Ava had spent as little time in her new apartment as possible, since her arrival. There was so much to see and do in New York, now that she didn’t need to worry about her condition making simple everyday tasks impossible or overly difficult. She could fully explore the city, with brand new eyes and what felt like a brand new body - one that didn’t phase in and out of tangibility at random, a body that was free of the constant agony of her molecules ripping apart and stitching back together.
It was a new life entirely, as far as she was concerned. Though not everything was perfectly rosy; there were still the nightmares that plagued her - memories from her days working as a covert operative for SHIELD. She’d killed for them when they asked her to, stole for them, lied for them; did anything and everything, all because of a false promise they had made - that they would find a cure for her condition.
Needless to say, she had no desire to be involved with this new version of SHIELD, even though Hope had assured her it wasn’t the same players anymore, and that things were very different. Too many bad memories resided there.
She wanted to make better memories for herself, ones that had nothing to do with that life anymore. Meeting people from the network seemed a good place to start. After Natasha had given her the address, it didn’t take long for Ava to find the restaurant. Once she stepped through the door the inviting aroma of spices filled her nose and made her stomach rumble.
“Are you Natasha?” she asked, noticing a woman seated alone in one of the booths.
Out of force of habit, Natasha had clocked Ava from the moment she entered the restaurant. It was packed as normal, a little more so than usual due to all the graduations and Father’s Day celebrating that was occuring. The booth was tucked into a corner where they had a good view of the rest of the restaurant and anyone coming and going.
She smiled up at Ava when she arrived at the table. “Yes, Ava, I presume?” She rose to her feet and stuck out her hand for a handshake. “Please have a seat. Everything on the menu is good so you can’t go wrong.” She took in her rosy glow and the excited gleam in her eyes. “How’s New York been treating you so far? You have the look of someone that’s been enjoying the sights and sounds.”
She appreciated that Natasha had chosen a booth that had a good surveillance of the entire room; little things like that set Ava at ease, for all that she was no longer an operative, it didn’t feel natural having your back to the entire room or the main entrance.
Ava smiled in greeting, there was a moment of hesitation where she looked down at Natasha’s outstretched hand; before taking it and giving a firm shake. Force of habit and all, never knowing if you were just going to phase through someone’s skin. Fortunately, that hadn’t been the case, and for that she was grateful.
She took a seat and glanced at the menu for a moment, honestly with her appetite she wanted to try about several different dishes at the moment. “I have been enjoying the city,” she responded, “I’ve been here before, but under different circumstances. I use to work as an operative for SHIELD, so trips to New York were business rather than pleasure,” she stated, her voice lowering just a bit so that it would not be overheard beyond their booth. Her goal was to branch out with new people, so there wasn’t much point in attempting to hide or run from parts of her past. It would come to light sooner or later, best to get it out of the way early on.
Natasha was contemplating getting several dishes herself and taking the leftovers home with her for later. Even though this restaurant was so close to 30 Warren, she didn’t want to indulge herself too often, but sometimes it was hard since the food was so good. “Ah, yeah, not being based out of New York makes those trips to HQ more of a hassle and aggravation than they really should be.” And then of course, they’d usually sent people right back to their home post, without letting them have the chance to enjoy the city.
She wondered if Ava knew who she was and her history with SHIELD. Natasha didn’t know every agent that’d worked for SHIELD especially if they’d been classified above her pay grade and she assumed that went the same for Ava. “I worked for SHIELD too before the Avengers took over my life. As it stands, I’m on both rosters right now since things have reformed. My moniker on the field is Black Widow.”
She watched Ava out of the corner of her eye, wondering what kind of reaction that intel would provoke, if any. Sometimes people had visceral, vehement reactions to her past and others didn’t care one bit.
“I thought you looked familiar,” Ava said with a slow grin, studying the other woman a bit more openly now. In truth, she hadn’t paid much attention to anything outside of her assignments with SHIELD, and then her sole purpose afterward - finding a cure for her quantum illness. Fighting a losing battle for her life had taken up the majority of her time, until now. But anyone with access to media knew at least a little about the Avengers - which was where Ava figured she must have seen Natasha before.
“I’d heard the name Black Widow before, during my days at SHIELD, though only in passing. They didn’t tell me anything outside of intel I needed to complete my missions. I didn’t ever see a picture of you on file, or any other details. I suppose that’s the way they want things, isn’t it?” she mused, some bitterness in her tone for the fact that they’d lied to her on so many different occasions. In this case, it sort of made sense - encouraging workplace camaraderie wasn’t really a thing when you were working for a highly secretive organization. “I imagine you didn’t know anything about me either? My moniker was Ghost.” Ava definitely hadn’t anticipated meeting up with another former (and current) SHIELD operative. When she worked for them, they’d kept her entirely separate from anyone else, save for her handlers. She never knew how many were in SHIELD’s employ, she knew only that it’s reach was very far, and it’s roots very deep.
Their server arrived shortly after she had asked the question, so there was a temporary pause where Ava ordered the steamed pork dumplings with shrimp, hot and sour wonton soup, as well as the pan fried chicken dumplings with ginger. It was ambitious, sure; but anything she didn’t finish would just become tomorrow’s breakfast.
Familiarity in Natasha’s line of work was usually the sign of sloppiness or the impending end of one’s life. But she wasn’t surprised that Ava hadn’t been 100% sure either. After her face had been splashed across the news from first the New York Incident and then the collapse of SHIELD, she’d laid low while the rumor mongering and news breakdowns had gone on for weeks, if not months. The ability to be as much of a chameleon as she’d been trained to be had come in handy. Her work in establishing additional cover identities that she hadn’t disclosed to SHIELD had also paid off well while she was figuring out who she wanted to be now.
Natasha smiled at the server as she placed her order of hot and sour wonton soup, steamed dumplings with shrimp and chives, and deep fried vegetable spring rolls. As the server left, she said, “I love that hot and sour soup, by the way. It’s one of the best I’ve had in a restaurant.”
She then returned to the topic at hand before the server arrived. “That was the typical SHIELD protocol. What you didn’t need to know you didn’t know, especially since you weren’t based out of the same locations I was. In some ways, I’m glad that structural bs is gone in the new SHIELD. We all know who everyone else is and can be aware of any problems that may develop.” She shook her head. “Unfortunately no, all I knew, much like you, was what was deemed I should know. Everything outside of that scope Fury probably knew but didn’t share with me.” She could’ve gone looking for it if she wanted, but Coulson had made frowny faces at her when she’d gotten too curious or triggered some sort of internal alarm when she snooped in files she wasn’t supposed to. “My little pocket of SHIELD was good and I’m sorry yours wasn’t as such I gather.”
Though, she was reminded of just how wrong her impression of SHIELD had been when HYDRA’s presence was fully revealed. It still made her angry. Everything she’d done to balance the scales and it may’ve only tipped it further in the wrong direction.
If SHIELD’s former method of essentially keeping everyone separate and in the dark was no longer active, Ava was glad to hear it. Skeptical, always; but tentatively glad.
“It really wasn’t,” Ava clarified, in response to Natasha’s comment about their differing experiences with SHIELD. Sitting here across from another former and current SHIELD agent who didn’t look at the organization with the same anger she did was hard to fathom. But after all they had done to her, it was an old and deep wound. “My friend Hope, she works with them currently. I trust her judgment - that things are different now, than when I was recruited; but I just… I need time and space before I set foot anywhere near the organization,” she explained. She’d left years ago, but those memories didn’t fade as quickly as she would have wanted.
The more she spoke with others, the more she was seeing that it was common to be affiliated with either the Avengers, or SHIELD. “You mentioned working for both SHIELD and the Avengers,” she said, taking a sip from her glass of water, “That sounds like a lot to deal with. What made you decide to do both?” She was curious to hear the other woman’s take on it, as she could imagine it required a greater deal of work. But maybe it was also fulfilling - which was something Ava herself was in the pursuit of, trying to figure out where she fit into the world now that her abilities were stable and she was pain free.
“I completely understand. It’s not exactly an organization or a profession that one should reenter lightly.” Especially after bad experiences. Natasha had gone back in because of the people involved. She trusted Fury even after everything. She’d honestly only joined in the first place because of the people. She hadn’t had much choice at the time, but it had worked out well.
People kept telling her to live a life outside of the work but Natasha wasn’t sure what that even looked like. Sure, Clint had his farm and his family, practically an oasis from everything. She knew that wasn’t what she wanted. But did it matter? Because her counterpart in the other universe hadn’t solved that problem either. Even there, she’d focused on keeping things running more than anything else. Other people could move on. She couldn’t. Not if there was still a job to do.
“I was already doing it before things went to hell in a handbasket and HYDRA revealed itself.” To say that had been devastating would be an understatement. It had shaken her on several fronts. “There’s a lot of overlap between the two in regards to the mission scopes of both. I’m also the official/unofficial liaison between the two to, hopefully, facilitate a much faster and seamless process of information sharing.” She paused. “I also much prefer to keep busy than anything else.”
“Now that I can relate to,” Ava responded. “I’ve never been too comfortable when things get slow. Makes me think too much.” Doing was better than thinking, in her book. She had her share of demons, and staying active in one way or another helped to keep all of that at bay. Ava took a sip from her glass, just as their server arrived and began to set out their food. With the combined order between Natasha and Ava, it was enough food to completely cover the surface of their table. Everything looked amazing, little puffs of steam wafting up to carry the delicious scent as well.
Ava just stared for a moment, not knowing where to start; but deciding on the hot and sour soup; since Natasha had said it was one of their best. “Oh wow,” was all she could say, after taking her first bite. She could already tell this place was going to become a habit.
“I get what you’re saying,” she began, getting back to the topic they’d been on, “about the overlap in the missions between both organizations - and it makes sense to have someone in the role of liaison. I guess I just never thought they would team up. Then again, in my time with SHIELD, they didn’t really play nice with others.” What she knew of the Avengers, they were a front and center type of group - everyone saw what they did, everyone knew about them. There wasn’t much room to hide; SHIELD was a little different in that regard. But if they could actually join their forces, and manage to not slip back into any corruption; it would make them a very powerful force. Which was good and bad, really. Power was a complex thing.
“What do you like doing when you’re not working?” Ava asked. “Other than eating dim sum, although honestly I’m going to have to list that as one of my hobbies from now on, this is amazing,” she said, taking a bite of one of the dumplings she’d ordered.
Natasha reached for her own hot and sour soup and tried not to inhale it. It was a lost battle as she finished it entirely too fast for her own liking. She sampled the shrimp and chive dumplings next, dipping them into the sweetened ginger soy sauce mix that came with them. Being this close to this place was so bad for her. She finished a second dumpling before answering Ava. “I’m not surprised. From the get go, Steve wasn’t very happy with how things had been handled and then everyone splintered in different directions after New York. It hasn’t been a very unified front by any means. But I think seeing the problems and chaos that comes from working at cross purposes in the other universe, cooler heads prevailed and a less bumbling into each other approach was agreed upon.”
She hadn’t been here for that, so she was guessing about a lot of it. She’d simply been dropped in and been perfectly positioned to seize upon the prevailing winds that had developed before her arrival. She had to thank Tony and Fury for being able to see beyond their past differences and build something better for the future.
The question made Natasha pause and think. Every facet of her life was tangled up in her work from who she hung out with to what she did while not actively on a mission. “Hmm, I usually check my networks and play mobile games here and there. I also tend to wander whatever city I happen to be in.” She crunched into an egg roll then continued. “It’s hard for me to leave the work behind completely. I don’t mean to but I’m probably tangentially always working on something that might come in handy later down the line.”
“This universe does seem like an unofficial do-over for a lot of people, myself included,” Ava responded after finishing up her hot and sour soup. She started in on the chicken dumplings with ginger next, and they were divine, she loved ginger.
“I get it,” Ava said with a nod. “Work took up the majority of my time too. And then after that, finding a cure for my condition. That was a pretty singular focus for many years. Now that it’s not, I’m finding myself with free time on my hands, which is good and bad. Good because I get to finally explore the city, bad because I’m not entirely sure I won’t get myself into trouble,” she admitted with a chuckle. “More like, trouble will find me.” It already had, in some ways. Walking the streets of New York, she’d already intervened in a few physical altercations - thefts, as well as people with guns threatening others. The sort of thing she noticed before, but never cared to do anything about. Being in agonizing pain all the time numbed her to the suffering of others, she didn’t have the time or energy to care about anyone other than herself. Now that that was changing, so was everything else about her life.
“Maybe we should both make it a point to check in periodically with each other - make sure we’re not just getting buried in work at the expense of everything else,” she suggested. From one former spy to another, maybe they could help each other out in that regard. Plus, Ava wouldn’t mind getting to know Natasha better, building a friendship if she was open to it.
Natasha finished her second egg roll with a content sigh then started on what remained of her dumplings. She likely wouldn’t be bringing back any leftovers this time either. She definitely had to order more items next time. “That’s a good and bad thing in some regards. We can avoid the mistakes from our dream memories, but depending on the person, they might be wishing they had that life instead of the one here.”
She chuckled at Ava’s talk about trouble. “I know that well. It’s a hard habit to break and usually the trouble is always more fun than the boring stuff I was doing right before the trouble came.” And it usually was. Whether it was some petty theft or extortion that happened more frequently than people thought or someone acting suspicious and then Natasha was suddenly trailing them because he had the look of someone she’d read about in one of her files. Having access to Tony’s networks had only made the opportunities for that to happen skyrocket.
“I think I’d like that.” She smiled at Ava. “New friends are always a good thing to have and ones that are well aware of each other’s workaholic tendencies instead of encouraging them would be good,” she said with a laugh. Most of her friends either had lives they were living or were just as bad a workaholic as she was.
Ava nodded in agreement. “I got lucky in that regard. I wouldn’t wish my other universe life on anyone. I’ve got no regrets being here. But I get that it’s not like that for everyone.” She’d been given a second chance at a life she never would have thought possible here, and she felt immense freedom in that.
“We’ll keep each other in check,” Ava agreed with a smile, pleased that Natasha was open to it. They shared the same line of work, and that was something not many people could relate to. The way you moved through the world was different when you worked as a spy. Some training just never really faded. The same could be said for an Avenger as well, and maybe that’s why they all seemed to stay close friends as well. Not many regular civilians could understand the demands of taking up that kind of life.
She finished up the rest of her dumplings, asking the server for a take out bag for the rest of her food; which would make for amazing leftovers in her very barren kitchen. She really needed to go grocery shopping at some point; that was next on the list. “This place really is amazing, thank you for suggesting it. We’ll have to make it a regular practice,” she suggested. “You know, to keep each other in check. And because now that I know this place exists, I can’t imagine staying away for very long.”
It was fitting. She had enjoyed talking with Ava and they shared similar experiences in regards to the work. Maybe it was time for Natasha to start stepping back and enjoying the things she never had in the first place. A little less work and a lot more play might be good. Now she just had to make sure Steve didn’t end up being too smug about it.
Natasha finished off her food and stared mournfully at the empty plates. No leftovers yet again for her to take home. It sucked. It was also Tony’s fault for introducing her to this place. She was constantly craving it now. She grinned. “You’ll have to thank Tony for that. He introduced me to this place and I’ve been itching for every excuse to get back.” She grabbed the checks when the server came back with them and placed her Stark issued credit card on them to cover the tab. “Absolutely, we must. New traditions for a new take on life.”