Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"
n.b. The timeline for this story assumes Harry being born in 1980, so as to stay roughly consistent with canon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe exists in this universe, and the differences to the two will become readily apparent.
Chapter One: The Road Not Taken
Natalia was a paranoid person.
It came with the territory of being a freelance "problem solver" - as the American head of SHIELD had termed her profession. It was a cute euphemism. As such she was constantly aware that most governments intelligence communities fear her and officially considered her an enemy of the state. She also was aware that dangerous individuals considered her a direct personal threat. Their employers as well.
She was, of course. Her loyalty lay with the latest job offer, and safety was only guaranteed for as long as her employer found her useful. To think otherwise would lead to a quick trip to a dark hole. Or worse. If that meant that she had to use any means necessary in order to ensure her survival, then so be it. She had been lured into this life with promises of it being better than a Soviet street.
She wasn't sure if it actually was. She didn't think it really mattered at this point.
The trail of broken hearts, supposed alliances, cold bodies, and fulfilled contracts all led to her feet. Her continued existence, she would admit if prodded hard enough and by the right person, was down to the simple deterrence she had built around herself. She was simply too good at her job for any entity to act against her. If she was removed from the playing field, it meant that she was removed for everybody. Thus she was allowed to exist even if she could single handedly bring down corporations, crime enterprises, police departments, and states (on a good day).
Which she did, of course. With the chaos being sparked around the world it was only rational for her to take part in it.
This deterrence did not mean that she placed her entire trust within it. Non-rational actors existed, psychopathic states with delusions of grandeur. Maybe a man - woman, or two - scorned into believing that she actually cared. It was of little matter why, when the end result was only one proper action. She needed to be actively paranoid. Around every blind corner was an assassin. Behind every closed door was an improvised bomb. In every drink there was poison. Hidden in every shadow was the whisper of a hidden threat.
Constant vigilance was the calling card of a spy.
Whatever the world needed her to be this week. The non-nuclear variable in global instability. The femme fatale of global instability. She was never surprised, because every action was calculated to ensure her survival. She never was disappointed, she never was excited, she never was unexpected. Those all meant that something was unplanned, and she planned for everything.
Except the knocking that came from her door.
She stilled as the knock rang out in the hotel room she was currently running her operations planning out of. A small tingle of trepidation (not fear, those were childish feelings) creeped down her spine. The number of people that knew her location, as in knew the location of the Black Widow, was singular: herself. There was not a way she could have been tracked, she had made sure that enough disinformation on her whereabouts was spread.
Unless, of course, she had been betrayed.
A second set of knocks sounded, this time slightly more insistent. Natalia slowly un-holstered her gun as she considered the situation. The fact that the person was knocking and not blowing her door in eliminated multiple contingencies. That none of her proximity alarms had been tripped outside of her window further reduced the possibilities in which this confrontation was going to play out.
Listening carefully as she approached the door, she could only feel the presence of a singular person on the other side. Old, as indicated by their slightly ragged breathing. A quick glance in the peep hole indicated nothing, as it was obscured by whomever was on the other side. They expected that the door would be opened then. The threat probability sharply dropped, but wasn't totally eliminated. She sighed and pulled her deep red hair back away from her face, securing it with a band.
Three seconds after the second knock, and ten after the first she made her decision and threw the door open, leveling her gun.
She was expecting an old handler with an ultimatum, perhaps blackmail. Perhaps a jilted ex-lover who had gotten too crafty for their own good. Perhaps-
Instead there was an ancient looking man, wearing what could casually be regarded as a purple gown. He possessed a long beard, grey, and a crooked nose. The way the gown hung from his bones indicated a slight figure, but the power emanating from the man screamed 'danger' to everyone that knew how to look.
In the man's hands was a child, no older than two with a jagged scar on his forehead - fresh. Medical attention had been applied, but it appeared to have been accomplished in haste. It almost appeared as if the wound had been frozen in time. He was asleep, but appeared to be unnaturally so.
"Natalia Romanova?" the man asked, unknowingly blowing her cover. She had about twenty minutes before she needed to leave this hotel. A pity, it was actually comfortable. She allowed an eyebrow to cock in annoyance at the British man.
"Depends," she replied, settling on her most neutral of accents. It was neither American, European, or Russian. It was somehow all three. A former associate of her's had referred to it as being 'unsettling normal.'
"I am Albus Dumbledore," the man continued, not moving and with the tenor of voice that indicated his name meant something, "I am here to contract you for an assignment."
"I already have one," she replied, not moving her gun. She kept her eyes on the man's eyebrows, to let someone look at your eyes was to let them see into your mind. "In fact, you have just exposed my identity in the open."
"I can arrange for it to be completed for you," Dumbledore countered, "We are also not as in the open as you may believe. I can also arrange for you to have infallible protection Ms. Romanova. This segment of the conversation has ran it's course on your doorstep, however. I would prefer to complete it within the confines of your room."
Sensing that despite the gun she had trained on the older (ancient) man's torso, he held the upper hand she slowly backed into the room. The gun didn't move from it's position as he walked in and the door swung shut behind him without any prompting. Suddenly she noticed that a slender, yet rigid, stick had appeared in his free hand. Before she could react he had mumbled a few words and what felt like a cone of silence had descended over the room. Looking at the windows out of the corner of her eye she noticed that they had suddenly hardened as well.
He was a wizard.
She dropped her gun from the position trained on the man, making a show of holstering it. Dots finally connected in her mind as the last piece of information fell into place. Albus Dumbledore wasn't just an ordinary, old man. He wasn't just an ordinary old wizard, either. He was the preeminent wizard. She was alive simply through his sufferance if he had believed her a threat.
That he didn't believe her to be caused more pieces to fall into place for her. She also noted that her cover hadn't completely been blown, as the man would have taken steps to make sure that he wasn't noticed coming to her door.
"I see you have started to piece together the nature of my visit tonight," he stated, as he waved his stick - wand - and an ornate chair appeared. He waved his wand a second time and a cot appeared in which the small child floated into.
"You need protection for the child," Natalia replied, as a chair appeared for her. She sat down in it as a tea set appeared out of thin air as well. She had never understood the British obsession with tea, even after the many months of her long life she had spent wandering their streets. She also knew when she was expected to partake due to social niceties.
"Yes," Dumbledore replied, "You are most uniquely suited to provide it for me."
Natalia cast a glance over at the sleeping child. It was easy to deduce a few answers based on the situation: this child wasn't just important to Dumbledore personally, he was important to the entire world that Dumbledore was a part of. This led to a problem: she was not part of that world, in fact she was almost the opposite of that world. The last time she had attempted to infiltrate it she had only been saved from an agonizing death from a kind hearted wizard.
She had been quietly told that it wasn't her fight, and then left to wander back into her shadows.
"Why," she questioned, slightly bemused as the liquid in the cup that floated over to her turned to coffee. Dumbledore didn't answer for a moment, staring at the child as well. A million possibilities, considerations, and half-truths flirted through his body language. Natalia continued, "I am not a wizard. I am not even a parent. I am a highly trained problem solver. This child would not be safe with me."
"You sell yourself short, Ms. Romanova," Dumbledore replied, finally looking back up at her as he set his cup down, "This child does not need a wizard. He needs to be out of sight, out of mind, and know that the world is a cruel existence."
"Why would you condemn a child, an innocent, to that?" Natalia replied, letting her memories of her lost childhood dance into her voice. She had long ago moved past them, but they were effective tools.
"The conflict that you chanced into a year ago has reached a temporary conclusion," Dumbledore stated, drawing a raised eyebrow from Natalia. He had a connection to the person who had saved her then. "It was brought to its current status by this young boy, through a happenstance of powerful magic, and luck. While the leader of this conflict is temporarily deposed, he will return and more than likely with furious anger towards this boy."
"I had considered placing him with his relatives, those without magic like yourself," he continued, before sighing and looking at the teacup in his hands, "Alas, they were the wrong level of cruel. They would only teach the child that life was unfair, that it was indifferent to his suffering. This child will need to make choices when the conflict rears its head again, and they will need to be cruel choices."
"They should not be indifferent ones, though."
His body language showed that he was accustomed to making these cruel choices, and Natalia picked up the dangling thread that this was one of them.
"You want this child to become me," she stated, a soft tenor to her voice. Enticing, almost.
"I want this child to know how precious life is," he countered, a hard look on his face, "I want him to know how the wrong decisions can affect not just his next actions, but the actions of all those around him."
He sighed, a heavy weight appearing in his voice, "I want him to know how to operate outside the bounds of society in a way I would never be able to."
She allowed the weight to fill the room, before finally looking him in his eyes.
They stared at each other, Natalia not willing to further the conversation until she had a true answer.
"As I said Ms. Romanova, you are most uniquely qualified to provide this child with what he needs," Dumbledore quietly stated after a silent minute. His eyes obviously pouring into hers, but strangely guarded. He was hiding something.
"No, that's not why," she replied, scoffing as she broke his gaze and looked back down to her cup. She slowly swirled the liquid, considering her actions, before looking back up at Dumbledore, "Mr. Dumbledore-"
"Albus, please my child."
The epithet hardened her eyes. She knew what sort of man that Dumbledore was based off of his words, and his unwillingness to depart with the truth. He was a manipulator. He was just like those that had taken her in decades ago to mold her into what she was now.
Dumbledore sighed, as if more weight was appearing on his shoulders. This only served to infuriate the active portion of Natalia's psyche. She had to clamp down hard on it.
"Part of the protections that I am offering to put on you, and this child, revolve around you willingly taking him in," he finally said, peering at Natalia over his glasses, "If you were to take him in without conditions I can personally guarantee that nothing bad will happen to those which provide this child with a place he may call, 'home.' Nothing. No lasting injuries. No need to look over your shoulder. A personal bubble of protection."
Natalia nodded, taking a small sip from her drink.
The cutting phrase caused Dumbledore to chuckle.
"Natasha," she cut into Dumbledore's words this time, smiling slightly as it caused him to momentarily trip on his words. The easiest way to deal with a person that liked to manipulate with their words? Mirror their actions back towards them.
"Natasha," he agreed, "What more do you want from me? I have already offered you monetary incentive, protection, and an insight into a world that has thus far eluded you."
"I want you to tell me the truth Mr. Dumbledore," Natasha replied, setting the cup down before folding her hands in her lap, "None of those matter to me. They are incentives, sure, and only an idiot would turn them down. But you are offering up the care of a child to an assassin, a child which is massively important to your world. One in which you know that I am no match for."
"Instead," she continued, twiddling her thumbs in her lap, "You say you want the child to know cruelty, because your bad man will return one day. You say that you want the child out of mind, so that he can learn how to live without the constraints of society. Yet, you do not tell me why."
"I have already explained why, Ms. Romanov," Dumbledore said, a coldness finally entering his voice, "If you do not want to accept my reasoning, I will take my leave."
"No you won't," Natasha replied, quietly and slightly mocking, looking at her fingernails, "You need me, for whatever reason that you won't say. You can threaten. You can cajole. You can offer. Yet you can't leave until I willingly take the child in."
Natasha took a deep breath, staring at Dumbledore without breaking their linked eyes.
"Mr. Dumbledore we well know that you won't let me leave here until I agree," she continued, "So why don't you make things easier for us, and stop playing these games."
Dumbledore returned her gaze, a small twitch occurring under his beard. Seconds stretched into minutes. Natasha just returned his gaze. Despite the fact that she was non-magical, despite the fact that he held tremendous power, she held all the cards. Dumbledore may have been a master of manipulation, but she knew that he needed her.
As the minutes stretched into half a dozen, he finally broke the staring contest and looked over at the child.
"There exists a prophecy over this child's head," he started, "That states he is the only one that can defeat a great evil. The great evil that attempted to murder this child tonight, after murdering his parents. Magic, providence, luck, whichever you may personally believe has gifted me with the ability to ensure that when this evil resurfaces it can be dispatched."
"You are an assassin, yes. One of the faults that people believe in me is that I can not bring myself to kill another. This is of course a minor untruth, but it all matters from one's perspective. I am however uncomfortable with the dirty business of raising a child to make cold, calculating choices. I am, if one may agree, a coward in that matter."
He took breath, scanning over Natasha for any reaction. She of course offered none.
"I do not ask you to actively train him, you do not need to make him into an assassin," he continued, "His mere presence in the orbit of your life will teach him the hard lessons that he must know before he reenters the magical world. Instead, all that I ask of you is that you ensure he grows up resilient, and strong. I do not ask for you to love him. I do not ask for you to treat him as anything more than an assignment."
A momentary hesitation before continuing let Natasha know how uncomfortable he was with that statement. Internally, she filed away that for as powerful as Dumbledore was, he hated the business of getting his hands dirty. He prefered to pass that onto somebody else. There also appeared to be genuine...care for the child buried deep within his actions.
"The protection that I am offering, in fact, comes from the child himself," Dumbledore continued after an inner debate, "The manner in which his mother died, I suspect, invoked an ancient magical clause to come into effect. He is protected through the love of his parents, particularly his mother. This is why I wished to leave him with relatives as this protection would be transferred."
"I have been presented a second option, instead."
"Why," Natasha asked, leaning forward slightly.
"Because James Potter saved your life," he replied, "This child's father, while not only being a dear friend of mine, was the one that protected you this past year from your death by a wizard's hand. If you were magical, it would be considered a binding life debt. Instead, the ancient magic that protected this child through his parents reaches out to you. It offers you the protection that it had offered you before."
"This child's magic offers you protection within your special job," he continued, "All that it asks is for a home. All I ask for is that prepare him for the job he has in front of him."
She looked over at the child, possibilities running through her head. From a purely pragmatic standpoint she had to say no. Her line of work did not leave room for a child, let alone one that would one day have the weight of the world on their shoulders. She was not the ideal person for this, and the only reason the opportunity was offered was due to a fluke of magic. She should once again decline, and walk away.
She wouldn't even feel bad within an hour.
Or the next day.
She should say no, because the fact that something so innocent was being offered to her was just wrong. The child had already had his parents violently ripped away from him. His life was forever altered. Dumbledore was insane for attempting to offload such an innocent onto her - the one which ruined innocence. If she took the child in, she was sure that Dumbledore would not receive back that which he had hoped for.
It was at that moment her decision was made. She had been offered a diverging path in the forest. She would take the darker one this time.
"I'll take him in," she whispered.
The sound of a thunderclap in the back of her mind was ignored as Dumbledore breathed a sigh of relief.
"Let us go over the details then," he began, conjuring up a piece of parchment.
"The details are that you will leave him to me, and you will not interfere," Natasha replied, a protective hand reaching out to cup the child's face, "After today I will consider you a danger to the child. Now you know why you will not see him after this meeting. Do not worry for any monetary reimbursement. I have no need for it."
She looked up, allowing the steel to creep into her features that had guided her throughout her life. Her innocence had been ruined because of people's good intentions. She would not let it happen to another.
"You say that he will be needed in the future, do you have a timetable?"
"I would prefer for him to re-enter the magical world when he turns 11," Dumbledore replied, the forced relief in his voice tempered by the realization that he had lost all semblance of the upper hand, "His birthday is on the thirty first of July. He just turned one a scant few months ago."
"That is when we begin schooling in magical education," Dumbledore replied, closing his eyes. He reopened them to produce a medallion in his hands. "On his 11th birthday a letter shall arrive, offering him his place in school. It will contain any additional instructions."
"If you ever need to reach me, if you find yourself trespassing with the magical world too soon, please use this to contact me. It will become self evident in a time of need."
"I will see you in ten years Dumbledore."
"Do you even want to know his name?" he asked, standing up. Natasha glared at him. "It is Harry James Potter. Wizards everywhere will know it."
"Which is why he will receive a new one," she whispered, as Dumbledore tapped Harry on the head with his wand. Slowly the child started to rouse.
"I will see you in ten years. Please be well."
With that, Dumbledore left with a small pop.
And Harry Potter ceased to exist.