AN: Sorry this is so late. College/University assignments are taking up so much of my time. Also, I broke my right hand. Nearly shattered the thing according to the docs. Really put a cramp in my hundred words per minute typing speed. Even though its off now I'm down to about fifty. I love you all for sticking with me.

AN2: Natasha is 20 years old.

playlist: Bleeding Out by Imagine Dragons, Caradhras by Two Steps From Hell

"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."

"Sir, she's breaking through the protocol."

"That shouldn't be possible."

"Her mind is much stronger than we anticipated."

Natalia's day had started like any other. Waking up to the sunlight, no alarms blaring and her internal clock silent; Gavril's sleepy smile as he wakes, and she kisses him because she can and she knows he likes it; her morning run, enjoying the way the morning dew still wets the grass, the crisp morning air invigorating her lungs; walking in to breakfast with Gavril and his daughter (she doesn't even stave off the pangs of our daughter any more); dropping off the little blonde girl at a friend's house, waving goodbye and hearing 'See you later, Mama' in return.

When she returns, she finds Gavril nowhere in the immediate vicinity. She sheds her shoes at the door and drops the car keys in the bowl, calling his name. She goes off in search of him, hoping maybe they can go for a movie or a lunch date or something equally frivolous. She knows that he enjoys those kinds of things.

He's nowhere to be found on the ground floor and he's not responding to her calls, so she heads upstairs. His office is the first door on the left.

She doesn't bother knocking, because he's rarely in there anyway.

The misfortune of finding him would haunt her for a very long time.

She still wonders what her life might have been like if she had just skipped the office. Maybe delayed getting home by stopping at the gym to work off the excess frustration she had from not fighting on a regular basis. Stopping for something as stupid as coffee or groceries. She might never have found this.

She opens the door to see Gavril facing his computer, talking through webcam to what looked like a small group of people. It's that moment when the creeping dread falls over her. It's over.

It's all over.

Reality smacks her awake, reminds her that it is an illusion. And she's been deluding herself the entire time.

She is the Black Widow.

It takes them a moment to notice her, and when they do, Gavril halts his words about the human brain's chemistry and alterations to it and turns back to look at her.

"What are you doing?" she asks, not sounding at all dreadful of what was to come, what she always knew had to come.

His eyes dart to hers, apology and acceptance and even a touch of eagerness in his face. "Talia, honey, can you wait outside for one second?"

She knows. She knows exact what this is.

Mission parameters: 0-9 months. Conclusion is execution of tertiary target. See attached for details regarding execution; of utmost importance execution is completed within parameters.

Objective: Intelligence leak discovered. Target is former associate. Discover to whom intelligence is being given.

Target: DR GAVRIL DRAKOV see attached for description/most recent photograph on file

Tertiary Target: NEXT OF KIN, daughter, name unknown, description unknown. Details must be uncovered in the duration of the mission.

"Sure." Fights the urge to gag.

Feels the urge to run.

Splitting headache as she recedes to the hall.

No, she will stay and she will do her duty because they have no use of a child who cannot follow orders. She is the Black Widow.

A few minutes later (it feels like an eternity) Gavril emerges, acceptance writ all over his body language. He's silent a beat, just standing before her with his eyes on the ground. He finally raises them up to meet hers. She hopes she looks appropriately confused, hiding the storm within her. "I've been meaning to tell you this for a really long time."

She knows. She knows she knows she knows exactly what he's going to say (Intelligence leak discovered) but she's hoping against hope that she's wrong (Conclusion is execution of tertiary target). "Tell me what?" Still praying she's wrong, one of her migraines picks up again, badly enough that her eyes feel like they're pulsating in time with her quickening heartbeat; she places her fingertips against her temple, trying in vain to relieve the pain.

Gavril looks concerned. "We really should get those looked at," he suggests.

She shakes her head as though the motion doesn't hurt, puts on a smile. "No, I'm okay. Just... tell me what you were going to say?" She thinks the pain lessens, but it might just be her imagination.

He lets out a long sigh, as if telling her will be the final weight off his shoulders. "Several years ago, I was employed by this... institute that was dedicated to behavioral and brain science. I was conducting research on how the brain produces emotions, how it makes decisions. I thought I was doing good work... but then, I-I found out it wasn't a research institute at all."

She swallows hard against the urge to gag. "What was it?" she manages to ask steadily.

"It was a military organization called the Red Room that was specializing in making spies. Natalia, they were using my research to perfect mind control."

"What?" her voice is choked. (Do you know what the Red Room was, Widow? Do you know what they did to you in there?)

Gavril looks ashamed. "I know I should have told you, and I'm so sorry, but what I'm doing is huge."

No. Don't tell me. Get your daughter and run. I am dangerous. I am so, so dangerous. "And what exactly are you doing?"

"There's this... global peace-keeping organization. They're called the World Security Council. They contacted me about what I did. They told me if I told them everything I did that I could make up for what I had done! And it's not for much longer, I'm almost done giving them all that I know... Natalia, please understand. They're helping me fix what I caused!" Her silence sounds damning, but inside she is screaming. "Natalia, please, just say something."

This is it.

The objective of her mission is complete.

She knows what she must do now.

She can feel the compulsion to complete the mission radiating through her body like the flip of a switch, the instinct to kill firing back to life without any indication that she hadn't done it for so long.

But more than anything, she doesn't want to follow through, feels like she can't follow through. No, she won't she won't she won't because she loves them, loves what she has here.

Doesn't she? She knows its love, doesn't she?

But she has to, it's what she was trained for, what she was made for.

She has nothing outside of them. She is loyal to the motherland.

We have no use of a child who cannot follow orders.

Failure is not an option.

Love is for children.

A sigh of relief. "The protocol is still intact."

"So the mission will be completed within the parameters?"

"Yes, sir."

Hopelessness is a unique feeling. She has never experienced it before- she has always had faith in herself, that she will be able to get out of any situation she finds herself in without too much difficulty.

But here she is now. She put herself here.

Again. (Blue eyes and death and dying and please no and fire and screaming and You don't have to do this shit anymore and yes I do)

She should have known.

She did know, so why does this feel like she's been stabbed in the back and punched in the gut all at once?

It's Wolf all over again. (Let me do this one good thing.)

She let herself get attached, and now she's paying the price.

Paying the price with the excruciating pain in her head, with the pounding of her heart that feels like it decays in her chest while she still lives, with the feeling of her organs dead and dying inside of her, with her lungs struggling to take a full breath.

She excuses herself, says she needs to process this.

Gavril understands, of course he does, so she goes; down the stairs and out the door is the closest thing to freedom she can get right now.

And she runs. She feels like lying down and never getting back up, but instead she runs because what else can she do?

She knows she'll come back. Knows she'll complete the mission. What else can she do?

She's not wearing shoes, and the gravel digs into her dance-calloused feet. She doesn't feel it. She idly wonders if she'll ever feel anything ever again.

Because there was never a family here for her. There was never Natalia. There was never Mama. There was never happiness here. Only ghosts of things that wished they could be.

Now the ghosts are gone and the Black Widow can see.

She will eliminate the target.

No matter how many times the target has called her Mama.

It isn't until night falls that she finds her way back.

Gavril waited up for her because he is just that sort of man.

The Black Widow sees this a weakness. Weakness. Yes. He comes up to her, rubbing her arms because oh my god, Talia, honey, you're freezing! Where have you been? Oh god, what happened to your feet? He tries to tell her to sit, let him treat the wounds she still doesn't feel.

She tells him she's tired, that she's sorry she ran off, she forgives him. He kisses her.

She doesn't cry. Her eyes burn and she knows she probably should if she was normal but she has never been normal (You have the privilege of being special).

She sits stiffly, lets him look at her feet. They're not bad, he tells her. He won't even need to wrap them. Just be sure that you give them a good soak when you shower, okay?

Okay. She does what he says, and at some point in the shower she begins to feel the burn of the water and the stinging of her feet. She hisses, feels and remembers the pain with startling clarity.

Failure is synonymous with torture.

And she will not fail.

She gets out and dries herself, not letting herself think. Justice and peace justice and peace justice and peace.

After she gets dressed, she hears a high pitched call of Mama, Mama come read me a story!

For a terrifying second she can't breathe, feels like the wind was knocked out of her. But the Black Widow still replies, "Yeah, sure sweetie, I'm coming. Just give- give Mama a second." She falls to the floor before the toilet, feeling like she could retch but the action not coming.

Details of target execution: (cont'd from pg. 1) slit throat with knife; any household knife that is readily available will do; make sure primary target cannot interrupt proceedings; he must find tertiary target in order for tactic to be effective; use blood spilled to paint message on wall; message must read in Cyrillic: You dare defy us?; make sure message is legible; do not inquire about message meaning/purpose; keep scene clean except for the blood; you must leave premises directly following taking care of the tertiary target

She gathers herself together. Goes down to the kitchen, says she is getting a glass of water.

The knife she selects is small, easily hidden. A paring knife, she knows it is called (because she killed someone with one once. That's how she knows. She is the Black Widow.) Tucked into the pocket of her pajama pants, it can't be seen. But the Widow feels it.

She walks up the steps. Gravity seems to increase with each step she takes toward the bedroom.

She door creaks as it opens. It always does and Gavril has been meaning to fix it.

"Mama! Can we read this one?" She holds a big picture book in her hands: A Fish Out of Water. Her favorite. A ridiculous story about a fish that is given too much food and starts growing and growing until it doesn't even fit in a swimming pool anymore. Stupid, really.

She manages a smile, denies to herself that there is any fondness there, "Of course, baby girl. Anything for you."

She sits down on the bed so that the little girl can cozy her back up to Widow's torso. Widow's shin rests on the little blonde head. And she begins to read. "'This little fish,' I said to Mr. Carp. 'I want him. I like him. And he likes me. I will call him Otto.'" She flips through each page, pointing out each word.

It's something they've done for so long, so many times. She knows A Fish Out of Water by heart, could recite it without a single prompt. There is so much trust here, Drakov's daughter cuddling up to her torso, and the Widow doesn't know how she can...

"Why did he do that?" the little girl interrupts. Even though she's read the book so many times, the enigma of how the boy could feed Otto more food than Mr. Carp had told him to continued to confound her. "Mr. Carp told him he can't feed him more than a spot!"

"He thought Otto looked sad, remember? He didn't want Otto to be sad." With that, she kept reading

The Black Widow feels the child laughing against her. "Look at Otto! He's too big for that! Not even the tub can hold him!"

"Yeah," she manages in reply, "that's one big fish."

She can feel the knife in her pocket, waiting. Wanting the blood.

She knows she should want it.

She doesn't even try to want it.

The Black Widow does not want to kill.

I am theirs before I am mine (How can you say your life does not have meaning)

Justice and peace (Let me do this one good thing)

Failure is not an option (The small act of defiance shining in her mind)

Taking a life is like target practice (I'm not heartless)

You don't have to do shit like this anymore

The book is finished and she sets it off to the side of the bed.

Neither woman nor child make any moves to disentangle.

Her hand shakes as it closes around the knife. She slides it out of her pocket. She clutches it so hard in her hand it feels as though the handle is the blade. She should paint the walls with her own blood instead. She wishes she could.

"Can you sing to me?" the little girl asks.

For the first time she can remember, the Black Widow weeps. Really and truly weeps. Not crying, not sobbing. Not tears born of shock and anger or even sadness. It's a weeping that only one who has experienced true despair can understand. "Of course, love." The tears don't stop, and they make her voice wobble just a little; there's that catch in her breath that means tears, there's the burn in her eyes that means tears. She doesn't know any songs, and she doesn't know where she gets the words or the melody as she begins the song, "Even the fairy tale goes to bed, so you could dream of it at night. Close your eyes, Bayu-bay... In the tale you can ride the moon and gallop at full speed over the rainbow, make friends with a little elephant and catch a feather of the Firebird.

"Close your eyes, Bayu-bay... Bayu-bay, all people should sleep at night. Bayu-bay, tomorrow is a new day. We got very tired today, let's say to everyone 'Good night', go to sleep. Bayu-bay..."

The little girl sleeps.

The Black Widow raises the knife.

42 Hours Later

"So are we clear?"

"Yes, dear. You roll out the welcome wagon and I just follow behind and shut up unless I need to shoot someone. All over it."

"And you can't bring your bow. I want to make that ardently clear."

"Aw, you never let me have any fun."

"The fact that SHIELD lets you carry a bow is because I let you have fun."

"Ah, but now they like the bow too much to let me carry anything else, so it's more like sanctioned fun."

Their van turns into a long driveway flanked by white flowers. Their driver is a new kid (even though Hawkeye is pretty sure he's about the same age as him, at least) with barely even past level four clearance, and who has no idea what he's driving them for. That is essentially why they picked him (he also apparently 'has some promise' according to Coulson. That could mean a lot of things. In Hawkeye's opinion, being kind of on the skinny and gangly side, this Agent Ward doesn't look much. Then again, neither does the Widow. Hell, Hawkeye himself doesn't really either. Appearances are deceiving.)

All in the name of security. It had been enough of a stretch to let Coulson and Hawkeye approach (Fury had apparently had to call in a lot of favors to get them here) so a two-man team driven by a rookie whose knowledge favored 'the less he knows, the safer the op is' it was.

Hawkeye isn't sure what to expect out of the outing. Best case scenario: some answers and useable intel from the man who practically wrote the book on mind control. Worst case scenario: he's dead. Lots of places in-between. Hawkeye is ready for any of them. Well, ready minus his bow.

The pull up to the house, and Agent Ward throws the undercover SHIELD van into park.

"Wait here," orders Coulson tersely.

He nods like a soldier. "Yes, sir."

They exit the van and head for the front door.

The grounds are quiet, save for their feet on the ground and the birds in the trees. Hawkeye's eyes dart about, cataloguing the important information to be garnered by a cursory scan. He was relatively relaxed- they weren't anticipating anything going wrong; the informant was well-hidden if their struggles to even get near him to talk were any indication, but his hand still rested on the gun in his thigh holster anyway. If Hawkeye's extensive career had taught him anything, it was when everything seemed fine and dandy that the mission gets absolutely FUBARed.

"Anything?" Coulson asks quietly as they stand on the front stoop.

"All clear as far as I can see. Which is pretty far."

Coulson probably would've rolled his eyes at that if he was that sort of man. Instead, after an exasperated sigh, he raises his hand and knocks on the door.

"Since when did we become so polite? I mean, knocking on doors. Asking nicely before we question someone."

"The answer to your question is always. You just never got to have a part in this polite side of SHIELD before."

"I can see that. Bringing along an assassin doesn't always scream 'We're here to help you.'"

"Remember what I said about you just sitting back and letting me handle the talking?" Coulson asks. "I think now would be a good time to remember it."

When no one comes to the door, Coulson knocks again. Hawkeye listens closely, and can't even hear the sounds of moving feet within. "Nobody home?" Barton guesses. "Shall we leave a note? That seems very polite, right?"

Coulson's expression drops from his regular-serious to very-serious. "No, something's wrong. According to the information we got from the World Security Council, they always arrange times for him to be at home so that they can call him. This is one of the blocks of times when he is supposed to be home. He never misses one." They draw their sidearms simultaneously.

Barton is about to move into position to kick in the door, but a look from his handler stops him. Agent Coulson tries the door handle, finding it unlocked.

Taking away all my fun, Hawkeye thinks, but he knows when to shut his trap when he's on mission with Phil. Also, he can't shake the feeling of seriousness and caution that has suddenly descended.

They step over the threshold, postures humming with tension.

What they find was what they'd feared.

The place was trashed.

The door opens to a hallway that reaches to the back of the house, and all along the corridor pictures are knocked from their moorings, shattered glass litters the floor.

There is a small trail of blood, as though a bleeding wound was smeared along the floor. It is a chaotic pattern, veering across the floor and even onto the wall in some places, and it seems to reach all the way down the length of the hall.

Before they can search out the source of the blood, they need to clear the lower rooms first.

Coulson and Barton split without a word, their movements practiced and fluid, with Barton going right into what looks like a living room (or what is left of it) and Coulson continuing down the hall to another set of doorways.

The living room is a disaster zone. Pictures have been knocked off of shelves and tables and the fireplace and smashed against the hardwood floor, scattering more glass that crunches under his boots. The couch cushions have been ripped open by what looks like knife slashes and aggressive hands, their contents thrown about to join with the glass on the floor. A few floor panels are even missing, gouged out of the floor without even bothering to remove the nails and cast aside. Even several bricks were missing from the fireplace, dug right out of the plaster made to look like concrete.

Someone was obviously looking for something, and did a hell of a thorough job looking for it.

The rest of the rooms on the floor look the same- the dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and sunroom are absolutely ransacked.

Clint and Coulson met up again after clearing their respective rooms at the foot of the staircase, where the blood trail leads up the stairs. There are a few dark smears on the railing and supporting balusters that still stand, as a good number of them were splintered and broken. The smears appear directional- like someone was dragged against their will down the stairs and out the door.

"I don't think anyone's here," Coulson observed.

They had made quite the ruckus, shouting 'clear' at each other as well as their findings. If someone heard them, they are doing a good job of staying quiet and hidden. "Excellent deduction, Watson. Second floor?"

Neither ask for conclusions about the bloodstains yet, but it is on both of their minds. Coulson nods and they head up the stairs together.

The same dead silence greets them, embracing them like an old, unwelcome friend. The blood trail that lead up the stairs abruptly ends a few feet from the first step as though that was where the dragging first began, but that is not the end of the blood. The midday light streams through the windows, the blood darker up here, thicker and easier to see. There are smears on the walls and furniture, droplets seemingly flung onto the walls.

Same as the first floor, they work like a well-oiled machine, wordlessly splitting and clearing rooms once more.

Hawkeye's third room is the master bedroom, and it seems to have been given the same treatment as all the other rooms, slashed pillows, ripped sheets, an upturned mattress, closet doors thrown open and clothes torn from hangers, but there is something amongst the destruction that makes Hawkeye's blood run cold.

A shattered picture frame still standing on the bedside table. There is a small blood stain on it, as though the person had righted the knocked over photograph and run a finger down the side of the frame.

Inside that frame is a photo of the Black Widow. He moves to pick it up, motions slow and measured in disbelief.

For a second, he has to figure out why it doesn't look like her. Logically, he knows it's her- same body type, facial structure, she's even got her hair at it's natural, vibrant red. He figures it out moments later: she's smiling. A genuine smile, born of happiness. It occurs to him he has never seen that expression on her face before.

There are two others in the photo- the informant, Gavril Drakov, whose eyes are positively radiant and his smile is broad and proud; and then there's a little girl who's not looking at the camera, but at the Black Widow like she's never seen anything greater. Like a daughter looks at a mother.

And then he catches a look of the Widow's left hand, hooked around the waist of the informant. Is that a damn engagement ring on her finger? What. the. hell.

"Coulson! Get in here," Barton calls out, needing Coulson's eyes to confirm what he's seeing here.

Moments later, his handler enters, and Barton knows that look. Phil's found something as well. "Rest of the rooms are clear," Phil confirms. Coulson will share with him momentarily whatever it was he saw, so Hawkeye holds out the frame to him silently.

Phil takes it in his hands, examining it much the way Clint had. A rare look of absolute confusion crosses Coulson's face.

He looks back up, now seemingly more off-balance than he was when he first entered. Phil looks like he's searching for the right words, finally settling on, "You really need to see what's in the kid's room."

Shit. That doesn't sound good.

Coulson replaces the frame. They'll have to call in a team to take care of the house, and they'll bag everything, clean the place up until it shines like a new penny.

So he leaves the photo that rocked them both, and lets Coulson lead him down the hall to the room.

The door is painted white and has one of those flowery door signs that has what he assumes is the little girl's name on it.

When he goes in, it looks exactly like your stereotypical little girl's room- walls painted a frightening shade of magenta, stuffed animals littering the floor, a family of half-dressed dolls in the corner, books and the little doodads that every kid refuses to just throw out adorning the shelves.

He begins asking, "What I am looking-" but he cuts himself off when he rounds the door.

There's blood on the wall.

Writing in blood, large letters spelled out above the bed, where a small figure lies unmoving beneath the friendly pink and yellow and white. The message is uneven, flashes of the pink wall seen through the letters, and dripping the way blood tends to do, but it is still legible.

It's in Cyrillic, but he can read it.

You dare defy us?

Oh no. No please, god, no.

No, she doesn't kill kids. She doesn't.

Not up close like this. It sounds heartless to make the distinction but there is a difference when you take a life from a distance rather than up close. Bombing the hospital was a distance kill. This was personal, this was close, and he knows in his gut she doesn't do this.

He prays to any deity, every name of every deity, that he's right. Please, God, Allah, Vishnu, Krishna, Yahweh, Elohim, Jehova, Huwa, Waheguru, Shiva, Brahma. Please tell me I wasn't wrong.

He strides up to the bed, desperate to prove his own suspicions wrong. He flips back the comforter, trying to remain impassive with whatever he sees.

It's not a body. It's a mass of pillows. Barton nearly sinks to his knees with his relief. His confusion increases threefold when he sees a piece of paper resting next to the mound of pillows.

It is also written in Cyrillic and probably blood, but this one has only one word written.


Barton inhales sharply shock and roughly twenty-six other emotions running amok through him; his eyes widen and return to Phil, begging for some semblance of an explanation.

Agent Coulson appears just as lost. "I examined the room. There doesn't appear to be any other blood in here, not in the quantities it would take to write the message on the wall."

Hawkeye is at a loss for words, so he just asks outright, "What the fuck happened here?"

End of Drakov's Daughter: Part 3 of 3

Lullaby is borrowed and translated from Spokoinoi Nochi, Malyshi, a Russian children's show that's been airing since the 1960's. It's on youtube if you want to hear it.

Quote from T.S. Eliot.

Aaaand AOS canon makes its first appearance.

Also, SHIELD doesn't worry about silly evidence contamination. They probably have tech that can take care of it. Or they just don't care as much; that is also a possibility.

*JUST A REALLY QUICK QUESTION FOR LES READERS: Would any of you be interested in participating in a Q&A on tumblr? Like some sort of a session where I could answer questions/take suggestions live? I love answering readers questions, and it would be excellent feedback before I start seriously delving into the next part of this trilogy. I'll answer anything and everything I can.

If not enough people are interested, I won't do it. Just know that my askbox is open all the time, even to anons, so don't be shy!

The FINAL TWO chapters (oh lawd, can you believe we're here?) are really action-packed and a ton of stuff happens in them, so just be patient with me, okay?