A/N: This chapter is a long time in coming, and it's more setup than anything. I hope to update soon, and I'll focus on Thor's efforts to improve his relationship with little Loki. Things to look forward to: tomboy Sif, adorable Loki, and Thor's first experience reading Freud.
Disclaimer: I don't own Marvel's The Avengers. Go bow down before Marvel Studios and Joss Whedon
Chapter 4: Red in My Ledger
Agent Romanov missed the good old days. Back when the Russians were the bad guys, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the baddest team in town, and Natasha's only worry was where she was going to conceal her handgun in her newest evening gown. Those days were gone.
It had started when Commander Fury tasked her with protecting Tony Stark, the egomaniac whose IQ was a few points too high for his own good. The shootout between Tony Stark and the Hammer Drones built by Ivan Vanko could easily have destroyed thousands of civilians, and that was only the beginning.
Before Natasha knew it, you couldn't throw a stone without hitting aliens, god-like beings from legend, or impossibly good-looking men from the past (Captain Rogers might not be her type, but damn the man could fill out a uniform). No matter what new horrors threatened the world with each coming day, Natasha had simply rolled up her metaphorical sleeves and went to work. A trained agent adapts, always – more often than not, it meant the difference between life and death.
But one thing Natasha hated above everything else was feeling out of control. Perhaps it was a remnant of her youth, when men whose souls were stained with the blood of children had stripped away all of her barriers, one after another, so that they could remake her into the perfect espionage machine. They had scooped out everything that was her, Natasha Romanov, and filled her with blood, death, and unquestioning obedience. No matter how skilled she became, she was powerless against her trainers – most times, she couldn't even think of disobeying orders without triggering a conditioned response that left her trembling and covered in vomit.
After S.H.I.E.L.D. broke her conditioning, Natasha cherished her hard-won control over her body and her emotions. Finally, she was the one who decided where to go, whom to kill, or which orders to follow. Even when the world was falling to pieces around her, Natasha could always count on her wits and her gun. Not even the Chitauri had been able to take that away from her.
But now, hurtling at high speeds through absolute darkness, Natasha was utterly helpless. She couldn't outthink the Tesseract – she didn't even know if it had thoughts. She couldn't shoot it, although with each passing moment the idea became more tempting.
"Now, now," a voice echoed in her head. "That's not very nice. I'm giving you a chance most people would die for. No need to thank me."
Is that… the Tesseract? Natasha thought, astonished.
"Correct!" the voice boomed, brimming with laughter. "You humans – and Asgardians too, I suppose – have been treating me like a playtoy for so long I thought I'd return the favor and have some fun of my own. Don't worry about your comrades, by the way; they're fine, although whether they remain so is entirely up to them."
"What are you doing to us?" Natasha demanded, the sound of her own voice a slight comfort in this endless rushing darkness.
"You want me to spoil all the fun?" the Tesseract demanded, and for a moment it reminded Natasha just a little of Tony Stark. "Figure out the rules as you go along, just like everybody else. I will say that I've got something special in store for you. You're a particularly complex woman, Agent Romanov."
"I'll… take that as a compliment, I suppose."
"Not entirely, my dear. You've worn a mask for so long, I don't think even you know what's underneath it anymore. The control you've fought so hard for is a trap, if only you could see it. The only cipher you can't crack is your own heart. I'm going to force you out of your comfort zone, Natasha. Maybe, just maybe, you'll figure out who you are, and what you want."
"I'm Natasha Romanov, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.," Natasha snapped, "and what I want is for you to bring me and my team back from wherever you've sent us!"
The Tesseract didn't bother to respond to this.
"You once said that you have red in your ledger, and you want the chance to wipe it out. So be it – I'll give you that chance. But be careful… a clean slate always comes with strings attached."
Natasha opened her mouth, preparing to give the Tesseract a piece of her mind, when her body jerked suddenly and violently to the side, as if an invisible hook had snatched her away.
"One more thing," came the Tesseract's smug voice, growing ever fainter. "You won't remember this conversation once you arrive. One of those strings we talked about… clean slate, you know. Safe travels!"
Natasha had time for one heartfelt and colorful curse before she collided full speed with an unseen obstacle. Her head whipped forward, meeting something solid with a crack and a sharp pain. She knew no more.
Natasha controlled her panic, wondering where she was. The last second the Tesseract had drawn them in, and now she was somewhere else entirely.
"Natalia." That voice again, insistent and strange, yet familiar. Perhaps because the man was speaking in Russian.
Natasha opened her eyes and came face to face with a man from her worst nightmares. Ivan Petrovich, the man who saved her life only to sentence her to hell. Mere days after rescuing her from the fire that had left Natasha an orphan, Ivan had brought her to a secret facility dedicated to training the next generation of Soviet superspies. He had been her handler and later her commanding officer, overseeing every step of her training until she had defected to S.H.I.E.L.D. with Clint Barton's help.
Here was Ivan, exactly as Natasha remembered him. The lined, craggy face with eyes that saw too much. The thick mustache that would have looked silly on any other man, yet only gave Ivan a touch of menace. Cold and hard, like a forged piece of steel. He sat behind his old desk in the cramped office where he had used to give Natasha missions, wearing the same look of exasperated impatience that he always had when Natasha performed below expectations.
It was every bit as horrifying as her nightmares – worse, because no dream could ever have been so vivid. Time had worn away the roughest edges from Natasha's memory, but now she could have been back in her old life, before S.H.I.E.L.D., before everything, almost as if… oh.
If the Tesseract could transport an army through space, it wasn't much of a stretch to believe it could send her back in time. Natasha looked around rapidly, hoping to see the Avengers beside her. Thor, Captain America… hell, she'd even be happy to see Stark. Anything to keep her from being alone with this man. She could feel her heart beating rapidly, sweat beginning to make her palms clammy.
"Natalia," Ivan said again, now beginning to sound angry. "Look at me."
Against her will, Natasha met his eyes. She had forgotten how much she hated the sound of her old name.
"I have another mission for you," her former commander said, watching her sharply. "Unless this odd behavior means you're not feeling up to it."
That was a trap. The old Natasha had no feelings, no weaknesses. She followed orders, no matter what. If Natasha wanted to get out of here and rendezvous with S.H.I.E.L.D., she would need to follow the script. She just hoped she could remember it.
Natasha exerted her will, clearing her face of all emotion. "Of course not. What is the mission, sir?"
"A foreign dignitary had an acute attack of appendicitis last week, and is currently convalescing in a hospital just outside of Kiev. It's an old building, not quite up to fire code. If it were to, let's say, burn to the ground, no one would think it anything other than a tragic accident. Can you make that happen?"
Natasha froze. This was the mission. The one that had pushed her past the breaking point, shocking her beyond the limits of her conditioning. Only a few days after setting the fire that had killed over a hundred innocent men, women, and children, Natasha had learned that S.H.I.E.L.D. was sending an operative to kill her.
That was when Natasha had first met Clint Barton. She had meant to die that day. Left herself open for the killing shot, and hoped that he would take it. But he made a different call, and Natasha's life had changed.
How could the Tesseract have possibly known so much about her? And why would it choose to send her here, to this moment? It was insane.
But Ivan Petrovich had asked her a question, and he didn't like waiting for answers. Natasha raised her chin, and with a spurt of controlled horror she remembered what she had said the first time around.
"Consider it done."
Ivan nodded, satisfied. "Good. You have forty-eight hours. Report back when the job's done."
Natasha saluted and turned to leave, but she found her feet rooted to the floor. She knew she should go. It was the smart thing to do. She needed to get out of this building, leave Russia, and debrief with Commander Fury. If all of the other Avengers had been sent back with her, then Clint Barton would be back at S.H.I.E.L.D. He would vouch for her, even if the Commander didn't know they had been sent back in time.
But Ivan would still be here. He would send another operative to finish the job, destroying the hospital and carrying out countless more atrocities that S.H.I.E.L.D. had linked to Petrovich over the years. He had never been brought to justice in the future, never been foolish enough to leave himself vulnerable.
Natasha had no choice. It wasn't a question of the smart thing to do. No matter why she had been brought here, no matter what it might do to the future, fate had brought her once again in front of Ivan Petrovich. And only one of them would leave this office alive.
Natasha took a step and purposefully stumbled, swiftly palming the small knife she kept tucked in her right boot. Swift as a viper, she spun and threw, aiming for Ivan's neck.
He was also quick, however, and though his eyes registered utter surprise, he raised the clipboard on his desk in time to block the knife. It sank to the hilt into the thin wood.
"Natalia!" he shouted, outraged.
She was already in motion, sprinting to the desk with two quick steps and vaulting forward into a front handspring. She pushed off of the desk with her hands, bringing her feet around quickly and locking her knees around Ivan's head as she spun through the air. As she completed her rotation she tried to twist, which would have broken Ivan's neck cleanly.
But he moved with her, his powerful arms breaking her stranglehold before she could complete the technique. He threw her away with a roar, and she hit the far wall. Natasha fought the sudden onset of agony and rolled away, narrowly missing the chair he sent flying after her.
She charged at the desk once again, a plan appearing as she saw the open space, about four feet by four feet, in the center of the desk, which left room for the user's feet.
Ivan threw a stack of papers at her in an attempt to obscure her vision, but Natasha threw herself forward, feet-first, underneath the desk. She slid beneath it and landed a sharp kick against Ivan's right ankle. He cursed and staggered, one arm falling low enough for Natasha to grab. She pulled down hard, and Ivan's earlier momentum made it impossible for him to pull back. His head hit his desk with a solid clunk, drawing a shout of pain.
Natasha kept pulling, clenching her stomach muscles to power her legs up and around, swinging herself up above the desk while she let go of Ivan's arm. She landed feet-first on the desk, grabbed Ivan's head with both hands and slammed him against the desk once again. She heard the crack as his nose broke, but she hadn't pushed with enough force to drive the bones into his brain. A second later she was behind him, trapping his arm in an advanced grip meant to immobilize a heavier opponent. The slightest pressure and his arm would break. It was most likely overkill, as the last blow had left him too dazed to see straight, his nose streaming blood and his eyes rapidly filling with tears.
"Natalia…" Ivan croaked, "have you gone mad?"
"My name," she whispered, years of suffering welling up and causing her voice to crack, "is Natasha."
There was a pen still lying on the desk, the only thing that hadn't fallen to the floor during the short, vicious struggle. It was a nice pen, black with gold highlights, and Natasha remembered Ivan signing her orders with it many times in the past. She reached for it with her free hand, noting with grim satisfaction that the cap had already been removed.
"This can't possibly make up for the things I've done," Natasha said, feeling suddenly detached and calm. "But it's a start." A quick strike, and it was over. Ivan twitched once, then fell still.
She left the body slumped over the desk, walking out without a backwards look.
Four days later, Natasha waited in the square in Moscow where, a lifetime ago, she had first met Clint Barton.
Natasha had worked with Clint for years. She knew his habits better than her own, and after so many years in the field they understood the way the other thought. If he had been transported to the past with her, then he would remember the way they first met. It was quicker to go to the same place, and hope that he would do the same thing. Without Clint, Natasha would have a much harder time reuniting with S.H.I.E.L.D. and figuring out her next step.
So here she was in Moscow, waiting for her partner and torn between hating the Tesseract for sending her back in time, and loving it for giving her the opportunity to put at least one of the skeletons in her closet to rest.
She looked around the square, hardly able to suppress a nostalgic smile. Last time she had been here she was prepared to embrace death, unable to live with the horror she had become. One might almost say that she had been born again right here, on this very street, when Clint had decided not to send an arrow through her heart. It really was a very pretty street, Natasha decided. Cleaner than most of Moscow, and filled with the delicious scent of roasted meats and vegetables wafting from the stalls along the street.
Natasha was seized by a sudden, unaccountable desire to buy food from one of the vendors. Maybe when Clint showed up, they could take a moment for dinner. It had been a very long time since Natasha had eaten food in her home city.
The first time, Clint had been hiding in one of the buildings lining the way, camped out in a third-floor apartment. While Natasha waited for Clint to arrive, she amused herself by scanning the buildings, trying to figure out which one it had been. Her heart almost stopped when she saw sunlight glinting off of something metallic, and a familiar profile staring directly at her.
She barely had time to open her mouth before the arrow left the bow. Her legs folded under her, and she felt the breeze overhead as the arrow missed her by centimeters.
"Damn it, Clint!" she yelled, startling the passersby, most of whom hadn't noticed the arrow streaking through the air. "That's not funny!"
If that wasn't funny, the half-dozen street vendors that pulled assault rifles from behind their stalls and trained them on her weren't funny, either. The street cleared in seconds – at this stage in Russian history, citizens knew when to make themselves scarce.
"Hold your fire," Natasha screamed, raising her hands above her head. What in the hell was Clint doing? "Let me talk to Agent Barton!"
The agent in question was rappelling down the building with a rope attached to the windowsill. He approached Natasha at a fast pace, staring at her as if she was a particularly complex puzzle. "Stand down, men," he said, waving at the fake street vendors to come closer and lower their guns.
That would have made Natasha feel better, if it weren't for the fact that Clint still held his bow at full draw, ready to loose.
"Natalia Shostakova, also known as the Black Widow," Clint said as he approached. "I'm supposed to kill you. But now I'm curious… how did you know my name?"
"Are you kidding me?" Natasha demanded, her heart sinking. "You don't remember me? The Avengers? The Tesseract?"
"I'm beginning to think you might have a good shot at an insanity plea," Clint replied carefully, watching her as if she was a scorpion about to strike, "except for the fact that you're not getting a trial. Do you have any last words?"
Damn. That was Natasha's plan all blown to hell. Either this wasn't the same Clint from her own timeline, or else the Tesseract had brought him back and then wiped his memories of the future. Either way, Natasha was going to have to think quickly if she didn't want an arrow in her gut.
What had convinced Clint not to kill her in the first timeline? Natasha remembered – Clint had said it was her eyes. What did he say all those years ago? "I saw myself in you. I had to give you the chance that I was given, or I couldn't live with myself."
Well, it seemed like Natasha had missed that opportunity. Clint was looking into her eyes right now, and there wasn't a whole lot of mercy in his rugged face. Perhaps the savage satisfaction of getting revenge on Ivan had dimmed some of the self-loathing that had once been the core of Natasha's identity.
Anticipate, adapt, survive. There was no time for pondering what had been, or what should be. It was time to play a new hand.
"You shouldn't kill me," she declared, lifting her chin defiantly. "Commander Fury will want to know what I know."
His blue eyes were cold and hard, little flecks of diamond set in chiseled stone. "And what do you know?"
"S.H.I.E.L.D.'s security protocols, for one," she said. "And weaknesses in your intelligence network that my former organization was planning to exploit in the near future."
Natasha watched Clint's eyebrows raise ever so slightly, and suddenly she was struck with a playful urge. "I also know that you sleep with an arrow under your pillow," she said slyly, "and that your favorite band is Earth, Wind, and Fire. Sometimes you listen to a record with their greatest hits after getting back from a mission."
If Clint had been surprised before, he was dumbstruck now. Natasha smirked at him, shaping her disappointment at the situation into iron-hard resolve. If Clint didn't remember her, then she was going to make him remember. She was not going to go through this again without her ally and best friend at her side. She refused.
"I'm defecting," she declared, holding her hands out in front of her. "Call Commander Fury. Tell him I'm coming in from the cold."