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Soft to be Strong

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Kate wasn’t sure how she was still standing.

She felt like one of those Mortal Kombat characters after getting their ass kicked–swaying on the spot, the victorious opponent hearing a ‘Finish Her!’ call from off-screen, the slightest flick or gust of wind having the power to knock her out.

Each heavy step required a Herculean effort, adrenaline from the past couple hours receding more with each stride. That’s how she made her way back to her apartment from Rockefeller Center–head down, shoulders slumped, bow slung lifelessly over her shoulder, quiver empty.

Tonight sucked.

Was this what it was like, being an Avenger?

Sure, she’d taken out dozens of bad guys, but at what cost?

Finally, she reached her pizza shop. Her quads and hammies screamed at her as she climbed the stairs, unable to wipe her mother’s final disapproving look out of her head before she was forcibly ducked into the police car.

‘Is this what heroes do? Arrest their mothers on Christmas?’

She pushed inside her burn-scarred apartment and tossed her weapon on the coat rack, crouching to greet Lucky. “Hey, Pizza Dog. Merry Shitty Christmas Eve.” She heaved a heavy sigh and wrapped her arms around her new pet, his presence soothing her better than anything else might.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket a beat later.

Clint (10:49p)
You OK?
Check your email.

Kate navigated to her Gmail app and refreshed her inbox. There, Clint had forwarded a ticket confirmation from Southwest Airlines. One round trip flight to Clint’s hometown for Christmas morning. Her heart skipped a beat and she flashed a tired smile at the screen before texting Clint back.

Kate (10:52p)
Avengers fly coach?

Clint (10:54p)
Retired Avengers do.
Meet me at JFK at 0900.

Kate (10:55p)
Will do.
Thanks, Clint.

She’s lucky. She knew that much. Despite getting her ass kicked by Kingpin, Clint nearly dying, her mother being arrested…at least she had someone to spend Christmas Day with. Part of her wanted to decline, not wanting to intrude on Clint’s family time. But it would be good for her to get out of the city for a little while. Keep her mind occupied.

Peeling off her combat boots, Kate padded up the stairs and stripped down, tossing her uniform on the back of her desk chair. She turned on the shower water to a degree or two hotter than she could stand it, hoping the extra sting might help wash away not only the dirt, grime, and dried blood from tonight, but also the lingering anguish swirling through her chest. She tried crying but no tears would come, anger and frustration lodging in her throat instead, burning and stubborn.

With a washrag and soap, Kate scrubbed the evening off every inch of her body, standing beneath the spray until the water grew tepid. After watching every sud swirl down the drain, she turned off the shower and stepped out, wrapping herself in a clean towel.

She rummaged through her drawers for her softest t-shirt (sporting the Briarwood Archery Camp logo on the front, ‘Staff’ underlined with an arrow on the back) when her phone pinged again. She unlocked her screen expecting it to be Clint again, except this time…

Unknown (11:19p)
kate bishop. how about that drink?
[location pin]

Kate stared at the text for a beat, her lower lip worrying between her teeth as she glanced at the time on her phone. It’s late. 11:32, to be exact. But her bed was right there and despite Yelena apparently having some sort of crisis of conscience and deciding to spare Clint in the end, she still legitimately tried to kill him…

Unknown (11:38p)
i see you’ve read my text.
no pressure. i’ll save you a seat in case you want to join me.

Technically, Kate did invite Yelena out for a drink–but only as a distraction attempt while Yelena tried to murder Clint.

Did she mention her bed was right there?

“Ugh, fine.” Knowing she’d toss and turn in bed for hours anyway, Kate decided to take the distraction route instead.

Twenty-five minutes later, Kate–dressed in a simple plum-colored v-neck cashmere sweater and a pair of artfully torn jeans paired with flat riding boots and a puffy vest–stepped inside Rudy’s and unwound her scarf. It wasn’t crowded, not surprising given it’s Christmas Eve and also a weeknight, but the dimly lit hole-in-the-wall strung up with colored Christmas lights emanated a cozy vibe anyway.

It only took a few seconds to spot Yelena.

Sitting at the far end of the bar in her all-black combat gear, blonde wisps escaping from her impressively cool reverse fauxhawk French braid, Yelena gesticulated widely with one hand as she appeared to be talking with–flirting with?--the bartender, who tipped his head back and laughed.

Kate shoved her hands into the pockets of her cream-colored vest and strode forward slowly, amusement ticking up the corners of her mouth as she approached. “So is this a normal for you? Crashing a party, attempting murder, stopping for a drink afterwards?”

Yelena’s gaze snapped toward Kate and her entire expression brightened at the sight of her. “Kaaate Biiishop,” she drawled. “You made it!”

The bartender, blinking at Kate after clearly having heard and processed what she’d said, glanced back and forth between them.

“Oh!” Kate puffed out a few notes of a decompressing chuckle. “I was totally joking. No murderers here. Nope. Not even one.”

Yelena snorted, rolling her eyes and patting the stool beside her. “Here, have a seat. Will, two more mules for me and my friend.”

Kate hopped onto the stool. “Thanks, Will.” She quirked a brow at Yelena’s near empty glass. “Mules?”

“Yes, cranberry mules. Very festive. See?” Yelena tilted her vodka and ginger beer-based drink–or what was left of it–toward Kate, showing the cranberries and cut up lime floating on top.

“Ah, got it. Looks like Christmas in a cup to me.” Her nose scrunched. “Really though? Vodka? Don’t you think that’s a little on the nose for a Russian sp–”

Yelena’s eyebrows shot pointedly toward her hairline in warning, the look effectively cutting her off mid-syllable.

“--Spanish teacher…” Kate finished lamely.

“You’re funny, Kate Bishop.” Yelena shook her head, amusement curling up her lips. “I do speak some Spanish, among other languages. I’m surprised you came to drink with me. I figured you’d be helping Clint Barton lick his wounds.”

Kate winced. “That’s not a great mental image, thanks. But no, I’m going home with him tomorrow to spend Christmas Day with his family.” She worried her lower lip between her teeth. “I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”

“No, no. It’s fine. I’m not going to come after him again, I promise.” She sighed, casting Will a grateful tight-lipped smile when he placed the two cranberry mules before them and walked off. “That sounds nice though, Christmas with the Bartons. Have you met his wife yet?”

“Laura? No, but I heard–”

“She’s hot.” Yelena let out a low whistle. “Far more attractive than him. Seriously, you’ll see once you meet her. She’s a ten, he’s more like a five…”

“A five?” Outraged on behalf of her partner, Kate scoffed. “C’mon, he’s at least a seven… Not that he’s my type, but still!”

Yelena’s nose wrinkled. “He looks like one of those Muppet characters.”

Kate’s jaw fell unhinged. “Clint does not look like a Muppet!”

“Well, you are entitled to your wrong opinion,” Yelena shot back with a smirk as she brought the new glass to her lips.

“How do you even know what Laura Barton looks like?” Kate asked, and then she huffed a dry chuckle. “Oh, right. You stalked him. Just like you stalked me.”

It was Yelena’s turn to scoff. “I do not stalk, I spy! There’s a difference!”

“There’s literally no difference. They’re synonyms.”

“They are not!” Yelena huffed, shaking her head. “You’re very annoying sometimes, you know that?”

“Oh yeah? Back at ya.” It was hardly the first time Kate had been called annoying. It hardly fazed her anymore. “Besides, you were the one who invited me here.”

“Actually you asked me for drinks, I was only following up.” She cocked her head to the side. “I thought it’s not fun to spend Christmas alone and you might want some company.”

Kate sucked down half of her cranberry mule before thinking much of it, humming in acknowledgement. “That’s true, yeah. I’m used to spending it with my mom.”

Yelena’s gaze fell to her glass for a beat, almost as though she was processing some sort of emotion. But the moment passed in a flash and Yelena glanced back up to Kate with mischief twinkling in her eyes. She leaned over and lowered her voice. “So do you want to break your mom out of jail?”

“Wait, what?” Kate threw her head back and emitted a strangled bark of laughter. “Oh my god, you’re serious.”

Yelena shifted in her stool to face Kate more fully, resting her elbow on the bar and propping her head against her palm. “Why wouldn’t I be serious? I helped break my dad out of a much higher security prison than whatever they’ve got here in New York. It could be fun.”

Kate scrubbed her hands over her face for a beat. “You’ve got a really warped sense of what fun means,” she pointed out. “Thanks, but I’m gonna pass. She should probably face some sort of consequence for all the bad stuff she’s done. But I kinda came out here to not think about her, so…”

“Ah, distraction. I see. Keep drinking, it will help you forget.” Yelena tapped her index finger against her temple.

“That’s the plan, yep.” Kate chugged the rest of her mule. “You slow down so I can catch up.”

“Please, Kate Bishop. I have an incredibly high alcohol tolerance. You’re not a very big drinker, so we are already on pace together.”

“How do you know–” Kate paused, frowning. “You know, it’s pretty unfair that you know a lot of stuff about me and I barely know anything about you. Kinda makes this friendship feel a little unbalanced.”

Amusement spread across Yelena’s smile. “Okay. You want to know about me? You tell me five things you think are true about me and I’ll let you know if you’re right or not. I promise I’ll be truthful.”

“Wait, really?” Kate brightened, shifting in turn to mirror Yelena’s positioning and propping her head on her palm as she sipped her drink. “Okay great, um. Hmm…let’s see.” Five questions. “In your spare time, when you’re not stalking–oops, I mean spying–” Kate smiled when Yelena cast another heatless glare her way. “--you like to hang out and watch TV. True crime documentaries on Netflix. Am I right?”

Yelena shook her head. “TV is fine, I like The Food Network and the other cooking shows. But I like to read more. Historical fiction, mostly, but sometimes Fantasy or Science Fiction. I don’t like poetry.”

“No poetry, huh? Are you allergic to rhyming words or something?”

Yelena shrugged. “Rhyming is fine. I’d just rather people say what they mean instead of using so much symbolism and flowery bullshit language.”

Kate smirked. “What about the more basic poems? Roses are red, violets are blue… I can’t believe I’m sitting here drinking with you.

“Yikes, really?” Yelena laughed into her drink. “That was terrible. Truly. You should stick to archery.”

“Thanks, I plan to.” Kate finished off her drink and cast a smile at Will, who nodded at her and started on her refill. “Okay, one question down. Four to go.” Her head tilted to the side. “Something tells me you’re a really good dancer.”

“Of course I am. I’m good at most things,” Yelena said with all the brazen confidence she possessed. “I’m trained in classical dances but I prefer the more casual style. Clubbing is fun. What about you? No doubt with your rich kid upbringing you’ve been forced into dresses and taught how to waltz.”

Kate grumbled at the memory. “Don’t remind me. I actually got kicked out of these finishing school classes because I swung from the chandelier in the ballroom and landed on the cake.”

Yelena cackled. “Okay, that’s amazing. How old were you? Seventeen?”

“What? No, I was eight!” Heat crept into Kate’s cheeks and she snickered at herself, shaking her head. “Didn’t have that one in your Kate Bishop file, did you?”

“No, I did not.” Yelena admitted. “Next time I see you I’ll bring the file so you can know everything I already know. How does that sound?”

Kate softened. “Really? You’d do that?”

“Sure, why not? I told you I’m not targeting Clint anymore.”

“That’s…very cool of you,” Kate admitted, searching Yelena’s face as if that would spark another question. Will’s drinks proved strong and Kate’s neck and shoulder muscles, tightened with several weeks’ worth of tension, finally began relaxing. “Your hair–you paid someone to do it like that, didn’t you? There’s no way you did it yourself.”

Yelena’s free hand flew to her chest. “Kate Bishop, I am offended. Of course I did it myself. Back in the Red Room, after training hours–we braided each other’s hair to keep ourselves busy. Learned all sorts of braiding tricks. Very handy for going out on assignment.”

The Red Room. Kate had about a thousand questions about what Yelena’s life was like, growing up as a Widow. But even in this free-for-all game, and considering Kate’s natural lack of boundaries and innate nosiness, she decided asking directly about Yelena’s past was off-limits. So instead, she nodded in understanding…and asked something less personal. “Thank you, I apologize for offending your badass braiding skills,” she said. “Question four. You have at least one tattoo. Somewhere hidden, like–on your hip or your shoulder blade or something?”

Yelena fished out a cranberry from her drink and popped it into her mouth. “No, no tattoos.” She hesitated for half a second before her smirk turned so devilish she looked like the purple smiling imp emoji. “I do have my nipples pierced though, does that count?”

In the world’s most unfortunate timing, Kate took a sip at that exact moment. The fruit-tinged liquor flew down her windpipe instead, sending Kate into a choking, coughing fit, her face redder than Rudolph’s nose.

“Breathe, Kate. Breathe.” Yelena patted Kate’s back a few times before rubbing her palm over in slow, soothing circles. “Will, can we get some water please?” After a few seconds, Yelena urged Kate to sit upward. “Drink this. Come on.”

“I’m fine,” Kate croaked, tears flooding her eyes thanks to her coughing fit as she chugged down a few desperate gulps of water. “I’m fine. I’m good. But you can’t just drop information like that and not expect…” Kate trailed off, raking her free hand through her freshly washed hair as she shook her head.

Yelena, on the other hand, looked absolutely delighted, a fresh smirk plastered across her face. “So you think nipple piercings are attractive or something?”

Kate groaned, covering her eyes once again. “What? No! I didn’t say–that’s not even–shut up. You’re ridiculous.”

Clearly enjoying getting a rise out of Kate however she could, Yelena helped herself to a sip of Kate’s water. “Mmm…that’s okay. You’re a terrible liar, by the way.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she mumbled, shaking her head before returning to her mule and gulping down the rest of it, mindful to do so properly this time.

“It’s getting late. I’m going to walk you home,” Yelena said, nodding back to Will. “Close out my tab, please. I’ll cover it all.”

“You don’t have to–”

“I insist. On both walking you home and paying for the drinks. Are you good to walk? Fresh air will feel nice.” Yelena didn’t wait for Kate’s response as she handled the cash transaction and tipped Will. “Merry Christmas,” she said as she slid a hundred dollar bill to him across the bar top, then linked her arm through Kate’s and led her back outside.

Kate let out a soft gasp as she zipped her vest. “That was really nice of you,” Kate said, blinking at Yelena’s profile with undisguised fondness in her eyes. “Like–a hundred bucks? That’s so cool.”

“It’s Christmas,” Yelena said with another hitch of her shoulders, leading Kate down the quiet sidewalk toward her apartment. “So…what’s next for Kate Bishop, hm? Is she going to take Clint Barton’s place and join the Avengers for real? Is she going to take over her mother’s big security firm? Will she go the freelance route and be a private contractor like me?”

Kate burst out with another bright laugh. “Yeah, no. For sure not that last one.”

“Hmm…I agree. You talk too much to be a spy.”

Psh!” Kate playfully whacked Yelena’s upper arm with the back of her hand. “That’s just rude. I meant I’m not interested in becoming a stalker.”

“Spy,” Yelena corrected, grinning back at Kate. “Or Spanish teacher, whatever.”

“Hey…” Kate wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck, the chilled breeze picking up as they stepped onto her block and approached the pizza shop. “I only asked four questions back there. I’ve still got one left.”

Yelena nodded. “Yes you do. Go for it.”

Kate considered, wanting to make her last question count. “You’ve traveled all over the world for your work, but you haven’t set any roots down anywhere. You stay busy because you’re kinda lonely and you’re not sure what to do with yourself if you’re not working.”

Pulling to a slow stop, Yelena glanced up toward the night sky for a prolonged moment, her dark-painted lips set in a thin line.

Guilt immediately bubbled in Kate’s stomach and she grimaced. “Sorry, that was–you don’t have to answer if–”

“You’re not wrong,” Yelena said, lowering her gaze to meet Kate’s. She cast her a sad smile and opened the door, waving her inside. “This was fun. Thanks for meeting up with me. Have a safe flight tomorrow, okay?”

Kate swallowed hard, her own lips tugging into a frown. “What about you? Do you have somewhere to stay tonight? And what about Christmas Day, are you–”

“I’m working,” Yelena said, waving her hand dismissively. “Heading out of town tonight, actually. Don’t you worry about me, Kate Bishop. I’m not one of the ones you hero-types need to save.”

Kate wanted to press, but she decided against it. “Okay, well, thanks for the drinks. You have a safe trip, too. Wherever you’re going.”

“You’re welcome. I think we both had a pretty rough day, but–hey, it’s already tomorrow. Christmas Day has been much better already.” Yelena’s mood rallied back with a more genuine grin. “I will. Goodnight, Kate.”

“Goodnight, Yelena.” Kate ascended the stairs to her apartment, kissed Lucky’s snout in greeting, and trudged up the stairs to wash up for bed. She passed out almost instantly, waking up to the alarm she’d set to make sure she had time to quickly pack a bag and meet Clint at the airport.

Kate sat in her Lyft en route to JFK nursing both a large coffee and a wicked hangover when her phone buzzed again.

Unknown (7:56a)
roses are red
christmas eve was a shit show
come back and spend new years
with your favorite widow

Despite the splitting headache, whole-body soreness, and overall cloudy mood, Kate smiled the dumbest, toothiest grin. She tapped on the number and finally saved it to her phone.

Yelena Belova

Her new…friend?