There is something on her hands.
Crawling and always present. No matter how hard she scrubs, it will always tinge her skin, burn her person. It defines her. Darkness and pain, and the promise of no tomorrow. That's all she is now. Those hands are a constant reminder of her guilt and her destructive ways. She sits on the edge of the city rooftop, and peers down into her fate.
The air is cold, but she expects that. Her hands are shaking, but they always have been. Her mind is weak, but she has forgotten the last time she was strong. The cigarette crackles softly as she inhales, smoke billowing through her empty body, an ember breathing light into the night. She waits. Feels the smoke creep into the crevices of her mouth, spill down her throat and destroy her lungs. Her lips start to shake in the anticipation, her eyes strain under the flickering streetlight at the end of the alley. She waits until it burns.
And breathes out.
Natasha is broken.
She has never been one for sentiment. She was brought up under Russian influence, after all, what more could be expected of her? It was the unspoken rule of warfare, and the only thing that had ever felt natural to her: feelings are for children. Love is a game that people play when they are scared of accepting loneliness; death is inevitable, and the afterlife is humanity's desperate grasp for a happy ending. And she never understood that; the burning desire for a reason for being, or the search for something beyond the human potential. Whether it is found in religion or through love, it is a sign of weakness and lack of conviction in the moment of living. And so she had disregarded it: child's play is a distant memory, a chance that she never got and an opportunity she has never craved.
So why she feels her fingers tapping against the keypad on her phone, writing simple goodbyes and well-wishes, she can't comprehend, sending pangs of discomfort soaring through her. Is this her last desperate whimper to the world? Is she merely ignoring an internal battle raging inside her, evading the conflict between everything she wants and what she needs?
Sentiment is weakness. And her trembling fingers hovering over the 'send' button are teasing, taunting her into falling into the abyss. Natasha wants to be strong again; she wants to feel the adrenaline of confidence pulsing through her and stunning those around her. She wants to smile and let it reach her eyes. She wants to keep the world's minds guessing and eyes wandering. She wants to scrub her hands, those dirty hands that have too long tainted her life. And as she stares into the darkness of the alley below her, comfortable and patiently waiting, she wonders how many people fear it. Not the fear of falling, but the idea that they might jump. She blinks.
If that isn't weakness, then sentiment is a virtue.
She sends two emails, one text, and her hand gently grazes over the glistening jewel of a ring on her fingers. She doesn't want to wait any longer. She has waited long enough to find goodbyes in her life, and she doesn't deserve to have them.
She takes another drag. Her feet hang off the side, watching the city lights dim under the pain of neglect. The cigarette finishes, burns against her finger. She pushes it into the concrete. A dark silhouette looms into view at the end of the alleyway, silent and invisible in the night. He's used to walking through these streets; he's used to the darkness. He's been moving fast, but he's slowed to a stop now below her. She didn't need to send him a text. He doesn't need to be told. He knows. The alley illuminates with the shine of a mobile. She breathes the last of her smoke into the night air, watching it disappear in a faded wisp.
Her hand gently picks up her ringing phone.
"I'm up here."
His eyes travel up, and his breathing becomes shallow. Careful. He takes a moment to speak, and she takes a moment to watch him.
What are you doing up there?
She smiles. He doesn't know. He can't see her face through the darkness. He can't remember what her face looks like without it.
"Remembering" She whispers, her voice clear against the silence of the streets below. The wind is biting, and whistles through her words, lacing their conversation "Trying to forget." This time her smile isn't down at him, it's looking through him with a glassy stare. Looking into her past and her future, and all the things she could have done and should have said. To all of the colours she could have painted over her blank canvas of a life, when she opted to drown her hands in red. Her clouded eyes look to her hand, trembling against the edge, blotted with regret and darkness. She blinks. Inhales through quivering lips "Are you going to stay with me?" She can hear his breath, cautious over the line. She can see it cloud like smoke from his mouth as he answers her.
She feels it lurking, but never breaking the surface: if there was a ghost of a genuine smile rising at his words, then she has forgotten how to show it. Even through the darkness, she can see him, his piercing stare never leaving the person he once knew to be a friend; is he the Guardian rising through the darkness to show her light, or the promise of something worthwhile in the darkness?
"Are you going to stop me?"
He doesn't reply.
Natasha doesn't realise how much she wants to fall, until she first feels her stomach lurch at the deathly grip of gravity taking a hold of her as she tumbles through the air. The ground from this height is endless, welcoming, cooing to her softly as her velocity increases dangerously, opening its solid arms. And she should follow protocol; she should fold her body into position and pull her emergency parachute. She should. The grounds plummets ever closer. She knows. Her finger trembles against the release chord. But it's not frozen. Her limbs dance through the air like an innocent ragdoll. Like the falling Angel. But for the first time in the long time, she doesn't feel frozen. Or stoic. She feels free.
And arms are around her all too soon. They snake around her waist in an iron grip, the contact forcing the air out of her. She doesn't want the air, though. She doesn't want to breathe. Her eyes glaze over to that ground, suspended below them now. So still, so quiet. It had been waiting for her, waiting for her to meet it with a great force. And she has done it again. Let it down. Her fingers curl around the arms clutching her body, the red marks etched into her skin flaring against the pressure she exerts on the metal armour.
"If that isn't a reason to buy me a drink, Agent Romanoff," The voice in her ear is interlaced with a metallic gurgle, but the arrogance of Tony Stark radiates through even the toughest of materials "then I don't know what is." She doesn't answer. She doesn't want to. She doesn't remove her fingers; for fear that they will start shaking in an attempt to rid her of deathly sin. As he swings her into a firmer hold, her unblinking stare stays on the ground, and the remnants of her burning jet, savagely spoiling the wasteland below her in a cacophony of flames and destruction. Tony pulls away from the carnage, but she knows. That's where she belongs.
"So, Miss Romanoff:" Her mind shakes free of the image of her burning plane, and registers the dark liquid that Stark holds in her direction. They sit now in Tony's garage, and personal hideout, following the debacle of the plane disaster. The house seems relatively quiet for a renowned party mansion, besides the routine beeps emitting from JARVIS. She blinks, her eyes burning through the man before her, but her mind wishing only to shy away from him. She accepts the glass without a word. She doesn't drink "To what do I owe this pleasure; that is of course, assuming that you're not here purely to stare at me in starstruck awe?" Tony's heroism was based purely on luck (and mischief); he had intended to cause chaos with Natasha's communication systems upon hearing of her impromptu visit to his Malibu home, but instead was greeted with a blazing military jet ripping through the clouds as he approached, after it had been struck with a timely bolt of lightning, leaving the encapsulating sight of a limp Natasha descending with a disordered grace in its wake for his waiting arms.
The liquid passing her lips burns, and she smiles unintentionally against it as it lingers at the back of her throat, smooth yet smouldering against her mouth "A routine check-up, Mr. Stark" The corner of her lips tug up slightly with a mask of mild amusement "And some pre-show entertainment."
His laugh is carefree as he takes a deep swig of his own drink, indicating to Natasha that even in her shocked state, her cover is still in place. She is still happy in his mind. To him, the smile still reaches her eyes. And in that moment, she realises that she wants to fall again, but does she ever want to smile again?
"Hey, you okay, Peaches?" The mind of a spy bursts her out of her reverie once more, her senses alert as she meets the narrowed eyes of the billionaire, scrutinizing her. She sees it now, a darker look behind his eyes as he thoughtfully downs the remainder of his glass. She didn't realise her silence had left him to ponder. She gritted her teeth against her rookie mistake: never let the mind of Tony Stark wander "Your beautifully dissatisfied face looks more dissatisfied than usual" She doesn't offer the chance to humour him, and instead stands and smoothes down her suit, fixing the older man with a pointed look of innocence and sickeningly sweet smile.
"Call me Peaches one more time, Stark, and I will reprogram your Butler to rip off your body parts in your sleep."
"No, I was wrong, you seem perfectly normal." The smile immediately returns to his face as he settles back into his chair and lifts his eyebrows, feet propped against what Pepper would suppose to be important papers but he has mistaken for drink coasters. She offers him a small smile in return, and lifts her eyebrows bemusedly
"And you seem infuriatingly unchanged, also." She quips as she takes a final glance around, her eyes roaming the shine of new Ironman models in production on the other side of the room "Which means that my work here is done."
At that he's up, his lip pouted like a child's, which exasperates a sigh from the young woman as Stark continues in his forte of talking "What? No 'How's the wife', 'what do you think of the global marketing crisis', 'have you seen the legs on Angelina Jolie'?" She closes her eyes briefly, confusion swarming her as she feels an unnatural warmth inside her, and urge to laugh at his rambling ways.
"Have you killed anyone in the past 2 months, Tony?"
"I killed a goldfish, does that count?" She turns on her heel, and moves towards the exit with a shake of her head "Having said that, goldfish are very difficult to maintain, not that they remember my house rules, or anything. And it was only one" She banishes the warm feeling, and excuses it for the aftermath of her near-death experience. Shock settling in. After all, feelings are foreign to her "Okay, it was two. Two goldfish."
"Wait, no goodbye kiss?" He calls after her, and she casts the charm of a smile over her shoulder at him
"That would suggest that I have to stand within ten metres of you." As she moves out of the mansion, his voice echoes through the halls, and as she returns to base, his laughter echoes through her body.
"Ah, so you've thought about it!"
The Sun pulses against the back of her neck, searing against her skin. Anyone else would recoil, but she grits her teeth against it, bites her tongue. It burns her. And she relishes in that.
"When you invited me for a 'leisurely drive', Miss Romanoff" A voice calls to her side, as her hands tighten against the wheel excitedly at the heightened concern lacing his words "The Drive of Death wasn't something I seriously contemplated."
A smile tugs against her mouth at Bruce Banner's words, her peripheral vision assessing the wind soaring through the man's hair and his eyes squinting against the open road ahead of them as they speed through the desert. She wants to push forward, to go faster. She wants to fly, just for a little while. But his calm state is quickly dwindling, so she reluctantly pushes against the brake, slowing the pair down considerably. Even at this slower speed, the mountainous terrain they're driving through rushes past them, blurring reds and coppers and tumbling stones. The air beats against their faces, breathtaking and exhilarating within a moment. She spins a corner, but doesn't reply.
Fury has sent her out on a routine debriefing, a couple of weeks following the incident in New York City. Normally, it isn't her job. She could have been in Russia by now, uncovering the massive drugs ring running within the small coffee shops in the East. Back to being a spy; not a hero, not a friend. Not Natalia Romanov. Just Black Widow. Instead, here she is, spinning through a deserted road in Jordan, just east of Aqaba, in a car that is much too expensive to be trusted with her, alongside her personalised time bomb fearing for his life in the passenger seat. She's dealt with this man's fury in an enclosed space miles above the ground, so a drive with him in an open space seemed painless in comparison. He had recuperated with Stark for a short while, but he was like her, in many ways. Banner needed to escape, to get away. Even Jordan, even these baron lands, didn't seem far enough. The road is quiet here. The world is quiet. She slams on the brakes, her fingers turning white against the wheel as they slow to a stop in the oasis of peace. She kills the engine, and stares at the vast expanse before her.
"This used to be Coulson's job" The silence has settled around them; no larks rise in the sky, or circle above them. The dust settles, and if the reserved scientist was about to protest, his words are subdued now. If she attempts a smile, it's in apology "I'm not much of a people person."
"If your near-suicidal driving skills are any indication, then I'm inclined to agree."
"In my defence, Doctor, the circumstances in which I'm usually driving are not as relaxed as these." He laughs in agreement at this, and her eyes once more graze upon her hands. Those hands, so exposed, soft to touch but swarming with death and violence underneath the surface. Moisturised, but still dry against the brutality of the lives she has taken with them "This is where Coulson first took me, for my first debriefing."
"Debriefing?" He breathes a laugh and looks down to the glasses in his hands, thumbing gently against the panes "That sounds like something you need to do with your superheroes."
"That's why I'm talking to you." She responds just as quickly, watching his short intake of breath. He doesn't know what to say to that. He peers through his glasses, satisfied with their gleam as they catch the sunlight.
"Why did he take you here?"
"To get away," She fights a smile, she fights against the nostalgia creeping on her. She convinces herself to be angry, to be bitter about Coulson's poor tactical decisions. No, in fact, she doesn't. She convinces herself to feel nothing "He told me that the world often moved fast, and sometimes we needed time to catch up with ourselves." A breath escapes her, evading the threat of expressing her feelings to the doctor along with it "I didn't choose this life, either, Bruce." She sees him tense. Breathe. Relax "We aren't programmed to be soldiers, or assassins, or heroes. But this way of life? It finds us."
"You seem to have adapted pretty well to it." He mutters, his voice soft but carrying on the gentle breeze surrounding them, making him sound closer than he is.
"Tony Stark had a car battery running his body for over three months." She reasoned, her hands once more tightening on the wheel before her "He didn't want to adapt to it, but there wasn't an option."
"You don't think I have an option?"
His question doesn't shock her, but his pessimism grates her gently. She isn't one for comfort, or for group hugs. And although her life is built around a lie, something wants to restrain her from lying to him. She raises an eyebrow, her voice unchanging.
"Do you want to shoot another bullet into your mouth and find out?"
They fall into silence. She doesn't regret her words; regret shows weakness, and she wasn't given the time in her life to feel that weakness. She stares across the red plains before them with marvelling eyes, before his chuckle breaks the air between them. She turns to him with a confused frown.
"If Tony finds out we were talking about him, his head will grow larger than that ostentatious tower of his."
God help them if that ever happened. She allows a small laugh, and switches the engine back on, revving gently as she sends the man an amused look and steers away.
"Our little secret, then."
The Captain is too much of a gentleman to be fully comfortable around Natasha. And Natasha is much too emotionally detached to wait as he blunders around any conversation with the opposite sex. So when she had turned to the small gym inside S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters for the privacy of a night to herself, she never imagined it would have ended like this.
She isn't a contemporary dancer, really. She is a contemporary person. She was a ballerina, once upon a time. At least, she had convinced herself so. Although that life is one that she has forgotten, and is bitter to remember, sometimes she craves to feel that once more. The hope of childhood, and the innocence of wanting to be a princess, spinning across a room in a flowing gown. And so, even though she doesn't have a gown, or a crowded room full of mesmerized eyes, she still dances in her own moments of silence. On her brighter days, she moves fluently through operas, pop songs and rock ballads, her fingertips buzzing and beating energy out of her person. The rhythm doesn't restrict her, it consumes her, throwing her across the studio floor with an unnatural grace and encapsulating twists of her limbs.
This is one of those nights. She isn't swallowed by the darkness today; her sadness isn't crying for attention or causing her to fall to the floor in pain. It is still there, of course, it always is; at the back of her mind, nagging at her like a dull throb. No, today she feels okay. She knows the weight on her shoulders, and on her chest is still there, but today it doesn't feel so bad. So she moves through her iPod during the quieter of nights in headquarters; classic rock makes her feel free and hip-hop makes her feel weightless.
She is beating through the bridge of a Black Sabbath track when the door creaks opens, breaking her out of her reverie as her feet land from gentle buoyancy into a soft, flat stance. She keeps her stance strong as her mind automatically becomes defensive, her eyes narrowing to the entrance. She fights the temptation to reach for her gun (whose head she'll put it to is as of yet undecided) when she recognises the source of the interruption. She relaxes slightly, her muscles unravelling as she greets the wide-eyed Steve Rogers with a tight smile. His eyes have involuntarily roamed over her body as she had danced, and are now turned away, a blush creeping onto his cheeks.
"Can I help you, Captain?" Natasha saunters to the iPod and pauses the steady beat, dipping the room into an awkward stutter on Steve's part and light breathing on hers.
"I apologise for the intrusion," He mumbles quickly, his eyes still averted to anywhere but Natasha's position. Her head falls to the side in a bemused fashion, a small warmth blossoming at his politeness, so unknown in the world he resides in nowadays "I was hoping to train tonight, because the Director has allowed me the night away but I will come ba-"
"Relax," Her voice is soft as it interrupts the bashful rambling of the soldier, and her eyes stare through into the small young man he once was, with a heart of gold and the courage of a true soldier "I was just finishing anyway." He moves to protest once more, but this time her voice is firmer, her hand raised in a silencing manner, her familiarly detached exterior returning "Steve. Please, don't mind me." His eyes are still wide as he reads her reaction, before he nods and hurries towards the punching bags, his head low and cheeks still tinged with a rosy colour. Tinged. She looks to her hands, a darkness cloaking her eyes. And suddenly she can feel the pain in her feet, and looks to the clock. She has been dancing for hours on end, time having escaped her. And her feet were crying in pain; only now could she feel the dampness of blood soaking through her shoes. She bit her lip against the pain, smiling.
"You're hurt" His voice snaps her head up to meet his worried expression as he moves towards her. Her hand is up, waving him away, her smile breathily widening as she savours the pain. She doesn't want to stop feeling it. For all she has done, this is the least she deserves.
"I'm fine." She tries to protest but her words don't register as he sweeps her into his arms and swiftly moves her to the boxing ring, gently positioning under the ropes and crouching to inspect the source of the bleeding. She tenses against his hold, but doesn't fight it. And she wonders what he wants; most men feign concern for sex, or money. Mostly for sex. But Steve, what is his game? She suppresses a small laugh for even considering the thought that the concern was genuine. He sends her a cautious glance as he unties her shoes, his questioning eyes asking for permission. She doesn't respond, but watches with a guarded expression mirroring his. She bites back a hiss as the shoes are pulled off, and the air licks at the fresh cuts on her already scarred feet. Natasha has danced until she cried, and until her muscles gave up and she collapsed. And she has danced until she bled. But she never imagined anyone seeing that. Steve draws in a breath, his face unreadable. And just like he had learnt all those years ago, he begins to aid her, a grim line set into his mouth. She wants to make an excuse, to be the icy woman he had gotten to know and to pretend like everything was okay, but her words escape her, and the air catches in her throat. She stays silent as he tends to her wounds, reaching for a first aid kit and soothing her feet with his touch.
"Ma'am?" He clears his throat, his eyes never leaving her feet. She tenses slightly, ready for his reprimand, and his pitying look. She's ready to know that she's broken "If I might be so bold, I think you're a very beautiful woman" At that she looks up, eyes wide. And she's heard it before, plenty of times in plenty of different places. But she never thought that she would hear it from him, or feel that sickening warmth crawling back into her stomach at his words. As he fastens the last of the bandages, his hands come to a rest against her feet, gaze to the ground. That is, until he realizes his positioning and haphazardly removes his hands. The warmth moves away from her cold feet, and she doesn't want to admit to missing it.
"Thank you." As he shuffles away, she reaches over, touching against his shoulder with a calming hand "Do you dance, Captain?" He stares at her, his eyes shining with a nostalgia that can only be recognised in the smallest of smiles and the happiest of times.
"Not very well." He chuckles lowly, shaking his head at the memory, and looking to his hands as they fumble "I was never much of a dancer." She glances to her feet, before decisively swinging her legs out of the ring and towards the player. She taps a few buttons before the crackle of an older track hums over the speakers. Steve's protests to her walking are immediately drowned out by his intake of breath in a glowing realisation of knowing the song. She holds out her hand with a raise of an eyebrow, and he sends her a contemplative look, before striding over and taking her hand.
"One dance." She warns, as a way of thanking him.
"One dance." He agrees, looking down at her with a somewhat stern gaze. She moves to take the lead until she feels the floor below her disappear with a small gasp. Her eyes widen, until she feels herself get repositioned on the feet of the soldier, who is still looking at her pointedly "And since your feet are out of commission, I'll lead."
Steve Rogers was right: he is a terrible dancer. But he can most certainly send Natasha into a fit of laughter when he tries.
"Fiery redhead," A booming voice reverberates across the room, humming through her body with an unnatural power and breaking Natasha away from her consuming thoughts. She heard him coming, but his indoor voice will never cease to stun her momentarily. The Norse God has been determined to learn of the planet he once swore to protect, and for some reason it has been decided that the person that despised humanity the most is best suited to help him. Natasha follows orders dutifully, and has tolerantly shown him pop culture, and Earth history, and waited through Thor's condescending chuckles and confused rants about the complexity of humans. Three weeks of continuous movie marathons is drawing to a close, and the concept of flying monkeys now causes a hearty laughter from the burly man. He whispers to her as the movies buzz on screen, and she tells him the difference between Britain and America, between cats and dogs, between a house and a home. He rumbles the room as he begins to understand her dark humour and she plays along, shaking her head as he tells her of Asgard. "Daughter of Russia" The demi-God greets her with a smile, and an amicable clap on the back. She stiffens in preparation for the contact, biting back her natural instinct to reciprocate force, before he spreads Charlie Chaplin movies across the table she sits at. Her smile in response is thin; human behaviour seemed to escape the Asgardian, and it was a relief. Just for a short while, it was refreshing not to force a poker face and an untouchable facade. Not to feel the weight of her darkness alone.
"I'm no Daughter of Russia" She corrects him once more, her patience that of a saint's. It was necessary in her line of work, and it seemed her life was hanging by just that; the fraying thread of patience "I've told you, that's not how we work here"
"Yet you are of such land?" Thor's brows furrow with a great curiosity as he leans in, his mind processing the young woman's words slowly. She nods in response, banishing the thought of what she would suppose 'home', if she were ever given the chance to experience it. The frown deepens for a moment before he pulls away, his intense expression unravelling with a wave of a hand and a careless smile "Humans shall never cease to fascinate me." She stares at him a moment, the defences she once built around her crumbling as his did. And she wonders how easy that is, feeling the gravity heavy upon his shoulders alleviate immediately. Feeling like everything is okay, and that there is always a reason to continue. Her eyes threaten to sting against her better will, and all too soon the defence is built around her again. She knows that it is only a matter time though; the walls are breaking, and she can't hold them for much longer. She can't hold on. She stares at her hands, tensing them in repulsion as she feels the urge to scrub under the nails, and rid them of the darkening hue of red seeping through. She doesn't notice that her knuckles are shaking, white against her painful clench until she hears her name being whispered into her ear. Chewing at her mind, taunting her thoughts. Giggling and reminding her, teetering at the back of her mind, clawing at her. She closes her eyes, trying to control her breathing, trying to stop her hands.
She wants them to stop. She wants them to stop whispering.
"Natalia" And suddenly the voice is all too close, all too real. She gasps and jerks back, the chair she's sitting on screeching angrily and the air is knocked out of her, like the feeling of falling out of a dream. Like the feeling of falling into the darkness. Her eyes are wide, and her hands are out, displayed to the world. Burning and bloodied. She looks to meet the dark eyes of the Norse God. And she stands, face straight. Hands away. Walls up.
"My break is over" She begins to turn, until she feels a solid grip on her shoulder, immovable and freezing her in place. Thor has her in his grip, and effortlessly sinks her back into her chair. Her lip shudders in frustration, knowing her futility under his hold, calming herself in order perfect her impenetrable exterior. She knows that the end is drawing closer, when the barrier doesn't reach her gaze.
"What troubles you, She of Auburn Fire?" She breathes what she wishes to be a laugh at his name, but his expression remains solemn, his hand still against her shoulder in a softer grasp. Auburn, that's all she is, and all she will ever be. Trying to be normal, but tinged with red. Tinged with the vow of death and destruction in her path. The Asgardian might not understand the concept of human emotion, but he understands the concept of pain. And the shroud over his eyes, covering his intense confusion: the tiniest whisper inside her wants to believe it is concern. Is it for her, for a friend? But then she knows her foolishness. It's just a whisper. She silences it.
"Work." Her word is simple, and bland. And it's true, of course it's true. She convinces herself to ignore the pang racing through her at his worried gaze; she convinces herself that she can't feel the rush of guilt at her own response. Because it is true. Mostly. As she feels the clawing scratching at her again, she rises, trying not to show haste at the threat of exposure. Thor allows her to stand, his stern eyes never leaving her and the grim line set against his lips never faltering "We will have to reschedule your integration." She mutters, breathing before meeting his intense gaze with determined eyes "The world does not slow just because one of us stops." As she nods in his direction, and moves to leave, he rises. She slows to a stop at the call of her name once more, and her eyes slide closed. The door is but a heartbeat away, her freedom seems somewhat closer. She turns with attentive eyes.
"Do you promise?"
Maybe it is the way his voice is uncharacteristically soft, even with the low vibration breaking through the room's silence. Or maybe it's his eyes; so lost in a world not his own, yet so knowing when he looks at her. Or maybe it's because he heard what she said. Maybe it's because he knows. Her hands itch, caked with dry colours of rust and death. She swallows.
"We will meet again," He pauses, his voice earnest. She resists a frown, hearing an unrecognisable undertone before he continues "to talk." She wants to smile. She wants to believe that he wants to save her. She wants him to understand. But he doesn't. Of course he doesn't. Who does?
"Of course," She nods, opening the door and peering over her shoulder to feel his eyes scorching her retreating figure.
"Take this." Her eyebrows rise at his once more booming voice, turning fully to see him approach her, hand extended. She knows what he wants. He wants her to open her hands. She tenses, her eyes never leaving his hand, her guilty ones feeling heavier by the second. She doesn't want him to see her hands, she doesn't want him to see the shadows of her past. She breathes in distress as he pulls her hand up, her fingers static in fear. His frown only deepens. Is he staring at her dirty palms, is he regretting his trust in her? Can he see her now? Can he see her for who she really is? She is in silence as her careful eyes watch assess his reaction. In silence, he palms something cool against her burning hand. Small, painful against the destructive fire in her hands. He encases her small hand within his colossal own "I am not bound to this Earth. If you feel the need to walk amongst the stars, do not hesitate to call me." His hand slides away. She knows why; he is repulsed by her. She uncurls her fist to see a small ring, embellished with a great red jewel, fragile in her palm of devastation "It is possible to see the stars in more ways than one, Daughter of Russia." She meets his eyes; are they dark with hatred, how can he stand to be in the same room as her? His eyes narrow once more as he leans in, and she stiffens, ready for her punishment. She deserves to be punished, he has seen her hands "Now, do you promise?"
She opens the door, her mind clouding with confusion and guilt. Her past is beginning to collide with her present, and she can't bear to watch her skeletons she once left to rot haunt the life she has started to build. She stills holds the ring, and looks to the Norse God with wide eyes. She squeezes the metal, casting once last grateful glance to him for his mercy, before moving out the room "I promise."
It's a warzone. And she feels more at home than ever. Blood spattered against her pale skin, deepening the shade of her hair and settling on her hands. It has always belonged there, on those hands, and it will always remain there. Her ledger will never be clean, no matter how hard she tries. She doesn't need to be told. She finds cover behind a charred police vehicle, cracking another magazine into her gun as bullets spray the air above her. And if anything has stopped her from leaving before, it's this. The feeling of being alive, the rush of adrenaline coursing through her. She leaps between tyres, her hand expertly tracking the location of two gunmen and immobilising them with single shots to the head as she moves.
"Nat?" The familiar voice is distant, and somewhat frantic. She spins, glancing through the debris and dust with squinting eyes as she spots the silhouette of her partner a few cars away. His arrows move expertly and at unnatural speeds, lodging into their targets effortlessly as he crouches behind an overturned table of the cafe they had dined at only that morning. He's dishevelled, and breathing heavily, but other than that he is unharmed. As she stands once more and terminates three more bodies in succession, she fights every muscle in her body that wants to freeze. They have been fighting for hours without pause, and the bodies are piling up, but the numbers aren't dwindling. It doesn't make sense. She fires a shot, catching a burly man in the chest. Their tactics are poorly executed and sloppy. She fires, sending another down before crouching and glancing to Clint. He is in the exact position as before, casting arrows perfectly into his targets.
Her hands dip for another magazine, and clench at the feeling of an empty pocket.
They begin to move closer, silhouettes lurking underneath the car.
"Hawk, I'm out." She hisses into her earpiece, cursing and casting her weapon aside with a bitter look. The communication line crackles, but she receives no response.
The silhouettes are closer. The sky becomes darker.
"Hawk?" Her eyes frantically look to her side, where her partner had been merely moments ago, now finding a deserted street "Do you copy, Hawk?" The dust rises, and the darkness settles, swallowing the edges of the street. Her eyes widen and she scrambles up.
They are behind her now. In front of her. Around her.
"Nat?" His voice. Distant still, panicked "Nat it's me. Are you okay?"
She doesn't have time to think, to tense, to scream. She jumps to snap the neck of one large man, before swinging by his shoulders and taking out two more as she lands. She goes to sweep the ankles, but they have her, there are too many of them. She wants to stay calm, but she's distracted by an unnatural screech shatters the air around them as she wrestles against an iron-like hold.
"Nat, can you hear me?"
And as she stares into the faces, she sees nothing. No expression, no features. Just darkness. Every single face, the same face. The same people. And as she takes in a breath to relieve her dry mouth, she realises that the screech is her own.
"Nat?" Her scream pierces the night as she jerks up, her vision blurred and forehead teemed with sweat. Her cheeks are damp, and against the tip of her tongue, she recognises tears. Arms are holding her firmly and she bellows as she swipes against the perpetrator, her natural instinct kicking in before her mind has a chance to register what is happening. The dark figure holding her curses and narrowly misses her blow, subduing her violent cries and thrashes with a strong hold as he wrestles her backwards, pinning her to a comfortable surface underneath her and soothing her with his words.
She doesn't need to see his face, before she knows his voice.
Her eyes adjust, shying against the harsh light of the motel room, and clearing to see the agonized gaze of Clint looking down at her. She's in her bed, and they hadn't been attacked. It was still the night, and they were still safe. Her throat is gasping for water, and she frowns up at her partner confusedly, the memory of her pained nightmare now disintegrating with the clarity of reality and awakening. Why was he looking at her like that? What had happened?
It seems that her first words visibly relax him, as he audibly exhales and loosens his grip on her, his hands still resting on her bare arms yet removing any force used. He opens his mouth to speak, but instead sits backwards, and shakes his head tiredly, his eyes closed, demons playing games behind his eyelids. He runs a hand down his face.
"Fucking hell, Nat." Her frown deepens as she shakily pushes herself up in bed.
"What's wrong?" Her senses immediately become guarded as she glances around the room they share, eyes darting back and forth for any signs of danger "What's the situation?" She's already pulling the covers away from her before he places a halting hand to her shoulder.
"Natasha, it's-" Once again he seems to want to speak, and tell her everything that sets a darkness in his eyes, and everything that brings about the line of worry across his forehead. He wants to tell her of the way he holds her whilst she screams in torment through another nightmare, another demon preying on her mind. Another night, just like every other, that he has clenched his fists in the futility of not being able to stop the agony that she puts herself through. Another night, just like every other, that he wants Natasha to know that he sees her, and that he understands, even if she doesn't "It's-" And for some reason, Natasha feels as if he wants to say you "Nothing. It was nothing." The hand he has on her gently guides her back down, her red hair spilling over her pillow like a halo. Or spilt blood. The smile he wears is false, she knows it well. Because she wears it all the time. His eyes stare at her in reassurance, but she can't tell who it's intended for. And she can't help but feel haunted by the worry lurking behind it. The two of them weren't of many words, but they didn't need them. He squeezes her shoulder as he pulls away "Go back to sleep. I'll wake you when it's your watch."
Yes, Natasha and Clint remember Budapest very differently.
Her hands shake, and she pushes into the concrete to stop them, feeling the gravel press painfully against her skin. She wants it stop. The weakness, the pitiful glances, the colour of red spreading over her hands, creeping up her body, shading every corner of her life. She just wants it to stop. She wants to stand straight, but she's held down by the toxic paint, dousing her and extinguishing everything that used to make her feel alive. Her fingers curl around the phone, and she holds it out. Looks down. Releases it. There's silence for a moment, as the device whistles through a silent goodbye down a staggering height. Then it smashes. Shatters against the ground below. She exhales. Silence follows.
"You next?" His voice is near her. Not many people can sneak up on her, but he can. Everytime. He watches her, but she can never see him. He stands beside her, but she doesn't notice. The Hawk spiralling above her, silent, watching. Her mouth opens, lower lip trembling against the words she wants to tell him and the feelings she wants to hide. They catch in the back of her throat, and she doesn't say anything. Her neck stiffens when she wants to nod. She just looks down. The shards of her phone have been swallowed into the darkness, taken by the night's deceiving hold. The dark colour spreads up her arms, curling into her elbows. She swallows. Hands tighten against the edge, muscles tense. He can't stop her, and she can't say goodbye. She begins to move, feeling the crimson demons etching their way past her shoulders.
"Hope we're not interrupting this party, kids." Her fingers freeze and her muscles recoil at the noise, her body shrinking back automatically towards the safety of the roof. Her thoughts dominate her, consume her every being, casting a shadow over everything she's ever learnt. A suit of iron armour levitates above her, with a careful doctor in its grip. She doesn't move, doesn't turn. They land on the roof. She feels their stares on her back. The red swells past her chest, creeping against her neck. It's who she is; it is her shadow that she can never get rid of. A bolt of thunder shatters the quiet night, and all too soon the roof rumbles with the entrance of a familiar booming voice. She doesn't flinch at him anymore, she doesn't feel it.
"The Lady bids me here, what quells her brooding look?"
"Natasha?" Through the darkness, a new voice, and a mere outline of a large body, staring up at her from below. He jumps onto a fire escape, climbing effortlessly to meet them on the roof. The wind blows between them all, but they daren't speak. They watch her. Her tainted skin darkens her legs, and warms against her cheeks now.
"Please don't stop me." Her voice sounds foreign to her; so quiet, so broken, cracked and vulnerable. She has forgotten her laugh, and the amusement in her tone. She has forgotten how to be the person they want her to be. She's weak. This life, this accumulation of pain and detachment, it's played its games on her, and now she is ready to quit. Her skin, her hands, holding blood that wasn't her own. She is stained.
"We're not leaving you." Her Hawk mutters, his voice close. His words sparse, but she knows that they never needed many.
"And if you jump, Peaches, you had better bet your pretty little ass that I'm going to catch you everytime." His helmet is off, the smile that Tony Stark used to coax out of her still tempting her with his terrible nicknames and gentle words.
"And if he doesn't, then I will." Steve speaks, his voice determined. The soldier, and the bashful boy, who made her laugh as he stumbled.
"And I." The Norse God ruptures the quiet air, and this time she feels it. That jolt of shock at his booming voice pulsing through her stomach.
"And if you jump, I'll get angry enough to provide a very comfortable cushion for you to land on." The doctor, so quiet, so reserved. He knows her past, and he wants to know her future.
"So no, we're not going to stop you." He's behind her now, a gentle hand closing around her shoulder, so familiar that she wants to lean into him. He turns her, and his eyes burn with a determination and that unrecognisable emotion that she can't place. She can't figure it out, but she can suddenly feel it. Clint smiles "But we're sure as Hell not going to let you leave."
And behind him they approach her, bold and passionate, ready to be heroes, and ready to be shoulders to cry on. And she has forgotten what it's like, until she feels the heaviest of her burden lift from her shoulders. It's the ability to breathe, and the absence of strain, in her eyes and in her body. For the first time in a long time, she feels herself smiling. It's not perfect, but it's hers. The war isn't over, but she isn't fighting alone.
Somewhere along the way, she found five goodbyes. Five friends. One family.
There is something on her hands. But she sees it now, bleaching the stain of her red ledger.
It's the weight of five others.