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Reality & Expectations of Recovery

Chapter Text

***

“Shhh.” The monster returned, his breath reeking of pickled fish. His calloused fingers touched her legs.

The monster had praised her during lessons. He wore shiny boots and the kind of ironed shirt that boasted authority.

Natalia held her breath. Fear shivered off of her in waves. “My matryoshka.” He murmured, prying her legs open. He pressed himself against her, forcing his fingers into her body.

Natalia felt her body and mind separate. She considered matryoshkas. They had painted faces, smiles and colorful clothes. Her mother had a set displayed on the fireplace. No one was allowed to touch them, not even her father.

The monster kissed her neck. He moaned, sounding like her grandmother when she received a ration of sugar. Smells of her family’s kitchen descended over her like a comforting blanket. The fire crackled in the hearth, a venison stew bubbled. Her mother’s treasured dolls watched over the family.

The dolls swallowed each other. Natalia envied their ability to hide in plain sight. The smallest matryoshka was invisible to all who did not know the secret. Dolls are round, bloated by one of the seven deadly sins. They begged for attention, gluttonous for it. Natalia would not be weakened by those needs.

Warmth coated her back. Shame brought a full body blush to Natalia’s skin. Madam did not tolerate accidents. They were to keep themselves clean, maintain laundry, clean the dormitory from top to bottom and were held accountable for each other’s actions.

Madam burned their clothes, dolls and blankets. All tokens of their previous lives were reduced to ash in a bonfire. Some girls cried and protested. Natalia remained a statue. Crying meant punishment. She did not want to be weak. Anne cried and screamed. She refused to eat and sleep. Anne disappeared. Another girl took her bed, her food, her place at the barre in the studio.

Big girls did not soil linens. The first night the monster visited left Natalia curled against the cold metal bedframe. Blood, urine and semen coated the linens.

The sting of her teacher’s slap in the morning had nearly brought her to tears. What had she expected? Madam was not her parent. Natalia did not need a mother. She needed nothing.

Rough skin scraped against her cheek. “Until next time.” He promised. The smell of anise eventually coaxed her mind back to her body.

She does not eat the candy the monster leaves on her pillow. She will not become a matryoshka.

***

Natalia will make herself still enough to disappear. Hours tick by until dawn, when the scent of urine finally overpowers the cloying smell of the monster’s candy.

Her nightgown adheres to her torso and is uncomfortable as she slides off the bed. A flash of blond hair startles Natalia. A younger girl sobs without making a sound on a neighboring bed.

She knows that a monster has visited her. It must be her first time. Natalia remembers crying so hard, she bit into her arm to stifle the sound. She has learned how to make herself numb.

Madam’s words reverberate in her head, if one of them fail, they all fail. Natalia helps the girl gather the stained sheets and tuck them under a loose floorboard. They remake both beds in record time.

They clean themselves and are dressed just as their sestras begin to wake. Measured footsteps began at the bottom of their prison.

“Yelena.” The girl points to herself her eyes bright, but puffy from tears.

The key is in the lock, metal grating on metal when Natalia impulsively thrusts the monster’s candy into Yelena’s hand.

She pops it into her mouth and swallows just as the witches enter their dormitory.

Their sestras assemble in a single file line and descend the spiral staircase. Natalia recedes into her mind. Yelena knits her fingers with Natalia’s.

Wordlessly she tethers Natalia for the rest of the day. She prompts her through their exercises and hides her in the back of the studio during ballet lessons.

Her positions are uncharacteristically sloppy. Natalia dances like a shadow of herself.

Natalia refuses all meals. She sips water only after Yelena pinches her nose to force her mouth open. Natalia cannot rationalize rewarding her body for betraying her, night after night.

That night, Yelena wriggles out of her handcuffs and curls herself into Natalia’s side until the monsters return.

***

Chapter Text

***

Six students stood at the barre. One by one they were summoned to the center of the studio by a tap of a cane.

Madam stalks her prey like a lioness. She pokes, prods and examines every possible angle of her charges. Ballet has taught Natalia that fear has a distinctive smell.

Melina straightens her spine after receiving a sharp smack from a cane. “Up!” All visible skin flushes red. Madam shakes her head, which only deepens Melina’s full-body blush.

Natalia can see the girl’s ribs as she takes in a lungful of air. They are all wearing black leotards and pink tights. Hair is swept into uniform buns, not one strand out of place.

Madam’s mouth curls into a sneer. “Acceptable.” She yanks Melina towards the barre. She jabs at Melina’s ribs and glowers at each of the girls in turn. “This is what you lack.” She waits a beat, letting the tension rise amongst her pupils. “Control.”

“All of you.” Madam’s eyes glow with disapproval. “Half rations.” If looks could actually maim, Natalia sensed that all of them would be dead.

Natalia burns with shame. The skin on her thighs touched and her tights radiated heat. Natalia keeps her gaze down, nausea building as she scrutinizes her torso. She considers her chest, no longer completely flat.

Madam barks directions and the piano begins to play. Her cane taps in concert with the music.

As Natalia moves with rest of the class, her hatred grows. Her flawed reflection mocks her. It taunts her, whispering insults as she moves to the music.

The reflection’s arms bend too much at the elbow, pointy and ugly. Her neck does not have Alexandra’s length and grace. She is grotesque.

She is short and squat, like a toad. Natalia falls out of rhythm. She misses a step, then two. Natalia is spinning out of control, lost in a hurricane of loathing.

Natalia’s head is pounding with adrenaline. She is vaguely aware of pain, guilt, shame and music.

Conversations buzz around her. Yelena reaches for her hand, but Natalia takes her place at the barre. She moves without thought. Natalia repeats the syllabus, beginning with plies.

She remains in the studio long after her cohort is dismissed for dinner. Natalia is unaware of the blisters popping and oozing in her tights. She does not acknowledge the bruising bones in her toes.

The mirror mocks her. As she repeats the sequence of steps, she visualizes the mirror shattered into thousands of shards. She wants to slice off the pockets of fat that bind her to this hell.

The piano has been silent for hours, but Natalia dances as if she is suspended by notes. She executes a series of chaines turns and tour jetes. She relaxes her spotting, letting the studio blur in her vision. The dizziness feels like euphoria.

Her heart races, she welcomes the sweat.

Pain is what she deserves.

She will be perfect.

Her reflection has a painted smile.

A matryoshka that moves with the precision of a weapon.

***

Madam observes Romanova through the mirrored window. The foolish child has been dancing for hours.

She had expected the child to crumble after the punishment.

One of the weak girls had vomited as her cane crushed bone. Madam had the child eliminated and disposed of immediately following class. Her roses would bloom well this spring. The earth of her garden was rich in nutrients now.

Instead, she refused to leave the studio at the end of the lesson. Her cohort transitioned to their dormitory, for chores and supper.

The girl had removed all traces of emotion from her face. She transitioned from third position to fourth, entering a sequence of leaps and turns across the floor. Flawless, she observed. Not that she would ever compliment a student.

Madam’s glance flicked to the child’s feet. Her slippers were marbled in blood. She knew that her cane had broken many of Romanova’s toes.

Madam let herself muse as she swallowed the last of the stew. The girl danced like Margot Fonteyn, a raw talent that she could not teach. She would not let this girl fail. Natalia Alianovna Romanova would graduate from the program.

If the Red Room tore away all Romanova’s weaknesses and expose the marble within, she would be fatal to all who crossed her path. She would graduate and become a flawless weapon.

Eagerness to begin the process crashed over the old woman in a rare moment of impulsivity. Madam tapped her cane, grounding herself to the drab concealed room.

She must measure her patience and bide her time.

***

Chapter Text

***

Natalia envies the dead. The man traces her breast and her body shudders reflexively. She plasters her matryoshka smile on her face and attempts to ignore the sound of the man masturbating.

She used to think about how she could kill another person. Now, she begins to picture how it would feel to drag a knife across the monster’s neck.

Her body betrays her on a nightly basis. Natalia hates that age has turned her into a commodity. She had always been small. Madam treated her with outward disdain during ballet practices, singling her out for making mistakes.

The man straddles her hips, hand stuffed into his pants. Natalia has been losing time during this assignment. She will punish herself for the error. The man grinding against her abdomen smells like liquor and sweat. He is different, how long has she been laying in this cell?

He wipes his hand on her chest, stroking one of her nipples. Natalia is filled with hate for her body’s response to the monster’s touch.

Now, she is reminded of how breasts are made of fatty tissue. Useless to her. Natalia will never mother a child. Her body is full of excess weight. She knows what the graduation ceremony means.

The man laughs and speaks to a colleague just out of view. Natalia opens and closes her fists, forcing herself to breath.

Madam forbids penetration. The Red Room has invested too much time into their training. She cuts their rations in half, then half again to test them.
Natalia does not let herself be fooled. She does not scrape her bowl for the last crumbs of the food. Natalia leaves one bite, then two, then half of her potion on the scarred plate.

A twisted sense of pride floods her brain. Madam will never treat her like a daughter. Natalia will become the perfect weapon, she does not need to be loved.

Love is for the weak.

Control makes her strong.

***

Lukewarm water runs over her eyes. The moldy tile and dark stall spare Natalia from having to acknowledge her body. She scrubs herself raw, embedding soap into her skin and she feels the sting of antiseptic.

If monsters want breasts, she will make hers disappear.

The bar of soap leaves a scum that makes her gag as the water drips down the drain.

If she had a penis, would Natalia be the monster?

Often, Madam’s arthritic fingers linger over her leotard and trace the fabric of her tights. They share the same genitals. The hair on her arms prickled when Madam’s cold hands lifted her arms and trailed her chin.

Natalia scraped the rough towel over her body before dressing in regulation pajamas.

She climbs the stairs to the dormitory and winces as the thin mattress sags under her weight.

She is swollen with doubt and shame. Natalia repeatedly fails the lessons regarding espionage.

Natalia is a hurricane, she can incapacitate and dodge attacks. Learning how to flirt is confusing. Yelena is a natural beauty. She makes impulsive choices that Natalia does not understand. She intuitively knows how to extract information through sexual acts.

Vanya disappears. Rumors spread of how she had straddled her mark during her practical assessment. He had forced himself on her. Madam let it happen and continued to mark her clipboard.

Her sestra combs through the tangles in Natalia’s hair. Gossip buzzes around the rows of rusted bed frames. One of the sestras is missing.

Terrified and excited voices crackle around the two girls. Vanya cracked, laughing as she broke the man’s neck.

Is it true?

Da. I don’t know. Yes. Maybe. The sestras whisper and Natalia flinches as Yelena begins to pluck hair from her scalp. The braids become tighter.

She disappears into her mind. Natalia allows herself dream of peace.

She can visualize her bones beneath the frozen mud in the garden. No more training. No more confusion over lessons. No more visits from monsters.

She wants to disappear. If she cannot dance, there is nothing left in her life that she wants to keep. Yet, Yelena brushes her cheek. Her sestra in nightmares, she cannot be expected not to care about her sestra.

Madam’s words and the Red Room’s programming compete with affection for Yelena. Natalia waits for her mind to numb the conflict. Finally, she feels herself melt into the starchy sheet. She can feel her emotions leeching from her bones. She imagines herself cold and calculating. The perfect weapon.

Natalia knows why Madam’s roses bloom with such vitality. She knows whose blood they represent. Yelena’s tears fall against her plaited hair. They know that Vanya is gone. Natalia warmed by a rush of jealousy.

Vanya’s bones are free. Natalia pictures her breasts shrinking. She is desperate to feel her bones.

She lodges the tips of her fingers under her ribs. Rolled skin.

Too much. She wants to burn every inch of her body that they have touched.

Natalia is tattooed with their words. The monsters’ spit, semen and stench are imprinted on her skin. She is mutated, tainted and broken.

Natalia’s greatest desire at fourteen years old is to become a skeleton. She wants to be ugly. If she resembles a boy, maybe the monsters will lose their taste for her body.

Chapter Text

***

After her first kill, everything tasted like metal. She refused to eat, feeling less for every day she refuses meals.

A perverse sense of control filled her with pride. Natalia knew that her sestras were not defective like her. But, they were innocent. Natalia deserved punishment, she was sloppy and weak.

Sitting at the long wooden tables in the cafeteria with her chin balanced on her knee, Natalia became numb. Mealtime conversations swirled around her, like smoke. Her matryoshka smile was fading. Natalia would have to apply a new layer of paint in blood, whose blood was entirely up to Madam.

Her mind blurred at the edges. Students and staff alike whisper their own theories surrounding what exercise Madam had orchestrated.

Her sestras are allowed to consume. They execute perfect lines of pirouettes and complex sequences without a single faltering step. Yelena deserves to be rewarded. Natalia would do anything for her sestra.

Natalia dissects plates of food into colors, textures and smells. Everything disgusts her. The more she restricts, the less she feels.

Days bleed together. Exhaustion skews her already tenuous relationship with time.

She dresses in layers, sneaking on extra pairs of tights and shirts to keep her teeth from chattering during lessons.

Eventually she refuses water. Yelena tries to press snow to her lips when they run each morning. The harder her heartbeats, the less Natalia is aware of reality.

She cannot hear her sestra over the blood pounding in her ears. Natalia cannot recall the last time she spoke. A combination of her mother, Yelena and Madam card their fingers through her hair.

Yelena shoves her off the mattress. Her sestra kicks her in frustration. Natalia does not respond.

Eventually, she is marched between two sweaty men with pot-bellies.

Her head is filled with cotton, but the bright lights won’t allow her to lose herself in the space between wakefulness and sleep.

Natalia tries to apply her years of training to her situation. How to escape? A dull panic broke through the fog in her brain.

“No.” She croaked. Her voice sounded raw to her own ears.

Natalia forced herself upright. The men standing on either side of the cell door lumbered towards her.

Her vision tunneled and Natalia crashed to the floor. She was dimly aware of hands grabbing at her limbs as struggled to hold onto consciousness.

***

“Time to rise, Natalia.” Madam prods Natalia’s chin with the tip of her cane.

Natalia swims through the haze of nightmares to find her ballet instructor’s cane pressing into her jaw.

“At first, your discipline was admirable.” Madam pinched Natalia’s cheeks together to force her mouth open. “Now, you have escalated it to insubordination.”

The mush or crackers and milk fall out of her mouth.

Madam is furious. Spittle leaks from the corner her mouth. She has no control over Natalia. She cannot force her to swallow the disgusting calories.

“You have become sloppy.” Madam strikes without warning, her cold brittle nails digging into her cheek. “Weak.” The slap doesn’t sting as much as the shame of falling short of perfection, again.

Natalia’s mind drifts. The guilt that choked her fades into the cacophony of her nightmares. She falls into a familiar cycle of loathing, unbearable psychological pain, blissful detachment and fear.

Hours or days pass. Natalia is not confident in her ability to gauge a concept as sneaky as time with her current concussion.

Madam removes her clothes.

Tremors roll through her body like seizures. Natalia is ice, her teeth clench and clatter without her consent.

Punishment for stealing another sestra’s wardrobe. Natalia almost laughs at the absurdity of the situation.

Vanya was gone. The fat, muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones of her skeleton were being eaten by bugs and vermin in Madam’s garden.

“Useless!” Someone tipped Natalia’s chair. Her head crashed against the concrete, blurring the sights and sounds of the room in a knot of pulsing sensory input.

Madam beckoned one of the men from their post at the door. “Wake Yuri.”

The name prickled the thick layer of lanugo that failed to keep Natalia warm. The monster knew. He had told her that she was not allowed to die.

Dust to dust.

Bones that could not hurt.

A body that no one would want to touch.

Peace everlasting.

The smell of anise preceded the monster’s arrival.

He loomed over Natalia. “My matryoshka.”

Chapter Text

***

Hands pin her to the exam table. More people are wrapped around her limbs, attaching themselves like barnacles. A sick sense of pride winds itself into her brain. Natalia would not let concede her will to Madam this easily.

The walls of the room are made of stone and hold moisture, Natalia surmises that she is being kept in the basement of the training facility. Soldat resides somewhere in the bowels of the building.

An old fluorescent bulb flickers above her head. Instruments clink and her guards confer with each other. Soldat is the idealized weapon. They are not allowed to acknowledge the torture he endures when he remembers the parts of himself that are human.

Natalia is not allowed to be human. Madam expects her to graduate this year. In a few months she will be forced to endure a procedure that will render her sterile.

She can only bleed for the Red Room if she is on a mission. Sweaty hands on her face yank her chin upward. The fingers bruise skin and Natalia’s heart begins to race.

The rubber burns her nose and tears prickle her eyes. The tube will not allow her to die. Madam will keep her tied to this table. The calories will kill her.

Panic stabs her chest, Natalia cannot breathe. Madam will keep her tied to this table, in this mold-infested cell. She and Soldat will be drugged, programmed and forced into compliance until they become perfect.

“Stupid girl.” The monster buzzes around her head. Natalia cannot pinpoint his location, which means she is in danger.

Every breath burns and Natalia lashes out at the warm ghosts gripping her limbs. Madam bares her teeth like the Cheshire Cat. “Focus.” The slap barely registers to Natalia.

“You will not rest. You have not earned the same as your sestras.” Madam passes a bag of liquid nutrients to Yuri.

The monster nods to Madam before he turns his predatory attention to Natalia. He titrates the liquid and the calories course through the tube at a speed that makes her gag.

“Recitation, field manual volume one.” He commands. Natalia is expected to perform under duress. During missions she will be alone, always alone. The Asset does not work with partners. Training takes place under all circumstances.

Natalia drifts as she summarized the course. The words come out mumbled, from between her cracked and bloody lips.

Errors resulted in punishment. Madam’s cane rapped her knuckles on the barre during ballet. As a child, she bled on the smooth wood. Natalia learned not to fidget while the pianist prepared for class.

Punishment led to repetition. Hours of practice meant that Natalia no longer hesitated when monsters visited. She learned how to extract information from the beasts. Natalia secured an endless supply of chocolates for Yelena. They learned how to blackmail guards. Natalia applied this knowledge of the Red Room to their advantage. The danger enthralled the sestras, the weapons were locked and loaded.

Perfection would be rewarded. Natalia feared perfection as much as punishment. Rewards were not chosen, they were applied. Choices were an illusion. Natalia had been rewarded with monsters visiting her since she was a child. She would not consider their touch incentivizing good behavior.

The tube seemed to pulse and expand in her throat. Natalia is going to choke on her inadequacies. She craves unconsciousness, but Yuri will not let her attention fade.

When would she learn that weapons were not allowed to want? Another lesson that Natalia failed.

Natalia wholeheartedly rejected the calories. Her brain distorted reality and she preferred the numbness of starvation to her actual life.

***

Chapter Text

***

“Behave.” The mark says, forcing himself into her mouth. His knees clamped her torso like a vice. He thrust his body forward, his knees shoved into her arm-pits. She was pinned to the floor, unable to move. How did this mission fail? Natalia cannot recall.

The last memory she has is of approaching a leather stool at the bar. When? She had no idea of whether it was day, night, or sometime in between. She had been in Munich, Germany. Fear dumped her body weight’s worth of adrenaline into her bloodstream.

Natalia gagged and suddenly she could breath. The monster struck her jaw with a fist. The shock of the blow momentarily stunned her as she tipped into the secrets of the Red Room. Under normal circumstances, her training would allow her to calculate her escape and attack. Now, her mind is numb. She is frozen and unable to think.

Her hands are zip tied at the wrists and held over her head. Her training should have taught her how to escape such situations. She could not think, she could not rise. Madam tsked and left the studio. Shame fueled her pirouettes. The faster she spun, the more erratic her movements. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. She had no one, but herself to blame for her failures.

Pain throbbed in her wrists as blood struggled to reach her fingers. The bond around her wrists is so tight that no amount of struggling could break the ties. Natalia has tried to break them, hasn’t she? She thought she had tried. Where was her mind? Where was the weapon she had trained to be?

Now she has lost sensation in both arms, the mark has most of his weight distributed on her elbows. The pain keeps her from drifting into the arms of whatever drug he dosed her with.

There is a knife pressed against her neck, just under her ear. “Naughty, naughty whore.” The blade slices with surgical precision.

The monster strokes her cheek, his gaze traveling along her neck. “Look what you made me do.” He swipes a finger along the blade and grins down at her. His tongue licks Natalia’s DNA from his finger.

Natalia shudders in revulsion. Her body belongs to Madam. To the Red Room. To Yuri. She was failing and would be punished accordingly. Black Windows did not yield, they did not surrender and allow violation that was not sanctioned.

Punishment meant that Yelena would be in danger. Yelena would be disciplined for her association with Natalia. She had made her vulnerable to Yuri’s wrath.

Natalia must protect her sestra. Ultimately, her body moves without her consent. She is not aware of the mark’s ribs cracking under her heel. Finally, the weapon locked Natalia in the depth of her brain.

The Black Window acted out of ritualistic programming and years of physical training. Natalia’s reputation remained intact. As the monster’s body disappears into the depths of the Isar river, the weapon begins to lose control of the body.

***

She wakes in a sticky sweat, her body adhered to the asphalt of an ally. Flies hover, using her body as a kind of parking lot. The world spins and Natalia dug her nails into a brick building. Several steps give way to a tenuous momentum.

Years of training trap Natalia in her brain. She moves through towns and cities on autopilot. Her body consumes enough food to maintain appropriate activity levels.

Lodging changes every day. When Natalia finally wakes, like a deranged Sleeping Beauty her skin is raw and prickling with pain. Her skin in clean, hands scrubbed pink. Hallucinations of the monster’s blood confuse her. What is wrong with her mind?

She heaves into the toilet. Everything she has swallowed is rejected. Natalia retches until blood and mucus smear the bowl. She tastes every monster she’s been haunted by and cannot stem the nausea.

The texture of saliva in her mouth is enough to trigger another round of vomiting.

Days, weeks, or months pass. Time is a dizzying concept. Natalia operates in spurts of awareness and ignorance. Programming provides her with enough to sustain her escape.

Food is consumed, water drunk and basic life functions met. She does not register pain. Her own blood fascinates her. The scratches on her arms are animalistic, she deserves the punishment. She wonders how long she can live without being found.

Money is no concern as she has learned how to be a parasite of the city. She blends into the masses of homeless people walking the streets and parks. She pretends not to understand the language of whatever country she inhabits. In lucid moments, Natalia considers defecting.

The thought ensnares her senses her like a drug. She steals from naïve bourgeoise and experiments with freedom. A small part of her relates to the Amish teenagers she saw on television. They severed ties with their lives to gorge themselves on American indulgent culture.

The screen blurred as Natalia dozed, she did not watch the reality program long enough to learn that most of those teenagers on their Rumspringa committed to the faith as adults. Her dreams are peppered with picturesque scenes of Pennsylvania and the nightmarish dorms of the Red Room.

***

Even in this, she fails. Madam laughs as the monsters bind her wrists and ankles. Her body is tossed into a closet-sized space. She cannot discern anything from the environment.

The Red Room tampered with her mind. They made it so that she cannot starve. Her body wages war against her when she is aware for too long.

Natalia encircles her wrist with her thumb and forefinger. Panic fills her, adrenaline sharpening her senses. She cannot move the pinched fingers past her elbow.

Too much. She knows that she will have to disappear if she wants to be free. Natalia struggles to stay in control. She walks through cities, then countries until the monsters catch her scent. They are ruthless in their pursuit of the Red Room’s prized asset. She is no more than a weapon, finally she has achieved the same status of The Window Soldier.

Natalia tastes blood and knows that she has injured at least one of the monsters. Just one, she is losing her edge. Madam will be disappointed. Had she incapacitated all of her captors, perhaps she could win the matron’s praise.

They are cautious and sedate her before inserting the tube. Thick, calorie rich mush pours into her stomach.

Natalia is rage personified. She claws at the air, occasionally catching a face or arm. They double, then triple her cocktail of meds.

Through the haze of tranquilizers, she catches a glimpse of herself in the glass. She is wild, no longer human. Natalia is simultaneously weak and unbelievably strong. She is beyond feeling human pain.

Soldat is fed through a tube. They forced their way into his brain and stomach. It gets infected periodically, because he does not want to live when he reconnects with reality. On missions, he is always successful. In the time it takes him to return to the Red Room, he exists between the past and present.

Natalia recalls watching him kill as a child. His fury transfixed her cohort. He is disobedient and punished accordingly. Natalia deserves the same. The rubber burns the inside of her nose, but she will not cry. Soldat and the Black Widow are made of marble. They will overcome their human weaknesses and become the perfect weapons.

Then, will Madam be proud of her?

***

Chapter Text

***

American. She is in an American’s house. The man’s family is here. He is an idiot.

“Um, do you want a taco?” The woman holds a platter heaped with flat rounds of bread.

Natalia stares at the food. She looks at Barton, the man who did not kill her when he had the chance. His decision to spare her life confused her.

What was her purpose in his home? To visit him after his wife and child were asleep? To perform manual labor on the farm and care for the animals? Keeping her alive wasn’t a logical choice, unless he wanted something from her.

“Eat?” The man shot her a lopsided grin and exaggerated miming the action of chewing. He selected two tortillas from the plate that his wife held. They slapped against his hand and Natalia resisted gagging.

The sterile facility called S.H.I.E.L.D. fit into her idea of a home base. The Red Room was dark and overtly violent. Barton’s agency hid their vicious nature behind open floor plans, shiny new appliances and orderly paperwork. Natalia knew a handler when she met one, and Nick J. Fury was in the same league as Madam.

The kitchen table is heavy with dishes and chaos. Natalia stands, hands twitching at her sides. How quickly would Clint incapacitate her if she reached for a fork. They were stupid to leave her unbound in the presence of the cutlery.

Her programming calculated that she could incapacitate Laura easily, the child would not be worth the effort. Clint would be challenging, he would have to be eliminated first while she had the element of surprise.

They say to ‘help herself’. There are too many choices. The Red Room controls every calorie. In three languages, with the assistance of the internet Clint tells her to eat.

Natalia does not know how much time passes before Barton’s wife places a stuffed tortilla on the table.

He continues to use crowd-sourced translation services to tell Natalia to eat. He tries most languages that originate from Eastern Europe, which would be endearing if Natalia were capable of humor.

Natalia cannot disobey an order. She understands the directive, she cannot feign stupidity. Numbness spreads through her brain like an anesthetic.

She consumes without her brain’s approval while standing at the table like a feral animal. Yuri’s voice thunders from within the confines of her skull. She has no manners or patience for spy-work. Natalia will fail and bring shame to the Red Room. All of the time and energy that was put into her training will be for naught.

The bare plate mocks her and Laura’s words twist like a knife in her side. Her praise is a threat. Natalia had discipline, self-restraint and willpower. What had happened to her training?

***

Hours later Natalia is tethered to the toilet. Any sense of time has been obliterated by nausea, pain from her stitches and dehydration.

Thankfully her stomach is now empty. Her impulsive binge had been undone, but Natalia had more to purge. Her defection should not have been possible, no one had escaped the Red Room.

Rumors spread like wildfire last year when Soldat did not return from a solo mission on time. Silence had fallen over the dormitory once Alexandra’s lips were sewn shut. Natalia prayed for her death, but it did not come quickly. No god listened to residents of the Red Room. The girl ultimately joined Vanya in Madam’s prized rose garden. Her sestra’s flesh nourished plants that were treated with more care than the Black Widows in training. That was not possible.

Her body revolted against the decadent American meal, once again proving she deserves nothing. Bright green bile dripped into the porcelain bowl. The glare from the toilet strained her already taxed eyes.

More time passes as she rides wave after wave of nausea. Natalia can’t stop the retching. Her throat is on fire and she gags with memories of men and women.

The longer she strains, the weaker her grip on reality becomes. The bright bathroom morphs into basements, hotel suits, gardens and KGB sanctioned vehicles.

Dark red dots the plastic seat of the toilet. Black fuzzes the edges of her vision. As she slips into unconsciousness, Natalia thinks of ladybugs. Lena liked to shelter them in their dorm, often earning unwanted attention from Madam.

***

The hair on her arms and legs is irritated with phantom bugs. She imagines herself laying in the garden on a warm summer day with Lena. The grass tickles her feet.

Something acrid spurred Natalia to consciousness. The world slid into focus, turquoise tiles perplexing her. Where was she? A mission?

“Babe, she’s waking up.” The stupid American looms over her. Natalia attempts to rise from the floor, but her vision tunnels.

His wife presses her back to the cool tile. “Take it easy honey. Don’t sit up just yet.” Natalia’s wrist is lifted and fingers search her pulse.

Clint snorts. “Like she’s capable of doing anything half-assed.” He bunches a towel under her head.

“Wonderful.” Laura sighs sarcastically. “You’ve brought home a mini-me.”

He winked at his wife and pursed his lips for a kiss. “That’s why you love me.”

“Eh.” She teased, brow furrowing as she counted the erratic beats of Natalia’s heart. “You need some fluids, my dear.”

Natalia tugs her arm away from Laura. She shakes her head and looks between the adults that crowd the small bathroom. No. The punishment must fit the failure. Natalia rejected the American’s hospitality. She is an ungrateful bitch.

Natalia lets herself drift as the new handlers speak in the space above her body. Their conversation is difficult to discern, English is complicated and doesn’t adhere to usual grammar and syntax guidelines.

Why don’t they lock her away? Ignore her until she is expected to perform. How can she play the game, if she doesn’t know the rules?

***

Chapter Text

***

She hears Laura and Clint talking outside the guest room. They worry about her. Natalia is proud.

She is in control. She will not let this new life change her. She will disappear, before S.H.I.E.L.D. can re-purpose her skills to serve the American flag.

The weakest points of her defenses hate herself more for hurting the strange American family. The woman’s smile is not real. The bed she is sleeping in is not real. They have drugged her again, because she is weak and useless.

Initially, Laura assumed that the tacos had made Natalia sick. Clint had gagged when he described Eastern European cuisine. Maybe Natalia could not digest the spice of a Mexican-inspired taco dish.

Her refusal to ingest anything else in the 72 hours that followed, made that theory highly unlikely.

***

Four hours past the deadline she had set, Laura pinches the skin on the back of Natalia’s hand. Dehydrated. Her husband that consented to the military grade medical kit, which meant she had all the necessary parts of a beautiful IV kit tucked into a closet.

Natalia’s face contorts at the contact. “Sorry honey, I know it’s cold.” Laura apologizes, tucking her skeletal arm back under the quilt. Natalia’s entire body was coated with a thick layer of hair, a symptom of severe starvation. Her body was burning anything to use as fuel and developed the hair to try and keep itself warm.

Natalia’s brain crackled with half-formed thoughts and dulled fear. Reality fuzzed, leaving her in a twilight state of rest. She is finally able to sleep without feeling flames lick at her limbs.

The edges of her nightmares have dulled. She watches herself from the corner of the cell’s ceiling. The body on the mattress jerks like a marionette. Morbid fascination ebbs and flows as the body is raped.

Time passes, memories whirl, none catching her attention for long. Someone yanks the quilt from her body. Natalia shivers in the absence of the fabric, her teeth chattering violently.

She has achieved the kind of false haven that only starvation can bring. The face is painted perfection, matryoshka in belief and appearance. The present is too much to understand, she can be faultless. Perfection requires constant effort.

“Laur, does she have a fever?” Clint’s voice punches through the quiet.

She is annoyed with herself; weapons do not feel. Illness is not tolerated. The body must remain unmarred.

Her startle response propels her upright. The achievement is fleeting as her vision tunnels. The monsters roar between her ears and consciousness leaves her.

“Nat.” Hands brush her hair from her face. The voice is wet. It sounded sad, but why? No one cares for her. They pretend, but only as a means to an end.

“She’s not sick, not like that.” Laura keeps the thick quilt wrapped around the young woman as she hauls Natalia upright. Clint eases her into a sweater. He barely registers the weight of Natalia’s arms in his as he struggles to control his own tremors.

Their conversations buzz around her without her consent. Natalia finds herself annoyed, craving unconsciousness. Something cold is pressed into her hands. “Drink a little, then you can sleep.”

Natalia obeys without question. Her mouth consumes the ice water with no restraint. The voices in her brain scream and beat against her skull.

She is weak. She is stupid. She is a weapon. She is nothing.

Ice melts like her resolve to die. Natalia no longer knows what she wants, how can she know something so abstract? S.H.I.E.L.D. wants what Madam wanted. The dozens of lives that she had smeared in her ledger would be transferred to a new flag.

Laura swayed, Natalia’s body rocking with hers. How could any of this be real? No one has held her and not meant harm. Luckily, she is beyond thought and cannot protest the soothing motion. Laura was not Madam. Laura was not Yelena. Laura had not hurt her…yet.

***

Chapter Text

***

Ice has no nutritional value. Ingesting the frozen water was relatively safe. Natalia knows that that she must consume water, in some form or she would lose control of her body. She needs to be aware enough to keep her secrets. She has to be able to keep her sestra safe.

Yuri had been able to extract information while the tube forced calories down her throat. She must remain focused on the task. The task was important to the mission. When she is distracted, the monsters will take advantage and strike. The cup is painful to hold. Natalia wonders when she became so weak? She was born of winter and ice, in the forgotten traumatized parts of Eastern Europe. Icicles should be in her blood.

Laura smiles at her from the opposite end of the couch. “Do you want to watch something else?” The TV is barely audible, while the screen displays a brightly colored animated show. Cartoons remind her of her atypical childhood. Natalia is ravenous for the Barton’s attention. But she expects punishment. She is desperately afraid that if she allows herself a bite of anything, she will never stop. Her hunger is dangerous. Discipline is required, Natalia draws a breath and resolve to refuse food simultaneously.

The cup balanced between her knees is a gaudy pink. Clint had taken the girls over to the neighbors for dinner. The Bishops’ were a traditional farming family that ran a dairy business. Recently they had purchased a few goats and were experimenting with making cheeses. Laura had expressed concerns that Clint would come home with another animal in need of a home. Evidently, his track record for collecting ‘strays’ spoke for itself.

“Is it okay?” Laura mutes the TV and looks from the cup to the young woman. Laura bit her lip as she watched Nat snap to attention. The drink sloshed at the edges of the cup, barely contained as Natalia startled.

The only thing she had been able to stomach over the last four days was a concoction of shaved ice, purple sports drink, a bit of cranberry juice and was topped off with chunks of ice. Laura kept adding ice, because Natalia seemed unable to drink a full 18 ounces in less than a couple hours. Room temperature liquids had proved intolerable for her. Clint loved playing with the barely-used blender. Laura had to admit that he made really good smoothies, but Natalia probably wasn’t up to anything with a dairy-base until she could tolerate crackers.

Natalia nods so fast that her vision blurs. She gulps the drink, hating the sound of herself swallowing. The loathing is so strong that Natalia can only force herself to swallow by digging her nails into her excess fat. She is revolting. She is gluttonous, sinful, weak and useless. She is the reason that Soldat is tortured continually until his memory shatters into millions of shards. Her sestras are punished for her failures in the studio. Natalia is lazy, sloppy and fat. How can she dance for Madam if all she does is waste away on the Barton family’s furniture? Their charity is rotting her body and brain.

The ice forces her brain and body back into alignment. The remaining cubes fall against one another in the cup as she swallows the last of the horrible concoction.

Natalia’s thighs touch. She sweats from being huddled under a blanket. She should not need such luxuries; material comforts are traps. Her stomach folds. There are multiple rolls of fat that Natalia feels as she is folded in half with her knees drawn into her chest. Repulsive. Natalia is acutely aware of every fault her body holds. They mirror the failures encoded in her brain.

***

The ice shatters in a dozen directions. The plastic cup bounces off the hardwood floor, causing Laura to startle. If she can manage to get Lucky in the house, he would have a fantastic time hunting all the purple tinged cubes. That dog had a highly developed sense for anything sweet.

Laura extracts the cup and moves towards the kitchen. On her way, she opens front door and calls for the dog. Tradition calls to her, and Laura automatically begins creating the definition of comfort baked into apples. Her grandmother used to make the same dish when one of the grandkids was sick. It comforted her and her cousins while they watched daytime TV and dozed under crocheted blankets.

By the time the Pennsylvania Dutch apple sauce was piping hot and bubbling, Natalia had started to stir. Laura scoops a small portion into a mug and takes a seat on the couch. “Hey lovely lady.”

Laura tries to keep the waves of emotion from her voice. She’d shed many tears and consumed more information about trauma informed interventions. When it comes to eating disorders, there are complications and barriers to treatment that are rarely talked about in the therapeutic community. She’s combed over free resources and spent hours texting with a friend who picks up shifts on the EDU inpatient unit on weekends. She’d crocheted two scarves out of pure stress-related energy in a week. Which is impressive considering the circumstances and her lack of sleep. Lila was a little night-owl, just like her father. Thank you, Clint.

They break every family rule by eating on the couch in front of the TV. Laura scooped a spoonful of gooey cinnamon flavored apple chunks. “Mmm.” She gestured. “Nothing cures, quite like a little family recipe.”

There is a directive, an order. She understands the demand. The utensil is offered, but it is not a question. It is a requirement. Natalia scalds her tongue with the speed at which she shovels apples down her throat.

She is desperate not to taste. Food is sustenance. Not to be enjoyed, it should be feared. Natalia could not be trusted with food. She had no self-control. She was not hungry.

Her brain worked at calculating the calories incurred. She had no choice but to obey. Obey or be punished. She resisted, Natalia is dumb with hunger. Her brain told her not to eat.

Her stomach begins to cramp after the second bite, but she continues to eat until the spoon scrapes the bottom of the ceramic mug. Natalia has failed again. She has no discipline; her brain is unable to calculate the calories that lay heavy in her stomach. Panic gives way to nausea. Shame flushes her skin as Natalia grips the mugs so hard, it shatters.

***

Chapter Text

***

Natalia taps her forehead against the lid of the toilet. Yelena could always purge, while Natalia struggled with the whole concept of inducing vomit. Her sestra used to tease her for her squeamish nature when it came to digestion.

She had no problem with blood and gore. Natalia had been the first to pass the field medicine exam. She gave excellent stitches with a common needle and thread. Dancing on broken toes did not hurt her, she had a tolerance for pain that was perfect for being a Black Widow.

She rolls her head from side to side, her the vertebrae in her neck cracking as she gripped the toilet tank. Her cheeks are wet, but she doesn’t remember crying. Tears mean weakness.

Natalia doesn’t know which is worse, disobeying an order or being unable to empty her stomach. She has cursed herself. Nat desperately wants the Barton’s to accept her.

Acceptance equals well-executed performance. Madam’s lessons were punctuated by piano notes. Her pirouettes were crisp and confident as she spotted the corner. She never saw the blow from Madam’s cane. Never assume a singular focus, Natalia intoned. She had become lazy and bloated in America. Natalia was trusting the flimsy lock on a wooden door to protect herself. Who had she become?

Her fingers are numb as she lifts the lid to the toilet. Natalia opts for coughing as opposed to inserting a finger down her throat. Natalia cannot risk losing herself in memory instead of the meal. She hacks and sputters, but cannot bring herself to vomit. The door remains closed. Why, she cannot reason. Barton should be breaking down the door, punishing her for breaking Laura’s rule.

The bowl remains full of clear water. The coughing leaves claws marks in her throat. She gags and spit dribbles down her chin.

She drifts back into her mind. Thoughts whirl like a hurricane, but none catch her attention. She is breaking apart, an imitation of her former self. She is nothing without Madam and her sestras.

To be nothing is a tantalizing possibility, but bones would be the perfect punishment.

***

The toilet flushes and Clint risked a quiet knock on door to the guest bathroom. He’s fairly confident that he’s removed all the nails and tools from the bathroom, but Nat could turn a toothbrush into a weapon if she wanted to. Hell, she had done that within her first 48 hours at the farm.

No answer. He listens for movement, but realizes that his technology assisted ears aren’t going to pick up on the movements of a super spy. “Hey Nat, I’m still here. Okay? Laura told me that you agreed to the whole no bathroom-thing for a half hour after meals?”

Agreed. That was a term that definitely did not hold water in this situation. Clint strongly felt that she couldn’t consent to much, given the depth of her programming.

Fury had disagreed and insisted she sign her newly minted life away on a tree’s worth of paperwork. Her contract with S.H.I.E.L.D. had been woven with so much legalese that Clint wouldn’t be surprised if it included rights to her firstborn child. He desperately wanted to send a copy to Tony’s team of lawyers for review, but that was an issue that required another set of skills.

He continued addressing the door. “Laura will be back soon. Skye’s excited to tell us all about the camping trip. Girl Scouts have the right idea about camping, their tents were on pallets and everything. No muddy sleeping bags and duffels.”

Silence. Clint knocked again. He was losing the battle to keep the panic at bay. He shifted to an honest approach. “Nat, I’m not going to come in. Your space is your space. Can you let me know you’re still breathing though?”

Fingernails scratched the bottom panel of the door. He could see shadows like a cat’s paw from his vantage point.

Relief flooded his system, allowing him to breath normally for the first time since he parked himself on the floor. “Thanks.”

He lapsed into quiet, scrolling through his phone. He wound up opening a new e-mail window under his S.H.I.E.L.D. account. He knew that Natasha had not been in touch with her therapist for a couple weeks.

Maria had sent a copy of Natasha’s cleared psych evaluation through the mail. He thinks that she squirreled it away somewhere under the floorboards in her room. Very gothic literature of her. He periodically checked her hidey holes for weapons, but didn’t disturb anything else. As long as her collection of oddities didn’t include a still beating heart, Clint was fine. Laura had introduced a curious Skye and Nat to the entire works of Edgar Allen Poe, so naturally both of them were obsessed.

He doesn’t bother asking Natasha for permission to contact Paige. He had signed the necessary paperwork back at S.H.I.E.L.D. During her sessions at headquarters, she had only been able to speak with Paige if Clint sat in the corner blocking the door with his hearing aids in his hand. He closed his eyes and took a cat nap once he as sure she wouldn’t hurt the older therapist.

Paige responds immediately, Clint’s phone making a truly embossing amount of noise as it alerted him to the e-mail. There is an attachment that takes forever to load, even with Clint’s proximity to the router. There are names of professionals ‘more equipped to deal with the severity of Natasha’s illnesses.’.

He feels gutted and guilty, even though he is not the one who is struggling. Natasha is treating them like new handlers, she would not fight their interventions at the start. He’s confident that Nat would try to please them. It’s her ‘choosing’ recovery out of fear. She wouldn’t be deciding for herself, she would be ‘obeying’ a perceived command. His heart cracks as he reflects on how terrified Nat still is of their familial life.

He scans the list of programs, calculating the distance from the farm. Laura might know of an inpatient setting that wouldn’t feel so much like a prison. Even as he perused the websites for the programs, his heart sank. He didn’t want to send her away, abandon her again. Nat might not forgive him for pushing her away.

Natasha had risked so much in her young life, she had fought for every scrap of autonomy she had. But it wasn’t enough, the progress wasn’t enough to save her life. How could he make her understand that, without losing her hard-won trust?

***

Chapter Text

***

Laura made the decision. Clint fumed from the driver’s seat. He bumped the curb as he pulled away from the hospital, muttering to himself. She held Natasha in her lap in the third-row seat. She didn’t know how they would help Natasha, but she knew that she would move hell and earth to get her access to treatment.

The appointment had been nothing short of a complete disaster. Natasha had been shaking so severely in the exam room that the practitioner hadn’t been able to get a blood pressure or take her pulse.

Natasha looked through the couple, captivated by monsters of the past. The final strike of the appointment had been when the nurse led her by the elbow towards the scale. The moment her hand touched Natasha’s back, she had snapped. Whirled on the nurse and bit her arm with the tenacity of a teething toddler.

Before they could call security, Laura had hurriedly dressed Natasha and began their escape from the pre-admission testing center.

The trio had staggered down a hallway in a poor imitation of a three-legged race before Clint had hefted her into his arms and jogged down the stairs. The parking garage echoed as he stomped towards the van.

Nat’s body flinched with every step, while her face remained blank. She couldn’t stay upright, even with the seatbelt pulled taut. So, Laura held the younger woman in her arms while Clint drove home. The poor woman’s yoga pants were on backwards and twisted in a way that ensured an epic underwear bunch.

“She’s not going anywhere. She can’t.” Laura spoke to herself, but also to her husband. Natasha would not survive an inpatient stay in a hospital like the one that they had just toured.

Clint muttered his agreement. “Yeah. That was made pretty clear after she went all vampire on the nurse practitioner.”

Laura hummed agreement. “I think we’re blacklisted from any residential program in state. By tomorrow we’ll be on the ‘don’t admit list’ for every reputable place in the tristate area.”

“Paige promised.” Clint brushed angrily at his eyes. Another person had broken a promise. Why did he keep trusting people? “She said that they would help her, that they would know how to deal with all the trauma and shit that’s killing her.” He couldn’t keep the hurt out of his voice. Adults always failed him. They always left gaping exit wounds as they tore themselves from his and Barney’s lives. Oh boy. Any line of thinking that involved his brother never ended well.

“Honey?” Laura rocks with the motion of the van. The vehicle swerves slightly, driving on the bumpy part of the shouldered highway. She’s lost him to a storm of emotions. She doesn’t have any concern for their safety while he’s driving, he navigates jets in hurricanes. She knows that he’s going to be present enough to get back to the farm. What happens after they walk through the front door is what worries her.

Natasha is practically catatonic by the time Clint parks in the driveway. The ghost of a woman cannot be coaxed into sitting, let alone climbing out of the van. Laura continued to talk, her voice wobbling with dread. She doesn’t know what she says. Neither Clint or Natasha register any understanding.

It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except taking care of Natasha. The Bishop’s gladly accept responsibility of the girls for the night. Their daughter Kate is a few years older than Skye and is all about learning American Sign Language.

Laura makes a mental note to video chat the girls on Skye before bed. She gathers a couple tea bags from the cupboard while the kettle boils water. Clint settled Natasha in the living room. She flinched as he loomed over her. Laura noted her husband’s clenched jaw. Hurt radiated from his flushed face.

He would never hurt Natasha, not in a million years. Laura knew how personally Clint took Nat’s trauma informed reactions. It was almost impossible to remain impartial. The kettle whistled sharply, punching through Laura’s spiralized thoughts.

***

By the time Clint called Coulson, the clock had already struck twelve. Phil fills the role of a father and counsels him without judgement. It’s a kindness that Clint can’t express gratitude for.

He paces as he talks. Clint can’t sit still. He’s already puttered around the house and cleaned everything in sight to soothe his frayed nerves.

Laura is worried any progress they were making has been obliterated. Laura watched him from her position on the couch. The living room is bathed in the glow of the television. Natasha is scaring him, what if all the progress she had been had been utterly obliterated? Her behavior is not reminiscent of anything he has seen. Even after the earthquake, she had responded to stimuli. She had raged against him; which Clint would be grateful for in this moment.

Natasha’s head is pressed against Laura’s collarbone. Anytime his wife shifted, Nat clutched at her pajamas and whimpered. The vocalizations broke his heart.

“How’s Phil?”

“Phil-tastic.” He tugged an afghan off the back of a rocking chair and eased himself onto the couch. Fatigue washed over him like a wave crashing against the shore.

Laura slowly extended her legs, holding her breath as Natasha whimpered. “I’m getting some good resources from Ally. She’s got professional resources from NEDA.” She lowered her voice, handing her husband the family laptop.

“Bless you.” Clint yawns. His brain is barely online, unlike their internet connection. Stark liked to update their technology in an effort to guilt Clint into going on more missions with the Avengers.

“National Eating Disorders Association, not a sneeze. She gets free access through work, there’s a lot here.”

Together, they scroll through links of information and personal experiences on recovery blogs. As the skim articles, Laura’s phone pings with more texts from Ally. Words wash over them, every few sentences piercing their minds with understanding.

All of the stories blurred with the tears in Laura’s eyes. Recovery was on ongoing process. She let herself cry when Fury’s number popped up on Clint’s cell. He spoke softly from the kitchen, every few seconds he paused to respond with a militarily accented ‘yes sir’.

She stroked Natasha’s hair and needlessly adjusted the blanket. Nat’s bones threaten to puncture her almost translucent skin. Laura didn’t know how to make her understand how important Natasha was to their family. She knew that she couldn’t give in to her motherly impulses. Hugging, holding her and offering her creature comforts would only make her retreat into herself.

Natasha’s mind was a prison, trapping her in an endless loop of re-experiencing trauma, dissociation and starvation to assert perverted control over her life. “You’re safe Nat, I’ll say it as many times as you need to hear it. You’re worth our time, you deserve to be here. To be safe.”

Unbeknownst to Laura, Natalia had woken. She kept her eyes closed, feigning sleep. The woman spun quality lies.

She laid pristine traps lined with poisoned honey. Madam had ensnared her with empty promises, lulled her into trap after trap.

She had betrayed her sestra, had led them like lambs to slaughter. Their bones screamed nightly from their shallow graves in Madam’s rose garden.

Across the world, their pain reverberated in her ears. They cautioned her against trust, against the meaningless promises to ‘keep her safe’.

Natalia would not let herself believe such fanatical lies again. The ghost of Madam that resided in her memory nodded approval at the thought.

***

Chapter Text

***

Medical checks every morning with Laura involved a scale that she was not permitted to read. Natalia hated the feel of the worn device that groaned under her feet. She never had access to a scale in the Red Room. Her sestras and the mirrors that covered the walls in the studio let her gauge her disgusting body.

Nat hated her toes. She hated shivering in her underwear and bra, all of her hair standing on end. She especially loathed the click of Laura’s pen and she made a record of her measurements. “Done.” The older woman handed her a freshly laundered outfit and turned her back to Natasha.

Laura didn’t leave her alone in the bathroom unsupervised. It was in the treatment plan that hung on the refrigerator. Laura, Natalia and Clint had signed the homemade document in a dull colored pencil, but the sentiment was a serious as her employment contract with S.H.I.E.L.D.

Even without a numerical value, Natalia felt herself losing the sharp edges of her body. She haphazardly dressed while trying not to acknowledge her physical body. Her mind warped the shape of her thighs into the size of red wood trees. The muscles of her legs were flabby from disuse and months of starvation.

She tugged a hooded sweatshirt over a tank top, still chilled to the bone despite the additional layers of clothing. Her stomach ballooned like that of a middle-aged oligarch, instantly triggering a wave of criticism from Madam’s ghost.

“Ready to head down?”

Three snacks. Three meals. Every day. The burden of constantly filling her stomach caused physical pain. She was not allowed to exercise. Walks to the porch were supervised by Clint or Laura. All she could do was consume. Consume and sit. She was going to die fat and lazy.

Natalia journals and logs all of her meals through an app to communicate with her nutritionist. She resisted being honest in her logs, grew to hate the placid quotations by artists that she did not know at the end of every entry. But she had recently sprung to the opposite end of the spectrum, bombarding the stupid app with every thought that entered her mind.

In the kitchen, Natalia squashes herself into the corner of the bench of the breakfast nook. Clint’s latest project had made the kitchen a temporarily war-zone for about a week. He spent hours in the shed, cutting wood for the custom bench. She yanked the hood over the top of her head and typed the passcode into the S.H.I.E.L.D. sanctioned phone.

The home screen of the app is a too perfect sunset. Nat resists the impulse to roll her eyes at the sight. She had to open the app to a new photoshopped lie six times a day.

As she answers each question on the Recovery Record app, her frustration grows. She bubbles with anger, like a kettle on the verge of boiling.

Did you skip this meal? No. But I am a failure for not avoiding meals. Her brain is not working properly, she cannot lie like she used to. The Red Room would be disappointed with the deterioration of her skills.

How are you feeling? Weapons don’t feel. Feeling is a flaw, a fatal one.

Did you body check since your last log? Have I ever stopped? Never be satisfied, never accept praise. These are a few of the rules that Madam had instilled since toddlerhood.

She could overwhelm them with so much honestly, that Clint would eject her from their lives. She deserved to be alone. That way, when they found her, she would not risk harm to Lila and Skye.

Yuri could capture her, drug her, and re-program her to be their perfect weapon. That thought offers her a perverse kind of satisfaction when she realizes that they would enable her ‘anorexia’.

The therapists at S.H.I.E.L.D. labeled her with a myriad of disorders that she did not believe in. Natalia knew that the entirety of the DSM would fail to categorize her faults. The only solution, was to make herself disappear. She tapped the phone, submitting the breakfast entry. Natalia wanted nothing more in that moment than to completely destroy herself.

***

Chapter Text

***

Phone sessions with therapists, one of whom is a no-nonsense nutritionist that scares the shit of Clint. She had long jowls that never lifted in anything more than a subtle frown. Gail relented to his presence during sessions only after he promised to remove his hearing aids.

Clint took it one step further by closing his eyes and trying to nap. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the patience to meditate and sleep proved to be elusive. So, he mapped out new DIY projects and made lists of supplies. His mind rarely ceased, thoughts always grabbed his attention. He preferred distraction to the memories that came when his hands were idle.

The appointment took place over a webcam held together with duct tape. Clint squints at the screen, hunched over the computer in concentration. “Come on lady, we do this every week.” The professional has refused to turn on their camera, yet again. This means Clint has to focus on the choppy audio with a level concentration that he does not possess. He would require another pot of coffee to be able to attempt lipreading over a shitty internet connection. He pushes away from the table, blowing out a sigh.

Natalia tilts the screen of the laptop towards herself, but chooses to keep her body out of the frame. She digs at the skin under her nails, trying to keep her heart from hammering out of her chest. The sharp discomfort barely makes a dent in her anxiety.

His hearing aids sit on the table. Clint is drumming his fingers on his thighs, ignoring Nat’s weekly session with the stony nutritionist. She had thought of several ways to incapacitate Clint, but not seriously harm him and escape. She’s confident she can hotwire any car within several miles of their farm. But the thought of moving exhausted her. Natalia was a lazy, incompetent, fat, useless ghost of an ex-assassin.

“Ms. Romanov, has your period returned?”

She finds herself noticing Laura’s absence. Laura has taken to speaking for her with the revolving door of professionals that weave in and out of their lives. It is not a comfortable conclusion for her to realize. Natalia should not have to rely on anyone, she should be self-sufficient. That is what the Red Room trained her to be after all, so she could become the ideal weapon.

Laura is with her adopted daughter at a school science fair. Evidently, it is a common American tradition that does not involve torture. Natalia understands Skye’s experiment to involve baking soda and vinegar, common household items that are not inherently violent.

The explosion is not in the least bit dangerous, which is a little disappointing in Natalia’s opinion. By the time she was Skye’s age, she had built several devices with C4. She had also been exposed to dynamite and grenades. Clint got frustrated and turned a dusky purple when she had signed to Skye that they would experiment with bombs once she became a teenager. Natalia thought that was a reasonable compromise. Her partner although bemused, disagreed with her conclusion.

“Natasha.” The woman’s voice had lost the edge Nat had come to expect during the torture sessions. It startled her into compliance. “Where are you?”

 

She choked on a bitter retort. Nat had no answer for Gail’s latest question. The nutritionist is concerned with her reproductive system. It is a laughable situation, one that she cannot begin to illuminate. This woman had no right to her history, Natalia did not have a complete record of her own past. What gave this privileged American the impression that Natalia would bleed herself of secrets on a whim? “What.”

“Have you gotten your period? According to the data, your body is recovered enough. Have you had a regular cycle? Do you know the date of your last period?” The questions drop like bombs.

Natalia doesn’t remember slamming the laptop closed. The table shakes with her rage and the kitchen fades in and out of focus.

She does not feel the ceramic shards of the broken mug that embed themselves in the bottoms of her bare feet. Fear is all consuming and a hell of a motivator. For a woman who barely has the energy to walk downstairs each morning, she is lithe and swift in her actions.

The chair that clattered to the floor in Natalia’s frenzy wakes Clint from his mid-morning snooze. Natalia’s mind registers threat and her instincts point her towards the nearest exit.

She is unable to hear Barton calling her American name. He switches to the name the Red Room christened her with in blood, but she is leagues deep in memory. The depth of her trauma knows no bounds, she resides with the feared beasts of the deepest ocean crevices.

Nothing can reach her.

No monsters can touch her.

No one can control her body. Laura whispers these lies to her when she presumes her to be asleep. If she is truly in control of her life, then she should be able to choose the path of invisibility. But, even in the country of capitalism and obesity Natalia is not free. She is chained to contracts signed in blood and crayon.

She leaps from the porch, skidding into the dirt.

Her skin is impenetrable, just like Soldat.

The blood that drips from her knees leaves breadcrumbs for Clint to track. She is Gretel, he is Hansel, their world is a twisted version of the original dark fairy tales. She crashes through the woods that encircled the property, she craves anonymity and a peace that even the wild forest cannot provide.

***

Chapter Text

***

Trapped. She’s pinned against a bed, unable to move. She struggles against whatever is binding her arms to her torso.

The stench of sweat heightens her anxiety. Natalia knows that someone is on top of her. They are going to kill her. She cannot let them harm Barton. Laura and the girls will be alone. It will be her fault.

Somehow, Natalia’s eyes fly open. She breathes hard, chest constricted by what she now recognizes as a thick comforter.

She struggles to orient herself. The room is unfamiliar, sterile in modern furnishings. The person who has grounded her for the past six months is absent and Natalia finds herself unmoored.

“Miss Romanov. Are you in distress?” An artificial voice booms.

She rolls off the edge of the bed in shock, whacking her head against the carpeted floor. Did the ceiling just talk to her?

What did Yuri dose her with this time? He must have used the tranquilizers usually reserved for Soldat.

The voice lowers its’ volume, but the synthetic tone remains. “Should I call for assistance? Mr. Banner is awake.” The computer paused. “Mr. Stark can be summoned if you wish.”

“No!” She yelps, immediately regretting the fear that’s audible in her voice.

Natalia tenses her fingers, loosening the blanket’s grip.

“May I turn on the lights?”

She nods, still unsure how to address the omniscient sounding technology. Natalia still wasn’t entirely convinced that she wasn’t drugged and actively hallucinating.

She could still be trapped in that nightmare. Any moment, Soldat would appear and they would resume training. Yuri would be furious if they were late. No, that fear was unfounded. Natalia was no longer at the dormitory under Madam’s thumb.

The familiarity of the Red Room’s routines simultaneously comforted and terrified her. The dream that had woken her, she knew it intimately.

He still haunted her nightly. The ghosts of past targets choked her with guilt. It was one of the reasons she loathed sleep. As a child, hunger pangs had kept her awake. Years of intentional starvation had obliterated her ability to recognize hunger cues.

She tolerated sleep around Clint because when he removed his hearing aids, he wasn’t aware of anything. Natalia had repeatedly tested this theory until she was sure that he wouldn’t wake. Even still, Natalia stifled her sobs when nightmares yanked her from unconsciousness.

She could wake in panic, heave and cry into the toilet and he would be unaware. His snores ensured that she was alone. Alone was familiar. She could cope with the humiliation by herself, if someone else was watching the shame of feeling would surely kill her.

In the dim light, Natalia’s brain whirs to life. Barton had left her at Stark Tower, she was staying with the billionaire inventor while he went on a scavenging mission for information.

Yes, the bright-eyed Captain America was seeking out his former friend. Natalia did not have the language to explain that his ‘pal’ was not human anymore.

Natalia sighed, rubbed her eyes and crossed her legs on the crumpled bedding. Evidently there was a source at S.H.I.L.D. who was willing to risk their career to pass information to Rogers.

Roger’s man, who Natalia recognized as Soldat had ties to an organization similar to the Red Room. Natalia didn’t care about the agencies going to war with each other, she let Barton worry about that.

Her immediate concern was protecting his kin. “Machine?”

“Yes, Miss Romanov?”

Talking to a ceiling was strange, but in a world where she lived on a farm with people who didn’t actively abuse her, robotic voices could be normal. “Call Laura Barton?”

“Certainly. Contacting Mrs. Barton on your tablet. It is fully charged on your bedside table.”

“Thank you.” Natalia murmured, hugging her knees to her chest as the video call connected.

Laura smiled sleepily at Natalia in the soft light of a bedside lamp “Hey chickadee.”

“Hi.” Natalia waved, propping her head up on one leg. “You are safe? Skye and Lila?”

“Yeah, yeah. Everyone is okay.” The older woman blinked exhaustion from her eyes and studied Nat. “Have you heard from our man?” Lila whimpered and jostled the device which messed with the angle of the camera.

She nodded. “Da. He is okay.” Barton had given her a burner phone. He checked in regular intervals with a predetermined code. Technology wasn’t a reliable medium for communication in the field, but Natalia understood that NYC wasn’t equipped for old-school espionage.

Laura hummed. Covert operations were Laura’s least favorite aspect of Clint’s profession. “And you?”

She can’t stop from shrugging. Waiting is the hardest part of any mission. Nat knows that Clint has filled his wife in on what the broad strokes of Roger’s objectives. “Am fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Laura knew that Nat was fighting with herself over connecting with her family. This business with Roger’s old wartime buddy barely made sense.

Laura wouldn’t have been able to wrap her head around any of this, had it not been for the attempted alien invasion of NY last year. How could she help Nat understand that nothing she could do, would push her away? Laura chose her words carefully. “But it’s okay to not be fine.”

Nat shakes her head. It is not okay to be weak. The Madam in her mind scoffs at Laura’s lies.

She waits to be interrogated by Laura. But the questions never come. Where is the punishment? Natalia has been bad. She has not been eating. She has barely been drinking water. Every time she moves, cobwebs burst in her brain.

The truth of the situation curdles her stomach. She disobeyed her partner. She scraped the plates of food in the fridge into the garbage and dispose of the evidence. The smell of the America cuisine overwhelms her.

The part of her that wants to survive salivates at the sight and smell of the food. Fear infects her rational mind, squashes the impulse to gorge herself on the carefully portioned dishes.

Soldat’s inevitable return threatened the progress that Natalia’s had made.

It proved that nothing in her life would ever be safe. How could she be so stupid as to assume that she could live with the Barton’s? She did not deserve anything normal.

Natalia’s purpose was to suffer. To cause pain and suffering and snuff out her humanity. Her legacy would be ledgers drenched in red.

Soldat was beyond saving, as was she. Natalia could seal her fate by ending the Red Room’s bloodline.
Her last mission could be eliminating their most notorious weapons.

***

Chapter Text

***

Laura slowed the cart and leaned on the handle, twisting her wedding band. “So, we’ve been sharing a closet for a while now.” The local Target buzzed with activity as they navigated the departments.

Natasha flushed with embarrassment, wrapping her arms around her abdomen. The bright colors seasonal displays caught her eye, but shame prevented her from giving it a second thought.

“Which is awesome!” Laura shoots her involuntary thumbs up. Great. She was off to a great fucking start. She felt close to tears and could really use a Hershey bar. Hormonal fluctuations were no joke, even this early in her first trimester.

“But we finished shopping.” Natasha double-checked every bulleted item from the legal pad. “We have to get Lila. From party.” The youngest Barton was happily smearing icing on every available surface, including her peers. A birthday gathering of screaming three-year-old kids came close to torture in Nat’s mind. But it was an American tradition that Laura seemed okay with, so she tried to accept the sugared frenzy that would dominate the rest of the afternoon.

“She’ll be okay for a while. I’ve been getting updates from Audra.” She turned the screen of the smartphone towards Nat. “Look at that happy bug. She’s gonna crash so hard when we get home.” She chuckled at the half dozen candid shots.

Nat flicked through the pictures, icing dotted Lila’s nose and her toothy grin melted the ice around her fearful heart. She had been learning how to appreciate children. Laura didn’t judge the way she fled from a classic toddler tantrum, or how she never directly participated in the girl’s bedtime routines.

She knew Clint had caught her listening to Laura read them books, just outside the door. She clasped her hands together tight enough to leave nail marks on every knuckle. Natasha had read her partner’s S.H.I.E.L.D. file, his childhood had been as perfect as her own. How could he trust himself to be a father?

“The clearance sections hold decent bargains if you’re willing to scavenge.” Laura popped a piece of gum from its foil wrapped tray. “Want some?”

“For Clint, or Skye?” Nat politely refused. “No, thank you.”

“Neither. For you. And me.” Laura’ hand smooths her stomach. She took the test at work, confirmed it with a blood draw. She had yet to tell anyone about the pregnancy, even her husband. It had taken her so long to get pregnant with Lila. Before their miracle daughter was born, they had lost two pregnancies. She didn’t want to tell Clint until she was sure. If the calculations she made while waiting for the urine test were correct, she was about ten weeks along.

“Why?” Natasha drags a finger along the sleeve of a sweater. It’s folded perfectly, laid on a cheap display with dozens of choices. America overwhelmed her in many ways, but Capitalism was by far the oddest aspect of her newfound freedom.

The soft weave is lovely to touch. It covers perfectly, no plunging neckline to expose perky breasts.

“Well, I forget to update my own wardrobe.” Laura tugged at the worn waistband of her jeans. “Clint doesn’t know how to shop for himself, and Skye barely owns anything worth keeping.” The sewing machine had run around the clock trying to repair Skye’s clothing after her arrival at the farm. Laura had patched what she could and cut the rest into rags for cleaning and crafting.

“Why are clothes…important?”

“They’re not, I guess.” Laura slid hangers with a precision of someone who grew up shopping sales. “I, um. Might be in the market for some bigger clothes.” She pressed an open palm and cast a sheepish glance down at her abdomen.

Natalia dropped Laura’s smartphone. It thudded against the grungy carpet.

“This is…happy?”

Laura bent to retrieve her device. “Um. Yeah, we always wanted a big family.”
Natasha nodded. “Good.” She awkwardly opened her arms. She patted Laura’s back without letting their bodies touch. Natalia had been rendered barren, by people who saw her as a commodity.

Laura inhaled sharply, brow furrowing. Her body tensed with a strange anticipation.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s fine.” She dug around in her purse for a chewable antacid. “Just some heartburn.”

They browsed the women’s section, finding nothing that interested Natalia. Laura pushed the cart, bending more at the waist as time passed.

Their search through the men’s department had proved more fruitful. The clothes had functional pockets, were well constructed and allowed movement. Natalia had settled on a pair of loose-fitting joggers and was folding the correct size when Laura moaned.

“Laura.” Nat reached for woman, automatically scanning her for a gunshot or knife wound. “Where?”

“It’s okay.” She hissed, still doubled over.

“You are not okay.”

“Let’s just go. Self-check out. It’ll be faster, hmm?” Laura blanched and hummed through another spasm.

Natalia scoured her brain for anything that could help her friend. “What can I do, what do you need? Hospital?”

“No!” Laura straightened, leaning heavily on the handle of the shopping cart. “We came with a list, we have a plan.” She forced herself to breath, retreating into her mind.

Natasha recognized her detachment. How did Laura deal with her, when dissociation fogged her brain? She offered help, but never forced her to speak. “Plans change.”

“I can’t.” Laura argued weakly. “Nat, this isn’t supposed to happen.” She chewed her lips, rocking to another cramp.

“I know.” Natasha guided the cart to the bathroom and through the web of individual self-check out kiosks. She scanned groceries, bagged them and steered them through the bustling parking lot. “I know, sestra.”

***

Nat applied her vast knowledge of operating military vehicles to the Barton’s minivan. She was pretty sure that Maria had manufactured a NY state license in addition to other mandated documents.

“Laura.”

“I’m good.” She lied. Laura had a crumpled, but clean pull-up of Lila’s spread under her pelvis. It bunched, but Laura didn’t register the lumps. She had half of Target’s one-ply toilet paper stuffed into her underwear. She had an appointment with her OBGYN in the morning, but her only option on a Sunday afternoon was to head to the ER. She was not going to wind up in her own place of work. That was gossip fodder Laura would avoid at all costs.

“The pregnancy…you are losing it now.”

Laura nodded sharply, unable to speak. The rest of the drive blurred together in a strange mix of toddler jams and winding country roads. Contrary to her nature, Nat obeyed all the speed limits. The faded bumper sticker on the rear window summarized her reasoning. She was indeed carrying precious cargo. Her American sestra and comatose toddler were more valuable than any material possessions.

Nat hiked a sleepy Lila over her shoulder and wrapped an arm around Laura’s waist. They hobbled up the steps of the porch in an odd sort of dance.

“It’s okay. Really Nat. I’ll be okay.” In a complete role reversal, Laura sealed herself in the bathroom. Natasha startled as Laura clicked the lock, shoving the warped wood into place.

Lila napped in her toddler bed, supervised by a handheld monitor. Nat stood the matching monitor at her feet and slid to the floor. From her position, she could hear Laura’s stifled sobs.

Google had flooded Nat’s brain with information that confused her. There was so much she did not know. Yelena had been right about everything. Their bodies were supposed to bear children. Why was such a natural process terrifying to her?

Laura grieved the loss of abstract potential. Biologically she understood the desire to procreate. Natasha empathized with her sorrow, but failed to connect with the situation.

Motherhood had been as possible as becoming an astronaut. How could the body that she hated and tortured for years, ever grant her something so innocent?

Natasha knew that she would be a terrible mother. A parent who courted death and attempted to control every emotion with starvation and risks would never provide a safe home for a child.

Everything she touched rotted like compost. Her sestras taunted Natasha from their dirt lined garden graves. Laura deserved a life, complete with children and a loving if not goofy husband.

Nat’s mind continued to churn, trying to make sense of the frenzied thoughts. Motherhood, sex, innocent children, distorted abdomens and above all else, bafflement. Natasha had not had the opportunity to process her sterilization. At the time of the surgical ceremony, she had been grateful to be given an opportunity to serve the Red Room. A child would hinder her ability to be a perfect weapon.

***

Chapter Text

***

Dr. Banner excels in chemistry and lab work. He fails at sleeping. Even with his PhD, Bruce could not establish a routine that consistently aided his erratic sleep patterns.

Yoga hadn’t helped. Now, he had a crick in his neck after accidentally holding bow pose for way too long. He winced as he pressed on the throbbing nerve. Any amount of pressure radiated tension along his left side.

He padded into the kitchen. He reversed the automatic blinds, allowing the Common Room to be bathed in moonlight. There was something peaceful about the wee hours of the morning that Bruce craved.

He wiped a hand along the cool marble. Tony had recently updated the appliances and countertops. Well, Pepper had gotten permission to make it a bit more accessible and domestic. Sam was an early bird, pun intended, and puttered around the kitchen. He liked to ‘optimize’ the pantry and cabinets. Unfortunately, this resulted in his tea being relocated every so often.

Bruce clicked on a burner and sat on one of the new bar stools. The leathery fabric irritated him, but he was willing to sacrifice comfort for a piping hot mug of tea. Chamomile might do the trick, but mint was also soothing.

While he waited for the kettle to boil Bruce flipped through the ringed laminated cards. Barton had left a shoebox full of fidgets and other therapeutic materials.

He had tried all the usual coping mechanisms in his repertoire, well it wasn’t much. He had yoga and…tea. That and walking the halls on the residential and lab floors. Nothing caught his attention, although he read the brightly colored pamphlets while he waited for the kettle.

He tuned into the sound of simmering, slightly disappointed that it wasn’t boiling yet. The Big Guy and he did share the trait of impatience.

He looked up for his reading, to find a pair of eyes blinking at him from across the counter.

He screamed, toppling off the stool. The Hulk roared internally, quaking his bones.

Natasha cocked her head at the unassuming scientist. “Why.”

“Why?!” Bruce yelped, his glasses askew. His skin bubbled with rage, but he managed to stay his methodical self. “You could’ve…I could have hurt you.”
The Big Guy wanted to snap her like a twig. NO. Bruce scolded, he dug his nails into the fleshy part of his waist. The monster growled, but released his grip on Bruce’s mind.

She let loose a hollow laugh. “Ah. No, I do the hurt.” Natasha wagged a finger and smirked.

Banner stared at her in disbelief. She oozed lethal intelligence. Bruce hoped Jarvis was monitoring the interaction. How could she be this calm? It had to be an act.

What did she want from him? Everyone wanted something. And he couldn’t deliver on any of their demands. He was the weakest member of the team without losing control. Everyone wanted to use him for his rage.

Bruce pulled himself to the counter just as the kettle began to screech. “I’m sure you can.”

Natasha examined the half dozen canisters of tea. “Do you have…oolong?”

Midnight tea party. He could manage this interaction. Bruce tried to calm himself, despite the blood pounding in his ears. “I think so, check the smallest one. Cardamom is a nice touch if you like honey.”

She scrunched her nose in doubt, but opened the canister. “Strong.” She sniffs the tea nodded appreciatively.

“Well, we’re not sleeping anyway.” Bruce fiddled with his glasses.

“I drink to that.” Natasha kept the marble counter between them, but didn’t bolt from the invitation. Contrary to Tony’s opinion, she could manage civil interactions.

“Cheers.” He tapped their mugs, wincing as the ceramic clinked.

***

She held the mug close to her chest as she curled up on the couch as far away as she could from the perplexing Dr. Banner.

An excessively large TV played quietly in the background. The screen backlit the Common Room. Pepper’s taste and sense of style was the common theme that lined the Tower.

“Do you need anything? Sugar? Honey? Some lemon?” Bruce tried his hand at a bit of friendly conversation.

She looked at him, bewildered by his behavior. He tried too hard, it was unsettling and odd.

“Thank you, no.” Natasha straightened her already perfect posture and attempted a demure expression. Barton would be impressed with her efforts.

It would be easy to intimidate this mousy scientist. Why was everyone so afraid of this weakling? Oh. The transformation into a monster. Silly and naïve of her to forget that.

Bruce tried to smile, succeeding in grinning creepily like the Cheshire Cat. “Do you like to read?” He asked, searching for common ground.

She nodded.

“A fellow bibliophile. Finally, I have someone to share my library with.”

“Where?” She looked skeptical of walking anywhere with the potential monster.

“Down the hall from my office. May I?” Bruce tapped the screen on a charging tablet.

Natasha inclined her head.

A fuzzy screen cleared to reveal shelves of books. “You make the system…on own?”

“By genres, then alphabetically of course.”

Natasha noted that he separated books by soft and hard cover too. He would make an excellent librarian in another life.

“You like history?” She asks, knowing the answer as she forms the question. The camera pans to another bookcase, each shelf addressing a different era. She almost smiles at a shelf that divided Russian history from that of the USSR.

“Non-fiction. I live enough of a sci-fi existence. History has irrefutable evidence. I like the truth in it.”

“Truth. Is matter of opinion.” Natasha shrugged, keeping her attention on Dr. Banner’s secret library. “Books are same as people. You get different truth with each one.”

“Makes it kinda hard to exist in that world, doesn’t it?”

Natasha sipped her tea and considered his statement. “Nothing new. You know how cruel truth make people.”

“Do conversations with you always end with depressing realizations?”

“Is my nature.” She lightly tapped her mug with Bruce’s. “Do you have anything on Russo-Japanese?”

“Actually, I think I do. Dr. Strange…” He paused his search to mime some of Stephen’s tai-chi like moves. “Gifted me some for my birthday over the summer. Personally, I think he was doing a little house cleaning…but the thought was nice.”

Natasha swirled the dregs of tea leaves and let Dr. Banner’s soft voice wash over her. He was non-threatening company, a bit of background noise for her nightmares.

They chatted until the sun burned brightly through Stark’s massive windows, casting bright pockets of light on the tech in Common Room.

Avengers had yet to shuffle into the kitchen in search for caffeine, but they would be arriving soon en mass. Natasha found something comforting about the potential a brand-new day held, she could pretend that she was normal for a few minutes, before the weight of all her past lives came crashing down again.

Soon enough, they would be disturbed and the fragile peace that middle-of-the-night talks held would shatter. But for now, Bruce helped her create something called a Goodreads account, where they could track books and search for new series to explore.

Perhaps, this whole living with other people ‘who don’t always want to harm you’ had perks. Natasha enjoyed his subtle fusion of teas and found herself hungering for his collection of books. One of which was tea, and the other was non-judgmental company at odd hours.

***

Chapter Text

***

Natasha glides into the wood-shop with Lila stomping her mini Wellies behind her.

Clint waves a hand in front of his face, disturbing the swirl of wood dust. Apparently, there is a picnic in progress.

“Thanks, guys.” He wiped the sweat with the stretched neck of his worn shirt.

People assume that Clint is dumb. They think that he is indifferent and naïve. Lila runs into his arms. He smiles at Natasha.

Skye waves them over to the horse blanket with a variety of food laid out.

Clint smiles at the sight of Nat in a short sleeve shirt. It’s been months since he’s seen her in anything but a sweatshirt. She carries herself like she holds space in the world.

Natasha’s as close to happy as he’s ever seen her.

“Daddy, look.” Lila pointed to the bagged sandwiches. Appreciation for his wife’s creativity swelled. These weren’t ordinary crusts-cut-off snacks. Laura had used cookie cutters to make hearts, llamas and a robot. Raspberry jam and almond butter oozed from between skinny pieces of rye bread.

“Shapes, yes.” Natasha corrected.

Skye launched attempted a cartwheel along the fence of the paddock. She shouted to get her aunt’s attention.

His eldest daughter tumbled in the tall grass. “All right, where’s Mom? This looks beautiful.” He finished signing with a flourish.

“Mom’s getting the muffins. We made blueberry.”

“Yum!” Lila skidded towards the blanket. Her appetite mimicked Clint in a scarily accurate way. She vacuumed up meals with a ferocity with would give any normal human heartburn. “I want a llama.”

Natasha studied her niece. “Which one for your sister?”

“A heart.” Lila selected the biggest sandwich and passed it to Skye.

“Thank you!” Skye signed. She found a llama-shaped snack and scooted towards Nat.

Clint automatically held his breath as she offered the food to Natasha. He half-expected her to smack the sandwich out of Skye’s hand and bolt into the forest.

What actually happened nearly brought tears to his eyes. Gods, what kind of man had he become? Maybe the last week or so of insomnia had messed with his head more than usual. Ah, trauma. The gift that keeps on giving, decade after decade.

“Barton, you are practically drooling.” Natasha scolded with a wry grin. “Eat.”

You first, he thought. Clint kept the words in his mouth, but quirked an eyebrow.

Natasha inclined her head and systematically tore the sandwich to shreds.

“Cute, right?” Laura folded her legs, crisscross applesauce style. “Gotta love Pinterest.”

Nat flicked her gaze to Clint before dividing an already minuscule bite in two.

Conversation flowed, Skye chatting amicably about her day. Lila tried to talk through a mouthful of half-chewed sandwich, which earned her a reminder about manners from Laura.

The breeze tugged on Nat’s hair as she nibbled on the crust-less animal shaped lunch. “Cheers.” She raised the sandwich in a sarcastic salute.

Time dawdled after the picnic lunch. Lila and Skye chased each other around the farm. They signed and laughed in the afternoon sun. It was a beautiful day. Clint flicked his toes and rubbed the calloused heels of his feet in the dusty ground.

Laura had wandered over to the fence that the Barton’s shared with the Bishop’s property. She chatted with their neighbors with a social ease that Clint had never mastered.

There was nothing like being outside. He would live out on the property year-round if his body could tolerate the cruel weather of New York state. His childhood had been the opposite of stable. He had literally been raised without rules, in a damned circus. Oof. That was a runaway train of thoughts that he didn’t have the mental fortitude for at the moment.

“What is in your thoughts?” Natasha sipped water from a thermos. “Can feel you thinking from here.”

“Nothing.” Clint lied. He squinted at the shape of the clouds. One kinda looked like Ironman, zooming past his head.

“Liar.”

“How do you do that?” He rolled to close the distance between himself and his partner. “Ugh. Between you and Laura, I have no secrets.” He complained.

“My superpower.” She rolled a crumb of bread between her fingers. “Maria have lots of secrets at work. Enough to fill many ledgers.”

He pretended not to notice the llama was now headless. “One of many of your talents.” He laughed and then groaned inwardly at the thought of returning to S.H.I.E.L.D. in a couple weeks.

Natasha huffed and nudged Clint with her socked foot.

“Ow.” He poked her calf muscle with an index finger. Progress was progress he supposed. Nat had adjusted to civilian life better than he had when he’d joined S.H.I.E.L.D.

She looked like a human who had connections in the world and relationships that she cared about. He was proud of Natasha. She was more than a partner, more than a friend. Nat was chosen family.

Saying all that wouldn’t be possible for Clint. So, he chose his words carefully. “Wanna help me with the bench?”

“Da.” She crumpled the empty plastic bag. “I get to use banned saw.”

Eh. Her language had exploded over the last few months. Words like ban-saw were so specific to English, why should he bother to correct her? “Wouldn’t have it any other way. But you gotta use the safety goggles.” He signed as he yawned. Nat was five or more languages past tri-lingual. He hated English and got lazy with his ASL.

“So, do you.” She pointed to the half-dozen bandages wrapped around his fingers.

“Deal.” Nat formed a fist and offered it to Barton. “Skye teach me. She says I be popular doing this.”

“Well, then teach me. I could always use a lesson on trendy shit like that.” They settled into a comfortable banter and whittled away the afternoon in a swirl of wood shavings.

***

Chapter Text

***

Nat’s body and mind were at war. This was not a new phenomenon. She had the ceiling fan going on full speed. Her skin pimpled and Natasha didn’t know what else she could do for the hot flashes.

Her chest heated despite the constant breeze, but her hands and feet remained half frozen. Her body steadily rejected the whole re-feeding process while Natasha’s brain oscillated between outright denial and objective acceptance of some nutrition.

She glanced at the stack of books Laura had bought on the nightstand. All of the recovery ‘experts’ droned on and on about the benefits to one’s brain coming back online.

What if numbness wasn’t something to be feared, but a tactical advantage? Dissociation had saved her life. Why would Nat want to lose that ability? It was a kind of superpower, like Hawkeye’s impeccable aim.

Natasha couldn’t make herself toss the blanket aside even though she burned with a kind of fevered panic both physically and metaphorically.

Hell, she was wearing joggers and one of Clint’s t-shirts as it was. Anything else would be too tight and probably make her do something self-destructive. Laura wouldn’t appreciate more stains on her linens, and she couldn’t claim something normal like a leaking pad during her ‘monthly cycle’. The Red Room had robbed her of a normal uterus and anything resembling a healthy body image.

Natasha was disgusting and whale-like, but she wouldn’t create more work for her only friend. Someone who for reasons unknown to Natasha, still tried to boost her confidence and make her understand how loved she was by members of the Barton family.

The books glared at her and no about of staring would make them stop. If only Yelena could see her now, losing her mind by challenging a bunch of bound paper to a staring contest. The titles were annoyingly placid and placating.

Because she had already lost the battle for sleep, Natasha pulled the shirt and scrutinized her stomach. It was no longer flat.

She had failed. She poked at her abdomen, fisting rolls of skin until her nails left angry marks.

No one mentioned the physical consequences of refeeding. The bloating, hot flashes, constipation, exhaustion, all of it was unbearable. Laura tried to normalize her body in ways that she could understand.

But her efforts didn’t matter. Natasha didn’t judge Laura’s body. It had grown a child, her niece Lila. Laura wore clothes with confidence.

Clint loved his wife, despite the pouch of loose skin around her abdomen. She had carried a child and protected another life with her own. There was a freedom in her confidence as a woman that Nat found impossible to understand.

The monsters in her brain demanded her attention.

She failed day after day to challenge herself in recovery. Her treatment team probably laughed at her behind closed doors. What was the point of trying?

Laura would probably throw a damn party to celebrate her so-called progress, but Natasha suspected the truth. The Barton’s were placating her. Their praise was unearned.

Some ghosts calculated how to lose water weight quickly. She would relish the headache as dehydration set in. Easy, she knew how to lose herself in the particulars of anorexia.

Natasha truly believed that she had been born a natural organizer. She categorized, planned and ordered her body into submission to control the chaotic world.

It was a hopeless war that she insisted on fighting. She kept doing it anyway, would she always fight these battles? Find herself in an endless cycle of bloody battles and temporary truces.

Starving was as familiar as breathing. It comforted her twisted mind as her famished body eroded her brain with shame.

Glimpses of her sestra’s skeletons called to her. The way their cheekbones jutted from their skull. Or how their clavicles pushed forward as their spines straightened at the barre.

Others urged her to unearth the razor she had stashed in the metal mint container. Had she stuffed it in a boot or was it under the mattress?

Neat, painful lines could so easily be carved on her fatty thigh. The punishment would be a nothing compared to the half dozen ledgers she’d filled with her sins.

Natasha held her breath, clearing her brain of all rational thought. As her mind shifted to survival mode, she lost all of her fight.

She turned to her side, holding herself as she cradled a stuffed rabbit of Lila’s. The toy’s plush fur rubbed against her chin and masked her painfully distended stomach.

Under the heavy comforter, she was able to press an elbow against a protrusion of her hip.

It comforted her as she scrolled through a kind of social media site that Bruce had set her in her name. Well, one of her new aliases anyway. She could remain anonymous. Most nights she told herself that the website was a conduit to modern culture.

People posted symptoms that Nat intimately related to. Did that mean that she wasn’t crazy? Or just irrational in a different way?

Natasha dozed until her stomach cramped and she crept to the bathroom. The digital scale tempted her from its nook between the sink and tub. Clint had removed the batteries.

They were probably locked somewhere with the plastic encased razors and other weapons. It was a truly muted effort, given the caliber of spy Natasha had proved herself to be.

If Natasha wanted to tear herself open and obliterate all the progress she had made, she could.

She chose repeatedly to make herself chew and swallow regular meals. It nearly killed her, but Nat did it. It was as easy and painful as her childhood in the Red Room.

***

That’s how Laura found her the following morning. The clawfoot tub had become a sort of refuge for Nat. Often, she cocooned herself in a bleach stained beach towel, hiding herself in the smooth antique curves of the tub.

Recovery was anything, but predictable and consistent. But, Nat had slept. In fact, she was still breathing evenly. Her face furrowed in frustration and discomfort. Even Nat’s own thoughts tortured her in unconsciousness.

Laura resisted the urge to comb her fingers through Nat’s hair. Nightmares had twisted her soft waves into a tangled mass. Laura might borrow Lila’s toddler de-tangle spray. It smelled like synthetic apple, but it definitely lived up to its’ ‘no more tears’ label.

Similar dreams must have plagued her husband too. They often communicated without words and shared traumatic experiences as they leaked out through the daily monotony of farm life.

He had tossed and turned for most of the night. He would down a whole pot of coffee himself if she didn’t supervise breakfast. A quick glance at the clock told her that he would be asleep for at least another hour, she could hide the super strong beans in that time.

She gently closed the door and shuffled down the stairs to the kitchen. A cup of tea was the perfect offering for a brand-new day. Hopefully their demons would fade in the bright sunlight.

Nat could choose recovery again. Every bite was a choice. A step towards life.

***

Chapter Text

***

“Smells good, right?”

No. It is liquid fat. Undisciplined eating. She’ll gorge herself until she died a beached whale.

“It’s so important to let the onions cook before adding the garlic, there’s nothing worse than burned garlic. Ew.”

False. Laura mostly exaggerated things that didn’t matter. The stakes were low and made Nat think of her spoiled American life.

Many things were worse than a bit of scorched seasoning. Including eating regular meals and not exercising. That’s ridiculous.

“Okay. Turn that down, it’s gotta be on the lowest setting.”

Natasha’s hand turned the burner to low before her brain processed the command. She would obey.

“Dude. The stakes aren’t that high. I’ll eat anything, this isn’t the Food Network.” Clint shook his head at his wife. The tone of his comment was lighthearted, but there was an edge to every word.

“Oh honey. Before you met me, fresh produce was as confusing to you as theoretical physics.”

Nat stops poking the sizzling garlic chunks to quirk an eyebrow at her partner.

“Okay, okay, but in my defense.” He smiled at his wife. “I was raised in a circus.”

Clint and Laura volleyed friendly quips, but Nat barely heard their conversation. The hiss of the oil threatened to drown her. How could she eat the fatty calories in this meal?

“Ready for the couscous?”

Oh. Laura had asked her something. Crap. She used to hear everything, she never missed a conversation or a squeaky step in the drafty dorm.

Now, her brain was full of holes. Information leaked out faster than she could fill it. Sometimes, she preferred it that way. The less she felt, the more she could strive for perfection.

“The what now?” Clint asked, squinting skeptically at the bag of spherical grain.

“Like rice spaghetti.”

“But they’re round.”

“And the zucchini’s ready. Let’s go people. Tummies are rumbling.”

Laura handed her a perfectly formed lemon. “Zest this once the zucchini cooks off a little moisture. They’re like sponges…absorb all the yummy flavors of whatever you’re making.”

“How…will I know?”

“Guess.” Clint interrupted. He had an armful of stacked plates and silverware.

Laura rolled her eyes. “Ah, no. We’ll do it together. Stir the chopped zucchini into the garlicky sauce you made.”

Nat shot her a look of pure surprise.

“Yes, you made it.” “See how it coats the veggies? It’ll be nice to toss with the couscous that Clint’s making.”

“Shit!” He cursed, letting the plates clack against the smooth table.

“Trick question my dear.” She winked at her husband. “It’ll be done in four minutes, I’m keeping an eye on the clock.”

He sagged with relief. “That wasn’t funny.”

“It funny.” Natasha said.

“Hah.” Clint glared at his partner and stuck his tongue out when his wife’s back was turned.

“Okay! Why don’t you gather the kiddos, do hand-washing and all that jazz.” She waggled her fingers.

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

She blushed. “Okay, Nat. Grab a fork and like…fluff the couscous.”

“I…what?” She sputtered.

“You know.” She mimed mixing a nonexistent saucepan. “You’re doing great Nat, I’m proud of you.”

“Is nothing.” She tipped the pot of calorie rich grain into the oil slick veggies.

“It’s a whole lot more than nothing.” Laura gave her the courtesy of not demanding eye contact.

If she had, Natasha was sure she would have flung the simmering pan straight in the sink. Instead, she shrugged.

Wordlessly, Laura nudged her with an elbow. She returned the touch with a light bump of her hip.

One meal wouldn’t kill her. She had touched, smelled and worked with all of the ingredients. Before her time at the farm, Natasha hadn’t used a kitchen in the traditional way.

Cast-iron meant brain damage. Cutlery had many predicable uses, but it was boring. She preferred to get creative, with fun gadgets like colanders, egg separators, cake testers and more.

Skye dubiously eyed the squidgy veg hidden among the pearled couscous. “Pasta?” Her diet rivaled Clint’s in terms of processed, cheap, hollowed of nutrients food. She had stared at Nat, mouth agape when she had said she had no idea what ramen was.

Natasha arranged her face into one of amused confusion. Or at least, she hoped Skye would recognize it as such. “You can put cheese on top. You’ll like it.” The child lived on boxed mac and cheese before Laura introduced her to all the benefits fresh produce had to offer.

“Thanks.” Laura winked at her. “Want some?” She tapped the last of the calorie filled granules off the spoon and re-sealed the bag. It melted onto the warm dish and Nat’s stomach growled conspiratorially.

“No.” Yes. She pushed at the mushy zucchini. She gagged at the thought of the texture in her mouth. It disgusted her, but her stomach betrayed her. Her body wanted to inhale the steaming bowl. But power came from discipline. What kind of example would she be setting for her sestras if she gave in to temptation?

“Not half bad, Nat.”

“Ignore him.” Laura smiled at her. “It’s great.”

Skye shoveled food into her mouth at a pace that rivaled her sestra Yelena’s pace. She mimicked her adopted niece’s approach and let her body direct the meal. She could pretend to be normal. For a meal, she could feign being ordinary.

***

Chapter Text

***

Clint is falling asleep watching nothing in particular on TV. Cooper fussed in his swing, the motor hummed on the lowest setting.

His older brother squirmed on his stomach, building a fortress with plastic blocks. Fitz had his days and nights as confused as the youngest Barton. The pandemic and subsequent quarantines messed with everyone’s circadian rhythm, but it had been hardest on the kids.

“How’re we doing, guys?” Clint yawned. He scratched his shin with his sock-less foot. Ouch. He needed to cut his nails. He glanced at his toes, momentarily panicked at the sight of a purpled polish speckled with blue glitter. Skye and Lila had been aggressively applying beauty products to everyone and everything around the farm. His toenails had been the latest victims of their make-over game. “Everybody still content?” He lowered his voice to a whisper as Cooper scrunched his face in sleep.

Fitz glanced in his direction. Cooper continued to snore. Natasha sorted the plastic blocks into piles. Organizing helped her and Gemma cope with the insane amount of disruption that oppressed normal life.

The variables that kept the adults panicking twenty-four hours a day, triggered tantrums and stress-sneaking cheese from the fridge in the middle of the night. Schools had no plans to reopen. Vaccinations would begin in the next couple weeks, but a timeline wasn’t predictable. Clint hugged a patterned pillow to his chest. His smartphone lay screen side down, teetering on the cushions. Lately, he lived by the motto ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

He rarely kept up with the news. Hell, Clint barely kept his hearing aids in anymore. No one in the family minded, everyone signed. Laura taught consent to their kids from toddlerhood. She insisted on normalizing autonomy over their bodies. Fitz tugged at a blanket bunched on the couch.

Clint loosened the fabric and it billowed over Fitz’s head as it pooled around him. He snorted with joy at the touch of the blanket. Clint smiled. Right now, he needed moment like this. He couldn’t handle the bullshit of the world outside his farm.

Laura and Nat filtered out what information he needed to know. The rest buzzed around his head like his hearing aids when the batteries whined at him to be changed. That reminded him, he should make sure they still worked. He’d been rocking the same pair of sweatpants for most of the week, it was sort of hard to tell time when all the usual markers had been erased. Clint would forget to eat three meals a day if Laura didn’t plan all the meals.

Natasha swept rogue blocks into a plastic bin as Fitz continued to build. It’s futile. But Clint doesn’t bother trying to get her to stop. She frowns at a pile that contains slightly different shades of red.

He knows she is struggling with all the changes. The unknowns of the pandemic are like an invading army, trying to infiltrate the safety that Nat had found with the him and Laura.

So, she tried to order the chaos as it erupted around her. Natasha is a force of nature when determined and that’s the secret to Natasha’s success as a spy. She’s always resolute, even to the point of self-destruction.

“Hey, buddy.” Clint slid from the couch. “Wanna take a nap?”

Fitz flapped a polite refusal.

“Can you still call it a nap?” Natasha asked as Fitz tapped a block on her knee. She eyed the clock that hung above the fireplace. “If it’s after 2 in the morning?”

Clint stretched. His joints popped and cracked like crispy rice cereal swimming in a sea of almond milk. He twisted side to side, releasing tension and a quiet bubble of gas into the living room. “What are we building?”

“I think it’s a laboratory. Modelled after Uncle Bruce’s.” Natasha settled the bin against her hip. After a moment, she swept her perfectly sorted piles of colored blocks into the container. “Right, lapachka?”

He didn’t know how to talk to her about serious things. Maybe Natasha thought she could conceal her anxiety. From most of the world, she probably could. But Clint knew her micro-expressions. He had learned her past through their time working in S.H.I.E.L.D. He trusted her with his life more times than he cared to remember. He loved her more than any blood relations he’d known.

“Well, it’s gonna need some people then. Where are the heads?”

Natasha rummaged around the hole in the ottoman. “Do you have a preference?”

“I’ll settle for one that looks as douche-y as Tony.” Clint reached for Fitz. He flinched away from the touch, but scooted closer to his dad. “Isn’t there one with obnoxious sunglasses?”

Natasha tilted her head like a curious puppy. “Pepper’s modernized his image. Press conferences aren’t as exciting without the sarcastic t-shirts, but it projects a less chaotic image of the Avengers.”

“Blah, blah, blah.” Clint smiled, clicking blocks into a haphazard tower.

Fitz plucked the plastic brick from the top of the structure. He clenched it as he opened the tablet’s communication app. “Pancakes.” The automated voice boomed.

He tapped Natasha’s face with the tips of his fingers, signing eat. “Okay, lapachka. You want blinis for breakfast?”

Clint crinkled his nose. “Ew. They’re so tiny. That’s not a real breakfast.”

“Don’t listen to your daddy. He’s just grumpy and doesn’t like change.”

“Ha.” Clint huffed. “I’d like to formally challenge you…to a pancake cook-off.” Cooper squirmed in the swing’s seat, his tiny eyebrows furrowed in frustration.

Natasha tickled Fitz as he flailed in her lap. “Well, you’re on.”

Clint rubbed Cooper’s back as he snuffled against his shoulder. “Easy peasy, Nat. I’m the best pancake flipper this side of the coast.”

“I’m a woman of many skills.” Natasha blew a raspberry against her nephew’s tummy. “Right, my little monster?”

“We’ll see what my kitchen has to say about that.” Clint winked, swaying on sore joints with his infant son. He swelled with pride as Natasha bantered about quintessential breakfast food. She half-smiled at him, Fitz’s hands tangled in her hair. He cupped her face between his hands, squeezing her cheeks.

Happy. There were moments of joy sprinkled through the chaos of the world. Life continued. People adapted and struggled, and still there was progress. Natasha bloomed with adversity. She fought for Fitz, despite her own pain. Clint kissed Cooper’s head, he had slipped back into dreamland. His snores tickled Clint’s neck and brought him inexplicable comfort. He traced Cooper’s foot, each toe flicked against his touch. Love for his son, warmed his tired soul.

“Are you coming?” Natasha asked, Fitz suctioned to her legs like a barnacle.

“Yeah.” He padded after her. “Where?” He tossed a blanket stamped with hedgehogs and hearts over Cooper. Clint failed at swallowing a yawn and blinked at the coffee machine glowing in the kitchen.

“To bed.” Natasha rolled her eyes. “No coffee, not yet.”

“Rude.” Clint tiptoed up the stairs after Fitz. “Auntie Nat is mean.”

“I learned for the best.” Natasha whispered. She gently directed Fitz towards her room. They had a nighttime ritual that involved several Polish books from Auntie Wanda and snuggles from overly stuffed pillow-adjacent animals. If all went well, he might manage an hour or two before Laura and the rest of the kiddos woke.

“Uh-huh.” Clint murmured, his big toe pushing open the door to the nursery. “She’s got more skills than S.H.I.E.L.D. could teach. Laura should make the news cycle more than us.”

Natasha shook her head. “People don’t want to hear the good in the world, not anymore.” She gnawed her lip, avoiding Clint’s gaze. The tsunami storm of media attention that had crashed over Nat and the Barton family threatened her recovery. She had released her blood-soaked resume to the vultures of the world, in an effort to spare James the same scrutiny. Clint admired her empathy, she wanted to protect him, after their complicated and traumatizing history.

She closed the door, the lock softly clicking into place. She wouldn’t hear him, but Clint whispered good-night against Cooper’s sweaty scalp. He told his son stories about his bravest aunt. How she raged against monsters and odds that were never in her favor. How she chose them every day. How she couldn’t understand why they loved her, but she kept trying to grasp their emotional logic.

She persevered. That was another one of her superpowers. He rocked with Cooper nestled in his arms. He told stories until he couldn’t speak without yawning. “Auntie Nat loves us…but she won’t win with her blini.”

Cooper snorted and whacked his small fist against Clint’s chest. “Exactly.” Clint agreed.

***

Chapter Text

***

‘Happy Father’s Day!’ declared the bejeweled card in loopy script. Clint rolled his eyes at the generic gift-card from his in-laws.

Laura managed to subtly threaten her husband with a precise raise of her eyebrows. “So nice, of them. Mm. Deliciously weak coffee from a chain cafe.”

“I’ll tell them you said that.” Laura tugged a squirming Lila into her lap. “Word for word.”

The humid air clogged Natasha’s lungs in a way that city smog never had. Had the serum not cured her of allergies and asthma, her rebelling respiratory system might’ve benefited from albuterol. Panic could not be quelled by an inhaler, and Madam would not approve of her weakness.

Clint gasped with glee. “I’m one lucky bastard.” Stark Industries stamped paper brushed against her shin, jarring Natasha. She struggled through icy memories and tried to stay above the murky surface of her thoughts.

“I’m gonna have to personally thank Tony for this.” Laura snapped a photo of the absurdly caffeinated coffee beans. “Maybe Pepper will have some ideas of how…to specially thank the man, myth and legend that makes up Tony Stark.”

Natasha hid a smile with a hand and fake cough. Laura’s ‘gratitude’ would be coated in sickly sweet honey and typical Southern charm. The demure Ms. Potts knew how to navigate negotiations in the board room, but didn’t often tangle with the formidable wife of Hawkeye.

Skye finger-spelled the label and frowned at her favorite Aunt. “Death hope?” She sniffed the gift skeptically. “Poison?” Her nose crinkled as she flicked the bag.

“Kind of.” Natasha answered. The nutritional benefits of coffee were constantly debated among arm-chair physicians and stay-at-home parents.

“Which is why Mama is keeping this under lock and key.” Laura gently extracted a wad of tissue paper from Cooper’s mouth. He was at the age where anything and everything went into his mouth. Lately, he had been fixated on his Aunt Nat’s kitten. The poor creature’s tail had been drooled on, colored on and licked by most members of the Barton clan during quarantine.

Fitz laughed at the damp colored paper. He held it to his ear and squeezed. Jemma smoothed another length of discarded wrapping and crumbled it. Her brother delighted in the activity, which brought immediate joy to his sister’s face.

“Aw no, why?” Clint jutted his bottom lip in dramatized disappointment.

Lila hung from Laura’s neck like an excited monkey. “Yay! Daddy’s juice gets to live with my gummies.” Much to the kids and Clint’s disappointment, at the beginning of the pandemic, Laura and Natasha had rounded up all the candy, espresso and in Fitz’s case chocolate coated fiber bars and locked the goodies in a cabinet under the kitchen sink.

“And Fitz’s favorite s-n-a-c-k.” Jemma added.

He signed more enthusiastically, to which Jemma slowly shook her head. Her younger brother had inhaled through a wholesale sized box of fiber filled granola bars and suffered the gastrointestinal consequences for a solid 48 hours after ingestion.

Clint chuckled at his oldest son. “Much as I love a good intestinal cleanse…I don’t think those bars are on the menu today.”

“Yeah, nothing says ‘Father’s Day’ like unclogging a toilet.” Laura snorted, as she bounced Cooper on her knees.

“I mean, there are all kinds of way to celebrate fatherhood, right Natasha?” Clint winked at her, his smile all cheesy pride.

Natasha nodded. Banter between the adults resumed as Skye teased Lila from her position behind the man they called ‘dad’. The typical chaos that bubbled from her found family buried her response, which let her drift into her own acidic pity pool of thoughts.

***

The architecture of hotels, bored Natalia. Madam’s training had prepared the prospective Widows for any and all scenarios on honey-pot missions. She fidgeted on the stiffly upholstered chaise until Yelena pinched the back of her knee, harder than necessary.

Neither of them knew who would be chosen for this mission. Letting the mark select the prize, offered a sense of false control. Natalia ran through the sequence of the mission, tapping her thumb against each of her fingers as they waited for their handler to leave them in the literal lion’s den.

Graduation would occur in the next few weeks. Madam and Yuri had made it clear that failure in this mission, meant failure to complete the program’s curriculum. No one survived a disastrous honey-pot.

Soldat corrected mistakes, eliminated targets and literally buried sestras in Madam’s rose-colored graveyard.

Rumors of poor, infected, zombified ex-widow candidates that roamed the streets of Moscow had spread through the dormitories last week. Prostitutes. Madam scoffed at the addicted ghosts of former students. No one would believe their insane delusional prattling.

Anyone considered an active threat to the security of the Red Room was eliminated as a training exercise, Natalia had granted a former sestra a quick death several weeks ago. Yelena loathed those missions, often tearing their shared room to shreds when she returned to base.

“Say hello.”

Natalia responded immediately. Yelena faltered in her response, earning a sharp smack. Neither girl flinched.

The afternoon proceeded with no sign of delight. Her sestra’s hands were bound, made to kneel and listen to the snorts of a horny pig as he raped Natalia. Again. And again. And again. Time passed in bursts of remembering to breath, willing tears to stay behind her lashes, and listening to her frustrated sestra struggle against literal silk restraints.

Natalia focused on Yelena, hating the very existence of her body’s breasts, mouth, and skin as the monster panted on top of her. She had no agency, no control over herself. The Red Room controlled every aspect of her life. Her eventual death would not be her own. If she were allowed to bet on her own fate, Natalia would bet Soldat to be her executioner.

“Eyes open.” Slap. Skin tore between her legs. ‘Lena’s impulsive curses and threats were muffled by the patron’s tie stuffed in her mouth. Natalia executed a tactical retreat to the space in the depths of her mind. Dissociation prevented her fractured brain from bursting into a million shards of muddled traumatic memories.

“Fathers teach manners to disobedient daughters.” He purred, sighing contentedly. He sounded utterly satisfied as he rolled off her bony frame.

Fathers. A concept muddled by decades of trauma, colored by culture and warped by pseudo parental figures. Abusers hid behind smiles of false empathy and cheer.

Still, Nat clapped as Barton blew miniature flames of mismatched candles on a brightly frosted cake. His children loved him. Laura trusted him with her life and the safety of their found family.

Could Natasha consider herself part of their household? Should she? Who would want her, a stunted ex-child soldier, abused feral kitten-like woman who regularly starved herself?

Lila licked her paper plate, streaks of blue icing and cookie crumble coating her lips and tongue. “Look, Auntie Nat! Cake.”

“Let’s get her a spoon, not a knife.” Laura rummaged in the wicker picnic basket for alternate cutlery. Clint swallowed a lump of frozen cake and shuddered happily. “Yum, you gotta get in on this Nat. It’s perfect for a muggy summer day.”

Natasha shifted focus to her nephew. He had pre-sliced the melting ice-cream treat with the dull side of the plastic knife. Fitz offered her the utensil, icing dripping onto the ground between them.

“No, it’s okay.” Nat joined him on the overgrown lawn, grass crunching under their weight. “He knows I like to live dangerously.” She licked at the sticky plastic, sugar sending a tingle along her spine.

The sentiment of celebrating the American-ized family did not make sense to Natasha. Trust applied to pets and privileged children. Perhaps, she did not need to understand the naïve nuances of relationships to appreciate the kind of love Clint wove into his family.

***

Chapter Text

***

Clean. Clean. Clean.

Natasha’s brain demanded scalding water. An alarm blared through her skull. She craved acidic soap.

Her daydreams would be normal people’s nightmares. She channeled the feel of burning cleanser seeping into her stitched wounds. Hospital? Hospital. Well, a prison cell that was costumed as a medical facility.

They had hired a decorator to craft this façade, the idea of a medical suite catering her wounds was laughable. No one cared for the Black Widows, they were weapons. Materials. Not humans with faults and emotions.

Focus on the mission, Natalia. She flailed on the grimy linoleum. Rise, Natalia. Madam’s lessons played back at half-speed like a worn cassette tape. The distance between her and the bathroom might as well have included crossing the Atlantic Ocean. She’d rather drown than have her ravaged limbs drag her bruised torso across the floor.

Ugh. As a child, Natasha often prayed for death. As a traumatized adult, she craved anonymity and the peace that nothingness could bring.

The Red Room had granted sterilization, but included torture as part of the procedure. Her corporeal form had failed Natasha too many times to tally.

“Nat. Hey…please don’t. Stop moving.” Moving. The demand is a request, not an order. Who in her life, would extend that kindness?

The shoulder of the paper-thin gown dropped, spooking Natasha into a cycle of hypervigilant flinches. She is overcome by an intense desire to rake her nails across her body. She deserves the pain. She deserves compete annihilation. Natasha’s skin needs to be torn from her body until she is a bloody blob of nerve endings. Strip by strip.

It doesn’t belong to her anymore, maybe she never had control of her life at all. The Red Room claimed her scrawny toddler-sized soul when they pinned her under their fat sweaty bodies and pinched her skinny arms. She’d been labelled a murderous orphan with a particular set of skills ever since.

She can’t stay upright without losing consciousness. But it doesn’t matter. Stubbornness can be substituted for a sturdy vertical position.

She is malfunctioning, like Soldat. Soldat had disappeared. Assumed dead. Used as a tool to control naughty students of the Red Room.

“God, you’re worse than me. Natasha, please…”

Tremors crack her bones, exposing marrow that leeches the life from her skeleton. Something rips itself from between her legs, releasing warm urine and fresh shame into the enclosed space. A cool sweat soaked the thin medical gown.

Natasha is beyond processing embarrassment. Her face bounced off the floor, as her arms failed to support her dangerously underweight frame. Her vision tunneled and it’s entirely possible that she passes out once or twice before she registered Clint’s voice.

“Let me help.” Help. Internally, Natasha lashes out at her partner’s offer. Her brain had been precisely cut from her throat, ensuring her vocal cords remained silent.

No one helps without ulterior motives, underscoring their actions. That lesson had been encoded in the walls of her cells. But then, Clint had chosen her. He had disobeyed S.H.I.E.L.D. and Director Fury. Laura had stitched her thigh in her fixer-upper bathroom on her first afternoon at the Barton’s farm.

“N-o.” She huffed. She couldn’t risk the innocent. She would not make that choice anymore. Hallucinations of Natasha’s found family haunted her more than perpetrators. So, she soldiers on. She harnesses the pain and ignores the one man trying to bully his way past her defenses.

Abuse is comfortable, it is wrong to feel this way, but it is home. Natasha can rationalize the anger, the unpredictability of gaslighting is exciting in a fucked-up kind of way. Benevolence burns more than fire.

“Fuck, wait.” Something rough, but fabric-adjacent lands on her lower spine. “These gowns ain’t flattering, figured you wouldn’t want everything exposed. At least not until Laur can mail some new undies.” Clint rocked from toe to heel, struggling with his uselessness as Natasha covered the remaining distance to the tiny bathroom.

This is a test, she parroted to herself. Hawkeye is targeting the weakest part of her mind. A manifestation of weakness. Her brain is mostly composed of scrambled concussions. She can overcome this test of Yuri’s. She would graduate, rise to the role she had been made to fit.

The often-walked path of thought did not make complete sense to Natasha. She had learned there was more to life than assassinations and espionage. She shifted her mind’s movie to include snapshots of the life that Laura yanked her into. She’s fallen head over heels in love with her chosen family.

Wet in the crook of her elbow spurred Natasha to jerk the tethered tube. She is alone, nose throbbing with pressure and pain. She can free herself and continue with her mission.

Clint handled the discarded NG tube like a wriggly garter snake. “Nat, I can’t…I’m not an RN. Yuck.” He noisily swallowed, suppressing a gag.

Natasha succumbs to sympathy retches and immediately blacks out. Hands, Clint’s hands, she reminded herself, tug her over the threshold into the bathroom once she comes to.

Her splintered ribs protest as he jostled her over the lip of the shower. By some miracle of willpower, Nat managed to hold onto consciousness. She whimpered, hating the vocal display of weakness that squeaked out of her.

“Okay, okay. You’re okay.” The voice isn’t angry. But that’s a trap. Barton’s kindness is a trap, a lie wrapped in empathetic platitudes. Nat raged with the tenacity of a tiny kitten, frail and protesting.

“Please…let me help.” Manners meant business in Clint’s world. He demanded without polite statements and stomped his feet like one of his tantrum-prone toddlers.

Her bloodied aching fingers slid over the tiled squares. The hospital room morphed into a terrifyingly familiar space. Shadows of monsters flatten themselves against the prison’s walls. Nowhere is safe. She will never be safe. They will always find her because she will do anything to protect the Barton clan.

Water clogs her eyes, nose and mouth. “Swallow.” Her demons order. She crashes against a wall of memories that trap her with barbs of spiked experiences.

Clint’s words fell on her metaphorically plugged ears. Flashbacks had deafened her to her current saturated state. She couldn’t hear anything over replaying the endless loop of decades worth of assault. “Tell me you love this.” Another tongue licked at her belly button, making her clench with terror at what was to come.

Dizziness roars like a predator stalking prey. The wet between her legs mortifies her. Vomit tinged saliva sticks to her cheek like a spider’s web. The line between reality and memory ebbs and flows like an ocean’s tide.

“Behave, Matryoshka.” He took her body’s arousal as consent. Hell, they all did. Hordes of people descended on her body like fruit flies on rotten vegetation. Years passed, decades, before Laura’s honest conversations with her kids made sense to Natasha.

Laura prioritized teaching her children autonomy and preached control over their own bodies. The thought of them hurt, broken and utterly fucked like she and her dead sestras is too overwhelming to consider. Yelena. Mina. Anika. Nadia. Their names and histories still taunt her whenever she lets her guard down.

“Say it.” He growled. His voice penetrates the dissociation that shrouds her consciousness. Their demands reverberated along her inflamed skeleton. “Or are you as stupid as your sestras.” Clint held her in his lap, clothes saturated with sudsy water. Water pounded the infamous duo as Natasha struggled to reorient herself.

Natasha struggled in Clint’s hug. She coughed and mumbled what the ghosts demanded she say. “Daddy’s girl.” The words choked her as much as his cloying sweat. Monsters must bleed, right? They must be able to die, Lena had truly believed that.

Grief swelled like a balloon in her gut. But Yelena had died, her brain rationalized. Ghosts twisted fact into fantastical fiction. But evil’s influence is far-reaching and all-consuming when she panicked. Like now. She was definitely panicking.

“Hey, he’s not here. No one’s here, but you and me. Natasha, can you open your eyes?” A washcloth dabs at her stitched brow. There’s a tenderness in the touch that makes Natasha flinch.

The abusers who had dug into her brain, purred threats like caged lions, tigers and bears. There is no one to intervene on her behalf. She is alone by design. Cameras document her faults, to review during training sessions. Her skin, hair and cellulite are identified by thousands of anonymous viewers. They pleasure themselves with her trauma. But child pornography was another issue, currently being tackled by vigilantes in Hell’s Kitchen.

She’d rather die than let the footage mutate and spread like a pandemic. She had nearly. But she would gladly do it again. The pipes groan as icy water needles her spine. Natasha shudders and sputters as water tickled her lungs.

“Nat, what happened? Maria said this was recon. You were unreachable for…seven weeks.” Clint shifted her, supporting her neck like she was a fucking infant. He whistled sad appreciation at the garland of bruises that stamped her spine.

That conversation required more painkillers and dry clothes. It would be so easy to drown. Effortlessly really, but Barton wouldn’t let that happen.

There is no garden graveyard to join. Her decomposed sestras have been lost to development and construction after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Red Room’s past is buried with their bones and forgotten. Natasha’s memories cannot be trusted. She cannot be trusted.

“Com’ere.” Clint gently massaged her scalp, taking care to avoid the haphazard strips of stiches knitted into her hair. “This needs combing and my fingers are all prune-y. We gotta get outta this soggy stall and into warm, fluffy sweats, then I’ll practice my braiding. Skye’s been training me.” He continued to narrate his actions, talking just loud enough to keep a quarter of her mind focused on the present.

The water pounded the cheap plastic walls. Shampoo burns her wounds. Despite her best efforts, Natasha is alive. She was beyond reckless on the mission, Maria would probably argue that her action bordered on suicidal. The overwhelmed drain bubbled with soapy film, flecks of dried blood and clumps of dirt.

The shower’s spray slows to a drizzle and Natasha becomes aware of her tears. Sobs leave her teetering on the edge of consciousness. Oof, her fractured ribs grind against each other like cricket’s legs. Which would be a funny comment, had Nat not been experiencing such pain.

“Okay Nat, that’s enough half-assed punishment for one day.” Clint failed to sound flippant. He cleared his throat and shook his head like a shaggy dog. “I like it better when we drown our sorrows in Pad-Thai and cinnamon buns. This is too much like water-boarding.” There’s concern, but all Natasha registers is her own failure ringing in the humid stall.

Barton. He didn’t let her drown. He tethered her to sanity, most of the time. Maybe one day, she could return the favor. A warm towel envelops her. Hands must be in control of the gesture, but Clint has the good sense not to let his skin touch hers. Touch is toxic.

He continued talking after he perched her burrito-ed body on the hospital bed. Somehow, Natasha found herself zipped into a sweater that smelled like the best parts of Barton’s farm. He replaced the damp towel with a blanket that bore a striking resemblance to the throw in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s rec room. Sneaky agent behavior that Natasha truly appreciate. Clint would move heaven and earth for her and had proved it again and again.

Clint tugged the hood over her head and tipped them against the cheap pillows. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.” He promised, rubbing her scalp through the soft fabric of the sweatshirt.

She clutched at his t-shirt, losing the battle to stay awake. If suspending her stubborn streak meant she could keep Barton in her life, maybe it was worth the risk. She nodded into his neck, letting the steady rhythm of his heartbeat quell the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

“Let go, my fire-y Elsa.” Clint tented a starchy blanket over their heads, because he knew that it made her feel safe. “The shop-talk comes after you stop looking so damn pitiful.”

Natasha flicked his sternum and mumbled unintelligible nonsense. She descended into sleep without quadruple checking her surroundings, quiet snores blowing puffs of air against Clint’s chin.

“Atta girl.” Clint nuzzled her forehead and relished the ability to touch her. He couldn’t keep the world at bay, indefinitely. But for now, in his arms, Barton had the ability to protect his best and fiercest friend.

***

Chapter Text

***

Years ago, Pepper had created social media accounts for all of the full-time and part-time Avengers. She recently flagged Banner, Barton and her accounts as under-active. To her knowledge, Clint had tossed his phone in the freezer after reading the e-mail. Jemma had chiseled it free of an ice cube tray and entrusted it to her mother.

Natasha did not know what Dr. Banner did with the memo, but the increased activity on his account did not match the shy scientists’ personality. She added another mental note to her never-ending to-do list. Bruce could use a break from the city’s thrumming energy. Playtime with the kids did for Dr. Banner what caffeine did for Clint.

“Auntie Nat, look at my bow!” Lila wriggled out of her sister’s grasp and made a beeline for Natasha. Her feet thumped against the showroom’s carpet. Shopping bristled all of Natasha’s instincts. Employees’ gazes lingered too long and whispered while googling her familiar face.

Jemma tripped as she lunged for the younger girl. “Wait! Shoes, Lilabug, you need shoes.”

“Not inside! My toes need to be FREE.” Lila squealed, skipping around racks of formal wear. An employee opened their mouth to scold the child, but quickly silenced herself when she caught Natasha’s glare.

Natasha peered between her legs. Fitz squatted between her knees, his curved back partially obscured by the bench. He contentedly tinkered with an old gaming device. The cartoon turtle leapt onto a pedestal, swallowing pixelated eggs. Fitz giggled and Natasha’s attention shifted back to social media.

So, she gave into the temptation. To harm herself, meant punishment that she deserved. Natasha might lack a cheap razor coated in a pink plastic handle, there were infinite paths to pain. Nat rooted around her formidable memory for a sparingly used password and opened the account that had been kept active with algorithms.

Her last post had been over six months ago. It had been a candid shot silhouetted by a sunset. The farm provided peace and she did not like to exploit the Barton family’s privacy for a bit of ‘good’ public relations. Just because the Avengers had achieved notoriety for property damage, did not mean that Natasha wanted to a part of Pepper’s ‘reputation rehabilitation’ for the group.

The picture screamed ‘idyllic’ and the airbrushed sort of perfection that magazines boasted. Bubbles surrounded Laura and the kids, but none of their faces were clearly visible. Natasha had been squished in a hug by Lila when Skye snapped the photo. Skye begged her to post the picture, as she practically burst with satisfied squeals. Her photography skills were amateurish as she pre-teen attention flit from one interest to another.

“Can I have fishy crackers please?” Lila asked. She curtsied, her exposed toes wiggling with extra energy.

Nat’s wise mind knew that it was a bad idea to go to the comments under the photograph. But she did it anyway. “Yup, they’re in Mama’s purse. Check under the bench, next to Fitz.”

What else could she do? She wasn’t shopping. No amount of torture could make her succumb to pulling something off a rack and then be subjected to alterations. Her e-reader needed charging, Skye and Laura had disappeared into a dressing room and she was the dutiful aunt wrangling the rest of the kiddos.

The bridal store buzzed with activity. As a bridesmaid in her brother’s wedding, Laura had resisted shopping longer than she should have. She had to get fitted and altered for a dress this weekend. She could not afford to procrastinate, if she wanted to shell out less than a hundred dollars for alternations. Which she did.

Ugh, Natasha shuddered at the thought of having to go shopping for formal attire. She wanted to wear a S.H.I.E.L.D. manufactured gown with Stark tech embedded in the fabric. She preferred her clothes to have a degree of armor. If she had to sacrifice a leg holster and pockets, she needed tear-resistant clothing.

“Ugh, Nat? This isn’t working. Let’s do lunch, then come back.” Skye led Laura out of the dressing room, matching grimaces plastered on their faces.

To date, only Clint and Nat knew about her recent miscarriage. A salesclerk took a deep breath and bowed politely at Mrs. Barton. Natasha gathered the kids and herded them towards the exit.

Natasha knew intimately how it felt to hate her body, to loathe its responses to impossible situations. But that was an entirely unrelated trauma. She shook her head, as if dislodging a bothersome bee caught in tangled hair.

“Pretty!” Lila zoomed in on the post. Damn, Natasha had gotten content and lazy. She forgot to exit the app and now Lila marveled at herself. She beamed with pride as she touched Natasha’s shadow on the screen.

Mechanically, Natasha helped Laura load the kids and their formal wear into the minivan. Once buckled into the passenger seat, she tucked her knees to her chest, and unlocked her phone. Laura drove while debating lunch with her passengers through a mix of ASL and blended English.

It was like choosing to pick a scab before the wound is healed. It hurt so good.

The negative replies to her post glowed like uranium. They amplified every thought she had about herself before and after Madam had picked her person clean of childhood innocence and personality.

The comments ripped stitches from wounds that she thought had hardened into scar tissue. They threatened to bleed all over the day. Her hand gripped a roll of stomach fat as she collapsed into herself. Her spine allowed her forehead to rest between her knees, but nothing brought relief against the onslaught of revulsion she felt towards herself.

***

Chapter Text

***

Seven locks added a layer of confusion to the interior of the apartment door. New York didn’t differ from any of the other cities she’d inhabited as a weapon of the Red Room. The last bolt creaked into place, rust dusted the scuffed floor. The dingy place had remained vacant, thanks to Jessica Jones’ impeccable skill in the art of blackmail.

Natasha had installed each lock without truly engaging with the task. Bloody fingerprints framed the haphazard construction and she could not bring herself to care.

Bodily fluids wouldn’t hurt the property value, besides her S.H.I.E.L.D. salary would cover a professional cleaning of the premises. Natasha shuffled into the kitchen as she reviewed the security measures she’d haphazardly assembled.

One bookcase, reinforced with granite shelving would give anyone who shoved their way into the shit-hole, a rude awakening. Any intruder would break a toe. She found in the fridge, one of her neighbors must have cleaned it out of anything perishable. That was fine. The only person she trusted in the building was an ornery Vietnamese grandmother. She didn’t ask questions, protected the tenants and possessed an impressive collection of weighted knives.

Natasha hoped she would live long enough to thank her. She downed half a bottle of water and felt along the wall until she reached the bathroom. No one lurked in the shadows, the water and electricity worked, and the entrance to the apartment was rigged with a dozen DIY alarms.

The thought of another enclosed space, one smaller than the shithole she rented by the month sparked her already frayed nerves. Flashes of the cargo plane she’d narrowly escaped loosened the pins from her knees. She collapsed into a pile of bones just outside the bathroom.

Her brain fuzzed with interrupted thoughts. Returning to base had lost its’ appeal when she had been granted the ‘privilege’ of ‘solo missions’. Director Fury never used the term ‘honey pot’, but Natasha knew what was expected of her. Sometimes backup arrived before the mark finished, sometimes they did not. Either way, she could't get pregnant and S.H.I.E.L.D. pumped her full of antibiotics.

Clint never accompanied her on these missions, because he would rip the target apart. Which would defeat the purpose of covert ops. A dead target made for a terrible source of information. The rambling rush of thoughts drained the last of Natasha’s reserves. Her phone buzzed, each vibration signaling another person she had failed.

Her neurons lacked energy to even think sarcastic comments. She hadn’t eaten since the debriefing at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters. Fury had loomed over her until she’d choked down a serving and a half’s worth of the damned tube. The agency’s patented formula for nutritional paste lacked Dr. Banner’s finesse in the kitchen, but since when had flavor been a factor in dietary requirements? She gagged, but kept the gel from being expelled through sheer willpower.

How much time had passed since then? Days or hours? It didn’t matter. They only wanted her to function as a weapon, a spy had value. Natasha did not.

Maria had been angry. Then worried. Agents stared at her with pity, giving her the same treatment shelter dogs and foster kids got on cable TV. Her escape had occurred without fanfare. She slipped through the city that never slept and stumbled into an unassuming apartment that existed adjacent to anonymity.

One S.H.I.E.L.D. sanctioned tablet had been shoved down a toilet somewhere under Harlem. Another satellite phone bit the dust under heavy midtown traffic. She had been unable to sever her last connection to Clint though.

The girls, her honorary nieces, tore at her stubborn stoicism. She came apart like cotton candy in their presence. Notifications bubbled whenever she glanced at the smartphone. She had silenced the ringer, but guilt backlit the screen. She refused to open the texting app. But as the number of notifications ticked by, she started to worry that she’d missed something important like a birth or death.

Familiar paranoia gripped her stomach. Had a tracker been embedded under her skin? Was she being tricked into reaching out to the only family she’d found? Relationships made Widows vulnerable. They wore away at their efficiency like acid on teeth, how often had Madam drilled that fact into their naïve heads?

Memories impaired her rational thoughts. She picked at a scab. The length of it reminded her of road rash, but Natasha could not remember how the injury occurred. What other problems were concealed beneath her ragged catsuit?

Blood bubbled and tightened as it dried on her skin. She scratched which restarted the whole cycle, but she could not make herself care. The starchy stiffness of the suit felt wrong.

She felt wrong. Natasha had long ago lost the ability to feel anything, expect the unending grief that rotted her skeleton. What had she done? Timelines had been scrunched into a knotted ball of confusion.

 

Please, can you let me know you’re there? Just a letter, an emoji, anything.

 

Okay. Hill says you’re on leave. You’ve got a day to check in, clock starts now. You know the deal.

 

Nat, please.

 

Hey, he’s not mad. Okay? I promise. We’re safe. You’re okay, I hope you’re safe. It’s okay to struggle, please try to drink something with electrolytes?

 

Romanov. Proof of life. ASAP.

 

She deleted their voicemails without listening. She opened messages without reading. The notifications disappeared and she could pretend that the situation was sorted.

Their words held more power then an opioid. Her marble façade would fracture if she acknowledged their concerned pleas. Their voices woke an old delusion of wanting a safe, normal family. Stupid, naïve, dumb Natalia. She was unwanted, undeserving and unlovable.

A pitiful meow yanked Natasha out of her rumination. She had a gun aimed at nothing in particular, with her non-dominant hand on a concealed knife along the inside of her thigh.

Safety was a luxury she could never afford or deserve. She knew better than to let herself drift off. She had no back-up, no support. Alone. The ghost had been ready to shoot faded into the flowered wallpaper.

Natasha left the safety off, but kept the gun at her side. Melina clucked her tongue from Madam’s graveyard of roses. The kitten blended in with the dim décor, Natasha blinked and lost track of the target. Moonlight added to the eerie ambiance of the ‘safe-house’.

The furry squatter rubbed against her muddy boots. Natasha flinched, but found she could not pull her legs tighter against her abdomen. A collection of stray cats had foolishly claimed the rental in Natasha’s extended absence.

One of the more pathetic creatures had unfortunately been left behind as the rest of the kittens scrambled away from the dissociated human’s presence. “You are an idiot.” She hissed at the decrepit creature. An infestation of care descended on Natasha. So, she let the cat sniff her fingers, a lifetime of trauma and programming be damned. “But, then again, so am I.”

***

Chapter Text

***

The grout needed a bucket of bleach, the rigorous application of toothbrush and the kind of energy that only terrified children could provide to the task. Natasha counted the garish tiles that had last been fashionable during the 1950s and fought exhaustion.

The kitten bleated, eyes crusted shut with a mix of dirt and tears. It protested relentlessly, but Natasha had nothing to offer the creature.

Natasha had allotted it as much space as the dingy bathroom allowed. It alternated between screaming and weak mewling. When Natasha’s pacing carried her too far away, the kitten stumbled around the space searching for her. It didn’t understand how dangerous she was to survival.

Natasha resisted an impulse to cradle the creature. The Red Room’s ideology spoke of a higher authority, entitled threats and a culture of violence. ‘Stupidly soft’, Madam’s favorite insult thrummed through her like a cheap speaker system.

The damned cat would have been buried with her sestras in the bloody rose garden. “What do you want?” The kitten quieted at the sound of her gravelly voice. Love. Food. Warmth. All things Natasha couldn’t provide. Her failure would lead to death, again. This time in the form of a helpless cat.

The possibility of the kitten’s death choked Natasha with unwarranted grief. Its’ tiny bones mixed with a section of names in her ledger that damned her to eternal punishment. Children had lost their lives at her hand. She’d snapped necks and smothered toddlers in their beds.

She had taken ledgers full of lives. They killed in the name of the Red Room. Yelena studied under her expertise. Natasha continued the cycle of abuse, without suspicion. After graduation, she had continued to ‘eliminate threats’ in the name of a cult-like agency. Her life had been made irredeemable.

She’d grown lazy and vulnerable, like Ivan. His complacency had led to his demise. He had to be dead, but Natasha had not been able to locate his remains. To be honest, her sestras took priority. Yelena. Melina. Anna. Nadia. Sentiment had eroded her. Madam’s perfectly crafted marbled exterior had warped under American influence.

She was rusted, moldy, infested with vermin. Horrific acts of violence had blackened her heart. Clint put stock in her potential, but Natasha believed herself to be a hopeless case. That winding path of self-hatred ended with a freezing shower. She curled against the bottom of the tub, shivers rattling her teeth and ribs.

Refuge took the form of her stained bathtub. Natasha reasoned that the bathroom could be easily barricaded. A golf umbrella crossed the width of the door, ensuring the knob couldn’t be turned from the outside. She unearthed an ancient beach towel and peeled the suit from her broken body, a few centimeters at a time.

Water dripped. She had no soap, but it didn’t matter. Time had no meaning. Natasha couldn’t be sure how long she spent standing under the spray. By the time she collapsed, the flow had slowed to a torturous rhythm. Time ebbed and flowed with Natasha’s awareness.

The kitten snuffled in Natasha’s discarded suit. The sight briefly caught her attention. She resisted an impulse to capture the moment. A picture would make her honorary nieces smile. But she couldn’t risk their safety, or her remaining sanity.

She wrapped herself in a musty towel. The porcelain lip of the tub rattled with another text. Why had she charged the damned phone? Why had she stayed in the state? The country? She should’ve run. She should burn all bridges to the life that Barton had created.

The latest text had come through after a dozen unanswered calls. 'Nat. I’m not calling with hopes that you’ll pick up. I don’t expect you to text back. Just skim this for my ETA. Okay? Tomorrow at noon. Don’t shoot me through the door.'

The staccato of the alert tensed her already coiled body. Not Clint. Not Tony. Not Cap. She swam through a tide of misery towards logic. The voicemail played for all of ten seconds, each moment more painful to her ears than the last.

No. She typed a refusal, finger hovering over the ‘send’ icon. The keyboard blurred through her dry eyes. Tears threatened to be released under pressure of Natasha’s own failure. Her eyes burned as she tried to focus on the Devil’s response.

'Not negotiable. Expect breakfast, there’s an acceptable vegan bakery nearby. Hell’s Kitchen is nowhere near as gentrified as your part of the city.'

The phone skipped across the tiled floor. It crashed against the door. The kitten sank its’ nails into her neck. “Shh.” Natasha didn’t know if she was speaking to herself or the cat. Its’ little tongue lapped at her chin.

“Well, I hope Murdock is allergic to you.” The kitten rubbed its’ pitiful head against her cheek. It climbed as fast as Yelena. They used to spend wilderness training sessions in trees. She always found Nat, no matter how far apart Yuri placed them. They would always find each other, that had been the promise. Natasha had abandoned that part of herself, Natalia and the weaponized Widow were locked in the recesses of her mind.

Now, she was alone. Save for a pathetic kitten that was probably infested with more vermin than the basement laundry room. Rats had taken all the washing machines hostage, save for one. The neighbor she trusted deserved to have laundry facilities free of rat squatters.

Tomorrow, after she evaded the Devil’s well-meaning breakfast, she’d clear the basement. And find the kitten a home. The items on her to-do list swelled along with all the clutter in her brain. Time passed and Natasha debated retrieving her phone, but could not be bothered to crawl towards the door.

Just when she’d talked herself into looking for a first-aid kit, thunderous knocking threatened her apartment. Natasha tossed the kitten onto her crumpled suit. She tucked the grimy beach towel in place, squared her shoulders and summoned a threatening expression.

“Yo! Open up. Or I’ll break it down.” The apartment door rattled with the force of a Californian earthquake. “Don’t test me. It’s pouring outside, my damned umbrella broke and I dropped my phone leaving the fucking subway.”

Wonderful. Jessica Jones, investigator of Hell’s Kitchen and occasional vigilante stood just outside her apartment. Natasha dripped on the carpet, while Jess steamed with anger and creative curses. Natasha swayed with indecision, she couldn’t make herself act.

“Did you barricade yourself in this shit-hole?” Jones swore as she shoved the warped wood. The cheap locks complained as she peeked into the dank foyer. “Fucking hell. How much do you pay for this Hobbit-hole?”

Natasha undid the latches, her ribs aching as she tested the limits of her injuries. As she twisted the deadbolt, several scabbed-over abdominal wounds split. Nat bit through her lip and leaned on the door as it swung open.

“Well, this isn’t how I pictured an Avenger living.” Jessica ditched her leather coat and shook out her hair. She started to re-engage the complicated security system that Natasha had installed, but quit three locks in. Instead, she bent her broken umbrella into a pretzel-like bolt.

Natasha hugged the wall, trying to hold onto consciousness. The towel was damp with her blood. Inhaling hurt, but holding her breath would only end in fainting. Who would care for the cat if she died? Wait, why did she give a shit?

She opened her mouth, ready to chastise the younger woman, but found that her voice had been stolen by exhaustion and blood loss.

“Cat got your tongue?” Jess smirked. She shed her shoes and screeched. Indignant mewling from the impossibly tiny kitten gave her pause. “Oh, shit. Are rats immune to pepper-spray?” She fumbled with a keychain loosely attached to her messenger bag.

Natasha slid towards the floor, dark spots bursting along her vision. A wave of dizziness snatched her from consciousness as Jessica dialed the most annoying archer she had the displeasure of digging out of a dumpster.

***

Chapter Text

***

“He’s here.” Jessica stifled a yawn and frowned at the smell of her own breath. “There a toothbrush around here? Or a mint?” She sniffed each of her armpits and quirked an eyebrow.

Natasha shrugged from her nest of blankets. Any movement exacerbated her injuries. Half a package of baby wipes had erased much, if not all of the gore from her limbs. Pain pulsed through her swollen face and radiated from her scalp to her toenails.

Her shady neighbor had left a laundry basket of necessities for her and her un-welcome visitor. The supplies were needed, but Natasha felt uneasy accepting her charity. Kindness cost more than she could afford. Acts of generosity were traps, fodder for blackmail and vital to the curriculum of the Red Room.

Jessica had rifled through the items and invented temporary bandages for Nat’s weeping wounds. The infamous Night Nurse directed Jones through basic first aid that didn’t involve stitches. Withdrawal fucked with Jessica’s fine motor skills. That in combination with their PTSD symptoms made for a potentially catastrophic clash.

Natasha considered it a victory that they’d secured a couple maxi pads along her spine with a creatively tied pair of pantyhose. Clint would argue Natasha’s definition of ‘lightly stabbed’, but at the moment, that was a moot point. Paper-towels, tape and an entire tube of Neosporin stabilized the rest of her wounds. Claire threatened action if Jess didn’t send pictures of the injuries at regular intervals. Natasha couldn’t bring herself to care.

Natasha watched through dissociated eyes as Jessica fought a roll of tape. Her attention turned to the generosity of elderly neighbor. Mrs. Huang deserved much more than Natasha was capable of providing. She’d thoughtfully included a handful of sanitary products, expired snacks, bottled water, towels, off-brand ointments and the promise of pho by early afternoon.

“For fuck’s sake. Hold onto your cane.” Jessica released the squeaky buzzer, allowing Matt to climb the four flights of stairs. If he was lucky, he could avoid the nightly pile-up of drunks that resided one floor and several units west of her apartment.

Jessica narrated her actions, grumbling as she fought to zip her weathered leather boots. The P.I. didn’t seem bothered by Natasha’s silence. The lack of Wi-Fi did piss her off, but whatever tech had been left in the apartment had been stolen as soon as Natasha vacated the premises. Jessica supposed she should be lucky that the outlets provided enough weak electricity to charge her phone.

“What’s the point.” Jones sighed, chewing a handful of Tic-tac’s. The mint roiled Natasha’s stomach. Her skin flushed at the memory of Yuri choking her. He ground his pelvis against her, his breath heavy with the scent of peppermint.

Jessica had found Vodka in her freezer and consumed an amount that would’ve made Ivan proud. “Murdock will smell my night from the sidewalk.” She swallowed the last mouthful and sighed at the empty bottle.

The night had passed with little fanfare. Both women woke to nightmares, coated in sweaty fear. The kitten absorbed their anxiety, waking when they startled. The cycle repeated ad nauseam until hazy sunshine heated the couch potatoes to uncomfortable temperatures.

To avoid cooking in their own perspiration, Jessica had dragged Nat to the tub. They bathed with disposable baby-wipes and accepted the fact they were contributing to global warming as they bagged them with the Widow’s shredded catsuit. Recycling be damned, Jones had more pressing problems.

Much to her disappointment, Natasha survived a couple hours trapped in her nightmares and woke to find the apartment in an even sadder state in daylight. The AC sputtered and choked, fanning lukewarm air around the tiny space. It did little to disturb the six months’ worth of dust that had settled over the interior.

Natasha flashed her phone in the P.I.’s direction. Jessica squinted as she read the proffered text through dry contacts. She barked a hollow laugh. “Yes, there’s coffee. But he needs proof of life. Your archer’s been a pain in the ass to all of us. We gotta let him in, but with his super senses, he won’t stay for long. This place reeks of blood, mildew and whatever is decomposing in the ally.”

Natasha almost smiled at the thought of Hawkeye torturing the Defenders from his farm. But then, she pictured Laura and the girls and guilt burned her esophagus like vomit.

“Ready?” Jessica re-buttoned her worn jeans and burped. “I’m not. But the promise of caffeine is a risk I’m willing to take.” She groaned as she popped several vertebrae in her neck.

She reminded Natasha of a younger Barton, someone lost and angry at the world for all the trauma that had been heaped on them. His childhood had mirrored her own, in the sense that stability had been consistently absent.

In another life, maybe Jessica and Yelena would have been allies. None of them had friends, Natasha never had developed the social skills required to form relationships. The Barton family held onto her, for some unknown reason. They cared and swore they loved her, despite her many faults. Lies, lies, lies.

Murdock froze less than a foot over the threshold of the apartment. “What the fuck do you have in here.” He sneezed with the force of a Gatling gun. Coffee sloshed over the edges of the cups.

“If you drop that, I’ll spear with that prop cane.” Jessica growled, snatching the tray of life-giving coffees from her fellow Defender. “And, I’ll tell Wade where to find you and Foggy.”

Fuzzy recollections of Josie’s bar lapped at Natasha’s memory. A chubby man with blond hair and a carefree laugh matched the description of Matt’s law partner. She signed cat, pointing at the pile of towels that her furry squatter had claimed.

“You wouldn’t. He defiled my kitchen. I’ve had five professional cleaners in and the microwave is un-usable.” He shuddered and swallowed a wave of disgust. He reached for Jessica’s neck as he wheezed. “Give me your scarf.” Matt demanded. He choked out a cough, a mouthful of spit painting Jess’s face.

She spun him into a headlock as he descended into another fit of sneezes. “Toddlers have better aim than you.” Jessica tossed him into a wall. He coughed and sputtered.

“Good morning to you too.” Matt massaged his throat. “Where are you hiding Barton’s better half?”

Jess held her scarf towards Natasha and quirked an eyebrow at the kitten. A bit of dander wouldn’t be enough to incapacitate the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen? Then again, as the vigilante sneezed with enough force to bend him at the waist, Natasha dismissed her ally’s idea.

Natasha smacked the cushion to catch Matt’s attention. He cocked his head in her direction and nodded. “Ah. Could you take a picture, so he stops spamming all of us?” He held out his ancient phone, letting Jones direct the camera.

“Beautiful.” Jessica caught a blurry shot of burrito-ed Natasha, flipping off the vigilantes. She spammed Hawkeye with a half dozen candid pictures of the recovering Widow. “Now, you promised breakfast. I’m broke until Wednesday.”

“It’s Friday, Jess.” Matt sighed, pocketing the phone that Foggy and Karen made him carry. Even after they uncovered his identity, his business partners worried about his safety. Matthew Murdock, attorney at law did not have the energy to fight off slumlords and manage his loyal friends’ anxieties.

“Huh.” Jessica stomped into the kitchenette. She plucked one of the Styrofoam to-go cups and unlocked her phone. Disgruntled noises coupled with typing sounds told Natasha that she was digging through her banking apps.

Matt turned his attention to Natasha while he arranged Jones’ scarf over his mouth and nose. He had identified the allergen and busied himself in mounting a fabric-based defense. “Now I know why Claire wanted your address. She left me three voicemails last night.”

Natasha signed no into his hand, her fingers pinching his palm. Most of Clint’s interactions with the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen occurred without his hearing aids, in a state of disarray in one of the many dumpsters that surrounded Murdock’s apartment.

Matt caught her wrist and sniffed. “Some of those are infected. You need Claire’s liberated medicine cabinet. She’s got the good stuff at Luke’s bar. Jess, you wouldn’t mind a pitstop on the way to my apartment, right?”

“Don’t tease.” She snapped. Jess tossed the phone into her bag, the device struck something that sounded like a bottle. “I need it in writing that you’ll pay my tab. ‘M not gonna fall for that legalese bullshit again.”

“Transcribe it in Braille.” Matt smiled at the banter. “Then we’ll talk.”

She backed against the dusty couch. Frustrated tension heated the tiny apartment. Natasha’s mind spun terrifying possibilities. Murdock would report her to Madam. Yuri and his men would come for her, they would punish Yelena, she would survive their assault. But her sestra…she must protect her at all costs.

***

Chapter Text

***

Medical attention meant failure. Natasha’s heart accelerated to match her the breakneck pace of her tumultuous brain. The reality of Hell’s Kitchen fuzzed around the splinters of memory. Real or not real? Minds could not be trusted.

Cartoons poisoned like the shiny red apple ground Natasha’s frontal lobe to mush. Propaganda promised perfection. She fell short. Down, down, down the rabbit hole she fell.

Action would be swift. Bile churned her stomach, aggravating ulcers and the stitches that zigzagged around her bellybutton. Sestras called to her from beyond their eternal beds.

“If you’re gonna puke, give me a sign or something okay? I just duct-taped the sole back on these boots.”

The policy that had underscored the workings of the Red Room had been programmed into the women through hours of cartoon-based propaganda. Projectors flickered in her hindbrain, reminding her of what had passed for childhood.

The rules of survival punctuated each memory Natalia held of her life. Every handler had the right to assault soldats and Widows in training. Violence led to violence. Discipline equated punishment.

***

“She’s not breathing normally…is she going to pass out?”

“Fuck if I know. Where’s your hot concierge nurse who caters to this hellhole?”

“Working. Like a normal person.”

“How dare Temple pretend. She still owes me a drink.”

“Josie’s isn’t keen on a ‘Defenders’ reunion anytime soon. Foggy’s still plying her with deli-meat, but thus far she’s slow to accept the sodium as a bribe.”

***

Madam, the voyeur of the Red Room, studied her protégés through the two-way mirror. Her prized handlers took turns raping the Widow in-training.

Natalia’s compliance had been ensured through threats. Her survival depended on her dissociation.

Vague memories sharpened into a Yelena-shaped blob of guilt. Madam’s knife, held to her favorite sestra jugular, dulled the pain between Natalia’s legs. Body memories nauseated her empty stomach. Bile would only increase her nausea. She probably would not make it to the bathroom on her own. Well, she could, after passing out once or twice. But she only allowed herself that luxury when she found herself alone at S.H.I.E.L.D.

“Natasha?”

The voice sliced through her brain fog like a warmed knife through a stack of pancakes. Barton loved that dish, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Confusing memories of Laura and a hand carved kitchen table interrupted the stream of Red Room recollections.

Male. She couldn’t focus on the figure. They cocked their head in her direction, fists were clenched at his side. Threat?

Natasha’s mind and body failed to agree on how old they were, where they were and what the present mission meant. Yuri’s body contained a demon encased in a wrapper of rage.

She flinched away from Murdock’s touch. Two assailants spoke and Natasha’s struggled to formulate an escape plan. “Do you have his number?”

“I don’t know. This is a burner phone.”

But, the ache, from years of abuse and her most recent mission at the direction of S.H.I.E.L.D. overwhelmed her senses. Throbbing between her legs robbed her of her ability to think. He’d kill her slowly, one cut at a time. He’d use her body’s map of veins to extend the game. A severed artery would be a blessing, one that bad girls like Natalia did not deserve. Her sins damned her to a painful death.

“Hey. Jones, she’s-.”

Adrenaline flooded her body, granting her temporary strength. Natasha propelled herself over to the bathroom, locked the door and tumbled through the window.

The fire escape groaned, but she barely registered the impact of the metal stairs against her already battered body.

The city could swallow her whole. She could lose herself in the chaos of a model metropolis. New York City would hide remains. Just like Berlin. Like Dar es Saleem. She had disappeared before, more times than she could recount.

Bloody footprints washed into drains.

Skin healed, scarred and broke again.

Shattered bones and brains be damned.

Natalia felt fire, then nothing as she found oblivion.

Trauma ignored, was trauma resolved.

Down, down, down all the Widows fell.

Pavement rose to greet Natalia. Departed sestras followed her down the rabbit hole.

Unconsciousness left her unable to ignore the decades of trauma she’d endured. Hands harmed. Objects raped. Sestras begged. Teachers threatened. Cum choked. People lied, nothing changed.

***

Chapter Text

***

Antecedent.

She held the pen to the incident report, the lies suspended in a post-concussion haze. Natasha braced her wrist against the clipboard. A well-meaning tech had offered her a generic OTC that wouldn’t touch the ache between her legs.

Parties Involved. Location of injury. Description of Incident.

Before, during, after. That details that S.H.I.E.L.D. obsessed over made little sense to a former matryoshka used to Red Room politics. Who cared about injuries at headquarters? What reason could these bureaucrats have for tracking their agent’s health? Save for weaponizing their weaknesses, Natasha could not grasp their motivation.

That thought churned Natasha’s empty stomach. Acid chewed through her foggy brain. The reality of the locker room crashed through her feeble dissociation.

Anger heated her cheeks. Natasha yearned for oblivion. A desire to run until she lost consciousness, fling herself into the anonymity of the city or crawl into one of Barton’s many vent-based nests intoxicated her barely functioning mind.

Natasha’s foot twitched with anxious energy. Pain spasmed through her knee. A fluorescent light flickered above the stained curtained area. She waited for an opportunity. Her ability to focus wavered, like her resolve to ignore the recent vaginal trauma.

“Are you sure? If there’s anything else. You can tell me. Or anyone. We can hold off on submitting the report. There’s time if you’d like a more…thorough exam.”

Assumptions. They didn’t know anything about her. Nothing. Pride had Natasha limping towards the exit before dizziness and the roar of an ocean in her ears sent her bumping into a gaggle of concerned medical staff.

Damned pencil-pushing data analysts with their carpal tunnel and lumbar pain. A bleary-eyed, overworked, exhausted supervisor frowned at her threadbare paperwork. She couldn’t submit a formal report with so many questions unanswered. The gown itched. Her body rejected the very concept of help. Natasha clenched her jaw, trapping her words in her mouth. Protests fell on deaf ears, the staff heard what they wanted to hear.

“An ice pack isn’t going to help that. Let’s get an x-ray or three.”

Nurses and techs had winced sympathetically at pathetically swollen knees. Bruises would bloom tomorrow, but for now she had adrenaline suppressing any pain. What she needed, from this understaffed Americanized urgent care were anti-viral meds and a butterfly needle. She could draw her own labs and sneak into a lab. She had connections and stealth on her side.

Natasha hated her body for reacting with blotchy bruises. She hated S.H.I.E.L.D. protocols. She hated the way that the medical staff stared. How they questioned her story. How they knew she was lying, but couldn’t do anything but offer vague advice and tired sympathies.

“Stairs, huh? Coulda sworn those…” An older nurse firmly grasped her wrist and examined her blotchy skin. “Are from nails. And you got yours nice and short, these marks don’t match.” The nurse hmphed in Natasha’s silence.

She fiddled with her hair, trying to look meek. Natasha channeled a shy impersonation of a naïve agent. Moonlighters in medical knew little of her past, which is why she restricted her healthcare to the middle of the night. She could slip in an out undetected if she stuck to curtained areas out of the range of security cameras.

She shrugged, letting her feet swing away from the exam table. Paper crinkled under her hips and grated her already fraying nerves.

“No. I’m just clumsy.” She attempted a giggle, nervous energy adding her fraying façade. “All the training is making me tired.” Natasha debated twirling a lock of hair around a finger.

Natasha fantasized dropping a bomb of truth, that one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most decorated agents, their pride and joy of stealth operations was a man after all.

He had been delighted to find her alone in the locker room, lacing her sneakers. She had been weak and stupid to let herself listen to music. That was luxury that made Americans soft. Had all of her training in the Red Room been wasted?

Madam and her dead sestras screamed their confirmation from the confines of her skull. Ghosts rattled through her skeleton, evidence of Natasha’s guilt radiating along her spine.

“This isn’t enough on this…”. The nurse flipped through her paperwork and a raised eyebrow. A wave of hot shame washed over Natasha, again. “I know you’ve heard this already. But if you wanna take another stab at this report, come back. It won’t be filed until the end of the weekend.”

Natasha attempted a demure smile. No, she wouldn’t be filing anything formal with S.H.I.E.L.D. Since when had paperwork solved a problem like rape? Matryoshkas existed outside the Red Room. Barton had promised freedom, but Natasha knew better than to trust promises without an unhealthy dose of skepticism.

“Let me give you another ice pack. Okay? Just come back if you need anything stronger than Advil.”

Vodka. Starvation. Drowning in a S.H.I.E.L.D. regulation shower. Isolation through volunteering for suicidal missions. These are a few of Natasha’s favorite ways to cope. A depressing soundtrack to her life as an ex-assassin.

Laura told her that her past did not need to define her current life. That her choices were her own. That Natasha could live a life without Madam controlling her movements. The problem, Natasha knew was that in the absence of the Red Room and her role as a weapon, Natasha ceased to be…anything.

Rape. Transactional relationships. Eliminating threats to the innocent. Failure, failure, failure. Agent Rumlow’s body, pinning her against the lockers.

Resistance would not be tolerated, Madam’s disappointment had fatal consequences. Shame jockeyed for position with pain as flashbacks re-animated the rape. Nerves, skin, sweat, pain, cum, spit and the tang of blood swirled together like a horrific carousel of sense memories.

Pockets full of contraband, Natasha bid the empathy riddled medical team adieu. Pockets. Natasha extracted a strip of rubber and a thin needle, feeling like an addict. In a way, Natasha was. Addiction to substances, vices that were ingested could be understood by the masses. Natasha’s habits were just as devastating, but hid under labels like ‘motivated’, ‘resilient’ and ‘determined’.

Her blood warmed the test tube nestled at the crook of her elbow. Appearances could be deceiving. DNA should be altered by an act as violent as rape. But Natasha wondered if her marrow differed. After all, her graduation ‘ceremony’ had robbed her of her uterus and ovaries.

Surely, her genetic material was fucked beyond scientific recognition. Captain America remained pure of heart and intent. Natasha’s heart had been eliminated along with her innocence before she could read and write in any language. Capping the tube, Natasha willed herself to stand.

Rise, Natalia.

The hallways swayed. She stumbled along the uniform corridors.

Blood could be tested. Meds were easily stolen, if she needed. Whatever corrupted version of the super-serum she’d been ‘gifted’ as a child would eliminate sexually transmitted infections.

The rape. Rumlow’s assault would go unnoticed.

Natasha danced to a tune only she heard. Her body lurched from one side of the hall to the other, slowly making her way towards her apartment. Every stumbling step reminded her of her physical limitations.

Her body would forget. It would learn to function as a skeleton. Monsters were disgusted by bony angles, sallow skin and numbed affect. Matryoshkas could freeze and fawn. Flight and fight were not in their nature. Weaponized dolls, laid to rest with their expressions painted lacked autonomy.

Natasha rocked on brittle bones, bruises yet to appear on her aching body. Shards of Rumlow’s fractured face stabbed through her brain fog as Natasha endured the memories of her latest rape.

***

Chapter Text

***

This time, the descent starts with rum. As much as Natasha is a cliché of cold war politics, she stubbornly resists the allure of vodka. She is product of Russia’s ego and carries chips the size of Siberia on her back.

She swallows the remnants of an abandoned drink. The taste of ash makes her gag. Yelena’s ghost laughs at her misfortune. She liked to smoke. No one could get away with contraband like that, except for her.

Natasha stacks shot glasses, using coasters to balance the squat glasses. She wonders if pharmaceuticals would help or hurt her situation. By the time she disintegrates the last napkin containing a man’s phone number, Natasha is no closer to settling on a plan.

The anonymity of a dive bar lets her nurse her wounds. But, the longer she fidgets in the booth, the more her body itches for a fight. Bloody knuckles and sweat made sense. Emotions and talking did not.

Voices layer sounds like techno beats. She loses herself as much as her enhanced senses will allow. The band feed off the energy of the crowd. They are shit, but since when did talent matter?

Natasha dances alone. She stays light on her toes, hyperaware of patrons. She hovered by stacked speakers twice her size. This system works, until a stranger interprets her aversion for flirtation. Story of her life.

The groper finds himself knocked against the dilapidated stage. Natasha finds herself evicted from yet another bar. If her life were a pop song, she’d have to add another notch to her lip balm.

The ally is inviting in a lonely sort of way. She trails a hand along a dumpster. A stab of nostalgia makes her heart ache. She ghosted Hawkeye, with the none of the efficiency that she had been trained to exude.

Yelena whistles as she stumbles through intersections and neon lights. She contorts into a backbend, blond braid pooling on the grimy concrete. Natasha pinches the fat along her ribs, to make her disappear.

When Natasha is able to concentrate, it is because she is drenched in gutter slush. A cab honks like a dying goose, angry that she dared cross the street. A communal bulletin board informs her that she is near Hell’s Kitchen. Black and white posters for piano lessons and missing pets swim in and out of focus.

She can’t treat New York like Budapest. People here cannot be bribed with promises of protection or threats from oligarchs. Natasha jimmies the lock on the P.I.’s shitty building.

There is a kind of refuge available. Natasha could pay the price, for a lukewarm shower and couch. Jessica wouldn’t immediately tattle. By the time she was sober enough to text, Natasha would be gone. That was the plan.

She stumbles up the stairs, the adrenaline leeching from her pores along with the alcohol. Natasha hated vomiting. Her sestra sprints ahead, taking the stairs twice as fast. She teases and insults with endearing familiarity.

Natasha’s stomach rumbled. She squeezed the skin, pinching until Yelena faded into memory. Mama Melina preached strength through pain. She could control her desires, her weaknesses, the essence of what made her human.

Natasha would fall down the rabbit hole until she couldn’t discern perfection from death.

Yelena nods from beyond the grave.

Her brain cracked and popped with flashbacks. The P.I. is numb to stimuli, thanks to a Cossack’s tolerance for alcohol. Natasha twists the knob to scorching and debates drowning herself in moldy shower.

Sleep eludes her, thanks to whatever pills she lifted in the third bar. She can’t catalogue her night, but doesn’t mind the gaps in her memory. At least these lapses are more normal than the brainwashing and conditioning of her childhood.

At some point, her body betrays her will and she succumbs to vivid nightmares. Her sestras have loosed pages from the Red Room’s ledgers. They release ghosts into the wilds of Natasha’s mind. The Barton’s’ are disgusted by her. She has compromised their safety. Their names appear on her ledger, blood oozing from the knife that never leaves her hand.

When she wakes to a mouthful of regret, Yelena curls her hair around her finger. She is skin and bone, but she is warm.

Natasha shivers and sweats with fever. The toilet is cool under her cheek. She hates herself for wanting comfort. Laura nursed her with tenderness, kindness and love that she had never known. Her pseudo-parents never nourished her beyond approved nutrition and training regimens.

Yelena whistles. Each note punctuated Natasha’s foggy thoughts with crushing grief. The tang of blood and bile made her laugh. Pain parented her and her little sestra.

How fitting then, that Yelena would haunt her as she sought oblivion.

***

Chapter Text

***

Natasha has ‘it’ under control. What is ‘it’, exactly? She’s not sure. But she pokes at a stale breakfast pastry before squishing into another layer of trash. Jessica’s poor excuse for a kitchen suffered from chronic neglect.

The garbage bag strains under the weight of uneaten food and paper products. Natasha holds her breath as she lets the lid cover the mess. The shower creaks to life and Natasha knows she has less than ten minutes.

The odor of the trash is a strong enough deterrent to keep Natasha’s stomach quiet. She retreats to the space between the couch and bookcase. Her ass cleared the corner of cobwebs days ago. Natasha burrows into a hoodie she stole from Clint and debates a nap.

Jessica shuffles into the kitchen and sniffs at the mug of tea. She chugs it after adding a splash of whiskey. Natasha exhales a breath, one that she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

They orbit each other like the moons of a distant planet. The last time Natasha had used her voice and spoken actual words to anyone, had been when she’d begged Jessica for sanctuary.

Bitterness welled in her throat. She traced the cover of the e-reader the Barton’s had gifted her for Christmas. Dr. Banner and Mr. Stark had added hundreds of books, old and new to the digital library. Boots appeared in Natasha’s line of sight. The woman attached to the dilapidated shoes, cursed as she shoved files into a tote bag.

Jessica nodded to her as she tossed a scarf around her neck. Natasha blinked. She used to be a master of manipulation. She had unspooled into a hermit without a voice in a matter of days.

Jessica coughed, the door to the apartment creaking under her hand. “Malcolm’s dropping off organic carrots or some shit later. Try not to kill him. I warned him not to come in, but he’s got kind of an obsession with trying to clean when I’m not here.”

Natasha nods, offering a shaky thumbs up to the P.I. She groans at herself, hating the gesture she made. But by the time she returns to her body, Jessica is gone. There is no animosity in their interactions, but much is left unsaid. Assumptions left her crossing her legs and imitating Lila’s potty dance for hours, wondering if Jessica was in the bathroom. Natasha oscillates between painful awareness and foggy purgatory. The weight of indecision pinned her to the floor. Tremors rolled through her body. She felt too cold to sweat, but perspiration beaded along her hairline.

If she closed her eyes, the hood of Clint’s sweatshirt carried his scent. If she squeezed her eyelids against reality, Yelena called to her. If she curled on her side, Yelena would sing to her. It would be off-key. But her sestra radiated familiar pain. Memories that were drenched in bitter guilt, could still taste sweet under the right manipulations.

No. Natasha shakes herself free of the impulse to doze. She needs two attempts to access the e-reader. Passwords are scrambled in her brain, along with her reasons for running away. Titles of books barely catch her attention as she scrolls through digital collections.

Distraction is the key to ignoring hunger pangs and dozens of unanswered text messages. She can’t do anything. Thoughts are a paralytic that she has not developed a tolerance against. Natasha flips the phone, screen down and tries to redirect her attention to the e-reader.

Natasha can’t commit to a new story, so she falls into a familiar plot. Books are like oxygen. When reality is unbearable, fiction keeps her alive. Vices serve a purpose but require moderation. Clint’s wise words make her think of his vents. Bags of gummy candy, drawings from his kids and stacks of old comics decorated his sacred safe spaces. What did Natasha have?

A go-bag. She glanced at the unassuming backpack, hiding pockets and treasures untold. She looped a strap around her wrist and curled onto her side. The borrowed blanket has likely been trampled by feral cats. Although, knowing the rate at which Jessica’s apartment is burglarized, the urine could be from a human.

The ability to thrive in warzones, a head full of toxic memories and a bag full of spy-gear is what Natasha has left. Despite the stench, the blanket is warm. Natasha had slept in worse places. There is steel threaded into the straps of her bag. She isn’t worried about being caught off-guard by a threat. She is terrified of dying…fat and vulnerable.

Her phone vibrates. She runs a finger along the case, feeling every scratch and divot in the plastic. She considers how Jessica survives, as she skims the first chapter of a dystopian nightmare. Avoidance is a temporary solution. She is always falling short of expectations. Panic builds towards a sob. Natasha bites her lip; the taste of blood is an antidote to her tears.

Natasha knows how the trilogy will end, but predictability is not a deterrent when she’s evaluating media. Familiarity equals safety. But now, maybe that was a product of habit? She didn’t want to protect herself anymore. She deserved to suffer. After all, what was this detour in Hell’s Kitchen all about? She had dragged her suffering to a Defender’s door and half-heartedly hoped to be killed.

But Jessica accepted her and all her baggage…well, she accepted what she knew of the infamous ‘Black Widow’. Some days, Natasha did not know her own history. Still, the compassion confused her. At least with Yelena, she expected violence and possible death at their reunions. She always delivered a well-choreographed fight.

The next book she tries is a dry, but informative tome detailing Napoleon’s 1812 jaunt into Moscow. Trauma infects every thought in Natasha’s brain. Neither woman communicates well, which leaves them to crushing isolation. They wake to individualized nightmares after an hour or two of haphazard sleep. Jessica drowns her consciousness with booze, while Natasha memorizes passages from books. When that fails, she recites pages of field manuals in Russian, Polish, German, French and Spanish.

Natasha’s phone buzzes with a text from an unknown number. Now there is a written record of her assistant’s E.T.A. with groceries. Somehow, Jessica can execute her roles as a P.I. and moonlighting vigilante with clumsy perfection. Natasha has caused more harm than good in her life.

Natasha marvels at Jones’ skills, while listening to Madam’s voice. Her judgements widen cracks along her confidence. Natasha’s faults repeat on a continuous loop. There is nothing, no work to distract her from tearing herself apart, one cell at a time.

***

Chapter Text

***

She keeps up appearances with S.H.I.E.L.D. Briefings are tedious, but Natasha’s ability to functionally dissociate had been ingrained since she was Lila’s age. Her paperwork is flawless, scut work completed perfectly, and misogynist comments ignored. She volunteered for solo missions that involved hours of observation in isolated, often dumpster-adjacent places.

Her apartment at S.H.I.E.L.D. gathers dust, but thanks to Jones she can loop camera footage and keep the agency none-the-wiser about her couch surfing. Natasha is reluctant to repeat the mistake of living at headquarters.

Maria manipulates a miracle by keeping other agents away from her. Fury and Coulson orbit her reports, communicating via e-mail or post-it notes. Neither wants to risk injury without Barton for a buffer.

Missions come and go. Video calls with Laura are abbreviated and often plagued with ‘bad luck’. Internet in the city that never sleeps is shockingly unreliable. When Nat can’t bring herself to answer the phone, she silences the device and buries it under a cushion. Jessica’s apartment exists to house booze and take damage from some of New York’s most corrupt assholes.

Lies tighten the noose around Natasha’s guilty neck. The critics in her head absorb more and more of her sanity, until she can’t trust reality.

Honeypots keep her busy, too busy for regular communication. People are currency and she remembers how to use her body. Money is fallible. Secrets cannot be traced. Manipulation of evidence is essential to her work, lying used to be vital to her survival.

She smiles, but the camera can’t alibi the lies. They multiply like bacteria, a pandemic that will erase Natasha’s personality.

It is too easy to fall back into old habits. Natasha can’t get drunk on missions, but when she is offered pills, she takes them. The tablets soften the sex she can’t consent to.

The pills amplify Yelena’s whispers. Her ability to evade questions from Laura irritate ulcers that brand her digestive tract.

Natasha exists on dread, avoidance and stubborn will. Carefully cultivated lies aid and abet her eventual death. She is desperate to eliminate her ability to feel.

Matt’s senses pain him, in the way that her past does. Daredevil channels that frustration into vigilante work. What does Natasha want to do with her life? Barton saved her, but for what purpose?

She is dizzy.

She is cold.

She is eliminating the threat that ticks at the base of her brain. Natasha’s psyche is made of jagged shrapnel, it is only a matter of time before detonation. Isolation might prevent her from harming the Barton’s. Jessica could protect herself from the fallout, she would survive.

At the thought of her ornery roommate, Natasha’s heart constricted. Her sestras had died, but she had not been granted that kindness.

Natasha cannot think. When she fails to stay awake, Rumlow haunts her. He hijacks her nightmares, twisting innocuous dreams into terrifying flashbacks.

He is no different than other monsters, but Natasha is not the same matryoshka. He reeks of ordinary evil and swaggers around S.H.I.EL.D. like a conquistador. She has lost the ability to leave her body and distance herself from the memories. Cage’s deodorant causes Natasha’s vision to tunnel. Black Widows had no use for triggers, save for legitimate explosions. Emotions were frivolous and dangerous.

The last person who infected her with sentiment, communicated with her in hallucinations. Yelena frowns at Natasha’s thoughts and twirls bits of hair that escaped her complicated plait.

The proof is in the ghost that never leaves you.

Reading isn’t enough. Skipping meals isn’t enough. Natasha will never be enough.

She knows the gravity of her choices, but still chooses destruction.

Natasha tips the unopened bottle of water with her foot. It rolls under the couch with a gentle nudge. The legions of dust bunnies would have to jokey for space. She zones in an out of books, until stories twist like complicated braids. Her mind dulls all thoughts.

The body must conserve energy, when she depletes it of nutrients. Everything will get worse. She is prepared for that. Clint isn’t ready to lose her. Natasha reads until she drops into a light sleep.

Jessica isn’t not one to judge. Half a granola bar and a beer are what she considers a balanced breakfast. She leaves the apartment at odd intervals, there’s no logic to her schedule as an investigator.

Natasha is the human version of a feral cat. She flees from attention and disappears during daylight. They live separate lives. She works through case files that Jessica leaves around the apartment. She scribbles bits of information in the margins, leading Jessica towards a potential solution. Resolutions to strangers’ problems dull the constant buzz in her brain.

***

Chapter Text

***

“I’m too sober for this.” Jessica’s search for relief had ended in frustration. Luckily, Natasha had some Tylenol squirreled away in her purse, which she swallowed dry with a shudder. Predictably, the subway exacerbated both women’s PTSD.

Thunder rumbled and wind whipped bits of trash on the sidewalk. Natasha retreated into the hoodie, wrapping her arms around herself. Avenger’s Tower, recently remodeled loomed over Manhattan.

“Fuck.” Jessica shoved a pair of sunglasses into place. “Let’s go. Security’s going to be awful.”

Natasha picked at her cuticles; her nerves frayed and jittery. “Try not to break the metal detector…or one of the guards.”

Jessica had made the short list for most unwelcome guest on Stark’s property. Happy Hogan had her picture posted in his office, between Mr. Fisk and Eleanor Bishop. Nat thought those rankings were a bit unfair, but Tony attracted a lot of threats. Jones lacked a filter when it came to her opinions.

“No promises.” Jessica stifled a yawn and dented the handle as she yanked the door open.

Natasha braced herself for the sensory experience that was Tony Stark’s property. Pepper had tempered his sense of entitlement and impulsivity, but at the end of the day the man she married was a brilliant eccentric billionaire.

The lobby contained gaggles of employees, chittering like nervous birds. Little gasps crumpled what little confidence Natasha had stored away. Jessica scowled at the gossiping staff, but the click of cameras flashed around the space.

“Ma’am, I just need you to step through.” The guard looked young enough to be in high school.

Jessica flexed her fingers before tightening them into fists. “I already did! God, this is why I don’t leave the Kitchen.”

Natasha masked the start of smile in her scarf. “You get out plenty.”

“That’s work-related. And it’s usually breaking and entering.” Jessica kicked off her boots. She shimmied out of her leather jacket and dropped it over the boots. “Fuck it, I’m not lacing them again.”

The guard’s voice wobbled. He lacked the confidence for confrontation, which wasn’t ideal in his line of work. “But the machine is telling us that you have something on you…that’s metal.”

“What?” She doubled back, walking through the metal detector for the third time. She stubbed a toe as she stomped around the barriers. Several expletives and hops later, Jessica turned her attention to the poor mousy guard.

“Do you want this?” Jessica extracted her bra and dangled it in front of the security guard. “Huh? Is this the thin piece of THREATENING metal that your paranoid boss wanted?”

“Jones.” Natasha coughed. The heat of attention was making her sweat with shame. “The internet is eternal.” People were filming Jessica’s confrontation with yet another Stark employee. Nat blanched as she tallied the number of phones cementing this moment.

“I know that.” Jessica snapped. “I was making a point.” She flipped off a woman filming the encounter before making a dash for the elevator.

Natasha signed her apologies to Stark lobby and trailed Hell’s Kitchen’s infamous P.I. “Well, let’s try to stay focused.” Her moonlighting at Alias Investigations had led to a devastating discovery. Even with Daredevil, they were short on supplies, intel and a plan.

Jessica sighed and ran a finger along all the buttons, tempted to delay their arrival at the meeting. “Yeah, we’re trading skills for Stark’s favor. I feel dirty.” Pepper promised a bit of scut work in exchange for access to Tony’s vast, slightly illegally obtained database.

So did Natasha, but she kept that comment inside. Clint did not support her participation in this mission but agreed not to tell Laura. Human trafficking would trigger most of the Barton’s for a myriad of reasons which was reason enough for Natasha to distance herself from the farm and all that it represented.

Natasha smacked Jessica’s arm. “Yup.” She popped the ‘p’ and rolled her shoulders. Dread tensed her muscles in a way that made her yearn for combat. The burn of a bullet wound made more sense than stabbing emotional pain.

“This better be worth it.” Jessica tucked hair behind both ears, cracked her cheap sunglasses in half and strode out of the elevator. “Trish doesn’t make me jump through this many hoops.”

***

Natasha judged the thermostat. The conference room bordered on arctic temperatures. Her fingers were numb, and she knew she was behaving like a child by keeping her hands in the kangaroo pocket of the hoodie. She had her knees bent; shins pressed against the conference table.

Everything about her body language communicated disinterest, but underneath the façade thrummed intense anxiety.

Bruce stared at her from across the room, begging for eye contact. She avoided everyone’s gaze. Barton sent an e-mail, he had what was supposed to be quick extraction in France and couldn’t make the Avengers rendezvous.

Jessica negotiated with Pepper, while Tony fiddled with one of his tablets. Communicating directly with Stark led to costly property damage.

“So, I’ll check in via e-mail.” Pepper’s manicured nails clacked against the keyboard as she summarized the meeting. Tony spun the office chair, mentally checked of this gathering from the start. “Does that work for Alias Investigations?”

“Sure, Malcolm handles that.” He reheated take-out and stocked her fridge with bottled water. He managed her life with ninja-like precision and fought his demons every day. Jessica tolerated his presence more than any other person in their apartment building.

“Who’s that?” Pepper asked conversationally. She clicked through menus, saving notes and distributing access codes through e-mail.

Jessica looked at Natasha. She shook her head, unsure what Jones wanted her to say. Jessica scratched at her nose and fumbled through words until she dusted off collegiate terminology. “Uh…intern. Paid, of course. Well, not regularly, but I share my fee.”

Natasha shrugged into her coat. The scarf couldn’t hide her completely, but she felt safer under all the layers. She continued tracing patterns on the Styrofoam cup. The tea wasn’t fit for consumption, but it was warm. Nat couldn’t stay warm anymore. Her body rejected comfort, like her brain rejected safety.

Once terms were reached, Jessica swept packets of sweetener and miniature cups of creamer into her messenger bag. She dreaded business etiquette, like shaking hands and small talk. Manners were never a part of Jones’ valued skill set.

Natasha pasted her best faux friendly face. “Thanks.” She waved like an idiot at Stark and Bruce. What was she grateful for? Dr. Banner furrowed his eyebrows, pity colored his cheeks.

“Red, you okay?” Tony squinted at the Widow. She resembled the fearsome assassin that simultaneously terrified and intrigued him. Something was funky thought, like slightly expired yogurt. “Need anything?”

No. Natasha could not take anything else from Tony. He treated money like candy. Monsters sweetened rape by leaving candy as a calling card. Regression into a matryoshka wasn’t an option, Natasha couldn’t let herself dissociate to that extreme. She needed to function.

Natasha squeaked. “Mm-hm.” Her ability to lie had deteriorated along with her muscles. Brains needed fat and Natasha had starved herself into a stupor. Stupid girl. Useless. Natasha would live out her days as a worn, refurbished assassin masquerading as an Avenger.

***

Chapter Text

***

“You stabbed me!” Clint bumped the doorframe of Alias Investigations. He panted, groaning as his brain calculated the damage.

His partner at S.H.I.E.L.D., the assassin he spared in Budapest, turned into a friend that had become an integral part of his family. “Ow. That smarts. Definitely not a tickle.”

Natasha shoved the alternate utensil up her literal sleeve. She ran out of her own clothes weeks ago. Jessica had found her scrubbing her underwear with a bar of soap and teased her until vodka squirted out her nose. Malcolm offered to do laundry along with Jessica’s, but Nat felt weird about a stranger touching items Laura had lent her. It felt like a betrayal and a line she could not cross.

Natasha mentally thanked Madam for the penetrating paranoia that transcended physical safety. “It was plastic.”

“That’s your defense?!” Clint stumbled into the apartment, bumping into furniture as he tried to look at the wound. “Nat, I thought we were past all the issues with forks. Skye sticks to the rules. Throwing knives are for outside. Ah, sugar cookies.” He hissed. A muscle south of his nipples seized with pain. Gingerly he probed his chest, working up the courage to find the embedded utensil.

“Um.” The absurdity of the fork in Barton’s abdomen struck her as funny, but Nat didn’t dare laugh. She bit her tongue, hoping the blood would sober her enough to focus.

“No ‘hi’?” Sarcasm came off as a little morose when he was probably bleeding internally. He lacked an ‘ear’ for humor, literally and metaphorically. “Not even a ‘sorry’?”

“Hello.” She waved in his general direction; gaze glued to floor. She debated signing sorry, but given that Clint was not looking at her, she crossed her arms over her chest instead.

Clint wedged himself between a dusty bookcase and the kitchen. He didn’t plan; impulsivity fed his creative juices. Laura lectured him about masking and adult ADHD, but Clint hadn’t gotten around to reading the articles. “Got any paper towels?”

“Don’t!” The toaster crashed to the linoleum as Natasha grabbed for the roll of paper towels. The counter housed a myriad of household appliances, courtesy of Trish. “Don’t touch it.”

A wet squelch told her that advice came too late. Clint dropped the fork as Jessica stomped out of the bathroom. She raged; steam curled around her toweled body as she took in the sight of Hawkeye in her foyer.

Clint waggled his fingers by way of greeting, managing to blush despite the blood loss.

“Huh. That’s…gross.” He tilted his head, his mouth split into a goofy grin.

“Ooh.” Natasha cursed, expletives from a variety of languages spewed from her with the ferocity of venom. “Would you sit down already?”

Clint winced. “I’d be leaking more if you hit something important.” He tore another sheet from the roll and packed it against the wound. He grunted as the pressure turned to pain.

Natasha locked the door and patted her empty pockets for her phone. Clint slumped in half when another wave of dizziness slammed into his skeleton. He only bent so far before his spine straightened involuntarily. His belly pulsed like he’d eaten from that taco truck near Tompkins Square Park.

“Jones, can you call that friend of yours?” Natasha interrupted Jessica’s shivering rant. She had stalked to and from her room, adding clothes as she yelled. But she had managed to unlock her own smartphone and throw it at Nat.

“Barton, so help me. If you pass out…I will call Laura.”

Jessica swirled the contents of day-old coffee. The paper cup didn’t inspire confidence, but caffeine was caffeine. “Not that I care, but is Laura someone who is going to try and kill me? Trish has replaced my locks like three times in the last six months.” She drained the bitterly cold coffee. The office seemed like a place for Malcolm to stash laundry, but it was worth a shot.

“She’s not a ninja.” Clint swallowed, looking like he could toss his cookies. “That I know of?” Ghost was a lovely shade on Halloween decorations but didn’t suit the archer. “You’ve made the acquaintance of my favorite martial artist. Seems like she’s camped out here, actually.”

The words come out more accusatory and slurred then he meant. But there was truth under the vim and vigor. He felt guilty and hurt that she’d left the safety of the Barton’s farm. Mostly, he felt tired.

“”Fuck.” He exhaled, his lips vibrating together. Raspberries made Lila’s belly shake with laughter. He missed his family. Yearning clenched his heart, or maybe those were objections from his throbbing gut. But Natasha was part of his family. Emotions were impossible to untangle in the face of friendly stabbings. “I need a nap.”

“Coffee!” Natasha shook his face, smushing his cheeks together. “I’ll make you a deal. Stay awake and I’ll let you drink from the pot.”

“As if you could stop me.” He snorted. His ability to concentrate ebbed and flowed with the nausea. Dizziness blurred the lights in Jones’ apartment. Clint blinked in slow motion, trying to focus Nat’s features. She promised caffeine and could probably keep him from bleeding out with slapdash field medicine. At least Nat had paid attention during those certification courses, Clint had doodled on the packets and snuck M&M’s from his backpack.

Natasha let the conversation between the notorious P.I. and the Night Nurse fade into the background of her brain. She tuned in and out of her own life with an ease that scared well-adjusted people.

Clint used to understand the cobwebbed corners of her trauma. He’d grown up in a literal circus, whereas she had survived cult-adjacent programming. Despite their differing childhoods, both had been forged into weapons for a variety of government agencies.

She was finding solace in Hell’s Kitchen. Ground level vigilante justice kept her mind tethered to her brain. Her skeleton vibrated with anxiety. But trailing corrupt officials and cheating spouses gave her a way to channel her energy.

Maybe Matt has a point with all his bloody knuckles and blood-spattered suit.

***

Chapter Text

***

Natasha has one goal, wash away the evidence. A bar of soap melted against her palm. Sticky, crusted semen clung to her thighs. The taste of their sweat lingered.

Monsters didn’t bother with flirtation, they emulated conquistadors. Rape a country, rape a person. History repeated itself, Natasha was doomed to repeat her sestra’s mistakes.

Cleanliness, order, discipline and routine ruled the dormitories of the Red Room. She failed by consuming and living in luxury that she did not earn.

Madam frowned at her from the moldy shower. She could see bathroom. But seeing was not believing, contrary to the popular myth of Santa Claus. They were cleaned like cattle, frigid hoses and industrial soap. That soap burned, almost as much as the shame. At least Natasha had privacy when she was being assaulted. The aftermath felt like a cadaver lecture, flayed for all to observe.

Rape kits were a modernized concept that Natasha never could have imagined. Forensics boasted results but could not promise justice to survivors. Monsters reigned supreme in Madam’s house of horrors.

Rise, Romanova.

Old habits were hard to break. In the absence of physical violence, Natasha turned her strength on herself. Clint wouldn’t willingly hurt her. The Avengers would not punish her, like she deserved. Sparring sessions at Stark Tower were boring with no real stakes attached to winning or losing.

Barely balanced on an elbow, Nat swerves. Her own hand feels like a corpse, frigid and numb.

Oh. She should probably move. How long had she been acting like a pseudo statue?

Thoughts swim by her consciousness in lazy loops. If she tried, she might be able to catch one. But…that took more effort than Natasha cared to exert.

She needed to focus. Madam broke her toes when she lost the rhythm in class. Piano notes haunted her, instead of lifting her positions to perfect standards.

Exercises required perfect timing; anything less was punished. Once upon a time, she felt hunger. That particular weakness had been squashed until life with the Barton’s had re-awakened her humanity.

The room shifted. She couldn’t think through the brain fog. She had not spoken to Laura in days, possibly weeks. Guilt ensnared her senses. Clint probably hated her. After all, she was unforgivable. The kids would forget her and live safer lives without her.

Their faces pulsed across her vision. Hallucinations were a sign of health, that’s what she had to believe.

Water would buy her a few hours. But that would be cheating. The disordered thoughts that fed her eating disorder grew as her physical size shrank. The perverted Alice in Wonderland logic tortured Natasha and the people who claimed her as family.

Eight plastic bottles judge Natasha from her bedside table. They are unopened, perfectly aligned like disciplined soldiers.

But she hasn’t eaten more than a palmful of cereal in days. She can’t do anything with her shadowy vision, opening a bottle and sipping was impossible. Her body resisted movement. Her muscles contracted in stiff and unnatural ways as she creaked to life.

A couple hours ago, she tried to access one of Clint’s vents and found that she couldn’t leverage her body against the wall and leap into the space. Natasha slid along the halls, her vision tunneling as she found her way back into the damned apartment.

Stark’s suites were stocked with state-of-the-art appliances and all the creature comforts technology could offer. She loathed all the snacks, take-out menus and gluttonous binge watching that occurred. She hated herself for relying on Tony’s charity.

How weak was she? She couldn’t manage simple decisions. She was going to pee on the fucking floor. Staring at the bathroom had helped her realize that she had to do more than scrub her recent trauma away.

What was the matter with her? She had toppled governments with stealth and precision. Now her bladder threatened to betray her. How far Natasha had fallen from the pedestal of being an elite Black Widow.

Standing was progress. Incremental, idiotic progress, but progress, nonetheless.

Good, now take a step. She demanded perfection of herself, but she couldn’t grasp the lowest rung of success. Natasha’s brain fails to communicate the direction and she falls. Hard.

The sound humiliates her. It’s sharper than any surround sound speaker system. Her shame booms like thunder and flattens what little progress she had made.

Her fall summons help faster than a demon with a pentagram. Nat would prefer a vampire or Chupacabra to Barton. He rammed his bad shoulder against the door, popping it open with a growl of pain.

***

Chapter Text

***

He massages the sore joint against the doorframe. Clint had popped his shoulder back into place under terrible circumstances, probably more than once. The concussions fuzzed his ability to recall the details of his injuries.

Pepper had his medical records from S.H.I.E.L.D. catalogued, by year, somewhere in the bowels of Stark Tower. The employees who dealt with insurance bullshit shuddered at the fat files of claims that were attached to the notorious Hawkeye. He was an arrow-wielding liability of Hulk-sized proportions.

“God, what are you trying to do?” Clint had swallowed a mug of lukewarm coffee, but his stomach puckered at the thought of a real meal. Anxiety curdled his appetite more than an expired yogurt, sour chunks and all.

The caffeine sloshed around his empty stomach, as he jogged to Nat’s apartment. Stark’s AI warned him that she might need assistance, which Clint took to mean that something bad had already happened.

He had been in the Common Room, debating the ethics of swallowing espresso beans from Tony’s private cache. He had to absorb the caffeine, quickly or he would need an Epi pen’s worth of adrenaline to help her. Fear sustained temporarily, but Natasha required more nuanced attention.

Clint didn’t wait for an answer from the omniscient computerized butler. Natasha fell off the cliff recovery weeks, probably months ago. She stopped responding with any formalized language around a day and a half ago. Rarely, she signed non-answers to Clint’s questions.

Mostly, she stared around her darkened apartment like a creepy doll. Horror movies had nothing on the nightmares crafted by the Red Room.

Occasionally, she cried out during nightmares. The scariest moments, the ones burned into Clint’s brain, involved Nat’s own hands choking herself as she fought invisible demons.

So, he had not spent more than the length of a dehydrated pee break away from Natasha. But all the attention he had given had not kept her from spiraling. The relapse continued to strip away Nat’s personality more effectively than paint thinner.

Sans hearing aids, Clint couldn’t read her lips in the dark if she voiced a thought. If. His world had shrunk to revolving variables in a series of nonsensical equation. Everything he had to say would be lame. Clint was an idiot was it came to planned conversations; impulsivity was where his savant skills shone.

***

Barnes hovered at the Black Widow’s apartment door, hesitating action. He had a duty when she tried to hurt herself. But he couldn’t do anything right now, that would be invading Barton’s territory. Right?

He leaned against the wood, trying to look relaxed while every muscle in his uncooperative body tensed. James held Nat’s arms away from her neck when she scratched at invisible monsters. The choking that she remembered felt real. James could relate to that; Clint knew the kind of trauma that bonded his partner with the Winter Soldier.

They didn’t talk about it, but that was fine with both men. Emotional immaturity and dissociation had their benefits.

On the rare occasion she spoke, Natasha desperately tried to warn sestras, who were already dead and buried. She whispered a name, one that had been assigned to him by a much smaller, younger Natalia.

The memories of their time together were pocked with drugs, programming and torture. Clint didn’t ask what she said, and James politely did not offer translations.

***

“Dude.” Lame. Words failed. They always failed Clint, just when they should count the most.

Natasha out-stubborn-ed Clint and that scared the hell out of Laura. She was out of ideas and recommended they call a professional. Trained professionals that were vetted and trusted were few and far between. Many had quit Natasha’s unique case; a handful had threatened lawsuits while a dozen ghosted Nat after their initial session.

Tony hadn’t blinked at the cost of consultations, IV kits, nutritional supplements and other equipment. He had, however, vocalized numerous concerns about a stranger who consorted with the vigilantes of Hell’s Kitchen and worked for a public hospital. Claire’s involvement was non-negotiable, Laura confirmed that with Pepper. She confirmed the Night Nurse’s hiring with an official contract on Stark Industries cardstock.

Thank goodness for bureaucracy, Clint thought as he braced himself for the next task.

Clint peeled Nat off the floor, settling her spine against the side of the bed frame. Dust bunnies glared at him from under the furniture. Her skin prickled with fine hairs, but she shivered as Clint examined her arms.

Yup, her body was coping with the self-inflicted starvation by growing fur like a dang bear.

“How about some water.” Clint examined her veins, finding none, suitable for an IV. They were running out of time. Forcing a cup to her mouth would be comparable to waterboarding. Clint felt guilty enough for busting into her apartment like a cop on a tired procedural drama. He didn’t want to add torture to his list of questionable actions.

Natasha shook her head.

Clint bit his cheek so hard, he tasted pennies. Blood was what he got for trying to catch impulsive words. “Wasn’t a question.”

Natasha’s legs splayed as she struggled to straighten her spine. “My choice.”

She swayed, as if each vertebra were made of stems. Plants helped organisms that surrounded them. Natasha suspected she would flourish in Chernobyl, radiation killed and so did she. Nat was toxic.

How could Clint be expected to reach her? Nat perfected the art of isolation decades before, in a faux childhood set against the backdrop of the Cold War. Natasha’s mind was adrift in a sea of detached and deadened memories.

He couldn’t make her care enough to drink water. How the hell could Clint convince her to save her own life?

***

Chapter Text

***

Clint counted eight unopened bottles of water on her bedside table. Congealed bowls of oatmeal and ramen decorated the dresser, like bizarre polka dots.

Whoa. Had he consumed so much caffeine, on so little sleep that he was hallucinating? Dark spots burst across his vision as his heart hammered against his rib cage.

He had underestimated the severity of this relapse. Natasha went to great lengths to hide her habits. JARVIS catalogued daily footage from common areas in Stark Tower. Bedrooms and bathrooms were off limits, but kitchenettes were not. So, Clint studied Nat’s behaviors.

Even if it took her the better part of an hour, she always disposed of uneaten meals and buried the evidence in a rarely used trash can. She left dishes in obvious places, with just enough food smeared along the interior to suggest consumption. Clint expected nothing less, from a Black Widow and former Delta Squad team leader.

To the casual observer, Natasha looked proud of her deceptions. Well, she was a spy. She lied to survive. But it wasn’t pride or satisfaction the spurred her actions. Natasha loathed herself to the point of nuclear destruction.

He swallowed a groan. Clint joined words together like a puzzle, missing several key pieces. “No, that’s not how ‘my body, my choice’ works.”

“Liar.” She signed. Natasha flinched, waiting for Clint to react. He was supposed to roar with anger. He should hit her, scream or break a bone. Now, he looked old and tired. That temporal reality check, hurt more than anything else.

“Fight me.” Clint braced himself for a blow that never came. “Come on Nat. Don’t do this again.”

His mother used to disappear into her head. Clint’s father gathered miniature disasters into a hurricane of imaginary conflict. When the storm landed in the house, Mrs. Barton sought shelter in her mind.

When Natasha dissociated, she did so with silent finesse. She slipped into the chasm between both hemispheres of her brain, where monsters roared and raged. Without so much as a flicker, Natasha transformed into a matryoshka.

That scared the shit out of Clint.

She smiled when appropriate, nodded amicably and let boisterous people direct the conversations. In the absence of the kids, her social mannerisms were awkward and stiff.

But no one was stupid enough to breach the Black Widow’s bubble of personal space. Well, no one had ever accused Clint of being smart.

***

No.

She could control engagement and manage her reactions to Barton’s intrusions. He meant well; Clint wanted to help her. Intentions meant little without action, which is why discipline had been her eating disorder’s closest confidant.

What if they wanted to hurt her? Destroy her, shatter her splinters and still expect the best. There had been changes in their approach. Before, when she lurked around their farm, she held most of their attention.

The allure of a family tantalized her. It made Natasha’s defenses wobble like fruit cups encased in gelatin. They were utterly disgusting, but Fitz loved them almost as much as his fibrous granola bars.

Laura’s daily calls had trickled to twice a week. She was avoiding Natasha and her grief coated anchors. The honorary nieces and nephews of the Barton clan blew up her notifications. They texted gibberish, pictures and questions Nat didn’t know how to answer.

How long had it been since she answered one of her niece’s FaceTime calls? Guilt tugged her shoulders away from her neck.

The ache between the four chambers of her heart, where Natasha had let them in, sharpened at memories. Snapshots of Jemms, Fitz and Skye took turns bombarding her mind with moments. Their lives had not been easy, but they had a hopeful resilience that didn’t resonate with. Natasha.

Phantom vibrations called Nat’s attention away from her brain’s loop of intrusive thoughts. But she could not risk their safety for her selflessness. She had almost taken their father from them. Thoughts raced, guilt connecting the threads of her piecemeal judgements. Besides, Natasha had made orphans of too many children.

Natasha had nearly killed Barton in Budapest. They had some incidents with cutlery and a toothbrush converted into a shiv, but nothing that required more than a dozen staples. Stiches sucked, but Laura had a gentle touch. Natasha deserved less.

“Please. Natasha, I’m not going to touch you as long as you blink, send me a smoke signal, something.” His voice hardened when Natasha let her head drop against her chest.

She folded into herself, a dying star of nothingness obliterating everything in gravitational pull. Maybe she had learned that jellyfish move from one of his toddlers. Kudos to the art of adaptation.

Passive resistance? That term fit, unlike how she ‘fit’ in here at Stark Tower. She jammed herself in with the Avengers, answering questions at press releases that were completely gendered.

Media outlets cared about the swell of her breasts in tactical gear. More conservative pundits commented on her lethal and ‘sociopathic’ nature. She belonged in the Raft; governments agreed with her opinion. The world couldn’t agree on punishment for one James ‘Bucky’ Barnes, but they found consensus on how attractive Nat’s ass was. Nothing made sense.

Natasha slid to the floor, rolled onto her side and curled into herself. The small act exhausted her already wearied body. She slid her cubby cheek along the floor, until knuckles pressed into her skull. If Nat couldn’t run, she would block her senses from the hellish present.

“Nat, please.” Clint held his hand inches from her head. He wanted to make her eat, force her to drink water and shake her into believing her worth. But that was dumb. He was an idiot for thinking he could fix her with love.

Natasha’s icy fingers covered her eyes in a pathetic imitation of Lila’s favorite game. Peekaboo.

“Barton. Where are we?” James stood, the Winter Soldier bolstering his stance just outside the apartment. Nat’s pain resonated with him in ways he could not fully understand.

His brain protected him with extensive mazes. The reward for his rumination lay in paranoia, insomnia and hyper realistic nightmares. His life felt like a hopelessly tangled nightmare of international proportions. Every time Steve walked into a room, every single time James was smacked with the potentially catastrophic consequences of actions he didn’t remember taking as the Winter Soldier.

“Make the call.” The words were barbs that scored Clint’s esophagus. If this was the right decision, why had he broken out in guilty hives?

***

Chapter Text

***

Natasha listened. She thought about holding her breath but denying her body of oxygen would only lead to…touch. Barton wouldn’t let her die in luxury. He hadn’t let her bleed out in Karachi or freeze to death in Greenland. No matter how much the trauma eroded her rational brain, Clint would try to save her life.

Yasha blocked her path to freedom. He stood like a sentry, keeping Barton locked inside. The terms of his temporary imprisonment were clear, he had to shower for at least ten minutes with a three in one bottle of discount cleanser. Clint whined and negotiated a triple shot for his trouble.

Even if Natasha managed to stand, walking the twenty-seven steps, unassisted would be damned near impossible.

Nat insisted that her complex system of locks be engaged at all times, and those directions had fallen by the wayside despite her explicit demands. She blinked, attempting to scowl at the swinging chain on her door.

Apparently, hydration trumped paranoia in Clint’s mind. Who died and gave him the right to boss her around? Oh. She had. The last time she relapsed, Laura had talked her through some legal jargon that Matt notarized and filed in her name.

She agreed to intervention. Natasha had agreed that Laura and Clint would have her best interests in mind if something were to happen to her. Did a lifelong battle with anorexia and trauma count as criteria for intervention?

Those questions dizzied her already spinning head. So, Nat switched focus to another heartbreaking subject. Numbness cooled her fevered brain as she sequenced her own death.

What would happen if she held her breath? Natasha’s lungs and ribs would ache for oxygen as she fought her instinct to survive. Someone would rub her sternum, shout the American version of her name and water-board her with Gatorade.

She would choke and sputter, but ultimately, they would win. See? Clint’s insistence on intervention, it proved what the Red Room had instilled since toddlerhood.

Natasha had no control over…well, anything.

She gasped as her mouth filled with sour saliva. Natasha’s teeth were coated with grime. If her focus lingered on her tongue for more than a second, she gagged. It didn’t feel like it belonged to her body. Hairs on her arms prickled with anticipatory fear. Hands on her bloated torso, fatty deposits dripping from her body like wax from a candle. The thought of warm fingers gripping her swollen body felt as unbearable as a hug.

A terrifying thought popped to the front of her mind. Natasha would die a beached whale. Her muddled thoughts still wounded through sharp panic. Would she be lighter in the ocean? Pirates had romanticized burial at sea.

She couldn’t die ugly and fat. Fat floated, she needed to sink to the deepest vents along the ocean floor.

Her sestras would be repulsed by her spoiled existence, a pet to American ‘heroes’. She relished the stabbing pain of her bones against the hardwood. A bed was too much comfort. The soft mattress would drown her.

Natasha let her sestra’s faces take the place of her morbid dreams of death. She squeezed her eyes shut, frustrated that she couldn’t cover her ears without sacrificing her fingers to the chilly air.

Her hands resisted warmth like the rest of her body. She leaked heat like an open window during a snowstorm. An argument of blizzard proportions blustered on the other side of Natasha’s blanket cave.

The line between fiction and reality blurred as she buried herself in fantasy. If Natasha dissociated, she was among the peace and anonymity of the Barton farm. She could bear the bickering, if she transfigured their voices into howls of wind.

James and Barton could battle for her physical health, while Natasha’s mind drifted farther out to sea. She was beyond caring.

***

James tightened his grip on the handle of the door. “No, you stink.” Barton had stopped jiggling the knob, but he protested with the tenacity and whine of a toddler.

Clint pled his case with a gravelly voice. Despite never smoking a day in his life, he sounded like he chain-smoked for decades. He supposed he deserved that, after refusing to ingest anything, but coffee for days. “I’ve been more rank than this.”

He inhaled noisily through his nose, sucking remnants of boogers into his respiratory system. “Ew. That’s nasty. Do we have any nasal spray?”

“We?” James huffed a laugh. “Um, this is Nat’s suite. I know you share deodorant, but do you really want to swap boogers with her?”
“I guess.” Clint sighed, tapping his forehead against the door. “Some experiences shouldn’t be repeated. We’ve vowed not to talk about Reno at least six times.”

James furrowed his brow, shelving that puzzling anecdote for another, less chaotic moment. “But…now you have a choice. You both do. Come on dude, Claire is coming, let’s scrub off some of that grime.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Claire has hauled me out of many a dumpster.” The shower creaked to life, water sloshing against the porcelain tub. Clint pushed the shower curtain, rings sliding along the metal bar. He had no problem talking while prepping for such an intimate activity.

“Are you still listening? Murdock may have tossed his tofu once or twice, but I put the professional cleaner’s bill on Stark’s tab. Over the years, I’ve had more than a handful of cleaning agencies quit. One lady told me I needed an exorcism; you can bet Matt loved that.” Sarcasm mixed with the steam from the hot water.

“Story time can happen over dinner.” Dr. Banner had been left in the Common Room, organizing a myriad of take-out requests from the remaining residents of the Tower. The thought of food nauseated him, but he would cross that bridge when the orders arrived.

James twisted his smile into a grimace and tapped his head against the bathroom door. “Would you stop gabbing and get naked already.”

“Whoa.” Clint laughed and tossed clothes against the door. “What’s wrong with America’s ass? I’m happily married.”

James moaned. He debated stomping a foot, but ultimately went with a more mature stance. He folded his arms over his chest and swallowed his temper. “You are wasting so much water and time by doing this dance with me!”

Natasha twitched from her self-imposed blanket prison. James blinked at her pierogi shaped form. Conventional communication with his protégé ceased once the fourth water bottle bounced off the wall. The clock on negotiations ticked louder than James’ heartbeat. It thrummed through his body louder than the Clint’s rendition of ‘Seasons of Love’.

The Black Widow, who sparred his life no less than a dozen times over the course of their torrid history was destroying herself. She turned decades of anger, terror and grief towards herself. With the precision of a disciplined samurai, she hunted death by starvation.

James wanted to shake sense into her, he wanted to shout and force her to accept that her life was worth living.

He only knew how to break a person, not save them. Questions were all that James had left of Romanova. Natalia acted in riddles, danced behind covert operations and existed in assumptions. Under the best of circumstances, she transcended logic. How could James help her fight this ambiguous monster?

***

Chapter Text

***

Hospitals weren’t boring until a certain blind lawyer crashed her life. He graced her apartment with vomit, congealed blood, mucus, urine and skin in need of stitches.

There weren’t enough excuses to justify all the nitrile gloves in her apartment, so Claire isolated. Luke was her only socialization and that was more exercise than anything fun. They tried dating but refused to try anything permanent after the last break-up.

Now Matt regularly dropped stray vigilantes at her door. Called her from burner phones twenty-four hours a day. He required complex cocktails of antibiotics and more stitches than she sewed into gangbangers during full moons.

Exhaustion infected the marrow of her bones. Claire had lost her manners and fully transformed into a jaded dweller of the Big Apple.

Claire held her breath as the elevator lifted and dropped several inches all in the span of a few seconds. Rude. She felt like someone other than God herself should be held accountable for her misery, but she couldn’t think of anyone.

In theory, pin the blame on the pitiful energized Claire’s brain. It worked like espresso, quick to work, but fast to fade.

The clock taunted her as she stepped into the Common Room. She had three and a half hours to convince Romanoff to accept a butterfly needle and a banana bag before she needed to clock in for a shift. Why had she agreed to take Wyatt’s shift?

The shift would be terrible. Claire sensed chaos with the same accuracy as the Parker kid and his weird spider-tingle. The war for Hell’s Kitchen had spread to Harlem and reignited old tensions. Luke’s metaphorical and literal cup overflowed with stress and bills. She hadn’t seen him in weeks.

Half of the hospital’s nurses had quit after the ninjas. Even Danny’s monetary donations to the union hadn’t been able to convince them to stay. Doctors who could, left. They fled to the West Coast or to university sponsored programs.

She texted as she rounded the corner of yet another hallway. Claire’s mother mailed her articles from Rutgers University. She sent blurry pictures of real estate listings from newspapers and internet ads. Claire would do a lot, but New Jersey? Yuck.

Speak of the devil. A message notification popped up on her smartphone. “Are the sutures leaking?”

“No.” She typed and leaned against a wall, trying to look like she belonged at Stark’s swanky uptown skyscraper. “Well, I’m on a house-call. You’re going to have to wait, until you’re bleeding out.”

“And if I was?” His response was coated in flirtatious sarcasm. Oh boy, Claire did collect interesting friends. If her mother caught a whiff of her vigilante shenanigans, she’d need the Pope himself to grant her forgiveness.

“I’d share your current location, which should be your couch and get someone over there.” Claire recalled threatening to staple his ass to the cushions if he moved. But he was a magician with defiance.

Those dang puppy dog eyes goaded most men, women and animals into doing his bidding. Her phone vibrated as a pitiful picture of Matt battling a concussion lit her screen.

She accepted Murdock’s call and held the hot phone to her ear. “Is Jones with you?” He slurred his words, voice heavy with sleep.

“No…should she be?”

“I mean. No, not literally.” Matt sighed. Claire pictured his rubbing his temples as he sorted through Jessica’s potentially catastrophic choices. “But theoretically, she may or may not have verbalized a plan including several felonies and a dozen misdemeanors.”

Claire pinched the bridge of her nose and imagined a rosery. Damn her mother for instilling Catholic guilt. The beads she pictured were rose colored and now she wanted wine.

“Okay. Call Luke, keep Danny out of it. Wilson knows…someone currently underground that might be able to help.” The so-called Defenders caused more trouble than they resolved. Maybe Claire’s perception would brighten after a full night’s sleep and a cup of coffee that let her taste all the colors of a wind.

“Ah. Which Wilson? The one who defiled my kitchen? Or the one who flies and hangs with Barnes?” Snark sharpened his words. Karen had conveyed fuzzy details of Deadpool’s escapades in Matt’s apartment. It sounded nasty and Claire had sluiced through soggy dumpster cardboard.

“You went to Columbia, use your brain.” He was an adult, fiercely independent to a fatal degree. She had to focus on her current patient, someone who had achieved international notoriety for assassinations.

“I’ll bring dinner. Text me what places are up to your organic, super-sense taste buds.” Claire ended the call and braced herself.

Her messenger bag was carefully packed with IV fluids, tubes, several butterfly needles, numbing gel, tape and self-adhesive bandages.

Armed with supplies and attitude, Claire conquered a lot of what life tossed at her. Grit and resilience absolved her of rumination. She observed, acted and leapt into the future.

This current mission would require all her skills. Claire might have to call on all the gods in Asgard and the devil themselves to hydrate the Black Widow.

“Afternoon. Did someone order electrolytes?” She pasted a wry smile on her chapped lips and approached the ex-Winter Soldier sporting a messy bun.

“Nothing for me?”

“Aw. Isn’t it enough I administer your diazepam when you cluster?”

“Touché.” He bowed and gestured for Claire to pass into Nat’s apartment. “I still owe you blueberry scones.”

Claire unwound the scarf from her neck and jammed it into the pocket of her denim coat. “If you think you can whip something up before I leave, Murdock could use some cheering.”

That was an understatement. He should be taking up a hospital bed, undergoing regular testing to make sure he wasn’t bleeding internally. Instead, Matt was folded like a piece of human origami on his couch, bruised and swollen.

Blueberries were plain enough for his tastebuds to tolerate and a natural sweetener. James typed directions into the note’s app on his phone. “There’s frozen huckleberries from Maine in Wilson’s apartment. I’ll liberate them, he’ll understand.”

“Cool, thanks.” They high fived as Clint ushered her inside the dim suite.

The tone of the hall plummeted like blood pressure before a person lost consciousness. Goosebumps coated Claire’s skin, a physical manifestation of her trepidation.

***

Chapter Text

***

Natasha scowled. She tracked Claire’s movements like a predator. Her poised posture, spine perfectly aligned, ready to attack.

Claire murmured to James. He assisted quietly, extracting PPE from her medical bag. They worked quickly, Barnes predicating and anticipating her needs.

James kept his head bowed; chin tucked to his chest. He had made the mistake of meeting Natasha’s eyes at the beginning of the endeavor. Nat had launched herself upright, headbutting Barton’s sternum with her skull. She lunged at James, the man she remembered as Yasha.

Even in Russian, his arguments sounded weak. Natasha shuddered with rage, her voice laced with unfiltered hatred and fear. Claire found herself unable to look away as Clint pinned Nat to the mattress.

Now, she sat propped against the headboard of her bed. She was dwarfed by upholstered pillows and soft blankets. Helplessness did not fit the Black Widow’s persona.

“Marrakech or Gaza?” Clint tapped shifted his weight from foot to foot. “The choice is yours, Nat.”

James slid his gaze from Natasha to Barton. The code they used to communicate twisted and turned through riddles and inside jokes. Laura should publish a cipher to decode their conversations, it wouldn’t be a publishing success. But James would be grateful for the hypothetical tool’s existence.

Claire coughed. “Translation?” She examined a bag of fluids and noted the volume on her tablet. Natasha’s charts were not as extensive as Murdock’s or even James’, but the lack information about Natasha’s medical history, were more worrying to the veteran nurse.

Barton contorted his face into a dissatisfied smirk. He gifted Natasha a courtesy beat to explain, then turned to Claire. “It doesn’t matter. We’re out of time.”

Hawkeye snapped at the Night Nurse. She had saved his sculped ass on many occasions, usually when he had marinated in garbage juice for several hours.

“Can you put the line in her left hand?” He paced along Nat’s bed. They acted like magnets, opposing each other’s force, while simultaneously needing each other’s company.

He charged ahead, ignoring Natasha’s dramatic sigh. “The numbing cream might help, even though she swears it doesn’t.”

How many times had they danced with this devil named Ed? Too many. Pink tinged bile speckled the toilet bowl. Her stomach rejected any attempt at nourishment after weeks of honeypot missions. Fury had faced Clint’s wrath for that particular setback.

He shook his head, trying to scatter unpleasant memories like an etch-a-sketch. Would she survive this relapse? He reached for her hand, and she flinched away from the contact. Clint wasn’t used to rejection from her. When the world believed and expected the worst of Barton, Natasha had defended him.

Normally, he could calm her. He embodied a skeleton key that quieted her chaos. Now, she hated him. He obliterated a sacred boundary by calling Temple.

It was intrusive, but Nat’s problems could not be solved by duct tape and paper towels. They had worked with less and survived worse injuries in more isolated environments. They couldn’t create a cure for this with hope and hydrogen peroxide.

This was an invasive disorder that infected the physical body along with the mind. Eating disorders were not for teenage, cis, white girls with a flair for the dramatics. They were fatal.

Barton had needed to call reinforcements. There wasn’t an alternative solution, not this time. Of course, he had worked through the pros and cons of making the call with Laura, but guilt ate though his stomach lining like acid all the same.

Clint had one line left that he wouldn’t cross without duress. Natasha and Laura had made him promise. It was a normal thing to do for their line of work. Aliens were passe, life insurance policies and wills were a necessary evil.

They had signed legal documents to that effect. He hoped they were in the fireproof safe at the farm, Murdock had copies saved in Hell’ Kitchen too. Thoughts of Daredevil led to Jessica, shit he owed her an update too. Clint lacked the social spoons for this much regular communication.

God, he hadn’t called the kids either. Laura’s texts lit his phone at regular intervals but went unanswered.

Of the two of them, Clint hoped he would be the first to go. “She’s had her share of bad IVs. I don’t want this one to hurt.” He broke from his usual sarcasm, using his manners as an afterthought. “Please.”

He was only human and Natasha, she was so much more than he could ever hope to achieve. Clint had enough. He was privileged to have lived a good life. He made decisions that put himself in harm’s way, all the time.

He was to blame for Stark Industries insurance premiums spiking like cholesterol. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s archived records had taken a duo of dolly’s and two employees to haul up to Pepper’s office. She groaned at the mismatched paperwork and amount of times Clint had eloped from medical appointments.

Natasha rounded her spine, offering a shortened t-rex arm to Claire. She pressed her back into Clint’s crossed legs. He accepted her warm weight, tentatively resting his fingers on her shoulder.

Their bond transcended the need for language. Claire unwrapped the IV kit, crumpled sheets of plastic balled up like wrapping paper from a present. Her voice was a melody to a siren’s song, sharp and resolute.

“It’s okay. She’s put me back together more times than Murdock.”

“That’s not quite true.” Claire’s lip curled into a pseudo smile. “He’s my star patient, his injuries always rank highest on the weird-o-meter.”

“Aw, now I’m jealous.” Clint teased. He pretended not to notice when Natasha wrapped her unoccupied hand around Barton’s resting fingers. He squeezed her shoulder and she fought against an impulse to detach.

Flight, fight, freeze and fawn. These responses could define trauma, but words failed at describing the pain associated with decades of embedded trauma.

Neural pathways had to be rewired to accommodate trust. Natasha’s tolerance for Clint’s knee pressed against her kidney, served as proof of her therapeutic journey. At her nod, Claire prepped the butterfly needle.

***

Chapter Text

***

Natasha abandoned her body. Malnourishment exacerbated the frequency of her sestra’s regular hauntings.

“Talk to me!” Yelena whined. Her specter contorted into a backbend; belly button exposed to the world. Her blonde braid swung as she complained. “Am bored.” Her protests reverberated against the inside of Natasha’s skull.

Claire witnessed the moment of her patient’s dissociation. Natasha retreated to a cobwebbed corner of her brain, a place so dark that Claire could only guess at the depths of the horror it contained.

Her capacity to make decisions, well that certainly in flux. Control was surrendered to Barton without so much as an audible conversation. Natasha’s autonomy could not be trusted. Left to her own devices, Natasha would decompose into plant fertilizer.

“You are being baby.” Yelena tugged on her earlobe, pinching the fatty tissue between her index finger and thumb. “Remember camping? I stitch with fishing line and absinthe.” Her cruel laugh raises the hair on the back of Natasha’s neck. She narrowed her eyes, mouth pulled into a frown as Natasha ignored her commentary.

Failed Widows called to Natasha from their tomb beneath the rose garden. She yearned to be reunited with her sestras, but they would tear her apart. Their ghosts siphon life from her, like gasoline from a tank. She would be a naked skeleton, bones picked clean of meat.

“Hey, if I go pee…are you going to make a break for it? Please don’t pull a ‘me’. My bladder’s going to burst.” Clint stage whispered.

His voice popped the illusion that Natasha had escaped into. The mind of an ex-assassin had crafted an elaborate delusion, one that Natasha simultaneously yearned for and dreaded.

“Nat, can you give me a sign you heard…can hear, anything?”

Yelena glared, shifting her weight to lift her middle finger in Barton’s direction. She collapsed against the soft grass of an idyllic memory, sighing. Even in purgatory, she protected her older sestra from herself.

“He is pathetic circus trash.” Yelena blew an impressive bubble from a square of Bazooka gum. She swiped at whisps of hair, shooing them from her face, like annoying gnats. “Now talk to me, am bo-o-o-o-o-o-red.”

***

Nat blinked at Clint. He was speaking, he was there. But hadn’t Yelena been real, just seconds before? Confusion clouded her ability to think logically. Confusion dampened contemplations, sludge clogging the gears of her brain.

Did she nod? She had wanted to nod. He needed to know that Natasha would do anything to please him.

Make him happy. Da. Yes, that pleased the Madam that had been tattooed into her bones. Torture ensured compliance. Natasha knew the rules of the Red Room.

Clint frowned at her but lifted his sweaty palm from her bony shoulder. “Okay, if we’re using the ‘blinking’ thing to communicate…maybe that’s a, yes? The last time we used that, I was eighty percent frozen with a bad concussion.”

All the fight drained from Natasha’s features, like soap down the drain. She burned the reserves of her energy nodding her head. Affirmative. She had to tell him that she was okay.

She could behave for the length of Clint’s piss. The nodding bordered on insane, much like a collectable bobble-head figurine.

“Sit, stay. Good Natalia.” Yelena clapped as she swayed to music, even Natasha could not hear. After all, what was one more hallucination? Natasha’s attention was wrapped around Yelena’s fingers. She had her nails embedded in the grooves on her brain. “Look, so behaved.”

The Natasha that sat, cross-legged on the mattress allowed the butterfly needle to be inserted. She did not bite, hit or run. Lucky got plenty of scratches for his good behavior. Natasha felt like a disabled stray, trained to be eternally grateful for refuge. Barton had saved her, so she owed him her soul.

Wasn’t that…how everything always went? Natasha ruined everything. She had the potential to be a good girl, but Madam knew how quickly evil descended. Discipline failed where sentiment had infected the dorms.

Flashes of her dark childhood cut like glass. Reality sharpened, along with grief so catastrophic that Natasha struggled to breathe.

Wincing, she shut her eyes against the emotions. Natasha adhered herself to Yelena like a scab. Traumatic childhoods had bonded them stronger than superglue. They had been inseparable and that stymied their progression as Black Widows. That was unacceptable. Punishment begot punishment, but the bond remained. It infuriated Madam and Yuri.

“We together, always.” A promise, disguised as a threat.

Memories approached and receded like a riptide. Drowning would be a comfort, compared to the torture of recollection. The real world faded as sense memories ensnared Natasha’s nervous system.

Phantom touches burned her skin like acid.

A maze of flashbacks separated Nat from her nest of Stark’s expensive bedding. Being safe and trusting safety did not guarantee survival.

A toilet flushed, but the roar of the storm in her mind masked Clint’s return to her bed.

***

Claire spoke. Clint confirmed information, without his trademark sense of humor as he retreated from the mattress. Plastic crinkled in the nurse’s palm as she collected her supplies from the peaks and valleys of the blankets.

Natasha watched the banana bag drip, drip, drip calories into her body.

The urge to rip the tubing from her hand grew the longer she stared at the embarrassment of nutrients. It ballooned, like an itch that consumed her remaining concentration.

It took intense focus to clamp her hands together. But Natasha blinked, the urge passed, and she was able to inhale and exhale at regular intervals. Feigning ‘normal’ took energy that she didn’t possess.

She was weak beyond recognition. Natasha loathed mirrors. She had shattered many during her life, the shards repurposed to weapons. The intent of the shards could be used on herself or those perceived as threats.

Yelena laughed from beyond the grave. “Kitten, when you stand you look drunk like Alexi on birthday. Stupidly weak.” The taunting stung like a bee. Natasha blushed with shame and tried to shake her sestra loose from the folds of her mushy, useless brain.

Yasha, James, Bucky, whoever he believed himself to be now, stood guard near the bathroom.

He should run. She should run. They should get out of the co-dependent hell that the Avengers had created in Manhattan. She had dozens of aliases and money to burn. With the right wig, application of cosmetics and landlord, she could start a new life.

But she had promised someone that she would try.

They wanted her to stay, that request went against a lifetime of programming. Stay with me, Nat. Don’t leave me here, alone. Clint caused an earthquake in her bones, trying to rouse her from any number of S.H.I.E.L.D. missions that had gone sideways.

The details of that promise were lost to her, but they mattered. Guilt and shame swelled like nausea. Could guilt sustain a person’s will to live?

Yelena had mastered vomiting, long before Natasha engaged in the art of restriction. She craved perfection more than survival. The allure of sleep temped her, like a drug. “Wait, Natalia. When time comes, we be together.”

James and Clint bickered through the thin bathroom door. She failed to register their comments but absorbed the tension.

“Remember?”

She was the stone that caused the ripples in the lake. All she wanted to do was sink into oblivion at the muddy bottom of eternity.

“You promise.”

In seeking salvation, could she damn her chosen family to grieving her death?

***

Chapter Text

***

“So, what’s the plan?”

“This.” Clint massaged his bad shoulder and winced. He had spent the better part of an hour hunched over Natasha. Clint watched her shallow breaths as she dozed. The mechanics of her lungs assured him that she was technically alive, but that was little comfort to him now. Clint worried about her…mind and personality. The anorexia numbed her already dissociated self into a dull matryoshka.

“For how long?”

He shrugged. Pain shot through his shoulder, pulling already tense muscles impossibly taught. “Barnes, I don’t know. How about you brew us a fresh pot and I’ll write out each step of my brilliant plant for you.” Pain encouraged the snapping turtle that rented space in his brain. He narrowed his eyes at James, irritated by everything.

James rubbed his forehead. “No. Laura has my number and is not afraid to use it. It’s bad enough I confessed to feeding you dry Cheerios for dinner. She says you need more water, less coffee.”

“But they were gourmet. Name-brand.” He slid off the bed, re-aligning his underwear. “Honey-nut is a treat I rarely get. Did you know that they make a chocolate peanut butter Cheerio? And strawberry yogurt.” He stretched his neck, beckoning Barnes towards the living room.

James understood the invitation, glancing at the already locked door before joining Barton. Natasha’s suite had been pristine, bordering on obsessively clean before Clint had infected the space. James kept all his personal items within reach of his star-spangled duffel.

He perched on the edge of the couch. “Steve wants to cook. He thinks any problem can be fixed with a meal. We got all most of the ingredients for Shepard’s pie in our fridge.” James scrolled through their text thread, tapping out a response that made him grimace.

James scoffed. “Are you okay?”

Clint swayed, a yawn cracking his jaw. “Ow. Never healed right.” He mumbled, rubbing a spot below his ear. “No. Are you?”

“That’s a fair point.”

“But you should talk to somebody about…this.” James paused, picking at a hangnail. He averted his gaze and mumbled his suggestion into a plump pillow. “How about calling your wife and kids?”

Clint shook his head. If he saw Laura, the truth about Natasha’s condition would unravel the careful stoicism he clung to. Sarcasm would solve that dilemma. “How about you mind your own beeswax and call mister-optimism-shine-out-America’s-butt.”

“Ouch.” A flicker of hurt flashed across James’ face, before he swallowed the rest of a retort. “I can go to the Common Room and leave you to your misery then. Stark’s robots will let me supervise from afar.”

“Wait!” Clint’s stomach cramped at the thought of peace and quiet. “Please don’t leave.”

Barnes groaned. “Then talk to me.”

“What? Should I lay in your lap? Like Freud?” Clint tucked his feet under a blanket, cracking each toe in turn.

“That’s not historically accurate…or ethical.”

“Neither was he. Or the field of psychology.”

They stared at each other for several seconds until James broke the silence with a bargain. “Listen I can’t out-stubborn you Barton. Talk to me, or I’ll invite Claire back here for a consult. You’re hiding something that you don’t want Laura to see.”

Clint gaped at his friend. “You wouldn’t.”

James nodded; a sadistic smile spread across his face. “Oh, but I would. Self-surgery with dental floss soaked in moonshine isn’t approved in warzones, never mind in Poughkeepsie.”

Huh, apparently, he was not the only inhabitant of the Tower to snoop in Pepper’s files. Clint huffed and puffed but thought he had a genuine point to argue. “It’s not infected, and the zigzag is going to make a cool scar. I saved Stark a fortune on insurance by taking care of it myself.”

“That’s not an argument an adult would make.” James drawled, tracing lazy figure eights in a couch cushion.

“Who says I’m not one?” Clint pouted, an audible edge to his voice. “I called Claire for Nat. She came because I braved the phone. Texting sucks, but actual talking without seeing lips is worse.”

James blinked, collapsing against the back of the loveseat. He sighed with acknowledgement of Clint’s feat. “I know. You made the right call. It wasn’t easy and I know you’re going to suffer for it…when she’s herself again.”

Clint began to shrug but stopped before the muscles contracted in pain. His neck twinged as he took in a deep gulp of air. “This time it’s different.”

“How?”

It was a simple question. Clint should know how to answer, but the puzzle pieces of words in his brain were hopelessly scrambled.

***

Netflix droned. Barton snored, arms and legs wrapped around a marshmallow shaped animal pillow. James blinked at his phone, studying Stark Tower’s live feeds of security cameras.

Security allowed him access to cameras’ footage whenever he wanted. Natasha usually remembered his passwords, but he had taken great pains to write a cheat sheet of login information for various websites. That information had come in handy when she ceased responding to any of his attempts at conversation. He fended for himself but feared for Natasha’s mental and physical health.

“Yasha.”

The skin on the back of his neck prickled with dread. Sweat gathered under his arms. He clenched Shuri’s prosthetic. He suddenly wanted to hide it, plunge the Vibranium fist deep into the cushion of the sofa.

He stood. If he had more time, James would have detached the limb and tossed it in the bathroom. What if he hurt her? Again? He chastised himself for forgetting how long the Winter Soldier had tortured the younger generation of Black Widows. He couldn’t be trusted to run errands without supervision, how could he help a former pupil through a relapse?

James pivoted, willing himself not to react. Shock rooted him to the carpet.

Natasha swayed. The borrowed boxers exposed prominent hips, knobby legs and translucent skin.

Should he speak? James stepped away from the couch, holding his breath as he wobbled like a baby learning to walk.

“Brok-en?” Her teeth clanked together as she spoke. Mucus and blood were plastered to her face.

He scanned her for obvious injuries. In the absence of bullet wounds, jagged cuts and mangled bones James struggled to find the cause of the gory secretions.

Something wriggled in her hand. His first guess had been garrot. His second impulsive thought had a kind of reptile or gods forbid, snake. Oh no. It was much worse than that.

“Natalia.” He pinned the prosthetic arm against his lower back, just out of view. “I, I…I can I help you?”

He offered her his palm. As if she were a magnet, Natasha stumbled backwards. She lurched like Frankenstein after a bottle of tequila.

It would be amusing, if James wasn’t so damn worried about her. Thoughts cycled through his mind faster than a washing machine on a heavy-duty spin cycle. Should he wake Clint? Should he call Claire? Should he get gloves before touching the creepy-snaky-tube-y thing?

“Mm.” She wound the length of rubber around her wrists. It almost looked like ballet. James was punched in the gut by a wave of nausea. She was making handcuffs out of something meant to sustain her life.

The taut tube would restrict blood flow to her already frigid hands.

James receded into his brain. Slavic consonants coated his tongue. He slurred the syllables at half speed.

The wraith of a former sestra straightened. It was as if lucidity had struck like lightening. Little spider, his little spider released her hold on the makeshift handcuffs.

The tube acted like a gauntlet, thrown between two notorious assassins turned Avengers.

The history between them sucked the oxygen from the vicinity. The Winter Soldier numbed James’ reactions. He analyzed their little sestra and flexed the Wakandan made prosthetic. But when she started to fall, the prized assassin of the Red Room hesitated.

James caught Natasha against his chest as the bones of her legs crumbled into dust.

***

Chapter Text

***

Clint found himself completely ignored. His hatred of being the center of attention stemmed from childhood. He had spent his youth dodging empty bottles and abuse whenever his father deigned him with a second glance. When he blinked, his eyes burned. He shoved a reel of memories that contained domestic violence back into his brain. “Guys, ah. Somebody want to catch me up?”

He popped the fragile bubble that had encased both Red Room graduates in collective trauma.

Barnes shivered as Clint spoke. He flinched like a bolt of lightning had clenched his spine. James wanted to answer, he needed to tell Hawkeye that he was listening, but he couldn’t stay tethered to his body. He tightened his fists, taking stock of reality.

“James.” Fingers caked in what smelled like fake cheese snapped around his foggy head. Verbal shrapnel peppered James until the Winter Soldier released his grip on their brain and he found himself in control of the body, once again.

He sagged with relief, sweat beading at the nape of his neck. Squeaking was not the noise James had intended, but panic constricted his vocal cords into something corrupted by helium.

“Oh shit. Are you seizing?” Clint limped around the couch. The entire left side of his body was pins and needles. He groaned as he put weight on a foot he couldn’t feel. He’d seen Wade Wilson lurch around with miniature limbs protruding from his adult-sized torso, he could totally manage six shuffling steps around a piece of furniture. “Oh no, no, no.”

James flinched at Clint’s narrated actions, bones snapping like cereal in milk.

Clint shouted a shrill warning. “Barnes, if you’re gonna do anything stupid like pass out…shuffle yourself towards the rug. This apartment has seen enough bodily fluids.” The last thing he needed was to douse a rug in hydrogen peroxide and haul Temple back to the Tower to do emergency stitches.

The sole of his foot trod on a rubbery substance and Clint remembered why he hated murky bodies of water, like the Jersey Shore. Clint pocketed the slimy NG tube, connecting the dots of what had happened during his nap. He removed his aids for sleep, after James had promised him, everything would be fine. He knew better, Clint knew better than to trust in hope riddled lie.

James showed no sign of hearing him. His face looked like it had been etched in marble. The look of it, prickled his skin, raising Clint’s internal alarm system like a hedgehog. “Dude. Give me a death threat, anything. Please.”

He recognized that look. Poets who had witnessed the carnage of the first World War described PTSD with flowery prose. The man that Clint had come to call a friend, stilled into a steely statue.

James existed in theory, disconnected from his corporeal form. Clint debated the pros and cons of startling the dissociated man, while winding the used NG tube around his hand. When Natasha became a matryoshka, she hardened her humanity into a statue of epic proportions. When James descended into a similar headspace, violence followed a period of apparent calm.

“Turn to your side. Please, Buck?” Steve’s nickname usually pissed the man off enough to garner reaction. Silence echoed louder than a bomb. James obediently curled into an impression of a hedgehog, tucking his toes under a lip of carpet.

“Thanks.” Clint scooted himself, so his back rested against the couch. He hadn’t plugged his hearing aids back in place and wasn’t so dumb as to leave himself vulnerable to a burst of aggression. “How about…you start some grounding while I check on Nat.”

James blinked, gnawing the inside of his cheek. He couldn’t speak but caught every other word of Clint’s directions.

That would have to be enough. Breath in, hold, breath out. The steps were out of order, like notecards that had been scattered at a podium. Often, he felt like he was playing a part in a stranger’s life. The stage lights of the world’s media outlets gave him a fever that never broke. Pressure built, until all James could do was cover his ears and become a hermit in Tony’s name-branded Tower.

“I’m gonna keep talking until one of you tells me to shut up. Please. Say something, I’ll take any kind of threat as a good sign.” Clint lifted Natasha’s head into his lap. Her pale neck glinted in the moonlight, and she made no effort to resist the movement.

Clint needed to switch on a light but wouldn’t disrupt Natasha. Her life had been a continuous interruption of safety and security. “Now, this sets the mood nicely. Huh? What do you think Laura is up to? Let’s give her a ring. Hopefully my battery lasts.” Clint fumbled with the code, searching for the latest string of messages from his wife.

Narration of his fleeting thoughts was a natural response to stress. It was as futile an attempt at normality, as it was easy to pretend like he was helping the situation. Like vomiting, once he started talking, it was hard to stop until he was empty.

Unluckily for James and Natasha, Clint was rarely speechless. He wove fragments of memories into colorful tapestries with gulps of air. His words interfere with flashbacks that plague both graduates, turned survivors of the Red Room.

***

Chapter Text

***

“You are fucking him, yes?”

Natasha is being held, no, cradled. She is weightless, unable to follow a thought to a logical end. Rationality requires calories. Her brain has transformed constant hunger into cannibalism of organs. Under the best circumstances, Natasha considered herself a lethal threat. What was she now? She existed to endanger her own pathetic life.

“Everyone think this. Bravo.” Yelena claps, the sound of palms grate the bones in Natasha’s ears. There is too much pressure. Her skull throbs with the pitch of her sestra’s voice. She craves sleep, but that comes at a cost she can’t pay.

Now, Natasha radiated a kind of toxic decay. Elements more dangerous than Chernobyl eroded her neurons.

Swallowing hurt. The act exacerbated physical and emotional pain. Monsters snapped at her heels as Natasha lurches away from the memory.

Therapeutic strategies demanded that she pay attention to her body, take stock of its’ reactions to emotions. But, what happened when the body was the source of a patient’s distress?

Breathing expanded her already obese stomach to whale-like proportions. Rolls of fat pooled at the center of her abdomen. No matter how far her hips jutted out, the remaining fat displayed her failure. Her ribs and spine ached. When had she last stood of her own volition?

“Both.” Yelena nodded, winking with both eyes. Even in death, she was beautiful. “Always thought Laura better in bed than Hawk-douche. Her mac and cheese is best, from what you say.”

Natasha’s own mouth had deteriorated to the point of desert. Her taste buds were swollen, tongue coated with bacteria. She didn’t deserve water. Noodles with decadent cheese should be reserved for ‘Lena. Her favorite sestra loved food as much as Natasha hated it. She shook her head, vertebrae cracking and popping like soggy cereal.

“Natalia. Don’t go, you promised.” Her sestra whined, blowing whisps of hair out of her way as she danced to music only she could sense.

Her movements cast a trance, but there was a reason why Natasha couldn’t comply with her sestra’s request. “Yasha isn’t going to save you.”

There had been reasons why she should fight. But it would be easy, too easy to drift away. “Come. Stay broken and we be together.” Yelena whispered and warmth flooded Natasha’s limp body.

Together. Natasha’s skin prickles with memory. The monsters have come and gone. The dormitory is quiet, a suspended peace that will be broken at dawn. For now, Yelena’s feet tangle with her own. They are warm and safe in each other’s arms.

Simple joys. Yelena nuzzles against her neck. She is dreaming, breath puffing against Natasha’s ear. Could death be as easy as falling into memory?

“Da.” Her sestra cards her gnarled hair with a gentleness that is unprecedented. Yelena is boisterous and cajoling, even as a ghost. Haunting, Natasha realizes, can be a comfort. Is her sestra a kind of siren, luring her to death?

“You know truth.” Yelena’s voice hardens, Madam’s signature edge sharpened the blade of her sestra’s words. “Don’t pretend.” They were all born of the Red Room’s sacrificial blood lust. Voices and identities were interchangeable, especially when viewed through foggy memory.

Eternal peace didn’t have to lead to damnation. Hell had to be warmer than the starving body she currently occupied.

***

“She’s…elsewhere.” James tapped on the handle of his mug. Natasha’s patronage of local artists made for an eclectic apartment. Bowls, plates and mugs were crafted by ceramicists and glazed with unique patterns.

Clint scowled at the sludgy ginger tea. It remained unappetizing, despite the squirt of organic honey. “That’s poetic, or pathetic. I’m not sure which, need more coffee to decide.”

James deftly ignored Clint’s plea for caffeinated beverages. “It’s something we used to say. It made…well, it gave us a space to put all the shit we couldn’t name. Hell, I still can’t explain my fucked-up brain. And at this point, I’ve got dozens of books crammed in among the traumas.”

Clint continued tugging his fingers through Nat’s hair. She had twitched when he started playing with lengths of wavy hair, which he couldn’t say was good or bad. It was something and he would take any kind of reaction. That meant life.

“Mm.” He commented, at a loss for an appropriate response. James slurped at the steaming tea and watched the archer cradle Natalia. He had placed on her plump throw pillows in the middle of his crossed legs. Her hair fanned out, spilling over the edges of the pillow.

“Try some. Okay? You need to hydrate with something other than espresso.”

“You need to hydrate.” Clint retorted, scoffing at the suggestion of an alternate beverage.

Natasha stirred, tucking her thin arms under her chin. A trail of bloody mucus had crusted her neck and chest. Her brows furrowed, allowing a glimpse of the old Natasha shine through. She protected herself, always.

Sleep meant that she curled around her vital organs and hid the most vulnerable parts of her neck from view. Had she been able to, Clint knew she would have hidden a few weighted knives on her person. As a matter of fact, his eldest daughter had mailed her favorite fork to her Auntie Nat. She had stared blankly at the gift, until Clint’s throat spasmed with emotion.

It had been days since that he attempted another video call with the kids or Laura. Radio silence suited the sour mood of Nat’s apartment.

“Barton.” James wound the string from the teabag around and around his finger. “She needs to hydrate too.”

Clint’s jaw clenched. Couldn’t they bask in this moment of peace for more than a handful of minutes?

No. Because the damned clock kept ticking. Natasha needed another IV placed and the equivalent of six nutritional supplements. She needed electrolytes and fluids, or her heart would stop beating. Who would hold her hands and she raged against the tubes? Who would have to turn her pleas and cries into fuzzed background noise? Stomaching her pain meant her survival, so who was Clint to complain?

***

Chapter Text

***

His stomach growled like a feral beast. Clint’s appetite made itself known through a series of muscular roars and whines. He grinned sheepishly as James stifled a laugh.

“Um. I suppose I could eat.” He glanced down at his lumpy sweatshirt. Middle age had slowed his ability to recover, but not his metabolism or appetite.

“Steve’s delayed. I told him not to take the motorbike to D.C. He’s got to take backroads to avoid assholes with cameras.” James opened Instagram and waved the phone in Clint’s direction.

He squinted at the screen, catching blurry snapshots of Captain America on Virginian highways. “Huh. Those wouldn’t stand up in court. It looks like a random dude on a good-looking motorcycle.”

James shrugged. “So, what should we do for dinner? Stevie will be happy with anything.” He scratched at his stubble. James lacked the stamina to shave without sitting down. Natasha’s only mirror was perched above the sink, which he couldn’t see if was perched on the lip of the tub.

Lack of theoretical and literal spoons meant that he struggled with the most basic of life skills. At his best, James took hours to slog through the brain fog that plagued his ability to think. Making decisions was a skill he still struggled to execute without help, which made little sense, since he was supposed to be practicing independence. Thinking about his own thinking process gave James a migraine.

“You know me.” Clint began to wink, but the effort ended in an out of sync double blink. “I’ll eat anything. What’re our options if we stay holed up in here?”

James squeezed his eyes shut, summoning the contents of Nat’s fridge. “Like half a box of pop tarts, stale cereal, dried strawberries and some rancid yogurt.”

Clint shifted Natasha, hitching her higher against his chest and attempted to uncross his legs. “Uh oh. I can’t feel anything below my bellybutton. This is a problem.”

“Give her here.” James tossed an afghan over his prosthetic, like an oversized burp cloth. Sometimes, the look of Shuri’s creation scared him to the point of panic. He could only imagine how the robotic limb might trigger Natasha.

A thin piece of fabric provided little in the way of physical comfort, but James would protect Nat any way that he could. He shuffled across the carpet to where Clint was awkwardly kneeled. “Let me take her to bed, and you think about take-out.”

“Thanks.” Clint manually lifted his legs out of the childlike pose, groaning as his nerves protested the movement. “God, my joints really hate me for all the stupid shit I did in my twenties.”

“And thirties and forties.” James whispered, snickering to himself. If he kept his face turned away from Barton, his commentary wouldn’t be lipread. Natasha contracted her muscles, keeping herself curled in an armadillo-like ball.

“There we go.” James gently laid Natasha in her nest. The puffed comforter deflated as James added layer after layer of blankets. She disappeared in fabricated safety. Her body barely made a dent in the soft bedding.

Had blankets ever drowned someone? James contemplated this theoretical horror as he tiptoed back to the living room.

Barton perched on the edge of a couch cushion. He sniffed a pillow and extended his legs. His knees crackled like bubble wrap. The stink was coming from his own armpits. Uh-oh. He needed a stronger deodorant or a long soak with a glittery bath bomb. But first, he needed to narrow their dinner options. “Pizza or Thai?”

“Thai.” James answered, without descending into his typical thought spirals. The lure of spice held his attention in a vice. He absently pressed a hand to the healing site of his g-tube. The scar remained, but he had a functioning esophagus. He existed on borrowed time. The generic serum that he’d been injected with, should allow him to eat whatever he wanted. James wasn’t going to waste anymore of his life on nutritional shakes than necessary. “Are we holing up in here for the rest of the night?”

How about forever, Clint thought. He had promised himself that he would not leave Nat again. Not for anything. She had protected him from himself, on his worst days. He owed her nothing less.

“Absolutely.” Clint nodded emphatically. He grinned, practically drooling at the thought of food become a reality. Meals were happy times. A pang of guilt and loss plowed into Clint, he desperately missed Laura and the kids.

“Then definitely Thai. We can order spring rolls for Claire.”

Clint broke into a panicked sweat. His voice twisted into a mumbling shriek. It sounded like he got kicked in the balls and got knocked several stories down on the puberty ladder. “Sh-sugar cookies. I forgot to call her.”

“Barton! We’ve been waiting for her.” James gaped at the archer. He gasped and stole a glance at Natasha. She hadn’t moved from her burrito of blankets. “What the hell?”

Clint flashed Disney doe eyes at the ex-assassin. “Maybe we can have her pick it up on the way here? You know, save time and all that jazz.”

James scowled. “Maybe I’ll have her give you a catheter.”

“Not having to make time to pee would be nice…”. He sighed dreamily, careful to avoid James’ angry look. He worried that Natasha would try something destructive if he or James left the vicinity.

James barked a harsh laugh. “You’d think. But the last time I had one, I was barely conscious.”

“Same-sies.” Clint looked wistfully out the widow of Nat’s living room. “I don’t remember much, but Coulson told me I took a midnight stroll through Tompkins Square.”

“I’m…not ready for that story.” James adjusted the loveseat, so he could keep watch on Natasha. Stark and Banner were working on discrete cameras that acted like baby monitors. James looked forward to being able to monitor her vitals from the toilet, if natura called and he was unable to delay. Her safety was his utmost priority.

“TV?”

“As long as it’s not Peaky Blinders, I’m in. Stevie and I are still on season three.”

***

They chatted as Natasha lay, unmoving. The bedding had been dredged; contents searched for potential weapons. If she stilled herself into marble, would her heart follow suit? Would she turn to stone, if she confronted the trauma that haunted her?

Inquiring minds wanted to know.

“Parks and Rec next? Laura started watching with Skye and I’m behind.” Clint dug his nails into the grooves of the cushions.

James hugged a pillow to his chest. Negotiations with Clint sounded a lot like arguing with a toddler. He had to make the carrot tantalizing enough for him to want, while gently introducing a task he could handle. “Not until you call Temple.”

“But…talking on the phone gives me anxiety.” He protested quietly, aware of Natasha’s labored breathing.

“What doesn’t?” James held back comments that tasted bitter and harsh. Acidic words rarely helped in situations like these, but he still struggled to make the mature choice.

“Touché.” Clint picked at his cuticles, beads of blood flooding his nails. “But what will it take for you to make the call?”

“Laundry and dishes.”

“You drive a hard bargain. But I’m in no position to argue. Thanks.” He held a palm to his mouth and puffed his cheeks.

“Don’t you dare spit.” James rummaged around the end table for a container of hand sanitizer. “A deal is a deal; I’ll take your word. I’m not touching anything that’s sealed with your saliva.”

Clint’s peal of laughter vibrated through Natasha. The display of mirth chilled her to the bone. The blankets couldn’t warm her. Her skin was dry as paper, her body folded into delicate origami.

Clint and James’ conversation didn’t register as comforting. Their voices merged with monster’s growls. Yelena didn’t offer words of wisdom. Radio silence from her sestra numbed Natasha’s remaining neurons.

The sound of her heart, thumping against her skull further isolated Natasha. The proverbial rabbit hole was a chasm that felt infinite.

Yelena had abandoned her to the hopeless darkness. James and Clint sat in a world, better off without her.

Their laughter meant that they would survive her passing. If, if she chose that path, they would be fine.

Wouldn’t they?

***

Chapter Text

***

“But you did it.”

“That’s not the point.” Claire flashed frustration that rivaled the intensity of Dr. Banner’s colorful rages.

“Whoa.” Captain Rogers raised both hands, spine straight as he inserted himself between both adults. “Okay. Can someone explain what’s going on?”

Steve wedged his hands in the pockets of his skinny jeans. That act took more effort than he cared to admit. How could anyone find these clothes comfortable? Why would the young people choose this? Pepper’s army of PR staff had a field day with Steve’s dated wardrobe when he re-entered society.

His recent trip to D.C. meant that he had to follow their clothing choices in addition to their social media posts and speeches. He was exhausted and out of social spoons, but the escalating situation in Natasha’s apartment, required his undivided attention.

James poised himself like a predator on the bed. After a brief embrace and chaste kiss, Buck’s mask of seriousness slipped back into place. His posture suggested the stoicism of the notorious Winter Soldier. The sight chilled Steve’s blood. “Please. Explain it to me, with more patience than Tony when he trained me on the smart TV.”

Natasha was surrounded by pillows and supported against the headboard of her own bed. She resembled a ragged princess, perched atop a fluffy comforter. Encased in a throne of pillows. If comfort could kill, she would be entombed for eternity in polyester blends.

The kitchenette rumbled with tension. Clint was a one-man thunderstorm. “She’s…”. He sputtered, losing his articulation. Bags of takeout sat unopened on the galley's counter.

“Nat is still here; she’s getting fluids and her heartrate is stabilizing.” Clint fiddled with the paper receipt, stapled to the bag. “Physically, she’s no worse for wear.” The lie soured on his tongue, but Clint stubbornly continued his defense.

“That’s not what I’m arguing.” Claire ran a hand through her hair, undoing the loose knot she’d tied hours before. “But you know as well as I do, that what we’re doing is a stopgap. It’s only a matter of time before she needs…”. A yawn interrupted the litany of supplies Claire would need to liberate from storage.

Shifts at Metro-General blended with her vigilante work in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem. She couldn’t remember the last time she had showered, not just rinsed off at a sink. Her deodorant left a rash, since she continually reapplied instead of letting her skin breath. What she wouldn’t give for a shampoo that wasn’t a spray.

“How about we sit? Let’s hash this out of a meal.” Steve gestured to the poor excuse for a table, two chairs and bulging paper bags. Bucky shook his head, keeping watch over Natasha’s pitiful form. “I know that I listen better when my stomach is full.”

Clint paced, refusing to sit. He pinched the skin between his thumb and index fingers, grasping at fragmented clarity.

Claire accepted Captain America’s offer, popping staples off the paper sacks. Fragrant Thai permeated the apartment as Claire distributed the containers. “Did we get chopsticks? I’m going to inhale these dumplings, manners be damned.”

Steve shook some white rice onto a plate. He loved to eat; the contents of the meal didn’t matter. He would always clean his plate and be grateful for the opportunity. Some habits die hard, going through puberty during the 1930s had cemented his obsession with food.

“Buck, do you want noodles or rice? Or some roti cannai?” Choices stymied his partner, so Steve tried to frame his questions carefully. If Buck’s stiff posture was anything to judge by, Steve had failed in sounding casual.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever.” James hugged his knees to his chest. Questions made his muscles contract. An urge to hide and avoid Steve’s attention swelled like a balloon under James’ skin.

“I’ll tag in, I’m not hungry.” Clint didn’t offer. He demanded. His voice had an edge like glass, nothing teasing in the delivery of his words.

Steve caught James’ worried glance in Clint’s direction. Decades of friendship had heightened their ability to communicate nonverbally.

Rogers kept his tone light, chuckling for emphasis. “Buck’s got it for now. Well, if you wouldn’t mind. Could you take me through what’s been going on? I’ve been caught up in government meetings that went as slow as molasses all day.”

“What, google isn’t as well-informed?” Clint snapped.

Steve smiled, scooping curried vegetables over steaming brown rice. “I prefer face to face. Old-school, you know?”

Claire’s phone vibrated. “Shit. I gotta take this.” She slurped soup from a dumpling. The noise grated on Clint’s last frayed nerve. He pulled his shoulder to his ear, hoping to dampen the sounds of her eating.

While standing, hunched over her bowl, Claire shoveled the empty shell into her mouth. “God, this is so good. Please save me one. I don’t think I had lunch…yesterday.”

Steve nodded. “Of course.” He scanned the table for the container’s cover, already planning on keeping the remaining nine dumpling for the celebrated Night Nurse.

“Tell Luke I said hi.” Clint sniffed skeptically at a carton of sauce. “Murdock says you’re spending a lot of time in Harlem.”

“You know what Barton, next time you find yourself in a dumpster, lose my number.” She flipped him off as she left the kitchenette. Privacy would be hard to find in an apartment this tiny, but the balcony would offer a bit of discretion if Claire didn’t mind the wind.

Steve’s eyes watered as he swallowed a lump of spicy tofu. “Uh oh. Do we have anything with dairy?” His cheeks heated as the chili oil took effect.

Clint rolled his eyes and burped. His jaded demeanor allowed him to distance himself from the terrifying reality of Natasha’s health. The snarky comments that spilled from his voice without thought, offered little solace. Keeping people that cared at a distance allowed Clint to function.

“Don’t shit your pants Cap, I think we’re out of toilet paper.” He hated himself for what he was saying, but Steve wouldn’t leave.

He had negotiated with literal terrorists and survived worse company than a grumpy Hawkeye. Still, he wouldn’t make this an easy conversation. Steve weathered his rage with candor, typical of America’s favorite Captain.

“Paper was used to stuff our boots, wrap lunches and in a pinch…wipes in the bathroom for hands and rears. The stuff you guys buy wholesale, is way too soft.”

Clint ground his teeth, jaw aching. He shouldn’t respond. Cap was goading him into commenting. If he started speaking, Clint would let loose all kinds of things, including the equivalent of battleship locations. Given the facts, Clint should be a terrible spy. But he was damned good at his job when he would for S.H.I.E.L.D.

So, Clint shoveled noodles straight from the carton down his gullet. The food burned, but at least he was silent. If he was eating, he couldn’t betray Natasha’s confidence. How stupid was that? She was dying, but he had promised her privacy. Stupidly loyal until the end.

***

Chapter Text

***

James brushed Natasha’s hair from her forehead. Waves had been stamped into the damp strands. Bedside shampoo and conditioner had been applied by Claire that morning. The nurse looked as exhausted as James felt. Dark circles puffed around her eyes, like wonky makeup.

“This smells good, I’m guessing it’s not your average 3 in 1 or soap. Did you know that we used to wash everything, hair included with soap?” James combed through her thinning hair, gently untangling knots. Natasha swayed as she sat cross-legged.

She had a sports sleeve covering her arm, from wrist to elbow. The IV had finally been re-inserted after the liberal application of numbing cream. “Here. We’re almost done. Then how about a nap before dinner?” He wrapped a blanket around her hips, stabilizing her with fabric.

She had barely reacted to the needle and hadn’t raged against the fluids. That scared James more than any of her physical symptoms.

Anorexia hijacked her ability to reason. It warped her will to live.

Nothing James could offer her, would fix the disease’s mindset. Still, James wanted to paint her nails, braid her hair and tease her about that damn cat. Anything that resembled normal would be progress. “Liho is okay. She’s rubbing all over Banner, and it’s confusing him. But the Big Guy seems to like the cat. Bruce says he’ll send videos later, if you want.”

Liho had been banished temporarily to Dr. Banner’s quarters. The cat liked to use his library as a scratching post, but besides some territorial conflicts, they were amicable roommates. At the mention of her feline companion, the hand Natasha had covered her eyes with, twitched.

What could he say that hadn’t already been said? Could she hear him if he tried to speak?

Topics as tough as these required more than James’ daily allotment of spoons.

“So, Stevie called Laura and tattled. Now he’s passed out on the couch in full view of everyone. We’ve gotten lots of pics and videos of him dreaming and farting all over the Avenger’s furniture. He’s drooling and snoring all over Tony’s favorite pillow. Laura says she learned those tricks from you.”

James unlocked his phone, scrolling through his messaging thread with Clint’s wife. There were dozens of selfies, taken by Natasha’s honorary nieces and nephews. She had questions that James didn’t know how to answer. Her fear translated well into text and struck icy fear into his heart.

“Lapachka says hi. He’s been busy building models of all the rooms in Stark Tower that he knows. Laur thinks he’s looking for you.” Natasha winced at his words, fingers digging into her eyebrows.

He loosened her nails, one at a time. His touch lingered, and he massaged each of her joints. “It’s okay if you’re not ready to now…but maybe later we can talk about it again?”

He wanted to force her to look at all the people who cared about her. She was so loved. But Natasha could not see or hear reality through the dysphoria of the disease.

So, he talked. James talked about anything and everything. He scrolled through his social media accounts, choosing what posts to narrate and which ones to ignore. Her own phone had been cracked almost beyond repair. Tony would attempt a Dr. Frankenstein procedure over the weekend, but he made no promises.

Natasha had tossed her device into a wall, days before. Now, James doubted she had the energy to launch anything farther than a few inches. Although she couldn’t harm those around her, or tear her apartment to shreds, Natasha could still inflict damage on herself.

***

He would not shut up.

Talking kept her from sinking further into oblivion. At least Claire’s nursing was quiet. Her professional training lent itself to being as unobtrusive as possible. Claire had stopped trying to engage her in any kind of conversation…how many days ago?

Natasha supposed she was ignoring her, after the fourth or fifth time she liberated herself from the NG tube. The slimy rubber raised her hackles. Memory sucked. But tube feedings were worse than she remembered Red Room trainings.

Her spine vibrated in anticipation of medical intervention. Her body could tell time, even if she couldn’t see a clock. Tick, tock. Tube feeding time ticked closer and closer.

“Okay, I know you’re cold.” He rummaged around the surface of the bedding. Scrunched blankets splayed like islands among the oceans. “Um. Can I run to the dryer and grab a clean sweatshirt?”

No. Natasha’s hand moved on its own volition. Her frozen fingers gripped his elbow. The contact shocked her, but she found herself unable to let go.

“Thanks for telling me.” James swallowed. He lowered the arm that Natasha had latched onto like a leech.

The temporary silence let Natasha sink, under the weight of her depression. The warmth of James’ body acted like a buoy. “Hey. Not yet, Nat.”

Had she been less groggy, Natasha would have shoved him away. But in her less functional state, she scratched an index finger at his forearm.

“I know you’re ready for bed. But we promised, right? It’s time to hook you up.”

Natasha curled into herself, releasing James’ arm. She had to refused, but she couldn’t quite remember why. Exhaustion muddied the reasons that had justified this relapse.

The bastard continued speaking, but Natasha let the words wash over her brain. She couldn’t stop him from talking. The words snapped and buzzed around her, like ornery bees.

How could she explain that consenting to the liquid nutrition was failure?

She didn’t want to die exactly but living felt unattainable.

Where did that leave her? In a damned purgatory.

Gentle. The touch was so gentle, it hurt. Natasha’s skin had become thin as pressed origami paper.

“Easy. There we go. Sit tight and I’ll grab the bag.” Yasha added pillows behind her head and twirled her hair into a loose ponytail. It cascaded over her shoulder, concealing the length of the NG tube.

“Okay. What do you think about this tape? It’s got little hedgehogs and foxes. Skye showed me the signs for the animals. I’ve already forgotten them, maybe you can show me.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. Something stabbed at her consciousness, calling her to the surface of her guilt.

How many layers would it take to stop the shivering?

Oh. Too many to count. She was dying because of what she had done to herself. A skeleton had no need for material possessions, or love.

“Here.” James balanced the bottle of cleanser against her folded knees. “Thanks for holding that. Let me get the washcloth. Rebecca used to play nurse with me, did you know that? I was a terrible patient, always running off to play stick ball. Or get Stevie out of a pickle.”

Natasha had heard that story before. But did it really matter? She hadn’t spoken in days. She flinched as the cool cleanser connected with her skin.

“Sorry. I know it’s cold.” James swabbed the irritated patch on her cheek. “This probably isn’t what I should be saying…but I think you pull of the tubie style more than me.”

Natasha’s eyes flew open at that absurd statement.

“Go figure, I make an ass of myself and that gets you to look at me.”

She closed her mouth, trapping flesh of her cheek between her teeth. Self-inflicted pain was one of her few remaining vices.

“Next, you’ll be rolling your eyes.”

Natasha tucked the newly secured tube behind her ear.

“Ooh, so close. You’re a little off on your anatomy.”

She flipped him off as she closed her eyes. That was more than enough interaction. Exhaustion let her body sink into the crowd of pillows and blankets that rushed up to meet her.

James spoke as he adjusted her tubes, but Natasha did not register his words. Her brain whirred as neurons struggled to sort fact from fiction.

Her sestra greeted her in a purgatory of Natasha’s own making. The space between living and dying had been corroded by starvation. Yelena radiated a warm relief that Natasha’s body couldn’t manufacture.

Could she stay among her sestras? Or would Yasha demand she stay? No, no, no. Natasha forced all thoughts aside, preferring to curl against the ghost of her ‘Lena.

***

Chapter Text

***

“Don’t look at me like that.” James crossed his arms, desperately uncomfortable with the amount of eye contact Nat flung in his direction. “This isn’t my fault.”

Her prepped feed lay in its fabric cover, tubing primed and ready for action. Natasha set her lips in a thin line. There was an army of puffy stuffed animals that had been mailed to Stark Tower by her nieces and nephews. Had James not been watching her every move, Natasha would have covered the disgusting liquid nutrition with one of their plump bodies. Instead, she folded her hands in her lap. Sitting on the edge of the bed felt dangerous after so many hours spent laying horizontal.

James puffed his chest, imitating confidence and swagger. He checked his watch and frowned.

A healthy Natasha could have outlasted his resolve. Resistance had been purposefully injected into both their DNAs, but Natasha had not experienced the luxury of a typical childhood. Barnes’ life in Brooklyn had not been easy, amidst the Great American Depression, but it had been rosier than the aftermath of Stalin’s Russia.

Her mouth curled into a sneer and Natasha relished the fear that flickered through James’ face. She yanked on the braked wheelchair, dragging it closer to the bed.

He sputtered, shuffling on his feet. “I’m sorry!” He blurted. His brain screamed at him to run from the auburn-haired hurricane of confrontation. “I’m not – look as soon as you connect that, we can go.”

Natasha poked the seam of the bag. She glared at it like it was a venomous snake, coiled and ready to strike. Her shoulders tensed; head dropped to her chest. She could mirror vulnerability, make herself as worthy of empathy as Murdock himself.

“It won’t work. I’m a trained soldier. Disciplined and tortured, same as you.” He channeled his best power pose and planted his feet against the hardwood floor. Bruce would be proud of his balanced yoga stance.

“Fine.” She slid from the mattress to the seat, one hand gripping the thin armrest. “Bed.” Natasha rattled the wheel, frustrated fury heating her cheeks. “To chair.”

James brought his hands together, clapping sarcastically. “Brava.”

“I’d curtsey for you, but I’d probably leak all over the rug.” She depressed each footrest, experimenting with her posture as she adjusted to the wheelchair.

“Well, whose fault would that be?” James examined the contents of a miniature backpack. Shuri had converted the bag into a mostly waterproof home for feeds and associated equipment.

Natasha glowered. She pitched herself forward in the seat, attempting to launch herself at James.

He hated himself for flinching at her movements, but he did. James knew that she was acting out of fear. He also knew that when someone as feral and traumatized as Nat was triggered, accidents happened. He had hurt Stevie, choked him and pinned him against walls while he had been sick and hurt. It wasn’t an excuse, but an explanation for why healing was so hard.

“Watson really, really, really has to pee. Are you going to deny the pup a romp on the rooftop?”

Natasha jiggled the bag, gagging at the contents. The sloshing enticed Watson, who wagged his tail at the sound. At least someone was excited to eat.

Watson circled the wheelchair, inspecting the strange seat with his damp nose. He licked at the fabric cover that housed Nat’s afternoon feed, which earned a gently tug from James. “As soon as Auntie Nat plugs herself in, we can go outside.”

The dog barked, dropping into a strained sit. He was trying so hard to be good and he hoped Natasha noticed his effort. The bag looked a lot like ice cream, one of his favorite treats.

She traced the length of the tube tucked behind her ear. It was attached to nothing, but she never forgot it was there. It tugged and burned as she swallowed and drew breath.

Natasha couldn’t stand touching herself. Her abdomen swelled, the skin pulled taut and shiny around her bellybutton. It was an ugly combination of the IV fluids and stereotypical presentation of starvation.

She had endured a hysterectomy at sixteen, as a condition of graduation from the Red Room. Now, she resembled Laura late in her second trimester with Cooper. She was a bloated, disgusting mess of guilty fat.

“It’s okay, I know how hard this is.”

He didn’t know. Yelena laughed. “Stupid baby man. World does not spin around him.”

Natasha wanted to pound that information into his skull. He had been dying. He had a reason not to eat. He had been beaten, tortured and traumatized within a centimeter of life. He had been dying. He deserved to struggle.

James ‘Bucky’ Barnes, the former Winter Soldier was a victim.

Natasha was the enemy. She was lethal to everyone, herself included. She had systematically eroded every support she had, leaving relationships to rot and wither with neglect.

She expected to feel rage at her own stupidity, but instead, she was numb.

Down, down, down.

Yelena opened her arms. She smelled like metal and cinnamon. Blood and sugar, spice? Wasn’t that how sestras were forged? Ah, the screams were also integral to the process.

“Hey, it’s okay. I got you. I’m sorry, Natalia. It’s too much, we can try again later.” James hung the backpack from the handles of the wheelchair, bagged calories swaying.

She was connected. She hadn’t meant to fail.

Had she?

Yasha ordered her to participate in her own care. She had done the same, motivating James through recovery when his progress plateaued. But she had failed to follow his basic directions.

“Here. You drive bubba, while I steer you.”

Warm, braided rope pooled in her lap. She traced the bumps, knowing that if she didn’t hold the leash, Watson would stay glued to the chair. He heeled perfectly. It was a task void of actual consequence, but Natasha supposed she had to start somewhere.

“Wats, we’re going for a little sunshine with Auntie Nat.”

Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.

The wheelchair squeaked as James navigated their way to the elevator. The rooftop garden provided refuge to the Avengers who relished peace and nature.

Natasha would fall short of perfection, always. She didn’t deserve the beauty of flowers or herbs. She would destroy them, like a plague. The mental pedestal Natasha kept her sestra on gave way, letting her shatter mirrors. Emotions poured from the inky dark, fragmented memories vying for her attention.

But the brilliance of an afternoon sun could not compete with the chaos Natasha’s mind had unleashed upon her.

***

Chapter Text

***

“No! Not the mint.”

Watson urinated in bursts all over Bruce’s herb garden. He waddled, squatting as he doused fragile leaves in hot pee. He panted at James, blinking in the bright sun.

“Oh buddy. I don’t know how Hulk feels about plants, but this could be a problem.”

Watson trotted towards a trellis of ivy, tail wagging. Stark Tower housed a menagerie of heroes, any combination of which could be volatile. The roof provided a unique space for reflection and quiet. Tony had the ledges reinforced with force fields and invisible alarms. In the early days of his recovery, James had sought refuge from nightmares in stairwells, on rooftops and crouched on top of refrigerators.

“What do you think, Nat? Should we gift the good Doc some herbs?”

Natasha tipped her head back, her neck exposed to the sun. Her face warmed, dizziness roaring in her ears. If she opened her eyes, the sun would leave her seeing spots. The back of the wheelchair was flimsy, leaving her without a centimeter of lumbar support.

She shrugged. James spoke in a constant cascade of thoughts. The questions about Bruce and the garden were the most normal exchange they had in weeks.

Natasha understood the fog was lifting, there were bursts of calm from under the heavy blanket of depression that never ceased to bother her.

Some facts were indisputable. Natasha had not left Stark’s apartment in days, possibly weeks. Time was a luxurious concept that ceased to have meaning. Starvation tipped Natasha into survival mode, where only breathing and sleeping through nightmares mattered. She depended on thick slop that dripped into to stomach via her nose.

When reasons to live slipped through Natasha’s mind, leaving her with a death wish, a cold IV kept her body hydrated.

Natasha squinted, light scorching her retinas. A perverse peace washed over Natasha, knowing that damage would come to her eyes if she resisted blinking. At least that would be damage she could control.

She sighed, shuffling her weight in the seat of the wheelchair. Everyone in her life prevented her from starving and dying on her own terms. She wanted autonomy, but that would mean she cared about her life.

“Bubba, isn’t grass supposed to hurt your stomach? Why do you eat it like its candy?” James stomped a foot, trying in vain to snag Watson’s attention. He rattled a container of freshly plucked cherry tomatoes from one of Pepper’s plants.

Maybe it was a compulsion for the dog. Like how Nat used to peel skin from the tops of her toes. Pointe had ruined the appearance of her feet, not that it mattered. Raw skin increased the pain as she danced. It became a ritual, like breaking the shaft of her shoes against parqueted floors. Posturing among peers was natural in sports, but kids are cruel. Madam’s management was more teeth and blood, than encouragement and teaching.

Natalia had been valued based on her ability to assassinate people. The strength in her limbs mattered, she had killed a mark with her ankles and calf muscles more than once.

Natasha squinted at the leash in her lap. She refused to borrow James’ cheap sunglasses. The tube coming out of her nose irritated her ear enough. The idea of added weight even in the form of darkened lenses, terrified her.

Clint had flown home to Laura and the kids at the butt crack of dawn. They would fly back in a few days. Natasha had until then to get herself presentable.

According to the list James had written last night, that included a modified shower, enough make up to make her look like she belonged in the land of the living and actual clothes.

Just the thought of all that work made her want to sleep. Natasha never slept like a normal human. She didn’t sleep for days or passed out for periods of time that bordered on catatonia. She was existed in absolutes, all or nothing rationalization. No comprises. That was how she had been raised.

Recovery meant shedding her dissociative cocoon. She would rather be flayed alive than experience emotions.

James squatted at her side, Watson tapping his way across the patio. His nails made music, light and tinny across the floor. “Barton arrived, to a brunch made by the kids. Look at all that syrup. Laur made pancakes and put him in charge of toppings.” He flicked through the album Skye had texted.

Yuck. The sprinkles that melted over fresh blobs of pancakes caught snagged the attention of Nat’s ED. Each picture caught the blur of a kid. Laura’s mouth and hands moved as she jumped around the kitchen, trying to contain the happy chaos. Clint mugged for the camera phone, whipped cream canister in hand as he smeared chocolate syrup on a stack of flapjacks.

For a handful of moments, Natasha had belonged to that family. They had adopted her and loved her as one of their own. But she did not deserve their affection. Their patience with her dramatic and imagined disorders was yet another enigma of their nuclear family.

“You okay? We can go inside.”

Watson wagged his tail, rubbing his shaggy body along the wheelchair. Natasha let her finger hang over the armrest. The dog’s tongue lapped at her nails, gentle as Liho.

“Let’s take a second. He needs water and probably ice cubes. I’ll make you a cranberry juice slushy.”

Natasha shivered. Her organs were molten lava, ripping open and cauterizing as emotions rippled through her. Making choices could be as painful as replacing her NG tube.

“Seriously, it’s getting warm. There’s no shade.” James released the brakes one at a time, movements steady and narrated. He waited a beat, then started rolling towards the elevator.

Natasha studied a hangnail that had snagged on Watson’s braided leash. “They’re okay.”

“What is?” James asked.

“Barton, the kids and Laura. I’ll only hurt them.” Natasha felt hot tears building in her eyes. It would be a torrent of emotion; she would drown under the weight of her traumas. She wasn’t ready. She would never be ready.

Everything hurt. When had it become so difficult to be numb? She had existed in a netherworld of numbness for so long, it had become as comfortable as an alias.

But she had somewhat healed. She had resisted, held herself tight and tried to contain all her pain. If she could absorb the impending explosion, maybe she could minimize the collateral damage. Maybe she could save the lives of the Barton’s and Yasha.

“Natalia.” James brushed her cheek. He had squatted, bent legs sandwiched the foot plate. It was a stupid choice, riddled with testicular vulnerability.

She squeezed her eyes shut, cheeks heating with the effort not to cry. She hated tears. They might as well have been acid for all the pain they caused her.

“I think that it’s brave to stay. I know that you want to die.” James traced the knuckles of her hand. His touch didn’t elicit a trauma response, but it was difficult to focus one.

“I don’t have the right to ask you to promise, I won’t extort or manipulate. I’m going to stay though, me and Watson will be here. You better get used to the sound of me pissing like the dehydrated veteran I am…because I’m your long-term uninvited houseguest.”

Natasha’s mouth twitched into a ghostly smile. “Bring wipes. The toilet is your responsibility.”

“Barton doesn’t have those chores, does he?” He groaned, knees cracking like popcorn as he stood.

Natasha let his commentary wash over her, like gentle waves on a rocky lake. Watson nudged her fingers. He licked at her hangnail. Natasha winced, but started stroking his fur as they made their way back into Stark Tower.

***

Chapter Text

***

“Huh. This smells like sunscreen.”

Natasha leaned over the sink, dizziness making dark spots burst along her vision.

“Coconut? Or bananas? Maybe my nose is on the fritz.” James pawed at the travel sized toiletries, unable to immediately identify their uses by label.

Nat tried to grunt, but it came out as more of a groan. Maybe she could steer her faint towards the rug that ran parallel to the tub. Ballet had graced her with poise as well as a raging eating disorder.

“Okay, easy does it Nat.” Hands materialized on her back, easing her onto the closed lid of the toilet. “Sit. When you catch your breath, you can tell me what all this stuff does…and where it’s supposed to go.”

“Ha.” Natasha heard her raspy voice and judged herself to sound like a caveperson. She balanced on the edge of dissociation, barely resisting its’ intoxicating numbness.

Her skull throbbed; wooziness replaced her brains with steel wool. She bent her knees, trying to avoid locking her joints and passing out. It was all she could manage until the roaring in her head calmed.

James rummaged through the bin of tiny bottles. Purple mouthwash was somehow different from the green liquid that Stevie preferred to use. There was time that Bucky’s Mom relied on making their own toothpaste and sharing one brush for all family members. He scoffed at the memory. “Mint, what a revelation.”

“What?”

James examined a tube of whitening toothpaste. He marveled at the sparkly packaging. “This stuff has a taste now.”

James’ observation was a non-sequitur at first listen, but Natasha understood the vague connections. Brains that leaked as much as theirs did, required a certain level of shared trauma to decode. “So do a lot of things.”

They stared at each other, two weaponized children of the Red Room, riddled with trauma. The absurdity of prepping hygienic tasks for mental health and not a mission, was truly laughable.

Back when Nat had been Natalia and he had been Yasha, they shared many a dingy bathroom. They killed for their handlers and thieved their way around the world. Drugs, dissociation, and death wishes had sustained the duo for decades.

James observed the modern amenities of Nat’s bathroom. Stark Tower’s apartments were outfitted with top-of-the-line appliances and comforts. Hell, there was something called a bidet growing out of the toilet he’d perched Natasha on. Wats thought it was a spigot just for him and always tried to lick it when had snuck into the bathroom.

James slapped his thighs. “So, what do you want to do first?”

Natasha’s scalp itched. A shower would take more spoons that she could replenish by the time Barton family arrived. “Hair?”

He nodded in agreement. A stack of baby wipes teetered on the lip of the bathtub. For the most part, Natasha had been able to clean herself without having to confront her body all at once.

James firmly believed that un-dressing a friend should only happen under specific circumstances. Like a light stab wound. That was reasonable and he was confident that those incidents had indeed occurred over his long working history with Nat.

“Sink?” James could problem solve, but there were lots of variables that he was not familiar with. Nuances in beauty regimes were not addressed during his tenure as a famed assassin. He did not see a bucket of icy water, which was how Becca used to set her hair with metal curlers. But that was back in the 1920s, this was the 2020s.

“Da.” Nat stifled a yawn, chin tucked to her chest.

James watched her melt into a puddle of compliance. He needed a way to keep her happy, relaxed and engaged while he helped her. If she tipped too far into memory, James risked a meltdown in a small, confined space. The bathroom was full of sharp corners and hard tiled surfaces.

But how could he manage her relapse, when Natasha’s perception of her own body was what triggered most of this mess?

ED wouldn’t be pleased about her initiation to start taking care of herself. Even if Nat was stubbornly resisting participation in the activities. She withdrew her claws to sit alongside her bones and played the part of a vulnerable friend.

James took her lack of response for consent and clapped his hands. “Okey-dokey, I’ll grab the wheely chair from your desk. It should fit in here, we’ll put a towel on the back. Like a little pillow.” He looked between the tub and sink, stymied by the physics of it all.

Natasha pointed at the shower head. “Use that.”

“Ah, that makes sense.” He offered her a high-five, but she just blinked at him. “Good plan, Romanov.”

“Let’s get on with it.”

James disappeared to collect supplies. Natasha rubbed her temples. She hoped the act would assuage the gathering storm of anxiety that swept through her neurons.

Watson had disappeared into the bedroom, making a nest of the comforter and laundry. Liho had probably nestled herself atop the clean clothes. One of her favorite pastimes was dragging holes in socks. At least the pets were saving themselves from the torture of a grooming session.

Natasha wasn’t so lucky to evade self-care.

***

“What’s this stuff for?”

Natasha blinked as water dripped into her eyes. “Conditioner. Keeps the frizz at bay.”

“Huh. Should I be using that?”

“You don’t?”

He raised his eyebrows. Moldy bunkers were best case scenarios for a poorly preforming pawn of H.Y.D.R.A. “Until I moved into the Tower, I didn’t use soap on the regular.”

Natasha felt her lips curl into a grin, despite her sour mood.

“There are too many flavors to pick from, like hand sanitizer. I wish it tasted as good as it smelt.” James massaged her scalp with his flesh and bone hand. “Does this feel okay?”

“Um, can you get Shuri’s miracle of technology wet?”

“Eh, it probably would have electrocuted me by now.” He started rinsing her hair at the roots, checking the temperature of water against his wrist. “Whatever this stuff is, it’s not suds-ing up. Did I do it wrong?”

“No.” Fragments of gratitude burst like buds on a vine. You’re fine. Thank you for helping me. I don’t know how to thank you. James, Bucky, Yasha, soldat; he was known by many aliases, but all of them had shown a degree of affection for her.

He continued talking, but Natasha let her mind drift into nothingness. Against the judgement that had been ingrained by handlers, Nat felt herself beginning to relax.

***

“I’m pretty good at this, huh?” James helped her sit up, water dripping from her hair onto her shoulders. He supported her spine as she did that thing girls do with towels. A few twists and a tuck that miraculously squeezed water out of the strands.

Now turbaned, Natasha steeled herself for the next item on the list. Yes, it was an actual list with bulleted tasks and doodled drawings. James had affectionately christened it, ‘Project Person, DIY Reboot’. Apparently, his pop culture education in media was alive and well. Sam had helped him cross many musical artists off his list as well as movies during their road trip, south of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“Don’t flatter yourself.” Natasha gritted her teeth against a wave of dizziness. “You give Wats the same treatment when you corral him in here and force him into the tub.”

“First of all, he loves the massages. Secondly, don’t you want to comb it? Won’t it get knotty?”

Natasha shook her head. Another item on the to-do list sounded exhausting. Everything she had yet to do, sat heavy in her bones. The challenge of showering, brushing her teeth, looking in a mirror and applying make-up felt like climbing a mountain by herself without provisions.

Life seemed impossible to avoid and hard to endure all at once.

“I can help…that Instagram says that keeping it all wrapped up can make more split ends.”

“Huh.” Nat considered the beauty tip that James had disclosed. He had delved into social media to learn how to help her take care for herself. He used energy from his own reserves of spoons.

Now that was a kind of love that didn’t rely on traditional torture methods.

***

Chapter Text

***

“How long do I have?” Laura swiped angry tears from her cheeks. She paced between the marble island and double sink. “Before they come back.”

Natasha brandished three fingers. She sat, cross-legged on the Barton’s kitchen floor. Mountains of laundry were being separated into bulbous mounds. It felt good to have something to do. Nat swore she had a system to organize everything but had yet to be able to explain her methodology to any of the Barton’s.

“Hours?”

“Probably.” Natasha added another pair of Cooper’s socks to the kid’s laundry basket. Clint had the kids at a local park, playing in country-sponsored sprinklers. “He can drive everyone around until we give him permission to come home.”

Nat had helped him make the plan. Laura needed some time to glue herself back together after her meltdown. Natasha had unplugged the router and tucked Laura’s phone in the playroom, under a layer of plastic blocks. She needed to unplug herself from the media storm. Everyone with internet access, professional or not, was covering the recent Supreme Court ruling.

After depleting energy at the playground, they’ll go for ice cream. Natasha found her stomach contract with hunger. She suppressed the impulse to text Clint with a request for black raspberry and peach. With any luck, half of the children would fall asleep on the way home and Nat could avoid dealing with their collective sugar crash.

Laura sniffled as she tried to reign in her anger. Frustration, despair and panic closely trailed the rage. “But what about my ice cream?” Her chin wobbled as she swallowed another swell of emotion.

“In a cooler, he got ice from the shop’s kitchen.” Natasha held her phone out to Laura, so she could see the picture of the take-out dessert.

“Thanks Nat.” Laura plucked another rag from the bin. “God, you must think I’m pathetic.”

Natasha started to nod but froze once the question registered. Instead, she hunched over the laundry, holding herself together. Her arms added pressure to her ribs, which hurt, but grounded her. “It’s fine. You’re okay.”

The attempt at comfort pitched the American into another cleaning frenzy. Laura scrubbed at the disassembled stove. Metal burners had been scattered along the countertop. She had a myriad of cleaners grouped by use all around the kitchen.

Everyone coped with bad news differently. Had this been a personal crisis, Laura would have leapt into action. But this was a systemic problem that terrified Laura. How could she keep her patients and children safe, if the government actively worked to thwart her efforts? As a trauma nurse, forged in emergency departments, she understood more about healthcare than the average American citizen.

“What is this? I can’t remember the last time we made tacos. It looks like ground…chicken? This is gross.” Laura grunted and swore at the congealed food. Channeling her rage and panic into cleaning had to be a step in the right direction.

Natasha had stopped looking at her like a threat, so that was an improvement.

***

Natasha rolled leggings, nestling them into the bottom of the laundry basket. One bin of clean clothes, another of dirty bedding and towels, the third basket contained kids’ clothes.

“Want some help?”

The chores never ended. Natasha always had work to do, ways to help and stay above the ocean of despair that threatened to drown her. Personal traumas haunted Natasha. Policies and governmental corruption were normal. She had been born into oppression and learned to thrive in it.

Nat had learned how to feign empathy and mirror emotions, but an element of confusion remained over Laura’s reaction to the American government’s decisions.

America was a dream. Apple pie with vanilla ice cream and endless possibilities. It was where she learned to live a lie so completely, that Natasha believed she had a family. Yelena taught her how to ride a bike on rural dirt roads and learn to love Bazooka bubble gum.

Grief swelled, squashing her appetite. She did not deserve ice cream, especially if Yelena had died for her sins.

Laura sniffled, drawing snot back up her nose. “No, you’ve got your hands full.”

“It’s alright.” Natasha blinked. Memories of her faux family dissipated like tendrils of smoke. The scent of fear lingered, but she managed to tune into the present. Reality ebbed and flowed like a static-crusted radio station.

Laura sighed, despair dripping from her words. “None of this is okay. This is apocalyptic. I’m terrified, Tasha. I don’t know what to do.”

“I know.” Natasha didn’t, not really. Her friend’s panic inspired images of alien warfare and fatal injuries in her mind. Connecting the dots of Laura’s emotions to the ruling of Roe v. Wade was a tangled challenge that Nat couldn’t sort out.

But Natasha was trying to be a more supportive friend, so she lied. By aking the emotion that Laura displayed, Nat mirrored appropriate expressions. Copying the feelings that she witnessed was easy enough. Natasha had been trained to do that her entire life. It was a skill she had honed over her career as a ballerina, spy and assassin-for-hire.

As a child of the Red Room, she had come to understand that emotions were weapons she could wield. Maybe she had been born with a darkness in her heart. There were tales of monsters that fed on the misery of others. Natasha’s thoughts mixed together, causing interruptions in her concentration. Monsters were real. Yelena used to draw handlers with curved horns and scaled armor. She sketched them in dust, snow and mud. Sometimes, Natasha traced her sestra’s drawing on bathroom tiles or scratchy sheets.

“Nat, how can we raise them in a world like this?” Laura’s voice crackled with lengths of tightly coiled fear.

Laura sounded like she did when they read over Skye’s patchwork history. Natasha nodded along to her friend’s blustering comments. She survived systemic corruption, hell, it had shaped her into the ideal Black Widow. She became Madam’s personal model of the Red Room’s well-groomed assassins.

What did Laura mean? Natasha dumped an armful of socks into the kids’ laundry basket. How could Skye, Jemma and Lila be felled by a bureaucratic law?

***

An hour later, Natasha considered Laura’s concerns. Parts of the conversation made sense, but there was a part of Nat’s heart that had turned to marble years ago. That part of her had been preserved in order to survive. That traumatized part of her, resisted empathy for a privileged third world, affluent nation of innumerable freedoms.

The rest of the world did not labor under the allusion that women had rights. People and governments saw people with uteruses as inferior, breeding vessels.

Natasha had always known that truth. She had not been granted autonomy over her reproductive health. Her body was programmed to respond to abuse, painful stimuli aroused her battered brain.

Now, she had been dropped in the middle of the land of the aloof and home of the polarized political parties. Choice induced feral panic. Natasha’s life had been full of consequences, but all were out of her control.

Yelena, Nadia, Vanya and the soldats, had endured graduation ceremonies. Hysterectomies and chemical cleanses that stripped them of sexual choice and desire. Assets, like Yasha were granted chemical castration and medication that modified their anatomical urges.

Natasha shuddered at memories of metallic instruments and fuzzy antiseptic. Americans had been born into privilege so prolific, it led to a lifetime of oblivious indifference. That fact grated against Nat’s mind, like sugar against a cavity.

Lila, Jemma and Skye were not spineless, thoughtless waifs. They were not vulnerable in the same ways that Natasha and her sestras had been for all their lives. Residency in the Red Room guaranteed regular rape, daily programming and torture tactics favored by notorious dictators. If Natasha believed in a god that did not hail from Asgard, she would question his or her judgement.

“I keep trying to make sense of it. But I can’t. As a nurse, I try to put myself in everyone’s shoes. But Tasha, I can’t. These shoes are worse than Herb’s when he comes into my ER for spring cleaning.” As she spoke, Laura brushed angry tears from her cheeks.

Natasha watched the scene play out from a corner of the kitchen ceiling. The Barton’s kids would face their own trials as they grew. Maturity was one thing, but puberty held layers of combustible trauma that Nat had not dared to unpack in her years of therapy.

Natasha cared deeply for her adopted family, but they would not suffer like she had. Waves of anger threatened the fragile empathic persona Natasha had crafted.

Yelena had died. Everyone who had existed in her dormitory had died. Yelena had killed a good number of their handlers, hell, she had even bound Eve as a present.

The sight of her sestra, blood leaking from her nose with a grin plastered on her face shoved its’ way to the front of her memory. Guilt and longing sharpened the pain that always gripped her heart. Dozens of Widows had been sacrificed in their search for perfection. Brainless zombies that did not care whether they lived or died, who had no will or sense of self were no longer part of the living.

That was unfair. The injustice of the Red Room’s very existence made it hard for Natasha to understand Laura’s emotional rage over a Supreme Court ruling.

Down, down, down. Natasha’s concentration narrowed to, rushing sounds flooded her ears while her vision tunneled.

People protested in the streets. News outlets focused on ‘good trouble’ and the pros and cons of basic human rights. It was all foreign.

“What can we do?”

Natasha blinked. “I-I don’t know.”

She had grown, like a crooked weed in the shadows of the USSR. Deprived of basic care, she learned to thrive in the sinister chaos of Stalin’s regime. Choice was a luxury that she had not been granted.

“We’ll figure something out Laura.” Natasha squeezed her friend’s arm, still dissociated and floating somewhere above her body. The words sounded wise, but far way. They came from her mouth, but were not what she really thought. “We always do.” It wasn’t the grandest of empathetic gestures, but it was all she could manage.

***

Chapter Text

***

“Natasha?”

She stood and hitched her bag on a shoulder. The weight of the dang thing was the embodiment of decadence. As an operative, she used to be able to cross borders with less than what she carried in her daily purse.

Now, she was a material girl in a capitalistic country. Hell, there was an unbound pack of Lila’s glittery crayons rolling around the bottom of her bag. Fitz’s favorite putty had exploded all over her wallet last week. Her life and belongings became hopelessly entwined with the Barton’s over the years. Ultimately, Natasha did not mind. It demonstrated how much she had grown.

The nurse chittered. “Hi! How have you been? It’s good to see you.”

The walk from the waiting room through the unassuming door sends bolts of dread along Nat’s spine. She wanted to abort this mission, briskly walk through the lobby towards the relative safety of her car. She could hop on the highway and drive straight towards the Barton’s farm.

“Just kick your shoes off and drop your bag here.” The nurse gestured towards the scale. She grinned, like this request was nothing. “I need a real quick weight and height.”

ED shouted twisted encouragement. Her eating disorder wanted, no needed, to know the number. How fat had she gotten?

How did she feel? She felt disgusting. Like a whale. She felt fat. Fat wasn’t a feeling, according to Laura.

There had been several nights where she had gotten a second helping of whatever the nighttime family snack had been. Popcorn. Homemade snack mix, with pretzels and bits of dark chocolate. Fruit flavored ice pops. What was wrong with her? Natasha had gotten greedy and gluttonous after defecting. Eating regular meals with the team became normal over the past year. She ordered take-out with the rest of the guys and ate intuitively.

“Okay. Almost done.”

Natasha growled at James’ medical team like the protective lioness. Yasha deserved fierce compassion. She took pride in her ability to advocate for her team. However, her own trauma, should be dismissed. The paradox was comforting in a strange way.

Habit kept her eyes initially closed. Laura wouldn’t tolerate peeking during her daily weigh-ins at the farm. But recovery had been as new as freedom, and Natasha was shocked by all the change. It had made compliance easier.

Today, she knew better. So, when she heard the weights clink and clang, she peeked.

The number did not surprise her. But it disappointed her all the same. Now, the fact remained what would she do with that information?

The nurse tapped her tablet with a perfectly manicured nail. “Great. Thanks, grab your stuff and follow me to room six.”

“Okay.” Natasha tiptoed in her squashed sneakers, not wanting to waste time. Why did she feel frazzled? This was routine. She didn’t owe the nurse anything. All she had to do was sit, exchange a few words with the doctor and walk out with an electronic script for her medication. Why was this so difficult?

“The doctor will be in soon. Are you getting labs today?” The nurse gestured to the exam table, fitted with crinkle white paper.

“Yes. I think it’s routine. I need refills for my medications…that’s why I’m here. For meds.” Natasha stumbled through the explanation. Shame snaked her guts. Reliance on medication humiliated her.

Natasha accepted that Yasha used medication to regulate his traumatized brain, he advocated for him and defended him viciously. She wanted to leap out of her skin as the nurse nodded empathetically.

“Alright. It’ll be a few minutes.” The exam room door clicked closed. Squeaky steps rushed back and forth. Natasha could see shadows under the door and tensed every time staff approached the door.

Now that she had the time to think, Nat’s thoughts drifted back to her own mental health. Natasha wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the therapy, support and yes, anti-depressants.

James shared her views on his own mental health. After decades of his own health being ignored, James had a hell of a lot of catching up to do. Had it not been for tranquilizers, he would not have survived the first year after New Jersey. Moderate doses of anxiety medication helped mitigate his PNES disorder and catatonia. Physical health was influenced by mental health and vice versa.

Her phone vibrated with a text. Maybe they did have a psychic connection forged through Red Room trauma. He saved her from her self-deprecating spirals more than he knew.

Yasha : Try not to use any of your moves. They’re only human.

Nat : They’re being dumb, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before.

Yasha : I’m sorry. Wats says to come back and bake with us. Sam’s letting me pick the recipes.

Natasha smiled. The paper mask crinkled as her mouth moved. James was recovering from a TM (Trademark) Bad Night. Watson alerted to repeated episodes of flashbacks and seizures. Steve and Tony were away on business to Wakanda. Sam had spent the night and was apparently baking to combat the stress of caregiving a grumpy ex-assassin.

Nat : Okay. I’ll grab Liho when I get back and head to the Common floor.

“Miss Romanoff?”

“Yes, hi.” Natasha swallowed an impulsive apology for paying attention to her phone.

The doctor tapped her way over to the counter. This physician was not Natasha’s preferred doctor in the practice, but she needed her damn drugs.

“You’re looking well! Looks like you’ve gained a bit of weight?” The doctor flipped a length of wavy hair over her shoulder. “It’s healthy! Especially given your history.”

Natasha set her jaw in a firm line. Focus on the objective, get in, get the script and get back to the Tower. Her teeth caught a bit of her lip, but it was better to draw her own blood then the bodily fluids of a medical professional.

“Yeah.” There wasn’t an eloquent response for the doctor’s flippant remarks. “Today, I’m expecting to have bloodwork and get refills on all my prescriptions. Thank you.”

The doctors’ cheeks pinked. She attempted more small talk but could not get Natasha to react. Business as usual when dealing with jaded medical professionals.

Four attempts at sticking a vein later, Natasha had her scripts and an ineffective bandage in the crook of her elbow.

“Okay, you’re all set. Check in with Liv at the front desk to schedule your next appointment.”

Natasha nodded. She didn’t smile or pretend she wasn’t bothered by the callousness of the professionals who were supposed to care without judgement. Sugar, tea and baking were the antidote to a challenging doctor’s appointment.

***

Chapter Text

***

Some days are bad, just plain bad.

From the moment Natasha opens her eyes, there is pain. Sleep interrupted with indescribable nightmares that did not allow her to get any measurable rest.

Her phone buzzes with alarms at regular intervals. Starting at five am, she delays the inevitable.

Could she still claim that she’d risen with the sun, if she didn’t leave her bed?

Liho batted the cord plugged into her phone. She nibbled at the hard case, until Natasha buried the phone under the comforter. Liho loved to wake before the sun, usually Natasha joined her in energetic exuberance. The cat napped most of the day after her initial burst of energy but seemed to relish activity in and around sunrise. Liho meowed, wigging her butt before pouncing on Nat’s exposed ankle.

No, she thought. She had fed Liho, refreshed her water bowl and then crawled back into bed.

Natasha rolled onto her back, stretching her arms above her head. Every bone in her body ached.

No marathons were run yesterday. No sparring out of the ordinary. Still, pain chased her like a nasty hangover.

Quiet could be as oppressive as loud chaos. She was left to her own devices between mission. Start Tower operated without her explicit help or input. Invitation to partake in ‘team’ game nights and meals dwindled as she consistently refused.

The Barton house kept her moving. Movement kept her from drowning on dry land. Natasha opened her phone, scrolling through pictures of her last visit. Skye mugged for the camera. Jemma’s tongue peeked out of her mouth as she whipped egg whites in the kitchen. Fitz examined his fingers, coated in flour from sensory play.

Warmth flooded her cheeks. A dull ache settled behind her right eye. Sitting up, might help abate the headache. But that required a lot more effort than she currently had in reserves.

***

She must have drifted back into a restless sleep. Depression naps let her body physically rest and recover. She spent most of her days oscillating between hypervigilant tension and painful trauma reenactments that her body forced her brain to acknowledge.

“Don’t freak out.”

Natasha kicked in the general direction of the voice. Damn, her awareness had gotten sloppy post S.H.I.E.L.D. employment.

“Oof. Yeah, that was dumb.”

“Clint?”

“Yup. The one and only.”

Natasha peeked at him with the one eye that wasn’t throbbing with a positional headache. “Why?”

“You missed our gym date.”

“Oh.”

“How’re you feeling?”

Natasha lifted a thumb. Her hand shook, probably low blood sugar thanks to not eating dinner or breakfast. What time was it anyway?

“Yeah, you look like you’re firing on all cylinders.”

Her body ached so deeply; no amount of soft weighted blankets could take the edge off her tense muscles. She wanted to bury herself in Clint’s chest and listen to his heart until she stuffed all her baggage back into the deepest part of her mind.

No, no, no. That was a bad impulse. She could not succumb to that kind of weakness.

“Seriously, Nat. What’s going on?”

She shrugged. Clint was not going to leave. She had to give him some information. She had to give him an explanation. But words were hard. For some reason, writing was marginally easier.

She extracted her phone from between Liho’s paws. The cat purred, testing the corner of the case with her tiny teeth.

She typed out a quick description and shoved the phone towards her partner.

Clint mouthed the words as he read. It was kind of cute how his eyebrows wrinkled as he processed the information.

“Ah. Gotcha.” Clint shimmied closer to her. Liho rubbed her head against the sleeve of Clint’s sweatshirt. Stray hairs flew towards his mouth. “Ugh. Ew. Liho, you’re beautiful, but I don’t want to taste your fur. Yuck.”

Natasha found herself wanting to smile despite her body’s rebellion.

“So, go back to sleep for now. When you wake up for real, I’ll whip up something to eat and we can plan the rest of the day.”

Natasha frowned. That wasn’t right. Anything less than surgery wasn’t a valid excuse for a sick day. Even light stab wounds could be worked through, with over-the-counter pain killers and a moderately good first aid kit.

“I’m sure. You’re alright. I’ll cancel the morning. If you feel up to it, we can do the rest of the afternoon.”

Although they both knew that wasn’t happening, it was nice he let her believe the lie. He understood her twisted work ethic.

She tried to scowl as she tipped back into sleep. Vague dread and abstract nightmares chased her. She tossed and turned, petting Liho and punching her pillow as she tried and failed to rest. What she did manage wasn’t restful, but it was a kind of peace. The fact that Clint didn’t interrupt her attempts spoke to their historical partnership.

“We’ve had our adventures, that’s for sure.”

“Clint?” Natasha flared her nostrils, breathing in pure essence of Liho.

He tented the comforter, letting in a swath of bright afternoon light. “Present. How’re you doing?”

“You can hear my brain?” Her tongue ached from clenching her jaw.

“Babe don’t take this the wrong way. When was the last time you slept for more than like two hours at a time?”

Natasha shrugged into the mattress. The sheets were warm, but not as warm as Clint. It was unlike her to seek physical comfort; this was indeed a bad day.

“Should I check you for a fever?”

Natasha pinched the back of Clint’s arm. She twisted the flesh, eliciting a puppy-like yelp from him.

“Ow! Fine, I won’t accuse you of being sick.” Clint pinned his arm against his chest. The movement triggered Liho’s prey drive. She sank her teeth into his pinky finger. “Call off your fluffy demon, please.”

Natasha murmured a command in Russian and clicked her tongue at Liho. The cat licked at a coffee stain on Barton’s sweatshirt before curling herself against Natasha’s ribs. “Stay.”

“Always.”

***