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“Clint.”

Her voice is broken, cracked like the bones that are painfully splintered against her clammy skin, bruised and ruptured from where Clint’s smacked her to the ground in retaliation for her attempting to make the choice to die.

“Let me go.”

Natasha is a spy, she’s an assassin, she’s someone who has always been aware of the body she’s been given and the limits she could push it to. But here, dangling from her best friend’s hand off the side of a cliff in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of feet above a ground that promises nothing but an everlasting death, she’s more intricately aware of her limbs and skin than she’s ever been. Her bones are stretched like a rag doll, her elbow threatening to pop from its socket, and every bruise and sprain from years past screams out as her body smacks mercilessly against the hard rock. Ice rushes into her ears, an acute awareness of the coldness that awaits her down below, her heart pounding against sore ribs as blood rushes to her legs.

“It’s okay.”

She pushes away from the cliff. She lets go of his hand. Her braid smacks her hard in the cheek as gravity pulls her down and she falls, and --

Rain in Tokyo, her body a cold corpse like the ones she’s left behind, a hand and a warm voice saying come with me, and --

Children’s laughter, warm brown eyes peeking over a wooden fence as little Lila Barton valiantly attempts to see if Auntie Nat has come home yet, a gentle hug as Laura welcomes her inside, and --

Bright lights at SHIELD headquarters, laughter and carols and a stupid Christmas party that Fury has corralled her into attending while she stands in a corner trying not to gag over spiked eggnog as Clint laughs at her, and --

A fiery room in Budapest, copper in her mouth and in her heart as she throws herself into a burning building without thinking, and --

Like the old man said -- together as she punches aliens and Wanda’s bursts of magic protect her from flying spears, Clint’s arrows a comforting sound in the chaotic space, and --

A shield propped up against a couch and something flickering on the television set while Sam shoves another handful of popcorn in his mouth and Steve mutters something about family, and --

 

***

 

Natasha opens her eyes, sitting up slowly in a pool of shallow water. Warmth prickles at her cold skin as if she’s in a sauna or underneath some sort of heat lamp and everything around her is bathed in gentle orange, from the sky to the round-edged cliffs in the distance. One hand moves to the back of her head and where she expects to find wetness and possibly a cracked skull, she’s surprised to find instead that her scalp is smooth, untouched and covered by the greasy tangles of her long hair, wind-whipped from falling hundreds of feet to the ground.

She stands, cracked ribs swaying brokenly inside her skin, and looks down at her hands. Bruises darken against her pale skin, her wrist discolored from Clint’s strong grip, and she finds herself thinking that even in death she can’t escape her own pain. Natasha looks around, attempting to find her bearings, noticing for the first time a small glowing obelisk reflecting into the sky from the pool below. Ignoring the pain radiating throughout her body, she drops to her knees, fingers scrabbling in the warm water as she attempts to grasp the stone. Blistered fingers close over its pulsating light and she withdraws her hand in triumph, only to find emptiness in the middle of her palm.

Fuck,” Natasha mutters, spitting out blood. Red swirls in the water, mingling with the orange tinge, a hollow and sorrowful blend.

“Hello.”

She turns at the voice, a high-pitched sensible tenor cradled in a Russian lilt, and stares at the figure standing a few yards away.

“Hello.”

The greeting is more Natasha trying out her voice than it is her actually being cordial, because she’s not sure if this weird afterlife thing means she can talk or not. But her voice sounds like hers, the only noticeable difference being a slight echo that rings in her ears long after she’s stopped speaking.

“Are you Natasha?”

Natasha startles. “I am.” She focuses on the girl in front of her as she walks closer, noticing the birthmark on her right cheek and the short red hair. “Are you Natasha?”

“I am Natalia,” the girl replies, holding out her hand. “You can come with me, if you want.”

Five, even ten years ago, Natasha would’ve thought that following her seven-year-old self around what had to be the inside of an Infinity Stone was the most insane thing in the world. Now, she doesn’t blink as she takes the small hand, allowing herself to be led through the water and towards what looks like a large ornate door.

“Where are we going?”

Natalia turns around and smiles.

“You’ll see.”

 

***

 

She steps through a doorway and into the light. It takes her a moment to realize she knows this room, she knows this space with its high windows that should show the outside world but only show the illusion of freedom, she knows this floor with its hard wood and scratched surface, she knows this voice --

“Again.”

Girls faltering, struggling to remain upright as the intensity of their exercise increase. Limber girls, toned girls, blonde girls, dark-haired girls, some on pointe and some simply stretching high, their faces a neutral mask despite the pain Natasha knows they’re feeling. Her bruises throb, an old wound in her ankle tingles, and she focuses on a corner of the room where she’d been forced to dance until she bled so badly she couldn’t walk.

“Again.”

“You’ll break them,” Natasha blurts out before she can stop herself, unsure if she’s even supposed to talk or draw attention to herself. The girls, trained and practical, don’t stop dancing, but the commandeering figure at the front of the room walks through a row of ballerinas, moving to stand next to Natasha.

“Only the breakable ones. You are made of marble.” Madame turns her head, smiling with a sigh. “It is a sight, isn’t it? So many girls, so much promise. But only a few will know what it means to truly become worthy.”

Anya. Helene. Yulia. The names and faces cycle through Natasha’s mind, girls whose lives she’d ended at the expense of her own.

“This isn’t being worthy. Killing people won’t make us better. Hating who we are won’t make us better. This isn’t what we wanted -- we didn't want to be robots. We wanted to be human. You forced us to be this way.”

“And what other way is there to be, Natalia?”

(A bed in a friend’s apartment, heart and lungs still hurting from a betrayal and a lie, looking at Steve and asking if it was the other way around, if it was down to her to save his life, would he trust her to do it? I would now. And I’m always honest.

A late night phone call, fighting back tears in the dark bowels of a helicarrier that carries her to Calcutta, telling Laura he’s been compromised and I’m sorry, but you need to know, I need to warn you just in case.)

The flashes of light sear her vision, and the only reason she doesn’t collapse is because of a tug on her hand.

“Come,” Natalia says in a no-nonsense voice and the room vanishes as if it never existed at all.

 

***

 

“Why are you here?”

“Why are you here?”

Natasha blinks, the orange glow still smearing her vision like a hazy fog. “Because I died.”

Did you die? Or did you just give up? There’s a difference, you know.”

Natasha’s brows crease in puzzlement. “I fell. I died. I -- why are you asking me this? You know I don’t just give up.”

You know, because you’re me.

“You fell because he didn’t want to let you go.”

“But he did.”

“Because you forced him to. Would you have let him, if he didn’t?”

Natasha thinks of the soul stone and of what she knows of its rules - in order to take the stone, you must love that which you love. She pushes back tears as Clint’s face materializes in her mind.

“What difference does it make?”

Seven year old Natalia smiles, her lips curling up slowly.

“Everything.”

 

***

 

Natasha doesn’t have to recalibrate herself when the orange tint disappears. She knows exactly where she is, down to the grimy floor of the small room and the wet clothes that hug her body, hair pulled tight against her scalp in a hard dutch braid. Outside, the heavy stench of fried noodles wafts through the air, mingling with the suffocating denseness of the pouring rain. She can perform this script as if she memorized all the words yesterday.

He’s followed her back, though she knows he thinks she has no idea. At first, she’d thought he was smarter than that, that he was just playing dumb, because she’d seen him fight and he seemed more competent than he let on. But the fact that he’s sitting in the shadows just behind the door, not making a move and allowing her to feel a sense of calmness, of safety, proves to her that he really thinks he has the upper hand.

She turns the dial up on the small stove, relaxing her movements to show that she’s letting down her guard, and hunches over the metal teapot while keeping her eye on the distorted figure she can see in its reflection -- one that’s getting closer with each blink even though she can’t hear his footsteps against the creaky floor.

“What do you want?” Natasha asks without turning around as the water starts to boil, emitting a high-pitched whistle.

“I think you know.”

Natasha turns around, meeting his eyes. It’s the first time she’s seen him up close, and it surprises her that he’s younger than she expected. His eyes are hard but there’s still a flash of life in them, not an emptiness that she knows so many other assassins carry. His face and arms are riddled with scars but they’re all neatly placed, not marks of close calls or jagged brushes with danger.

You have not seen death, Natasha thinks. Not yet. Am I really going to be your first?

She moves away from the teapot, glancing at the open window where the rain is still coming down. “Do they say things about me?” she asks, not breaking eye contact. “Where you’re from?”

“Some do,” he replies, lifting his large bow and angling it in her direction. “They say you’re a murderer. They say you’re an assassin and that you’d be better off dead. They also say you’re the last, and the best. Is that true?”

Natasha shrugs. “You tell me.”

In response, he drops his bow to the floor. She lets her gaze drop, and then narrows her eyes against his.

“Do you want to kill me?”

“Yes.”

She doesn’t, though. She doesn’t because he’s given her no reason to dislike him other than annoyingly stalking her across the city and while it’s a tiring game, she doesn’t think she cares enough to kill him. Besides, if she kills him, they’ll just send someone else, another dumb American who might actually be stupid, and if she’s going to keep playing this game she’d rather play with someone who is on her level.

“Do you want to kill me?”

He shrugs. “I’m supposed to, but I don’t think I want to. I think you’re a lot like me.”

Natasha snarls, baring her teeth.

“We are nothing alike.”

She turns to jump. He grabs her hand and suddenly, instead of careening downward, she’s caught in vertical limbo, dangling out the window of the apartment building seven stories up, her feet smacking against the hard walls. She feels the bones in one ankle shatter and she bites down on a scream, and --

 

Holding each other at gunpoint during their first real mission, staring down the barrel of each other’s weapon, threatening each other with how far they’ll go to earn each other’s trust.

Sitting in a locked room where no one can see her cry, one hand wrapped around her shoulder and his chin resting on her head, because sometimes memories get to be too much.

Opening the cuffs of a wronged assault victim while he stands guard at the other end of the building and doesn’t ask her why she’s helping someone, jeopardizing their safety at the expense of a stranger.

Standing in front of a farmhouse watching a bulldozer run through it, hands clasped together in silence because sometimes keeping secrets safe includes taking drastic measures, even if those measures hurt.

 

I think you’re a lot like me.

 

***

 

“The soul stone requires a sacrifice,” Natalia explains, sitting cross legged in the shallow pool and letting herself become submerged to her middle. “In order for someone to obtain it properly, you are supposed to lose that which you love. Did you love him?”

“Of course I did,” Natasha replies sharply. “How is that even a question?”

Natalia ignores her outburst. “Did he love you back?”

"Yes.” She looks down at her hands, her eyes landing on her still-bruised wrist. “I know he did.”

Natalia sighs. “It is a tricky thing, to love,” and Natasha thinks of Clint, of nights sitting next to a hospital bed and bullets she didn’t have to take. She thinks of Laura and Cooper and Lila and Nathaniel, of late night snacks and chilly winter nights where small limbs wrapped around her own body in a too big bed. She thinks of Steve and Thor and Bruce and Tony, of secrets kept and trusts forged in the darkest and most serious of moments. She thinks of Wanda, of lying together under the stars in a broken wheelbarrow, trading stories about what it means to be made and unmade and then made again.

She snorts so hard she hurts her throat.

“The things I could tell you about love.”

“Love is for children, is it not?”

“Yeah. I used to think that. Then I learned that I was closing off a part of myself that I thought I could never access. Turns out I just never had anyone who cared enough to help me break down the walls.” She pulls up her knees in the water, hugging them to her chest, trying to stave off the cold. “I guess it could’ve been someone else.”

“No,” Natalia replies sensibly. “It couldn’t have been.”

As much as Natasha doesn’t want to admit it, she realizes she’s telling herself the truth. Tony and Pepper loved each other, Steve and Bucky loved each other, but what her and Clint had was different. It was a love that had always been rooted in caring so much that they would throw away their lives at the expense of letting the other live, no matter the cost.

“So what does that mean? That I was always destined to die?”

Natalia puts her hands in the water, swirling orange-tinted liquid through her fingers. “That,” she demurs, “is for you to decide. You said that you jumped off that cliff intending to die. You are the Black Widow, after all. And you know Black Widows never fail.”

 

***

 

The moment Natasha steps through the new door, she hates it. She wants to turn around and throw herself back into the comfort of the soul stone, because if there’s anywhere she never wants to be again, it’s back on the top of that godforsaken cliff, staring over the abyss that she knows will eventually be her untold legacy.

“Natasha.”

His voice is strained against the wind, his gloved hand sweaty and slipping, and his eyes are bright with the kind of pain she knows all too well, because she’s lived these moments -- this moment.

“Natasha, let me go.”

She had a choice once. She had a choice to kill him and she hadn’t, because she didn’t want to, and she doesn’t want to kill him now either. His fingers move slowly down the skin of her palms and she struggles desperately to hold on; she’s always been limber and he’s always been bulky but his body, with the added weight of his suit, is heavier than she’s used to.

She screams as he falls, slamming her already broken body into the rock over and over again trying to force herself to fall with him, and then --

Bright lights. Gentle wind. Soft knocks. Laura opening the door at the house they’d recently bought, teenage Lila peeking out from behind the stairs and then flinging herself at Natasha’s body.

“Auntie Nat!”

She closes her eyes and it’s Christmastime, little Lila opening her presents in Natasha’s lap and spilling hot cocoa on her pajamas as she struggles to tear off the wrapping that hides her new dollhouse. It’s summer, hot and muggy and humid, and she’s jumping into the lake with Cooper at her heels, splashing him in the water while Clint calls out that she needs to play fair with his kids. It's fall, and she’s sitting with Laura on the porch swing, glasses of chilled whiskey in hand, blinking back tears.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “I tired -- I couldn’t save him.”

Laura turns to her with a sad smile, placing a free hand on her knee. “Oh, Natasha. I know. I understand.”

It's cold, and she’s standing with Clint in a pool of shallow water; he’s shaking his head as he looks back up at the cliff and then down at her again.

“You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?”

Natasha nods, putting the soul stone in his hand and leaning over to kiss him on the forehead. “I know.”

 

***

 

“So how long am I here?” Natasha asks as they walk, leaving the rolling hills and cliffs behind.

“As long as you need to be,” Natalia answers. Natasha frowns at the unanswered question, sloshing through the water as they come to another door.

“I didn’t ask for riddles, you know.”

“You didn’t ask for me either, but I’m here, because I have to be. If you want, you can send me away." 

Natasha stares at her younger self, trying not to laugh at the self-deprecation hidden behind the tough front, an emotional response she’s perfected over the years.

"That wouldn't accomplish anything. I still don't know where I am or what I'm supposed to do here."

"You know exactly where you are," Natalia points out with a small smile. "And you're learning the rest of it."

“So you’re, what exactly?" Natasha raises an eyebrow. "My younger conscience sent to remind me of what my life was like so that I can reflect on it in my moment of death?”

“Something like that,” Natalia says ominously, opening the door and allowing Natasha to walk through.

 

***

 

The first blow comes out of nowhere, before she has a chance to think.

Thankfully, by the time she comes out of her stupor, cheek and jaw throbbing from the hard punch, she has more than enough awareness of what she’s walked into. She ducks the next punch that’s coming at her face, rolling out of the way and kicking a chair in Yelena’s direction. Yelena jumps out of the way nimbly, as if the chair was nothing more than a dust bunny.

She rolls again before Yelena can jump on top of her, coming to a stop under a table and popping up on the other side, throwing a porcelain plate in her direction. It shatters against Yelena’s skin and she yells, blood bursting from a jagged cut in her arm, but she lunges forward anyway, hands reaching for Natasha’s throat. She barely gets out of the way in time, grabbing a frying pan from where it’s hanging on the wall and swinging it in her direction.

Her hit misses by a fraction of an inch and in another second, Yelena’s on top of her, pressing Natasha’s body against the floor with so much strength she thinks she might suffocate. She manages to scream before two hands finally claim their hold around her windpipe, and --

Silence and quiet, a quick blink that finds Natasha finds sitting upright at the table of the destroyed kitchen while Yelena calmly pours vodka into two tea cups.

We didn’t have to fight, you know.”

“Of course we did.” Yelena swirls her drink languidly before taking a sip. “We are sisters, after all.”

“I never wanted this part of being your sister,” Natasha says, because it’s true. “I wanted us to grow together and learn together and work together. I wanted to be your partner, not your enemy.”

“We did learn together,” Yelena answers. “You proved that just now. We are born from the same cloth, Natasha. We were made for each other.”

“Not the way I wanted to be made,” Natasha says, staring down at her cup. “Don’t you regret it? Any of it?”

“I could never regret what has made me stronger,” Yelena says, sounding shocked that Natasha would even ask such a thing. “Even if it has cost me.”

“Everything costs something,” Natasha argues. “There’s a price for everything in this world.”

“So it seems,” Yelena says, inclining her head towards the wall. “The question is, what will you end up paying for what you want?”

(New York. Sokovia. Berlin. A gun in her face and her best friend on his knees, a quinjet disappearing into the sky because she trusted her own gut in that moment and no one else’s. A phone call that she shouldn’t make, hands clasped around the burner after breaking into the Raft, telling Laura that they needed a plan, that they needed protection, that they needed to be warned.

“And when will you come home?” Laura asks. Natasha closes her eyes, her throat constricting as she tries to force the words out.

“I’m not coming home.”

A cliff in the farthest reaches of space, the cold embrace of bones and flesh melding together as her body hits the ground in finality.)

What will you end up paying for what you want?

 

***

 

“Everything costs something.”

“Of course it does,” Natalia says brashly, not turning around. “Even I know that.”

“But is the cost necessarily worth it?” Natasha wonders, playing with the end of her braid. Her body still hurts, a gentle reminder from whoever is holding her here that even though she may not look or feel physically dead, she has the scars to prove it. She looks up at the barren sky, considering her own thoughts.

“What if I want to go back?”

Natalia shakes her head, finally stopping to face her. “You can’t,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry. The rules say it is an everlasting exchange, and I don’t make the rules.”

“Okay. So if it’s an everlasting exchange, why am I here with you?” Natasha feels suddenly frustrated. “I don’t understand. I made the sacrifice, I jumped off that cliff. Why haven't they sent me on somewhere? Why am I not just dead?”

“Well, it’s not like you’re alive,” her seven year old self intones sarcastically as she leads her through another door.

 

***

 

The farmhouse is tranquil, quiet, and Natasha could remember this day forever -- baby Nate, barely two months old, dozing on his mother’s shoulder and Lila, still little but growing too fast because her legs don’t fit on the couch anymore, asleep on Natasha’s right arm.

“Do you ever talk to them about us? About what we do?”

“Not really.” Laura glances at a sleeping Lila, who is snoring lightly. “They know about the dangers of your job, because Clint’s never been able to hide that.”

“So they…” Natasha trails off. “They know that we could die out there?”

“We all die someday,” Laura says, looking down at Nate and kissing the top of his head. “I just know you’re both out there doing your best not to.”

“But what --”

Laura places a hand on her shoulder and Natasha’s life is moving again, each blink a memory filed away for a later time: Cooper laughing as Clint tickles him on the grass while Natasha reads to Lila; long nights in Frankfurt, wounded and exhausted but staying up with Clint while he hunches over his phone because Lila has a fever and wants her dad to tell her a story.

“It suits you,” Natasha tells Tony in a private moment while Steve and Scott walk back to the car. She nods towards the lakehouse, where Morgan has run back inside, leaving her dad alone. “Fatherhood.”

“Coming from the Barton’s adopted parent, that’s a pretty high compliment,” Tony answers sarcastically. Natasha smiles at the ground.

“I never thought of myself as parent material. But I guess I never had the right idea what a parent was.”

“Yeah, well.” Tony shrugs. “I wasn’t exactly sold on being parent material either, if you know what I mean.”

“I do know,” she says, thinking of Howard. “But you seem to be doing something right.”

Tony eyes her up and down, crossing his arms. “Thinking of settling down after five years? Throwing in the towel and starting a new life? I heard Barton’s out there somewhere.”

Natasha swallows, shoving her emotions away. “I don’t think the quiet life suits me much anymore.”

“Yeah, well.” Tony sighs. “Maybe it’s for the best. Look, kids are great and all, but that spy life of yours? It would go to hell in a handbasket if you had kids of your own.”

“Priorities change,” Natasha agrees, tucking hair behind her ear. “I know they do. But I think your values stay the same. I love Clint’s children, but I’m still the same person who would reverse time in a second to get their father back -- to get the world back.”

Tony smiles wryly, huffing out a small laugh. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s not exactly a revelation. I’ve always pegged you for the sacrifice play, Romanoff.”

“Funny,” Natasha responds with a wink. “I’d say the same thing about you.”

 

***

 

“It wasn’t him.”

Natalia looks at Natasha, the space between her eyes folding together. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I would have still done it,” Natasha clarifies. “If he hadn’t let me go, I still would’ve made the choice to die.”

“Of course you would have,” Natalia answers. “You always knew what your choice was, and you always knew what you were going to do. You were never going to make a different decision, even if it was hard to accept.”

Natasha stops walking, putting her hands on her hips. The bruise on her wrist still hurts, a reminder of what she’s lost and what she doesn’t want to leave behind.

“So what was all of this, then? A test?”

“No,” Natalia answers. “Tests are things you either pass or fail. But you can’t pass or fail at being a person or a sacrifice. You can only understand it.”

Natasha nods, biting down on her lip, staring at the open door in front of her. This one, she knows, is different than the others. This one doesn’t hold memories or revelations or lessons -- this one is the one she’s been avoiding. Her breath hitches in her throat, the thin orange glow she’s now gotten used to threatening to sear her skin.

“If I don’t go through that door, Clint doesn’t get the stone,” Natasha says, saying the words she’s been thinking out loud for the first time.

Natalia nods. “That is correct.”

She closes her eyes, trying not to let her fear overwhelm her. After all, she’d technically done the hard part. She’d already died. This was just another part of her death, the part that was supposed to be easy -- the part that was supposed to be the end.

“Does it hurt?”

Natalia smiles. “No more than life hurts.”

Natasha swallows hard, looking at the door, trying to see if she can discern what’s inside. (After Nate was born, he’d done nothing but attempt to look out from his crib, desperate to latch onto any fresh experience of his new world.)

“Will I forget it? All of it?”

“You may forget some of it,” Natalia admits. “But you can never forget the pieces that make up a sacrifice. That is, whether you like it or not, the burden of the soul stone’s payer to bear.” She pauses, holding out her hand. “Are you ready?”

 

A computer in a high-rise building, fingers working fast to decrypt codes and secrets as Alexander Pierce sneers in her direction.

Are you ready for the world to see you as you really are?

An office on the highest floor of SHIELD headquarters, shaking fingers holding a pen that’s hovering above a dotted line as Nick Fury sits in front of her, hands clasped in front of his chest.

Are you ready to be more than what they made you?

A farmhouse in the middle of Iowa, children’s laughter swallowed up by the sound of owls and smells of fresh apple pie as Clint takes her hand, looping their fingers together.

Are you ready for everyone to meet my new partner?

A hospital room that smells of antiseptic and disinfectant, Laura looking exhausted in the uncomfortable bed but smiling brightly as she holds out a small bundle wrapped in a blue blanket.

Are you ready to meet your Auntie Nat?

 

“Yes,” Natasha decides, making sure to catalog each memory so that it has a specific place in her brain, just in case. “I’m ready.”

She takes the hand of her past and steps through the doorway, following herself out of the orange light and into brightness, letting something new envelop her in its strong, blinding grip.