2015-09-05 A Long and Complicated Story
This scene is rated Everybody
Warning: N/A
Players: Peggy, Steve, Natasha, Clint
GMed by Who GMed?
Title: A Long and Complicated Story

Rating: G

It has been a strange week for those living at the Carter-Rogers residence. Attacks, travels to foreign countries, it's nice for the pair to actually spend a night not bogged down in either work or the preparation of work. Natasha's warning text that she would be stopping by has been received and as such, much of the food that Steve has cooked and baked is out for their guests to partake in. The kitchen also has bottles of beer and wine. A few harder liquors are in a cabinet somewhere. Though they've had limited time, the pair have gone fairly easily into nesting mode.

On the couch, Peggy lays sprawled and in a casual wear. It's an evening of rest and hopefully relaxation.

Steve had only come in minutes earlier from meeting with Samuel at the Tower and had to rush upstairs to grab a quick shower and try to make himself presentable. Coming downstairs in a pair of sweatpants and nothing else as he rifles a towel through his hair, he calls out, "Hon, is there laundry in the dryer? I need a shirt!" he calls out as he heads towards the back of the house to head for the laundry room. "How much longer until Natasha is here?"

Not long, evidently. On cue, there's a ring on the doorbell and a backup knock on the door. How she managed it is a bit of a trick, though: Natasha's hands are laden with a covered cake dish and she has a bag hanging from her elbow. She's maintaining the look of a 1950s or 60s housewife making a social call, perhaps intentionally — it's not vintage clothes or an exact replica, but there's sunglasses and a sundress and sandals. Her perennial partner is in tow; evidently the two of them are calling on the Carter-Rogers family in a way that looks almost… well, normal. If you discount that three of the four are enhanced humans and seventy years older than they look and all four of them are international spies. Apart from that, super normal.

Clint is the super normalest of them all - and that's a rather disconcerting thought. He didn't get the memo that they're doing Back to the Future, so he's just in jeans and a t-shirt with purple lensed sunglasses. He's carrying a messenger bag and something in a paper bag. "DING DONG. AVON CALLING!" he calls out as soon as he hears footsteps approaching the door.

From the couch, Peggy fluidly gets up to move toward the laundry room. It's something they never would have had in the 40s, but she's incredibly grateful for it now. "Yes, it's already in there, Steve," she tells him, seemingly already practiced in the banter between married men and women. The bandage is gone from her side and she seems to be all but healed from the bullet wound she took during the Avengers' Mansion attack.

Switching courses, she moves for the door, opening it to see Natasha in her housewife attire and she smirks. Her own outfit is vintage as well, hair curly and face made up, clothes much of the same ones she wore right after the war. "Natasha, Clint," she grins, gesturing for them to come in. "Can I take that?" she asks of Natasha, hands reaching out to relieve her of her items. That's only polite. To Clint, she grins. "You don't have the look of an Avon lady, Clint Barton," she teases.

From the back of the house there comes a ruckus and then barking as Steve aughs. "Patriot, no!" he calls out, trying to pull on his t-shirt as a Beagle/Corgi mix comes running up towards Peggy on the couch and starts jumping up and down while barking to try to get her attention before running up to the door to bark bark bark at visitors before she immediately surrenders and flops onto her back, presenting belly for rubs.

Steve comes from the back of the house, holding the remains of a running shoe in his hand. "…she's teething." he mutters fornlonly at the lost shoe and shakes it towards the puppy. "Not a chew toy." he manages, before he tosses it in the trash and straightens up. "Hey Natasha, Clint.. I'm just going to wash my hands. There's stuff for sandwiches if you want them." he offers as he lets out a breath. "I just got in from dealing with one of Tony's kids deciding to ask me if he could be a Junior Avenger."

Natasha's always dressed up as someone, just about. She beams as she passes the cake dish to Peggy: "Thanks so much for letting us come over. I really have wanted to visit you two — three!" Three, clearly, as a bouncy little pup comes gallumphing toward them. When Peggy does take the dish, she stoops to give the pup a desperately needed rub of the tum and scritch behind the ears. She steps out of Clint's way then, walking further in and setting her bag down as well. It clanks very much like a full glass bottle will.
Steve's appearance elicits a slight wince and a scolding look down at Patriot. "Shame on you, little one. I've brought dessert. And post-dessert. …Oh dear, it's Samuel, right? I seem to remember him."

"I just want you all to know," says Clint as he steps in and eyes the prancing puppy. "…I'm hung over and you all are giving me a toothache." Then he smiles big and fake and extends his arm with the bottle of vodka towards Peggy. Normal is hard, guys. Normal isn't what he does. He grew up in the circus, for god's sake. This is all more foreign to him than Tokyo in springtime.

At the barking, Peggy winces. The dog is a new addition to the tumult of the Carter-Rogers household. However, as the Beagle/Corgi mix comes running up toward the newcomers as well as Peggy, she gives it a fond, if stern glare. "Shh! No barking, Queenie!" It seems as if she and Steve have different ideas of what to name the small puppy. As she flops on her back for belly rubs, she grins. Though, she's unable to partake in them as she's holding cake platters and a bottle of vodka, she laughs at the small dog.

"She stole Steve's sandwich in Central Park," she explains. "We were planning on getting her to a kennel soon for adoption, but we need to make sure she's housebroken first." It's the first step of a slipper slope of dog ownership. As Natasha bends over to oblige Patriot/Queenie, she grins and moves to put the gifts on the counter in the kitchen.

"Perhaps you shouldn't drink so much, then," she tells Clint with a smirk. "Thank you," she tells the pair of them for the vodka and the cake. "Come one, like Steve said, there's sandwich fixings in the kitchen. That plus vodka is functional, I can assume."

"Queenie is a terrible name and you should feel bad for it." Steve teases Peggy, "Patriot is a proud name." At Natasha's guess, Steve sighs. "Yeah. Twelve years old and thinks he can take on the world. Last person I knew with that much of a personal grudge at that age was surrounded by ninjas in Madripoor." A glance is given towards Natasha before he gestures towards the food. "Fresh honey wheat and white bread, some smoked ham and turkey and cheddar. Help yourselves." he comments as he moves to drop into a seat, leaving room for Peggy to rejoin him on the couch.

He folds his hands in front of him. "Also, Peggy, I got a call from the hospital. Steven James is in stable condition and expected to make a full recovery, thank goodness."

Natasha actually stops in her tracks at the mention of Madripoor. She stares at the wall a moment, clearly lost in thought for a few seconds before blinking and looking away. "My goodness, that name brings back memories," she mutters. Waving Clint over — the man can make an excellent sandwich, and she starts in on piling up wheat and turkey — she gives her head a shake as if to clear it. "Steven James?" she inquires, possibly before thinking.

Clint may or may not have been joking about being hung over. Still, he keeps his sunglasses on even after he's fully inside. No doubt Queenie the Patriot smells another dog on him. "I should've brought Arrow for a playdate," he deadpans.
Then, he finally pushes the glasses up onto his face. He digs around in his messenger bag and pulls out a box. He presents it to Steve. He gets to unwrap it becauase HE didn't make a crack about his drinking. He looks over his shoulder at Nat, "Liiitttle bit more mustard. Just a splork."

Peggy gives Steve a displeased expression at his teasing, but even that is all in good fun. "Patriot sounds like she should be a bill before your Congress," she tells him matter-of-factly, though she smirks. "Queenie at least makes sense, as Queen Elizabeth has multiple Corgis. I think she's a corgi mix. Look at those ears."

As she's already eaten, she lets Natasha and Clint move amongst the fixings in the kitchen giving Steve a relieved look. Explaining, she adds, "Steven James is the grandson of one of our old friends from the War - Dum Dum Dugan. His daughter was the target of the same assassin sent to destroy the mansion," she explains. They're both SHIELD agents and Avengers. Also, they were there when it happened. Sharing this information means little. The mention of Madripoor means nothing to her, but she is curious about what it is Clint brought other than vodka.

"You didn't have to get us anything, Clint." Steve says in pleasant surprise as he starts to unwrap the offered gift. A grin is given towards Peggy. "Yes, and they're also busily making heirs. Do you want to volunteer for that as well?" However, the good mood starts to sour slightly at the explanation on the child. "Yes. Attacked by the same soldier that showed up in the Mansion." he explains as he lifts his eyes towards Natasha. "The one you know. And looks a lot like my former best friend and partner that Peggy put a lot on the line for to help me save."

"Look at those /legs/. She's got bat ears and definitely some corgi legs. And she's a beauty. Just a beauty who likes making her mark." She nods her agreement at Clint, adding exactly one more splork of mustard before putting the final piece of bread on, cutting it diagonally, and taking a big bite.
It sticks in her throat a little after Steve's words, though. She sets the sandwich half on a plate and clears her throat, glancing between the pair. "We'll have to discuss that eventually," she admits. "That'd be why we brought the vodka. And the cake. Apple sharlotka. An old Russian recipe, the favorite of… an old friend of mine. That much bitterness, we'll need to cut it with something smooth and sharp and wash it down with something sweet."

The box is rather simply wrapped with black and white polka dot wrapping paper. When Steve pulls it off, it reveals a box for a portable hard drive. Clint clears his throat. "It's got every Academy Award best picture movie from post-war on. I can show you how to use it." This may also be a sort-of apology for the whole Singin' in the Rain fiasco. He's not blushing, but he looks like he might blush. He'll pretend like that whole conversation between Nat and the Carter-Rogerses isn't happening - at least for the moment.

Settling onto the couch next to Steve, Peggy leans over to see what it is that Clint has gotten them. She's a curious woman, after all. At his explanation, though, she looks to him and then to Natasha, unsure of how to respond to that.

Natasha's response is met with a raised eyebrow. "Well, it seems we have all the necessary elements in order to discuss the subject. Let's start, shall we?" Though she just sat down, she move again to grab glasses for the vdoka - as Clint and Natasha already have plates for their sandwiches she doesn't need to grab those for them.

As she's attempting to facilitate that, she misses the actual opening of Clint's gift. She'll comment on it eventually, she's sure.

Steve forgoes the vodka, it won't effect him anyway as he listens to the explanation of the gift. "This.. this is great, Clint, thank you." he offers with a genuine smile. "And yes, we'll definetly need help setting it up." He sets aside the gift for now as his arms move to encircle Peggy and keep him close. But his attention returns to Natasha.
"I know you're a spy. And I know that America and Russia haven't always been on friendly terms at times." Most of the time, really, "But I had thought we were strong enough as friends that you would have given me at least a warning that James Barnes was still alive. If that's him." he says, a frown creasing his features as he looks down at Peggy for a lingering moment. "I get the need for secrets. Most of the time. But this time.. I just.. I don't know, Natasha." He's disappointed. So disappointed.

Natasha looks around at Clint's gift with curiosity, then pleasure: "Now that was immensely thoughtful. Well done." But the words from Steve… it's clear they sting. She actually winces, taking the initiative to open the bottle of vodka and pour it out. One glass for everyone, even Steve. "This is a tradition," she explains. "When you're invited to someone's home or when you first walk into a good restaurant — well, any restaurant — you're greeted with a little glass. It's hospitality. I realize this is a little… mmm, backward. We are friends, Steve. And we're comrades." A wry half-smile: "In the best sense of the word. Please. Drink it now or keep it for later, but take it."
If he does accept it from her hand, she'll sit; if not, she'll set the little glass down first. When she does settle herself in. she lets out a long slow breath and stares into space. Gathering her thoughts, quite possibly. There's a lot to gather.
"It was a rumor, to begin with. I didn't exactly have the face of Captain America's best friend memorized, and it had been some time since James Barnes had died before I ever saw the Winter Soldier. There were rumors that he was some American who defected, that he was some great hero. That he was Captain America himself I knew to be false; I had seen Captain America when I was a child of fifteen, and this was not him. That he was James Barnes you must accept was always only a rumor among most. Nor could he confirm it. Steve, you lost your friend all those years ago. Bucky Barnes is gone, as you always knew he was."

Clint is gonna make his goddamn sandwich before the drama hits the fan, consarndit. Even if it seems rather epically awkward for him to edge away from the couch to the sandwich fixins and start to assemble something as Nat talks. At one point, just before she starts to really get into it, where the mustard bottle farts. He winces, looks apologetic and finishes putting it together. Then he returns to his seat and quietly shoots the vodka. Hoo boy."

Steve wants to believe Natasha. It shows in his eyes, clear as day as he glances down into the glass of vodka as she hands it over and he accepts it. He has so few friends - in fact, he's always had a hard time with friends, and dismissing one is not something he does lightly. Nor would he actually consider giving up his friendship with one half of the twin troublemakers. Instead, he curls his hands around the glass and tries to disseminate the information that she's given him - at least until the mustard bottle farts. A quick look is given towards Clint and a shake of his head.

"Bucky Barnes has been my best friend since we were both knee-high to grasshoppers, and judging by our ages, God was a child." he says finally. "He actually was my first boxing coach, because as he put it, if I'm gonna stand up for myself, I better at least know how to throw a punch, even if a case of bad breath could knock me over." he says quietly, working on the gathering thoughts and memories. "The moveset was the same - it's as if we knew what the other was doing exactly as it happened. You can't tell me that isn't him and that he's dead, Natasha, because if he was, he wouldn't have memories like that, would he?" he asks in confusion, his thoughts jumbling and then straightening back out.

"There has to be some way to reach him. You said you met him when you were fifteen? How was that possible? Was he given a serum or something to make him seem youthful - even more youthful than I am?" he asks. "After all, he was a year older than me, and now it seems like he isn't." he looks up at her, confusion clouding his eyes and his experession. "What am I missing here, Natasha? I need you to fill in the blanks."

In answer to this, Natasha rises and strides back to the kitchen where Peggy set the dish down. She lifts the lid to reveal what appears to be a small dense cake; taking a knife, she slices a quarter of it into four small equal pieces. "Not many people know. Clint does, but Clint knows more about me than most. Fury does, but Fury knows everything." She lets /that/ phrase hang out for a second as the pieces of cake are parceled out onto the little plates. "Peggy, will you help me with these, please?"
Apple cake. Forks. As Natasha walks back to her seat, she continues: "I'm not sure where to begin because I'm not sure where the story begins, to tell the truth. I've found different dates in different documents, but I'm Russian. I was Russian. You learn not to believe anything you didn't see for yourself, and only half of that. So going by the balance of probability, I was born in. Hm. About 1928. Give or take. I'm told my parents died in a fire when I was very young and I was taken in by a… a government-adjacent organization in the Soviet Union."
She absently rubs the wrist of one hand. It's a gesture not likely to be lost on Peggy.
"There's a lot of very long and complicated story that happens after that, and a lot of it I'm not sure is true, because the /nature/ of this organization was to take people — girls, particularly, for this branch — and mold them into killers. I was very good at my job. I was passionate about it. I had many teachers. One of them, when I was well into adulthood, was a young man with a metal arm who never spoke and never seemed to age. He didn't always seem to remember me when he saw me again. But fair's fair, I didn't always remember him. Understand — understand I know first-hand only some of what your friend encountered when he was dragged away from his resting-place. I know enough to know how completely it can change a person. Is he there? Perhaps there is some small core. Perhaps some small core of me is a little girl who lost her parents, or a little girl who was captured by the Hand and rescued by two kind, fierce men and one man who would unmake her. Perhaps."
Any of Clint's lightheartedness and intentional-unintentional silliness drops off when Natasha starts to tell her story. He manages a few bites of his sandwich before he sets it aside. He dabs a little mustard off the corner of his mouth, wipes his hands on a napkin and sits back. For someone like Peggy who is used to reading people, he telegraphs his mood quite neatly. He knows how difficult this is for Natasha - to reveal these details. He rests a hand on his chin and looks at nothing in particular, but every now and then looks over at Nat. If they were an actual couple and not a pair of assassins with checkered pasts, he might actually reach out to hold her hand for support. For now, he won't say anything. Instead, he just listens to the story he's heard before, but never gets any easier to hear.

At Steve's attempt to pull her closer, Peggy does little to fight against it. Instead, she leans against him, absently putting her hands over his encricling arms as she watches and listens to Natasha's story.

At the request for help, she stands, giving Steve a squeeze of her hands before moving to take plates and forks to pass out. The gesture Nat makes against her wrists is not missed. In fact, she stares at the gesture just for a second longer than could be considered normal before her smile returns to place and she sets down a plate in front of Steve and then Clint. Things are starting to fall into place. The school in Russia, the woman she knew as Dottie Underwood…the gesture certainly brings back memories.

Once the plates and the forks and the glasses are all taken care of, she moves back to the couch and next to Steve, a hand reaching out for him.

Steve releases Peggy to tend to Natasha and cake and while the ladies are gone, Steve can only give Clint a helpless look before the women return and he settles in with Peggy again. As he listens to the story and explanation, he's patient and quiet for most of it.

When she reaches the end of it, Steve's honestly not sure what to think. He wants to avenge something. Natasha? Bucky? Something else? He's not sure, it just sucks being an Avenger when there's nothing there to avenge. He sets down his glass of vodka, his cake untouched.

"This is a lot to take in, Natasha." he finally says as she lays out her story to him. He watches Clint and Natasha and while he may not be able to read as deep as Peggy is able to, the fact that Clint isn't surprised seems to register on Steve's face. He's always been open and trusting, with so few secrets - but here, in his home, surrounded by spies and married to one, he feels out of his place and element. "Will you all excuse me so I can try to figure this out?"

Natasha follows Steve with her eyes and just nods at his request, shifting a bit to sit rather primly on the couch. She laces her fingers, draws her knees together, sets her feet down carefully and flat down on the floor below.
"Of course," she says. Her eyes flick up to Peggy then, and she gives the lady a half-smile. "Surprise," she adds. "If you're interested, I learned your name quite well after you visited the school. You were respected as any adversary would be. I wouldn't blame you if you held a grudge."
"Steve," says Clint. It's a gentle speaking of the other man's name, but with force there that he doesn't usually use. "Please. Stay and hear Natasha out. I know it's hard to hear, but…" he rubs his eyebrow. "If I said it was easier to take once you knew everything, I'd be lying. But if you go before you've heard everything…" he trails off.

Her own plate remains untouched for the moment, fork and plate balanced precariously on her knee. Instead, her hand holds onto the glass with the vodka in her. Peggy's eyes remain on the clear liquid for a few moments, thinking, before she takes the shot and sets the container down on the table in front of them, empty.

As Steve moves to stand, she shifts slightly to allow that, though she also gives him a look. It's not a plea, it's more of a nonverbal request for him to stay. This is quite a lot of information to take in alone - for the both of them. "Yes, I remember the place. I had run ins with one of the former students there." As for holding a grudge, she doesn't quite answer that yet. She's still here and she hasn't asked Natasha to leave, so there is that at least. "She was often attempting to harm or kill either myself or those close to me. We found a man there who could get people to do what he wished with the sound of his voice."

As Natasha allows him to excuse, Steve starts to actively rise from the couch. How many people did he fail by falling into the icy abyss. If he were around, could he have perhaps saved Bucky from the fate that befell him? His eyes flit over to Peggy - perhaps she would have never had been shot if he had been around. He chides himself at that fault. Nothing was going to stop Peggy Carter from whatever mission caused her to befall the fate that brought her to the present day and time. And he would then have had to have weighed a few years of bliss with her in the post-war years where they were both feeling out their roles in society as compared to now, where they are finally able to realize that they can settle down and be a family.

Nor would he have ever met Natasha or Clint, his brows furrowing slightly at the force put into the use of his given name, the Captain taking in Clint's words with the respect that he's earned in Steve's mind. In this room are three people that he would trust with anything and everything up to his life - he should at least entertain the need to hear everything - overwhelming as it is to him.

He lifts his chin to study Natasha's expression. Despite the fact that he knows she's one of the most deadly assassins on the planet, perhaps in history, he can't help but to notice the fact that there's a certain vulnerability that seems rather amiss with her. An odd fit, it just doesn't feel right with his thoughts of her. He does settle back on the couch, however. His posture remains open, accepting of what may come. He's not closed off himself yet, but already his mind is reeling at the ideas of the fact that the woman he married and one of his two true friends may have tried to kill each other… "So, uh.. how many times did you two try to kill each other?" he asks between Peggy and Natasha, a lame attempt at humour, his mind trying to figure out what to do to defuse his racing through his mind at missing the whole idea of the Cold War while he was in 'cold storage'.

As his eyes meet to catch Peggy's, he catches the nonverbal request and lowers sheepishly back into his position, doubly admonished for his attempted retreat. He reluctantly returns his attention to the conversation, trying his best to focus in. He's usually a great negotiator and master debater, but it's not usually with a subject that hits this close to home in so many ways. His best friends - past and present, his wife, his circle of trust. There's so many variables. Picking up the shot, he finally tosses it back and makes a face, lips puckering and a tremble racing through him. It's not the strength of the shot, it's the taste of it. He blows out a breath. "Please, continue, Natasha."

There's a surprising amount of support in this room — and an unsurprising amount of discomfort and distrust. The fact that there's /any/ support is sincerely comforting, though there's still clearly a lot of tension in Natasha. It would take an experienced Tasha-watcher to see just how uncomfortable she really is.
"That…" Natasha's mouth crooks up at the corner. The smile isn't a happy one when she considers the slightly jokey question. "Might be a conversation and apology for later. Let's just say that today I'm very pleased you're alive, Agent Carter, and that I am not quite the person I was sixty years ago."
She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. "The cake you have is a Russian recipe, surprise. It's called 'apple sharlotka'. It actually makes a good illustration of my point here. Some years ago, not long before my defection, I met a young man who was in a program not entirely dissimilar to the one I believe your friend was put through. The process of… changing him… had already begun. I took a short walk with him, asked him about himself and his passion for this path. I asked him what he would miss most. His mother's sharlotka, he said. It was sweet and wonderful. It was years later that I discovered he /didn't/ mean this dish. He thought he did. I thought he did. What he missed most was his sister. Sharlotta. Or Sharlotka, for the diminutive, the familiar, the loving. He wasn't lying to me. His mind, his memories, were lying to him."
She looks to Steve then, and the expression on her face is calm, peaceful, and quietly but immensely sad. "I'm sure he has memories of you. But the notion that he can just… can just see you and remember you the way you remember him? It's very romantic, and it's very misleading."

"It would be like someone from Natasha's past trying to break through at the height of her programming. Brainwashing is…more insidious than you can imagine. No one comes out the other side of it the same person. I've seen people break free of their conditioning, but they'll never be the person they were before it all began." Clint holds up a hand and then adds, "Now, that's not to say that we can't get through to him. But you have to know that even if we do, he won't be the person you remember. He can't be. Plus, he's got to want to break his conditioning. That means owning up to everything he's done while under their control That's nnnnot gonna be easy." His tone is full of sympathy.
He pauses a moment, then glances out of the corner of his eye at Natasha before turning his focus to Steve and Peggy. "I know this is hard to hear, about Nat's past. But I'll just say this: she's my best friend. I know her better than probably anyone. I know the things she's done, and she's still my best friend, and I still trust her with my life. Because she's not the person she used to be, and I've seen proof of that, time and time again."

Peggy wasn't attempting to admonish Steve from leaving. It's more that this topic is a hard one for both of them and she needs his support at the moment just as much as he needs hers. It's easier to face this together. There's a bit of a smirk that she gives Natasha at the sentiment. It's not a mocking one, but more of a humorless sort of amusement at the situation. "Yes, I am as well." And alive in this day and age with Steve. His question is met with something like surprise as well as a shrug. She has no idea how many times it was that she amy have been up against Natasha or one of the other women of her school, though she certainly almost killed Dottie when she threw her out the window.

As for the brainwashing, she adds, "I remember from the school, there were film reels to teach English. But, when we went through them, there were also frames spliced in for what seemed like subliminal triggers." And that must have been some of their less heavy-handed techniques.

"If you were able to break through it all, then the same must be possible for Sa—" she corrects herself, "James Buchanan." She frowns. "How did you manage?"

Steve looks towards Clint and his tone admonishes for a moment. "You're a former criminal. Natasha, a spy. Peggy is as bullheaded and stubborn a woman as I've met. And I wouldn't quit on any of you. Nor am I going to quit on my best friend, regardless of what was done to him." he says resolutely. "When my mother passed away.. he was the only one there for me. And he said to me.." he considers, and rises to his feet.

Going over to the china cabinet, he leans down to open it and root around within. "He didn't say this, but when you erase a sheet of paper, there's always a shadow behind. Bring that shadow into the light and you can find and recover what was once there." It's a basic art and even spy trick, "Somewhere, Bucky is still in there."

He brings over a bottle of Pinot Gris, vintage 1803 with four glasses and fills each one of them after he opens the bottle.

"What he said was.. that he would be with me til the end of the line. And now, it's my turn - our turn - to return the favour. I am with you all, and I hope you are all with me.." he says, as he sets down the bottle and raises the glass. Once the other does, he announces in a somber and dertermined tone:

"Til the end of the line." he toasts.

Natasha casts a quick glance over at Clint. Not admonitory. Possibly grateful. "Clint has it right," she says with a small sigh. "At least about your friend. I hope he has it right about me."
Peggy's words bring back a faint and reminiscent smile: "Oh, yes. I still get a little pang when I listen to Snow White. It was more than that: we were learning how to be Americans. It wasn't just the language; it was the references, the culture. I don't have to have a Russian accent if I don't want to. I can be that girl, that woman. She's there inside me. The Black Widow never left — the one who was raised by the Red Room. She's still a part of me every day, and I have to live with what she thinks and sees and what she's done. I don't know who I was supposed to be. Frankly, I don't know who I /am/. The Natasha Romanoff who broke away and joined SHIELD? You have to understand. I had a lot more autonomy than Barnes does. I was often on assignment for weeks, months, even years. I had to be capable of autonomy, so they made me a true believer. I gather they were never able to do that with the Winter Soldier; probably because they got him as an adult and, well, the man had a strong personality. But that means the trouble they've gone to? It involves drugs, sleep deprivation, conditioning of all kinds. Part of the reason he still looks the way he does is that he's been kept on ice for a lot of this time. We were both used by the system. I broke away at last because… because I think there was some unconquered part of me deep inside that knew there had to be another way. A better way. It saw what we did to dear Sasha and to Barnes and to me and to so many others, and it was sick. It saw the results of our work, that the ends had never, ever justified the means, and it clawed its way out. The part of me that had always been the survivor ended up being what almost cost me my life."
Steve's words, though, bring her up a little short. She blinks, clears her throat, and gives them a tiny nod.
"I'm not saying to give up," she says. "Like Clint said. It's going to be a long, hard row to hoe. But I believe, too, that the essence of your friend may still be buried deep inside. If you're willing to be his support, if you can understand that he is not going to be your good old buddy from Brooklyn again, then I will do everything I can."
She takes the glass he gives her, shifting forward and raising it. Natasha echoes his words in the toast before taking a small sip of the lovely wine, closing her eyes and letting the flavor fall over her tongue. The tension leaves her: her shoulders slump a little and she settles back a bit more comfortably in her seat.

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