Natasha is hanging off the back railing of the Trans-Siberian Express as an unnamed mustachioed dime-a-dozen American intelligence agent tries to strangle her. She stretches her leg to its full potential and hooks her foot under the handrail; thus anchored, she heaves the man over the side of the railing. He tumbles into the ravine below as the train speeds away without him.
Natasha giggles obligingly as she hangs off the arm of a Serbian official. He parades her around the ballroom, pointing out important personages in attendance. She has to wait a couple of hours before her target arrives at the event, and then another half-hour until he heads their way. The official’s back straightens and he bows, spouting oily flattery as her target turns leering eyes onto her. He does not recognize her; nor does he remember what he tried to do to her in that deserted corridor not so long ago.
“Minister,” she coos, sweeping an arm in a downward arc to ostensibly move her full skirts out of her heels’ way. As the minister’s gaze catches on the flash of her ankle, she drops a piece of incriminating evidence in his pocket, hidden by the trajectory of her arm.
Their teacher sets two wooden chairs in the middle of the room, perfectly aligned, spaced five feet apart. The dancers stretch their splits, resting a foot on each of the chairs. Their teacher places her foot on Natasha’s shoulder and pushes her further down into the split, until her pelvis nearly touches the floor and her legs are extended upward from her body at a forty-five degree angle. This is the first and last time Natasha ever cries out in class.
Natasha’s right arm is broken and hanging limply by her side. Her attacker grins and lunges toward her. She shifts the link in her mind and focuses on the exactly two-and-a-half breaths it takes for her attacker to reach her, and then she swings her broken arm at his temple, knocking him to the ground. Through a haze of pain, she completes the task with quick work of her legs.
“Natalia,” her old teacher says. She opens the door and invites her in as if this were a normal occurrence. She doesn’t ask how Natasha knew where she was living.
“I need your help,” Natasha says, striding inside and sitting on the floor. The apartment is bare save for a bed in the corner and a small kitchen opposite.
“That would be a first,” her teacher says. She does not remain standing, but sits next to her instead. “I have followed your career these past fifteen years. It is impressive enough,” she concedes.
“I need to be better. I need to be the best.” She stares into her former teacher’s eyes. Surely she knows what it is like to have no identity: to have the sole defining factor of yourself be your accomplishments.
“You are still thinking externally,” her teacher scolds. “Instead of internally. It was always your weakness. You must not think of ‘the best’ in terms of comparison to others. You must work towards your best.”
“And how do I do that?” she asks impatiently.
“Obviously. Use your brain, child. I know you have one. Go back to basics.”
Natasha heard terrible rumors about her old teacher recently. Stories whispered that she was taking on a different identity every day. Old roles brought out from the back of the wardrobe, tried on for twenty-four hours and then discarded again. On Monday she would be Irène Poitiers, Tuesday Dorothy Underwood, and Wednesday Helga Ortiz. The chameleon had evolved so well that it was now being devoured by its own defense mechanism.
In her teens, Natasha would wake up in cold sweats, just after starting a REM cycle. Every hour or so she would wake. Her Other would hold her down to the bed as she thrashed awake, firmly but gently until she calmed, planting kisses along her neck.
“Find your anchor,” he’d say. “Link by link, till you get to the bottom.”’
“My name is Natalia Romanova.”
“Keep going,” he’d said, lips warm against her ear. “What is your favorite time of day?”
“The witching hour.”
“How do you like your toast?”
“Just butter. Brown on one side.”
She’d thought. “Today it’s yellow.”
“Good,” he whispered approvingly, and she would do the same for him after long stretches of time, when he no longer remembered who he was. She repeated the Anglophone syllables, one after another, just like he’d made her memorize. There were days when it meant nothing to him (although she would swear he would become calmer) and there were better days when his eyes would lose their feral intensity and he would clench his hands together, breathing hard as if he’d just run a marathon. “Bucky Barnes,” he repeated after her. “Bucky.”
Sometimes they would sneak away and go to a nightclub—where everyone was pretending to be someone else—and they would dance among the Ecstasy-fueled rage of the nineties, basking in the anonymity. He could never stay for more than an hour, her Other—he didn’t like to stay in darkness for too long—so one night she went by herself and stayed until dawn. At one point she was sitting on a small settee shoved in the corner by the bathrooms, next to a boy not much older than herself with dilated pupils and a twittering jaw. He smiled at her conspiratorially and she smiled back, for she could be whatever she wanted, and he said, Do whatever makes you happy, and she was disappointed in his cliché. No, he persisted, I mean no matter how minute. Look. He pinched his thumb and his forefinger together, and then separated them, and then pinched them together again, staring in wonder. This makes me happy right now. So I’m doing it. Back to basics, she thought, and she left the club just as the sun was rising. She felt like turning left to go home, so she did. She then wanted to stop and watch a squirrel indignantly chitter at her from a tree, so she did. She then felt like getting a coffee and sitting amongst the other patrons reading their papers and sleepily starting their day. Back to basics. Link by link. But when she arrived outside, she realized she did not want to anymore. So she went home to her Other, to lay beside him and watch light from the window creep slowly across the bed until he woke up.
But she’d failed him. She’d left. And when he came up from another long stretch of time, when he no longer remembered who he was, she hadn’t been there to repeat the syllables. He didn’t recognize her on the bridge in Washington, D.C., as she fought against him using the same techniques he’d taught her so long ago, and when Steve, with a face of shattered glass, had breathed, “Bucky?” he didn’t recognize the syllables.
“Écarté. No, Romanova, too much of you is facing forward. Your character is shy, she is uncertain, she is fearful—and what else? What is most important? Who is she?”
“She is Cinderella,” Natasha says, stating the obvious.
“Wrong. She is you. You cannot dance her until you become her.”
She walked down the long neutral hallway, smirking up at the hidden security cameras that followed her every step of the way. The bulletproof doors slid open automatically. Behind a large desk, the tall black man with an eye patch stood with his arms crossed.
“You realize we’ve had every form of weapon trained on you since you entered the building,” he said.
“I hope you also realize,” he continued, coming around the desk, “that it is only my curiosity that has kept you alive since you stepped foot inside the lobby.”
“I’m unarmed,” Natasha said, spreading her arms.
Fury snorted. “Miss Romanoff, you yourself are a walking weapon. Now, what is it you want?”
Natasha looked him up and down, assessing. She wanted control over herself. She wanted to call the shots. She wanted to shape her own identity. Would things at this particular agency be any different than the one she’d just left? Probably not. But this man before her might give her a sliver of a chance.
“I want to offer my talents to S.H.I.E.L.D,” she said.
“You are not attending, Romanova! Look at your legs, they are like jelly.”
“It’s only pliés,” Natasha protests, tossing her head.
Her teacher’s hand flies across her face. “I do not want to ever hear ‘only’ come from your mouth again,” she says, as Natasha bites back a cry of pain. “You do everything one-hundred-percent. Even the little things. ‘Only’ might someday save your life.”
She stoops down and picks up the key. Behind her lies a trail of human destruction, a medley of mostly British and American. The man lying a few feet away—the archer—is feebly stirring. She tucks the key up into her sleeve and walks over to the man, poising the spike of her stiletto heel over his neck.
He opens his eyes and looks straight up at her. They are blue and cool, yet so different from the ones of her Other, and in these last moments they show no fear: they sweep across the scatter of bodies around them in amusement, and then flick back to her face with something else. Admiration?
There is a noise behind her. Someone is coming. She makes a split-second decision and leaves; the archer is still breathing. But it is of no matter. He’s only one man.