Natasha is sent to Kachanovo and she's furious about it. It's the ass end of nowhere and she's a decidedly urban spider; her first missions as a Black Widow have been to Prague and Rome and Oslo and here she is in a forest in an oblast near Latvia because the Red Army conscripts are scared of Baba Yaga.
"This is ridiculous," she tells the GRU agent chauffeuring her to the compound. "This is beneath me. This is beneath all of us."
The GRU agent is a veteran of the war and she's sure he has no time for little girls having tantrums instead of serving the Rodina with dignity and pride, but he didn't survive all of the purges so far by crossing Department X and so he says nothing. And so Natasha seethes out loud because she can. Her life has had little in her control and she will enjoy her power while she has it.
The first reports were of smugglers and that's what Natasha thinks they likely are, but the stories have gotten more fantastical since then and now it's an army of the undead, or maybe HYDRA, or maybe the Latvians have grown balls and are fighting back, or maybe it's Americans looking to do whatever it is Americans might do in a forest in an oblast thousands of kilometers from Moscow. The soldiers have found them, the soldiers have shot them with rifles, the soldiers have shot them with heavy machines guns, the soldiers have blown them up with grenades, but still they return and Natasha is not the only one to think it's more likely that the conscripted soldiers just can't hit what they're firing at. The Red Army is still in tatters from the war and from the purges, the conscripts were starving boys too young or too weak or sick to be drafted into the fight against the Germans, and the soldiers with even a little promise of bringing honor to the Soviet Union are stationed somewhere more important. The soldiers here are not up to the task and someone sent a cable to Moscow and someone else was so afraid Stalin would hear of the problem that they overcompensated and it snowballed until Natasha was on a train northwest.
The morning after her arrival, they feed her tea and chocolate and boiled groats and then drive her out as far as the truck will take them on the uneven ground. She has brought her own weapons and her own clothes and her own rations, but she accepts their as well because only a fool turns down food in a Russian winter.
And then she goes hunting.
She's alert but bored and she finds the cabin before nightfall. It's a security risk, but it's also a shelter in the middle of nowhere and the soldiers use it, too, and so it stands. It takes a few hours to determine that it's empty and so Natasha takes up residence, making tea and nibbling on the smoked fish and black bread from the canteen. She hunts by day and returns to the cabin by night, every time surveilling it before she approaches. On the third day, she sees footsteps in the snow that aren't the ones she's carefully retraced every time to hide their freshness.
The smugglers aren't idiots; there is no smoke in the chimney before full dark and she can only see it because of the angle of the moon at this time of year. She waits until a few hours before dawn and then strikes, attacking the man out to pee while he's mid-stream, slitting his throat while he's got his hands on his dick. She hurries back to the cabin, going the long way around because the smugglers are smart enough to go in pairs and she needs to catch the watchman from behind. His flask hits the snow silently but he does not, gargling a warning while his mouth fills with blood. It's not a shout, but it doesn't have to be in this silent place and Natasha barely has time to spin to face the door before another comes through with a curved sword and she wonders why there are Caucasians out here as she falls back into a flip to avoid being sliced in two. It only gets more bizarre when the next person through the door is carrying a double-bladed battle ax.
Two against one isn't fair, but she's a Black Widow and has fought far worse odds even if with far less strange weapons. Which is good because two become four and she doesn't understand how she could have missed two in the woods for as long as she watched. She fights for her life, but the others fight for theirs as well and they shake off kicks to the knees that she can hear breaking bone and her knives rend enough flesh to incapacitate but don't.
"Stop," she hears a woman say and they do but she doesn't until she's pinned down by two of them while the third knocks her out.
When she wakes up, she's inside the cabin, wrapped up in a blanket. A woman - the woman - is sitting against the other wall with her ax in one hand and a flask in the other.
"I've been convinced to gift you with your life," she says in a Russian that's not native but without an accent that Natasha can place and she's been trained to recognize them. "I think it's a mistake and you are going to be more trouble than this little bit of mercy is worth. The Red Room doesn't produce miracles; it produces monsters."
"Then why?" Natasha asks in a raspy whisper. She was choked and it hurts to swallow. Everything hurts, but she can look down and see that her wounds have been dressed with care.
"Because you living to tell the idiots at the barracks that the threat is gone will keep them from sending someone else after you return to Moscow a failure."
"I am a failure," Natasha responds because it is true. The words hurt more than her wounds.
"You didn't fail," the woman tells her with a wry smile, taking a deep drink from the flask. "You never had a chance to win. There's a difference. We'll change our route; getting blown up is tiresome and those idiots are going to burn down the forest trying."
Natasha is left with tea spiked with American bourbon (her first taste), reindeer jerky, and her ego in tatters. She spends a couple of days in the cabin before returning to the garrison, regaining her composure and waiting for some of her wounds to heal enough that she can rewrap them less elegantly so that it looks like she did it herself. She doesn't quite meet the eyes of the GRU agent who comes to collect her for the ride back to the train station.
Havana is paradise. Kennedy and Khrushchev are waving nuclear weapons at each other and she knows she should be taking it all very seriously, but she's on a tropical island with her lover and it's very hard to care about Castro and his four-hour speeches.
The Americans are sending spies and dissidents and any fool willing to make the trip to Cuba and she and James have been busy, but hardly busy enough to put a dent in her time sunbathing and drinking rum and making love. It's not supposed to be a reward, but after the last few years it feels like a vacation.
The latest warning of an assassination attempt comes with some urgency, however, and not the usual tired warning because the list of people who want to kill Castro is very long and most of them are not professionals. These are supposed to be professionals, however, and she and James keep their hands off each other long enough to do the preparation work properly.
On the day of the attempt, James is in his sniper's position and she is on the ground as Castro and Guevara do their song and dance for the people. She still believes in the worker's paradise, in the triumph of the proletariat over their enemies, but she's also a political realist who lived under Stalin and she knows that Guevara's and Castro's rivers of blood are not just from the bourgeoisie. She'll stop their murders because it is what her bosses want, what her country needs, but she wouldn't mind if someone else succeeded not on her watch.
It's loud and boisterous and she can only tell there's a shot because she's already watching and she knows where James is positioned. The assassin goes down and Natasha pushes through the crowd toward him because he's likely not alone. There's a small commotion because getting shot makes a mess, but this is hardly the first time someone's taken a bullet at a rally and it's closer to mundane than a panic… right until the man gets up, blood still spreading across his back, and starts cursing in Arabic while he's spitting up blood from what should be tattered lungs. Natasha sees that what she'd thought was a machete is in fact a scimitar and her first reaction is just annoyance because if the Americans are sending Arabs there is going to be so much more paperwork and so many more questions, then her brain catches up and why is the man getting up after being shot between the shoulder blades??
He is suddenly jerked forward, pulled by an unknown hand and Natasha follows, ruthlessly shoving aside anyone who gets in her way. James must be able to see what is going on and she wills him to take another shot, even if it's at another dark haired head in a sea of dark haired heads moving too quickly to aim well. There is another shot, but it comes from another direction and Natasha loses her balance because she's been shot in the arm. It's a momentary thing and she recovers, ignoring the pain as she follows her quarry through the crowd that is now reacting to the danger with predictable chaos. She is small and slender and an acrobat and she can dance through the stampede like a ballerina, never drawing close enough to catch the man but never losing sight of the bloody shirt either. They cross the venue and scale a fence and she can see a car waiting for them and she pulls out the stupid little .22 she's got with her and shoots two of the tires because she's not getting to the men before they get to the car. She gets close enough to see the driver and it shocks her enough that she stumbles.
It's the woman from Kachanovo.
They get away because the tires on those old Fords don't so much explode with a puncture as deflate slowly and while they're sending up sparks as the rim meets the road, they can go faster than she can.
Their masters aren't thrilled about the would-be assassins getting away, but between the Arab and his possible superhuman powers, there is enough to keep everyone too busy to come up with a punishment when Guevara and Castro are alive and well and feasting with their friends from Moscow. Her wound turns out to be relatively minor, the bullet catching flesh and not bone, and the doctors tell her that she is lucky she will not lose any range of motion in her arm. In their bed, James tells her she was not lucky, she was hit where the shooter intended because her arms are too skinny to aim for bone and miss. She tells him about Kachanovo and the woman who spared her life despite not thinking it wise, the woman who looked at her through a filthy windshield in Havana and winked.
"Maybe she's got the supersoldier serum," he suggests, arranging them so that her arm is resting on a pillow but her head is on his chest. "Maybe she's something else. There's a lot out there that didn't come out of the Red Room."
He's not wrong, but she's not sure he's right, either. The world has grown more populated with 'costumed adventurers,' but the woman and her associates don't have that stink about them. The people in the costumes are sure that they are special and righteous and like to run their mouths and thrill to their powers and act like there's a spotlight just on them. This isn't that, but she's not sure what it is.
She's old enough to remember Lebanon as a playground for someone other than terrorists and thieves, but it's a hazy, gauzy thing after so many years of it just being a warzone filled with rubble and tears and blood. Beirut defies gravity, having been in freefall for more than a decade, and the rest of the country is already destroyed from having hit the ground at terminal velocity. It's easy to blame the Israelis for everything, but it's not quite true and the gap between that and the truth is half the reason everything is still such a shitshow. The Israelis didn't blow up three hundred US Marines near the airport in '83 and once the Americans pulled back, things fell apart a lot faster. Nobody else has the guts or the guns to either completely destroy the country so it can rebuild on sounder foundations or to deal with Hizbullah and its backers or any of the other 'liberation organizations' that crop up with a vague ideology and too many weapons. The UN is full of itself and its own importance and sends cannon fodder in painted helmets to waggle their fingers while the Lebanese are busy killing each other, as if they have completely forgotten that this mess started as a civil war and not an invasion.
This is why she's still here a year after the ILO kidnapped Soviet diplomats; getting them back wasn't difficult, just bloody, but her masters still see an opportunity here with the Americans gone. The USSR is crumbling from within, but saving face is more important than anything else and if Beirut can give Moscow Center a victory in the Cold War, then it doesn't matter what gets destroyed in the process. What's a little more rubble in a place like this? Her official mission is to make contact with elements that would accept Soviet guns in exchange for waving the flag for socialism to spite the Americans, but unofficially it is simply to find people who will do what Moscow tells them to regardless of their stance on the evils of capitalism. And after forty years of doing just that, Natasha has perhaps had enough.
She does enough to keep her bosses off her back - there have been enough defections and there are still enough true believers to make sending someone to kill her a real possibility - but she doesn't do more. She sees what Hizbullah and the others do, setting up artillery on top of hospitals or in schools, kidnapping Catholic priests who'd been ministering to those in desperate need and holding them for ransom they can use to buy more guns… she's not selling them those guns. Let them buy them off the Iranians, who seem to have a surplus judging by the way they're flashing cash and Romanian-made Kalashnikovs around.
The current list of high-profile hostages in Lebanon include a couple of priests, a few journalists, and the sort of low-level diplomats that speak to the kidnappers' lack of understanding of diplomacy because you don't grab a random consular officer, you go for someone who has real strategic value because they have important information the home country actually worries will get out: the chef de mission or the military attaché or the cultural attaché because the last is the spy. Instead, they're picking off the visa stampers and the press people; their home countries will pay for them eventually, but it's a lower priority and the whole point of kidnapping is that it's a fast turnaround. Which is why there have been hostages held for years here.
Natasha has drinks with some of her spy counterparts at a bar on the Corniche that nobody dares blow up because it's full of spies; they all agree that it's more likely that the stupidity will kill them than violence. Or their livers, since they spend most evenings sitting around drinking arak and trying to find a middle path between what their bosses want and what the truth on the ground will allow. She can recognize most of her colleagues by nation if not by name; it's a more multinational coalition than the blue helmets down south harassing the Druze and far more friendly. At this level, they pretty much just want to not make things worse because there's zero chance they're going to make anything better. Which is why finding the hostages is harder than it should be, when they are even allowed to look for them, because they are all being hidden among civilians and none of them want to destroy more lives in a place that treats life so cheaply. The rubble is the rubble, but blood makes noise in your dreams.
Nonetheless, she gets a bead on where a couple of the priests are being held, a tip from one of the Belgian NGO guys who goes by Kaajet and is never the first one at the bar but always the last to go. She doesn't think she's the only one who has the information, but she might be the only one who can do anything about it. Most of her colleagues are men of action, but not like the James Bond kind of action and they would have to take the information and tell their governments who will send very special military units under cover of darkness and that's how you end up with dead widows and children. She, on the other hand, is an army unto herself and while she has little truck with religion, she has less truck with using innocents as human shields and bothering anyone who is trying to feed them.
It does dawn on her that she might be getting set up, but not in a way that she objects to it happening. Kaajet is undoubtedly a former soldier and possibly a current spy, but the Belgians aren't interested in getting involved in the US-USSR pissing match and his choice to tell her isn't strategic in that way. He's just as frustrated with what's happening as everyone else and maybe he thinks she can do something about it.
She is being set up, but not in the way she expected and, when it is all over, not in a way she entirely objects to it happening. The information is solid, the priests are indeed on the farm in the Beqaa that belongs to two generations of widows but is currently home to at least two dozen "liberators" and far too many weapons. But one of the priests is not a priest, or is at least not a priest anymore because if the Vatican's men could fight like that then there would be no need for Swiss Guards. And she is not alone in her attempted rescue because there is a man with a scimitar along with his pistols, which doesn't mean anything to her because this is Lebanon and she's seen stranger weapons here. Until she sees the labrys and the woman holding it and she doesn't have time in the moment to ask what the fuck is going on because the bullets are flying in every direction and this was supposed to be a rescue where there was no collateral damage.
There is no collateral damage, it turns out, outside of a couple of goats and a destroyed wall. The real priests are rumpled but unharmed, the widows and their children and grandchildren frightened and angry and relieved, and her surprise teammates are winded and bloody but upright. They move the cache of weapons to an arriving van driven by Kaajet, whose presence is frankly the least surprising element of the adventure, and the fake priest and the man with the scimitar start rebuilding the wall. There's nothing to be done with the goats except dressing them and roasting them, which they leave to the widows because it's their meat.
Natasha doesn't ask questions until the work is done because she doesn't need the frustration; there would not have been answers from the woman from Kachanovo who is the woman from Havana who is the woman in Beqaa. That the man with the scimitar is the assassin from Havana and the one Natasha thought was from the Caucasus that night in Kachanovo is also likely, as is that Kaajet and the fake priest were present there and then, too.
She finally gives in to her need to know once dawn breaks and she can see their clothes are riddled with bullet holes and knife slashes. It's not the holes themselves; she knows that there are men with bulletproof skin walking around. It's that the holes are front and back, bullet going in and bullet going out, with bloody blast radii to match and unmarred skin underneath.
"I didn't realize Weapon X had been so successful," she says to Kaajet as they sit around eating cheese and bread and fruit given to them by the widows. "Or that the Wolverine had a family."
He looks down at his shirt as he chews and swallows. "As far as I know, he doesn't."
"And yet here you all are," she replies.
"As are you, Little Spider," the woman with the labrys points out. "About as much trouble as you're worth."
"Not more?" Natasha asks. "I've improved in your estimation since Kachanovo."
"Not less, either," is the answer. "The world would have been better off if Guevara'd died six years earlier than he did."
She sits back at that. "Perhaps, but we paid a greater price for your failure than you think."
Cuba had been the beginning of the end for her and James, torn apart and destroyed by their masters. She bears the invisible scars as she roams the world on a leash, but James… James is in an undying prison she hopes he isn't aware of but fears otherwise.
She doesn't know what shows on her face, but the woman nods with something that might be empathy.
They go back to Beirut in the van filled with weapons and Natasha knows she'll not see any of them here again. She takes the priests to the Vatican embassy and leaves them with the guards once she is assured that they won't be kidnapped again the moment she turns the corner. She could have gone to the Soviet embassy, but this isn't for the glory of the Rodina anymore.
She's in a fancy bar in Singapore that sits facing a plaza full of street snack stands, the kind of high-low culture thing that can either piss her off or charm her and she's waiting for the martinis to make up her mind.
A week ago she was raiding a HYDRA base in The Philippines that used sex tourism as a cover and Natasha had asked both Steve and Tony repeatedly why they couldn't blow the place up from low orbit. But it had servers (Tony), and it had human experimentation (Steve) and they couldn't vaporize it all with extreme prejudice.
"It wouldn't make you feel any less filthy," Steve told her as they rode in the back of the quinjet because she'd asked one last time. "I'm going to beat the shit out of anyone I come across and it won't make me feel any better about it, either."
They both made spectacular messes and Steve was right and that's why she's sitting at a bar in Singapore instead of back in upstate New York. She couldn't even get back on the quinjet afterward, feeling too profane. It's been a week spent showering too much and making sure they cauterized all of the HYDRA tentacles and she's maybe close enough to fake normal if not close enough to go home.
"What brings you across my path, Little Spider?"
The woman from Kachanovo's name is Andy, or at least that's what she gave Natasha back in Beirut. She looks the same thirty years later, same as Natasha does, down to the bone-deep exhaustion.
"It's hard for the world to really surprise me in bad ways anymore," Natasha says, downing the rest of her martini like a savage as Andy sits next to her and waves down the bartender. "Turns out I don't like it when it happens."
Her last five years have been collectively and individually ridiculous and she just feels bruised most of the time and very old. Aliens, gods, monsters, World War II heroes back from the dead… she's been working for HYDRA for probably decades and that isn't even the worst of it because she saw what happened to James. Who in turn has been suffering in far greater ways for far longer than she'd imagined. And there's Sokovia and Ultron and she almost misses the base stupidity and pointlessness of Lebanon, which is still a failed state but at least in predictable ways.
"Sounds like you're finally getting old enough to be worth talking to," Andy says before ordering a bourbon neat and another martini for Natasha. "Soon you'll be old enough to be worth listening to as well."
The last is maybe a joke, at least Andy is smiling.
They get through the next round without talking, then sort of pick up loose threads of conversation here and there. Andy's very aware of what Natasha's been up to since the Chitauri hit New York and tells her that she wouldn't have even approached her if Natasha didn't currently look so very different than what she's appeared like on TV. But her hair is currently mousy brown and that's enough for face blindness here. Natasha doesn't ask why Andy did approach her; that's part of the 'old enough to stop asking stupid questions' thing. She does ask after the others, though, because Steve has been forcing her to learn the concept of team as family the way Clint and Laura had worked to make her understand the concept of family itself and if she hadn't understood the concept back in the Eighties, she can recognize it in hindsight.
Andy almost lights up from within. "They're good," she tells Natasha with a smile. "We're on vacation, so two of them are bumming around the Mediterranean eating and fucking like Sybarites and one of them's in Switzerland drowning himself in cognac and incunabula."
The last one is undoubtedly Kaajet.
Andy shrugs. "I slept for six weeks and now I'm restless."
Which is undoubtedly a very small part of the story.
Over frog porridge and chai tao kway and several more rounds of drinks, they exchange little bits of the larger stories that drive them both. Andy's restlessness is based in the same frustration as Natasha's, the knowledge born of decades (centuries?) of experience that says that they are firecrackers making noise and not changing the world in any lasting way. They are trying to find meaning and purpose through their families, but it's sometimes not enough and they wonder whether it ever will be or if they're just not built for that kind of thing.
Sometime while they're slurping up their tau hua, Andy suggest they go find something to break and Natasha agrees.
They wind up in KPK because there's always something worthwhile to break in KPK when you hate extremism and misogyny and break things they do. It's ridiculously fun to do things the way they used to be done before Natasha got used to quinjets and government agencies with tons of money. Andy laughs at her when she calls it old school, but they laugh at each other when they get back to Quetta and turn their cell phones back on to find messages from teammates wondering where they hell they've gone off to.
"In another thirty years, kid," Andy says as they part, Natasha back to her Avengers life and Andy to god knows where.
"Might need it to be a little sooner," Natasha replies and she's surprised at how easy it is to say. Helen's done the bloodwork and the serum the Red Room gave her for fifty years is finally starting to break down. She's not about to turn into anyone's grandmother any time soon, but thirty years from now she won't be mistaken for twenty-eight anymore. Her ability to cope with this fact waxes and wanes depending on who she's with; it's easier with Steve than with Clint. But next to Andy, who is far, far older than Natasha can probably guess, it feels like a blessing.
Andy's eyes go wide.
"Oh you lucky thing," she whispers and Natasha can see the pain and envy. "Good on you."
It turns their 'see you later' into 'goodbye,' but both of them pretend otherwise.