I tried to write a fic which had both Natasha and Peggy in for my giftee. I had thinky thoughts about how people, but especially women, are viewed and constructed by others and themselves and I didn't manage to pin that down on paper, and it ended up being a Natasha focus fic. Maybe these are thinky thoughts I'll come back to again.
Title: act like you know everything (originally on AO3)
Rating/Warnings: PG13 (f-word, identity issues)
Length: 1523 words
Summary: There was a bunker in New Jersey with three photographs and Natasha had asked, "Who's the girl?" It's been playing on her mind.
Author Note: Written for interestinggin in the MCU Ladies Fic Exchange, who asked for Peggy Carter and Natasha Romanova in a fic together. The quote in the fourth paragraph is from Suzanne Collin’s Mockingjay.
“Hey,” says Clint, his voice a warm drawl in her ear, and Natasha realizes she must have zoned out. She taps at a few keys on her laptop to signal that she’s back with him, knowing he’ll hear it through the Bluetooth earpiece that she uses so she can have both hands free to type whilst talking.
“So,” he asks, “was that a research moment or a remembering moment?”
He asked her once if she knew what it was like to be unmade and he knows that she does; all her memories scattered and whenever she thinks the ground has become stable under her feet she discovers a new one.
Natasha has never stopped remembering. Sometimes she thinks she never will.
She’s read – Clint bought the films, because archery, but she’s always preferred books – that it takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart. Sometimes she compares herself to a children’s puzzle, all of her parts casually tossed into a cheap cardboard box but taking much longer to reassemble. She’s had to find the edges and then work towards the middle, matching up patterns and colors, only her puzzle is water stained, torn, and worn by time so she can’t always tell if the pieces are all there or in the right place.
It doesn’t matter. She can fake being whatever image people think her puzzle pieces are supposed to form or create something new, and why not? Isn’t that what people do all of the time anyway? People decide what image of themselves to present to the world, and that changes from when they’re at work, to at home, to being with different friends, and no one ever questions if all those versions add up to anything less than a person, actual and whole.
Natasha is comfortable with choosing, however little choice she once had in the past. She can choose what image of herself to present, or wear an electronic mask to become someone else, or wear a mask behind her own face and become someone entirely new. She’s comfortable with everything.
Only sometimes she remembers things. She finds a puzzle piece that’s fallen out of the box or that was hiding under the couch, and she has to stop to rework the whole of herself to fit that piece in as well and reevaluate her foundations. She has to; once she’s found another piece she can’t just ignore it like it doesn’t exist.
She shouldn’t be surprised that going through the SHIELD information that she dumped onto the internet would throw new pieces at her.
Research or remembering?
“Both,” she tells Clint. “I think both.”
There was a bunker in New Jersey with three photographs and she’d asked, “Who’s the girl?”
It’s been playing on her mind. Maybe because there was a woman on a wall with two men in the place where SHIELD began and maybe because that’s not something she expected to see, but there’s also a nagging feeling of familiarity.
Of course it isn’t there any more – not the photograph and not the bunker either - and Natasha recalls the face but she can’t run a search on an image that only exists inside her head. Instead she’s trawling through SHIELD’s past online, in a motel room somewhere off the I-80 in Ohio.
She’s narrowing it down, to files containing references to women in SHIELD during Howard Stark’s lifetime, but it’s still a lot of information even though there seems to be limited electronic files for the agency’s early days.
She suspects JARVIS could help, and she suspects Tony is already doing something with the data by how her own file seems smaller, the more personal details disappearing, each time she feels compelled to search for herself again. She resists the temptation to look up any of the other Avengers, although she couldn’t say why, but she does look for Coulson – you can’t harm the dead – and he seems to have vanished from electronic existence entirely.
Natasha isn’t steady enough on the inside right now though, not enough to be able to maintain the image she presents to the most important people without them looking at her and being able to tell that she’s lying, that she’s broken and she doesn’t know herself at all.
It’s okay; she’ll reassemble the pieces. (She doesn’t need anyone looking over her shoulder whilst she does.)
There’s a reference that looks promising, but it leads to Steve’s file and she hesitates. She hasn’t actually read Steve’s file, or at least not the sprawling monstrosity that Coulson constructed, and it turns out maybe she should have because this is where she finds Peggy Carter.
(And maybe she should have because then she would have known far more about his dating history, and that trying to set him up with a woman she now knows to be Carter’s niece, however unintentionally, was either genius or doomed.)
As much as she likes books she’s never read much of the Captain America propaganda. Her handlers, when she’d had handlers, had wanted her to be fluent in American (but not enough to forget that she wasn’t) and to know just enough about everything to sound like she knew what she was talking about and to fit in. There’s so much she only has a glancing knowledge of, and it’s possible that’s how the lines of Peggy Carter’s face have become familiar to her, and yet she doesn’t think that’s it.
Natasha ends up at The Playground because that’s where her hunt for records on the SSR and the early days of SHIELD takes her. The map is in the information that isn’t online: the gaps in the data where supplies must have been requisitioned, building work and maintenance scheduled, invoices paid... It takes her longer than it would have taken JARVIS to put it all together, but she gets there.
Of course Coulson isn’t dead. Fury isn’t dead, Steve’s best friend isn’t dead; it comes as little surprise that Coulson isn’t dead either. (It is a little surprising, but she acts like she’d known all along.)
She avoids him, and May. It’s easier. Instead she finds herself in a vault with an Agent who’s a Peggy Carter fan and a mountain of paper files.
As a member of the Avengers Natasha has accumulated fans of her own. It makes her uncomfortable and at the same time it’s fascinating, seeing yet more facets of herself being created and by other people. Listening to Agent Simmons wax poetical about Carter is all the fun of the fascination with none of the discomfort.
Simmons is useful, and intimidated enough by Natasha’s reputation that thankfully she never questions what Natasha is searching for. She eventually finds it not in a file but a flash of memory that none of the files, paper or online, verify.
She doesn’t need verification. It’s hazy; a washed-out, faded puzzle piece, but it’s hers.
She remembers being younger, but not that much shorter. She remembers a woman in a smoke-filled bar wrapping her hand around Natasha’s wrist when she raised it to order something. She remembers red painted lips curving into a smile and an amused voice saying, “Old enough to play the game doesn’t mean that you’re old enough to drink.”
She can’t remember all of the words spoken, but she remembers spy rather than weapon or tool, as if she were a colleague to be respected and challenged. She remembers that feeling important.
Clint answers the phone with, “Bored of travelling yet?”
“Bored of farming yet?”
She’s ready for company again now, all her pieces assembled into how she choses to see herself and ready to put on a face for the world.
“Maybe, maybe not. Got a better offer?”
“Coulson is alive and Fury made him the Director of a new SHIELD he’s formed out of children and Melinda May. I feel the urge to irritate Nick by blow up HYDRA bases in Europe before he can get there first. Care to join me?”
She meets Hill for coffee and intel first, and gossip about working for Stark Industries, and she doesn’t ask whether it’s from Stark and his online data digging or from Fury.
She especially doesn’t ask because of a brown A4 envelope mixed in with the intel, which has a single sheet of a transcript inside that looks like a photocopy of a photocopy on cheap, thin paper.
NJF: You were familiar with the Black Widow program.
PC: I knew you were calling for business. So much for retirement.
NJF: One of my Agents just dragged one home with him like a stray fucking cat.
PC: I would have liked to see that. [laugh] Which one is she, do you know?
NJF: How can you tell? They’re all Russian dolls.
NJF: Does it matter? I’ve been reading some of the old files. The Red Room –
PC: Of course it matters. She’s the one who’s made the choice to walk away and start over. The courage that takes...
NJF: […] She’s calling herself Natasha Romanoff.
PC: I remember there was a Natalia.