to be unmade
"Do you love him?" asks Loki, and Natasha says, "No."
They do not meet in Budapest. They do not meet until after, somewhere in the air over Istanbul. Or, more accurately: they do not meet again until somewhere in the air over Istanbul, and it is the first time, but not the first first time.
Natasha stays in a hotel on Pest, and Clint sleeps on the floor of a requisitioned boat docked at Buda. They both run, every morning, in different directions; Natasha keeps to the island side of the bridge, but Clint prefers an unobstructed view of the Danube. They both wake up at 0530 every morning, because the sun starts to rise around then, and Clint likes the shadows receding. He finds some twisted sort of hope in the way the twisted branches of blocked light sigh away from the water and hide in the tiniest cracks of old cathedrals.
Natasha chases the light, racing with closed eyes across the bridge and around the exactly 3-mile island, closing her ears to everything but the pounding of her feet and the rhythm of her breath, and this, this is peace. There is no programming here but what nature made: she must breathe to survive, she must breathe harder when she pushes faster, and no amount of wiring can trick her body otherwise. In, out. The sunlight is always faster.
Natasha is in the city to kill a woman named Emerenc Szodá. The file they had given her wrote TRAITOR across the bottom of the photograph—the photograph in which a woman smiled, in each of her arms a child still small enough for her thin arms to pick up. There was snow on the ground, in the photo; the date is 1972. Natasha knows her history: it was the Soviets, in 1970, though that hardly mattered. Life under the Soviets and life under the Nazis hadn't meant anything, really, to the Hungarians. It had all been death—disguised as too-small food rations or too-thin coats, the only thing that differed was the uniform it marched in.
But in the photo, Emerenc Szodá is not yet starving, her eyes not yet gaunt and hungry, so Natasha does not spare her any pity. She has been programmed to remember the Siege of Leningrad, and the way a grandmother that a technician dreamed up—or perhaps remembered—boiled wallpaper into paste to try and pass as bread. She had died of poisoning, but her belly had been full when she went.
Clint is in the city to keep Emerenc alive.
She lands at the airport and pays the 3600 forint for a taxi into the city. She knows already that Emerenc will be at work, will be there until eight when they close the museum. Natasha, feeling sentimental, rides the taxi all the way to Andrássy Avenue and walks along in the sunshine, looking into windows. She could be anybody. She almost feels that way: her fingers soft against the warm glass, summer's sweat smeared into an O where her forehead is pressed. She considers buying a pair of shoes, but has no bag to put them in, and no occasion.
The House of Terror is still open when she gets there, but Natasha does not go inside. She stands outside of the heavy doors and runs her fingertips along the row of red candles, each one a commemoration, and reads the names. They are familiar, because they are all the same: Mária, Viktor, János, Magdalena. They all had skinny arms and skinny children. They all died with pinpricks in their fingers from where the needles poked them when they mended and re-mended the straps clothes they imagined were jackets.
Emerenc will also die with pinpricks, Natasha thinks as she pushes open the baby blue museum doors and goes inside. But they won't be from sewing needles.
Clint watches her go inside, red hair caught up in an emerald clip. On the plane, Maria had been reading a book called Deathless and said, "Red compels." She'd looked up. "They say the Widow has red hair, doesn't she?"
"Why, Agent Hill," Clint had responded dryly, "I didn't realize you were such a romantic."
The woman had shrugged. Sometimes she is so sewn to Fury's side that Clint almost cannot see the distinct outlines of her body; sometimes she reads novels called Deathless and says, "red compels," as if it were the truth. "Red Room, red hair, red lips," she said. "Track record thick as my granny's Bible. All I'm saying."
Clint watches the Black Widow's hair swing back and forth like a pendulum or a grandfather clock and feels sorry that he'd teased. Maybe Maria was right: she is illusive, not a shadow but a flicker of burning light, leaving ashes where she's been. He doesn't cross the street and follow her; he knows she will not recognize his face, but he cannot afford to be wrong. Instead, he goes into the building cattycorner to the museum and finds a seat on the second-floor café by the window. He orders a coffee that he doesn't drink and pretends to be an artist making sketches.
Hours later, the Widow emerges, but her hair has been let out of its constraints and covers her face. Clint is, bizarrely, grateful. He thinks of eclipses, and of the way your eyes dance with painful light when you look too long into a fire.
Natasha decides on the poison, because it is quickest, and quietest, and she doesn't need to wear the thick wristlets that make some of her movements sluggish.
Emerenc gives tours every hour, and always holds a thermos of coffee, sipping while the visitors poke their noses too close to old photographs and fog the glass. She is an old woman, Emerenc, and her eyes are always watering. She talks about the camps and the cold and the long trains as if she had ridden each one, as if she had felt every rattle of the poorly constructed tracks under her feet.
"Do you remember what it was like back then?" asks one of the younger tourists during Natasha's tour.
Emerenc pauses. For a moment, her face looks like the one in Natasha's photo. "My children," she begins, and then stops. She looks away and dabs at her leaky eyes. "Well, it was a long time ago. I am an old woman."
It occurs to Natasha that James would remember what it was like back then, if they hadn't kept reprogramming him and taking it all away as soon as it appeared. During her training—during the nights after her training—he would sometimes wake, his breathing heavy, a name on his lips. He never got it out, but it was there, it had belonged to somebody. Perhaps that somebody had belonged to James.
She wonders, for the first time, what this creaky old woman is doing that warrants her immediate extermination. She can barely lift the tissue to her eyes without trembling from the effort, and the coffee thermos in her hand is always weighed down to her side. She leans against a wall every time she wants to lift it to her lips.
Natasha moves quietly to stand next to her. She has been waiting for the right time to gently knock her over, and then pick her up as she drops the two dissolvable capsules into the thermos. Emerenc sighs. "I wish they wouldn't ask those things," she confides in Hungarian, assuming for her own private reasons that Natasha will understand her.
"It must be difficult to work here," Natasha notes, lining her words with a sympathy she has forgotten how to feel. "To be surrounded by all these memories."
Emerenc shrugs. "Well, it was my life," she says. "Some people have memories of happier things; I have this. Sometimes I don't. I am old. I forget. But . . . I do not like to forget, not even the bad. I would rather remember. It is always better that way."
Natasha raises her eyebrows. One of the tourists walks towards them, his stride certain and graceful, like the flap of a bird's wing. "You would rather remember, even though it is painful?" she asks.
"In the winter, soldier on," says Emerenc, and Natasha's mind stutters to a halt.
"I beg your pardon?"
"In the winter, soldier on," Emerenc repeats, but Natasha hears: the Winter Soldier. She looks again at Emerenc. She tells herself to be quiet, to swing her arm as if reaching for something, to knock the stupid old woman over and put the capsules in her thermos, but she hears herself ask, "My grandfather was Hungarian, he lived in Budapest for a while. Perhaps you knew him. He went by the name Barnes?"
The thermos drops and Emerenc's eyes leak. Natasha looks down at her spilled opportunity and thinks, dimly, already knowing that it will come to nothing: perhaps the knife.
Clint kneels before the Widow and her prey and sweeps up the old woman's thermos before it can be tampered with. He knows how she plays this game, in silence and in stealth; sometimes her corpses walk around for days before they realize they are dead.
"Oops," he says cheerfully, in his thickest American accent. "Careful, now. Wouldn't want to get anything on any of the exhibits."
The Widow's eyes spring to his, but they are flat, and he knows she wouldn't be able to pick him out of a crowd later. She is not in this room. His arm grows tired from holding out the thermos and he realizes the woman is not in the room either; wherever they are together, it is not in the House of Terror on Andrássy Avenue.
He gently places the thermos into the old woman's hand and curls her fingers around it. She blinks a few times and looks at him. "Oh," she says faintly, "thank you."
In that instant, the Widow's eyes are sharp again, and they strike at him with such familiarity that for a moment Clint holds his breath. Five years ago, Clint would have believed that those eyes were sharp enough to never forget him. Years from now—if she is still alive—those eyes promise to be able to draw his face down to the tiniest freckle, the tiniest misplaced hair. He wants to close his own eyes and remember this moment, remember what it felt like to be memorized.
But he knows better. Red compels, Maria says, in a room suffocated in it they take away her memory like ribbons, like threads. There are spools of days they have unraveled from her, shelved and labeled neatly in red sharpie. Perhaps one of them says "Romanova – Childhood." Perhaps one of them says "Romanova – Barton."
Still, he is a professional. He smiles benignly and moves on, keeping every sense but his eyesight on the couple still standing motionless at the edge of the room.
The Widow disappears when he is momentarily distracted by the reflection of a camera's flash in a picture frame. Emerenc stands stock-still, murmuring a name that Clint cannot make out.
At her hotel, Natasha packs all of her things in a smooth, orderly fashion, leaving out only the knife that she already knows she will not kill Emerenc Szodá. She had run this morning, but she runs again, as the sun sets, forcing out every thought but that of her breath, in and out, peace, this.
Emerenc has known a James Barnes, had known her Winter Soldier before he was—or perhaps when he was, yes, that would have been after he had been programmed; only, she knew him as he was, as James Barnes, not as any of the names they gave him. Natasha knows all about those names, those faces that they pour into his bloodstream like batter, tasteless, full of raw yolk. Why had he been himself, when he knew her?
Her eyes leak from age, only it is not from age, Natasha knows this, knows the signs of death more intimately than anyone; she ought to, they are old friends. Emerence is dead already, and not from any Widow's poison.
But they had sent her here to take her, perhaps six months early, perhaps a year—and why? Why risk her, their prize, their pet, on something with such a definitive expiration date?
During training, James had sometimes woken with a name on his lips, and she knows it was not Emerenc, but it was somebody's, and she understands as her feet hit the 3-mile mark on Margaret's Island that it is not Emerenc, exactly, she has been sent to extinguish. It is that somebody. It is the entire trail of somebodys that James has left behind him; it is the tracks in the snow of the Winter Soldier.
Well, Natasha thinks as she grinds to a halt outside of her hotel, all right. James does not belong to her, is not hers to decide which pieces stay and which go. In her room, she fingers her knife, tells herself she will use it.
After his run in the morning, Clint goes back to the museum. He waits for Emerenc to come in, but she doesn't. He asks after her once a few hours have passed, and is told that it is her day off.
"Shit," he swears, bolting from the museum. He had looked at a map this morning and relies on memory, weaving in and out of streets whose names he can't pronounce, wishing for the hundredth time that he was here to kill the Widow and not merely prevent her from working. He could have had her, that day at the museum. He could have had her this morning, when he saw her run past on the other side of the bridge.
He doesn't know how he manages to remember the small street where Emerenc lives, but he does, and climbs up the fire escape because he can't be bothered with the door. Anyway, he is from the circus: he is never more comfortable than when dangling from great heights.
Clint hooks his legs into the railing and hangs down, looking through the top of a window into the old woman's apartment. She is sitting on the couch, but the Widow is not with her. Either Clint is too late, or something has changed.
It is the first time she has not successfully completed a mission, but Natasha doesn't care. Nature is completing it for her. She tells her handler that the job is done, that the old woman is already dead and doesn't know it. It is not a lie, and it is not the truth.
Clint sits behind her on the plane. He knows that she recognizes him, and knows her well enough not to be surprised when he wakes to find her next to him. There is a message on his phone that reads, WIDOW: X, TRACELESS. He is not surprised.
"You are here for me," Natasha—and he can call her Natasha now, here, above a land that holds claim over neither of them—says calmly. Her hair falls in liquid curls around her face. "Why?"
"You did not kill the old woman," Clint says, instead of answering.
Natasha does not look at him, but pulls the Duty Free magazine from the seat in front of her. "No," she agrees.
"Well," Clint says, "then neither will I."
She raises an eyebrow. "I am not old," she tells him, and he looks at her with eyes he cannot disguise, eyes he cannot dress up with a hawk's sharpness or a sniper's distance. Natasha, he wants to say, Tasha, Natka, Natusik. You have let me call you all of these, but never at the same time.
"You are older than you think," he says gently, and she lets him cover her hand with his own. She always does, and neither of them ever knows why.
His has sat here five times, six, each time with the message in his pocket that reads WIDOW: X, TRACELESS. He always tells himself he will, and he never does, because she always lets him cover her hand.
"Who are you?" she asks, and her voice has deadly poison sewn into every letter, but he knows her, and he is not afraid yet.
"You called me Hawkeye," he tells her, "and I loved you until you wouldn't let me anymore."
"I have never met you before. I do not forget."
"No," he agrees, because it is not forgetting when it is stolen, when it is unthreaded. Then, "I was in the circus, when you found me for the first time; I was in a costume when you found me for the second first time; I was half-dead and calling myself one of the good guys when you found me for the third first time. After that, I began finding you."
"I don't know you," Natasha says again, but he can tell by the sigh in her voice that she does not believe her own words. She knows what they do to her.
"You wake up with a name on your lips," he tells her. "Only you don't know whose it is."
She shudders, and her fingernails rip into the Duty Free magazine, and he knows what comes next because it is always what comes next. He barely feels the needle bite into his arm, barely notices her move, but he closes his eyes and waits.
"Do you love him?" asks Loki, and Natasha says, "Love is for children."
She tells the flight attendant that her husband is a nervous flyer and took some Nyquil; she drags him to her car and dumps him in the backseat. She does not drive anywhere, because she does not want him to recognize anything, but the drug won't wear off until midnight, and she binds his eyes.
He does not ask questions when he wakes; he barely stirs. But she knows he is awake, and he knows that she knows.
"Who are you?" she asks again.
"Clint Barton," he tells her, voice frank. "I work for SHIELD. They call me Hawkeye."
"If that were true, you would not give yourself up so easily," she points out. "You know I am the enemy; I will give this information to my superiors."
"Assuming the cause I am loyal to is the one SHIELD pays me to uphold," Clint agrees. "But I'm not a patriot, Natasha. I just happen to earn a living as one."
She startles at the sound of her name, but doesn't show it.
And she remembers, suddenly, during training: James, every morning a new man, every morning introducing himself as if they had not met the night before, a hundred beginnings, a hundred-hundred, all of them the same, all of them different. They call me the Winter Soldier. / Well, they call me your match.
She gambles, would hold her breath if she were the kind: "Who am I?"
"Natasha Romanova, the first, but not the only, Black Widow. Briefly adopted by Ivan Petrovich, making you the adopted sister of Yuri Petrovich. Trained by the Winter Soldier, success rate—until yesterday—one hundred percent. One-time wife of Alexei Shostakov. Thief, assassin, soldier, spy." He pauses. "Ballerina. Chef. Designer."
"Those things are not real," Natasha laughs, derisive, and he says, "Just because they are programmed doesn't make them not real."
She sits for a moment. "I am going to kill you," she tells him after a moment. "I do not think you are lying, but I cannot see how I can let you live under the circumstances."
"Okay," says the man—Clint—agreeably. "But can I ask you something first?"
"Red," he says. "What does it do?"
"What does red do?"
Without thinking, her mind lends her the answer: "It compels," and then it all spills out before her like a ball of thread being pushed down the stairs, unraveling. She remembers the first time, as he had spun off of a wire and still hit the target's bull's-eye; she remembers the second time, when he was being called criminal in the street when all he wanted was to hear the word hero; she remembers the third time, when he was wearing all-black and a hard smile that she had taught to him, bleeding out in a bunker in the south of Germany; she remembers the fourth time, when he had found her in Chile and begged her to remember him, please, just this once, he swears he'll never drag her through this again if only just today, just today, Natasha, please—
"Clint," she breathes, and unties his blindfold. His eyes are not soft, or kind, or good; they are not true; they do not make promises; but they tell no lies and they take nothing from her, they are eyes that will always watch her back.
"Tasha," he returns, his smile the hard one that she had worked so hard to teach him. "Welcome back."
"Do you love him?" asks Loki, and Natasha says, "I owe him a debt."