maria.

“Yeah,” Monica says fondly, “she's great at faking het nonsense. I love her, but it's true. She's one Pinterest board away from a live, laugh, love poster.”

“Anyway,” Natasha says, wrestling Maria for the last bite of cake, “you haven't thought about it, the two of you?”

“Course I have,” Monica says. “Kind of had to wait for Carol to get back so she and Mom could do it first, though.”

“Well, she's definitely back now,” Natasha says, looking over at the bar; it looks like Sebastian’s cousins Jorge and Miguel are trying to convince Carol to shoot a fireball to ignite a row of shots lined up along the bar. “Do you think we should do something about that?”

“Nah,” Maria says, as Carol laughs and sets fire to the shots in one quick gesture, the scent of flaming aniseed wafting over to them. “I'm sure it'll be fine. Let's get more booze, this bottle is empty.”

 

“Let me smell your champagne,” Evgenia demands, and Natasha just hands her the flute, watches as Evgenia sticks her nose in the mouth of it and huffs deeply before taking the tiniest sip possible. “Christ, I wish I could drink, this is so unfair.”

“You're having the best time, don't lie,” Natasha says. Takes her champagne back, drains the rest of the glass in one swallow. “Come on, dance with me.”

“My feet hurt,” Evgenia complains, but she lets Natasha pull her into the dance floor anyway. She's radiant in palest-pink tulle, a crown of fire-burnished metal flowers in her hair—I don't care about anything else, she'd said, and we're not doing it Orthodox, but I want the damn crowns anyway—and every time she looks at Sebastian her eyes go soft and a little disbelieving.

Are you happy, Natasha doesn't need to say; can see it in every line of her face. How could anyone not be, on a day like this. All nine of her sisters are here, all of them filled with nothing but joy, and it's better than Natasha could ever have imagined when she'd watched the explosion of the Red Room reflect glowing in her little sister Zhenya’s hair.

“Dance with me,” Maria says, and Natasha lets herself be swept up in Maria's arms; she's tired, tipsy on champagne and love, and it's easy to sway together in the golden light. “You wanna know my favorite poem, baby?”

“Sure,” Natasha says, in love all over again with this loosely affectionate version of Maria, and Maria leans down, whispers it into Natasha's ear.

"I would like to watch you sleeping," she murmurs. "To walk with you towards the cave where you must descend, toward your worst fear… to give you the silver branch, the small white flower, the one word that will protect you from the grief at the center of your dream. To become the boat that would row you back carefully, a flame in two cupped hands."

“Oh,” Natasha says when Maria finishes. Can't say anything else, and she doesn't have to; just goes up on tiptoe, presses a long slow kiss to the corner of Maria's mouth.

 

Steve's over a couple months later: Saturday breakfast at her place, since Sam and Bucky are off doing who knows what, and he comes out of the bathroom wiping his hands and looking a little confused.

“Hey, Nat, not to pry,” he says, “but why is the fucking Tesseract in your bathroom cabinet?”

“Oh!” Natasha says, “shit, that's where I put it, I knew it was somewhere.”

“You knew it was somewhere,” Steve repeats. “Explain, please?”

“I'm keeping it safe,” she shrugs. “Fury was gonna experiment on it. Weapons, energy sources. That kind of thing leads nowhere good, so I sort of, uh. Acquired it.”

“Okay,” Steve agrees, “good job on that, nobody's arguing here, but do you think maybe keeping it safe means you should put it somewhere people won't find it if they're just looking for an aspirin?”

“Point. It hasn't been there this whole time, I was just getting annoyed with how it made my closet glow ominously.”

“Well, uh,” Steve says. “You think we could find a better spot for it? Like, perhaps, in a vault somewhere nobody will ever run across it?”

“Ugh, fine,” Natasha says. Uncurls herself from the couch, gets up and opens the back door to go out in her yard. Looks up at the sky.

“Hey, Heimdall!” she yells. “I've got something for you, it's important. I know you can see me, come on, don't leave me shouting at the sky like a crazy person.”

Nothing happens for a minute or two. Steve looks at Natasha like she's a crazy person, and she looks back at him, makes a little what? gesture.

“I heard the Bifrost is still a little glitchy,” Natasha mutters to him, “I might have to call Jane Foster, if this doesn’t work.” And then there's a huge flash of light, the sound and smell of grass burning, and when Natasha blinks away the after-image of rainbows and sparks Lady Sif is standing in her yard in the center of an Asgardian rune pattern scorched into the lawn.

“Sif,” Natasha says. “Hey, you made it. How was the trip? I heard the Bifrost is still a little unstable.”

“It’s recovering,” Sif tells her. “Lady Jane has been most helpful with assisting in the repair. What do you need, Natasha?”

“Oh, Steve’s just bugging me to get rid of an Infinity Stone I’ve been keeping in my guest bathroom. Figured you could probably help with that.”

“An Infinity Stone,” Sif repeats. “In your guest bathroom.” Blinks at her once or twice.

“It’s honestly easier if you just don’t ask,” Steve says. “Natasha’s an idiot who doesn’t respect cosmically powerful space weapons. You want a cup of coffee? I’ll put the pot on.”

“It’s not a weapon,” Sif says five minutes later, holding the Tesseract in one hand and tilting it to watch the light shift. Puts it down on the dining table, accepts the cup of coffee Steve offers her. “It’s a source of power, that’s all. You can use it as a weapon, of course, but that is not its true purpose. This coffee is very good, Steven America, thank you.”

“You know his last name isn’t actually America,” Natasha says, and Sif smirks at her just enough to make it clear that she definitely knows, but she’s also definitely going to call him Steven America fifteen more times. Natasha’s phone rings, and she puts her own coffee down, accepts the call. “Hey, Jane.”

“Everything okay? I just picked up a major energy spike over your place.”

“It’s fine. Just Sif on a social visit.”

“Quit lying to me, Ivanova. It’s never just a social visit.”

“It is!” Natasha insists. “We’re sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee.”

“Yeah, okay. Tell Sif she should come over and say hello before she goes home, it’s rude to come into my neighborhood and not drop by.”

“Will do. Hey, when was the last time you ate something that wasn’t pot noodles and three-day-old coffee? Come over this weekend and we can order takeout from that good deli, eat some real vegetables.”

“Jane misses me,” Sif says. “I should visit her before I return. Thank you for the Tesseract, Natasha, I will ensure it is stored deep in Odin’s Vault. A better place for it than your bathroom, I think. And thank you, Steven, for the coffee.”

“No problem,” Steve shrugs. “Bring back more of that mead the next time you come, would you? Bucky says he misses getting blind drunk.”

“Sif,” Natasha says, just as she’s about to stand. “Can I ask you a question? About the Infinity Stones.”

“I don’t know much,” Sif tells her, “but I will tell you what I can.”

“There are six of them,” Natasha says. “What do you know about the Soul Stone?”

“Nothing,” Sif says. “I know nothing about it. Even Heimdall is blind to it.”

“Oh,” Natasha says, and something about her expression must resonate with Sif, because she reaches across the table, lays her hand over Natasha’s.

“You could go and speak with the Oracle,” she says. “If it is a pressing matter.”

“The Oracle,” Natasha repeats, and Sif nods.

“If anyone has the answer to your questions, it is her. They say she is Heimdall’s mother. That she is the witch who taught Frigga her magic. I can take you to her, if you like.”

“What,” Natasha says, startled, “now?”

“Why not? We are neither of us occupied.”

“But,” Natasha says. Looks down at herself, laughs a little. “I’m in sweatpants.”

“Does that really matter to you, if this is a question you want an answer for so badly?”

“No,” Natasha agrees, “No, I suppose not.”

 

Sif takes her by the arm and Natasha only has to blink before they're somewhere else: a waterfall misting with rainbows where the sun's hitting it, a cliff vivid green with moss. A cave, half-visible behind the sheet of water, and Natasha can already feel the damp chill from the spray soaking her clothes.

“Where are we,” she asks, and, “how did we get here so fast? I thought you didn't have, you know, magic.”

“Seljalandsfoss,” Sif tells her. “A gateway to the Oracle, just one of many. It is not my magic but the Oracle’s. Visit her once and she may open paths for you to return, if she judges it right.”

“You've come to the Oracle before?”

“Yes,” Sif says. Doesn't elaborate; Natasha guesses maybe whatever she came for, it was something just as personal as what Natasha wants to ask. “Go on. Behind the waterfall. I'll be here when you return.” Natasha steps forward, follows the path that loops just behind the water. Feels the deeper chill of the cave, and then, suddenly, like descending a staircase all at once: she's somewhere else.

“Natasha Romanoff. Or is it Natalia Ivanova, now? You've had so many names. Lived more than a life.”

“I,” Natasha says. Looks up to see Madame B looking back at her, her face still dreadfully familiar after all this time, and she flinches, can't help it. Then the figure is shifting form: Carol, Valkyrie, Okoye. The Oracle settles, and Natasha blinks again, because it's herself looking back at her: her face the way she still remembers it. Blonde hair grown out back to red, a weariness in her that she no longer sees when she looks at herself in the mirror. Shadows under her eyes, lines of grief around her mouth.

“Hi,” she breathes. “God, I miss you.”

“The paradox of time,” the Oracle agrees. ”You've come with a question. Go ahead and ask it.”

“I died,” Natasha says. “I fell, I sacrificed myself, a soul for the Soul Stone, and I should have died. Why did I wake up? Why did I wake up here? Is it—will it disappear? Will I wake up dead one day?”

“So many questions, but they're all the same in the end. Knowledge for knowledge, little one. You want an answer, it requires something you'll lose in return.”

“The Soul Stone,” Natasha says. “Nobody knows where it is.”

“An answer worth an answer,” the Oracle agrees, and Natasha nods. Remembers Nebula telling her this—Gamora went to the Oracle for it. Gave up the memory of her own mother's face—and takes a breath.

“It's on Vormir,” she says, “guarded by Death,” and feels the memory slip away like smoke. The desert, the water; the mountain. Her desperate fight with Clint, tears cold on her face, the taste of copper in her mouth, falling—and then it's gone, and Natasha blinks, doesn't know what she was reaching for.

“And now an answer for you,” the Oracle tells her, “although perhaps an answer without a question. You asked what happened to you, if not death. The Soul Stone offers a single gift. Not something anyone can seek; it's all in the giving. A life offered willingly, a sacrifice only for the sake of others, and the Stone recognizes the love in that act. Sends the soul back to a single moment in time. The moment of your greatest regret.”

“My greatest regret,” Natasha says. “It…”

“A second chance. At choices, at life; something you can only reach through a selfless death.”

“But I don't remember,” Natasha says, “what I sacrificed. Who I died for. How I—”

“No,” the Oracle agrees. “Knowledge you gave up, I'm afraid. An answer without a question.”

“You knew,” Natasha says, brief frustration giving way to amusement, a wry kind of acceptance. “You knew this is where my question would lead.”

“I wouldn't be much of an oracle if I didn't,” the Oracle says. Shifts form again, a face Natasha doesn't recognize this time but will, someday far off in the future. “It might not seem like much, but it's better this way. No mortal should remember their own death.”

Natasha blinks; she's standing in the cave again, waterfall spray and rainwater and tears all wet on her face. Walks behind the waterfall to find Sif patiently waiting for her.

“Did you get the answer you sought?” Sif asks her, and Natasha nods and then shakes her head. Shrugs, wiping her face.

“No,” she says. “Yes. I—I don't know. I think so.”

“Such is the way of the Oracle,” Sif agrees. “Come, I will return you home,” and does so in another blink.

 

Steve is still in her house when they get back; he looks anxious in a way she doesn't know how to parse. He's met Sif before, knows Natasha would be safe, but—

“Your phone rang,” he says. “It was Vasya, I answered it, I hope you don't mind.”

“No,” Natasha says, “it's fine, what—”

“Evie,” he says, “she's having the kids,” and Natasha's stomach drops out from under her.

“Get the car,” she says, and then, “no, the Avengers Quinjet.”

“On it,” Steve agrees, “Bucky's got wheels up, we're just waiting on you,” and they're in the air ten minutes later, barely time to say a goodbye to Sif.

“I wish a safe and easy labor to your sister,” she says, serious as ever. “Farewell, Natasha. Until next time.”

On the jet, Natasha can't stop fidgeting, biting her nails until Bucky reaches over, takes her hand. “It's fine,” he tells her, “you know nobody dies in labor nowadays, it ain't the 1930s,” and Natasha laughs out loud. Squeezes his hand tight.

“This is the first,” she says. Swallows hard. “The first babies of all of us that aren't Red Room,” and he nods, serious.

“Vasilia's with her, right?”

“And Svetlana,” Natasha says, “she asked the two of them to come to the prenatal birthing classes with her and Seb.”

“There you go,” he says, “they'll be great,” and Natasha knows that, knows they'll be great, they'll be better than fine, but it's not until she gets into the hospital room and sees Evgenia’s face still sweaty and a little flushed, sees the tiny bundles cradled in Vasilia and Sebastian’s arms, that she really believes it.

“Natasha!” Evgenia says, sounding exhausted and euphoric all at once. “Sestra, come look at what we made. Come meet your nieces.”

Natasha sits down next to her. Touches her cheek, and then Seb is leaning down, handing her a baby still red and scrunched in the face.

“Hey, Nat,” he says. “Meet Nadia.”

“Oh,” Natasha says, “oh, oh,” and she's so small, the tiniest thing she's ever seen, a sleepy face and sweet mouth.

“She's the big sister,” Evgenia says, “a whole ten minutes older,” and then Vasilia is bending down too, putting another baby in the crook of her other arm. “This is Natalia,” Evgenia says, and that's when Natasha starts crying for real, big embarrassing tears that spill over until she's laughing. Natalia flails a hand out of her blanket, waves it around, and Evgenia reaches over, lets her grab her finger. “She's the fighter,” Evgenia says, “you can tell already, huh?” and Natasha can't even speak but she just nods, beams at Evgenia through her tears.

“She's beautiful,” she manages eventually, “they're beautiful, god, you made such good babies.”

“Enh,” Evgenia says, “they're red little monkeys right now. I hear they start getting cute about two months in,” but she's smiling as she says it.

Natalia, Natasha thinks softly. Nadia. Looks down at the two sleeping babies, thinks of the Oracle. A second chance at life.

 

She knows now, at least. A second chance, and perhaps it sets her at ease; she's been fearful of something until now. Losing it, maybe, this fragile and wonderful life, and she doesn't remember why it seemed so tenuous but now she's determined to take it with both hands. 2012 is coming up hard and fast, and she’s pretty sure that this time around there’ll be no invasion; Coulson won’t die stabbed through the heart in the bowels of a helicarrier, can move to Portland the way he’s been thinking about. The future is opening up wide and unknown ahead of her, and it makes her brave.

“You want to know a secret?” she says to Maria that night, lying in bed and gazing at her thoughtfully, hand pillowed on one cheek. They're in Carroll St; Maria had driven up as soon as Natasha had texted her with the photos Bucky had taken with her sister and her brand-new nieces. She looks like you, she'd told Natasha, joking, when she met Natalia, and Natasha had made a face, punched her lightly in the shoulder. She's perfect.

“Always,” Maria says. Twists one of Natasha's curls around her finger. “Wait, is it about how you can see the future? Because that's what everyone says about you.”

“I can't see the future,” Natasha says, laughing. “Is that really what people say?”

“Yeah, among other things. What else, god. Oh, there's a rumor that you're almost as old as Barnes and Rogers. That you got your own version of the serum. That you're secretly Barnes’s kid, that's a good one.”

“God,” Natasha sighs. “SHIELD needs to up its game on dumb rumors. I'm tempted just to make something up myself, you think anyone would believe I'm a life model decoy?”

“Worth a try,” Maria shrugs. “What were you gonna tell me, baby?”

“Way back when,” Natasha says, “did you ever hear about something called the Black Widow program?”

“Russian, right? Assassins trained as children, used to infiltrate and destabilize? It's a ghost story. Spycraft urban legend.”

“No,” Natasha murmurs, “it's not,” and watches as Maria's eyes go wide.

“You,” she says, “you and your sisters—”

“I'm the last Black Widow,” Natasha says, thoughtful. “Or I would have been, if I'd passed my graduation. They'd already sent me into the field, testing my training, but I was still in the academy.”

“And you escaped,” Maria guesses. “Fury won't ever tell me how all of you wound up here. Jokes about your parents being Quiverfulls.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, “I escaped. Took all my sisters and burnt it to the ground, and now I've been with SHIELD more than ten years.”

“That's a long time,” Maria says. “Why SHIELD? You could have gone anywhere.”

“It was all I knew,” Natasha tells her. “Those skills, what I do—I joined because it was all I had. Red in my ledger, enough that it sat on me. I thought, maybe, coming over to SHIELD, I could wipe it all out. And you know, I think I have. I think it's clear.”

“You’re in the black,” Maria says. Kisses Natasha's shoulder. “You ever think about getting out?”

“No,” Natasha says. Shrugs a little, trails her fingertips up Maria's ribcage. “No, I'm good here. It's family, you know?”

“Weird kind of a family.”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. “But it's mine.”

There's another secret she'd have told once: can feel it just out of reach. But she doesn't have it anymore. Doesn't even know the big stuff; it's a new future, and she can't see what's to come. Has to trust it'll be a good one, and right now, right here, she can close her eyes and not fear the fall.