NATASHA

"Regimes fall every day. I tend not to weep over it, I'm Russian."

I said that, staring at my own reflection in Loki's cell. I meant it. Or at least at the time I thought I did. I've watched coups, seen governments collapse. Hell I've caused a coup d'etat. Twice. But this . . . this is different.

I shouldn't be here. It's too close; it's too soon. If anyone is after me — and it's been what, thrifty-six hours now? I'm sure they are — this is the easiest place to look. I need to disappear, melt into the darkness, retreat into my web, as it were, but I can't bring myself to look away.

Smoke has finally stopped rising from the Triskelion. That doesn't much matter. It'll be months before the other agencies can clear the wreckage. The skeletons of the three helicarriers lie mangled in the water, jutting up from the shattered launch bays like giant shards of glass. I guess that's what they are now, glass. Twisted heaps of glass and steel and secrets, broken and useless and just lying there for all to see. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The huge gash in the side of the Triskelion looms over the wrecks, a hideous cavern in the building. Boulders of concrete line its base; a million rebar fingers ply from within is, trying to claw their way out. The whole scene is mangled and ugly. It hurts. It hurts to see the Triskelion broken, the helicarriers, S.H.I.E.L.D.'S crowning achievement, lying in ruin on the ground. Regimes fall every day. I burnt my allegiance to old mother Russia a long time ago. Not that it doesn't try to haunt me every once in while. And America, well, it chose me more than I chose it. I've been amazed these past few months, these past few days especially, working side by side with Steve. "Captain America." That name would sound silly if it wasn't so true. He embodies every ideal, every dream, things I gave up on a very long time ago. It's inspiring. But it doesn't change the fact that I could envision trading in America too. Not for the highest bidder though, not anymore. I do believe in what I fight for, thanks to Steve and Nick and . . . well, some others. But I've never defined myself as an American. I don't do what I do for the stars and stripes. I do it for S.H.I.E.L.D.

I did it for S.H.I.E.L.D.

Is it gone for good? I highly doubt it. Hydra, S.H.I.E.L.D., they're too big to disappear with one blow, even a blow like this. And S.H.I.E.L.D. is needed. Something is needed. New York proved it. Hydra proved it again. I guess if you're counting, Hydra proved it the first time too. They're the reason Howard Stark founded it in the first place.

Speaking of Stark, I think Tony'd be proud of my performance on Capitol Hill this morning. Of course, that hearing will never come close to the popularity of his, over the Ironman suit. And thank god he's too stubborn and egotistical to turn it over; it would have gone straight to Hydra.

Each of those three sentences crosses my before I can stop them, and I can't help but shake my head. Back when I was undercover at Stark Industries, I never would have imagined myself saying anything remotely of that opinion. So much has happened since then.

Maybe it's that old Stark stubbornness that will bring S.H.I.E.L.D. back. Maybe it'll be Nick. Wherever he's gone, I guarantee you it's not to a beach in Tahiti. The way things have been going these past few years, it'll probably be some kind of crisis. I can't wait.

The waters of the Potomac lap at the dead leaves covering the bank. The breeze picks up, rustling the branches around me. It should be peaceful here, solemn at least, but it's not. Chopper blades cut at the air, bobbing and hovering around the Triskelion like flies above a carcass. Sirens blare and the lights of so many emergency vehicles blink in the distance, as Metro, FBI, CIA, NSA, Homeland Security all vie for the pieces. Not that there's much left to find. It's all out there now. That was no ploy, that was the real deal. 99% of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets made public in the blink of an eye. And the 1%? Even I don't know those.

The buzz, the chop, the wail, the whoosh of the plasma torches already dismantling Project Insight, the muted murmur of a voices shouting into megaphones, it's too loud. I need to think. I . . . I haven't felt this way in a long time. A lifetime even. That particular breed of tension in my chest, the heavy weight of a secret anxiety winding itself around my shoulders and up my arms. The last time I felt this way, I was looking down the shaft of Barton's bow. Even after, when I first joined S.H.I.E.L.D., when I wasn't trusted. The Black Widow can belong anywhere, but in order to do that, Natasha Romanoff needs somewhere to belong.

The truth is, I'm not ready for this. It's not like S.H.I.E.L.D. was assigning me to anything innocent, but at least I was doing the kinds of things I do for someone besides myself, and for something beside myself. I don't trust myself to make that kind of call. S.H.I.E.L.D. has helped me start to sleep again, but I'm so afraid that my ledger might pull me back in.

This is one kind of alone I do not like to be.

Alone. That word, that thought keeps echoing in my ear. We're alone, I'm alone, Steve's alone, the Avengers — are we really still calling ourselves that? — are alone. But mostly . . . My hand reaches up to grab at the necklace tucked safely behind the high collar of my leather jacket.

A piece of shrapnel bobs to shore with the next little wave. I can see what's left of the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo etched on its jagged surface. I kick it back into the water. I'm not exactly sentimental. I ignore the fact that the little silver chain in still pinched between my fingers.

All that debris, all that wreckage. And I don't just mean here. S.H.I.E.L.D. reached every corner of the globe, and now it's fallen the whole world over. It'll take an army to even pick up the pieces, let alone repair the damage. But it's one army I can't sign up for right now. I'm a spy, not a soldier. Or so I keep telling myself, though I've increasingly found myself on the front lines. Speaking of, my arm still hurts. My whole body hurts. But I shrug it off. Pain later, focus now.

Steve has his mission, and I'm glad. I hope he finds the Winter Soldier. Bucky. I of all people respect the need to pull someone out before they get swallowed. I can imagine, if anyone can, what it's like to be on the other side. Part of me even wishes I could help, to repay that particular favor and recover someone else believed to be a lost cause, just like I was.

I kick another piece of debris into the churning river, turning my back on the wreckage of the Triskelion and striding the few quick paces to my motorcycle.

But I have a debt of my own, and I have my own mission. One that, even as I nock in the kickstand and turn the key, even as I stood staring on the river bank, even as I said goodbye to Steve and spoke at the hearing, and fought Hydra, indeed from the time I spilled S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets, from the moment I even considered the idea, has been weighing on me, clawing at me, so much I can barely breathe.

Several months ago, Clint Barton left on a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission, a deep one. Not even I could know where he was going or what he was up to. Which was fine. He's a big boy, and he had all of S.H.I.E.L.D. to back him up. But S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone. His identity and his mission have been compromised, and there is no one left to pull him out.

No one but me.