The new version of the Red Room we’ve hopefully just put down was at least smaller than the old one; they seemed to only be using the one place, and they had less than half the girls of the original, about two dozen of whom we got out. Still, it took all of the Avengers plus three more survivors of the old Red Room to best them. Bruce is still Hulked out, Sam and Victoria Resheva are both injured, though minorly, and half of our electronics have been zapped out for the count, including practically all our communication devices, and also my hearing aids. And we’re pretty sure they had bosses who are still at large, and whom it’s going to be a headache to get any information on. The Red Room staff all died without telling us anything, and getting back into their computer banks will be no easy task, even if the information is actually in there, which it might not be.
At least Rhodey’s suit is still working. Once we’re all within the building, except the Hulk, who is standing guard outside, and Thor, who flies off to hopefully arrange for some sort of extraction, he takes the upper half of his suit off, and there’s a gadget in the torso that can start a fire going. Tony and the Hulk working together are able to create a makeshift chimney that doesn’t even let too much cold air in, and we all huddle around to wait. The girls all want to stay near their four predecessors, and when I sit next to Natasha, the two of us are surrounded.
The oldest of them is a sixteen-year-old called Julia Shroteka, and when we’ve all sat for a bit and felt a little warmer, she stands up, and, on a command for Natasha, turns her head so I’ll be able to read her lips no problem. “Sir,” she asks Steve. “What happens to us now?”
Steve makes a point of facing her specifically, which means I can’t read what he says in response. I look at Tony, who has been signing basic things to me since I lost my hearing, but it seems he’s not bothering, and besides Natasha he’s the only one here who knows sign language, though Steve has already apologized for it, and I imagine next time I see him he’ll be fluent. So I look at Natasha, who signs a general gist of it: “He’s telling her about resettling them, and how he thinks they may have to do it in the west, because he doesn’t think it’ll be safe for them here in Russia at least for another year or two.”
It’s not a response that makes all the girls happy. I see one eight-year-old yell a protest. Steve says something to her too, but it doesn’t look like it helps much. Shroteka turns to her and says something as well, and Natasha signs, “She supports this plan, at least. That should help.”
So do Natasha and her three cohorts; they all join in the conversation, after another twelve-year-old girl, whose name I believe is Zemfira, that appears to be of Tartar descent, protests. She sits apart from the others, who are all Caucasian; I suspect her race made her life in the Red Room yet worse, and she’ll be happier if she’s resettled away from her fellow girls, though unfortunately she’ll inevitably end up somewhere where she’s a feared minority. Hopefully whatever organization we get to find places for these girls will take that into account.
With most of the people involved in the conversation having Russian as their mother tongue, soon most of the lips are forming words I can’t recognize. I give up trying to follow it and let myself look around at the speakers. One girl is crying, though doing her best to hide it; I’m sure she never let anyone see it in the Red Room. Several more are fidgeting. A couple have fallen asleep, one of them slumped nearly into the lap of Tatiana Shemski, the former Black Widow who helped liberate the last Red Room and is nearly two decades older than she looks, older than all of us, I think, not counting Steve. We didn’t even seek her out for this mission; she found out somehow and came to us.
It was she and Natasha together who killed most of the staff. It had gotten protests from Steve, the brutal way in which they’d done it, and especially when they’d let Zemfira kill one of them herself when she’d requested it, and she’d been even worse. But it’s done, and you can’t say the bastards didn’t deserve it. When we came into where the trainees were gathered, there were two girls being forced to fight each other to the death, and we’ve since gotten the very strong impression they’re best friends, and the staff had set them against each other because they’d found that out. I’ve now read enough testimonials to know it wouldn’t be the first time. Those two girls are drawn close to each other now, even holding hands.
But eventually I notice that Natasha’s stopped talking, and she’s looking more at the fire than at the others sitting around it, although occasionally she glances at Sam, whom Steve is doing his best to bandage. It makes me worry.
Psychologically she’s been all over the place since the mission started, and that’s from what I’ve been able to tell about her mental state, which may not be everything. There were days during the pursuit, even when it was frustrating, that she was perfectly relaxed and happy. And then there were days when she could barely talk unless there was some immediate problem or task on hand she could focus in on. Then there was the time shortly after Shemski showed up to join our cause that they had a tremendous argument, and that night she handcuffed herself to the bed again, and when she hadn’t while we’d been in Russia before then.
Although maybe that was also because the next night, she had to seduce the first of the two targets she had to do that with for this mission. That time she deliberately took him away, not wanting me to have to listen to it. But after she told me she was finding it harder than she used to, I insisted on being in the next room for the second one, bow within easy reach, terrified the entire time she’d be found out and killed before I could do anything. She didn’t handcuff herself the next night, but from the way she looked at her cuffs the next morning I think she came close.
She still has the handcuffs on her, but at least she won’t be using them tonight. Not when we’ve got two dozen kids with us, and at least some of them might not be able to sleep without them. We may have to go scrounging for some more in this building if we stay here overnight.
So I’m not surprised when she rises, and says, “I’m going to have a look outside. Clint, could you come with me?”
It’s October, and there’s no snow on the ground yet, but it’s not far off. We brought cold-weather gear, of course, but it’s still not too pleasant, especially when the wind blows. For the first part of the walk, we keep our eyes peeled, I can see she’s listening very carefully to everything around us as well, she has her hand in her coat where I know she keeps the smallest and quickest of her weapons, and I have an arrow to my string. But there really seems to be no one else around except us.
I know she’s sure of that when she turns to me and signs, “Could you wait here a few minutes, and then follow me?” It’s a strange request, but I nod my agreement, and let her go.
I keep watch after she’s gone, but when all my instincts are telling me there’s nothing to keep watch for right now, it proves impossible not to think about what she’s doing. My first guess would be that she’s going off to cry. That’s not something she never lets anyone else see, but it’s still something in general she prefers not to have witnessed, not even by me. Although it doesn’t entirely make sense that she then asked me to follow her like that, unless she thought she wasn’t going to be crying for long. Maybe she’s trying to force herself not to.
In any case, a few minutes later I head off in the direction of her tracks. She’s made them pretty obvious, at least to me, if maybe not to anyone. I go slower than I need to, though, and step on enough leaves she should be able to hear me coming, and have time to bring herself under control if that’s what she wants.
When I reach her, she’s found a little stone grotto on the bank of a river, and is seated underneath where the earth rises, staring into the water. I don’t see her shoulders shaking, though, or any other signs of crying. I call her name, feeling the syllables fly out of my mouth and over my lips, as strongly as I would normally hear them. She heard me coming already, of course, but she still rises, and walks to the river’s edge, still facing away from me. I see her brace herself, before she turns to face me.
“If you weren’t in love with me,” she signs, “would you have taken me in after S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, in the same way?”
“Of course I would have!” bursts from me, voice and hands both. “Why would you even think otherwise, Natasha? You know me better than that!”
“I do,” she signs. “I just needed to have you say it to be absolutely sure.” And indeed, I see certainty take her, the way she gets when after considering two ways of attack, she makes her choice and commits to it.
Then she walks forward, until there’s only enough distance between us for us both to sign comfortably, looks me straight in the eye, and signs, “I love you.”
When I’m too shocked to respond she says it out loud. I see her lips form the syllables in English, and then what I think are the syllables in Russian too.
My mouth finally does open, but I’m not even sure what syllables come out. It’s only when I raise my hands to sign that I discover they’re shaking. At some point my feet decide, probably on their own, to go forward, and she takes my hands and pulls me into the grotto, taking one last glance around to confirm that we’re still alone out here. When she lets go she signs, “Are you all right?”
When I still can’t get any words out of either my mouth or my hands, I do the only thing I really can do at a moment like this. I kiss her.
She actually makes a sound as I do it; I can feel the vibrations against my mouth. I’m pretty sure it’s a positive one, though, since she kisses back right away, and with an enthusiasm she’s never had before. As our arms wrap tight around each other she presses more kisses all around my mouth. I can feel her still speaking words, and when she pulls away to breathe, I manage to read some of them off her lips, “Is this what it’s felt like for you, these past two years?” I’m not sure she means for me to know what she’s saying, though, and I can also read off her face that she’s actually a little scared. Maybe even a lot more than a little.
“It’s all right,” I say to her, trying to hit the balance between not too loud and loud enough for her to hear me; that’s never easy when I can’t hear my own voice. “It’s all right. Think of this as a new victory over the Red Room. They would have deprived you of this. Now you can take it.”
When it’s put like that, her response is to push me to the back of the grotto and slide me down to the rocks before climbing on top of me. She clearly isn’t going to try to take anything off, since in our current situation that would truly be crazy, but she runs her hands up and down my body, as I recall two years ago, the first time making love to her after coming to terms with how I felt about her, all the emotions that ran through me just from touching her. Although I’d been in love before; to her this is completely new.
Her hand cups my cheek with a tenderness she hasn’t shown very much, and still might not in the future. It drives it home; she loves me. I have spent the past two years trying to be grateful for what I’ve had, for the privilege of being with this incredible woman, her letting us share our days and our nights and our missions and our struggles, often our home, and even our bed. Every day of it has left me more in love with her, to the point that I’ve wondered if I’m going crazy. But now she’s touching me and kissing me and giving me everything and wanting to take everything I’ve wanted to give her, and I can’t remember the last time I felt this happy.
My only regret right now is that she has any reason to be scared. But if that can’t be helped, at least I can be glad of the growing boldness with which she’s moving, and the knowledge that I’m definitely the best person this could’ve happened with for her, the person who understands exactly what this means for her and is willing to do whatever I have to to help her get through it.
I feel her breath harsh against my jaw, and it’s not all from the physical exertion. I stroke the side of her face and let a soft shhhhh out through my teeth, near her ear. When my hands on her skin don’t make her tense at all, I let them move freely, if a little slowly. On her back I can feel her chest rise and fall, and then sag, and I feel her body press against mine everywhere as she relaxes. She curves down until her head is on my chest, right over my heart, and for a while we just lay there, and I let her listen, savor the feeling of holding her in my arms, let myself feel everything for her.
“Don’t fall asleep.” She has to really use her flexibility to get her hands within my line of sight to sign it.
“I won’t,” I say to her. Strange how I’m not even tempted, given how exhausted we both are, from both the hours of running and the dealing with all these emotions.
My mind’s starting to work on the future now. I really hope Thor comes back with some helicopters in tow because I need this mission to be over as soon as possible. We’re probably both going to be a little scared of this again when we wake up tomorrow, and we’ll want to get back to the farm, where we can calm down and get used to it. Also where we can have complete privacy, unless we need to house some of the girls. We might even hold off on sex until then, because I think the next time’s going to be a little emotionally overwhelming for both of us.
It’s a good future to think about, though. Especially when we’re still not entirely sure where we’re going to be in a year, what state the Avengers will be in, who else we might be working for or with. We knew already we were going to stick together, but having everything completely settled like this is good. I can hope Natasha will come to view the farm as her home as well as mine, and we can get other places together as convenient, and know that when each mission ends will be going back to them together.
Eventually Natasha pulls herself up and signs, “We should get back to the others,” and she’s right. I think we’ve been out close to an hour.
The Hulk is still outside, seated on top of the roof by the chimney, hopefully keeping his hands warm. He actually spots us as we walk, and actually smiles slightly. I wave, but as I do so Natasha looks distracted, and then signs, “Someone’s coming; I think it’s Shemski.”
We have our weapons out when she emerges from the trees, hands up. “Just come to fetch you back,” she says. “Girls were getting worried. Half of them are asleep now, but Yana Chucko and Marina Spediova are probably going to wake soon, and we’re not sure what we’re going to do about them.” Vaguely I recall the two knocked out girls were called Yana and Marina; I wonder when anyone told anyone else their full names.
“If we can keep anyone from killing or permanently damaging anyone else, I think we’ll be fine,” says Natasha. But even if I can’t hear the voice with which she speaks it, I can see the sadness in her eyes.
I reach my hand out, just a little. She takes it. Shemski makes no comment.
The two of them are talking to each other in Russian when we finally return to where everyone is gathered. Yana Chucko and Marina Spediova both woke up, I think, when I see the first lying on a different section of the floor Steve originally put her down on, probably knocked unconscious by a hit to the head, and the second struggling as Shroteka and others hold her down. When we come in, Shroteka looks up at us, and of course Black Widows are good at making others think they’re helpless, but that expression of it on her face I think is probably genuine.
Resheva is there too, not helping with the holding down, but talking quietly, obviously in Russian. “You think maybe that helps?” I sign quickly to Natasha.
“I’m going to try it myself,” she responds.
She lets go of my hand to go over, and when she does I notice several people, including both Steve and Tony, who are standing near Chucko and Spediova but not actually intervening at the moment, are looking at where we were holding hands in the first place. Not that they didn’t already know we were having sex, especially since we’ve always roomed together when staying at Stark Tower. I think it confused Steve, when he learned it was against S.H.I.E.L.D. regulations, but we were hardly the only agents to honor that rule more in the breach. But things like holding hands? Not the sort of thing we've done before.
Steve continues to look at me thoughtfully as I go to sit down by the fire. I suspect he’s going to want to have a talk with both of us once I have working hearing aids again, though I don’t think he’s actually going to object to full-on romantic relationships between Avengers. Tony just looks amused. I’m actually looking forward to his reaction to this less.
I’ve been sitting for a minute or so when suddenly everyone around me simultaneously turns their heads in the direction of where our two protesting girls have been. I see why when I look with them, and see Spediova crying, obviously loudly, in Natasha’s embrace. I’ve no doubt she’s got complete control of the situation, and yet I’m amazed at how loosely she holds her, as if there wasn’t the danger that she could change her mind about letting Natasha do this and turn on her at any moment.
Zemfira is watching this too. The two of us look at each other, and she says, very slowly and deliberately, “She is a good person, no?”
“Da,” I tell her, and I know I’m biased, but I also know I’m right. “Maybe she wasn’t always. But yes, she is now.”