It’s been about three months since S.H.I.E.L.D. exposed its dark secrets and went under, and left us both shocked, heartbroken, horrified, and set adrift. The first month we spent dealing with the fallout, especially after Hydra took the Fridge and just about every supervillain in the world was suddenly at large again, but most of those are now either back in custody, dead, or gone so well to ground Tony is trying to devise something that will ferret them out, and until then there’s no real practical course of action for any of the rest of us to take. In the past five weeks, the only time either Natasha or I have left the farm is to go into town to buy whatever we can’t make here.
That’s been good to me, and even more to Natasha. I was hoping it might be; I know this place was equally good to me when I came here after Loki. Here, we can be away from our misfortunes, keep ourselves occupied with our farming, and enjoy domestic evenings together where we can almost feel like we’re two people who are other than who were are. It was here at the farm that I first was able to close my eyes without seeing Loki behind them. As soon as I came back to the States after S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, I knew this was the place we both needed to be, and I also knew she might be the one who needed that more, at least once I met back up with her.
It’s strange that she’s the one who took the whole thing so much worse than I did. I’m definitely the one who was more attached to the organization, while she’s the one who doesn’t weep when an organization falls, knows there’s always going to be another one, and often a better one. She even told me that early on, and that we had to keep our eyes open for when it came along. “It’ll probably take a while, though,” she added, but we’re learning to be patient.
But while I sensed the basics of it immediately, it took me a few weeks to realize just how hard it was for her to face that when she thought she’d been doing her atonement, she’d really been working for just another set of bad guys. Ironically, I owe thanks to Loki that I didn’t suffer that badly from knowing I’d been working for Hydra. I know who I am, I know I’ve done everything I’ve done in my life in good faith, and based on the knowledge I’ve had I’ve always done what I had every reason to believe was the right thing to do. I’m pissed as hell, of course, but that mostly funnels into thoughts of what exactly I’ll do to Hydra and all their people at whatever times the opportunities present themselves. I’ve done the being guilty for things that weren’t my fault thing before; I’m not going to do it again.
But she’s doing it. And I have to watch her do it. Even now. Over the dishes after our meal, I see it during the split seconds that she pauses her washing and just stands there lost in thought. And I don’t dare say anything to her then. Not now that I know what such spacing out would’ve cost her when she’d been young. I don’t even let show how much it hurts me to see her suffer.
I also know it by her reaction when everything is in the dishwasher and the cycle started. “We should…” she starts, and then drifts off.
“I did my shooting practice this morning,” I offer. “Woke up real early. And didn’t you find time for your workout before lunch?”
“Must do it again,” said Natasha, and I don’t like the use of the word must there. It carries way too many implications into how her brain is operating right now, the patterns it never unlearned entirely.
I follow her to the den and I spend half an hour on the treadmill, but thanks to this morning, where I did physical as well as bow-related work, I don’t have nearly as much to do as she does. But I don’t want to leave her company; both of us are still a little nervous about things like surprise Hydra attacks(those really still aren’t impossible), and much happier and more relaxed when around each other, even more so than usual. That wish to stay in the same room might be why both an armchair and a StarkPad have managed to recently get themselves relocated to the den.
She doesn’t disrupt her workout when I head for them, but even so I feel Natasha’s eyes on me as I sit down and pick the pad up. She knows what I’m reading. I never tried to keep it from her, since that would’ve been a hopeless endeavor, and also because it was far better to be straightforward about it, and give her the chance to ask me not to. But I think she’s at least somewhat glad that I’m finding out and better understanding all the things that she still rarely talks about herself.
I probably could’ve accessed and read all or at least most of the information S.H.I.E.L.D. had on the Soviet Black Widow Program before this, of course, especially when a couple of the documents loaded together in bulk onto my StarkPad are ones I wrote myself, and there are a few more I’d also read already, first when I was preparing for the mission to kill Natasha, and then after I brought her back and she and I started working together. But to read and learn every detail wasn’t something it occurred to me to do until now, and when it’s all available on the internet, and even gathered and organized in reader-convenient ways on websites with URLs like shieldsecrets.net and thetruthatlast.com, it is a lot easier to manage.
So I started with the SSR and military reports filed after their joint mission that first found the prepubescent training grounds of the Red Room, and went through those basic reports first, right down to the reports generated after S.H.I.E.L.D. got involved in the clearing out of all the program’s operating facilities after it was finally shut down in 2000-like with the Chernobyl Power Plant, it took until then, years after everything should’ve been decommissioned. It’s only in those final ones that the horrors of the place truly appear, from the underground lab containing years’ worth of notes and films of thousands of teenage patients being exposed to pain stimuli literally nonstop for days and days on end, with a box to check on the papers if they ended the experience having gone insane and were then put down like a dog, to the mass graves found outside practically every building, but the prepubescent facility especially, filled with the bones of girls sometimes estimated to be as young as six.
Now I’m going through the testimonials, interviews conducted with Black Widows captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. over the years, or even ones who escaped the program and decided to try to begin their lives over; S.H.I.E.L.D. would sometimes seek them out to see if they were willing to give more information, and very often they were. There are also a lot with the girls who were freed in 2000, though I haven’t gotten to those yet, nor to the multiple ones Natasha’s now done. I typically only read one of them per sitting; that’s about all I have the stomach for, really.
Tonight I’m reading the words of Ekaterina Drononina, who sought S.H.I.E.L.D. out with an offer to spy for them in 1978. They’d really grilled the poor woman, though not without good reason, since her being a double-agent would’ve been a classic Black Widow tactic. She told them every reason she was sincere, and there were ones she kept going back to, ones I’m pretty sure she thought about every damn day since they’d happened, such as being forced to butcher a five year old boy who was still alive when she was twelve, and also what had happened when she was ten, and the girl who slept next to her had fallen sick. Every time she brings that second one up, I have to look up from the pad and breathe in and out several times to keep my dinner down.
While it has, unfortunately, always been impossible to really be sure that a Black Widow’s sincere, eventually they decided to believe her, and they sent her back, albeit with as little information as they could give her. They never heard from her again. In 2000, they matched her DNA to some of the bones in one of the mass graves.
I still finish before Natasha does. I’m left to watch her body move, and to try not to think.
But the thing is, all sorts of things she does, that once upon a time I didn’t think anything of, now take on new meaning. Things like the fact that she doesn’t blink as much as usual, or the number of times when we’ve been choosing a movie to watch together and she’s so often rejected older, more classic ones, or that sometimes when we’ve sparred hand to hand together and she’s won, she’s been very quick to get off and let me get up. We haven’t sparred like that much lately. It may be necessary at some point, to keep our skills up, but I don’t know how well I’ll even be able to do it, now that I know what must be going through her head.
And when she finishes up, she does so as she’s often done, crouched on the ground with one leg stuck out behind her, and her head up, as if she’s looking up at someone who’s been watching her. And now I know for a fact that once upon a time, there was. And that she had good reason to be pretty scared of what would happened to her if he or she wasn’t impressed. She might have tried not to be scared, but that she’s still all tensed up as if for a fight is indication enough that she was.
That one I suppose I could’ve guessed on my own, though. And there are certainly plenty of things I’ve seen her do over the years that even if I didn’t know the details, it was very obvious they must have been leftover habits learned in the Red Room. And she’s been doing a number of them recently that she had previously stopped doing.
As we head upstairs to shower and prepare for bed, I am not looking forward to seeing if she does one of them. She showers first, and then I deliberately take my time, giving her the time she needs to make her decision.
There are two ways nights have gone for us when we’ve been on the farm. The first is the way I’m hoping for. That’s where I come out to find her still in her towel, and that means it’s a night where she’s good, and we can make love-or at least, it’s lovemaking for me, and I think in a way it is for her too now. And on those nights, these past months, we almost always have.
But things go the second way tonight. When I come out of the shower, she’s under the covers, with one wrist handcuffed to the bed.
She did that all the time when I first brought her in. I tried at one point to argue with her that she really should stop, at least whenever she slept alone, because if there was no one to uncuff her when she was having nightmares she could seriously injure herself, but it didn’t really work. Even when I didn’t know the details behind exactly why she was doing it I hated to see it, hated to see her continue to torture herself when her turning and becoming a good guy should’ve been her final freedom from those who had tortured her. But eventually she started doing it less and less, until three months ago, she hadn’t done it in so long, or had nightmares for so long for that matter, I’d even started taking my hearing aids out before bed again, since I didn’t think I’d need them anymore.
But I won’t make any arguments to her now. I may hate seeing it even more than I used to, now that I know exactly what was done to her and why she does it, but reading so much about what life was like for her in the Red Room, and especially how as a teenager she was not only intimidated but emotionally manipulated into becoming their perfect assassin, I want to put as little pressure as possible on her to behave this way or that way. Especially now, when whether she admits it or not, she is having a serious crisis of identity and confidence, and much as I’d love to take her pain away, she has to find her way out of it herself.
So I don’t say anything at all, just put on my boxers and crawl into bed next to her. At least she’s still putting the spare key on my bedside table, because she is having the nightmares again, and almost as often as she did that first year. She’ll let me make sure that cuff gets off her wrist as fast as possible should the nightmares strike, because that much I can give her. I even take the key in my hand, so I won’t have to grope for it.
The last thing we allow is that I lean over, and gently kiss the edge of her forehead, trying to put everything I feel for her into that gesture-the love, the friendship, the respect, the acceptance, the admiration, the willingness to go to Hell and back to help her out. So many of those emotions where she does feel the same way that I don’t even feel the pang anymore that there’s one of them where she still doesn’t, one where I know she’s still not sure she can feel that way about anyone, let alone me specifically.
And at least that I know she doesn’t feel guilty over. This situation we’ve been dealing with for two years now, since I first acknowledged I was in love with her, and went ahead and told her right away, and she had no response to give, nor have I ever asked for one. It’s nobody’s fault and we both just have to learn to live with it best we can. When I consider all the things she can and does give me, I also have to acknowledge my situation could be a lot worse.
The nightmare she has that night is so violent I probably would’ve woken up even without the hearing aids in. As it is, the first thing I’m aware of is of her screaming, and my first instinct is to scramble for my bow, before I realize what’s going on. Thankfully once I do it’s quick work, especially since I’ve done it so much. Within half of a minute of her scream, I’ve got the cuff unlocked, waking her up in the process. Once it’s gone from her wrist she looks frantically up, panting loudly, her eyes nowhere near where we are.
“It all right, Natusha,” I say to her. “You had a nightmare. We’re here on the farm and noone’s attacking us or hurting us right now.” She hears me, and I see her pull herself back, close her eyes, jerk her head forward, and when she opens them again she’s looking at me.
I hold the key out, in an easy place for her to take it. My doing anything with the cuffs is strictly limited to making sure she doesn’t hurt herself; otherwise, it is completely in her control, as it should be. But God, I hope she doesn’t take it.
She does. I look away. Bad enough that she knows how much pain that causes me, but at least she doesn’t have to see it on my face.
I slide back down and into my part of the bed as I hear the clink of her locking them back up. She hands me the key without looking at me, and I hope desperately that’s not out of shame, though I fear it probably is. I take it back into my hand, and grasp it tight. Nights where I’ve had to unlock her more than once have never been that common, but they do happen.
It’s always much harder for both of us to get back to sleep. Nor is it the first time when, once she’s settled back down, she asks softly, “Clint…?”
“I’m here,” is the response I always give. “I’ll always be here.” That’s usually all. There’s nothing to talk about we don’t both know already.
Except that tonight, after another pause, she says, “I dreamed I was being forced to kill you. You usually don’t show up in my dreams.”
I don’t know what to say in response to that. When I have nightmares, they almost always involve her, but that’s not what she needs to know right now.
When I don’t speak at all, she continues, “I dreamed they brought you in, and brought you to the pain lab, and ordered me to use the knife.” The story flashes into my head from Ekaterina Drononina’s interview, about having to torture the boy to death. Did Natasha too have to do that? I suppose I’ll find out once I reach her interviews, but I’m not going to ask her now.
“I wonder now,” she says. “If they’re still out there after all. S.H.I.E.L.D. was very heavily involved in shutting them down, and that means Hydra could’ve figured out a way to continue everything at a location of their own for their own ends. And…there are nine who are unaccounted for.” She sounds like this isn’t the first time she’s thought of this; I wish she’d been willing to talk earlier. “Of the girls we rescued. Ones who ended up in Russian orphanages. It wasn’t easy for S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep track of all of them anyway, and there’s one where the least record we have of her is her being adopted, and eight more where we really don’t have much beyond that they were admitted to their orphanages, with a lack of records on what happened to them afterwards.”
“If you want to investigate,” I say, “and if there is any such place, and you want your new mission in life to be bringing it down, I’m with you all the way.” Hey, it would be a good cause to dedicate my life to even if I didn’t have an attachment to a Red Room survivor.
“You mean that?” she asks, and is that another sign of that crisis in confidence I know she’s having, that she really sounds uncertain?
I can fix that much, anyway, by lifting myself up until once again I’m leaning over her, to look into her eyes and say, “I do. And if someday a new Red Room is laid waste to by a Black Widow who survived the old one and saved the world from aliens, among other good deeds? I would be proud to say I fought alongside her.”
“Clint…” she whispers, and there’s something happening, something in the way she looks at me, and my heart leaps, as that thought comes up, Could she possibly…
But this still isn’t about me, not really. It’s about how she’s smiling with her whole face again, saying, “Do you think we should try to recruit some of the other girls? S.H.I.E.L.D. kept better track of the ones resettled further west. There are a few who have gone into the militaries of the countries they were resettled in, and there was even one who was at the Spec-Ops Academy, and I’ve been tracking her and I’m pretty sure Hydra hasn’t recruited her.”
“The last one, definitely, although we should probably also see if Hydra’s established anything before we really get into the recruiting. They may not have.” We’ll have to make a trip to Russia, probably. Or more than one, given what a big place it is, and there are large parts of the country where they could be anywhere, though there are a few places around Moscow and St. Petersburg where we do know they’re not. We can start near where the girls who disappeared were, obviously. “This may take a while.”
“We’ve got time.” She might be close to laughing. This is wonderful.
It’s a good thing she pulls me down to kiss me right then, because I might have given in the urge to do it myself.
We just kiss for a while. Occasionally we break apart to whisper things, like where we should fly to first, where the Academy girl-Viktoria Resheva, her name was-went to, things like that, bubbling over with excitement. It’s kind of crazy. We never felt like this about having to take down something as horrible as a revived Red Room before, not when we had to deal with their existing to be taken down. But now such a crystal clear objective to put our purposes towards, which we haven’t had since the initial round of dealing with the escaped Fridge inmates, is too much of a blessing to not rejoice in.
And then Natasha gently pushes me off and reaches for her own key to the cuffs on her bedside table. Her fingers even close around it, but then she pauses. I hold my breath, but she puts it down. Not yet, it seems.
But then she pulls her nightgown up. She can’t get it entirely off, of course, but she leaves it hanging off the bound arm, and otherwise half sits, half lays before me naked. “Please,” she says.
I kiss her mouth again, and then her face, her neck, her shoulders. I get several kisses on her free arm before it wraps around my head and guides me down to her breasts. They’re rising and falling with breathing too erratic to be cause by anything but emotion, and my own feelings are so intense I just have to rest my head against them for a moment to pull myself together.
“Are you all right?” she asks, gently, genuinely concerned. She might be worried about what I might be remembering.
“Fine,” I gasp out. “Just…a little too much in love, I think.” I lay kisses to her nipples before licking, and her hand in my hair tightens. I can feel her body move in response against my hands too, and then even more when I graze her breasts with my teeth. Her heart was going fast already, and now beneath my cheek I can feel it going even faster. I alternate my licks with more kisses, loving her recklessly, easily, undemanding of any feelings from her, but grateful for every one she gives, every caress she gives to the back of my neck, every gasp before and after she pulls me back up and we’re mouth to mouth again, and I can never get enough of that.
“Touch me, Clint,” she whispers into my mouth. My hand is almost sorry to leave the soft, scarred, perfect skin of her back, but not to get where it’s going. I don’t even need to stop kissing her; it find its way on its own, knowing exactly where to touch first, where to stroke to make her pant into my mouth before going for her clit. She moves forward, almost as much as the handcuffs will let her, I think, and her legs wrap around me, my hard dick pressing against her through the boxers, which I think are probably going to come off pretty soon. As soon as I’m willing to stop what I’m doing long enough to get them off.
But now’s not the time to pull away, definitely, because Natasha is starting to make tiny unconscious moves with her hips, and I can feel in her breathing that she’s getting close. I slide two fingers in and bend, and she’s coming, her body shuddering against mine as I fuck her through it, watching her face as her head falls back. Her eyes are closed, her mouth slightly open, her hair sweat-drenched, starting to muss. I love it all.
When it subsides, she scoots back, gently pulling me with her, and whispers, “Get your boxers off and let’s see if we can turn around.”
It’s not easy, and in the process her nightgown sleeve gets ripped and the whole thing falls away, but no one can maneuver around in handcuffs like Natasha can, and while she does so I move away, get the boxers off, and then slide back against the headboard, her free hand steering me into a sitting position at the edge of the bed, one of my legs off it. That close to the post and Natasha’s cuffed hand can be the one further from it without straining too much. At first the chain is actually right in front of me, but she’s got to realize how much that kills the mood for me, because she lifts her arm and settles the hand on my shoulder, making the chain hang behind me instead, which is better.
Between the business with the chain and all the shuffling around my erection’s wilted a bit, but Natasha’s good at taking care of that problem; she takes me in her hands and I’m fully hard again in no time. Soft groans escape me as she does it, and I let them out freely when I seeing they’re making her smile. She’s licking her lips a little bit too; she’s built up a bit of anticipation for this.
As she reaches into her drawer and gets a condom out, she comments, “You know, I’m still on the pill, and I don’t think either of us have fucked anyone else in a while. We could look into going without, just for a bit.”
“I’d like that,” I breathe out, and I would. It’s a luxury we’ve never had, and I suspect we won’t keep for long if we really go to try and ferret out secrets in Russia. But if we could get tested first, and quickly enough…it would be wonderful, to feel her skin on skin. I’d be happy to do it just once.
But tonight we’re not tested, so she rolls it on, and she needs me to pinch the end for her, but there’s comfort in the familiar; I even see a little tension leave her shoulders as she does it. And I see even more go as she straddles me, and closes her eyes to savor it as she lowers herself down, enveloping me deep into her cunt, and at the same time wrapping her entire body around me until it’s my turn to close my eyes, because it’s just so much.
We move slowly, her directing my movements with her free hand on the small of my back. She’s not trying for a second orgasm, though I can feel her breathing change against my neck, getting a little ragged, more so when she whispers, “Harder,” and I obey, pushing up hard into her and causing the cuffed hand to dig into my shoulder. She starts squeezing tighter and again I can’t help the groans, and in response she whispers, “Yes…” With my own hands I clutch her tighter, dig them into the shoulder blades in the way she loves, and her deep, almost guttural sigh fills my ears.
In the end, I can’t last very long. The orgasm is a slow one, though, the white-hot flood of pleasure starting deep in my loins and just spreading out as I feel myself erupt inside her. She gasps, but keeps on moving, keeps on squeezing, slowly milking me dry. Her free arm moves up to hold me, and I almost sob into her skin, everything in the world shaking expect her solid, warm, hard presence.
Even after it fades we’re both still hanging on, and I focus on her even more, until I can feel and concentrate on the rise and fall of her chest and even the beating of her heart. And so I also feel it when tiny tremors start to run through her, and her breaths, previously as relaxed and contented as if she had come a second time, turned anxious again, before she finally whispers, “Clint, are you afraid?”
“Not yet,” I say. But if we do go to Russia I will be, though maybe more for her than for myself.
“I am,” she says, and though the feeling might not be entirely a shock, her saying that out loud is. “Though not of being killed.”
“Of finding out there is a new Red Room?”
“Or being unable to find out, one way or the other. I’m not sure which one would be worse.”
The second one, I think. We’d always wonder what happened to those nine girls. They might all be fine; Russian records are often incomplete anyway. But for one thing, there are simply too many of them unaccounted for. We might even wonder if something else is up. For another, now the S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t around to protect them anymore, all the other survivors are potential targets for kidnapping, especially if they’ve tried to live normal lives and are thus unprepared to defend themselves. We can try to check up on them all, of course, but there are too many for just the two of us to handle; even for the Avengers all working together it would be pretty hard.
But all in all, that thought’s dark enough neither of us speak out loud. That means she’s thinking a lot, and I leave her to it, and just stay there, face still pressed into her neck, and breathe, let myself settle properly into this new purpose. I’ve got things to think about too, although right now they’re mostly involving the farm, and getting in touch with the people I pay to take care of it when I’m away, and which ones are actually available this time of year, and what instructions I should give to them if I think we’re going to be gone for more than a few weeks at a time.
Finally, she says, “In the morning, I’m going to see about getting in touch with Resheva. Hopefully her personal email address should still work. In the meantime, if we’ve got a big day tomorrow, we should get to sleep.”
“We may have one anyway, if Frigga finally has her calf,” I remind her. Which would no doubt bring Thor and Jane back here as soon as they can manage; ever since he took it upon himself to name my most recent cow for his late mother Thor’s been ridiculously fond of her. He was disappointed they hadn’t been able to stay until the calf had been born. But that might be for the better. For this mission, having the other Avengers on hand to help would be good.
“Do you think we should wait to leave until she does?” she asks as she finally climbs off me, and I head to the bathroom for water and towels. “I doubt we could go that quickly anyway, of course…”
“It’ll be born within the week,” I call back. “If it isn’t I’m going to have to call a vet, honestly.” I really hope it doesn’t come to that now. Was hoping already, naturally, but it’s increased.
Since she’s still handcuffed to the bed, it takes her longer to clean herself up than it takes me; she’s still working on it when I put on a new pair of boxers, take up my key, and climb back into bed. I watch as she finishes up. She looks down at the ripped nightgown on the floor, shrugs, and slides back down under the covers in the nude. As I watch, she takes one last look at the handcuffs, and I find myself thinking that surely, after the plans we’ve just made, she won’t let herself by bound by them anymore. At the very least, she must be thinking at this moment that she shouldn’t.
But knowing what one should do isn’t always the same thing as being able to do it, and I guess Natasha’s still not ready to do without yet, because she puts her head down on the pillow, facing me, and shifts until she’s laying on her back.
But a moment later, her free arm reaches out. With the hand not holding the key I do the same, and our hands clasp. This too we’ve done, though it was most common in the early years, on nights when sleeping without the handcuffs was a new and frightening thing for her, and she was desperately reaching out to the hand of a relative stranger, and someone to whom she was then nothing, at least when compared to what she is to me now.
She has no more nightmares that night.