Natalia Alianovna Romanova is born in the depth of winter, with eyes as stormy as a pre-blizzard sky.
Baba Yaga whispers magic in one ear and Rasputin murmurs in the other. Ivan’s war cry echoes in her first scream, and Princess Anastasia’s defiance rattles from her tiny fists. King Frost kisses her brow and her mother weeps.
Long live Russia.
She is seven years old in 1989 when an old man comes knocking on her family’s door. Natashenka dresses quietly and slips out into the eternal winter with him. Her mother calls after her. She waves, red hair flying around her like the falling flag.
She follows the man up a hill and out of sight of the house.
“You have melancholia in your eyes,” the old man says, stooping low against the wind. “And green. Green is for hope, little girl.” He nods to himself. “A good balance.”
Natashenka throws herself into the snow, makes an angel, stares at the sky. After a moment, the old man joins her, flat on his back.
“Your turn,” he whispers.
Russia closes his eyes.
In Berlin, ten thousand men, women and children storm a wall. In Moscow, Gorbachev smiles for the cameras.
Russia opens her eyes, filled with hope and melancholia, and oil and vodka in her veins.
Russia is dead. Long live Russia.
That night, she dreams of a man in dapper clothes, walking stick in hand. “Hello there, duckie,” he drawls with a smile.
And old man, stopped low and wearing faded communist red nods at her. By his side is a stocky woman in her forties, holding him upright. She nods, too. Then they turn and walk away. A gap-toothed boy takes their place, smiling, eyes as blue as summers over a broken wall.
China nods, regal and silent.
France snorts, runs a hand through raven hair and down her white dress. “You remade the world today, cherie.”
Russia shrugs. The wind howls.
She has seen him before, on TV, in pictures. She never even guessed at his true nature, never saw even a flicker of it until she steps into his living room and he smiles at her, a flash of teeth in the bright morning sunlight.
She always expected America to be like the late Captain America, blue, white and red, the same colors as her own, but less broken, less frozen and lost. Less melancholia, more hope.
She didn’t expect America to wear the face of Anthony Edward Stark.
Up close, though, she can’t tell why. He has Coyote sitting on one shoulder and the ghost of long taken frontiers on his other. There is blood on his hands and grit under his nails, highways and railroads twining around him. His heart is sand and tar, his blood whiskey and water. He hums, sometimes, and she hears eagles cry.
When he sings, throaty and half-drunk, the Trail of Tears echoes in his vowels, grief sharpening itself on consonants. Gold glints under his skin and skyscrapers grow from his head. He catches her eye and somewhere, deep below their feet, the world shudders, just a little.
“Natasha Romanov,” she tells him, the first time they are alone, because there is no reason to lie to him. She is a SHIELD agent now, but before that, always, she is Natalia Alianovna Romanova, Russia made flesh.
He flashes her a grin, quicksilver and free, asks, “’89?”
She nods and lets him see, the old and the new coming together in her, hair like an outdated flag, eyes like hope, dead princesses and old fairy tales in her smile. She is older than him, and at the same time, younger.
“Been around since the fifties,” he tells her around a sip of Jack. She nods because she knows. Nuclear deterrents and the Arms Race tell their own tale from every wrinkle on his face. He shakes his head. “The old one took over after ’29. Never really got a grip on it. And then.”
He spreads his hands, fingers apart. And then there was him. She nods, toasts him with her vodka.
Later, in bed, she rolls on top of him and oilfields tremble. He holds her close and tectonic plates shift. In their own beds, politicians twist and turn.
She throws her head back, laughs.
Long live America.
Ivan Vanko dies to the sound of an old, old lullaby in his ear, one that no-one has sung to him since his mother died.
At Tony’s inquiring look, she shrugs. Russia knows, better than most, that sometimes things just break, especially hearts.
He takes her to an empty field, one night, between Vanko and the end of the world. He takes her to an empty field and makes her stand at the very center, burnt grass tickling the soles of her feet, heat-memory from the day sticking to her skin.
“Close your eyes,” he murmurs in her ear, putting his hands over her face. When he pulls them away, the ghosts of ten thousand settlers and half a million natives stand around them, holding silent vigil over their country and the dirt that knew their blood, long ago.
America, too, is made of broken things. Dreams, not hearts.
But the tragedies are always the same.
“I met India once,” Dr. Banner says in an undertone during the plane ride back to America.
“You have?” Natasha asks, smiling secretly to herself.
“Old woman. She looked a thousand years old and she smelled of incense and gun powder. I felt very small next to her.”
India makes them all feel small, human or not. Natasha nods. Dr. Banner raises a hand toward her, lets it hover in the air. “I can almost feel the cold radiating off you.”
“You should visit Siberia, Doctor. The summers are short, but glorious.”
He smiles crookedly at her. “Maybe I will.”
“Why do they not pay their respects?” Thor booms, after Shawarma, after Chitauri, after they finally find a moment to breathe at the top of Stark Tower, the ruins of New York below them.
“Give me your huddled masses,” Tony muttered earlier, throwing a clump of broken concrete from one hand to the other.
Bruce chuckles tiredly, now. Clint and Rogers frown.
“Never would any Aesir dare speak to Asgard as I have seen humans speak to you, these past few days. I would know why.”
So there are others of their kind out there, on other worlds. Natasha had wondered.
“Because they don’t know what we are,” Tony says, rolling his shoulders. There is blood dried on his temple and dust in his hair.
“They have forgotten!?” The god looks aghast.
Natasha shakes her head, looks at the men around them, who look, but can’t see. Even Banner, who knows, can’t actually see, she thinks. The other within him is the only reason he recognized her. The monster sees far better than the human.
“I don’t know if they ever knew,” she murmurs in Russian. Smiles. Shrugs. “Worship is not what keeps us alive.”
Blood is. Dreams. Maps of borders and books of history. Memory. She lets them show, just for a second, lets them bleed into her eyes, flash under her skin.
Tony laughs while the humans stumble back. “What are you?” Rogers asks, eyes wide, hands trembling.
“Constructs,” Tony dismisses. “Metaphor. Nothing you have to worry your pretty little head about, Cap.”
“They are the very earth you walk upon,” Thor answers, at the same time.
“What is Asgard like?” she wants to know, early one morning, when there’s only her and the god in the kitchen.
“Ancient,” Thor offers, after some consideration. “There are none, bar my father perhaps, who know her true age. She is more powerful than you, for there is only her in all of my world. Here, there are many of you. But she is lonelier, I think. In a thousand years, she has only taken one student.”
She doesn’t even have to think about that one. “Loki.”
He nods, gravely. “I think, in hindsight, he might have been supposed to become Jotunheim.”
Shaking her head, Natasha hums. “No. You don’t become. You are born. You know.”
One day, another Russia will be born. And when their time comes, she will find them and make angels in the snow with them and close her eyes.
Thor frowns. “I thought growing up so far from his home might have…”
Again, she shakes her head. She has been in America for almost ten years now. “We are more than our borders.”
Bruce stumbles into the kitchen then, rubbing his face. The conversation is over.
“So, uhm. Are you your country? Or is your country you?” Clint scratches at his beard, confused and curious and not entirely believing.
Tony sighs, late one night, sitting atop his tower, king of all her surveys. He has had a long day. She can tell by the look in his eyes, bombs and guns instead of capitalism and flash.
“Do you worry? About what’s out there?” he asks, pointing at the night sky, obscured by smog and light pollution.
She shrugs as she curls herself into his side, despite not feeling the cold. “Regimes fall every day.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“We never really do,” she whispers in his ear. And they don’t. She remembers the sound of Anastasia’s laughter, the sights and smells of the Czar’s palace. She remembers Ivan riding on the wolf, Baba Yaga singing by the fire. If she tries hard enough, she remembers the eternal ice, remembers mammoths across the plains.
They are more than their borders.
They are more than broken things.
He holds his hand between them, palm down, and it’s shaking. “Can’t you feel it? Wherever the Chitauri came from, we made it mad.”
She dreams of the old Germanies disappearing into history, dreams of all the new countries born from her own breaking, all the babies that wailed into the night as past and future, people and soil, were shoved into their heads.
She dreams of blue and red and white and of Tony laughing with an endless road rumbling within the sound and of India’s incense smell.
She dreams of Asgard, old and forever in the sky, of an old man going to sleep inside the shape of the angel he carved into the snow.
He smiles at her and says, “Your turn.”
Next to him, Asgard weaves words into the fabric of the world.
They say,they are coming.
Natasha wakes with a shudder and a bitter smile, because that is the way of her people and always has been. Tears only freeze on your face in Russia.
Tony is already waiting by her door when she emerges, dressed for war.
Her hair is red and her eyes are green.
Hope and melancholia.
Her name is Natalia Alianovna Romanova. By her side stands Anthony Edward Stark.
America takes Russia’s hand and together they raise their faces to the sky from which an army comes tumbling down, intent on destruction.
Hope and melancholia, broken dreams and broken hearts and steel in their spines, blood under their nails. Behind them, the others rally.
They won’t go down easy.