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call it forgiveness, with teeth

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"Nothing ever ends poetically. It ends and we turn it into poetry. All that blood was never once beautiful. It was just red."

-Kait Rokowski


 

 

She leaves Peggy standing above a grave, a thin, nearly worthless file slipped into her hands. “You might not want to pull on that thread,” she warns. Because she knows, intimately, exactly what it contains, what it is that Peggy hopes to find. Natasha could tell her. Might, even. But she suspects that this is something that Peggy needs to do on her own. The time for helping will come, but Natasha needs to get her own head on straight first. Peggy looks down at the ground like she’s about to say something, offer something. Natasha leans forward, presses a kiss against her cheek and grins before Peggy can speak. “Do something fun at least,” she orders. “Take your girl to see a play or something.” She walks away, leaving Peggy sighing loudly behind her.

“She is not my—”

“Bye Cap!” Natasha yells, cutting her off.

The stars are always there, Ivan used to sometimes say. Slurring, and stinking of sweat and booze. Holding his hands up for her to punch. One, two. One, two. Kick. This is important Natalia. Tears welling up in his eyes. Again. Fists up. Harder than that. Swig of booze, knocking his own head against a tree.

Be a wolf! Bang, bang, bang. Cry. Drink. Be a wolf!

Crouching down to her level. His eyes bloodshot and full of tears that won't spill out, no matter how hard he tries. His dirty soldat uniform torn up, no regulation to speak of. Not out here. Not in these woods full of soldats all on their own. In the cold. Unit-less. When you forget everything else I want you to remember two things: the stars are always there, and you must be a wolf.

Pushing her up, squaring her tiny little shoulders, her hair still singed from the fire. Red as the flames and smelling like them. The stars are indifferent to you, or me, or them, or anything else on this little planet. Russia. Germany. America. No matter Natalia, they are there. The tears never fall out of his eyes, though he wants them too. Whether you think you deserve them or not.

Natasha tries to hug him, once. The night he pulls her out of the fire, after he sets her down in the snow. Ivan tells her about the stars, and little Natalia reaches her arms up and wraps them around his neck. Kissing his cheek like her mama always did for her.

Ivan pushes her into the snow faster than she can blink.

You're no longer a little girl, he snarls. Get up. We fight now.

Shivering, Natalia rises and follows Ivan into the dark woods. Away from the fire. Away from the rest of the soldats. Away from her mama's corpse. There are wolves in the night Natalia. Arms up. Claws out. Sip of vodka. Head against a tree. And there are stories about wolves and girls. Wolf stories were Ivan's favorite. Wolf stories, and vodka. Girls in red. All alone in the woods. About to get eaten up.

Ivan was never right in the head. War broke him into tiny little pieces. Natalia could see them all; trying to stitch themselves back together with vodka, and stars, and wolf stories. With teaching her how to fight, by banging his head against a tree and trying to knock the demons out. Natalia followed him and listened silently, because there was nowhere else for her to go.

Wolves and girls, Natalia. Both have sharp teeth.

Natasha climbs through Angie Martinelli's fire escape. Scares her half to death and only feels the tiniest bit bad about it. “Thought it was way past time we were introduced,” is all Natasha says in lieu of a greeting. Sticking her hand out and smiling. Angie just stares at her. Natasha waits her out. Either she'll decide that she can trust Natasha, or she won't. Natasha keeps her smile all teeth. Angie might as well know what she's truly dealing with.

Finally, Angie gives the barest hint of a nod and holds out her hand. It's a little clammy, but it's steady and sure when she shakes Natasha's own. Natasha gets it now, why Peggy's head over heels for this woman.

“Angie Martinelli,” she says. “Um... why...”

“Well, you're Peggy's best friend,” she says, all casual teasing. “And I'm... well I don't know what we are. Partners I guess,” the title still hangs heavy on her tongue. It doesn't exactly fit. But the word that slips into her mind before she can catch it, she won't say. Natalia Romanova doesn't have friends, whether Peggy wants one or not. So, partners. “Kind of,” Natasha adds, voice steady. “Anyway, I figured it'd be nice to put a face to the name.”

“Right,” Angie mumbles. “Best friend.” Natasha smirks at her, says nothing for a few moments. Angie shifts her weight back and forth on the balls of her feet uncomfortably. Natasha greatly enjoys waiting her out. She and Peggy sure are a pair. “So...”

“I'm going to be gone for a bit,” Natasha starts. “Wanted to meet you first. Check a few things out.”

“Like what?”

Natasha's smirk widens. She did come here for a reason. Might as well get on with it. “Carter's not gonna make the first move. I’ve been trying to get her to for like a year. So, you might want to get on that.” Before Angie can so much as squawk in protest, Natasha leans over and kisses her on the cheek. “Keep an eye on her for me,” she whispers. Then, disappears back out the way she came in. Leaving Angie gawking at nothing. It's extremely satisfying.

She's sitting in a little cafe in New Orleans, not drinking her tea and listening to a man idly play the saxophone on his stoop when the woman slips into the chair opposite her.

Natasha smiles to herself. “Since when are you hanging out in America?” she asks dryly.

Dottie smirks at her wickedly as she reaches across the table and helps herself to Natasha's tea. Her raven hair falls lightly into her eyes. She flips it out of the way casually as she sips the tea, making her look nothing at all like the deadly woman that she is. “Well, you did just spill out a handful of my secrets for the entire internet to peruse at their leisure.”

Natasha leans forward, placing her hands on the table. Dottie doesn't react, but Natasha knows she's hyper aware of each movement. “I spilled my secrets Doroteya. And theirs. You just happen to be involved in some of them.”

Dottie leans in too, her face only inches away from Natasha's. She always was ready to meet any dare that Natasha threw her way. Since the day they met, two scrawny, malnourished little girls, forcibly trained to do impossible things. Competition was encouraged. Keeps one strong. Dottie never needed to be told that twice.

“You don't think they'll actually let you get away with this do you?” Dottie asks.

Natasha relaxes her body as a group of boys wander past, Dottie mimicking her on instinct. From the outside, they just look like two women chatting. The boys don't even glance at them, other than one scrawny one, who whistles. Laughing loudly as his friend shoves him ahead, like Natasha couldn't silence him in a second, like Dottie isn't a threat. They're just two women having tea. Things to be admired and ignored. Dottie looks relaxed, but her pinkie is tight against the teacup. No one but Natasha would ever notice. Women like them don’t gossip. (They do exchange information, though.)

“Are you here to punish me Doroteya?” Natasha teases.

Dottie's smirk goes feral, nearly manic with amusement. “Natalia, don't tease me like that. I'll have to take you up on it.” She grows momentarily somber. “You know that I left home far before you did little wolf.” The too-bright smile slips back on her face, her eyes twinkling dangerously. “I'm merely here to congratulate you.”

Natasha snorts at that. “Why are you really here?”

“They won't let you get away with it,” Dottie warns, all amusement draining away. “It's one thing to defect. But to spill all their secrets so freely,” Dottie shakes her head. “You've never been stupid before Natalia,” she says, in Russian.

“I didn't have a choice,” Natasha defends, though it's not true. You always have a choice.

Natasha chose Peggy.

Dottie clicks her tongue. “Captain America sure is pretty,” she mocks, voice dripping like honey. “Been hearing about how amazing little ole' Margaret Carter is for the last seventy years. I can't believe of all the people for you to join up with, Captain America is the one you pick to die beside. The carnie, I understood. Sort of. But an Avenger? The Avenger?” she mocks. “What's become of you Natalia? Are you really on the side of Angels now?”

“I am what I am,” Natasha says, offering nothing more. “Is it really so much better for you?” she asks Dottie, in Russian. “To be a woman without any people? Any country?”

“Yes,” Dottie answers firmly. “I answer to no one. I can be anyone I want. Anything.”

The sun is beginning to set over the horizon, a bright orange color so hard you could bash your knuckles on it. Natasha has only seen such a sunset maybe a handful of times in her very long life. She looks across the table at Dottie, her gaze is focused on the sunset too. It doesn't appear to fill her with anything but sadness. Not that anyone apart from Natasha would notice. Not because of her training, because she knows Dottie. This freckled, raven haired woman who doesn't look a day over thirty-six, at the very most. Natasha looks at her and sees a scrawny blonde in braids, fists up, grinning with her back pressed up against Natasha's own. She can almost picture the twenty-six other girls surrounding them.

Dottie catches Natasha staring and smiles. As always, there is a feral twinge to it, but there's a fondness underneath reserved only for Natasha. No one knows you like a person with whom you’ve shared a childhood. No one will ever understand you in quite the same way.

“We're the only two left,” Natasha says.

Dottie's smile twists. “We are the only two who ever left.”

“I don't remember all of their names.”

Dottie snorts—a bitter, harsh sound—and chugs the dregs of Natasha's tea. “There are a lot of things we don't remember Natalia. Names are the least of it. Don't dwell on things you can't change. Just leave it,” her manic smile returns, leg bouncing. Dottie always was terrible at sitting still. She received plenty of her turns inside of the tank for it. “You should stop playing around with the American government and leave them behind. Come play with me Natalia,” she leans forward and whispers. “Just like the old days. Cut off whatever isn't working and let it go. You worry too much.”

Natasha thinks of all the pieces of herself that she's left behind. A piece here, a piece there, scattered out like bread crumbs. How much of her is left? If she follows the trail back, what will she find? Dottie burns away bits of herself every few years. She's always claimed to be unaffected. Slipping in and out of countries, hair colors, loyalties, like it's nothing. Though, she isn't fooling Natasha in the slightest, never has. It's not as easy as she claims it to be.

“Are you ever gonna go straight for real?” Natasha asks, finding herself aching for a real answer.

Dottie laughs, loud and melodic. The saxophone player turns and gives her a beat, smiling at them around his reed. “Never,” says Dottie. “As long as we're alive, we're alive,” she adds, in Russian. Natasha hasn't heard her say that one in years. Decades.

“I might need your help with something soon,” Natasha tells her. Just in case. The feeling she’s been having itches somewhere at the back of her skull, more pronounced with each passing day.

Dottie rises out of her seat and walks around to Natasha. “With your precious Captain?” she teases. “You know, I helped out an American soldier who was undercover once. Scrawny little guy. Wouldn't shut up about Captain friggin’ America no matter how many times I punched him—and I punched him a lot. He kept getting back up and saying, ‘I could do this all day.’ Annoying little thing,” she clucks her tongue.

Natasha can see that he impressed her, despite her words. She smiles and Dottie frowns, locking eyes with Natasha. “It starts coming off sounding desperate after a while Nata,” she bends down, one arm locking Natasha in place, their noses nearly touching. “You really think, if it came down to it, she'd trust you to save her life? That they accept you?”

“Yeah,” Natasha says quietly, finding herself almost fully believing her words. “I do now.”

Dottie's eyes widen, just slightly. She recovers quickly. Pressing her lips against Natasha's before twirling a lock of her hair and faking a giggle as the saxophone player gives them a little tune. “See you soon,” she calls over her shoulder. “Keep those teeth of yours bared.”

Natasha watches her go. If she closes her eyes, she can see an entire childhood spent straining to see the world on tiptoe. Strong, muscled girl-legs leaping through the air. Starched white tutus, and hair achingly yanked back into tight buns. Twenty-eight little swans dancing.

The song turns melancholy and low. Natasha opens her eyes and watches tears seep out of the saxophone player's own closed pair. She takes one more moment to listen, letting the song finish before dropping a tip onto the table and walking down the street.

Tchaikovsky doesn't belong anywhere in New Orleans, neither does Natalia.

She calls Peggy from nearly each place she stops. A hotel in Nevada; the coast in Maine; a cabin in Canada; Wales; Sicily; Puerto Rico; Sydney; Argentina; across the globe and back again.

Never from Russia.

Their conversations only last a minute, two, at the most. Natasha calls and teases her about Angie. About the fact that the first thing that Peggy did upon waking up in the hospital was to return the truck they stole. (Borrowed, Peggy insists each time. Natasha can hear the clenched teeth and lets out a dry chuckle as she hangs up on her.) She only ever offers Peggy glimpses of where she is. Reports on the weather, food that she's eaten, nothing of import. Nothing that Peggy can really respond to. Small talk and nothing more.

It's purposeful. Dottie's words ring out in her ears after each ended conversation. Peggy would trust Natasha to save her life, to save Angie's. But, to maintain a friendship? Something that's not two people with their backs pressed up against one another's, fighting for their lives. Does Natasha have any place there?

She wants to. For the first time in a very long while. Since a man with a bow and arrow lowered his arm from its target and held out his hand instead.

Maybe it's because Peggy’s finally stopped dodging around her feelings for Angie, or the news that Laura is pregnant again, or because she's finally just spilled all her secrets to the entire world.

Well, not all of them. Not exactly. Blown covers are one thing. Information about all the things she's done in the last fifty plus years another. But, how she was made into the woman that she is today, that is quite another thing entirely.

Peggy asks her if she is alright. She sounds genuinely worried. She doesn't ask the questions that Natasha knows are on the tip of her tongue. Peggy Carter is a smart woman, she's aware that Natasha knows more about Bucky than she's been letting on. Natasha's grateful in a way she cannot express that Peggy's not pushing. She knows exactly how desperate the woman is to find her old friend.

It's a thread that just might unspool their newly developed trust entirely. Peggy Carter is an incredibly smart woman, but she also thinks that certain things are Right, and Fair, and Just in a way that Natasha was never allowed. Has never even bothered with.

“You know me,” she chuckles dryly. “I'm always alright Cap.”

“Keep on telling yourself that if you like.”

“Right back at ya.”

“Well...” she trails off. Because Natasha is right and Peggy knows it. The silence only drags on for a moment or so, then Peggy clears her throat purposefully. “Angie wants to take you out for coffee sometime. If you're in the area,” she offers.

Natasha hears someone moving outside of the hotel window. They've been there for the last thirty seconds. “Yeah, maybe,” she hums, then unceremoniously hangs up. There are seventeen knives strategically placed around her hotel room. Ten of them are within arm’s reach from where Natasha is stretched out on the bed. “And just who are you?” she calls out calmly.

A lithe blonde slips through the window in one elegant move. “You're equal, or better,” she spits out angrily.

Natasha lets out a soft sigh, she's been waiting for this for weeks. Of course, this is who they would send. Their finest and brightest since Natasha left them. She's heard rumors in recent years. Whispers here and there of the Black Widow in places where Natasha was not. Of course they wouldn't stop. Twenty-six dead little swans. Two ran away.

And then one chooses to stay.

Natasha can see it on her, the choice. She did not grow up in the Red Room, not from girlhood. Not the way Natalia and Doroteya did. (Roza, Sariya, Tatiana, Zoya, Anna, Irina. And girls whose names Natasha has long since forgotten. Faces she is not sure that she ever really even knew.)

“Get up traitor,” she snarls in Russian. Natasha can see more than just the choice on her, this girl reveals far too much. She's spitting mad and arrogant, every inch of her sharp-edged and coiled into stillness. Ready to leap forth at a breath, at a glance—a thought. The violence under her skin is tangible to someone like Natasha, someone trained to look for it.

Natasha smiles at her, lazy and patronizing. The woman can't stop herself from gritting her teeth in annoyance. She's let herself get too angry, full of loyalty, contempt, and resentment towards Natasha.

“What do they call you little spider?” Natasha asks. The Russian slipping back onto her tongue like riding a bike.

“The Black Widow.”

“No,” Natasha smirks, tilting her head to the side, “that's my name.”

“Not anymore. You've been replaced.”

“Have I?” she teases.

The woman growls and leaps at Natasha. She allows it. Smiling as she's pinned down to the bed with a knife at her throat.

“You've betrayed your country,” the woman hisses into Natasha's mouth. Natasha laughs and the woman grows angrier, pressing her body down onto Natasha's roughly. The knife dips into her skin, barely a tick. She’s got incredible control.

“It hasn't been my country for a very long time.” Natasha presses the knife that she’s pulled out of the mattress gently into the woman's side. Neither of them flinch. “They know that.”

“Traitors cannot go unpunished.”

“You believe the lies they tell you,” Natasha whispers. “It's going to get you killed little spider.”

The woman sucks in a breath and tries to press down with her own knife, but Natasha has already pushed her off. She would have already tried to kill Natasha if she wasn't operating on orders to bring her in alive. It's a valuable thing, Natasha's body. Her blood. The skin she lives in that is so hard to snuff out, that heals itself abnormally, and ages so slowly. Natasha wonders if they ever managed to perfect the serum that she and the other girls were injected with again and again. If they have, it hasn't been granted to this woman before her. Natasha has seen firsthand what that looks like. This woman fights like a trained spy, nothing like Peggy Carter in her nearly indestructible body.

“You are the liar,” the woman hisses landing a hard punch to Natasha's stomach. Natasha's fist finds the woman's jaw in an instant. Her hands grip pale blonde hair tightly and yank down, hard, connecting her face with Natasha's knee. The crunch of her nose is enough to tell that it's broken. She groans, but grips Natasha's calf and sweeps her off balance.

Natasha curls into the fall, using the momentum to swing her other leg up and connect with her opponent's head. But this woman who is using her name is well trained—all girls who come from the Red Room are—she ducks, and Natasha's foot connects with nothing but empty air. Well trained, but still greener than Natasha. She keeps the momentum going and flips herself back upright, the heel of her foot slamming into the woman's chest.

“Who are you?” she asks.

“I am the Black Widow.”

Natasha punches her in the stomach. Then twice in the jaw, her blood spilling onto the floor. “Who are you?” she repeats.

“A loyal soldier. Unlike you,” she manages to slice Natasha's thigh with a knife before she dodges away. “I chose to fight for our country. You turned your back and spit on it. On the people who raised you. Who made you who you are.”

This woman truly thinks herself a soldier. She's naïve. Naïve, and going to die at the hands of the people who she thinks saved her. Probably soon, unless Natasha does something about it. Natasha knocks the knife out of her hand and slams her head into the ground. It isn’t her responsibility to save this girl.

Natasha bends her arm backwards. “Get out while you can Rooskaya,” she advises.

She’s back up in seconds, her elbow driving down hard into Natasha's solar plexus. Her smile becomes grotesque and frightening; it stretches across her otherwise beautiful face like a deep and jagged scar. “I'm going to kill you,” she promises. Her knife slices Natasha's left cheek, almost gentle, like a kiss, and then she's back out the window she came in, leaving Natasha panting alone on the hotel floor.

Sometimes, Natasha dreams of the tank. It's rare, but once in a while, she wakes in a cold sweat. The feeling of indifferent hands tossing her into the icy, dark water and holding her down still potent, all these years later.

This is what the Americans will do to you, they warn. Pushing little heads underneath the water, leaving them there for days, weeks sometimes, with no food, no light, unable to do anything but tread water or die. Cutting into their flesh, pulling off their fingernails, force swallowing poison, burning their skin. Practice. Building up tolerance. This is what the Americans will do to you. You must be ready.

Holding them down and injecting them with unknown substances, watching their reactions. Again, and again, and again.

Bare your teeth, Ivan had said, passing Natasha into their waiting arms. She cried and clung to him as a man gave Ivan handfuls of bills and a bottle of vodka, ripping Natasha away with one good yank. (Her neck was sore for days afterwards. The least of her new injuries.) When Ivan finally looked her in the eye, shame wafting off of him, Natasha went cold and hard. The stars, Natalia, he whispered, tipping the bottle towards her. Natasha spit at him and cursed him out with the words he had taught her. He gave her a sad smile. Keep those teeth sharp. And then, he was gone.

Ivan gone, and Natasha's first night in the tank. A girl who couldn't survive even one night wasn't worth keeping alive.

Natasha survived nine. No one else ever made it more than five days their first time inside.

A new record.

A few weeks later, Natasha sits in a different hotel room, in Florence, a whole host of information laid out in front of her.

Her name is Yelena Belova. Born in Kiev in 1984. She's got a mother, and an aunt, Olga. From what Natasha can gather, she grew up dirt poor and didn't enter the Red Room until she was fifteen years old. A year ago, her trainer, Pytor Vasilievich Starkovsky (a name that Natasha knows well) was killed and Yelena was given Natasha's old title after avenging him.

Natasha sits and re-reads the information over and over, not knowing why. It doesn't matter. This woman and her life do not matter one iota to Natasha. She left. Nothing that happens in the Red Room has a thing to do with her anymore.

(A lie she has been telling herself for decades now.)

Natasha groans and shoves the papers away. The new number she texted to Peggy last week rings out loudly in the silent room.

“Natasha,” Peggy’s slightly out of breath. “I know you’re on a bloody holiday finding yourself or whatever, but is there any chance you can cut it temporarily short?”

“Cap,” she drawls, “you miss me already?”

Peggy barks out a laugh, then there is the distinct sound of someone being punched. “I’m not mucking about, Tony is poised and ready to pick you up. Where are you?”

“I’m not letting Tony fly me around in his tin can,” Natasha quips, already packing her things and shooting of her coordinates to Tony.

“Natasha,” Peggy grunts, slamming her fist into something—someone probably. “Do be a sport.”

“I hate you right now.”

Peggy whacks someone with her shield, an unmistakable sound. “That’s fair.”

“Natasha!” Tony yells excitedly as he appears beside her window. “Come into my arms.”

“I really, really hate you,” Natasha tells Peggy.

Since the Battle of New York, whenever they need Banner to go green in a fight, afterwards, they just corral him as best they can until he finally wears himself out. Minimizing the damage as much as possible. Abandoned warehouses. Empty fields. Anywhere there aren't any people and the damage doesn't matter as much.

Peggy is the one able to order him about best in battle. Simple things like, “Hulk, smash.” Anything overly complicated and he just glares at her and smashes about regardless. No direction to his destruction.

But, now, they're too scattered, and Natasha ends up alone with the Hulk. She hears her voice shake—just the slightest bit—as Peggy checks in over the comms. They’ve just finished destroying a hidden HYDRA base. Spontaneous mission well done and all that.

But—

It’s not Bruce’s fault. Natasha knows this.

Her hand starts to shake anyway.

“I’m on my way,” Peggy promises.

Natasha looks up at the Hulk. Of all the things to finally scare Natalia Alianovna Romanova. It makes a certain sense, when she properly dissects it. Natasha feeds on control. She didn’t have any of it for so long. Fires. Drunk soldiers. Indifferent handlers. Arranged marriages. Non-optional missions.

Her body, not her body.

When she dissects it—it makes sense. She needs control. The Hulk has none.

His body is not his body.

Not always. Natasha knows the feeling all too well, and she hates being reminded of it. She hates Bruce for forcing her to remind herself of it.

But, it’s not his fault. (It wasn’t hers.)

Was it?

Is it?

Hulk tears a fence out of the ground. “Hey there big guy,” Natasha says, trying to make herself seem non-threatening. (Hilarious.) Hulk isn’t listening. He’s further gone than usual. Natasha doesn’t have Peggy’s nearly indestructible skin. That serum was destroyed before the second attempt was pushed inside of Natalia’s little girl veins. She doesn’t have Tony’s suit as protection. She is not a god.

But, she is a monster.

The Hulk roars, banging his fists against the Earth in a rage. So, Natasha mimics him. She remembers flames licking at her young skin, turning herself into a wolf, a demon thing. A girl-child with blood on her hands and unimaginable rage coiled inside of her small frame. Wolves and Hulks, monsters alike.

Natasha screams, and the Hulk pauses. She does it again. Banging her fists into the Earth so hard that she hears a crack. The Hulk tilts his head to the side, so human-like that Natasha blanches.

They are not fully monsters. They’ve both just got one inside of them.

She’s got his full attention now, and she’s exhausted beyond all measure. Rusty somehow, from the last few months on her own. So, Natasha lowers herself to the ground and crosses her legs. The Hulk’s fist clenches, but he does not move.

Natasha takes a deep breath and roots herself before looking up and meeting the Hulk’s eyes. She remembers the wolf that lives inside of her, how hungry it used to be. How once, when it was starving and feral, a man looked at it and gave it a smile and a treat. Soft and kind words.

Natasha forces herself to look at the Hulk, and she begins to talk. Her voice and hands do not shake. Clear as a bell.

When Peggy finally arrives, Natasha is helping Bruce up, wrapping what she thinks might be a horse blanket around him.

“Alright?” Peggy asks them both. Bruce nods, looking sallow as walks past them both towards the Helicarrier. Natasha comes up beside Peggy. “Nat?” Peggy prompts. “What did you do?”

Natasha shrugs, but it feels too stiff. She can see Peggy picking up on it, clocking her for injuries. Physical or otherwise. Her sharp eyes zero in on Natasha’s bloody hands.

“Talked about you. And me. The team,” she watches Tony help Bruce up into the aircraft. “About being a monster. About someone else living inside of you, seeing nothing but red.” Clint comes jogging up to the aircraft and launches himself up with theatrical agility. Natasha smiles a little as they start walking over. “About an ex-carnie holding out his hand to a girl who wanted to kill him.”

“Oh, is that all?” Peggy asks, a smile of her own forming.

“Sang the boy a lullaby Cap,” Natasha says wryly. They reach the Helicarrier and her face twists, serious again. Voice low, she says, “I'll take Hulk duty from now on. I think I can do it again.”

“Is this penance?” Peggy asks.

Natasha refrains from smirking. Peggy’s one to talk about penance. “Maybe,” she shrugs at Cap. “Does it matter?”

“No, I suppose. As long as it's not punishment.”

Natasha knocks her shoulder into Peggy's as Clint calls out for them to hurry up. “Now, why would I go on and do that?” she grins and leaps up onto the aircraft, Peggy right behind her.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was part wolf.

Her name was Natalia. Or Nata? (Natashka? Natalka? Nataska? Natashechka?)

It doesn’t matter. Girls in tales don’t need names.

There was a great fire, and her mama died. A kindly young solider kept her safe and warm until he left her in the care of the Bolshoi dancers. She became one of twenty-eight girls to be trained to dance for the Motherland.

No, that’s not right.

There was a great fire, full of terrible red flames, and her mama died. A kindly young soldier named Ivan kept her safe and taught her to be strong and to fight. Her abilities caught the eye of a group of assassins who called themselves The Hand, and they stole her away for themselves. Determined to save her, Ivan plead with the most notorious American soldier and a man who was part wolf to help him get the girl back. The wolf-man had claws of steel in his knuckles, and the woman had the sharpest, most strategic mind that Ivan had ever seen. By the time they came to rescue her, the girl was already part wolf herself. But Ivan left her in the care of the Bolshoi dancers, and she became one of twenty-eight girls to be trained to dance for the Motherland, and brought great beauty to her country.

No, that’s… not right?

There was a great fire, and her (mama?) died. A sad, drunkard young soldier taught her about wolves in the night, and blood red drops in the snow. He left her in the care of his superiors, and she was trained as one of twenty-eight girls to fight for the Motherland. When she grew up, her superiors married her to a fellow solider, Alexi. Her husband and comrade died in battle and she fought ruthlessly to avenge him and her country.

No, that’s…

There… was red. (A fire? A room?) She was one of twenty-eight girls trained to fight for her country. Raised from (birth?) with a singular purpose. She trained hard and became strong. Their top solider. Strong enough to spar against the one with the metal arm. Strong enough to become his partner. To fulfill all of her missions for her country.

No…

There was a great fire, full of terrible red flames, and her mama died. A pathetic, drunkard young soldier taught her about wolves in the night before selling her off for a drink. There was a room full of red. (Heat? Blood? Paint?) The colors of war and death. The girl was (trained? forced?) to be one of twenty-eight spies for her country. To bite and claw her way out of anything. Pain. Poison. Torture. Love. Her handlers were cruel and indifferent, even the one with the metal arm.

Not right. That’s not right. No.

She was one of twenty-eight girls to dance for the Bolshoi. Little white swans. Up on toes. 

There was… red. A fire? No, a room. Both?

Her mama died. Left. Was never there to begin with?

There was a soldier. Was there? There were wolves. And stars. And hands. Grabbing, pulling, hitting. Saving?

There was a woman with kind eyes and a clipped accent. A man who was part wolf. Wasn’t she the wolf?

A husband? A metal arm? The same man? No, two men.

There weren’t any men. The Red Room was only ever full of girls. Twenty-eight girls.

Doroteya, Roza, Sariya, Tatiana, Zoya, Anna, Lara, Irina, Katya.

More?

Klara, Marya, Alisa, Nadia, Sveta, Catherine…

Natalia?

There was red. And wolves. And girls. And pain. There may have been more, but, perhaps not.

Once upon a time, there was a girl. Her name isn’t important. Girls in tales don’t need names.

Some stories work better if they aren't true.

Natasha shows up at Angie Martinelli’s apartment on a Tuesday. She slips into the living room while Peggy is attempting to cook them dinner in the kitchen. (It smells like she’s just burning vegetables. Natasha appreciates that Captain America has a flaw as mundane as being a terrible cook.)

Angie screeches when she catches sight of her and Peggy sprints into the living room, brandishing the spatula in her hands, and crouching into a defensive stance.

Natasha greets her with a laugh. “Hey Cap, how've you been?”

Angie answers for her. Rising from her spot on the couch, still breathing rapidly, she winds up and punches Natasha's shoulder. “Ow,” she whines, clutching at her hand.

“Yeah,” Natasha turns to her, “your form is all off. It's gonna hurt if you do it like that.”

Angie gawks. “Well don't just jump through people's windows unannounced!”

“Sorry,” Natasha says. She isn't particularly sorry about it at all.

The doorbell rings. “That'll be dinner, won’t it?” Peggy asks Angie.

She looks over at Peggy and says, bluntly, “You’re just burning it, and I’m starving.”

Peggy huffs indignantly and turns back to Natasha. “Are you staying?”

“Sure,” Natasha grins, “I'm starving too.”

Peggy rolls her eyes and moves to get the door while Angie yells out, “But I love you for trying!” then starts asking Natasha how to punch her properly without hurting her hand.

By the time they’ve all stuffed themselves with as much pizza as they can manage, Angie heads off to bed claiming a very early morning rehearsal, giving Peggy a kiss as she passes. It’s a nothing sort of kiss; a quick brush of the lips, nothing more, nothing less. It’s the sort of thing you do because you’ve done it a thousand times over, a sort of here I am, and here you are, and here we are, then. A reassurance of presence. Natasha has never known a kiss like that because she chose a life that has no room for small gestures and little intimacies and she doesn’t regret that—most days.

Angie gives Natasha a small smile as she passes, leaving the two of them sitting at the table together in silence. Natasha becomes quiet enough to intrigue Peggy.

“So, what’s on your mind?” she asks. “Are you back?”

Natasha tilts up her head and smirks.

“Not back then,” Peggy discerns. Natasha lifts up her green tea and salutes Peggy with it. “Is this a goodbye?” Peggy asks, her face carefully blank.

Natasha lets out a breath. “Of sorts.” Peggy raises one eyebrow and Natasha chugs down the dregs of her tea. “Mostly, I just wanted to let you know that I’ll probably out of communication for a while. I didn’t want anyone to worry.”

“Nat, what’s going on?” Peggy leans forward. “Can I help?”

“Well, you can actually. The tech we used to break into SHIELD, that hid my face? I kinda need to borrow that. Thought you might want to help?”

Peggy’s eyebrows knit together. Natasha can see her trying to work out exactly what Natasha has up her sleeve. She won’t. She doesn’t have enough information to guess. “Do I want to know why?” she finally asks.

“You might not approve.”

Peggy is stiff in her chair, back absolutely straight against the back of it. Her hair falls into her face, and Natasha has the strangest urge to tuck it back behind her ear. She doesn’t. Peggy shifts, still ram rod straight, her fist threatening to clench around her mug and break it. “Do you have backup?”

Natasha gives her a wry grin. “Thanks for the offer Cap, but — I do. An old… something.”

Peggy’s frown deepens. “Do you trust them?”

“Like I trust you?”

Peggy nods, just once.

“Not quite,” she admits. “But I trust her enough for what I need.”

Peggy doesn’t like it, Natasha can tell. This time, she does reach over and tuck Peggy’s hair back. Then, she gives her a light little slap on the cheek. More of a pat. Peggy whacks her hand away and kicks her from underneath the table. Hard enough to be annoying, but not hard enough to bruise. Natasha’s grin widens.

“You need to do this?” Peggy asks seriously. Natasha nods without hesitation. Peggy’s shoulders sag for a moment, tension released, then it’s back again. “Alright. We’ll break into a heavily guarded facility and steal priceless and rare technology tomorrow morning. You can sleep on the couch. I’ll get you a pillow and a blanket.”

“Thanks Cap,” Natasha says, all the sincerity in the world squeezed into those two words.

Peggy pauses, pillow and blanket in her hands. “Yes, well… you would do the same for me.”

There isn’t any doubt in her face. It’s just as honest as when she had leaned down in front of Natasha and said, “I would now.” Natasha suddenly doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay here with Peggy and Angie and eat burnt blueberry pancakes, not go deal with her past.

But…

“I would,” she says and accepts the blanket.

Shitty blueberry pancakes will still be there if she doesn’t die at the hands of the people who created her. Natasha lays out on the couch and listens to the sounds of Peggy getting ready for bed until she falls asleep.

“This all seems a little… apple pie and fireworks to me,” Dottie drones into Natasha’s ear. “Very 1950s suburban housewife.”

“That’s sort of the point,” Natasha says with a smirk. Dottie returns it, reaching over and tugging at a strand of Natasha’s hair. Natasha allows this. “You understand the plan?”

Dottie’s eyebrows raise. “I’m not a simpleton Nata.”

Natasha leans in closer, Dottie’s face splitting out into a delighted grin before she presses her own face even closer, their noses just brushing. “Don’t fuck this up,” Natasha warns.

Dottie kisses her nose.

Natasha regrets not taking Peggy up on her offer for backup.

It’s painfully easy to find Yelena. The girl was trained well, but she’s no match for Natasha and Dottie combined.

Natasha watches her sleeping on the monitors. It’s deeply distressing to see her own face peering back up at her, despite being the one who put it on Yelena in the first place.

This plan might be entirely idiotic, but it’s too late to come up with something else now, Yelena is waking. She curls into herself momentarily, then stretches out, cat-like. She’s quick, it only takes her a few beats to realize that she is in an unfamiliar place, and she’s sore.

She’s up out of the bed in a flash. Natasha watches as Yelena hunkers against the earth like a belligerent animal with its hackles up, taking in her surroundings quick-flash before moving out of the bedroom to survey the hall. It only takes her a minute and forty-eight seconds to clear the upstairs, and she hesitates in the bathroom—just as planned.

Yelena balks at her reflection, at the note displayed on the mirror.

Kill Yelena Belova.

She whips around, every muscle coiled and ready for danger, utterly confused that her face is not her own.

It’s Natasha’s.

That’s when Dottie sways into the door frame. “Natalia,” she drawls. “Good to see you again.” Yelena’s every muscle coils tight, her fists frozen at her sides. Dottie holds out a bundle of clothes. “You’ll need these,” she says before whispering the old Red Room code to her in Russian and disappearing as quickly as she came.

Yelena calls after her, a terrible panic in her voice that she tries to squelch out by biting at the inside of her cheek. She drops the bundle, running after where Dottie should be, but she’s gone. Natasha smiles. It only takes Yelena two and a half minutes to clear the entire house, and by then, Dottie is slipping in through the window and plucking herself down onto Natasha’s lap.

“This is fun,” she declares. Natasha shoves her off unceremoniously and keeps her eyes on the monitors. “You’re not,” Dottie pouts.

Yelena breaths heavily in the empty living room. She stares at her reflection in the mirror, pressing curious fingers to her cheeks, tugging at her hair, inspecting her neck.

She won’t find anything. Natasha has been very thorough. Her entire plan hinges on it.

With a growl of frustration, Yelena stalks back up to the bathroom and yanks the clothes that Dottie gave her on. No hesitation. Natasha examines her body in the few seconds its bare from the monitors. Scars litter her back, one on her calf, a large freckle on her left butt cheek, a thin long scar on her stomach—she no longer has her appendix then. Dottie left her a gun underneath the sink, not that she’ll really need it. Yelena holds it in her palm and stares at the words in red lipstick on the mirror. A dramatic flair to add to the empty suburban house.

Dottie’s idea.

Yelena holds her breath tight inside of her, the gun weighing her hand down, her eyes boring into the message—Natasha’s eyes. Green, instead of the blue Yelena had been expecting. Her breath slips out, so slowly that Natasha almost doesn’t see it happen.

Yelena curses under her breath in Russian, then tucks the gun into the back of her pants, and leaves the house.

“Phase one: complete,” Dottie twirls at her hair. “Got anything to eat?”

Yelena is moving like a cornered animal, at its most dangerous. Dottie and Natasha both trail her at a wide berth, and the plan rolls on. She is treated as Natasha. Each new stop she makes, her eyes grow wider, her teeth clench tighter, her fingernails dig into her palms.

Her body, not her body.

It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch, all the more unsettling with the knowledge that Natasha did this to her. She swallows down any regret, there is no place for that here, not now. The plan is happening, necessary, whether she likes it or not. She nods to Dottie, then pulls on her new face, stepping into the bright sidewalk.

She walks like a spy, and Yelena sees her in an instant—freezing against a park bench. Natasha strides past her and then disappears.

Phase two.

Clint places a mug of hot chocolate in front of her. Natalia stares at it, then glances back up at him. “It’s really good,” he insists cheerfully, sipping at his own. “Bobbi makes the best hot coco in the world. The secret’s cinnamon,” he winks.

“I’m not a child,” Natalia says calmly.

Clint shrugs. “It’s not a kids drink,” he sips his own, as if to try and prove this somehow. He’s the most non-adult person Natalia has ever met. “But for the record, you look about all of twelve.”

“I’m much older than twelve.”

“I know,” Clint says gravely. They stare at each other a few minutes more, then the front door clicks and Natalia is jumping into a crouch on the floor. “That’ll be Bobbi,” Clint says, running his fingers through his scraggly hair.

Bobbi walks into the kitchen, takes one look at Natalia, still crouched on the floor, then back to Clint, leaning against the counter, casually sipping his hot chocolate. “Are we adopting teenage spies now?” she asks as she moves to put away the groceries gathered in her arms. “Because I gotta tell you, I’m not old enough to be anyone’s mother, and you sure as shit aren’t responsible enough to be anyone’s dad.”

Natalia frowns and stands up straight. “My name is Natalia Alianovna Romanova, I’m not a child,” she hisses.

Bobbi towers over her by a lot, (more than Clint) but Natalia thinks she can take her easily. Though, she recognizes a fighter’s body when she sees one. Bobbi sets down a bag of apples and turns to face Natalia head on, then, she sticks out her hand. “Barbara Morse,” she waits. “You can call me Bobbi though.” Natalia doesn’t touch her. Bobbi drops her hand down and swipes Natalia’s hot chocolate for her own. “You can have the couch I guess,” she takes a large sip of Natalia’s hot chocolate. “It’s comfy.”

Clint laughs. “That’s like… the nicest she’s been to anyone all week kid, I’d take it.”

Bobbi turns on him, flicks him in the shoulder, then smiles. Natalia watches them uncomfortably. They touch each other with ease, familiarity. Natalia’s skin feels pulled over herself too tightly. She lifts up on her toes, then back down again. Once, twice, three times. On pointe, again and again while Clint and Bobbi bicker, and eat, and watch tv. Clint brings her a pillow and a blanket, winking at her and not bothering to hide away a single weapon as he heads off to bed with Bobbi.

Natalia could kill them in their sleep in a second. She thinks of the tank. Of fingernails and hair being pulled, of poisons, of this is what Americans will do to you, and she wonders why she doesn’t.

There’s still time, she supposes, and pulls the blanket up to her chin before falling asleep.

The reports start to come in quickly.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova, their most prized and long lost daughter, come home at last.

Yelena Belova, a traitor to her country and the name they gave her.

It takes days to set everything in motion. Weeks of planning before that. It takes a lot, to decide to burn yourself to the ground. All of her covers already blown to the wind helps; Yelena has nothing and no one left to turn to.

A little spider, alone in the world. Her face, not her face. Orders to kill. Orders that must be obeyed.

And one of the deadliest organizations in the world after her.

Natasha sets her traps, the Black Widow, spinning her deadly web. And one by one, they each fall.

Yelena falls with them.

The decision is her own, in the end.

She’s sure of it.

Almost.

Twenty-eight little girls turned themselves into wolves, and Natalia the fiercest of them all. It stops hurting. She completes each mission: dance, fuck, kill, follow, trick, listen, kill.

Kill. Kill. Kill.

Again, and again, and again. Years and years of it. Solo missions. Two girls at a time. Partners with the Soldat With The Metal Arm. All of the above.

Roza still sometimes cries at night, rolling around in her bed and calling out for a mama who most likely was never there in the first place. Alisa hits every girl who laughs at the thickness of her thighs, deadly deep bruises peppering their skin where she leaves her mark. Doroteya slips into beds, biting and kissing with equal measure. Her fingers are the first to ever slip inside of Natalia, roughly and hurried, the pair of them silently staring into each other’s eyes, clawing at each other with frenzied desperation and confused hormones. Katya slips into her bed for a different reason, eyes red rimmed, far too easy to see, even in the dark. Her hands shake as they cling to Natalia’s waist. Natalia counts their breaths for her, small whispers, one, two, three, four, until Katya isn’t shaking anymore. She isn’t the only one to try and hide Katya’s weakness from their superiors, only Galina seems intent on weeding her out. Irina shields Katya from their reality whenever possible, with stories about animals, and lands far, far away from here. Without red, without fighting.  

They kill Katya in the end anyway. There is no place for weakness in the Red Room. And there are no secrets.

Natalia hears her breaths shake as Clint holds his hand out to her, and thinks of Katya. Dark hair, blue eyes, spindly little body that clung to her own with desperation. She loved horses. And Natalia was forced to help kill her for it.

Clint smiles. “I know how to do a handstand on a horse,” his hand waits patiently for her own, bow and arrow secured behind his back. Natalia didn’t know she said anything out loud. “I could teach you, if you want,” he offers. “Free of charge.”

Natalia has no idea why, to this day, but she believes him.

Her hand does not shake as she slips it into his, her eyes do not waver from his weapon.

Her dreams are haunted by images of Katya’s corpse laying on top of dead horses for years, long after she’s forgotten her name.

Yelena follows them to Moscow.

Natasha’s skin itches with each step she takes on her home soil. Each step closer to home.

Dottie and Natasha book a hotel room and wait. Predators, with cable tv and full room service. Yelena is a mess by the time that Dottie slips back into Natasha’s room to report on her. She’s been taken, twice, framed, beaten, interrogated, escaped, all the little bits of their plan slotting into place. Dottie says this all while flirting, Natasha rolls her eyes, and Dottie twirls off to her own room, backup, if Natasha needs her.

She won’t.

Yelena is radiating anger and fear when she slips in through the window this time. The gun rests in her palm, but her grip is all wrong—her hand shakes.

“Natashechka,” Natasha says to her, playing along. “Of course they’d send you.

Yelena sucks in a breath. “No,” she hisses. “It’s… I’m not. You did this,” she spits out, finally looking like the deadly woman that Natasha’s come to know. “I don’t know how, but—”

“Natashechka,” Natasha clucks her tongue. “You’re going a bit mad I think. A pity.” It’s cruel, the confusion that flickers across Yelena’s face. The hesitation.

(Red. Stars. Wolves. Snow. Needles. Girls who don’t know their names.)

“I – I am Yelena,” she sputters.

“Are you?” Natasha taunts. “You don’t sound so sure of yourself.” Natasha laughs, allows every bit of cruelness that she possesses to slip out of her mouth and Yelena flinches away. “Who are you?” Natasha asks.

“I... am the Black Widow.”

You must name a thing before it can come to life, like a witch’s spell.

“Are you?”

“Yes?”

“Go on then,” Natasha holds her arms up in surrender.

Yelena holds the gun up at her, hand shaking terribly now. “They said to,” she whispers. “My orders said… I followed all of them, but still...”

“Orders must be obeyed,” Natasha says in Russian. “To the letter.”

Yelena swallows and Natasha can see angry tears in her eyes. This is a cruel, cruel lesson. Natasha doesn’t allow herself to feel it. They taught them both well, and orders must be obeyed. The mission is all that matters, feelings have no place here.

“I don’t know how you did this,” Yelena hisses, only her eyes giving away her fear now. Every other bit of her is taunt and ready for a fight. “But I’ll kill you for it,” she advances and punches Natasha hard in the face, sending her down to the floor. “Tricking me,” another punch, “using me,” another punch, she’s putting her full weight behind it. Good girl.

Natasha finally hits her back. “That’s enough little spider,” she says, blood on her lips.

Enough,” Yelena screams in disbelief. “How dare you,” she points to her face, to Natasha’s. “Kidnapping me, drugging me, framing me, you…” she’s shaking with rage now, straddling Natasha, the same as the first time they met. In another hotel room, months ago. “You stole me from me, Natasha,” she sags down onto Natasha, her energy dispelling. “Why would you do this to me?” she sounds very young all the sudden. Fifteen and a novice of the Red Room, all over again.

“I wanted to save you,” Natasha finally admits.

Yelena’s eyes snap to her own. Clearly, this is the very last thing she ever expected Natasha to say. “What?” she hisses.

“You’re naïve,” Natasha says, still laying on the floor, Yelena on top of her. “And it will get you killed. You think they’re your family, that they love you, because you will kill for them? They don’t. You are a tool. The Black Widow isn’t a person, it’s a curse. Anyone can be her Yelena. I was just the one they loved best for a while, I was never the only one, and neither are you. You are a tool, and tools are expendable. I needed to make sure you knew it.”

“Fuck you,” Yelena spits, digging her knees into Natasha’s throat. “You arrogant shit. You stole everything from me, for some sick lesson? Some game?”

“If not me, them,” Natasha croaks out. “Trust me Rooskaya, it would have been much, much worse coming from them.” She pictures twenty-six little faces, all blurred together, all dead.

“There were other ways,” Yelena snarls.

“Yes, but I wanted you to understand. I’m sorry Rooskaya, it was not cruelty for cruelty’s sake.”

Yelena’s face twists into a series of complicated emotions, so quickly that even Natasha only picks up three or four of them. She picks the gun back up and presses it against Natasha’s forehead, knees still pressing firmly down, holding Natasha in place. “If – if I pull the trigger,” Yelena shakes, “will I kill me too?”

Natasha stares up at her own face. “No, only me,” she can flip Yelena off if she wants to. If she kicks out her legs, even with her air supply being cut off like this, they were trained the same, Yelena must know this. She doesn’t move to secure her any further. “You will survive,” Natasha promises.

Yelena sits up, the pressure against Natasha’s throat releases and the metal against her forehead disappears. The gun pointed at her, remains so. They stare at each other for a few beats, and Natasha waits. Then, Yelena pulls the trigger.

The sound is deafening. Natasha blinks as her ears ring out, the bullet hole etched into the floor, directly beside her left ear. Yelena bends back down, her lips against Natasha’s right ear. “Give me back my face you bitch,” she hisses.

That’s when Dottie bursts into the room.

Yelena’s up and in a fighting stance in a second, Natasha doesn’t even bother moving. “Yelena, you’ve met Dottie.”

“Hello,” Dottie waves her fingers, far too flirtatiously. Yelena frowns, then looks back down at Natasha. “Ready to go burn some things to the ground?” she asks devilishly.

Natasha rolls herself upright, ears still ringing. She pulls the tech off her face, wincing at the effort. Yelena gapes at her incredulously. Natasha rises, no help from Dottie, and stands in front of Yelena. She’s shorter, by about two inches, and when she reaches up to pull the tech off her face, Yelena flinches at Natasha’s touch. She steps away the minute that her face is her own, hovering beside the window she came in from.

“Are you coming with us Rooskaya?” Natasha asks softly. She won’t blame her if she doesn’t, but a part of her aches for Yelena to join them. Not to leave. Not just yet.

“Fuck you,” is all Yelena says, but when Natasha and Dottie leave the room, she follows half a step behind them.

It’s not easy. By the time that the three of them are standing in their old training room, Dottie’s shoulder is dislocated, Natasha is bleeding quite heavily from a gash in her left leg—to match the still echoing sound in her ear—and Yelena is sporting at least two broken fingers. Not to mention all of the small cuts and bruises they’re each sure to discover should they escape this place alive for a second time.

Natasha hasn’t set foot inside of this room in exactly twenty-six years. One year for each sister, dead and gone.

If that isn’t irony…

“Why are you laughing?” Yelena snaps at her.

Natasha hadn’t even realized that she was, but now, she can’t quite seem to stop. Even Dottie looks over at her a little worriedly, and that – that sets Natasha over the edge. Her laughter building hysterically, because if Doroteya thinks that she’s gone unhinged, then there truly must be no hope left for her at all.

“What’s wrong with her?” Yelena asks.

Natasha sees Dottie shake her head out of the corner of her eye. “We killed her in here,” Natasha wheezes out through her laughter. “They made us. Do you remember her name? I can’t.”

Dottie’s lips press into a thin line, her eyes boring into Natasha’s. “No,” she says, it comes out in a whisper.

“You’re lying,” Natasha accuses.

“So are you,” Dottie bites back.

Their faces are pressed against each other’s now, and Natasha’s no longer laughing. Yelena circles close, confusion and annoyance splitting out onto her face. “I’m not,” Natasha admits shamefully. “I can’t remember. They gave me more serum than you.”  

Dottie frowns, and then all three of them register the sound of approaching footsteps. Yelena’s face flashes panic when she looks back at Natasha.

“Tell me,” Natasha asks.

“We need to move,” Dottie answers. Natasha grabs at her arm, holding her in place. The panic in Yelena’s eyes increases.

“Tell me,” Natasha orders.

“Nata, the past is the past, this is—”

“Tell me,” Natasha grips her arm roughly, pulls at her shoulder and Dottie hisses. “In this room.”

“Katya,” Dottie gasps, bringing her elbow up to slam into Natasha’s nose and pulling her arm back. “Are you happy now? Katya.

“Who the fuck is Katya?” Yelena yells. “We need to go.

“We can now,” Natasha looks at Dottie a moment longer. “That’s what I needed.”

Dottie flips her off. Natasha smiles, for the first time all afternoon. Then, they run.

The fire builds slowly at first, and then so fast it’s overwhelming. The three of them run, side by side, by side, panting their way through the smoke at a sprint. They topple over together a mile away, falling into the snow in a pile and watching as the Red Room finally burns to the ground.

It takes ages. Natasha sits in the wet snow, her leg screaming, her childhood burning.

Yelena is the first to tear her eyes away. Moving over, she gives Dottie no warning before pulling her arm and popping her shoulder back into its socket. Natasha doesn’t notice the tourniquet Yelena ties to her leg until she’s yanked it so tight that it shocks her. She turns back towards the fire.

It takes another five minutes of silence before Dottie stands up, grumbling. “This was fun, don’t call me again anytime soon,” she declares, looking down at Natasha.

“Doroteya,” is all Natasha can croak out. “It’s over.”

Dottie swallows, looks once more at the remains of the fire, then back down to Natasha. “Good riddance then,” she says firmly, then drops a kiss to the top of Natasha’s head. “As long as we’re alive, we’re alive,” she whispers, then disappears.

Natasha watches the fire until it’s nothing but embers. She’s dizzy. From her wound, from being back in the Red Room, from sitting in the Russian snow, watching a fire burn her childhood nightmare into the ground. From all of it.

“It’s late,” Yelena says, and Natasha is embarrassed to admit that she jumps, forgetting that Yelena was even still there.

She looks up and sees the stars. The stars are always there, an old voice whispers. She smiles, blood still dripping from her lips, the smell of smoke in her hair, her past, finally burnt to the ground. She turns to Yelena and smiles. The wolf inside of her feels quiet. Still there, but quiet.

Natasha leans forward and presses her lips to Yelena’s. Yelena tenses up in surprise and Natasha waits until Yelena reciprocates. Hungrily, desperately, they claw at each other. Fumbling together in the cold snow until Yelena gets herself on top of Natasha, her tongue inside of her mouth, her fingers, seemingly inexperienced, running down every length of Natasha’s body. Natasha begins it, and Natasha ends it. Gently pushing Yelena off with a final kiss, possibly far more tender than she’s ever given anyone. Yelena bites her bottom lip roughly in response, and Natasha smirks.

“I’m woozy,” she nods to her leg. “And it’s cold. Another time Rooskaya. I promise, I’ll show you what you’ve been missing.”

“I haven’t been missing anything,” Yelena snaps. “I just don’t give a shit.”

“I believe you. Help me up.”

Yelena looks very much like she is just going to stalk away and leave Natasha alone in the snow. She wouldn’t blame her, after everything she’s done, not a bit. It’s probably what she would do if their situations were reversed. But, after a beat, Yelena surprises her, reaching down and hauling Natasha up, supporting most of her body weight as they slowly walk away from their destruction.

It’s been twenty-six years since Natasha left.

Eighty-two, since she arrived. A cold winter night, stars in the sky, a wolf growing inside of her chest, flames licking at her ankles, blood dripping from her mouth.

She leaves the same way. It feels poetic, inevitable, and fucking stupid all at once.

“What now?” Yelena asks once they’ve gotten far enough away that all they can see is smoke.

“Whatever you want Rooskaya, you’re free,” Natasha grunts as she puts too much weight onto her left leg. Yelena moves to support her more without thought. “Of them, and of me,” she adds.

Yelena pauses, Natasha, no choice but to stop with her. She stares at Natasha for a few beats. “Of you?” she asks.

“Yes, I’m not dragging you from one debt to another. You’re free little spider. Do whatever you want. Go visit your mother. Be glad that you have one.”

Yelena bites at her lower lip. “What do you want?” she asks, into Natasha’s left ear. It’s quiet and tentative enough that Natasha knows she’s hoping it’s still a bit hard to hear out of. She smirks at Yelena, it’s almost back to normal.

She doesn’t shrug her question off. Natasha thinks of Peggy, and the way they move in perfect sync together in a fight, her back pressed tightly up against Natasha’s own. Of Clint, and his easy smiles, signing at her and rolling his eyes behind Tony’s back. Of Sam’s teasing, Thor’s enthusiasm, Bobbi’s unwavering loyalty, Angie’s bright grins, Bruce, hell, even Tony. Of all of the people that she potentially has waiting for her, if she wants them. “I think… I want blueberry pancakes,” she laughs.

“Blueberry pancakes?” Yelena asks, full of scorn.

“Yes,” Natasha nods, thinking of Angie, burning pancakes with Sharon in Peggy’s apartment. About the fact that if she had asked, Peggy would be standing beside her right now. Clint, Bobbi, probably Sam too, no questions asked.

But it’s not them standing beside her right now, it’s Yelena. A woman who shares her name, her legacy. A woman she is more interested in than she would like to admit aloud. She’s happy that this is who is standing beside her in this moment, it’s unexpected but oddly welcome.

Yelena frowns slightly, her arm still loose around Natasha’s waist, Natasha’s blood still smeared on her lips from their kisses. “I don’t understand you at all,” she muses.

“You don’t really know me yet,” Natasha agrees. “I don’t know you yet either.” Yelena’s hand on her waist squeezes, then releases, and Natasha watches her pulse throb at her neck. It’s possible that she’s becoming delirious from the loss of blood, exhaustion, and the overwhelming feeling of being back here. She smiles up at Yelena, then blows into her nose, because she had a sister once who told her that that was how horses introduced themselves. “Hello Rooskaya, I’m Natalia, but I’d prefer you call me Natasha.”

Yelena stares down at her, then suddenly her face twists into a delicious smirk. “Nice to meet you Natasha, I’m the Black Widow.”

Natasha grins. “Funny that, me too.”