He was her first real friend.
(Barton – well – Barton didn't count. He was her brother, closer than any shared blood could have made them.)
Tony Stark was something else. Not a brother, not a lover – a friend.
And Natasha Romanoff had few enough of those.
Natasha didn't know her father's name. She had no mother's face stored somewhere in the back of her mind. There was no comforting barrier of memories – lullabies, fairy tales, playthings – to shield from the iron realities of the world she was born into. No friends to soften the blows. Natalia Alionovna Romanova had no mother, no father. She never knew if she'd had a family to be taken from or if she'd been sold. There was only the Red Room. Her keepers. The ones she trained alongside who would kill one another at an order as easily as they killed anyone else. The studio where she'd learned to dance. The training that had turned that grace to something which could kill. There was lethality in the vulnerable, and Natalia was taught to manipulate those who saw only graceful movements and a pretty face. She was taught to use her body to lead astray and to kill. It had been no risk to her, then. They'd taken her ability to give life and her own life was not so precious after that that Natalia Alianovna feared to lose it. That lack made her a priceless tool in the hands of her superiors. She had nothing else to live for, so Romanova lived, and she would have died, for those people who had broken her so early that she didn't remember what it felt like to be whole.
When the Red Room was gone –
– She'd killed them. All of them –
– there was another. The KGB didn't break her the way the Red Room had. But there was no way they could have. It was all the same. The Black Widow was an invaluable asset. She had one skillset, and she did not care if she lived, or died. Few of her competitors could claim the same.
There was a glimmer of something new in her mission against the fabled Winter Soldier, but that glimmer one served to make the dark after seem darker. She was never sure she saw him, or even that he was one man. They battled long in the distant impersonal fields of assassination and espionage. It lasted weeks, which was longer than the famous Black Widow had been utilized for one mission in the entire span of her memory, and she took a joy in their competition that she never had found before. (She wondered what it might be, to fight alongside someone like that.) In the end, he won. He shot her man with a firearm sure enough that the bullet killed him through her hip, and Natalia lost his scent as though he'd never been more than the ghost he was fabled to be. She always remembered him with equal parts fear and longing.
(It wouldn't truly surprise her, years – lifetimes – later, when she found him beside her.)
The Black Widow failed a second mission almost a decade later. Choked by ashes and sticky with blood she looked up to see that she'd fallen into an expertly woven trap. The job had gone badly, and now, just outside of the worst of the smoke, the archer was poised, a smirk on his lips, his bow drawn back for a shot that was sure to kill her.
The smoke bit into her eyes and made them run. Wearily, the Black Widow let herself lean back against the wall. There was no use fighting. It would be a relief, to die. What had she done all her life, but run towards this moment.
The blow never fell. Barton saw something in her. Something he could never really explain to her satisfaction. Maybe he was a fool and it was just the tears – a show of feminine vulnerability that had been the undoing of so many of her opponents across the years that this time had nothing to do with artifice and everything to do with smoke. Whatever it was, he brought her in to his organization. He brought her into his home. She met his wife and she knew all of his children when every other co-worker he had only knew him as a wise-cracking bachelor.
Natasha would never understand what it was he saw in her.
He and Laura became her brother and sister. They introduced her to their son, and their daughter when she was born, as 'Aunty Nat'. She was awed by their faith in her.
SHIELD was a home as the Red Room and the KGB never were. She didn't have friends. Natasha Romanoff had been raised to keep her emotions to herself. To take orders. To suspect and be suspected. In the core of her being, she was a killer. Killers do not make friends. ("What am I supposed to do, ask them out for a mani-pedi?") But with SHIELD there was trust. There was the firm belief that they were doing something to better the world. Sometimes what they had to do was terrible, but they were actions that had to be taken so children like Cooper and Lila Barton could grow up in peace and never have to know what the child Natalia Alianovna Romanova had had to learn. SHIELD were protectors. Nick Fury became like a father to her. Agent Coulson looked out for her. Barton was her partner, ride or die. Natasha had never known what it was to have a family.
Then there was Tony Stark. Natalie Rushman was deployed by Nick Fury to infiltrate Stark Industries and find out what its wayward head was thinking.
Tony wasn't like anyone she'd met.
He rose to her bait like any man she'd ever played. She teased him, and his enjoyment was obvious. He played along, point-for-point, then just as quickly dropped the game for what it was. A game. As much as he might have disliked her, he liked the game. She knew it was to be something new and different than she'd ever known before between them when he called her at two thirty in the morning.
"How did you get this number?" she asked, muting the television in her apartment.
"Surprised?" he asked. And she could hear him smile across the line. "And please say yes. I would love to know that I pulled one over on the spy."
Stark wasn't the forgiving type. He didn't trust her. He said as much to her face, even years later. But somehow he still sought her out. And in a world full of spies, Natasha could trust the genius billionaire to be tactlessly honest. She needed that.
Barton had been her brother from the beginning, when he'd been the only one she could turn to in an organization entirely peopled by those who deserved to take her life for all the innocents she'd killed. Tony Stark was the beginning of something new.
The Avengers were its continuation. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Thor, Barton, and – somehow, herself. When Loki took Barton's mind Natasha knew she would do anything to bring him back. To protect his family. To avenge him if there was nothing else left. She was the one sent to bring Banner in, and she went, even though the Hulk scared her more than any monster she'd faced before. She could face even the Hulk if it meant saving her family.
Loki used that fear against her. It was a game she knew. Truth for truth. Loki proved to be a man like any other she'd been pitted against. Her vulnerability spurred his pride and like every man before him he told her everything. (Years later, she would wonder if she had acted too quickly. If Loki had meant what Banner had later said. "We're a time bomb." Her fear had been too strong. It had clouded her judgement. Her assessment played directly into Loki's hand, bringing the beast out and all of them into place for his next move. She would wonder what might have happened, had she ignored her own fear.)
She brought Clint back and faced the Hulk. Coulson was dead. They couldn't fight amongst themselves anymore. Even Stark and Rogers set aside their differences. And when a wormhole opened up into the sky above New York and Banner came back to join them, Natasha was willing to trust him. They needed everyone they could get.
And that was the start of everything.
Rogers didn't know how he fit into this world, so many years past the one he left. Natasha knew what it was to be out of your depth and on your own. He was her opposite in so many ways. She and Stark were similar. They'd been part of the destruction of the world. They both had demons. Rogers had never been a part of that, and in that he fascinated her. Getting to know him, seeing how his mind worked, it reminded her of all the worst things she had done. (She deserved none of this. Not his friendship, not her freedom.) But he inspired her to be better. He really believed that there was good inside of people, and it was possible to bring it out. For a while he made her believe it too. His strength helped her to get through Fury's death – however temporary that death had been – and the collapse of the home she'd grown to love. SHIELD was not what she had believed it to be. She'd never truly escaped at all. She'd always been doing the work she'd been trained to do.
But Rogers believed that people could be better. He believed that she could be better. She could almost love him for it. She'd been so many things in her life. Worn so many masks. Maybe it was time to find out if he was right. She gave everything over to the world. Every secret SHIELD and HYDRA had been hiding, even though it laid Natalia Alianovna Romanova bare to the world. It was time to move on. Rogers was right. "The price of freedom is high, but it's a price that I'm willing to pay."
She went back to Russia, after that, alone. The cage she'd grown up in was broken, and the home she'd believed she'd won in its stead was no home at all. She remembered once, before her graduation from the Red Room, telling a handler, "I have no place in the world." She hunted for her parents. She had to know who Natalia Alianovna Romanova might have been. The search was long. At the end of it, she found two, silent, unmarked graves. Her parents' names weren't listed in the records. Only their surname. Romanova. She wondered why the Red Room had let her keep her name, when it had taken everything else.
Barton was the one who called her about the Scepter job, but it was Banner who met her at the airport. The Avengers were assembling, free of all but the loosest supervision by Fury, on intelligence he had gotten that the Scepter Loki had used two years ago in New York had been found. Natasha felt beaten and sore, tired of always fighting and running. Banner understood that. Training with the rest of the team, Natasha learned to trust him. She learned, somehow, to love him. Banner knew what it was to bring only death in his wake.
Stark was plagued by demons like theirs. Demons that woke him up in a cold sweat, certain that everything he never deserved would be taken away from him. He made Ultron.
"A suit of armor around the world."
Ultron threatened to destroy the very world it was created to protect. Natasha was so tired of fighting, and when the Scarlet Witch worked on her, Natasha drowned in her memories. How had she managed to believe she was something other than what her past had made her into? She was a killer. Nothing more. The Avengers had been a dream, she told Banner. A beautiful dream. But she had no place in such a beautiful vision of the world. (To save the world, Stark had made a monster, but she had become a monster, and wasn't that worse?) She begged Banner to leave, to go away with her. They could run together. He thought she wanted a family. And she did, she did but that could never happen. She'd never told anyone before, though Fury had known. "You still think you're the only one on this team who's a monster?"
Ultron forced their hand. What might have happened otherwise, Natasha would never know. Natasha had to make a choice, and when the world was at stake, she couldn't chose anything else.
Rogers reminded her they could die.
Three years ago, Stark had flown a nuke into a wormhole.
Natasha smiled at Steve. "Where else are you gonna get a view like this?"
Fury saved them at the last moment, but Banner was gone. Fury encouraged her to believe he was still alive, somewhere. (She remembered how she'd told Loki "Love is for children.") Natasha was tired of building new lives for herself. Stark had built a facility for the Avengers in upstate New York. Rogers would be living there for a while. He told her he could use a hand training the new recruits. Gratefully, Natasha accepted.
Sam Wilson was familiar to her, as was James Rhodes. Old friends. Vision was a new face, and the Scarlet Witch.
In Wanda Maximoff, Natasha found an unexpected protégé, and in many ways, a friend. The girl had lost everything she'd loved. She'd been experimented on and turned into something she saw as monstrous. Barton had promised her that if she joined them, she would be an Avenger. She was impulsive, passionate and powerful. Natasha found training her to be as challenging as it was rewarding.
Wanda apologized, once, when they were alone, for everything she had done. Natasha gave her a tired smile. "We've all done things we regret," she promised.
(Years later, when it had all fallen apart and Wanda confessed to her the feelings she had for Vision, Natasha counseled her to run with it. They were young. They deserved what happiness they could find.)
The Avengers split over the Sokovia Accords. Natasha refused to blame Wanda – to blame any one of them. "This is on all of us." It split them down the middle. Rogers wouldn't sign it. His friend's life was on the line.
On the run, almost two years later, Roger's confided in her. Bearded and broken by the dreams, Steve told her what they'd said to each other during the fight in Siberia. "He's my friend, Tony."
"So was I."
She put her hand out and laid her palm against Steve's knee. Tears streaked both their cheeks. The past couldn't be changed. They'd both done the best they could.
The best wasn't enough. Not against the cosmic powers that were moving all of them like pawns. Bruce came back. Natasha had thought he was dead and to see him again was a blessing she had never looked for. She'd lost so many people. She never expected it. Bruce had worked alongside Thor and Loki, fighting to save their world from a sister they'd never known.
The idea of Loki working alongside anybody seemed a little far-fetched. The Red Room flickered through her mind, and Natasha bit her tongue.
Not everyone shared her perspective. Bruce told them that Loki had not come on his own back in 2012. Someone had sent him.
Almost is such a cruel word.
They'd gathered all their forces. Friends, enemies – it didn't matter anymore. Everything was at stake and they could only have this one chance.
For what it was worth, they almost made it.
It wasn't worth much.
So few of them survived.
If the Avengers had stood as one…
Fury was gone. Hill. Barton's whole family. They heard about them when they heard all the rest, greedily tearing through the terrible list of names that had been compiled while those who remained were together in the Compound. Finding their names, Cooper Barton, Laura Barton, Lila Barton, Nathaniel Pietro Barton, Natasha dropped her head in her hands and she cried. Steve came over to see what she'd read, and he laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. It was the best he could do.
Carol Danvers was a surprise. She offered them hope. She worked with Rocket to find the ship they'd lost, and she brought Stark home.
Stark was shattered. He was a shadow of himself. They were all broken, and when Danvers swore she'd take down Thanos, Natasha didn't let her go alone.
The stones were powerful. What they had done should not have been possible. Surely they could reverse their own damage.
But even that hope fluttered just outside of their reach. The stones were gone.
Thanos was dead. The stones were gone. There was nothing else to do, but to learn to live in this new, empty world.
("I have no place in the world.")
They all did what they could to get by. Rogers did what he did best. He went out into the world, and he talked to people. He helped businesses get back on their feet. He helped kids get jobs. He helped to run a support group.
She only spoke to Clint once. She begged him to come back.
He couldn't. He'd lost too much.
She let him go, after that. He deserved to have what vengeance he could take. Not long ago, she would have done the same.
Thor went back to his people. They'd lost everything, and they needed him.
Bruce retreated into his labs. He had to find a way to reconcile the parts of him driven apart by radiation all those years ago. He blamed himself in part for their failure. If Hulk had been his to control…"Don't go down that road," she told him. He smiled gratefully, and touched her hand though they both knew her words wouldn't stop him. They loved each other, but it wasn't the same. They'd missed their chance. Natasha didn't mind, not really. She was just glad to have him back.
Tony did the best of all of them. He and Pepper finally got married. They moved away from the city. Natasha heard that they had a baby girl. But he didn't come back. The Avengers were over. Tony's allegiance was no longer theirs.
Natasha missed him. Clint had been her brother, but Tony had been the beginning of all of this. He'd been the first. Rogers inspired her, she'd respected Thor and loved Banner, but Tony understood her in a way the rest of them couldn't. She read him more easily than the others could. She could tell when "I'm okay" meant jack and what nights she should call him at two in the morning just to make sure he was okay. He'd forgiven Natalie Rushman's betrayal. That had all happened years ago. But when her conscience pricked her and she turned on him to let Rogers go, that was a betrayal he could not forget. He blamed her almost as much as he blamed Rogers himself.
Natasha couldn't fault him. Maybe it had all been one monumental mistake.
Natasha stayed in the Compound where she and Steve had trained their new recruits what felt like a lifetime ago. She shrugged and smiled when Steve asked her why she stayed. "It's home," she told him. No one else stayed any length of time. Some visited. But they all had something else. Natasha had never had more than this. The Red Room damned her. SHIELD saved her. The Avengers had given her a chance, and she'd lost it.
At her roots, she was a spy. She'd worked alongside Fury. She knew how he would have done things, had he been there to help them clean this up. She knew he could have done better. But he was gone with all the rest of them. She was the only one left.
Five years Natasha tried to save the world one conference call at a time, counselling the remaining heroes she could gather. She left the Compound less and less. She trained. In an old crate she found toe shoes. She'd never really escaped the Red Room after all.
Natalia Alianovna Romanova was an assassin. A spy. She remembered the steps the Red Room had taught her. The training that had turned that grace to something which could kill. There was lethality in the vulnerable, and Natalia was taught to manipulate those who saw only graceful movements and a pretty face. She was taught to use her body to lead astray and to kill. Memory rippled through her muscles on the range where she practiced and on the bare floors she made her dance studio.
In the dark, unable to sleep and looking out over the lake, Natasha wondered if it had all been a mistake. If none of them had tried to save the world, would it even have been threatened? Thor had told them once, when Loki was the biggest enemy they'd had to face, that SHIELD's experimentation with the Tesseract had been a signal to the rest of the galaxy that Earth was ready for a higher form of war. Vision had theorized that the rise of superheroes prompted that of supervillains.
She'd given up anything like certainty a long time ago.
It was five years before anything changed. Scott Lang came back from the dead. With him, he brought hope.
The Avengers came home. One by one. Steve was there with her when Lang arrived. Bruce joined them the next day. She found Clint. She brought him home.
Tony didn't want to endanger all that he'd finally gained. His wife. His daughter.
Natasha couldn't bring herself to ask him to.
But she couldn't give up. If there was even a chance that what Scott suggested was possible, Natasha would fight for it.
Bruce went out with Rocket to get Thor.
Tony was the last to arrive. He was ahead of them all, like he'd always been. He'd already solved the problems that had stopped them. Natasha was happier to see him than she knew how to express. Wordlessly, she went past them all, past all that had happened, and she hugged him. He looked her over with narrowed eyes, then his mouth quirked. "Huh. Did you steal this hoodie from me too?"
She smiled, "Not this one."
He built the machine. And together, they plotted. Thor and Rocket would go together to Asgard. Rogers, Stark, Lang and Banner would go back to New York, where it had all began. Natasha, Clint, Rhodes and Nebula would go into space.
Hope was infectious. She felt more alive than she had in longer than she could remember. They were together again, and they could change this. They could fix it. Smiling across the ring at the rest of them Natasha said, "See you in a minute."
And then they were gone. Out into the past to gather the stones before Thanos could and to bring everyone home.
Flying to Vormir, she glanced aside at Clint. It was like it had been, all those years ago, when they were young and the SHIELD uniform had still fit her strangely. When he was her partner and they knew they could change the world for the better.
They'd been so young, then.
Getting the Soul Stone from Vormir would be more difficult than they'd expected.
A Soul for a soul.
The guardian told her her father's name.
She'd never known what his name was.
It was strange, that something so small as a name could affect her.
When this worked, Clint would have a family to go home to.
It had to be her.
Clint fought her for it. That was the hardest part. He couldn't give up on her. He didn't want to see it. He didn't understand how everything had led her to the point where she could do this. She could buy them their chance to bring everyone back.
"It's okay," she promised him. Her weight dragged on the joint of her shoulder.
There was no other way.
Through his heart and his tears, Clint knew it.
When she twisted, he let her go.
The air rushed past her as she fell. She wasn't afraid. She'd thought biology might kick in as she fell and make her regret. She'd never felt more alive. More right.
They would make it without her. Because of her.
This would work.
It all happened so fast.
It was nothing that she'd expected. Death. To the last she'd wondered if it might be enough. If she'd done enough to make up for all the lives she'd taken or destroyed.
Turns out it didn't quite work like that. There was no cosmic scale weighing deed against misdeed.
Somehow, she knew they'd made it. The Avengers had won, and life could return to what it was. She wished she could be with them to see it. But she would not have traded her role for anything. Somehow, this was right. She missed them, softly. Not like the hole their absence had carved into her all those years in the Compound without them. She'd see them again soon. There was no need to hurry it.
She was looking out on things she had never dared to imagine. She still couldn't believe that this was hers. Surely she hadn't done nearly enough to account for her guilt. But guilt didn't matter here. Hadn't mattered there, either. Not really. Not the way they had thought.
She was looking out, lost in thought, so she didn't hear him coming behind her at first.
"Agent Romanoff," he said.
He grinned at her, looking like he'd always been meant to look. He spread his arms, "I am Iron Man." "You miss me?"
And Natasha Romanoff smiled.
Two notes. First one: That bit where Nat's looking for her parents is not something I made up. It's in one of the deleted scenes from Civil War. There are a few lines of dialogue I made up, but this isn't really a dialogue-driven story, so there's not a lot of those. Anything you recognize is from one of the movies.
Second note: I don't know if it's real. However. It looks real. If it's a fan-vid, kudos to whoever made it because it's spectacular. I accidentally found what appears to be a trailer for Black Widow – the movie. Perhaps it's a real thing and you've all seen it – I don't know. "I only act like I know everything" - ;) – anyways, because this site is picky, I can only give you part of the link. You have to type in 'youtube dot com' yourself. This is the rest of it.
If that doesn't work, then the title is 'Black Widow (2020) Trailer HD Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner'