those who are afraid of wolves

There is a saying: they hang the thief who stole 5 kopecks, and honor the one who stole 50. She says, "there is red in my ledger," but what she means is, they honor me, in Russia.

.x.

At the beginning of things—at the beginning of all things—there was fire. She has no memories earlier than this. She had parents, because she has DNA, but she can't remember their faces. There are no days at the beach, there are no winters bundled up in their shared bed in a condemned building in the heart of Stalingrad. There is fire, and then Ivan's hands, warm and callused. Smoke curled around her ankles like fingers. His gun had struck her legs as they ran.

.x.

Yuri is only a few years older than she is, but he takes her in stride, this new thing that his father brings home. He calls her TashTash, until she hits him to make him stop. Than he calls her spider, and neither of them know why.

.x.

Ivan's mother, who Natasha will never call Babushka, says, "Paper has no soul—you can put anything on it." This is true. This is what they teach her in the Red Room. This is what they teach her when they write the lies on her brain and into her body: muscle memory created from ones and zeros, a ballerina constructed out of fingers on a keyboard and wire that sparks when it gets wet. They write this on her bones and her blood runs over it. Plie. Arabesque. Avant, avant, avant.

.x.

Sometimes she dreams of Alexi, of his hands, of the way he breathed against her neck, his mouth hot and dry. They were married. He had a hundred tubes of balm, but he always forgot them in his coat pockets. She had done his laundry by hand. Alexi drove plans and drew spiderwebs in the sky; he said, look, Natasha, yours webs follow me everywhere. He called her Majesty, because her last name is Romanova, because there was a princess named Anastasia, "she will rise again." There is a saying: the wolves are sated, but the sheep are intact. She believed it, but she didn't know then if she was the wolf or the sheep.

.x.

Hungary is this: she stands on an island in between Buda and Pest, and there are wolves waiting on both ends. (She knows now that she is not the wolf; but she is not the sheep, either.) Three days ago she had thought this mission was beneath her. Three days ago she had not met Clint Barton.

"And here I thought I was on vacation," he says dryly.

She is using him. He has a thing for redheads, and Natasha is beautiful, and Natasha's hips sway when she walks. At first his look had been predatory, but now it is just a little softer. There are secrets and constructions written across her heart, and there is no room for softer. But she can still make her lips turn up.

"What, this isn't what you had in mind?" she asks, and grins, deadly, venomous. In the Red Room they call her Black Widow, but Yuri had seen it first.

Clint laughs. "This is actually remarkably close to what I had in mind," he tells her dryly. "Maybe you'd be more naked, though. What is it with the pants and the long sleeves? Be decent, wear a leotard."

A leotard, she thinks, and has a flash of what the technicians had dreamed up for her: a black leotard and red shoes, her legs stretched long and straight, arms arched over her head. These memories are not real, but they are her happiest.

"I'll dance for you," she hears herself say, as the explosions starts, as the music of fire overwhelms everything. Clint leans back to watch, eyes serious. First position. Second. He hums: Beethoven's "Archduke Trio." It is not an easy song to hum, and it doesn't matter; the bridge blows and the fire sings and Natasha stretches out like a promise: avant! avant! avant!

.x.

They go their separate ways. He has served his purpose, and her heart is full of the rattle of construction. There are ladders but no windows, and all the doors are boarded shut, or else so open that the wind blows through it and leaves only whorled dust. (There is saying: look for wind in a field; it cannot be caught in a net.) But she had danced for him, in fire, in between two cities that are one city, where to one side cathedrals reached for God with spiraled fingers but to the other the apartments are stacked like dirty bricks. You can dance ballet in a place like that, she thinks; but only in a place like that.

.x.

She has no permanent address, but the box shows up at her deposit box anyway. They are pointe shoes, with long red laces. The note says: red suits you. Someone else would think of love, of sex; Natasha thinks of fire and of blood, and agrees.

"Yuri," she says softly, and doesn't reach for her weapon because she does not need one, because she is one, "do you understand? I will kill you."

He stands with his hands wrapped around his gun and he murmurs, "There are twelve of us."

Someone has blotted out the places where her sorrow was once stored, but she pities him, and thinks of Ivan, who had wanted so badly for her to call him papa. She does not remember the man that burned up in the fire, but he was hers, whoever he was, and Ivan belonged to someone else. She does not want to hurt Yuri, but she will, if she must, because this is what they wrote in every letter that the stitched into her skin: ballerina, spider, weapon, wolf; avant, Natasha, avant. There is no morality in that. There is only movement, and her muscles' memory.

"I will kill you," she says again, and he pulls the trigger, so she does.

.x.

But: at the last moment, she remembers something. Clint had said, "I almost don't recognize you," when she finished dancing. He had laughed, and kissed her, though she hadn't given him permission. "You seemed almost . . . sincere."

She looks down at Yuri. He is bleeding from everywhere, and the men around them are dead, and no one ever needs to know. "Ivan," she tells him. "I wanted to call him papa, but he was yours, and I wanted you to have him."

Yuri's eyes track her movements. She does not know if he understands: what she is saying, why she cannot leave him alive. "I would let you live," she whispers regretfully. "I don't—in the Red Room, I . . . there are chambers in my heart that I can't open, and your name is stamped in all of them."

Then she puts her hands on both sides of his face and kisses his forehead. "Yuri, Yuri," she murmurs. "Brother." His eyes meet hers, and he is afraid, and she snaps his neck with her red hands.

.x.

Ivan says, "with company, even death loses its sting." Natasha disagrees.

.x.

Matt Murdoch dresses in red and calls her Widow. She is, actually. She forgets sometimes. Not Alexi, but that she married him. Matt Murdoch doesn't see the red on her hands, the red that doesn't fade, that doesn't wash away. She poses as a call girl and lets a senator take her to see a show; out, out, damned spot! the lead woman cries, and Natasha murmurs, her tongue licking up against her client's ear, "I know how to get stains off anything."

He shivers, and his hand runs up her leg beneath her skirt. She smiles, teeth white in the dark, waiting.

.x.

This is another memory, one that she is unsure of: there was a soldier cold as winter, and he loved her, as red as she ever was, redder. He was before Alexi. He comes and goes in snatches, in smog, in the knots on ropes in wrestling cages. He had been her teacher, but their lessons had all been in blood. He did not bother with getting rid of the stain; only with how to hide it in the dark, to make it look like water.

.x.

She meets Clint again in Argentina. He is a thief there (he is a thief everywhere). There is a saying: look for the wind in a field; it cannot be caught in a net. She does not know if she is the wind or the net, but they stand in a field in las pampas and he says, "so, you made it out."

Budapest had been fire, but Natasha was born in fire. So she asks, "Still with the bows?"

He rings. "Do you want to know why?"

She does. Or: she doesn't not. Natasha has time, so she waits.

"They are silent," he tells her, and grins, and his teeth are red like a wolf after feeding.

Later, in his bedroom, she puts on her ballet shoes. She has no place to store them, so they come with her. He hums: "Moonlight Sonata." Her body moves without question, adagio, adagio, battement lent and then—she ends on a brisé, not in time with the music (she speaks English now: brisé means "broken") but in time with Clint asking, "will you stay?"

She stops, considers. "No," she says at last, "but I'll come back."

.x.

By the time she gets back to Russia, she knows that she is the wind. She has names written on her skin, their names in red, their names that look like water in the dark. This does not bother her, exactly, but they are heavy.

"Natasha Romanova," say the scientists, say the men that reek of duty and forced patriotism, "charges have been leveled against you." And Alexi steps out from behind the curtain, words like treason on his lips.

All right, thinks Natasha. Let Russia be your field, and let us watch you cast your nets.

.x.

After, she decides that there is no point to Russia. Oh, it is fine, she supposes. Cold, maybe. But men in sharp hats give her orders and she wonders why. Russia, America, England, France; they are land beneath sky, their people equally fragile. She can kill a Russian or a Frenchman the same way and feel the same nothingness. The pay is terrible. They make demands, and Natasha does not respond well to demanding.

They call her a "defector," but she isn't. She is not leaving Russia; she is just . . . branching out.

.x.

"I'll bet you are tired of men telling you what to do," says Nick Fury.

"Not men in particular," Natasha answers.

He frowns. She doesn't know what he is expecting. "Well, I think you're capable of handling yourself as well as any man," he offers.

She takes a bite of her sandwich. "Yes," she agrees simply. Why they're going over this is unclear to her. Then, after a moment: "Oh. Do you expect me to be angry that my handlers were men?"

She shakes her head, laughs. "What's funny?" Fury asks, and she says, "only a man would think that."

He frowns. "Well. You want to defect, then. For good."

Natasha shrugs. "The wolf is beaten not for being grey," she recites, "but for having eaten sheep."

When he doesn't answer, she adds, "I am not a wolf, Agent Fury, but I have eaten a lot of sheep."

.x.

They assign her to Coulson, who does not try to make friends. This is how Natasha likes it. She does not feel loyalty to him, to Fury, to this particular patch of earth they call America, but it is warmer here, and there is no Ivan. The chambers of her heart are still chambers, and there is still rope that says DO NOT CROSS. But she has her ballet shoes. She called Yuri brother before she killed him. And now she has a name, James, to put to the face of that cold soldier, who loved her and taught her to turn blood into water.

"Tell me something true," says Clint, and she says, "I was never a ballerina."

He shakes his head. "No," he whispers, and his hand touches her hair, "tell me something true."

She thinks. She touches the stubble on his face. "I killed my brother," she says, and Clint brushes his thumb over her knuckles.

"No kidding," he murmurs. "So did I."

.x.

She begins to think of balances. She works for S.H.I.E.L.D (West), then HYDRA (East) then S.H.I.E.L.D. again. She keeps tabs, little tick marks for every swing, but soon she gets tired of it so she waits for assignments that are interesting, whatever side they belong to. And in the dark Clint says, "Tell me something true."

"My parents burned in the fire."

"No. Tell me something true."

"I burned in the fire, too."

.x.

By the time she realizes, it is too late. The balance is tipped. Her compass is broken. They say defector and she can no longer argue. There is a saying: it is not the place adorns the man, but the man adorns the place. It suits her.

"Tell me something true," whispers Clint in the dark, and she is grateful, she is grateful.

"There are chambers in my heart," she tells him, "rooms with no doors or windows."

"No," they say together, "true," they say together, and Natasha whispers, "I did not need doors or windows. I burned the walls to the ground."

.x.

There is a saying: to live with wolves, you have to howl like a wolf.