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“This file is shit,” Maria says, tossing the file onto the coffee table and rubbing her forehead.

“That’s not nice, I’m sure some small little agent put his heart and soul into that report,” Natasha says. Her name is on the file.

“It’s nothing we don’t already have.”

“You could ask.”

Maria lifts her eyebrows. “I thought that was what I was doing.”

Natasha shrugs, pulls the report towards her, and smiles.

“My father was a man with political ambitions,” she says. “Like most minor government officials, he thought he could be the next Lenin.”

“Didn’t work out?”

“Are the Nikolaevichs in charge of Russia?

“He married my mother young, and his political ambition came from her. She wasn’t content to be a minor official’s wife. I can remember her telling him to do better.” She can: bitter arguments between her parents and her older sister taking her upstairs and playing loud music to drown the fighting out.

“Do you look like her?” Maria asks.

“I don’t know. There aren’t any pictures anymore, but my sister looked like my father, and my brother like my mother.” She can’t remember enough details, just that her father used to say it all the time, bursting with pride that his daughter looked like him and his son looked like his wife. They had told her they would have to wait and see who she looked like.


“Veniamin was eight years older, and Regina was six years older.”

“What happened?”

“Men with guns.”

“How old were you?”


“Why didn’t they kill you?”

“I was a perfect specimen. Red Room wanted the orphaned young children of political enemies to the regime. It was neat, and made a statement.” She pauses, drinking her tea. “And when they came to my room I had my father’s gun.”

“You shot them?”

“I don’t remember,” she says, and it’s the truth. She remembers that it was very cold, and that there were a lot of men who seemed like giants to her. She thinks it was snowing.

She can remember walking down the steps to the front door and she can remember that the man had been sitting under a streetlight.

He called her by name, and she had known she was going to die, but she had still asked him: “Are you going to kill me?”

He didn’t answer, because the answer was more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”.

“How did they get you, then?”

“He didn’t have a gun,” she says, and smiles a little. “He seemed like the safer alternative at the time.”

These are not all lies:

  • She’s Anastasia’s great-granddaughter, last of the Romanovs. Natalia Alianovna Romanova (“You’re joking.” “Look, that is the Romanov nose.” “That was lifetimes ago, and they found her body.” “But you flinched, and they have not proven that it was her, yet.”).
  • They call her паука, for her too-long limbs and the way she weaves a deadly web even as a child. Little spider.
  • She cannot be unmade, because there is nothing about her that is concrete. She has no personality that cannot be shifted, nothing but the desire to survive.
  • Her mother was an agent who retired, got married, had three children. Two she was to be allowed to keep, but the third was to become an agent, like her mother. It was the price one paid for freedom.
  • She is Anastasia, modified by the Communists to live forever. There has always been a Black Widow.
  • Her first kill was a drug lord who crossed the KGB. He took her to his bed and he never left it.
  • If they had put her in the field like they were supposed to, instead of handing the assignment to an older, more experienced agent, the Counter-terrorist Operation on Chechnya would not have happened.
  • When she is 14 she has three husbands. They start calling her the Black Widow because when she is 15 she attends three funerals dressed in black, and dabs at her eyes as her husband is lowered into the ground each time.
  • She takes to characters well, too well. They have to unmake her each time.
  • She never tries to run.
  • The Black Widow was an ordinary Russian teenager until, on a school field trip, she was bitten by a radioactive spider. The cuffs around her wrists are actually to disguise the fact that her venom is natural, and when she’s done with her victims she wraps them in her web and feeds off their blood.
  • She never leaves a debt unpaid. If she cannot repay it, sleep with a gun at your bedside (or don’t, because the likelihood you’ll have the opportunity to use it against her is naught).
  • American studios hear about this master assassin in Russia, coming out of the post-Cold War depths, and they want to make her their villain. No one ever comes to the casting calls, and screenwriters refuse to touch the project.

The children call her Baba Yaga. The other children at Red Room, children of the regime’s political enemies or orphans picked up through less legitimate means.

Baba Yaga cannot hurt the pure of heart. She will gnash her iron teeth and her temper will flare, and if you do not give her the answers she seeks she will kill you. She works with the spirits, is friends with the early morning and the bright light of day and the dark of night.

She is an old woman, a hag and an ill omen. She is a goddess, of wisdom and death. She is resurrection, and she gives new life. She is the boogeyman hiding in the shadows.

They call her Baba Yaga and mean to hurt her, she knows. But she is eight, and it has been a very long time since she has felt anything that she wasn’t told to feel.

Except sometimes, suddenly, a chill will shudder down her spine and her stomach will clench. A kind of panic like she’s forgotten something; hasn’t done an assignment or is about to be jumped. The instinct that keeps her alive and says, run, do it now, run! screams out of the dark places in her mind.

She can drown it out, she finds, if she practices with enough guns and sharp knives.

There’s nowhere to run anyway.

There is a boy called Gennadi (she doesn’t know if that’s his name; none of them kept their names).

Her first assignment is to be a wife, and two instructors shut the door behind them after explaining the training exercise, and she listens to the lock slide into place. There are two cameras set up.

“So we’re supposed to fuck,” Gennadi says, stripping off his clothing efficiently. She wonders if he’s done this before. If there’s a reason they picked him.

“Show me,” she says, stripping as well.

There is no place here for sentiment. Emotions get you killed, and pride is worse.

Later she sits in her room and stares straight ahead. She sucks her cheeks between her teeth, just enough to feel it, and can’t stop her throat from working; her shoulders are so tight she’s shaking with it.

She wonders how this feels for girls who experience this in the outside world. If thirteen is young or the usual age.

One of the instructors unlocks her door, bolting it behind him. His forehead is damp with perspiration and his eyes are dark; movements sluggish. She knows from a glance what he wants, how he’ll try to get it.

“Show me what you learned,” he says.

She smiles, leans back and looks down, coy.

He doesn’t realise what’s happening until she’s already snapping his neck.

She isn’t on the complex during her assignments. For the first time in a decade she sees the outside world. She watches television and listens to the radio and updates her references, her idioms. Shifts her accent slightly (it’s a joke, she thinks, that they make her over-enunciate, speak with that upper-class affect. Romanov).

This is the secret she keeps, when the Red Room finally gives her ‘master’ status; when they call her Чёрная вдова, the Black Widow: She puts on other people’s skin, can wear any role, be the best in the world, but all everyone else sees is a small young woman with cocksucking lips and a pin-up model’s body.

When they tell her she’s pretty, though, she’s won, because they’ve stopped caring whether she can shoot, or snap a neck with a flick of her wrist. As soon as they tell her she’s pretty they’re wondering what it would be like to fuck her (she doesn’t run into many women in power positions: of the three she does meet none of them tell her she’s pretty. Insufficient data’s a bitch).

She puts on the lives of students and waitresses and lawyers, of gun-runners and political wives and prostitutes, and every time she shrugs them off it feels like a release. That moment when a kill lines up and she’s just her—that’s what she craves. It’s the only moment she knows who she is.

They laud her, and the men who fund the program get medals and are rewarded. She’s perfect, they say.

Most of her kills are close-contact. She can use a gun or a poison, but they send her in, generally, to the situations that are guaranteed to go ugly, or that have gone ugly already.

They give her bracelets, cuffs, really, that deliver electro-static blasts of up to 30,000 volts. “Less mess,” one of the techies says, grinning. There are other things, basic equipment, and she learns them all intimately.

She’s the only one with the bracelets. Mostly because she’s the only one who figures out how to wear them without getting electrocuted.

She’s twenty-three and feels no different from eight, fourteen, twenty. Nothing changes except the dimensions of her suits and how tall she is. She thinks sometimes she is like a tree: growing always, but inherently the same.  

The job is to target an American. He is with his girlfriend in Kirovohrad, a college town in the Ukraine, only 200,000 people.

He is an asset, an agent, and three Red Room agents have died trying to bring him down.

He’s walking with his girlfriend on a mild spring evening, gesturing expansively. He’s small, and has a soft face, and his face lights up when he talks. He clearly loves his girlfriend very much.

It’s easy enough to kill him. He loves his girlfriend and his mind is not in the job. She gets clipped by a car and falls down, her high heel breaking as she falls hard into the sidewalk. He runs over, bending to help her up, hands tentative on her skin—a man with an instinct to help but wary of being accused of sexual harassment.

She sobs a little, and when he bends over her to pick up her bag she shoots him three times in the stomach.

He stares at her, mouth working, saliva and blood frothing together. She smiles, allows herself the indulgence.

“What?” he croaks, and she rests him back, just in time for his girlfriend to start screaming. “Who?”

“Natalia Romanova,” she says, because he should know who she is, and these moments are the only ones when she feels like she knows who that is.

Sirens sound in the distance, but she’s gone by the time they arrive, savoring the taste of identity in her mouth for as long as it lasts.

(Later, what she remembers most is that his girlfriend's dress had been white, and that the blood-spray had looked like polka dots.)

People imagine that all the assassins in the world know each other and are constantly comparing dick sizes (metaphorically—sometimes).

They don’t. She doesn’t. She wouldn’t know another assassin from anyone else on the street unless it was her business to know.

So when she gets a postcard from Gennadi with a hawk on the front she pauses.

Her handler does some digging, and people up top start getting nervous. They don’t tell her anything.

Her own healthy paranoia is probably the only thing that keeps her alive.

She’s walking home when she sees it.

She flexes her fingers under her mittens, and heads down an alley. As she turns the corner she shoots at the man who’s been following her on the rooftops. He drops the thing in his hand (bow and arrow, her mind supplies, but that’s ridiculous—people don’t actually use archery as an assassination tool), and then he’s in the alley ahead of her.

“Are you here to kill me?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says, and his Russian is terrible. She switches to English.

“You come to my country and you intend to kill me on my turf?”

“I don’t really care so much about that,” he admits. He’s short, for an agent—maybe five foot nine if he’s lucky. Strong arms, though, and strong thighs. Leads with his shoulders, probably just as good as she is—definitely uses that bow and arrow as his primary weapon. “My ride’s pretty reliable.”

Later, when she replays this, she won’t know how she didn’t see him move. One second he was talking too much, and the next minute he was kicking her in the head.

She gives as good as she gets, but in the end it’s her on the ground with him on top. He presses the solid metal of his gun under her jaw, which is a mercy: it’ll be fast. She won’t even have time to feel it.

He looks down at her, blood glistening in the moonlight and painting grotesque shapes on his face. He breathes too steadily, and the gun shifts, presses a little harder.

“What’s your name?” he says.

She licks blood from her lips and breathes through her bruised throat and broken nose, watching his shoulders tremble with the effort to maintain tension: he beat her, but only because he was lucky.

“Natasha,” she says. Something shudders up her spine, and a voice she hasn’t listened to in years screams, run, do it now, run!

A car pulls up and a bureaucrat raises his eyebrows down at them. “This is not dead,” he observes. His Russian is perfect—learned clearly here in St. Petersburg, judging by the accent.

The man glances up at him, and then back down at her. The blood in her throat is starting to feel too-slick, and she’s probably going to start drowning on it. Maybe two minutes left, unless he lets her up. Bad way to go.

“Hawkeye,” the bureaucrat presses. Not a bureaucrat. Handler. A handler who goes into the field.

“New York’s nice this time of year,” Hawkeye tells her, standing fluidly, gun still trained on her.

“I’ve never been,” she says, raising her hands with a wince as she sits, then stands.

“Can I keep her?” Hawkeye asks the handler, who looks between them with the expression of a man who knows exactly how much trouble this is going to cause him.

“Get in the car.”

In 2007, the Russian agent Natalia Alianova Romanova defects to the supra-governmental agency known as the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.

They’ve called her Zasha Nikolaevich, Чёрная вдова, Chyornaya vdova, паука, Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Natasha Romanov sounds derivative, but it’s a new name for a new life. Names change, alliances shift, regimes fall, and people die.  

It’s the first name she ever picked for herself.

The handler’s name is Phil Coulson. The agent’s name is Clint Barton. Barton effectively strips her down and Coulson does immediate medical care, his touches gentle and efficient against her bare skin. He doesn’t linger, and Barton’s eyes don’t stray. None of it seems forced or designed to lull her into a false sense of security.

“We should get to HQ. These are probably broken,” he says, fingers pressing inquisitively against her ribs. He sighs and then walks to the front of the van to say something to the driver.

Barton doesn’t tie her up. He hands her a spare jumpsuit that’s three times too big for her, but she appreciates the professional courtesy: no point in tying her up, and he won’t insult her by doing it. He sits down across from her and watches her.

She’s used to it. People are always watching her. She feels the adrenaline fade and the aches and pain start to press against her, screaming for attention.

The jet has a doctor on board and he braces her ribs, gives her some painkillers that she doesn’t take. Instead she sits carefully and listens to them, watches. She’s always been good about hearing the things people don’t say.

By the time they land in New York she knows that Barton is twelve years older than she is, and was a criminal. Well. He was bored, and a kid, and too intense. And he liked to watch things blow up. His grandmother marched him to a recruiting office on his 17th birthday, and two weeks later the the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division came knocking (they need a better name, Natasha thinks).

The director said he could use of someone with Barton’s talents; he would be able to see the world, protect things that need protecting, and they promised he would be alone. Natasha thinks that it was that last bit that appealed to him the most, though he and his handler seem to be a cohesive unit.

She meets Nick Fury, who narrows his one eye at her. “This is not going to be pleasant,” he says, and then, bluntly, “for you.”

“No,” she agrees. “I didn’t think it would be.”

It’s three months. Three months at headquarters. They send in shrinks to try to deprogram her, to break through.

“We need to get to the real you,” they say, brutally efficient.

She doesn’t know how to say that she doesn’t know who the real her is, but if they let her kill someone they could probably see it.

“When did you get drafted?” Barton asks, leaning in her doorway. It’s ostensibly a room, but she thinks it’s more of a cell.

“I was four.”

His chin jerks up, his gaze intensifying. “And you spent the whole time training.”

“Yes.” In his body language she reads incredulity, pity, understanding, and the abrupt understanding that the deprogramming isn’t working because they’re doing it wrong.

For the first time since men broke into her parents’ house nearly two decades ago, she’s afraid.

The next month is horrifying. She’s used to rigid schedules, to having her meals provided, her clothes picked out. Abruptly, she has all the freedom in the world, and her palms constantly have cuts in them because she can’t stop clenching her fists.

She doesn’t like pasta. She likes her make-up to be stark, a little classic; it makes her look older. She likes pencil skirts and high heels. She loves diet coke and cheeseburgers. She’s apathetic about pizza, but she wants to try all the varieties before she comes to a final decision.

She doesn’t like watching shows where people fail, and she doesn’t understand enough of the day-to-day language to really get invested in television.

She makes lists, and every day she knows that this ties her to this organization. This isn’t just about survival: she likes things, and they’ve demonstrated a willingness to let her have access to those things.

She also really likes wiping the floor with the other agents. Barton stays in the background and bets on her, and she doesn’t even demand a cut.

She’s got red in her ledger, and every day the balance grows.

Coulson isn’t going to be her handler. He introduces her to a man named Jason Hudson. Hudson seems competent, but she’s realized that there’s competent and then there’s Coulson.

Hudson watches her with vague suspicion. He’s comfortably loyal to America first, the Division second, and his CO last. He doesn’t understand desertion, and she doesn’t bother explaining it to him.

The first op she runs for SHIELD (she cannot keep calling it that ridiculous, long name. She can’t, and the acronym is trite, but works) is simple.

So are the next eight.

“Are they fucking with me?” she demands, and Barton looks up.

“How did you get into my room?” he asks, frowning at the door like it betrayed him.

“I overrode it. Are they trying to make me—”

“You overrode my door,” he says, frowning and looking at it. “How did you override my door?”

“Will you focus?”

“Oh, I’m very focused,” he assures her, his voice steady.

She rolls her eyes, takes him outside the room, and shows him.

“Well damn,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck.

Then he makes her do it to Coulson’s office so he can get a prototype for a new arrowhead, and after he goes with her to dinner, eating cheeseburgers outside.

“They’re not trying to make you quit,” he says, finally.

“Are you really discussing this out here?” Coulson demands as he pulls up a chair. The waiter puts a plate down in front of him. Natasha stares, but Barton seems to expect that Coulson will simply materialize and have pre-ordered food.

“I’m not feeling challenged in my work environment,” Natasha says dryly, and Coulson flicks her a little smile, like he thinks that’s genuinely funny.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he tells her.

Not much, it turns out.

The man who found her, who picked her up and didn’t kill her but took away her life when she was only four, his name was Ivan Petrovitch. He was the director of the Red Room, and stayed that way throughout her entire career there. He used to like to say, U strakha glaza veliki: fear has large eyes. The more afraid you become, the more threats you see; the more compromised you become.

They weren’t allowed to get attached because an agent should never be afraid, and having things you could lose added more opportunities for fear to the equation.

She’s not afraid, but she is...uncertain. It doesn’t sit well in her stomach.

Barton likes to be up high: he sits in the highest places and watches the world go by. There’s not a lot he misses, but he’s a big-picture kind of guy. She’s not sure what kind of girl she is, but she knows she’d rather have blood under her nails than gunpowder from a sniper rifle.

Natasha spends a lot of time in the armory. She sits, polishing and cleaning her guns. It’s mindless, repetitive and familiar.

“I meant to ask,” Coulson says behind her, and she doesn’t startle because she’s been trained not to, but she does raise her eyebrows. It’s been a very long time since someone snuck up on her. Possibly this is the first time.

“Yes?” she prompts when it’s clear he’s not going to continue.

“Do you have a favorite?” he asks. He steps into her space and leans over the computer, pulling up files and specs, guns and knives and sophisticated tech. She touches her bare wrists.

“You’re not my handler,” she points out when he reaches the door, because she can’t quite read him.

“Let me know what you think,” he says, and she presses her lips down on her smile.

Fury isn’t given to platitudes. He gives a good speech and his ideals are solid. He’s a soldier; rose up through the ranks.

She can appreciate that.

Maria Hill is Fury’s second in command. She’s three years older than Natasha, and she watches her like she expects Natasha to blow them all up.

“Do we have a problem?” Hill asks when Natasha turns around and returns the calculating stare.


Later, though, Hill knocks on Natasha’s door. Natasha opens it, putting her phone down. On the other end Barton is bitching about how hot Mombasa is.

“Can I help you, Agent Hill?”

“Why did you defect?” Hill demands, abrupt. She’s all hard edges and competence, and she’s not the kind of woman who has ever used her body to get what she wants. Hill is a soldier and an officer, and she’s never worn anyone’s skin but her own. Natasha wants to reach out and see if she can feel if there’s a difference.

“Because Hawkeye would have killed me,” she says. This is not complicated.

“Coercion doesn’t make the best agents.”

“Agent Barton demonstrated that Red Room was no longer able to protect my interests. I would have gone freelance if he had let me walk.” Her accent is impeccable, these days. No real traces of her mother tongue.

Hill shifts her weight, her arms folded over her chest, then says, “And what happens, Agent Romanov, when we’re not able to protect your interests?”

“It’s not really that complicated.”

Hill’s frown deepens briefly, then she nods. “Thank you for your honesty, Agent Romanov.”

Natasha nods, and shuts her door.

When she picks up the phone from where she put it on the bed, Barton is still complaining about the heat.

She thinks the difference is that SHIELD takes adults trained elsewhere. Red Room raised its own agents, and never quite moved past thinking of them as children. SHIELD takes adults who are soldiers and assassins and contractors and civilians; people who have come into their own and are competent enough to merit attention. Things go wrong more often with SHIELD.

But its agents are far more loyal.

“What is that?”

“Music,” she says, crouching down. The guard station is occupied by two men, one of whom is humming along to Arashi.

“If you say so,” Barton says, dubious. “Guards're down.”

Natasha looks down at the two bodies on the ground, then back at the hilltop she knows Barton is on. “I noticed.”

“Two in the hall, one at the door to the main wing,” he says. “You ever work with a partner?”

“Are you implying my job performance is less than satisfactory?” she asks, electrocuting the first guard. The second is down with a dart in his neck. Beside him is the body of an arrow.

It’s possible that R&D likes Barton a little too much: the man has a lot of toys.

She slides in: it’s a contact list they’re after, and she has codes to a safe that she got by sleeping with a lieutenant, but that doesn’t mean this is going to be easy. She’s almost to the wine cellar when Barton starts humming.

“Better move ‘cause we’ve arrived—”

“I will kill you,” she breathes.

“Lookin’ sexy, lookin’ fly,” he continues, completely without humor. Like he’s singing in the shower or something. She picks up a bottle of shiraz and looks down at the keypad hidden underneath, punching the code in. “Baddest chick, chick inside. DJ, jam tonight.”

“Start count-down,” she says, and he hums in her ear as she plugs in the flashdrive to the server hidden behind a false wall. It’s all very old-world spy movie, she thinks. Something out of the seventies.

“You’ve got movement topside,” he says.

“Do your job,” she suggests, sticking the flashdrive into her bra. There’s even a pocket there, which shows that a woman designed this suit and knows that this is where you stash important things. “Coming to you.”

“Don’t walk in the blood,” he advises. She stops at the end of the hall and says,

“That might not be possible.”

There is blood all over the floor, with the seven guards equidistant from each other (and she does spare a moment to be impressed with that). She exhales, and then hears the steady beat of at least ten more guards coming at a brisk pace. Right.

She backs up a little and then jumps. She lands on the second body and shoves off again, hitting the wall fast enough to run a few paces before she has to jump back down onto the fifth body, which rolls a little at the impact and forces her to backflip, but she does manage to avoid all the blood.

“So that was good,” Barton says after a few beats.

She pushes back the hair that came loose from her bun and jogs lightly into the shadows of the grounds, heading towards the rendezvous point, and doesn’t bother to acknowledge him.

On the jet back to HQ, though, he just grins at her. This tiny little smirk.

“You have something you want to share?” she asks finally when they’re over Pennsylvania somewhere.

“Ignore him,” Coulson says from up front.

“I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly, I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” Barton starts singing, low. “I don’t think you’re ready for this, ‘cause my bodys too bootylicious for ya b—”

The sound of a safety disengaging registers with them both. The gun is attached to Coulson’s hand, but he hasn’t turned around. Natasha tilts her head. Taser gun.

“No Beyoncé, please,” Coulson says easily. “We talked about this.”

“Look, Coulson,” Barton says, earnest, “that was Destiny’s Child, and, you must not know ‘bout me, you must not know ‘bout me. I can have anoth—Jesus Christ don’t—!”

Coulson tases him, and Natasha laughs, and surprises herself with it, with the easy way Coulson catches her smile.

She’s never been part of a team before.

She’s officially designated as a “shadow”.

“I want to go shopping,” she says. They’re sending her to shadow a think-tank in D.C., and she doesn’t look the part, not with the clothes she has.

“I’ll come,” Barton says, playing with his bow. She almost wishes that were a euphemism, but it’s not. The relationship might be sexual, though. Sometimes he croons to it. And sings to it, because apparently that’s allowed.

“No,” she tells him. She thinks they might be friends. Or—that they’ll become friends. She’s not really sure how this works. She thinks it’s a good sign that he’s decided to spend free time in her room, though.

“I know what looks good on women,” Barton protests.

“You pop the collars on your shirts,” she says.

“You do do that,” Coulson says, knocking lightly on the doorframe. “I saw this was open.”

“I need to go shopping for this assignment.”

Coulson looks at her, then pulls up his sleeve to look at his watch. “I have three hours,” he says. “Shall we?”

Coulson sits outside the dressing rooms, talks to the sales people and consults his phone.

Natasha puts on the blouses and skirts, the blazers and shoes, rolls on her thigh-high stockings and a garter belt. She looks in the mirror and twists up her hair, pinning it high on the back of her head in a slick bun.

“What?” she asks, when he steps into her mirror.  

“It’s interesting,” he says. “Watching you put someone else on.”

She smoothes her hands down the skirt, and thinks that Nora Rubenstein is the kind of woman who dresses herself to look good, but not because she wants other people looking. Nora wants to look in the mirror and like what she sees: she’s not particularly bothered whether or not anyone else likes it.

“It’s easier than being yourself, I think,” she says.

“Dinner?” he asks, handing the sales assistant a black amex.

“Why are you with the division?” she asks.

“Captain America,” he says.

She frowns, and shakes her head.

“You—you don’t know who Captain America is?” he asks.

“No,” she says, and he leans forward.

“Excuse me?” he says to the driver. “Could you take us to the Captain America Museum in Brooklyn?”

Coulson is a nerd. His face lights up and he smiles as he takes her through the museum, rattling off dozens of facts and bits of trivia.

“He’s the reason I wanted to be with the division,” he tells her, looking at the poster. “He was only twenty-four when he crashed his plane. He was just—this kid, you know.”

She looks at him, receding hairline and any muscles hidden under his size-too-big suit. He’s the same height as Barton, but he carries himself differently. Barton is a weapon, and has always thought of himself that way.


“What?” he says, and she realizes she should have responded fifteen seconds ago to his commentary in some way.

“You’re hard to read,” she admits.

He looks at her and then glances down, like the smile on his face is something private. “I’m really not,” he says.

She smiles and shrugs and he takes the hint and talks about his vintage trading cards (almost the entire set in near-mint condition). They pass through the giftshop and she buys him a keychain. It’s heavy and bulky and of the Captain’s shield (she likes that concept: a defensive weapon. He could use it to throw-down, but its primary purpose was for defense. She wonders what he would think of this world).

Coulson smiles and immediately attaches his keys to it, and doesn’t even comment when she hands him back his amex.

“You and Coulson,” Hill says as they board the helicarrier, and she looks supremely uncomfortable to be having this conversation, her face blank and her eyes on the people scurrying around to secure the jets. She leaves the question open—it’s not even a real question, just an implication. Natasha doesn’t have to answer this, because it’s not against regulations and it’s not Hill’s business.

“No,” Natasha says, because she’s curious. It’s something she’s finding: that with the freedom to be curious she’s desperate to know things. She has a Wikipedia app on her phone and she’s collecting books that she has nowhere to put but storage lockers. It’s such a strange thing, to be able to find answers to questions she’s thought of herself. She still feels the most like herself when she’s killing someone, but even that is starting to bleed into other moments.

Right now she wants to know where this is going, because Hill hasn’t been anything but distant and professionally suspicious of her.

Hill tilts her head and looks at her. “Barton?”

“Is it part of my charter to be fucking someone, Agent Hill?” she asks, and Hill’s lips twitch into a half-grin, blue eyes flicking to Natasha’s.  

“Would you like it to be, Agent Romanov?” she asks without missing a beat, and then snaps, “If you break that I will throw you off the edge of this thing when we reach maximum altitude.” Natasha is confused for a second, and then she sees the small baby agent glancing guilty at a control panel, looking at Hill with a wrench clutched in his hands as though he’s seen the face of his doom.

“I think Hill was hitting on me,” Natasha tells Barton, sitting on his bed on the helicarrier. She’s not sure why they need a helicarrier for the drop-off.

“Hill who?” he asks, playing with her cuffs. “These are great.”

“Maria Hill.”

“Fury’s Hill?”

“Is that a place?”

“Who’s on first?”

Natasha kicks him, and he grins at her.

“Not a lot to know,” he says. “She’s career military, her hero is Peggy Carter, and she’s the reason the director gets to be so fabulous.”

Natasha bites her lip.

“Would that be terrible?” he asks, and he doesn’t pretend to be casual about it, blatantly obvious in his curiosity.

“I’ve never slept with anyone I liked before,” she says, and he fumbles the cuffs and shocks himself.

“Tasha,” he says, and she shakes her head.

“It never came up.”

“That’s what she said.”

She decides at that point she’ll have to smother him, and while she’s waiting for him to wake back up again she realizes he called her Tasha, and wonders if she’s supposed to call him Clint now.

Maybe she could ask Coulson.

Hill’s the one who helps her find an apartment in New York. Manhattan, even.

The realtor looks between them and makes her own assumptions, and Natasha doesn’t correct her. She just lets Hill be terrifying and competent while Natasha walks on hardwood floors and looks out the windows and tries to imagine putting furniture in here, books and paintings.

There are good places for security systems and enough walls to provide cover without boxing her in.

“You want it?” Hill asks, and Natasha turns around and looks at her.

“Oui,” she says, because she’s buying this place as Natalia Rousset, who is French and has a pied-à-terre in Paris.

There’s a lease signed and the realtor handing Natasha keys and letting herself out.

Natasha's sexual history is something of a minefield, and best ignored for sanity's sake. She can count the number of partners she's chosen on one hand, though the number of her partners is well into triple digits. This is a fact of her life; of her job. She's pretty and curvy and dangerous and most of the targets she's been sent after have been men.

So she isn't sure, exactly, how to navigate this. It's not a hate fuck, and Hill knows her, watched her shake apart and fumble through putting herself back together. Has read her files and expedited things for Natasha (Clint is still waiting for some sleeves, and meanwhile Natasha’s zipper goes all the way to her chin). And she's here. She's here blithely bullying a realtor, showing Natasha where to sign and following Natasha's lead (they’re power-couple lesbians—she'd watched The L Word with Clint earlier that week).

"So. It’s yours now," Hill says, and Natasha looks at her, and then at the bare expanse of apartment, and tries to remember how people on television intimated that they wanted sex. She can't remember--there's a lot of heavy eye-contact and swelling, throbbing music.

There’s none of that here, so Natasha just walks into her space and kisses her. The angle’s a little off, but it’s Hill who corrects it, her hand strong against Natasha’s jaw, wrapping an arm around her waist and moving her back, walking her further into the kitchen until the counter stops them, a cutting pressure at Natasha’s back.

She licks into Hill’s mouth to distract herself, trying to get a little control back, not so much a war for dominance as genuine curiosity: will Hill back off if Natasha fights her for control, or will she just strengthen her assault?

Definitely the latter, because Natasha’s half-bent back, Hill’s thigh between her legs and one hand kneading one of Natasha’s breasts, thumb dragging back and forth over her nipple, the other caught in her hair, keeping their mouths pressed together.

Natasha’s gripping Hill’s hips, her own hips rolling helplessly for the friction of Hill’s jeans against her bare pussy (Natalia doesn’t like panties), dripping and slick and burning up with it.

“Please,” she gasps, and this is so strange, feels like free-falling or jumping off of a building and hoping you hit the trash in the dumpster five stories below, not the street. This isn’t how she’s ever fucked.

Hill lifts her onto the counter, rucking up the flirty skirt she's wearing so that Natasha's ass is bare against the cold marble counter. She didn't wear underwear, and Maria makes a small pleased sound.

She settles between Natasha's thighs, fingers pressing bruises into the skin of her hips, her inner thighs, spreading her open and licking the seam of her, pressing a kiss just above her clit before sucking it into her mouth, hard, with just a hint of teeth.

"Shit!" Natasha gasps, wrapping her legs around Hill's back, pulling her in. Hill slides two fingers inside the slick heat of her, curving and dragging against the walls of her pussy, and Natasha whines, rolls her hips and tries to fuck Hill’s face.

Hill worries the outer lips of Natasha’s pussy, slides a tongue in next to her fingers and bites the soft skin at the top of her inner-thigh.

Natasha’s fingers slide, hot and sweaty, over the countertop, and she pulls at her own hair, fondles her breasts, and concentrates on breathing, but eventually it’s too much, and she’s been on the edge so long that if she doesn’t come she’s going to melt or shake apart, and so she reaches down, rolls her hips and threads her fingers tightly in Hill’s hair.

“Suck it,” she exhales. “Come on—yes, there, just—suck it.”

And Hill does, sucks on Natasha’s clit but it’s not quite enough and the sounds coming out of Natasha’s mouth sound suspiciously like sobs. And then Hill slides a third finger inside her and fucks them in and out of the slick wet of Natasha’s cunt and very carefully scrapes her teeth over Natsha’s clit.

She comes hard enough to make her sit back up from where she had laid down, muscles shuddering and contracting as her orgasm rips through her, rolls up into her throat and down into her toes and keeps going, because Hill’s pulled her mouth away but her thumb is still lazily circling Natsha’s clit, and her fingers are still fucking into her shallowly.

Natasha unwraps her legs from Hill and then uses a foot to shove her away, pussy tightening, grasping for fingers that aren’t there anymore.

Hill raises her eyebrows, and Natasha grins, and then throws her onto the ground so she can climb on top of her face.

She doesn’t know what to call it, what they’re doing. She knows they’re not breaking any rules, because Hill wouldn’t risk her career over Natasha. She thinks that someone else would feel offended by that, but she likes boundaries: finds them comforting.

Hill and Maria are two different people, which Natasha can usually navigate (the uniform gives it away about 95% of the time, and when in doubt she defaults to “Hill” and if she gets a blank look she knows she guessed wrong).

Clint and Coulson help her decorate, and if they notice that furniture and paintings and cooking utensils are materializing between visits, neither of them is stupid enough to say anything.

It’s not a relationship like she’s seen on TV, or read about, or even seen, but the sex is good and she likes Maria, who will sometimes hum old country/western songs and then look stricken and say, “Goddamnit, Mom.”

They send Barton to Budapest.

It’s a bad op. She tries to explain this to Hudson, but he wants to know how she even knows about it, and she’s so taken aback by the fact that he didn’t know she was in the database. Coulson keeps on leaving her little easter eggs to find. They don’t even use the email system.

Barton is in Budapest and is about to be in the middle of a drug war and Coulson is liaising in L.A. with Stark Industries.  Apparently he’s not technically a handler, he’s a liaison and agent in his own right.

But Budapest is going to be a shitshow, she can see that a mile away. It’s going to be crawling with Red Room agents, and Barton is good but take the Red Room and the Kzysmski Crime Family and you have a recipe for the kind of disaster that will level a city.

“I need an op in Eastern Europe,” Natasha tells Maria, who puts the safety back on the gun she had levelled at Natasha’s head when Natasha slipped into Maria’s apartment through the fire escape.

“I’m cooking,” Maria says, hair down and in jeans and a t-shirt that’s worn through in places, threadbare. Natasha hasn’t owned anything long enough to wear it through, but she thinks she’d like to: to be able to have a piece of clothing that remembers its history with her.

Natasha sits on a barstool at the island in the kitchen and stares at Maria’s back. “I need an op near Hungary.”

Maria turns off the burner on the stove and turns around, wiping her hands on a gingham towel. She raises her eyebrows, which means that Natasha has the opportunity to convince her.

Or Maria’s going to kill her for breaking this boundary.

“Barton’s not going to walk out of that op,” Natasha tells the tile on the counter, because she’s compromised: this is her being publicly compromised to the point where she’s asking for help.

“Agent Barton is one of our top operatives,” Maria points out. “Possibly our best.”

Natasha’s professional pride is stung, and Maria’s lips curve a little when she sees the hit register. Natasha exhales through her nose.

“Red Room is already involved in Budapest—I don’t know what the deal is that they’re working with the Kzysmskis but a conflict between the two could level the city.”

“You’re not giving me many tangibles, Romanov.”

Coulson isn’t here, and so for this mission Clint has a new handler who is complete shit.

“I’m going in to Budapest,” Natasha says. “Are you going to help or not?”

Maria Hill doesn’t give her subordinates free reign: she’s thorough and competent and she doesn’t follow gut instincts and she is always in charge. She is ruthlessly pragmatic in her job, and Natasha knows this. But she also knows that Maria is the only person she can turn to.

So she waits, while Maria picks up her phone and turns the stove back on, giving Natasha her back.

“Agent Hudson, this is Agent Hill. I have a job for you and your asset in Zvolen. You leave tonight.”

Slipping Hudson is simple, and she’s at the Slovakia/Hungary Border within an hour of landing.

The Kzysmskis are looking to get out of the European heroin market but since the Red Room benefits from profits they’re not looking to let their assets back out. Since the money is being used to acquire enough weapons to start a civil war, Natasha’s not surprised.

Infiltrating the Kzysmskis is even easier: she just looks like she knows something.

She wonders if they’ll blame Muslim extremists for this when they grab her and tie her arms behind her back.

“Tell us why Uller sends you,” the man in charge demands, his English heavily broken. “What are you, a tiny girl—”

“The hell,” Barton says over the comm line. He’s just slipped in, she can see him in the shadows. “Romanov, are you hot?”

“—do you know who I am?” the man finishes.

“Yes,” Natasha says to them both. The man puffs up with self-importance; Barton makes a frustrated noise.

“Your body will send a message,” macho man tells her, and there’s a strange whistling sound and then he’s falling over, an arrow in his ass.

“That’s classy,” she says, standing up and breaking the chair against the goon who runs at her, flipping to her feet.

“This is my op,” Barton tells her.

“You’ve been compromised,” she says. “Red Room is here.”

He drops down beside her and cuts through the last ziptie. “ETA?”

The ground under their feet trembles. “Ten minutes,” she says.

“We haven’t heard any—” he breaks off, tilting his head as they head out onto the street. A low rumble, seven blocks south of them, echoes against the buildings.

“Congratulations,” she says. “You just heard it.” She slides on her cuffs and fires them up, and then checks her magazine, flicking the safety off her gun.

Barton notches an arrow and crouches. She looks at him, then tilts her head. Off of a high-rise she can see the flickering orange gleam of an explosion seconds before the shockwave hits.

“Is that a tank?” he demands.

It is. Things get fairly ugly at that point.

Mission Report submitted by Agent Coulson on operation in Budapest, Hungary 2008/03/24 [excerpt]:

Received a call at 1503 PST (2303 CET) from Agent Barton indicating parameters of mission (formerly stated as a simple extraction of information identifying Kzysmski Family as brokers in drug/weapons trade to Middle Eastern extremist group known as The Ten Rings) had changed. Per Agent Barton, Agent Romanov had infiltrated the operation based on information obtained which indicated that situation was not as stable as had been assessed and with the intent to expedite timeline.

Per Agent Barton mission had been completed by Agent Romanov but extraction was unfeasible and both Agents were compromised. Per SHIELD Directive 011A-43 p34 s42 authorized an extraction of both Agents.

Upon discovery Agent Barton was administered three emergency transfusions of blood type AB(-) and immediately delivered to local hospital for surgery. Complete invoice attached along with summary of injuries sustained to operative not enumerated therein.

Agent Romanov sustained injuries also attached and was administered one transfusion of blood type A(+). Agent Romanov delivered to me via secure video communication her report.

Recommending Agent Jason Hudson (handler: Black Widow) and Agent Timothy Nadeau (temporary handler: Hawkeye) submit to formal investigation and review of compatibility at SHIELD. Am NOT recommending Agent Romanov for review. If not for Agent Romanov’s actions it is my assessment that SHIELD would have lost one of its most valuable assets in Agent Barton.

[Attached: medical records from Szent János Kórház for patients Barton, Clinton F and Romanov, Natasha A; performance review re: Nadeau, Timothy; performance review re: Hudson, Jason; application from Coulson, Philip for sole custody of asset Romanov, Natasha A]

They will never agree on Budapest. Natasha remembers it as a firefight, and Clint remembers it like an execution. She thinks it probably has something to do with their perspectives, but what she remembers most is telling him to stop complaining while the pavement under him grew darker and darker and his face grew whiter and whiter.

She remembers the blood loss and she remembers thinking that if he died she wouldn’t have any more red in her ledger because you can’t owe a dead man. She remembers coughing and choking on her own blood and knowing that they were both going to die. That Coulson would be so pissed.

They both survive.

Coulson is still pissed. So is Hill, and that she didn’t expect.

(This is what the hospital staff remember: A man, Clinton, and a woman, Natasha, come in and are put in the same room. The man is in far more critical condition, but that does not suggest that the woman is not dying, it just means the man should be dead.

Surgeons work through the night, and in the morning the patients are put into a private room.

An administrator comes down and says no one is to enter without his express clearance, and the nurses exchange looks and nod.

The story flies around the hospital in less than an hour.

A small man walks in exaclty twelve hours later. He has a kind face, though he seems harried, and perhaps out of his depth. He picks up the bags of personal effects and stands next to Clinton. The doctors all rush into the room, and he speaks to them in perfect Hungarian, polite, conscientious. His hand, occasionally, will brush against Clinton’s, and people think perhaps he is his brother, or cousin (lover, one of the nurses says, and rolls her eyes when the others scoff at her).

After reports are made, he excuses himself to make a phone call just outside the staff lounge.

“Agent Hill? Agent Coulson. Situation is under control, but we’re going to need hospitalization in the states...Uh-huh....Mhm. No, we’ll be to you in seven hours. Yes, I’ll hold.” He looks into the distance for a second, adjusting his tie. “Secure? No, your hands were tied. Well, officially I’m recommending review, but I’d rather let Barton and Romanov handle it...Yeah...No, I know. Well, personally I’m going to go the tasing route and replacing his music catalogue with the Beijing Angelic Choir.”

Only one of the doctors in the lounge happens to speak English, and his colleagues accuse him of making up the conversation.)

Budapest makes Barton “Clint”, then. Coulson, who came to their rescue and checked them out of the hospital, is still Coulson. Phil is the cover, the skin he wears most days. Phil the nice, unsuspecting, non-threatening bureaucrat.

Coulson is one of them.

There is a saying: Во́рон во́рону глаз не вы́клюет. It’s been stuck in her head for a while now. She used to laugh at it: Voron voronu glaz ne vyklyuyet -The raven won't peck out the eye of another raven. If she was a raven, she was the only one in existence, but she thinks...she thinks she may have found her murder.

She doesn’t realize she’s saying it until she hands Clint the popcorn and sits next to him on the couch. He’s freshly back from Italy and Coulson is trying to forget the fact that he had to dress up like a gondolier.

There are pictures. They are wonderful.

“So we’re ravens now?” Clint asks, flipping channels like a child.

“The first one of you who says ‘nevermore’ is going to babysit the CIA in Pakistan,” Coulson warns, and Natasha grins as Coulson confiscates the remote and turns the TV to a M*A*S*H rerun.

One evening, Maria hands her a file. They’re in Natasha’s apartment—it’s hers, even though it has at least six of Maria’s outfits and it’s her taste in art on the walls, her electric toothbrush next to Natasha’s and her make-up in the dresser drawer, but there’s a line, and calling it “their” apartment seems to cross it.

Well, really Maria starts by complaining about the baby analysts and their inability to research one of their own, and Natasha tells her the story. Tells her what she remembers about her family and where she came from.

Tells her the name she was born with.

She thought it would be terrifying, but it feels good. Maria’s hands are firm and steady, and if Natasha is going to put those details in anyone’s hands for safekeeping, she thinks it should be Maria’s.

Clint knows most of it because they got really drunk that one night, but now she knows he grew up in a carnival.

Which, what?

“No,” she says, handing Coulson the file back.

“It’s our first mission together,” Coulson tells her, refusing to take it.

“Those missions suck,” Clint says from the bed where he’s sprawled out, watching back-episodes of NOVA. She’s not sure why this had to happen in her room. She’d rather he didn’t get his torrid feelings for Neil deGrasse Tyson all over her comforter.

“Tony Stark is—” she says, looking at the paperwork again. There’s something else, there are rumors coming out of Russia, something she can’t quite get ahold of no matter how long she stays in front of her computer.

“Dying,” Coulson agrees. “Director Fury thinks that you are perfect for this.”

She thinks she probably is, but that’s not the point.

“You don’t have to sleep with him,” Hill says.

Natasha jerks her head up. She’s at a lingerie shop downtown, trying to fit into Natalie Rushman’s skin. She didn’t expect to see Hill, who was in Saudi Arabia until about an hour ago. Natasha didn’t think she’d be the first stop.

“Stark. He’s—you don’t  have to. That’s not within the parameters of your mission,” Hill elaborates. She’s in jeans and someone else’s t-shirt, and her jacket isn’t warm enough for the weather. Not Hill, then. Maria.

Natalie Rushman probably would fuck Stark, though. Natalie models in Japan and she holds eye contact a little too long and she’s a lawyer. She sees sex as a powerful weapon and she likes to wear tight dresses that don’t leave anything to the imagination. She leaves her shirts unbuttoned just a little too much and she wears stockings and garter belts, thongs and shoes with soaring heels. She bends over at the hips, never crouches, and arches her back as much as she can.

“Okay,” Natasha says, and goes back into the changing room to put on her street clothes.

“I just wanted you to know,” Maria says when Natasha comes back out. “I know it worked differently with Red Room.”

“Let’s get lunch,” Natasha says. She considers, and then links their arms. “And then bed.”

Everything changes with that assignment. It’s the precursor to the world going sharp, to everything and everyone going a little bit mad. Tony Stark rediscovers an element, a Norse God is real and has a grudge match in New Mexico, and Bruce Banner turns himself into a gamma-radiation-induced rage monster.

All in one week.

There are jobs after that, with things returning to the status quo, but she’s not an idiot, and she was trained young to smell change in the air. Fury doesn’t give up the Avengers Initiative, he just lets the Council think he’s tabled it, but as soon as Captain America is pulled out of the ice she knows it’s a matter of time.

There are monsters and gods and aliens in the world; men who turn into monsters against their will. Captain America lives, Coulson dies, and Clint is unmade.

She stops being what they made her and she creates herself. Turns herself into a soldier and feels something click inside, that warm satisfaction and sense of completion that she feels after a kill. Strange to feel it without blood on her hands.

These are not all lies:

  • “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” was originally said by Natasha Romanov, and was quoted in Bhagavad Gita 2200 years too soon.
  • On a planet called Asgard, small children are brought up with the story of the Black Widow, the woman who defeated the Trickster God.
  • When she is 14 she has three husbands. When she is 34 she has one wife.
  • She goes into the Afterlife with Clint Barton and brings Phil Coulson back.
  • When Nick Fury wants to scare an invading force, he sends the Black Widow.
  • She doesn’t miss Russia.
  • She is loyal to SHIELD.
  • She doesn’t have a tattoo of a raven on her hip bone. Neither does Maria Hall.
  • She dies peacefully, an old woman with her ledger completely black, and Valkyries bear her away to Valhalla.
  • When Nick Fury reveals that Coulson did not die, she brokers peace with Barton by getting Fury to play the Top 100 constantly at HQ and on the helicarrier.
  • When Coulson subsequently threatens to tase Barton she gives him ear-plugs, because she’s the smartest person she knows.
  • She dies when she’s 30 and starts the Zombie Apocalypse.
  • It really isn’t that complicated.
  • All the stories you’ve heard, the whispers and the rumors? The ones that sound too fantastical, something out of a spy movie or a novel? They’re true. All of them.
  • SHIELD calls her “The Black Widow”—the rest of the world calls her Death.
  • The Black Widow and the God of Thunder fought: the world went 100 years without thunderstorms.
  • She cannot be unmade.